Babies Everywhere

Everywhere I  look at the moment there are babies – it’s that time of year.  I’m not talking human babies although quite a lot of my friends seem to be having new grandchildren, yet another sign of our ageing.  In the secret valley animals outnumber humans by dozens to one so it isn’t surprising that all around us there are signs of new life.

Lambing starts later here than in many places, for the spring grass is also later, so it is with impatience that we wait to see them skipping in the fields and chasing one another up and down the  river banks.  Of course, that was some weeks ago – now they are grown quite large and, as I write this, very noisy as they call for their mothers who have been separated for shearing. It will be a few hours before they have all found one another and normality returns again; the sound of contented and playful bleating telling us that all is well.

Calves can be born in spring or autumn.  Beyond the secret valley is a beautiful herd of Red Devon cattle and they make good mothers.  I first came across this gentle breed when I worked on a farm as a teenager on Exmoor and they have been a firm favourite ever since.  Bred for beef, we used to hand milk a few for the farm’s own use and the milk was very rich and creamy.   Large enamel basins of it would be placed on top of the Rayburn stove (fired by the peat turves I have recently written about, click here)  and I would watch fascinated as the cream would rise in large clots to be skimmed off  to be eaten with afternoon tea, that most traditional of West Country meals.

The bantams – Lavender Pekins (Cochins) – are all rapidly going broody.  I find that they are only good layers in spring, the rest of the year they lay fewer eggs.  We always set some of these under them so that we have a new supply of youngsters: if we get too many there is always a ready home for them but mostly they are there as ready-made meals for Mr Fox who is a far too regular visitor.  I’d rather see the bantams having a short but very lovely time wandering about the place than cooped up in a pen somewhere.  When left to free range it is amazing just how far they travel up and down the field which does make them rather vulnerable.  As the fox usually visits in the early hours of the morning I try to always remember to shut them away safely for the night.  In the cold weather earlier in the year a fox visited the garden regularly during the day – at one time actually peering through the glass garden door at us.

 
We don’t keep duck but that doesn’t stop us from seeing them in the garden.  Usually one raises a brood of ducklings somewhere secluded: often under a large clump of oat grass or, before it rotted away completely, a few feet up on top of a rotten tree stump at the foot of a hedge. As soon as they hatch, she leads them away down the field to the river below the house.

Every year, there are many pheasants that survive the shooting season.  Last spring we had one nest in a planting trough beside our kitchen door.  Despite the constant activity, she sat tight and none of the dogs, visiting or resident, discovered her.  I have read that, when sitting on eggs, the hen pheasant can supress any scent so as to avoid predators.  No sooner had the chicks hatched than every dog in the neighbourhood was investigating the planter but by then, of course, she had led them all to safety.

Partridge also visit the garden but are much more wary.  When their eggs hatch the chicks are not much bigger than bumble bees and swarm about their mother.  They are so tiny they appear to have no legs moving as if somehow they are fitted with wheels instead!

I almost certainly won’t find it necessary to blog about the next ‘hatching’ for an eagerly waited event is the royal birth.  When Kate has her baby it will make world news – you won’t need to see a photo of it here!

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A Year in Review: 2012 July – December


Where does the time go?  Christmas has been and gone, as have the New Year celebrations and here we are already at the end of January’s first week. I’m beginning to understand those lines of William Davies’ “We have no time to stand and stare.  Not that my life has too many cares fortunately and, of course, I’m exceptionally lucky living where I do and working outdoors – I have plenty of time “… to see, when woods we pass

Continuing on from my review of the first six months …

July: we had a rare fine evening in a year filled mostly with rain, an opportunity for the lucky few to go hot air ballooning.  We had a surprise visitor when Charles Teall, who lives a few miles away, dropped unexpectedly into the secret valley.  We joined him and his balloon team for drinks by the river, a lovely way to end a flight.  Some years earlier Charles had flown me across the Cotswolds before landing to a champagne breakfast – but that’s another story.

Another surprise was when I found an abandoned bantam egg and hatched it out, capturing the moment on video, now uploaded to YouTube.  You can watch it by clicking here.

August: You don’t go on holiday to Ireland for the weather, especially the west coast lashed as it is by frequent Atlantic Ocean storms.  To everyone’s great surprise, we had unbroken sunshine and high temperatures day after day.  We even swam in the millpond calm sea.  At night we were treated to the most glorious sunsets, every evening more dramatic than the previous one.

 

September:  Britain has a long and proud history but we tend to forget about the days before the Conquest in 1066.  We had been invaded and settled many times prior to that but the Romans left us with a road system that is still much used today.  Their houses have long since disappeared although there are many excavated ruins that can be visited.  Cirencester was one of the premier cities of the time and the museum there houses many artefacts including some remarkably intact mosaics, the subject of a post.

October:  Their are numerous new diseases affecting our trees and one species that has been hit badly is the Horse Chestnut.  The leaves become infected with leaf miners and cankers weaken the tree further.  This, in time, may kill the tree but short-term affects the quality of their fruit – the conkers of childhood games.

November:  Trees also featured this month along with a visit to my earliest schooldays.  The larch was my introduction to nature cleverly made magical by my school teacher, Miss Vine.  Larch still are my favourite tree: we have a good number of them here in the secret valley where they give me still as much pleasure at all times of the year as they did all those years ago.

December: With the year whizzing by there were no posts this month other than to wish you all a happy holiday and start this review with the first six months of the year.

Every year has its memories but 2012 will be recalled  as the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics.  2013 looks like being an especially memorable one for me but you will have to wait a little longer before I reveal all!
 

And just in case we are all rushing about far too much let us remember the words of William Davies:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Leisure from Songs of Joy and Others, 1911
  

 

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The Day I Became a Mother!

I have kept poultry since childhood ever since returning with my parents from a farm on Exmoor with a box containing half a dozen bantams smuggled into the back of their car. When one laid an egg en route and started cackling, my mother was furious. Fortunately we were too far into our journey for them to be taken back.  In time, she became equally fond of them and even allowed them to wander into the house to be given scraps of food.

The original bantams were farmyard mongrels but since I came to live in the secret valley I have kept Lavender Pekins.  These are allowed to wander the fields, even though they become supper for the fox, for there is nothing more delightful than to see happy hens striding down to the river or up the valley and (hopefully) back again. 

Bantams – or Cochins, as they are called in Canada and the USA – are ideal as garden birds for they do very little damage unlike their full sized relatives.  We keep those too but they are – with difficulty – kept firmly beyond the fence. I have written about the bantams in an earlier post and this can be seen by clicking here.

The other day I came across a couple of abandoned bantam eggs put them into a basket, kept them warm and waited to see what happened.

What a result!  An hour later it was dry and fluffy ….. and making even more noise!

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Life Behind Baas: A Story of Sheep Betrayal

I love sheep! There is something about them. They are supposed to be stupid but I’ve known some clever ones in my time (like I’ve known lots of people who claim to be clever …..). They have exquisite faces, full of charm with a look in their eyes that just beg for a little more human understanding.
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What more can I say about the joys of building a relationship with a sheep or, preferably, many sheep? They smell nice, especially when wet. They’re cuddly (when dry) once they’ve allowed you to become more intimate with them, an especial priviledge.
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They have lovely voices – varying in tone from deep bass through alto to soprano – and there’s usually quite a few castratos among them too. Each morning, as soon as I step outside into the garden, I am greeted by uplifted heads and welcoming bleats, a sort of dawn chorus, an ovine welcome to another day. And as I enter their field to feed the bantams who are kept there, they gather around me pushing and jostling to have their noses scratched, their ears rubbed and to tell me the latest gossip and goings-on in their sheepy world.
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Now there is one special reason that I haven’t mentioned yet about why I’m so fond of sheep: they taste great, well roasted with lashings of gravy and mint sauce. And that is the quandry. For the reason that these are here in the loveliest field in the secret valley is not for favouritism (as they think) – it is for the pot. And as they try to eat the poultry food I explain that they have no need for such processed feed, for they have the sweetest grass and the freshest river water, when replete they can rest in the shade of the finest trees, the secret valley can offer.
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As if to make me feel even more gulity, they wander off to the empty, upturned feeders. Somehow, even the fattest ones can get inside them. For them, life behind bars is nothing more than a defiant gesture: they little know that judgement has been passed and they have been sentenced to death.
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To end on an upbeat note, the tups have been put in with the stock ewes this week. Soon enough, the new season’s lambs will be born – something we always look forward too.
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Cooking: Cherries and a Tongue Twister

It has been a good year for cherries. Despite the hard and late frosts, which continued well into May, there has been a bumper crop. And, for some reason, the birds have been kind enough to leave them for us humans to harvest. There is the appearance of something exotic, or even of decadence, in the cherry’s shining, red orbs hanging in profusion. Perhaps because we see it all to rarely.
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One rather plump bird has developed the taste for cherries. Henrietta, the tamest of our Lavender Pekin bantams just can’t get enough of them! Fortunately, the others show no interest and, not being the brightest of creatures, Henrietta hasn’t considered flying into the trees to eat even more.
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Today was a cooking day – I love cooking but have no patience when it comes to following recipes, occasionally with unfortunate consequences. Luckily, today was one of the better days. Having picked the cherries, I had no idea what to do with them, so sat outside in the sunshine stoning them, waiting for inspiration.
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So much juice came from the fruit that it was necessary to strain it off. I thought of jam and other weird and wonderful ingredients to add to them. In the end, I just cooked them gently until their skins were tender, then added sugar and stirred in some mixed spice and some cinnamon. It made a pulp that will go down a treat with vanilla ice cream or with some natural yoghurt for breakfast tomorrow.
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So what to do with the juice? First thought was to throw it away but, apart from the waste, I knew that Rhonda from down…to…earth, would not approve. Her blog is so inspirational, I highly recommend it to all that want to try and live -even just a tad – more simply. Warmed through with sugar, a few chilli flakes (I only wanted it to have a slight kick, not blow my head off) and some vanilla essence, it has become the basis for several potential options. Below it was poured over crushed ice and topped up with chilled tonic water to make a beautifully, refreshing drink for a hot, summers day. The colours were an unexpected and added bonus.
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Next, the tongue twister: Geviklte Kichlach. I have had the great fortune of having a Jewish grandmother – if you have never had one, I suggest you find one that you can adopt. For apart from spoiling their grandchildren rotten, they are the most superb cooks. Geviklte Kichlach, which translates approximately, to ‘twisted little cakes’, Grandma would make for my every visit.
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The recipe is more a pastry one than a cake recipe and it is very simple. I use spelt flour and baking powder as my partner has a wheat intolerance – spelt, despite being a type of wheat, is often ok for people with digestive problems.
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Mix 4 oz butter with 4 oz curd cheese and 6 oz flour (if not using self raising, add two teaspoons of baking powder). Roll out thinly to an oblong and spread with jam. Then sprinkle currants over the top and some ground cinnamon and roll into a sausage shape.
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You can elongate the sausage, if need be, by rolling it with your hands like plastacene. Cut into thinnish slices. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 190 until golden – about 10 minutes. Once cool, dust with icing sugar (it does need this additional sweetness, so don’t be tempted to leave it out). The undusted, currant free version, sitting on the marble slab is a special treat for She-dog!
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You don’t like it? Well, as Grandma would have said, “You will like mine – now eat!”.
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Please remember, overseas visitors, that the measurements are in British ounces and the oven temperature is in Centigrade.

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Coronation Chicken, Anyone?

According to one tradition, the first Pekins were smuggled out of China and presented to Queen Victoria in 1837, the year of her coronation. Whether this is true or not is immaterial – it just makes for a nice story. The first Pekins (I have read that in the States and Canada the breed is known as Cochins) presented to me were a gift from a friend several years ago and we have been breeding them ever since, concentrating on the more unusual lavender coloured variety.

Pekins are a breed that is only found as bantams – which is fairly unusual in itself – the majority of bantam breeds have a ‘full size’ chicken version as well. Recognised most easily by their feathered feet they are friendly, almost cuddly, as the hens especially are rounded and dumpy, another recognisable feature.

The cockerels, too, are reasonably lacking aggression (some bantam breeds I have kept in the past would attack at every opportunity). They do, however, have their moments, especially at this time of year. I have found that the way to deal with this is to arm yourself with thick gloves and ‘teach’ the cockerel that you are not intimidated. As he attacks, I catch and pin him to the ground, holding him there for a few seconds: he soon learns that he is second in the pecking order to me and the only thing to be hurt is the cockerel’s pride. We have a number of cockerels (too many) and, surprisingly, they show no aggression to each other.

Penned away safely at night, during the daytime we release them when they have the freedom to roam the fields of the secret valley. It is extraordinary the distance they travel in the course of the day as they cross back and forth. With the odd handful of corn to entice them back, I try to keep them reasonably close to the house for safety but, even then, the fox takes them from time to time.

Ramblers dogs are also a threat – it is amazing the number of people that seem to think it is acceptable for their animals to chase livestock when they are in the country. She-dog, our lurcher, a type of dog specifically bred for hunting, had to be taught that chasing certain animals was unacceptable if she wished to remain living on a farm. From the earliest age she was made to sit amongst sheep and also the bantams, which made useful training aids, with the consequence that now she totally ignores them. It didn’t stop her stalking them when a puppy if she thought we wouldn’t notice!

Would I recommend Pekins? Only with reservations. If it’s egg production you want, they are fairly useless although they lay enough for our requirements and the eggs are full of flavour with rich yolks. If it’s meat, then there isn’t much food on a bantam! If it’s just the lovely sight of a group wandering about the open fields, scratching in the hedgerows and dust bathing in the sunshine then yes, they win hands – or even feathered feet – down every time.

Coronation chicken? We don’t eat our bantams but I bet they would taste good and coronation chicken has to be one of my favourite dishes. If you want the recipe you will have to ask……

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