Wednesday 27 February 2013

A Drought in February?

According to textbook Meteorology a 'drought' in the British Isles is any period of 15 days without rain. My paper-diary had it's first mention of "warm sunny spring-like days" on Feb 14th so if we manage tomorrow without rain (and it looks as if we might) we are officially in a drought situation in County Roscommon in February. This is unheard of! Given that if felt like we had rain every day through November, December and January it is a very pleasant change and we hope that it is a portent of a decent spring. We are starting to enjoy plenty of 'signs' by now. We have primroses open in the 'Primrose Path' and our daffs are starting to turn down prior to showing the first colour. The buds on the cutting dogwood from Vendor Anna are opening and plenty of other plants have signs of expanding buds.

Our rabbits in the big run had grazed their grass down to the clay and were running to the fence to 'ask' me for food as soon as I appeared in the garden. They were gobbling up cabbage leaves and broccoli stalks, carrots, feed wheat and the last remaining 'Fast Lamb Crunch' mixture like it was going out of fashion. They have now been moved to their new runs and the front lawn, where they will graze the whole of their 1 m by 2.5 m area in one day and we are moving them on to new grass each morning. They are leaving a snooker-table-like baize with a few pellets of poo in their wake as they proceed across the lawn.

We nipped out to beyond Carrick to a place we had heard sold poly-tunnel plastic sheet by the yard and bought enough to produce the Mark 2 version of my raised-bed cloche. The Mk 1 was only made out of an old bit of plastic wrapping and had been shredded by the first decent gale. You will know from reading the job list a few posts back that I had in mind to create a 'greenhouse' using a wooden frame and corrugated transparent plastic, maybe fibre-glass. Mentor Anne (who had played this game before!) suggested  that while we were out at the poly tunnel place (North West Tool Hire, Kilclare, Co. Lietrim) we ask the guy for a price on the corrugated. She was suggesting that it might be very expensive and was steering us in the direction of poly-tunnel plastic, at least for sections, if not a poly-tunnel itself.

 Well, Anne, you will not be surprised to know that the corrugated sheet plan is now withdrawn. The plastic alone was going to come to €1400+ and that was without wood, screws and so on. Instead we have been persuaded that the way to go is actually a poly-tunnel, so we have ordered one measuring 20 feet long by 14 feet wide (and 7'6" tall) which will fit in the same space. It was only €700 all in and is being delivered, we hope, this weekend. We have spent part of today clearing the site which is, you will recall, the western bay of the former hay barn. Liz is now planning all manner of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and basil to cram it with.

With the soil nicely drying out in the DROUGHT (did I tell you we were nearly in a drought?) I have got back into pond digging. It is pure pleasure. The shovel-fulls are so much lighter when not weighed down like a sodden sponge and the barrow loads bounce across the firm ground. The plan for this is to not need an expensive rubber liner (estimate €860) as two 'spits' down, we hit yellow Roscommon clay. I have nearly taken the first 'spit' off so you can clearly see the shape of the pond now. I will then come in a bit all round and start on the next level. When we get down to clay I am hoping that we will be able to 'puddle' the clay into a waterproof layer or at least. waterproof enough that the replenishment from the rain (when we are not in DROUGHT) would keep up with any seepage.

I have just noticed that the picture above appears to show a headless chicken. This is just William preening his right side out of sight. The strange grey cloud which you can just see rising to the left of me (as you look) turns out to be because one of his daft hens decided that the old bonfire ash would be a good place for a dust bathe. She got well involved in this and was there for half an hour at least rolling and writhing about getting completely covered in the grey ash and sending up plumes of dust into the windless air. She got up, shook herself and was obviously well satisfied with the result but spent the rest of today looking decidedly grubby compared to her sisters and with very grey wattles and comb. If we'd not seen her bathing we would have been very concerned for her health. Oooh. She does look poorly!

Meanwhile we have started planting some of the Wispy's and Ardcarne plant purchases. We are trying out a new sort of raised bed as an experiment.  This is Liz's cunning method. We make a circle of stones to mark the patch out from the grass, drop a layer of well rotted straw-bale onto the grass and then shovel on a mound of spare soil from the pond. The chickens and rooster inspect this for worms and grubs and then sign it over to Liz for planting, in this case with foxgloves, Ismene (Hymenocallis = "Peruvian Daffodil") and geraniums. It then gets a chicken-wire cover to deter the geese for the first few days while the plants get established. The picture is the first ever one, a Pilot Project. There!

Did I tell you we might have a drought? Oh yes, so I did.

Monday 25 February 2013

A Kind of Inheritance

My previous post describes the unearthing of a tractor-mounted fertilizer spinner / spreader from the bank at the west end of the (now) Pond Garden and way back I have spoken of a horse drawn hay rake found in the same bank and hedge. These are all part of the charm and interest we have obtained by buying this place, an abandoned farmhouse and surrounding fields. It is our inheritance, if you like, and we have both been very struck by the fact that we have taken custody of a piece of history. We both feel very strongly that we must treat the house and land with respect, keeping it and improving it till we eventually hand it on ourselves to the next custodian(s).

The house, particularly, feels in a way which is hard to define, as if it has a soul or a spirit which we must try to make feel secure and to please. We hope that we have completely gutted the place and renovated in a sensitive way, somehow bringing it new life and warmth. This might all sound a bit weird and spiritual compared to my normal shallow, superficial warblings and I may not be describing it very well, but as we lit the first fires and sent our first warmth and smoke up the chimneys and started to see the rooms and walls dry out, we were both saying things like 'There! That's better, isn't it, house?' and we always wished it well as we went off for the weekends during the build and tried to re-assure it that we were not abandoning it again.

Too weird? Ah well. The previous owner and dweller we have called TK Min in this blog, TK being his initials; 'Min' for him being the son. This farm has been owned and run by the K family going back generations; they were definitely here in the 1901 census, and Dad (TK Max) and Grand-dad, along with Mum and Grandma are all buried in the fine family grave along in the local village cemetery. Grand-dad and Grandma died 1955 and 1963 respectively, TK Max in 1987 and his wife in 1962. 'Our man', TK min died just over 3 years ago on the 18th Feb 2010 although he had moved out of the farm around 10 years ago and the farm has been out of use and not lived in since then.

We never met any of these people. We know a bit about them from talking to local folk and have read the exciting newspaper stories of their instant fame when having their car hi-jacked by the robbers in a local bank raid in which 2 policemen were shot and killed. Our dealings have been with TK Min's sister, our 'Vendor Anna' who was involved with selling us the place on behalf of the estate following TK's passing. We have since become firm friends. There are two other sisters, hence the 'Three Sisters' described in this blog during the conveyancing, but we have yet to meet them also.

So, it was in this way that we came to 'inherit' our beautiful house and the wonderful grounds - the fields, walls, trees, the yard, the 'Secret Garden', the cattle race, the Tígín and milking/calf sheds that we love so much. In terms of physical contents, naturally most of it had been cleared away for the sale, but we also inherited a few bits and pieces and tools - a kitchen knife and an enamel, cream-coloured roasting dish, a couple of pitch forks and the hay rake. A rather nice plate and some personal papers including TK Max's "An Garda Síochána" (The Irish Police Force) membership card and newspaper cuttings, we have passed to Vendor Anna.

Until last week, that was about it. Then we were talking to Anna's Paul about the fact that I had fried my chain saw engine and needed a new one. Paul very generously volunteered the machine in his shed, a nearly new Stihl which originally belonged to none other than our own TK Min! The little we know of TK Min does have him as rather a nervous guy and no-one can actually imagine him using a chain saw. Paul is also not a great fan of these tools, so he has not used it either; nor did he intend to start, so this one is probably about 6 years old (says our man at Stihl Main Dealer, East Brothers of Boyle) and will not have turned a crank for most of those 6 years.

We are delighted of course and very grateful to Anna and Paul as it saves me buying a new one for €370+. I have whizzed it straight round to our chainsaw genius, Felix-the-Fix to check it over, service it and (mainly) re-assure me that it is safe to use. It even came with the instruction book. I have used some of the saved money to treat myself to a pair of those kevlar, chain-saw safety trousers as, in general, I prefer life with both legs.

There you have it then; our inheritance and our plans for its custody and enjoyment.

In Planning Mode

We have always meant to create a garden on this site alongside the productive, small-holder bits but had only vaguely formed fluffy notions that it might be here and it might contain this or that plant. We have started last year with a nice flower bed 'out front' using seed salvaged from the Kent garden - hollyhocks, Erigeron (Spanish daisy), love-in-a-mist, Welsh poppy and Californian poppy and Granny's Bonnets - and we'd started to accumulate bits and pieces in pots in the yard, but it was all very late by the time we finished builder-ing and things did not really get cracking.

Not a bother. Gardening, to us, is always a long term project, never an instant-gratification, weekend make-over fix. We tend to happily plant things 'this year' knowing they will look good 'next spring' or even a decade or more away. In Faversham we had been gardening for 19 years and had the 100' by 24' strip crammed with perennials, shrubs, the (very crowded) orchard with the 'woodland garden' under it. I took a separate allotment to give me some veg' growing space but we were, by the time we'd 'finished' lost for space and unable to buy any plants because of not having anywhere to plant them. What we did buy had to be small and stay small. Here, on our 2.5 acres, we have the opposite problem. Small plants would be lost in the space, so we need to be talking 'drifts' of colour and bigger shrubs and trees.

Both Liz and I are keen and (if I can say this modestly enough!) quite knowledgeable gardeners by now but as spring starts to move and give us parachutist's "ground-rush" we were still dithering even as to which bit of the site to do the gardening in. I have started digging a pond in the space between the hay barn and the orchard, so one candidate was the (as yet only gleam-in-the-eye) "Pond Garden" but most of the decisions had been up to now, NOT to garden in places. We like the front lawn as an expanse of green so this is only likely to get drive edges of ox-eye daisy and Gypsophilia. Up the left hand side of the barn has the ex-Steak-Lady offerings in it but is probably just a holding area.

Things were given a boost by local Aladdin's Cave shop Wispy's who suddenly launched their garden centre display stocked with an amazing rage of plants at silly prices - 3 for €5, €1.99 and so on. Liz and I fell upon the display and filled a bag, climbing rose, mock orange, Convallaria, Echinops, red hot poker, Echinacia, almost-black hollyhocks..... Driving home we got to talking that NOW we'd need to start the garden to have somewhere to house this bounty.

We love this stage and have a good team method. I go striding about in the frost with my gloves on and my biro sputtering in the freezing air to create a rough plan. Liz converts this into a sensible scale map with 1 m squares with the software package 'MS-Visio'. It is a joy to watch her. She borrows Visio's pre-prepared cloud shapes and squishes them long and thin to represent hedges. She draws lines and pulls them out of shape to make bits of pond shore-line, re-sizes stuff and colours in boxes for 'the'allotment' or adds circles to represent trees in the orchard.

The Visio map we can then print several copies of to allow for some quick 'concept' scratchings as we dream up a path here or a gentle bank there, a trellis to hide the caravan or a willow 'igloo' over there. Things get rubbed out as many times as they get created. The many gardening books come out as we start to home in on what might go into the space - Monty Don, Geoff Hamilton, Bob Flowerdew, Penelope Hobhouse, Hessayon's 'expert' series all get gleaned for bits on damp gardens, damp shade, structure, colour. The umpteenth version will be the one that gets kept. Liz jokes that she will preserve that so that in ten years time we can look back and say "Well, that is what we were going to do, but we never did ANY of that!". That is the way of gardening.

Things evolve and move on. Some of the plants we plan, we never actually find for sale so other things slot in. Some bits work and others don't. Some plants take off like mad things. You get given donations by generous gardener friends. We like that here because space is what we have for the moment, so "invasive", "rampant" and "thug" can be good words. Well, I wake up this morning to find that Liz was at it well into the wee small hours and the 'umpteenth' map is well peopled with Achillea, Regal Lilies, Rudbeckia, Hostas, lavender, foxgloves, lilac and Potentilla  and Crocosmia.

Now we just have to go out there and 'do' it. The pond itself needs finishing so that the spoil can be shaped into the landscaping and the stones can become the edges of mini raised-beds for the less wet-tolerant species. The bank on the west side needs clearing of its fallen elder, grown-up-through nettles and stoloniferous grasses and , it turns out, we need to unearth the buried 'treasure', in this case a tractor mounted fertilizer spreader; we could only see the rim sticking up and had thought it might be an oil drum. Thank you Mr Farmer for that nice surprise!

All the fine-tuning, digging, raking, preparing seed beds and planting holes is a bit of a way away, but the future beckons and we have 'The Vision Thing'. We can see ourselves sitting in our Darby and Joan chairs watching the sun go down over the pond as the geese splash about in the evening light. The leafless winter dogwood stems glow crimson and the happy perennials sleep beneath their mulch of compost. We'll get there.

Friday 22 February 2013

Things To Do

When Liz and I were working, both of us had the kind of jobs where your working day was made up of a hotch-potch of different bits from a broad range of types of task. In my case, being IT based I'd have hardware assembly and moves going on, users to 'create' and manage, projects to manage, management information to compile for periodical and one-off reports and at some stages also a warehouse assembly team to plan, deploy, rotate, control holidays and absence for and so on. They were the sort of jobs where you needed a "To-Do" list or you'd lose track. Sometimes this would just be on a pad or note book but if we were feeling tired, under-manned and over-worked (quite often!) this would go onto the dry-wipe board on the office wall and if somebody came in to give you more work who you didn't feel like co-operating with in any kind of a shiny, enthusiastic way, you could stride theatrically over to the board and write his job somewhere way down the list to make sure he understood that it might not happen any time soon. To-do lists also give you the satisfaction of crossing out or highlightering jobs when they are complete.

Well, I am back into 'To-Do' lists now in my not-so-as-you'd-recognise-it 'leisured' retirement. Mentally it is in three parts - REAL jobs which will actually get done, Jobs that will happen (Projects which will start) if we get any small financial windfall (e.g. an endowment ripening) and then jobs that we'd love to do if we win the lottery. The latter list is unlikely given that we very rarely do the lottery, but it includes major works like "Build conservatory on end of kitchen and incorporate Tígín building into house". The latter two bits are just mental lists and we can ignore them for the purposes of this blog. The REAL list 'lives' in my bound note book and just out of interest I thought I'd share the current list with you to give you some idea what I am meant to be up to over the next few days and weeks. I have added explanatory notes where you might need some fleshing out of the raw statement.

Things to do as at 22nd Feb 2013

  • Dog-proof fences and gates round yard
  • Clear up 'sneddings' on Vendor Anna's land (Sneddings are the thin branch ends left when you cut out all the decent sized logs from a tree. This rubbish is still lying in the field where Bob and I felled the ash tree and need tidying into the hedge)
  • Dig Pond
  • Hanging-garment rod in Utility Room ceiling
  • Hedge trimming in East field (see picture - we are currently most of the way round and can nearly tick off this job)
  • Cat flap on Utility Room door
  • New canopy on raised bed mini-poly-tunnel cloche
  • New doors on chicken house and calf house.
  • Work top in kitchen where 6 foot fridge-freezer used to be
  • Fireplace (hearth) in Living Room (This is the only incomplete bit of the original house-build project)
  • Stainless steel anti-cat panel on kitchen wall. (Cats are messing up the wall scrabbling up to the window-sill)
  • Car-port over caravan
  • 'Greenhouse' in 3rd bay of former hay barn, to be built out of corrugated transparent plastic
  • Gut 'shower room' and galley out of caravan
  • Build 4th berth in caravan
  • Stand caravan on blocks with wheels off ground
  • Close-able doors on rabbit run 'bedrooms'
  • Pallet sized water tank plumbed to sheep drinker in orchard
  • Pallet sized water tank plumbed to sheep drinker in east field
  • Drinker in east field
  • Burn hedge trimmings in east field
  • Fencing east field (sheep proof)
  • Clean outside of caravan (algae etc)
  • Brambles on road edge of front lawn
  • Mow round outsides of allotment and orchard, under larches and along both sides of lawn hedge.
That's it for the moment, unless we can think of any more. Should keep me out of mischief. You never get bored, anyway!

Thursday 21 February 2013

Rudolph Re-Mounted

It stays amazingly dry for a 7th consecutive day so that almost all our puddles are gone and it is possible to walk on the former 'sloppy patches' again. I cannot remember the last time I was able to say that and I am reduced to carrying water to the geese in the 'Curver' buckets in a wheel barrow to top up their temporary pond as they look at me a bit sideways wondering where all their nice puddles vanished to. The wind, though, swings round to the NE and turns bitterly cold, putting me off the re-start of pond digging and dissuading both of us from the hedge cutting task.

I decide it is time to find a proper home for my fallow deer skulls. I have three, all found in Challock Forest near Ashford in Kent. One is a fully mature 8-9 year old who had been the Master Buck at his final rut and who we also know was a white-phase deer. The huge majority of the population in Challock are what they call 'black phase', as dark as a dark brown Alsatian dog and with none of the 'Bambi' spotting you see in normal book illustrations. Just one or two are pale sandy coloured, almost white. They are not albinos, they are just 'white phase' and may be the result of escaped white bucks getting into the forest from nearby deer parks.

These boys live for the day when they will be big and strong enough to hold the rutting 'stand' and serve as many does as they can before exhaustion has them kicked off by younger pretenders. If they make it at all, they will make 'Master Buck' aged 7,8 or 9 but when they are in rut they do not eat or drink, they are so focused on the ladies. It can be so exhausting for them that when they are finally defeated and pushed off the stand, they are spent. They go off for several days lie down or sometimes collapse and die, which is what happened to this guy in 2005.

We know this because the then Park Ranger (Steve P) saw it happen and then tracked and found the corpse and was able to show it to us, a group of people out on an expert-guided deer walk. He warned us that it was by then badly rotted and maggoty but we could see it if we felt up to it. I simply quietly remembered where it had been in fairly deep cover and nipped back a couple of months later to collect the now nearly clean skull. I re-buried it in the compost at home and let my own maggots finish the job of cleaning it.

I mounted it on a piece of hardwood and it hung for a several years in our hallway. Rather disrespectfully we named him 'Rudolph' and even hung Christmas Decorations on him the first year but then we had an attack of conscience and respect for the magnificent lad so we just admired him 'clean' there-after and left him unmolested.

Such 'trophies' are rare indeed and I only got this one because of Steve's tip-off but my luck held and I made an even more amazing find the next year just by spending a lot of time in the forest and diving off the beaten tracks when out walking the dogs, and exploring the thicker, wilder stuff.  I said before that only the Master Buck can hold the stand and battles hard with any young challengers. They are reduced to messing about on the periphery, practising mock-fights with each other. This even applies right down to quite young fawns, who amuse you by playfully head-butting each other and bleating like little goats. As the boys get older, coming up to 4-6 years old this practising can get quite violent and purposeful. The bucks can injure or even kill each other.

My second 'trophy' was just such a situation - two even aged bucks had crashed into each other, the front lower prong of one buck smashing through the top of the eye socket of the other and the two sets of antlers locking together with fatal results. I do not know whether the damaged guy was knocked unconscious or what, but the two bucks remained locked till they were both dead, decomposed and the limbs and bodies pulled apart and scattered by, presumably, foxes and other scavengers. All that was there when I came to the place were the two skulls still locked together and a few leg bones lying around at some distance. Rather ghoulish, maybe but imagine my thrill at being able to gather up the paired skulls and bring them home. By then I was doing the guided deer-walks for the Friends of King's Wood (Challock Forest) myself, having taken over the task from Steve so I was able to produce these impressive trophies to show the public at each walk.

Well, now the 'trophies' are back on display, having come over here in the 2CV trailer and been stuck in the Tígín ever since, slung over a rafter. Here they attracted lots of fascinated comment and attention from the builders and tradesmen who call them "antler-horns" in these parts. You do get Fallow Deer in Roscommon but I have not yet managed to locate any. Incidentally, they are the only deer in the British Isles who show the bone 'webbing' or palmation between the prongs of the antlers. First year deer like the one in my black-phase picture above have just a pair of prongs and are called 'prickets'. Antlers are shed in May and re-grow each year. In the following years the bucks add more prongs and then as they hit 5-6 they start with the palmation till at year 7-8 they have a magnificent spread of fully webbed antlers. Incidentally they are also the only deer where you refer to males as 'bucks' (not stags) and the females as does rather than hinds. And when I say 'magnificent' don't get any ideas about massive, heavy, Monarch-of-the-Glen animals - even at their biggest, fallow bucks are no taller than a Great Dane or Irish Wolfhound at the shoulder, and the big spread of antlers is probably no taller than 30" and no wider than that  either.

I love these deer and they have given me no end of pleasure stalking them with the long telephoto, and 'showing them' to the public. I miss them.

Monday 18 February 2013

Of Birds; Listed, 'Late' and Laying

When we lived in the UK we took part every year in the British RSPB "Big Garden Bird-Watch" which is a survey of garden birds by members of the public which takes place on a single weekend in January. Tens of thousands of people take part, spending an hour on one of the days bird watching in their garden and then recording what is the highest number of any species seen at any one time during the hour. They either post off their results recorded on a form, or can go on line and enter their data into the web survey. It has been running for many years now and is starting to show some interesting trends up or down in bird populations.

We had a good wildlife garden and used to feed the birds a variety of food all through the year so our scores were generally in ones and twos of all the 'usual suspects' - blue and great tits, blackbirds, greenfinches, dunnocks, a robin or wren if you were lucky and, very reliably, between 30 and 77 house sparrows of which we had a huge mob all the time in our holly bushes, beech hedge and trees and shrubs. If we were lucky our resident female sparrow hawk would nip through while we were on watch. Either way we had a pretty good idea of what our garden population was like.

When we moved here we were delighted by some of the differences in what we could describe as 'usual suspects'. The house sparrows are replaced here by a mob of around 17 chaffinches who gather up any poultry food left by the hens. We have never seen a house sparrow yet. Robins and wrens are ten a penny. Our 'crows' are the grey bodied Hooded Crow; UK-style black Carrion Crows being almost entirely absent from Ireland. We also do well for field fares and jackdaws. Coal tits seem to be more common than blue or great tits.

Also different is the 'peoples' survey'. Not for us the easy life of one hour on one day of a fixed weekend. The Irish version, run by Bird Watch Ireland involves keeping your eyes open for 13 weeks from early December through to the end of February and scoring the biggest number of each species you see at any point during that week. This is good for we out-door types, as I can 'watch' while I'm allotmenting or out round the ground with dogs. Liz and I have conversations where we are basically 'auctioning' the results in a series of bids. Liz saw 17 field fares today, for example, which meant I had to go into the website and up my previous record (4). It has a few minor frustrations mind - we wish we could have recorded the hen harrier who flaps lazily up the valley but never came into our 'airspace', or the kingfisher zipping up the River Lung from Feigh Bridge (again - not actually IN the garden). We get regular mobs of long-tailed tits through, too, but they have stayed away while I have been 'surveying'.

A quick warning for those readers who do not want to know about the 'meat-preparation' side of small holdings; Look Away Now (3 paragraphs). The 'Late' birds? That will be the young roosters hatched 17 weeks ago today by Broody Betty. It's been great to see it all happen and to nurture them up through babyhood and into adolescence but they turned out to be male and were starting to square up to each other, tried their hand at crowing and even tried to mount the hens. William the Conqueror was getting fed up with them and it was all getting a bit feisty. The hens would shrug them off but then turn round and attack them quite viciously. Someone was going to get badly hurt or even, if William got them cornered, killed. William is twice their size. I had offered them to anyone on the poultry forums but those guys are mainly breeders of pure fancy-fowl and a hybrid x hybrid of dubious parentage is of no use to them. The boys' times had come.

Dispatching them is my job, and Liz has volunteered for the role of plucker. I managed to grab one yesterday when it foolishly preceded me into the confined space of the goose house but the other one was having nothing to do with that. The advice in that case is to set the alarm for 'while it's still dark' and pay the hen house a visit while nobody can see to fly off and escape. Rooster 2 was therefore waiting his turn in the pluckery by the time Liz got up. Liz has tried 2 methods now and prefers the 2nd - the first was just to dry-pluck holding the bird half inside a dustbin liner - the 2nd involved dipping the bird in hot water for 5 seconds and then wet-plucking. The feathers come away easier but the wet feathers stick to your hands and to the bird so "at times it was a bit difficult to see where I'd been" said Liz.

Anyway, the two brothers are plucked, cleaned and in the freezer now, awaiting their turn to be made into coq-au-vin. Interestingly for 2 brothers, clutch mates and equal age young "roos", they were hugely different in carcass weights - one was 1193 g cleaned weight, the other 1833 g. They may, of course, have had different mothers - no end of hens were happily contributing to BB's clutch! Their livers, hearts and gizzards, sliced up and briefly fried off have featured in tonight's tapas style supper. Delicious.

And finally, we have found another secret egg stash left by Wandering Wendy when she doesn't feel like laying in the official nest boxes. We had seen her nipping into the goose house looking a bit guilty. The rabbit 'Maternity Unit' is in there, though currently empty and she had discovered that she could sneak in (yellow arrow) through a hole at the right hand end and nip along 5 feet or so, well out of sight (yellow cross). I only found these (7) eggs by squeezing my head round the gap and using a torch. I had to prise off one of the planks to extract the eggs. That was yesterday. Today I blocked up the hole and two (it turned out) hens were very loud in their complaints and hung around the hutches, even jumping up into them through the open doors and marching around inside as if looking for the nest site.

The picture here shows the hutches not yet complete, with no mesh. They now do have proper fronts with a hinged mesh panel. I decided that if I left the mesh door open and put some hay in the 'bedroom' they might use that. At least I'd know where the eggs would be instead of having to hunt under hedges, track WW across the fields or find an egg at random in the yard, outside the front door, on the drive or what ever. To my surprise two hens laid in the hutch (and nobody laid in the nest boxes) today. There is time, I think, for one final bit of egg-laying related tomfoolery. Yesterday Liz and I paused outside the back door to watch the hens pecking at some wheat I had thrown down in the yard, amused, as ever by their antics. Suddenly we both heard a "tick!" and, as the forest of legs parted we could see an egg on the ground right where they were pecking. As far as either of us could see no hen had actually stopped pecking at the seed, so they must be able to multi-task, pecking with one end while the other end pumps out an egg. They come out (we did not know) pointy-end first and we know this because the 'tick' noise we had heard was the shell getting broken slightly at that end where it hit the gravel and concrete of the yard. So now you know.

Friday 15 February 2013

Charm Offensive?

The books we read on the subject all have geese as being delightful pets who form lovely and fascinating relationships with their humans and bring joy and happiness to your small holder life. Our three sheep became great friends who would eat out of our hands within days of being here and follow us around, come when called and each had a different personality (OK, I'll grant you the word 'pet' may not strictly apply, given the outcome for them, but I'm not going there today).

So, it has caused me a small amount of distress, that the three geese we bought, Goosey, Goocie and Gander seem to be playing hard to get. They were quite nervous of us when they first arrived and waddled off in the other direction as soon as they saw us, spending most of their time at the 'far end' of the orchard. We then upset them some more by Simon and I grabbing them one evening, one after the other to trim their wings amongst much annoyed and frightened honking and scurrying about in the shed. They were looking at me even more 'old-fashioned' the next morning; they definitely did NOT want to know us!

There was nothing for it if we wanted to form any kind of bond, but to start a gentle, patient charm offensive. This we have been trying since late January. We are very quiet around them, with no sudden movements. I have been creeping slowly up to them with a hand full of grain doing a two-tone whistle which they should come to know as a 'food' signal, throwing the food down near (but not 'at') them where they can clearly see it and then retreating a distance to watch. I have also been feeding them when ever they do something good, like obediently go back into their calf house for the night.

They are slowly, slowly coming round. After 3 weeks they will now race towards me as I appear and whistle, though they never get closer than about 10 feet. They will, eventually be eating out of our hands, I am sure and even allow themselves to be handled (all be it, I know they get a bit less willing during the breeding season; we have been warned to go careful with the girls if Gander is being protective, and go very careful with the geese around eggs or goslings). I will update you with progress on this love-bombing as it happens.

No such problems with the pups of course, and here is a nice picture of them gathered round the range, maybe feeling a bit cool in their newly shorn, short coats.

Thursday 14 February 2013

St Valentine's Day Massacre

Today, a 'shaggy dog' story. The pups are 8 months old now and have only ever had scissor trim cuts around their eyes and bums; never a proper buzz-cut with the clippers. If you know the West Highland White Terrier breed, you will know that these dogs do not moult, so they need a hair cut every couple of months to prevent them turning into Dulux Dogs and over-heating in the summer.

Many people take them to professional dog groomers for a hair cut and beauty treatment (toe nails etc) but in Kent we were finding that this could be as much as £35 per dog per time, and with three dogs that was going to be an expensive proposition. We also found that we lived 20 minutes drive away from the European Service Centre for the 'Wahl' company who make a good type of professional clipper. It's in Whitstable. A decent set of clippers, 10+ years ago was £75, so it would pay for itself in one 'round' of cuts. Furthermore Wahl do a cutting-head replacement service as a sharpening-method - you take in your blunt heads and for about a fiver (10 years ago), they replace them with a sharpened head

I quickly decided that I would clip my own dogs and invested in a clipper plus some good quality scissors and thinning 'shears' (like 2 sharp combs meeting), plus oil for the clippers. I saved a chunk of a pond liner we were then installing as a non-skid mat and a big tupperware pot to keep all this gear in, and I have had it ever since, through Megan and Haggis, Deefer and now Towser and Poppy.

I am a long way from being a professional quality groomer and cannot give you a show-standard dog, but they get a hair cut and are much cooler in the summer. Sometimes they might be a bit embarrassed and hate me for the sticky-out tufts and missed bits, but they never complain.

I was asked today how you do it. I (rightly or wrongly) always clipper 'with the grain' (i.e. from shoulders down towards tail and from spine to flanks down the sides. When I was first shown, I was told you do necks against the grain and with a less-tall clipper head, but I have since been told not to. I use the same size head for necks and body. I always do the heads with scissors as the dogs are never impressed by the clippers rattling too near their face and eyes, and I do bums, faces, Towser's 'pizzle' and vulnerable bits like armpits and groins with the scissors also.

I possibly rush the job but I can do both pups in about an hour and a half total. They've probably had enough by then, so I let them down off the table, make a big fuss of them and give them a treat, and then let it all 'bounce back' for 24 hours before tidying up any howlers with scissors. As I said, I am not brilliant and after ten years plus, I still struggle to produce a good and 'proper' head shape and I am not very good at blending the clippered flanks with the scissor-trimmed (and much longer) "feathering" on bellies and legs.

The thinning shears come into play at the end as I try to iron out any edges and corners which are too sharp.

I think they look OK and I am happy to walk them in public plus, every time I do them I always feel I have saved myself £105 for the three.

There you have it.

Monday 11 February 2013

Runs, Rotovators and Raised Beds.

I have no one big story for this post, so I will treat you to a random scatter-gun load of waffle on a variety of subjects, roughly in time order. I have now finished the third and final (for now!) rabbit run all to the same design as the one photographed in an earlier post. These are for, in order, Rogers (who is already installed in his), Ginny and Padfoot and for the third, our soon-to-be-delivered, pregnant Californian doe, Goldie. In her case, there has been a slight delay as our Mentor Anne suffered a couple of unfortunate fox attacks losing a duck and also their much loved and nicely fertile buck NZ White, Peter. Peter had been intended as the father to our little project. Anne and Simon have been able to obtain a replacement buck, known as Bobby but he is quite young yet and we might be a few weeks waiting for him to be able to do the necessary. Hang in there, Goldie. Good things come to those who wait. Meanwhile some nice drying days gave me a chance to varnish the vulnerable parts of the runs with 'Sadolin', the same varnish / wood preservative I was advised to use on the 2CV trailer - good stuff but pricey at €17 for a fairly small tin.

I finally hear from the plant hire firm who have had my rotovator since last summer, allegedly trying to repair it. They (Domac's) have now, at my chasing, retrieved it from their Ballinasloe branch, an hour's drive away, back to their Roscommon depot half an hour's drive away. I am welcome to collect it, they tell me but, if I like they will try to get hold of a coil and have another go at fixing it if I'm willing to wait a week...... NO! You've had it since July. Now it's MY TURN!

Fair play to the guys at Domac's, though, they were happy and relaxed and not at all offended that I wanted it back now. Even better, they did not charge me anything because they had not fixed it. Gerry, their guy, helped me into the Fiat's boot with it. It just fits with the handles down. I ran it round to Felix-the-Fix, our new found chain-saw genius (of whom more later) who gave it a bit of a wry look and pronounced "Well, it's an OLD rotovator" but took it into his Aladdin's Cave of a workshop. I swear he had the look of love and a "Come to Daddy" air about him as he took it under his wing. He did not believe Domac's story that it just needed a coil but said that he had a number of suitable coils in his shed if that proved to be the bit required.

Meanwhile I am getting on well with the raised 'lazy bed' in my allotment. The whole allotment is 30 m long and about 8 m wide. I have done it in 5 beds up and down the slope, with a couple of cross trenches to use as paths. This will give me 15 beds of different lengths, 5 at 5 m, 5 at 17 m and 5 at 7 m. I have dug the 7's and the 17's and I only have the 5's to finish. Where plastic sheet allows, these get covered up as soon as they are dug to help finish off the weeds. That seems to work better in warm weather, not so well in the cold of winter, but really as soon as you dig these beds you can see the poor old soil start to dry out by natural drainage in a way that it just has NOT been able to do while sitting flat. It seems to me to be breathing a sigh of relief.  The hens like to help with this digging and I am constantly having to watch that I do not wound a hen as I sink the shovel in; they are right in there with me picking up the worms. The geese come round after I have gone, checking for cut ends of left over carrots and other rooty bits.

The wind over recent weeks has caused a decent sized branch of one of the spruces to sag down onto our phone cable. Our old chum from 3rd January 2012, Aerial Keith is called and turns up with his ropes, mountaineering carabiners and harness, impressive tool belt and kevlar (carbon fibre) chain-saw-proof trousers and boots and plays monkey for an hour, swinging about in the branches, quite often upside down with his legs hooked over the branch. He mainly uses a beefy pruning saw but finishes off by chainsaw which he has in reserve dangling on the end of a rope 20 feet up, sometimes sputtering away with its 2-stroke engine idling as it swings like a pendulum. When he needs it he hauls it up  till he can grab it, use it and then let it back down. He clears up our twanging cable and tidies up the tree, does a very professional job and charges us only a modest fee. He declines tea saying he is off to Tubbercurry (town) for a Curry. It had to have a curry house, really, didn't it, with a name like that?

On Saturday 9th we are due delivery of a short under-the-worktop fridge. We have decided to move the 6 foot tall existing one into the Utility room as it restricts food preparation space in what is quite a small kitchen. The new one arrives at lunchtime just when I have given up waiting and gone for a dog walk but the delivery man was happy to fight his way in through the gate, come up the drive to unload it into the dining room. Liz has all the fun then of clearing space for the tall one in the Utility, emptying it so it can be moved, preparing the space for the new one, moving them (I help with that bit!) and reloading both. It's not a 5-minute job.

That afternoon sees me back helping John Deere Bob with the logging up of the big ash tree we felled. This job was interrupted by my saw going on the blink, refusing to idle. I'd had to take it in to Felix-the-Fix, our bearded, German-speaking Swiss backwoodsman. He'd fixed it but I had not actually tried it out till now. Well, the saw sang its song beautifully as I logged up the smaller branches but then, after a half hour, when I started to tackle the big stuff, more than the 14 inches thick that my saw will cut, it all got a bit slow, smokey and sad-sounding. Eventually it stopped and I could not re-start it no matter what. We thought it might just have got a bit over-heated, so we stopped and I was disappointed to admit that Bob might be better off getting Mr McG, with his bigger saw, to finish cutting the big trunk up. It felt like I'd let the side down.

It was, in fact, worse than that. On Monday 11th I took the saw back to Felix and he pulled the start cord, felt a lack of compression and thought I might have fried the piston. In two minutes he had the exhaust and manifold off and could peer down the exhaust port and see the badly scored and crazed side of the piston. "That should be shiny like a mirror" he opined, sadly. So, I have an option to seek piston and barrel on the internet but Felix's opinion is that I have probably had my €110's worth out of it and it owes me nothing, so I'd be better getting a less cheap saw and moving on. The makes they recommend round here are Husqvarna for ground-level work and Stihl for the 'arboreal' (monkeys and ropes) stuff, but realistically you need to spend €350-€450 for a 'decent saw'. The cheap ones are (says Felix) "made to a price" with consequences I have now experienced. Ah well, old chum, Flora-best Saw from Lidl. We did OK together and you definitely earned your corn, as well as being a good 'entry level' saw for a complete beginner. RIP.

And so we moved on to things caravan. Our trusty old caravan in which we lived for the 5 months of the build and which has since served well as 'den' for the nieces in August and kennel for guest-dogs at Christmas, was starting to look a bit shabby in the winter damp, with algae growing outside and damp and mould inside. Liz has blitzed the inside but got to thinking that, should the Silverwoods NOT want to exercise their option to use it for towing / touring (and we have yet to talk to them about this) we might gut out the 'shower' bit (we never used it) and the galley and increase the bed-space to 4 berths, replacing all the soft furnishings. With both our brains in planning mode we actually went on a bit further and started to see the former hay-barn with three bays. The first, our car-port already exists. The second could be a roof over the caravan to stop all the rain, algae and damp and the third, western-most, bay could be a 'greenhouse' of corrugated transparent plastic which would serve instead of a poly-tunnel. Our note-book is suddenly full of 3-D scratched drawings of uprights, horizontal beams, parked cars and caravans, corrugated sheets, doors and verdant greenery.

It's never boring!

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Air-borne Corrugated Iron and more

My brother, Mark, took his family to Galway and Connemara in the summer of 2011 and, among the rest of his always beautiful and scenic holiday snaps was a picture of a porta-cabin type caravan on a rocky hilltop near the coast. The cabin had attracted his attention because it was lashed to the ground by two massive guy ropes, one long-ways and one side to side. The ropes looked as thick at ship hawsers and they were fixed to the ground by massive ground anchors of the sort used by the telecoms people to anchor the guys on telegraph poles. How we laughed (as they say) and commented on whether they might be expecting a bit of wind. If I can borrow the pic from Mark, I will post it here.

We are a bit inland from Galway here so we don't see the full brunt of Atlantic gales but we do get some fierce winds and we try to make sure everything is well fixed down. Yesterday as the snow melted and the temperature rose, the wind swung round through westerly to the NNW and suddenly increased in strength. Coming from that direction is the only time it hits the house and outbuildings WITHOUT being first filtered through our stands of huge black spruce, blasting in from Sligo and Clew Bay. We knew it was getting up when it started to move my 2CV Trailer, pushing it along our cattle race till I put it back and chocked the wheels.

We were indoors, fed and watered and watching a bit of TV when we heard a thump and the dogs all went ballistic. The stack of old cut-up floor boards I use for kindling, stacked against one of the cattle race walls, had been kept dry by 2 curved sheets of corrugated iron about 7 feet long (part of the roof of our former Dutch barn), held down by a 6 inch concrete block which I struggle to lift. The whole structure is now inside the big rabbit run and has been adopted by the rabbits who burrow around under and through it and actually like to climb up the slope of the sheeting to give them a high viewpoint.

A gust of wind must have managed to get under this sheeting and hoyed it up and over the wall with the concrete block still on it. The thump was the block landing in the cattle race. One sheet landed in the race and stayed there to leeward of the wall but the other went completely air-borne, passing through the kitchen garden and out onto the front lawn (about 50 metres we estimate) where it landed convex side up and dug in, making an impressive slash in the grass. Luckily no-one got in the way - that could have given someone a nasty cut or other injury. The rabbit hutch roof was also flipped up by the wind, so the poor bunnies were homeless.

Well, we were out there in coats and hats with torches for a good half hour rounding up the sheets and creating a temporary shelter, handling the sheeting very carefully and wedging everything down more securely to give the rabbits somewhere to take cover from the wind. All the loose stuff we stowed to leeward of the house where we could sort it out in the morning.

The only other wind related damage we can see is that a branch on one of our big trees had now sagged and is twanging off the telephone/broadband cable. Now if there's a service to this house that we would hate to lose (we'd almost trade electric lighting, water and a few trees blocking the drive rather than lose broadband!) it is that. It is too high for us to reach it and Telecom Éireann will not touch it if is our tree on our property, so we had to get on the phone to our old chum Aerial Keith (he of 3rd Jan last year, who took down our old saggy TV aerial and cleared the gutters) who will come out and do tree surgery for us.

Finally, I was delighted to get my 2CV club magazine this month as it contains my own article about the adventures of moving the 2CV from Kent to here, exporting it and re-registering it as Irish. Liz is now calling me "the acclaimed author and journalist, Matt C". Fame at last!

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Our Turn for a Modest Dusting

We had listened slightly enviously to the reports from UK and from the east coast of Ireland last week as the snow came down and the population slithered about, schools were closed and kids had a chance to go tabogganing. This bit of Ireland does not tend to get much snow. We miss out when the forecast says "on NW coastal areas" as we are not very coastal. Galway is the coastal county; we are next inland. We miss out too when you hear "falling as snow or sleet on high ground". Although we are up a ridge at 75m, 'high ground' in these parts means the towering Cliffs of Moher, the mountains of Connemara and the 700m Maumturks. By the time the air has flowed across those and been pushed uphill, there's no snow left for us 'down' here.

We are, though, very careful what we wish for - 2 years ago the locals tell us, there was a memorable exception to this rule, when Feigh was covered with 15 inches and they were effectively snowed in for 2 weeks, only able to get about because most people have tractors. We naturally keep in good supplies of dry goods like rice and pasta, tins and jars and bags of coal.

Liz first spotted our snow yesterday evening when giving the dogs a 'last out' but neither of us really thought it would 'stick'. I have had too many dashed hopes as a lad when you'd be sent off to bed watching the snow come down but by morning it would be all gone and you'd wake up to green grass and wet, black roads. Mind you, I cannot recall any of these school closures affecting us in the 60's and 70's like they do now, but Pud Lady may remember this differently. I am sure we just had to plod to school through the snow and if the heating was off, sit there with our coats on clock-watching till each 'play time' or the finish-bell.

So it was the child in me who woke up, saw the whiteness outside and sprang into action, racing out with the dogs for an explore and to take a few pictures at 07:45. The early hour and the dawn-break light explains the dark blue colouring on the first pictures in this post - I wanted to 'get' those, consolidated if you like, before the snow melted away. I also brought Liz her tea at that early hour so that she wouldn't miss it. We needn't have worried - the snow stayed around for most of the morning and gave us a chance to enjoy it.

Other than Deefer (6) Ginny and Padfoot (3?) all our animals are too young to have seen winter before, never mind snow. The chickens were amusingly un-impressed and stayed in their coop till way past 10:00 eventually emerging to tread carefully only those bits where the snow had melted, up against buildings and under the car port. The geese were happier and took to charging about in it. They pad-pad around but then seem to get bursts of enthusiasm. open their wings, lift their heads and CHARGE across the snow and grass for 30-40 yards flapping and honking. They don't particularly go anywhere or end up anywhere. It just seems to be for the sheer joy or 'dashing through the snow' like in the song. They are pure white, of course, certainly compared to the Westies, so they can be fairly invisible.

The dogs are generally on leads these days due to the incidents with the rooster and going AWOL and because even Deefer has not yet been 'trained on' the new geese. We decided it would be nice for them to have a proper, off lead chase about in the snow, so we hooshed the geese out of their orchard field, took the dogs in and unleashed them. They had a whale of a time charging about romping and battling with each other and running in big circles round the trees. They rapidly accumulated big 'klingons' of frozen snow in the fur on their feet and bellies and would then sit down in the snow and try to bite these off.

The geese, we noticed, evicted from their field during the dogs' games, went for an explore on their own, disappearing for a while and then reappearing on the front lawn, a place they had not visited till that point. We want them to get used to the front lawn for their mowing and burglar-alarm abilities, so it was nice to see them there. Their tracks in the snow told us they'd taken the long way round, through the yard and up the 'primrose path' drive. All good exploring for them.

While we're on 'tracks in the snow' it was good to see first thing this morning that there were no fox tracks anywhere so it may be that we do not have that particular problem just now.

The cats also enjoyed them selves and stayed out a long time, never seeming to accumulate the 'klingons'. Perhaps they tread more delicately and stick to the frozen, dry stuff or they might be more insulated and they do not melt the snow which comes into contact with their fur.

That was that, really. We enjoyed what there was for a few hours but by mid morning the rain started and the temperature came up through 4 degrees towards 8 and we were quickly washed back to green grass, dark paths, brown mud and a few slushy patches. Whether that's it for the winter remains to be seen, but I hope you enjoy my pictures from your (I hope) nice warm computer desks or armchairs.

We fed extra rations to the rabbits, whose grass was buried under snow for the morning and the chooks and geese have had extra sprouted grain today. The dogs were brought back in, cleaned of their 'klingons' and toweled dry. We have all been enjoying the warmth of the range and listening to the wind outside, well hunkered down indoors.