Tatties and spuds

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Nine potatoes home grown at Cosy Cottage!

There’s always a first time for everything and that includes growing spuds. Last year, I bought two seed potato packets from JTF in April and, a couple of weeks later, I planted them in pots of varying sizes. When it was time to dig them out a few months later, in July, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find real potatoes under the stems and leaves in the first pot.

What was in the other four?

Answer?

Nothing. Not in pot 2, 3, 4 or 5.

So that was a grand total of 11 potatoes.

Out of two seed packets and five pots.

So when it came to this year I had no expectations. This year’s crop came from Wilko’s and cost £1 (so I wasn’t expecting wonders!) They were bought at the end of March and I planted them in May.  When it came to August, I started thinking, is it time to dig the ‘Nicolas’ up? When is it too early or too late?

I find timings fairly hard to master in the gardening world.

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When the Nicola seed potatoes were planted

The weather was odd this year too (I had all the excuses ready for the inevitable disappointment). Even in the north of England, there was a seemingly never-ending heatwave from May to July. I was beginning to wonder if the rain would ever make a reappearance. But of course it did, and when it came back it was as if our old familiar companion had never left us.

This climate could have been to blame for the poor showing of the lettuce this year. Lettuce seeds had been planted in a newly established bed but what came up instead of attractive crisp lettuce?

Nettles.

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But myself and Dad decided today was the day when we would see what lies underneath the green potato stalks. Just one tub of five Nicola seed potatoes – what would be the result?

The first stalk was promising – four spuds, no large ones but perfectly sized for salads. Then nothing under the remaining four stalks. But we dug under the soil with our hands and found another, another, another, another and one more…

It was like digging for treasure and this was the gold we found – Nine beautiful brown potatoes.

So okay, not economically viable or a large collection but still, it’s something isn’t it? And what’s more, those organic ‘Nicolas’ tasted extra special too.

Here’s to next year’s crop! 🥔🥔🥔

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Facts of the Day

  1. A tatty/tatties is a Scottish informal word for potato/potatoes. Spud is another slang term.
  2. According to Oxford Dictionary, the potato is ‘A starchy plant tuber cooked and eaten as a vegetable’. The plant grows underground stems, which ‘swell up with stored food at the tips to form tubers, called potatoes. The ‘eyes’  can grow into new plants using the food stores in the potato’ (Miles Kelly). The word comes from the Spanish patata.
  3. It comes from the perennial nightshade family (the leaves are poisonous) and was first grown in South America 1800 years ago.

Information courtesy of The Miles Kelly Book of Life

 

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St Benet’s Abbey

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While on holiday in the beautiful Norfolk Broads, on one of our walks we came across an unusual site called St Benet’s Abbey. We started from the village of Ludham, and walked across country lanes to the abbey. Here are 5 facts:

1. Except for low flint walls and earth mounds, only the ruined gatehouse still exists – but this has an 1700s windpump built around it.

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2. It was founded about 1020AD – the first Benedictine Abbey in Norfolk.

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3. The abbey was not officially closed in the 1530s – unlike every other monastery in the country. The Bishop of Norwich was instead appointed as the abbot. Despite this, monastic life ended soon after and the buildings – except for the gatehouse – were demolished for their stone.

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4. The local diocese still owns the site of the abbey church and it remains consecrated ground. The Bishop of Norwich holds an open air service here every year in August.

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How the abbey may have looked. Courtesy of Tim Pestell’s St Benet’s Abbey: A Guide and History

5. St Benet’s Abbey may have been established as a royal estate and King Cnut was an early benefactor. Beforehand, maybe as early as the 800s, Anglo-Saxon hermits are believed to have lived at the location.

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Information courtesy of St Benet’s Abbey: A Guide and History by Tim Pestell.

 

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Dottie’s mystery illness

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My main fear – there were a few – of having chickens was ‘what if something bad happened?’ Illness being one of those ‘something bad’ fears. And thankfully, for the past ten months, nothing untoward happened. If a hen was losing her feathers, it was because of moulting. If she was sitting down doing nothing (yes, I’m talking about you Jemima), it was because she was brooding.

But one morning, Dottie looked very poorly indeed. Lethargic and hunched down. While Florence was eager to get out of the coop, Dottie was still in the nest box, seemingly without the energy to jump/fly down. (She was on the top tier). I had to lift her out.

Whereas our bossy Dottie was previously strutting about proudly, demanding mealworm and corn, now she was sitting in one corner in the Chicken Garden. Unlike Jemima, who was obviously in a on/off broody trance, Dottie looked depressed. Had the weeks of being the sole non-broody affected her? Had she felt lonely and this was only now caught up with her? Was it a temporary state of mind?

You see how I didn’t want to admit it could be a physical illness.

Dad came round to visit and we brought her in to investigate further. Coming from a farming background, he had more of an inkling about such matters. He felt her crop, which can be felt on the chicken’s chest, and said it didn’t feel right. For the first time, I felt it and it seemed bigger than I expected.

I had a read of a couple of my chicken books.

The crop is a muscular organ that helps chickens digest their food (they are unable to chew). According to Mini Encyclopedia of Chicken Breeds and Care, food is stored and softened in the crop, which empties overnight.

An impacted crop is when there is a solid mass still in the organ first thing in the morning. The encyclopedia recommended olive oil and gently managing the crop to ‘help break up the mass’. The hen may get better on her own. If not, a vet will be needed.

So we massaged the crop and poured some olive oil in a little bowl.

We left Dottie in a box complete with olive oil and water. She appeared thirsty for the oil and kept drinking it.

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Simon came over later that evening for the weekend and we decided to call the vet and see if we could make an appointment for the next morning, hoping meanwhile she would get better. The emergency vet warned us he didn’t have much experience with chickens and it would cost £90 for an emergency appointment. But we had already decided to let her rest until the morning and see if the impacted crop (which is what we thought it was) would improve then. The vet told us he had some space free in the morning, if we rang then he would be able to fit us in.

The next day, she looked the same, lethargic and listless. I rang the vet surgery again, whose receptionist told me it was emergencies only as they were so busy. After I explained what the emergency vet said about being able to fit us in, she had a word with, I presume, the vet we spoke to the night before, and gave us a 11.30am slot, warning us there might be a delay as it was so busy.

We waited nearly an hour, among amputated hedgehogs in boxes, poorly turtle in a tray, a beautiful bear-like Newfoundland, a yappy but cute Bichon frise and various other patients coming and going.

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Finally Dottie’s name was called and we carried her in. She was a well behaved patient, both in the waiting room and at the vet’s. However, this was also an indicator of how ill she was. A chicken should want to flap its wings and try to fly out of a box and be vocal. Dottie was too tired to do anything.

The vet felt her crop but believed it felt normal. Her weight was in the right range. He checked her faeces and whether she was egg-bound. Her poo was fine and there was no egg stuck in her insides.

He couldn’t find anything physically wrong.

So he told us to come back Monday if she was still unwell and gave us a packet of high energy food and syringes. The nurse showed us how to use the syringe to feed Dottie, who was a model patient. It looked easy enough to do at the vet’s….

Using the syringe was much harder than it first looked.

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Simon held her and we tried to open her mouth. Although she was compliant at the vet’s, she was less so in my house, clamping her beak firmly shut and shaking her head away. This became more and more the case as she gained strength – and regained her old bolshy attitude.

Once her beak was prised open, we slipped the feeding tube in. Again this was tricker than it first appeared. We weren’t even sure if it was going the right way. Then, once it was in, we sucked the food solution into the syringe and then pumped it into the tube. When we saw her swallow it down, we knew she was tasting it. Then we alternated with giving her water.

20mls a day, divided into four portions a day, maximum, was recommended and this energy food powder was mixed with water to create a brown semolina-type paste. Simon referred to it as ‘gunk’. Hmm, nice!

Apart from pecking the cardboard box on the way home, Dottie remained in a very poorly state all day. We fed her a couple of times and left her on the floor, sitting on a teatowel next to the box, alongside small bowls of water, grain, grit and olive oil. When it was her bedtime (just before it got dark), she went back into the box.

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Her friends came to visit briefly. But as we didn’t know what she had, this may not have been a good idea as the illness could have been contagious to the other hens. Yet the company did give her a boost. I wouldn’t recommend it though unless you know for certain the hen doesn’t have a contagious disease.

So Friday she was ill. Saturday she was just as ill, at least mentally. Sunday she started moving around more. I had bought some herbs from a local garden centre and left them on the floor. Next thing I saw Dottie wandering over to the mint, nibbling on it. She was still slow but she was showing more of an interest in life and this was surely a massive improvement.

On Monday morning, I lifted the lid of the box to see, not a sleepy, huddled, depressed looking hen bit an alert, curious, bright-eyed Dottie, obviously wanting to get out of the box and into the big wide world.

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So out she went, and when I saw her digging away in the garden, looking for worms and making her usual noises, I knew the worst was over.

So what was the illness? I suspect it may have been an impacted crop after all as I think it did feel more prominent before we took her to the vet the following day. Personally, I think Dottie was still getting over the illness on the Saturday, but the physical ailments had gone thanks to fasting, massaging the crop, water and olive oil. But I don’t know for sure. Whatever was the matter, going to the vet and giving her high energy food was the right thing to do.

So a lesson for me is to physically check my chickens more often. To feel the crop and pay more attention to their behaviour. Chickens are small but rather complicated individuals and every day is a lesson to learn.

🐔🐔🐔

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Many thanks to Mini Encyclopedia Chicken Breeds and Care by Frances Basso and The Urban Hen by Paul Peacock.

Also thanks to my dad and Simon for helping with Dottie.

Search for a swallowtail

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Some years ago, I picked up a paperback copy of The Butterfly Isles, by Patrick Barkham, in my local library for the amazingly cheap price of 10p. It recounts a nature lover’s quest for every British species of butterfly in one year. Before I read this book, I classed every butterfly as either ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’.

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A small white I could reasonably guess at as they are, yes, small and white. A tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral, while stunningly colourful and beautiful, looked the same to me and as for a swallowtail, wasn’t that an accessory attached to a swallow’s body?

But over the last few years, through practical observation, guidance, and books,  I began to learn about the various breeds, their colours and patterns, habitat and food. I began to distinguish between a red admiral and a peacock and an orange tip and a small white. Although there is still a long way to go and I am still very much a novice when it comes to learning about nature.

According to Patrick, there are 59 Butterfly species in Britain, more than 500 in Europe, 7,000 in South America and oh, only about 18,000 in the world in total!

And one of the rarest in this country is the flamboyant Swallowtail. Pale yellow and black wings, with a black margin around them, its hindwings have short tails and a blue and red fake eye.

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There are plenty of good reasons to visit the Norfolk Broads, but if you are a keen lepidopterist (someone who studies butterflies and moths) or general nature lover and it’s June, odds are you will want to spot the elusive Swallowtail. It’s a tight window to see them and Norfolk is the only V. I.P venue they will wish to appear to their fans.

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Their habitat is marshy meadows so the likes of the Fens and Broads are its natural habitats.

So we – Simon and I – were in Norfolk, at the end of June. Like super fans waiting for a glimpse of our favourite star, while we walked and explored and steered a boat on the Broads, ate out in pub gardens and even when sitting in our cottage backyard, playing a game of draughts (me, losing, yet again), we were always on the lookout.

It was during a prolonged heatwave and there was hardly a breeze. The conditions could not be better. And we glimpsed many dragonflies and damselflies, heard warblers and sighted marsh harriers and grey lag geese and lost count of the various meadow browns and painted ladies and speckled woods and small whites fluttering by along the reeds.

But no Swallowtail.

Towards the end of the week-long break, we came across a sign advertising Wildlife Cruises at Horsey Mere.

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Well, why not?

So, after a short walk, we boarded the small vessel and listened eagerly to the guide who told us that he hoped we would see a swallowtail today.

And the odd thing is we were convinced that if we were lucky enough to spot one, it would be during a walk at a nature reserve (Patrick Barkham saw his at Hickling Broad Nature Reserve, one of the sites we visited).

And it was on that boat, listening to the chatty wildlife guide telling us about his mother’s experience with the dreaded horse flies, that I saw a black shape glide in the air in the far distance.

Was it a bird? Was it a bat? Was it…

‘It’s a swallowtail!’ The couple next to me alerted us all.

Poor Simon! He was at the other side of the vessel looking in the opposite direction. By the time he was over, the large butterfly, which seemed almost like a bird to me, was gone.

‘You saw a swallowtail and I didn’t,’ Simon grudgingly said, with envy in his voice.

But then there was a loud exclamation – from Simon, no less.

‘A swallowtail!’

As you can see from the lack of personal pictures, I did not manage to capture either of the two moments on film. Nor did Simon. But we do count ourselves very lucky to see this rare butterfly.

Many species of butterfly are in decline so if you have a garden, even a balcony or window box, I’d strongly suggest researching plants to attract them. It’s good for your health and soul too to see such beauty near you! And of course, butterflies are vital for the ecosystem. They aren’t just a pretty face (well, wing). I’ll go into more detail in a later blog post, but some ideas for now are buddleja, marjoram, sweet william, ivy and bird’s foot trefoil.

Have you seen a rare butterfly? Do you have a favourite?

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Facts of the Day

1. Swallowtail adults live for about a month.

2. It’s larval food plant are milk parsley, fennel and carrot.

3. The wingspan measures about 80 to 90mm.

Many thanks to Sally Morgan’s The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Butterflies and Moths, Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles and Wildlife Gardening by Christine and Michael Lavelle.