Swallows return

This year, Spring took a while to appear in Pembrokeshire . Snow, sleet and rain one minute, the next burning heat . Days lengthened, April melted into May, and finally the hedgerows exploded into life. Now blousy cow parsley nods in the breeze. Red campion, bluebells, buttercups and hawthorn, the lanes are alive with colour at last.

The first swallows appeared in April.  The return of their chattering cheerful cry forced me to stop in my tracks and tilt my chin to the sky. Their twittering, whirring clicking voices finally joined the soundscape of Spring on the farm.

Watching these birds flitting above the trees around the farmyard filled my heart with joy. After the darkness and damp of a Pembrokeshire Winter, Swallows are a sign of better days ahead. Metaphorical bringers of summer, they carry the warmth of the African sun on their backs.

A fortnight later three more joined their number. Their tail streamers marked them as a motley mixed gender crew6000 miles of flight, they can be forgiven for looking slightly ragged.

As the month carried on, the joy of spotting the first forked tail whipping over the barns was dampened by a niggling fear.  Why weren’t their more. Five individual birds was no where near the numbers that we normally see.

Apparently I am not alone in wondering where the Swallows were, or when they would arrive. Bad weather in Southern Europe and sand storms across the Sahara were mentioned as reasons for their absence. Some people feared that the birds, along with other migrant species like the Nightjar and Swift, would not appear in great numbers at all this year.

At last, more Swallows arrived, with another 10 individuals arriving by the end of the month. As I watch them soaring above the barns, I struggle to comprehend the vastness of the journey these creatures make. 6000 miles, a mammoth task undertaken, covering up to 300km a day.

They can , if everything is on their side, travel from the Cape of Africa to South West Wales in 27 days, twice a year, passing over entire continents as they move between their winter and summer homes. They may pass over African scrub, Etosha National Park, the Zambizi and Victoria falls, crowded street markets, dirt tracks and small villages, stretches of Savannah and Rainforests, before reaching the single biggest obstacle on their journey- the Sahara desert. This they cross without stopping, relying on fat stores to see them through. In North Africa they will rest and refuel before crossing to Europe. ‘Our’ swallows will split away from others that head into central and wester europe. They will fly on up through Spain and France before crossing the English Channel. A mere couple of hundred miles later the will finally perch on the phone lines outside our farm, looking to find a nest site for the next breeding season.

How they navigate their route is not known for sure. Magnetic pull, position of the sun, olfactory and visual clues- there are many different theories. The thought that they recognise ‘home’ by smell is incredible- I wonder what the signature scent of our farm is?

Gwennol- A Swallows Song

“I am, I am, I am”

She cries,

As she skims over treetops and barns.

“I am

here,

After Six thousand miles,

At last!’

The staccato song of her travels,

A whirring, churring, chirping call

Traces her journey back

To these green pastures.

It tells of her flight,

From the arid scrub of South Africa,

Across shifting Namibian dunes.

Skirting the skeleton coast

She flew North.

She soared over the Zambizi,

Swept down to drink from the Congo’s water,

Twisted and flitted through crowded Brazzaville streets,

Then on,

Over Savannah

And dense rainforest,

Where Colobus calls echoed amongst the trees.

Before her the Sahara,

She crossed it,

in two hundred thousand wing beats,

To reach the Souks of Morroco.

The Straits of Gibraltar beckoned winged migrants on

To Europe.

A skipping flight through Spain and France,

She barrel rolled over the channel

To these familiar shores.

Along the way we called to her,

Pointing

At her tumbling, tearing flight.

We named her;

Inkonjani

Tififiliste

Hirondelle.

She is

Malenkama

Nyenga

Golondrina

Gwennol.

She is

Swallow

She is

All of these and none.

Februdairy- fakery, flaws and falsehoods.

I’ve been quiet for most of February. Not because I don’t care. Not because I’m ashamed or afraid to stand behind the UK dairy industry. Nope, mainly due to the boring fact that  life as a mum , farmers partner and working  as a veterinary surgeon doesn’t let me have much time to sit and bash on a keyboard .  However, a couple of things have spurred me to spend my ‘free time’ doing some blogging.   A twitter feed from a self professed ‘oat girl living in a cow milk world…whatever that means. The footage of cows being ‘set free’ drove home the other niggle I have had -a lot of ‘anti dairy’ arguments seem to be fuelled by a desire for anarchy  hidden behind a thin façade of ‘doing the right thing’ for animals. The twitter feed appears to be an attempt to expose the ‘truth’ behind the Uk dairy industry, and typifies the more eloquent side of the militant vegan arguments that I have come across this month. Little grains of truth or even half truth taken out of context, or twisted to fit a cause.

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I’ve decided to go through some of the points I have read from this feed and give an alternative view.  At the end of the day I am not opposed to veganism. If someone chooses not to rely on animals for food or other resources, and can do so ethically and sustainably then that is something to be applauded in its own right. However, I believe that if others choose to rely on animal products for nutrition then they should be able to do so, making an informed decision and not have other views forced upon them.

Lets start with a few of the points I’ve  covered in previous blogs

First up, lifespan. Apparently, all Dairy cows in the UK  die at a young age, whilst their natural lifespan is 20 years: is it? This was and still is news to me, after a total of 7 years at University on animal related degrees, and 5 years of working as a vet, not once has the ‘natural lifespan’ of a dairy cow been mentioned before, until the Dairy Industry bashing began. I wrote a bit about this  here.

Next up, Bull Calves.

Do all bull calves die at birth – Nope. Some bull calves die at birth. Some bull calves die before or during birth (stillborn). Some, very few, British bull dairy calves are euthanized at birth (shot). I’m not going to say it does not happen, but this practice is not standard on all UK Dairy farms.  Again, I wrote a bit about this before.

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Now for something I haven’t mentioned much of before. Vegans have a dislike of the plastic huts used as calf housing, as they are cruel-  Why?! These ‘huts’ , also known as calf igloos or hutches are specifically designed for calves and are actually high welfare accommodation. They combine the  benefits of living outdoors with good shelter  against the unpredictable weather we have here in the UK. Calves are protected against rain, wind chill, snow and heat. 

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Tonight the temperatures outdoors will drop below minus 5. On our farm, any calves that are group housed in hutches are nestled in straw, warm and safe from the elements. They will not be exposed sub zero temperatures as the hutch as a microclimate.

The hutches also provide excellent ventilation. Young calves are susceptible to lung infections and this style of housing helps to significantly reduce the risk of illness. Indoor spaces that are not specifically designed to house calves can actually increase the risk of illness. 

Keeping a calf outside ‘naturally’ in all seasons/weathers would a) be a welfare issue and b) result in death, disease and/or suffering.

On some farms calves are housed individually for a period before being housed in groups. Single hutches are a great way to ensure good health in young calves as it prevent  disease spreading to lots of calves if one does become ill. A calf is able to make a choice as they still have access to an outdoor or exercise area, so they can pop in and out of their house when they want.

Also these things are flipping expensive!! A group hutch for 5 calves will cost approximately £600. That only houses 5 calves. Most farms will obviously need many of these. If they weren’t beneficial they would not exist!

Now to tackle some incorrect and outlandish suggestions.

Milk is pus.

Anti Dairy activists often say that every time you drink milk you drink pus, hormones and a whole lot of sh%te that will poison you. WRONG! Lets start with pus. There is no pus in shop bought milk!! Yes, sometimes a cow with mastitis will have pus present in the udder at milking. However, there are several ways used to ensure that this doesn’t enter the milk that arrives at the shop.

  • Pre checking the cow- each cow is checked before milking. If there are any signs of illness or injury that would make the milk unsaleable then the cow is milked but the milk is discarded. Now before we get twitchy about a cow being milked whilst it has mastitis- this is part of the treatment. If infection is present, removing the affected milk is a vital part of helping the cow get better . This isn’t just specific to cows- ask any human who has had mastitis what the cure was.
  • Filters in the milking machine- there is an in built filtration system in a milking machine which would remove any debris from the milk before it entered the bulk tank. This means that even if pus or any other substance was present in the milk it would be removed by the filter.
  • Somatic Cell Counts (scc)- One factor that impacts on how a dairy farmer is paid by a milk buyer is the quality of the milk. This is measured in several ways, one being SCC. We are financially penalised for a high somatic cell count , therefore it is not in a dairy farmers interest to produce poor quality milk. In addition, it is a matter of pride! All dairy farmers strive to produce the best quality milk possible. To this end there are even benchmarking systems and milk buyers awards for high quality milk.
  • Hormones- we don’t inject our cows with hormones to increase milk. It is illegal.
  • Blood- Nuh uh….again this would affect milk quality. See above for penalties.

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Dairy farmers just want cows with big udders.

In fact, the vegans think we are selectively breeding for it. Fail. If anything dairy farmers are trying not to breed cows with large udders. Large udders are difficult to milk as the milking machine will not fit. The risk of mastitis, lameness, mobility issues, skin lesions and damage to the teats is increased by having a large udder. Dairy farmers selectively breed for traits that improve udder and therefore cow health and lifespan. These traits include improving the ligaments that hold the udder in place, average spaced teats and teat length. The size of an udder DOES NOT CORRELATE to milk yield. Bigger udder doesn’t equal more milk.

Dairy farmers don’t want to talk to vegans

I’ve met quite a few vegans…and I’m happy to talk and share opinions. I’m happy to answer questions about farming methods or concerns that people might have. What I’m not happy with is arguing, name calling, death threats, slander or general ‘one-up- manship’ on who has the most ethical and righteous diet. Some farmers don’t want to engage, but most of those on social media are happy to have conversations if they are treated with respect and an open mind.

A little on propaganda…

One thing I really hate is seeing inaccurate photos being used to slander the UK Dairy industry. We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and yet time and again I see images that depict practices that are banned in the UK being used to depict what we do here. For instance  I have seen photos of stall tied cows being used- it is illegal to stall tie cows in the UK. I have also seen photos being used that don’t even show what they are being purported to show. For instance a video clip supposedly showing a lame dairy cow being sent to slaughter actually showed a cow with a fractured leg being euthanized under appropriate emergency slaughter technique. The implication was that this is standard practice for all lame dairy cows, where in fact this was a rare emergency case.

I haven’t finished yet…still 2 more days of Februdairy left, and still many more myths to debunk.

 

 

Trivialised

Depressed?

“Everyone feels low sometimes”

Try Mindfullness

Colouring yourself well again

Yoga is good

Don’t be selfish.

You have so much that is good

Think

About your children

Have a hug

It’ll make it better

Broken leg?

Walk it off.

Shake it off.

Have a band aid

It’ll make it

Better

Heart attack?

Take an aspirin

Try to

Eat well

Think calm thoughts.

Exercise more

Don’t lie there feeling sorry for yourself

Asthma?

I don’t believe

In respiratory health

Have you even tried to

Breath deep.

Think positive

Have you even tried?

To understand?

To feel outside of yourself?

To look beyond the end of your nose

Without self

And judgement?

But you ‘don’t believe in mental health’.

Coming home to roost

“I believe that all children should be surrounded by books and animals.”
― Gerald Durrell

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Once upon a time, when a different generation lived here in the farmhouse, the farm upon the hill would have been one that ‘old MacDonald’ would have been proud to live on. Pigs, ducks, turkeys, sheep, cart horses and chickens were kept alongside the cows. Not only did the animals feed the family, they filled the larder, worked the land and paid the bills.  Nowadays, raising cows for dairy or beef production is the mainstay of the farm.

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My hope is to restore some of the diversity of the old farming system, whilst still managing to leave plenty of room for the ‘real farming’ to carry on.  The goats are still here, although due to my wonky turns milking them has taken a back seat. Recently we have added a chicken coop to the farm. It stands on the remains of the old chicken shed, alongside my greenhouse and the log pile. The birds came from a commercial flock, via Fresh Start For Hens.   It seemed like an awfully long time between being approved as rehomers and the chickens arriving.

The night before the chickens arrived we watched a short video which showed the flock being checked to make sure they were fit and healthy for the journey to their new homes. The clip explained that  due to the avian flu restrictions, the chickens had spent more time indoors than the farmer would have liked. The flock did look a little bedraggled, but nevertheless were bright and alert, with one even laying an egg on camera!

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The flock then journeyed across the country to various collection points. All we had to do was make sure their coop was ready and turn up to fetch them on time. Ironically our ‘collection point’ was a terraced house in a nearby village, and it was a bit surreal to see 20 or so chickens calmly milling about in the concrete back yard. We chose the four that would be coming to stay with us, gently transferred them to the chicken crate ( an ‘ancient relic’. No farmer chucks out anything that might come in handy one day. Just as well!) which was appreciated by the volunteer re-homer for not being a cardboard box or ‘new fangled crate’ . Five minutes later and the chickens were home, fed, watered and left to settle in in peace. In fact they were so remarkably settled that we had 3 eggs within the first 24 hours of them arriving on the farm!

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Since then they have grown stronger and brighter. The different ‘personalities’ are becoming more obvious – the bossy one, the quiet one, the inquisitive one, the troublemaker. New feathers are emerging and we have had a consistent supply of fresh and tasty eggs.  The supply of eggs was never the most important factor for me in rehoming these chickens. In fact, Fresh start for hens makes it quite clear that eggs from ex commercial chickens are a bonus. Commercial chickens are generally sent to slaughter at 72 weeks of age. I knew we could offer them a chance for a longer happier life. On top of us being able to offer them a home, they are able to give us something in return.

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Both mini farmers have taken an active interest in caring for the new arrivals. C enjoys checking for eggs and shepherding the birds back into the coop after a day of free ranging. JoJo likes feeding them, painstakingly distributing feed evenly between all four chickens! The chickens seem to respond to the children too running towards rather than away from them – I think it is a height thing…well that and the treat foods they sneak them!img_8044Animals have been my passion for as long as I can remember, although I haven’t always been surrounded by them. As a child I grew up in a world far removed from green fields, hedgerows and cow herds. For almost 10 years we lived in a red brick terraced house in West London, with giant ‘winged birds’ flying overhead, on their flight path to Heathrow. We played out on the streets, in parks or in our tiny garden that would fit into this farm a thousand times over. Summer holidays were different – we visited Ireland and its 40 shades of green. We stayed in a whitewashed cottage on a dairy farm, with views down over the Slieve Mish mountains. We were allowed to help milk the cows, got up at the crack of dawn to watch calves being born, built dens behind the tractor shed and climbed amongst the straw bales. These hazy memories of childhood have shaped the way I want my children to grow up, with a love and understanding of both city and country life.

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My children are luckier than I was in so far as they are surrounded by animals, and we have the space, time and knowledge to enable this. I am an enabler! I don’t want to force my passion for life other than human onto anyone, least of all my children. Feeling forced or pushed to do something is a definite reason for turning your back on it. Instead I want to provide them with opportunities and experiences that will help them grow. If they share my passion fantastic, if not they will hopefully still learn valuable lessons by looking after the animals here on the farm. They will learn kindness, compassion, responsibility, pride, respect, how to be gentle and to do no harm. They will learn where their food comes from, about animal husbandry and behaviour, evolution , ecosystems and their place in the landscape that surrounds them. These four chickens are not just the sum total of the eggs they produce, they are so much more.

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A long awaited arrival

It seems both a life time and no time at all since I wrote about the beginnings of ‘Project Goat milk’. The dream has finally become a reality this month with the arrival of the goat kids.

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For those of you who like numbers, the average gestation length of a goat is 150 days (might come in handy at a pub quiz, you never know). Counting forward from the date of mating gave us estimated due dates of the 17th and 18th of April for Amy and Bernadette respectively.

Thinking myself extra super organised and well prepared I booked some holiday off work covering these dates. Unfortunately, best laid plans never seem to work out. I should also know by now (2 human babies, assistance at many non human births) that due dates are merely a guide to be acknowledged and subsequently ignored.

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The first kids arrived on the evening of the 13th of April- I think it should have been a Friday. I had just spent several hours in A&E with Farmer F . For once it wasn’t him causing the problem, it was me. To cut a long story short I had had a couple of ‘funny turns’ and then taken her off to the land of A&E. After much poking, prodding and a series of tests that seemed to come straight from the ministry of silly walks handbook, I was discharged with a box of Aspirin and a diagnosis of ‘Query TIA’. Fortunately my ‘turns’ have since been demoted to the level of Migraine with Aura without headache (go figure) , or Temporal lobe epilepsy. I’m still a work in progress- the doctors haven’t quite worked out what to do with me yet.

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Anyway, back to the goats. After several hours in hospital on Thursday, we returned home tired and hungry. F went to check on the goats whilst I got something to eat. He quickly reappeared ‘Er, you might want to go and check the goats’. He might have well pointed at me, messiah-esque, and said ‘Lazurus, rise’ I was out of the kitchen like a rat up a drain pipe.

img_5178Amy had popped. Two gorgeous, gangly kids. One spotty, speckled coated nanny and one buckskin coated billy. These became Priya and Leonard . I was in love. Slightly disappointed at not being at the birth but relieved everything had gone well. Amy had two healthy kids who were up on their feet and feeding. Goat kids are a lot different to lambs- long, gangly legs remind me of foals, yet they are far more sure footed. Floppy oversized ears, the kind of ears you hope they grow into.

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Friday came and went, no more of my ‘episodes’ and no more kids. Saturday I went down to the goats first thing – Bernie didn’t get up to greet me. Here we go, I thought, she’s in labour. I left them be and came back an hour later. Still nothing. Bernadette was up but not acting like her usual self. Normally she is feisty, now she seemed subdued, although putting up a good show of being ‘normal’.  I got F to hold her whilst I checked her over. My suspicions were confirmed, she was almost fully dilated but her pelvic canal (the bit that the kid comes through) was empty. Time for me to retreat again. Another hour or so passed before i came to check on her. I peered through the window, hoping to see some little ones, but Bernie was lying quietly on her own. Time was ticking on- the risk of infection to both Bernie and her babies was increasing as the hours passed, and I was anxious in case the kids were in any difficulty. I gave her an injection of oxytocin to help her labour progress, and sat down in Amy’s pen to observe from a distance. Within minutes Bernie was up on her feet and contracting well. After 30 minutes of this, there was still no kid. Time to take a closer look. A gentle examination and i found the bag of fluid surrounding a kid, and ruptured the membranes. Inside were two big feet and a head and I relaxed a little. The kid was alive, moving and in the right position. Baby goats are born as if they are about to dive into a pool- front legs stretched out, nose and head next, slightly tucked in chin. Of course there are other ways to be born, but this is the easiest, textbook and straightforward.  A bit of gentle persuasion and soon Bernie had birthed her first kid, a very big buckskin boy (now known as Howard) .

img_5275The second kid was presenting awkwardly- his head was bent slightly back so he was almost looking over his shoulders. I helped to position him better and Bernie birthed him quickly. This was Rajesh, another beautifully marked boy. Bernadette started to clean and nuzzle him immediately. My work done, I stayed long enough to shake out a clean bed of straw before letting the little family get to know each other in peace.  img_5220

 

 

The Grub Kitchen-

We don’t normally go out for Sunday lunch. I’m a bit of a tight wad, and can’t bear the idea of spending money on something I feel I can do perfectly well myself. Roast chicken, gravy and stuffing from scratch…not a bother. Even C is getting the hang of making mashed potatoes (under supervision!), its really not that tricky. So when we do occasionally venture out to eat I want something special, a little bit different and out of the ordinary.

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Award winning restaurant located in St Davids, Pembrokeshire. Image from Grub Kitchen.

Recently I spotted an offer from the Grub Kitchen that I couldn’t resist- Sunday lunch cooked by Andy Holcroft, with a free bug handling session after. Amazing! Two of my favourite things in the whole world- good food and getting up close and personal with weird and wonderful creatures. Count me in!

Slight issue- I had to convince F. ‘Do I have to eat bugs?’ Came the inevitable question. ‘ No dear, you can be quite boring…I mean safe, there are lots of none entomological options on the menu.’ C was quite excited at the chance to go back to the ‘bug zoo’, mainly so as she could run free in the play barn.

I wasn’t lying to F (for a change)-Andy’s Sunday lunch menu is full of ‘traditional’ favourites such as roast leg of lamb or roast beef. The main focus of the restaurant is  entomophagy (eating insects) so there are insect based options, such as ‘bug wellington’ if you are feeling more adventurous.

When we got to the bug farm we were greeted by the two Sarah’s- Dr Beynon herself, and her assistant Sarah. Not confusing at all! Bug handling would be at two so we had plenty of time to stuff ourselves with good food!

First up- drinks. I’m not picky about many things, I like to think I’m fairly easy going, but for goodness sake please don’t mess with my coffee! Grub Kitchen coffee is divine. Beautifully presented, delicious and aromatic. Perfection!

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The restaurant itself is situated within a converted 18th century calf shed. This makes for an interesting dining experience- the tables are arranged alongside the original stone trough. Once upon a time the kitchen was actually a pig sty, the pantry was a water tank. Innovative and environmentally friendly, it provides a perfect backdrop for a relaxed sunday lunch.

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Check out the grub!Also my fantastic parenting skills- tablet at the dinner table to prevent food related tantrums.

Whilst waiting for our food to arrive we had time for a quick run around in the play barn, which makes the eating here exceptionally family friendly. Screaming toddler meltdown on the horizon?? No problem, pop through the door at the end of the restaurant and you’re in a large undercover play area, complete with insect related play materials. Quick game of football or a trip along the balance beams and back in time to eat!

The waitress brought out the mini farmers food first- another tick in my book as I find it easier if the kids can start eating as soon as possible! Yummy handmade bangers and chips, which the girls hovered up! I couldn’t help sneaking a chip for myself-they were really something, full of flavour and crunch.

Then came our plates- pan roasted Towy valley venison for me and very locally sourced beef for F. img_1890

‘I’ll just get the veg’ said the waitress

Within seconds the table was full of an array of stunning side dishes-root veg mash, dauphinois potatoes, red cabbage and kalettes. These were a new veg for me- a cross between curly kale and sprouts. Everything was delicious, with melt in your mouth meat and the vegetables cooked to perfection. The flavours of the accompanying sauces and subtle seasoning matched each dish and brought out the best of the ingredients. The meal really did showcase some of Pembrokeshire’s best produce.

Round Two- pudding. F had been eyeing up a ginormous duck egg Victoria sponge, whilst I took my first tentative (and slightly cowardly) steps into the world of entomophagy. Cricket cookie.

Looks like a regular cookie.

I sniffed it.

Smells like a regular cookie.

Ok…here goes.

Yum! Tastes like peanut butter cookie. No hardship in eating this. If all bugs taste this good, bring it on! Even C had a little bit to try, although I didn’t tell her what was in it. She just saw me chowing down and thought it was therefore fair game for her!

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C and Jo Jo had ice cream with a twist! No bugs, just a pretty teacup and lots of chocolate sprinkles!

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Eating bugs- tick.

Bellies full it was time to go handle some ‘bugs’.  C took a front row seat, ready for whatever Dr Beynon had to offer. First up, a cockroach. A giant hissing cockroach to be precise. I think he was called Dave, but then my memory is crap and I tend to call all creatures Dave anyway. This little dude was awesome.

bug-1C enjoyed counting his legs (6) and informing us that he felt ‘smooth and hard’.  The bug handling session was great- no pressure to hold anything you weren’t comfortable with, lots of interesting insect related facts and genuinely good fun. It was lovely to watch C and JoJo interacting with Sarah and her ‘bugs’, and learning that insects, although they might be creepy and crawly, certainly don’t have to be scary or icky or yucky or any of the other preconceived notions that are passed on to us as children from the adults around us.

If you are looking for somewhere for Sunday lunch, or a unique weekday dining treat then definitely head over to sample some of the dishes at  Grub Kitchen.You can enjoy a wonderful meal, in atmospheric surroundings, cooked and served by lovely and talented people. Best of all the food is local, ethically sourced and sustainable, so not only are you eating well but also doing something good for the environment too.

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A stick insect….not for eating!

 

 

Starlings and a side order of goose

Suddenly the weekend is upon us again. The working week has taken its toll, with Friday being particularly tough. It has left an emotional hangover lingering well into Saturday, with the metaphorical dementors hovering over my shoulder once again. But no chance of a duvet day as I play the role of working mum on her second ‘job’- running about trying to catch up on all of the household chores I haven’t completed during the week. By 4pm (having been up with the mini farmers since 7am) I really, really needed a break. Fortunately it was tea time, so whilst F took the mini farmers in for tea, I headed off in search of Starlings.

 

 

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Sturnus vulgaris from the RSPB

Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are listed on the RSPB Red status list. This may come as a surprise, as they are still one of the most abundant birds at UK bird tables. However, European flocks have declined substantially (by 80%) over recent years.

At first glance,these birds are extraordinarily beautiful. Dappled plumage, gleaming iridescent green and purple-black as it catches the light.They are noisy and gregarious, full of personality. Their mechanical song, full of clicks, whirs and chirrups is delightful to listen to. Delightful, that is in, when there are only one or two.

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Autumn time sees the arrival of hundreds if not thousands of starlings to our farmland. This year they seem to have arrived a bit later than usual, normally arriving by the 19th. Over the past few weeks they have appeared in small flocks of 10 or 20 birds, but by the end of this week our trees were adorned with thousands of them.

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The birds spend their days roosting in trees around the farm, heading down to the fields or into the cattle sheds to feed. Just before dusk they start to gather, getting ready to head off for their night time roosts, in reed beds, woods or even farm buildings. As daylight fades they come together in flocks until their number reaches into the hundreds of thousands.  This is the time to see their aerial performances, the spectacle of the murmuration.

If you have witnessed a murmuration you will know how mesmerising they are. Thousands of small bodies seemingly flying as one, a massive feathery swarm that shape shifts, dives and belly rolls over your head. Why it occurs is a bit of a mystery. Varies theories have been postulated, including sensible suggestions of dilution effect (whereby the large flock of starlings will make it harder for a predator to single out an individual victim as prey) and heat conservation. Whatever the reason it is still a sight to behold.

As I make my way across the Croft field a flock of starlings rises up from beyond the field boundary hedge. It spirals upwards, tornado like, before splitting in two. One flock settles back down behind the hedge, the other atop a sycamore tree.

A distant honking signals the arrival of geese. According to F these have been coming to feed on the stubble aftermath for several weeks now, but I haven’t had the chance to see them. Sure enough they perform a fly past, in v formation, before banking right and landing in the stubble. I later count 70 individuals, honking and waddling their way across the shorn field.

 

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My camera battery died so I had to resort to iPhone back up! you can just make out the mass of birds against the hedge line….if you squint!!

I make it to the gate between the croft and the barley stubble field. From the middle of the field came a tidal whoosh and crash as hundreds of starlings took off as  one. They swirled overhead, individual dots set in almost Brownian motion across the steel grey sky. Like a cloud of midges on a summer evening, the hover over head, swooping and soaring around the field margin before settling back down again. Apparently each bird’s movement influences the flight pattern of its closest seven neighbours only, which explains  the fluidity of their flight en masse.

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Despite my awe at murmurations I must confess to having a love hate relationship with S.vulgaris. The zoologist in me sees a fascinating bird, capable of creating one of natures most amazing phenomenon. After several years of living on a farm and working with other farms where starling flocks roost, I can also see the downside. Every year our cows, and cattle on other farms, suffer from Starling pressure. Cow feed is an easy free meal for our feathered friends, and it is nigh on impossible to keep them out of the barns. We have tried everything, from bird scaring devices to mesh bird screens, and even helium balloons (a pink flamingo worked for a short while!)The sheer number of birds that arrive on the farm means that a lot of food is eaten, food that is meant for the dairy cows. The cows can even become ill, with stary coats, and look a sorry sight if they end up covered in starling poo. Its not just the cows that suffer either. After a couple of days of living with thousands of starlings outside your front door, the novelty soon wears off. Everything gets covered in starling droppings, and their incessant chatter en masse is deafening! I can understand why people (including myself) get fed up with them. I guess this is just one small scale example of living with conservation- the birds are protected under law. We live in an area which provides suitable habitat for them to roost. Loss of permanent pasture and pesticide use has been attributed to the decline in Starling numbers, but as you are now more likely to see a rural rather than urban starling, questions need to be asked about what has happened to push the birds out of the towns where they used to roost historically (e.g Manchester and Newcastle.)

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As a result of our fields full of winter stubble and plentiful supply of easy feed we end up living cheek by beak with thousands of starlings for approximately 6 months of the year. We have to put up with a lot of noise and mess, to the point that 2 year old C refers to all bird poo as ‘naughty starling poo’! On the flip side, we do get to witness spectacular murmurations without having to venture too far at all.

 

Singing hawthorn

I have been back at work for a month now. 30 days that have passed in a blur of consultations and operations, laboratory results and medications. I have survived my first weekend on call, spending a whole 48hrs slightly on edge waiting for my pager to bleep. I have seen hamsters, doves, cats, kittens, puppies, dogs and even a bat. Some cases have been straightforward, some not so, and there have been a few ‘final goodbyes’ too.

It has been nice to be back, doing a job that I love but my gosh the weekends are needed! I have missed my mini farmers, I have missed the outdoors and I have missed my own four legged companions! Fortunately Saturday mornings come round quickly, and whilst the mini and not so mini farmers are breakfasting, I slip out to spend some ‘quality time’ with the goatlings.

They call to me as I put on my boots. My whispered hello is usually met with a volley of bleats, getting louder as I get closer. As soon as I open the stable door they are pushing forward, eager to be out. Lead reins attached we set off along the road, with the autumn sunlight casting our 10 legged shadow across the tarmac.

The quarry field is a particular favourite of mine. A wide flat expanse of lush green grass greets us as we step through the double gates off the main road. To our left the cow track acts as a field boundary, snaking down into the valley to meet the stream. We bear left, heading towards the old quarry. The grass underfoot glistens with dew.

We pass the midden, adorned with a crop of inky blue fungi. A narrow animal track runs

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past the dung heap, footprints in the mud suggest hedgehog, as well as gulls and other birds. Badger and fox frequent this field too, snaffling up worms and rooting through dung bats to catch beetles.

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Behind the midden lies a dense patch of nettles and brambles. We skirt around it and head down into the hollow that marks the start of the old quarry. This is the spot where we sighted our camera trap, and we know that at least 3 foxes count this area as part of their territory. The camera also caught sight of one large badger, one large hedgehog and a murder of magpies who came to steal my fox bait.

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At the back of the nettles and brambles stands a hawthorn, squat and twisted from the onslaught of the wind. It is glowing with berries, and alive with birdsong. Warbling fills the air, crystal clear notes trilling and tripping out from the branches. I try to push closer through the tangle of weeds to get a better look. A small dark bird perches on a twig at the top of the tree. I can make out a handful of others flitting amongst the branches, but I can’t get close enough to make out the species. Black redstart perhaps? Or a warbler?

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We dip down into the bowl of the quarry, the goats picking their way gingerly down the muddy bank. They hate to get their feet wet! Beneath the trees is another world, dank and dripping with raindrops from the branches overhead. It is cooler down here, and the stench of fox is overpowering. I feel as if we are intruding.The goatlings leave swiftly, and I follow.

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We head back towards the gate, and I am aware again of the hidden history lying inches beneath my feet. Less than a hands breadth of soil covers the remains of a roman settlement.

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Credit Dyffed archaeological society

When the site was dug a few years ago the local archaeological society were quite excited.Amongst the expected shards of pot, coins, charcoal and beads they found evidence of a potential fort, or possible outpost of the roman army. A typical fortification, complete with substantial timber structures and even a roadway, which is amazingly preserved.

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Credit Dyffed Archaelogical trust

Until this site was excavated, archaelogists believed that the most western welsh roman remains were in Carmarthen.  I still can’t quite grasp the fact that over a thousand years ago a roman centurion may have stood in this spot and gazed out across this valley.

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If it hadn’t been for this fields role as grazing, these treasures of our ancient past may not have been so well preserved. Farming, especially small family farms, has an important place in the preservation of not only wild flora and fauna, but our culture and heritage too.

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We make our way back to the gate, the goatlings stealing mouthfuls of grass as we go. Back on the road we dodge the rush of Saturday morning traffic, mums and dads ferrying kids too and from soccer, leaving us to jump into the hedge as they zoom past. I feel like we have rejoined the ‘real world’ again, and quite a large part of me would like to step back into the quarry field, close the gate gently behind me and just keep walking, photographing and writing as I go. But that, well…it wouldn’t pay the bills now would it.

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We’re going to the zoo!

Pembrokeshire is quite a special place to live. Not only are we spoiled for choice when it comes to beaches, countryside and wildlife spotting opportunities there are many attractions to take advantage of too. Unfortunately these tend to come with a hefty entrance price. Soon we will enter the territory of ‘three and over’, apparently the age at which you must start paying for children. I have no idea why. Three year olds don’t take up that much more space than two year olds. Anyway, I’ve decided to make the most of the last month of getting both children in free…well as least legitimately anyway.

Anna’s Welsh Zoo is somewhere we have been before, and it has always been a lovely experience. Although it has competition from Folly farm, another zoo a few miles away, I have found it to be a completely different experience. From the minute you pull into the car park, it feels much more like a safari park than a zoo. It is spread across 52 acres of Pembrokeshire parkland, which provides a stunning backdrop for the animals.

C was super excited. We hyped each other up a wee bit on the short journey to the park, singing back to back zoo themed songs (‘we’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo…how about you you you?) and guessing which animals we might see (me- wallabies C- dinosaurs Jo Jo-I think she said ‘baa’ so I guess she meant sheep…probably).

The entry price was actually very reasonable, just over £13 for me. I managed to push cost up by buying some ‘special ‘wallaby’ food (£1 a packet, seemed a bit overpriced for 3 pieces per bag, but I couldn’t say no.Walked myself into that one, well and truly).

Once in, we made a pit stop at the hand washing station. To minimise risk of infection,visitors are asked to wash hands before and after going into the exhibits. As you can see, the stations are the perfect height for children.

rsz_dsc_0649Zoonique Walkthroughs

The walkthroughs are one of the best bits of Anna’s zoo. The animals are incredibly relaxed, and do not seemed stressed out by human presence at all. If they decide they don’t want to hang out with people, they have plenty of space and hideaways provided for them to retreat to.

There are lots of signs up explaining how to get the most out of the experience. Basically the advice (very good advice) is to let the animals come to you. I was surprised by how much C enjoyed the wallabies. She even managed to feed some!

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We made it to the Lemurs just in time for feeding. This walkthrough is one of the largest of its kind in Europe, and it is amazing. Red Ruffed and Ringtailed lemurs are 2 of the 5 species that swing, lollop and scramble around this enclosure. And they come right up to you.  C sat on a log next to one lemur who was busy stuffing a vegetable into his or her mouth. She had a lovely, if slightly one sided conversation about the weather, the colour of her shoes, and what the lemur was eating. The lemur was not bothered one iota. Jo Jo loved it too. She spent her time craning out from her buggy, making appreciative cooing and ahhing noises. To me the entrance ticket was worth just seeing the girls enjoy watching these amazing creatures.

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Lemurs and toddlers -in tune and at one.

The Valley of the apes walkthrough is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion. I think it should be renamed valley of the funky gibbons, as they are the only species residing there. Still, what’s not to like about a gibbon.

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The Gibbon family were tucking into lunch when we got there. Steve, an original resident who predates the creation of Anna’s Welsh Zoo, was possibly feeling a bit antisocial as he went into his indoor area as soon as we arrived. We do tend to have that effect on some humans too, so I won’t hold it against him.

The Warren with its Flemish rabbits is a recent addition. Jo Jo seemed to make pals pretty quickly, despite the fact that the rabbits were as big as her!

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The last walkthrough is the African Village, the inhabitants of which include Pygmy goats (including one who looks very preggers at the mo), a Spur thighed Tortoise, assorted Chooks and some Cameroon sheep. The girls were quite enamoured with one of the sheep. She was spread eagled in the middle of the path, and didn’t budge whilst they gave her a very gentle hug.

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The walkthroughs are probably only a third of what the wildlife park has to offer. The African Grasslands, home to rhino, ostriches and zebra,  is what I imagine safari to be like. Obviously you also have to imagine the warmth, lack of rain and generally sunnier climate since we are in Pembrokeshire, but you get the drift.

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Pembrokeshire …or Kenya?!

There are also Prezwalski’s horses, noisy Emu, Alpacas, Oryx, Capybara, Marmosets, Tapir and Camels in the park.

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New for 2016 are the Tigers and work is still ongoing  with their housing (brave builders eh?!)

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Play time

No matter how amazing the animal enclosures are, the lure of soft play cannot be avoided.  The new indoor area, installed this year, is fantastic. It is housed in three rather space age looking domes. One contains Little Tikes cars, rockers, wheelybugs and space hoppers. The middle one is a seating area and the other large dome houses a multi level soft play. I literally had to bribe the children to leave it.  Slides, trampolines, ball pit…it had something for everyone. Normally soft play to me is akin to dantes 7th circle of hell. This one, not too shabby!

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The  indoor hay play area proved great for letting off some steam too.

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There are some ‘traditional’ outdoor play areas with slides and climbing frames, as well as two huge sand pits.Then there are the assorted out door toys scattered across the front lawn,  with the bouncy castle and dragon stage too. All of which can be seen from the outdoor seating for the café.

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Munch time.

I broke one of my cardinal rules and bought lunch today. Fortunately it was yummy. The girls had a cheese sandwich to share between themselves and the ‘Ostentation’ (that really is the correct collective noun) of peacocks that loitered around our table. rsz_dsc_0687

I had a vegan onion Bhaji sandwich and seriously good coffee. There are hot options available too, and the café is very child/baby/breastfeeding friendly.

Exit via the gift shop

I broke another cardinal rule by stopping in the gift shop. I couldn’t resist a Koi Carp wind sock (god knows where I will hang it) and the girls had a toy snake each. To be fair, there is a lot of choice, with many affordable items and everything is zoo related.

By now the girls had started to become tired and cranky so we called it a day. Hopefully we will return soon, so we can make use of the bubble ticket (buy twice, go as many times as you want) before the inevitable third birthday!