Friday, 25 November 2016

Introducing my family - part 4

The Chickens aka The Lady Detectives, or The Blob Blobs

Preparing for chickens

MrPB and I have wanted to have hens since we first watched the 1998 Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall tv series Escape to River Cottage. We didn't have the right kind of garden way back then, but we began investigating.

Our honeymoon destination in May 2001 was chosen specifically because the Dorset cottage had it's own trio of hens which you could collect eggs from everyday. They were a bit sad looking, one had a very pecked, bald bottom, and the run, although large, was just mud and nettles. Oh my, they were so much fun to talk to and watch.

We bought a couple of books via Amazon; Keeping a Few Hens in Your Garden and Keeping a Few Ducks in Your Garden, both written by the doyenne of poultry Francine Raymond. The latter book put the idea of ducks out of our minds entirely! If you're thinking about them then do read this book, it's a wake up call! The former had us entranced though. The book itself was printed on incredibly tactile paper, reminiscent of a school exercise book, with a pen and ink illustration glued to the front. Inside, the words and drawings washed over me, cementing my resolve, and making the whole scheme seem totally achievable. Her loving descriptions of her own flock of Buff Orpingtons captivated me. She painted them as one of the most sedate, tolerant, gentle and enormous breeds available, likening them to 'the family Labrador'. I began investigating potential breeders in the back of Practical Poultry magazine

Time rolled on, and in 2007 we finally found our plot of land to self-build on; this was our opportunity at long last!

We enrolled on a Chicken Keeping course, actually run by Francine Raymond (I was star-struck) at the beautiful Assington Mill in Suffolk. Francine was so informative, no question was too silly, and she had an amazing life-size sculpture of an Orpington hen that someone had made her from chicken wire. Wow...that was a big sculpture!

I worked in sales at Forsham Cottage Arks, the wooden poultry housing specialists (before they were bought out by Omlet), and gained lots more practical experience with chickens, and started to devise how MrPB and I could keep a trio of hens safely in our new garden...which was still building site at this point!

We made contact with a well known Orpington breeder Priscilla Middleton, who lived about 40 minutes drive from us. We spoke a few times on the phone, then deciding that 2015 was THE year, we arranged to visit Priscilla in the Spring, once I was fully recovered from my hysterectomy operation in January.

Her yard is a chicken lovers heaven! Her flocks of bantams and normal size chickens wander around freely looking very idyllic, but her large fowl breeding birds are kept in pens out in a field.

A gorgeously fluffy, chocolate coloured Orpington hen was pecking around, and I drew MrPB's attention to her "That's an Orpington" I pointed out, and a look of relief appeared on MrPB 's face, she wasn't nearly as big as I'd been telling him... "Yes, she's a bantam Orpington...that one over there is a large fowl Orpington" His face fell, she was at least three times bigger than the pretty bantam! Teehee!

Finally in August we went back to Priscilla's, armed with a huge cardboard box. She had gathered together seven or eight pullets raised from different clutches that had hatched at approximately the same time.

I had already chosen names (*sorry*). I was hoping to get a Buff Orpington, a chocolate one and a Lemon Cuckoo one (I wanted to call her Miss Lemon after Hercule Poirot's secretary). Sadly Priscilla didn't have a Lemon Cuckoo available. D'oh!

Instead we chose a beautiful Buff, a stunning Silver-Laced and a sweet Lavender.

Buff Orpington Silver-laced Orpington Lavender Orpington POL chickens
Clockwise from left to right: Silver-laced, Buff, Lavender
Photos by Pumpkin Becki

Introductions to the hens - Felicity

Felicity Lemon is stunning, her plumage has so many different textures, and in the sun she sparkles like spun gold. As she moves around she makes soft 'blob blob blob' noises, hence why one of the flock's collective names is the "Blob Blobs". She is probably the oldest of the three (by a matter of days), and came into lay on 30th November 2015.

Buff Orpington hen POL chicken 22 weeks
Miss Felicity Lemon our Buff Orpington, approx 22 weeks old
Photos by Pumpkin Becki

Her eggs are enormous and torpedo-like, and the yolk is so yellow it looks unreal.

first hen egg 10 pence piece
Felicity's first egg next to a 10p piece for scale
Photos by Pumpkin Becki

Introductions to the hens - Hetty

Hetty Wainthrop has the sweetest nature of the three, and her unusual dark eyes are very gentle. She's the trickiest to catch but enjoys a cuddle the most, settling down on your lap instead of standing. The breeder was experimenting with colours and also trying to introduce a 'Frizzle' characteristic to her 2015 offspring. I think Frizzles look daft personally, and as Hetty has grown and moulted she has developed a small patch of silly neck feathers that are Frizzle-esque, growing all twiddly and in the wrong directions. She has also developed random blobs of colour on some feathers, which means she is a Lavender-Splash rather than a pure Lavender. Probably also as a direct result of all this "breeding", her outer toes point sideways. This means they don't wear down own their own, so we have to help her by clipping them regularly.

Hetty takes everything in life slowly, she is always the last out of the coop in the morning and she was the last to come into lay, putting it off until Easter this year. Funnily though, although she wasn't ready yet, once the other two began laying, Hetty would always join them in the nest box, like a midwife offering encouragement. Her eggs are smaller and slightly more rounded than Felicity's. 

Orpington hens Lavender Silver-laced POL point of lay chickens 22 weeks
Mrs Hetty Wainthrop our Lavender Orpington with deep dark eyes, approx 22 weeks old
Photos by Pumpkin Becki

Introductions to the hens - Jane

Jane Marple, has a sharp, beady look about her. She's the noisiest...actually the sound she makes is like an angry goose, it's rather alarming! She is top of the pecking order and likes the others to know it, though they are so relaxed as a flock that there is never any actual harm done.

She is described as a Silver-Laced, and this refers to the pretty, dark outline around each and every feather. Only her 'fluff' is a plain brown/black. In fact when you look closely at Jane's lacing, you notice that it is not plain, but iridescent, like beetle wings or petrol.

Jane began laying in mid December 2015. Her eggs are small and viciously round! How she lays them I have no idea!!

Being a "breed" rather than hybrids, the ladies spend a lot of time "off-lay", but the eggs are just a welcome bonus really.

Orpington hens chickens lavender garden
Miss Jane Marple (Silver-laced Orpington) and Miss Lemon (Buff) enjoy the delights of the garden, especially lavender
Photos by Pumpkin Becki

Chickens, was it worth the wait?

So, having waited seventeen years to get our ladies, was the wait worth it?


They are everything I hoped they would be and more.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Beatrix Potter and The Amiable Guinea Pig

Beatrix Potter and her love of animals

Beatrix Potter was an English girl born in 1866. She was educated at home by a succession of governesses, and went on to become the author of some of the most enduring, best-loved children's stories ever published. 

She was an avid artist, becoming an accomplished botanical illustrator and created all her own story book illustrations. 

She wrote about her pets, farm animals and the wildlife that surrounded her home. Her first book was the self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901), and in 1903 she designed and produced a plush toy of Peter Rabbit which she patented, and this toy became the first ever licensed literary character. 

Most of her stories were darkly cautionary tales for young children, teaching important life lessons to Victorian and Edwardian children, but she also wrote poetry, and my favourite (you'll see why) comes from the collected works called Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes. It is entitled The Amiable Guinea Pig

Beatrix Potter's The Amiable Guinea Pig

There once was an amiable guinea pig, 
Who brushed back his hair like a periwig --
He wore a sweet tie, 
As blue as the sky --
And his whiskers and buttons
Were very big.

By Beatrix Potter
© Frederick Warne & Co.

With kind permission from Penguin Random House UK

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

David Austen Roses Unpacking and Review - Geoff Hamilton

Geoff Hamilton: Man, Gardener, Legend

I have always loved the late, great Geoff Hamilton. His passion for Organic gardening, sustainability, environmental impact and biodiversity began way before these terms became trendy. He believed in them, he used them in his garden 'Barnsdale' and he taught us about them on BBC2's Gardener's World every Friday evening. He was an inspiration.

I remember my late mother would curl up in the armchair with her Gin and Tonic and absorb everything he said. She wasn't interested in growing fruit or vegetables, just ornamentals, but she watched avidly nonetheless, and I sat with her. When Geoff passed away on 4th August 1996 we cried. 
I still cry when I see clips of him on TV now

Geoff Hamilton: Shrub Rose

I've never been a fan of gardening with roses, they've always stabbed me no matter how careful I've been around them. Gardening shouldn't be a violent pastime, it should be gentle. 
How fitting then, that almost exactly 20 years after Geoff Hamilton died, I discovered that the world renown rose breeders David Austin Roses had developed a thornless* shrub rose named after the kind and gentle Geoff.

I placed my order online, direct with David Austin Roses, for a bare root plant to be dispatched to me during November. The process was incredibly easy and the website tempting, but I stuck to one Geoff Hamilton and one pack of mycorrhizal fungi, which is highly recommended for roses.

David Austin Roses Review
The David Austin packaging is very prestigious looking.
photo by Pumpkin Becki

Unpacking my rose

The parcel arrived on Wednesday 9th November, delivered by Royal Mail packed in this tall brown paper bag.

The bag was indestructible!

The string thing at the top of these bags always defeats me; I can never undo the chicken feed ones.

"I'll tear it open" I thought (struggle, wrestle, struggle) "...perhaps not!"

I resorted to my trusty gardening knife.

Inside the brown paper outer was my bare root rose plant wrapped in two plastic bags.

There an envelope containing a customer survey, there was my mycorrhizal fungi pack, a comprehensive, glossy, full-colour cultivation guide, and a wonderfully muddy packing list, which looked like it had been taken into the field to ensure the right rose was dug up.

David Austin Roses Rose Cultivation Guide customer survey packing note mycorrhizal fungi
Rose Cultivation Guide, customer survey, packing note and mycorrhizal fungi, photo by Pumpkin Becki
David Austin Roses soaking root ball before planting
Soaking the root ball is vitally important,
photo by Pumpkin Becki

Planting my rose - preparation

I received a lovely healthy bare root three stemmed plant grafted onto a substantial root-stock.

Following the instructions in the cultivation guide, I soaked the roots of my rose in a bucket of water for several hours. I stood the bucket in the unheated greenhouse.

The next step was to choose the planting location.

Now, I had about three options available to me in the back garden, but one would be too windy and the other would give the plant too much competition from the roots of other plants.

I chose the raised bed in front of the greenhouse. dug up the spent sweet pea plants, and an elderly hollyhock which hadn't performed very well this summer.

I dug down probably about 30cm until I started to hit the drainage material in the bottom of the bed. The cultivation guide states 80cm, but knew I could increase the depth by topping up the soil level and mulching ...I'll never achieve 80cm though, unless I build the rose it's own soil mountain :)

David Austin Roses digging planting hole
Digging the hole, photo by Pumpkin Becki
I dug the hole as big and wide as I could, around 60cm diameter at the top, and kept trying the roots in the hole until they were able to fit with space to spare. Here you can see my hand trowel sticking up vertically from the bottom of the hole.

It is important to keep testing the root ball in the planting hole before back-filling; you want to give the plant the best possible chance of success, and a well spread out root system will help prevent wind rock.

The next step was to open the pack of mycorrhizal fungi. The  bag said that it was sufficient for three rose plants, so holding the root ball over the newly dug hole, I liberally sprinkled a third of the bag over the soaked roots and into the hole itself.

What is Mycorrhizal fungi?

Have you ever dug down into undisturbed soil and seen a web of white powery strands around the roots of plants and bulbs? That is mycorrhizal fungi. It forms a mutually beneficial relationship with the plant, bonding to the roots and effectively extending the host plants root system immeasurably.

The RHS say that mycorrhizal fungi are most beneficial to wild plants, as cultivation, fertilization, application of manure and herbicides will all damage the delicate natural balance between the fungi and the host. So don't apply mycorrhizal fungi to vegetable beds for instance, it would be a waste of money and effort.

David Austin Roses planting depth grafts
Checking the planting depth with a cane, photo by Pumpkin Becki

Planting my rose - planting depth

Depth of planting hole is just as important a diameter, possibly more-so.

The 'union' or graft point should be around 5cm below the finished soil level. The graft is usually an obvious knobbly joint between the root stock and the plant. Different root stocks govern the vigour of the whole plant, and is a very common practice. Grafted fruit trees are always more productive than non-grafted, and the same variety of apple grafted on to different types of root will each produce different size mature trees, some suitable for small gardens, some suitable for orchards.

Here you can see the rose root stock is brown, and there is a knobbly part with the bright green plant stems joined to it. This is the graft.

I laid a garden cane across the top of the planting hole, and you can see that the hole needs to be a little deeper for the graft to sit 5cm below soil level (the bottom edge of the cane).

Once I was happy with the depth, I supported the plant upright in the hole, and began carefully backfilling, making sure there were no air pockets present. The backfill was enriched with some extra garden compost, and firmed in.

David Austin Roses planting watering
Watering in, photo by Pumpkin Becki
When the hole was 95% filled in, I carefully poured a bucketful of water over the root area to make sure that the soil was well settled around the plant. Once the puddle (which you can see here) had drained down into the soil, I put on the last of the soil/compost mix and leveled the surface to it's finished height.

I am so excited to see how Geoff does in my garden. I really hope he and I make a great partnership for many years to come.

* In the 2015 David Austin Roses catalogue, Geoff Hamilton is described as 'thornless (or mostly)'. In 2016 that has been omitted and it is no longer included in the search results for 'thornless'. I wait with trepidation to see how mine turns out!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Guinea Pig Cages - what are the options?

Before you go and get your Guinea Pigs

Yes, "Guinea Pigs" plural, because piggies like to be in pairs or groups.

Indoor or outdoor cages?

The first consideration is probably will your guinea pigs live indoors full-time like mine, or will they be outdoors, only moving indoors in winter if it's particularly cold.

Indoor cage options - outdoor cage indoors:

You could use a standard outdoor hutch, that's fine, and is in fact what we have, though ours have been heavily modified. They started life as two Bunny Business Double Hutches intended for rabbits or guinea pigs, but we wanted to offer our piggies more space to run around (N.B. these hutches ARE NOT big enough for a rabbit)

MrPB has split the bottom floor into two levels with a ramp, and the upper floor has a ramp up to a mezzanine level, which we call the hay loft.  
The small access door on the upper floor has had the top wooden tongue and groove removed and replaced with perspex
The T&G on the lower small door has been swapped with mesh from the side wall.
Guinea pig cage options outdoor hutches

Reviews on this hutch vary wildly (as is often the case). When we chose it we knew we wanted to drastically change it, so build quality and layout were not an issue. We also knew the hutches would only be used indoors, so weather resistance didn't matter either. So long as the piggies could safely get from one level to the next and still have plenty of room for food, water, hay, to stretch up, run round, and to "flomp out" us we call it (if you have piggies you'll know exactly what I mean!), they were the key factors.

Indoor cage options - store-bought indoor cages:

I am not a fan of these wire and plastic cages for guinea pigs. In fairness to Pets at Home (whose website I picked at random) they do state that these cages are not suitable as full-time
accommodation, but I know some owners do use them for that. Some sizes are okay, but some are horrifically small!

A much better option is:

Indoor cage options - C&C/DIY cages:

C&C cages are de rigueur when it comes to indoor guinea pig accommodation. 14" square panels of wire mesh (choose the 9x9 squares per panel option, as piggies can get stuck in the gaps of 8x8 and less). There are endless videos on Youtube extolling the virtues of them over store-bought cages and hutches.

One of the biggest benefits is that the grids are secured in place by corner connectors, that means that the size and shape can be adjusted, increased or decreased at the drop of a hat. It's not quite that simple though, you do need to make a cleanable base, usually from Coroplast corrogated sheet; that and the size of the individual grid panels will dictate the eventual cage size.

Some people go on from using pure C&C cages, to a DIY hybrid based on the principles of the C&C system. Below are links to some of my favourite guinea pig Youtubers. You'll see very quickly that some of them have progressed up to 'pig rooms'...not just a room the cage/s are kept in, but a room where most of the floor space has been turned into a cage, with the C&C forming a fence to prevent the piggies getting out of the room on their own.
If you're a fan of decorating and themes, then this system is also for you, fleece cage liners, toys, hideys etc are the favourite way of adding character and enrichment to your piggies environment.

For amazing ideas do check out:

The only real disadvantage I can see to this system is that this system is usually open topped (though you can make second tiers or roof sections), so other pets (cats or dogs) could get in on their own, but then Erin from Pets Palace TV has her cat and dog wandering round with her piggies, so it does depend on the individual but is certainly something to be aware of.

Outdoor cages and hutches

Make sure the hutch can be located out of the wind, rain or blazing sunshine, extremes of weather and temperature can cause all sorts of health issues. You can buy special hutch covers now, but please be careful to provide really good ventilation, as humid enclosed hutches can cause nasty respiratory problems. Outdoor hutches are normally made of wood with roofing felt on the top, make sure they are sturdy, the doors close and lock securely, and that the wire mesh is a close grid of galvanised weld mesh, fixed in place all the way round. Some styles of hutch come with legs, but if not, find or build a frame for the hutch to stand on.

You have a lot more predators to think about when your piggies live outdoors, cats and dogs yes, but also foxes, rats, stoats, badgers, owls and other birds of prey. When they are hungry, or have babies to care for they will be bold, and once they know you have small furry creatures in your garden they will return again and again trying to get at them. Always use crank-neck barrel sliding bolts (see picture) to secure the doors. Even if your hutch came fitted with something else, swap them over straight away.

If you have bought a two-tier hutch that is a run on the bottom meant to stand on grass, make sure your guinea pigs are secured inside the top tier every night, better still put the whole hutch on hard-standing overnight. This might seem like a faff, but a determined fox or badger will dig relentlessly under the run until it finds a way in.

A more recently introduced type of outdoor hutch is made of plastic, manufactured by the UK based company Eglu Ltd. 
I worry about this hutch/run combination on so many levels; lack of ventilation, heat, cold, space, predators, but must make it clear that I have no personal experience of it. 

The Eglu Go is the most expensive option per square inch, so as with any type of hutch always do your research thoroughly before investing.

Size IS important

The RSPCA states that the minimum cage size for two guinea pigs should be 120cm x 60cm x 45cm
Whilst siblings or bonded piggies will live happily together, just like humans, sometimes they need to be on their own for a few minutes, so the more space you can offer, the more cosy places, the more hay piles/racks available, the happier your piggies will be.

Our modified cages each offer 3 times the RSPCA's minimum floor space requirement, with plenty of space for our piggies to stretch up on the top level, and lots of ramps keep them active, multiple eating and drinking areas etc.

On top of this I also have a collapsible indoor run for floor time and when I'm cleaning out one of the hutches, and two larger outdoor runs with mesh tops so the piggies can safely play of the grass when it's warm and dry. 

I do not put my piggies on wet/damp grass as they can easily get respiratory problems, so I would never use a run/hutch combination myself. I am also wary of the steep ramps in some indoor and outdoor tiered cages. Our ramps are long and shallow, but others I have seen are almost 45 degrees! Our ramps have walls around them to prevent a guinea pig accidentally falling down the access hole, and they have carpet on them to allow the piggies to go up or down securely.

When you are choosing your set up, don't assume that the manufacturer or marketing company has considered safety, size and suitability. Don't assume that the photo of the pet sitting next to the cage on the advert or packaging is to scale either, they were probably photographed separately. Do your own research, read books, magazines, watch YouTube videos and learn from others mistakes. In this day and age there is no excuse for having poor knowledge and providing a dangerous, undersized home for your guinea pigs.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Introducing my family - part 3



Black eyed cream Syrian hamster youngster
Cookie the Syrian Hamster at six weeks old
Cookie is our first male pet. I don't know why I've always steered away from male animals, maybe it being 'humped' by a friend's black Labrador puppy as a teenager has mentally scarred me!

When Twinkle passed away, her empty cage made me so sad. She had been such an amazing little character and I missed her dreadfully.

We took a trip to Pets at Home on the way home from work (this is becoming a habit isn't it!), checked the Adoption section first, but there were no hamsters there. So we went round to the babies (via the guinea pigs, because...well it's me isn't it), and there was a cage of  four or five baby black eyed cream short coated Syrian hamsters. My first hamster, Biscuit, was a black eyed cream and looking at the babies took me right back to my teens.

I thought I had spotted the one I wanted, but when the assistant came and opened the cage, a much smaller little face popped up out of a pile of bedding. It was Cookie.

He settled in very quickly and loves climbing, so I bought him a Boredom Breaker Activity Assault Course from Viovet. I hide treats in different positions all over it, and it makes him use his nose to find them. he's ever so clever.

adult male black eyed cream Syrian hamster
Cookie the Syrian hamster and his tea
He does this adorable thing where he pops his head up through a hole in the platform, and looks just like Basil the rat from Fawlty Towers when he's in the biscuit tin :D

We also call him our Zombie, because he has very long front paws, and sometimes his brain stops (not literally) and he sits very still on his back legs with his long front paws dangling in front of his chest. He looks like he's straight out of a zombie film!

His new favourite treat is meal worms. I have dried ones which I feed to him; he doesn't instantly pouch them, but sits there happily crunching on one until it's all gone.

He's much sleepier than any of the female hamsters I've had before,  that's quite a common trait, and although he has a good appetite he's remained very small. Male hamsters are generally smaller than females, but thinking back to how dinky he was when we first saw him, he was possibly the runt of the litter and is naturally smaller because of this.


Black banded female Syrian hamster
Sophie the Syrian hamster on
Boredom Breaker Assault Course
We needed some guinea pig food, so popped into Pets at Home on the way home from work (I definitely have a problem).

We picked up the nuggets and went to look at the Adoption section. We were just looking, we had no empty cages at home waiting for a new resident, so we felt quite happy and confident that we were just window shopping.

We looked at the rabbits, the gerbils, rats (no piggies this time - phew)...and there was Sophie (called Kiwi at the time) in one of the upper cages. She was a black banded Syrian hamster with the beginnings of a long coat on her hips. She was sitting at the front of the glass washing, and when I spoke to her and rubbed my fingertip on the glass she responded by pushing her forehead against the pane under my finger, just like cats do. 


She wombled off and I commented to MrPB that she had a little scab on her nose. I pointed at her and she wombled back over, rubbing her head against my finger through the glass again.

Double gulp!

I was lead quickly away to look at the baby rabbits and guinea pigs, but she was calling to me. We bumped into a colleague who joked that we didn't need any rabbits in our menagerie, and I said "No, but look at this little sweetheart" and lead her over to the hamster who repeated her head rubbing trick again. My colleague wandered off and MrPB came over.

The usual questions were asked by MrPB; where would we put her, what would we do about a cage etc etc, and before we knew it, Sophie was being boxed up by an assistant and we were taking her and a new Savic Ruffy 2 Rat cage plus a bowl and water bottle to the checkout. She was in the adoption section because of the scab on her nose, she had been removed from the rest of the litter to allow it to heal.

Female Black banded long haired Syrian hamster
Sophie the Syrian hamster and her fluffy tummy
The moment she was boxed Sophie started scrabbling to get out and making a dreadful pipping noise. our mild mannered sweet little friend did not like being in a dark box! The assistant suggested we transferred her straight into the cage as soon as we got out to the car. We emptied a small bag of Back to Nature small animal paper bedding into the bottom of the cage, secured the top onto the base, put her box in and let her out. She immediately calmed down, stopped making her angry noises and started exploring. Once we started driving she climbed up the bars to watch where we were going (hamsters are short sighted and so this is impossible, but it looked adorable!).

MrPB added wooden platforms for Sophie, and as she was definitely a climber (but with terrible descending skills) I purchased another Activity Assault course for her and a ladder which we have secured with chains to make a bridge. As she grows she is getting better at climbing and slightly better at descending, but she is still a really sociable little girl and always comes over to 'talk' to you. The best bit is that when she climbs her bars, you can stroke her gorgeously soft, fluffy tummy. Oh my goodness, it's amazing!

"Pip" and "Diggy"

I've hankered after Roborovski Dwarf hamsters for  almost two years. When we got Minky our Russian Dwarf hamster, I bought the Dwarf Hamsters book by Pet Friendly. I had never heard of Roborovski hamsters (aka Robos) before I opened that book, but I then began researching them on Youtube and the internet at large.

After Minky passed away, we decided that we would try to get two Robos. Her old Savic plastic cage would be perfect for such small escape artists as there are no side bars for them to squeeze through, only an opening grille set into the clear plastic upper section.

Agouti Roborovski hamster
Diggy the Roborovski hamster
At Pets at Home they had a cage with 3 baby Robos and a cage with one on it's own. All were gorgeous. We knew we wanted two, but it seemed sad to split up the three leaving one behind, so we said to the assistant that we may have all of them.

A friend had warned me that Robos are 'like water' to handle, and he was not wrong! The first baby took a minute or two, but went into the box on its own, the first box closed and popped into a secondary box for security, and put to one side while the next one was caught. The second box went in and the assistant started trying to scoop the another baby into the box. It went in, the assistant filled with confidence lifted the box and tipped it so the opening was pointing upwards and this little furball flew out of the top like it had been shot from a canon!! It fell a couple of feet onto the shop floor and between us we got it back into the cage. the assistant told us he would have to get that one checked over by a vet, so he caught the other baby for us and we had to leave it at two after all.

Agouti Roborovski hamster
Pip the Roborovski hamster
The babies have been with us for just four days now, so they are still getting used to their new surroundings. They are much more sensitive to noise and light than the Syrian or Russian hamsters, and they are much more interested in burrowing! The Syrian and Russian Dwarfs tend to gather all their bedding up into a nest, leaving a flattened scattering as substrate. The Robos, like to dig, dig, dig! They burrow under the substrate, creating warrens of tunnels from one bit of cover to the next, and sending showers of paper flakes up into the air like a snowplow digging through a ten foot drift.

Roborovski hamsters move fast
Pip the Roborovski hamster - demonstration of speed
We don't know what sex they are...yet, and we haven't really come up with names either. One has more brown on it's face than the other and for some reason I want to call it Pip. MrPB calls them both Diggy, so I'm trying to encourage that to be the paler faced one. They are absolutely minute as you can see by the egg box Diggy is sitting under in the first photo.

Next time...The chickens

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

5 Tips for Gardening in Autumn

Here are my top 5 tips for gardening in the Autumn.

Autumn gardening jobs Tree Fern Dicksonia Antarctica
Tree Fern Dicksonia Antarctica
Photo taken by Pumpkin Becki at Chelsea Physic Gardens, London

1 Move frost tender plants

Living in the South East of England, I don't worry about lifting Dahlia tubers once the first frost has blackened them in the Autumn, I just prune off the dead top and add a good 8-10cm mulch over the soil. I do take the time to wrap tree ferns up in fleece.

Further up country you're going to want to make space in a frost-free place to keep half hardy and tender perennials, including Banana Ensete, Cannas and Fuchsia.

I would also add Banana Musa to that list, as I've never been able to keep one in the garden over-winter, even really wrapped up well. It's so disappointing to find a dead plant when you peel back the fleece in Spring.

2 Clean paths and greenhouses

Algae growth goes into overdrive in October/November while it's still mild, and mornings are misty. Paths can become treacherous to walk on, so take some time now to scrub or jet-wash paths, decks and steps.

3 Aerate Lawns

Over the summer months our lawns take a real battering. We mow them to within an inch of their lives, they get parched and then drowned, we walk on them, pets do their business on them, and in my case the guinea pigs and chickens spend large chunks of time there too. I have two patches that get particularly compacted and in the winter water sits on the surface for hours after a good downpour. Early in the Autumn the ground is usually too dry to be able to improve drainage or relieve compaction, so once there has been a bit of rain and it's soaked in it's worth going over the lawn with a large garden fork at 10-15cm intervals, inserting it down through the turf into the soil (right up to the point where the tines meet the fork's shoulder if you can) and give it a good firm wiggle back and forth to expand the holes as much as possible without actually lifting the turf. Then you can dress the holes with a free-draining mixture of topsoil and sharp sand (aka top dressing), sweeping any excess in with a beesom broom afterwards.

The grass will also appreciate having fallen leaves raked off regularly with a springtine rake, and this will also scarify (scratch) the dead grass and moss out, making the lawn healthier and less springy.

ladybirds sweetcorn Autumn garden jobs
Ladybirds over-wintering in sweetcorn plants
Photo by Pumpkin Becki

4 Don't be too tidy

Wildlife needs somewhere to live over the winter and spring, so make sure you have safe places for them in your garden. Log piles, bundles of canes and hedgerows are idea for insects and birds. Leave stalks and seedheads on plants over winter, they'll look pretty touched by frost and wildlife will make good use of them too.

For even more luxury why not add bug hotels, frog boxes and hedgehog hides in secluded corners. Dragonfli sell a huge range of habitats and identification guides for wildlife, as will your local garden centre and many other online retailers. Or if you're feeling practical, why not have ago at building your own

Autumn garden jobs hedgehog hibernate leaves bonfire
Hedgehog hibernating

5 Always check bonfires for hedgehogs!

I can't reiterate this one too much. This innocent looking pile of leaves behind my Hebe is in fact a hedgehog nest. He's set up home to hibernate over winter, and I discovered him while I was mulching the bed under the front window of my house.

I checked he was okay, and piled some extra leaves on top.

And Special Secret Tip Number 6

Take time to enjoy the changing season and all the delights it brings, the blazing colours, delicate frost patterns on windows, wild birds visiting garden feeders, pumpkins ripening, picking apples from the tree, and pouring over seed catalogues with a cheeky hot chocolate, deciding what to grow next year.

Pumpkin Becki xx

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Saying Goodbye to Pets - How to deal with grief.

Saying goodbye to beloved family pets is one of the hardest trials life can throw at us.

Russian dwarf hamster death pet grief
Photo by Pumpkin Becki
We have just had Minky our Russian Dwarf Hamster put to sleep by the vet. She was 2 weeks away from her 2nd birthday, which is very good going for a little Russian Dwarf, but overnight she became poorly, bleeding from her back end, and one eye was closed. She was still her feisty little self, but weak, unbalanced and falling asleep mid-activity.

Many people can't understand others feeling grief and loss for an animal. Others can understand it if the animal lost is a dog, cat or horse, but not a 'small animal'. They assume that small animals have no personality to become attached to, that they are emotionally 'disposable'.

I hope that through this blog I can help reverse that view.

Be kind to yourself. Take time to grieve, you have lost a family member.

Allow children to grieve too. I've met many parents who refuse to allow their children to have any sort of pet, because they don't want to have to deal with the upset of that pet becoming ill or dying, and their child's subsequent emotions and questions.

It's a real, genuine shame, because experiencing the loss of a pet will help a child learn about the circle of life, and make dealing with the death of a relation or friend a little easier to cope with. I'm not suggesting that you have a pet solely for that purpose, that's not right at all, but to grow with a pet, form a bond, let that pet go physically and emotionally, and then learn to celebrate the joy it brought you is a very healthy, normal process. Don't deny a child that just because you don't want to deal with it.

When the time comes, options open to a small pet owner depend on the situation:

Natural death:

If your pet passes away in it's sleep it's probably easiest to bury it in your own garden, providing you have the appropriate place to do that. I tend to wrap my little friend up in a compostable bag, with a 'nest' of paper bedding. It makes me feel better about the process. Make sure you bury the parcel deep enough, ideally with a stone laid on top of the soil so a dog, cat or fox doesn't try to dig it up. It's also worth marking the grave somehow so it doesn't get disturbed when you're gardening.

Vet assisted death:

If you and your vet agree that the time has come to put your pet to sleep, the veterinary practice will have several options for you.
  • You can take your pet home with you for burial
  • You can opt for a communal cremation - no remains are returned to you
  • Or a solitary cremation - where you will receive ashes in a canister that you can scatter or keep.
guinea pig death pet grief
Poppy and Coco
Photo by Pumpkin Becki

Some practices may offer to dispose of the body for you, this was certainly offered to me years ago, but is not something my current vet practice does.

We have taken all three options with various pets.
Twinkle and Minky were both brought home and are buried in the flower garden
Coco and Poppy were cremated with other people's pets, and the remains disposed of by the crematorium.

guinea pig death pet grief
Photo by MrPB
Pudding...Now Pudding (aka PudPud, Pu Bear, Bumble) was a VERY special guinea pig. She touched our hearts in a way that I don't think will ever be equalled.

She passed away in MrPB's arms at home, but we took the decision to take her to the vets the following morning and have her cremated on her own, so that we could have her ashes back.

We keep them in a little blue and white china ginger jar on our sideboard. No, it's not weird or morbid, we just couldn't let her go completely, and when we disagree on something we still refer it to PudPud for ultimate adjudication.

Obviously there is expense involved with any vet assisted death. You will have to pay for the appointment and method of dispatch. Burying at home is free, but the cremation options increase the cost dramatically, with solitary cremation and ashes being the most expensive.

Plan for this expense!

If funds are an issue, then start a 'pet fund' as soon as you get your pet (if not before), to give you a buffer from unexpected expenses like vet care. It's the only responsible course of action, an animal cannot suffer because you don't have the funds to offer it a pain-free death.

Pumpkin Becki xx