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Journey to a smallholding

DEFRA and Bird Flu

On Monday morning we found some of our chickens dead in their coop. Others looked sick.

Upset, panicked and concerned, I phoned my vet. They told me to call DEFRA and report it. Terrifying.

The vet on the phone at DEFRA was very helpful. After asking an awful lot of questions, he sent field vets out immediately.

I was really worried. What if I had bird flu? What if I’ve caused this and they say I can’t keep animals anymore (complete overreaction I know!), what if they take all of my girls away? My mind was whirring with all sorts of worry. When the DEFRA vets turned up and started putting their space suits on I didn’t feel any calmer!

They were here for hours. They did full autopsies on the dead chickens. They did visual and medical checks on the sick ones. Throughout this time, they were really friendly, kind and incredibly patient, answering all my silly panicked questions.

Thankfully, it wasn’t bird flu. It’s mycoplasma. Possibly brought in by my new chickens. The remaining chickens are being treated by my vet and should recover.

The idea of having to deal with DEFRA is terrifying. It’s serious and means trouble. Or at least that’s what I’d thought before I’d ever dealt with them.

In reality, they were helpful and kind and reacted so swiftly and professionally that they could really teach our NHS a few things!! If I had to contact them again in the future, I wouldn’t be so worried. It turns out that they’re one of the good guys.

As for my girls, it’s still early days in treatment, but I have all of my fingers and toes crossed that they’ll make a full and speedy recovery.

If you need any information on bird flu, visit https://www.gov.uk/guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu

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Blue skies, warm sunshine and new chickens. What a difference a few days makes.

I write this while sitting on a bale of straw in the chicken coop, watching my girls (old and new) sunbathing.

The sky is bright blue and the sun feels warm on the skin. Only a few days ago we were deep in snow. What a difference!

We bought four new chickens on Sunday to keep our remaining two girls company. There’s been lots of establishing the pecking order since then, but today the sun has brought a truce like Christmas in the trenches! Everyone has decided to get along and bathe in the glorious sunshine.

Our new girls are from Burcombe’s Poultry near Bath and I have to say what a lovely place that is. We already can’t wait to go back and get more, and possibly ducks too, in the summer. I’m also more than slightly jealous as his farm set up was my dream.

Today, the new girls are getting more confident around me, which is nice. As I sit here typing, one of them is sat on the bale next to me, happy as long as I don’t move too much. I also have one sunbathing by my foot. One is snoring. I can’t help but smile.

This is the most content I have felt in a long time. I think this might be my happy place. Covered in dust and chicken poo, sat on straw, in the sun.

3 years ago I would have never imagined this. Now I can’t imagine not doing this. I am officially crazy chicken lady. Funny how time changes you.

Storm Emma hits Bridport

On Thursday Storm Emma hit the UK and for the first time in many years, Bridport had serious snow.

Although forecast, we didn’t really think we’d get any. Bridport is in its own microclimate and at only a mile from the sea, we never get snow.

On Thursday morning we woke to no snow, and thought we’d missed out as usual. By lunch time it hit us hard.

I checked on the chickens as soon as it started to snow heavily, and unfortunately found Ginger in a ball in a dust bath, frozen and covered in snow. The other two were fine, sheltering in their house.

I instantly scooped her up, snuggled her in my arms in my hoody, hoping my body warmth would warm her. I stood there for a long time, sheltered in the run, freezing, trying to warm her.

After a while she was perkier, but when I put her down she fell over. I couldn’t leave her like that. So I made a straw nest in a box and brought her in the house to warm next to the radiator. During the evening she seemed warmer and a little better, but it wasn’t looking good.

Meanwhile, we covered the hen house in sheets and added lots of straw inside to keep the other two warm. We topped up their drinkers with warm water every hour and gave them corn to warm them up.

Ginger stayed in all night in the spare room, which certainly intrigued the cat! We checked on her regularly (including the very curious cat) and put a little dinner kit of pellets, corn and water in the box with her, but unfortunately she died in the night.

I’m gutted, but at least I know we did all we could for her. When the ground defrosts, she’ll be buried with Violet and Snowball. Although my husband says we can’t bury every chicken in the garden, she was one of the originals, so I feel it’s right to do.

Today the snow is deep and frozen on the top. Impossible to walk on and checking the chickens every hour has been treacherous. We both fell over in the snow in our pyjamas at 7am this morning when letting them out of their house. Hilarious and painful at the same time.

We haven’t had to deal with animals in the snow before. Bridport never has snow. But this has made me realise how tough having animals can be. What could have been a fun couple of ‘snow days’ was hard, worrying and constant work.

I say that because as well as the chickens, the cat has been a pain too. He was out when it starting snowing heavily and we panicked. We ended up walking round in a blizzard calling his name until eventually he came back. Then confined to the house, he got bored, scratchy and shouty. This morning he clearly needed the loo, but when we we opened the door he refused to go out. He also refused to use the litter tray.

Eventually, we carried him out to the garden to supervise a loo break, but bless him, the snow was frozen over and he couldn’t even stay on his feet. Hilarious to watch, but impossible for him! So we brought him back in and eventually he gave in to the litter tray. He had a look of humiliation on his sorry face, whereas we were relieved.

Having animals is a huge responsibility. Something people shouldn’t take lightly. There are great times, funny times, and very sad times to be had when keeping animals. Nothing is easy, but it can be very rewarding.

Tonight the snow is still deep, so we’ll see what adventure tomorrow brings. In the meantime, rest in peace Ginger. Goodnight girl.

My little Snowball

Yesterday, exactly a week since Violet died, I found my little Snowball dead in her bed. I was shocked, and cried a lot. I wasn’t expecting her to go yet.

Snowball was one of our original 3. A posh bird bought from Dorset County Show in September 2015. We bought her along with Barney (killed by a fox in May) and Ginger (still with us).

She laid a few eggs in her first year, small and very white shells. But this year I don’t think she laid at all. She decided she was more ornamental and was very good at being the pretty white one.

She had a great character. Although the smallest by far, we think she was the boss, although she was never very quick to the scraps, always beaten by the others. I loved to see her running around the garden. She was also the tamest, allowing us to walk up to her and pick her up and stroke her.

Her feet are purple in the picture above. She had a few issues with her feet, mainly scaley leg, which we would smother in Vaseline, but also a few sore patches that we sprayed with purple wound spray. One day her toe fell off, we have no idea why. But it never seemed to bother her!

For the last month she squeaked when pooing. Comical, but concerning too. The vet checked her and said she was fine, not egg bound, so we let her carry on. It was unusual to hear her like a dog’s squeaky toy but it didn’t seem to be bothering her. She still charged around happily.

She was one of my favourites, such a character that we could forgive her for being a freeloader never laying eggs.

I’ll miss her a lot.

We decided to bury her next to Violet.

Putting the girls to bed last night was very sad. Now we only have to count to three. Ginger seems lonely left with the two relatively new twins that are really quite scatty and the chicken coop seems far too big now.

Good night Violet

It’s been a little while since my last post. I felt I had nothing to say.

This post is a sad one, as yesterday we said goodbye to Violet, one of our original rescue hens.

Violet was one of a pair of rescue hens that we got straight after our honeymoon in September 2016. They were our first rescue hens, which joined our existing 3 ‘posh birds’.  We called them Rusty and Violet.

Violet got her name as she had quite a bad cut at the base of her tail when we got her (as well as being bald). We had to apply purple wound spray on her back several times, and therefore became Violet. Rusty was named because the few feathers she had, were rusty coloured.

Because of the wound, and the fact all the other chickens picked on her, we didn’t think Violet would make it through the first week. But as time went by, she turned into a lovely fully feathered hen that was friendly and let us stroke her.  Rusty died earlier this year, following a fox attack.

We suspected that Violet had arthritis. When it was particularly cold or wet, she’d hobble about with a limp, and when it was warm and sunny she’d be bounding about fine and enjoying a sunbathe. Her wings were always folded in, not quite right, we suspect from living in a cage that was too small for so long. But on the whole, she was happy, healthy and free.

Over the last few weeks, she’d not been her usual self, looking quite sad and immobile, and we put it down to it being winter and some very cold days recently.

The last two nights, my husband had to put her to bed as she’d hidden under the house, and that’s when we realised she was probably not so well.

Yesterday morning, I sadly found she had passed away inside the house.

As an ex-battery rescue hen, she had over a year of freedom, enjoying her retirement in the free range of our garden. She was a great character, and will be missed. Shutting the girls house at bedtime was sad last night, counting only 4 chickens, instead of five.

She’s also our first chicken body to deal with. Barney was taken by a fox, and Rusty was put to sleep by the vet because of her injuries. Violet is the first to go naturally, which therefore raised the question of ‘What do we do with her body?’.

Someone we know who keeps chickens simply puts them in the dustbin in a carrier bag. As our pet, I couldn’t bring myself to do that. At the farm, my family always wrapped them up and put them on a bonfire, like a cremation, but we can’t build a bonfire in our back garden. So, we dug a hole in the lawn where she loved to sunbathe and have buried her there.

It was dark by the time we were done, so we said our goodbyes and our final ‘Good night Violet.’

Is there money in farming, or do farmers just have money?

cherry blossom ballooning

We’ve been searching for a smallholding for a year now. It’s tiring.

We’ve seen a few places, although I have to say there hasn’t been many coming on the market, but they haven’t been suitable. Either the house needed demolishing, the land was poor, or it was just too far out of budget.

When you’re surrounded by countryside, it’s hard to believe how difficult it can be to find a field of your own.

But, while still searching, I find myself asking if we could make it work anyway? We dream of the good life, where we can be our own bosses, spend the day outside with our animals and enjoy our own produce, but where does money come into this?

We’ve had ideas of selling eggs and garden produce, rearing goats for meat, growing and selling plants. On a bigger scale, we’d like to set up glamping in shepherds huts and pods, and provide camping too, but this depends on the land we buy. Perhaps even a small farm shop.

But the more I read, the more I hear how hard it is to make any money from farming. That it is a constant struggle and that in reality, it probably wouldn’t earn enough for us to give up our day jobs. By juggling the smallholding and two full time jobs, this wouldn’t be so much the good life, as the burnt out life.

So how do you do it? Do farmers already have money, and therefore it’s all a bit of a hobby, or does farming really make enough money?

Until we buy somewhere, we won’t know what we can do on the land. Or should we decide our game plan, what we want to do, and hold out until we find the right land for the job? That could take forever, and what if the perfect place doesn’t exist?

I think compromise is the answer if we want to get anywhere soon. Find some land we can afford, where we’d be happy living, and adapt our plans to suit it.

But one question I am certainly struggling to answer, is how do people start out? The prices of smallholdings in Dorset is crazy. So are all smallholdings handed down through the generations, eliminating the need to buy? Or are they all wealthy people who decide to sell up in the city and buy a smallholding in the countryside? I wonder if the biggest challenge is actually buying a smallholding, and that what you do with it once you have it will be easier by comparison.

 

Painting a new palace

Unfortunately the chicken coop we’ve had for the last two years has become infested with red mite. We’ve tried everything to get rid of them, but we are finally defeated. So, time for a new house.

We went to Flytes So Fancy (http://www.flytesofancy.co.uk) and they had some absolutely amazing coops for sale, but, at the risk of having to throw it away in two years if we had another infestation, we decided we couldn’t justify the price. Their customer service and knowledge was excellent though, so I would certainly recommend them. Well worth a visit.

We decided to buy a simple coop from Feel Good Uk on Amazon, and painted it using Cuprinol wood paint. It was time consuming, but looks lovely. It has cost us £150 in total, which means if we do have another infestation, we can throw it away and start again. Here are our before and after pictures:

We also purchased diatomaceous earth from our local country store, John Bright (https://johnbrightfencing.com). Their customer service and knowledge is also excellent and I would recommend them to any locals in the Bridport area.

The diatomaceous earth is used in the chicken coop and the ground in the run to help prevent and kill any mites. We covered the insides of the new house and spent time landscaping and reorganising the run, before sprinkling a good coating of the earth. Here’s their new set up:

They loved going back in and spent hours dust bathing on the newly levelled ground. However, after a few hours it looked like land mines had gone off!

Bed time was a different story. They all queued up outside the new house, not knowing where to go. It got really dark, a few bravely went in, soon coming back out again!! Eventually all but one went to bed and we had to guide the last one in. There was an awful lot of banging and shuffling inside as they decided who was going to sleep where, but eventually they settled. The following night was easier.

Egg laying was also a fuss on the first morning, as they tried to decide which nest box they preferred, but eventually they got there!

Our girls are so spoilt!

First harvests: The satisfaction of growing your own.

You can’t beat going into the garden and gathering the veg you’ll eat for tea that day. Within an hour of being picked, it’s cooked and on the table.

So far, we’ve had some lovely meals using home grown produce including courgettes, radishes, mange tout, peas, green beans, lettuce, rocket, and of course, eggs.

I always enjoy wandering around the veg beds seeing what’s growing, working out what meal I could make with what is ready to use. Much more satisfying than walking around the supermarket. The first harvest is always the most exciting.

The cucumbers and butternut squash are growing nicely, and the tomatoes are waiting to turn red. Beetroot and sweetcorn isn’t looking as promising, but we’ll see. Courgettes, marrows and green beans are doing much better than last year.

I’m already starting to think about what I’m missing, what I should grow next year, what is working well and in which location etc. Gardening is such fun, and a never ending job too!

Below are a few of our daily harvests. We pick little and often, to ensure we eat it while fresh.

 

Chickens, veg and everything else!

Since my last blog, following the fox attack, we’ve gained two new rescue hens. They haven’t been named individually as they look the same, so they have been called ‘The Twins’.

They only took a week to settle into the flock, much quicker than last time. I think we’re getting the hang of introducing new birds.

The twins seem very happy, keen to try anything remotely edible and running around the garden trying to take off like a plane down a runway! Happy rescue hens. Thank you to Taylor’s Rehoming Centre for rescuing them and allowing us to give them a home. (http://www.westdorsetrspca.org/taylors.htm)

Our other three girls, Violet, Ginger and Snowball, have all recovered well from the attack and are back to normal, although Violet still limps slightly.

One thing it did make us decide though, is not to continue with building our own chicken house. For those of you that read and follow my blog, you will know that we were building our own chicken house, for under £30.  It was going well. We have the base, sides, a door and ramp, perches, nesting boxes. Everything except the legs and the roof. However, having seen how clever a fox can be and how determined he was to get to our girls, we don’t trust our building and DIY skills. If anything happened to them again, and it was because our house wasn’t secure enough, we’d never forgive ourselves. Our chickens’ safety comes before saving money. So, apologies to anyone who was following to see how that project panned out.

On another, non chicken related note, my veg garden is growing well. We had our first meal last night using home grown peas and mange tout. I can’t say they tasted any better than shop bought, but it was satisfying to know they were out of our garden.

Pencil radishes on the other hand, have proved disappointing. Huge, promising greenery on the top, and very little beneath. They were a free pack of seeds with my order from Mr Fothergills, (http://www.mr-fothergills.co.uk/) so nothing wasted, but I wouldn’t buy them. Next year I will try the proper round radishes instead.

Last year I had rubbish luck with courgettes, only getting a single small courgette through the whole season! This year is looking more promising so far. But we will see.

Something I haven’t blogged about for a while is moving house. We’ve been to see a few properties recently. All lovely in their own way, but not quite right one way or another. To say I’m getting frustrated is an understatement.

Another frustrating thing is that I have acquired a shepherd’s hut. There’s one at my family farm, that is rotten and sunk into the ground. It’s been there for over 50 years apparently. It’s something I grew up seeing every day and would love to restore. 

At the recent Bath & West Show, I met a lovely man who restores shepherd’s huts, and to my surprise, he lives locally (www.plankbridge.com). His huts look stunning and I have no doubt that he would do a fantastic job restoring ours to something beautiful. I spoke to my Uncle about this, and he has no interest in the hut, but has said I can have it if I want it. Excellent. How exciting.

The problem? I have nowhere to put it once restored. I need to find my new home with land first. Another reason to find something soon. So now, I have run out of space in my home and garden, want to grow my chicken flock, get ducks, have more veg beds and a greenhouse, and space to put a shepherd’s hut. The list of reasons for moving is growing, but the list of properties available is not.

Still, life is good and that is something to be grateful for.

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