Traumatic times for chickens!

Winter is a tricky time for chickens. My Hen Pal, Julia, has been telling me all about their woes! None of her five hens laid an egg from mid-November until mid-January – a combination of short daylight hours, dismal weather and their old age.

Rather sweetly, when we had our first really sunny January day, one of the hens heaved out a very weird offering. When Julia first brought it in at teatime, it was whole, but with a patchy, sandy texture, and a curious bump on one end.

By the following morning, the sub-standard eggshell finish had cracked in the warmth of the house and the whole thing looked rather sorry for itself, as you can see in the photo.

Up on Dartmoor where Julia lives, they had quite a covering of snow for almost a week. The chickens refused to come out of their coop unless a patch of earth had been scraped clear. They would then proceed, cautiously, to come outside and eat, drink and scratch around normally, but staying on the cleared area. One brave one did trot across the snow, but then made a point of showing how cold her feet were!

Strangely, the snow brought on even more eggs, possibly because of the amount of reflected light, and they have been producing one egg a day quite regularly for the rest of January.

Who knows how chickens’ minds work? Well, who’d want to, frankly, but these eggy offerings can be taken as a sign that the days are lengthening and that spring is definitely on the way!

 

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Ducklings ahead!

We are fortunate enough to have ducklings in our stream most years – last year I believe there were 10 that waddled through our garden and, at one point, sat outside our French windows and waited patiently while their Mum pecked on the glass with her beak, presumably to speed up the lunch service!

Let’s hope we are as lucky this year in the number of our quacking visitors – it’s one of my biggest joys in life, having the stream running through our garden and the wildlife it encourages (OK maybe not the water rats … they can stay away!).

This image of ducklings was painted for us by Jayne Netley Mayhew as part of her Spring decoupage collection. The minute I saw it, I knew I would love making cards with it.

The backgrounds here are from Holly Pond Hill CD and then an embossed square of pale green card. Using embossing folders is a favourite technique of mine – it adds texture, interest and I have fun embossing them!

The decoupage can be as shallow or as deep as you like – this has been done with just the smallest amounts of Pinflair glue gel to build it up, but it’s easy to use large blobs and get a much more pronounced 3D effect – depends what you want for the finished look!

I’ll let you know how many ducklings come and live in the garden temporarily this year!

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Local food producers: The South Devon Chilli Farm

I am fortunate to live in a county rich in locally grown and produced foods. Devon is unique in England in having a coastline on both its northern and southern edges and it’s an area where farming livestock is still an important part of the economy. We are also blessed with lots of artisan cheese makers, bakers and vintners, our climate being suited to all sorts of exciting foody businesses. Through my blog I’m going to take the opportunity to introduce you to some of our local producers and I hope you will be inspired to try their produce and their recipes!

The South Devon Chilli Farm

Admittedly, the words ‘Devon’ and ‘chilli’ don’t immediately go together, but a thriving and nationally-known, chilli farm is situated about 20 miles away from my home in picturesque south Devon!

I visited it with my chilli-mad son-in-law a few years ago and was amazed at the variety of chillies grown and the array of colours and sizes… and heat!

The South Devon Chilli Farm has been growing chillies on an increasingly large scale since 2003. It has expanded a lot over the years and now grows over 10,000 chilli plants each year and harvests tonnes of fresh chillies. Most of the chillies are used in their range of chilli sauces, preserves and chilli chocolate.

Their website is very informative and includes detailed tips on growing chillies yourself and cooking with them. It also has a selection of recipes. Here’s a quick one you might like to try:

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Piri-Piri Marinade

The marinade can be made two to three days before using.

  • 200ml lemon juice
  • 200ml rapeseed oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 10 dried Piri Piri , de-stalked and crushed 
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Simply whisk the ingredients together in a bowl.

This marinade can be used to make Piri-Piri chicken (also on the website), or cooked for 10 minutes and brushed onto hot corn on the cob, drizzled over grilled chicken, or used as a dunking sauce for bread. Yum yum!

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Chilli seeds are sown in February each year and the fruits harvested from July to November. The South Devon Chilli Farm’s main site is 10 acres of land with a production barn just outside the village of Loddiswell. This is open to visitors all year, with a small shop and, in summer, a show tunnel to display the many colourful shapes and sizes of chilli. Believe me, it’s well worth a visit!

When we went, we wandered among the fruiting chilli plants, and tried their sauces and preserves and, of course, their amazing dark chilli chocolate made on the farm! We left laden down with fresh chillies, chilli seedlings, plants, seeds and chocolate, and a very happy son-in-law!

Have a look at the South Devon Chilli Farm website where you will find all sorts of interesting facts about. You can also order their products online.

PS. Just in case you get carried away – remember how to combat the burn… The best antidote to heat is either patience, or a dairy product such as milk or yoghurt. Drinking beer is one of the worst things you can do, as the alcohol washes the heat further into your taste buds!

 

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The start of a new year…

Once Christmas is over and we’ve all seen in the New Year, things can feel a bit flat. Thankfully, December and the first week or so of January have been very mild down here in Devon so there are some uplifting and very welcome signs of life on the garden.

As many of you will know, hellebores are one of my favourite flowers. I think they are beautiful in both their range of colour and also in their slightly spiky architectural look. But I love them probably most of all because you can be sure that, even in the darkest, dankest January day, if you have hellebores in your garden, you will have flowers!

In fact, the whole of last autumn was relatively mild and wet. The ground temperature has remained warm and, as we know, plants like plenty of rain, so now they are probably thinking: “Hmm, winter must be over, let’s start to flower.”

Lots of shrubs are sprouting in my garden and I noticed a neighbour’s rhubarb was already sending out new bright pink shoots.

As it’s been so mild, snowdrops and primroses are already making a show – I have heard that in some areas, snowdrops were out before Christmas! Such delicate flowers, they are really beautiful if you stop and take a moment to look at them in detail. A cluster of snowdrops pushing through a mossy bank is a delight to behold.

The primrose is the flower of Devon and, believe me, they really do flourish down here! Because of Devon’s climate, soil and geographical position, the wild primrose can be widely found in woodland and countryside right across the county.

I read recently that, in past centuries, Devon’s old paper mills used to send primrose blooms to customers because the flower was seen – even then – as a symbol of a breath of fresh Devon air.

In a month or so, the banks of our steep Devon lanes will be smothered in primroses, and then I will know that Spring really has arrived.

 

 

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Wildlife in winter

Winter wildlife in this country, in the town or country can be just as interesting as in the warmer seasons.

While winter is a time of hibernation for many species, it’s also the mating season for others. Vocal communication is vital for many species trying to attract a mate.

A sound typical of the season – and one that sends shivers up the spine – is that of foxes ‘screaming’ in the night. These calls let foxes know each others whereabouts, helping them to find a mate or deter intruding competition. Urban foxes can be seen and heard in most towns and cities and their screams can be haunting and quite frightening if you don’t know what they are!

Tawny owls pair up in winter and the classic “Twit – twoo” sound is actually a combination of calls from the courting male and female.

Barn owls suffer particularly badly in the winter as it can be especially hard for them when it snows and the small mammals they feed on become even harder to find.

They don’t have waterproofing in their feathers and so don’t fly in the rain. Prolonged rainfall can be deadly to a hungry barn owl. My Hen Pal, Julia, found a bedraggled young barn owl in her garden a few years ago and managed to get it to an owl sanctuary as you can see from the photos.

One of the most amazing wildlife sights I’ve ever seen is a group of starlings swooping and swirling in the air as if they are choreographed – interestingly the name for a large group of these birds is a ‘murmuration’! You are more likely to see them this time of year as the birds flock together through winter for warmth, protection and increased foraging success. Keep your eyes peeled – I saw a murmuration just before dusk over some farmland on the edge of Dartmoor, but it’s just as likely over a city – a truly magical sight.

And what of our dear little garden birds? Supplementary feeding is a tricky issue as many people worry about animals becoming dependent on handouts. However, the RSPB (who surely know what they are talking about!) advises feeding your garden birds through the winter months as they will be struggling to find food.

Be sure to provide water too as this is almost as important as food through winter. Birds and mammals will appreciate your efforts as their usual sources freeze over. 

Happy winter wildlife watching!

 

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