The egg situation was becoming dire. The day's collection had amounted to two eggs - one hen and the other duck - and there were four hungry guests anticipating breakfast the following morning. The girls, all twenty of them, had obviously made a collective decision to take a rest.
It had been coming on for a long time. In the dim and distant past, otherwise known as last spring, we had been inundated with eggs. I turned the surplus into cakes and custards and lemon curd and sold them to the neighbours but still, for a short while, there was the beginnings of an EU egg mountain.
But after a few weeks the girls began to tire of their industry. Some decided they needed new feathers, and a girl can't be expected to lay eggs when they're growing those. Some of the ex-battery hens, worn out by the demands on their systems, started to lay very thin shelled eggs which invariably got squashed by the next incumbent of the nest box. Others got the wanderlust and started to lay away. But mostly they went broody - big time - and a hen that is in the family mood doesn't want to lay any more.
So one way and another the production system began to drop alarmingly and never fully recovered.
Nero has never been a showstopper as far as looks go, but when it comes to temperament he must be very hard to beat.
Nose to nose he is extremely impressive. He has a beautiful head, mottled with the typical smudgey creams, browns and blacks of the Longhorn; large deep brown eyes and a magnificent pair of horns sweeping from his poll towards his nose. But the best thing about Nero is his smile. It is a permanent feature, an astonishing quirk of nature which gave him a wry face and a smile to match his temperament, and I think the world of him.
But beyond the head is a different story and he would certainly win no Mr Universe competitions, for Nero is built like a coat rack. He would be an ideal subject to demonstrate the bovine anatomy to anyone who was interested for his skin is stretched tightly over his enormous frame leaving little to the imagination. And not surprisingly because (and I refer to the subject delicately) if he was human he would be on a permanent dose of Immodium. Understand??
But I wasn't worried because Nero had always been thus. He had always waxed and waned with the seasons, putting weight on in the summer and losing it over the winter. There was a certain degree of anxiety, but my friends who had been his previous owners knew him better than anyone, and they had never had any cause for concern. And what he may have lacked in the six-packs he made up for in the bedroom department. Nero was very fertile.
So everything was hunky-dory and all the cows were in calf; Nero was doing his job. It seemed simply that a diet of rich grass and excellent silage was playing havoc with his digestive system, for a Longhorn is a hardy breed that will thrive even on poor forage, and Nero was having only the best.
But then Nero went off his food and I suddenly looked at him with new eyes. He was beginning to look emaciated. Spring was in the air and the cattle were bored with their diet and with the confines of their over wintering shed, but even so ...
The warning bells became very strident and the vet was called.
No cattle crush for Nero. He stood quietly on his halter throughout the procedure, submitting to the internal examination and the blood samples with dignity, although whether the vet was more surprised at his compliance, or Nero at the turn of events, I am not sure.
Samples collected, we then had to wait. Nero, however, having rather relieved the tedium of life indoors, regained both his zest for life and for food. The days we spent constantly worrying he spent constantly eating.
We got the results today, and my smile is even bigger then Nero's.
The good news .... the VERY good news, is that Nero has the all-clear.
So tonight I am toasting to his long life and good health, and to all that is present in the future.
If it hadn't been for the fact that she wasn't anywhere near her due dates, I would have said that Dolly the cow was in the early stages of calving. The night before last she was stomping around lashing her tail from side to side but although her udder was starting to 'bag up' it wasn't excessively so.
Yesterday she seemed absolutely fine but by yesterday evening I had my concerns again. Her udder had filled a bit more and there were hollows at her tail head - signs of the pelvic ligaments slackening ready for the birth.
Hmmm ... I have been caught out this way before, resulting in nights of broken sleep with frequent visits to the cowshed; the cow invariably producing an offspring only several days later during daylight hours. But even so ... she watched me as I bedded up a pen for her - it made me feel better if nothing else - and I opened the gate for her and she shot through. I watched her for a few minutes but no signs of anything further so I left her and went to bed.
Early this morning I went out to check that everything was as I had left it - and was astounded to find not just one, but TWO newly born heifer calves and a very proud Dolly. And Nero, in the pen next door, really did appear to have a smile on his face.
I only discovered blood oranges last year. Of course, I had always known they existed but I'd never actually used them for anything. And then one morning I reached, bleary eyed, for a bag of oranges for juicing, sliced one in half and lo! - it was like a crimson sunset inside. I was astonished until I inspected the bag and realised my mistake, and wondered if I dare present the resulting blood coloured jug at breakfast.
Fortunately that morning our guests were of a robust constitution and the juice was an outstanding success. It had a rich tangy flavour and a most incredible colour, and was delicious. For a while after this I was able to buy more blood oranges but then the supply in the shops seemed to peter out - I think they must be pretty much seasonal. So I've been looking out, with mounting excitement, for more blood oranges this year - only to be disappointed. So far the only ones I have managed to acquire have been from the supermarket and were far too expensive to use for juicing. But I couldn't resist them altogether. So I bought a couple of bags but instead of juicing them I decided to make them into marmalade and preserve the bounty.
Result - ab-sol-utely SUPERB! So I'm hotfooting it back from whence they came to procure a massive supply before somebody else hogs the lot.
And spot the mistake ...? Whatever it says on the jar, I really did make it this year!
So, it's been a long time since my last blog entry and much has happened since then, but I will try and give a brief resume of the past year or so.
After the 'has-he-hasn't he?' antics of our bull in 2013 I found to my surprise that all our cows were in calf, and they all calved successfully out in the field last summer. There was only one who caused some anxious moments - Mary Ellen appeared exceedingly stout but had gone well past the last date to which she could have been in calf to our shilly-shallying bull. Even if he had had a Eureka! moment on the day he left it had got beyond the point at which a late calf was a possibility.
Further, when Nero our Longhorn bull had been put in with the cows some weeks later he showed no interest in them at all - and despite extensive observation from behind the bushes he hadn't been seen to do anything that could remotely result in the procreation of any offspring. Worryingly, it was looking almost certain that Mary Ellen's rotundness was due to a surfeit of good living and that pregnancy had evaded her.
And then it happened - she produced her calf like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. And Nero had every reason to feel very smug - it was a full term calf to the day that he arrived and nobody, for all their vigilance, had noticed.
We had more pigs in the wood last summer and in the autumn they replaced their predecessors in the freezer. The rewards of our labours are now being served up as sizzling rashers at breakfast time and as unctuous slow roasted joints for dinner. And for their crackling, Tamworths can't be beaten.
The hens have been doing their bit for the table too, and their eggs appear at breakfast alongside the bacon. Large or small they have a wonderful creamy texture and the most beautiful deep-yellow yolks.
We have somehow managed to accumulate a considerable number of hens from a variety of sources, including a few that we hatched ourselves, some of which were originally destined for the dinner table ... enter Cocky Locky and The Big Birds. (It's a long story). Also Precious (it was an only chick), and The Fluffybums. We have two hens called Betty-and-June, named after my long suffering mother and her friend, who thought it was a parcel they were collecting for me on their way down to stay with us. The hens are so alike that we have to refer to them as 'one of Betty-and-June' as we don't know which one is which.
It's wonderful to see the hens pottering about the garden and in the barns amongst the cows, scratching in the straw and continually rootling around for insects or scraps of food. Most of all I love to see them at this time of year sunning themselves in the open fronted south facing barn, out of the cold and the wind, comfortable on a pile of deep straw, feathers spread out to soak up the warmth of the sun's rays. A good life in return for a few eggs.
The ducks tend to hang around together and are often very comical, particularly the pair of Dog Eating Ducks that we seem to have inadvertently taken into the fold. They are actually two drakes who are very much a pair, but who seem equally happy to take on the lady ducks as well - there is huge potential for the more lurid kind of limmerick here.
But it is the dogs they are really obsessed with, harrying and harrassing them unceasingly.The dogs will generally show an enormous amount of forbearance but there is only so much, at times, that a dog can take.
Kithra was recently heard scrabbling frantically to escape from between two large bales of straw; she had entered at one end, the gap had narrowed and she had managed to get stuck. When she finally shot out of the other end, like a cork from a bottle, there was a duck hanging on to the end of her tail, flapping its wings in triumph. The triumph was short-lived however, as a clump of feathers blowing around the yard later testified.
But the boys remain undaunted, and tomorrow is always another day.