Twenty Years of Chickens

Animals have been my work and hobby; some I keep purely to get to know the species and see how they tick.  My oldest individual animal must be Hannibal the exmoor stallion, who is 22, but I have not owned him all that time.  The individual animal who has been with me longest is a goose named ‘Pretty’ who I hatched out 13yrs ago.  I think some sort of prize must go to my chickens however – they were my first livestock, and the ones I have today are directly descended from those first few I got 19yrs or more ago.

redhen4They have been a constant in my life, travelling with me from home to home and county to county, quietly in the background, mirroring the story of chickens and humanity in general.  As “Why Did The Chicken Cross the World?” by Andrew Lawler tells me, chickens have travelled almost everywhere with humans around the globe, unable to fly themselves but making full use of our shipping and airports.  They are our most important protein source and outnumber dogs, cats and rats put together.  And yet, we don’t really know them all that well and the more dependent we become upon them for convenience food, the more distant we grow from them physically as they are locked out of view in sheds (or paddocks if lucky), behind biosecurity controls.

Chickens are descended from Red Jungle Fowl and we almost lost this wild ancestor forever due to crossbreeding with domestic stock.  We only still have purebred animals due to a quirk of fate, as is so often the case – a failed attempt to introduce them to America as a gamebird, which left a few birds, harvested from the last pure populations of the Asian jungles, in the hands of private breeders in the US.  Just like the Jungle Fowl, my original strain only survives due to a fluke, namely one female known as ‘The Red Hen’, and credit should go to her mother before her, ‘The Grey Hen’.

When I moved to the farm I am on now, my chickens of course came with me as they had many times and were released to a free range life from the more intensive one they had known in the garden of a terraced house and then a rented upper floor of a barn.  At that time I mostly kept Ixworths, but I also had a trio of Oxford Old English Game birds; cockfighting fowl (although I did not keep them for that!!), and some of the very first chickens I had bought almost a decade earlier.  They were very old birds by then but they are vigourous as a breed and a few crossbred chicks were hatched out that proved very, very good indeed for the flock’s new lifestyle.

It was one of these crosses which bred with a magnificent hen from a friend, a Light Sussex X Barnevelder.  That red hen was a highly accomplished mother who could sit on large clutches and, as I am actively breeding birds which will competently rear their own young (so I do not rely on electric incubators, which isn’t very resilient…), I was extremely sorry to lose her to the fox, though thankfully, she left many offspring.  One of these was The Grey Hen, and although she was smaller than that original red hen due to the influence of the gamebird blood, she had their fighting spirit and canny-ness and has survived to a ripe old age without my help, (and only one eye due to unknown misadventure!).

In all honesty, I have no idea who or what sired her daughter ‘The Red Hen’ who is a red, more wild-looking version of her mother.  Unfortunately, the farmyard is a treacherous place for chicks and rats, bad weather, foxes and many other hazards polished off all her siblings.  The Red Hen emerged victorious, alone.  This was a point when I was down to just these two hens, mother and daughter. I needed to find a new cockerel or that would be it!

The Red Hen could easily be mistaken for an Old English Pheasant Fowl, an endangered breed which used to be the typical fowl of the Northern farmyard before the dominance of the commercial hybrid.  For this reason, I decided to import some OEPF cockerels as husbands for The Red Hen in the hopes of breeding a strain with vigour due to a highly hybridised past on the female side, which would become purer OEPF over time.  Six cockerels were introduced, brothers, but after a year only one remained – The Captain – as the others succumbed to disease, predators or just general accidents.

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(The flock today, a scene and fowl familiar to Northern farmyards for centuries)

The Captain had survivability, but seemed to be lacking in the trouser department and….nothing happened.  No chicks.  The further disaster struck – my spaniel, who is usually good about the difference between pheasants and our hens, attacked The Red Hen!  I shouted so loudly he dropped her, but the damage appeared to be done and she lay, beaten, quietly on the ground in shock.  I picked her up and put her in a box to calm in the dark, thinking she would prefer to die in peace.  At this point, the reason for the altercation became clear – there were chicks pecking around the yard all of a sudden. The Red Hen, warrior that she is, was never going to tolerate a mad spaniel scattering her chicks, and my spaniel was never going to let a bird push him around!

The chicks were gathered and placed with their mother while I sadly gathered up the things I would inevitably need to hand rear chicks.  Later that evening, I checked on her and although she was obviously badly injured, with huge abdominal swelling, no doubt from horrible internal bleeding, she would not give up on her chicks and was brooding them, so I took a chance on her surviving the night and left the chicks with her rather than placing them under a heat lamp.  Amazingly, by the morning she was still alive and starting to move around again.  Against the odds, in a few weeks the swelling and her limp was gone and she was good as new, with a brood of 7 pullets (girls) and a cockerel – each little copies of herself.

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(mother and son)

And thus, we passed through the genetic bottleneck thanks to the Red Hen’s valiant effort in fending off a spaniel, and the geriatric Grey Hen surprised us all by adding a further 7 chicks by The Captain to the flock.

Now, these chickens may not win any prizes from any show, and no commercial poultry farmer would rate their comparatively poorer carcasses which take 6mo to mature rather than 6wks, BUT, these birds cost me nothing.  They forage entirely for themselves, so it doesn’t matter that the process takes 6mo, because it’s not costing me anything.  And the world feed supply chain can collapse, but my egg and chicken supply remains intact.  They can announce power rationing tomorrow, but due to the excellent mothering skills of my hens, I will never be sweating over an incubator in a powercut, or an electricity bill.  This means that thanks to the Red Hen my poultry flock has realised my aim of resilience and sustainability.

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(Furious Foraging!)

 

 

 

Training Adult Cattle (Oxen) From Scratch – Part 1: The “Why?”

I’m often asked about my training techniques when it comes to oxen, lots of people want a ‘how-to’ guide.  I did pen a book on the subject but it is currently off-sale and will be replaced with a better version soon, as I have more to add since then!  One thing that comes up is how to train older cattle.  This can be trickier than starting with babies and many, possibly rightly, shy away from it.  Certainly I would suggest beginners start with dairy steer calves, as these calves would be hand reared anyway, they are generally gentle and forgiving and it is easier for the un-confident to handle babies and grow together.

Yeah sure, in an ideal world newbies would start under the guidance of an experienced mentor with well trained cattle as you would with horses, and if that is an option in your country then definitely go for it, but in Britain our ox culture is all but lost and if we shy away from starting from scratch it will certainly be lost for good.  The up-side is that we still farm cattle, so you can learn about handling and care from that angle fairly easily.

So yeah, I started with calves too.  I learnt a lot, and my best ox and friend/partner/whatever you wish to term the relationship, was with Ted, a hand reared Jersey bullock:

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(at Halifax show with Ted in a western themed stunt show)

Ted is responsible for the training techniques I developed which broke from the American style I had been following up until then.  He made me really start to listen to cattle and work with their mentality.  Jerseys are very sweet and gregarious cattle, but they demand respect and if it’s not given, they will just resist, resist and resist, which is where they get their bad reputation from in some circles!  As a result of stopping to think and allowing Ted to teach me a new way to work, we achieved so much more together and I fulfilled my ambition of riding an ox in a stunt show.  I had two ambitions when I started training, and Ted’s apprentice Rum (now living in Scotland with a film animal company) allowed me to realise the other – riding an ox on a beach:

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(Yup that’s Rum the ox, leading a horse along in trot!  He loved it!)

So, oxen raised by me from babies have been more than adequate.  But.  Raising an animal right from day 1 with the hope of getting a finished riding animal is fraught with difficulty, and the basic fact is, it may not happen.  Your animal may die due to disease perhaps.  It may not grow well, or have poor conformation which could not be picked up on within hours of birth when you chose it.  It may have an unsuitable temperament.  All of these things have happened to me; the finished animals I have were the lucky few that made it through all of life’s tests and ended up with a natural affinity for the type of work I wanted them to do.  There were many others which did not make it, and then if they did, I perhaps didn’t think they would enjoy or adapt to a life of working so closely with humans.

Rook was one such animal.  Rook and Raven were orphaned within days of each other – born as part of my partner’s conservation grazing herd of Dexter cattle out on the marsh.  Their mothers unfortunately died a couple of days apart – unusual for hardy and long-lived dexters – but due to the remote location and logistics of catching two jumpy calves unused to human contact, when we saw that the rest of the herd had adopted them, we let them be.  By the time they were 3mo however, winter was coming on and we worried the cows would not have the bodily reserves needed to support extra calves so when the herd was rounded up we split them off, brought them home and began the process of convincing them it was good to drink out of a bottle instead!

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(Some of the herd, out in ‘the wild’)

Raven was always chill and took to the bottle very well.  He also calmed right down and accepted petting.  Rook however was the opposite, it took a long time to get him to accept the bottle.  Getting him to accept touch took a long,  long time and it was always a lesson he was quick to forget!  He was the most nervous ox I have ever known or trained and after patiently working with him simply trying to get him to calm down, I came to the conclusion that although I would likely one day, after a lot of work, be able to work him in a yoke, he would never, ever be safe to work with the public.  More importantly, he would likely never enjoy it.  Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should!  I enjoy working with animals that enjoy working with me, forcing every animal to submit no matter what holds no appeal.  Subsequently, Rook fulfilled his destiny as a beef animal, leaving Raven without a partner.

Here is the problem with raising calves again – I spent four years of time and money on a pair, only to end up with a single.  My intention for these two, being Dexters and therefore historically appropriate for most periods up to the industrial revolution, was to work them in a very traditional manner – in a yoke.  A traditional neck yoke requires two animals!  If I could not find a partner for Raven, he faced losing his job too.  The only trouble was that Rook and Raven’s contemporaries had stayed out on the marsh, some for up to five years, with virtually no human contact beyond being moved to fresh pasture or housed in a barn for a couple of months a year.

Dexter cattle are notoriously naughty.  Like Jerseys, they demand respect from humans, but unlike Jerseys they know they don’t need you one little bit!  They are our smallest native cattle but they are strong, ambitious and tough and could likely survive an apocalypse, and they know it – that’s what makes them good for conservation grazing in tough environments.  Go to a cattle show and if someone is being dragged around a ring, it’s likely to be a Dexter doing the dragging!  If you can get them on-side, they will be phenomenally thrifty yet powerful and fast oxen…..if.  Many would therefore balk at training Dexters at all, and indeed up until Rook and Raven dropped into my lap, so had I.  Adding the fact that they had run feral well into adulthood and were now in their physical prime with massive horns it seemed crazy….but then, my training methods, thanks to Ted, do not rely on physical force, which renders their size irrelevant, so in theory it should work….

And this is how the people of the past overcame the trouble of the waste associated with training baby animals.  They started with older ones.  The cattle that arrived at markets after they were droved from the moors and mountains at the age of two or three had already been tested.  They had already survived birth and the delicate period after that, so we knew they were healthy.  They had already survived a trek, proving by their condition on arrival how their conformation and legs held up to hard work.  The the ox trainers were able to assess out of large numbers the animals which had the best temperament for training.

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(Rye Cattle Market – 1937, after the days of oxen but likely a similar scene to the one centuries before – link)

This was the situation I was faced with – the large group of beef steers on the marsh had already survived calfhood and the challenges Mother Nature threw at them.  They foraged for their living, so if they looked good it meant they were good enough physically to traverse the marsh and gain enough nutrition and any conformation troubles had already long been noted by us as we watched them grow.  During round ups and droving them around the floodplain I had also had the chance to see their characters and judge how they reacted to people, each other, and stress.

And there was an obvious candidate to be Rook II:

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Not only was he instantly recognisable due to being huge, with matching, beautifully symmetrical horns (a sign of good health), but I knew he reacted well to things.  Although he was ‘stubborn’ and dominant, he was also calm in a crisis.  I watched carefully as he let the other steers lose their heads, waste their energy when they felt stressed.  He would calmly assess the situation and only react if absolutely necessary.  He wasn’t overly concerned about our presence, his only concern was getting his way (yes, a lot of the time that meant NOT going in our pens, but that is logical!).  This made me suspect that he would be difficult to train in terms of carrying out my wishes, but that I could rely on him in a crisis, which for me on a film set is more important.  His natural inclination isn’t to panic, it’s to think, unlike the first Rook who would panic first and ask questions later.  Much safer.

So, Rook II was brought in to the barn from the marsh instead of going to the abattoir, along with Raven who had been out there also for a couple of years and I wasn’t sure how either would react to be honest – would Raven even remember me from when he was younger?

This has turned very rambly so we will save what happened next for part 2!  See you next time 🙂

 

Historical Recipe Experiment: Calf’s Foot Jelly

Now this won’t be one for anyone with a delicate disposition, you guys should look away now because we’re going to deal with slaughter and ‘bits’.  This one’s for the hardcore thrift-sters, the ones who really don’t want to see ANY part of a carcasse go to waste, no matter how grim the going gets.

I have often raised dairy bull calves for beef – it was my full time business up until 2013 – because otherwise they, particularly Jersey calves, can struggle to find a market in the beef world and end up being shot as soon as they enter the world.  I gave it up as a business because I lost my shed space – they need a shed when very young, so that was that.  BUT, I have reared the odd one or two since.  I far prefer the more robust flavour of beef to veal so generally wait until they are full grown to kill, but my circumstances changed very quickly when the group I was rearing was a few months old and I had to kill early as nobody else is interested in rearing Jersey bulls because each one represents a loss of a good few hundred quid (please buy jersey beef whenever you can so they have somewhere to go) Not something I enjoy doing, I arranged to have them killed on the farm and eat them myself, rather than add stress by having them to go to the abattoir so the meat would be saleable to others.  I was determined to make use of every single part of the carcasses, as I usually try to do but especially so this time.  The meat was straightforward, the offal was made into haggis, the skins kept for tanning, which pretty much only left the feet…

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Calf’s Foot Jelly (CFJ) is one of those things you might hear of a lot if you spend any time reading stuff about history – it was often fed to ‘invalids’.  But I’ve never seen it for sale in my lifetime and thus, never tasted it.  Quite often the funky bits of animals will be made into brawn (pig’s heads) or similar jellified meat products, but they are all savoury and CFJ is sweet – it’s flavoured with lemons, sugar and wine.  When I searched for recipes, there were plenty to chose from.  I had 8 feet, enough for two batches according to most recipes, so I was able to pick one made with white wine and one with red.  The white wine recipe was the elder of the two, from “English Housewifry”, 1764.  The red wine was from “Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches”, 1840  (gotta love those meandering Victorian titles!) so I also spanned the centuries.

The first part of both recipes was the same – basically, boil the feet to b*ggery.  The aim is to get all the gelatin from the sinews and bones I guess, so I dug out my Big Pan and put the feet in with some water.  The first recipe called for 4 quarts per set of feet and the second 6, so I compromised and went for 5.  Then the idea was to end up with half the volume of water.  There was so much though that I couldn’t get all the water in, so I ended up sitting up until 1am to add more water and wait for it all to boil down.  The results were strained into a big ceramic bowl:

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After sitting overnight it had solidified really well, with a clearly discernible layer of grease on the top, which I skimmed off with a spoon and then used paper to blot off as the recipes commanded.  Then I was to cut the scummy layer from the bottom.  It wasn’t quite solid enough to flip up and cut yet, so I just carefully poured off the blobs into a jam pan (original recipes wanted it to be a ‘porcelain kettle’ but my stainless jampan was a good proxy) and stopped pouring before the cruddy portion went in:

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(Mmmm…)

Once I had carefully melted the gelatinous mass, I split the liquid into two and added the differing amounts of egg whites, lemons and sugar and the two types of wine.  The smell was really peculiar, hard to describe but certainly felt somehow historical!  I had been unable to source Madeira for the later recipe so had to use Port instead.  I’m afraid they were both very cheap-o wines as I’m not a wine fan, never buy it and am working to budget here people!  The later, Victorian recipe was kind of obsessed with getting the jelly to be clear, the 1700s one not so much.  I thought it would be something of a miracle if I managed to get mine clear, and I was right!  After reducing both down to desired amount of liquid, I strained both mixtures into their dishes to set:

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The following morning, the white wine version hadn’t really set into a firm jelly, so I put it back on to boil and reduce and then re-strained it into the dish again.  After two strainings it still wasn’t clear!  This is despite using many more egg whites than the later recipe which was supposed to help make the jelly clear.  In the red wine one, I had been stupid enough to add the egg whites while the liquid was hot, which cooked the egg.  This didn’t seem to affect the setting as it set well and when strained out, there was no trace of scrambled egg:

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I had the idea that I’d use icing sugar to dry everything up, like turkish delight, but that didn’t work so well, it just seemed to draw liquid from the jelly and covered everything with a sweet slime.  Without icing sugar, everything stayed perfectly dry and the jellies were far more robust than the stuff you make with a packet these days; I was able to happily slice it into squares that weren’t going anywhere:

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And the taste?  I would describe it as ‘medicinal’.  I certainly preferred the 1764 white wine version, it was a stronger flavour.  It tastes antiseptic, and with all the nutrition from the concentrated gelatin I could see a half-starved, 18th century, bedridden peasant welcoming a cold slice of antiseptic jelly sliding down a raw throat.  In fact, a few days after making the jellies, when I still had a box in the fridge (I’ve put the rest in the freezer in case of a plague outbreak), I had a cold so I had a square and it did feel soothing.  Would I eat it for fun at other times?  I doubt it.  It’s quite rich and sweet.

However!  I think with some tweaks this could be awesome.  I’m keen to use this in the place of packet jelly, ditching the wine and using fruit flavours only, going steady on the lemon.  I’m thinking raspberry would be nice, or maybe rose for a turkish delight style jelly.  So cows can be so much more than meat and leather – we can have local, grassfed dessert, too!  I think adding some strong gravy flavour instead of going down the sweet route would also be a good idea for a low-carb, paleo or keto snack, so this has a lot of potential as far as I’m concerned.

Originally published 07/05/2018 – Since the time of writing we’ve had 4 foals: Hushwing, Butterbump, Snippick and Tiercel (the only colt).  The fillies’ names are old words for Barn Owl, Bittern and Snipe and Tiercel being the only male takes the name given to male falcons. 

 

I have a small free-living herd of Exmoor ponies. They are here for conservation grazing purposes, as pony grazing creates a nice ‘mosaic’ which many bird species appreciate, and birds are what The Yorkshire Ings are really all about! Apart from that though, it’s nice to keep the ponies going too. According to the RBST, there’s less than 500 breeding females and as I have 5 mares, that means I own at least 1% of the breed. Not only that, but I am able to keep them in ‘wild-like’ conditions, running free and practising their survival instincts. Exmoors differ slightly from other breeds of horses and ponies because it’s thought, thanks to DNA testing and other features like their uniform colouring and weather adaptations, that they are in fact the closest living thing to the extinct wild horses of Europe (if not, a surviving remnant of them – the work is ongoing!).

They certainly look very primeval compared to their finer, silkier manmade cousins and when we released the first five mares onto the land we’d set aside for them I was viscerally struck by how ‘at home’ they looked in the landscape, charging through the bogs, their brown hides blending perfectly with the autumn leaves and overgrown, naturalistic grasses. Since then they have blended a little toooo well with the landscape as we haven’t successfully managed to round them up! They possess far more stamina than the cattle and no scrap of interest in working with us, unlike the cattle!

However, I’ve developed a new way of appreciating horse ownership as a result of their presence. They exist perfectly well without my input and I get enjoyment from seeing them do this. The land they inhabit is a thriving ecosystem, full of scattered oak trees, deer, a nesting pair of buzzards and visiting waders and foxes. It’s a privilege to visit and soak this in: like having a gigantic aquarium to watch, I guess? I get as much pleasure from seeing the ponies enjoying their life without me as I used to from riding. I ride very little these days, realising a while ago that I much prefer working with animals eye-to-eye, on the ground, the training process.

So, I’ve fallen in love with the Exmoors, but I’ve never been to Exmoor itself! Finally the chance arose on the way back from a visit to Exeter. I must admit I don’t get down south very often; I love the north! However, I was pleasantly surprised by Exmoor, it was just my type of place…Not only did you have the actual moors themselves, but everything was deer themed! I increased my collection of ‘evocative old words’ while I explored the heritage centre in Dulverton, adding ‘staggert’ to ‘brocket’ and ‘pricket’ to describe young stags and the word ‘boving’ – meaning the roaring noise stags make in the rut.

I drove very close to the home range of my own mares, where they had been born and roamed for up to 18yrs before coming to Yorkshire. It was incredible for a ponyfan like me to drive the unfenced moor roads and have the ponies visible all around, like a safari (maybe I’m easily pleased). The views down to the lusher land from the tops were spectacular in bright spring sunshine too. I took a track down into the leafy depths of the valley bottoms to the Exmoor Pony Centre as it was obvious I could not miss this! After touching some Exmoors which were happy to be around humans and almost clearing out the gift shop I wandered to the information boards and added yet another word to my collection – horsebeasts.

This one is particularly interesting as ever since our exmoors arrived we have viewed them differently to the other ponies we have. They just have this extra ‘something’ about them, a different attitude, even though at least one of my ponies was born feral and lived that way as a colt for 3yrs. They are so different my (now ex) husband was willing to tolerate them without grumble, as he hates equids, usually. He admitted he thought of them as being more like the cattle and thus respected them. The interesting bit is that in our part of Yorkshire at least, cattle are known as ‘beasts’. ‘Beastgates’ were the fees paid per head of cattle grazed on the Ings (marshes). People still freely refer to ‘feeding the beasties’ ‘selling beast’ etc. So, the term ‘horsebeasts’ for the Exmoors seemed especially apt! Perhaps we weren’t the only ones to notice that Exmoors don’t really fit into the category of ‘horse’ as man has made them?

(don’t know who painted this but it’s brilliant so please tell me!)

Basket Case – Making One’s Own Baskets

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Always had something of a fetish for baskets – they’re just strangely pleasing to see and I get a thrill from some of the more odd shapes, especially pack panniers.  They’re also a great, attractive eco-alternative to plastics for storage of all kinds of things, that you can make yourself – kiddies toys, eggs, laundry, your sock-balls etc. I am actively trying to rid my home of plastic, so it was high time I went and learnt this skill.  After having put it off for years, imagining it to be a difficult skill to master which would take many hours, I was pleasantly surprised by how quick and easy it is to get passable results within a handful of hours.  Of course, you can take it as far as you want and apply creativity, let baskets take over your life in the quest for more and more elaborate colours and designs…or you can just make workaday baskets to hold stuff.

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(my first basket in situ: I have free range hens and tend to find nothing for a while and then a treasure trove, then it’s egg roulette when you use them as to how long they were hidden for…)

Our ancestors weren’t daft in the pre-oil age; baskets are made from common things which grow quickly and in abundance, such as willow and brambles, so even if your baskets wear out quickly it really is just a case of going for a walk, identifying whips that suit your purpose and snipping them off to take home.  They only need to be stored dipped in a pond or some other wet place like a dustbin perhaps, and the tools are extremely simple so as craft hobbies go, it’s actually one of the more low maintenance, space-saving ones imo!

I went for my course at Wild Harvest which is local to me near York.  The course was extremely cheap (£45ish) and teaches you everything you need to know to complete a simple basket in one day, with all materials and hot drinks provided.  You also get to hear the amazing story of the owner Di Wood, who raised her children by herself off-grid in the woods, and that’s just the start of her adventures!

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(Every single basket is a piece of art, isn’t it: that bit in the middle anchors it all together and then the willow whips ‘chase’ around it)

There was a meme going round recently (probably still is) which talked about feeling your ancestors knitting along with you as you do.  Your sitting and stitching is the wonderful continuation of millennia of tradition, of people doing and making for themselves rather than sitting, maws open, waiting for the capitalism to feed them.  Sorry I might have got carried away there because I feel passionately about not being robbed of our ability to look after ourselves, so we remain free, which is part of the ethos of Wild harvest itself – ‘self reliance’ – but my point was that I particularly enjoyed the tradition of it.  I’ve spoken before about my love of collecting evocative words which have slipped out of use, and basketry has been a rich seam to mine, with ‘Randing’, ‘Fitching’, ‘Slewing’, ‘Slyping’ and ‘Slath’ to add to my collection!

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(My finished basket – can’t wait to make more!)

As mentioned, the work itself was simple to pick up, merely a case of selecting the right sized rods for the different elements and remembering simple patterns (with a tutor on hand to set you right if you forget!) and notching, snipping and bending.  By the end of the course, sure enough I had my basket which has been treasured ever since and survived a few months of various uses.  If you missed the link to the course earlier, here it is: Wild Harvest Basket Making Course 

 

An Ode to the Kerry Hill Sheep

Originally published December 13th, 2016 – since the time of writing our farm went out of sheep and I split with my husband, but I still retain a nucleus of ram-breeding ewes and a team of good tups, just in case….

 

Kerry Hills. If you’re aware of them at all, it’s probably because they won your local sheep show with their flashy posing and unique, panda-like markings. Before I moved in with my husband, who had been keeping Kerrys since 2002, I hadn’t really ever registered their presence either. I met them with a completely open mind as a result and I’ve slowly got to know and love them and now hold complete responsibility for our flock.

Quite unusually for a British sheep breed, and frustratingly for sheepgeeks like me, details of their history are hard to come by. Most other breeds seem to be far better recorded and represented in the history books. I constantly scour shepherding books, old and new, and most do not make a mention of Kerrys at all.

My theory on this is that the Kerry as we know it is actually a very modern invention; the style of sheep we have today seems only to have emerged within the last 50years, but it does have ancient roots. Looking at the Kerry of 100years ago we see a heavy, white docile-looking animal much like a white Shropshire!

Shropshire ram taken from Shropshire Sheep Society website for reference:

Things hadn’t changed much by 1938:

But by 1959 they start looking a lot more familiar:

And by 2016, we have something very different to that 1908 animal:

Shropshires were created from the Southdown, by crossing with a ‘sheep from the Welsh border’. Highly likely to be a part of this unknown sheep is the ancestor of the Ryeland from the Hereford area around the corner from Kerry Hill, which in the medieval era had wool known as ‘Lemster Ore’ – highly valued for its fineness above almost all others. In the area 70 years prior to the heyday of the Shropshire, according to John Gorton in 1833, was a breed known as the ‘Cerri’, which gave fine wool free of kemp fibres…sound familiar?

But there’s something else in there with Kerry Hills and what that is, I don’t know, but as the influence of the Shropshire/Ryeland fades and the Kerry becomes a more upright, active and alert animal in the last 50years, proudly strutting around a showring, it seems to be coming out. There was the Cardy, Eppynt, Longmynd and Morfe Common sheep to name but a few in the area since time immemorial. No trace of these remains, they are too far back and history seems to have been keen to forget the ‘ill shaped’ wild little things from a tribe known as ‘heath sheep’. I feel sure these wild little things still reside in the genes of the modern Kerry though, as I recognise Philip Walling’s quote relating to primitive breeds in his book Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain when I look into the eyes of a Kerry as she stamps her foot defiantly at me:

“Like many of the other ancient breeds, these are proud sheep, independent and not easily intimidated, with a sense of their own dignity and a bearing that commands respect. They are not the slaves of commercial farming…come from an earlier time when relations between people and their animals were regulated by a greater respect for the servitude that domestic animals give their human keepers.”

Kerrys are a world away from a docile Ryeland or Shropshire; catch me at penning or clipping time and every other word is likely to be a curse word as I try to impose my will or get the wool off a wriggling Kerry without nicking their bizarrely thin skin!? When we bought ordinary sheep hurdles in the early days they promptly bust them down and as a result we’ve had to buy specially made reinforced ones a full foot higher. We even went up to 5ft high alpaca hurdles for a particular group of gimmer hoggs and they still got over and away! Is that the spirit of the Morfe Common heathsheep, fighting its way out after all these years?

But, at various junctures over the last seven and a half years I’ve had the opportunity to swap them for a different breed, or get rid of them altogether, and it’s never quite happened in the end. And when I go to the twice yearly York rare breeds sale to find some more, it’s usually a Kerry which sails out of the ring and that usually makes me bid a bit harder as I know that’s a Rosewood sheep that will fit right in!

I worry about them though. Over the last 15yrs I’ve seen them disappear outside the showring and I believe it’s because nowadays farming is very specialised indeed and Kerry Hills are a little ‘vague’ in what they offer apart from a pretty face.

Their wool is OK, but does not compare with Merino, or Blue-Faced Leicester, or Shetland or any of those popular wool breeds. They are good mothers, but aren’t especially prolific (producing many lambs each time) and don’t have the infrastructure of other breeds which offer sales of thousands of females for farmers to pick from reliably every year. Their milk yield won’t rival a Friesland and their meat yield is perfectly adequate, but not spectacular so that ‘terminal sires’ which father butcher’s lambs like Beltexes and Suffolks have nothing to worry about. They wouldn’t survive on the mountaintops like Herdwicks or Blackfaces or Welsh Mountains, either.

So why keep them?

I like to think this vagueness gives them versatility. My area must be the only part of Britain which does not have a native breed of its own – East Yorkshire. Sheep have been kept here for eons; my husband’s earliest farming ancestor was a shepherd over the river in 1870, but no one knows which sheep he had and no one breed dominates here. That means I have a blank canvas to start with, there is a vacuum here for a breed to step in to. The unrecorded past of the Kerry and the fact they sound Irish but are Welsh but nobody knows that anyway means I’m not facing the incongruity of selling Leicester lamb in Aberdeen, and so on.

The world changes; Consumer demand swings from wool to meat to milk and maybe back again, and some breeds fall foul of it if they are too specialised. The Kerry sails past all this though, doing its thing, producing a reasonable carcasse, wool and if pressed, milk (yes I’ve milked ours!). You can always give them a nudge in the right direction with a judicious cross, too. I’ve tried crosses for meat, wool and hardiness and always been pleased with the results.

This is only one end of the process though – what a sheep can produce. That always has to be balanced with what you’ve got to produce it with. Kerrys are equally as flexible here. I know I could bang up a hydroponic greenhouse and my Kerrys would produce the same 40kg shapely carcasse the customer has come to expect, munching on leftover cabbages and tomatoes in a shed, as they would out on a hillside.

A few years ago, we were struggling for acreage and had to make maximum use of our grass. My early farming career was preoccupied with intensification-with-sustainability and the impossible issue of land purchase. The Kerrys had to calm themselves sufficiently to stay in small paddocks and be rotated daily – they did. That was all reversed in a bizarre twist which saw the local marshes empty of stock keepers in the face of new nature-centric rules. Enter me and my Kerrys, who adapted with relish to a larger, rougher area.

As a farmer, this gives me a bit of peace of mind: I’m not completely sold on specialisation. , I’m not one of those farmers who comes from a long line, with an ancestral farmhouse and owned acres. I’ve clawed my way in and need to be quick on my feet to stay in, ready to exploit any opening I spot. I’ve adapted before, and I like to think I’ll be able to adapt again more less come what may, even with my meagre resources, with my chosen breed. Thank you, Kerry Hills!

The Last Punch – A Memory of Disappearing Heavy Horses

This was originally written 18 March 2016.  The Suffolk Punch is one of our most endangered horses, the RBST thinks we have just 10 years to save them.  Already the gene pool is so diminished there are breeding problems.  This is especially devastating in the light of new genetic information which points to Suffolk Punches being the closest thing we have to medieval warhorses, rather than the more usually substituted shire.  Warhorses were clean-legged (no feathering), 15-16hh and predominantly chestnut.  Much, much more similar to a punch than a shire, so it seems the warhorses found employment in farming when warfare moved on.  In losing the Punch, we not only lose all that agricultural heritage, but also a last living remnant of the medieval warhorse – on our watch after circa 500yrs!  Appalling!

When I was down in Suffolk I met Graham, the latest in a line of farmers with clear memories and photographs of the transition from Suffolk Punches to tractors – I was keen to document what he had, and here it is!

 

My ears pricked up when Graham mentioned that his great, great grandfather John had been an oxman for the Somerleyton estate when he had moved across the river to settle in Aldeby with his two brothers, Jimmy and Aaron in 1837. Sadly, any further information about John or the oxen he worked has been lost and the family memories only begin in detail with the next generation, William, John’s son.

William worked on the railway as a ganger and Graham relates how he would cut the grass growing on the sides of the tracks for hay for the horses – nothing was wasted. William’s son who was also a William must have been ill-at-ease with his father’s change of direction away from their farming roots as he left school at 14, determined to be a farmer. It seems to have been a familiarly difficult ambition for him, as he took work as a rook scarer, a postman and a coalman with two waggons and horses to fund some rented marshes and cattle. Finally, in 1912 he took on a full tenancy on Blocka Farm and had his 90acres.

He married a lady named Jessie who promptly added dairy to the enterprise, handmilking the cows and making butter before taking it to market via horse and cart (picture below); a 22mile trip, each way. The horse pictured is called Dolly and her breed isn’t known but it’s likely she had a good dose of Hackney blood given the period and grahamshackneylocation in question, Yorkshire and Norfolk being the heartlands of the breed and their purpose being a fast roadhorse. As a firm Hackney fan the previously unpublished picture from the ’20s which Graham showed me is the stuff of dreams!

At this time the farm worked what Graham says were known as ‘Shirbreds’ – shire horses, though they were blended with Clydesdales. Back then, pedigree was less important than it is for the showring thesedays, the important bit was how well the horse worked. The picture below show Beauty, Prince and Blossom at work. Strangely, they were not Suffolk Punches, the local breed of the area. It’s unknown why this was the case, but by the 30s the farm had switched to Suffolks and was using Lord Somerleyton’s Suffolk stallion.

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Graham told me a few tales of the more memorable events of his grandfather’s life breaking and working heavy horses. The best was possibly the mare who would not go forwards. In the training process she quickly figured out what was wanted and decided to avoid work by going backwards instead. A heavy horse’s backside moving towards you is hard to combat without use of the whip but William was not the type to use one; instead he stood her in front of a haystack and asked her to go forwards. The stubborn mare insisted on going backwards, and Graham says she heaved and kicked for a full hour, until the ground under her feet was churned into mud and she had exhausted herself with her efforts. Finally, she gave up and walked forwards, found it easy in comparison and was never a bother again!

The horses were traditionally turned onto the marshes between ‘haysel’ (haymaking time) and harvest to eat the aftermath of the haymaking and presumably build themselves up for the heavy work of harvest – pulling the binder was the hardest job and would have to be done in 3hr stints only before switching the horses. Mares would work whilst in foal, almost up to their time, and when the foal was born it would run alongside its mother as she worked. I know from experience that oxen learn a lot through example and mimicry, so this is probably an ideal start for a working horse!

The horses were often not too keen on returning to work after their holiday and William had another problem to fix when one mare figured out that putting her hefty leg over the trace and refusing to budge meant the men having to undo everything and set it right before they could start, whereupon she would simply move her leg again and delay everything further. Many would have been tempted to take a whip to the animal perhaps, but William decided to give the mare a taste of her own medicine – if she was going to keep him waiting and from his work, he would do the same! He walked her front feet to the top of a bank, tied her head high up to a branch and sat down for lunch, leaving her stood still. When he returned, she was suddenly keen to be on the move and never tried her trick again!

Time marched on and William’s son was keen to move on to tractors. William Snr refused point blank to have anything to do with them however, and the farm continued to work horses throughout the war years. No horses were lost to the front in the First World War, only a stack of hay – one of 800tonnes required every week to feed the horses on the front! During the Second World War William was caught out by a ‘nuisance raid’ while ploughing. He managed to unhitch the horses upon hearing the warning siren and by the time the two planes burst over the treeline, firing bullets randomly, he had run and hidden them behind a haystack and had the presence of mind to walk them around it as the planes passed so that they would not see the planes and take fright. His neighbour meanwhile had jumped from his tractor and into a ditch for shelter, leaving the tractor in gear, trundling away by itself!

Another wartime adaptation was having to make stacks with the grain crops rather than filling a stackyard back at the farm, near the giant new threshing machines, to avoid the risk of fire when incendiary bombs were dropped. It was quickly realised that the machines were too heavy to be moved nearer the stacks and would damage the ground too much in the process, but Grandad William was confident his horses could do the job, so he took it apart a little and hooked up ‘Smiler’ (pictured).grahamsshire Smiler had very broad feet and was an extremely strong horse; he carefully and successfully pulled the machine across the fields to the stack. Smiler was previously known as an almost useless horse, an ‘Old Stomper’. He not only had enormous feet but he banged them carelessly up and down as he walked, damaging many plants in the process if he worked any crops. In contrast, Graham says the other horses moved their feet carefully and neatly which was ideal.

The last foal born on the farm was ‘Smart’ (pictured with family below) in 1938, out of Blossom and by Lord Somerleyton’s stallion. She was clearly a well loved member of the family. Graham says she was so good natured she never actually required any formal kind of ‘breaking in’, she naturally took to work.grahamssuffolk

Unfortunately Grandad William died in 1952, still steadfastly refusing the drive the tractors. His son William was pleased with the switch to tractors as he regained a third of his land which had previously been dedicated solely to maintaining the horses. The horses were allowed to live out their lives on the farm however but eventually only Smart was left. She befriended a goose in those solitary days and they went out on the marshes together to graze, the goose bedding down on the muckheap outside her stable when they returned together at night. The goose laid her eggs on that muckheap but never needed to sit them, they hatched from the heat of the muck!

Smart’s last job was harrowing for a kale crop, driven by Graham’s dad. After this she developed ‘bad feet’ and finally in 1957 it was considered kinder to put her out of her misery. William could not bear for her to be killed on the farm, so she was carted to the slaughterhouse. Though a tractor fan, the experience moved him enough to write a poem on the passing of the horse days:

There’s a big tractor shed now standing
Where the old hay stacks used to be
And a big plough standing there outside
Not one furrow now but three
I’ve hung up the horse trees and the plough trace
Along with the whippletrees, saddles and bridles too
And I’m wearing greasy dungarees
For old grey mare is dead and gone
And there’s weeds around the stable door

– William Richmond

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