Wednesday, 30 April 2008

We make Stable progress

Here are some pictures of the magic weaved by the stable sprite while we are at work, each picture shows a days magic. We have only seen the stable sprite twice since we started the project, once in his big white chariot and once while he was actually casting spells and moving wood magically transforming them from planks to building before our very eyes. We hope the magic stable sprite finishes by the weekend as the poor horses will have to learn to swim if any more water falls from the sky.

Poor horses.

Hopefully these pictures will appear in order, if not the one that looks least like a stable is the first one, the one that looks most like a stable is the last one.

On a different note, there seems to be quite a number of you now that follow the Tales from the Rock, people are logging on in Mexico, Japan, Greece, India, Australia as well as many other Countries. Amazing. If you are our reader Latvia send us an e mail, the address is at the top. We are getting quite a few e mails now, seems like Trevor should have his own fan club!

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Why the French eat Horses.

Today I broke a cardinal rule of smallholding and paid the price.


Those of you familiar with this site will know that there are rules of smallholding which we discover or create as we go along. There are some though that are sacrosanct, passed down through the generations, these pearls of wisdom must never, ever be challenged or broken.

Those that do not follow the path of the righteous smallholder shall perish.

Smallholding, or small scale farming is a challenge, particularly if you work full time. No matter what the weather when you return from your paid endeavours you have to do the rounds, attend the animals dependent on you for food and water, check all is well, patrol the perimeter and repel all boarders until nightfall when you can retire happy that you have six hours twenty six minutes before the dawn chorus of the Rock pack wakes you up again.

Tonight when we got back with Rene stuffed full of hay the heavens opened and it rained the way it only can on a Welsh hillside. Torrential, sustained, heavy, prolonged whatever you use to describe it we were going to get very very wet. I bravely volunteered to go and do the rounds allowing Tracey to stay dry and do the household chores. Off I set into the monsoon like weather.

All went well, the sheep got their hay, the goats got their share, all were watered, the eggs were collected, all the sheep were accounted for and I went down the lane to the horses. Here in their temporary stable they were reasonably dry but the ground outside was soaked, water coming over the tops of my boots I waded to the stable door of Trevor the Shitland pony who is 33 inches high and a total git. He shoved past me as I was momentarily blinded by the hood of my jacket, as I cleared it from my face I saw I had broken the rule. The rule more important than shutting the stable door before they bolt. The rule everyone knows.

Always shut the gate.

I hadn't and with a kick of his heels Trevor was off into the lane. Never mind I thought as I checked William, the welsh cob, its raining, he won't want to leave his nice warm dry stable. William set about chomping through another bundle of money, I mean bale of hay, I filled his water bucket and shut him in for the night. He was happy, so was I.

Trevor was in sight just along the lane showing no signs of returning. There was a slight flaw to my he wont want to be out in the rain logic, he being genetically predisposed to deal with the worst Scottish weather ever whilst I on the other hand am genetically predisposed to warm firesides and Malt Whiskey. As I approached he backed away. It was slightly amusing. I closed the gap, he ran off but kept me in sight. So I set off after him, he did it again.

Thinking he might follow I walked back to the stable, Trevor thought otherwise and stayed put on the hill eating. Never mind, the dogs were enjoying their extended romp amongst the gorse bushes. It was quite fun after all watching the Shitland annoying its owner. I began the long walk back, pondering on life's events, things that happened last week like seeing a House Martin for the first time this year, noticing that the nesting box is now occupied and wondering what you call a dog with no ears, anything you like, he cant hear you (ok its old but its free, you want original material wait and buy the book!) Ben is a no eared dog, he was stood at the bottom of the lane watching the evenings entertainment. He lost both ears and almost his life in a fight with a couple of Staffordshire Terriers that turned on him. I continued my mental and physical ramble, my plan to put Bernard Matthews out of business has finally got off the ground, I found our first turkey egg today, soon we shall be overwhelmed with organic turkeys. And so my mind wandered until I spotted the Shitland watching me.

Trevor was waiting in the lane and did his vanishing trick as I got close. No matter how casually I sidled up to him he scarpered as I got within reach. Then he really took off, up past Mad Keith's shack, somewhere he had never been before. So I set after him, cursing myself for not shutting the gate and really not seeing the funny side now as ice cold April rain ran into my boots off my cold soaked through trousers. Thank God for global warming I fumed.

As I approached Mad Keith's I wondered if he ate ponies, would I find Trevor's bones on the pile in front of his shack amongst the empty gin bottles? The trees form a natural archway as you approach his dwelling and the wind whistled through in a very symbolic way as is compulsory when you consider the strange eating habits of mad hermits who are your nearest neighbours.

It was at this point I heard the loudest horse whinny ever and the thunder of hooves on the gravel track ahead. What should have appeared was the headless horseman from Sleepy Hollow given the quality and volume of the sound effects. What actually appeared was a very annoying Shitland pony who rocketed past me in the evening gloom and disappeared over the side of the hill.

I duly followed, this time across country and discovered the advantage a fit quadruped with the predisposition to run up rock faces has over a fat biped with the predisposition for eating pizza.
We played hide and seek amongst the gorse bushes for a while, that was fun, he able to blend into the flora of the hillside with his dark brown and light grey two tone coat, I unable to sneak up on him in my bright red gortex.

Finally my radio alerted me to the fact that Tracey was now missing me, or rather wanted to know where I was. I managed to give a rough estimation of time and distance from HQ as I crouched behind a bush having just spotted my prey. I jumped out and grabbed Trevor. By the tail. I don't know who was the most amazed or confused out of the two of us. I had no idea what to do next, I don't suppose it's as dangerous as catching a tiger by the tail but there would undoubtedly be consequences.

Only having one arm to hold the git by didn't help, my left arm is pretty useless following an accident, roughly 20% movement and 2% strength so absolutely no use to hold a mental pony on a steep wet hillside. So we both looked at each other wondering who was going to do what next. He made the first move turning to face me, which was the best I could hope for, he could have kicked me or run off down hill dragging me with him. As he tried to bite me I managed to get a hold of his mane and walked him reluctantly down to the lane.

Tracey appeared like a guardian angel bearing horse bondage gear and suitably trussed he was walked back to his den where he had all the creature comforts waiting for him. Bless.

Tracey and I walked back through the rain, fed and watered the dogs, put them in their kennels and decided to call it a day and get back in the warm of Rock HQ.

We then discovered another cardinal rule.

No matter how much of a hurry you leave the house always shut the front door.

Remember the hardy Welsh hill sheep, Jess and Katy and their equally robust Ryeland friend Daffodil?

They had seen the door open and seized the chance to exchange the wet cold outdoors for warm, cosy indoors. When we found them they were sat on the sofa, but there was evidence they had been most places in the house before hand. It amazing what a mess three cute little lambs can make when they are unsupervised.

And they had eaten the Toblerone.

For a moment it looked like lamb was on the menu.

Never get between Tracey and her Toblerone, its up there with always shut the gate.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Clever goat.

This is Giesha our pedigree Anglo Nubian goat. She is a lovely creature, friendly, well behaved, much like a dog in fact, very companionable, loves people. She has been looking after the three lambs for us, so Jess, Katy and Daffodil are no longer on the sofa in the conservatory they are in Gieshas goat house. She watched with interest as we bottle fed the lambs this morning. This evening once they were fed there was half a bottle left. Look what she has learned to do! Clever goat!

When eggs is eggs

In a follow on to yesterdays item on keeping chickens I think it only right that I inform you of the pitfalls of incubating eggs.

Sooner or later if you keep chickens you will be faced with a broody hen that absolutely refuses to move off the nest. Any attempt to get at the eggs results in her sinking further onto the clutch and squawking blue murder as she takes the skin off the back of your hand with a beak she has specially sharpened for the purpose. You now have two choices, either go and get your welding gloves and remove stroppy hen from your breakfast or leave her to it for 21 days and hope for the successful arrival of potential Sunday dinners to coo over. If you do decide to let her sit your best advised to don full riot gear and move her and the eggs to a safe location where she can sit undisturbed and where the eggs can hatch safely.

Referring to the how to look after chickens book they will tell you to do this. As I am not inclined to read these types of books I have in the past let nature take its course and discovered that the hatched chicks have been killed by other hens squeezing into the box, or worse still chicks been pecked to death by rival females. The term henpecked does actually mean something.

I made it a rule to move all sitting birds to a special hutch, this worked fine and we had a steady stream of chicks throughout 2007. This system worked fine until some of the bantams wandered off into the wilderness returning with various clutches of weird looking chicks to the point that we were almost overrun. Moving sitting birds is not the right thing to do if it’s a duck, as I found out, not by reading but by experience. If you move a sitting duck they are calm and placid as you undertake this exercise. Once you put them in the special sitting hutch they freak out, go mental and smash the eggs in a strange demonstration of duck power. Obviously they haven’t read Darwin, know nothing of Ethology and so you have to leave them where they are, hopefully you can protect the site with warning signs, razor wire and landmines to stop Mr. Fox having a free dinner.

You have to bear in mind that what hatches out of an egg isn’t necessarily a chicken. No, Holmes you don’t get lizards and crocodiles, what I mean is you might get Hens and are equally likely to end up with Cockerels. So out of 40 eggs hatched you might have 20 spare cocks. What are you going to do with them all, not every one wants a cock. Luckily for me it’s not so much of a problem and I am a dab hand at Coq au Vin, a dish the spare bird was meant for.

So having had mixed success at raising chicks the natural way the day inevitably dawns where you find yourself rationalizing the purchase of a state of the art incubator that automatically turns the eggs and does everything a chicken does except pooh on the sideboard. Fantastic. Now you plan to raise a batch every 21 days, get some decent egg laying going from the new hens, show some, win prizes, write the book, sell the t shirts, sell the good hens, eat the not so good looking ones, freeze some, start a chicken franchise, buy a deep frying chicken van and sell your organic chicken to the lorry drivers that trundle up and down the A44 and buy a farm on the Shetland Islands with the profit. The success of this plan rests on you operating the incubator properly, and as I didn’t we weren’t very successful to start with.

First I got the automatic turner wrong so they effectively cooked on one side so no eggs hatched.This was easily solved so I eagerly awaited the hatch of the second batch.

The Eggs had other ideas though. These fantastic little capsules of wonder have all that’s needed to transform the white and yolk into a fully functioning chicken within three weeks provided a certain criteria is met.

First the cock has to do its job, it comes as a bitter disappointment when you realize that egg fertilization is only between 40% and 80% successful, so Mr. Math that means out of the 20 eggs you started with only 8 might be viable, if you’re lucky 16 will spring to life.

What you may not realize is that once the life cycle of the egg starts it is vulnerable to all sorts of life threatening attack. Any egg that doesn’t start developing eventually starts to give off a gas that kills the other eggs embryos. We didn’t discover this until advanced reading of the chicken book and was given advice by a friend who keeps Indian Runners in his orchard.

So to solve the duff egg gas problem you get a candling lamp to shine through the shell at day 10 to see if there are any signs of life. This can then lead to two further problems for the incompetent incubator operator like me. I either forget to turn the incubator back on or I don’t turn the auto turner back on. Either way it inevitably leads to the eggs failing to hatch.

Another thing to remember is to keep the water level topped up so the humidity stays at the right whatever it needs to stay at. If you forget the eggs dry out and, yes they all die.

However, if you get it right and removed the infertile or dead eggs, managed to keep the humidity right and remembered to keep it plugged in for 21 days you will be rewarded sometime on that day by the cheep cheeping sound coming from the incubator as the chicks struggle free and encourage each other by calling out.

They start by pecking an air hole, the cheeping gets louder and when you peek in the box as you just can’t contain your curiosity you will see small holes with little beaks pecking away. It’s a lovely thing to watch but you have to be careful not to help too quickly. As the chick breaks through to the outside world a membrane starts to dry out and the blood vessels withdraw. If you assist the chick you run the risk of breaking the blood vessels and the chick will die.

But getting out of the egg is the least of its problems. Chicks have all the survival instincts of a suicidaly depressed Kamikaze pilot. They die like flies in a vacuum. If the temperature is wrong they die. If they don’t have a textured floor to stand on they do a sort of chicken split, their legs don’t work and they die. If the food offered is too large they can choke on it and die. If it’s the right size they can eat too quickly, it gets packed in their throat and they die. Give them water to drink that’s too deep they drown. Give them water that’s just right they have a tendency to stand in it, get hypothermia and die. Get the food water and temperature right and you can still find dead ones in the morning as they have all sat on each other crushing the one at the bottom.

But, get it all right; build the chicks a nice hatching box where you put them in under a heat lamp with a textured floor, special water dispensers and proper chick food to develop into chicks they will survive into healthy birds. This is the stage we are at, getting about 90% success rate once the duff eggs have been disposed of. The latest batch which we hope will contain a Winnecott are growing nicely.

Except for the one the cat ate.

Note to self. Must make wire mesh smaller.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Katy playing with Doffodil in the rockery

Posted because they are so cute!

Murder most fowl!

Theres been a murder!

But before I tell you about that let me tell you about the joys of keeping chickens.

We have kept a few hens for years, they don't take up much room, eat garden scraps and layers pellets and provided they are happy are very low maintenance. Devil Hen, closest to you in the picture is eight years old and very occasionally lays blue eggs. That's how they should be, egg laying. Ours eat gold, sleep in velvet lined boxes and are from time to time a blasted nuisance.

Let me explain.

When, flush with the success of owning a few birds, you buy a book of the how to keep chickens genre, you hope to find pearls of wisdom that you can use to rear your birds into fantastic egg producers. You might, as we did, start reading and realise that you have inadvertently broken every rule of chicken husbandry which makes you feel like packing up before you start.

Rule number one, it seems, is never buy an odd looking bird from the market as it closes just because you feel sorry for it. We seem to have confused never with always. Both of us have banned each other from attending a poultry market as we inevitably come back with a box containing a scrawny looking bird whilst offering our spouse lame excuses such as "It looked at me funny" or "It was lonely".

So our initial flock was full of poultry experts rejects who ate their weight in corn for little or no return.

Undaunted we bought 12 Black Rock point of lay hens. Point of lay seems to be a code poultry sellers use for "Unsure at what point they will ever lay". Now we had done our homework, Black Rocks lay 300 eggs a year each. with 12 we would have about 3600 eggs a year. If we sold them at a pound a dozen we would only need to sell 3.5 million eggs to pay off the mortgage!

In a classic variation of don't count your chickens before they've hatched, don't count your eggs until they've been laid. These lazy dozen either don't know they are supposed to be supreme layers or they are hiding their eggs and selling them on the quiet. The original 12 never came on to lay properly and got very fat on the corn supplied every morning by their hopeful owner. In fact a large white table bird bought from a back of the van in a lay by one rainy day, another thing the chicken book tells you not to do, only buy from a reputable seller it says, apparently they don't hang round lay bys plying their poultry, lays more eggs than all of them. One was even caught eating the white birds offering! It was quickly dispatched and served for Sunday roast, delicious.
A cull was immanent. Too much like hard work though, all that plucking and drawing. Luckily a visit to Gwynne's resulted in the loan of the ultimate piece of kit as far as plucking is concerned, a very old Burco Boiler, used at own risk. Since the Black Rocks saw the boiler they have suddenly started producing the much needed eggs. Six eggs a day from the dirty dozen, which six I have yet to discover but its far better than last year so for the moment they are safe. I cant risk eating the wrong six.

The book also warns against having too many bantams, small hens, as they reproduce like rabbits. Often a bantam disappears only to reappear with a dozen or so little bantam chicks. One time last year we had over forty chicks wandering around. Threatened at being over run by the fowl vermin lots were given away. Lots were coq au vin and the fox had a fair number.

Sooner or later the chicken book predicts you will want to specialise in one sort of poultry, fancy birds as it were.



Never will I ever look at a live chicken and think anything other than that would be great with gravy or wonder how many keebabs I could make out of it. I am happy with my cross bred rejects and lazy Black Rocks. The only bird I fancy is the one I married.

So quite why I came back from an agricultural show having spent a fortune with a box containing three Winnecott's, a cock now named Walter, a hen called Winnie, very original I thought and a bantam Winnecott called Winnie Small. Well we run out of names so some repetition is allowed. Winnecotts are beautiful birds, brilliant white feathers edged jet black. Tracey and I were often found watching the antics of these three, commenting on what beautiful birds they were. Show quality the bantam we decided.


If you have read this blog before you may have read the one where Faith was chewing her new toy which we found to be Winnie. Suitably chastised Faith went to her bed while Winnie recovered in a nesting box. She made a full recovery. Phew!

But worse was to come.

A few nights ago we were inspecting the work of the stable sprites who had magically appeared to do more work on the new stable block. Something was wrong. Rocky looked guilty as I looked across to the front door of the cottage. He did the canine equivalent of "Its not me its her" pointing at Faith as she shot out of the doorway with something in her mouth. I headed her off at the pass and found her muzzle covered in feathers. White ones. Edged black.

This time Winnie was hurt, seriously hurt by the front door. We put her in the nesting box but she died a few minutes later.

Faith had murdered our Winnie!

Still we had Winnie Small and she was the best of the two so perhaps we could hatch some of her eggs, get ourselves a small flock of the pretty birds, sell some perhaps.

The following day we came back from work and found Winnie Small dead on the floor, obviously death by dog but ours were safely locked away in the kennel. Perhaps it was a ramblers dog. We shall never know.

With no Winnecott hens left we stuck every egg we had in the incubator in the hope that some of them might be Winniecott offspring. I shall tell you the arcane secrets of egg hatching in another posting.

The bodies were disposed of. I tested the Burco Boiler and it worked great, plucked each both in ten minutes.

They tasted great.

Waste not want not!

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Faith's Bucket

Just one small reason why our jobs take so long some mornings!

Return of the P.O.W.s

In a surprise move the local militia released three of the missing Rock 4 late last night.

An unidentified vehicle approached the border crossing and after verifying the identity of the passengers it was allowed into the yard.

Meg, April and Molly were released back into the care of Rock HQ after a brief tea ceremony and handshakes.

The militia were unable to assist with any details of the whereabouts of Bill, pictured above in Rock HQ's command post, but in an effort to improve relations and eliminate further border disputes they committed to tracking Bill down and returning him safely, thus avoiding the pie makers about to do the spring roundup. They also gave details of further militia groups that may be holding Bill.

Rock HQ paid no ransom and no concessions were made, from the outset our position has been that the Rock HQ hostages should have been released. However the high command at Rock HQ gratefully acknowledge the fact the missing sheep were well looked after and given routine medical treatment. Meg, Molly and April (Bills Mum) are currently being housed in Maggie's Den, goat house number 2, where they will stay for a period of recuperation after their ordeal. They are in excellent health and do not appear to have suffered from their time in captivity.

The search for Bill will intensify, Rock HQ will not give up until his whereabouts or fate are ascertained. He will still be listed as missing in action until proved otherwise.

Meanwhile the plight of Bill continues.

Friday, 25 April 2008

As old as the hills!

Living where we do, in an area of outstanding beauty, it comes as no surprise that people want to share the Rock with us from time to time. As we are only 250 meters from the Offas Dyke and almost exactly at its halfway point we sometimes see weary walkers stagger past hoping to find refuge in the pub at the end of the valley.

There is a footpath that runs along the boundary, and at one point it crosses in front of the house. Some people might view this as a disadvantage when at any time your peaceful afternoon can be interrupted by complete strangers tramping across your garden, but as we are keen walkers ourselves we value other people’s right to roam. It has at times provided us with entertainment and some strange conversations.

Most walkers are a friendly bunch, and as they are crossing our property I always engage them in conversation, usually with a cheery “Walking far?” query. This then follows a trail as well worn as the Offas Path itself, where you from, where you going, yes it is a beautiful spot, yes we are lucky to live here, yes the dogs are big, and friendly, stick to the path, stay clear of the moor and beware the moon.

Walkers usually respond to my friendly enquiries with enthusiasm whilst their heart rate returns to normal after being given the Rock HQ welcome from some massive dogs, some are pictured above. Having been on the receiving end this canine stampede as I walk up the drive I can understand that some walkers might view the welcome as bordering on the intimidating, but they have to understand that they are in the dogs’ playground. I sometimes wonder how some of the grumpy ramblers might react if I suddenly jumped over their fence and ambled across their back garden. Probably not in the same accommodating manner as we do at the Rock.

We often get Geologists, either singularly or in groups, as we live on a pretty old rock, it being 700 million years old while the ones the other side of the valley are a mere 300 million years old. Because of this geological accident those that are interested in this fact travel miles to wander over our hill chipping bits off here and there, examining the crystals, the structure and whatever else it is they do.

More of them later.

As I said previously most walkers are a happy bunch, now and then a few grumpy ones wander through trying desperately to avoid eye contact, shoving hands into their wet anoraks so as to avoid waving at me, but as anyone who knows me will testify I am particularly hard to ignore. Most appreciate the local knowledge I pass on to them or advice on how to find the path once they get out of our yard, thus avoiding incidents like two mountain bikers stuck at the top of the cliff or wandering into the Cauldron and sinking up to your knees in bog.

One walker was particularly rude, clutching his girlfriend protectively to his chest as the Rock pack bayed its greeting. Above the din I heard him accuse me of deliberately setting the dogs on him. My response was short, sharp, too the point and heard a few miles down the track. I don’t think they enjoyed their visit and they didn’t find the path.

Unusual characters turn up, like the time a chap wandered into the yard dragging a suitcase, he was dressed for the outdoors, looking very weather beaten but still looked odd dragging a suitcase, not carrying a rucksack. Turned out he was from Wolverhampton, unemployed and on holiday. He had been told he didn’t have to sign on for a month so he had just gone for a walk, two weeks away from his home he was about ready to turn around and head back. He turned down my offer of a shower and a meal but accepted the chance to camp and use the outside tap. He really enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the Rock.

Unfortunately for him he chose to camp the weekend of our son’s party before he went to Sandhurst so he had to put up with loud music and about fifty people dressed as The Village People or similar. Still, he enjoyed a burger from the bar b que, put up with the dogs visiting his tent (the beagles stole some of his food) and stayed on for two nights.

Another chap stayed and chatted for over an hour while we potted and planted in the spring sunshine, he refused a glass of cider as he had to drive but you could see he wanted it so much it was almost painful. He left us to our task vowing to return one day and take us up on the offer of chilled dry cider.

Groups tend to be fun; a rowdy group of women went through one sunny day asking if I was Ben, they were keen to meet him as pictures of him dressed as George Michael were along the lane, remnants of another party.

Without doubt the strangest encounter was with a group of thirty or so Orthodox Jews, complete with ringtails and headgear who stumbled up the track one sunny day. Their leaders were keen to convey their competence and insisted they needed no assistance, but as they pointed to their maps I pointed out they were in my garden and looking at the wrong map. As I tried to explain where they should be and showed them which map they were on it became clear I had more chance converting them to Christianity than getting them to understand where on the planet they had just walked to.

I eventually led the group up the hill and onto the ridge and to a point they could recognise and so walk towards where they should be. During the walk curious questions were asked, what’s that, a duck, how many ducks do you have, 12, how much is one duck worth, depends what type, approximately, five pounds, good good, what’s that, a dog, how many dogs and so on. Eventually I got bored with the questioning and started to give nonsense answers, 5000 sheep, 100 pounds each, huge collective intake of breath, how much land do you own, all this, what the whole hill, yes, how much is it worth, I don’t know I inherited it, why don’t you sell it and buy somewhere nice? I bit my lip and remained a helpful guide, I began pointing out the geology but as they don’t believe the Earth is 700 million years old it fell on deaf ears.

I left them to their own devices once I was sure they knew exactly where they were and where they should be heading. Rocky was stuffed with kosher crackers and we wandered home. Later that night, around 11pm we could hear voices in the yard. I lifted the bedroom window, another group of Orthodox Jews was hopelessly lost. This time I led them to the road and insisted they phone their leaders for a lift.

Walkers also have a habit of turning up when you least expect them. Once after a days toil, covered in grime and sawdust from the chainsaw, caked in greenery from strimming back the bracken, totally filthy I decided not to change but go for a walk around the hill with the dogs and goat before it got dark I wasn’t concerned about being seen in such a state as no one in their right mind would be walking on the hill late on a Friday afternoon in the winter.


I bumped into a gang of walkers all of which were a tad concerned meeting me, probably on account of the way I looked, maybe it was the goat, but more likely they were concerned at the massive sheath knife on my belt. Or the machete I was carrying to clear any stray branches or gorse bush off the path. I gave them a cheery smile which I think they mistook for an insane grimace from a psychopath, have you seen any walkers on the path one of them nervously asked. Judging the impact my appearance had on them I decided to play up a bit, strangers, in these parts, don’t get many strangers round ‘ere, I exclaimed rolling my eyes. They looked nervously at each other, walking far I enquired as they turned ran back down the track. I left them and set off again wondering what tales they would tell at the hostel later. As they were running towards Mad Keith’s shack they would probably have some more close encounters with deranged locals before their day was over.

Back to the geologists.

Several times a year we meet them. Last time they were here they were gratefully climbing over our cliff and eagerly taking samples from a 45 ton rock that had landed in the garden some months before. I tried to get them to take bigger lumps of it to save me having to break it up with a jack hammer later but they were already overburdened. I also resisted the temptation to swap the rocks they already had for ones from my new rockery.

This time two of them were sliding down the hill clinging to the perimeter fence like their lives depended on it. This was probably the case and to compound their difficulties the Bernese Mountain Dogs were trying to help by sitting on any extended limb. Suitably rescued they ventured along our track to find a one armed builder stood in the rain by a mass of concrete blocks.

Walking far I cheerily enquired.

And so they told their tale. They lived in Hereford, and digging in the back garden they found a rock. On enquiry they found it was a very old rock, 700 million years old in fact. So they thought they would come and see the Mother Rock.

I looked at them and at the hill containing the massive Mother Rocks. How would they recognise the parent?

These weren’t just geologists, these were geriatric geologists. Both had to be almost as old as the rocks they studied. It crossed my mind to ask what they were doing eight foot down in their back garden. I watched the rain dripping off their noses that were red with cold, the mud all over them, and the pattern of dog paw prints on their coats and decided that I had better not delay these pensioners any longer as they still had an hour to walk to their car. They might die.

The dogs and I watched them slowly walk down the lane. It really does take all sorts.

So if you are lucky enough to come and share our hill, be prepared for the Rock HQ welcome as you enter our playground, and don’t expect to stay clean.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Danger Low Flying Geese

There are times, despite having a list of jobs as long as your arm when you just think blow it, they can wait. When you have got animals up to antics like these three playing chase you tend to watch them instead of boring stuff like housework.

While we about our evening routine we had to fetch the geese off the cliff, again, and as we were tempting them down with tasty morsels Bella attempted to fly, not the best idea for a fat unfit bird like Bella. She managed to gain about three feet in altitude, crashed into the stock fence, bounced back and fell into a roll of wire stood against the fence. Trapped in her makeshift cage she had to be rescued as there was no chance she would get free under her own steam. Brandy on the other hand resolutely refused to move from the ledge forcing both Tracey and I up onto the cliff face. Once I got within arms length he performed and amazing vertical take off. Tracey and I watched astounded as he gracefully flew down towards the yard, beautifully silhouetted against the setting sun, his white and buff feathers now edged with the crimson hues of the sunset, his mate Blossom honked her appreciation of this joyous sight, a picture of aerial grace spoilt only by the dull thud as he crashed into the side of the stable and landed in an undignified heap on the gravel.

We didn't laugh.


However, Tracey and I were now on the cliff so we climbed up and explored part of our hill we hadn't previously been to. We sat in the last warm rays of the evening sun looking out across the hills and valleys of Old Radnor. We would have been able to hear the evenbirdsong if the dogs hadn't have found us and sat panting in unison. It was still a great moment, on that confirmed our decision to move here.

We love it.

No matter how many jobs we still have to do.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The Team Works

There are times when you feel like your not making any progress as far as smallholding is concerned. There are other times like in the last few days when you feel that finally the plans are coming together. Here for example is a picture of the work in progress on the stable block where we have taken a slight liberty and built it slightly bigger than originally planned for. Careful observers might see the tack room and goat dairy on the back. Well it was going to be 32 foot long and now its only 24 so it seems only fair we stick the missing bit on the back. No will ever know, no one ever bothers to venture up our lane.

So we got cheap concrete from our neighbours, Karl and the others put the base down and the stable sprites have been erecting the building while we are out at work. Never having seen the magical pixies that are busily constructing the wooden wonder we always got excited at home time wondering what they had been up to while we were away. Sometimes it looked like not much had been going on and we were disappointed, perhaps they had just dropped new piles of wood in the lane, and other times we were delighted to find they had been very busy little sprites and walls were up or roof joists were assembled and fitted. They are a month behind schedule though but you cant tell them off lest they disappear for good!

Now as I had been project managing the kennels, goat houses and retaining wall these busy sprites had been working around the over order of timber, bags of sand and 160 extra concrete blocks. I knew they would have to be moved, mainly because if we wanted to use the stables the blocks blocked one of the door ways. Now William is an agile beast but even he has his limitations. So the extra building materials must be moved, but I kept putting it off. It was going to be a hard job!

We accidentally met the chief sprite in the lane after a busy days toil, bad news he said, as he leaned out of his big white chariot, what I cried, thinking oh no has the bank returned the cheque, have the planning people been around.

No worse than that, it was the day, the day that the sprite decided the blocks must be moved.

By us, not by magic.


I only have one functioning arm so using a wheelbarrow is a hell of a challenge but I gave it a go for amusements sake if nothing else, carefully placing four of the concrete blocks in the barrow I attempted to lift it. Not a good idea as I felt the metal work in my left arm twang. So I took two out and cautiously tried again, success and soon the two blocks were transported across the yard and lined up along the fence. Tracey came to help after cleaning out the kennel block and after an hour and a half of toil we had moved forty blocks. I could not remember why I had ordered so many of the biggest, heaviest concrete blocks on the market. Our backs were breaking and we needed help.

I gave the secret call.

The team assembled, Ben (our son) Tom (Beth's boyfriend) Tracey provided the muscle and Beth provided the coffee while I provided much needed moral support as they set about the task. Within an hour they had moved the 120 blocks and stacked them so they looked like a concrete homage to the Terra Cotta warriors, twenty concrete statues now guard the lane and entrance to the Kennels.
Thank you team.
And as for no one ever coming up our lane, well a large green four by four nudged its way through the throng of dogs and poultry that gathered round to welcome it. I eyed it with suspicion.
A man got out and looked at the building site and then me. I looked at the blocks, the wood, the concrete and the extra bit and then at him. He introduced himself, our local councillor.
Will we vote for him in the local elections.

Trevor the pocket rocket has high hopes

This is Trevor our Shitland pony, he has ideas above his station. At the moment he is in a mating frenzy, he has on several occasions tried to violate his owners, Rocky the Bernese Mountain Dog and here is trying to sneak up on William our Welsh Cob.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Fix the little faker

Animals have a strange habit of letting you down or proving you wrong. Like the time we get visitors and the horse runs off as we are showing how good he is, or the goat jumping from car roof to car roof because she can, or the cat running for the cat flap with your steak in its mouth, our list is almost endless.

Jess, the little bottle fed lamb who in the previous post I accused of faking an illness in order to exploit our sympathies and allow her further creature comforts, was in fact really ill. Almost as soon as the post was published she started to do an energetic form of lamb break dancing, spinning on the cushion, jumping up, staggering sideways and falling over to repeat the process. Her breathing became very forced and laboured and her stomach looked like it would explode. Clearly she was in distress, a lot of pain and as my diagnostic skills were well out of their depth professional help was needed.

We had to call the Vet!

A quick consultation with Tracey confirmed that Vets help was necessary as our do it yourself sheep illness cured book was telling us we were either dealing with cold sores, worms, epilepsy or rabies. All of which in a new lamb would be fatal.

Jess was now being comforted in the arms of my lovely wife who was understandably upset. I rashly promised to sell my other kidney to pay for the Vets time in order to save the little beasty and the call to the emergency Vet was made.

Now Vets are a law unto themselves who practice medicine in extremely difficult circumstances with a variety of patients who cant talk and who have their every move scrutinised by the patients owner. I myself wanted to be a vet while at school until I realised where they had to put their hands, took seven years before they earned any money and had to learn Latin. As that was all Greek to me I got on a different bus at school and ended up in the Police. But that's a different set of stories.

We used to use a practice for years where Deb the vet was extremely tolerant of mental patient owners like me who brought in such interesting cases as a rabbit with a ruptured penis. I sat quietly in the waiting room alongside the other anxious owners whose precious charges were entrusted to the veterinary skills of Deb. She tried not to laugh when she handed my rabbit back, no it hadn't ruptured its penis, it was giving birth. Ah, right thanks Deb.

I had just lived this down when I then took a female cat to be spayed and returned home with a neutered male and a note from Deb asking if I needed a lesson in biology.

I stuck with it and Deb has been our vet for years and she is great, a top vet. However she works for a large practice with huge overheads and when we were charged a huge sum of money for a booster for Rocky and seven sets of worming tablets , a sum so large it necessitated the sale of a small internal organ (OK I exaggerate, but I had to sell some of my toys) we decided we would look elsewhere.

A new practice opened almost opposite our offices in town, the Teme Veterinary Practice, and when my techy friend Sara can be persuaded there will be a link to their website, we tried them when Reba was ill and they were good. In fact they were excellent, so it was them that got our frantic call late last night.

Andy is a very down to earth chap and unlike most Vets I've met is not at all precious about his work. He talks you through the options and if possible gives you the knowledge and skills to deal with it yourself. Exactly what a panicking novice shepherd needed when one of his little lambs is poorly was Andy talking calmly about what was going on and what needed doing.

Jess had wind.

This might seem harmless but it would be fatal to the poor mite if we couldn't sort it. Andy explained that as the lamb was bottle fed she would be gulping down air with her milk causing her pain and restricting her breathing. We needed to release the trapped air that had built up over the days otherwise it would be curtains for Jess. Fighting the temptation to deliver the we don't have any curtains punch line I listened carefully to the instructions from the everso patient Andy. The way he explained it instilled me with confidence and knowing that if it all went horribly wrong I could rely on him to come over and fix the little faker I set about the Florence Nightingale routine with Jess.

First off I made her swallow some olive oil in an attempt to shift the wind and provoke a bout of burping. Not too successful and she didn't like the taste. Next option was to put a feeding pipe down her throat into her stomach which would hopefully release the gas. This seemed to do the trick and after some very strange noises Jess started to breath a lot easier and looked a bit more comfortable.


Two hours later Jess was break dancing again, her stomach swollen and she was in a right state. It was time for the ultimate wind deterrent, the Nuclear option as it were. I got a large hypodermic syringe needle and got Tracey to wrap Jess in a towel, primarily to stop her struggling but also as a precaution against Jess bursting. I gathered my thoughts and replayed Andy's very matter of fact instructions in my head, no one wants to do this but if you have to, look at the lamb, imagine its a ball floating in the water and on the highest point as it floats in the water on the left hand side stick the needle. Not really knowing what to expect I stuck the needle in.

Jess looked at me.

Thankfully she didn't go bang.

She did go down, gently, all the gases escaping through the needle. The smell, like roses, roses that had been kept in a vat of cow shit for a year. Oh the smell, even to dogs took cover. Luckily for me I lost most of my sense of smell climbing in the Alps, Tracey on the other hand was suffering.

Meanwhile Jess was cured. Totally. In fact she wanted feeding. As did the others. As did the dogs. No time to pat ourselves on our backs, we had jobs to do.

But we would take time to thank Andy when we saw him.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

It's a hard life

So to expand the theme of things you get used to, as per previous posting, I suppose I would find it hard to explain why there are three hardy hill sheep sat on the sofa after eating their dinners watching me type this. Having said never to the idea of having a house sheep I find Jess the white faced lamb on the right following me around the house watching me prepare her meals, in fact watching me cook dinner, one of her relatives in all honesty but she seems to cope.
Every time we put them out, where they are supposed to be, amongst the buttercups and daisies of the grassy bank that makes up part of the garden they race back to the sanctuary of the sofa.
Threatened with banishment to the goat house, now empty of ewes waiting to lamb, one of them feigns illness. Jess is the current faker, and she is without doubt a right little faker. Off her food for three days, only eating if Tracey feeds her, they do seem to have bonded, bless, she started losing weight. Instead of gutsing down a litre of milk a day she's been on 200ml a day. Not enough to grow big and strong and not enough it would seem to allow her to go and endure the inclement April weather, and as they are a family group they have all got to stay indoors. Enjoying comforts such as the sofa, the cat blanket in front of the rayburn and the dog beds by the radiator.
I am used to spotting and avoiding lamb mines and mopping up their little widdles, no point in house training them as they are not staying long. Are they?
For some inexplicable reason the central heating has been put on for them, the central heating hasn't been used since we moved in, whatever the weather we refused to use it, part of our economy drive and greener lifestyle, yet somehow the pretty likkle lambs have persuaded it on.
We breed em hard up at the Rock.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Secrets of Animal Husbandry

There are things in the world of smallholding that you find yourself doing or accepting that had someone explained to you before you took on the farm you might have questioned or dare I say baulked at the idea.

For example your tolerance for dirt increases, whats the point of clean trousers when you are likely to be kneeling in one of nine forms of excrement that morning as you attend to one of your beasts or birds. You accept extremes of temperature and weather, bravely trudging along the lane carrying vital supplies to starving animals in blizzards, hurricanes, hail storms, torrential rain, biting northerly winds and very occasionally hot sunny days.

You get used to being tired, having a full time job and then working full time on the farm does take it out of you and it is a battle now and then to get out of your warm armchair in front of the wooodburner, leaving your nice cup of hot chocolate, beautiful wife and loyal Bernese Mountain Dog who seconds before you moved was lying at your feet looking adoringly into your eyes promising to defend you to the death should the need arise and who is now cowering under the kitchen table as you don your sou'wester and cheerily give the "Come on Rocky" the signal that he should join you on your epic trek to round up the geese for the night who will invariably scatter when your torchlight appears and be all over the place like a mad woman's shit rather than snuggled up in the goose house safe from predators and the elements, you get used to that sinking feeling as you stand by the door looking at the dog looking at you giving the "Are you mental, I've seen the weather mate I'm staying in here where its warm" signals, and you know full well that you are about to go out alone.

There are lots of things you get used to, and there are lots of things about animal husbandry you are never told.

For example, if you knew that goats climbed like monkeys you might reconsider having one, or two as we do. If you knew they eat everything other than what they are supposed to eat you would probably invest heavily in electrified fencing, the type capable of keeping King Kong away from your precious garden and fruit bushes and trees.

Any new animal at the Rock means a steep learning curve for the human residents, the type of learning curve NASA uses to launch rockets.

So no one told me, no one ever mentioned what I found myself doing whilst standing in the evening sunshine at Rock HQ. Had they done so I, without fear of contradiction, would have told them to "Sod that for a game of soldiers" or perhaps similar sentiment expressed in fewer words, mostly of four letters and undoubtedly one at least beginning with the letter f.

I was involved in a task that still makes me shudder at the thought and my brain now contains images that are most unpleasant. The worst thing is we have to do this again, several times a year for the rest of our lives, or for as long as we have a male horse.

We have to clean Williams penis.

With a special lotion purchased form the equine equivalent of Ann Summers, the instructions for use are enough to put you off your dinner, yet alone the process. Apparently the horses thingy gets covered in dirt and when it withdraws back into the sheath it drags this dirt inside which over time converts into a black tar like substance called Smegma, the name alone is conveys terror, this Smegma hardens and can crack (OH please God no more) creating razor sharp edges which cut the poor horses widgey (How have they survived this long!) and create an infection which in extreme cases makes your pony very poorly and need the vet.

Not wanting to be the owner of Mattel's diseased dick my little pony we had to take action. Warning signs were there that there might be a problem as Williams sheath had fly bites on it so perhaps his todger wasn't smelling so good. Smell is another aspect of smallholding you get very used to, there are some ripe smells around animals, particularly goats when they backfire.

So armed with buckets of warm water, sponges and pony love potion we fetched William to be cleansed. He stood quietly, gently munching his hay from the net while Tracey and I considered how to go about this task. With one of us on either side of William we bent down and inspected his John Thomas, it was, as mine would be if this was going to happen, hiding. It had to be coaxed out. I knew I would never be the same after this evening.

The guidance on the potion said an ideal time to lasso his willy to clean it was when he had a wee. Anyone witnessing a horse taking a leak and the gallons they produce would know that this is not the time to be anywhere near without total waterproof protection. Ben tells a story of the horse at Sandhurst, Warrior, who on the Commandants parade in a a very high wind took a leak which instantly vapourised and the pissy mist landed on the wives and daughters of the senior officers who were all dressed in their best.

There had to be a different way to coax it out. Tracy gave it a quick rub, I really didn't know where to look or what to feel as I was dragged into what seemed like an equine threesome. As I watched her trying to provoke a reaction from the flacid horse I suffered a curious mixture of feelings, revulsion, envy, bordering on jealousy. My wife's hand action prompted no response so with the words "Cover me, I'm going in" or similar Tracey put her hand, suitably oiled, inside Williams foreskin.

The next few seconds passed in a blur. William definitely reacted, his eyes bulged, he almost choked on the hay and quite possibly the wax shot out of his ears as well.

Tracey triumphantly waved under my nose a lump of evil smelling black stuff clutched in her lubricated digits. She dropped it on the floor and I looked away as she reached in for a second handful. William was to my mind showing to many signs he was enjoying this and was definately giving me leery looks. Not wanting to ruin the moment for them both I looked out across the Radnor hills and found somewhere safe in the sunset to park my shattered mind.

Animal husbandry couldn't get any worse than this.

As usual I was wrong.

Pip the collie was sat watching the show. She is a strange dog with severe attachment disorder and behavioural problems.

She ran over and sat under William.

She ate the Smegma.

Find somewhere safe.

Friday, 18 April 2008

In case you were thinking of getting a goat....

Some pictures to show you what lovely animals they are.

They sit on your car and wait patiently for you.

They love patio furniture.

In fact they climb on or jump over most things, then they get stuck. They cry like babies if they are left alone.
You have to love them or they would be curry!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Lazing on a Sunday afternoon

After a hectic few days it was nice to have a day relaxing at Rock HQ.

We spent a lazy morning feeding the animals and clearing up their mess before we sat down to a family breakfast of Rock Specials.

Ben was the last to join us at the breakfast table, wearing the same trouser and shirt combo as yesterday. It transpired that Ben had been so tired he had fallen asleep on the sofa, waking when Beth came in from work at half eleven, engaged in conversation with her, phoned his girlfriend in Ireland and then fallen back to sleep whilst talking to her. He next remembered waking at 6am when he finally made it to his bedroom.

Today was going to be a good day, not only were we all together a t Rock HQ for the first time since early March enjoying a hearty breakfast, but some friends of ours were visiting, which is always nice, and they were bringing lunch with them which was even better!

Tracey and I went back outside to waste time with the animals and the kids did their version of tidying the house which is never my favorite pastime. A kid tidying is like an adult tidying except they mop around things or dust around things rather than move them and do it properly, or they hide stuff, not putting it away, they hide it.

Just before lunch, to a rousing background chorus provided by our mental dogs, two cars appeared on the drive. Kay, Tim and their son Matthew carried boxes of food through to the kitchen whilst Matt, Justine and their three boys, Oliver, Harry and Hamish fought off the enthusiastic welcome of the Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Kay had excelled in the lunch department, I wasn’t sure what she had planned when she said she would bring lunch over but I certainly hadn’t expected four delicious curries, all the accompaniments and enough cheese to stock a small shop for the cheeseboard.


Even better they gave me a bottle of single malt whiskey for my birthday. I love single malt whiskey and have a small collection of the lovely Scottish Elixir, enough to supply me with hangovers for many years to come. I was going to pour it into the decanter they gave us a couple of years ago but as Matt, who used to work for some Whiskey producer couldn’t categorically assure me it wouldn’t go off so I put it carefully with the others, in the dark cool surroundings of the pantry. Putting it there also makes it less accessible which means it might just last a bit longer.

We had not seen Matt and Justine for nearly two years so there was a lot of catching up to do. Last time I saw their children they were small, now they were all so much bigger, an amazing change. Justine did pass comment on my lack of ability to send Christmas cards; I failed to mention that I had written them, addressed them but failed to post them. This year everyone should get last year’s card, if I remember two things. One, where I have put them, somewhere safe obviously, but I am notorious for putting stuff in safe places, so safe I can never find them again, and two, actually post them. So should you get a card from Rock HQ this year with last years stamp on you will know I have been successful. If you don’t get one its either because I haven’t found them, or more likely I have, or replacements for them, but I am still driving round with them in the car promising myself that I will stop and stick them in a post box.

However I was able to give Matt and Justine’s children their Christmas present from two years ago, something else I never got round to posting, luckily it was still useful, they wouldn’t have grown out of it. No one ever grows out of Scalextric sets.

Except girls.

After a tour of the smallholding where they saw Trevor misbehaving, dogs running off, sheep with cute lambs, maniac goats who were eyeing up the possibility of sitting on our visitors car roof ( a favourite goat trick, you have been warned!) and chicks hatching out of eggs in the incubator, we all assembled in the kitchen for lunch. Kay had either seriously underestimated the number of people for lunch or had overestimated the amount of food the human stomach can hold. The table visibly sagged under the weight of curry, nan breads, rice and pickles. I had died and gone to curry heaven. We all tried our best but even after three platefuls each it looked like we had hardly made an impact, Matt bravely set out on a fourth plateful while Tim exercised his lunch off by washing up. What excellent guests! They provide the food and wash up!

After gorging ourselves on spicy food we then got the cheese board out, well, cheese table actually as there was so much. Whilst we took a tour of the worlds famous cheeses washed down with vintage port, a present from Ireland for Ben, we all took turns in reciting favorite passages from Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, a compulsory activity for anyone faced with any sort of cheese selection.

Time and crackers passed and so our visitors left Rock HQ, everyone happy, all extremely full. We promised to visit Matt and Justine who now live in some far flung place in the UK rather than just down the road. Kay was thanked by all for such a lovely lunch and we were left with the happy prospect of curry and cheese for Dinner for the next fortnight as she very generously put all the leftovers in our fridge.

I love food.

Especially when it’s free.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Chaos Corner Sovereign's Parade

This is a short clip of Ben's Sovereign's Parade, filmed at chaos corner.

I keep watching it marvelling how they don't fall over each other, they switch from two ranks to four and left wheel whilst carrying swords. No one dies! I wish I could have filmed the practice sessions, its not called chaos corner for nothing!

Ben is the right hand marker shouting orders, he sounds like a girl, some things don't change then.

Continuity and Change

So we woke up hungover.

Well I did, I tried fighting it off with a luke warm bottle of still water at around 5 am which optimistically washed down two breath fresh mints I mistook as paracetamol.

I made breakfast at 9.30, the hotel owner enquired whether I wanted cereals with my full cooked. Eager to get my moneys worth I affirmed that a bowl of crunchy nut was a necessary addition to my breakfast. I could tell that this was not the answer she wanted, this feeling was confirmed as I saw her husband cycle past the dining room window on an urgent mission to purchase milk.

Any how breakfast was delicious, despite the wait, and after lashings of tea and toast we packed the Rene and headed back to the sanctuary of the Rock.

I had a quick chat with Ben, he had only had thirty five seconds sleep in the last twenty four hours and he still had to pack and clear out his room. There were apparently some pretty weird smells that had to be located and dealt with, not an easy or pleasant task, believe me I know having twice cleaned his bedroom whilst he was away, his fungus collection in mugs should have been sent to the museum of Natural History as I am convinced there were several unique species and possibly the cure for cancer floating on one mug of aging Nescafe. Good to know some things don't change, even after a year of strict Army discipline he still had to use a pig on a string as an air freshener in his room.

Something else that hasn't changed is his ability to break things. The picture at the top is him in his mess dress, a uniform that cost around £2000, and took five fittings to get it tailored right. He looks very smart in it.

Its not so smart now.

He fell over at the ball and put a hole in the knee.

He is after all his fathers son!

I played Wardroom Rugby in my parade uniform the night before my pass out and trashed my uniform. Not good, but I had a spare which wasn't quite so smart but would do, my boots on the other hand were wrecked. No amount of polishing would revive them into parade state and as I was right hand marker I needed to be ship shape by 8 am. As it was now 5 am I had no chance. Except that I discovered God exists. In my room there was a spare locker and for some reason I opened it, never having done so for the two weeks I had been accommodated in the room. There on the top shelf was a fabulous pair of size ten, bulled, shiny parade boots. Mine obviously! Thank you God, or more likely the poor sap that left them there thinking they would be there on his return, he did find a pair of boots but they needed a bit of work.

Tracey drove us back to Rock HQ, I couldn't drive having a bad arm and a very bad head.

As usual the closer we got to home the happier I became, I love getting out of the car and opening the gate to go up our track, closing the black five bar gate is quite symbolic, it keeps the real world away from our living the dream half a mile further on.

All was well at the farm, Jill and Derrick had done a fantastic job of marshaling the beasts and there was a new addition to see. Roxy had finally uncrossed her legs and delivered a lovely Ram lamb, now called Sandy as he was born during Ben's parade.

Life eh?

Some things change, some stay the same.

Isn't it great!

Monday, 14 April 2008

Lets Rock Sandhurst

The more time I spend at Rock HQ the harder it is to leave it for any length of time.

To justify being away from our rural idyll there needs to be a good reason. We seldom go to town anymore, save for visits to the vets, or to collect feed for the beasts or to the hospital to have my arm looked at. As time goes on I find myself only leaving here to go to work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti social, I love people visiting, especially when they want to help out on any number of jobs that want doing, but I have developed a specific type of agoraphobia that means my anxiety increases in direct correlation to the time and distance I am away from Rock HQ. We’ve even cancelled holidays abroad so we can stay and holiday at Rock HQ, I mean who wants to be on a beach in Antigua when you can muck the horses out.

There are exceptions that will tempt me out of my hermit like existence, such as a meal with good friends, the odd party ( and some of my friends do have odd parties) or a an event such as happened this last few days.

Late Thursday evening we all left Rock HQ and travelled to RMA Sandhurst to watch Ben, our son, take part in the Sovereigns’ Parade. After a grueling year, one that has tested his physical and mental endurance to the limits Ben has now been commissioned into the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd battalion.

As usual best laid plans were nearly scuppered by the animal residents of Rock HQ, just as we were leaving the farm in the very capable hands of Jill and Derrick, my in laws, Roxy our last ewe to lamb showed distinct signs that she was about to pop. An hour passed and Roxy let out an almighty belch and carried on eating.

So we left, but way behind schedule and as Tracey was feeling very tired I stepped into the breach and drove. An interesting experience for all concerned considering that I haven’t driven since 24-9-07 due to my broken arm, but my passengers showed their appreciation for my efforts by sobbing uncontrollably at every junction.

We made it in good time, despite the rain and soon we were settled in our very nice hotel eager to see Ben. He showed up very happy but very nervous as we were going to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time and he was keen that I made a good impression. I had just driven for 150 miles with a broken arm, how could I not make a good impression! They made a good impression on me by buying me a drink, a whole bottle of red which went down very nicely as we swapped stories of our journey, they had travelled the farthest having come over from Dublin. Ben sat and fretted during the meal, he wasn’t allowed in any licensed premises within three miles of the camp gates, he was convinced he would be found out and be stopped from passing out with the rest of his platoon.

The parade was spectacular, some four hundred cadets, officers, bandsmen and horses in an expertly choreographed display of marching and drill. The weather was equally spectacular, glorious sunshine until the last two minutes of the parade, as they marched up the steps of the Old College the heavens opened, torrential rain, closely followed by a massive hail storm that suddenly whipped across the parade square and as everyone rushed for shelter, their flimsy umbrellas no match for the wrath of the elements, an enormous clap of thunder followed an impressive lightening display that made me thankful that the steel tipped umbrella I was holding skywards had a real wooden handle.

The whole day taught me many things, the most important of which is that I am now the very proud parent of an Army Officer, but it mainly taught me that I am no longer the party animal I once was.

For me parties used to be, to use a military analogy here, like the Falklands Conflict, over quickly, in and out with minimal casualties, whereas now going to a party is like the Vietnam War, prolonged, drawn out, never ending with huge collateral damage. Even with having a bit of a kip after lunch I was seriously flagging by 1 am.

I also couldn't find an area of the Ball where I felt comfortable. Now this ball was a huge affair, different zones were allocated themes to keep the four thousand or so revelers happily entertained. The rallying point for us was The King Hussein’s Pavilion where members of Ben’s platoon had laid on free drinks for all of their guests. The table was a sea of alcoholic beverages and if you were inclined you could have drunk yourself into oblivion before even getting to the ball, this was an option taken up by a few. I must apologise to who ever it was that put the very expensive bottle of Champagne down on the table only to find that it had been liberated and drunk by yours truly. I did share it and had it been a few degrees colder it would have been fantastic but as it was free it went down very nicely and I do appreciate your generosity however accidental it may have been.

We then progressed to the ball itself, the entrance hall had a grand piano with a gentleman trying to entertain the troops with a personal tribute to Barry Manilow. This was not for me, I like something with a bit more beat to it so we went into the next room which seemed to serve as a chillout area but as there was a photographer lurking we pushed on into a huge dance hall where enthusiastic DJ’s were mixing some banging tunes. Now I have done door work at nightclubs, and have also done security work for The Ministry of Sound where my little ears have been assaulted by immense volumes. This was nothing compared to the noise generated in this hall, it almost drove the words you were trying to shout to your fellow party goers back inside your mouth. This was not the place to be if you wanted to hear anything other than a high pitched whine for the rest of your life so we hurried through the exit into the next zone which was quieter but only as in the way a Tornado jet engine is quieter than Concorde. This place had a soul band, highly entertaining and what clinched the deal as to why we should stay, the bar, it was huge, fully staffed and they were serving Guinness! Bonus points, but somehow we had lost our Irish companions so I had to drink their share as well. A challenge I accepted with some misgivings but the earlier alcohol consumption had destroyed the brain cells that would have warned me of impending hangovers so I battled on regardless of the inevitable pain that would start in a few hours time.

What saved me from too much self harm was going outside to watch the fireworks which I have to admit were a bit of a let down. Anyone who has attended one of our parties will vouch for the quality of our firework displays where we have triggered small nuclear explosions with weapons grade fireworks in a small mid terrace garden.

Once outside in the fresh air I was drawn to the pig roast, compulsory after alcohol if no bacon butties are available, where the sobering effect of the cold night air was complimented by hot pork fat and soggy bread. We returned to the DJ arena where the sonic attack had the same effect on us as shrapnel had on troops in the trenches, we refused to go over the top and decided on a tactical withdrawal to the taxi rank.

Here we had an encounter with an extremely offensive little man who thought he was onto some easy money from some merry party people. Cash up front was his first demand, no problem how much, twenty pounds, sorry mate but it was only four to get here, even allowing for the early hours it shouldn’t be more than ten. At this point the offensive little driver launched into a diatribe of incomprehensible insults so we left him excitedly bouncing up and down in his driver’s seat and got into the car behind where a very nice man agreed to take us to the Hotel for a tenner. Apparently he had lost count the number of times he had seen people get out of the other taxi in a hurry.

Back at the Hotel we got to our rooms quietly like all party goers suffering from excess alcohol and inner ear damage, lots of shushing, hand signals and very loud Good Nights or I Love You’s.

I finally located my bed at 2am where I tangled myself up in the soft duvet and deep pillows, pleased on two fronts, one that I had in some way assisted Ben in his ambition to be an Army Officer, and two, that I had not danced like a Dad at the ball thereby embarrassing myself, my wife and my family.


Thursday, 10 April 2008

Trevor the pocket rocket

Keep watching. This is Trevor our Shitland.

33 inches tall.

Very fast.

I am thinking I might get a chariot for him.

And some body armour for me so I survive the inevitable crash!

Danger, Lamb Mines!!

A quick update.

The lambs are doing very well, bottle feeding them every four hours was a test of endurance, particularly on the 3 am feed but they now sleep through the night, bless.

Who says sheep are stupid?

These three hardy mountain sheep soon found where the best place to sleep was, on the dog bed under the radiator in the lounge. They then found an even warmer place only a hop skip and a jump away, so they are often found welded to the side of the Rayburn in the kitchen. The cats are most put out as this was their preferred spot. I made the mistake of feeling sorry for the lambs the other night and instead of putting them in their crate over night I left them in the kitchen. In the morning we discovered they had had a right party, dancing on the furniture, sorting through the DVD collection, getting on the table and generally making a mess. I stepped in a Lamb Mine left at the bottom of the stairs as I blearily made my way towards my much needed early morning caffeine hit, bright orange pooh squishing between my toes set the tone for the whole day. It was also the day I set out to work and then realised that I had left the dogs out, by the time I got back they were a mile away chasing rabbits. Once they were rounded up I eventually got to work and then found I still had my farm boots on. My colleagues are used to my footwear being somewhat soiled but even they were taken aback at these.

Visitors to the Rock are used to fighting for sofa space, they now have to contend with Jess, Daffodil and Katy pushing their way in. Its funny now as a twenty pound lamb jumps up for seat space, I wonder how funny it will be when they weight over 120 pound and demand cushion rights. Hopefully by then they will be hardy enough to be out on the ridge with the others and not the pampered creatures sat watching me now.

They have had a few moments though, where we thought they wouldn't make it. Daffodil was eventually persuaded to eat from the bottle and is now quite a tough cookie, Jess, the largest was doing very well until she crossed paths with Faith who suffers badly from PMT so got bit and needed antibiotics, as did Katy the tiny lamb who developed a hip infection and stopped eating. So all in all they have been hard work, but hearing them bleat their appreciation makes it all worth while.

Except for the pooh, in between your toes, nothing is worth that.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

P.O.W. latest news!

Despite having negotiators on standby no contact was made this week with the militia believed to be holding the Rock Four captive.

A breakthrough in Diplomacy was achieved today and direct discussions for the release of the Rock Four were finally held with those holding them.

No information was given as to their exact whereabouts but it is thought they managed to get five miles behind enemy lines before they were discovered and taken hostage.

Those holding them have given assurances that they are fit and healthy and have committed to releasing them as soon as they admit to having strayed onto private farmland and acceptable transport can be arranged. The position of Rock HQ was maintained, that they were non combatants on Common Land and should have been allowed to continue their grazing unhindered. As a gesture of good will the militia have agreed to transport the captives back to Rock HQ in the near future. In the meantime they will be entertained at the militias expense.

Unfortunately it has been disclosed that only three of the missing four are captive and only vague descriptions have been passed to Rock HQ. It is unclear which three are being held although it is almost certain that one of the prisoners is Meg the only brown face Suffolk cross of the group.

Our thoughts are with the three captives and the remaining member of the grazing party that must still be classified M.I.A.

Meanwhile the plight of the Rock Four continues.

Death Stalks The Rock

Death is never far away in the life of smallholding.

Take a walk anytime over our hill or out onto the ridge itself and you will see where death has caught up with its clients. An explosion of feathers or fur marks the spot where a bird or rabbit endured its final mortal moments. Paths and tracks are littered with bones of sheep, in fact there are so many on one particular trail I named it Sheep Skull Lane. Occasionally you find fresher remains, an old ewe lying under a gorse bush, bits of fleece falling away signaling the start of decomposition. Once I found a blood trail, the glossy scarlet streaked across the spring grass leading to a ewe, who, exhausted from the effort of trying to give birth, had collapsed on the hillside and died only moments before I arrived on the scene. The head of her lamb had stuck fast, with no one there to assist she was doomed and they both died.

Whoever says lambing is straight forward has no real concept of the task. It is a time fraught with difficulties, of immense highs, joyous moments, the miracle of witnessing birth, the fight for life and sometimes, inevitably death. The commercial farmers reckon on 3 out of hundred ewes causing problems. Our first year at the Rock lambing time approached with our three Ryeland ewes we felt confident that we shouldn't have too many worries. As we had those three out of a hundred ours was an absolute nightmare, a real baptism of fire.

Rita began by presenting a lamb with its head stuck; luckily Tracey and I were brought up watching James Herriot on the BBC so we knew what we had to do. I pushed the head back in and scooped up the two front legs and pulled the lamb out. Rita took the intrusion on my right arm in her insides quite well and began mothering the lamb, called Shrek. Minutes later Rita keeled over and further exploration with my hand discovered a second lamb, this time a breach birth, much pushing and shoving later we had April running around the pen. So with our first ewe we had had to deal with the two most difficult birth scenarios at once.

Still, it could only get easier from there, well apparently not.

Roxy gave birth the next day whilst we were at work. Tracey had come home to discover two little lambs in the barn looking very disorientated. Roxy had little idea what to do with them so we had to milk her, feed the lambs and gently encourage her to take over the mother role. Luckily for us and the lambs Ebony and Ivory, Roxy eventually got the hang of it. Rosie held out for a whole month before delivering Lucky, again this was not entirely an easy birth. Tracey returned from work again to find a ewe with the head of a lamb stuck fast. I was miles away so Tracey rolled her sleeves up and did a Mrs. Herriot on Rosie and by the time I got home Lucky was doing very well whilst shell shocked Tracey was enjoying cider with Rosie.

This is why we bring our small flock in off the hill, so much can go wrong, even when healthy lambs pop out they can meet death in a variety of ways. Perhaps the saddest is when the birth bag fails to tear away from the face of the newborn. Unable to breathe the lamb dies. By the time the ewe cleans the lamb it’s too late and the shepherd finds a perfect, clean but very dead lamb. No one tells you this aspect of small scale farming, people have strange ideas about lambs, just seeing the cute little things bouncing around in the sunshine they forget the trauma it took to get them there.

We had gone to bed exhausted following Easter’s labour where she produced two healthy lambs Daffodil and Primrose, so named because of the mass of flowers on the bank that overlooked their birth. We got up just before six to check on the sheep. Easter’s twin girls were still standing when we got to the sheep shed. Relieved I began the routine of feeding and watering the many beasts resident at Rock HQ. The dawn chorus was supplemented by the noise of hungry goats, sheep, dogs and poultry. As I passed the sheep shed again Tracey was watching with some concern the goings on inside. The lambs were weakly staggering around, Easter was facing them, pushing Primrose away and turning onto Daffodil. I put a bucket of sheep nuts down for Easter and as she ate I put a lamb by her teats. She stopped eating and turned away from the lamb. I moved her into the corner so she couldn't back away and repeated the process, she carried on eating and the lamb closed in on breakfast. I left them too it as the poultry needed feeding but returned five minutes later. Primrose was lying on her side, almost lifeless, Daffodil was in the corner with her head down, and Easter was stood in the middle of the pen spinning round madly.

Lambs must eat almost as soon as they are born, within 15 minutes or so. The first feed is vital as the milk, known as colostrum contains antibodies and vitamins without which the lamb will certainly die. Easter, a first time mum, felt overwhelmed with the prospect of motherhood and whilst she instinctively knew she had to feed them she panicked every time they approached and turned away. The lambs were now exhausted from following her around the pen and close to death.

I picked up Primrose, she felt like a cold wet dish cloth as I carried her into the kitchen. Tracey mixed some colostrum and we managed to syringe 70ml into the lamb via a feeding tube. Wrapped up in a towel and placed in front of the rayburn she looked pitiful but we were hopeful that we had got to her in time. They need the colostrum in the first six hours of birth and we were just about in time. As we watched we could see that Primrose had stopped breathing. Unsure how to administer the kiss of life to a lamb I did my best and she spluttered back to life. Her heartbeat was strong so she wasn’t going to leave us just yet.

I fetched Daffodil in and we got 100ml into her. Primrose was by now rallying and we placed them both with the tiddlers Jess and Katy housed in the conservatory.

Realizing how close we were to losing these two Ryeland Lambs we did not really want to leave them but we had paid jobs to go and do. Luckily we were able to get away from work at midday and after calling at the vet for advice we returned to the Rock. The news from the vet was not good, unless we got 150ml immediately into the lambs they were unlikely to survive. He also gave us some mineral mix to help hydrate the poor mites and a supplementary oral boost, molasses based to increase their chances of survival.

The conservatory at Rock HQ now looked like an emergency ward with four sickly lambs totally reliant on us to meet their needs. Primrose and Daffodil were still alive and we managed to get more colostrum into them with a feeding tube. They didn’t like the molasses mix but it did seem to perk them up. Two hours later we repeated the process, forcing more food into them via the pipe, this time Daffodil took 200ml but Primrose only managed another 100.

But they were improving, slowly.

By 3pm Primrose even started walking around the conservatory, managing a half hearted skip in the sunshine. Both passed urine showing that their kidneys were functioning and they had passed solids demonstrating the internal organs were not shutting down. The danger is that once you get a lamb on recovery they die anyway as various parts of their system shuts down. They all settled down on the dog bed in a sunbeam and fell asleep. We were beginning to feel confident that they would survive.

We got on with other jobs but always returning to the lambs to check their progress.

I put dinner in the oven, a rack of ribs from Shrek. We, as you have probably guessed, have a very real relationship with our food at Rock HQ. Shrek was our first lamb at the smallholding, and after 11 months of the best care he was the first to take up residence in Mr. Whirlpool the chest freezer. Tonight he was on the menu.

At 6pm Daffodil took another 200ml, again from the pipe but this time she sucked it slightly, things were looking good, she was at least making an effort. Primrose seemed lethargic; she wouldn’t eat and held her mouth shut against the feed pipe. I mixed the mineral supplement given to us by the vet and she took 200ml and a couple of squirts of the molasses tonic. Things did not look good and sounded even worse. Her breathing took on a labored quality and she rasped and gurgled with every breath.

An hour later she stopped breathing but her heart beat was still strong, Tracey massaged Primrose's chest and blew into her mouth prompting her to continue drawing in air.

I was wondering if I had got the fluids into her correctly, perhaps I had filled her lungs with the glucose mix. I put my finger into her mouth and she held on, not sucking just squeezing my digit with her mouth. It was cold, a sign that she was giving up, her body was not producing any heat. As Tracey cuddled the lamb I got a hot water bottle and we placed her on the dog bed in front of the radiator. The other lambs crowded round and soon she was back up to normal temperature, but lapsing in and out of consciousness. She continued to fight for breath until ten when Tracey decided that she would hold her to keep her warm. The two sat on the sofa, Primrose on her lap wrapped in a soft towel, Tracey and I knew deep down that there was nothing more we could do, Primrose was fighting a losing battle, her lungs were filling up with fluids produced by an infection and she was literally drowning in her own mucus.

Tracey spent the next hour and half stroking and talking to Primrose who would occasionally splutter and throw her head back in an effort to continue living, but at half eleven, almost exactly 24 hours since she popped into the world she left us.

It was hard to take after such an effort to save her, Primrose was the first lamb we had lost at Rock HQ.

We were left with a few what ifs and whys, what if we had stayed to watch her feed would she have lived, who knows, why Primrose not Daffodil, and would Daffodil be next?

We did learn a lot from the experience, we also saved Daffodil, for the time being anyway, from a similar fate. It was hard not to be cross with Easter for not looking after them, but then again she was just as tired, worried and confused as we were. The fight for life goes on with Daffodil so we went to bed just after midnight and set the alarm for the 3 am feeding round.

Hopefully we would be up before death called for Daffodil.

Dinner didn’t get eaten, Rib of Shrek got put in the fridge and we had a cheese sandwich. It takes a lot to put me off my food, only once have I been forced to give up a meal, after watching a post mortem I somehow didn’t fancy the kidneys in tomato sauce I cooked for my dinner.

I'm not sentimantal but after battling so hard for Primrose somehow eating lamb chops didn’t seem entirely appropriate.