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Spring in the Veggie Patch

veggie patch planted

As all gardeners, keen or otherwise know, spring is the time for new planting and growth. This is particularly true in the vegetable patch where the salad and vegetables for the coming year are grown. Over the years, we have improved our veggie area and slimmed down our ambitions, basically we grow what works. Less is more and all that. In practice it means none of the tricky little veggies that have 5 minute harvesting windows, like peas for example.

Due to problems with slugs eating everything, in previous years we have grown everything in pots and planted out strong healthy plants. It’s a lot of work and a lot of watering. Two years ago we installed a custom made carrot box that is slug and carrot fly unfriendly. This year, I decided to bite the bullet and plant all the root crops and onions direct. What could go wrong?

spot the onion
spot the onion

The answer in two words is blackbirds and slugs. Now we love blackbirds. We even put out special feed for them; every day. However, 5 years of regular mulching has turned a damp desert into a thriving soil packed with worms. With young to feed, it was the perfect hunting ground for at least one blackbird family. With regular soil disturbance, nothing grew. Well, not strictly true, a couple of turnips poked their heads up, but they didn’t last long. But that could also be down to the slugs. Despite the nematodes, they have been spotted in late evening amongst the fragile vegetables.

Finally, I put the nets up. Nets are great, but they too have their downside, mainly that no matter how carefully you install them, the birds always find a gap. So they need constant checking so the intruders can be released. Occasionally, they have to be cut free. That said, they butterfly nets are essential. Unless, of course, you find picking caterpillars off for hours on end to be a fun activity. Plus, it makes life harder for poor old Mr and Mrs Blackird, cue guilt trip.

Anyway, luckily, I did plant a few ‘reserves’ and they are now planted out so all is not lost. That said, I had to dig up the turnips as they were fast disappearing and a cabbage and kale have also succombed to slug’s munching. On top of all that,  there are zero onions, unlike last year, and only about six beetroots. After writing this, I’ll be off to plant seeds to make up for what’s missing. In pots. In the greenhouse.

polytunnel salad crops
polytunnel salad crops

The polytunnel is planted up and is looking good. However, I made the mistake of turning the automated watering system off during the winter months. Result, soil that makes the Gobi desert resemble a water meadow. Cue lots of watering. I turned on the automated watering system to find it wasn’t working. The timer was working fine but only a trickle of water emerged at the alloted times. Baffled, I took it to pieces. Amazed at the engineering ingenuity but finding no obvious fault, I put it back together again. To my surprise, it now works perfectly.

Despite all of this, we are hoping for another good crop leading to a winter packed with fresh soups

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Broody Hens Conundrum

hens in hen run

With spring fully underway, though the weather doesn’t feel like it, we are on the lookout for broody hens. Each year, one or two of our hens decides it’s time to sit on eggs. Each has their own particular approach.

Clippy likes to disappear, much like her mother did. All of a sudden, she’ll just go off the radar and we’ll be wondering where she is. We’re never quite sure and worry that some predator has taken her. Then a few days later, we’ll catch a glimpse of her sneaking towards the food dispensers, often giving the other hens a wide berth. Putting our private detective hats on, we try to follow her back without being seen. Not easy in an open field with the tiny apple trees providing the only cover. Last year, she built a nest in a newly planted woodland area, under a bramble and right up against the fence to one of the neighbouring properties. We managed to locate it and had a quick look while she was off on one of her excursions and saw thirteen eggs (again, just like her mother).

The weeks went by. Nothing. Now hens’ eggs should hatch in around 24 days, so something was wrong. In fact, not a single egg hatched but it was months before Clippy gave up. It took her a long time to rebuild her condition.

Chicken Coop - Green Frog
Chicken Coop – Green Frog

Pepper, on the other hand, decided to go broody in the Green Frog henhouse. We have three henhouses, Green Frog, Solway and Omlet so our hens have plenty of choice. Normal night time spot is Green Frog (or the bushes behind it). The favourite laying spot is one of the two nest boxes in Green Frog. That said, sometimes they switch and lately the eggs have been laid in Solway (4 available boxes). Omlet (just the one nest box) has been out of favour for a while.

So, back to Pepper. Last year she decided to go broody and make her nest in Green Frog. On the plus side, we could easily monitor her. On the down side, constant interruption. Hens do like a bit of peace and quiet when they’re sitting on eggs. However, the other hens took umbrage at being locked out of their favourite nest box and made quite a racket at laying time. Well, more than usual. In fact, they managed to dislodge Pepper more than once as we found her in the left box one, day the right box the next day, then back to the left one, and so on.

Chicken Coop - Solway
Chicken Coop – Solway

We moved her and her eggs to Solway thinking that would give her some security. But as soon as Solway opened the following dawn, she was back into Green Frog. We moved her eggs back but the nest box hopping continued. As with Clippy, none hatched. The whole experience took such a toll on Pepper that she lost a lot of weight and feathers. She was in a very poor state and we started giving her extra feed to help her recover. Predators are all always on the lookout for weak or distressed animals and a local stoat took his opportunity and snatched her. Luckily, it was witnessed by Nicole who was out in flash, in her slippers, and rescued Pepper. She made a full recovery, Pepper that is.

Cherokee the cockerel
Cherokee the cockerel

So, the question arose; why so many eggs and no hatchlings? Our attention turned to Cherokee. Now, Cherokee has blossomed since he moved in with us a few years back. He came from a house nearby where he’d survived a dog attack in which all his hens had died. He had subsequently been left to his own devices. We offered to take him and, over time, he’s gone from shy and tetchy to become Mr Cool as Mince. The problem is, he’s so cool he can’t really be bothered to catch the hens. He gets a sudden urge and lopes across the grass to the nearest hen, full of intent. She hears him coming, takes one look and makes herself scarce. Cherokee arrives where said hen was moments before, stops and looks around in a puzzled demeanour. Sometimes he catches them, but more often than not he gives up and goes off to find something to eat. His predecessor was far more persistent. Or, perhaps, Cherokee is just firing blanks.

We scratched our heads and came up with a possible solution.

Saturday past, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ) went broody and settled down in Green Frog. We gave her a couple of days to make sure it wasn’t a false alarm and then moved her to Omlet. We had set Omlet up with its own private run which is predator proof. MMJ, surprisingly, had not laid any eggs, so we got the latest one, laid earlier in Solway, and put it in her new nest. Of course, MMJ was not too impressed and scurried around her new run squawking irritably, perhaps trying to find her way back to Green Frog. We gave her time to settle and next day, she was sitting on her single egg. Broodiness had trumped indignance.

Chicken Run - Omlet
Chicken Run – Omlet

Knowing this one egg may not be fertile, not wanting her to sit there all summer and wanting some new chicks, we sourced some fertile eggs from Backyard Chickens near Dalbeattie. Today, we zipped down there and collected them. We drove back with Nicole clutching the carefully packed eggs to protect them from the myriad of potholes that are a feature of roads in Dumfries and Galloway.

Chicken Run - Omlet
Omlet kitted out for restful brooding

Getting back, we carefully opened Omlet and reached in to pick up MMJ so we could put the eggs in place. MMJ was having none of it and shot off into her run squawking as if a giant fox was right behind her. Quietly, we placed the eight eggs in her nest and retreated. Minutes later, she was back on her nest making contented noises.

Hopefully in 24 day’s time, we’ll be reporting on squeaks and baby chickens.

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The Perils of a Damp Fleece

fluffy fleece

If there’s one thing sheep are good at, aside from scoffing copious amounts of grass, it’s getting into pickles. These include activities such as getting your head stuck in a fence (more common in the younger members of the flock), going into panic when you realise the rest of the flock have wandered off and left you behind, getting wrapped up in brambles, getting over walls and fences into neighbouring fields, and so on. Also, the tups are quite adept at removing gates from hinges in order to meet the ladies.

Yndia and Pinkie
Yndia and Pinkie

Some pickles are related to the time of year and, right now, wet fleeces are problem number one. This is not because a wet fleece is, in itself,  cause for concern. If it were, then sheep would never survive the winter. The problem is that at this time of year, pre shearing, the fleeces are big, fluffy and crammed with wool. When they get wet, they get heavy. Again, this is all fine until… …the sheep decides it’s time to do a rolly polly.

Rolly pollies usually occur when a sheep is lying down, cudding or just generally relaxing, and decides to get up. Instead of just standing, it executes a clever roll straight onto its feet. This works well and is quite impressive –  until the weight of a heavy fleece stops the roll in its tracks. Once on its back and weighed down by said wet fleece, a sheep can become trapped. The proper term is ‘cast’. This is not a good position for any of us, but it’s particularly uncomfortable for a sheep as now, all its insides are pressing in the wrong places. Not to put too fine a point on it, if they are not found within a few hours, they can die.

Yarr woolly sheep
Yarr and his woolly fleece

Our rolly polly commander in chief is Yarr (pictured left). He has a particularly woolly fleece and a penchant for rolly pollies. He much prefers to roll out of a lying position as standing up would not be showy enough. Normally, he gets away with it as he’s pretty strong. But a quick downpour and a wet fleece and he can be in trouble.

So far, this year, he’s only got himself trapped the once and was found pretty quickly. We know this because he showed no signs of distress on being righted, other than a need to blow his nose. In previous years, on being rescued, he has been sometimes been quite shaky. He also displays a remarkable aptitude for looking for the rest of the flock in all the wrong places. In fact, it took me an hour to reunite him and, at one point, involved me running up a hill (to the gate) with a bucket of nuts just in front of his nose. We both had to stop to catch our breath at the top, panting for all we were worth.

For us, this means regular checks throughout the day, usually no more than two hours apart. This is paying off as, so far this year, aside from Yarr only Ynca has managed to get herself cast and she too was found in good time.

We’ll be shearing them soon and that will make the problem go away for another year. But the checks will continue as we move into flystrike and midgie season.

 

 

 

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Drystane Dyke Restored

Earlier this year, I wrote about a drystane dyke that had a small gap of fallen stones but was to be a major repair (Major Stone Dyke Repairs After Walker Damage). It has taken a while, but repairs are finally complete. All in all, I had to take down 17 metres of dyke to find two relatively stable upright sections at either end. Indeed, such is the poor state of the wall, I could easily have taken a further 10-15m down. But there’s only one of me and I try not to bite off more than I can chew.

drystane dyke repairsThe problem is that the wall is old and there has been settlement along its length. The settlement is uneven and this causes the wall to lean, much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. However, a drystane dyke leans in both directions and ends up looking like a drunken snake. The top stones, originally held in place by gravity, end up held in place by friction with gravity trying to pull them down. The merest touch can send them tumbling with a cascade effect. Indeed, you have to be careful of mini rock ‘avalanches’ when taking it down.

drystane dyke repairsI also had the joy of manipulating some rather large stones, ones that I knew if I put on the ground I’d never get back up again. So I had to repair the bottom half in stages, shuffling these monsters along. Once I had the bottom half complete, I spaced them out and they looked like giant’s teeth.

Bit by bit, I rebuilt it until, this week, encouraged by milder weather and the appearance of what was beginning to feel like spring sunshine, I got to the point where I had just the top to do. This can take a while as you can spend a lot of time pondering which stone to use next (not to mention trying to find the tape measure you had in your hand moments ago) – the goal is a straight line at the top, not easy with stones of various shapes and sizes.

As ever, with just a few meters to go, I had to keep going and yesterday, around tea time, I was able to step back and sigh gratefully. My back complained but the pain was trumped by the joy of finally seeing the drystane dyke restored. And, I have to say, I am mucho pleased with how it looks.

The next repair is already beckoning (these dykes have been somewhat neglected), but I have a few other jobs to get on with, not least writing my second novel and getting this year’s veggies planted.

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New Apple Trees Planted

new apple trees

Last year, we extended our paddock area with the addition of what we creatively call the ‘new paddock‘. While it’s great for the sheep (more grass and space), we thought it would be good to add in something for ourselves. We already have a few apple trees but not enough to make cider vinegar, cider and keep a few bye for those winter pot roasts. So we decided to add some apple trees.

This turned out not to be as easy as it sounds.

new apple tree protectedFirst, there must have been a run on apple trees last year because we couldn’t find any at our usual suppliers. ‘Out of stock’ loomed large and often across every web site we visited. Eventually we found some at the aptly named ‘Adam’s Apples‘. We bought a pack of ten and sat back to await their delivery. Bare rooted trees need to be planted in the winter months so even when ordered in the summer, they are not shipped till the planting season.

We received our email of impending delivery in January. We smiled in anticipation.

Now, these trees were going in a paddock to which our sheep have access, so they needed protection. Having planned ahead, I had already bashed in the 40 stobs and screwed on the rails. Thinking ahead, I had not added the stock fencing which would have made it hard to dig any holes.

Of course, first the trees had to get here. The courier was one we had not heard of before and that got us to worry level one. New couriers have a track record of going missing in action round here. Sure enough, the courier never showed but the tracking showed our trees as delivered. Worry Level 5. It was a Friday evening with harsh frost forecasted. Worry level 8. If these trees had been left out, they were in peril. I rang the courier company (who shall remain nameless) and was told to contact the shipper. No help there then. I contacted Adam’s Apples only for them to find the courier had downed tools for the weekend. We were now at worry level 10, but there was nothing we could do.

Monday morning and I was up the hill repairing a stone dyke from where I saw a large green van (clue) arrive, execute a fast turn and disappear. When I came down for a tea break, I found the trees leaning against the front door and ‘neatly’ carved up grass verges.

new apple treesWell, at least the trees had arrived.

I unpacked them and they looked OK so I quickly heeled them in. A couple of days later, Nicole and I set off to plant them. I dig the holes and she does the planting, we make a good team. Digging the holes took a fair amount of effort due to the rather large number of stones I had to dig out. But, with good sized holes, a dash of leaf mould (rich in mycorrhizal fungi), home made compost and feed, the roots will have the best possible start.

After digging the ten holes, I then ran round adding the fencing before the sheep cottoned on to what we were up to. They’d have stripped the bark in seconds.

We are delighted with the results and look forward to a bumper crop. In an amazing fit of organisation, I even made a map of which trees are planted where – they are all different varieties.

Next job, find somewhere to install the apple press. Hmm…

 

 

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Major Stone Dyke Repairs After Walker Damage

Regular visitors to this blog will know I spend a fair amount of time repairing the dry stone dykes we have here. We inherited some fallen down sections from the previous owners and a couple of storms did some damage as well. However, the latest repair is down to what can best be described as inconsiderate behaviour by walkers who clambered over one of the most fragile sections of wall, loosening and dislodging a few stones in the process.

dry stone dyke damage to topAt first glance, it seems like nothing. You can see the small gap in the photo to the right. You might ask why I didn’t just replace the fallen stones. The answer is that it’s not that simple. What the photo doesn’t capture is that the wall is leaning quite markedly away as you look at the photo. So, the seating for the stones is not level and in any attempt to replace them, gravity would simply pull them back to the ground. Even if you could get them to stay there, it would only be a matter of time before they fell off again.

The wall is important to us as it keeps the sheep from wandering off into the forest next door. So, the first thing we did was put an emergency sheep fence up.

stone dyke repairs - large stones
large stones sitting on wall

The problem with old dry stone dykes is, in a word, settlement. A dry stone dyke comprises essentially of two walls built in parallel. Between the walls are placed what we call filling stones and these keep the walls upright. Half way up, large stones are laid across the two walls to hold them together. These are called through stones and they give the wall its strength. Then two more walls are built on top of the through stones and these are capped with a neat line of coping stones. Sometimes, if the stones are large, the top half is a single wall. This is called a Galloway March style and is common here.

In fact, some of the upper stones were so large I did not want to put them on the ground as I worried I’d never get them back up again. This meant I had to repair the wall in stages, building it up to the half way point, then rolling the large stones along – you can see this in the photo to the left.

Over time, some of the filling stones settle causing the stones in the lower walls to collapse inwards. Also, the two walls settle differently meaning that one ends up higher than the other. The through stones are pulled away from being level. Now, the top wall is sitting on a slope and leaning. Instead of gravity holding the wall together, it’s now pulling it down. The wall is now in a fragile state.

dry stone dyke repairs leftLooking at these photos, you might be wondering why so much wall is missing for such a small repair. The problem is that this wall is old and is leaning in both directions for much of its length. If you look down it, it weaves back and forth like a drunken snake. To make a neat repair, you need to find two upright and stable sections and repair the entire portion inbetween. For this particular damaged section, the nearest stable section to the left of the damaged section was about 1m away. However, to the right at weaved back and forth for around 16m before it had a short upright section. These walkers probably had no idea how much work they were creating for me.

first part repairedThe photo to the right does not even show the whole picture. The original area of damage is to the left end of the string, where the brown bit of bush can be seen.

I took down around 8m and repaired the first 4m (where the string is), leaving a further 2-3m of stable half built wal on which I could store the large stones from the right hand side. Soon after this photo was taken, I took down another 8m, pretty much all the wall shown in the picture.

To the left, you can see the repaired bit (it has less moss and lichen) along with a burgeoning collection of large stones sitting on the half built section.

stone dyke repairsA few weeks and much work later, I have finally got past the half way stage. I have now completed the first lift, the lower two walls capped with through stones. I now have a stable lower section of wall. I just have to fill in some gaps between the the through stones and I can maneouvre the large stones into place. After that, I can build it up to its full height.

dry stone dyke repairs - snow Progress has been interrupted by the arrival of some apple trees that need planting along with some snow. It’s not the cold that stops me working on the wall, more the danger of heavy snow covered stones slipping out of my hands onto my feet. There’s a limit to the protection offered by steel toecaps. Also, little patches of snow can get wedged inbetween the rocks making them feel stable, however, when the snow melts the rocks will suddenly be loose.

There’s still a fair amount of work to be done plus a few heavy stones to lift back into place (some of them did fall to the ground). But the end is in sight. That said, there are a few further sections crying out for my attention, so 2022 could be the year of dry stone dyke repairs. It’s a good job I quite enjoy repairing dry stone dyke, it’s hard work, but also very creative.

 

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Hens prefer wild camping

hens sleeping out

Our hens have all the creature comforts we can provide. There are three state of the art plastic hen houses with automatic door openers that open and close at dawn and dusk. Inside, there are purpose built roosting bars or individual boxes packed with fresh sawdust. Each hen can choose its own sleeping arrangements to its personal taste. These are kept clean and mite free and provide protection from wind, rain, snow and all the varieties of weather that South West Scotland can throw at them.

However, this is not good enough for Clippy, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ) and Salt. They have decided it’s far more comfortable, or exciting, or both, to sleep rough. Clippy started it all. She has always been borderline feral, much prefers the great outdoors. She’s also the current matriarch and has been sleeping out on and off for a while now. MMJ and Salt have recently joined her. Poor old Cherokee (the cockerel) must be wondering where they all go at bed time.

We shall keep an eye on them and expect that, as in previous years, once the cold, wet weather sets in and all the leaf cover has gone, they may decide the warm, dry shelter of a hen coop is the best bet.

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Sheep unsure about new steps

sheep friendly path and steps

Some time back, we connected our hill paddocks with the orchard next to our house. We like having the sheep close by. It’s what we call the ‘lambing paddock’, mainly because we built a lambing shed there. Really, it should be the ‘orchard paddock’ as it is home to our apple trees, all protected from sheep nibbling.

sheep friendly steps
sheep friendly steps

One problem with this path is that, at the paddock end, it’s quite a high step up. We did put down some bricks and hard core to make it easier for the sheep, but over time they have dislodged said bricks and scattered the hard core. Nicole recently noticed that some of them were struggling to get up. Short legs and a barrel shaped tummy can do that for you.

So, this week, after fencing off the damp corner (to the right) and planting it with trees, I started on building them a step. Using large, stable concrete blocks, I worked out an arrangement that would allow them to step up easily. I poured concrete into the gaps and topped it off with road scalpings. A rough surface will stop it getting too slippery in the icy winter days.

Of course, just as I was finishing the pouring in of the concrete, the sheep came down to see what I was up to. I had to turn them back before 76 hooves tore the new steps apart. Sheep hurdles were hastily erected to give the concrete time to dry.

Today, I led the sheep down so they could have a look. Selene, the flock matriarch took one look and turned round to head back up the path. She doesn’t like anything new, that one. It was left to Yogi, her granddaughter to make the leap. She took a couple of sniffs, then wandered up happily, wondering what all the fuss was about. Once she was up, the rest followed, each showing different levels of suspicion and hesitation.

Selene has, since, been observed standing at the gate studying the new structure intently. We’re wondering if the sheep might be in the lambing paddock for a while, at least till Selene decides the steps are no longer ‘new’.

Selene sees new steps for the first time
Selene sees new steps for the first time
Selene turns away from new steps
Selene turns away from new steps

 

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Tree planting underway

planting trees - small area

Every year we have been here, we have planted more trees as part of our goal to rewild large areas of our smallholding. Earlier this year, we created a new wildlife corridor and this winter, our task will be to fill it with (more) trees. This involved a lot of fencing, mainly to stop the sheep from eating all the young trees. They are very partial to anything that’s not grass, our sheep. One small corner was missed out in the big fencing operation. It is nestled between the path the sheep use to come off the hills into the orchard paddocks, the orchard paddock itself and a large area of wildlife corridor. This corner is damp and bramble infested. This week, I fenced it off. In time, we can remove a fence (you can see the tired old posts in the picture above, and it will become integrated with the wildlife corridor.  It is now filled it with willow, pine, alder and rowan trees. All of these, except the rowans, were sourced from along our track where numerous trees have self seeded with the seeming intention of blocking a drainage ditch.

planting trees - small areaThe rowans were also self seeded but in a dark corner next to a mature tree, not an ideal spot for them at all, really. Now they have exposure to sunlight as well as plenty of water.

The picture to the right is the small area in question and, if you look closely, you might be able to spot the odd tree. Not easy, some are quite small and, of course, the green leaves blend in nicely with the grass.

We are looking forward to these trees growing swiftly in the coming years and providing a little more cover for local wildlife.

 

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Another Brick in the Wall (part 11)

Regular readers of our blog may be aware of the ongoing repairs to our stone dykes. They appear to have been neglected for some time and so it’s something we’re trying to rectify.

stone dyke ready for rebuildThe latest repair was the wall next to our access track. Something had knocked down a section and it looked a bit of a mess. As seems to be the case with a lot of the damaged areas, it had to be taken down to ground level in order to be rebuilt properly. It has been something of a puzzle for me, but much of the stone in the centre of the wall seems to disappear leading to the dyke to collapse in on itself. What this means is that I have to ferry in a fair few small stones. Luckily, we have a pile of them in the corner of a field.

stone dyke by track 3 - in progressOnce the damaged bit has been taken down and the stones carefully laid out, the fun part starts, the rebuild. Using home made ‘A-frames’ and string to make sure it’s straight, I spend many a happy hour working out which stone best goes where. I try to get the heavy ones near the bottom for obvious reasons, though that’s not always possible meaning I have the occasional heavy lifting moment.

stone dyke by track 5 - complete
Repairs complete

Luckily, with fallen down bits like this, there are usually enough stones for the rebuild. This time, however, I was about 10 stones short so I had to forage for them, finding some good ones in our nearby burn.

Once complete, I try to take a few minutes to admire what I’ve done, but the next job is usually already calling. Either that or my back is screaming in protest and demanding I stretch it back into shape.