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.
After three months of slowly introducing Elliot to the hens, yesterday was a big day for our Anatolian rescue dog from Turkey. Elliot was ready to be let off lead amongst the hens!
We took lots of time with the “hen training” because Elliot didn’t get off to a good start with our feathered friends. He had Clippy in her mouth during his first week here so both the hens and Elliot had to re-learn how to be with each other. Elliot showed a little too much of the wrong kind of interest in the hens and the hens were nervous and panicky when he was around. Not handled correctly, the training could go badly wrong. We knew it would take time but by the same token we were hopeful it would be possible. The truth was, we didn’t have much choice as with winter approaching we would soon have our hands full with feeding the sheep their daily hay. The hay feeders are situated in the orchard where the hens are and we wouldn’t be able to have Elliot on his lead whilst sorting out the hay. There’s too much to do so Elliot would need to be ready to roam free with the flock by the end of October.
The training itself was quite tedious, you can read more about it here. This said, the hens loved it because they got extra corn. Most of the time George (our other dog) was visibly bored by our daily trips to the orchard. He made a point of sitting by the gate so he could make a swift exit when the training was over. Happily, despite his reluctance to get involved, his presence still had an effect and Elliot learned to relax more and “just be” with the hens with each passing day. Animals learn best from each other and so far George has been a good teacher to him (even if some of his lessons are not necessarily to our benefit, ie, on hearing the recall command, decide in your own time whether it’s worth going back or not) …
Although Elliot can now be around the hens off lead, we will continue to keep a close eye on him over the next few weeks. If anything were to trigger either the hens, the sheep or the dogs into an excited state, (ie a cat appearing out of nowhere), then we’d need to make sure he would be able to handle this and not get caught up in the high energy.
We will see how he goes over the next few weeks but so far so good, well done Elliot!
Today’s blog story is to tell you about my rug-making teaching adventures over the summer and about the new downloadable instructions I’ve created on how to make felted fleece rugs.
I’ve been thinking about running rug-making workshops here on our smallholding for a few years now. Then Covid happened and my plans went on hold. Truth be told, I didn’t mind too much as the thought of all the spiders I would have to face while clearing out the shed was quite daunting.
I would need a lot of room, particularly as part of my vision was to include an area for a table and chairs for participants to relax and enjoy tea, coffee and biscuits in between felting – very important for any workshop, especially a whole-day one involving loads of physical effort. All the room I would need would take a huge effort and reorganization of tools and equipment.
I’m happy to say I managed it! (Admittedly with a lot of help from Adrian, my personal “Chief (humane) Spider Remover”). And this summer the workshops became a reality.
The shed was transformed into a teaching room complete with large tables for felting and shelves for wool, towels, bars of soap and hot water urns. The spiders moved next door, they said they weren’t keen the disturbance and preferred the peace and quiet of the hay shed.
Over the last few months, as well as teaching here on site and meeting some really inspiring and creative people, I’ve also updated my original (face up method) “downloadable rug making instructions”.
You’d be right in thinking I’m on a mission to spread the love of wool 😊
For those of you who know a little bit about making felted fleece rugs, you’ll probably be aware there are two ways to make them. There is the “face up method” which is brilliant if you’re new to rug making as it’s slow and methodical. It’s also ideal if you have a fleece which is in bits but you still want to use the wool. It’s a time-consuming method but a lovely, meditative way to work.
Then there’s the “face down method” which is a little quicker than the above method, but you need a fleece which holds itself together well and isn’t likely to fall apart at the slightest puff of wind. This method can be somewhat daunting if you’re new to rug making as you’re working upside down. (Not you, the fleece).
If you’re interested in making your own rugs and creating something unique and beautiful for your own home, I can’t recommend it enough, just dive in and give it a go! You can buy raw fleeces from ebay and etsy or better still, direct from a farm. Click on the links below to find out more about learning this wonderful craft:
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.
Carrying on from last week’s story, Moving the Hens, we have both been busy installing and preparing the new area for the chicken coops. We call this ‘Hen Central’ because it’s where they eat, drink, sleep and lay their eggs. The big jobs this week were to install two new fences and put up a walk in run.
The first new fence is where the old entrance used to be. There was a fence there, but it was only chicken wire. Given it was along the track, this is where the biggest threat from unsupervised dogs was to be found. The gate was removed and proper stock fencing put up. Not 100% dog proof, but far stronger.
The second new fence is in the orchard which doubles as the hen run. It is needed not to keep the hens in, but the sheep out. Sheep have a penchant for scratching themselves on any available object, so they could do a lot of damage. They also are partial to corn, so would be tempted to get into the feed bins. Plus, the hens need somewhere where they can have a bit of peace and quiet.
Also, if a hen goes broody, we need to be able to set aside a space for the nursery run and an area for them to wander out and about, free from the danger of sheep’s hooves.
The walk in run is more to deter night time threats and also, prevent wild camping. The plan is, at roosting time, to tempt them into the run and shut the door. That way, the hens’ only option is to sleep in the safe chicken coops.
We ordered the Omlet Walk-in Run and it was earmarked for delivery on Tuesday. So, I got started on the deconstruction of the old hen central. First to go was the anti-badger electric fence. It had done it’s job, but was no longer needed. It would also no longer be a trap for the unwary, easy to trip over.
Next was the first of the two fences. That was fairly straightforward as most of the stobs were already in place.
Come Tuesday, no delivery date was available from DHL so I got on with the second fence. That was soon up complete with purpose built hen flaps.
Wednesday came and still no run or delivery date. I attempted to decipher the jumbled misinformation on the DHL tracking service and worked out that 13 of 14 parcels had been forwarded from the Glasgow depot to the local delivery agent. One was missing. Of course, modern customer service comprises the above misinformation and a chatbot that is worse than useless. We contacted Omlet to see if they could find out any more. They, too, struggled to get any meaningful information from DHL.
Anyway, Thursday arrived and Nicole and I carried on and got as much of the new run ready as we could. The fences and new gate were in and all the shelters and feeders were laid out in their new locations. Thursday afternoon, still no news from DHL. Without warning, a van pulled up and disgorged 14 packages. It had arrived! DHL were kind enough to send an email to let us know it had been delivered.
Friday, our day off, so to speak. Normally we take the dogs and a picnic and head off somewhere for a break. Not today. I got started on the new run. First off, I had to build a small bank as, at one corner, the land slipped away quite steeply. This meant transporting a fair few stones and some road scalpings. No sooner had I finished that than Mrs Mills Junior began to dismantle it. I gently persuaded her to move on and retired to ponder the Omlet instructions. An hour later, I felt ready to begin.
I have built a few Omlet runs in the past so was aware of the clip system they use. However, nothing had prepared me for the new ‘double-clip’ used in certain places. It needed about 20 tons of pressure to close it. I have to confess to employing some choice language. Finally, I worked out a technique I could use.
It’s not a one person job. Nicole pitched in to help and we worked non-stop till we had it built. We were both loudly cursing the Omlet plastic clip on by the end of it. We were both completely shattered when we finished some time around 6pm. We were delighted with the result, the run looked excellent. Cherokee, the cockerel was already hovering as he likes to get to bed early. But, he’s pretty cool and waited patiently. The moment we stepped out of the run, he stepped in and went to bed.
Seizing our opportunity, Nicole threw some rice and corn into the new run. All but two hens rushed in. Pepper and one of the youngsters (still to be named) decided to run round the outside instead. With deft care and precision, I coaxed them round to the front where Nicole was managing the door. To our relief, they crossed the threshold and we shut the door behind them. The hens were safe and happy. We had turned a two hour vigil into a five minute gathering. Wine and beer called, it was time for a celebration.
Then we counted them.
One short – who else but Mrs Mills Junior? Nicole arranged the search party and located her at the far end of the paddock having a dust bath. Gently, she was persuaded all the way back and, in another dance of co-ordinated movements, she was herded through the door.
Now we could celebrate.
Later on, when they were all tucked up in bed and the doors to their coops closed, Nicole opened the door to the run so they could get out in the morning. My next job will be to install an automatic door. We have the door motor, I just have to build a panel. Once that’s in place, we can leave the run securely closed at night and the door will open automatically for them in the morning.
Over the coming days, the goal is to train them to go into the run just before bed time. Hopefully, in time, they’ll forget about sleeping in the bushes.
We wouldn’t mind Clippy doing her own thing if it wasn’t for the fact that as flock leader, she naturally sets an example to the other hens. As a result, the flock is becoming noticeably more feral. Over time we have discovered not just Clippy sleeping rough, but often two or three accomplices in neighbouring trees. It’s not only at bed time that the hens are doing their own thing, over the summer we had hardly any eggs, or so we thought, until yesterday when Adrian stumbled across a huge pile nestled in a clump of sedge grass.
Things came to a head recently when one warm summer’s evening, MMJ (mother of the chicks) decided to sleep in the tree tops alongside her pals Clippy, Salt and Pepper. MMJ didn’t seem to realise that her chicks were too little to follow her, and perched high up upon her branch, merrily called them to follow her into the trees. Fortunately we were in the garden frying sausages on the barbeque and heard the commotion. With a little strategic shaking of branches we encouraged MMJ to abandon her camping expedition and go to bed in the coop with her little ones safely tucked under her wings.
Unfortunately MMJ going wild camping with her feathered pals didn’t prove to be a one off. This has meant that every evening for the past couple of months, we have been on “hen watch” at dusk. This has meant creeping around the orchard to see what MMJ gets up to.
We’ve tried blocking the bushes and launch pads but to no avail. Clippy gets past all barriers and is often accompanied by one or two others.
There’s another reason we don’t want the hens sleeping wild, it’s disruptive to our evenings and many a dinner has been reduced to burnt morsels while we pad around the orchard looking for hens and it’s a huge worry that the chicks lives could be in danger. But on the other side of the bushes is our farm track leading to neighbouring houses. If the hens decide to fly down from the trees on the other side, they could end up on the wrong side of the fence unable to get back in. More than once we’ve found hens wandering around in the morning looking to get back into the orchard for their breakfast.
Again, this wouldn’t be a problem in itself if it wasn’t for the fact that sometimes visitors to our neighbours have dogs and unfortunately seem to forget they’re in farming country and let the dogs wander around off lead. As smallholders, loose dogs around livestock is a huge concern.
So, having had one too many evenings disrupted, the thought of hens getting into trouble or the whole flock ending up feral, we decided to take action.
We’ve moved the hen coops away from the trees, into a part of the orchard where we can keep an eye on them from the kitchen window. We’ve blocked off the wooded area where the hen coops used to be.
Also, in preparation for winter and prowling badgers, we have ordered a large walk-in run from Omlet. This company has predator proof runs with a “skirt” running around the bottom making it impossible for anything to burrow its way in. The mesh is strong and nibble proof so will provide an added layer of protection for the flock at night. It will make things easy for us to encourage the flock to roost in the safety of the hen coops at night. Once the run is up, we’ll throw some corn in, shut the outer door and let the hens re-aquaint themselves with the coops. We also plan to install an automatic door on the run that shuts at dusk and opens at dawn so the hens can wander off into the orchard as they please during the day, but at night they’ll be safely tucked up. This arrives later today so we’ll be busy building that for the rest of the week.
Meanwhile, we’ve already moved the coops and have spent the last three evenings in a mild state of stress watching the hens sorting out who sleeps where while they go “in, out, in, out, in out” of the coops for what feels like hours . The most painful part has been monitoring Clippy and the chicks. She has sent them skidaddling from the coop with a sharp peck on several occasions and the first time this happened we had to intervene as the chicks ran all the way down to the lambing shed at the far end of the orchard and it was getting dark. We put Clippy into a different coop that evening and the chicks came back with a little encouragement. However we don’t want to be intervening like this every time, Ideally the hens should sort it out for themselves and Clippy needs to learn that the chicks are part of her flock. It’s a tricky one knowing when to intervene and when not to.
The last two evenings haven’t gone too badly, still a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but Clippy has been more tolerant of the chicks which has been a big relief.
We’re really looking forward to having the hen run installed and our flock becoming more domesticated. We’re also looking forward to being able to cook dinner without any disruptions.
As we move into September, our thoughts turn to harvesting. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be collecting apples, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions. We already have a nice crop of garlic drying in the kitchen.
Normally, we leave the root crops, mainly turnip (swede outside Scotland) and beetroot in the ground and harvest them as we need it. However, this year has been a battle with the veggie patch pests. On inspection, we found every beetroot had been nibbled, some almost to nothing. Slugs, mice or voles? Who knows. We had to act.
The weather was dry and warm so I spent the day gathering the beetroot into a box. The veggie patch was then covered in cardboard ready to be mulched. I did wonder whether the pesky beetroot nibblers would be out scratching their heads that evening.
We decided to turn some of it into soup and freeze the rest. That meant a lot of chopping. It also meant a lot of time spent chopping as each beetroot had been nibbled in different ways. Each had to be carefully trimmed. There were a lot of trimmings heading for the compost bin.
The first batch went into soup, as did the next three. That involved filling a baking tray, sprinkling the beetroot with oil, honey and pepper, and roasting it for half an hour. That was added to fried onions along with water, potoates, garlic and stock.
All in all, I must have made about 18 jugs of soup, around 15 litres or so. It’s very tasty indeed. Most of that is in the freezer ready for lunch on those cold winter days.
The rest was frozen. This was chopped and laid out on baking trays. Those were put in the freezer. Once it had frozen, it was scraped off with a fish slice and bagged up. Some advised that the pieces of beetroot should not touch. Too much effort I thought. The risk paid off and all the pieces separated quite happily.
Other perceived wisdom was to blanch it all. Well, I suspect whover suggested that didn’t have 8Kg of beetroot and had plenty of time on their hands. Ours went straight in the freezer. Most of it will end up in soup anyway.
Two weeks ago I wrote about how we’d started Elliot’s “hen training“. Well it’s still going on, we’re taking things slowly because while Elliot is a natural livestock guardian and he’s great around the sheep, we weren’t sure how he’d behave around the hens. Being a rescue dog it’s possible he’s had to scavenge small animals including birds during his early months on the streets. Rushing the hen training just wouldn’t be the right thing to do in his case. And anyway, building his “hen friendly neural pathways” takes time. We also wanted the hens to get used to Elliot as these things work both ways. If Elliot and the hens are to get along, they both need to be used to each other’s presence.
It’s four weeks into the training, ten minutes a day of bringing him into the orchard, throwing corn down for the hens and bringing them a tiny bit closer each time.
This week the hens are about one meter away from Elliot which is good progress. The atmosphere remains calm and relaxed. Elliot continues to show the right kind of interest, not fixating, just looking. He’s showing all the right signs of being a good hen friend, but we’re going to keep going with the training until we can have the hens running right up and around him while he remains calm and relaxed. The hens must always be higher status than Elliot, even if they’re in his space, Elliot must respect them.