For the past few months we’ve been bringing our friendly cockerel Cherokee into the kitchen to perform a minor procedure on his feet.
It all started one day last summer when we noticed him looking a bit down. On inspection, we discovered a nodule on each foot between his toes.
We suspected these might be “dirt pockets” on the soles of his feet which had pushed up and formed bumps, but we would need a closer look.
Now Cherokee is a laid back sort of a chap, but he does have rather large spurs. As we hadn’t handled him very often, we decided it would be wise to collect him from the coop at night so he’d be sleepy. With a bit of luck he wouldn’t mind us prodding and poking his feet.
That evening, we waited till it got dark and the hens had gone to bed, then we tiptoed out with our head torches set to to the red light (which isn’t so intrusive). We carefully removed the roof from the coop whilst trying not to drop any of the little clips in the grass. After a bit of kerfuffle, I had Cherokee under my arm and we were able to bring him indoors.
Once in the kitchen, we popped a little hood on his head so he wouldn’t wake up and got to work inspecting his feet.
Sure enough, Cherokee had two dirt pockets, one on each foot. These “pockets” can appear on chickens for no apparent reason (in our experience at least), we’ve only had one other case of “dirt pockets” all the while we’ve kept chickens. The pockets form over time by dirt settling into small creases in the webbing between the toes and then compacting to form “pockets”. These pockets need to be emptied regularly otherwise they can cause discomfort and possibly become infected, it’s one of those things you need to keep an eye on.
Since then, we’ve brought Cherokee in regularly to empty his dirt pockets. He’s become so used to it that we no longer have to wait until night time which makes life a lot easier.
We pick him from wherever he happens to be and whisk him in. These days we no longer have to put his little hood on and we’ve noticed that he likes to watch what we’re doing which is a little unnerving and cute at the same time. He keeps his beady eye on us, stretches his feet out and looks at me intently as I push the pockets inside out and ease the dirt out. It’s very satisfying work, especially if the clod pings out in one go. Then, I clean the pockets with a cotton bud dipped in diluted cider vinegar and carry him outside again to join his ladies.
Our chicks who hatched last summer have grown into big, beautiful hens. It sounds cliche, but it’s hard to imagine they were once inside eggs.
When we collected our box of fertile eggs from a local farm last May we were told they were “Black Orpingtons”. I confess, we’re not too clued up on hen breeds, we just wanted to give our broody lady (MMJ) some chicks.
As the chicks grew and developed, we realised they were quite different from our resident flock. For starters, they never seemed to stop growing and although we still call them “the bibbles”, they are huge compared to the other hens. They are almost as big as Cherokee the cockerel, not that he seems to mind.
Having subsequently looked up the breed, we discovered that Orpingtons are broad and heavy with a low stance, have extremely fluffy feathers and are naturally friendly. Our “bibbles” are definitely all of this, particularly with regard to the fluffiness. In fact, their feathers are so fluffy (particularly in the bottom area) that we have noticed they can be prone to “dags”.
I should point out at this point that taking an interest in our livestock’s droppings is a bit of a favourite subject of mine. A animal’s bottom can say a lot about its state of health. A “daggy bottom” is usually a red flag because it can signify worms or a digestive issue. So, after initially panicking a little, I soon realised that in the case of our Orpingtons, the dags were not diarreah based, they were normal droppings which had over time left a residue on their fluffier than fluffy tail feathers.
Having sheep we are familiar with dags, we are frequently trimming bottoms and keeping the teddy bears clean. But dagging hens needs to be approached a little differently.
Hen feathers have veins running through them (well, up to the first inch or so), so snipping them needs to be done with caution. But anyway, “dags” lurk around the base of the feathers so snipping wouldn’t really help. The best thing to do is to pop the hen in a bath and give her bottom a wash.
We had planned to do this a couple of weeks ago, dags have to be dealt with quickly because as you can imagine they can make a hen feel pretty uncomfortable. But more importantly, dags attract flies, the dreaded greenbottle (Blowfly) is just as happy to lay its eggs on a sheep or a hen’s bottom, it is not fussy. Left untreated, death can swiftly result as the maggots start burrowing into its host. It’s not a pleasant way to go.
Just as soon as we had booked our hens into the diary for a spa morning, (a bucket of warm water in the kitchen followed by a blowdry), we were hit by a freezing weather front. Not ideal weather for bathing chickens. Admittedly, even though we were washing them in the kitchen and following up with a blowdry, we weren’t too happy about carrying out this operation in freezing weather. We weighed things up over a cup of tea and decided to go ahead anyway. The cold snap was due to last a couple of weeks and we didn’t want our “bibbles” walking about with daggy bottoms for any longer than they had to.
So while Adrian set up a dog crate next in the kitchen next to the aga, preheated some soft towels and popped the kettle on the stove, I nipped out to get the first “bibble”.
I should say at this point, friendly as our bibbles are, they’re not exactly tame yet, as in, we haven’t got to the point where we can just go and pick one up. But I had a plan, thanks to our large, “walk-in Omlet hen run” which we built last summer, I was able to herd the hens into the run, corner my target and scoop her up. Amidst plenty of squawking I tucked a slightly indignant bibble under my jacket and zoomed back indoors before she had time to realise what was happening.
Once in the kitchen I sat down for a moment to let her acclimatise and relax. I also took a moment to peel off my winter layers; bobble hat, coat, scarf, gloves and boots … Then, with Adrian at the ready in case Bibble made a break for it, I gently lowered her into the bucket of warm water. I made sure her bottom was submerged and waited a few moments so she could get used to to this new sensation. She relaxed very quickly and I was able to get to work massaging the daggy bits from her tail feathers and peeling the clumps off. The warm water made this easy, the clumps dissolved and after about ten minutes our first bibble had a delightfully clean bottom.
We lifted her out of the water, gently wrapped her in a warm towel, and gave her a blowdry. We found it easier to do this with her in the dog crate standing freely. This meant I was able to run my fingers through her feathers and get the warm air flowing exactly where it was needed without having to hold her at the same time. She seemed to enjoy the feeling of the hairdryer and started to preen herself as I worked away. For a first time visit to the beauty salon, our Bibble did us proud!
Over the following few days we did all the bibbles’ bottoms and they all took it in their strides, they particularly enjoyed the hairdryer experience. We hope to continue handling them over the coming weeks so that subsequent spa experiences will be even easier.
One of the common themes of this blog is the repair of dry stane dykes (dry stone walls). Most of these repairs are carried out in order to keep the sheep in, but some are just because we like these walls and want them to look good.
The latest section needing repair was at the far corner of one of the fields. As ever, a small section had crumbled but repairs extended quite far in both directions. In fact, this wall is very old and there has been a lot of subsidence, so much of it is teetering on the brink of collapse. Finding an upright section either side of the crumbling part was something of a challenge.
In the end, I had to take down around 6.5 metres. Being a boundary wall, it was 1.5 metres tall (5 feet), so that meant moving a lot of stone. A rough calculation showed it to be about 5,000Kg (5 tons). On top of that, it was built in the Galloway style which means big stones near the top. I made sure to keep my feet well clear as those stones were taken down.
As ever, the demolition phase was not too hard, the most strenuous part being carrying the the top stones a few metres to one side. I always keep them in a line so I know I’ll have enough nice stones to finish the top of the wall when I get there. In this case, a drainage ditch forced me to carry them a little further than usual.
The big beasties I lined up close to the wall (on the far side, so not visible in the pictures). The rest I piled up nearby ready so they would be close at hand.
Over a few days in various weather conditions (from sunny to windy rain), I built the layers up. The ground was very soft and soon turned to mud. I found myself sinking from time to time as I attempted to lift larger stones onto the wall.
The big stones that went onto the top section I did in one session. I just picked them up and manoeuvred them into place, one at a time, hoping they would fit together nicely. It seems to have worked. Only one or two gave me grief, doing their best to slide off and land on my feet. They were the biggest two and needed some clever lifting to get them up there given the wall was around a metre high at that point.
For the final section, I brought in some additional stones, just in case. A huge pile seems to evaporate when fitted neatly together. It was good forward thinking as I ended up using them all.
Despite the weather morphing from bright sunshine to blustery rain and the impatient whining of Elliot, who found the whole process a bit of a bore, I persevered and got it finished. It is always tricky to get the top stones aligned neatly, but ultimately very satisfying.
Usually, I sit down and admire my work a while when I finish, but inclement weather and impatient dogs persuaded me to head back the moment the last stone was in place. I shall have to make do with the photos on this one.
In the sheep world, Ryelands are often referred to as “teddy bear sheep”. The reason for this, as you might have guessed, is their striking resemblance to roly poly teddy bears. Most sheep have wool only on their backs, with their faces, tummies and legs remaining almost bare. The Ryeland however has wool all over and can cause shearers to go a little pale. It can be tricky to shear those woolly faces, tummies and legs and it takes longer too.
One of our jobs in making sure our Ryelands are happy and healthy is to keep their bottoms and faces trimmed. During the summer months it’s especially important to keep their bottoms neat because woolly bottoms attract flies and flies are bad news for sheep, especially the blow flow. We don’t use chemicals on our little lot so we take special care to keep their rear ends spick and span at all times.
We also keep their faces trimmed. If we don’t trim around their eyes, they can become ‘wool blind’ (where the wool grows around their eyes preventing them from seeing). Being ‘wool blind’ makes sheep unhappy as they like to be able to see what’s happening around them in order to feel safe. Sheep have surprisingly good vision, they can see all around them, almost 360 degrees. If they have wool growing around their eyes they can get nervous and twitchy because they lose the ability to check for predators which is an important part of being a sheep.
It’s a lot of work trimming all those faces and bottoms, (and not to mention hooves), so we rotate through the flock each week and work on three or four at a time. Yesterday it was Yaar, Seline, Scarlett and Vera’s turn for hair cuts.
Adrian and I have got a little hair salon set up in the orchard, we put together some hurdles and bring the sheep in one at a time. They seem to quite enjoy it and we have no trouble bringing them in. It’s a good opportunity for us to catch up with the flock and spend quality time with our teddies.
Recently you might have noticed a new logo in the corner of our home page. If you click on it, you will be taken into the Galloway & Southern Ayrshire Unesco Biosphere’s website.
To re-wind a bit, one sunny day back in the summer, I was enjoying a chinwag and a cuppa with my friend Kate. We were in the Catstrand café in New Galloway (which incidentally also serves delicious cakes).
Kate works for Nature Scotland and is really plugged into the world of conservation, sustainable living and all things related to permaculture, particularly farming. Kate and I always have a giggle and great chats whenever we get together.
Whilst putting the world to rights over our cups of tea, Kate asked if I had heard of an organisation called the Galloway & Southern Ayrshire Biosphere. I said it rang a bell but I wasn’t sure what they did exactly. (I should probably get out more!) Kate filled me in and said it might be worth me getting in touch as we, (my woolly business) was just the sort of thing the Biosphere were interested in. Part of the Biosphere’s work is to promote small, sustainable businesses.
I decided to apply to become a “Proud Supporter” with a view to becoming “Biosphere Certified”. I clicked on the relevant buttons on the website and up popped a load of forms to fill in. I’m fortunate to be married to a man who is a whizz at form filling so I roped Hubs in to help me and by the end of the day we had clicked through the pages and sent everything off to be processed.
Last week, out of the blue I received an email from the Biosphere team and saw that happily my application had been successful!
Soon, one of the team will come up to meet us and look at what we do here on our smallholding. We are very much looking forward to showing them around, introducing them to our animals and chatting about what we do here.
It has not been the driest of summers which has had it’s good and bad points. However, it has been one of the wettest of Octobers I can remember. Someone turned the rain tap on and has forgotten to turn it off again.
The ground has been turned from firm grassland into puddles. This is particularly true of the flatter areas where water settles having flowed down the hill. Sadly, there’s not much we can do about it except hope for some dry weather to give it all a chance to drain.
It’s not great for the animals. The hens gather and huddle in their shelters, trying to keep dry. The sheep venture out to find grass (plenty of that), but retire to dry off in one of their field shelters.
We’re having to keep a close eye on the sheep’s hooves, checking for signs of foot rot which can flare up in these conditions.
And autumn planting of garlic has been postpones lest the bulbs float away.
In the woodland, the drainage ditches are full but doing their job. Anyway, that’s the way it is in SW Scotland, either too much water or too little.
Today while I was in the polytunnel having a tidy up, I became aware of some strange noises coming from outside. It sounded like pigs scoffing their way through a pile of apples and bananas. I wondered if Adrian had got me an early birthday present. There were snuffles and grunts interspersed by a strange high pitched creak. I stuck my head out to investigate, the noises seemed to be coming from the direction of the veggie patch. There was also a sheepie-smell drifting around which I couldn’t quite place but seemed familiar.
Looking over at the veggie patch I spotted a huge wheelbarrow filled to the brim with manure trundling down the path going “creak, creak, creak”. Behind the barrow emerged Adrian going “grunt, ah, ooh, aaa”. Atop the barrow like a cherry on a cake was a pitch fork.
Then I remembered, this week is mulching week!
Mulching week entails something we do regularly here, shifting dung from one place to another. In the case of mulching, this means shovelling well rotted sheep dung from the manure heap, over to the veggie beds. This is done using a pitchfork, a large wheelbarrow, muscle power and lots of huffing and puffing.
Our veggies love a good mulching, the soil has improved a million-fold since we started piling on the dung every autumn. When we created our veggie patch five years ago, the soil was in a terrible state, all claggy and compacted. We think there might have been a structure at some point in the history of the farm, where the veggie patch now is because the soil was so compacted and there was a ridiculous amount of rocks just below the surface. Mind you, that is normal around here!
Fast forward five years and the soil is crumbly and lovely to work with. The veggies are happy and thriving, and so are the slugs, but that is another story for another day.
The harvest rush has been on in the last week. We already had collected what was left of the beetroot (see beetroot bother), but other fruit and veg were ready and needed picked before the pesky slugs had those too. The only things that seem to be safe are the tomatoes (polytunnel too dry for them) and the carrots (special anti-slug box works a treat).
In the last week, we’ve harvested the apples, onions and cabbage. That leaves the sprouts (what’s left of them), broccoli (which will be ready next year) and turnips (haven’t dared look).
We got a good harvest of apples this year. The best have been set aside for eating, the rest converted into cider vinegar, cider and frozen apples for winter roasts. We got the cider press up and running this year (only taken 5 years), so got some apple juice. We got 5 litres to be exact and all is being made into cider. The eagle eyed among you might be wondering why I have split it across 2 x five litre demijohns. Well, it did all fit into one, but in my experience, wild fruit can be pretty vigorous in the fermentation process and has been known to spray the walls. Of course, nothing has happened yet as the temperature has dropped a bit and the yeast is shivering rather than getting on with it.
There are still a few late developing apples on the trees. Hopefully, they’ll be fine for eating as they come.
We also harvested all the cabbage. That, in itself, removed an army of slugs from the veggie patch. All leaves were examined carefully and any wildlife removed before the cabbage was shredded. Salt was added, massaged in and now that is also fermenting quietly. Should be ready in 3 or 4 weeks.
All takes time, but very satisfying once it’s done.
On Saturday, we spent some time watching our newly hatched chicks in their safe and secure run. It soon became clear that they already needed larger premises. Although they were safe where they were, the grass was showing signs of wear and tear plus, they needed to get out and about and get some natural food and exercise. Also, this means their mother, Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ), can teach them what they need to know. Over time, we have learned the best policy is to trust the animals – they know what they’re doing.
Our hens free range, but we do have fences to keep them away from danger, mainly the track (delivery vans) and neighbours’ cats. Though hens can fly, a 90cm high stock fence is enough to keep them contained.
Having, some years back, had chicks happily charge through these fences and all over the place, we installed chicken wire around the perimeter. We also put in a few hedgehog tunnels so the hedgehogs could still roam freely. Tiny curtains were enough to stop the chicks. Over time, the odd gap had appeared. mostly around the gates. So, before we could let these chicks out, the main area needed to be checked and made chick proof.
We also decided to move the sheep out. They have been using the lambing shed to keep out of the sun and rain. This is situated in the orchard where the hens roam. Fortunately, we have a field shelter and a “silvo shelter” so we closed off access to the hen area. The other hens will find their roaming area reduced, but it’s still an acre or so.
Sunday, we set to work. I say ‘we’, but mean ‘me’, Nicole being busy with our new dog Elliot, I raised the ground level under three gates using some of the road scalpings we have for just such occasions. Ten barrow loads or so were duly wheeled in. I also attached chicken netting to the gates and made sure the gaps at either end were covered.
That done, we opened the door at the front of the run. MMJ was initially reluctant to set forth, but eventually wandered through. She was closely followed by four chicks. As she headed slightly further away, chick number five ran up and down inside the run, not quite able to work out how to follow her. Thankfully, she did find the exit and caught up.
Having sat on eggs and chicks for three to four weeks, the first thing MMJ did was have a dust bath. She found a shady corner and got to digging, all the while making contented clucking sounds. The chicks stood around waiting, bored, until having waited long enough, they started jumping all over her. Eventually, MMJ got the hint and took them for a walk. The other hens had seen them by now but, thankfully, seemed completely disinterested. In fact, MMJ took them over to say hello and announced their presence by jumping onto Clippy, the flock matriarch, and giving her a taste of what might happen should she get too close to her precious chicks.
We kept a close eye on them all, but MMJ seemed to know what she was doing so eventually we left her to it. After, of course, we’d tempted them into camera range with a few chopped up strawberries.
Chicks being little cutie pies, we took a few photos and these can be found in the chicks gallery. We may add some as they grow up. In the meantime, it’s loads of stress for us as we worry about cats, kites, buzzards, golden eagles (we have the occasional visit), sparrowhawks, crows, stoats, foxes and so on.
About three weeks ago, we mentioned we had a broody hen (Broody Hens Conundrum); Mrs Mills Junior (MMJ) to be precise. After last year when two hens sat on eggs but none hatched, we decided to source fertilised eggs. It was made easy by the fact that MMJ was broody but not actually sitting on any eggs.
So, we moved her to a secure location, her own personal run safe and secure from the weather, predators and nosey hens. We settled eight eggs underneath her and sat back to wait. 24 days was the time to hatching according to reliable sources.
This week, they hatched, a little early we suspect. First we knew was Friday morning when a tiny ‘seep seep’ could be heard. Peering down the run into the hen house revealed MMJ peering back accompanied by a hatchling stretching its neck to look at us. We had chicks!
We kept our distance, despite much temptation to peek more closely. Today, we were rewarded by the sight of MMJ taking her brood out for a walk in the sunshine. I say walk, what I really meant was nap. MMJ was sitting there happily and one tiny head was poking out from under one of her wings. We both stood and watched, our breath held in anticipation. A few minutes later (long minutes let me tell you), a second head popped out from under her front. Two chicks. Moments later, two more heads. Four chicks.
Eventually, all four squeezed out and started mooching around in the grass under MMJ’s watchful eyes.
At this point, Nicole sneaked round and checked the hen house. Of the eight eggs, five had hatched. We waited and watched, but number 5 never appeared. With things to do, including sheep to shear (Shearing 2022 – hand clipping the woolly Ryelands), we left them to it.
Later on, I made a cuppa for Nicole and took it to her at the shearing pen. On the way back, I checked in on MMJ. She was up and about scratching away happily and was surrounded by five chicks.
This is excellent news. Not only will we have chicks brought up and accepted into the flock, MMJ only had to sit for 3 weeks. Last year, sitting on eggs that turned out not to be fertilised, Clippy and Pepper sat for 9 or 10 weeks, maybe longer, and their condition suffered as a result. MMJ’s comb is bright red, as it should be, and she looks to be in excellent condition. All in all, we are well pleased we decided to give her her own enclosed space.
Next job, check the wider perimeter so the chicks can’t get through the fence onto the track.