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The cat whisperer

Remember Merlin, our stray cat from a couple of posts ago?


So much hate and power, and also so scared and confused.


However, I think it’s fair to say that the Shepherdess has worked some kind of miracle on him.


Although as ever, the way to a man’s heart is clearly through his stomach!


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OK, OK, we knew that snow was forecast. So what? We’re 200m up a hill here, so we often get snow during the winter, even when nothing much falls down at lower levels. Still, nothing quite prepared us to wake up to our road looking like this:


It wasn’t so much the depth of snow (TBH we probably only had a foot of snowfall), but the depth of the drifts – up to 10ft in places. Since these were far too deep for a snowplough, our farmer neighbours tried to clear them using their telehandler…. which promptly got stuck as well.


So, since it was clear we weren’t going to get out any time soon, we set about making ourselves and the animals as comfortable as possible. The truth is, the sheep don’t seem to mind snow very much – it’s driving rain / sleet / wind that they hate. Even so, since they’re quite heavily pregnant, we made the decision to move them up to the top field, where they could get some shelter.




Our porch grew an impressive crop of icicles too!


However, just as we got ourselves settled in to wait for the thaw, we heard that one of our neighbours had run into a spot of bother. His Mother-in-Law from Edinburgh (no, not THAT beast from the East!) had come over for dinner four nights previously, and had ended up stuck and rapidly running out of her medication.

I mean, can you imagine anything worse than that? Snowed in with your Mother-in-Law for nearly a week!?!

So, there was nothing else for it but to strap on the snowshoes and make a mercy dash to where they’d cleared the road, to pick up fresh supplies of alcohol for him…. oh yes, and the drugs for her!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImage00007Image00008Image00003

The conversation at the road end was quite amusing too. “Are you John?” “Have you got the drugs?”….. Not the sort of thing I’m used to saying!


Humanitarian efforts apart, it was good to get back to the house.

Home is definitely where the hygge is.


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She said, there’s something in the hayshed, and I can hear it breathing. It’s such an eerie feeling, darling.


He said, Get this into your sweet head, there’s nothing in the hayshed, except maybe some hay…….


…..oh, and a rather large and ferocious feral cat, now you come to mention it!

Still, that’s nothing an engineer can’t sort out with a bit of impromptu welding….

catcaughtOh yes! curiosity trapped the cat! 🙂


Unfortunately once we’d caught him, it turned out that he was actually a very big, fierce, strong male cat, complete with bollocks. It also turns out that the SSPCA get incredibly grumpy if you trap feral cats yourself (oops!). They view them as wild animals, who have every right to be wherever they are, and no, they don’t give a damn if they’ve been fighting with your own pet cats or spraying all over your precious hay supplies!


The Cats’ Protection League were a bit more understanding, but told us that they couldn’t take him in for rehoming if he wasn’t tame, and that the best they could offer was a voucher to cover the cost of neutering, provided we then released him where he had been caught.

Honestly, poor Merlin. All he wanted was a bit of shelter over the winter, and a supply of field voles (which, going by his condition at the point we trapped him he’s very good at catching!).


It took quite a while for the CPL voucher to come through though, and by that time, the Molecatcher had become rather fond of Merlin (kindred spirits I suppose ;-)). So, we figured he might as well go and live at Mole Mansions for a bit after his operation, just to see if he comes round a little. The truth is, he doesn’t actually want to be aggressive – he’s just very, very scared.

Anyway, after a week or two, he’s starting to get used to us and has pretty much stopped hissing. He even gave up his hobgoblin box in the corner yesterday and has installed himself under the Molecatcher’s bed instead. Watch this space for updates! 🙂



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Spot the sheep!

I usually say that Zwartbles are great because they’re easy to see in both mud and snow. However, I had a bit of a panic this morning when I couldn’t find the tups anywhere! Usually they’re sitting under the truck top waiting for their breakfast…boysbut this morning they were nowhere to be seen!

Perhaps they had just gotten fed up of their balls dragging in the snow, and booked themselves a cheap week in Benidorm?


Either way, could I find them?  Could I hell!  even walked around the snowdrifts looking for places they might have climbed up and over the fence, until I eventually spotted some hoof marks heading off to the far corner of their field, where…… can you see them yet?

spot the sheep 1

How about now?

spot the sheep

Ah, there you are, boys!

spot the sheep 2

Nice camouflage. Now, who fancies some breakfast? 😀

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Photo from space?

Nope. Just the roof of my wife’s car on a particularly cold evening! 🙂


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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.



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.

chronogest sponge

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! 😀


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.


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.


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:


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!! 😀


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


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


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.


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

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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.


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.



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!)


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.


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.



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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.


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.


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


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


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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…..


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




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.




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


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 😀


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!


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!!




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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