Thursday, 20 September 2012

Geese For Beginners

We have five lovely, snow white Embden geese; two males and three females.  We started with a goose and a gander, bought in January, 2010, and then three goslings hatched naturally the following June. 

The three young goslings.  The male is in the centre.

I knew nothing about geese before we acquired them, so I made several trips to the library to read up on them beforehand.  But I soon learned that the books don't tell you what you really need to know; so here are the facts I read about - and then what I actually found out to be true:

Large breeds don't fly - Well, yes, they do.  We don't fatten up our geese, so they may well be sleeker than other Embdens, but they do like to fly, usually all together.  The fear is that they will over-shoot the boundary of the smallholding and or get caught up somewhere and be unable to escape.  One of the young females did get caught in the brambles by the pond, and luckily I was there to see it and the fox wasn't.  So now we clip one of each goose's wings - very carefully - and this imbalances them.  I was worried at first that they wouldn't escape a passing fox with clipped wings, but when I did witness an encounter with a fox, the geese were charging it, not escaping it.  (NB be warned when clipping a large goose wing.  If you don't duck at the right time a loose, flapping wing can give you a black eye for days!)

The original pair

Geese are easy to put in at night - Yes they are; but not at first, if they've never been housed at night before.  We found this with our first pair.  They had come from a large, waterfowl centre and had run around all day and night outside, so they didn't want to go into our goose house.  For three weeks we had to chase them around the smallholding, sometimes going into the pond, wearing waders to drive them out.  Then it became icy, and I had to wade in like an ice breaker to coax them towards the bank.  But after three weeks, they began to go in more times than not (to be honest, the gander was good about going in from the beginning; it was the goose who was the problem).  By the spring it was all change and now they wander in themselves quite happily.  The younger geese, who have not known any other routine, have never been a problem.

Geese don't usually hatch their eggs in their first year - This is wrong!  Our goose and gander were both under a year old, but they mated soon after we got them and in May the goose became broody on a clutch of eggs in the goose house.  She hatched three and so we now have five geese!

Geese and sheep lazing about together
Ganders reared together get on - Yes and no to this one.  When our young gander was about nine months old he began to fight with his father.  For a couple of months, the father was dominant, but then after another fight he lost out to his son.  Since then, the dominance has switched backwards and forwards, with the son dominant most of the time.  After each bout, they settle down for a bit and observe a pecking order and they'll all hang around together until the ganders get too close.  Then there is usually a bit of posturing.  Fortunately on a two acre site they can put plenty of space between them, so the only difficulty comes at night, when they do have to be separated and they are housed in different places. 

The young gander
I've tried to find another home for the son, but haven't found one suitable.  He's a lovely creature and deserves a long, good life.  I love all my geese; they know me as their owner and are real characters around me.  But I couldn't keep them without the space and although they're wonderful now, I don't miss the hard work of those early days (it's much better looking at the pond than being in it).

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Building Livestock Housing Out of Scrap

We wanted livestock on our smallholding, but, where possible, we didn't want to spend out on expensive livestock housing, so we decided to build this ourselves out of scrap.  As a result, both the geese and the sheep have housing/shelters of a similar and (very basic) design. 

The goose house needed to be secure, so that foxes couldn't attack the geese at night.  It also needed to provide plenty of ventilation and protect the geese's straw from wet weather (the geese themselves are hardy enough and could be out in all weathers - if it was safe enough - but the straw mustn't get damp, because mouldy straw can cause illness in geese).  The goose house is also a favourite nesting place for the geese, so in late spring at least one broody goose can be in there twenty four hours a day.  Because of this, the door has to be able to stay open from the morning until we drive them all in at night.

The Goose House

At the time we built the house, we were fortunate to have access to plenty of wooden pallets (in fact, we were being paid to take them away), so we've used these for the core structure of the house.  The house easily shelters 4-5 large geese (plus any large nest) and is 7ft 10 inches (2.41 metres) in length, 4 ft 9 inches (1.47 metres) in depth and 5ft 5inches (1.67 metres) in height (which is 10 pallets).  We then used corrugated iron over the pallets which we had kept from our old (demolished) barn, with the last few inches under the roof uncovered for ventilation. The struts under the roof are pieces of an old pergola David had taken down for someone.  For the floor inside, raised from the ground to avoid damp, we have a sheet of OSB board, which we cover with a thick layer of straw (and which can be scrubbed with animal-friendly disinfectant when the house is cleaned out).  The door is a modified fence panel that shuts securely.  The house is painted in black barn paint.

The sheep shelter is just the same, but larger and longer with an open front.  The sheep wander in there when it rains or snows or they sometimes disappear in there for shade in hot weather.  As we only have three wethers and don't get involved in lambing, we don't need a lambing shed - and our sheep are outside all year round.  The shelter has a small pen in front, so we steer them in there when we want to shear them or give them health checks and treatment.

The chicken house, though, is the exception to this, as here we did spend out to have one made by a village carpentry business.  We submitted a design to them for a raised house, including lay boxes, with a ramp leading down to into a large pen. After this summer's attack by a fox, the chickens are now kept in the pen when we're not able to keep on eye on them.  Otherwise they're let outside.  The pen has a roof, which the chickens have certainly appreciated in this summer's wet weather and we regularly mulch the ground.  The raised house, and the roof, also provide shade in the pen.  We use sawdust (also from the carpentry business!) for the floor in the house and for the lay boxes.

The Chicken House

Monday, 17 September 2012

Sloe Gin

One of our favourite hedgerow drinks is sloe gin, and now I've noticed that the sloes are ripe, I'm going to start picking them so that we have a bottle ready for Christmas.

The amount of sugar that can be added to the sloes and gin varies according to personal taste.  I'm quite generous with the sugar in this recipe (and have added even more in the past), but if you prefer a drier drink, then reduce the amount.  I also don't buy expensive gin, because I find the sloes overwhelm the taste of the gin anyway. 

Sloe Gin

You'll need:

1lb sloes
1 pint gin
8oz sugar (or 4-6oz sugar if you think you'd prefer a drier drink)


1.  Wash the sloes and prick them to split the skins (I use a clean needle).
2.   Put the sloes into a large, sterilised bottle or jar with a top that can be sealed.
3.   Add the sugar.
4.   Pour in the gin.
5.   Keep the bottle/jar in a dark cupboard and shake well once a week to help dissolve the sugar.

The sloe gin will be ready after three months.  Strain through muslin into sterilised bottles/jars and drink.