We have a lot of stone dykes here and over the years, some have fallen into disrepair while others have been, shall we say, modified.
One such modification was a gate fitted in between two fields. While this gate might have made sense when all the fields were part of this farm, over the years bits have been sold off and the gate now sits between ours and a neighbour’s field. In fact, it had become kind of a gate to nowhere.
The problem is that the gate was rotten and the gentlest of nudges would have pushed it down. Not a problem until you have rams in one field an ewes next door (see “hello boys“). We could have replaced the gate, but there was not much point. There is already a proper farm gate about 50m away, so there is access between the fields.
So, the decision was made to ditch the gate and rebuild the wall. The only problem was all the stones that had formed this part of the wall had long gone.
We had recently been give a pile of stones from a house in town where they are renovating house and garden. However, there were not enough even for this small gap. Also, they were all pretty small, not ideal for dry stone dykes. Off I went in search of some more, larger stones. I found a few and ferried them over with the quad bike. The wall itself was up a bank, probably around 1.5m (5ft) high. I had to get all the stones I needed up this bank.
It was easy for the small stones, I just lobbed them up. The larger ones were a bit trickier. One in particular proved nigh on impossible to get up. After three attempts had resulted in me losing my grip and having to jump out of the way, I named the stome Sisyphus and sat down to ponder. I could have gone and got the tractor and lifed it with the front loader, but in the end, I rolled it up the track, got it up onto the bank where it was lower and rolled it back again. Of course, having done that, I realised I could have just put it on the quad bike and drive in it round to the other side. Doh!
Having got all the stones ready, I retired for a cup of tea and a rest much to the gratitiude of the dogs who were, by now, pretty bored watching me moving stones.
Next morning, under the not so watchful eye of the dogs, I rebuilt the wall. You can see Sysiphus bottom left (under the very white stone). They never look quite so big once they are in place.
The small stones turned out to be a pain, so I had to scrounge a few more stones. Luckily, there are a few just lying around.
The last few days have been cold and yesterday, we took advantage of the frozen ground to lay an area of hardcore around the sheep’s hay feeders. The frozen ground meant that the tractor did not do too much damage to the ground.
Before starting, we moved the sheep out into the fields to keep them out of the way. On finishing, we allowed the sheep back and it was then we noticed that there was something not quite right with Peaches. It was not entirely unexpected, Peaches’ condition had not been good for some time. She had, in the summer, been checked over by the vet but there was nothing obvious wrong. Peaches was the oldest of our sheep and was approaching her 9th birthday so we thought this lack of condition might be age related. We had been giving Peaches small supplements to ensure she was getting enough to eat, but her condition never really improved.
Yesterday, Peaches was separating herself from the flock. This is often a sign of a sheep that is unwell. We offered Peaches some chopped turnips and while she ate a little, she didn’t seem to be her usual self. We called the vet out to have a look. The vet found a little blood in Peaches’ poo and said that her stomach seemed a little bloated. However, there was no obvious sign of anything serious. Peaches was showing no sign of anemia meaning fluke and worms were discounted. The vet did hint that there might be something wrong internally such as a tumour, but that it was hard to tell.
The vet administered a few injections to help Peaches with any pain or infection and also to help get her digestion moving. Having been very tolerant of all the handling and needle pricks, once out of the treatment pen, Peaches was off like a shot up the hill. We continued to keep an eye out and she did seem to be eating hay from the feeders later in the day. However, she was still kind of keeping her distance from the flock.
Sadly, this morning, we found Peaches had passed away in the night. She had passed away in her sleep and lay, looking very peaceful, in one of the field shelters. Peaches was the flock’s matriarch and was a gentle leader. We shall all miss her.
A cold snap in November seems to have been a regular thing ever since I was a kid. Each year, the frost would come and it would look like a white christmas was in the offing, only for it to warm up again.
The last couple of weeks have been pretty chilly. The good thing is that after a spell of heavy rain, it has given the ground a chance to dry out a bit. Nevertheless, winter is here and it we’ll be dealing with mud for a while now.
The best part of the frosty weather is the sunrises we get here. Looking out to the east, we see the sun rising over the hills casting it’s red and orange glows across the sky. It’s a very peaceful time of the day.
It’s a pleasant walk up to find the sheep and see what they are up to. Mostly, it’s lying around after a good night’s sleep out in the cold air. The sheep do like a bit of cold, dry weather.
For us, after the walk around to check all the animals fine and that the hen doors have not frozen shut, it’s back inside to our Aga warmed kitchen for a breakfast of good Scottish porage.
Around late October, early November the grass pretty much stops growing and loses most of its nutritional value. For sheep, that means its time for hay. This year, the late autumn was pretty mild so the sheep chose to stay out for grass a bit later, well into November in fact.
Nevertheless, we got the hay feeders cleaned up and the hay ready. We’ve moved the feeders nearer the house this year. It means it’s all much closer to the hay store making things easier for us.
It also means the sheep have access to the lambing shed as a winter shelter. In fact, they now have two field shelters so they are spoilt for choice.
To get to the new hay station, the sheep would have had to cross a marshy area so in the summer I had built them a path (see sheep happy with new path). One morning, I went up to check on the sheep and they followed me back down (pictured right) and found the hay all laid out for them.
Some of them tucked right in while others still wandered off eating late autumn grass. Over the following days, the visits to the hay feeders have increased and so we see them down at the feeders about twice a day now.
The other great benefit is that we can see them from the kitchen window. We do like being able to see our sheep from the house.
With the onset of winter and frosty days I’ve been busy wrapping up my gardening business for another year. This means I get a lovely rest, oh, sorry, that was a Freudian slip, I meant so say, this means I will have more time to start the Big Winter Feed Ritual for our woolly friends, in other words, keeping the sheep feeders full of hay.
The grass is low nutrient and provides little nourishment for the sheep during the winter. The hay meanwhile was cut at its peak in July, and contains plenty of flowers, it smells of summer and the wafts remind me of Swiss mountain villages from when I was a small girl. The sheep love it and can get quite overexcited each morning when they see the bales coming their way. They actually make filling the feeders quite challenging as they pile in like a bunch of frenzied five year olds on Christmas morning.
Winter also means I get to dive headlong into rug production. Making rugs is very time consuming, during the summer one rug can take two weeks or more to put together as I’m running about doing other things. In the winter my days are spent between the hay shed and my girl shed. My girl shed is fabulous, I love it! It’s actually the summer house and just a stone’s throw from the house and the kettle. It has power which means it’s toasty and warm and more to the point, makes the felting process actually possible.
In the last week I’ve made two rugs; “the Molly rug” and “the Ursi rug”. The Molly rug (see here) was made using fleece from our friends’ flock. They have a friendly family of Mules, Herdwicks and Texels. The Molly rug was made using the long fluffy locks from one of their Mules, (the offspring of a hill breed mother and lowland breed father). I love the way the Molly rug has come out, it is creamy-white with long, powder puff locks and just invites you to cuddle into it.
The second rug I made using fleece from our own flock, from Ursi actually, (see here). Ursi is a big gorgeous girl, naturally friendly, always up for a back rub and a chat. Ursi has a pale grey fleece with beige and cream running through it. I made a big rug from it as Ursi is a big girl with lots of fleece. I’m very happy with the way the rug has turned out, it’s soft and bouncy and the colours are just beautiful, just like Ursi herself.
OK, so I was out and about as usual around 8:30pm on a cold November evening when I saw the human and two dogs approaching. I wasn’t that worried as I’d seen them before and they always keep a respectful distance. However, this time, the human came over, crouched down and then PICKED ME UP!
“What’s going on?” I thought. Next thing, I’d been whisked to a place I’d never been before full of straight lines and strange smells. That said, it was lovely and warm and, truth be told, I was feeling a bit cold. I suppose that’s why I hadn’t curled up into my protective ball.
Anyway, there I was perched on the humans hands listening to the humans babbling on about something. I was a bit peckish and I was offered some food, but I was too distracted to eat anything. In fact, I was quite enjoying sitting in those warm, toasty hands. I even flattened myself out a bit so I could get maximum warmth into my feet and tummy. It was lovely.
Next thing, I’m being put into a dog crate. Well, I’m not having that I thought to myself. I waited a few moments and then sized up the bars. I could squeeze through them, I thought, so that’s just what I did. Only, I got halfway through and got stuck. Luckily, the humans cut me free and I was back in those warm toasty hands. Lovely.
I was soon quite warmed up and now the humans, having learned from their mistake, put me in a nice big box with lots of fresh hay, food and water. I scoffed the food and settled down for a siesta. I was a bit tired as it has been quite cold of late and so food has been a bit scarce. A full tummy was just great and I felt really sleepy.
Next day, I was moved into a larger area. It’s plastic so I don’t think I’ll be getting out in a hurry, but I now have my own little bedroom and a steady supply of food and water. I get cleaned out every day which can a bit of a pain, but there’s nothing quite like snuggling back into clean fresh hay.
It’s a lot warmer than outside, so, you know, though I don’t have as much space as I’d like, I’m quite happy really. Plus I’ve put on nearly 100g in just three days so that’s pretty good too.
It is our custom to take the dogs out in the evening to give them a chance to pee before bedtime. Often, we have been lucky enough to see a hedgehog. Given they are having a hard time of it, we feel quite privileged.
The other night, I spotted one in front of me and stooped for a look. I realised it looked quite small. Hedgehogs need to weigh at least 600g or they cannot hibernate. If they can’t hibernate, then they can’t make it through the winter. I know this because many years ago, I used to overwinter underweight hedgehogs quite often. At that time I had close links with Tiggywinkles wildlife hospital which was, back then, a set of sheds in a suburban back garden. These days it’s a fully equipped purpose built wildlife hospital (Tiggywinkles).
Anyway, I scooped up this little critter and took it back inside. Sure enough, it weighed only 300g. It would need warm winter quarters. On the positive side, it looked pretty healthy and there were no ticks or fleas that I could see.
The problem was, we didn’t have anything suitable to keep it in. All the rabbit hutches were long gone. While I sat warming up the wee hedgehog, Nicole scoured the house for a suitable container. Eventually, one of us remembered we had set aside a large cardboard box. Handing the wee hedgehog over to Nicole, I set about transforming the box into a temporary hedgehog home.
Making plenty of airholes and also ensuring it was escape proof, we put in dog food, water and plenty of hay. In my experience, hedgehogs make Harry Houdini look like a beginner when it comes to escaping.
Next day, we set off to get a better home. The box was fine but it would only last one, maybe two nights before it gave in to the relentless soaking from hedgehog wee. First stop was the only pet warehouse in the area, a mere 45 minutes drive. It had rabbit hutches, but these days they are multi level house shaped obstacle courses. I just wanted something with an area for a nest and and area for night time wandering. The only one they had which might have been OK wasn’t in stock.
So, next followed a trip to a country store and then a garden centre. Plenty of pet homes, but nothing suitable at all. This was not going well. So, I did what I maybe should have done in the first place, I sat in the car, got my phone out and went onto a hedgehog rescue site to look for ideas. Well, rabbit hutches are out, the new des res for an overwintering hedgehog is a large, deep plastic box. Thank you Hedgehog Rescue for that idea. I would never have thought of that.
Googling plastic boxes pointed me to Homebase where, after a long and gently dispiriting search (Homebase is not what it used to be) I found a massive plastic box and a rather attractive green bucket that would make the perfect nest box. I nearly did a little skip, but being from Edinburgh, I didn’t.
In fact we jumped in the car and headed speedily home to set it all up. And it has worked perfectly, a good nest box, enough room for food and water and space to do a bit of roaming. And it’s not far from a radiator for warmth.
Now it’s all about keeping it clean and providing plenty of food and water.
Oh, and if you are wondering why there’s no photo of the wee hedgehog, it’s because it has had a stressful enough experience already so we are trying to leave it in peace as much as possible. We’ll probably take a picture when we next weigh it in a week or so’s time.
Many things have changed for us since upping sticks to run a smallholding and becoming ‘country mice’ but one of the biggest changes has been our diet. Now don’t get me wrong, as ‘town mice’ we were never ones for stuffing ourselves with crisps and takeaways, but nor were we food evangelicals brandishing this or that diet. We just liked to use fresh and organic ingredients wherever possible.
Now though, since living “the good life”, we’re forever foraging in the garden picking this and that to pop in the pot, it’s one of the best things about being a country mouse, having an extension to the larder just a snuffle from the back door.
So while removing slugs from various nooks and crannies in carrots and picking caterpillars off kale isn’t my favourite activity, I remind myself that fresh veggies taste a lot better, and not only that, they make you feel better too what with all that freshness zooming straight into your bones.
This brings me onto a subject I find fascinating; the medicinal properties plants. It’s probably an age thing (a weird thing’s happened as I’ve got older, I’ve become a bit paranoid about putting chemicals in my body, beauty wise and diet wise)! This, combined with living in the sticks, which makes nipping to the chemist quite a chore has resulted in me avidly growing plants specifically for their medicinal purposes. Truth be told I also I just love it! In a witchy kind of a way, I feel like Sabrina as I sprinkle my magic seeds into the soil and watch them transform, tadaaa!
This year I’ve grown Echinacea and Chamomile to make tea with if one of us feels under the weather. Or I’ll forage for Herb Robert which makes a tasty tea too and is reputedly good for all manner of things even if does smell a bit funny. I brew up Rosemary, let it sit for a while, strain, then rinse my hair with it for natural shine. This year I’ve been mushing up raspberries and making a tasty face mask. Raspberries have natural anti inflammatory properties and feel very soothing on the skin.
I’ve also started using natural products to help our hens. In our ‘previous lives’ we’d buy the standard worming meds for our chickens. (Hens can be quite prone to intestinal worms so you need to keep an eye out for these pesky blighters). These days we’ve found a combination of natural remedies do the job and means you can continue to eat your girls’ eggs as there are no nasty chemicals in their systems. I always have pumpkin seeds in the house, I’ll crush them up and mix a little in with their food every couple of weeks or so. I also give them crushed garlic periodically which is brilliant for preventing intestinal worms, and sometimes I’ll sprinkle a small amount of chilli into their food as if there are any worms lurking where they shouldn’t be, they’ll come shooting straight out. And finally, I add cider vinegar (home-made of course, what else?!) to their water which helps their digestive systems and gives them a vitamin boost.
So with it being Halloween don’t throw your pumpkin seeds out if you keep chickens, add some crushed seeds to your hens’ feed, they will thank you for it. Happy Halloween!
Every so often sheep get into pickles. In fact, they’re probably more prone to pickles than other farm animals.
We didn’t know this until we became the proud owners of our first three sheep, Blumes, Thelma and Louise, and then the comments started; “where there’s livestock there’s deadstock”, or “did you know that sheep spend their entire lives looking for ways to die”.
“Oh” we thought disappointedly, “why are people not happy for us, proud new sheep parents? Why the doom and gloom? What can be so hard about keeping sheep? Surely you just put them in a field and keep an eye on them from time to time?” However, as with most (if not all!) our experiences in our smallholder life, we were soon to find out the hard way.
Our first lesson came to us about 18 months in to keeping sheep. By this time we had 12 woolly friends grazing away happily in our fields. It was late summer and we were moving the flock into a different field. As the sheep gambolled into the new paddock to investigate the fresh grass we noticed one of the flock, Sarka, was acting out of character. She seemed spooked and jittery. We watched her for a short while and decided we would need to pen her up and inspect her as something was clearly wrong. So we penned her up and had a good look. It didn’t take us long to discover to our horror and dismay, that under her tail were hundreds of wriggling and writhing white maggots. “Flystrike” we both said in unison! Closely followed by an expletive or two. It was truly a horrific sight. It was also something we’d been warned about and we had sprayed our flock earlier in the summer to prevent. We rushed indoors to get the bottle of “Crovect” which kills maggots and thankfully Sarka was soon grazing away happily, cleaned up and at peace with the world again.
The following year we had three more incidents of flystrike and fortunately we caught each attack in time. If left for too long the sheep will quickly “fulfil their life’s ambition”. And “too long” can be only a matter of days – two or three after the maggots hatch and start burrowing into the flesh. Even using the recommended sprays and checking sheep for the tell-tale signs (agitation, foot stamping etc) it is still possible for a blowfly to slip through the net and lay her eggs in the wool.
“Hmm” we thought, “perhaps these people have a point, sheep are not the easy maintenance creatures we thought they were.” By now we saw ourselves saying goodbye to ever going on holiday again.
But fate was kind to us and dealt us a lucky hand. Two years into owning sheep and having outgrown our Somerset smallholding we decided to up sticks and move to South West Scotland to a much bigger place. This is where we live now, with many more woolly friends than we started out with.
The lucky hand of fate came in the form of hill breezes. Blowfly like to lurk in warm and sheltered hedgerows. They cannot abide a hill breeze, least of all a Scottish one which has a freshness about it, and they don’t care much for dry stone walls either which have no lurking potential, and we have plenty of drystone walls here, not a hedgerow in sight. The result being that life here is blissful, chilly Scottish breezes are absolutely fine as far as I’m concerned and flystrike has happily become a thing of the past. We don’t even spray our sheep now which is great because we don’t like chemicals.
But don’t rest on your laurels I hear you say and you would be right. We were soon to be presented with another interesting learning experience.
One summer’s afternoon, during our first year on our Scottish smallholding I was doing the afternoon sheep check which involves counting them and scanning the flock for any unusual behaviour. It also involves mooching around the flock giving them pats and head scratches. So there I was happily wandering amongst the woollies when I noticed Sky looking rather strange. She was lying down, but something seemed wrong. On closer inspection I could see she was stuck. “Oh no!” I said out loud, “she’s cast!” I wondered how long she had been there as I turned her over and helped her to her feet. Sky seemed none the worse for wear but her wool was quite flattened on the side she’d been lying on so I thought she must have been there a good while. Sky was lucky I’d found her when I did as a cast sheep soon becomes prey for crows. I didn’t like to think too much about that, but it was a sobering thought and my heart was heavy as I trudged back to the house to tell Adrian what had happened.
Luckily the incident remained a one off and we found no more sheep lying on their backs with their legs in the air, with the exception of once, close to lambing time, we found Star, heavily pregnant stuck on her side and unable to get up, but that was understandable as she was huge at the time. Still, it was just as worrying as the first time round, and so we added “cast sheep” to our string of worry beads.
Two years on, and we had no more cast sheep. “Yippee” we thought, but we knew by this time not to tempt fate and so kept our eyes peeled just in case.
And just as well as Adrian was soon to find out.
One spring morning earlier this year, Adrian was out fixing one of our numerous dry stone walls. See “Stone Dykes” This particular wall was a boundary wall so it was important to get it fixed. There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing on the quad bike with rocks and tools etc, and the way up to the wall was through the sheep. On one of these journeys Adrian happened to spot Yarr, looking a bit funny. Yarr is one of our boys, he’s a friendly chap always happy to come up for a chat and a pat. Adrian instinctively knew there was something odd about him, he was lying on his side in amongst the other sheep, but seemed to be in an unnatural position. He whizzed over, and was shocked to realise that Yarr was stuck, he was lying there helpless, his legs in the air like a beetle. Adrian quickly turned him over and rubbed his legs to bring back his circulation. Yarr seemed to be not quite himself for the rest of the day, however by the next day he was fine again. “Phew” we thought what a stroke of luck that the wall had needed fixing and Adrian had found him when he did. We check on the sheep three times a day but Adrian had found Yarr in between checks so poor Yarr would have been stuck a while longer if it hadn’t been for the work on the wall.
We thought no more about it, until two days later to be precise, Adrian was once more whizzing up on the quad to continue work on the wall when he spotted Yarr, on his back again! They say bad luck happens in threes so while helping Yarr back on his feet Adrian started wondering what else was going to go wrong. Meanwhile I was wondering what was wrong with Yarr and why he kept ending up on his back.
It occurred to us later that day over a cup of tea that the sheep had very shaggy fleeces, it was early May and they had a full year’s worth of wool on their backs. They were due to be sheared later that month so we hoped that once relieved of their heavy fleeces Yarr, or indeed any other sheep wouldn’t end up on their backs for a wee while at least!
And this proved to be so, without their heavy fleeces, Yarr and the rest of the gang stayed out of pickles and we were relieved.
Until last weekend that is. I was doing the evening check, the flock was grazing contentedly in the lower hay field and all was well with the world. I counted 20 sheep, all were present and correct. I then noticed Yarr looked a bit strange. “Oh no” I thought, “not again!” I ran over to him as he was very still, he looked like a ragdoll, like sheep who has given up. On nearing him I was hugely relieved to find him alive, but yes, once again, cast. I righted him and rubbed his flanks. He stood for a while and did a pee. I wondered if he’d been holding it in as it seemed to go on for ever. After a few minutes he shook himself and wandered off to graze with the others.
We hope Yarr has had his run of bad luck now. He’s been found on his back three times, but on the other hand you could say Yarr was lucky, lucky to be found in time and not left to fulfil his life’s ambition.
A couple of years back we built a vegetable patch. It’s six areas with a path connecting them all. It took a while to build and all the slabs were laid on a dry mix concrete base. In order to keep the weeds down, a dry mix was also brushed into the gaps between each slab. The idea is that it goes naturally, a bit like a bag of cement left in the shed. The damp seeps in and it sets.
The problem is, it never did set. In fact, it just kind of turned into a sandy base into which the weeds moved with relish. So, if at first you don’t succeed and all that. In the odd nice day we have had recently, I have pulled out all the weeds and dug out the sand. All the gaps were then filled with a wet mix of concrete. Hopefully, that will set good and hard and keep the weeds out.
Of course, the weeds are invading the vegetable areas at quite a pace, but well that’s all part and parcel of growing veggies.