The Smallholding in January

People may be forgiven for thinking January must be a quiet month on a smallholding. Nothing’s growing, it’s freezing – what could possibly need doing?

A lot. For one there’s feeding. There’s usually enough grass on our holding that we don’t need to start feeding hay until late December. By January everyone wants extra food. That’s hay twice a day for the sheep and horses and concentrate too for the pregnant ewes. And, when it’s freezing – as it is now – you need to check on their water to make sure it’s not iced over – which means periodic ice breaking and boiling of kettles.

Then there’s the bees. This year – after the summer excitement of swarm catching – we have three hives going into the winter. In the autumn you can feed them sugar syrup to augment their supplies, but in the winter that can upset their digestion, so you give them fondant instead. This week we made 6kg of fondant, rolled it out and placed 2 kg worth in each hive. One year the bees will give us more honey than we give them sugar. I don’t know when that year will be, but bunting will fly over the farmhouse.

And finally there’s the largest task – all those jobs that need to be done when the trees are dormant. I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but I’ve noticed that here – in North West France – the dormancy period is getting shorter. Fifteen years ago we could fell or lift trees in December. It was a common sight to see fruit trees for sale in supermarkets in early October. But now the leaves seem to stay on the trees far later. Last year one of our peaches was still in leaf in February. All this means that the window for hedging, logging, pruning, and winter spraying is becoming compressed.

Last week we were rushing to finish hedging and fencing the ram’s field before the snow fell. We managed it – just. Hedging is something you need to do every 7-12 years. If you leave a hedge alone, it has a tendency to grow out of control and irregularly – gaps start to appear, branches flop on the fence etc.

The English tradition is to periodically lay the hedge. Laying involves removing the underbrush and bramble, cutting up the large boles for firewood, then selecting smaller trees/branches which you partially cut through at the base with a billhook and then bend along the fence line and secure with pegs. Where there are gaps in the hedge, you cut truncheons and drive them into the ground to create posts around which you can weave the laid hedge.

It’s time consuming, but it creates a solid stock proof hedge. And amazingly the bent sections sprout like mad in the spring even though their bases have been cut three quarters of the way through. We used to lay hedges on our holding in Wiltshire, but it’s a lot of work and now we go with the easier coppicing alternative.

This isn’t stock proof so we have to have an inner fence. But even with that it’s quicker. First you check all the fence posts and pull out all the rotten and broken ones. Then you take down the sheep wire, then you unleash your wife with her new chainsaw and let her fell everything in sight. Then you drag the trees into the field for triage. Some will make bean poles, some will make props, some firewood and some – the twiggy bits – you need to burn on site (to make potash to spread on the fields and ‘lime’ them.)

Then we transplant tree seedlings from our nursery bed to fill any gaps in the hedge, cut new fence posts, hammer them in, and reattach the wire.

Job done. In spring, bushy shoots will appear from the cut boles and the hedge will be rejuvenated.

We still have to prune the orchard and give a winter wash to our peaches against leaf curl. And we need another 6 stere of timber for next winter’s heating – so there’s some more felling and logging to do in our woods. But at least we have one major task out of the way.


French FriedChris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! was a finalist for the 2012 WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried the international bestseller – true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth?
Resonance “This is one of the most original new science fiction books I have ever read. If it is as big a hit as it deserves, it may well be this book which becomes the standard by which SF stories about … are judged.”

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