The First To Go

There was always going to be a first to go. This new life of ours is full of firsts; first animals, first floods, first taste of homegrown aubergines. All new, all delightful or difficult or frightening. And there was always going to be a first to die.

Like many fledgling smallholders, our initial foray into livestock-keeping was chickens. Cheap to source, easy to look after, daily eggs. So four chickens were purchased from the local market, brought home, and installed in the brick shed we converted to a chicken house. Two more were added a few months ago, taking us to a flock of six. And, for the most part, they have been a delight; weird grumbles, engaging behaviours, and the best eggs. The occasional escape aside, they have been constant in their easy company.

For our part, we have given them excellent lives. Free-ranging over the whole place (except the veg patch), they have had more space than they could wish for, a diet supplemented by wild scurrying wriggling things, and a house kept clean and dry.

The heat for the past few weeks has steadily climbed. We are now in the high thirties every day. The sheep hide away in the stable, cool earth walls keeping them protected from the worst of the daytime scorch. The chickens have shade under the oak, where they dust-bathe and scratch. We top up water for sheep, chickens, and bees regularly throughout the day. It is too hot to work outside for very long, so tasks are undertaken early morning and late evening. The garden wilts, despite daily soakings, and the fruit trees’ leaves yellow and shrivel. The only creatures that are abroad in the day are the metric tonne of wasps and hornets that have taken up residence seemingly everywhere.

Yesterday ML spotted one of the red chickens was a little lethargic, and did not flee from attempts to handle her. Putting it down to heat, ML moved the chicken inside to the pantry – the coolest room in the house – and gave her cool water and an ice-pack wrapped in a towel. When I returned home, she had perked up a bit. We returned her to the cooling evening air, where she drank a little, and scratched a little.

This morning when I opened the chicken house, she was slumped in the corner. Her eyes were milk white, some kind of discharge hung from her beak, and her breathing was shallow. I once again moved her inside, but held out little hope. My fear was that I would have to put her out of her misery; a task I would not find easy.

She settled a little in the hay at the bottom of the box, thrashed her wings for a few seconds, and stilled. And then was gone.

A conversation with the vet suggested heat stress was to blame. A lot of chickens in the area are, apparently, succumbing to the burning days and hot nights. There was nothing more we could have done.

As a precaution I will dispose of the body safely, then clean and disinfect the chicken house; if disease rather than heat was involved I need to prevent it from spreading. I will burn the bedding and wooden nest boxes, a weirdly funereal thing to do.

The chicken had a good life, and suffered little – less than twenty-four hours from first mild symptoms to death. Nonetheless I am sad. The first to arrive, the first to go, and young. I now worry about the rest of the flock, and feel a bit helpless in the face of the too-bright sun. Goodbye, chook. Thanks for the eggs, and for your company.

 

 

Counting Sheep

I’m standing in the meadow behind the house, clutching a stack of buckets. Before venturing outside, I pulled on a pair of shorts and stepped into my wellingtons, leaving a gap for my knees to peek through so they are now wet with dew from the damp morning grass. Drops cling to my eyelashes and to my beard, though the rising sun will soon see them off.  I will gently steam dry in the warm butter-yellow early hour.  The chickens – six now, with two new arrivals – scratch at the ground in their pen, muttering about things I cannot see.  The chicken pen, my first attempt at construction, is beginning to collapse as the repeated besieging by five greedy sheep takes its toll.  I have patched up the wire where they have forced their way through either in an attempt to get in, to eat the chickens’ pellets, or to escape when I have used the pen to corral them when foot-trimming or treatment have been required.  Two of the wooden posts have come loose, and it is barely fit for purpose anymore.  I will have to rebuild, make it stronger.

I shake the buckets, a handful of oats in each, to tempt the sheep from their shelter.  They are bright white, freshly sheared.  A neighbour, half a mile down the lane, came and picked them up and took them to his farm, where he was shearing his flock.  They were herded into his trailer, fat woolly barrels, and were returned a few hours later lighter, smaller, cleaner.  With the temperatures reaching the low thirties some days, they are happier now, and there is less chance of fly-strike (a most unpleasant and painful affliction).  They bound through the long grass toward me.  Or, rather, toward the sound of rattling breakfast. 

They do not really need feeding in these long summer days.  The meadow provides more than enough forage for them; grass, clover, wild herbs, even thistle and dock fall to the relentless mash of teeth.  However, they are such skittish creatures that a daily beckon with the bucket helps to reinforce the association of man with food, and I am able to (eventually) steer them where I want them (nearly every time).  It also provides an opportunity for a close inspection each day, make sure they are in good health.  Eyebrows, the queen of the meadow, comes last, and slowly.  She is the oldest, at seven years.  When she arrived, last September, she was the biggest, the fastest, the nosiest, and the most stubborn.  She would stamp her foot at me if I approached with anything less than complete subservience (and some food).  She was both the easiest to handle, because she was not particularly scared of me, and the most difficult, because she was of her own mind, and stronger than me.

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Today, sheared and svelte, she moves slowly, a little stiffly.  She does not limp.  Her feet are fine, recently checked and gently trimmed where needed.  She eats with gusto, and grazes with the others, though often lies down when doing so.  She is not sick.  She is getting older.

The time is approaching to decide who to send to the abattoir.  To be killed, let’s not pretty it up.  The original plan, to keep the two older ewes along with one of the lambs to breed from, now seems less likely.  If Eyebrows is ageing, and struggling a little, should we put her in lamb?  Will she carry to term, safely for both her and her lamb (possibly twins, it’s common)?  If she finds it harder now to carry her own weight, how will she cope with the added weight of gestating unborns?  I don’t think it fair, or safe, to do this now.

Equally, we cannot afford to keep a pet sheep.  Winter feed costs, the inevitable mounting vet’s bills, with no financial return does not fit in our strict budget.  The cat is luxury enough (though she does help keep the mice at bay).  I know what needs to happen, if we are to see our ideas through and not end up going broke.  Emotionally and ethically, it is trickier.  I have allowed myself to grow attached to Eyebrows, as we planned to keep her on.  I am fond of her, if she is at best ambivalent to me.  And what gives me the right to end a life based on financial considerations?  Why is this different to sending the lambs to slaughter, as planned?  But it is, somehow.

I battle with these thoughts this morning, as the five sheep munch on their daily oats.  In my mind, I know I have made a decision.  Eyebrows will go, along with at least one of the younger sheep.  My heart rails against this.  This indecision is almost the worst part.  The worst part for me, I remind myself.  Whatever happens here, it will not happen to me.  It will happen to another living being.  Had we not taken her on, she would already have gone to slaughter.  We have given her more life, and a good life at that.  But does that justify whatever decision I make?

The sheep finish their breakfast, and wander off to graze in the brightening morning.  I collect up the buckets and walk back towards the house, to some tea and a towel for my knees.  Eyebrows lies down in the grass, grazing in front of her.  A dragonfly zips past my ear and barrels off across the meadow.  The birds sing, but I do not enjoy their song today. 

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The Year Ahead.

January, so far, has been unseasonably mild, with temperatures rarely dropping below zero.  Whilst this has meant warmer toes and lower heating bills, I long for the beauty of a hoar frost like last year’s, when all was crystal bones.  It has rained persistently and hard, though with careful clearing of ditches and waterways we have been spared the floods of last winter.  The field is inch-deep in water.  The sheep, those cowardly ballerinas, totter en pointe on greedy ground that sucks and gurgles.  As I traverse the meadow in the morning, all is quiet save the tick-tack of the earth as it slowly drains.

The trees and hedges are bare, winter’s veins waiting to be filled with the cool blood of spring, and the nights are silent.  In the day the wind howls warm haunting, and the clouds race each other to sunset.  Over and again.

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I feed the sheep, battling to prevent Eyebrows, the queen of the flock, from bullying breakfast away from everyone else.  She is a horrible old bag, and I am very fond of her.  Our four chickens have hardly moulted, just shedding a few feathers making them look like children freshly towelled post-swim.  They have also continued to lay, with an average of three eggs per day.  As it is the length of the daylight hours that affects laying rates, this is not down to the warm weather.  I like to think it means they are happy, though their grumbles suggest they are never content.

We feed the wild birds every day with sunflower seeds and fat balls.  The lilac tree where we hang the feeders is a battleground of blue tits, great tits, robins, finches, and nuthatches.  With no freeze, we are expecting a plague of flies and mosquitoes in the spring, so the birds are doubly welcome, allies all.

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We are still harvesting leeks, cabbages, carrots, and parsnips from the veg garden, and are still stocked with preserved tomatoes and courgettes, and shallots and pumpkins from last year.  I have bought only garlic and fruit from the greengrocer for six months now.

The year ahead stretches before me, a blank landscape slowly being filled with landmarks and signposts.  Planting, potting on, pruning fruit trees, looking into getting pigs.  And we have sourced our bees; two swarms from a local keeper that, this time, will come already installed in Warré brood boxes.  We hope that this gentler introduction will help prevent the decline and fall of last time.  We plan to add more trees to the part of the field behind the house, and are talking about a forest garden there – trees above, shrubs below, herbs between, vegetables and fruits, an almost self-sustaining ecosystem.

There is one mountain, dark and toothsome, that looms large in my mind’s eye.  We will send two of the lambs for slaughter in a couple of months.  When the time comes, I want to accompany them to see their final journey, make sure it goes the way it should; swiftly.  I hope I am brave enough.  In all things, I always hope I am brave enough.

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The Ruminants’ Nail Salon

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We hadn’t particularly considered getting sheep, had spoken of it in passing but no more.  The grass in the field grew to a metre tall, and hid monsters within the blades.  We asked our old friend Maurice (he of the water-divining) to come round with his mini tractor and cut it for hay, which he did.  We then spent what felt like months raking the hay into rows, only for it to be rained upon, and rendered useless as animal feed.  So we have used it as mulch, expanding the no-dig beds ready for next year.  

Having battled the grass in the field, and called on favours once again, we decided that maybe a sheep or two, as lawnmowers, might be the answer.  The more we thought on it, the more we realised that it might be a way to get something back from the meadow, as our plans for it are long-term, half-formed, and will not be realised for a few years yet.  So, we thought, let’s get some adult sheep, and breed lambs from them for our own consumption.  Easy.

ML has a cousin, Guy, who has a large sheep farm in a village a few miles from us.  She called him up and told him of our ideas, asked what he thought the options might be.  It turned out that he had some ewes, along with their lambs, that weren’t working out for him.  The ewes were tending to lamb too late in the season, and as a result their lambs were not of a weight yet whereby he could sell them at a profit.  Would we want to come see them?  We did.

Guy’s farm is in an idyllic setting, atop a hill with a view across the fields and forests in the valley below.  Fields full of sheep surround the farmhouse, a large pond is home to shouting geese and flapping ducks.  On the day we visited, two newly arrived pigs were pelting chaotically around the farm, playing hide-and-seek.

Not knowing what we were looking for, but trusting Guy, we agreed to buy the two ewes and three lambs that he suggested.  We retreated to Guy’s farmhouse and drank whisky to toast the deal.

Two days later, Guy arrived, sheep in a trailer.  We released them into the field and they ran, eating as they did, which is quite a skill.  With grass aplenty, and an old pig house for shelter, they were content.

As we are going to eat at least two of these animals, we have not named them.  Well, nearly not named them.  The ‘queen’ sheep, who is the bravest and stamps her foot at me if I stray too close, has been named Eyebrows, as she has white markings over her eyes.  The other ewe has been termed Non-Eyebrows, for obvious reasons.  The lambs remain anonymous, as they are definitely for the pot, and are simply identified through the numbers on their ear tags – a legal requirement in France.  None of this, however, prevents me from becoming attached to them.  They are scared and brave, always hungry, incredibly destructive, curious, intelligent, and I spend more time with them than is sensible.  We’ll forget about their final day.  For now.

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Sheep are determined to die.  The number of diseases and afflictions that they can suffer from is astounding.  Our sheep are healthy, but we have had one lamb with diarrhoea and one who started to limp.  Sheep need their feet trimming now and again, and the most common reason for diarrhoea is worms.  Fine.  Easy.  We’ll worm them and trim their feet.  Problem solved.  To do so, we must catch them and upend them on their bottoms so we are able to minister to their needs.  Guy demonstrated to us how to do this, and it seemed so easy.

Not so.  After half an hour of chasing five sheep around the field, we decided to rethink.  So, I built a pen from wooden posts and wood reclaimed from pallets, so we could restrict their fleeing.  A ruminants’ nail salon.  They’d love it.  I spent a few days feeding them in the pen, so they associated it with food, and all was well.  Then, one afternoon, we took them some extra buckets of food, and lured them into the pen.

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Lamb number one was a struggle, but I eventually managed to put her on her bum whilst ML administered the (alarmingly day-glo yellow) worming medicine, and trimmed the hoofs.  Lamb number two, similar.  Lamb number three, a bit more of a struggle, but done (with only three or four pulled muscles – mine, not the lamb’s).

Next, the ewes.  Eyebrows, stronger and more stubborn than me, was having none of it, and fought back. The chickens had come to watch, as had the cat, and there was a sudden explosion of limbs.  Sheep, human, cat, chicken, mud, grass, passing sparrows.  Like a Dali painting, exploded.  And then one of the lambs put her arse through the fence.  It was chaos, and it was over.

With the fence broken, and me being unable to move, we decided to retreat for the day.  Recover, regroup, and try again.

Wish us luck.

The Apocalypse Pantry

It’s not the end of the world.  As I write this, I am listening to the radio, where sombre voices are speaking of madmen rattling their swords, about missiles, about poisoned eggs, about droughts, floods, forest fires.  Stay indoors.  Cover the windows, cover your eyes.  Be afraid. And I am afraid.

Yet, outside the open door, the sun shines, the swallows loop their exuberant loops, the tomatoes still ripen, and the cat, a cooler head than mine, licks her paws, caring not a jot for the news.  Not the end of the world, then.  Not today.

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At the back of the house there is a room that originally would have been the ‘summer kitchen’.  It would have had a sink, a dirt floor, a fire or oven, little else, and would have been used for cooking in the hot, dry summer months as a way of keeping the main house cool.  Ours has been ‘refurbished’, meaning the floor has been tiled and the walls have been papered, the main result of this being a good deal of dampness.  For the time being, until we get around to getting it back towards its original make-up (never), we are using it as a food store.  The shelves are filled with airtight tubs of dried wild mushrooms,  of canned tomatoes picked from the garden.  Pickles, jams blackcurrant syrup, nettle beer, brined green beans, dehydrated courgettes (and a bubbling demijohn of weird cloudy marrow ‘wine’ that will probably be a solitary pleasure).  It is not enough food to get us through a winter, let alone a nuclear one, though it is a start; we will be self-sufficient in tomatoes until the season is in full swing again next year.

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It is a whispered truth than there was an element of fear for the future in our decision to move towards a self-sufficient lifestyle.  (That’s not quite true.  ML is more positive than I am, and my dark mutterings about storing water, after one too many glasses of wine whilst listening to the radio news are, thankfully, counterbalanced by happier, more reasonable thoughts.)  If things do get difficult, here we are in a better position than most to weather the storm.  A well, chickens, sheep, fruit, vegetables, wild foods.  These may not be our salvation come the end times, but they are surely our salvation in any case. Connected to the land, to the creatures that roam and scuttle, to the sighing plants and, well, everything, we are happy, and healthy, and a part of things. Apocalypse or not.

 

 

The Hive, Part Three: Epilogue/Prologue.

The bees are dying.

All was, or seemed, well.  We had weeks where the bees were busy busy.  Collecting nectar, the clover in the field surrounding the hive a-buzz with 40,000 tiny beating wings.  Bringing in pollen, little globes of yellow and orange and chestnut brown attached to their legs as they arrived home from their forays.  Building comb, first white then yellow, filled slowly with honey and brood, alien geometry.  All the wild carrot species were in bloom, along with plenty more mid- to late-summer blossoms, a feast for the eyes and the insects.  We fed the bees a little sugar syrup to help them build their winter stores, as we had installed the swarm later in the season than was sensible due to delays from the breeder, and they lapped it up on overcast days or ignored it on sunny days.

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The weather has been changeable, very wet for a Burgundy summer, though with plenty of sun and heat interspersed with the storms.  This has limited the good foraging days for the bees (and for me, though it does mean mushrooms are popping up earlier than last year).  We have watched the bees intently, spending hours sat in front of the hive watching the comings and goings, trying to get a handle on what it all means, these waggles and leg-waves and circular flights.  They have been tolerant of our presence, only becoming antsy if we have taken friends to show them the colony and lingered too long.  All was, or seemed, well.

Then the daily activity on the landing board seemed to slow, little by little, until there were mornings, hot and bright, when the arrivals and departures were sluggish and sparse.  One afternoon, both of us in the field raking hay (wet, unusable, though we shall use it as a mulch for next year’s planned no-dig beds), there was a sudden fierce buzz. Approaching the hive, we saw hundreds of drone bees flying in tight loops.

Drone bees are the male bees; bigger, heavier than the workers, with domed eyes that meet at the top of the head like a crash helmet.  They have no sting.  They are the product of an unfertilised egg, meaning they have no father, only a mother.  If one traces back the number of genetic ancestors of a drone, a sequence is revealed; the Fibonacci sequence, that code that is found throughout nature, in the spiral of a shell, in the uncurling of a fern, numbers revealed in nature.  Drones have one job: to mate with a queen.  They do no foraging of nectar or pollen.  They do not nurse the larvae or tend to young bees.  They are all noise and sex.

Drones often fly in the afternoon, heading out to seek, and mate with, queens from other colonies, but we thought the number we were witnessing was rather large.  A quick look through the observation window revealed something worrying.  More drones, fewer obvious workers, and much more comb visible than normal, suggesting a general decline in numbers.  They were not dying of starvation, there was no obvious disease, no sign of varroa mites.  The possibility, which is today all but confirmed, was that we had lost the queen, that she had died, or been killed. When this happens, sometimes one of the worker bees will begin laying eggs, though these eggs are infertile, the worker never having mated (indeed she lacks the anatomy to do so).  These unfertilised eggs will only produce male drones, no workers, meaning that as the workers reach the end of their lifespans they are not replaced.  The population of the colony is not refreshed, the number of drones increases whilst the workers decrease. Eventually the hive becomes a male-only hive, and, as the males cannot reproduce or even feed themselves, they die.

The only way to confirm what was happening was to open the hive, which is not something recommended in natural beekeeping.  If we were to open the hive and see only drone brood, no worker larvae, this would be a definitive answer.  Our fear was that we might be wrong, that the queen may be alive and laying, and we were simply worrying because of our inexperience, bamboozled by the complexities of the bee society as we are.  Opening the hive, apart from being detrimental to the health of the colony, risks accidentally killing the queen.  Our very quest to save them might be their end.

We asked advice of other Warré beekeepers, which was mostly positive; the bees will be fine, don’t worry, keep an eye, don’t interfere.  So we did just that.  Watched.  Tried to not worry.  Watched and watched.

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A month on and the numbers of bees have reduced to the extent that we could count them, if that were not a macabre and depressing thing to do.  No pollen at all is being brought in by the few workers who are still going about their business.  Too many drones, smaller than they should be, are hanging from the comb in the hive, doing nothing.  Wasps and, we think, bees from nearby colonies are robbing the hive.  We have reduced the size of the entrance to make it easier to defend, but our bees seem disinterested in war, seem to have accepted the siege is lost.  We continue to feed them, now supplementing the sugar with pollen for protein, but every day there are fewer and fewer bees, more tiny corpses, and ML and me look at each other and despair.  ML sits by the hive in the evening sun, swatting at invaders.  I visit the hive less and less; it is too sad.  It feels as if we are presiding over a dying planet, witnessing the end of the world, and this is true, for the bees.

Did we do something wrong?  Possibly.  Could we have intervened?  Yes, but our interventions would have been unlikely to succeed this late in the year, and we are of the mind that if, as seems inevitable, the bees are on their way out it should be because of the natural rhythm of things rather than a clumsy, misguided helping hand.  Are we wrong about all this?  We have talked it over for hours.  I am still unsure.  And it is too late, in any case.

There are many positive things that have happened.  We have been laboriously dealing with a glut of tomatoes, green beans,  and courgettes.  We have canned the tomatoes, either simply chopped and cooked down, or then passed through a sieve and reduced to make a sweet, intense puree, and we have stored enough to last us until next summer. The courgettes we have frozen or sliced and dehydrated in the hot August sun.  Our aubergines and carrots have been a success, and a revelation in terms of flavour.  We have bought no vegetables for two months now, and have been eating well.  The chickens, odd birds, grumble and scratch and lay four eggs, every day.  This evening we are going to look at some sheep, with a view to buying two ewes along with their four lambs.  We’ll keep the ewes for breeding, and raise the lambs on for a year or so for hogget.  Our first meat animals, which raises a whole new set of questions and feelings. Sheep, less inscrutable than bees.  New lives coming in as others fade.

We will not give up.  We’ll start a new bee colony next year, learning from our observations and errors of this year to, hopefully, help create a strong colony.  This is our first real experience of failure, and it is not sweet.  But next year we will get it right.

The queen is dead.  Long live the queen.