Thursday 28 March 2013

Was that a hint of spring?

What an awful start to spring. We are going through a cold patch that feels more like a mini ice age. Freezing temperatures at night and daytime temperatures little above freezing. Apparently it is caused by Arctic high pressure sitting over Britain and Europe. So instead of the warmer, moister air from the jet stream, we are getting cold blasts from Russia. The forecasters say that, having already endured this freezing delay to the start of spring, it is likely to continue at least until mid April. That means the planting season is delayed and the growing season will be cut short. We had to put up with the bitter cold yesterday when the BBC were with me on my allotment to do a bit of filming. The snowflakes swirling around us were noticed.

So today, what a pleasant surprise to see a bit of sunshine and blue sky. It was still cold but when in the direct sun, it was warm enough to bring out a few of the bees and to encourage the hens to sunbathe. It would have been great to see more of the bees out and about. There are a few spring flowers out at the moment, such as snowdrops, and the hazel catkins are reasonably abundant as well (they are good for pollen for the bees but have no nectar).  We need a warm period to bring the bees out in force and at the moment we are not getting that. It is useful that the current weather is relatively dry. Last year the incredibly wet spring effectively put an end to any chance of a decent honey crop. What I fear now is that prolonged cold weather could put an end to a honey crop for this year. The spring is the most important season for honey bees. It is meant to be a time of year when the hives do not need to be fed. This week however, the National Beekeepers' Association sent out a message to feed the bees again or else they could face starvation.

So, whilst the hint of spring today was welcome, we are still not seeing much spring sunlight at the end of the winter tunnel.

Monday 25 March 2013

Chicks now in the brooder

hen chick Mar 13 6

The 8 chicks have now been transferred to the brooder. Now that they are out of the incubator I've been able to get a few photos of them. Get ready to to aaaaaahhhhhhhh.

hen chick Mar 13 10

hen chick Mar 13 12

8 chicks

hen chick Mar 13 4

The number of eggs hatching in our incubator has steadily increased. Last night when we went to bed, there were 6. This morning there were 8. There are three eggs still to hatch though it is unlikely that one in particular will see any activity as it was damaged shortly after it went into the incubator three weeks ago. We will leave the unhatched eggs in the incubator until Wednesday.

We went back to the books and instructions last night and realised why we were so wrong to expect the eggs to hatch last week. We had got the eggs three weeks ago yesterday and our supplier had said they were laid mid the previous week. What we didn't realise was that they has been in store up to when we bought them rather than in an incubator. The 21days to hatch has to be measured from the start of the incubation. This is a learning curve for us.

On that same learning curve is putting the chicks into the brooder. This consists of a large, old fishtank that we have not used for years and a new chick heater which acts as a surrogate mother hen. Watch this space - I'll let you know how we get on.

Sunday 24 March 2013

The chicks are hatching

hen chick Mar 13 1

Three weeks ago we got 12 fertilised hen eggs (the breed is cream leghorn) which we put into our new incubator. As we thought the eggs had been laid a few days before we bought them, we were expecting the 21 day incubation period to end mid week. I had the BBC visiting me on Wednesday and I was hoping to show them some hatched chicks. By yesterday morning, when we went to the Beekeepers' Convention, we had given up hope that the eggs would hatch and assumed that they were not fertile, or we have made mistakes with the incubation process.

Last night, I decided to take a final look at the eggs. They hadn't hatched. But then I heard a very quiet chirping sound. One of them at least had a live chick inside which was getting ready to hatch out. This morning I checked the incubator again and there was a little chick inside. Throughout the day, more hatched. We now have 6 and it looks like at least two more are about to hatch as well.

The chicks will stay in the incubator until tomorrow evening when they will be transferred to a chick brooder. They have enough strength and nutrients from the eggs to allow them to survive the first couple of days without feeding. In that time they recover from the hatching, dry off and build up their strength ready to leave the nest and start eating. The time will give all the fertile eggs the chance to hatch.

So, our little venture has worked and it is all the sweeter as we believed yesterday that we had a complete failure on our hands.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Beekeepers' Convention

We had a day in Newcastle upon Tyne today to go to the North of England Beekeepers' Convention. Seminars were held on the effects of agricultural insecticides on bees presented by a researcher from Newcastle University; beekeeping in Denmark; bee foraging areas throughout the year and what to plant in urban areas to support pollinators (latter two by a researcher at Sussex University). There was some interesting stuff and the speaker from Denmark in particular gave us some food for thought in terms of how to avoid swarming (of which we had lots last year though that was probably a result of the odd weather conditions).

Speaking of the weather, BBC Gardeners' Question Time was meant to be recorded immediately after the Convention but it was cancelled as the presenter, Eric Robson, was stuck at him home in Cumbria because of the snow. We have largely escaped the snow on Tyneside but it is bitterly cold. So much for the arrival of spring. We had tickets to be in the Gardeners' QT audience and I even had a question written out. Better luck next time, I hope.

Friday 22 March 2013

An oversized egg

eggs Mar 13

These were some of the eggs laid a few days ago by some of my hens. I felt the need to share this picture simply because of the size of one of the eggs. She must have felt it when she laid it! It's almost certainly a double yoker.

Spring has not sprung

It may have been the first day of spring yesterday but we still seem to be in the grip of winter. Today, we have managed to escape the snow that has hit other parts of the country and we have no rain either. But the wind is intensely cold and I am not entirely confident that we will be free of snow by the end of the day. Whilst January and February were relatively dry compared with the end months of 2012, March was wetter. We started the month with the ground beginning to drain after the downpours of 2012. In March it went into reverse. We have been plodding around in deep mud over the past week. After the disastrous weather of 2012, we need spring to make an appearance. At the moment, we are still waiting.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

A change of allotment tactics

cabbages damaged Mar 13

We had planted out one of our beds on the main allotment with onions and cabbages in the late autumn and then put wire netting around it to keep the hens off. The netting worked until last week when the hens were confined to the allotment. At that point they discovered it was relatively easy to get over the netting and strip any greenery from the cabbages, leaving only skeletons of plants. So on Sunday I dug them up and put them temporarily in seed trays in the greenhouse. They will be allowed to recover and then be taken up to Dad's allotment and replanted there.

Onions Mar 13

The hens had wrecked the onions on the same bed. In January I had planted a load of onion sets that didn't get planted out on the allotment in November because the ground was too wet. At the time I would have preferred them to be planted out rather than go in seed trays in the greenhouse. Now, I have changed my mind. Firstly they were saved from the hens. Secondly they have grown well in the greenhouse. Thirdly, if the hens hadn't got them, the rain and snow would have. Whilst January and February were much drier than the final months of 2012 for us, March has been very wet. The ground had drained during the first two months of this year. Now it is again saturated and we are deep under mud.

We are planning to put in drainage but we have also taken the decision to change the plans for each allotment. Our main plot is home to the hens, ducks, bees and soft fruit. We have grown some vegetables there in the past. Dad's allotment is much smaller and has not previously been fully utilised. Our plan now is to grow all our vegetables on the second allotment and use the main allotment for the poultry, fruit growing and nursery activities (in the greenhouse and polytunnel). I am concerned that even with drainage in the main allotment, it will continue to be too wet to get many vegetables growing. And what does manage to grow will either be attractive to the hungry hens or be dug up by them. The soft fruit canes and bushes however have not fallen victim to hens so we will increase these, possibly even removing some of the red and blackcurrant bushes from Dad's allotment to the main one.

It is slightly depressing however that tomorrow is the last day of winter but the wintry weather is still clinging on. Let's hope there is a change for the better soon.

A 4th duck starts laying

duck eggs Mar 13 2

Another mini-milestone yesterday: a 4th duck started laying. The picture above shows the 4 eggs laid by the ducks yesterday morning. Only one of the ducks is left to start laying.

Lamb chops

lamb chops Mar 13

On Sunday we tried our lamb chops for the first time. (These were part of the half lamb we bought in January using our Tamworth pork joints as currency.) Needless to say, they were delicious. In the picture above, everything was from our own self-sufficient food supply except for the potatoes.

The bones from the chops were subsequently used to make stock which then made its way into some cabbage and leek soup I made last night. The bones still have a useful purpose. They will be roasted at a high temperature and then ground to make bonemeal.

Sunday 17 March 2013

On the BBC

The BBC interviewed me on my allotment on Thursday in my role as a local councillor. Gateshead Council wants to put up rents for council owned allotments by up to 230%. I am helping allotment holders who are fighting the proposals. You can see the article on allotments on the following link. It is 50 minutes into the programme:

As you will see, my hens, ducks and bees are the real stars.

The weekend's job total

I wrote yesterday about going to the Whickham Bulb Show, but around it we had to fit in a number of other jobs. The most important was to sort the fencing around the allotment to keep in the hens. Over autumn and winter, the hens and ducks wandered freely around much of the site, but as the spring approaches, hens and planting season don't mix well. The hens will wreck any crops they come across. The thick hawthorn hedge around our allotment is not enough to keep them in our own allotment. They will find any gap, no matter how small, and use it to break out, and then break back in as soon as they think food is available. I had spent much of the week preparing the hedge and the ground for the fencing which we put in yesterday and early this morning.

Once that was done, other jobs followed. Firstly, I had to dig up all our winter cabbages. This was a rescue mission. The cabbages were planted in the autumn and we had put wire netting around them to ensure the hens couldn't get to them. This worked whilst the hens were not confined to the allotment. Alas, it no longer works with all the hens restricted to the allotment. I regularly found some of them inside the wire netting and they had reduced the cabbages to stalks. I dug them out and put them in seed trays in the greenhouse where they will be allowed to recover before being sent up to my Dad's allotment in Marley Hill, the next village up the road.

Though the wire netting did not work for the cabbages, I have used some of it to fence off a small strip where I planted the rhubarb we were given recently. The rhubarb shoots are starting to appear above ground. The hens aren't interested in eating them but they do walk all over them and damage them. And I have to confess we've walked over them a few times as well. The netting will be in place for a few weeks to allow the shoots to grow. The bed includes horseradish - some already established plus a couple of roots I planted today. Watch out for horseradish sauce videos from me later this year.

A couple of Christmases ago, my brother Matthew bought me a solar-powered light. As of today it is installed and working, now that we have a shed on the allotment. We also put up a birdbox, a Christmas present from my brother Andrew.

And finally, we checked all 8 of our beehives. This was not a full inspection but a quick check. The roof and coverboard came off, we removed the old fondant (most of which was eaten) and new fondant was added. We had a quick look for deformed wings on the bees (a result of varroa infestation) but saw none. Two hives look weak and in the warmer spring weather in a few weeks' time, we will check them for brood. If there is none, it will mean they are queenless and we will merge them with other hives. If we fine brood, we will leave them to grow.

So that's it for the weekend. Coming up this week, assuming all goes to plan, will be chicks hatching in our incubator. Watch this space...

Saturday 16 March 2013

Whickham Bulb Show

Whickham is the small town down the road from my village of Sunniside and today it hosted its annual spring bulb show run by Whickham in Bloom. The chairman, Rae Beckwith, has an allotment next to mine so our paths cross regularly. I bumped into him at the show when the mayor was there so Rae told him about the good work done by my bees for his flowers and about how he is visited by my hens the moment he starts digging. As of this weekend however the hens have been confined to the allotment until the autumn so they can't damage other people's crops.

I mentioned to Rae a few days ago that I have an idea for a summer garden show in Marley Hill, the next village up from Sunniside. I am a trustee of the Marley Hill Community Centre and I'm keen to expand the role of the building in the local community. We are losing the Gateshead Summer Flower Show as Gateshead Council can no longer afford the £120,000 subsidy. My plan is that we have a mini version of the show in Marley Hill and I asked Rae for his thoughts on the idea. He liked it and said that he was sure Whickham in Bloom would be willing to lend a hand, for example supplying judges for the competitions. Today he said he had mentioned it to colleagues at the Whickham Show and again, it was well received.

My next job is to take it to the Marley Hill Community Centre management committee this week (I am a member). My guess is that they will be interested in exploring the idea further. So perhaps summer 2013 will see the first Marley Hill Summer Garden Show.

Friday 15 March 2013

Wood chip and chickens

Hens Mar 13 4

Hens Mar 13 3

Hens Mar 13 2

We have had a bit of wet weather recently and as a result, the mud has returned to the allotment. Parts of it would pass as part of the set for a reenactment of the Battle of the Somme. I have been sliding down embankments and wading through mud. To improve the paths temporarily (proper drainage will be dug soon) I dumped a large amount of wood chip on them made late last year from hedge trimmings. I also put some around the henhouses where the mud was especially bad. No need for me to spread it once I had tipped it out of the wheelbarrow. The hens did that for me.

Thursday 14 March 2013

The allotment rent battle

One of the other hats I wear is that of the local councillor. I represent my village (Sunniside) and part of the neighbouring small town of Whickham on Gateshead Council. Whenever an allotment issue crops up anywhere in Gateshead, the local media, knowing of my interest, turns to me for comments, advice and the occasional interview. Today I had the BBC North East Sunday Politics programe on my allotment to film me feeding the hens and question me about allotment rent rises in Gateshead. The Council is proposing to put up the rents by as much as 230%. There will be a range of rents depending on size, with the larger ones going for £140 a year. My allotment is privately rented so it doesn't affect me directly. However, when the proposed rents first became public a few weeks ago, I had a steady stream of messages from allotment holders from across Gateshead, not just from my own ward, expressing concern about the rate of increase.

I contacted the director of finance and following this, it was announced that the rent rise would not form part of the council budget agreed at the end of February but instead, consultation would take place on the rises. Any rise would be delayed until June. I have suggested that the council consults on the management of the sites as well. My view is that each site is capable of running itself. Allotment associations already exist on the sites and collect the rents for the council. Allotment holders tell me that other than the right to use the land, their rents get them little in the form of services from the council. If allotment sites ran themselves, they could set their own priorities, decide what work needs to be done and set the rents accordingly. It would mean allotment rents pay directly for improvements or services on the sites themselves, rather than relying on the council to do it or, in many cases, not do it.

The council keeps saying that the allotment service is subsidised but at this point I can't see what that subsidy pays for. My concern is that the subsidy is used for central administration in the Civic Cemtre of the allotments. Frankly, that can be done by the allotment associations themselves. Under my system, there would be no subsidy, the administration is done by the associations who manage the sites (and as they are hands-on on the sites, they know what needs to be done, therefore leading to better management), rent money is used on the sites from which the rents are collected and the rent levels will probably be less than those set by the Council.

The allotment holders I have spoken to like what I have suggested. At this time of severe financial restraint, cuts have to be made and we need to be more imaginative about how we do things. So I am hopeful that my ideas will at least be considered by the Council.

I put all these points over in my BBC interview this morning. I don't know how much of it they will use but the broadcast will be on Sunday. My hens and ducks however seemed to be the real stars during filming. The camera spent more time with them than with me!

Wednesday 13 March 2013

More stray eggs

Until a couple of weeks ago, the hens were allowed to wander freely over the allotment site. They have done a good job of keeping down the weeds, especially on the neighbouring allotment where the tenant was pleased with the weed-free results. However, as we approach spring and the planting season, their roaming area has been reduced to my allotment and a strip of woodland next to it. Nevertheless, 4 of them have an escape route which I am yet to find and one of them, the coral nick, has laid no eggs in the hen houses for a few weeks. As she is a good layer, and has form when it comes to laying outside the henhouses, my presumption was that she has been laying somewhere in the vicinity. Regular searches had come up with nothing.

That was, until yesterday, when one of the other allotment holders found a pile of eggs in his compost bin. And this morning, I found four eggs in the strip of woodland. Trying to get the small number of hens which don't lay in the henhouses to do so is a challenge for which I don't have a solution yet.

Monday 11 March 2013

The venison has arrived

venison Mar 13

There was an interesting news story last week about the UK's deer population needing to be culled as it is now at its highest level since the ice age. Left unmanaged, deer populations can be very destructive. They will eat their way through a landscape, leaving little for other species. The suggestion is that we need to reduced the population from the current 1.5 million to half that total. It seems we have now indirectly made a contribution to that target.

We swapped a joint of our tamworth pork with a friend for some wild venison a couple of weeks ago. On Friday the venison arrived. It was more than we expected - two large leg joints. They have gone into the freezer but sometime soon we will be using one of them, after we have checked recipes.

Friday 8 March 2013

One egg down

Alas, we have lost one of the eggs in the incubator. It was cracked and leaking egg white. The problem is of our own making. The incubator is designed for a maximum of 10 hen eggs but we put in 12. We had planned only 6 eggs but our supplier gave us 12 so all of them went into the incubator. It was a tight squeeze and as a result we ended up with one of them cracking. It's a lesson we have learnt the hard way.

Assuming all goes well, the remaining eggs should be hatching in the week starting 18th March.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Our first green duck egg

duck eggs Mar 13

Three eggs in the duck house this morning and one of them was a pale green colour. This is the first time we have had a duck egg of this colour so it seems that another of our ducks has started laying and it must be either the runner or the aylesbury. My guess is it's the former.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Self-Sufficient in Suburbia Mid Winter

This is what we were up to in the kitchen and allotment in January and February: snow, mud, bartering, bread-making, shed-building, burger-producing. It's all there!

Monday 4 March 2013

Planting rhubarb

rhubarb shoots Mar 13

One of our neighbouring allotment holders is moving so he dug up a load of rhubarb roots yesterday and gave them to us. They were quite a size but I dug up part of the allotment we planned to use for rhubarb and horseradish and planted the roots. This is an area we are not too worried about losing to crop rotation. Rhubarb and horseradish will just keep growing. I have more roots to plant I bought from a nursery recently.

Sadly, I think rhubarb is underrated in the UK. I love it and it makes great jam, though it needs something high in pectin adding to it to set it.

New hens

copper black Mar 13

We got another two hens yesterday, a copper black (above) and a white leghorn.

white leghorn Mar 13

We already have one of each of these breeds. The copper black lays a chocolate brown egg, the white leghorn lays white eggs. Both have settled in though there is the usual bullying that happens when new birds are introduced to an existing flock. The copper black looks like she will give as good as she gets and won't be low in the pecking order.

Incubating eggs

incubator Mar 13 1

Above is one of my Christmas presents: an incubator. Yesterday, we headed over to Durham Hens to buy feed and a batch of fertilised cream leghorn eggs (see below).

fertilised eggs Mar 13

The eggs are now in the incubator. I have to turn them three times a day (there are bigger, automatic incubators that do that but we just need a small one). It takes 21 days to hatch hen eggs and these eggs were laid in the past week so sometime 15th-20th March should see some chicks hatching though I ain't going to count my chickens yet!

incubator Mar 13 2


meatballs Mar 13

Another meal from our Tamworth pig and another guaranteed horsemeat free zone! This was our dinner last night (and the leftovers will be eaten tonight). Our own sausage meat was used to make the meatballs and the sauce was made mainly from our own tomatoes which we cooked up last year and then froze. There's a bit of cabbage there as well though it is hidden. That came from the allotment yesterday. We need to use up the last few cabbages to free up that bed for spring planting.

Moulting runner

Runner duck moulting Mar 13

We have had our ducks since September last year but so far none of them have moulted. That, I think, is changing. The runner seems to be shedding her feathers but unlike the hens, they seem to grow new feathers before the old ones are discarded. I snapped the picture above on my blackberry this morning. It's not the best quality picture but you can just make out the two different layers of feathers. We don't think she is laying yet but perhaps the moult is a sign she is maturing. Eggs could be on the way soon from her though, if the hens are anything to go by, a few weeks are needed before laying starts after a moult.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Breaking egg records

I was hoping the 298 eggs laid by my hens in February would be a new record for us but when I checked our egg accounts, I found that in October last year, they laid 305. Winter normally sees a drop in egg production and February has 3 days less than October, but October's record still stands, at least as far as hen eggs are concerned. Duck egg production however has soared. 47 were laid, bringing total egg production in February to 345. Let's see what March will bring.