Friday 22 July 2016

Champion cheviot gimmer

Pick the winner
Before going any further, a gimmer is one of last year's ewe lambs and Nan breeds Cheviots, white, hornless hardy sheep. In the picture below they are orange or gold this is how they are shown. Sixty years ago in lowland Scotland the hills of Perthshire lit up in the evening by these golden fleeces.
then it was not for showing, the sheep had been dipped with nicotine dip to kill parasites.

The champion should have a long, flat, wide back; rounded haunches and a tight fleece. you can pick the winner from the second image. These are characteristics that mean the lambs are well muscled and fleshed out when slaughtered and hopefully this gimmer will pass on her best characteristics to her offspring.

Nan has had the champion three times now. She isn't only a shepherd, she drives the fire engine, is a member of the Coastguard team and plays in goal for Kilchoan ladies football team.

Monday 18 July 2016

Plant hunting in the rain

Northern marsh orchid
Mull appeared out of the cloud and murk at lunchtime, for the first time since Friday. the rain has been continuous and heavy. Visitors come here to see wildlife, eagles and otters are top of their lists usually but eagles tend to hole up at home in this weather and sitting above the shore hoping for an otter isn't much fun. However down at your feet, at the roadside up to Ormsaigbeg there's a linear nature reserve in full flower.

Roadside verges in the lowlands tend to be dominated by vigorously growing grasses and cow parsley. these things respond to the fertilisers that drift out of the fields and can outcompete less vigorous species. High fertility results in low diversity as a rule.

Here our thin soils, high rainfall and very little fertiliser lead to high diversity and at this time of year among the plant life it is astounding and extremely colourful. You don't need binoculars or brilliant eyesight, plants move rather slowly.

I felt a bout of "cabin fever" coming on at lunchtime so set off up the hill in the rain, head down and walking slowly in plant hunting mode. Probably most exotic are the northern marsh orchids only inches from your wheels when you drive up the hill. Then there are all of those species that were common in the lowlands fifty years ago;  vetch, wild pea, harebell,thyme, bell heather, bugle, the list goes on.

Monday 11 July 2016

Cornish game - The Texels of the poultry world

Texel sheep are seriously ugly, they look as if they just collided head on with a bus but they grow fast, have great meaty carcasses and the butchers like them. Cornish Game ( also known as Indian Game) are the feathered equivalent although definitely not ugly.

The breed has its origins in Cornwall during the 19th century. Breeders crossed the Red Aseel a pugnacious fighting cock with the Malay and Black Red game to produce a table bird of great quality. Built like a Japanese Sumo wrestler with a broad muscular chest, a good bone structure to carry a lot of flesh and a friendly temperament the Cornish Game became the meat breed of choice.

In the USA they developed a slightly smaller but equally meaty white version which in the 20th century provided the basic set of genes for the broiler chicken. Quantitative genetics, scientific breeding, commercial expertise and demand for cheap poultry meat signalled the end of big roasting chickens that were anything up to six months old at slaughter, broilers were cooked and eaten at three months old. Since then after perhaps 100 generations of selective breeding broilers arrive in your supermarket at nine weeks old.

It is still possible to find good strains of Cornish if you want to taste real roast chicken or Coq au Vin. I was able to find some eggs, in Cornwall, earlier this year and these birds are now ten weeks old,  four cocks and three hens. Three cocks to eat and the best one for breeding next year.

Monday 4 July 2016

End of the breeding season

Some of this year's La Bresse young stock hatched in March
At the end of June the breeding hens deserve a rest they have been producing hatching eggs since January and are looking a bit tired. They will still be laying for the rest of the summer but without the attentions of the cockerel, he will be kept separate.

Mating in poultry is a pretty rough affair, the cockerel leaps on the hen grasps her with his claws then jumps off and looks around for another mate. Over the breeding season the hens tend to lose quite a lot of feathers from their backs and can be quite severely clawed to the point of bleeding.

Fertility tends to drop off after mid summer mainly because the cockerels are losing their libido and are not quite so interested. Of course introducing another cockerel  and some competition can renew their interest.

Some of this year's breeding hens are going to Orkney in the Autumn along with the same cockerel, they will start to moult and by New Year should be pristine with a new set of feathers. Increasing day length after the winter solstice kick starts the laying and breeding season for another year.

Next years breeding hens are just about to start laying, they were hatched in early March and will be put into a breeding pen before Christmas probably with a Cockerel from Germany.