Cabin fever

DSC_0474

Somewhere on Exmoor – in between the showers of rain

Rain, rain and more bloody rain; that has been the story of the last month.

As someone who is addicted to spending time outdoors, to being active and enjoying open spaces, the last month has been very tiresome.

Whilst I have been very lucky not to have been directly affected by the awful floods that have devastated the Somerset Levels, the foul weather has certainly taken its toll on me psychologically and it has put this year’s veg growing plans on the back foot.

I am not a fan of spending time indoors and unfortunately, since my last blog post, I feel this is all I have done.

My daytime job is office based and finds me plonked behind a desk, staring at a computer screen for most of the day. Recently, as soon as I have got home I have had research and writing to do for various freelance assignments; finding myself slumped in front of the laptop for another few hours, pulling together something that is (hopefully) vaguely readable and pleasing to an editor’s eye. At the weekend, when I can finally free up some leisure time during daylight hours, weekend after weekend has greeted me with ever increasingly foul weather, cocooning me indoors.

DSC_0265

As such, I haven’t gotten out for walks, runs or general outdoor pottering half as much as I usually do and the occasions when I have donned waterproofs and braved the elements, it hasn’t been a particularly enjoyable experience. Hacking up an out of control hedge in the pouring rain, getting soaked for hours on end, with angry chickens squawking around my feet last weekend was not up there in my ‘Best Moments of 2014’.

This enforced indoor inactivity has left me a grumpy, angry mess.

I know that everyone relaxes in different ways, but for me, I judge the quality of my life very much in terms of how much time I can spend being active outdoors.

By getting outdoors and doing something physical – be it walking, gardening or running – I give my brain a chance to shut down and forget all the nonsense that clogs it during the working week. Bills, disappointment, work stress and bad news all fade away and I find that eventually my mind reboots and I can ponder more enjoyable things. Anyone who knows me can tell when I have had an active, enjoyable, outdoors weekend; I am simply a happier and – if I were being frank – better person.

So the last month has been very hard for me and my long suffering, but very patient wife!

The rubbish weather has also held up my veg growing plans; after all, what’s the point in planting anything when the chances are that given the current meteorological conditions it will simply rot in the damp, cold, rain sodden ground?

I did finally manage to get some First Early potatoes planted out yesterday after work, making the most of a few days of dry(ish) weather and spurred on by the knowledge that my free time will be very limited in the coming couple of weeks.

I also took the opportunity to get a selection of salad seeds and peas on the grow in the greenhouse, ready for planting out as the weather hopefully improves over the next few weeks.

When I look back at this time last year, I had already grown trays of salad seedlings ready to transplant, potatoes were in the ground and Pak Choi shoots poked up through the soil of my veg patch. I was prepared, keen and ready to go.

In no way shape or form do I feel like that at the moment!

Another big difference with last year is that I also had something that closely resembled a lawn.

Now, thanks to the ravages of the constant rain, worm hunting chickens and the scavenging of several pheasants that now pop into my garden to cause an extra bit of carnage, the grassy areas of my garden are looking decidedly swamp like.

Making the most of a break in the rain

Making the most of a break in the rain

The damp weather has also led to masses of moss popping up all over the place and the girls enjoy nothing more than clawing their way through it and nonchalantly casting it all over the place with their beaks.

What a mess.

But, good on the girls; they have endured some of the worst weather I have ever witnessed and, what’s more, they have continued to lay eggs for us all through the winter.

There have been many times that I have peered out of the kitchen window as the wind howls and the rain crashes down, to see the chickens huddled close together, heads down battling through the wind in search of a sheltered spot in the hedge. They are hardy beasts and one can’t help but feel a pang of respect for the animals.

So here’s to the start of spring proper. According to the media, this coming weekend in England is supposed to be a fine and sunny one; a weekend that cries out for lots of outdoor based activity and one that I plan to take full advantage of.

I do hope that this month proves to be a more promising one and my fingers are tightly crossed for many more hours can spent in the garden, re-kindling my food growing motivation.

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Penchant for all things porcine

???????????????????????????????

A local outdoor pig farm

“What is it with you and pigs!?”

This was the very reasonable question that my wife posed to me the other week as I proudly displayed yet another newspaper article that I had had published regarding the British pig industry.

On this occasion I had been investigating the growth in support for domestically produced pork products within British supermarket (have a read for yourself if you wish: http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk/Supermarkets-British-pork/story-20498802-detail/story.html) but in the past I have produced articles examining problems caused in the pig industry by high feed prices, researched the fascinating history of the Kune Kune pig, discussed the legalisation of pig swill and examined the threat of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhoea Virus.

The majority of my writing regarding agriculture seems to naturally revolve around the pig.

What’s more, when I’m not writing about pigs, I’m reading about them; sifting through Practical Pig magazine, flipping between the pages of A Practical Guide to Traditional Pig Keeping (a good resource for pig farm daydreaming) and spending hours gawping at various pig breed websites online. Whenever I get Farmers Weekly or the Farmers Guardian, I immediately turn to the livestock section looking for any significant updates in the world of pig farming.

PIG Bk2

If I were being totally honest I would also have to admit to having wasted a vast proportion of my life watching hours worth of pig based YouTube videos; chuckling away at the antics of hyped-up piglets and slowly shaking my head when watching a report on poor pig welfare in mainland Europe.

When someone in my village started to keep a few pigs not too far from my house, I would come up with any excuse to wander through the fields and say hello to the rampant gang of cross-breeds, relishing their happy squeals and watching them wallow in the mud.

Without doubt, pigs are my favourite animals.

And whilst there is no denying that I am a bit obsessed with the creatures, my wife is quite right to question my fascination. After all I don’t own any pigs and I wasn’t brought up on a pig farm, so why is it that this animal has gripped my interest to such a degree?

Looking back I think the founding influence has come from previous experience of working on a farm, where I got the chance to rub shoulders with a handful of cheerful Saddleback and Gloucester Old Spot pigs. In my opinion these animals were without doubt the most intriguing and interesting animals on the farm.

My experience of working with sheep and cattle had been enjoyable, but I did find these beasties frustrating; sheep just seemed to spend much of their time looking for interesting ways in which to kill themselves and the unpredictability of young bullocks could prove slightly unnerving. It was a privilege to work with these animals but there was no real connection between myself and beasts and I didn’t find myself wanting to rear any of these animals myself.

However, whenever I had to do some work with the pigs, or even work near where the pigs were, I really enjoyed the experience.

These inquisitive animals would always be questioning what I was up to; snuffling around my feet, nudging my arm with their heads, looking for a scratch behind the ear and periodically trying to eat the shoe laces off my boots.

DSC02319

One time, when I was half way up a ladder busy painting the outside of a barn, a particularly cunning sow managed to hoik its trotters up a couple of rungs so that it was standing on its rear trotters,  supported by my ladder. Whilst this was slightly unnerving as I was precariously balanced meters up in the air, any passerby would have been fairly shocked to see a pig, holding the ladder for me whilst I painted; a picture of perfect teamwork.

Whenever I was on my lunch break I would often find myself drawn to the pig pen, where I could be sure of a warm welcome; my arrival being greeted by half a dozen happy, grunting pigs trotting over to say hello. The next half an hour would be spent scratching the backs and ears of these splendid, rotund creatures that would produce various grunts of approval.

Other times, I would just sit back and watch the animals go about their usual business. Outdoor pigs just always look like they are having so much fun; be it wallowing around in mud, rooting through the earth for an elusive snack or chasing each other round in circles. They always made me chuckle.

One of my favourite quotes is from Winston Churchill who is claimed to have once said ” A cat looks down upon a man, and a dog looks up to a man, but a pig will look a man in the eye and see his equal” and I think that rather sums up why I like pigs so much. They have a rare character which you don’t find in other animals; look into a pigs eyes and you get the feeling that there’s a lot going on inside their mind.

So whilst I enjoy looking after my chickens and have loved my family dogs, I do look forward to the day when I can own some of my own porkers; enjoying the process of rearing these brilliant animals and enjoying the tasty results at the end of their upbringing.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too romantic, perhaps I don’t fully appreciate the trouble and hard work that these creatures can be, but it doesn’t matter at the moment.

For the time being I shall continue to be a pig fanatic.

Posted in Farming | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back to reality

DSC_0285

A walk on Exmoor

It’s the start of a new year and its back to reality after the Christmas break; ie. being very busy!

I have been rather active on the writing front over the last couple of weeks, with a deadline fast approaching for a scheduled feature with Grow Your Own magazine, an article on the British pig industry handed in for the farming section of one regional newspaper and a couple of short promotional pieces about the various Potato Day events taking place in the South West submitted to two others.

The on-going debate surrounding proposals to rescind the EU wide ban on the use of pig swill was the topic of another feature that made it into this weekend’s Western Daily Press (http://tinyurl.com/ngpq7zy) ; highlighting some of the downsides that a relaxation in the laws could bring as well as the supposed benefits.

All in all it’s been a busy start to 2014, made more challenging by an unhelpful dose of ‘man-flu’ and some truly atrocious weather.

The whole of South West England has been battered for weeks now by heavy winds and rain; with many areas near my Somerset home badly affected by severe flooding and falling trees.

The Somerset levels have been hit particularly severely, destroying the repair work that many farmers had carried out on fields badly affected by the flooding that took place in 2012. Ditches had been cleared and fields reseeded in an attempt to rectify the damage inflicted by the flooding; now all that hard work has been wasted.

What’s more, because of last year’s flooding many cattle and sheep farmers on the Levels were forced to destock and reduce their herd numbers due to high levels of damaged pasture. The hope was that this year, once pasture had had the opportunity to recover from the previous bout of saturation, these farmers would be able to increase their livestock levels again and get back to the secure footing that they had before the flooding in early 2012.

It is looking very unlikely that this will now be case.

DSC_0366

A break from the rain

So whilst the bad weather has made the daily chicken chores a deeply unpleasant experience and resulted in the odd ‘interesting’ journey to work, I have so far (touch-wood) been largely unaffected by the weather and don’t want to complain.

That being said, the chickens have certainly not enjoyed the weather and spend the majority of their time huddled around the back door of my cottage looking grumpy and squawking their discontent. Wet feathers, muddy feet and howling winds do not make for happy birds.

My wife and I spent an entertaining hour the other night in the pouring rain when we returned home from work only to find some of our birds missing during one of the worst days of wet, windy weather.

I had images of birds propelled over gates, squashed against walls or splattered by falling trees; who knew what had become of the chooks whilst we had been away and a gale tore through our garden.

A very blustery chicken hunt ensued and eventually, having become absolutely drenched by rain, the missing birds were located; happily snuggled up in a thick bit of hedge, totally unaware of what all the fuss was about and very unhappy at being harassed by a six foot four mass of wet hair and soggy clothes. But at least they were safe and I could retreat to the warmth of a log fire without any pangs of guilt.

DSC_0336

A less windswept chook

So I am hoping that this coming week proves to be a bit more relaxed, that the sun magically appears and that I finally get the chance to head outdoors and see to my very sad, storm savaged garden. I have got a lot of tidying up to do and am longing to get outside, stretch my legs and get my hands dirty.

I’ve been stuck inside too long; role on spring!

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter wonderland

???????????????????????????????As the frequency of frosty mornings increases and the talk in the news turns to snow (or rather, snow ‘chaos’), I am frequently asked by new, free range chicken keepers if they need to take any special measures to ensure the well being and productivity of their birds.

Chickens are hardy animals and can survive in extremely cold conditions, but there are certainly steps that can be taken to improve their position during the winter months.

As such I have put together a short feature for Pocket Farm magazine; providing information that will hopefully prepare novice chicken keepers for the coming cold weather and help ensure that they maintain happy, healthy and productive hens.

Check out the article and if you have any other ‘winter tips’ please be sure to comment:

www.pocketfarm.co.uk/helping-free-range-chickens-cope-with-the-cold/

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tweet-tastic

???????????????????????????????

A wander around HQ

Twitter is a fantastic tool to promote your blog, business and the work of friends; providing a forum from which to gather and spread news as well as giving you the chance to interact with a huge online audience.

However I must admit that since creating a new Twitter account specifically for Outdoorsandmore, I have not dedicated the time and effort to it that I should have.

Writing assignments, travel with work and – of course – the up keep of the garden, have all resulted in my latest Twitter feed having taken a back seat over the last few months; it has been neglected and unloved.

However, things have changed and I am now making a concerted effort to keep the Twitter side of Outdoorsandmore updated, relative and most importantly, informative.

So, if you are looking for links to the latest online farming features, new about what’s occurring in the beautiful countryside of the South West and the occasional pretty rural picture, please make sure to follow me on Twitter; either by accessing the link below or using the Twitter tab on the right of this page.

@outdoorsandmore

I hope that you find it of interest and I look forward to hearing from you all soon.

Right; now I have to go and search for an escapee chicken – again!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The empty quarter

Good1

Slim pickings in winter

Bitterly cold mornings, empty vegetable patches and days wrapped in a dull gloom; it is easy to find this time of year hard going psychologically.

When I wake in the morning, its pitch black outside and my body screams, trying to convince my brain that it therefore can’t possibly be time to wake up as I prize my weary limbs out of bed; often with a gentle – but very necessary – prod from my wife.

As I stumble around the bedroom – brain numbed by the freezing cold – I somehow get dressed, as muscle memory alone guides me to throw on clothes in an order that results in some form of socially acceptable attire and I am able to make my way downstairs; whereupon I enter the kitchen and cross a void into another, freezing world.

Alas, my kitchen is basically a breeze block lean-to tacked on to the side of my cottage; built in an era when insulation was deemed necessary only for ‘softies’ and an utter waste of time, effort and money.

Therefore as soon as I open the door and step in, I am hit with a blast of icy air; sending an involuntary shudder through my body and allowing me to see the breath steaming from my gaping, curse muttering mouth.

As such, the kitchen is not a place to linger and with as much haste as I can muster in my semi-comatic state, I throw on my coat and bury my head in a dishevelled, twig-riddled woollen hat, heading outdoors and cursing the day that my wife and I decided having a few chickens would be ‘fun’, ‘fulfilling’ and other now nonsensical words.

good2

During sunnier times…..

Once outside it’s so dark that not even the chickens are making any noise and they seem thoroughly miffed when I open up the pop hole of the chicken house and suggest they may like to head out into the garden. I’ll sometimes give them a gentle hand out and in return the birds squawk with scorn as they begrudgingly exit their cosy accommodation.

If I catch their eye I can’t help but get a little worried; it’s as if they’re thinking ‘we’ll remember this mate…..’  and it could help to explain the great joy the birds take in destroying a variety of my gardening efforts and laying eggs in the most inaccessible of locations.

Chickens with a grudge; scary stuff.

Anyway, after thoroughly pissing off the girls I then have the particularly delightful experience of breaking the ice on their water bowls; chilling my already freezing fingers to ice cube level and spurring on my efforts to clean out the chicken house and top up the girls feed as quickly as I can.

In the summer I find this daily chicken care routine an enjoyable experience; slowly pottering about, soaking up the early morning sun and watching the sparrows flit about the garden. It’s a nice, quiet ten minutes all to myself where I can contemplate the coming day.

At this time of year though all I can think about is getting back inside as soon as possible; eager to embrace a warm mug of tea and regain the feeling in my fingers. And anyway, there’s not much to look at around the garden at this time of year.

As someone who takes great pride in their gardens appearance and its productivity, I can’t help but feel melancholy about the current state of my homes outdoor spaces.

Due to work commitments and bad timing on my part, no overwintering crops were planted out in my vegetable patch and any produce leftover from summer has long been consumed, put away in the freezer or helped to fill the crop of several hungry hens.

As a result what was a couple of months ago a bright tapestry of colours, smells, and shapes – buzzing with potential and scores of beautiful insects – is now a barren, solemn looking stretch of earth.

I know it won’t be long till I can set to work righting this wrong, but it still irks me a little, especially as the rest of the garden is looking rather sad as well.

With the chickens having recently been released back into the open green space (see https://outdoorsandmore.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/rescuing-the-lawn-grumpy-girls-and-a-great-escape/) that they so love much, in a show of respect to both myself and the lawn, they immediately set about destroying all the repair work I had carried out to rectify the damage they had wrought on the grass earlier in the year.

Thanks to their hard work there are bare patches all over the lawn, plants have been scratched up, leaves kicked all over the place and the sun starved grass is struggling. All in all, the lawn and its surrounds looks like it could do with a winter getaway; preferably somewhere warm, sunny and – I imagine – fertilizer based cocktails.

No such luck!

good3

Chickens on the rampage

When I head back indoors and kick off my boots, clasping an awaiting mug of tea to my chest (thank you wife), I start to daydream and yearn for the 30th March, when British Summer Time starts once again and we start getting back a bit of light in the evenings here in Blighty.

I miss spending time outdoors; being able to potter around the garden after work and not feeling rushed to squeeze in any garden jobs during the weekend. I can’t help but feel a little gloomy at the moment as I drag myself from bed, to work and back home, all the while wrapped in a blanket of cold and darkness.

Most of my time at the moment is spent indoors; often hunched in front of the computer at work or writing and researching future features when at home. My body is literally craving to be outside, to be active and to soak up some sun.

Hopefully some well earned time off over Christmas will give me the chance to get out a bit more and I shall be sure to head to the hills for some walks, prep the veg patch for the coming spring and tootle around the country lanes on my bike.

I’m sure it will do the world of good and until then, I shall just have to make the most of a rather dull situation; after all, there is something rather nice about decent pint of ale in front of a glowing fire on a cold, dark evening.

I guess there’s always a silver lining!

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rescuing the lawn, grumpy girls and a great escape

???????????????????????????????

The cause of much trouble!

The change in seasons has become all to noticeable over the last few weeks, with the progression from summer to autumn marked by the onset of cold weather, rain and shorter days; already dampening the spirits of garden and gardener alike.

The chickens are not particularly pleased either.

Towards the end of September my wife and I decided to head away for a few days to the Isles of Scilly and our fantastic chicken-sitting neighbours agreed to look after the girls whilst we were off walking, fishing, cider drinking and generally enjoying being absent from the reality of everyday working life.

It was a brilliant and relaxing time away but when we returned it was to find that our birds had chosen this time to play up.

Like rebellious teenagers, released from the authoritative ruling of their parents, our birds had made life rather difficult for their interim carers; escaping from the garden, wandering around the road, laying eggs in random places, making lots of noise and generally causing trouble.

We felt rather embarrassed when we were relayed the long list of antics that the chickens had performed in our absence and were extremely grateful for our neighbour’s patience and thanked them for not turning the little buggers into chicken nuggets. I doubt I would have been so tolerant.

Whilst these escapades had no long lasting consequences, some of the other, more destructive activities that the rabble decided to partake in did.

In the few days that we were away, the birds managed to tune into their inner-anarchic urges; ploughing up huge swathes of the garden by digging around in the moss that had sprung up over much of the lawn towards the end of this summer.

As a result our garden was pot marked with bare patches of soil and dozens of small craters, as though a mini artillery barrage had rolled through our backyard; not a particularly good look, unless one wanted to dig a few trenches and successfully recreate the WW1 Western Front ‘vibe’.

No thanks.

Now, if it was my house I wouldn’t be that bothered; id simply fence off the worst affected areas and let the chickens run riot in the rest of the garden. As long as they carry on plopping out the eggs, I’m happy. But seeing as we rent our cottage, steps had to be taken to preserve the lawn; if left, it would only have been a matter of time before the garden was a sea of bare earth.

So this has necessitated some fairly dramatic changes and the creation of a very spacious, rather plush chicken ‘prison’.

Luckily we have a large path leading from the back door, down the side of the vegetable patch, towards the greenhouse and garden shed. When fenced off, this would create a nice holding area for the chickens to be housed; with a bit of grass to munch on, some old undergrowth to forage through and plenty of room to wander round.

???????????????????????????????

Settling into the new ‘run’

It was however with great sadness I had to bring down the plastic fencing that surrounded my vegetable patch and incorporate this much needed space into the chicken’s new run.

Having protected this area somewhat fanatically over the last few months (patrolling along the perimeter, garden fork in hand, glaring at inquisitive chickens) it was rather depressing knowing the carnage that I would soon knowingly unleash upon it. I managed one final harvest of swiss chard and potatoes before giving up the remaining, juvenile crops to their fate; it took literally minutes for the birds to despoil the helpless plants once they had been successfully interned in their new living quarters.

Whilst the birds weren’t best pleased with their new arrangement – and my wife felt very guilty about restricting their movements – they have plenty of room to squawk around in, a greenhouse in which to take shelter from the rain and a once pristine looking vegetable patch to dig in and destroy. Compared to most chickens, I think they are still rather lucky.

It did take them a little while to get used to the fencing, with lots of confused walking up and down the perimeter and squawking initially taking place, but they soon settled down and now seem resigned to their imprisonment. Occasionally I do catch them looking longingly out into the rest of the garden and I do feel a pang of pity. Still; needs must.

So far there has only been one successful escape attempt and of course the perpetrator was our cunning Colombian Black Tail. Having given the chicken defences a thorough look over, I still have no idea how she managed to escape; I am waiting to discover an intricate underground tunnel system one day or perhaps a glider made out of twigs. Who knows!

This whole set-up is, I hasten to add, only a temporary arrangement; I want free-range birds who can graze, forage and potter about to their hearts content, so as soon as the law recovers I shall let them loose again to do what they may to our garden.

???????????????????????????????

Chooks not enjoying the rain

This recovery process has been aided by a fair bit of work from my wife and I; with a productive Sunday spent forking over the largest and worst affected areas of lawn, sowing plenty of grass seeds and firming down the soil.

I also invested in some green manure seeds to sow in any bare flower beds and borders so that, when fully grown, the chickens will have something to root around in and entertain themselves; a mixture of field peas, rye grass and mustard which should provide a fairly dense covering of greenery.

I made the mistake of severely cutting back lots of low level undergrowth that was springing up around the edges of the garden towards the end of summer; dramatically reducing the ‘playground’ areas which the birds so enjoy. I believe that this played a big part in explaining why the chickens suddenly decided to attack the lawn in such a determined manner.

Thankfully, everything in the ‘chicken-free zone’ seems to be recovering really well and you can barely make out the bare patches on the lawn any more. So all being well in a couple of weeks when the clocks go back I can release the girls again. Freedom!

I can’t wait to see how happy they will be and look forward to rescuing my rather sad looking – albeit very well manured – vegetable patch and having truly free range chickens once again.

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment