Category Archives: Animals

Local meat producers and Waterloo Cottage Farm

British Saddleback

Before the Shire Book of the Month, currently Pigs, changes, I want to tell you about a local meat producer called Waterloo Cottage Farm and the important role that small producers have in selling good meat from happy animals.

Meat is expensive and so it should be.  To produce good meat takes time, through slow fattening on the right kind of food, fresh air and exercise for the animals, slaughter in the least stressful way possible followed by a decent period of hanging before it finally arrives in your kitchen.

With this in mind, I visited local producer Waterloo Cottage Farm in Great Oxenden, Northamptonshire and was given a tour of the farm by owner, Kirsty Clarke.  We met in the light, cool shop, where a mouth-watering array of meat and produce was displayed.  After a brief chat about what I wanted to see, I was taken out through the back door to the business end of the enterprise.

Glorious Pig

I was confronted by lots of open pens, with several different types of pigs enjoying the sunshine.  I was wearing a long skirt and strappy sandals, so I tucked my skirt into my knickers and prepared to meet the pigs and what a gorgeous crew they were.  I have a big soft spot for pigs at the best of times, but being able to climb into the pens and actually scratch them and talk to them was a treat indeed.

Happy Pig

Saddleback Piglets

And Kirsty did indeed talk to her pigs and her care and enthusiasm for the creatures came across loud and clear.  The farm has a herd of British Saddlebacks which are allowed to mature fully in the fields and woods which surround Waterloo Farm, as well as Petrans and Ginger Durocs.  I became extremely soppy when she introduced me to the piglets who were running and rolling with their mother in the straw.

The Clarkes also have lamb and hogget, chickens, ducks and geese and they select beef and veal from local farms who also use traditional breeds.  All the animals have something in common.  They are all reared using traditional, sustainable farming methods which work with nature, not against it.  The animals are free to lead full, natural lives on healthy soil and fed on natural, local feed and the pigs are slow grown until they are 9-10 months which is a significantly longer life than an intensively bred animal. The barley comes from the farmer next door and the slaughterhouse is only nine miles away, the animals being accompanied there in a quiet and unstressed way which is better for the animal and better for the resulting meat.

Looking at the meat in the shop is a very different experience to browsing the chiller aisles in the supermarket.  The meat is darker in colour and more wholesome-looking than perhaps we’re used to and the bacon and sausages sit in great piles, pleading with you to take them home.  The bacon and hams are cured on the premises and their master butcher produces fresh piles of traditional and artisan varieties of sausages every day.

I bought some bacon and something I haven’t eaten for over thirty years – veal.  I have deliberately avoided veal because of the unspeakable practice of veal crating, but with the sure knowledge that the animal that provided this had been happy, healthy and natural, I took a chop home and had it for my supper.

My veal in the shop

I can honestly say that I’ve never tasted meat like it; it was tender, sweet and juicy and so flavourful I could have wept.  I also had some of their dry cured bacon for my breakfast the following morning and, apart from the taste, the most obvious difference was visual.  No white scum stickily coating the bottom of your frying pan here, and two rashers and a couple of fried eggs was distinctly more filling that the abominable mid-range stuff you buy at the supermarket.

Local producers do an incredible job of farming.  Not only do they help to preserve the rare breeds but they also help to preserve the very land on which they’re reared because of the sustainable ways in which they farm.  The meat hasn’t travelled huge distances and is therefore beneficial to the environment in a wider sense.  They are also firm protagonists of old skills such as proper butchery and artisan methods of preparation and, because of the renewed interest in this kind of food, many farms  are taking on apprentices.  Waterloo Cottage Farm also runs meat craft courses to encourage you to get the best out of their meat.

We must support these local producers in their endeavours by shopping with them whenever we can.  I have said it before and I will keep saying it until you do as you’re told; eat less, eat better.  Learn how to use to meat to get the best out of it and, I am convinced that properly reared, slow grown meat actually fills you up more so you don’t need as much of it.  Eat less, eat better.  It’s better for all of us.

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Filed under Animals, Ethics, Food, Livestock, Nutrition & Sensible Eating, Regional, Slider

Joke

A woman brought a very limp duck into a veterinary surgeon.  As she laid her pet on the table, the vet pulled out his stethoscope and listened to the bird’s chest.  After a moment or two, the vet shook his head and sadly said, “I’m sorry madam, but your duck, Cuddles, has passed to the big pond in the sky.”

The distressed woman wailed, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am sure.  Your duck is dead,” replied the vet..

“How can you be so sure?” she protested.  “I mean you haven’t done any testing on him or anything.  He might just be in a coma.”

The vet rolled his eyes, turned around and left the room.  He returned a few minutes later with a black Labrador Retriever.  As the duck’s owner looked on in amazement, the dog stood on his hind legs, put his front paws on the examination table and sniffed the duck from top to bottom.  He then looked up at the vet with sad eyes and shook his head.

The vet patted the dog on the head and took it out of the room.  A few minutes later he returned with a cat.  The cat jumped on the table and also delicately sniffed the bird from head to foot.  The cat sat back on its haunches, shook its head, meowed softly and strolled out of the room.  The vet looked at the woman and said, “I’m sorry, but as I said, this is most definitely, 100% certifiably, a dead duck.”

The vet turned to his computer terminal, hit a few keys and produced a bill, which he handed to the woman.

The duck’s owner, still in shock, looked at the bill.  “£150!” she cried, “£150 just to tell me my duck is dead!”

The vet shrugged, “I’m sorry.  If you had just taken my word for it, the bill would have been £20, but with the Lab Report and the Cat Scan, it’s now £150.”

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Filed under Animals, Jokes

More maggots

A tiny sample

Last night it rained heavily and, yet again, thousands of maggots descended onto my front door step, about a hundred of which crept under the door and onto my hall carpet.  I am now convinced that there is a nest full of dead birds in my guttering and the landlord has been contacted.  However, I spent a fair chunk of last night trying to get every last one of the disgusting, wriggling little bastards off my carpet and out of my vacuum cleaner, where they had not died.  I poured boiling water on the ones outdoors and sprayed them with fly killer and yet they live.  I am frail with revulsion, so no post.

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Filed under Animals

Shire Book of the Month – British Pigs by Val Porter

A clearly smiling Large White

What is it about pigs that singles them out from other farm animals?  Chickens make good noises and lay eggs, sheep are stupid but feel nice, cows are a graphic designer’s wet dream and give us milk and pursuant dairy products, but pigs are different.  Pigs smile at you, they wriggle when you scratch them and, particularly the smaller ones with long noses, are hairy, intelligent looking and you get the feeling that they truly belong in the English landscape.

The Shire Book of British Pigs by Val Porter is a glorious celebration of this animal’s transition from wild boar to domesticated pig. It starts by explaining the basics of pig keeping and the history of farming and gives detailed information about the various breeds and how they come to look as they do.  Most British breeds have, at some point, been cross-bred with Chinese stock which has resulted in the squashed snouts.

Old English pig from 1842

The pictures in this book are so glorious they’ll make you weep; whether they are photographs of existing pigs or paintings and etchings of animals commissioned by proud owners and stockmen from the past.

Like many domestic farm animals, the drive for intensive, high speed farming homogenised pig breeds and had them shut away from public view. In the decades after the war animals were raised in large-scale, purpose built buildings where the only interest was how much bacon, pork and sausages could be made as quickly as possible.

Thanks to the renewed interest in rare breeds, slow food and local farming, there has been a concomitant awareness of animal welfare and pigs are appearing in our fields once again.  The rare breed is making a comeback and it is quite usual to see Tamworths, Gloucester Old Spots, British Saddlebacks and Oxford Sandy and Blacks rootling around happily in the fresh air.

This book also covers the New Pigs on the block.  Pig breeds continue to evolve and the farmers are interested in make the breeds hardier again so that they can manage an outdoor life.  A pig with a fleecy coat is a sight to behold and I wonder how many people were aware of the, now extinct, Lincolnshire Curly Coat?

Pennywell Mini pig - so gorgeous you could just eat them ... except not these because they're pets, tiny enough to fit in Paris Hilton's handbag.

Porter’s clear and appealing writing style draws you in to the life of these delightful animals.  She has written more than forty books about livestock, farming and self-sufficiency and her enthusiasm shines through. If you like pigs, read this book.  If you like eating pigs this book can only enhance your gastronomic experience.

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Filed under Animals, Livestock, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews, Shire Books

Winter care for hedgehogs

Erinaceus Eurpaeus

Back in June last year, I wrote an article about hedgehogs because we found one in the lane.  I talked about their habitat, breeding cycle, what they like to read, how they starch their little pocket hankins without tearing them on their prickles etc etc and how to encourage them into the garden.

But now that autumn is approaching, we might want to give some thought to how to care for them during the winter.  Although hedgehogs don’t usually go into hibernation until the end of October or the beginning of November, hoglets that have been born later in the year, called autumn juveniles, may not have grown sufficiently to allow them to hibernate and will need extra care and it is at this time of the year that we need to keep our eyes open for these smaller animals..

Autumn Juveniles:
Autumn juveniles need to weigh at least 1lb / 450g to have enough weight to see them through the winter.  If you find one wandering around after about the end of September, it might be a good idea to put some food and water out to give it a fighting chance.  You can buy special hedgehog biscuits and a canned food called ‘Spike’s Dinner’ if you’re really dedicated, but there are some menu ideas below.

Many baby hedgehogs

Baby Hedgehogs or Hoglets:
If a hoglet is under 6oz / 160g it will need food and warmth during the winter or it will die.  It will need to be placed in a box with lots of clean straw, old towels or scrunched up newspapers.  If it’s really cold, a little hot water bottle could be placed in the box as well.  Make sure you don’t put the little bods on a concrete or mesh floor as their feet are very sensitive and they will get chilled.

Feeding:
Hoglets will need to be fed. An appropriate diet would consist of meat pet food, without gravy, chopped cooked chicken without bones, minced beef or lamb or even a bit of bran or unsweetened  muesli cereal with a bit of water to moisten it.  They also like banana, raisins, unsweetened crushed digestive biscuits and dry cat or hedgehog biscuits.  They will need a drink of fresh water but cows’ milk must not be given as it gives them diarrhoea.  If in doubt, contact your vet or the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Hibernation:
Adult hedgehogs start to hibernate around the end of October or November and their hibernacula are similar to their nesting sites but thicker and more protected. These nests are often sited under tree roots or piles of brushwood, old rabbit burrows, piles of garden waste or under sheds and outbuildings.  These nests can be up to 20” / 50cm thick.  They do occasionally wake up during hibernation but rarely leave their nests.

The main problem with their nesting sites is that often choose places that humans have earmarked for bonfires.  As November 5th approaches, take great care to check heaps of garden rubbish and if you’re preparing a bonfire in advance, check it before the night and, ideally, move it on the day of the bonfire.

They usually start to emerge from hibernation around the middle of March to early April but this will depend on the weather.

Hedgehogs are the gardener’s friends and should be encouraged.  If you go onto the BHPS website they may be able to advise you on how to obtain a hedgehog for your garden and there is useful information on how to care for hedgehogs and how to build a simple nesting box to keep them safe and warm.

By the way though, they don’t really read or wear aprons… they’re fantastic at croquet though.

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Filed under Animals, Wildlife

Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle, bicycle … rack

A splendid summer evening

Yesterday evening the boys went to Pitsford with the Scouts for the annual 7-mile cycle round the reservoir followed by a barbecue.  Until recently, the boys’ bikes have been small enough to get both of them into the boot of the car, but they will persist in getting taller, and Boy the Elder’s bike is now bigger than mine.  I was forced to buy a bike rack.

A couple of months ago I bought a large tent in the sales and a bike rack, with the intention of attempting a brief camping trip with our bicycles in the summer holidays.  I hate camping with a passion I find hard to express, but I figured that if I had a tent I could actually stand up in and a covered area for cooking if it rained, it would be marginally more tolerable.

Naturally, there is always a part of me which is utterly convinced that our holiday will be like a Famous Five novel, pedalling gaily down country lanes, picnicking on sardines, heaps of tomatoes and ginger beer.  We will then retire, tired but happy, to our tents pausing only to climb into crisp winceyette pyjamas before sleeping the sleep of the innocent.  Will it bollocks.  But I digress…

I had forgotten about the bike ride and, just as it started to rain, I realised that I needed to assemble the damned bike rack.  I opened the box and pulled out a large piece of metal and a couple of bags of straps and metal bits, which I laid out neatly on the grass by the car.

I have never owned a bike rack, and because I haven’t needed one, I haven’t paid the slightest attention to the assemblage of such items on the cars of others.  I instructed the boys to go far away from me, with the gravest of threats should they utter a single sound, and set to work.

I always read instruction booklets and never fail to be amazed at how easy it is to do things when you already know how to bloody do them!  I dutifully followed the booklet, step by step, strap by strap, ratchet by ratchet.  Then I undid all the straps and re-assembled them in the correct wotsanames.  I turned grippy things with one hand whilst trying to balance an unwieldy array of metal tubing exactly two inches above my bumper, whilst avoiding another metal tube which hovered exactly one inch in front of my right eye..

Having finally got the rack in the right position with all the metal sticking out at the correct angles, I crawled under the car in search of a hole in which to hook the bottom straps.  I drive a 12-year old, hag-ridden Ford Escort which I have decorated to look a bit like a Spitfire – the underside is not a pretty sight, particularly on a muddy, stony track, just as it has started to rain.

In all honesty,  neither was I a pretty sight by this time; dirty from the proximity to my car, sweaty with exertion, my long skirt tucked into my knickers, my wet hair plastered to my head and now covered in mud and gravel from crawling under a pseudo-Spitfire.  But England wasn’t built on glamour and competence! No sir!

After an hour of swearing, cursing and ratcheting, the thing was done, the bikes were strapped on and we were going to be 20 minutes late.  I had no time to change my clothes and we headed for Pitsford.  As the rain became increasingly torrential, badgers and rabbits started appearing in the hedgerows in pairs, holding paws and looking expectantly at the rising puddles.

I parked the car and the boys set off at top speed to catch up with the others.  I squelched across the car park in strappy sandals, my rain sodden skirt clinging to my legs in the fashion of an unpleasantly mis-shapen mermaid.

‘At least there’ll be hot dogs’ I thought, but the barbecue was wet and the Scout Leader was manfully erecting a tent in a desperate attempt to bring the spitting, smoking pile of charcoal under canvass.  I stood sullenly with damp, corned-beef arms wrapped around my dripping torso in a futile attempt to fend off certain consumption and probable mildew of the extremeties.

Eventually, thanks to the good spirits and efforts of other people, the barbecue was lit and the heavenly scent of sausages and burgers wafted through the air, just as my boys hove into view.  Boy the Younger claimed to have had a heart attack half way round and Boy the Elder had torn his trousers.  Despite my misery, I was terribly proud of Boy the Younger who has never cycled 7 miles in one go before, and I patted his soggy head and wiped the rain from his little pale cheeks as he munched on his hotdog.

‘Enough of this,’ I said ‘I’m going home, and if you want hot cocoa you had better come at once.’  They jumped into the car whilst I wrestled the bikes back onto the rack.  We drove home with all haste, wipers struggling to hold back the rain and narrowly avoiding a large wooden boat parked at the side of the A508, small animals gratefully ascending the gang plank…

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Filed under Children, General DIY, Leisure, Outdoor Activities, Wildlife

Let’s hear it for … The Beetles

In which the Wartime Housewife discusses the importance of leaving a bit of your garden messy to attract beetles.

The other night I heard a great crashing on my kitchen window.  I ran though, assuming that, at the very least, that it was an eagle  who had missed the last bus.  What I saw was an incredible furry creature with bright orange fans on the end of its antennae, brown wing cases and a sort of black and white diamond pattern on its furry sides.  It was flinging itself with gay abandon against my window but was unable to get any purchase on the thin spars.  I ran for my camera.

Cockchafer or Maybug at my kitchen window

Look at those amazing antennae and the astonishing condition of my window frames

I consulted the insect book and discovered that it was a Maybug or Cockchafer beetle (No sniggering at the back, Jennings).  Melolontha Melolontha is often seen in British gardens in May and June.  They are super flyers and on summer evenings they often fly around houses, and inadvertently crash into windows or wander into your living room.

They are quite big – around 3cm/1.3” long – which can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re not expecting them, but they are completely harmless.  Although my mother didn’t think this when one got tangled up in her formal hairdo in the 1960s.  I think, in England, we’re just not used to seeing big insects but they should be a cause of joy and interest and must be encouraged.

A cockchafer - my picture's much more exciting

The cockchafer is found all over Britain and its habitat is woodlands, fields, hedgerows and gardens.  There are more of them in the south but their numbers are declining.  They eat deciduous leaves and flowers but they rarely cause much significant damage in Britain.

Another beetle which I used to see a lot as a child is the Stag Beetle, Lucanus cervus, but I have only seen one beetle since 1973.  The stag beetle is a protected species and it is the largest beetle in Britain at between 2.3-7.5cm / 1-3”.  The larvae love rotting wood and vegetation and they lay their eggs underground by logs and tree stumps – the larvae can spend as long as seven years chomping away on the rotting wood, although the adults don’t seem to need to feed.

A stag beetle - sadly I don't have a photo of one of these

Of the UK’s 4000 species of beetle, 250 haven’t been seen since  the early 1970s and could be threatened with extinction.  Beetles are terribly important in nature.  They recycle dead and rotting wood, some pollinate flowers whilst others are the refuse collectors of the wild, clearing up dung and sometimes even small dead animals.  Their habitats are precarious and even small changes can be catastrophic, not only for them, but for the animals that predate them.

‘All of the terrestrial ecosystems would collapse if you removed the beetle,’ said Max Barclay, beetle expert at the Natural History Museum. ‘Beetles are fundamental to most of the land environments on earth’.

We are all terribly keen to attract birds and mammals into our gardens, but insects are just as exciting and it can be tremendous fun finding and identifying them.  I used to read nature books as a child and would get terribly huffy when they claimed that such and such was common all over England.  Not in Staines it wasn’t.  I remember the excitement of seeing a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle for the first time in 1998 in Oundle and thinking ‘At last!’

All sorts of beetles can be attracted to your garden by the simple expedient of leaving a bit of it to go its own way; leave a patch wild.  Try to leave an area which has a pile of leaves, some fallen branches and a rotting log, a pile of stones and some dead stems which will provide a fabulous feeding and over-wintering site for beetles and other insects such as bush crickets, malachite beetles, mint leaf beetles, common red soldier beetles, shield bugs and our friends, the stag beetles.

A small wild area can create a haven for insects

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Filed under Slider, The Garden, Wildlife