Monday 31 March 2014

The fox ate my dinner

We have had another fox attack. It happened in the early hours of Saturday morning. The ducks are put in an enclosure at night but somehow they managed to get out. The result was that one of the young drakes we hatched in the autumn has gone. The other drake, hatched around the same time, was badly injured. His leg was broken and we had to put him out of his misery. Both were being raised for meat for us, not the foxes. The one we had to kill will be plucked, gutted and roasted soon.

North East Beekeepers' Convention

The annual North East of England Beekeepers' Convention was held on Saturday in Newcastle so we went along to a day of talks about beekeeping, the threat of diseases, varroa, bee viruses and a host of other issues. And from one of the speakers, with a bit of extra advice from one of the stall holders, I was provided with a great deal of information on what I need to do to collect a feral bee colony from an old people's home in my village which is due to be demolished shortly.

There were a number of stall holders at the convention so we did a bit of stocking up on bits of equipment (though not the skep or the centrifuge!)

The final photo above is of a stall selling soaps. It was an interesting discussion with the stall holder as she is based at Gibside, the National Trust property near where we live. Gibside hosts regular farmers' markets and when we have enough honey, eggs and so on, we are hoping to get a stall there to sell our surplus.

Friday 28 March 2014

Checking out the food competition

I was invited to a very enjoyable event at the Marriott Hotel, Metrocentre, Gateshead, yesterday, in which four teams of trainee chefs from Gateshead College went head to head in a competition to win a trip to London where they will serve up a meal in the London Marriott Hotel. A number of local food producers were also there as well. I had some very interesting and useful conversations with them.

Given that I am critical generally of society for letting too many people nowadays lose the ability to cook and become too reliant on ready made meals and industrially mass produced food, it was a joy to see a large number of young people showing off their catering skills.

All the guests had to vote for a team they felt produced the best dishes and the winner (Team B) was announced at the end.

Marley Hill Community Centre Cafe

We will be running the community cafe at Marley Hill Community Centre on Sunday 30th March. We've had a few people ask about the menu so if you are local to the area, pop in to enjoy some of the following:

2 slices of toast with home made jam and a mug of tea or coffee - £2.50
breakfast: beans, Tamworth bacon or veggie sausages, fried egg,
toast, tea or coffee - £4.50
leek and potato  soup with 2 slices of bread, tea or coffee - £3.00
free range fried egg sandwich, tea or coffee - £3.00
pork burger (made from sausagemeat from our Tamworth pig), tea or coffee - £3.50
Tamworth bacon sandwich            - £3.50
cheese and onion flan with potato salad - £3.50
cheese, tuna or free range egg sandwich, tea or coffee - £2.50
hot dog in bun - £1.00
slice of cake - £1.00
pancake with cheese/mushroom sauce or apple syrup - £0.50
tea (ordinary or earl grey), coffee, drinking chocolate - £1.00
scone - £0.50
can of soft drink - £1.00
apple or orange juice - £1.00
Children’s menu
Drink of orange or apple juice or milk  plus any two of the following for just £2:
slice of toast
2 fish fingers
baked beans
spagetti hoops

fried egg

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Cock fight

We had an unexpected addition - for one day only - to our flock of chickens yesterday. I arrived on the allotment to find the cream leghorn cockerel from the neighbouring allotment (see photo above) had done a chicken run and escaped. The birds on that allotment are kept in runs rather than free range like mine. The cockerel is a beautiful animal and I personally feel a sense of pride in him as he was one of a number of birds I hatched in March last year. When they were 3 months old, I swapped him and two of the hens that hatched with him for some fencing material for the goat paddock. Since then I have watched him grow into the lovely bird that he has become. Unfortunately, the cockerel I kept died at the start of the autumn last year. His replacement is a light sussex/silkie cross we swapped with a friend a couple of months ago (for some homemade jam).

After spotting the visiting cockerel, I found ours crowing away and strutting about as usual but saw that he was a bit bloodied. It seems the two males had had a confrontation. I took another look at the cream legbar and saw he had a bit of blood on him. Other than that, both seemed okay. Last night, the lone ranging bird was recaptured and put back in his run. Today I saw Rockie (our cockerel) was limping a bit so I brought him back tonight in a cat box and have just checked him out. I found no wounds on his claws or legs. No blood, no injury. That's the good news. The bad news is that we are keeping him in the house overnight in the cat box and I have visions of being woken in the early hours by his morning call!

Winter vegetable curry

We are gradually getting through our stocks of winter vegetables. One good way to use them up is to make a curry. This one contains potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, red cabbage and tomatoes (preserved in spiced brine from September last year). Very nice!

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Rhubarb coming through

No self-respecting plot of land could call itself an allotment without a rhubarb patch. We moved our rhubarb a couple of months ago so that we could extend the goat paddock. The replanted rhubarb is now coming through and the (very) early indications are that it will give us at least three crops. The growing season is starting early this year, with the warm weather giving a boost to the new shoots that are breaking through the ground.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Welsh Harlequin eggs

Since the final quails hatched on Tuesday, we have had 6 Welsh Harlequin duck eggs in the incubator. We got them from Bill Quay Community Farm. They are a rare breed and we are going to have a go at setting up a breeding group ourselves. Hatching however is not due for another 23 days.

Friday 21 March 2014

First day of spring

It's the spring equinox today. Daylight hours and darkness are about equal. It's half way to the summer solstice. The reality this year however is that spring came early. Winter has been mild. Snow has been virtually non-existent but there was plenty of rain. I am in London for a few days and the capital, being nearly 500km to the south of us, is always a bit ahead of us in terms of the growing season. It is no different this time. I took a walk in Crystal Palace Park and found that the blackthorn was already in flower. Hopefully that means lots of sloes in the autumn.

The hawthorn is in leaf (see above) and the cherry is in blossom. This must surely be breaking records.

Go back a year however and we were into a mini ice age. Then we were experiencing record cold temperatures for the time of year. I prefer what we are getting now.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

22 quail chicks

We have been amazed at the number of quails that have hatched. Yesterday we had 16 and thought that was it. But overnight another 4 hatched and this afternoon, another 2 arrived. This leaves just 2 eggs though we don't think they will hatch - we are however putting them in a box in the airing cupboard overnight just in case there is anything alive in them.

All the quail chicks are now in the brooder unit. The older ones hatched last month are in the bigger brooder box with the two exchequer leghorn chicks. We will build an aviary for them soon.

The incubator is not going to get a rest however. It will be cleaned out tonight, the temperature will be reset and 6 Welsh Harlequin ducks eggs are about to go in it.

Monday 17 March 2014

leek and artichoke soup

We are still using up our stock of winter vegetables. I made this soup from the leeks we traded the other day and artichokes straight from the allotment. It's a very simple recipe. Add water, stock and marmite to the vegetables and then bring to the boil. Then simmer for half and hour.

17 quail chicks

We had expected the quail chicks to hatch yesterday but we got our calculations a day out. Throughout this morning I checked the incubators but there was no sign of activity. I then had to go to a meeting and returned home for just a few minutes at 3pm to find 6 quail chicks in the incubator. I then had to go out again and did not return until 8pm. By then, 16 had hatched and since then another has emerged. A good hatch rate and a good number of birds to add to the 6 that hatched last month. It seems our little quail venture is moving forward.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Sorting Bill Quay Farm's honey

We look after the bees for Bill Quay Community Farm in Gateshead. We recently brought back from the farm 10 frames of honey to put through our honey press, which we did on Friday. The farm are keen to get the honey into the farm shop so today we took it up, all ready in jars. The photo above shows David putting sticky tape across the lids of the jars. We have had a few incidents last year of the lids coming off jars and coating everything within the immediate vicinity with honey.

We used the opportunity to do a quick hive check. They seemed fine. You can see in the photo below that we left a box in front of the hives which contains the frames. The bees will clean them. Indeed, my experience last year was that they stripped bare any frames and honey covered equipment in no time at all.

Friday 14 March 2014

Hatching due on Sunday

The next batch of quail eggs is due to hatch on Sunday. Today is the last day I will turn the eggs. There are 24 in the incubator and as soon as they hatch, we will be putting into it some duck eggs. The 6 quail that hatched last month are doing well and this weekend they will be moved into the larger brooder box which currently houses the two exchequer leghorn chicks that hatched in January. They in turn will be moved temporarily into the hutch we bought as a quail house recently. So we have a bit of a chick conveyor belt!

Honey press out of its winter hibernation

I have been using our honey press today. No we haven't had an early honey crop (I wish we could - we sold out of last year's honey by December). Instead, I have been dealing with the honey from Bill Quay Community Farm in Gateshead. We help look after the bees there but they have no honey press of their own. They are keen to get the honey into the farm shop, especially now that the farm has to be self-financing as funding from Gateshead Council has ended. We discovered one of the hives had died a few weeks ago when we did a hive check so we took off the super of honey that was on it - hence the reason we have a batch of honey at a time of year when we are normally feeding the bees.

I will get the honey into jars and on Sunday we'll take it up to Bill Quay. At the same time we are hoping to get from the farm some Welsh harlequin duck hatching eggs to go into our incubator. This is a rare breed and we are looking to build up a modest stock of the birds.

Laying away from home

This is Attila, our light sussex hen. She is, jointly with one of the rhode rocks, our oldest bird, about 3 years old. She stopped laying over winter and we weren't sure, given her advancing years, whether or not she would start laying again. Well, earlier this week, I saw her pop over the fence into the wooded embankment next to our allotment where minutes later she produced an egg, next to one presumably from the day before that I had missed. Since then she has laid every day. I know that because she has chosen to continue laying in the same spot, away from the nest boxes in the henhouses. She is not the only hen guilty of this crime. Of the 11 eggs produced today, 6 were laid behind the haystack, plus Attila's on the embankment, leaving only 4 deposited in the henhouses.

Strawberry planters

We have been rationalising the way we grow strawberries. Previously we had them in various locations in the ground, in pots and in growbags. They have now been dug up and transplanted into strawberry planters (see photo above) which are on our patio. The problem we will have is that no matter how well we remove the strawberry plants from their original locations, we will in months and years to come find new plants growing there. Putting them in the planters at least makes them more manageable.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Duck egg delight

For the first time in months we had three ducks eggs laid this morning. That's them in the above photo. The middle one is green coloured though that is difficult to make out in the photo (taken on my blackberry rather than my proper camera). It means however that my aylesbury duck is laying again after a break of a few months over winter.

March blossom

I took this photo yesterday on the allotment site. It is part of the hedge around one of the neighbouring plots. I have never seen such a large amount of blossom in mid March here in the North East of England before. This is the sort of floral display I would expect to see on the hedges in May. The mini heatwave we are experiencing seems to have brought forward the growing season, unlike last year when everything was a month late because of the mini ice age we had in March and April. I am not sure what the blossom is. It's not blackthorn - that I know because the branches don't have big, hard spikes on them. It's not hawthorn either. Whatever it is, however, is attracting my bees which are making the most of the sunny weather. They were all over the blossom when I had another look today.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Blocked crop and missing hens

We have not entirely had a successful week with the hens. Though egg production is still going well, we have two missing hens. They disappeared on Monday afternoon. No clue, no sightings, no feathers. Nothing. I fear that they wandered off the allotment and onto a path and someone has decided to walk off with them. Meanwhile, today I have had to deal with a hen that has a blocked crop. I brought her back home and have had to massage her crop to break up the lump of food that she was unable to pass into her gut. This seems to have worked. We are keeping her in overnight but she has started eating again. If she is fully recovered in the morning, I will take her back to the allotment.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Salad days

In our greenhouse we have a couple of boxes in which, last year, we grew green salad leaves. The mild winter and the early spring we are experiencing means that many dormant salad seeds have sprouted. The result is we have an early and unexpected salad crop. This is useful given that in the world of self-sufficiency, fresh green leaves at the end of winter are a rarity.

A bed of leeks

One of the neighbouring allotment holders told me last week that he was planning to pull out all his remaining bed of leeks and put them on the compost heap so that he could get a new crop into the ground. To cut a not very long story short, we agreed that I would dig up all the leeks so that I can use them in our community cafe (the next is on 30th March). I guess we will be serving up leek soup.

Monday 10 March 2014

Broad beans planted

Broad beans are one of our staple crops. They are especially important as a source of protein and carbohydrates. This weekend we planted the seeds in bags we have in the past used for growing potatoes. We have a later variety still to plant but as a precaution against damage by the hens and ducks, we have netted over the bags.

Chitting potatoes

Over the weekend we laid out the seed potatoes in trays to chit them. (That means getting them to sprout before they go into the ground - therefore giving them a head start off.) We have got a number of varieties but last year we tried Home Guard and Rooster and were pleased with the result. We normally grow pink fur apple as a salad potato and you can see from the photo above these are chitting as well.

We also have King Edwards and Maris Piper.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Bees getting active

The recent mild weather has meant that the bees are venturing out of the hives. They aren't in vast numbers at the moment but today was warm enough for them to be out and about and I saw them returning with pollen. Hopefully that means there is brood to feed or the hives are getting ready for some.

As we are already experiencing spring weather, despite still being in winter, we will need to bring forward our plans to add an extra brood box to each hive. The purpose of this is to double our number of hives. Over the next couple of months, the bees will fill the brood boxes and when it comes to taking them away, they should be full of brood, bees and queen cells. We will aim to leave the queen in the existing hive. In the new hives set up with the brood boxes, the new queens will hatch and stay with the colonies. We did this a couple of years ago with one hive as an emergency as we found it had lost its queen in March. We added the brood box to another hive to merge them but separated them in May. Each went on to be a strong colony.

Munching their way through ivy

I discovered soon after getting the goats that one of their favourite foods is ivy. I found this rather surprising at the time but have learnt to pick it wherever I can. One of the hedges on my allotment is covered with it so yesterday I set about chopping some of it back. It made an excellent meal for the two goats.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

14 eggs

We got 14 eggs from our hens today, and 2 from our ducks. For the hens, this is the highest since the summer so clearly egg production is heading in the right direction. The photo above was taken at lunchtime so doesn't include the ones I picked up in the morning or the final one tonight. We'll be looking to swap some of them soon (as well as use some ourselves!)

More quail eggs

Having made a start with our quail venture by hatching 7 eggs last month (unfortunately but not unexpectedly one chick died) we have another 24 eggs which went into the incubator last Friday. They should hatch a week on Sunday. The six remaining chicks that hatched last month are all doing well. They are growing rapidly and are developing their wing feathers. They are looking more like quails rather than the bundle of feathers they were a couple of weeks ago.

Pancake cafe

The pancake cafe we ran at our local community centre (Marley Hill) last night was something of a modest success. We had no idea how many would turn up but from 5.20pm to 8pm we were working constantly as a steady flow of customers came in to try out the pancakes made using our free range eggs. At 50p a pancake, they were priced to encourage people to get seconds, thirds and so on!

The question now is, shall we serve up pancakes at our forthcoming community cafe on 30th March? I think the answer is likely to be "Yes"!

Sunday 2 March 2014


Pancake day is coming up (on Tuesday 4th March). We will be holding a pancake cafe at Marley Hill Community Centre and with our hens and ducks laying more eggs, we had a practice run today at making pancakes. We had them for breakfast. Very nice!

Red cabbage and turnip soup

I was searching through the shelves in my garage last week (we use it as a store room) and I discovered a red cabbage and a turnip, both of which had seen better days. I stripped away the outer leaves of the cabbage and found it was fine inside. The turnip was a bit dried out but still usable. So, I put the two together, added some artichokes from the unending supply on the allotment and made them into a soup. Not the best one I have made but it was not bad.

Lots of logs

One of the houses near to my allotment had one of their trees cut down last week. They left a large pile of logs for me to take. As a thank you I gave them some eggs, marmalade and apple jelly and this resulted in their giving me a bottle of their homemade elderflower champagne. I love this type of trading!

We have 2 plans for the logs. The first is to build a wood fired oven on the allotment, similar to the sort of oven that would have been around in the later Medieval and Tudor periods. This is for me to do more historical cooking (I'm doing a talk to a local history society about Medieval foods in October). The 2nd plan is to have the old gas fired boiler in our house replaced with a wood burner. I see no point in paying to be fixed up to the gas grid when I can use for free a sustainable source of wood on our doorsteps. We already generate some of our electricity so heating our water and our house using our own fuel is the next step.

Saturday 1 March 2014


Henpower is a project in Gateshead that works with older people living in residential homes. It engages them in hen keeping activities. The aim is to "henergise" the lives of older people. By all accounts it appears to be working well. This week the project launched a photo gallery of their activities in Gateshead Civic Centre. I was invited to come to the launch on Tuesday. As well as the photos, I particularly liked the rare breed chickens they brought along. And there was a superb selection of eggs. Some were very dark brown, presumably from a maran. I have two maran copper blacks but their eggs are much lighter than the ones I saw at Henpower. I quietly added fertile dark brown maran eggs to my shopping list. Hatching and raising some maran chicks would be great.

Egg production going up

After a few months of low egg production from both our hens and ducks, it seems our girls are starting to lay more eggs. In the depth of winter we sometimes got only one or two eggs a day from the hens. Since the fox attack in November, we had had no ducks eggs until mid February. Now, we are typically getting two duck eggs a day and hen eggs are being produced at the rate of about 9 a day. I'm looking forward to further increases in the days and weeks ahead. We have built up a bit of a stock of eggs for Tuesday as we are having a pancake day at our community cafe in Marley Hill. After that, we will be looking to increase the amount of trading we do with other allotment holders. Our eggs are currency for us and we can use them to buy leeks and cabbages which others still have growing on their allotments.