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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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A new product for the shop!

Gifts for sheep lovers - Witchy & Yogi lamb original acrylic painting
Matty bottle feeding Lisa

My younger brother Matty often comes to visit us, he loves spending time with the sheep and when we haven’t roped him in to help us build or fix something, (in return for lots of homemade cake and cups of tea of course!) he loves nothing better than to wander around taking in the scenery and enjoying the peacefulness of the surroundings.

Matty leads a busy life, he lives in Buckinghamshire where he works as a yoga teacher. He is also an artist, and when he isn’t doing headstands or handstands he’s generally to be found knee deep in paper and paintbrushes.

I love Matty’s work and a couple of months ago I thought how lovely it would be if we could offer sheep portraits painted by Matty in our shop.  After all, everybody needs a sheep picture in their home!

So I asked Matty if he might be interested and he said he’d be delighted.

So, after some intense weeks of organising things, we’re absolutely bursting with excitement to announce that the “Auchenstroan Coloured Ryeland Sheep Portraits” are now available to purchase from our shop!

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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.

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Harvest Time

onions with leaves bent

It has been a good year for the veggies. The new polytunnel produced plenty of salad and tomatoes are ripening thick and fast. Outdoors, everything we planted has grown well. We’re not sure if it is down to the amazing, hot summer or all our preparation, probably a bit of both. The soil, this year, has certainly been the best we’ve had, courtesy of a large annual covering with mulch.

As a rule, we try to grow vegetables that are harvested when needed. This includes carrots which remain quite happy in their purpose built box, turnips that will survive outdoors through the winter and beetroot which can also be left in the ground till needed (hungry mice notwithstanding). Summer crops such as spinach and chard are picked as and when needed.

onions dryingTwo vegetable that do need harvesting are the onions and the cabbage. The onions are huge this year, some the size of grapefruits, and we are delighted with that. We have been waiting for the leaves to bend over as they reach maturity signalling they are ready to harvest. All those that had done so were harvested a week or so ago. The rest I gave a helping hand by bending the leaves (as shown in the above picture).

The harvested onions have their roots trimmed (carefully avoiding nestling worms) and are dried on the Auchenstroan designed and patented onion drying rack (a pallet raised on two chairs). onion stringsOnce dry, they are strung in the traditional way and hung ready for use. We reckon we’ll have at least 10 onion strings this year which is pretty good going.

Once harvested, the preparation for next year starts with a layer of cardboard to suppress the weeds. It’s called the ‘no dig’ method and I’m fine with that, believe you me.

covered in cardboardOnce the cardboard is laid, I’ll cover it in mulch, a mixture of composted sheep poo and home made garden compost. It will be laid 10-15cm thick, the thicker the better as the soil really benefits from it.

The cabbage has grown well and today I harvested the first, it was the size of a football and weighed over 3Kg. There’s not much you can do with cabbage other than eat it or make coleslaw, so we are, for the first time, making sauerkraut. The first batch was prepared today. The cabbage was chopped, shredded in our tiny vegetable shredding machine and then mixed with salt and herbs in a bucket. It all went to plan and I was amazed at how much it all shrinks as the salt does its work.

making sauerkrautThe feeling pleased with myself lasted only till I realised it needs about 6 weeks of fermentation to get the best flavour. Having only two suitable buckets and around 10 cabbages presented a conundrum. So, this week kas now been designated sauerkraut week and I will spend the days shredding cabbages and building up one large bucket of fermenting sauerkraut.

At the same time, I’ll be keeping an eye on the tomatoes and making sauce or soup as and when I have to. Also needing watching are the apples, it was this time last year that cider vinegar production got underway.

While all that is going on, Nicole has been harvesting blackberries, pulling out nettles and cutting back brambles. And, of course, we’re both working, Nicole making rugs and me editing my book (now that it’s back from the editor) and also working on my dry stone dyke course.

Never a dull moment.

 

 

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Yssi gets flystrike (note to reader, story ends happily 😊)

This summer has been long, hot and dry (most unusual for Scotland!)  This has been great, mostly, who doesn’t love the sunshine?  It lifts the spirits and the long evenings we have up here can be appreciated at their very best.  On a sunny day, it can stay light and bright until 10pm at night!

But as always, when you live so closely connected to the land and keep livestock, the weather plays an important part.  A long, hot summer, while being great for the spirits and for saving on housework, (no mud = less hoovering) the dry weather can also bring problems; namely, water (lack of), and flies (flystrike).

Our water supply which is a spring up on the hill ran dry in June so we’ve been topping it up from the burn.  It’s not ideal, but we can manage, we pump it up every morning from the river and are careful with our usage.  We know that soon enough, autumn will swish in with an attitude and we’ll be getting our wellies out again, the spring will fill up and we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Flies also love warm weather.  The Scottish speciality – the midge, particularly so.  But while midges are annoying, coming out to party in huge swathes at dawn and dusk, getting in your eyes, your ears, your mouth and having you running back indoors to look for your “midgie net”, apart from being irritating, they are pretty harmless.

The other local hoodlum, the “cleg” is similarly irritating and seems impervious to attempts to swat it away.  If a cleg manages to bite you, (which it generally will!) you’ll know about it, but again, clegs are nothing to lose sleep over as long as you have a tube of bite cream handy.

It is the blowfly (aka the greenbottle) which gets the prize for being a level 10 pain in the backside (at least for anyone who keeps sheep!)

The blowfly is attracted to any animal which it deems suitable for laying its eggs on but is particularly partial to sheep.  It seeks out living flesh which has a hint of dampness and dung about it and unfortunately a sheep’s backside is an easy target.  In the spring, before shearing gets underway, sheep are at their woolliest.  Woolly bottoms, combined with the after-effects of grazing on lush spring grass gives the blowfly the perfect place on which to lay her eggs.

Once the eggs hatch, maggots start to emerge and feast on what is at hand, (without going into too much detail, it’s pretty gruesome), they start feeding on their host.  If left unchecked, this causes severe distress to the animal, and eventually, death.

Because of the severity of problems caused by the blowfly, most shepherds and farmers protect their flocks with “pour on” insecticide.  We don’t here on our smallholding because we have a small flock, not that many blowflies (it’s generally too breezy and fresh up here for them to be a problem), and we don’t like using chemicals.

It’s a tricky one though, because you have to weigh up the options, what is worse: reaching for the chemicals, or putting your sheep at risk of being eaten alive by maggots?

We follow the non-chemical way, which is very time consuming, we basically check our flock continually.  During the blowfly season which runs starts in April and tails off towards the end of summer, we go up to the hill three times a day and scan our sheep.  What we are looking for are “The Signs”.

What are these mysterious signs?  Well, if a sheep has been “struck”, it will start to act just ever so slightly differently.  At first the signs are really subtle, but if you know your animals, you’ll get a sense for even the smallest change in behaviour.

This said, we missed Yssi’s flystrike last week!

We’d brought our flock into the barn for their three monthly hoof trims and general MOT’s.

The summer MOT doesn’t usually include a “bottom check” (bikini line and tail trim), because the flock have only just been sheared.

However, Yssi has a particularly fluffy fleece so she gets a bottom check and trim every three months just to be on the safe side.

So, I straddled her and trimmed away her wool.  I noticed a small area of skin under some dungy wool which I’d trimmed which needed some anti-bac spray.  Sometimes damp wool near the bottom area can cause small infections on the skin as the air never gets to circulate and it’s always a bit damp around there.  So I duly sprayed her and we let her out of the pen.

As she trotted out to join the others, Adrian noticed her stamping her hind hoof and looking somewhat perturbed.  We watched her for a moment and came to the conclusion the anti-bac spray was causing her to feel temporarily itchy.

We finished the rest of the MOT’s and before letting them out to the wider pastures we decided to bring Yssi into the pen again just to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.  After another check we couldn’t see anything untoward, so we opened the gate and off they all trotted up the hill.

Three days later, I was mooching about among the flock with George, scratching Vi on her favourite tickle spot on her hoof, and idly looking around at the other sheep when I noticed Yssi stamping her hind leg again.

Now, a sheep stamping its leg is nothing strange, they frequently do this, (especially the hind legs) during the summer when there are lots of flies about.  What caught my attention was the fact that the other sheep weren’t stamping.  The other thing I thought odd was that Yssi was swishing her tail and again, none of the others were.  They were peacefully grazing.  And while Yssi was also grazing, she just didn’t seem to be as peaceful as the others.

I continued to observe her, aware that it’s easy to start adding up two and two and coming up with five.  After a few minutes I noticed her sitting down (again, nothing unusual), but what struck me was that she wasn’t chewing the cud.  She was just sitting there.  As I watched her some more I thought her eyes looked sad.

At this point I decided to bring her in and give her a really thorough inspection.  So I got some sheep nuts out of my pocket, led her into a wee pen nearby and called Adrian who was back at the house.

I wanted Adrian there so he could hold her while I had a really good look at her, all over.  I thought, from her foot stamping that something could be irritating her tummy area.

With Adrian standing at Yssi’s head to prevent her from walking off, I straddled her rear end and worked methodically, parting the wool little by little, making my way down from her tail to her hind legs.  As I got to her hind leg “armpit”, I noticed something small and white wriggling away from me.  Bingo!! I said, followed by some descriptive words.  As I parted more wool, I found three colonies of maggots, Yssi was going to need a thorough clean up.

Leaving Adrian with the patient I went back to the house for my trusty bottle of “Battles Maggot Oil”, scissors, and a big wodge of cotton wool.

Once back, I got to work on Yssi, I first trimmed away her wool so that I could see where the maggots were, then, pressing cotton wool soaked in maggot oil into the affected areas I dabbed away.  Once I’d treated the main areas and the maggots had dropped off.  I snipped away more wool from the surrounding areas and dabbed more maggot oil pretty much all over her backside and down the inside of each of her legs.

As I snipped and dabbed, we both felt Yssi start to relax, almost as if she was enjoying the experience.  As she undoubtedly was, we were removing a huge source of irritation for her!  Adrian was at her head, stopping her from moving forward.  Afterwards, he said he wasn’t even holding her, she was just happy to let me get on with what I was doing.  Probably thinking, “took you long enough humans” 😉.  Afterwards we watched Yssi trot off happily to join her friends and we went back to the house for a nice cup of tea.

 

 

 

 

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Wildlife Corridor

We have planted a lot of trees here and those planted a few years back are finally starting to establish and grow taller than me. But what was missing was connecting the various patches of woodland. So, we devised a wildlife corridor that will connect woods to the north of the house all the way to the new planted woodland that runs along the southern edge.

It will start with a hedge that will be planted this autumn. This will have the added benefit of screening off a cottage. The fencing is in place (to keep the sheep from eating it), just need to wait for hedge planting season.

band of treesPart two is a band of trees at the end of the lambing paddock. These were panted in May, a last gasp order that was despatched just before the end of season deadline. Unfortunately, the dry weather caught us out and about half the trees lost all their leaves. We have been watering them daily (with water from a natural pond) and all but three have recovered, though one is still in intensive care as it is not enjoying its daily baking by our unusually hot and persistent summer.

recovering tree
Recovering tree

The ones that are recovering are showing new growth at the base and will be watered daily till we are absolutely sure they are established.

Part three runs along what we call the ‘marshy bottom’ field. It’s where water overflows from the pond mentioned above on it’s way to our wee loch. It’s damp and treacherous and we had a constant fear that one of the sheep would get into difficulties. Normally, wouldn’t go there but every now and then, tups from the neighbouring appear in the field the other side of the marsh and they are a huge temption to our girls.

marshy bottom woodland
marshy bottom woodland

This has now been fenced off and planted with about 40 trees, mostly ash seedlings from the ash tree next to our house which, touch wood, seems to be unaffected by ash dieback. The plan is, in late autumn, to transplant a number of self seeded willow and alder trees that are in inappropriate locations into this area and transform it into a vibrant woodland.

thriving transplanted trees
thriving transplanted trees

We did move two quite large trees, over 4m tall, and they are thriving. You can just about make them out in the photo to the right. The bank is quite damp (north facing) and so was perfect for them.

The next part is a small area next to a stone dyke (where we filled in an unused gate) and about 30 trees are thriving there, no tree guards as we built a fence that should keep the deer out.

Finally, there’s a small area where we store our firewood, the stuff that needs a visit from the chainsaw to convert it into logs. That too will be populated with transplated trees.

From there, it meets up with the trees border ing our wee loch. Overall, it will form a ‘U’ all around our patch. The west side is commercial forest, not much we can do about that!

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Vi and the tickly hoof

For the last three summers, between the months of June and September, one of Vi’s good friends, Vera, has been suffering from an allergic reaction to the sun.

Vera’s “summer itches” usually start just after shearing time.  This is understandable since her woolly coat would protect her from the sun’s rays.  The wool has to come off though otherwise there would be other issues.  With her shorter wool and the warmer weather, Vera’s skin becomes red and inflamed which makes Vera feel itchy and irritable.  All she wants to do is scratch, scratch, scratch and sit in the shade of the field shelter.  Un-woolled parts are particularly affected such as her ears, eye area, “armpits” and the backs of her legs.

As there’s no cure for Vera’s allergy, all we can do is help her feel better until autumn when her symptoms naturally subside.  So we give her a long acting steroid injection, and daily doses of udder cream which is very soothing.  She’s not too keen on the injections – thankfully we only have to give her one or two throughout the summer, but she absolutely loves the cream.

Vera with cream on her ears

Every morning at around 7am as I do “the morning sheep check” (making sure our woolly friends are all present and haven’t got into pickles overnight), Vera trots over for “the cream ceremony”.  She obligingly lifts each leg in turn so I can apply cream into her “armpits”, and then stands there staring into space as I smooth cream onto her ears and legs.  It’s a pleasant addition to my morning routine and knowing Vera enjoys the experience and feels better afterwards makes it all the more enjoyable.

This year, Vera’s pal Vi has shown a keen interest in the cream ritual.  So much so that she has started coming over and standing next to Vera waiting for her turn.  She shows particular interest when I put cream on Vera’s ankles.  This is no doubt due to Vera’s happy reaction when I apply cream to the area just above her hooves on her hind legs – she stretches her neck out as far as she can and starts licking the air as if it were raining sheep nuts (her favourite snack).  Then, she turns her head towards me and starts nibbling my arm for all she is worth.  If you’ve ever been nibbled by a sheep you’ll know this is a funny experience, sort of pleasant but also borderline painful!

Vi enjoying a hoof tickle

So back to Vi, the other day I wondered idly whether all sheep enjoyed hoof / ankle scratches.  I know they like a good back scratch, (so do cows by the way, they even have “cow back scratchers” you can buy and install in your barn!)  But I didn’t know about ankles.  Perhaps this was “a thing” in the world of sheep?  As I pondered this the other morning whilst sandwiched between Vi, Vera and a pot of udder cream, I remembered that over the years I’ve seen some of our flock rubbing their feet on fences and the like.  Hmmm I thought, I wonder …

Now normally (unless you are Vera), sheep stamp their feet and twitch when you touch their hooves and legs because their instinct tells them that you might be a fly.  But I decided to see if Vi would like a wee scratch anyway.

I gently reached over and touched her left hind leg, and to my surprise, she let me do this with no hint of a stamp.  So I went for it and gave her a full on scratch all round her hoof.  She turned her head to look at me with an expression of what I think was mild surprise, and then stretched out her neck and proceeded to do the “happy sheep thing” (stretchy neck followed by hoovering up of imaginary rain shower of sheep nuts).  As an additional after flourish, she nibbled my wellies.

So now I have created a wee rod for my back because as well as putting cream on Vera, I have to give Vi an ankle rub, all the while being watched with interest by the rest of the flock.  Form an orderly queue please!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Water solutions

At Auchenstroan, we seem either to have too much water or too little. With this long, hot, dry summer stretching out over months, it’s definitely the latter and memories of having to install drainage are fading fast.

Since we moved here, we have installed sheep troughs fed by natural springs (water system and water system extended) so that the sheep now have water troughs in every field. However, during the summer, these springs dry up and even two tanks containing around 2,200 litres last only a few weeks. So, sometimes we have had to top them up. This used to involve filling a bowser and towing it up with the tractor. Now, we have a pipe that connects the top tank to a pump (housed in the upside down old water tank – see right). This in turn is linked to two bowsers. At the moment, these are filled by pumping water from the river, but the plan is to install a rainwater capture system on our large shed and fill them from that.

You can see the pipe snaking its way up (to the sheeps’ tanks) in the photo. There is also a pipe snaking its way down and this, when completed, will link to the rainwater harvesting system we have for our veggie plot. This will mean we can top that up if it too runs out.

And finally, just to make life a a tiny bit bit easier, we found a really useful gizmo, a watering timer. It opens a valve letting water through for a set time. We had coils of soak hose sitting around doing nothing, so have installed that in the polytunnel and it now waters itself each day for an hour. It saves us a lot of time.

Now, all we need is a solution for our domestic water supply which seems to be drying up too. But that’s another story…