Monday 12 December 2011


One night at the end of October I was woken up about 1.30am by screaming and hysterical cackling from one of my hen houses. It was warm enough to sleep with the windows open. When I opened the hen house door I was faced with a hissing, spitting mink and three dead hens.

 But an air rifle with telescopic sight isn't much use in a dark hen house, I missed and the mink escaped past me while I reloaded. All I could do was clean up, go back to bed and lie awake till morning trying to work out what had happened.

Each house is surrounded by a 50m electric net with small mesh at the bottom and all of the batteries were fully charged. The sliding door that closes automatically at dusk was shut and there was a mink inside. There are no holes in walls or floors, my housing is "Fort Knox" for hens, or so I thought.

It seems that a mink can get through or underneath a well maintained net. I always check the doors last thing at night and they were shut. If a mink had got in before dusk it would have caused havoc well before 1.30am. So the mink must have opened the door by pushing it up sufficiently to wriggle inside., it got in and was then trapped inside when the door fell back .

Sliding aluminum doors are feather weight and even where the door overlaps the door sill a determined mink could push it up. I have modified the doors with a wooded bar across the sill to make it impossible I hope for it to be pushed up.

After the event I was inundated with well meaning advice on mink trapping; " nine out of ten mink prefer Whiskas, use a rotten kipper, try mackerel heads...." None of these baits worked. I then shot some pigeons for bait and that worked a treat earlier this week I had him stone dead in a Fenn trap.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Start of the Shepherd's year

Big Eddie: Good to go
The shortening days after the summer solstice bring our sheep into breeding condition so that mating happens in the Autumn. Five months later the lambs are born to coincide with the growth of Spring grass and hopefully....better weather. Next Tuesday, November 15th is the start of the Shepherd's year. The tups (rams) go out and Big Eddie the Texel x Charollais tup is good to go. He has been trying to escape to meet up with the ewes since he arrived last week.

Twenty years ago you would never have seen an exotic tup like Eddie in the W. Highlands; hardy  Scottish Blackfaces and Cheviots were the breeds that fitted a low input / low output  production system. Now the market wants lambs with rounder rear ends and longer leaner carcasses. Then the ewes were kept in a state of near starvation throughout the year,  they produced a small single lamb and a lambing percentage of 80 - 90%. Now we mange the ewe's condition so that when she meets up with the tup next week she will have been on a rising plane of nutrition and will be producing several eggs for fertilisation because we are trying to get more twin lambs and a lambing percentage of 140-150%.

After mating we try to maintain the ewe's condition so that as many eggs as possible are implanted and survive to become healthy lambs in the Spring. In other words we feed them. They get sugar beet pulp to start with then after the New Year they have access to haylage which is somewhere between hay and silage. Its much easier to make in our unpredictable summer weather. Later just before lambing the protein and energy content of the ration is increased so that the ewe will develop milk secretion tissue and milk... the key to lamb survival and growth.

Thursday 10 November 2011

The ideal hen

The ideal breed of hen for crofters, smallholders and domestic poultry keepers has to be one that lays a lot of eggs; over 200 a year, for at least two years. It is also a good table bird with flavour and texture. You could add an ability to be out and about foraging in all weather, a quiet temperament and a degree of broodiness so that you can hatch your own replacements without an incubator.

Modern hybrids are either specialist layers producing 300 eggs a year or they have been selected to grow fast and be killed at less than10 weeks of age for that supermarket pre-packed chicken with the taste and texture of blotting paper. If small scale producers are going to raise table birds for themselves and to sell eggs and meat for local consumption they need a dual purpose utility breed. A recent review of the ecological costs of animal production, "Time to eat the dog: A real guide to sustainable living", R & B Vale, 2009, Thames & Hudson; showed that three free range hens kept for eggs had an ecological footprint of 0.01ha, but dual purpose hens kept for eggs and meat had a footprint of only 0.007ha. Oh..and by the way one small dog has an ecological footprint of 0.56ha, the same as 80 free range dual purpose hens, if my arithmetic is right.

Which breeds meet the criteria above for dual purposeness? Well I keep Ixworths and the French breed Bresse Gauloise The French chicks with their floppy combs and blue legs probably have the edge on the Ixworths they lay more bigger eggs and they grow faster. The Bresse are only rare in British terms in France they are the iconic, gourmet table bird, "Poulet de Bresse" and are kept extensively in Burgundy. Ixworths are truly British, a rare breed and you get a table bird with texture and real flavour in the darker meat ( like the cockerel in the picture), they also make excellent broody hens and very protective mothers, don't mess with them when they have a bunch of chicks. In both cases you can breed and select your own replacements thus avoiding the need to buy expensive point of lay pullets each year.

My Bresse hens came from Germany and Ireland, the French value them so highly they try not to let them out of the country but there has obviously been some active hen and egg smuggling going on. The Ixworths are an early example of genetic engineering created by Reginald Appleyard in the village of Ixworth in Suffolk in the 1930s. He wanted white skin and legs and slightly tinted eggs. Its generally thought that Reginald combined the Cornish Game, White Sussex, White Orpington,white Wyandotte and the white Minorca to engineer his ideal

Craigard, Croft 35, Ormsaigbeg.

Craigard is about as far west as you can get in mainland Britain, 10km east of Ardnamurchan Point and its lighthouse, in the parish of Kilchoan. www.kilchoan.blogspot.comThe hay park runs due south down to the sea on the Sound of Mull. Behind the house a hill park climbs up to the wall surrounding the Ormsaigbeg common grazing where I am allowed to graze 11 ewes, two cows and half a horse. Its a 180km round trip to Morrison's supermarket in Ft. William or 35 minutes on the ferry to a smaller Co-operative supermarket in Tobermory on the island of Mull.
The popular definition of a Croft is," a small area of poor land entirely surrounded by legislation" it is a peculiarly Scottish system of land holding and is confined to the Crofting Counties of Argyll, Inverness, Ross-shire, Sutherland, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland and the Hebridean islands. I should add that crofting legislation is a fertile feeding ground for lawyers. More on the history later, think of Craigard as a smallholding on a stony raised beach, exposed to the N. Atlantic weather with some hill grazing of coarse grasses and heather.
Crofting activities are very unlikely to provide a living for a family but they do provide a rural base in a supportive community for families with "multiple job holding". The tractor making hay belongs to Elaine, a neighbour who has more of a farm than a croft and who provides contracting services with her machinery; that way everyone wins, the cost of owning machinery is spread and we all benefit from a degree of mechanisation for hay and silage making.
I am retired so have an off croft income but the pension is supplemented by selling lambs and the fertile hatching eggs of rare breed, utility poultry, mostly on Ebay. The hens are Ixworth and Bresse Gauloise, beautiful white birds that lay quite a lot of eggs and are the best eating. The ideal smallholder's hen. The daily routine changes with the weather and the season now I'm up at seven to look the sheep and feed the hens. I come in for breakfast and read the Guardian online, the paper version doesn't arrive at the Post Office until lunchtime the rest of the day can be spent in the veg plot or the poly tunnel, dosing or moving sheep, making and mending stuff or just idling.