Birds and Bees

Don’t worry, this blog post really is just about birds and bees!!

This week I’ve had to handle both creatures in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated a few days before! I happened to be in the right place at the right time for a little swallow that had taken a wrong turning on Tuesday. I was next to my mum’s conservatory whilst she was out on errands and heard some fluttering noises. I put my head around the kitchen door just in time to see a Swallow flitting desperately from one side to the other trying to escape through the glass. It came to rest in the corner and Ginger the big tom cat prepared to leap on it. I roared at him and also dived for the corner and managed to bat away Mr. Ginger and scoop up the poor Swallow just in time.

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Luckily it wasn’t harmed at all and flew out of my hand just after I took these and went off to catch more insects.

The Swallows seem to be all nesting in barns this year. The house eaves have been taken over by a population explosion of House Martins – which is a good thing as they are on the Amber list. They really seem to like the wood cladding and bulkhead timbers as well as the shelter of the big overhanging eaves of my strawbale house – perhaps they recognise a fellow straw-and-mud-building fanatic when they see one!! Joking aside, the fact that the timbers of my home are durable ones that haven’t had any form of chemical treatment to preserve them probably helps; we chose them specifically for our own health and for the environment so the stamp of approval from these little guys seems like a small justification for that.

I’m not sure if they re-use nests or build new ones every year. There are some fairly solid constructions up there already but these pairs seem bent on a place of their own. I’ve not seen any coming or going from this one for example – apparently goose feather decor is so last year dahling.


I’ll have to keep an eye out in case it actually has eggs in; we’ll soon see some hungry beaks poking over the edge if it has!

On the other side of the purlin are a young couple hard at work and having major domestics about how to go about it. I have to say that I somewhat sympathise with them – it’s always easier to work on a creative project like house renovations on your own I find!!


This one has really got an eye for detail – or thinks it has. It’s quite fussy and precise about where each beakful of mud and twigs needs to be put and takes its time over placing carefully.


This one just hasn’t got the same flair – apparently. It got told in no uncertain terms to go fetch some more materials and just stop messing up the progress willya?


So the next time it just did a quick drop off before heading back for more gloop!


I know where they’re getting it from, there’s a muddy patch near a dripping water butt tap that is perfect for them and I see them when I pass there several times a day. It’s outside the barn where I shear my sheep too and as that’s been one of my tasks this week there are plenty of woolly, strawy materials for them to dunk in the gunk to make a really well insulated and strong nest for their coming babies.

On the other side there’s more building going on too.


I think somebody has already started on their family as one of the old nests is in use.


It was hard to try catch them in flight but although the photos aren’t good, it’s nice to see them frozen in midair as they zip about so quickly you just can’t see them properly at all in real time.



The other thing I didn’t expect to handle this week was our bees. I used to look after them but I became allergic to them about 5 years ago and I don’t go near them now. I do think they’re a vital part of the smallholding ecology – without bees and trees there would be no nature. And I really love their honey!

My mum has been looking after the bees in recent years with lots and lots of help and advice from some good friends who live quite some way away. Like most jobs it’s easier to do things with two people and bee-keeping is one of them. It’s important to work quickly and quietly once the hives are open so as not to annoy them more than is necessary and not to chill the brood (baby bee larvae) and eggs. Full supers of honey are pretty heavy to lift as well – in all, an extra pair of hands really helps.

I know mum was anxious that the bees might swarm on a warm day earlier this week and they certainly looked and sounded like it was on the cards for early afternoon. So I said I’d give mum a hand; it would be a shame to lose either a swarm of bees or the honey after the work she’s put in (and me, I’ve been helping to build some new hive parts!) So I cobbled together a bee suit out of various weird odds and ends and we went through them and moved some bees around.


Hopefully it’s given all the bees enough work and space to be getting on with for now.

I removed this chunk of brace comb from the brood chamber. It had capped brood in and a little honey but it needed to go and the hive was chockfull of baby bees in the making – so although I don’t like despatching even one bee, it had to come out. I left it in front of the hive for the bees to clean out. I’ll probably remove it soon and melt it down and filter it into pure beeswax to store.


They’re all busy working today. Just watching them on the flight board this afternoon, it’s funny to see how many crash land and roll in! Their pollen baskets on their legs are so full, it must be really heavy to fly with and awkward to manoeuvre. I’m glad they have lots of flowers to work though. Such a busy month of May!



The Grass is Always Greener…

Summertime… an’ the cotton is high…


So despite the decidedly dodgy weather suggesting otherwise, it’s Summer in the temperate climate of 52 degrees latitude up the Northern Hemisphere and the grass is romping away. If your lawn is your pride and joy you’ll know what I’m on about – you’ve just put the lawnmower back in the shed, turned around and before you’ve blinked the sweat out of your eyes, the freshly smoothed sward is wearing a distinct Five ‘o’ Clock Shadow across its grinning visage. The combination of long daylight hours, warmer (relatively speaking!) temperatures and rainfall mean that you can practically hear the blades of grass squeaking as they grow.

It’s bad enough when it’s your lovely lawn eating up your time but multiply that by several acres and you get a monocotyledon headache of mammoth proportions. This of course is turned to advantage in farming where a large part of agricultural produce in Britain comes from monocots in some form or other; the grain produced by arable farmers in fertile lowland areas, the milk produced by cows in lush dairy country and in upland areas the grass fed cattle and sheep that produce some of the finest beef and lamb in the world (OK, I’m biased but hey, if you’ve eaten slow grown Welsh lamb or beef you’ll know what I’m talking about ;0). Agriculture is basically about harnessing the power of the sun as it channels up through the biological systems on earth and harvesting them for human use.


Grassland management for livestock is more scientific that you’d think. It’s not so simple as to say “animals eat grass, we eat animals” in some neat little linear food chain. Different herbivores graze in different ways depending both on their physiology and their anatomy. The different kinds of vegetation required is dictated in part by the digestive system and by how the species or breed has evolved to fit it’s habitat. Different dentition changes the way that grazing animals eat the same grasses and so the very best way of grazing land is to have several different species eating from the same patches of pasture – just as nature does in the wild where many species coexist to take advantage of their individual needs that mesh together in symbiosis. Farming systems that rely on a single species only can lead to an imbalance and therefore more human intervention is required to maintain the optimum health of the pasture and the animals. Often Organic systems or ones based on Permaculture seek to find ways of harnessing natural systems to work together with people to create a harmonious ecosystem even in artificial set ups like an enclosed farm, smallholding or garden.

This isn’t always possible for practical reasons. Not all animals suit all kinds of land, there are other constraints such as time, skills set or simply financial limitations on what livestock you can keep in a given area. This has certainly been true for us here on our smallholding where we’ve tried keeping most farm animals over the years but as time has gone on, other factors have required us to cut back on what we do or attempt. Whilst it’s nice to cut back on the complexity of work, it’s also sad when a holding slowly empties of the stock that is its raison d’être.

In the past couple of weeks however Chez BlackSheep has filled with more life than we’ve seen for a long while… and whilst most of it is temporary, it’s heart warming. The aforementioned triffid-like grass is far too much for our small flock of sheep, 4 geese and one old pony to keep on top of. Just as living in the country seems to be about spending six months of the the year preparing for the other 6 months, so grassland management for livestock falls within that same pattern of work. Once the day length starts to pick up as we move away from the Spring Equinox and there is less rainfall and the temperatures start to rise, the animals rely less on feed taken to them and start to graze more comfortably on the pastures. They put down fat, spend more time lying down cudding and even in the case of some younger animals, they play in the evenings too.


This is one of the things I love to look out for; when my sheep start acting like goofs in the late Spring evenings I know that the grass is starting to grow properly. The saying goes “every baa misses a bite” – meaning that time and energy spent on other activities is time wasted on grazing. When there is little grazing, sheep keep their heads down moving constantly, nibbling urgently at the pasture getting as much as they can from the sward so they can then go and find somewhere to lie down to cud and digest what they’ve stored in their rumens. When there is plenty of grazing it takes less time to “tank up” and with more protein and sugars available the easier it is for them to get the required nutrition. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, however once the Spring grass starts growing there is a happy medium when there is sufficient before lush growth starts to cause potential problems with imbalances  with parasites and nutrition.


Sheep, like cows and goats amongst other ruminants, have no top teeth at the front, just a hard gummy Dental Pad that meets their lower incisors. There is a gap between this and the premolars and molars at the back of their mouths – this gap is called a Diastema. Sheep graze by nipping off short grass with their incisors and dental pad and swallowing this down into their first stomach or rumen – a large sack filled with microorganisms that breaks down indigestible cellulose. Ruminants like sheep then regurgitate this back into their mouths to “chew the cud” whilst they are resting to grind it down with their molars into smaller pieces to be digested further. Cows are also ruminants but use their tongues to wrap around long grasses and rip it off so eat different lengths of grasses to sheep. Working together cattle and sheep graze pasture more effectively than one of the species on their own.


Horses are not ruminants; they are known as hind-gut fermenters as they have an enlarged caecum (like the appendix in humans) towards the end of their digestive system and this aids breakdown of the indigestible cellulose there. They also have different dentition and have incisors at the front of both top and bottom jaws. They graze by nipping off shorter grass and chewing it before swallowing.


Goats (of which we have only one now) are more browsers than grazers, they prefer to graze on tougher more woody herbage such as twigs, shrubs and leaves of trees as well as dicot plants in the pasture. They have similar dental and digestive structures to sheep however and share most of the same parasites and aren’t great to graze alongside sheep for that reason.


Pigs are omnivores; they eat anything! (well almost anything) and have an impressive dental toolbox to match and can tackle most things that come their way that other animals would find inedible. My pigs are Large Blacks which are a traditional breed that does well outdoors on non-intensive systems and they like grazing and do better on low input systems than commercial pigs including garden waste and pernicious weeds from the veg plot (but it’s no longer legal to feed them kitchen waste). So they do like grass and in winter, hay. But they do better on longer grass as short grass is an open invitation to do what pigs do best – dig with their amazingly strong snouts for roots, invertebrates, rhizomes and other delectable piggy delights and a determined pig can wreak an incredible amount of upheaval on pastures… as I learned to my cost over the years!


In summer we shut off fields to grow the grass long to cut and dry for hay. This gives stored feed for the animals during winter months when the grass stops growing and the weather means they have to be housed and/or fed supplementary foods to survive. Last year we made enough superb quality hay to last us for 2 years – the traditional/primitive breeds we favour and the low demands we make on them mean they can cope better with lower levels of nutrition and even thrive on bulky foods so this works for us in a way it wouldn’t on intensive farms where protein content is vital.



However this year that leaves us with the conundrum of what to do with all the grass that would normally be shut off from livestock to do turn into hay. All of a sudden the grass growth shoots away and gets too long for sheep to graze effectively. So the only way for us to manage this superabundance is to draft in a little extra munch power. Some of a friend’s cattle are currently dealing with the longer grass over the summer months.


Petunia the pig has come home after spending the first part of this year on loan to another friend.


I didn’t have time to manage pigs with other things in my life so the deal was that she would produce piglets which they’d keep in return for looking after her for a season or two. Sadly she has failed to get pregnant so she’s come home for one last attempt here as at home she’s kept outdoors which suits this breed better whereas at the farm she went to on loan, the pigs have to be kept in large airy barns. It’s a system that works well for lots of breeds of pigs that wouldn’t manage outdoors so well but for hardy breeds like Large Blacks they are happier with the wind in their hair and the sun on their backs. She had a nice holiday getting tubby on her “all you can eat inclusive package” so now she’s on a grass based diet that she has to go and pick for herself in the hope that it will slim her down, excess body fat being a real hurdle to fertility in most species but especially pigs.


Hopefully this handsome Hampshire boar can persuade her to start a family again!

Yet another friend has needed to find new livery to keep her pony; happily she asked us and as we already have a Welsh pony that needed some company that worked out well.


And for emergency levels of lawn mowing you can’t go wrong with a tight flock of dry ewes to bite the grass down quick… which means that you currently can’t get a blade of grass between the large flock of borrowed sheep “at tack” being moved on from small area to small area every day! This is the ovine answer to Mountfield mowers…


It’s a bit like a big house party where guests are bedding down in all sorts of funny places and using anything they can find to drink out of – it’s fun whilst it lasts even if you know it isn’t like this normally. Happily there is plenty of grub to go around though so at least for the moment, the grass really is greener on this side of the fence!