The lambing season is here

The blog fell on the wayside, not only because we had a busy year with plenty of guests at Casa Ceoil, but simply because it slipped down the very long long long list of to-dos that we have. New projects, old projects, family commitments, and just life. But we are giving it another breath of life, and no time is better than when the first lambs are born.

So at the first most intense week of the year, I decided to get back to the blog. Intense as the lambing has started and this week, I have had two sets of twins and a single. Unlike other years, not only do I have a better eye for when a ewe is due, but I have lovely stalls organised for them. I keep them out as much as possible, but under a watchful eye as a gauge their due time by checking udders and a few more signs.

One set of twins were born in our top field, a favourite place for the lambing ewes. As my gear demands more hands than I have, I decided to facilitate the transport of the lambs by simply stuffing them in a bucket. Problem solving through a spur of the moment inspiration is my bread and butter on this farm. When moving my lambs I now always carry:

She doesn’t look it, but this one is a fairly fierce and protective ewe. Her name, simply…The angry one.
  1. Bucket of feed to entice the ewe to move away from the birthplace (often a difficult enough task).
  2. Large lamb bucket (in case of twins), with straw.
  3. Straw for the bucket and when I pick up the lambs (to avoid transferring much of my own smell and possibly cause the ewe to reject the lambs).

This prep makes the process a lot simpler. Not only can the ewe follow the lamb or lambs in the bucket easily, we can also move quick enough. One of my ewes bucks me every time I come close to her lamb, a good mother but makes it hard to handle the lambs. As this was the first lamb and it was also pre-lamb bucket inspiration, I had to walk backwards most of the field keeping the lamb between us, all to avoid getting headbutted by the annoyed ewe.

Billy the visiting billy goat

I’m also waiting for my pygmy goats to deliver, which I think will be early to mid-February. We had a loan of a very friendly puck from a very friendly couple in west Clare. While the puck was no trouble, I was more than happy to not own one, I have never come across such a strong-smelling animal. “Don’t pet him” was my neighbours’ advice, but it didn’t help, his pheromones were so strong it was enough to stand beside him and his smell stuck to you; a very strong smell of overly ripe goats’ cheese.

To our dismay the smell stuck even after washing your hands with dishwasher liquid and heavy scrubbing, never mind the clothes. Some research, after spending a day or so of constantly smelling goat cheese (and not the good kind!), I found the solution; wash your hands with a bit of toothpaste or goat’s milk soap.

Last year saw plenty of changes, while only one of our four cows had a calf, we discovered that this cow in particular (Oprah) is a high yield milker and a good foster mother. Oprah reared an additional two calves along with her own, plus is currently with two more, but she will, of course, get a break.

The land of rainbows.

Re-organising a bit, I decided to swap two cows for four calves. While it is periodically labour intense, we will have calmer periods as well. Another plus is that all the calves are heifers, so no crazy young bullocks for me. If you don’t know my history with the male side of cattle, have a read of my blog “Frenemies on the Farm” and you’ll understand.

Our poultry population has dwindled as well, thanks to Mr Fox. The only good thing the fox did, was to target the hen that was pecking the eggs and thereby saving me the hassle of trying to figure out which of my identical looking hens was the culprit. I never got to try the “fake egg” trick on them, but I have them saved in case there is another instance of egg pecking. Supposedly putting fake eggs where they lay will teach them a lesson.

There may be plenty to do, but the rewards are immense and few things are as satisfying as seeing the delivery of healthy animals. It startles me at times, that I am living this very down to earth and very real type of life, not something I expected growing up in the city. I would not change it for the world.

Overcoming my fear of chickens

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I resisted for a long time, refusing to be the one to buy chickens. I had made myself clear, that while I was not against chicken per se, they did freak me out and I did not feel comfortable around them, at all.

“A hen would never hurt you”, was a common response to my chicken fear. Then a pensive pause and a story of that one hen that was a bit off kilter. There is always that story and it never assuaged my fear, rather reinforced the fact that some chickens are plain crazy and not just cockerels.

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Early days in front of the coop designed and built by Kevin and our girls.

My fear is a childhood fear. I wasn’t always afraid of chickens, but after being chased by my two of my grandmother’s chickens and my grandfather’s fearsome cockerel I put my foot down. I tried facing my fears as a child and spent a couple of months working in a chicken farm, but it didn’t do a thing for me.

There is something about their beady eyes, combined with sharp looking beaks and the way they look at you sideways with one eye. It gives them a slightly crazy look and you never know what they’ll pick at next.

I lost the battle and finally bought six young hens that need to be fattened up a bit before the eggs start coming. The good news is that I can finally say I have almost fully overcome my fear, not only can I touch them and pick them up, but I actually enjoy feeding and minding them. They know me by now and I can call them they come running from everywhere to check for whatever treats I have brought them.

My fearlessness has come as far as me teaching them to climb up the steps to the hen house. It is hard to imagine a sillier situation, me catching a chicken in the dusk, setting her at the steps and both pushing and encouraging her up the steps. Of the six only one was a bit slow on the pickup and thankfully I had to do the exercise just once; they now go into their coop by themselves every evening and we just make sure to close the door after them for safety.

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The fearsome creatures show no fear of Roisin.

With another type of pride, I can also tell you that our dog has quickly learned that the chickens are not prey. They easily walk around Bella without her paying them too much attention. Bella’s love for chasing birds and in particularly magpies had me worried, she never really fully eased up around the ducks and could not be trusted around them on her own. The chickens seem to be a different thing, she does herd them at times, barks when they spread out too much for her liking, but never gets any nearer than three feet.

The only ones that have had to be taught matters around the chickens are the cats and it is lucky that they are not full-blown hunters yet. At least one of them has understood that the chickens are out of bounds and we’ll do some work on the other one still.

The downside of fowl on the farm has been the fox attacks. I lost my laying ducks last Christmas, just as they were about to start laying seriously. I have now also lost three chickens and one left on the edge; this one has been amazing and has fully recovered. She still has bare areas on her back stained with the blue antiseptic liquid, but after being cooped up a week in a cat box she was more than ready to get outside and properly stretch her legs. I’m thinking of calling her Blue, although when she gets her new feathers I don’t know if I’ll be able to distinguish her from the rest.

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The spunky hen Blue, showing little effects of the fox attack last month.

I immediately got another three chickens and I’m being stricter with the closing in at night, also checking the doors which gave the fox easy access to the coop.

You want to have your fowl as free as possible, but at the same time a bit of incarceration keeps them safer. It’s a hard balance. I might just have to get an alpaca, I’ve heard that they are very protective, even of chickens. Wonder what Kevin might say about that, considering he was a bit lukewarm of the purchase of pygmy goats.

A most interesting thing is that we have a hen that regularly lays eggs with two yolks, imagine my surprise the first time I cracked an egg into my frying pan and this happens regularly. I haven’t figured out which one yet, but she is definitely a keeper; this is after all a house of twins.

 

I never expected the paparazzi

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Until lately, I have in a very small scale, experienced what it might be like to be persecuted by adoring fans or the paparazzi. It has calmed down a bit, but I am still conscious of what door I use to exit my house.

No, I have not overnight become a media star, my blog is not that famous and it is much simpler than that, although almost equally ridiculous and unexpected. It all has to do with the abundant TLC I give our animals on the farm. I still have many of my city girl sensibilities left, they have not yet been erased by the harsh reality of farming (see Farming reality slapped me in the face post).

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“The kind one”, our most placid ewe checking me out and looking for a treat

So it is no surprise really, with the level of coddling I give my animals, that they watch me and often follow me wherever I go. Our farm is small and many of the fields are facing the house. Depending on what door I exit, I am constantly greeted by one group of animals or other.

Now that that the pasture is plentiful their attention has lessened, but when I fed them animal nuts daily up to late spring, I could hardly leave the house without having hearing intense baaing from the sheep until they’d lose sight of me.

If I by chance am carrying any type of bucket, even now, there is literally a stampede to get at me. The sheep are bad enough, as the larger ones could easily knock you over; or as it also happened, they would run in between my legs and lift me off the ground. No, I do not relish riding an ewe and particularly not ones with wet wool.

At times, even without a bucket, they decide I am somehow feeding them and follow me around the field until I get to a gate. They then proceeded to stare at me and continue baaing, which clearly means “Feed me! Feed me now” in sheep.

The cows and calves are calmer, but once they spot the bucket I would imagine myself the middle of a rugby field with the ball in my hand and the other team coming against me. It makes me laugh to see them run at full speed towards me, but quite scary as well as I wonder if they will stop in time before they maul me. After being shoved and pushed around a few times when I was trying to empty the bucket in front of them, I quickly learned to be a good bit more imposing with my normally very calm cows. Lack of respect from their side would end in me being trampled.

 

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The cow rugby team coming against me. Scary!

Thankfully the cows are lazier than the sheep, and they will not follow me for long. On very hot or rainy days, they won’t even bother to look my way.

The ducks are smaller and easier to handle, but no less loud when they see me and know it is time to fill their buckets. They run towards me like a feathered cloud giving their cute quacks. I feel bad at times passing their pen, without any treats to give them as they follow me in their loud and cloudlike fashion.

At times I had to consider what I was up to and which would be the best door to leave the house from. While very cute at times, having 20 sheep baaing every time they see you definitely gets on your nerves after a while. I would take the roundabout way, just to avoid their demanding attention.

The positive of all this attention is that it is very easy to round up the animals. I can get both the sheep, cows and ducks into almost any pen or shed, with a little patience. As long as I am carrying a bucket they don’t care where I’m going or where I bring them. It is very handy at times.

 

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I need better shoes, I have had enough of being stepped on by sheep looking for a treat.

 

Kevin no.2 asked me a couple of weeks ago if I spoke some secret sheep language, as they followed me without any problem at all; this after he and Kevin had spent some time trying to chase them into a pen. I guess that is the upside of being a celebrity on this farm.

In all this paparazzi-type of attention I have forgotten to mention my most celebrity-like accessory, my very own body guard. Our dog Bella seldom leaves my side when I am working around the house, farm or polytunnel. Even when I write my blog she lies beside me, perking up the minute I make for a door. Undemanding and constant, my own unobtrusive and constant shadow.

Ah! The life of celebrity, but in a farm-like way.

 

Ducklings are a blast

I never liked chickens, or to be precise, I have always been afraid of them. There is something about their beady eyes and the sharpness of their beak that puts me off. I doesn’t help that I was chased by them as a child.

I am not too keen about birds either, so it was a great surprise to me how I have taken to my ducklings, literally like a duck to water (if you can excuse the weak pun).

Ducklings fitted snugly into a small crate.

The ducklings came as a little bit of a surprise and was as usual not the most organised or planned activity. I always had in mind that ducks would be ideal for the natural pond and turlough Kevin has been cleaning out in the last year, but as the chicken coop is in production on site, I figured ducks were a project for later.

But around here things fall naturally into our laps and we tend to go with the flow when opportunities appear. One of our neighbours had a large selection of ducklings for sale and it was just a matter of going and picking up the breeds we wanted. As ducks where my interest and I had done the most research, I was sent to pick up “about ten, I guess”, said Kevin, from our very entrepreneurial neighbour Fergal.

Now, let me tell you about my neighbour Fergal, who also sold us our cows. A lovely fellow, into about everything you can think of related to farming. Very down to earth and helpful,
but a salesman through and through.

“I’ll take ten, Fergal. A mix of laying ducks and ducks for the table”, I said.
“Did you say thirty? I know you have the space for it. There’s as much work in feeding ten as feeding thirty”, says he.
“Fine, I’ll take fifteen”, says I.
“I’ll give you a few for free, just for you”, says he.

Today I am the proud owner of 22 ducklings, which I bought at a week old. There are seven Aylsbury, table ducks, two mallards (which Fergal assured me wouldn’t fly off, fingers crossed), two unusual Cayuga, a couple Indian Runners and Khaki Cambells.

 

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Aylesbury duckling wondering if I have more worms to hand out.

My lovelies started off residing in a long cardboard box in my utility room. While I could have put them in the shed, I was afraid they might be killed by rats. During the sunny days we have been having, they have been out on the lawn in a temporary pen.

 

The ducklings are so much fun! I can spend ages looking at their antics and listening to their funny little quacky squeeks.

 

As they cannot swim yet, they don’t have feathers only down, I made up a shallow pool (compliments from Pinterest) for them. It is simply a large plastic painting tray, that with water looks like a miniature children’s pool. They just loooove the water and as the days are warm and sunny they don’t get cold.

With the dry mealworms I got in the pet shop, I am slowly taming them and when they see me they stand attention to see if I have any treats for them. I also fill their pool with chopped up weeds, herbs and lettuce, and you would be hard pressed to find happier ducklings when they dive after their treats.

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The ducklings just love the mealworm treats.

Now here is another strange development, I now scour my polytunnel for weeds such as the previously hated bitter cress and check my lawns for dandelion leaves, all used as treats for my ducklings who simply love them. I caught myself today, thinking that I might leave the cress to grow a bit more around my tomatoes, just to have more to give my ducks. I had to pinch my arm, just to make sure I copped on to myself.

They grow at an alarming rate and grew out of their box in no time. The ducklings, not so small any more, now reside in a handy pen in the shed. They still get the chopped weeds, but have now grown onto the grower feed.

The best thing of all; this is the first time I have lost my fear of fowl. Ducks are fun, they leave a mess and are extremely dirty, but will put a smile on anyone. They might lose their duckling cuteness as they get bigger, but somehow I doubt the funny quacks or the waddle gait will dampen their charm.

Will I be able to eat them? Yes. I love duck meat. Also, not all are meant for the table, most are actually meant to keep for eggs. Although a few of those might go, depending if they are ducks or drakes (females or males).

The golden rule in this house is “don’t name anything you are planning on eating”. With the farm animals as with the garden, what I grow is to be eaten, has an additional benefit or uses. This is why we have very few decorative plants and only one pet, our dog Bella. Even these earn their keep; the plants by attracting bees and other useful bugs, and our dog Bella is a great companion and watchdog. Useless with the sheep though.