Thursday, 7 August 2008

Our chicks have hatched

You may recall from this post earlier in the month that we have had a mixed success with our chickens. The original three, two hens and a cockerel, are alive and well and providing us with two eggs per day. Perfect. In addition, I gave Max an incubator for his birthday and we have had enormous pleasure from hatching chicks from the fertile eggs. Sadly, we lost the second lot of chicks (although they were hardly chicks as they had reached the unattractive six weeks!) to an unseen predator and then we discovered that The Blue Team were all cocks and therefore for the pot. That's the resume in a nutshell!

As some of you know, my formidable mother-in-law (Blind Granny to her blog readers) is, well, blind and we thought it would be a treat for her if we hatched some eggs during her visit here. We duly put seven eggs into the incubator 20 days before she was due to arrive, secure in the knowledge that with a 21 day incubation period the eggs would hatch 24 hours after her arrival. Unfortunately, noone had told the chicks this although in the end it worked out better than we could have hoped!

The first one was born just one hour before Granny and the others (my sister-in-law, her daughter and daughter's friend) arrived. These were followed by two more that evening and one more the following morning. So they had the full on experience you could say. My niece's friend was entranced. She lives in London and has never seen the creation of life at such close quarters. She came running in and out of the kitchen (the incubator is in the playroom next door) to tell us what was going on. It was very touching.

The picture above shows the egg, still in the incubator, with the very first visual sign that the chick is on its way. It has bashed the first, all important, hole in the shell. The rest follows quite slowly but it is very important that you don't give it a helping hand by cracking the shell. During this period you can quite often hear a cheep from inside the egg.

There is nothing remotely attractive about a new-born chick but for me there will always be the awe of the miracle of life. This hideous little thing has been out of its shell for about as long as it took me to find the camera. I'm not quite sure what the piece of string is - nothing to do with the chick at all!

At this point we put some water in the incubator (in a shallow tray with pebbles so that the chick can't drown in it) and leave it alone for a while. It gets itself up and has a drink quite quickly, then flops down again wherever it happens to be (hence the pebbles) and slowly builds up enough strength to find its legs and start moving around. The lid goes back on the incubator in order to keep the heat in - there are more eggs still to hatch and, most importantly, the newly born chick must not get cold. The chick is quite wet when it's born and the warmth helps it dry out and become what we all think of when someone says "new-born chick"...cute and fluffy!

And so our chicks hatched. From seven eggs we hatched five chicks - not bad. The other eggs showed no signs of life and after a further two days in the incubator to be sure we threw them out. The first time this happened we opened the eggs to investigate but I don't do this anymore as it can be upsetting. Just as with humans and other animals, chicks can die in the egg for no obvious reason and it is not a pleasant experience to discover this when you open the egg.

The chicks are now ten days old. Already they are developing a character, interestingly en masse. When I put my hand in to change the water or give them food they all charge towards me at once. At the first sign of a camera they all vanish into a corner. When one lies down and "plays dead" the others stand around it and gaze. The first time I saw this I was really worried but of course s/he got up and they all danced, seemingly in delight at the joke they'd played. When one discovers he can do something, the others all do it as well - have you read John Wyndham's "The Midwitch Cuckoos"? It should have been the Midwitch Chickens, but clearly he'd never seen baby chicks!

They are still in the house although probably not for much longer. At this time of year the playroom warms up just enough for the smell to be over-powering and Eau de Chick is not our favourite to be honest! Also, it is usually warmer outside than in during the day. So we will bring round the chick house that my son made and put them out in the morning and just bring them in at night.

This lot will inevitably become known as the Gang of Five, or the Fab Five perhaps, and in due course we will ring them with a green tag on their legs. This tells us which "batch" they are from and therefore what age they are. OK, we are not exactly running a huge enterprise here with hundreds of chickens running around but it's amazing how fast older chickens start looking like their brothers and sisters. We are hatching chicks for two reasons: eggs and meat. A chicken will start laying eggs at approximately 120 days (depending on the time of year); however, if we need any of the birds for meat, or if we have spare cockerels, we prefer to cull them before this - at approximately 90 days. Hence, we need to know the dates of birth and the different colour rings tell us this.

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Happy Hams - progress report

Having never kept pigs before this whole experience is a steep learning curve. Fortunately our Berkshire weaners are well behaved and have a healthy respect for the electric fence. They are making contented noises and seem to be growing well - albeit one is growing much faster than the other; he's known as the big brother. They come charging towards us when we arrive with a bucket in our hands and look very cross if we manage to get into the field before they've seen us; clearly that's very sneaky and just not on!

We were feeding them from an old ammunition box (don't ask!) and that was perfect as we could put it under the shelter when it was raining so that the feed didn't get wet and soggy. They seemed to almost climb into the box and had great fun at feed time. But of course they grow and more importantly they grow too big to share the box. It was a little like the time I noticed my baby son looked a little crooked in his babygro - I'd had to force him into it and it was only when I finally managed to do it up I realised that perhaps it was just too small! Ham One was clearly growing at a much faster rate than Ham Two and it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps this was because he was literally shoving his little brother away from the box. So now I put the food in about four piles on the ground. This works much better and I think Ham Two is beginning to catch up a bit!

I also had a fright ten days ago. I went out and Ham Two had what I can only describe as a hemorroid protruding from his backside. The next day it was much bigger. Internet quickly informed me that it was possibly the beginning of a prolapsed rectum - just what I needed - and to call the vet immediately. In the meantime Max spoke to our farming neighbour and although he now only has dairly cows he used to keep pigs. He reassured us that although we should call the vet, both pigs looked extremely well and happy and not on the imminent panic list.

Clearly the vet doesn't have internet and that's probably a good thing. He gave me some worming powder and two days later the problem was no longer visible. This probably also helped with the weight problem.

Unfortunately the vet didn't have any bright ideas on how to give worming powder to the pigs beyond putting it into their drinking water. As they spend a lot of the time splashing the water out of the tub and then wallowing in it this didn't seem a sensible idea. So I bought a large syringe (minus needle) and "injected" it into their mouths - it was brilliant and they loved it!

One day I'll get a photo of them looking at the camera...

Freezing Cucumbers

I think I mentioned that I have had extraordinary beginner's luck with my cucumbers. We have harvested over 50 from six plants and I only hope I will be able to use them all. At the moment we are averaging two per day but my sister-in-law has just left so we have gone from being nine to six. Luckily we all (still!) like cucumber but even so, one a day is easily enough.

One of our "use up cucumber" recipes is Tzatziki. It works very well as a salad or as an accompaniment to meat. Here's my recipe but please feel free to vary the quantities at will - you might think an entire cucumber was excessive for example!

Peel and finely chop one cucumber
Mix it with three or four natural yoghurts (or one big one)
Add some finely chopped garlic
Add the juice of one lemon
Mix it up and it's ready to eat!

However, even this isn't enough to use up ALL the cucumbers!

Max is looking after a chateau/hotel this week. The owner is away on holiday with his family and Max is basically house manager/caretaker/trouble shooter. The evening meal is cooked by a chef who comes in each evening to provide the dinner ordered by the guests. He is a delightful man and last year, when Max did the same job, surprised us by presenting us with a "takeaway" gourmet meal on the day Max finished there. It was delicious and all my favourite things.

Max mentioned to Christian yesterday that he was worried I might be planning on buying another fridge as the one we have is stuffed full of cucumbers. "No problem", said Christian (well, actually it was "Pas de probleme", but anyway...) "Just freeze them!"

Oh ha, ha. I have been looking all over the internet to find out how to freeze the wretched things without all sorts of complicated manoeuvres involving brine. I don't have enough tomatoes to make Gazpacho but that's coming. Back to Christian and I happily give you his very simple and straightforward advice.

Peel the cucumbers
Cut in half length ways and remove the centres (which is where most of the water is)
Sprinkle both sides with salt.
Put in plastic bag, seal and freeze.

Just for the record an ice cream scoop is brilliant for taking out the centres.

I froze four this afternoon and will de-freeze one later this week to see how it tastes. Results will be reported here!