A bug free, cherry full, jam making June

What a great month we had, the weather was warm but not overly so despite a few days exceeding 30C, the orchard is providing fruit by the bucket and we didn’t see a single mosquito or horse fly. If you ever decide to holiday in Poland then June is the month to do it. Rooms available from Easter 2016!

With the good weather I happy to report that the house heating has now remained dormant since early May, although topping up the waters heat is still required on occasion. Of course the downside of the sunshine is the lack of rain, although despite a slowing of growth on the crops everything is managing to hold on without human intervention. The watering can came out for some late plantings, but I like to let things fend for themselves if possible.

Our first cherries of the year came around the 10th of June and we thanked the previous owner for their foresight in planting successional fruiting trees. As one tree finished the next came of tap and we are still picking cherries now, in the middle of July. I thought my tree climbing day were over!

The strawberries came and went, leaving many an empty flan dish and nine jars of jam, made from a mixture of cultivated and wild fruit. Contrary to Mrs Beeton’s recipe of 14lbs of sugar to 12lbs of fruit, we use half as much sugar to fruit and the result is a jam that tastes of the fruit used, 4Kg (9lbs) of fruit 2Kg (4.4lbs) sugar in our case.  Cost per 400g (1lb) jar works out at about 15p (for the sugar and heat) Mrs Beeton noted that it cost 7d per jar in 1904, I wonder how the two compare?

Official jam taster Malina gives the nod f approval to the latest batch of jam.
Official jam taster Malina gives the nod f approval to the latest batch of jam.

The freezer is also starting to fill up with vegetables and our decision to hold on with the chest freezer purchase until we have the pigs to fill it may have to be brought forward. I noted the advice given on a blog about freezing fruit and making jam in the winter when the heat of the stove helps to heat the house, sound advice and something I think we will do next year, as long as the pigs leave some room!

Despite the increasing harvest and crop maintenance (weeding), Gosia and I managed to continue work in the house and a week with Gran as babysitter saw the upstairs plastered with the first coat of lime. Another step closer.

I’m reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm every time I visit the stable, as the pigs seem to be slowly edging themselves towards a higher station, already they have taken up residence in the stable leaving behind the arc that I lovingly crafted for them! Thankfully the goats have other ideas and a butt to the butt is a comical site if there is a tasty morsel to be had and the hierarchy is to be maintained.

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Out my way!

Mind you I can see a pattern of weight throwing going on and it’s only a matter of time before King George will be crowned. The pneumonia that Peppa suffered from, costing more in vet bills that her purchase price, seems to have cleared up, however her weight gain is slow as is typical of the condition (so I read). Still it’s good to see her healthy and enjoying her food at last.

The chickens remain oblivious to the targets that I set, although at 275 eggs for the month they almost received their bonus. With the addition of an extra hen donated by a friend and the more of the pullets coming on line, a dozen a day is more and more common in July. 300, 400 eggs a month, where will it end? My ability to count them in on a evening is becoming more difficult and to put even further stress on my fingers and toes we invested in 10 broilers and 5 cockerels, food for the future and a test for my convictions.

Given all the food that has to be prepared for the 55 mouths that now reside in the stable, it would be good practice for running a restaurant. I’m just glad we are getting by with our own feed from last years harvest, I dread to think how much it would cost if we bought in the commercial offering. We are keeping a close eye on cost to plant and harvest this year so we have a good idea how much our food is costing. Of course it’s more important to us to know how the animals are treated and what they are fed, but if the cost is comparable to that of a supermarket then we are quid’s in.

One of the old battery hens showed signs of illness early in the month, refusing to leave the nesting box, I thought her days were over and expected to find her dead. After about a week of this behaviour it struck us that she may just be broody, so we put a clutch of 12 eggs underneath her. More mouths to feed, or more chickens to feed us? As an optimist I go with the latter.

Reading back over this post I’m reminded how quickly time goes and how much we still have to do to be up and running for next year, a target that sometimes seems unattainable. But then we have a day like yesterday (18th July) with the delivery of 60 cubic meters (about 70 tonnes) of crushed rock to spread over the dirt track that passes as our road. A big job for Gosia and I, but then the a Gran and Granddad, a brother and two nephews arrive with rakes, sledge hammers and shovels at the ready. I’m happy to report that despite the heat of the day we all enjoyed a BBQ and a beer by 3pm with the job completed. I even had time to pick a bucket of cherries, as nothing says thank you quite like a bucket of fresh cherries !

103 not out, despite a strong challenge by Barbara

The chickens seem to be settling in well now, it’s over a month since we got them and laying patterns are becoming more predictable and miss formed eggs, caused by stress, seem to be a thing of the past. We have also given them free range of the land and the enclosure I built to protect against foxes has little purpose. We were rewarded with 103 eggs for the first thirty days of board and lodging provided. In addition Kazek, our neighbour in the valley, added a mothering hen with three chicks to bring our guest list up to twenty-three, although this dropped to twenty-two as one of the chicks didn’t make it through the first night. Still this wasn’t enough to satisfy our egg appetite and we had to ship in an extra thirty-five eggs from my mother-in-law to fill a gap when production was at a low ebb. No surprise then that we are now sitting on a surplus of seventeen eggs as production has levelled off at five or six a day.

If you look out of the window most days at around five o’clock you will see a tumble of fur as Zara and Dennis play fight with Barbara, a neighbours dog, who is enjoying his freedom from the chain that holds him for most of his day. Forgive the names but as our Dennis is a bitch it seemed only right the neighbours dog to be given a feminine name, so he was christened Barbara.

Bite, snarl, jump, chase and run, all the time looking for an exposed leg, or tail, or neck, or.. Great fun to watch and despite our dogs enjoying total freedom of the surrounding land,  and joining me on two walks a day, they seem to have endless energy available to them. The fun often goes on for an hour or so before Barbara hightails it back home, Zara and Dennis often in pursuit, not returning until later in the evening. We consider the money spent on vets bills well spent as chastity is not strong in the canine world!

By now you can probably guess where I’m going with this story and at around five o’clock on Monday afternoon (last week), whilst enjoying some homemade pasta with our dwindling supply of tomato sauce from last year, the phone rang.

Kazek had heard a commotion from our chickens and had spotted one in a tree! No sooner had the translation reached me then I was hot footing it down the track to the stable, Jackie sprinting ahead sensing that a chase was on. I’m not sure what the record is for a 300 meter sprint in poor mans Crocs (£3 at Lidl)  is, but I must have been close; just in time to see the back end of Barbara scampering away with Jackie in hot pursuit.

An Indian head dress, a pillow, what do you do with that many feathers? One of the girls must be dead? Well not the mothering hen, she’s perched at the top of a tree, looking down at the electricity pole below her, how the hell! Skirting around the area and beating the drum of the feed bucket chickens start to appear, I count to 21. If we only lost one then we were lucky I tell myself as I coral them into the safety of the fenced area.

It was a slow journey to let the chickens out the next morning, sad that we could no longer let them roam free and that we had lost one in learning our lesson. Then, as I neared the old stable I noticed a lone hen, nestled in a pile of dead grass that we had raked up the day before whilst clearing land. No losses after all, although inspecting the chickens more closely I worked out where most of the feathers had come from!

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How do you fit eighteen into a double bed?

Of course I could go with the original title ‘chicken week’ but then it’s more than two weeks since we got our first batch of chickens and it may be another week before I publish this post and as it stands you may still be intrigued as to why I chose the title I did, despite the clue.

As our belt tightening increases as the excess fat we had falls away on showers, tiles, flooring, stairs and other such fancy things, we decided it was time to commit some time to generating some more of our own food. And with our appetite for eggs outstripping the mother in-laws supply, chickens seemed like the obvious choice. Low cost and low maintenance, once the setup is done, perfect if I am to finish the upstairs in the house this year!

We did experience some really good weather in the middle of March and this spurred me on to fencing an area off for the flock, eager to keep the cost down I used some of the willow I had recently felled for the posts. I’m secretly hoping that they may take root and not rot, fingers crossed of that one. All in all, using the barn as one of the enclosing walls, I managed to create an area of about 200 square meters for them to free range in. I may extend this in future but it seemed like a good area to start with and it used up a 50m roll of wire fence that we picked up cheep!

The old stable, our home for three summers, was the obvious choice for chicken house as we know that it is rat proof, fairly well insulated and provides plenty of space.

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A quick read through a couple of books, plus a scan on the interweb and I concocted a plan for the perch and nesting area. The perch is made up using the willow that seems to be strewn across the land at the moment and is attached to the wall with a handy hinge so that it can be lifted and secured when I do the muck out. Thank you http://www.raising-chickens.org the idea.

As for the nesting boxes, well that’s when the old head and foot board came into play and our double bed was cut up to create eight nesting boxes. By rights you need one box for every four chickens so that’s accommodation for thirty two sorted out, but as the title suggests we ended up with eighteen chucks.

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It could well have turned out differently as we met the man with the chicken van outside the local church to make our purchase, astute as he was, spotting my English accent, he began to pass startled chickens out of his aromatic van counting out the ten layers (ex battery hybrids) and five 3 month old pullets (mixed breed) that we requested. He then added four more layers and five more pullets, mumbling something that Gosia understood to be ‘these ones are on the house’ alas when it came to paying he expected payment for all! Imagine his surprise when Gosia announced that we didn’t have the money for the extras, and so he proceeded to taka back the extras that we couldn’t afford declaring that he didn’t believe that an Englishman didn’t have any money! Still we ended up with three extra at a reduced price and we are now the happy feeders and collectors of ten layers and eight pullets.

By sheer coincidence, as the deal was going down, a police car pulled up and parked within 20 meters of this shady avian exchange and as we set off back on the road we were hailed and waved to a stop. Perhaps there is a law against the trading of chickens within sight of a church? We had seen some curtains twitching when we first arrived and news travels faster the village than by satellite.

As it happens there was a wide load coming through the village (a temporary shop by all accounts) and the police were directing traffic to take an alternate route, so our slate remains clean in the eyes of the law and God, I think!

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Dorrota and Steve, our friends from across the valley,  have built up quite a flock themselves over the last year or two were kind enough to donate a cock and lots of out of date bread to supplement our chickens diet. The bread needs to be dried first and then soaked as required before adding to the grain mix that we have a plentiful supply of. Having under floor heating helps with the drying process!

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So as March ended we reached a twelve day tally of thirty-nine eggs, just about enough to keep me eating the diet I have become accustomed to, although in April we had to ask Gosias mum for an egg injection to get us over the Easter period and the additional salads and cakes that are an expected part of the celebrations in Poland. Still we are averaging about four eggs a day, not bad considering the cold and snowy weather we are having at the moment, roll on this week as the temperatures are supposed to rise. The outside jobs are mounting up and we need more eggs to keep me going 🙂