Tuesday 30 April 2013

Of Liz and Buck, Romeo and Ginger.

Liz is safely back among those present - I collect her from Knock Airport on Monday 29th afternoon. She's had a lovely (mainly) Girly Weekend among all the old chums from Darkest Kent and further afield (Aberdeen and Hamburg!), Diamond, Mazy and co, eaten and drunk in some lovely pubs and restaurants, chatted, caught up on the gossip, and generally had a good ol' time. These boys and girls have been together for years and they call this annual get-together, their 'AGM'. The location rotates around where-ever one or more live, so it was just a coincidence that the 'Kent Lot' got it just after we moved away. It gave Liz a nice chance to go visit and, while she was there, look up our former neighbours, Angel B and Jim.

 We have mentioned before that we have made some new friends in this townland (village), namely Carolyn and Keiran and that we have now done the all important mutual you-show-me-your (small holding) if I show you ours. On visiting 'theirs' we also got to meet 18 year old daughter Charlotte and 'new' (14 months) baby Henry as well as meeting all the livestock (including the pigs who we may end up doing half-carcass swapsies with for one of our lambs this year) and the horses. They are a great bunch and we hope we have made some firm friends. Keiran is also a carpenter so we may be using him soon on out-building doors.

For quite some time we found ourselves chatting to Charlotte who has a happy, friendly way about her and an accent which veers between local (Roscommon), Dublin (Dad) and Manchester (Mum). She has obviously grown up in the small holding environment and is very well versed in all things goose, pig, duck and, particularly rabbit (she has 18 at present) and horse (she has three miniatures and a Welsh Cob). Our chat around rabbits ended up by us offering her our Buck Rogers whom we had bought last year to mate with Ginny and Padfoot but who, we thought, might be too young or small; anyway, no babies materialised.

Charlotte's three miniature horses were used for showing around agricultural shows and in some cases in pony/trap driving competitions. What they do not have on their holding, however, is any winter grass for the horses to graze, so the 4 are kept in a sandy-floored yard and fed expensive hay and other proprietary feeds. All around here the farmers have been struggling with supplies of silage and fodder for cattle, and Carolyn has not yet been able to get agreement from the farmer who usually lets the horses graze his land. They are a bit stuck so Liz and I decided we might be able to help. We are about to have our 1.5 acre East Field fenced with sheep (and therefore horse) proof fence and will not actually need it for sheep till August or September, so why not let these horses have our grass. Horses are also good at grazing when tethered, so we could use them to keep the lawn and other bits down, saving me having to mow. Also in this mix is that the horses have grown a bit fat and lazy over the winter and Charlotte would like to get them fitter and leaner during the summer.

To cut a long story short we offered Charlotte the buck rabbit but told her she had to come and collect him in the pony and trap. That way we could try to reproduce our circa 1900 picture of the house with the ponies and traps queued up along the front which I have included in an earlier post. The lucky horse would also get to eat some genuine grass while we wrangled rabbits and drank tea. The horse Charlotte chose to bring was one called Romeo who is actually an International Champion horse. He is of the breed 'Falabella' but he is a cross with a Miniature English horse (sorry, didn't write this down so I am not sure what breed) and he is a gelding. The other two are a pure bred Falabella stallion and a miniature Shetland (I think). So we were honoured to have the impeccably behaved Romeo on our lawn.

Meanwhile, Charlotte wanted to get a good look round our rabbits. Buck Rogers proved to be an in-season female! That at least explains why he never got very far mating with Ginny and Padfoot. Because SHE is a pale brown, Liz promptly renamed HER 'Ginger Rogers' and Charlotte said she'd love to take her anyway. She then grabbed up both Ginny and Padfoot, found that Ginny is also on heat and offered to take all three rabbits home with her to put with her 'proper' buck(s) and see if we couldn't get both of them pregnant this time. Concerned that her Mum would be wondering where she'd got to after all this chatting, rabbit wrangling and horse photography, she loaded all the rabbits onto the cart, hopped back aboard, Hyaa!'d Romeo into an easy trot and set off back down the drive and the lane home. Brilliant! We were all grinning like loons!

Last but not least we come to our geese who, contrary to my last report now both seem to have gone broody. Here, I am rather ashamed to admit, we have been guilty of some appallingly bad husbandry and failed to take on board the generous and freely given advice of Mentor Anne and Simon. They warned us that we'd need to separate the geese or risk nest robbing and egg-snaffling between the girls so that you'd never know who was still laying or whose eggs were whose, or whether those eggs had all gone the full 28-35 days of being brooded. This has indeed happened.

We tried, when we realised both were involved, to give them a hay box each, with a 6 foot gap between, but the 2nd box and any eggs we put in it, were ignored. With the two boxes next to each other at least both get sat on but who ever is sitting while the other one goes out to poo and freshen up, seems to then snaffle all the eggs into her own nest. A couple of days ago Goocie was definitely on 15 in the left hand box. Yesterday she is on all 15 (or maybe 16) in the right hand box. We do not like to get in and upset everyone by forcibly moving geese or eggs, so we are just going to let this one play out and when both geese have done their times, if we get any goslings we will be happy with that. We will try to get more organised next year. Our first possible hatching date for any of these 15 eggs is Wednesday 22nd May. The one thing in our favour is that the two females have always been inseparable and seem to be best of mates, so there is no fighting or arguing over eggs and, we hope, no disputing over any successful goslings. Wish us luck. Poor Gander is currently a bit lost and lonely with no ladies to parade around, so he spends his day hanging around with William the rooster or by Broody Betty and her chicks in the run.

Finally, last time Sparks was here he commented that it must be strange as well as nice, to wake up and then decide what 'work' you are going to do today. Well, for the first time in ages I know this one in advance. Our fencing guy, Paul M came by today to drop off all the straining posts and barbed wire for our fencing job on the East Field. Tomorrow I will therefore be lugging posts about, handling reels of barbed wire, monkey-strainers, staples, hammers and crow bars. I hope it's another lovely day like today. Finally-finally, Broody Betty and the 8 chicks are thriving. It's looking very promising.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Of Hatching Chicks and Flying Geese.

On the allotted day, Thursday Day 21, Broody Betty duly declared her eggs cooked and some of them successfully hatched. She then, however, kept this a deep dark secret, not revealing the existence of her new family by allowing any cheeping or by turfing out any broken open shells. She continued to sit in her trance like state and I assumed that nothing had happened yet and maybe we'd all have to wait till Day 22. When Day 22 arrived, Mentor Anne phoned to tell me that hers had hatched 'yesterday' and asked if we had had any luck. 'Had I looked?', she asked and advised me to lift the protesting BB off the nest. I did so and was delighted to find that we had 7 chicks in a variety of colours, 3 orangey, one pale lemon yellow, one multi-coloured and fetchingly striped and 2 black ones, plus an egg I could see with a crack running all around it, almost hatched. I pulled out the obvious broken shells (other eggs can lodge inside a broken half preventing that bird getting out) and let BB get back on while that 8th baby escaped her shell.

Liz is currently in the UK meeting a gang of friends, so had missed all this. The next day I had to take BB off the babies again to get photos for this blog and for Facebook and my poultry discussion forum. I quickly knocked together a 'verandah' for the nest box to prevent the problem we had last year of chicks falling out of the nest and, unable to get back in, getting chilled on the ground.

I used the verandah as a feeding platform to let the babies get at a small jar of water (you have to watch they can't drown themselves), a bowl of cold, hard boiled egg (with the shell chopped up really fine, egg is a good food supplement for the first couple of days) and some 'chick crumb'. Their Mum quickly shows them how to peck this up - she pecks gently with a crowd of baby beaks half an inch from her own like a scrum of fans round a celebrity.

Today the chicks are 3 days old and starting to get a bit too adventurous to be kept in the next box, even with the verandah (which worked perfectly, incidentally) so it was time to move them to a bigger space and, because it is a sunny, warm day (if a little windy), I decided that this could be one of the unused rabbit runs out on the grass. The grass is very short and the run gives them 2.5 m by 1 of run-around plus a nice cosy 'bedroom' into which I have put a shallow tray of nest hay where they can retreat at night. I covered the 'first' half metre or so of run with plastic sheet in case or rain. They LOVE this run and zoom about following Mum as she shows them how to scratch and what tasty morsels you can find among the grass by doing so. The rest of the chickens come and look curiously through the mesh at them.

On a more sombre note, this is also your chance to find out why the unhatched eggs did not 'work', cracking them open carefully over a compost heap (they can explode with decomposing filth!). Of my 4 I had 2 with no chick inside, just sloppy yolk and white, presumably infertile. One had a half-grown chick inside, he's presumably died along the way. My last had a fully formed but dead chick, fully feathered and with all the yolk sac absorbed. I am told that sometimes the chick can just get herself into a bad position where she can't open the egg from inside, or can be too weak to break the shell. These things happen. Generally 8 chicks from 12 eggs would be seen as a good successful clutch.

Meanwhile, in the Goose Department we now have Goocie (she with a few black feathers on her back) gone broody also as of the 25th. I cannot be 100% sure but I think this has also coincided with the other female (Goosey) coming off lay. Goocie appears to have adopted all eggs from both geese and is now sitting on 15. I did not get organised in time on the separation of the 2 ladies and this can cause nest-robbing. I have 2 hay boxes but they are too close, and Goocie has been able to drag all the eggs from the 'other box' up over the lip and into her nest, which she has now lined with breast feathers. Goosey seems to have now lost interest and spends all day out and about with Gander.

Geese incubate for 28-35 days according to (goose) size. It is quite normal for them to hop off the eggs twice a day for a bout 15-30 minutes each (Anne and Simon tell me). This lets the eggs cool down (which is needed) and gives the goose a chance to feed, bathe and get her breast nice and wet which suits the humidity needs of goose eggs. I had not actually seen her get off till today. I was sitting watching the new chicken-chicks and suddenly three geese waddled by. This gave me a chance to go check the hay boxes and see who had what and how many eggs were under Goocie (and get this photograph).

I have already said that the geese waddle about for the most part in a fairly sedate way but every now and then they get to honking excitedly and start running for 30 to 50 yards, wings flapping furiously. Nobody ever got airborne but it always struck me that with a good leading wind, it might happen. We call this 'going for a charge about'. It seems to have no purpose; they don't go anywhere except perhaps for the sheer joy of running, flapping and honking. Bizarre, but all part of being a goose. Today I was near the baby chicken run (again) and the 3 geese were out on the front lawn when they started the shouting and came racing through the gate by the kitchen garden, headed straight for the run, which is only 18 inches high. Goocie seemed to decide she'd not be able to stop in time, so with a hop and a skip, she took off and skimmed across the top of the run and landed the other side looking as amazed as I was! The other two geese thought better of it and pulled up with much excited honking. She had FLOWN! OK only 2 feet up and only for about 15 feet along, but there you were, an airborne goose!

 Back on earth I continue to excavate the pond and have now pulled out the biggest rock so far, this one maybe weighing more than me! I actually broke one of the shovels, not actually on this rock but trying to prise a smaller rock loose which was wedging this big one in place. The pond shape has 2 'bays' down one side with a small blunt 'headland' between the two, and we have decided that we can use this rock as a feature, our very miniature version of Howth Head.

And finally, I did manage to plant all my allocated trees on the big day but I think that country-wide it all went a bit pear shaped and I cannot see how they would have got anywhere NEAR the target of a million trees in the 24 hours. As far as I know, we all just got the 'starter packs' of "20" trees (mine actually had 27 in it) and nobody got their fruit or nut trees, hedging plants etc. We are possibly going to get these as a follow on order when the Project Team are through the panic and get sorted out but my suspicion is that the whole thing may be allowed to quietly fade away due to funding difficulties. I have planted mine in a good range of locations around this site, to close off a gateway, in some of the already existing beds, to extend a hedge, to fill gaps in another hedge and so on. Although the baby Scots Pines looked quite striking, all the other trees were unlabeled, anonymous 12-24 inch saplings, so are not easy to photograph till they have leaves on. Here, then, is a Scots Pine by the former gate into the 5 acre field.

27 planted. Only 999,973 to go?

Friday 26 April 2013

Been Here a Year!

Happy Anniversary, House! It was on April 26th 2012, exactly a year ago that we had finished the renovation of this house far enough to be able to move in. Project Manager, Sparks shared the meal depicted here on the 25th and then departed the next day so on the 26th we left the caravan which had been home for 4 months and officially moved in to the house. We had no mattress at that stage, so we blagged mattresses off the single beds but that didn't worry us. We had created a live-able, if rather bare, space. It was a brilliant achievement of which all three of us are very proud.

A Million (Pear Shaped) Trees

This beautiful idea is now struggling. You will have read of our involvement with the initiative to plant a million trees across the island of Ireland all in one 24 hour period; what was going to be midday Friday March 22nd to midday Saturday 23rd. The idea was launched in January and was well taken up with everyone volunteering to do amounts of trees (20's up to thousands) with hundreds of volunteer groups or individuals across as many sites. We applied giving details of our sites, local conditions, planned use of trees and we chose which trees we'd like from fruit trees, hedge species, woodland trees etc and whether we'd like tree guards. This was going to be a MASSIVE operation their end in logistics and in cost - there was a website, smart new vans and we were all getting regular updates on emails and your queries were all answered. So far so good.

Then, nothing they could have foreseen, Ireland was hit by a new disease of ash trees, Ash Die-Back, and the Ministry and forestry authorities got all concerned about trees being moved about the country. The project could have been killed there and then, but after a battle, they relented and the project was allowed but NOT WITH ASH TREES, so the Million Trees guys had to frantically cancel ash orders and get in substitutes as well as fighting through lots of new paperwork to get things back on track. They postponed launch day for a month and we were now planting on 26th April.

The 26th came closer and there was no word. Our email contact, Imogen, went very quiet. Then a few days ago she suddenly emailed us saying they were struggling and that now individual orders would not be ready by 26th, so we would all get a 'starter pack' of ten trees. Further, these would not be delivered, but would need collecting from a collection point which she was still trying to confirm and would let us know our 'CP' by morning of the 26th. Reading between the lines, you knew this project was going badly off the rails as Imogen's emails started to include expressions like "we have considered all the options including cancelling and postponing again but the core team here feel it is better to go on with the event and get trees out in smaller numbers to you all".

So at 11 pm last night word came of where our Collection Point would be. For all of counties Lietrim, Longford, Sligo, Cavan and Roscommon, this was to be a back street garage in the small town of Blacklion, Co Cavan, an hour and a half's drive (85 km) from here, way up by the border, almost as far as Enniskillen. Many people we know involved felt badly let down and the cry of 'Blow THAT!' was heard echoing round the land. I am, maybe, a little more tolerant and patient than that. I have been in 'Distribution' as well as involved in volunteer conservation projects and could see some of the problems they would be facing. I decided to give Imogen the benefit of the doubt. As I said in an email to Mentor Anne, "It's a lovely sunny day and I'm doing nothing and my sat nav is pointing me through the lovely scenery of Carrick, Drumshambo and along the shores of Lough Allen". I offered to collect Anne's trees and anyone else's who could get word to us in time. The Collection point would be open from 10 am, so I breakfasted on bacon butties and set forth, loading up the dogs so they could enjoy the ride.

It will not surprise you to know that the fun and games did not finish there. I arrived at the big garage on Sligo Road in Blacklion at just gone ten, checked that this was indeed 'Clancy's garage', presented myself and asked for my trees. Blank looks all round. Not a one of them had heard of the Million Trees project or knew anything about trees. They pointed me to a meagre display of bedding plants on a Danish Trolley. Did I mean like that? I phoned my contact, Martin Clancy who proved to be at his other garage in Monaghan but assured me that Imogen herself was on her way, had been delayed and would be there in 40 minutes. There was a nice café , so I grabbed a coffee and a paper and waited. It rained and blew. I wandered from garage shop to car to café. It hailed. An hour passed. Another half hour passed. I phoned the guy back.You know as much as me, he said. She'd be about an hour (!) and when she gets there she gets there. I decided to give it midday. It was only that I got boxed in by a car and a trailer filling with fuel that I didn't blow at 12, and it was about quarter past when a tiny white Ford Escort sized van came in smothered with Million Trees logos. Imogen had arrived.

She was a 'young one', in her 20's maybe but looking a bit hunted and lost at this stage. She was straight into apologising and saying that 'all this mess was her fault'. She phoned Martin to say 'I'm here' and then got some instructions that there was another garage down some back streets. I was to follow her. She took off like a scalded cat with me struggling to keep up, heading east. She suddenly braked and pulled over, then did a quick 3-point in the main street and shot off back up past the first garage and out of town with me, again in hot pursuit. I caught up, she suddenly braked, pulled over and did a tight U-turn in the main road, causing a passing van to pull up in bewilderment. Back we all went past the garage once more but then carried on through town, turning left at a couple of proper junctions to end up in the back streets at another garage. I am thinking, even if people had been able to find her on the Sligo Road, how are they now going to find her?

She leapt out, made brief contact with the garage manager and a non English speaking attendant, had me help her sling ten big sacks of trees out onto a pallet on the concrete and then started itching to leave to get on to her next drop. The garage guy had gone back into his kiosk/shop and the foreign chap back into his porta-cabin. It seemed that there was to be no-one manning this collection point. I opened the bags. Each bag had a single label stating the species (Sessile Oak, Alder, Birch, Whitethorn, Mountain Ash and Scots Pine) which I attached to one of the protruding trees. There were a good hundred in each bag. We were meant to be all getting a starter pack of ten trees, irrespective of the trees we'd ordered. There were no fruit trees, no nut trees, no holly etc. Imogen seeing the lateness of the hour and thinking not many people from her carefully prepared lists would show up, it being so cold and wet (and... um... badly organised?) told me to take mixed sets of twenty trees for my three 'customers' before leaping back into her van and heading for her next drop in Co. Galway (2 hours or so away).

So armed with a coal sack and two plastic shopping bags, I rootled out 3 or so of each species (except white-thorn, which is basically hawthorn) to make up my 20-packs. I was on my own. Another van pulled up and 2 guys got out and wandered over looking lost. I passed on the 'standing orders' and left them to it. What will happen to the thousand or so trees on that pallet I do not know but I hope enough people will show up, grab at least as many as they are allowed and plant them. Even if they are not on the list or part of the project, at least the trees will not end up in a skip somewhere, wasted. I drove back home through the rain, hail and sunshine to find my defrosted 'breakfast pack' from which to nick the sausages and cook myself some sausage sarnies to warm myself back up. Some of my 20 may get planted tomorrow

Plant a Million Trees? Surely not their finest hour.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Rural Depopulation

You don't have to spend much time in this part of Ireland to realise that a key issue in local history is that of rural depopulation - the "Flight from the Land". Nothing unusual there; it is a common part of population change in many countries and has been going on here for more than a hundred years where farm sizes were very small (a few acres). The abandoned farm house is a very common feature in these parts. There are easily half a dozen in our lane alone and a dozen within very easy range, commonly of 2 basic designs; the 2-storey, chimney at either end, stairs in the middle style as pictured here, and a single storey longer building based on 3 main rooms.

Some are only recently vacated, including ours of course which had been abandoned 15 years ago, so still had a good roof. Others go back decades and are long given over to self sown ash trees and ivy, their windows gone, interior floors fallen in and rooves collapsing.

I am no history scholar, so I will not even try to give you a factual lecture but I understand that the flight from the land is a result of the younger generations being attracted to jobs in the cities and towns - better paid, warm, dry, sensible hours and not arduous physically; plenty of access to social life and entertainment. Farming can be a lonely existence and has never been a great payer and you are frequently cold and wet, sloshing about in the mud, lashed by rain or worse. Modern Ministry stats confirm that many farms are owned and run by old folks who are probably the last in their line willing to do the job, so that The Irish Farmers' Journal (2012 Land Price Report) says that 48% of farmers do not know who will succeed them in their holdings.

Liz is a City Girl from Dublin where they tend to take a bit of a jaundiced view of country-folk and call them 'culchies' but she can also remember from her youth that they eyed the incoming farm-leavers with suspicion, easily being able to identify them with their shorter hair and less 'sharp' clothes compared to the 'Dubs' they were used to. They came to be known as red-necks but not for the sun-burnt reasons of the American Deep South. Their necks were red, so the saying went at the time from their Mammies giving them a clip behind the ear and the shout "Would you not get yourself off up to Dublin and get a job?"

It's not all a tale of woe, of course. The abandoned farms are sold off to neighbours, often quite cheaply as they have been allowed to run down with nothing getting spent on them in terms of drainage, fencing or buildings maintenance, so the lucky neighbours can end up with decent sized holdings and stand a chance of making a living. Our own Mike the Cows has 130 acres including forestry and the McG's down the road have enough to make it worth investing in huge tractors and equipment.

With many farming families having been here for ever, memories are long and these are not just anonymous buildings. Our friend John Deere Bob knows all the local ones and can tell you who lived there, what the people are doing now, if still alive, how the sale went and so on. The house pictured here with the daffodils, for example, belonged to a Michael Moran (they say it 'Morn') who moved out 20 years ago to live in Lough Glynn. He regrets it and wishes he could move back to our 'townland', of Feigh but he sold the old place as a wreck to one of the local 'big guys' for a song and the guy is locally regarded to be not easy to buy land back from (!). So he makes do with visits to Bob armed with a chain saw and does log cutting jobs for the local older folk, his former neighbours. The daffs are a rare example of evidence of these places as houses with gardens. Some have a particularly vigorous and red type of dog-rose but most are now, as I said, just rough grasses, daisies and ash saplings.

Sad but sometimes picturesque and for us, of course, an opportunity to rescue one and delete the word 'abandoned'!

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Too Close for Comfort, Mister Fox!

These lovely long sunny evenings have us all relaxed. It's still broad daylight and bright bright sunshine at 8 o'clock and the geese and chickens do not want to go 'to bed' half seven at the earliest. Last night I took the big leap of faith and decided that instead of rounding everybody up and locking them in before our own supper (about 7 pm), I would chill out, have our food and then go and round them up. This we did and sat down to enjoy a lovely risotto and cold lamb with the sun streaming in through the window.

Having cleared away the table things at about quarter to 8, I went out to do the honours. The geese had actually been indulging in some late afternoon egg laying, so they were in the goose-house (née calf house) anyway and the chickens had all taken themselves off to their perches in their end of the building. I just had to shut and chain the calf house door, drop the chickens' pop-hole flap and pass the usual handful of sprouted wheat in to the geese for supper, ignoring Gander's harsh, screechy shouts that I was getting a bit close to his ladies' nests.

Minutes later I was on to the next job, taking the dogs out for a comfort stop and romp off the leads in the orchard. I came indoors from the bird-wrangling, grabbed the three leads (dogs are still on leads in the garden because they can not be trusted not to vanish through a hedge) and collared the dogs, before stepping out through the front door, pulled enthusiastically by three westies who couldn't wait to get outside.

That's when we saw the fox. It was only a small young one, not much bigger than a large cat - in fact I first thought it was Blue picking up some gingery low-sun rays. It quickly 'became' the fox. It was in our 'woods' not 50 yards from the front door but seeing us, it shot off down the woods, on down the drive and then nipped through a hole in the hedge to the right of our gate. I was as surprised as he was (but I think he was more scared!). We've not actually seen a fox on the premises before though we know they are about. The dogs regularly get all 'prey focused' on after-dark patrols, swapping their usual aimless meanderings for pulling in one direction, snapping, snarling and nearly choking themselves on the leads in their rush to 'get at' some noise, smell or sight which is lost on me. We know that our first hen was taken by a fox way back, before William was on the scene, and neighbours regularly warn us about our free ranging preferences.

So I did some extra patrols, letting the dogs have a good sniff and scent mark on Mr Fox's trail, I blocked up the coop door with an extra big log, double checked the rabbits, we made sure the cats were both indoors last night and I checked out my poultry discussion website for advice. They advise contacting the local gun club where someone might be willing to stake the place out in the hope of 'getting' him on a return visit. Finally, obviously, I have abandoned the idea of late nights on the tiles for birdies. They will be rounded up pre supper despite their protestations. Most of the chooks actually roost 7 feet up on the top perch, so might have been alright anyway, but we currently have Broody Betty down at ground level sitting on her eggs, and the geese are ground-roosters. He was only a small fox, so might have been nervous of taking on our geese, especially in the breeding season, but he'd not have thought twice about making off with our broody, which would have been especially heart breaking so close to our potential hatching day.

Too close for comfort, Mr Fox. You are not welcome here. Stay away!

Monday 22 April 2013

"Newt Bothering"

Being ardent wildlife gardeners and natural history enthusiasts we do quite like to get involved in local moves to enhance the environment and hence our volunteering to plant some trees towards the 'Plant a Million Trees in a Day' project happening this weekend (assuming the trees get delivered; we are only 5 days out now and no ETA for them at this stage). When Liz heard a call go out on local radio for volunteers to become newt surveyors in County Roscommon, she was in there like Flynn.

The Irish Wildlife Trust do not have the breadth of knowledge on distribution and habits for Irish amphibian species that the equivalent group would have in the UK (although there have been some studies done) so they are still at the stage of confirming distribution of some species, and amphibians being among these.

Their current belief is that there is only one native species of newt in Ireland, the Smooth Newt although there may be an escaped/introduced population of Alpine Newts in Galway. They also believe that there are no Common Toads, and only (widespread) Common Frog and (some) Natterjack Toads in Kerry. I actually think I have seen a toad here, under some plastic sheeting I'd put down as weed suppressant on the allotment, but Liz's Man-at-IWT says it would be 'very exciting' and would need photographic or physical evidence before he was convinced.

Stranger things have happened mind. In the UK, dormouse 'knowledge' was largely based on people re-hashing old books which were already rehashes of even older books. Everyone "knew" that you only got dormice in broad leaved woodland where they needed honeysuckle to bark-strip to build nests. Then we started surveying all around the South East including our own Challock Forest in Ashford and found thriving populations in stands of, for example, Corsican Pine, with nests made from grass and leaves. The 'books' are now being re-written with modern information. That is the plan by IWT for their own species and hence this attempt to recruit a surveyor for every 10 km square of Ireland.

Liz went 'back to school' armed with notebook and pen, attending a session at the Ardcarne Garden Centre yesterday afternoon. She is now an embryonic expert on all things Smooth Newt, distribution, site selection, surveying methods and reporting. Amusingly, as the training session came to the section where trainees would be shown live newts in what the trainer assumed would be a decent sized pond (Ardcarne had told him they had newts) he asked to be shown the pond. He was a bit surprised to be told by the Ardcarne lady that there was, in fact, no pond, only the pools they use to store aquatic plants for sale, and the newts were in those!. The training guy rather disbelievingly went to check with some of the course members so that the latter could 'see the newt in question'. There were indeed newts and the guy was able to tick off that 10 km square on his map but was left wondering how they got there!

Liz came away with a wad of training materials in a posh folder and her own copious notes in the notebook. She will now wait till the training guy (Seán Meehan) contacts her to confirm which 10 km square we 'own' (we are hoping it is this one, where we live, as we can then nip down to John Deere Bob's likely pond down by Lough Feigh itself which looks very promising - if J-M and Em-J Silverwood are reading this, it's the one you guys tried to wade across with John the Bass Player last Summer). We then have to go and do our simple 'Presence or absence' survey a couple of times this year and report back.

As is her wont, Liz has called this activity 'Newt Bothering' and hence my subject header. Lissotriton vulgaris here we come. We have seen newts here on this land, too, especially last year when we were clearing lush, overgrown vegetation and found the species among the grass. We are now a bit more mowed, 'manicured' and short-grass, especially since the advent of sheep and now geese, but we are hoping that the new pond, once finished will be rapidly colonized by newts, frogs and (if that really WAS a toad) toads, too. That'll show 'em!

Sunday 21 April 2013

Moving up a Gear

Springtime is moving up a gear here and we have new things to discover almost with every wander round the garden. We are now regularly getting 'sworn at' by blue tits, great tits and coal tits as we move about. Our swallows are back from their migration and are now a regular sight up on our phone wires, twittering away and zooming down to inspect access to the Tígín where they successfully nested and raised 3 young last year. We have magpies nesting in the big Black Spruce tree at the top of the 'secret garden' (yellow circle) - we can hear the babies squeaking in a most un-magpie-like way when ever Mum or Dad bring them food. We know they are potential predators and would be getting shot if they'd chosen some of our neighbours trees in which to nest, but to us they are all part of the 'wildlife' we try to encourage; we just need to keep our potential new chicks safe from airborne raids.

We have seen plenty of other bird mating activity although no nest building yet, but they are welcome to the windblown dog-clippings when they find them. Here Broody Betty (left hand box) has 2 laying hens to keep her company for a while in the morning. She is almost there; this is day 17 of 21 and we are delighted with the tightness of her sitting. In theory they get off the nest at least once a day to do toilet, feeding and drinking and last year we saw plenty of that but this time Liz has only seen her off the nest once and I have not seen her off at all. We wait with eager anticipation to see how many (if any) hatch out of the 12 eggs.

In the goose department, our two ladies have now amassed 11 eggs between them but as yet there are no signs of anyone going broody. They start to pluck their own breast feathers to create the warm 'brood-patch' of bare skin, and they use the feathers to line the nest bowl. You may recall that we were worried that the birds using the same hay box might end up in conflict and we started a 2nd box but that so far this has been ignored. You can lead a horse to water.....

This morning I found one of the new eggs outside the first box, whether through bad aiming (for the box) or deliberate starting a new clutch, we do not know. I have picked this up and laid it in full view in the 2nd hay box, hoping that goose 2 might take the hint. These are very young inexperienced geese, of course, so this might all end up being a waste and we will have just dipped out on cooking with or eating the dozen eggs but, Heh, we can cope.

In the garden we are finally staring to get some new colour so the hungry, early start bumble bees will now be able to enjoy a bit more than the yellow of primroses, daffodils and dandelions. Here (above) is our orchard's first ever fruit blossom, in this case Victoria plum. The purple flower here (left) is some Perennial Wallflower just now starting into flower. We hope to have more variety established, from purchases and self seeding by next spring. This spring has been a bit of a carry over from our late start in 2012.

It's an exciting time for us. It has looked mainly green for months and we look forward to being able to see different plants and some hot colours as we come up the drive or walk about. These 'Concerto' tulips are admittedly white, but they are a start - they were grown in tubs so have gone into action faster than the orange and red ('Triumph Princess Irene' and 'Ballerina') bulbs planted straight into the keyhole bed. We are also taking care to plant plenty of bee-friendly flowers among the veg and in productive areas - nasturtiums, calendula marigolds and the like. I will keep you posted on our new delights as they happen.

Friday 19 April 2013

A Complete Change

A complete change in the weather brings us some strong blustery winds from an unfamiliar direction (SE veering round to SW) and some lashing rain which quickly fills all our normal puddles and delights the geese. It refreshes all the greenery which had been on hold in the wind-drought and we can see real recovery now in the grass depleted by the rabbits. The local farmers are relieved and delighted; they will leave the grass a couple of weeks to put on some growth and then will be able to let the cattle out.

We sustain a little damage. An empty rabbit hutch is overturned and needs picking up and my Mk 2 cloche proved unable to cope with the SE winds (coming from the same direction as I have taken this picture) they struck it on the end and rocked it loose on the open-able side. The rain then filled the 'bowls' which had appeared in the slack plastic and flattened it into the (fortunately empty) bed creating a neat, 8 by 4, 2 inch deep 'lake'. I may improve it (Mark 3?) with Rebar steel rods running inside the water pipes to strengthen the arches, or I may simply dismantle it and do without now that we have the proper poly tunnel.

The poly tunnel itself, survived all this storm, sitting pretty, protected from the south winds by the wall of the former hay-barn. It is starting to look a bit lived in now with my spring sowings of flowers and veg in the motley collection of trays, module trays, sawn-off milk bottles, mushroom chips and so on. We have great hopes for it as a good productive area.

In terms of geese, our egg laying bird(s) are continuing to build up a clutch. There were, when I looked this morning, 7 eggs in a neat well in the hay-box, carefully covered with hay so as to be invisible from above. Curiously this clutch does not seem to increase by one egg a day but, rather, by 2 eggs at once every other day. This took us a bit by surprise but is obviously because we actually have 2 geese a-laying and they are taking turns in the hay box. This might, of course, end in tears when they both decide there are enough eggs and have an argument over who gets to broody.

When that time comes, we are told by Mentor Anne, you know because the would-be-broody starts plucking breast feathers to line the nest. We have decided to try to solve the sharing thing by installing a second hay box at more than goose neck-length away from the first (and actually the other side of a step ladder I have stored in there). We hope that one of the girls will adopt this and start laying in it. We may then sneakily start to even up the egg numbers in each clutch so that the new nest catches up and both reach 12 eggs together. We never count our 'chickens' before they hatch, but we have had some amusing conversations about how we will manage if the place is suddenly over-run by hoards of goslings.

Meanwhile I have dusted off the old pushbike. John Deere Bob's place is just that bit too far away to be an easy walk but too close to use the car with a clear conscience. I have had this bike for ages (15 years?) but had not used it much in Kent. Once I had dogs it always seemed more sensible to walk them if I needed exercise, rather than go for a bike ride. It languished in the shed in Faversham with 2 flat tyres till I decided to get it sorted and serviced to take with me to Ireland. The service was done by a great bunch of lads, the Thanet Cycle Recycle project run by Liz's 'firm', KCA (but now sadly defunct due to funding withdrawal) and the bike was as good as new.

John Deere Bob invited me to come collect some more calf poo but asked could I load it myself. Of course, I was delighted to and zoomed down there on the bike. Bob basically handed me the tractor keys and left me to it, doing my own loading, driving, tipping back here and then cleaning out the 'shepherd's box' on the tractor at the end. Many thanks, Bob. Readers will know that I will have enjoyed playing on the tractor as much as I appreciate now having the poo. We boys never grow up. The toys just get bigger!

We continue to be amazed and delighted by the quality and price of good chunks of meat locally. This "half a side of a pig", as Liz described it came from our favourite old fashioned pork butcher, Cunniffe's of Ballaghaderreen, cost only €14.50 (12 of your English pounds) and divided nicely into enough batches for 5 good meals for the two of us.

We are hoping to do a deal with some friends down the road who keep a few pigs, to swap maybe half a lamb carcass for the equivalent value in pig carcass this year. We have also had an offer of goat kids from the wife of Felix the Fix (Chainsaw Genius). She has a brother and sister litter of 3 week old kids currently being rejected by their Mother. They would need bottle feeding for 8 weeks or so before weaning and , obviously, the billy would need separating, neutering or... um... eating before they made 9 months. Mrs Felix is anxious that they go to a good home and will supply milk for the babies within a decent range. It is tempting and they would be impossibly cute but we are trying to be strong - we went on the goat course and decided against goats for all sorts of good reasons (fencing and housing for a start) and we now have takers for all our grazing in the form of geese, potential goslings and this year's planned lambs. Sorry Mrs Felix.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Concealed Shoes

Well! You live and learn! Today a fascinating story about a subject of which we had no idea till today. Hiding shoes in buildings, in walls, up chimneys and so on as a lucky charm, historically. It's a well known 'thing' apparently, but had passed us by.

The mighty winds of Sunday night and Monday, we discovered to our horror, had slightly lifted the Tígín roof in presumably a particularly strong gust. All these old buildings are not particularly well put together and the roof of this one must be a good 30-40 years old so that the timbers are quite rotten and the tin fairly rusty. The concrete and stone walls are solid enough to the top (gutter height) but the roof is then put on, seemingly without it being fixed down. The angle under the lower ends of each strip of corrugated, seems to be loosely filled with rubble before loose concrete is thrown into the gap from inside the building presumably to try to hold the loose rubble together and maybe 'glue' down the lowest horizontal as some kind of attempted 'wall plate'. The roof is then held down by pouring concrete over the ends of the roof at the gables, first creating a wooden box of shuttering to take the concrete while it sets.

Our winds had lifted the 'wall plate' half way along the wall and a loose stone had rolled into the gap, preventing the roof from falling back into place when the gust finished. We spotted that the corrugated seemed to be well proud of the guttering. The 'repair' was fairly simple, I just had to poke the loose stone back up out of the way and the roof could sag back onto its wall BUT it as in doing this poking, I spotted a small child's boot up among the rubble on top of the wall.

The shoe is 6 and three quarters inches long and 2 and three quarters inches wide and is of obviously 'stout' agricultural construction with several layers of leather, and most of its nails still there but blown and rusty. Fascinated, I winkled it out to show Liz, but we both then had the horrors in case this was some kind of family bereavement / memorial thing and decided not to use this in this blog or to photograph it.

However, Liz then went a-Googling on the internet using "Shoes found in walls" in the search engine and quickly discovered that this is actually a well known and wide spread cultural and building trades thing, to conceal a single child's-size shoe in your building works as a good luck token and there are whole museum databases and sections on which to record your finds. Northampton Museum in the UK and The Irish National Museum both ask for details.

One website at


had more.

  • "People often hid old boots and shoes," they report, "in chimneys and walls to bring good luck to their houses and to ward off evil spirits.

  • The shoes are always worn out.
  • Very often there is only one shoe.
  • Many of the shoes are for children.
  • The shoes were often put in place when building work was being done to the house.
  • It may be that if the workmen found a shoe they replaced it with a new offering, or put the old shoe back together with a new one?
  • No one knows when and how this habit began.
  • The earliest shoes we know of were put in place about 1500.
  • Shoes seem to have had a special significance.
  • A shoe is the only item of clothing which takes on the shape of the person wearing it.
  • A single worn shoe was hidden so that a malevolent spirit could not steal it and  take away the protection the shoe gave. 
Today people renovating old buildings sometimes come across ‘concealed shoes’.  The finds are very important because they show us what ordinary people were wearing on their feet hundreds of years ago. 
We keep a concealed shoe index here at the museum
At the moment the index stands at approximately 1,900 entries from all over the U.K and also records concealed shoe finds in North America, Canada, and a number of countries in Europe including France, Spain and Poland".

We will report our shoe to both Museums and have carefully replaced it in the top of the wall.

Interestingly, this is not the first leather item I have found, so I wonder whether this is a more general farm 'thing'. In the chicken house roof I found stashed a leather over-reach boot. These boots are fitted to horses' rear hooves where the horse has a tendency to bring his back foot so far forward in his stride that it can clout his front leg, which can be a problem on shod horses. 

Also, by coincidence, I was walking the dogs today and was greeted by a near-neighbour in a van who I had not met before. He introduced himself (We'll call him Brian the Roofer) and we chatted away a while before he told me that he was a roofer. A ha! said I and told him my story of the poor construction, rotten timbers, loose rubble and roof trying to get airborne. I invited him to drop by in passing and take a look and give me a quote on replacing the rooves of both the Tígín and the chicken house, which we will surely need to do at some stage, all be it hopefully not THAT soon!

Sunday 14 April 2013


Today I am 56, my 2nd birthday in Ireland and my first in the "new" house. We made a bit of a weekend of it with special meals both Saturday and Sunday. Yesterday we invited Mentor(s) Anne and Simon over and Liz cooked up a rather superb supper. Being all chicken keepers this has to be fitted in around 'bed time' for the birds, and with the evenings being now bright till around 7 pm, that means rounding up your birds by about 7.30 pm and socialising after that. The new hearth tiles are now fixed in place with their glue dried, so we were able to light a gentle fire in the main fireplace - it looked very good with the shiny hearth tiles reflecting the light from the flames. Our starter was a pomegranate and goats cheese salad. Main course was an 'Elizabethan Rabbit' recipe from the "Two Fat Ladies" cookbooks served with our own home made naan bread (Madhur Jaffrey recipe). The rabbit was actually one of the progeny of Anne's late buck Peter and our own doe Padfoot (late as in 'since sadly taken by a fox') which was rather nice. Pud was a chocolate mousse. We seemed to crack through a bit of Rioja and French red between us and the chat ebbed and flowed, taking in a fair amount of the recently deceased Maggie Thatcher and the Savita Halappanavar Galway Hospital casetill way gone midnight. Effortless and very enjoyable entertaining in lovely company. Thank you very much for coming, Anne and Simon.

Today we are just 'en famille' with no visitors and Liz is back in action creating a delicious potato-cake breakfast in which I get to eat the 2nd of our latest 2 goose eggs, with lunch as home made soup, coffee breaks featuring lemon drizzle cake and Dorset apple cake and a steak supper. Spoiled I am. I get a rake of birthday greetings through social network site 'Facebook', some cards, a superb (if not that tuneful) rendition of 'Happy Birthday to You' over the phone first thing from the assembled Silverwood Choir (cough), a more tuneful rendition later from Diamond and a lovely phone call from Pud Lady. I am taking a day off the pond-digging mainly because it has finally rained so my gardening is restricted to sowing seeds in pots, trays and tubs in the poly tunnel. The rain seems to have changed the appearance of the grass overnight and local farmers breathe sighs of relief that they might get some grazing for their cattle after all. Careful what you wish for, guys! I have clipped all three dogs, instead and very neat and summer-cool they look.

Meanwhile, in an exciting development in the poultry department, we have a goose (or geese) in lay. The photograph might look like a pile of hay but, trust me, it is in fact a hay box containing the start of a clutch of eggs. Let me explain. We were getting a bit concerned that the geese did not seem to be laying any eggs, although to be fair it was frosty most mornings and that awful NE wind had been whipping through for almost 3 weeks. We had even seen the gander 'treading' at least one of his ladies. Seeking advice from the  poultry discussion forum on the internet I was advised that if the geese were getting 'seen to' by the gander then they were almost certainly either laying or would soon start. Search through the hay in the hay-box and delve into the wood shavings, they said. Geese are pretty good at hiding eggs.

Goose eggs (Simon told us) stay viable for quite a long time while the goose accumulates her clutch at a rate of an egg a day or every 2nd or third day, trying to amass 12-14 eggs before she will go broody and sit on the clutch. So the next morning I headed for the goose house to let them out and to rummage and delve, but was presented with an egg in full view in a lovely cup-shaped, goose sized depression in the hay in the box. There proved to be a 2nd egg under the hay, so we collected both for use in the kitchen but then resolved to see if we could manage a clutch. All this had happened over night, quietly and with no drama from the geese.

The next day (now yesterday) that all changed and we seemed to move into a new format and level of excitement. We noticed during the morning that the geese were all hanging around the goose house door and waddling in and out of the house with much honking and noise every time the three got separated (by one being inside or outside and not visible to the others). It seemed this was the first time they had ever done anything other than as a threesome - they are normally glued together as a group, find one and you found them all. This separation was obviously stressful stuff! Eventually they sorted themselves out and Goocie sat on the box of hay while Gander and Goosey took them off a small distance to graze while Gander continued to honk and shout every few minutes, as if to reassure the sitting goose that he was still around. I went off to dig pond and after a half hour or so, Goocie emerged from the house and waddled over to find the other two.

Liz and I waited till they were safely out of sight and sneaked a peek into the house. At first we thought there was no egg but, no, there was indeed and egg but so carefully hidden under hay pulled across the top that it was invisible from above. I noticed in the evening when I went to round up the geese that Goocie went into the house and straight over to the hay box where she poked about checking that the egg was still there. We hope this means that she is now in 'accumulating a clutch' mode, so we have left that egg intact and will wait and see. There were no more eggs over night or today. Anne and Simon tells us that we may need to try to separate the 2 females if they both start nesting as they can hassle each other and start interfering with each others' nests, stealing or breaking eggs etc. This might have practical problems in our set-up; we'd struggle to fence the two halves of the family apart but still give them access to all their other needs and the gander, so we are just keeping a watchful eye. We will cross those bridges when (and if) we come to them.

Happy Birthday to me. I am told it is also the anniversary of the Titanic hitting the iceberg; that happened not long before midnight on the 14th and Titanic sank on the 15th. So now you know.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Hearth and Home

A tiny amount of rain falls overnight; barely enough to lay the 'dusht'. Everything is tinder-dry and the front pages of the Western Mail local newspaper are full of dramatic pictures of gorse fires raging across County Mayo. One report had that the local Fire Fighters had been called out to 200 fires in the last few days. Our own measure of how dry we are is in this picture of strip-grazing on the front lawn, rabbit-style. These runs are moved every day, 24 hours being enough time for the rabbits to annihilate the grass in the run, so as you look from camera towards the runs you are looking at grass recovery growth per day, the nearest patch having had about 11 days to recover. You can see that the turf is still bald and not a cm of grass has grown in the 11 days, and this in Country Roscommon in Ireland's allegedly wet 'wesht' in March and April.

It's so dry that all the farmers are looking to let their cattle out of the indoor yards but they daren't as there is nothing for them to eat out there. I noticed on my dog walk today that even the ferns in the ditches and hedge-bottoms along the lane have that curled, frazzled, freeze-dried look. Liz and I are both wary of praying for rain as we might bring down another year like 2012 (!) but the garden could definitely use some.

'Hearth and Home' - now there is a nice, comforting expression evocative of the centre of a house, a focus for all the family activity. You'd think then that it would be one of the bits you'd be sure to finish as you completed a rebuild. It was certainly one of the first jobs I wanted to do as soon as we got hold of the house keys in December 2011 and readers may recall the fun we had, just newly in through the door, raking out old jackdaw nests, sweeping out the chimneys and cleaning up so that we could light fires in the old Rayburn range and the fireplace in the Living Room. We lit fires pretty much every day from then till our demolition work got to the stage of ripping out the Rayburn and CAREFULLY dismantling the fire place. We even apologised to the house as we drove away each Friday, for not being able to light fires on Saturday and Sunday. It was an important (and successful) part of trying to get some warmth into the house structure and dry it out.

It is, as well, a particularly fine fireplace. The locals think it was way too 'posh' to have been installed as original and must have been added later when the family got affluent. It was in a sorry state, falling away from the wall and with some sections broken. The copper hood, you may recall, was so black and tarnished that we thought it must be iron and in need of black-lead; luckily spotting a slight glint of shine and then getting some good advice from Mazy-Lou involving tomato ketchup as a cleaning chemical.

But we never quite worked out what to do with the hearth once it had all been carefully cleaned and re-hung. We weighed up a number of options involving a marble plinth and brass fenders, or simple dark tiles, but the stone was likely to be in the €200's and the fender another €250. We have sat there, indecisively, looking at the gap in the sandstone coloured floor tiles and found lots of other jobs to do instead!

Well, not any more. When helping John Deere Bob do his turf we spotted a big pile of old waste tiles including some marble-effect black floor tiles in the barn and Bob was more than happy to unload some on us, they having been gathered by one of his brothers while he was still living in the family home, where Bob now lives. He did not know where the brother had got them or why. Armed with a dozen of those and an angle grinder borrowed from Mentor Anne, and a bag of left-over floor tile adhesive, I was away and in just a few hours had created this hearth which we are both very pleased with. It looks very 'right' in our opinion, with the greener, multi-hued marble of the fireplace itself.

Meanwhile, I chug on with digging the pond, rather enjoying the dryness of the soil. The soil is light to lift by the shovel full and easy to walk around on being dusty rather than claggy, and smearing. I do this at about an hour a day, which translates into about 20 barrow loads. I hear all the comments about hiring mini diggers etc but I ignore them. We are time-rich and (comparatively) money-thrifty and, anyway, I LIKE digging. The thought of getting to the end of this project and being able to look out over the water and say "I dug all that by hand!" is an attractive one. It might take me weeks rather than the half a day of a digger, but we are not in any hurry. I do the hour as a 'constitutional', paying my dues, if you like, earning the right to do the easier, more popular jobs. That's just me.

I have, though, discovered how the French game of 'boules' or 'petanque' came to be invented. There was this gang of rural French villagers back in the day, named Etienne, Noel, Pierre, Thierry, André and Ullyse, who sat around the village pump smoking Gauloises and taking the Micky out of the village idiot who was stone deaf. He was so deaf that when asked anything, including his name, his reply was invariably, "Quoi"? and this became his nickname. So well ingrained did the nickname become that no-one could remember his proper name. Growing bored one summer of hanging round the village pump, this bunch of lads decided to go on holiday to Ireland where their long lost Auntie Elize had started to create a small holding in the 'wesht'. The lads' Mums insisted that if they were going, then they should a) take the idiot 'Quoi' with them and b) help Elize as much as possible on the 'farm'.

Well, as it happened, the job that week was to dig a big pond (wouldn't you know it?) so the lads pitched in and started to dig across the chosen space, digging up along the way, all manner of rocks, mainly hard sandstone lumps roughly round in shape and cricket ball sized. To start with the lads piled these in a heap, knowing that Elize might use them as path edges, but as they progressed backwards across the pond, away from their pile of stones, getting stones to the pile involved an under-arm toss of ever-increasing length. Get it right and your new stone clonked nicely into the pile and stayed there. Get it wrong and your stone bounced off one of the existing stones and shot off several yards across the grass and someone had to go retrieve it. Guess who? Quoi of course!

As the distance became greater, there was a real skill in making the correct toss and the lads, being a bit sporty enjoyed the competition with each other, cheering a good throw, laughing roundly at a bad one and even keeping score. The work progressed well and the pond was dug in no time, but the lads had enjoyed the throwing game so much they decided that a sport along the same lines should exist and that they'd take it back to their village and start it there. What to call it, then? Well, suggested Elize, let's make up a word which sounds like a lump of sandstone hitting the pile of stones, but the word be made up from all our names, P for Pierre, E for Etienne, T for Thierry and so on, with a Q for Quoi, of course and an E for their dear Tante Elize.

Or does that sound like a load of 'Boules' to you?