Lambing season April 25, 2016 21:30
These months of the year irrevocably bring back memories of lambing season – a tense, exciting, tiring, happy time with all the ups and downs you can easily imagine. Our lambing shed was in the main barn, a large, corrugated tin roofed building that smelled of the accumulated cycle of farm years – cattle in the winter and the potatoes and hay they were fed on; a dusty tang from storing barley, wheat and oilseed rape in the summer, dried mud all year round, oil and exhaust fumes from the tractors and the particular wooly, milky, ovine smell of the spring.
The shed had an atmosphere of quiet calm and it was dimly lit, with warm, intermittent spotlights above the newborn pens. I remember watching my first lamb being born and the ewe quietly panting as her stomach began to contract more frequently. Pa Pheasant had a very easy way with animals, years of experience and a natural empathy and kindness towards them paying off as he carefully pulled the lamb by its back legs out into the world. We looked on in fascination, as this tiny, slimy, yellow bundle slipped out onto the straw and Pa cleared its airway before passing it up towards the ewe to clean. A few minutes later, the lamb struggled up on its wobbly, gangly legs to suckle. Some of the lambs, for all sorts of reasons, had to be bottle-fed and we had to hold the bottles tightly as they sucked forcefully on the teat, gulping the milk down and waggling their tails behind them.
Everyone learnt to give Pa a bit of a wide berth during lambing and to choose their moments carefully, as he’d be up at night checking the ewes and feeding the babies himself. He would bed down on the sofa in the hall in between shifts and be bleary eyed and a bit snappy in the mornings (so many things learned on the farm jump back at you when you have your own children).
As the lambs got bigger, they were taken outside into the fields and one of my earliest memories is watching them gambol around the paddock outside the kitchen window with Gran. There was a slope with a slight lip at the top of it which they’d race to the top of before jumping off, twisting their little bottoms in mid-air in what seemed to be a general celebration of life.
Lambs’ wool would often get caught in the fence wire and it felt soft and kind of slippery with an oily smell of lanolin. We docked the lambs’ tails painlessly with elastic bands, and they'd drop off in the fields. I didn’t realise at the time but they were also castrated in the same way and I shudder to think what the wool collection that I kept in a glass jar next to my bed really contained.
It always seemed a shame that the lambs lost their sparkle and grew up. I guess if there’s a lesson to be learned it’s to try to be more like the lambs in the fields, experiencing the joy of fresh air and life, rather than just simply turning into a boring old sheep.
Baby Bro's Bunnies March 26, 2016 23:56
When Baby Bro was 16 he appeared home one day with a new pet rabbit. Ma Pheasant isn't the world's biggest animal lover and certainly doesn't like them at close quarters so she wasn't thrilled when he announced his plans to housetrain it and keep it inside. Poor old Ma tried in vain to keep the house in the region of clean when we were all living at home but with a herd of scruffy, clumsy teenagers, it was easier said than done. The thought of a large fluffy bunny added to the mix was probably a step too far but Baby Bro was banking on Ma's easy going nature and she let it slide, on the proviso the rabbit lived outside. Which he did. Sometimes.
The rabbit was named Mayot, which is Lincolnshire for Mate, and whenever Ma Pheasant went out, he was smuggled in for 'housetraining' which entailed him going about his rabbity business and Baby Bro cleaning up after him. He was a friendly little thing and we got used to him hopping about the living room or appearing from underneath a pile of dirty clothes in Baby Bro's stinky bedroom. It was strangely comforting to have him curled up next to us on the sofa, happily dozing away, while we watched tv.
Everything was going well until one day when Baby Bro picked him up to put him back in his hutch outside before Ma got home. Our old cat happened to prowl past at the same time and she glanced in Mayot's direction, licking her lips with possibility. Mayot smelled the whisper of anticipation in the air and, faced with fight or flight, decided to make a run for it. He jumped out of Baby Bro's arms & landed on the floor in a heap, breaking one of his little legs in the process. It was devastating. We took Mayot straight to the vet who said the only way to save his life was to amputate the broken leg, at a cost of over £150 (I'd recently seen a similar operation involving a guinea pig and a pair of scissors on Vets in Practice and so generously offered to do it for half the price but sadly my services were declined). The distant spirit of Pa Pheasant was heard scoffing and humphing loudly in the background at the idea of spending such a lot of money on a rabbit and Baby Bro made the sad decision to have Mayot put to sleep.
One of our aunts heard of Mayot's sad fate and, worried that poor Baby Bro was irreparably heartbroken, bought him another rabbit, this time a little grey doe called Jenny. Alas, Jenny was not the generally chilled out specimen that Mayot was and yearned for wide open spaces and adventure. She made a break for it one morning and was last seen heading for the hills. A few weeks later Baby Bro found out that one of his friends had found a small, pale grey rabbit hopping down the middle of the main road and had stopped to pick her up. She'd taken her home and a few days later, the rabbit had given birth to a litter of kits, half of them pale and fluffy like their mother and half of them brown and wild like their father.
After Jenny, there were no more rabbits. Baby Bro moved onto girls, skateboards and underage boozing but at this time of year with rabbits everywhere, it felt a fitting time to remember Mayot, Jenny and Baby Bro's attempts at housetraining.
Happy Easter everyone xx
Illustration by Hugh Brandon-Cox, from Wandering with the Woodman, 1948
Happy Birthday Crofty February 29, 2016 00:00
Isn’t it funny how some people leave a lasting impression even though you hardly knew them?
When we were kids, there was an old man called Crofty who lived a couple of villages over where he worked on the local large estate. He had a lot of brothers, including Herbert who worked on our farm, and although we knew him by sight, we didn’t know him to speak to. He didn’t have a car but cycled all around on his push bike instead. His cycling style was unmistakable: like all the old farming boys in those days he wore loose fitting, thick wool trousers which he secured tightly at the ankle with a bicycle clip. He would pedal determinedly with slow, leisurely laboriousness and with his knees turned out almost at right angles. For some reason, he really captured our imagination and there was always great excitement if we saw him when we were out and about; we sometimes even played “Crofty” in the yard and tried to ride our bikes like he did.
However, the most fascinating thing about him to us was that his birthday was on 29 February, which we found almost inconceivable. Did he really only have a birthday every four years? In our shallow, childish way we felt so sorry for him, imagining long years going by when he had no party and no presents and we loved trying to work his ‘true' age – could he really only be about 15 but be trapped in an old man’s body? It seemed like one of the great mysteries of the universe.
Thinking back, Crofty, Herbert and their brothers were amongst the last of a dying breed of people who worked the land before the modern mega-industrialisation of farming. There were three or four such men on our farm around that time who, when they retired, simply weren’t replaced – farming methods had moved on and there wasn’t the need for them anymore. Times change, for the most part for the better, but those old boys left a deep imprint in our minds. Thirty years on their faces and even their voices can still be recalled perfectly.
Happy birthday Crofty.
Note: unfortunately we don't have any photos of either Herbert or Crofty so the one used in this post is of two other men who worked on the farm back then: Jim Marshall the Foreman and George Brown. Jim had a heart attack and died in our yard one day in early summer and Pa Pheasant always treasured this photo of him.
My Retro Pet November 27, 2015 22:47
This is Pheasant Plucker's brother with one of his best childhood friends, our black labrador Duke.
As kids, we had a lot of badly behaved dogs but Duke was one of the naughtiest. He'd chew anything - toys, shoes, wellingtons, buckets, stones, any old bit of wood he could get his chops round; he must have had the constitution of a soldier. He was incredibly greedy and once made the bold move, while Ma Pheasant's back was momentarily turned, of jumping up on the kitchen table to steal a freshly roasted leg of lamb. Needless to say, Ma Pheasant blew her gasket and Duke was chased out of the house in no uncertain terms, wellies flying past his ears, while we kids looked on and learned a few choice new words.
Do you have any photos and stories of your childhood pets? Send them to us at email@example.com and every month we'll publish the one we love the most and send the winner a Pheasant Plucker goody bag.
Mrs H Neave's Apple Chutney November 12, 2015 22:08
Pheasant Plucker’s mother (try saying that three times after a couple of glasses of sloe gin) has a notebook which she’s had since the beginning of time that she writes interesting recipes in. Inside its swirly, bright purple and turquoise 1970s cover, are well thumbed pages, covered in splats and splodges with usually the vaguest of details and instructions (a particular favourite: “cook until done or longer if needed”). Accompanying some of the recipes are brief feedback notes written in the margin – a recipe for beetroot soup has “disgusting!” underlined three times beside it and a complicated dessert has “a complete faff” written determinedly above it, giving an insight into Ma Pheasant’s personal culinary tastes and expertise.
Some of the recipes have been cooked so many times over the years that the book is no longer needed and some of them are cooked regularly but only every so often due to seasonality. One of these is very special to us: Mrs H Neave’s Chutney.
Mrs H Neave was Pheasant Plucker’s great-grandmother. Although we never met her and don’t even have a photograph of her, when we make this chutney every Autumn we like to imagine her cooking it in her farmhouse kitchen in a completely different age to the one we’re in now but using the same processes and ingredients as us. What did she think about as she made it and what her life was like? Who was she? Did she achieve everything she ever wanted? She could never have dreamed that her recipe would end up on a blog a hundred years later.
True to form, the recipe details are spectacularly imprecise (see photo above and note the quantity of onions required) but it somehow always turns out to be delicious. We’ve been cooking this for a few years now so here's the recipe below as we make it, to save you the uncertainty.
1.5lbs apples (strong, sharp tasting ones work best) peeled, cored and chopped
1.5lbs onions, chopped
11/2lb dates, stoned and chopped
11/2 pints vinegar
1.5oz ground ginger (although we sometimes use freshly grated ginger instead)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Put all the ingredients into a large, heavy bottomed pan and stir well over a high heat. Bring to the boil and then simmer away rapidly until the apples and onions have broken down and the mixture is a rich, dark brown colour with a thick consistency. It will smell quite vinegary but don't be put off by that, it will subside. Be careful as it'll be very hot at this point.
While the chutney is cooking, sterilise some jam jars by washing them in hot, soapy water and drying them in a low temperature oven. Transfer the chutney to the jars when it's ready, filling it all the way up to the top. Add a waxed paper circle and then put the lid on. You can eat it as soon as it cools, although it tastes better if you leave it for a couple of weeks to infuse inside the jar.
And there you have it. Chutney just like they made in the olden days.