Frank’s little adventure…

In the past we have cut our lawn and given the cuttings to our Dexter cattle. We also make sure that the pigs get some too and particularly at the moment since I’m trying to get Sissy into tip-top show condition for the Northumberland County Show at the end of the month.

This tactic has worked very well for us in the past but the cattle now recognise the sound of the lawn mower and start mooing loudly in anticipation of their feast.

Unfortunately I tried using our lawn mower on a high setting for keeping a test patch of rushes in our hay meadow under control. However the cows noticed the mower was close by and got themselves all worked up. Luckily I was only mowing a small patch as a trial so I soon stopped and I thought things would return to normal.

By the time I got back to the house to put the equipment away I suddenly spotted an unexpected figure ambling leisurely towards me – it was Frank and he must have been practicing his high jumping skills.

Frank taking his afternoon stroll

It’s at times like these that I’m grateful our Dexters have become so much more amenable and are happy to follow me if I have a bucket. Once I loaded the bucket with Supabeet – like sweets for a child – I was able to lead Frank back to the others all by myself.

While they all tucked in to their unplanned treat I was able to assess the dry stone wall. Luckily it was just cosmetic damage and mostly affected the top stones so he must have got plenty of height on his jump

Definitely not a clear round at showjumping

In no time the wall had been reinstated (in my strictly amateur fashion) but it still looks to be as solid as ever. These walls could have been here for around 200 years perhaps so it will take more than one cheeky Dexter steer to trash them.

I’m now just a little nervous though and I’m keeping an eye on Frank every so often to make sure he doesn’t make a habit of this

All sorted, until the next time?

All set for calving

Just a week or so ago we moved our small herd of Dexter cattle from their more sheltered winter home in our back fields. For the next month or so they will be enjoying the lush green grass in the very front field and they very quickly settled into their new home.

The plan for this year will be to move them all nearer the house again when we get close to calving – if we can get the timing right of course!

Once they are in the back fields again we can more easily round them up and, while we’re not expecting any problems, we will be more able to deal with any issues that may come up.

This year will be a nervous time for us as previously we’ve only had cows that have calved before because that reduces the risks of any problems. This time around we will have our home-born heifer (Primrose) calving for the first time but at least she definitely looks like she’s carrying a calf in there

It’s nice to see that Quinn appears to be quite attached to his big sister Primrose these days. However he’ll have to get used to being ignored once she has her calf!

Restocking the flock

Over the past few months, a few of our hens have decided it was their time to go. While we don’t have a problem with foxes in our immediate area(which is a relief), some of the hens still seem to reach a certain point and just give up.

It often happens that they look a little under the weather one day and then the next day a corpse is found curled up in the nest box having apparently died peacefully overnight.

This isn’t always age related though because we have some white hens (White Leghorns I think) that must be the chicks that are mentioned in an old post about new life and death with the chickens during our first year here.

During the first part of this year we lost one of the hens we bought less than 3 years ago but the others from that batch are still happily laying. There seems no reason for one to die and another to carry on but we just continue to do our best for them

It only took a quick trip to Durham Hens last weekend and we now have two ginger hens (always decent egg layers and usually seem to do fairly well) plus 2 other hens just for their looks or egg colours (one a Crested Blue for coloured eggs and the other a Pied Suffolk just for her feather colouring)

Crested Blue (far left) and Pied Suffolk (far right)

For the record, these have been named following the now standard approach with our choices of female singers but this time with the initial letter “D”

After a couple of weeks in a separate pen while they acclimatise, the new girls – Debbie, Dolores, Dionne and Doris – will be joining the main flock. Colin our adopted cockerel already seems very eager to meet them but he’ll just have to wait!

Time to try something new – pig showing

For the last couple of years I’ve managed to come up with good excuses for not showing our pigs at the local county show. However, this year I decided that I really should try it at least once so I can decide whether I want to consider as a regular thing or not.

Preparing pigs for showing can apparently be quite time consuming so I had been worried about over-committing myself in the past when there were other more important things to tackle.

This time around I’ve decided that I’d just like to take part without worrying about the results so I’ve managed to convince myself it won’t take too much extra effort.

The decision was taken to enter just 2 classes so that should help limited the workload. One class will see Sissy taking on any other older sows and the other class will be this years gilt (female) piglet from the litter Esther produced.

We bought Sissy at 2 months old and she’s been with us ever since so a day trip out to a show will be a real novelty for her. I hope she can contain her excitement and display her usual excellent behaviour on the day.

Hopefully she is in-pig after my AI attempts a month or two ago but it’s proving tricky to be completely certain from a visual check. If it turns out that she isn’t carrying piglets then I’ll have no choice but to try a “real” boar rather than keep trying with my amateur attempts at insemination.

The current show focus is on preparing both pigs – and myself – for the various tasks involved with showing. Everything from personal hygiene, a presentable appearance and impeccable manners when walking around the show ring.

In order to show a pig they have to be registered pedigree pigs so the younger piglet has duly been officially registered online and has been recorded as Allendale Maple. This is the formal name on the pedigree herd book and is made up of our herd name followed by the maternal blood line.

I’m carefully maintaining very low expectations for the show results and would just be very happy to have successfully got there, shown them and made it home again all in one piece. Anything else would be a bonus and, of course, whatever happens they’re both No.1 in my eyes!

Other pig-related news

A little over 2 weeks for Esther since her litter were weaned and she’s adapted very well to the quiet life. It’s all very well being a good mother but that period with demanding piglets can take it out of a pig so sometimes it’s nice to see her relax

No worries about showing for her, just a chance to catch up on her sleep and build herself back up. The plan is that she should be ready for another litter by the autumn with piglets to be born around January 2020 – assuming I can handle the AI without making a mess of it…

Time to consider the vegetable plans

Last year there just wasn’t enough hours in the day to spend any real time on the vegetable growing side of things. With a day job as well as the livestock and other land management tasks taking up all of my time, it was a tough but ultimately the best decision.

In the end I simply had to accept that some areas had to be left untouched and that they would inevitably disappear under the weed growth. There was no way I could keep on top of all the available growing space so it was better to tackle just a sensible and manageable amount.

A little extra compost to top it up

This year I hope to build on that hard lesson by increasing the growing space used – but just a little. A combination of shorter but more frequent weeding sessions and also plenty of mulching should help to keep on top of any weeds.

The first batch of outside seed sowing has already been done with some carrots sown in the left hand bed shown below. This also has a plastic cover over the top just to help protect it from the cooler evenings we still seem to get at the moment. The other plastic cover has been put in place ready for planting out other vegetables later on.

Very happy with the progress at this stage

Nearly all of the raised beds are looking very respectable at the moment and just about ready for sowing or planting out. The raised bed containing the soft fruit (far right) still needs some care and attention but that has a weed fabric in place so any tidy up shouldn’t be too difficult.

Now that it finally seems the last of winter has passed, over I can get on with some proper seed sowing the course of the next week or two. This will be a more concentrated effort because in previous years I’ve tried spreading the work out and ended up getting confused with what was planted and when!

When is a dwarf bean no longer dwarf?

The very first early seeds were sown a few weeks ago using a donated heated propagator but they have been a little too successful I think. These are supposed to be dwarf beans and they have got a bit ahead of themselves.

These poor plants also suffered when I was potting them on last weekend. The chickens spotted them while my back was turned and in the space of a minute or two they had descended on them.

Luckily the damage wasn’t too bad in the end but some of the leaves must have been a very tasty treat!

A sunny day means lots of moving around

The miserable weather seems to have gone away (for the moment) so I could start on some of the pending jobs that have been put off due to the wet ground.

First up was a move for the cattle into an adjacent field which, although not perfect by any means, is definitely better for them than their previous watery, muddy home.

There was a slight detour at first when the back garden seemed a lot more interesting to them. This was mostly due to Daisy taking advantage of an opportunity but I managed to herd them back to the right place without too much collateral damage.

Frank is usually the curious one

Once they were into the correct field they soon settled in with a bale of hay and some fresh water. A short time after the photo above they were spotted having a quick snooze in the welcome early spring sunshine.

As I had hoped, a similar kind of move for Esther and her litter went completely to plan with no detours or other shenanigans. So long as the piglets can see their mother they will happily wander along behind her. However if they lose sight of her then all bets are off!

Esther and litter stop for a snack

The hardest part with these moves is keeping everyone moving along together because they can be easily distracted by tasty tufts of grass, an old tree branch or a quick root around in the mud.

There was even a chance for the new (and nosy) neighbours to check on things as we made our way through the woods to the new pen.

Keeping an eye on the proceedings

In no time at all the pigs were happily into the designated pen and exploring their new space. Of course, Esther had to adjust the straw in the pig ark because she’s never happy with my initial efforts but she’s a great mother so I can put up with that.

It may not look much yet but it’s home!

For the piglets the first hour or so also involves testing the electric fence with associated brief squeals but it doesn’t cause any permanent damage for them and they soon learn the limits of the pen.

Now I can see that the weather forecast shows -2° C here overnight but I know the pigs will be fine, huddled in a pile with their fresh straw.

As for the Dexters, I’m not sure they’ll notice as they’ve still got their thicker winter coats for the moment.

Whatever happened to gravity?

Living up a hill in the North Pennines at 1000ft above sea level, I had assumed that water wouldn’t be too much of a problem for us. Why should we worry about that when we are all taught in school that gravity means water will naturally flow downhill.

We are another 200ft above the main village so it would seem logical to expect that any excess water up with us should flow down to the village and on into the River East Allen down below us. From there the water can merrily flow on to join the River South Tyne and then head towards Newcastle before in due course meeting the North Sea at Tynemouth.

However it turns out there is more to this than I first knew.

For one thing, the geology of our general area means that there are many points where water simply emerges from underground as a result of the rock formations. This is not a bad thing in some ways because our house is on a natural spring water supply!

Add to that the fact that drainage in some areas of our small patch could definitely be improved. Not so much to turn all this water into someone else’s problem but just to get the excess to run in the right places where it can be better managed.

Standing water at 8am with rain due all day!
Standing water at 8am with rain due all day!

Another key point is that the upland areas of the UK like the North Pennines, particularly the moors higher up from us, are actually great places for holding up water. I’ve seen many articles since we moved to this area about restoring the peat bogs or renewing the sphagnum moss and such like

I don’t claim to understand the subject in any depth but I can appreciate that if water flows more slowly from the moors at the start of the process then it will help. Reducing the amount of water and the speed at which it flows down will reduce the risk of flooding for built-up areas further away.

Faced with a day of heavy rain today and a small herd of Dexter cattle that live outdoors all year round it was clear that a smallholder with a soft streak like me had some quick decisions to make.

Top of the list, I decided that it would be good to let the cattle have a small section of woodland which would keep them out of the worst of the wind and rain for today.

They may be a hardy breed and quite happy living outside in the UK climate but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy sitting inside my house knowing they are just sheltering behind a stone wall.

Happy to be out of the weather for today
Happy to be out of the weather for today

Pork is selling like hot cakes

Whenever I collect another batch of pork from the butchers there is always a real sense of pride along with all the other obvious feelings. Pride partly because we have produced something ourselves but more importantly we are proud to have reared animals with the respect it they deserve and given them the best life possible while they were with us.

As it turned out, the latest results were some of our best which is particularly pleasing because rare breed pigs (not just Tamworths) can be quite tricky to rear with the right balance of meat and ratios.

In no time at all, our larger pork selections boxes were all sold, in some cases before we had even collected the meat from the butchers. It’s nice to know that the quality of meat from our Tamworth’s is so highly regarded!

Recently we’ve been trying out the Wool Cool insulated boxes from 3R Sustainable Products and have been very pleased with the quality. This will come in very handy for the future as word spreads and we start to deliver further afield either ourselves or by using an overnight courier.

There are now just some assorted individual cuts still available but with more pigs due to go at the end of March there’s not long to wait until we have more boxes available

In the meantime, there is pork fillet – great for stroganoff or stir frying – or some chops and diced pork – both of which are great from our slow cooker. Of course there are always sausages available in a range of flavours including traditional, pork and leek, cumberland, lincolnshire and more.

Don’t want to cook?

If you’d rather eat out then Gary Dall at The Roxburgh, Whitley Bay has done some really interesting things with our pork in the past. Their place in the Good Food Guide 2019 was not easy to come by but it’s richly deserved I’m sure.

Judging by the many great reviews from customers (and the Secret Diner) the results are going down very well but make sure to book well in advance to avoid disappointment

Having said that, I’m not known for being an adventurous eater so I’m not sure that I could bring myself to order some of the dishes. The presentation is always impressive though so if you’re brave enough then keep a look out for pigs heads on their menu in the near future

Farrowing does not always go according to plan

Despite all the preparations, forethought and planning leading up to Esther farrowing there was still a surprise in the works for us.

The theory was that we would move Esther into a stone outbuilding nearer the house a few days before her due date so that we can keep an eye on her more easily. This would also mean she was separated from the 2 meat pigs that have been company for her but were due to go off to the abattoir at about the same time.

Looking okay at breakfast time

Having checked her at breakfast time on the Saturday morning, I was happy that she could be moved into the shed at mealtime that same evening. This would mean the meat pigs could stay in the woods until they were loaded in the trailer on last thing on Sunday or first thing on Monday morning.

Everything was continuing according to the carefully made plans so far…

We got down to the woods to move her at about 4pm and immediately noticed that the 2 meat pigs rushed out to greet us but there was no sign of Esther coming out of her ark. Highly unusual because she’s normally fairly keen on her food and moves quickly even at this late stage of the gestation

As I got closer to her ark the reason became clear, she’d already farrowed 5 piglets and looked to be still in the process of producing more. Luckily she is a very placid mother and happy for us to be around her even during farrowing.

Barely an hour or two old

An immediate change of plans was required, I would not be comfortable leaving a sow with new born piglets in the same pen as a couple of mildly boisterous 6 month old boars.

In the end, the 2 boars got some unexpected luxury accommodation in the farrowing shed for a couple of nights and we left Esther where she was. The pig ark was very sheltered and she’d done an excellent job with looking after them so far. There seemed no benefit to disturbing them at that point especially given that we’ve got some very mild weather at the moment

We’ve not had pigs farrowing outdoors before, mainly because we’re fascinated by the whole process and like to feel that we’re helping by being on hand. There have been a few occasions where we’ve managed to save piglets that where weaker when born but that’s not always possible.

It’s just a fact of life (and death) that sometimes an apparently healthy looking piglet will be born very weak or even dead and while it’s never easy to see though but we just do our best to help where we can.

The final outcome for this litter was 3 gilts and a boar – there was another boar that seemed okay at first but sadly he was dead by the next morning.

Most importantly for the surviving piglets, their mother was doing well and soon up on her feet again. It’s obviously tiring for the sow during the farrowing but she worked up quite an appetite after missing her Saturday evening meal due to the early arrivals.

By Sunday morning she was glad of her extra rations and a chance to come out of the pig ark to stretch her legs.

Glad it’s over and food has arrived

This time it’s for real… I hope!

It’s been a troubling time since the last expected farrowing – mainly because I still can’t quite explain why I misjudged events so completely.

Admittedly it is true that Sissy already had quite a reputation for carrying a few extra pounds compared to her sister (Esther). Added to that is the constant juggling of time between the smallholding activities and a full time job not to mention the usual family commitments.

As a result I’ve been doubting myself even more than usual when studying Esther for any of the usual signs as the expected farrowing date gets closer.

Esther in January
Esther in January

More recently there have finally been enough signs for me to believe that this time we’ll actually get some piglets around the middle of the month.

Although not completely clear from the picture below, there are definite signs of the teats forming up and this could be confirmed by gently checking her underline

Esther 3 weeks later
Esther 3 weeks later

Next on the list of tasks will be a preemptive worming injection sometime over this coming weekend. This will not only help her but also passes the protection on to the unborn piglets. That should mean they get the best possible start to life with no unwanted parasites.

Now it’s just a waiting game and I’ll be keeping an eye on her development. In about another week or so it will be time for her to move inside in preparation for farrowing.