Sunday, 31 January 2010

Bugger, we're unemployed, but look, aren't those lambs cute.

January was unremarkable; we returned to our desks and started thinking about feeding up the pregnant ewes. At the beginning of February in common with many other places throughout the UK we had a flurry of snow, giving us around 4", followed 2 days later by a bigger dump, around 9" in all. Seems that much of the southeast of England was covered too, a dramatic sight.

Later that month I was in conversation with my boss, Nick, discussing the company's finances. It seems that Louise and I are to be made redundant - from late March we'd both be unemployed. Catastrophe, as the recession was biting hard and West Wales was not the best place to be job-hunting.

Now, every cloud and all that. In the back of my mind i'd always planned on slowing down after we'd got rid of the mortgage, perhaps start a small chimney sweeping business or window cleaning round. Seems that my hand was being forced. I did heaps of research into what competition there would be, level of demand etc. whilst Louise was writing off speculative letters for jobs and door-knocking local businesses. Seems that all over the UK there is a shortage of window cleaners.... and thus, Red Dragon Window Cleaning was born.

One of my Welsh classmates, Lins, of LJC Computers, helped me bring a website to life - I bought a van, went on several training courses, got the van kitted out with water fed pole window cleaning equipment and had my sis in law, Gill, design some leaflets. I was up and running by mid-April and to boot Louise had found a part-time job at Clunderwen and Cardiganshire Farmers, a local agricultural supplies outlet with branches all over west Wales!

Seems we were up and running. Skint, but up and running! To add to the good news at the end of March the girls gave us 5 wonderful lambs. There were no problems in the various deliveries and all were doing well. It really is one of the great joys of smallholding and worth all the mid-night checks, but when lambs are born it seems to make it all worthwhile. All 5 are black - apparently a characteristic when the ram used is a Jacob.

As time went by it seemed that 2 lambs were struggling a bit, so Louise and I (well, mainly Louise as she was part-time at CCF) had to bottle feed them.

The weather turned hot in June and we'd been digging over The Allotment which was starting to look good. We had some raspberries in there, along with spuds, onions, shallots, garlic, beans and peas etc. And boy were the lambs growing, as you can see from this pic!!

We'd been given a lovely Welsummer cockerel who'd been looking after the chickens well...

and when one went broody we kept 1/2 dozen eggs back and the broody hen hatched 3 of them in a broody ark we've had for ages.

Red Dragon Window Cleaning was going really well and Louise had settled in to the job at CCF too, in fact she absolutely loved it, dealing with farmers and all the day to day issues surrounding their needs, plus she had a great manager and new friend in Rebecca.

By the time September rolled around we'd had another dreadfully wet summer, our 3rd in a row. So much so The Allotment was doing o.k. only in certain areas. The onions were fab, beans and peas hopeless, shallots great, garlic poor, spuds not too bad. The size of The Allotment was around double the size of 2 council plots. In addition our land is VERY rocky with topsoil only centimetres thick in some places. I reckon as we got to September we've shifted 30 tons of stones and rocks, from fist-sized stones up to 2 foot-square boulders. We are turning a field into a kitchen garden after all, but it has been such hard work, far harder than i'd imagined.

We had a new addition to the family in late summer, Mimi, a farm cat given to us by Louise's boss, Rebecca. We have rats where the chickens range. Their food is in a metal dustbin, but they do say where there are chickens there are rats: Mimi was the (proposed) solution. We are still waiting for the first kill....

Also in late summer we take the hard decision to change our sheep stock. We have 3 ewes and 5 lambs. No 2 ewe is going as a cull ewe - she's blind in one quarter and lumpy in the other. The Wiltshire Horn x Hampshire Down ewes (her daughters) are not suited to this land of ours - 270m asl is too high,and they need much more food and are poor mothers to boot - they have to go. We send them and 2 lambs to market and though Louise is the only one with a tear in her eye I can tell you it took all my effort - they were our first sheep after all. On the upside we now have a freezer full of (as good as organic) lamb. Hey ho...

We replace the ewes with 3 new Wiltshire horn ewe lambs from a farmer down in south Pembrokeshire. As yet they are very nervous but with a bit of help from the plastic shepherd (a bucket full of sheep nuts) they should come round.

It turns out that 2 or the 3 chicks we hatched are cockerels; as we want to keep their Dad, the Welsummer (we really must give these animals some names) so they to have to go. I make a 'Free to Good Home' sign for the front of the house and pretty soon one has gone.

Then we have another fox attack. Damn, we lose 6 birds leaving us with 3 Light Sussex and an Amber - the wonderful Welsummer - gone. The remaining cockerel - gone. He only took 1 bird leaving 5 in the field - something foxes do. We take the difficult decision to eleccy fence them in. I don't want you to think that we take their welfare too lightly, it's just that we believe that they should be able to free range, that they get more out of being free for a shorter life than locked in for a longer life. The upside is that we are going to use the area of The Allotment that has yet to be dug over; by Christmas our 4 remaining birds are safely behind their netting. We hope it stays that way but know that there are no guarantees.

So here we are in 2010. Red Dragon Window Cleaning is going from strength to strength. Louise is now full-time at CCF and the animals are all well. We have fenced The Allotment and are about to put in pathways to separate the 6 growing beds we plan. There's been plenty of snow for us all, but that's been no hardship really, not when you see what it does to the view.

As I write this Sunday evening we've just been to collect 3 more chickens. We have come home with a Light Sussex, a Black Rock and a Cream Legbar cross. Oh, and a Welsummer cockerel. Mmmh, 4 chickens not 3 despite our best efforts to resist. All is looking good. We are about to order the wood for the Allotment paths, then we'll be digging and planting. There are pigs planned for the summer and lots of lovely veg to grow. All in all, not too bad.

From hereon in i'll write diary style entries letting you know what we are up to as the weeks and months pass. But for now your up to date!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A difficult time

Louise and Jasper in the snow - April 2008

When we moved to Wales everyone warned us that we'd end up pale ghosts of who we used to be, deprived, as we would be, of the sun. Vitamin D levels would plummet; the Child Bride (oh, now i've gone and let Louise's pet name out of the bag; oh well, never mind...), already a pale skinned beauty would become veritably paled. Rubbish we said.

Well, summer (ha) 2007 was a washout; never mind, the law of averages would mean 2008 would be "a scorcher". Well it bloody wasn't. It was awful. It was great in spring, but come the summer and it was constant rain from one day to the next, with temperatures scraping 13c it was more like October. Day after day it just rained. I did manage to get the footings in for the new greenhouse we planned, and earlier, in June we had painted the house, but after that... well it was rubbish.

At the end of July, with all the rain and a relatively warm spell we found a ram lamb with fly-strike. He was quite bad and it just shows you how quick it can come on, all of them being checked daily. Anyway, we bathed it with Battle Oil and he seemed more comfortable - well he would wouldn't he.

In mid-August No. 1 sheep went with 2 ewe lambs to Crymych mart - and sold, £41 for No 1 and £22 each for the little lambs.

By August we had been worming the lambs regularly from 4 weeks, with Combinex, a combined wormer and flukicide. The withdrawal period (the time from which the animal must remain alive before being slaughtered for meat) was 56 days, so we had given them their last dose a while ago, calculating a slaughter date 56 days hence. At the end of August we found the fly-stricken lamb collapsed, he is breathing with difficulty and has a bad cough. We did all we could with antibiotics etc. but he died.I spoke to the vet and he said that following the fly strike his immunity would be low and other than what we did there was nothing we could have done. Louise was heartbroken.

A week later and we have lost another - the brother of the first lamb! We were both upset and I took the carcase to the veterinary lab in Carmarthen. The result - he was riddled with worms. This was the worst possible result in many ways as it was down to us to control the worm burden of our livestock and we had failed. It seems that we should have used a wormer with a shorter withdrawal period so we could worm right up to when they went off. A hard lesson learned. Anyway, things could only get better and this was why we were here, to learn and experience life on a holding.

Things improved from here. The weather improved dramatically and we erected our smashing new 10' x 8' greenhouse (in 3 days - it's not your usual 10x8 greenhouse...)

and this year's pigswent off to slaughter with the result being THE best gammon steaks and joints you've ever tasted.

We also had a visitor to the holding - a wonderful Jacob ram (on loan) that tupped our girls in the November. Our day-jobs are looking decidedly dodgy - we are both working for, but there are money worries ahead as the recession bites hard. So we end 2008 with several questions - will we have jobs come spring, and are our sheep in-lamb and if so just what colour will the lambs be...?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

We need some stables, and some hurdles and...

Immediately we moved in I started work, from home, for a friend's new travel website,, whilst Louise worked out her notice as a PA. On the last weekend of her work I went back to Hampshire to collect a whole load of stuff we'd left at the allotment - plus the chickens. We had already bought a brand new chicken house and they setted in well.

Next to move up to Wales were the 4 sheep. These we had transported for us - at this stage we didn't have a trailer. They settled in well to. At this stage we had no veggie plot, no stabling, just plans on how we wanted things. I bought a lawn mower and strimmer as there was lots to do in this area. We spent the first summer planning what infrastructure we needed:

3 x 8 foot stables
1 shed
1 greenhouse
1 pond
1 veggie patch

No big deal you say, but as we are in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, each of these requires planning permission! We also needed:

Electric fencing for the pigs
Pig ark

We got our first pigs at the beginning of June 2007 from a local farmer - 3 x Welsh cross Landrace weaners about 9 weeks old. We invested in some eleccy fencing and turned them out into an area that needed clearing of brambles; with the help of a new friend, neighbour Ed Morgan, we built a pig ark.

In these first few months we also re-roofed the garage, installed electric in it, and got plans approved with the PCNP, bought more chickens - 3 light Sussex and a laced Wyandotte bantam and promptly had our first visit from Mr Fox, losing one bird! When we moved we decided we'd let the chickens range over the whole field, knowing it was a risky strategy - anyway, undeterred we carried on regardless.

By the end of October we'd had a wet summer but the pigs were slaughtered and were now in the freezer, having been butchered on the kitchen table by a local guy we had heard about. In November we borrowed a neighbour's Suffolk ram and we tupped all 4 ewes.

By January 2008 we had started digging the footings of the stables

and had planted fruit trees - apples (2 x Lord Lambourne, 2 x Sunset, 2 x Adam's Pearmain, 1 x bramley) 1 x conference pear and 1 x Victoria plum.

A couple of weeks later the stables went up - 3 Polish workers from Smiths Sectional Buildings doing a huge job in no time at all! By this time the ewes we starting to fill out.

We'd also done our first term at Welsh evening classes... what a mistake THAT was! I had a smattering of 3 or 4 foreign languages - Greek (I can still swear quite well), Hindi, Mandarin and Arabic, picked up on my travels, but the difficulty of all these paled into insignificance when compared with Welsh, a beautiful but complicated language. We had (still have - we are still going to classes...) a great tutor in Gaynor and we made some new friends in Babs, Jane, Myra and Lins, but it remains a struggle despite Lins and I constantly telling each other how very well the other is doing!

The website was doing OK - I was still travelling a lot overseas on business which made for slow progress in work at home sometimes, and in Feb 2008 Louise joined me working as an Admin Assistant, again at home - better money and no weekend and Bank Holiday work for her!

In March we lambed successfully - 5 lambs - 3 ram lambs and 2 ewe lambs! Fantastic result, we were so pleased. No. 1 ewe had not come into lamb (problems ahead methinks) but to get 5 from 3 was a good result we thought, however disaster was waiting just around the corner!!! Stay tuned to see what happened next... Thanks for following!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Keeping a few sheep - how hard can that be...?

The answer is not as straightforward as you think. If, like us to start with, you have the help of someone with getting on for 40 or 50 years experience doing the day-to-day stuff - well, it's not very hard. On the other hand, if you are doing it all yourself, well it's a bit different. Anyway...

It's August 2003; we've bought 3 Wiltshire Horn ewe lambs and they are nicely settled in with Judith and Chris's 3 Back Welsh Mountain ewes. They are located around a mile west from our end of terrace house, whilst 2 miles east from our house is our allotment plot, home to our 4 chickens.

On the basis that we were keeping the chickens till they croaked and 'cos we didn't expect to delve further into animal husbandry at the time they were given names: Emily, Sally, Carolyn and Rachel. The sheep, however, were bigger animals, not pets as such, so they were not named - they had numbers - we tagged our sheep No. 1 and No. 2.

Now, sheep largely stand around and graze, but you also need to trim their feet, worm them, give them initial vaccinations and subsequent boosters, trim the poo off their wool, watch out for fly-strike (more anon) and this is before they are in lamb. Our sheepy routine was largely dictated by our working lives - we visited the sheep at a weekend (some evenings too in summer) and did the necessary then, with Judith, our mentor, keeping an eye on them on a daily basis.

We'd chosen Wiltshire Horns as a breed because they have the rather peculiar habit of moulting their wool in late spring: no wool = no shearing (thus reducing costs). It also means that the chances of fly strike are reduced, so no flesh eating maggots burrowing their way into the sheep, mmmh, it's not pleasant. It also means that there is no, or at any rate far-less, dagging (cutting poo off their rear ends).

So, this was the test - could we hack it being part-time sheep-keepers-cum-allotmenteers? From now on all our weekends were spent shuttling between sheep and allotment. I was off to work at 07:10 in a morning, so mostly Louise went daily to check on the chickens before catching the train to work. I went up in the evenings and occasional mornings.

All was going well and in November 2004 we put the girls to a neighbour's ram - a meaty Hampshire Down, a lowland breed. Both our sheep were in lamb and by March 2005 we were looking forward to 3 or maybe 4 lambs - the idea was to sell a couple and slaughter a couple for the freezer.

With wonderful timing our first sheep, No. 2, gave birth in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, notwithstanding the fact that for the preceding week i'd been getting up in the middle of the night to drive a mile down the road for a 10 minute check on them, then doing the same before setting off to work later in the morning! Fab result - 2 ewe lambs - all was looking good.

Next No. 1 started in labour. After an hour or so of straining it was clear that there was something wrong. I put on the glove and 'lubed up' but couldn't feel anything with my inexperienced fumbling fingers. The vet was called and what followed was an eye opening insight into in-stable surgery as a Caesarian section was performed!

I was holding the head of No 1 in a halter; she was stood against an interior brick wall of a pigsty stoically waiting as the vet cut into her side with a scalpel. Slowly as the minutes ticked by she started to get weak and went down on her right foreleg; I pulled it gently from under her and the vet continued to work. After a while the vet pulled out first one, then a second dead lamb. Louise went off with instructions to bring a pail of warm water which was unceremoniously sloshed inside poor No.1. The dead lambs lay forlornly in an old feed bag, out of sight of their mother.

A bit overwhelming but a strangely fascinating experience. The vet said that No 1 might live - we'd know inside a week if she had an infection or not. We were give some antibiotics and the bill came through the post a week or so later - £140. Were we put off? Nah. If anything the experience strengthened our resolve. We were now set on a move to our own smallholding.

On the lush Hampshire grass the new lambs grew well. We called them (you guessed it!) No. 1 Lamb and No. 2 Lamb. In retrospect names would have been easier... The lambs inherited the wool-characteristics of their father - 'very' sums it up!. One evening in October I received a call at work from Judith saying that she thought one of the lambs had the dreaded fly-strike. We raced down there and in the light of a bare bulb we clipped and picked our way through the fleece of the first lamb picking out a mass of writhing maggots - an awful job. Both had been 'struck', but one worse than another. The length of fleece disguising the damage going on beneath.

Time was passing and we were by now saving hard to reduce our mortgage leaving us either mortgage free or with a small enough mortgage to cope with once we moved to Wales. My work was becoming.... well let's just say 'difficult'. Certainly not worth the attractive salary. Louise was well on-board with any potential move to Wales, identified as our preferred location. We went on a camping holiday to Pembrokeshire in 2005, ostensibly to recce the estate agents and get a feel for what our preferred area would be. We also made a weekend trip to Newcastle Emlyn, again to have a mooch around.

In July 2006 we saw a place outside of Crymych on the edge of the Preselis. It was within our budget and we put in an offer which was accepted. We put our house on the market at a realistic price and sold within a week. Hurrah! To cut a long story short the sale fell through in the November; we put it up again, and sold it again. This time it was looking good, but this time it fell through in the first week of November. As the first buyers had been reassuring us all along that they were on board and were close to exchanging contracts we had been packed up and living out of boxes since October... Anyway, 3rd time lucky - we sold again the week before Christmas, to solicitors. Unsurprisingly the sale went through according to plan and we moved to Wales on the 7th Feb 2007. It was snowing as we pulled up on the drive - cold and tired, but elated our smallholding life was to start for real!

Coming next - the chickens move and we collect the sheep, we build stables, get our first pigs and meet the local foxes... Thanks for following.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

How it all began...

My C.V. looks like a bit of a disaster to some I suppose. In my time - bear with me - to earn a living i've processed housing benefit claims, worked in a cafe, delivered papers, spied on tax evaders, picked advocados, prepared meals for a kibbutz, produced oil drums, lead paying groups through the wilds of Asia, laboured on a building site in Greece, sold carpets to tourists in Marmaris, been a waiter, worked for adventure tour operators and, latterly, i've been cleaning windows. Not bad going, and believe it or not there was a logical path to all this.

I guess the story starts from when I was working as Product Manager for one of the UK's leading adventure tour operators. A girl in the office had an allotment and I suggested to my wife, Louise, perhaps we should get one. This was in the days before it was fashionable, and I just fancied growing veggies. Louise humoured me and we started digging and planting. It was a revelation! The stuff that came out of the earth, it was unbelievable! I remember going down to water one evening after work and troughing away on peas. I couldn't stop, they were delicious. When we moved (we were in Alton, Hants) to Petersfield we had to give it up, but we got another on one of the Petersfield sites.

It seemed a logical step to me to get a couple of chickens so we bought some from a local supplier and joined the right-on sounding East Hampshire Self Sufficiency Group. It was brilliant - some great people who were really as you'd imagine such Good Lifers would be - loads of knitwear, slightly eccentric, friendly and full of advice. Mmmh, seeds were being sown.

I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with my day job - by now i'd moved to another company and it was well-paid, but stressful. Was it worth the money I began to ask myself. Louise too was having a few issues. The company she loved working for went into administration and she was working as a PA, not really enjoying it. Perhaps it was time for a complete change in lifestyle. It was 2003 (I think) and we were starting to think of a moved to a place with some land.

We figured that we wanted to grow our own veggies and meat. To this end we needed some experience, so we toyed with the idea of getting some sheep, but where to keep them? The Self-Sufficiency Group came up trumps - we met Judith and Chris Wright who had 5 acres and needed some more sheep to go with theirs, to keep the grass down. After a meeting with them at their smallholding they said we could put some sheep on their land and so, we did!

This was the start of our apprenticeship into smallholding. To come - we lamb for the first time, fly-strike, we sell up (or do we!) a move to Wales in the snow...