It was with great excitement that we received a box of hatching duck eggs through the post, nearly six weeks ago. We have often talked about keeping ducks over the years, but prior to moving to the Orkney Islands, we lived in built up areas, where poultry and fowl were restricted.
We purchased a small incubator (The Brinsea Mini II Eco), which is supposed to be suitable for up to 8 eggs. I think it would be possible to fit 8 eggs in, but I wouldn’t like to see it come hatching time!
Fortunately, we only had six eggs and our kids had a rota to turn them three times a day for nearly four weeks. We watched the temperature and humidity, scared of making any little mistakes. The constant whirring of the incubators fan, made sure that we were always reminded that we had ducklings, quietly growing in the corner of our living room.
Three days before hatch day, we put the incubator into lockdown. This is the point when the eggs become particularly sensitive to any change in temperature or humidity and opening the incubator can dry out the membrane. We increased the humidity, as we didn’t want any problems with hatching.
The next day three of the eggs pipped. It was so exciting to be able to hear the ducklings and see the eggs moving from time to time.
We had our suspicions that two of the eggs had not developed, as they were a noticeably different colour and since increasing the humidity, a rather nasty smell had started to waft out of the incubator. I realise now, that I should have candled the eggs before going into lockdown, but we were worried about damaging them, by handling them too much.
It was over twenty-four hours later, before the first duckling zipped it’s egg and saw it’s first glimpse of the world. A beautiful yellow duckling, we knew that this one was half German Pekin. All of our eggs were from Cherry Vale mothers, but they had a mix of two fathers, with the other being an Indian Runner.
Sure enough, duckling number two was brown and yellow – so now we had one of each.
By this time a fourth egg had pipped, but as we approached the 48 hour mark since no.3 had pipped, I became anxious that it was having difficulties. No.3 had pipped at the small end of the egg and I was aware that this could be a problem. I had read a lot about the importance of leaving ducks to hatch by themselves, unless absolutely necessary. It was getting really stressful, so I checked in with The Highland Homestead, who had supplied our eggs, to get some advice. I was just preparing to step in, when I saw that no.3 was finally making a push for freedom and a few minutes later, Clover arrived.
I was just going to relax a little and wait for no.4 to arrive some time the next day, when I noticed that the hatched ducklings were having some real difficulties, with the tiny space inside the incubator.
Our first to hatch, Tonka, was having to sit on top of Flax, who had become trapped in a very awkward position, between the remnants of shell. We watched anxiously as poor Flax lay with Tonka sat on her head!
Eventually, they managed to rearrange themselves, but a short time later, Tonka, became stuck between the thermometer and the roof of the incubator. Tonka was clearly in distress at this point, so I made the decision to move Tonka and Flax to the brooder, leaving Clover to dry out some more in the incubator.
I knew that this would put no.4 at risk, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice.
The three that were hatched seemed to be doing really well, with more space and all fluffed up nicely. The following day, no.4 started to break free, but it only got a little section of egg loose. I could see that the membrane was yellow and knew that opening the incubator to free Tonka, had dried out our last ducklings membrane, trapping it in it’s egg.
I moved the now fully dry Clover to the brooder and prepared to help no.4.
It was a really tense few minutes, as I carefully removed small pieces of shell, watching for any signs of bleeding or blood vessels. It was quite incredible to uncover little Sorrel’s eye and see her looking at me, as I removed enough shell for her to free her head. At that point, she was able to wriggle out of her shell and I quickly popped her back in the incubator to dry.
It was such a relief to see her doing really well and moving about.
As soon as she was dry, she joined the others and now that there didn’t seem to be any risk of harm, I removed the last two eggs and candled them to check for ducklings. I was very relieved to find there were none and that hatching was complete, with four happy, healthy ducklings snuggled up together.
A week and a half later and they are very much a part of the family. All of our kids adore them, from our 3yr old, all the way up to our 19yr old. They are growing at an astonishing rate and everyday we have to change things around to suit their new size and ability.
It has been a really rewarding experience for us all and we look forward to seeing them in their proper feathers, roaming around our garden.
Spring is a plentiful time for collecting plant fibres to use in basketry and dyes. You may have seen in my earlier post, Making Dandelion Paper and Dandelion Beads that the petals of these wonderful springtime weeds, can be turned into a wonderful textural paper and a fun craft activity for children. The sunny and under-appreciated dandelion, has uses beyond its flowering time, however. The stems grow incredibly long as they go to seed and can be hung in bunches of 5-6, to let them dry for later use.
I have also found that they dry well laid flat, as long as the air can circulate all around them. I have done this on homemade frames, made from reclaimed wood, with linen scrim stretched over them. The frames fit onto runners above our stairs, where they dry beautifully and quickly – thanks to the warm air rising through the house.
If picking the long stems, wait until the seeds have dispersed, to ensure a good crop the following year.
Once dry, the stems can be used as they are for twining, or can be made into a beautiful cordage. The variety of colours in these stems ranges from deep purples, through pinks and of course pale greens. It is worth noting however, that these will fade in time to a lovely golden colour.
The flowers, stems, leaves and even roots of the humble dandelion, can be made into natural dyes. These vary depending on which parts of the plant that you use, how you prepare the dye, the accompanying mordant and whether you are dyeing plant or animal fibres.
Greens and yellows can be expected and my own efforts this year, produced a fantastic bright yellow on raffia, which has been a joy to work with.
There are other plants around during late spring, which are starting to fade and can be used for basketry. I made dye with our daffodil flowers earlier in the year (Daffodil Dye and a Basketry Experiment), but I was equally excited about gathering the leaves.
Daffodils need to retain their stems and leaves, until the time that they begin to yellow or brown, as the bulbs take goodness from these to produce next years flowers.
Of course, as soon as they start to go, it is a huge job to collect and dry them all. I have found that these leaves will not tolerate being dried horizontally. They will just get spoiled by dark patches of mildew.
This can also be the case if hung in bunches. So instead, I have been hanging them individually on washing line, stretched along our walls.
I had no idea, until this year, that daffodil leaves have such a strong scent. The whole house has been filled with a strong floral smell during the 2-3 weeks that they take to dry out properly. If you are drying some yourself, hang with the cut base of the stem hanging down. Once dry, the leaves can be wrapped in paper and stored until needed.
I like to braid them in threes and fours and use them for coiling. You will need to mellow the leaves before use, by wrapping in a damp cloth and leaving overnight.
Perhaps New Zealand Flax, might not be in everyones garden, but here they grow well. So well in fact, that they become enormous and huge numbers of leaves need to be stripped out of the established plants, to keep them in order.
I was lucky enough to be given the spring clear-out from a neighbours plants. The leaves are ideal for weaving. They can be cut into strips, bent and folded or even retted, so that individual fibres can be stripped.
I think I have a great deal to learn about this plant and its uses, but for now I contented myself with making a harakeke whetu ( a traditional New Zealand woven star).
As spring comes to a close and summer begins, a whole new supply of natural fibres are coming into season, so fill up your walls with nature’s bounty and you will have plenty of natural craft supplies, to keep you going through winter.
We took a walk to Sacquoy Head, Rousay at the weekend, to celebrate our oldest daughter’s birthday. Some spring warmth and sunshine returned to us, just in time and the stunning scenery made it a birthday to remember.
We haven’t rushed to explore every inch of Rousay, since moving to our island home. Instead, we have taken our time and saved some adventures for when we really need a change of scene. This weekend felt like one of those occasions and this walk was definitely worth the wait!
We started our adventure from Nousty Sand and set off along the road, to find a turning onto the coastal path. The verges on the island are beginning to get full with wild plants once again and here and there huge drifts of bright red poppies are coming into bloom.
We were glad to have very clear step by step instructions from walkhighlands.co.uk as we left the road behind us and set off across farmland. A lot of this small island, is given over to farmland and throughout May and June, the loud and varied mix of bird calls are joined, by hundreds of bleating lambs.
Once through the farm buildings and fields of sheep though, we felt like we had left the rest of the world behind, as we had the huge, blue expanse of the sea in front of us and wide open spaces all around.
We settled down to watch the fulmers and skuas flying in and out of the rocks and the seals splashing in the clear waters below us, while we enjoyed Arwen’s birthday picnic.
With tummies nicely full, we set off again on our adventure – just a few miles from home.
If you’re visiting Rousay, you must walk this stretch of coastline. It really feels as if the views get increasingly breathtaking around every turn. Tiny wildflowers are just starting to bloom in huge numbers amongst the grasses and after a very dry month, the ground was firm underfoot, making the walking easy.
We even discovered a small lake, a short distance from the cliffs, which had been warmed by the sunny day and was perfect for cooling our hot feet. While the girls and I sat and dabbled our toes, chatting in the sunshine, Matt and Orin decided to see what was just around the corner.
They were soon back with shouts of,
“You’ve got to come and see this!”
We leapt up, abandoning boots and bags and ran across the grass to find a huge opening in the rocky cliffs, which plunged down to reveal the arches with the waves crashing through them.
I could have quite happily set up house right there, just so that I could see that magnificent view everyday!
In the distance we could see another arch, sticking out into the sea, but with young tired legs to think of and a sea fog rolling in over the horizon, we decided that it was time to head back.
We will definitely be returning to this beautiful spot, to explore some more. We all love wave watching and it is the perfect place for admiring the awesome power and beauty of the sea.
It made the day truly special and as I am sure that it won’t be long before Arwen leaves our nest to find one of her own, it is so important to make the most of these times spent together.
The past week and a half, have been a busy time of working with dandelion petals.
I have been waiting for the arrival of dandelion season, since the end of spring last year. Like lots of you, we foraged for dandelions in 2020, to make dandelion jelly. It was delicious, but better still was the discovery that I made whilst preparing it.
While straining the dandelion liquid through a piece of muslin, I noticed how well the petals stuck together. I decided to make them into a ball and try drying it out. To my delight (and everyone else’s amusement) it worked really well and it has lived on our bookcase ever since. I was convinced that I could use the petals to make paper sheets, but I didn’t have any equipment and dandelion season was coming to an end.
The idea stayed with me all year and as spring got underway, I made sure to get all of the equipment that I would need.
Snow in early April, held up the arrival of these sunniest of flowers, but as April was coming to a close the island was suddenly full of them. I didn’t waste any time and my kids were keen to help – they love a bit of foraging. There is something about heading out together with buckets and baskets, to collect what nature has to offer us, that feels like walking straight into one of those delightful children’s literary classics, like Milly Molly Mandy or the Famous Five.
We gathered a really good crop, because I wanted to make sure that I would have enough petals. We went out over a few days, to different locations only taking a few here and there. We were very conscious of the need to leave plenty of flowers to make seeds for next years crop and also for the thousands of bees that share the island.
I spent a long evening removing all of the petals from the sepals and stalks, which were then covered with water in a large stockpot and simmered for half an hour. Then, I left the petals in the water overnight, ready to use the next day.
I had to add quite a lot more water, to get the depth needed in my paper making tub, but I was glad to see that it was still thick with petals.
To my delight the whole process went really smoothly, with the petals forming nice thick sheets on the mould and deckle and couching easily and cleanly.
I really could have done with some nice warm weather to help the drying process at this point, but 2021, seems determined to keep us in the cold. That meant finding space to dry them indoors and having some patience.
By the following day, I decided that they were dry enough to press, which for me involved stacking them and piling up heavy books on top.
I couldn’t have been happier with the results. The colour and texture captured the spirit of these happy flowers, that bring so much joy after winter and seem to be woven into memories of childhood.
The last sheet to be made, had been incomplete (as there were no longer enough petals in the water), so I moulded it over a small bowl while it was still damp.
This process also worked well and is something that I would like to experiment with more in the future.
I love using up scraps, so I really didn’t want to waste the remaining petals. I remembered the dried ball that started the whole idea, so I thought I would have a go at making some beads. They were incredibly simple to make – the already soaked petals, just need to be squeezed together a little and then rolled in the palm of my hand.
After being left to dry, they were easily threaded together with a needle and some thick cotton.
It’s such an easy, but delightful spring craft for children and I think that making both these and the paper, will become a family tradition in our house.
I am looking forward to seeing where paper-making takes me this year. I am hoping to incorporate it with my basket weaving and some sculptural work, but this year is very much a year of experimentation for me and I shall try to go with the flow.
If you get the chance, do try out some dandelion crafts while they are still around in plentiful supply – it’s a lot of fun!