On my way to the chicken run at the end of the garden on Saturday at around 8am, the muffled notes of a favourite tune reached me at the gate. Jeffrey, our beloved lavender Araucana cockerel was crowing for the first time. It was bright and light – as opposed to the early weekday British Summer Time mornings of late when we were letting out the flock in the dark and shortly after leaving for work – and Big Jeff was heralding a beautiful day. Naturally, I lavished him with praise and immediately went to tell James the good news. The following day, my mother came for lunch and we pottered down to see the chickens and pigs afterwards. I wanted Mum to hear Jeffrey’s clarion call for herself and after she had gamely tried to encourage him with some vocal renditions of cockadoodledo, I confess I resorted to YouTube and played him a video, which contained this delightful farmyard noise in the hope that hearing a rival male would inspire Jeff to declare his territory (as that is what crowing is meant to be about). Sure enough, he did the decent thing and produced a very handsome sound:
Later that day, another micro-holding milestone was achieved. This time, in the kitchen. James and I still have a wonderful quantity of pork shoulder and belly meat from our Gloucestershire Old Spots to use – so we defrosted one of our packs that the butcher made up especially for sausage-making and set to work. Having invested in a mincer and sausage-stuffing machine, we were ready for action and tried two different recipes. Not wanting to become too experimental, we opted for simple flavours: paprika, salt and black pepper in one batch and a mix of sage, thyme and seasoning in the other. While I prepared the breadcrumbs and spices, and picked, washed and chopped herbs, James got to grips with the mincer after a few hiccups, including fitting a vital part that we had both forgotten about until the machine seemed to purée the meat (rather off-putting!). After a little trial and error, James had produced some fine-looking bangers which we immediately popped into the oven for testing. The rest were then distributed to local friends and family for sampling. Of course, there’s plenty of room for improvement – we’ll have great fun experimenting and getting the texture and seasoning just right. If there are any experienced sausage-makers out there who could offer some advice on one aspect in particular, I’d be very grateful. The mix didn’t seem to hold together very well once you sliced into the cooked bangers. Imagine this is down to a simple novice error and it would be great to know what it is! Much appreciated. In the meantime, happy weekends all.
On our return last Saturday from a week away in Pembrokeshire, it was good to be reunited with our cat Beau, the hens and pigs. Though we had a wonderfully relaxing time with our three dogs at a cottage near Solva and St David’s, just minutes from the coastal path (would highly recommend it: The Cheese House), we enjoyed settling back into The Smallholdings way of life. James’s sister Mandy had looked after our small flock and miniature herd beautifully – and our barbed wire efforts the week before had paid off: no pigs escaped, thank goodness. In the event that they did or there was any other porcine bother to deal with, we’d left the number of the very helpful breeders, Linda and Dave Aldous, who we bought the trio from back in August, on the kitchen table.
On Sunday morning, we let the hens out of their run and into the garden to scratch about in the grass and bask in the autumn sunshine, so we could enjoy their company as we pottered about doing jobs. Throughout our holiday we’d feasted on their eggs – in cooked breakfasts (we found two of the young, small Ixworth pullet offerings poached on a toasted muffin just right), omelettes, cakes and, one of our favourite comfort dishes, cheese pudding, and somehow that underlined for me just how special chickens are. You can begin to take their cheery natures and tireless productivity almost for granted, but when you crack open one of their offerings and see the lovely orange-yolks, you fall in love with the feathered characters all over again. We treated them to some over-ripe plums, which they relished, and lashings of corn. Big Jeff as we call our diminutive Araucana cockerel seemed to have grown over the week we were away – though he’s still keen to be picked up – as did the three pigs, one of whom is especially plump. Feeding them at the same time in the same trough, we couldn’t work out why he’d grown more than his brothers until we closely observed them eating. Unlike poorly/naughty pig (ie the one who got sick and then burrowed under the fence to freedom) and bully pig (prone to knocking the others out of the way when we’re giving them a fuss and attempting to bite our hands), porky pig, as he’s currently known, has a fantastically speedy way of eating. He hoovers up the pellets at a terrific rate and so consumes more than his own fair share. Poorly/naughty pig is a complete amateur in comparison – he’s easily distracted away from his meal and frequently stops scoffing to come over and see us for a scratch behind the ear if we’re around. Porky pig also likes a stroke but only once the business of eating is over, which is only right, of course. He also tends to fall over so he’s flat on the ground and can really relax as we do so! Quite eccentric and rather endearing, really.
We’re seriously considering separating him from the others for a while and slimming him down a little – perhaps taking him up to the kennel and small sty near the house where poorly/naughty pig enjoyed his stay so much. Having not seen them all week (the trouble with these short autumn days) except by torchlight when we’ve fed and watered them in the mornings and evenings, we need to take another look at his weight and see if we should take such drastic measures. Has anyone else found that one of their herd has grown fatter than his counterparts? Would love to hear what you did, if anything, about it…
Off to a cottage on the west Wales coast this Saturday with James and the three dogs for a much-anticipated holiday, but still a little anxious about leaving our miniature herd of Oxford Sandy & Blacks behind (though I think it would be stretching the cottage owner’s goodwill a little to take them with us). James’ sister Mandy is kindly coming to house-sit and look after the chickens, porkers and cat for us. So, we spent all day on Sunday heightening security in the run, lowering the strand of barbed wire we have running around the bottom of the stock fence and adding two more lines higher up to deter the weaners from pushing their snouts against the fence and rootling around at the bottom (which is how one broke for freedom the other day).
Unfortunately, even though we’d distracted them with an earlier-than-usual feed, one of the trio sidled up to James and bit his thigh at which he leapt up and shouted in shock. Thankfully, even though the sharp teeth drew blood and left a distinctly porcine tooth mark on his leg, his jeans weren’t actually torn and so there was no need for a tetanus jab or anything of that kind. We also visited a local farm to buy some more drinkers. The owner once ran a pig farm and so has a whole shed full of proper old cast-iron Mexican hat-style designs.
There was also a trough that looked ideal for sheep, which James snapped up for its proper farm look – we’re hoping to keep a small flock at some stage in the future.
After a good scrub, they were good to go. The idea is that Mandy won’t have to go into the run and risk getting hurt or knocked over – the trio love nothing better than batting us between them lately as we attempt to get from one side of their pen to the other. With three to contend with, it’s a job to stay on your feet, especially when they’re hungry. If we space out the five big drinkers so the pigs don’t muddy them, it should be possible to fill one at a time during the week using the hose on the garden side of the fence – that way they won’t need cleaning out, but the porkers will always have fresh water. Equally, food can be poured into the feeder from the outside. All should be well, but we’ll be leaving contact details for Rachel, the vet who came out to tend to the poorly pig the other day, just in case there is a porcine emergency. Do hope that the cheeky young scamps will behave themselves beautifully and Mandy won’t have any dramas to deal with and we don’t receive any alarming middle-of-the-night phone calls… Trotters crossed. Happy weekends all.
I’m happy to say that poorly pig has made a full recovery – in fact, he’s in such fine fettle that he celebrated his return to health by breaking out of his run and heading all the way up the garden on Sunday night. Just as we were winding down that evening and getting ready for the week ahead, James sped indoors while I was washing up at the kitchen sink and coolly asked me to look out of the window towards our five-bar gate. There rootling around was our not-so-poorly pig, free-ranging like it’s never done before. The reason James hadn’t panicked as soon as he saw the porcine runaway is that, having experienced the same phenomenon with our Gloucestershire Old Spots last Boxing Day, we know full well that you can shake a little of their food in a container and they’ll follow you anywhere. Needless to say, however, we decided that the household chores could wait, and nipped outside to coax the little fella back to join the other two Oxford Sandy & Blacks who we’re watching with interest by the time we reached the run.
He more or less obliged, with a few diversions along the way, including a trot around the chicken run. Once he was back in the enclosure we set to work examining the boundaries for the area from which he broke out. It turned out that he’d dug under the lower strands of barbed wire near the feeder, where it is slightly higher than the rest, and seemingly miraculously slid out under the spikes and stock fencing to freedom. Surprisingly, his brothers didn’t attempt to do the same, but that could well be down to the fact he’s a fraction slimmer. James headed up to the barn to pick up the necessary tools to lower the barbed wire and stick metal pegs into the bottom of the stock fencing in a belt-and-braces approach. I returned to the kitchen and headed down with a mug of tea after around half an hour to yet again find the same cheeky porker at large in the garden. We figured that in the few minutes while James had collected the necessary paraphernalia, not-so-poorly pig had chanced his trotters again and made his escape. A lure of more pellets and he was back in through the gate. We watched as he tested out James’s handiwork and were satisfied to see him fail in his attempts to elude us and the fence. But since then he’s pulled out the pegs and is clearly still interested in breaking out, so we’re feeling a little anxious as next weekend we’re heading to Pembrokeshire for a week’s holiday and James’s sister has kindly agreed to small-hold the fort. We don’t want any escapee porcine characters causing her any undue stress – we’re hoping for pleasant weeks in the countryside for us all. So James and I are having a security summit on Sunday to guarantee there’ll be no gaps our miniature herd can wend their way through. Any tips for outwitting these clever creatures would be appreciated!
Meanwhile, Star Animal of the Week is lavender Araucana Margot, whose industrious nature continues to delight us. Not only has she not stopped laying (as so many of her breed do from September to February), but she is producing her stunning pale-blue eggs on a daily basis, brightening up the boxes we give friends and family no end. I think we’ll be recruiting more of her type into our flock – being a ‘cuckoo’ number, which describes her stripey plumage, she’s not considered to meet the breed standard, but we wonder whether that also means she hasn’t been overbred and can therefore knock out so many prettily-shelled beauties. Whatever the reason, we’re all for her in these lean-yield times!