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So it seems I owe (both of?) my loyal followers an apology – where did this blog go?  Why so few posts of late? The simple answer is that we moved to a Smallholding, and to quote a friend, “Give your enemy a smallholding, and he will work himself to death”.  Well, not quite, but I have found that I’m busy enough these days that I can either do things OR write about them, but not both!

However, a few months ago it really felt as though the walls were closing in on me, and I knew I had to “get some wild”, as my wife would say. So, since this trip has been on my bucket list for nearly ten years, it didn’t take me long to make up my mind to go to Loch Shiel:

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“The Loch Shiel Round” is a classic canoeing route, but most people start in Glenfinnan, then paddle down the River Shiel and out to sea at Loch Moidart, before paddling back up Loch Ailort and getting the train back to Glenfinnan. However, I fancied something different, so one rainy May day saw me putting into Loch Linnhe, at Inversanda Bay.

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This wasn’t the greatest of starts, but what the hell – better a bad day on the water than a good day in the office, and all that! 🙂

Since the tide at Corran narrows is pretty severe, I aimed to get there just after the tide turned to come back in. However, it was evidently running a little late that morning, and I ended up eddy hopping up the West bank of the narrows and waiting for the ferry to leave before paddling past the slipway and into the upper loch.

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Soon after this, the wind built to a steady force 5 at my back, and I spent the next three hours or so concentrating on keeping upright, rather than taking photos. However, this meant I made quick progress, and was able to get through the narrows at the entrance to Loch Eil on the same flood tide, and eventually stopped for the night a couple of miles past The Narrows.

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The next morning, I paddled to the top of Loch Eil, and then paddled and lined my way up the river

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Before finally giving up and dragging my kayak over a field full of bemused looking cows and up to the main road.

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It’s at this point I must give a huge thankyou to Ronnie at Kayak Carrier Systems. After much research, I decided that the KCS Expedition Trolley would be the best choice for this trip, and it surpassed my expectations in every way. Not only did it cope perfectly with two long portages, but it also dis-assembled to fit in front of the foot-pegs in my Scorpio LV (low volume) kayak, with just the axle slipping easily into the stern hatch. This meant that I didn’t have to strap any gear onto the back of the boat, which made things far easier in the wind down Loch Linnhe.

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The portage along the A830 was straightforward enough, although to my alarm oncoming cars tended to slam on their brakes when they saw me, rather than just going round as they would have done if I had been wheeling a bike (which frankly would have taken up the same amount of road as the kayak). This meant that I had to listen for cars coming and then pull up onto the verge, which was not ideal. However, ninety minutes later, I reached the Rvier Callop, which was to take me down into Loch Shiel.

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Although I had paddled this section of river a few years ago without incident, I found this time that storms and floods had washed many trees across the river, making passage very slow and difficult. For this reason, and for road safety, I must regretfully say that if you are thinking of doing this trip yourself, try to arrange transport from Loch Eil to Glenfinnan. Suffice to say that after rather a difficult day, I decided that nobody could really blame me if I went for a steak and a pint at the Glenfinnan Hotel, whilst I watched the rain lashing down!

The next day gave more sunshine and showers as I paddled down Loch Sheil. One minute I would be paddling through this

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then five minutes later looking back to this

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and then forwards to this!

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until I came around the corner near Pollach, and was able to sail for a bit too 🙂

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I camped for the night at Crudh’ an Eich, looking over towards St Finan’s Isle

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and the next day paddled to Acharacle and portaged up and over to Salen on Loch Sunart

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before paddling the length of Loch Sunart and ending up back at my starting point of Strontian.

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All in all, this was a fantastic wee trip. Nothing hardcore (I was on my own after all), but wild enough to feel as though I’d had a proper adventure. I just wish I could find the time these days for more trips like this!

 

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Sponging Sheep

Many years ago I was at a wedding, and ended up standing at the bar beside a group of farmers. This resulted in me overhearing the most bizarre conversation of my life, which went something like “you need to apply the sponges correctly, and then waffle the scrotum. If you find you’re getting watery semen, that’s because you’re not waffling correctly”.

OK, that’s probably not how the conversation went, but I definitely remember sponges, semen and scrota being mentioned several times, very loudly, and in public, without any of these hardy looking farmers batting an eyelid.

 

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Fast forward ten years, and now I’m the one concerning myself with sponges and scrota (albeit not yet waffles nor watery semen).

So what is ‘sponging’ I hear you ask? Well, basically it involves inserting a marshmallow-sized progesterone impregnated sponge into a ewe’s vagina for two weeks before they go in with the tup. In our case, we used this to ‘tighten up’ lambing, so that it took place over a four day period, rather than the usual 2-4 weeks.

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A ewe’s progesterone levels naturally go up and down during their fertility cycle, and it’s the progesterone levels dropping that brings on ovulation. So, when you remove the sponges, this causes progesterone levels to fall, and 48 hours later, the ewe should be ‘in season’ and receptive to the tup.

If you want your ewes to cycle earlier in the year than they normally would, you have to give an injection of PMSG (pregnant mare serum gonadotropin) when you remove the sponge (many show flocks do this, so they can lamb as early as possible). However, since we were still tupping at the normal time, we were able to skip this step.

The sponges are inserted using an applicator, plenty of lube and a sense of humour. The applicator seemed kinda expensive for what it was, so we made our own out of some plastic plumbing pipe, being very careful to sand all the cut edges smooth. In essence, it worked the same as the cork gun you probably had as a kid – load the sponge into the applicator, lube up, insert into the vagina, and POP! 😀

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The sponge instructions say “Sponges should be removed after the required time by gently pulling on the strings. As each sponge is removed, it may be accompanied by a small amount of distinctive-smelling fluid”. Now, language like that is usually farming code for “watch out – you’re about to lose your lunch!”, and indeed a gush of watery fluid did follow each sponge as it was removed. However, it wasn’t particularly foul smelling, and I did manage to retain my stomach contents. What did surprise me though, was how hard I had to pull on the string to remove the sponges. (Of course, The Shepherdess tells me that it can be just the same with tampons, and that somehow I should have known this in advance.)

So did they work?  Well in a word, yes!

36 hours later, our tup Brynmor was subject to a considerable amount of flirting through the fence, and was about to have a very good day indeed! 😀

sponge effect.jpgNow, because we were effectively expecting our boy to do two week’s work in one day, we did manage him quite closely, by putting him in a pen with one or two ewes at a time, and removing them once each had been served twice. This was, to put it mildly, an interesting way to spend a morning! After that, we left him in with the girls as normal.

After three days, we put coloured raddle paste on his belly, so we could see if any of the girls ‘returned’ to the tup (i.e. did not become pregnant on that first service, so would therefore lamb later). Luckily none did, which set us up for a nice tight lambing.

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And tight it was!  All of our eight ewes lambed over a four day period, rather than the 2-3 weeks we had experienced previously. This meant that we could get lambing and mothering up safely out of the way within a single week. Now, given that The Shepherdess and I both work full time, the impact of that is really quite significant. Also, having all of the ewes lambing at the same time meant there were more opportunities for adopting lambs onto other mothers (e.g. giving a triplet to another ewe who only had a single), which can be really useful in a small flock.

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In summary, sponging is definitely something I would recommend that smallholders consider doing. It really did make our lives easier, and is something we will be doing every year from now on.

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First Skein

So after our recent spinning lesson, I ended up buying a cheap spinning wheel from Ebay. When I went to collect it, the seller said “I bought this new a few years ago for my wife, but she never figured out how to work it, so it’s never been used”……  When I got it home, I managed to date the wheel as an Ashford Traditional wheel, made sometime around 1982!!

Anyhow, after a couple of sessions spinning black Bob Marley wigs, or white Santa Claus beards, The Shepherdess finally said “aren’t you supposed to twist two bits together to stop it from going all frozzly?”

“Of course!” I said. How hard can it be? 🙂

Well as it turns out, quite hard:

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So, after a bit of research on Youtube, it turns out that I was going the wrong way! (face palm!). When you’re plying, you have to spin the wheel in the opposite direction, to counter the twists you put in when you spun the individual strands.

“Yes, I thought  that” said The Shepherdess. “But you wouldn’t have listened to me anyway”.

So, it turns out that if you actually twizzel the strands together the right way, the resulting yarn is, well, almost yarn!! 😀

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I then wound the wool off the bobbin, and onto a hastily constructed, and very noddy niddy noddy.

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I then tied up the resulting skein and took it off the niddy noddy.

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It was still a bit frizzly, so I gave it a rinse in some hot water and have now hung it above the Rayburn to dry.

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Would you believe it?  That’s very nearly yarn!
I think I’ve earned myself a whisky now! 😀

Young lambs are prone to hypothermia, particularly if they get wet or aren’t getting enough colostrum or milk from Mum. The procedure for treating hypothermic lambs is given in the flowchart below:

Hypothermic Lamb Flowchart

Information on stomach tubing and glucose injections can be found elsewhere, so for now let’s concern ourselves with how we warm up cold lambs.

I built a plywood lamb warmer box last year, but only just got around to finishing it off and fitting the heater control. Here’s how I did it:

  1. I used a plastic bread tray for the floor. This is perfect because it lets the heat rise up from underneath the lambs to warm them. Also it’s easily cleaned or disinfected, whilst the holes are too small for lambs to get their feet trapped in.

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2. I turned the bread tray upside down, built a plywood box around it, and fitted an electric fan heater on one side. This is arranged so that the heater is mounted in a vertical baffle chamber so that the hot air is forced downwards to the floor, then upwards past the lambs and out of vents at the top of the other side of the box.

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The box has an internal partition which divides it into a space for two lambs (e.g. twins which you want to keep together), and another space for a single lamb.

3. I then fitted a cheap thermostatic temperature controller. The temperature sensor is mounted right in the middle of the warming box (marked by the red circle in the photo above), and the controller mounts very crudely through the side panel (this isn’t art or craftsmanship; it’s functional engineering, and yes, I did make a mess of the plywood!)

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The controller can then be set to control to any temperature you like. The key here is to warm the lambs, not to cook them, so take their temperature regularly and watch out for them panting.

4. I then finished the box off with an old caravan window which was lying in the back of the shed when we moved here, and which I kept in case it came in handy one day.

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5. And that’s it! Hopefully I won’t have to use this too often, but it saved two lambs last year before it was even finished, and I’m sure will go on to give many years of service.

 

 

It’s about now that smallholders’ thoughts turn to lambing. This is for us, the most amazing, exhausting, frustrating, saddening, exciting and beautiful time of year.

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We weren’t that well prepared last year, and as a result, had many nights of broken sleep, getting up to check on expectant or new mothers and their offspring.

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BUT, I’ve got it sorted now. Do you think this will work? 😀

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bc5What do you mean, “Yeah right?”, Bonnie?

 

First Time Spinning

We’ve kept sheep on our smallholding for a few years now, and though they’ve helped to keep us well fed, they haven’t yet clothed us. So, we were delighted when my Mum bought us a day’s spinning class for Christmas from Woolshed31.co.uk.

We started out with an introduction to spinning wheels and how they work, then spent a bit of time practicing our footwork…..

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…..before being let loose on some actual fibre. I found this to be confusing, fascinating, hilarious and rewarding in equal measure 🙂

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The Shepherdess did a better job at controlling both her hands and composure, and was soon onto spinning a raw fleece taken from Bonnie, one of our Zwartbles ewes.

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I, on the other hand ended up with something akin to a first attempt at woolly sausage making.

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However, after a little coaching from Anne, I finally got the hang of it, in an over-twisted, wonky and oddly satisfying sort of way 😀

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If you’ve ever struggled with a telephone cable tying itself in knots, try to imagine attempting to un-twist it whilst dancing a jig, rubbing your belly and patting your head simultaneously, and you’ll get the idea.

Oh well, never mind!

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By the end of the session, we had each managed to fill up a bobbin with our own unique take on knitting wool design. As the finished yarn was wound off the bobbin and into balls for us to take home, it became progressively more variable, lumpy and twisted as we went back in time – we had obviously learned something!!

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All in all, this was a great way to spend a day. Our sincere thanks go to Anne at Woolshed31.co.uk, for being such an enthusiastic teacher, and for letting us loose in her studio.

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I’ve been playing about with grain feeders for our hens for a while now, and I think I’ve finally cracked it! 🙂

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What I wanted was a feeder that only released small quantities of feed at a time, to prevent wastage and ensure there was no uneaten food hanging about to attract vermin. I remembered seeing a pheasant feeder once that had a ‘trigger’ hanging from a barrel that the birds would peck at to release feed, so that gave me this idea. I never looked to see how it worked, but perhaps it was something like this!!

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I needed a way to hang the trigger, so I took a 15mm copper pipe-tee and drilled a hole opposite the ‘branch’, to accept a long 6mm coach bolt. I then screwed a nut on the end of the bolt and hit the tee flat with a hammer (very satisfying) until it was held securely.

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I then drilled a hole in the bottom of a blue plastic barrel, dropped the trigger in and suspended the whole thing from the duck-run fence. The barrel will take a full sack of wheat, and I put some old paving slabs underneath to stop the area becoming muddy.

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I had to make some tweaks to this along the way, so I’ll share them here to hopefully save you the experimentation if you fancy making one yourself:

1) The height is critical. Too high, and the hens won’t figure it out. Too low and they won’t go under it. I found I had to start with the base of the barrel about chook head height to begin with, so that when they walked under it, they nudged the trigger with their backs and grain fell out out ‘by accident’ (they then started wandering about underneath the feeder and looking bemused when it rained grain seemingly at random!). Once they’d figured out that they could peck at the trigger to get food, I gradually raised the feeder up until they had to stretch to get at it (this will hopefully keep it out of the reach of vermin).

2) The hole diameter in the barrel is very important. Start small and increase it if you need to. I did the opposite (oops), and had to reduce the size of the hole using epoxy putty as it was releasing too much grain at once, leading to wastage. In the end, my hole is about 10mm across, and releases only a few grains per peck so this might be a good starting point. It’s very important that it’s a little bit difficult for the hens to get at the grain. If too much releases at once, they get lazy and peck away until there’s a puddle of it at their feet, which then makes a mess. If only a few grains release at once, it’s easier to eat them up each time than keep pecking at the trigger, and it then works as intended. Obviously the hole size must be adjusted for different sizes of food and different trigger diameters.

3) The barrel has to have a watertight lid otherwise rain will leak in and the grain will spoil. That’s also the reason it’s hung the way it is, as I didn’t want to drill holes in the sides to mount legs if that meant water would get in. Eventually I’ll think of a more elegant way to support it, but that will do for now!

4) It seems to help if the end of the trigger is red. I originally had a piece of red tape on the end of the trigger which eventually got pecked off. Still, it seems they’ve got it figured out by now!

 

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As ever, this design could be modified or made in all sorts of different ways (for example maybe an old fork or spoon could be used as the trigger? I see no reason why not!).

So, apart from giving the barrel a quick nudge once in a while to make sure it’s still full, I hardly have to worry about the hens any more. Now if only they’d tell me where they’re hiding their eggs!? 🙂

 

By the way, if you liked this post, check out my idea for a home made chicken drinker.