Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Wild flowers, insects and birds return to traditionally managed grassland



Colourful pre-industrial diversity surrounded by deep green desert
Industrialised agriculture in the UK began after WW2, until then we had traditional low input, low output farming, a time when farmers didn't have to keep accounts or pay income tax, yields were low, machines were powered by horses, weeds were removed with a hoe and wildlife generally flourished.

My childhood saw the horses replaced by tractors ( small grey ones mostly with motor car engines), combine harvesters replaced binders and threshers, this "mechanisation"  led to loss of habitat and enabled intensification. Then the widespread adoption of
High energy input........ no diversity
fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and intensive use of nitrogen fertiliser on grass and arable crops in the late 60's led to widespread loss of birds, insects and flowers.

Even in the remoter livestock farming areas of the north and west intensification has resulted in a landscape of dark green fields ( because of high nitrogen fertiliser use)..... a deep green desert dominated by grass, cow parsley, stinging nettles and low diversity.

Low energy input .......... high diversity
High diversity needs low soil fertility. When fertilisers are applied the more vigorous crop species and weeds out compete everything else..... result ......... loss of species.

But this week, in the Coquet Valley in North Northumberland we visited an island of colourful diversity in the sea of green..... Burradon Windyside Farm near Thropton. Here  Kevin Wharf has transformed what were once intensively managed barley fields into floristically rich meadows.



The change has been achieved quickly and effectively by using traditional grazing management, haymaking and broadcasting wild flower seeds. Sheep graze the fields during and immediately after lambing in the Spring. The fields are then shut up until late June  early July when a small scale seed harvester collects the flower seed then this is followed by making hay.

Why is this interesting?................. well you may have noticed that the UK is about to commit economic suicide by leaving the European Union. We farmers and Crofters are unlikely to get the level of subsidy enjoyed by farmers in member countries but our Minister for the environment has promised enhanced incentives for biodiversity creation and sustainable farming.  Kevin has shown how this could be done.

No!......  I don't believe the promises of politicians ......... But!..........along with climate change they are going to have to take biodiversity loss seriously and it might just happen.







Monday, 3 June 2019

Hen egg laying rituals and broken eggs

The goats don't seem to mind the squatters
 My brown egg laying hybrid hens lay an egg a day at the moment, there's over 14 hrs of daylight and it's warmer. So each day they go looking for a nest site for an hour or so then end up in the one they used yesterday.

Research shows that hens learn the best places to nest by mimicry. In this case the later laying pullets saw those that started to lay earlier using the hay racks and decided to use them themselves even if very over crowded.

This pre-laying behaviour can last for up to a couple of hours. Then having selected the nest they settle in to the nesting material and squirm about to make a comfortable bowl shape in the hay. The problem with this site is that the eggs sometimes roll through the bars and break.






I did make a lid to keep them out but they were so frustrated I relented and let them in again. I just have to collect the eggs quickly.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

It's the broody season....... time to spend three weeks sitting on eggs in a dark box

Day 2 of sitting on the nest and not moving.... definitely broody!
It's the end of May....... the start of the "broody" season....   Hens now want to sit on a clutch of eggs and hatch them. The don't all go "broody" or start "clocking" some are keener than others but it can become contagious. First sign that one of your hens is clocking is that you are likely to find her sitting on the nest over a few eggs or no eggs at all at night when you lock up.

When you put your hand under her she stays there, pecks your hand and / or protests  by squawking. Looking down on the clocker she looks flattened and spread out over the nest, not quite as flat as roadkill.

If you want her to hatch a clutch of eggs you will need to move her out of the hen house nest box into a purpose made sitting box or even a large cardboard box in a shed safe from predators. Move your hen gently, at night when she is a bit dozy and place her in the sitting box with a few dummy eggs for 24 rs to see if she is going to sit tight.

Keep the eggs to be hatched in the kitchen for 24 hrs to gently warm them. 10 or 12 eggs for a heavy breed hen, then gently replace the dummy eggs after dark. Next morning she should still be sitting scatter some grain on the ground in front of her and make sure there is water available. She will probably not leave the nest for a day or two, this is normal, when she does it will be for 10 or 15 minutes to eat, drink and dump.

Time off.....20 minutes each day

Best to feed her whole grain this keeps the excrement firm, layers pellets will make her a bit skittery. Skitter is an agricultural term for diarrhoea. After 20 to 21 days you should have eight or nine chicks from your setting of 12 eggs. Clockers are cheaper than incubators, more reliable and you don't need a brooder the old hen will look after them.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Goats are friendly, charming and intelligent..... don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Humans domesticated by goats 11,000 years ago 
Estimates vary but it seems that humans were first domesticated by goats between eight thousand and eleven thousand years ago in the mountains of Iran. Being sociable, adaptable, intelligent and able to eat almost anything humans were an ideal subject for domestication and have been captivated by goats ever since.

Of course the goats had to learn to handle dogs because they were the very first wild animals to take over human homes ( caves) which were warm, dry and littered with nourishing kitchen scraps. They handle dogs by never turning their backs on them and head butting to keep control. This means that the goats can take their humans  and dogs for country walks and picnics  on fine days as above.

Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton noticed that domesticated animals were only a limited number of species with certain behavioural traits making them suitable for domestication; they should be sociable (herding), the young should bond quickly and strongly with their parent and should be flexible in their dietary requirements. Galton's requirements for domestication.








Shetland ducks....... a rare breed and slightly confused I hope.

I should know better but last month I slipped half a dozen fertile duck eggs under a bantam hen with little hope of any hatching after the long, rough journey by mail from Shetland.

Then, one morning ten days ago there were four black and yellow ducklings under a fiercely protective hen. In the last ten days they seem to have increased in size five-fold on a diet of chick crumbs and fresh grass.

Ten day old Shetland ducks and surrogate mother
I should know better because ducks have always been a lot of trouble, they make a mess around the steading with a mixture of water, mud and excrement everywhere you walk, they have to be herded into their nighttime accommodation safe from mink, pine martens and foxes but on the plus side they do lay lots of eggs that make the best sponge cakes, they eat snails ( intermediate host of liver fluke) and are real characters.

Hopefully these ducklings will be confused by their hen mother, adopt her behaviour, think they are hens and follow her inside at dusk even after she has lost interest in them.

10 day old ducks now think they are hens, emerging from the hen house




Why Shetland ducks? They are a tough, hardy and productive rare breed so it's worth putting in some effort to keep them going..... you never know...... there may be a need for the genes of tough hardy little ducks that lay as many eggs as Khaki Campbells in the future.

For more information on Shetland ducks  see... Rare Breeds Survival Trust

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Another generation of goats and goat keepers.


I have worked with all types of farm animals  during the last 60 years and the most attractive are goats, they  are intelligent, clean, efficient milk producers, small, friendly, affectionate and safe around small children.  Milking twice a day got too much for me in my seventies so the three milkers were re-homed. Now the next generation are keen to keep them.

My daughter has just bought a two year  old Toggenburg x British Toggenburg goatling for mating this Autumn and milking next Spring. Goats do need companions but until we find another kid in late Spring this one will have to make do with the horse, Arran.

The work can be minimised by once a day milking .Kids are separated from their mother at night but can still see and nuzzle her through the bars of the pen. Mother is then milked in the morning and the kids can suckle her all day out on the hill. Milking is easier and so is the kid rearing.






There should be just enough milk for the family's day to day needs and occasional cheese making and of course the grand children grow up with a sense of responsibility for their animals. Most importantly we now have three experienced volunteer adult relief milkers for occasional weekends and holidays.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

A very rough guide to Alpine mountain hut etiquette in France

Twenty years ago we were staying in a Canadian Alpine Club hut in the Rocky Mountains, the occupants were international but all European. The log hut was situated in a alpine meadow, there were vast supplies of firewood for the stove, rocking chairs and rough hewn tables, it was perfect. Then came a knock at the door as we were eating, the knockers were Canadian," what is this place?" they wanted to know. They didn't know about this amazing resource although it was in their own country and perhaps you aren't aware of what is available on our European doorstep.


Pyrenean hut
French mountain huts are open to all not just grizzled, ultra hard core mountaineers, families and children are welcome. You could have some spectacular encounters with wild nature, congenial company and walking adventures.

Most French huts are operational from June to September and demand is high so book ahead.  Phone the Guardian at your chosen hut, it is appreciated.

Guardians can be grannies with their grand children, fit young people or hard bitten veterans of this business who have seen everything, be polite, speak French. Pay cash, be aware; "la carte bleu n'est pas toujours acceptee !" Take your boots off at the door, wear hut shoes or the Crocs that are provided.

You will be allotted a sleeping space with mattress, pillow and blanket in a dormitory, carry your own sheet sleeping bag. Even over 2,000 m in the Pyrenees you won't need a sleeping bag. If you are old and need to inspect the loos at night ask for a space near the door, you don't want to disturb the others. You might find flushing toilets indoors near the dormitory or you may need to go outside to find hole in the floor that you squat over, it varies. Get used to shaving in the dark with cold water or grow a beard.

There is a three course meal at 7.00 pm; soup, main,regional cheese Angel Delight. Although France is the home of great cuisine most guardians in the Pyrenees use a Russian soup recipe from the Gulag system and I remember Angel Delight from the 50's but thought it had been banned in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, apparently not. Order your wine before the meal.

You will meet a lot of cows, don't be afraid , talk to them..."bonjour madame, ca va bien?" it works every time.

Travel as light as possible these are mountain huts! For a good night's sleep take ear plugs, headlamp, sheet sleeping bag and toilet kit. Don't expect a cell phone signal, wi-fi, Instagram, TV or lighting after 10 pm. Take your garbage away with you.

In France the refuges are referred colloquially to as " Les Refuges CAFF"  the CAF is the Club Alpin Francais , there's lots more information on the web.




You don't have to stay overnight. In the Alps you can walk up or in some cases take a ski lift to a refuge for a very nice lunch and congenial company.