Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Some Diems Need To Be Carpe'd

the fairy-like elegance of the Arctic Tern

Much of the UK tracks the televisual seasons of the year by Strictly, talent shows or celebrities in a jungle. Those aren't really my sort of thing.
I count down the days to Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and, most especially, Springwatch.

Springwatch is one of those creations that is so much a part of BBC's culture it's like the Beeb distilled. It's earnest, a bit geeky, silly, incredibly local and yet also national, and is grounded in a will to educate and inspire. I love the presenters even when they drive me crazy, I love the stories that carry across from year to year (Monty the Osprey! Chris the Cuckoo!) and I especially love how excited it makes me about new species every time.

A while back, Iolo Williams reported from the Farne Islands. As well as the adorable puffins, it was the Arctic Terns that amazed me. They had put a tracker on a tern to see if their estimation of the distances he flew was accurate.  Not a chance - he flew 97,000km in a single year. What a champion.

I wanted to see them myself - what an incredible sight it was, those thousands of birds ad grey seals  coming to stay on these rocky islands. Last year we just didn't have the opportunity. This June, we grabbed a two day gap while Mark was still not working and went north.

The Farnes were everything I'd hoped - stunning, exciting, teeming with wildlife and lit up by warm summer sun.

It was only through help of my ace friends that I could seize the chance to abscond overnight and see this marvellous sight, and I am very grateful.  The trip will stay with me for the rest of my life.


The stacks - more birds nesting than is plausible 

Glossy, gorgeous guillemot and her brood

Arctic terns thought Mark was a well dodgy geezer

keeping a watchful eye for the thieving gulls

every dot is a returning puffin

Razorbills are very handsome

back on the mainland, looking over a beautiful sea

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Accentuate the positive



In July last year I started a list of happy and interesting things I'd like to do before January 1st 2020 - i.e. before the end of the year that Mark and I turn 50.  I have been thinking about other things I want to add to my list. This is about inspiring me, making me happy, stuff.  I'm not after a scary challenge but a "gosh I'm glad I did that!"  

Like the worst of list cheats I'm adding two things I've already done and can tick off instantly.  That isn't as audacious as it sounds - I mentioned it in the first draft of the list as something unattainable. Thanks to my amazing parents, it became attainable; they gave me a weekend in Tromso, Norway and I could fulfil a lifelong dream to see the aurora, and do whale-watching too. I'm astonishingly lucky.

Here's how my list of things to do stands so far:
  1. Go fishing  - Woo hoo! Did this at the end of last summer 
  2. See the Giant's Causeway I'm making plans, hope to do it either July or the Autumn.
  3. Try salsify and Jerusalem artichokes -  Still not tried them. They are in season in winter, so that's one for later.
  4. Go rock pooling Definitely a summer activity
  5. Sing in a choir - I admit, I bottled it. Was absolutely going to do it and panicked. I'm a wuss.
  6. Grow cut flowers Some setbacks here - slugs had my seedlings and Mark accidentally dumped a mound of compost on my freesia bulbs, but I have a few other irons in the fire.
  7. See live music  I did this! With mates and neighbours, we went to the OnRoundhay festival as a family and saw James. They were fantastic. Of course they were. 
  8. Visit Hadrian's Wall - Done!
  9. Spend all day at the movies - Not done this yet.
  10. Learn to apply make up properly Thanks to my fantastic mate Heather-in-London, I've got a makeup look that works for me. She gave me links to tutorials and product recommendations, and was so amazing and supportive. Heather is a beauty product guru, as well as one of the best parents and most thoughtful people I know. She's as generous with her knowledge as she is with her time (Apparently, I have sexy hooded eyes, like Lauren Bacall and Ava Gardiner. Go me!)
  11. See the Northern Lights - TICK! Best thing imaginable.
  12. Go whale-watching - Also TICK! A morning watching a pod of orca hunt for herring before a night chasing Aurora Borealis. What a day.
  13. Learn a new range of cooking - North African, Middle Eastern, Indian or Thai would be my thoughts but I'm flexible. I've learnt to make ramen recently and I want to expand to incorporate other dishes. NOT European food, though, because I understand the flavours of that already. Learning from Sabrina to make a curry was one of my favourite days, and it's time I tried to level up my culinary skills.
  14. Sew something I can wear - This is all about fear and ineptitude. One day I'll manage it. I'm such a wuss. I can't even cut into nice fabric. I have an almost-finished dress I was working on when I lost my job and I just couldn't face doing it again.
  15. See a new ballet company - I see New Adventures and Northern Ballet regularly, and English Ballet occasionally but Id like to experience another dance company. I may seek advice on that.
  16. Learn to play a song on an instrument - Even if it's Happy Birthday on the recorder, I want to play an actual song on something again. I have re-strung Mark's ukulele to make it left-handed and am thus far rubbish. I can only improve.
  17. Go Birdwatching on the Farne Islands - This is Springwatch's fault. I'd love to see in person the remarkable sea bird colonies they've shown me on the telly.
  18. Return to Paris - After the holiday from hell 9 years ago when Zach and Bonnie had a stomach bug and I was washing bedding and clothes every single day of the trip, I can't think of Paris without a shudder. Mark, who was NOT the one dealing with an exploding toddler morning and night, has incredibly fond memories of the holiday. I need to nice experience to banish the vile one.
  19. Cook a decent roast dinner - OK, this one is scary, because I don't cook or eat big slabs of meat and I think a roast dinner is all about the roast itself. However, I feel there is a veggie alternative out there I could work with, and surely it's not The Law that the vegetables are boring. It seems a skill all competent cooks here should have and I'd like to nail this one at some point.
  20. Build sandcastles - because it's fun yet I never do it anymore.
Here are a few photographs from the marvellous weekend in Tromso. I had no idea I could love a place plunging in darkness quite this much - I adored it from the moment we arrived. And two days before the solstice is a very dark time of year in the Arctic! The water, trees and mountains thrilled me to my core and I could have stayed forever. Except for the cost, obviously.




Thursday, 4 May 2017

Eating Ramen here in my Pyjamas

Given how often we sang The Virtual Life here last year, you'd think I'd have made ramen before now. I mean, I LOVE ramen. Zach loves ramen. Mark would probably love it and even Miss B will noodles in soy sauce and miso. The Big Lad is never going to like them but if I can get 4 out of 5 of us eating something that's a gold medal in this house.

The online recipes I found initially had me retreating in fear. So many ingredients! So many I'd never heard of! And most crucially, instructions to make a stock over a day or two.
2 days making pork belly stock?
Not going to happen.
I don't even eat pork.
I asked my top mates Suzanne and Hannah for recipes and advice.  They are ramen-scoffing fiends, if anyone would have an easy recipe, they would.
As always, they came up trumps and my first attempt was pretty darned tasty. I picked bits and pieces from all their suggestions and made something I thought worked well.

I'm sure it won't pass as remotely authentic, but as a a family dinner it was delicious. Before I totally forget how I did it, I thought I'd write it up in case anyone else fancied a go (if there is anyone left who doesn't make them already - tell me I'm not the only noodle noob out there!)

The main components of the dish are the broth, the protein, the noodles and the toppings. Lots of recipes use chicken or pork belly in meaty stocks; I'm using salmon and a vegetable stock. A hint on the BBC website suggested using the stalks of the coriander along with a while fresh chilli pepper to infuse instant stock with more flavour and I think it was pretty successful. When I get a chance to pop into town I'll visit the Asian supermarket for some dash or kimchi to spice things up a bit, too.

Beginner's Ramen

1litre veg stock
bunch of fresh coriander
1-2 fresh chillies
1-5tbs soy sauce
1 tbs mirin
1 tbs fish sauce
1 bunch spring onions
4 cloves garlic finely grated or crushed
fresh ginger about half the size of your thumb, peeled and finely grated
large handful of mushrooms
2 salmon fillets
handful of frozen prawns (optional)
2 pak choy
chinese noodles
1/2 tsp bicarb

Bring the stock to the boil; add the stalks of the coriander and half to a whole chilli. Turn off heat, leave to infuse while you chop the other ingredients.

Finely chop the spring onions right up to the green parts. Put the green aside in a bowl. Chop the remaining fresh chilli and the coriander leaves, add to the bowl of toppings.
Toppings ready
Slice the mushrooms and fry on a medium heat with the white parts of the spring onion and the grated garlic and ginger.

Remove the coriander stalks and chilli from the stock. Stir in the mushroom mixture, soy sauce (depending how salty you like things), fish sauce, mirin and a cup of water. Simmer for 10 minutes and taste - add chillies, sugar or soy sauce to taste. Keep it on a low heat ready to use.

I think the mushrooms added depth to the broth
Season the salmon and cook it skin side down for several minutes before turning it over to complete the last bit of cooking.

Cut the pak choy in quarters lengthwise. Put it and the noodles (usually 1 nest per person) in a pan of boiling water with the bicarb. Cook according to the packet instructions (usually 3 minutes). Drain.

Assemble the bowls with noodles first, the pak choy and salmon pieces divided equally, broth and finish with a scattering of the coriander, spring onion tips and fresh chilli to taste.  I decided at the last minute to add some cooked prawns I had in the freezer that just needed warming through in a mug of boiling water, so I added them at the same time as the salmon.  Not sure they were entirely necessary.

If you feel like going all out, add a halved ramen egg to each bowl.  These are soft boiled eggs marinated overnight in soy sauce, garlic and other nice things.  On Hannah's recommendation I used this recipe . I even had a go with some quail eggs; they were delicious but not soft boiled because they are so darned small it's hard to judge the timings.

Fool that I am, I was so flustered bringing everything together that I totally forgot the eggs I'd done the day before so we had them after like a snack. Really lovely!


Saturday, 29 April 2017

Having a quail of a time


For my birthday this year Mark bought me six Cortunix Quail hens - 3 dark Japanese, 3 lighter and larger Italian. We spent much of the two week easter holiday building them a home.
Being a keen fan of Thinking Things Through, I read everything I could find online about quail keeping so we could build them a good environment. This is what I learnt:

Quail are game birds rather than poultry. Their eggs have a higher protein proportion than hen eggs,  and as such require a much higher level of protein in their feed. They are ground-dwelling and they don't need perches, just deep litter/bedding to snuggle down in at night. They are fully grown by 6-9 weeks and will start to lay eggs from that age if conditions are right. They don't usually eggs in a nest box, just wherever they feel sheltered and private. They tend to bury their eggs, so some furtling about is required to find them.


The demanding fluff balls  need an awful lot of light to lay eggs regularly - at least 12 to 14 hours a day.  If kept outside, like mine, they need shelter from rain, places to hide if they feel threatened and most of all protection from predators like rats. Because they are only the size of a handful, that means choosing a very small mesh. I read so many reports of quail decapitated because a predator reached through the bars and grabbed them.
The darker birds are Japanese quail

Quail can fly, unlike chickens.  They stay on the ground normally but like all migratory birds, are capable of flying vast distances when needed. They jump vertically like a crazed mini Harrier Jet when startled, so need a roof over than they won't knock them out if they smack into it.

Our chickens have a lot of freedom, and we've gone to significant trouble to allow them that. The quail? Not quite the same. You can let quail free range if you really want to, but only the once.

Not much is known about quail behaviour, really. I read a study from 1997 that was very interesting, but less academic sources are pretty vague. There's plenty of anecdotal information from people who keep quail but that varies widely, and as far as I can tell that's down to how the quail are housed and the proportion of hens to cockerels.  I have all hens, so that sorts out the noise issue (quail hens make tiny little peeps and chirrups) and the fighting that some breeders reported.

Lots of people asked me if I'd be keeping the quail in with the hens. No, they have different needs, a different diet and the chooks will easily kill the quail if they perceive them as competitors for food or shelter. Some people keep quail in the bottom of aviaries with flying birds like finches or budgies, but not with chickens.

A huge number of people seem to keep them as little egg (or meat) factories, kept on wire mesh cages with no opportunity to engage in natural behaviour like foraging, dust bathing, and generally being messy balls of fluff who love to scratch away on the ground for food and fling dirt and bedding everywhere. Quail can lay from such a young age and reach their full size for meat at the same age, so as a means of producing some of your own meat, I guess they are a pretty easy way to go.  17 days to hatch, 6 weeks to grow, then table-ready.  Not really my style but fair enough.
A number of (mostly US-based) bloggers and forum members have expressed disgust at the concept of putting the quail on anything other than mesh - "They will be standing in their own faeces! That's cruel and disgusting!" I feel this view misunderstands the needs of the animal to behave in a natural way.  When managed well, deep litter systems are clean and environmentally responsible, and even shallow litter isn't mucky if you clean it regularly. It's basic pet care.
I guess that's the main difference - my quail are pets with lovely fringe benefit of eggs, not next month's dinner, so I can afford to get attached.

Our 6 quail hens have over 15 square foot to play in. Recommendations went from half a square foot in a production-based set up, to one square foot per bird. Plenty of hobbyists had larger spaces, naturally, but the guidelines were really quite tiny. We figured if we have the space, why not give it too them?

I couldn't find any plans or blueprints for quail housing that suited my intentions. Those I found were  wire cages or walk-in aviaries. So I thought about what I'd learnt and we started from scratch.

We thought a scrappy bit of border near the house would be an ideal place eventually, but our lovely next door neighbours are having a large extension at the moment on the other side of the fence. That meant we needed something that could be moved to a temporary location.
The frame
Quail don't require a nest nor roosting bars like chickens. They do, however, value a place to retreat to when cold, frightened or in awful weather. we interpreted that as a small version of a nest box with a door we could fully shut if we need to herd the quail in there while clearing the run out.

Gonzo helps Mark measure the shelter
To stop predators digging their way into the quail house, we put a sheet of mesh on the bottom of the frame as well as on the sides. I painted the timber before we assembled it fully because painting through mesh is a pain. I chose a lovely sage green in a wood stain that was pet-safe. It's worth pointing out not all wood treatments are OK for animals, so it's important to check.

Gonzo remained a keen participant

Stapling the mesh to the underside of the frame
Ideally we wanted a clear solid roof (strong enough to cope with a badly behaved cat landing on it) which is able to let light in and sloped to let the rain run off.  We used dual walled polycarbonate sheets, which were very easy to cut to size fit. We have some offcuts as well, which we can slot into the doors to provide additional shelter in winter.



The project took us most of the Easter holidays, with numerous days off for going to the wildlife park, the safari park, generally being out and about and actually celebrating my birthday as well. Rain stopped play on a few occasions and waiting between coats for the paint to dry slowed us down too. Still, in the end we had a luxury dwelling fit for the most discerning of birds.
A 5* dwelling

A Quail Palace

The Versailles des Cailles

Last bits to paint after resolving snagging issues
Ta Da!

To make their habitat more interesting for them they have a dust bath ares, some plant pots, branches, shelter and foliage. They seem very happy, and hop about with excitement when something new arrives.
How many quail can bathe at once?

They had a tendency to spill or lose their food, so holes drilled in a plastic container (and filed to make sure the edges were smooth) allows them access to food without wasting it and without taking up too much space. 
Gonzo is pretty sure we made it for his amusement

Yesterday I got 5 eggs from the 6 of them for the first time, taking me up to a total of 29 eggs so far.  We've had them hard boiled as snacks, marinated in soy sauce and garlic to eat with ramen, soft boiled to eat with the new season's asparagus and today I'm trying them pickled. Local pals, if you fancy trying some, give me a shout. It looks like we'll have plenty!
J x




Monday, 24 April 2017

Meanwhile, back on the ranch...

Hello again!
4 months since my most recent post, so I suspect I'm chatting to myself now. I either had no words, had too many, or just couldn't quite decide how to be sufficiently articulate to put my thoughts down in a coherent - and not too tedious - way.

It's been an eventful few months since I last blogged. We've had some truly marvellous moments as well as some unexpected and more challenging times. I might tell you about it later, if you like.  However, today I'm all about the livestock.

Bight, Aire, Wharfe, Rita and Starling on a bug hunt
It's been 12 years since my first Eglu, with Margot and Dolores as our new hens.  I've had around 50 hens over the years as we upgraded to a big Eglu Cube, suffered predation by foxes and Alsatians, illness, escapees getting stuck in other gardens and other poultry related mishaps, or just old age. Some had individual names for (Sarah, Ruby, Doris, Ronnie, Truffle, Starling), but mostly we named by theme:

  • Chicken Supremes (Mary, Flo and Diana)
  • Beatles Girls (Rita, Prudence, Eleanor, Lucy, Penny)
  • SF/Fantasy TV characters (Buffy, Capricorn 6, Rose, Xena, Chloe)
  • Doctor Who Companions (Sarah Jane, Donna, Martha, Ace)
  • Shipping Forecast Regions (Viking, the Utsire sisters North and South, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, G Bight, Humber, Wight, Biscay, Finisterre, Fitzroy*, Lundy, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Faeroes)
  •  Rivers (Aire, Wharfe, Nile and Amazon)
  • Austen women (Elinor, Marianne, Emma)



My current hen count stands at 8, of whom the most important is Rita. She's a big heavy bird from a mixed use strain (meaning reared for both egg production and meat) and she's 10 years old. That's VERY old for a hen.  She's still a handsome beastie, with her dark grey head fading into a pipe smoke grey on her body. She's a post-menopausal lady who nevertheless is everyone's favourite.  Rita has earnt her retirement and can leave all that egg-laying malarkey to the younger lasses.
Rita's the big grey, second on the left

A word on the eggs - obviously they are delicious and there's something lovely about knowing the name of the hen who laid your brunch. Before I kept hens I didn't know that laying is light-dependent, so from late November to late January everyone downs tools for a bit.  Also, hens lay far more eggs when they are young, but the eggs get larger and larger as they get older.  A young pullet might lay a 45g egg, while a 3 year old will lay a 75g extra large. In addition, like humans being more prone to having twins when they are in their 40s, older hens are more likely to lay double yolkers. You can usually spot a ridge where the egg hasn't narrowed as usual but had to widen again for the second yolk.

Double yolkers can get pretty big
There are certainly disadvantages to keeping hens. They will eat anything they can get in their mouths, and aren't respecters of borders. If they can escape into the neighbour's garden to pinch food from the bird table, they will.  Likewise they'll make short work of my vegetable garden if they can. I've had a polytunnel of seedlings decimated when 2 hens noticed the door was open a crack.
Helpfully emptying the veg bed of greenery


Caprica 6 had a nifty trick of flying to the 6 foot fence, walking along it to the end of the chicken run and hopping down into the raspberry patch to gorge herself.
They also trash any area they are in. Even with 22 square metres to play in, my birds don't leave grass there for long.
A prolonged wet season means the run gets very smelly as the chicken poo and mud form an odiferous mire, but a cold snap or some dry weather sorts that out.

The best part of hen keeping is the liveliness they bring to a garden. They cluck and coo, take fright at a gust of wind or charge down a blackbird who wants to pinch their grain.


Hens can become incredibly tame, and they do have distinct personalities. Dolores was over-confident; when I sat at the table in the garden she'd hop onto my lap in the hopes of pinching some of my lunch. Mary, called Biffer usually, was a "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" bird, smacking down all the feathered visitors to the backyard. Dogger was aptly named because she'd follow me around like a puppy. Rose was Miss B's hen when she was a toddler. Rose was the most patient bird I've ever seen - she'd let B pick her up and cuddle her, carry her around the garden, even put necklaces on her (which I quickly removed so she wouldn't peck them). Hebrides was an escape artist but couldn't get back in the run, so would come and knock on the door when she wanted to go back in. She taught Dogger that trick, who taught it to our cat.
Knock knock


Having hens hasn't lost its attraction at all. If anything, it was a gateway drug - from 2 hens to 3, to a big run with 8, then a larger free range area and up to 12.

Now I've entered a new level of crazy - quail. More about that in a day or so.



*Geeky footnote: Finisterre isn't a shipping region anymore but it is a lovely word. It was too easily confused with a Spanish shipping region called Finisterra, so it was renamed Fitzroy. I liked both, so I had hens called Fin and Fitz)