Wednesday 30 April 2014

Slow down on the quail egg production line

We had hoped that with the first quail eggs being laid earlier this week, we would now have quite a stack of them. Alas, that is not the case. We have only 5 laid so far. Let's hope the level of production picks up soon.

Rehousing our surplus drake

Of the 4 ducklings we hatched in the autumn, a fox got one of the three drakes, the 2nd drake was injured by the same fox and we had to put him to sleep (he's in the freezer now) and the 3rd drake was needing either a new home, or to be slaughtered to join his brother in the freezer. The 4th bird, a khaki campbell duck is already laying eggs so we are definitely keeping her.

At our community cafe last week, a family came in for breakfast and mentioned in passing that they had 4 ducks but needed a drake for them. So, by accident, I had found a new home for our spare. I took him up a couple of days ago. He did not appreciate being captured but when I released him, he settled down quickly. Hopefully he will enjoy his new company which includes more hens and a few cockerels as well as ducks.

Rescuing 3 feral bee colonies

In my village of Sunniside, Sun Hill, the aged person's housing, has been replaced with a new building. The old one is now being demolished. However, we have known about a feral bee colony that has lived in the roof for over 7 years. I was able to persuade the Gateshead Housing Company, former owners of the building, and Keepmoat, the housing association that now owns it to let me go in to rescue the colony.

Three weeks ago, we checked out the empty building and the flat under the colony. We then had discussions with Keepmoat about removing the ceiling boards but were told we could not touch them. They were covered with artex which contains asbestos. For a while, we thought we would have to abandon our rescue bid. However, the demolition has now started and the ceiling boards have all gone. I visited the building this afternoon and was informed that there are 3 colonies, not one. I took a look at them (easy to do now that the ceilings have gone) and realised this was going to be a bigger challenge than we expected.

The above photo is of the of the rear of Sun Hill. The colony we were aware of is above the open windows. That colony looks to me to be the oldest and my guess is that the other two came from swarms generated by this one. This is what the older one looks like:

The following is a picture of one of the newer colonies:

Our plan is to move the colonies into hives and then temporarily rehouse the hives away from Sunniside until we are able to set up a community beekeeping project. My expectation is that we can get that up and running next year but we will need to bid for funding for equipment. At the moment I am planning to use up my spare empty hive equipment to house the colonies. I will then need to replace what I use as we will shortly be in the bee swarming season and will need equipment to house any swarms from our own hives.

So, if you are in Gateshead and are interested in taking part in a community beekeeping project, email me.

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Catch up: our new cockerel

Another late video, this one of our new cockerel, Rockie. We got him in January though this video was filmed in February. He has settled in well. He was raised with ducks and at times, thinks he's a duck. He has 17 hens to look after but the chick we hatched in January is probably a male so Rockie may have some competition soon.

Catch up - dismantling the duckling run

I have been rather busy recently and quite a few videos have been waiting to be edited. Tonight I have managed to find a bit of time to get on with this job. This is the first - a video of the morning in February we dismantled the duckling run to allow them to wander across the allotment and integrate with the adult group. Watch out for the mud!

Sunday 27 April 2014

Another hive check

This afternoon we headed down to our Whickham apiary to do some hive checks and where appropriate, prepare hives for the spring. We had 4 hives in the apiary but we found one was queenless. This was merged with another. The two remaining hives were strong so we added queen excluders and supers to them so that they can start to build up a honey crop.

Pork burger and apple chutney

We have been testing out the pork burgers I made recently. They contain apple, onion and sage as well as the usual sausagemeat and breadcrumbs. Grilled and then into a toasted bun with a dollop of our homemade apple chutney - perfect.

Our first quail eggs

Our quail venture has taken another step forward - we have our first eggs! Two were laid today. At this point we don't know whether this is down to one bird laying twice or two birds laying once. My guess is that it is the former.

The eggs are being produced mainly as a cash crop but we will try out a few recipes, once we have enough.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Merging beehives

I had noticed that one of our hives was looking weak. Not much bee activity, especially compared with the neighbouring hive. My guess was that the hive had become queenless. A check today proved my guess to be correct. We have therefore merged it with the neighbouring hive. To do this, we opened the strong hive, put a layer of newspaper over the top of the brood box, then placed the brood box from the weak hive on top of it. The roof then went on top. Over the next few days, the bees will get used to the smell of each other and gradually eat away the newspaper allowing the bees from both hives to mix together in the one colony.

In June we will separate then again. If there are queen cells in the top brood box we will not need to add a brood frame with queen cells from the bottom brood box. The separated brood box will then be set up as a separate hive.

Feed store

This started out life as a tool box when we first got the allotment but last year we used it as a temporary goathouse. The goats now have a new shed so today we gave the old tool box yet another lease of life, this time as a feed store for our animal food. Up to now, the feed has been stored in the main allotment shed but since we had filled it completely, moving the animal feed out would at least allow us to get into the shed.

Friday 25 April 2014

Apple blossom

We planted an apple tree on our allotment back in 2012. It is at the edge of the herb garden, next to two of our hives. It is now in blossom (though today the rain is tipping down so the bees won't be visiting.) We didn't get any fruit on this tree last year but if it produces a crop this year and it is anything like the fruit crop generally in 2013, it will give us plenty of apples.

Green shoots in the herb garden

Our herb garden is doing well. There is lots of new growth. I've been given permission to plant herbs in the beds along the verge beside the path leading to my allotment. The idea is to use the space more effectively but anyone will be able to pick the herbs. I will be planting seeds shortly in the greenhouse. Hopefully by the summer we will have something to plant.

Meanwhile, back to our existing herb garden. Above, the chives are growing well. We also have two large clumps in our back garden.


Bronze fennel




Thursday 24 April 2014

Moving up the housing ladder

One thing you can guarantee about recently hatched birds is that they will grow at an incredible rate. So brooder boxes will be outgrown in no time at all. We have therefore had to rearrange the housing for our quail chicks and our ducklings. I rescued an old cupboard from Mam and have made this into a cage for the 20 quail chicks. That meant I could move them out of the smaller brooder box which therefore became available for the 5 Welsh harlequin ducklings who were previously housed in an old fish tank.

The quail aviary will be built shortly. The ducklings will soon be moved outdoors into the back garden where we will build them a temporary run for a few weeks before they too can go to the allotment. And by then, the cream legbar chicken eggs in the incubator will have hatched.

2nd generation hens

Last year I bought some cream legbar chicken eggs. They were the first eggs we hatched. 3 of the birds were swapped with Johnnie, who has one of the neighbouring allotments. These birds have been a big success. Two hens and a cockerel who is a beautiful bird. Unfortunately, the ones I kept were not so successful. The cockerel and two of the hens died, leaving me one hen. She at least is a healthy bird and lives as part of my flock of chickens (though she roosts in a tree at night rather than with the others in a henhouse).

Johnnie tonight gave me 8 eggs laid by his 2 cream legbar hens which we have now put into the incubator. Assuming they hatch, this will mean a 2nd generation for us! The incubator has barely had a rest since the start of January. This is the 2nd batch of hen eggs this year. We've also had 2 batches of quail and one of ducks.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Bees are getting busy

The warm and dry weather we have enjoyed over the past three weeks has brought a great deal of bee activity. There's lots out there for them to forage. The blossom is early and there's plenty of it about. Looking at the bees, I can see lots of pollen being brought into the hive. That probably means the amount of brood is increasing.

David has made up another two brood boxes. They will be added to the hives shortly so that the bees can move in and set up some some queen cells in them as well as worker brood. In early June we will remove them from the hives and set them up as new hives in their own right.

More ivy

Yesterday, when I was delivering some flyers in Sunniside for our community cafe, I found someone stripping a large amount of ivy from her garden fence. She was going to put it into her green bin which the council collects every fortnight to turn into compost. I provided her with a more local use for it. I took it down the road to our goats who merrily munched their way through it. Ivy is one of their favourite foods.

Tamworth pork, apple and sage burgers

We recently bought another Tamworth pig from Bill Quay Community Farm in Gateshead. It went straight to slaughter and amongst the joints and bacon we got back, were two large bags of sausagemeat. I converted it all to burgers using up, in the process, all our remaining apples from last year and about half of the dried sage we had. The burgers will be used by ourselves, traded with others for their produce, and sold in our monthly community cafe at Marley Hill Community Centre (the next cafe is tomorrow, Easter Monday).

Wednesday 16 April 2014

5 Welsh Harlequin ducklings

Here they are - the 5 Welsh Harlequin ducklings we hatched this weekend. They have beautiful golden feathers though they will eventually outgrow them. I'm looking forward to watching them grow.

Broad beans sprouting

Beans are one of our most important crops especially for carbohydrates, protein and roughage. We planted some in potato bags in March and they have now started to sprout. We have put wire netting over the bags to keep out the hens. So far so good. We have a different variety still to plant. They will be potted up shortly.

Vegetable and bacon soup

Soup is a good way to use up our vegetable stocks from last year. This is vegetable soup with fried bacon (from a recent Tamworth pig). Vegetable included are red cabbage, pumpkin, marrow (okay officially the two latter are fruit), turnip and onion. We have made enough to last us three days. The marrow and pumpkin skins have been fed to the goats and poultry.

Monday 14 April 2014

Welsh harlequin ducklings are starting to hatch

I've just taken this photo. Our Welsh Harlequin ducklings are starting to hatch. Only one duckling at the moment but this afternoon I checked the eggs and could hear movement in 5 out of 6. I am hoping to wake up tomorrow to the sight of more.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Sipping elderflower champagne

We still have 30 bottles of elderflower champagne we made last year to use up. I suspect some will end up being swapped for other people's produce but there are still plenty for me to have a glass on a Saturday evening. What we haven't touched yet is the wine we made last year which was bottled up over a month ago.

Feeding dandelions to the chickens

The early start to spring has been great for plants such as dandelions and dock. They have been growing strongly since early March. These green leaves are a great food source for the hens. It takes only a few minutes to fill a carrier bag to take back to the allotment. Fresh food and it's free! The more we can feed them free foraged food, the less we need to buy in.

Tapping eggs

The Welsh harlequin eggs we have in our incubator are due to hatch on Tuesday. We are just about at the point where we stop turning them. Last night we did a check on them. We could hear a tapping noise coming from two of them. So we know at least two are very likely to hatch. I would have liked more and possibly we will end up with more than two. We will know by mid week.

Yesterday we bought another bit of brooder equipment - a heater light that can be placed above a large brooder box. We will be setting this up shortly. Meanwhile, after the duck eggs are hatched, we will be using the incubator for more hen eggs. We are hoping to get our hands on some more cream legbar eggs. We hatched some last year but traded half of the chicks with a friend for some building materials. We have only one of the hens from that batch left so it will be good to build up the numbers again. We have capacity in our existing henhouses for another 25 birds.

Friday 11 April 2014

Blossom on the allotment

Compared to last year, we are ahead in terms of the arrival of blossom. April last year counted as winter as we were enduring a mini ice age. This year, winter was mild and spring was early. Our gooseberry plants are already flowering but it is our Victoria plum tree that has put on a great display of blossom, its best ever. The early arrival of the blossom means that there has been plenty of foraging for the bees which, in the warm weather we have had this week, have been out in significant numbers.

Sexing the quails

Our older quails are now about two months old. All 6 have been housed in a new cage which will soon be added to the aviary we are due to build. We believe that there are 4 females and 2 males though one of the latter has become partly lame. The predominance of females is helpful given this venture is meant to produce us a cash crop of quail eggs. We have not yet attempted to sex the younger quails of which we have 21. They are nearly 4 weeks old. Generally speaking, the males have redder breasts so we could sex them quite easily. Once that is done, we will be looking for a ratio of 4 hens to one cock. We will then need to decide what to do with the surplus males. 2 are spoken for - they will be going to a friend. The others will be found new homes or be slaughtered for meat.

Meanwhile, given the age of the older birds, we are hoping to have our first eggs this month.

Chick update

The exchequer leghorn chick we added to our flock of chickens last week is doing rather well, despite its slightly malformed neck. It has picked up enough confidence to wander further. It has also learn to come running when I throw the hens some feed and has learnt how to grab what it can in the middle of the scrum of hungry hens. I am quite confident that even with its disability, it will grow to maturity.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Bacon and egg

This is a recent lunch of mine. A fried duck egg - I had managed to drop the egg and crack it but there was no way I was going to waste it - and bacon which came from our 2nd Tamworth pig. We have just about finished the bacon but a third pig was send to slaughter a couple of weeks ago. The meat is in the freezer but we pick up the bacon on Friday, replenishing our supplies. Hopefully I'll be making lots of flans with bacon, as well as butties.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Quails on the move

Our quail hatchlings had, by yesterday, outgrown their brooder boxes so it was time to move them. We have two groups. We have six birds we hatched in February which we have now moved to a cage in the back garden (see photo above). The 21 chicks that hatched in March were then transferred from the glass tank in which they have been since they hatched into the brooder box where the older birds had previously been. The glass tank will be used for the ducklings that are due to hatch next week.

We will be building an aviary for the quail shortly. These birds can fly - something I experienced first hand yesterday when I was transferring them. Even the 3-week old chicks can fly! Fortunately both birds that got out were recovered.

Quails on display

I was invited recently to bring some of my animals to Chase Park, in Whickham, the small town down the road from Sunniside where we live, for a small fair the Friends of the Park were hosting. I took our younger quails. They hatched about 18 days before the fair. I shared a gazebo with Bill Quay Community Farm who brought rabbits and some Welsh Harlequin ducklings. We got half a dozen WH eggs from BQ last month and they are due to hatch in about a week's time so it was interesting to see what mine would look like.

I also took our eggs and some of our jam to sell and a pile of leaflets to promote the allotment community cafe we run at Marley Hill Community Centre. All in all, it was a successful day. The quails, ducklings and bunnies were a big hit with the kids, though the bunnies did what bunnies do very well, sometimes at some embarrassing moments as well!

More duck eggs

We have only 4 ducks and 3 drakes. One of the ducks was hatched in November but I was pleased to find that, yesterday, she laid her first egg. It is still quite small, about the size of a hen egg. Today, for the first time ever in keeping ducks, we got an egg from each of them. That deserves a minor celebration tonight. We'll crack open a bottle of homemade elderflower champagne to toast another self-sufficiency milestone, even though it's just a small one!

The wanderer returns

On Friday evening, we thought we had had another chicken setback. The one remaining chick from the batch of eggs hatched in January was taken over to join the flock on Wednesday. On Friday evening I could not find him (we think it is a cockerel). We searched and searched but came to the conclusion that something - a rat or a weasel - had caught him. It was a bit depressing, thinking that the whole exercise of hatching that batch of eggs had failed.

The next day I went to a local fair to run a stall and whilst I was there, I got a text from David: the chick had turned up. It had wandered some distance to the other side of the site and must have spent the night under the shed (where it has attempted to spend every night since, until I picked it up and put it in one of the henhouses.)

The chick is getting used to all the ducks and chickens around him. He spends most of his time next to the shed and haystack, a favourite place for the ducks to nap, as indeed they were when the photo above was taken.

Pots of ivy

In our back garden we had 3 pots that had been taken over by ivy. Our goats love ivy so we decided to take the pots to the goat paddock for a treat. I was a bit disappointed with their lack of enthusiasm. They have occasionally nibbled at leaves but the ivy is substantially intact even though the pots have been in the paddock for three days.

Expanding the apiary

One of my jobs over the weekend was to put additional brood boxes onto a couple of our stronger hives. We are planning to increase our honey production and the additional brood boxes are the first step towards achieving that. The bee colonies will now be building up the number of worker bees but they will also soon start to produce queen cells. We expect the colonies in the two hives to fill the additional space and in May/June add some queen cells to the frames in the new brood as well as to the frames in the older broods. When the queen cells start to develop, we shall brush all the bees off the frames in the new brood boxes into the old box, put a queen excluder on top of the old box, place the new box above it and close the hive again.

At this point, the worker bees should move back up into the new box but the queen remains in the bottom. After a couple of days, the new box is taken off the hive again and moved to a new location where it is set up as a hive in its own right. In the new hive will be some worker and nursery bees and some queen cells ready to hatch. The worker bees will fly back to the old hive leaving the nursery bees behind. They will become worker bees in their own right but the new hive is home for them. There should be some brood in the new hive which will hatch and there will be queen cells that will hatch as well. The queens will battle it out amongst themselves. After a few weeks, the new hive will be fully functioning and established.

Back in the old hive, the loss of some nursery bees will rapidly be made up. The queen cells may hatch and there could still be a swarm which we hope to catch. We could prevent it by destroying the queen cells but it could be that the hive has decided to supercede the queen. If we kill off the queen cells, we could ultimately leave the hive queenless.

Last year we bought a second hand nuc box so hopefully we will try to create new hives from that as well.

Friday 4 April 2014

Fog on the Tyne

We have now had seven days of near continuous mist here on Tyneside. It started a week ago and, apart from one afternoon earlier this week, when the mist cleared for a few hours, we have been shrouded in low cloud and fog. The rest of the country has had sunny conditions - and a great deal of air pollution and of dust from the Sahara (we did get some of that). They have had warm temperatures. We have shivered on about 8-10C. Quite why we have been left to suffer is leaving me scratching my head.

The effects of this weather are immediate. The bees are stuck in their hives rather than out foraging and fertilising. The hens are plodding through mud (we have had almost continuous drizzle for the past week). Conditions are too wet to do digging.

We are expecting conditions to improve this weekend. Fingers crossed  - we are at a fair in Chase Park, Whickham (the town down the road from us) tomorrow. Rain, mist and fairs are not a good mix!

Exchequer leghorn chick

At the start of January we got 6 hatching eggs for a breed of hen called exchequer leghorn. Only 3 hatched and one of these died a few days later. Of the remaining two, one developed a problem with its legs. They weren't developing properly, it was not able to stand or walk. It moved by furiously flapping its wings. It's quality of life was poor and it was half the size of the other bird so yesterday we decided it had to be put to sleep. The other chick was not free of problems either. It's neck has not developed properly. That said, it was growing well and seemed to be able to cope with life, even if it does manage to walk about with its head upside down at times.

The two chicks had been living in a brooder box along with the older quail chicks which are soon to be rehoused in an aviary (which we have not yet built) so that we can use the brooder box for 21 younger quails we hatched two weeks ago. Having disposed of the chick with the gammy legs, it was time to move the one with the gammy neck to the allotment to join the other hens. I took it over last night and put it in one of the henhouses. At the moment we don't know if it is hen or cockerel. I suspect the latter as it is growing very long tail feathers.

Gammy Neck (which is indeed the name we have given it) did not come out of the henhouse this morning. This did not surprise me as it has so far spent most of its life in a box. This afternoon, it was still inside the henhouse so I put it out onto the allotment. Gradually it increased in confidence, ate the food I put down for it (though it had to be shared with the other hens that muscled in on it) and began to wander a short distance from the henhouse.

It will be at least a couple of months yet before it is fully grown but its neck problem is not causing it any problems. We have plans to hatch more exchequer leghorn eggs if we can get some though the incubator won't be available for a couple of weeks because it has duck eggs in it at the moment.

Duck bonding

Since the loss of the two younger drakes over the weekend to a fox, we have been watching for signs from our remaining ducks that the two groups are starting to merge. The group of 5 older birds happily shares the duck run at night with the two remaining younger birds, but in the morning, the two groups tend to go their separate ways. A couple of days ago however, I spotted all 7 of them asleep together next to the goat paddock (see photo above). Have they merged themselves together as one group? Well, not quite. They still wander about as two separate groups, though they do occasionally mix. Gradually however I think they are all bonding together. The younger drake however is living on borrowed time. At some point he will go for slaughter, leaving the one younger duck behind. At that point I expect her to integrate fully with the older group.