Forget Tasmania, where is the snail of happiness?

I’m pleased to announce that Tasmania, at least the one that I was talking about in my last post, has been found. It is safe and well in my sister’s living room! Yes, the jig-map of my childhood is still being enjoyed by members of my family… we are all squirrels!

However, you may have been wondering where the snail of happiness has been for more than a week now. You have, perhaps, spotted one of my little minions here, and I got a mention here, but as for me there has been silence. I know, I didn’t warn you, but I thought that I was going to have time to blog and it turned out that I didn’t.

Last weekend we had a garden party to celebrate my dad’s life. The sun shone (mostly), we had lovely pictures of dad around the place to encourage people to share their memories of him and there was lots of tea and cake. In fact the only sort of cake he really liked was fruit cake, but we made up for that with a lovely spread including scones, lemon drizzle cake, Victoria sponge, coffee and walnut cake, sticky toffee cake and fallen chocolate truffle cake to name a few. What do you think?

Our cake table

Our cake table

And then I went to spend a few days at Chestnuts Farm… a rather interesting set up comprising a number of separate parcels of rented land with sheep, goats, poultry, a horse, a pony, vegetables and a hay field. I got a real picture of the challenges faced by tenant farmers who have no security because their tenancies are only for, perhaps, three years. How do you make plans for the land you work, when you don’t know whether you will still be on it in five years time? Without longer tenancies, there is little incentive for such farmers to invest in permanent buildings, expensive fencing and planting trees, or anything else that they may not be able to get a proper return on. Since small-scale producers play a valuable part in food-growing in the UK, it seems important to give them security if they do not own their own land.

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

A young Perdy

During my visit, I particularly enjoyed seeing the poultry; my favourites being the bantams. However, in my absence, one of our girls, Perdy, went into a very rapid decline and died before my return. She stopped laying about six months ago, but appeared quite healthy up until the final couple of days. Now we have to decide whether we want any replacements… if there was somebody local with bantams I would be sorely tempted!

The other loss this week was the mealworm farm… the colony was, I thought, safe and sound in the greenhouse. However, a bird found its way in and has consumed not only the adult beetles that were thriving, but much of the oats and bran that they were feeding on. I’m annoyed that I hadn’t kept their container covered, but I really never expected the wild birds to venture into the greenhouse. I think the culprit was a juvenile robin. I have ordered a fresh supply of mealworms and will start again, bearing in mind the need to ensure better protection!

Raising mealworms for chickens

My experiment with mealworm cultivation is progressing. When I last reported, a month ago, I had acquired some larvae and they were busy squirming around eating bran and bits of fruit and veg. When the supply of bran that came with them was used up, I started to give them oats, as these were readily available. Next time we visit our local mill, however, we’ll buy some bran since they tend to have lots of it (left over from making white flour).



Anyway, after about 10 days, some of the larvae started to pupate and, as suggested in the instructions that came with them, I transferred these to a separate container. My tool of choice was a teaspoon, as this seemed the gentlest approach. It then wasn’t many days more before beetles started to emerge: they are very pale at first, gradually turning brown and finally becoming almost black. My instructions said that I should move the adult beetles to a third container to allow them to mature, breed and lay eggs. I started doing this (again, careful transfer with a teaspoon), but realised after a week of making these transfers every day that this was simply not a good use of my time. If I can’t cultivate mealworms with relatively low input, I don’t think I should bother.

So, I visited the internet and discovered lots and lots of descriptions about how to raise mealworms. Opinions seem to differ greatly about the approach to use, but in the end I decided that I would follow the advice on entitled ‘How to raise mealworms‘. Basically, it says, put them in a big dry container with appropriate food (bran/oats/chicken feed and fruit/veg for moisture) and let them get on with it. When you want to harvest some of the larvae to feed to your hens, put some slices of potato in, leave for ten minutes then remove and there will be mealworms attached to the undersides taking in moisture… shake them off and give them to your hens. Now, this sounds like a system that I can manage.

New accommodation

New accommodation

So, with a new layer of oats (I still haven’t got the bran yet) and gay abandon I have put  all the life-stages back together in a large tub-trug in the greenhouse. Apparently, its more important that they have a large surface area than depth, so I hope this will be suitable. In addition, air circulation is vital. As a result, I’m not covering them up at the moment, although I will put mesh over them to keep the birds off when I need to take them out of the greenhouse. I should be able to keep them out of the house for much of the year, although they won’t withstand frost, so they may have to be inside in the winter.

I sincerely hope that the chickens appreciate all this effort and research!

Why not eat insects?

Does it appeal as an ingredient?

Do they appeal as an ingredient?

Yesterday’s post elicited a few comments here and on Facebook about the potential for people as well as chickens to consume mealworms. This reminded me of a little book I came across some time ago, entitled Why not eat insects?* Published in 1885 and written by one Vincent M. Holt, it raises an interesting question, which I can’t help feeling is answered by the ‘ick’ factor. I know perfectly well that many insects and other invertebrates are highly nutritious, easy to rear in a small space and do not have associated welfare issues in the same way that larger livestock do, but I’m still not rushing off for a mealworm stir-fry! If you consider the classification of animals, insects (i.e. the subphylum Insecta in the phylum Arthropoda) are not far removed from prawns (which are members of the subphylum Crustacea in the phylum Arthropoda). So why do we happily tuck into sweet and sour king prawns but not field crickets in garlic butter? Don’t tell me it’s because you don’t like garlic!

To be fair, lots of cultures do eat insects. If you read Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, you will find mention of Precious Ramotswe eating mopane worms, which are moth caterpillars. And locusts in honey are mentioned in the bible (although the reference is probably to locust beans) and Game of Thrones (yes I know it’s fictional)… there’s even a recipe inspired by the latter here. Interestingly, dried mealworms do smell quite appetising, but I still can’t quite bring myself to cook with them.

Mr Holt gives some suggested menus in his little book, demonstrating much creativity (New Carrots with Wireworm Sauce; Gooseberry Cream with Sawflies; Devilled Chafer Grubs) but relatively poor taxonomic skills (Fried soles, with Woodlouse Sauce; Slug Soup) and possibly a mis-spelling (Fricassee of Chicken with Chrysalids… too much John Wyndham I think). However, if we are thinking about the wider invertebrate offering, there are the ubiquitous slugs. Some time a go I wrote a post about eating slugs, and I quoted Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall describing his experiments with recipes including slugs; he said  “I can heartily recommend those dishes, with just one small adjustment – leave out the slugs”. Even a man who isn’t particularly squeamish about what he eats clearly isn’t keen – although at least he tried. Slugs are just shell-less snails – a delicacy in France – so why are we not just yumming them up?

I suppose here in the UK (I can’t speak for the rest of you) we have just been taught to find insects distasteful. If it is a purely cultural thing, perhaps we should learn to overcome it… after all there are clear benefits to sourcing our protein from such animals. Do you eat insects?


* You can read it for yourself here.


If you’re squeamish, don’t read this and certainly don’t watch the video…

When we first got chickens five years ago, the aim was to convert slugs and weeds into eggs. Of course, for a chicken to make an egg it needs calcium, protein, water and various minerals and the easiest way to provide all these things is to feed your hens commercial layer pellets. Because our hens free-range and have access to a variety of habitats, they forage quite a bit of their own food, but they still need some supplementary feeding. In a small garden there is a limit to the amount of chicken feed you can grow, so this is a compromise that we have had to accept. We give them any slugs and snails we come across when we are working in parts of the garden they do not have access to and I give them weeds that I have removed – docks from the fruit cage are a particular favourite at the moment. But, even so, they get through more organic layer pellets than I would like. Indeed, since they have done such a good job of reducing the mollusc population, they are getting less food from this source.

The new livestock arrives

The new livestock arrives

A couple of winters back we had very cold weather (for here) and  boosted the hen’s diet with mealworms, which you can buy live or dried and which are sold as wild bird food. The hens LOVE these, but they are rather expensive. I, therefore, decided that the time had come to try to produce my own. Mealworms are the larvae of flour beetles and can be raised on bran or oats (no need for rotting corpses as you need for maggots) so they seem like a good source of protein to produce for use as chicken feed when space is limited. I’m not particularly bothered by insect larvae, so over the weekend I bit the bullet and ordered a mealworm starter pack, so that I can grow my own!

What you receive is three tubs of live mealworms, a bag of mixed bran and calcium and a set of instructions. To be honest, I think the instructions are little lacking, but hey that’s why we have the internet! So, I sprinkled a good covering of bran into a plastic tub and added the larvae, before giving them some yummy chard leaves, which they ignored:

Fresh greens?

Fresh greens?

A bit of reading around revealed that they like something a bit more chunky to get their mandibles into, so later I added some satsuma pieces. The fresh food provides them with their only source of water, so it’s important to make sure they have it. Apparently they will pupate in t”a few weeks” at which point I will need to transfer them into another container without bran before moving the adults into a third container when they’ve emerged. At this point they will mate, lay eggs and die and I will them wait for more mealworms to hatch. In theory I will get increasing numbers and thus food for hens. Our local mill has an excess or bran, so that’s not a problem as regards feeding and I can give then vegetable peelings/waste as their water source. So, I’m hoping that this is a pretty sustainable, environmentally sound method of producing some chicken feed. It won’t replace the layer pellets, but it will reduce the need for them a bit.

And now, just to make you squirm, a slightly wobbly video of them when I first put them in the bran:

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