Saturday 29 June 2013

Attacking the Bank with a Pick Axe

OK - I'll come clean! This is not some tale of anti-hero outlaws extracting violent revenge on the Bank of Ireland for their cheque book charges, fat-cat bonuses or other wrongs; this is a genuine earth bank. Regular readers will have met it before as the place of rest of the horse-drawn hay rake and the site of our disinterment of the rusty metal fertilizer spreader. It runs along our western boundary 'under' the hedge which divides us from Vendor-Anna's 5 acre field. It is a mess. We can only assume that for 30+ years (easily more) TK Max and TK Min used it as a dumping ground for farm junk.

The hawthorn hedge which was there is now easily 50 years old and has long since been pushed through by elder trees. The elders have dropped branches, as they do, and these have been grown up through by ancient and venerable stinging nettles. Old fashioned peat-turfs have been piled against the hedge - the old "hand-won" shape cut with a "slean" (pronounced 'shlee-un' ish); a long narrow spade with a knife coming off one side at 90 degrees to give you an L-shaped cut. These have either been deliberately or accidentally covered with black silage-bale wrap, entombing them (so at least they are dry-ish!) before topsoil has been bulldozed (?) against and over them to make the bank. Big round bales of hay have at some stage been leant against this.

You'll know that we have worked really hard here since moving in battling with various bits of the garden, cutting down tall stuff, mowing, pruning and generally trying to force it to be a garden rather than a jungle, but 'The Bank' we have to admit, has been a bit neglected. The Bank looms over us like a dark cloud, clearly visible from the big pond, the pond garden and the orchard. Its thickets of stinging nettles rise up from the rotting hay-bales and the Queen Anne's Lace (Cow Parsley) tries to out-height the unkempt hedge. The holes we have made extracting the spreader and un-burying the hay rake look like tiny, pathetic breaches in the curtain-wall of a castle.

Now, though, I am done pond-digging and I am on top of weeding in the 'allotment', so I have decided to add it to my 'hour-a-day-whatever-the-weather' job list, the not-so-pleasant tasks I make myself do in order to earn the more pleasurable jobs or a rest or a cup of coffee! Liz is also involved and gets stuck in when she can. It is hard, heavy and frustrating work because you just can't get a shovel down through the nettle roots, baler twine, plastic wrap and bits of tree.

The only way to beat it seems to be to rip into it with a pick axe, pulling loose tufts of root and then going through it by (gloved) hand sorting what you can get loose into types and degrees of usefulness - hay and green weeds to the compost, metal, twine, wrap and nettle root to the non-recycle bin, stones and rocks to the reserve rock pile, wood and turf sods for burning if big enough and that lovely top soil onto various new beds. By slow degree we will dismantle the bank dropping its level to one of 'raised bed near hedge' and un-ship all the rubbish. It is hot work, as I said, and the 9-week old chickens quickly adopted the bare crumbly top soil I am exposing, for dust bathing. Watch this space for progress.

Meanwhile, as I also said, the allotment bit is under control and I am delighted with it. It is better looking and more productive, seemingly, than any attempts I made in Kent (I have loads more time here) and is streets ahead of last year's flat cultivation, washed out, as it was, by the masses of rain and prey to crop failures all around.  I have today been able to pick some first over-wintered broad beans.

These bushes were almost completely wiped out by the terrible drying east winds which blew for 3 weeks continuously in Feb/March but have recovered well and are now 3 feet high and covered in pods low down on each stem. The pods are not as full as I would like as there were very few bees about back when these guys were in flower, but that is the kind of thing we will help as we get more into the 'wildlife garden' side of things - the self seeding insect friendly flowers and so on.

To this end, a huge Thank You to a Facebook friend who has picked up the nickname (on FB) of 'Backchat Black'. He lives in Spalding (Lincs) and is mad keen on this kind of gardening and has posted me seeds of teasel, comfrey, pot marigold, tansey and feverfew. Also to Pud Lady who is sending me regular supplies of the free gift seed packets which come with subscriber gardening magazines. Between us we should achieve a riot of colour and a heady buzz of insects. The photo (left) is of a common spotted orchid now appeared in our orchard meadow. We are on the starting ramp.

Friday 28 June 2013

Dirty Stop-Outs

Ever since we lost that first chicken to a fox back last year because we sat chatting into the evening while they free-ranged till 20:30, we have learned a lesson and tried to get everybody locked up safe by a decent hour. We've done well at this and all the birds have co-operated to such a degree that we have friends on some of the poultry forums and Facebook as well as Mentor Anne, sometimes amazed that we have them "all in bed by 6" or what ever. Everybody else seemed to be struggling to round up last stragglers a good hour or more after we were shut down. I have continued this with the geese and goslings who don't take themselves off to bed, but are happy to be rounded up and shepherded to their 'bedroom' by about 18:30 and are waiting by the gate when I go out to collect them. They all waddle straight in the 'back door' and I shut it behind them, then nip round to the front and give them a handful of grain and rolled barley. So far so good.

It's been a bit of a shock, then to take on these new Cuckoo Marans who are not interested in early nights at all. They are dirty stop-outs by comparison. As I type this it is ten past 9 at night and I have only just this minute persuaded their two reluctant rumps into the wooden 'goose' house and bolted the pop-hole. They are safe enough in these bright, sunny evenings, when the sun doesn't set till 10 p.m. but they don't want to be stretching it out any more, or our little red furry cunning friend will be having them for his supper. We have seen enough foxes to know that they are always about and are famous opportunists.

It was quite amusing tonight to watch the rooster, William, trying to round them up. They have settled in well here and I now release them from the orchard once they have both laid eggs, so that they can go free ranging, meet William and mix it with all the existing flock. It is good to see William now parading his 3 white Sussex Pontes and two grey/black Marans around as a group. But William is one for his early lock ups and generally heads for his roost about 7:30 p.m and then crows vigorously calling his ladies home to roost, till they are all accounted for, generally by about 8 p.m. Tonight at around the 7 p.m. mark we were sitting by the pond and could see right across to the trees of the 'Secret Garden'.

We watched William fretting up and down that bit of sheep fence, moving 6 feet towards 'home' and then doing his excited scratch-the-floor 'dance' to try to draw the Marans closer, then moving another 6 feet and so on. The Marans would seem to be drawn, but then would drift back further away, so he had to back-track and collect them again. Poor William was losing his mind, especially as the Sussex girls had got bored by then and made their own way 'home' without him. It seemed to us that he was desperately inviting the Marans 'back to his place'. We let him off the hook eventually, rounded up the Marans to the orchard and then shepherded William 'home'. He'll get another chance tomorrow. He seemed relieved to no longer have that responsibility. We then had the hour and a half of abortive attempts to drive the Marans to their own house before they finally went willingly at 9 p.m.

The Marans, mean time have decided to get a bit creative with their eggs. After a succession of plain mid-brown eggs, we suddenly got this lovely speckled one. Perhaps the late nights are fuel to the creative processes. Talking of 'creative' Liz has been getting on very well with my jumper and is now almost there, working her way around the 'band' which has buttons one side, goes round the back of the neck and then has button holes the other side. (Sorry - probably haven't given you the technical terms - knitting is not actually my strong suit!). This long band has involved 'picking up' around 370 stitches, so Liz has had to invest in a 'circular needle', a continuous flexible loop of needle running from the hard point in her left hand to the one in her right. It's all looking very professional.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Body Heat.

A couple of days ago I posted that our hard working broody, Broody Betty was back in the mood, but this time, with nothing to sit on except our rubber dummy-eggs. We've done with 'breeding' this year and have enough chickens at the moment so our first thought was to try to break her of the habit this time, which you do by keep on lifting her off the nest, clearing it of eggs and not leaving her in peace. In theory the humour to sit leaves the hen after a few days and she goes back to the flock and her egg-laying duties.

Then we had  a second thought, that Mentor Anne might have a 'use' for her. Anne hatches a lot more 'stuff' in general than we do, and her incubator is generally working hard for quite a long season. It turned out that, yes, Anne had ten duckling eggs she could put under Betty so that is what we have now done. These are of the duck variety 'Indian Runner Ducks' which I will get a photograph of soon. They are slim and have their legs well back under their belly so that they walk very upright compared to other ducks. The eggs will take 28 days to hatch (so they are due on Mon 22nd July) and have to be sprayed with tepid water daily while given a 10-15 minute cooling period, simulating the mother duck's need to go off the nest for toiletry reasons and returning with a wet belly where she will have been swimming. The ducklings, once hatched, will be returned to Anne for growing on. Incidentally the locals call a broody hen a "clocky hen" or "clocker".  

We had another rabbit drama this morning - I went round feeding and releasing on my 'ward round' and was horrified to discover two tiny white, very still babies in Goldie's run, out on the grass. We understand now that this is not that uncommon with 'free range' rabbits. The mother rabbit will get up from a session suckling babies but the babies will not let go of the teats, so they can get dragged out of the nest. In the wild they would get rubbed off as the mother squeezed down the burrow tunnels, and in the nest box you build a 'wall' 5 inches or so high to help 'knock them off' but this does not always work and Mum can still have babies attached as she hops over this. Unlike cats and dogs, rabbits are unable to pick up their babies safely by the scruff and bring them back home - they have sharp, opposing incisor teeth.

Anyway, one of these tiny mites was cold and still, obviously dead from the chilly night, but the other which I at first thought was also dead moved very slightly in my hand, a barely discernible push on the back legs and a slight opening of the mouth as if drawing the last gasp. Knowing that what you can do with chickens and lambs is get them warm and they may recover, I pushed the little mite down inside my dressing gown so that he was against my belly down by the waist band of my dressing gown feeling the warmth of my skin and I carried on with my rounds, sorting everybody else out. I was pleased to feel that the baby bun started to struggle. Coming back indoors the next job was to take Liz up her tea, so I couldn't resist a little tease - "How warm are you in that bed?" Very! Why? "Are there bits of you that are warmer than others bits?" etc. Eventually I produced the tiny furry form from inside my dressing gown and gave it to Liz to warm up properly. I promise you, this is not a euphemism! After half an hour down among Liz's 'warm bits' the bunny was struggling like a good one and, she thought, starting to nuzzle about looking for mum's milk-bar.

Meanwhile we decided that allowing Goldie to nurse these babies in her chosen upstairs hutch nest was just too risky. This was twice now that we had found babies on the grass. We decided to risk moving her and the nest into the 3rd of the runs I had built now that it was no longer required by the young chickens. We managed this move without trouble and installed the little rescued, warmed up baby into the new 'bedroom'. We counted 6 more babies, plus our rescue, making 7 in a variety of colours. All seems to be well with that family now and Goldie seems quite calm and cool with the move. These babies are still only 12 days old and with their eyes still shut so they are way too young to be out of the nest.

I promised you a picture of the darker eggs being produced by our two new 'Marans' hens. It is above on the left. Mentor Anne tells us that if these ladies had been producing the really dark shade of egg (Marans eggs go right through to a deep plain-chocolate colour) then it might have been worth obtaining a Marans rooster - the dark-egg birds are much sought after. Ours, it seems, are only mid-range colour so are not that special and can relax in our flock enjoying the company of our Sussex Ponte rooster, William. We have no intention of breeding from these two.

Sunday 23 June 2013

There is only one day in the year.........

My UK friends and readers may find this as hard to believe as we did when we first arrived here, but there is only one day in the year when you are allowed to have a bonfire to burn your garden waste, hedge clippings and so on. Bonfires and the burning of rubbish are illegal without a special licence which you'd have to apply for and get signed off by County Council officials, so tends to get used only rarely by big landscaping operations and farmers. This is no doubt for very good reasons to do with not starting bush-fires in the local forests and on the bogs, plus pollution. We are told that in the early days of this ban there was actually a spotter helicopter sent up to look for tell tale smoke columns.

I have to say that before we knew this, and while we were ripping all the old, wood-worm riddled timbers out of the house, we might have done a few bonfires. I also think it is one of those laws, of which there seem to be quite a few in Ireland, where nobody actually enforces them and there have never been any arrests or prosecutions. None the less we are wary of being the first test case so, now that we know, we are not doing any illegal burns.

There is one day of the year when you are allowed to light bonfires - Bonfire Night which here is obviously nothing to do with burning Catholics on November 5th! It is celebrated on June 23rd (this year, anyway) and is geared to the Summer Solstice and/or St John's Eve. We suspect it is another of these 'Hi-Jacked' ones which was being celebrated by the pre-Christian Irish and was then absorbed and 'civilised' by the early Christians into being all about St John.

It ends up meaning that even if the weather is vile and too windy for sensible fires, everyone ignores all the beautiful, windless days of early June and saves all their burn-able rubbish for the 23rd. We did this - for all those still days of May and June, the hedge cuttings in our East Field languished on the grass and because the horses would not risk prickling their lips near cut bramble, the grass and docks grew long and lush through them, so that when we came to want them today it was the devil an' all job to wrench them out of the thigh-high grass. It was also a bit windy so that in the UK I'd have been leaving the burn for a safer day, but we decided that down in the 'well' of the field between the tall trees of our 'Secret Garden' and the eastern boundary, we'd be safe enough. So it proved. We have now burned all the cuttings and managed not to start any forest fires.

Happy Bonfire Night, Irish style!

Saturday 22 June 2013

Geriatric Cuckoo Marans

The Summer Solstice and we have the range lit in the evening. In this picture the two cats are enjoying a bit of warmth sleeping on the table. To be fair it's not actually THAT cold but Liz is feeling a bit under the weather and thinks she is 'coming down with something'. I find her sitting at the table knitting at 5 pm with a hoodie on with the hood up. She's actually off that evening, all glammed up, for a choral evening in Balla-D. She is going with Simon - neither myself nor Mentor Anne 'do' choral stuff so that seemed like the best solution.

Our mini-horse owning friends, Carolyn and Charlotte have decided that they really want to keep just their horses, rabbits (Charlotte currently has 39 with the babies!) geese and ducks, so they are running down their chicken collection. They had just 4 left last week, with homes for the two younger ones, leaving them with two "Cuckoo Marans" variety hens who sounded from the first descriptions, as if they might be the geriatrics looking for somewhere to see out the autumn of their years. We can give them grass, sunshine and quiet space.

We volunteered to take them off C+C's hands and it was agreed they would deliver them today. In fact they are not that old, being 4-5 years (probably fairly ancient in 'commercial poultry' terms!) and still in good health and good lay. The only problem, probably resulting from age is that one has grown quite a big bright red 'bubble' among her facial fleshy bits (wattles, comb etc). We are assured that this is not any kind of disease which our other birds might catch, it is just that she is not as beautiful as she was in her youth, and who among us can say they are?

The 'Marans' breed is a French general-purpose (eggs and meat) breed commonly kept in French farmyards, Marans being a town in Charente-Maritime down on the west coast of France near La Rochelle. They come in a variety of colours, the black/grey barred ones, known as 'cuckoo' because they resemble the breast feathers of the cuckoo, being probably the most common. They lay lovely dark, chocolate-brown eggs which I will photo for you when they 'start' for us. Carolyn tells me these are in lay but sometimes the upset of a move like this can knock them off lay for a day or two. Liz has named them 'Bubble' and 'Squawk'. When you ask her whether the "Bubble" is a reference to her facial 'thing' Liz will just look at you inscrutably. Bubble and Squawk it is. They have arrived and got some grass under their feet and feed into their bellies. They look to be settling in well and we hope they get a comfortable night's sleep in the house I built for geese in the orchard and which the geese have pretty much ignored.

Here is a picture of my new ladder-perch arrangement in the new chicken house, here being cheekily tested out by the 8 'Young Ones' (well, 7 of them - the white La Bresse cross prefers to sit in the wood shavings at the bottom.) This is quite handy, because we want these 8 to now move into this house at night, so it is good that they go in voluntarily and enjoy the perches. Tonight's the (first) night for this experiment. We hope the Lovely Girls will not beat them up in the night. Look very carefully bottom right at my block of three nest boxes, and you can just see the white of one of the Lovely Girls's breast; yes we have a broody again. We think this is not 'Broody Betty' but another hen but what ever, we do not want any more hatches of chooks this year, so we will just have to keep evicting her and stealing any eggs till the mood goes off her.

Finally some good fruit set on some of the orchard trees, this one the Victoria Plum. We have just one or two on several trees but we are more than happy with that. This year is all about the trees settling in and consolidating their root system, so we don't actually want them putting too much energy into fruit. Generally these trees have done very well. I am a bit concerned about a Braeburn tree which looks a bit sick and has lost a branch through die-back but I have cut that branch out and we hope the remaining tree will recover. Braeburn is my favourite type of apple for eating.

Friday 21 June 2013

Aquatics for the New Pond

We were like 2 kids at Christmas today when at 10:30 the courier (Nightline) delivered our box of aquatic plants from the Essex firm Mimmack's.

We had been struggling to find suppliers of any decent range of aquatic plants in Ireland and then to find UK firms who would deliver to the Republic but then someone on Facebook tipped me off to a firm who generously gave me Mimmack's name. They have been brilliant and I would unreservedly recommend them to anyone in the British Isles if you, like us, have a pond to stock.

As well as being able to buy individual named plants, they do fixed price 'collections' such as Starter Packs and Wildlife Pond sets and they do them for a range of pond sizes. We wanted white water lilies and purple loosestrife but beyond that we also wanted a good range of native, wildlife species. Their bigger packs also contain a ration of water snails (in our case 24 common Pond Snails (Stagnalis). We chose a collection called 'N4' at £65 which cost £27.50 to post here (i.e. total  £92.50, or €112 thereabouts) which proved to have 24 species in it plus the 'mixed oxygenators' which looks to me contain the native Elodea and hornwort (Ceratophyllum) plus maybe another species or two. In many cases the species bag contained several plants - up to 5 in one case, so we have done very well. They all arrived in good health, fresh and bright. The water lilies and 'brandy bottle' plants in particular had fine thick chunky bits of root and the water lilies had leaf stems enough to reach the surface when planted straight into our depth; no need for the 'nursery slopes' stages.

For the botanists among you we have, in alphabetical order

Acorus Calamus native Sweet flag
Alisma plantago-aquatica native    Common water plantain
Butomus umbellatus  Flowering rush native
Equisetum fluviatale  Water marestail
Hydrocharis morsus-ranae Frogbit
Hypericum Elodes native Marsh St John's Wort
Iris pseudacorus native Yellow flag
Juncus inflexus native   Hard rush
Lycopsus Europaeus Native Gypsy Wort
Lysimachia thrysiflora native Tufted loosestrife
Lythrum salicaria Purple loosestrife
Mentha aquatica native Watermint
Menyanthes trifoliata native Bogbean
Mimulus luteus native Yellow monkey flower
Mixed oxygenators native  Mixed oxygenators native
Mysotis scorpioides native Water forget me not
Nuphar luteum  Brandy bottle
Nymphaea alba   White water lily
Nymphoides peltata  Water fringed lily
Potentilla palustris native Purple marshlock
Potomageton Natans    Broad leaved pondweed
Ranunculus flammula native Lesser spearwort
Sagittaria sagittifolia native  Common arrowhead
Sparganium erectum native Burr reed
Stagnalis Common pond snail
Stratiotes aloides Water soldier

You can imagine that we had great fun for 2 hours this morning in the sunshine unpacking this lot, grouping them by planting depth needs, then potting (or 'tray'ing) them up for sinking into the pond, or planting them between the stones of our beach. Some, the floating aquatics are just simply 'launched' into the water to drift where they will. Submerged oxygenators arrived bunched into half a dozen 'posies' held together with bag-ties. These we held a small stone to using the thin elastic bands which came with a lot of this and gently sank them into the depths. 

I have not done photos yet because mainly these were chunks of root with a few young shoots protruding, so not that picturesque but we hope they will live and flourish in our pond, (as well as helping to kill the red algal bloom!) and we will be able to photograph them in glorious blossom at some point in the future. The oxygenators like Elodea are believed to help with algal blooms by being hungry and fast growing selfish feeders who strip the water of excess nutrients and starve the algae out of rations. 

Great fun on a Friday morning. 

Thursday 20 June 2013

All Change

It's all go locally as the farmers try to rattle in a first cut of silage in this hot spell, with some rain forecast for tomorrow. They try to mow one day, leave the cut grass to wilt overnight and then bale and wrap the next day. These are big heavy round bales, so the old boys like our own John Deere Bob and their lightweight tractors take a back seat on this one and the young lads with their big contractor kit do the honours. Bob's contractor used a big 4WD, 6 tonne, 110 HP Case IH tractor with a serious baler hitched on and we could hear the roar of the diesel and the bass thump and clang for each completed bale from here. Bob has around 80 bales now but will need to take a 2nd cut in 8 weeks to get his 130 or so together that he needs to see him though this winter.

I am sorry to only have poor pictures so far but today is day 18 for the baby rabbits born to Ginny and Padfoot. They are active enough now to have started to emerge from the 'bedroom' by hopping over the low 'wall' I installed, so it's time to remove the wall and let them start to explore the grass of the run. We think these Mums each have about 5 kittens but until they start to explore properly you cannot really count them - the nest is a ball of hay and belly-fluff with random bunny bottoms, heads, ears and legs protruding, too tangled up to count.

All change in the poultry section. We have been a bit anxious about doing this, but we have wanted to swap the geese from the calf house, with the chickens from the milking shed. This would involve a certain amount of carpentry and fixing up of chicken wire, a lot of 'mucking out' and, we thought, some hassle at bed time where nobody (we predicted) would want to go to their new sleeping accommodation and confusion would reign. The woodwork was mainly about making a pop-hole in the new door of the calf house and constructing a perch-ladder in there. The chooks have been used to flapping up to a perch 7 feet up via a couple of staging posts. Now they would have a 'ladder' at 45 degrees with perches at 21 inch intervals so nice and easy. The nest boxes would also be moved along with the feeder and drinker. The geese are basically getting the floor area of the former chicken house, now cleared of perches and cleaned up. The young chickens will also be persuaded to use the new chicken house and to merge in with the old chickens (including their 'mother'!) but we will do that as a separate change later, planned for tomorrow.

[Horse Chestnut grown from seed]

It all proved to be a whole lot easier than we'd expected. During the 'woodworking' one of the hens had shown up obviously looking for the nest boxes in order to lay an egg. She recognised the boxes but these were currently sitting outside in the cattle race while we cleaned up. I put them in the new quarters, grabbed her and put her in one of them where she settled happily to her egg laying, unperturbed by the fact she was in 'the goose house'. We bribed the 'Young Ones' into their old familiar run and closed them in. We bribed the horses into their field and turned off the electric fence which currently runs close to the new goose house. We were on.

['Million Trees' Mountain ash]

The geese proved to be a doddle to steer into their new quarters. It seemed that it was a familiar looking door into a familiar building so they just went with it once they'd spotted Liz lurking in their normal path. They paddled in onto the clean wood shavings and accepted a supper of wheat and rolled barley. Seemingly quite unconcerned that this was not their normal end.

The chickens, we were sure we'd have some fun with - chooks are far less steerable and tend to panic and scatter as soon as they sense they  are being cornered. But at around half six they happened to have gathered near the new space. We opened the calf house door so that they could see the hen sitting on the nest box and the rooster and 2 hens just wandered in out of curiosity. I went to close the door behind them but 'Baldy' spotted my intention and bolted back out. This might have been a problem, but we sensed that she was still very interested in getting into the building where her 4 chums now were. Liz hovered near the pop hole to stop the captured birds from coming back out but Baldy was then heading for the ramp to the pop hole, so we both stepped back, holding our breaths to see would she use the ramp and go in, the first bird so to do? Bless Her - she did, with barely a hesitation. We now had all the birds where they needed to be for the night, so we shut the pop-hole and retreated to let them settle.

My other two pictures are examples of our tree-planting successes. The horse chestnuts (conkers) were collected from below a tree in Gravesend (Kent) last Autumn while I was staying on the Sailing Barge Cambria moored there. I have three successful seedlings from 4 conkers. The mountain ash is a 'Million Trees' sapling, most of which are doing very well and putting out lots of new leaves. We are pleased to be having tree successes and will look to carry this on, planting more each year.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Fotherington Thomas

Anyone who grew up with the 'Molesworth' series of books (Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle) will be familiar with the character, Basil Fotherington Thomas. The books are a rather anarchic look at boarding school life written as from the point of view of Nigel Molesworth whose spelling is awful and who is a typical ruffty-tuffty school boy always misbehaving in class, doodling on his exercise books and getting into 'whizz' adventures and scrapes. He is also a keen observer of other boys and teachers ('beaks') and one he comments frequently on is a weedy, curly blonde haired cherub called Fotherington Thomas who is keen on music and nature walks and is famously always head-in-the-clouds, dreaming and saying "Hello trees, hello sky".

We have a gosling just like that. Small compared to the 4 remaining big bruisers he seems to be always in a world of his own, dawdling, lagging behind, unaware that the rest of the gang have moved on, then running to catch up. At the moment I shepherd them from goose house to orchard each morning and home again at night. I do this by walking slowly behind them and steering them by moving at a tangent or by spreading a hand sideways. The adults and the 4 bruisers are a bit nervous of this and stay about 4-5 feet in front of me looking over their shoulders and hurrying on their way so that I don't catch them up.

Not Fotherington Thomas. He will be dawdling along behind the group pecking at the occasional particularly attractive grass stem or looking around him till I am so close I have to nudge him with my foot to get him going again or, on one occasion, I bent over at the waist, loomed above him from 2 feet away and said, theatrically loudly, "Um... Hello-oh! Fotherington! Shouldn't you be over there?" At that he suddenly seemed to notice me and the family had moved on a few feet, raised his wings and hurried off to catch them up. We are all amazed that it wasn't him who got caught by Deefer.

You will know that the geese are now confined to the orchard ("for their comfort and safety" as the saying goes!) so we have taken advantage of the natural dents in that field and a spare bit of butyl liner, and created for them another pond, now that they do not have access to the big pond. They may be still looking longingly through the fence at the top of the orchard, at the big pond, but they seem to be very happy in these new quarters and Mentor Anne has 'inspected' us and proclaimed the orchard a very good environment for geese.

Meanwhile, our red algal bloom in the big pond is taking on a personality, story and plot-line all of its own. We had hoped that it would fade as quickly as it arrived but this does not seem to be the case. 2 days ago, in the afternoon it suddenly seemed to be worse, more opaque and 'soupy' than it had been but we were amazed to discover that this was actually because the alga was, for some reason, suddenly concentrated in the top inch or two. See the 2 jars in my picture? The orange soup was surface water. The clear sample was from not far below this, maybe a foot down. When you waved a hand through the top layers, the red water parted like clearing the froth on a clear consommé soup. Bizarre. It has now gone back to how it was before that, with the algae seemingly deeper by way less dense.

Finally, just a quick shot to show you what those shed doors look like on the inside with their horizontal and diagonal 4 x 2 bracing. This particular building is going to be changed around next - we need more space for the growing chicken family and we have been advised that the high perches and vertical morning descents are not ideal and can result in leg injuries. Chickens do not do soft landings. So the open door here will soon be a wider, lower, chicken-space with ladder type perches (a 'ladder' placed at 45 degrees so that chooks can climb up to their perch in small hops and down again). The geese will be swapped with them and take over the current chicken house - they do not perch to sleep - they sleep on the ground. Fun and games to come then with my makeshift carpentry, chicken wire and so on.

Sunday 16 June 2013

New Doors

Saturday sees the arrival of this big yellow builder's van, a pile of tools and some stacks of wood. This all signifies that our friend, local-living but Dublin born and bred carpenter (who we will call for the purposes of this blog...) K-Dub has turned up to replace all 5 doors and door frames in the outbuildings, 2 on the Tígín, 2 on the yard side of the chicken and goose houses (formerly milking shed and calf house) and one on the back of the chicken house.

K-Dub is a brilliant Carpenter and builder whose normal work is houses and sites in Dublin but who has built for his own entertainment and practise, a working, street legal, ride-able wooden motor bike. He is geared up like our own 'Sparks' with plenty of toys including the familiar 'Paslode' nail gun, an elabourate portable bench-saw and a multi-function circular saw called a 'skill saw'. These doors are going to be SOLID, not like our own stable-door efforts made from tongue and groove which has proved to be the very devil for expanding and jamming in the damp and shrinking in the dry.

These doors are faced with one inch grooved decking timber and framed with 4 by 2 timbers for the horizontal 'ribs' and diagonal bracing. The old rotted, wood-worm riddled frames have all been ripped out and replaced with whatever size of wood worked, and here K-Dub had that same fun and games that we had on the build of the main house; the walls are hard blue sandstone randomly mixed in with not particularly hard concrete. Getting frame fixings to 'stick' was a case of trying to hit the sandstone rather than the mortar with the drill, but when you do hit stone your fixing is as solid as the proverbial rock. He also coped well with that old problem of none of these doors being exact rectangles and very few of the corners being right angles, lintels horizontal or walls plumb.

K-Dub did the whole job in a day from ripping out the old, through building the doors from planks on site, to fitting. He re-instated a horse shoe we had over the door to the chicken house, made the chickens a new pop-hole through the door and even knocked me up a fairly sophisticated window frame for the Tígín window (see 2nd picture for the tired old one which has now joined the scrap pile.)

I took this picture of the goslings at 3 weeks of age (Saturday) so that I could proudly show them off on Facebook and here but, sadly, Pride comes before a fall, and I have to report another tragedy. My 'grown up' dog, Deefer (the name on this blog), caught and killed one of them today, so fast that neither of us really know what happened. Back in Faversham in Kent we had both our dogs, Megan and Haggis completely trustworthy and able to stroll among the chickens without attacking or killing any and I was dreaming that I might get Deefer and eventually the pups, to this stage. No end of people have warned me that "you can never trust a terrier" and today I have to say, I believe them. I'd had Deefer off the lead SUPERVISED and able to walk among the horses, chickens, the young chicks and the gander.

Today I trusted her to come with me into the fields around for a walk and we returned to the garden without problem. She went off to gaze at rabbits while I headed for the poly tunnel to talk to Liz, who was weeding. There was suddenly goose mayhem outside, honking, splashing in the water, no end of noise. I ran out to see Deefer chasing through the goose family, shouted at her and stopped her, grabbed her and collared her to the house but I could see over my shoulder only 5 goslings on the big pond. Liz found the sad little corpse of a gosling on the grass. We can only assume that Deefer ran from her rabbits towards me, set all the geese off and then lost the run of herself so that instinct took over and she snapped at this poor bird as she went by. It's what terriers do. Once more I find me kicking myself.

Ah well, we are down to 5 goslings but this has spurred us on to completing a job we had been putting off. We love to see the geese and goslings on the big pond but that was never intended as a goose-pond. It is a wildlife pond. Liz had also been pushing for the geese to be contained rather than completely free range so that the damage they do to garden plants is reduced. So today the geese got herded into the orchard AND I dug the 5 foot diameter pond in the bottom corner of the orchard where there was already a handy, saucer-shaped dent and (also handily) we have on off-cut of the butyl rubber to fit. So the geese can graze the orchard where they have almost a 30 m square to graze (i.e. 900 square meters), they have the split-barrel pond, the enamel bath and now this new pond to play in, the rabbits and baby bunnies for company AND they are safe from escaping dogs. The dogs are all back on leads in the garden till geese are safely shut up at night.

Deefer was shouted at, at the time and then left to sweat it indoors for half an hour but has now been forgiven and is back among us. I have abandoned my dream that she will ever be as bird-friendly as Megan and Haggis, but we can cope with that. My final picture shows that we have, at last, some strawberries from the poly-tunnel plants, and very nice they were too, if in a limited way. These are 'maiden' plants which were very small at planting and , anyway, a bit held up by our not having completed the poly-tunnel till later than planned. The plants are now a decent size and we hope for good things from them in times to come.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Goldie's Due Day

Pregnancy day 31 for our big, meat breed doe, Goldie, a cross between a Flemish Giant and a Californian white, now mated to another meat breed buck. Right on cue she has started plucking out her belly fur to line the nest; there are small piles of it in the run and the hutch is white with it. This is usually all you see and, as we have said before, you are wise if you do not go exploring further as the doe may eat the babies if put under stress. Our approach is just to leave well alone for at least 2 weeks and wait for babies to start exploring and come into view that way.

My second pic is of Goldie 'upstairs' in the hutch with a great tuft of white fur in her mouth, looking like she has a beard. We think she is nesting upstairs and ignoring my nice downstairs nest box. Last time we changed the hay up there (a few days ago) she suddenly stopped using that room as the latrine and changed to poo-ing outside on the grass, which is much more convenient. This, we are told, may be another sign as rabbits generally keep the nest very clean. So, roll on 2 weeks or so, and the 27th.

After that scare a couple of days back where gosling No 6 vanished for 2 hours, we thought we were having Déjà Vu this morning. I let the 8 young chickens out as usual and fed them. There was then a fair amount of noise and excitement as Mike the Cows and his brother(s) came up to round up the group of 20+ cows and calves to walk them down the lane for sorting out the sell animals for today's mart in Castlerea. We had vehicles, men shouting, cattle scampering about in the next door field and up and down the lane. When I went to look again I could see only 2 of the 8 chickens, one of the dark buffs and a light one, happily scratching on the new bed but lacking their 6 companions. These 8 have formed such a tight group that you only ever see them all together like a tight-knit street gang. 'Only 2' spelt trouble!

I started searching but as I checked more and more areas I started to fear the worst. I could hear in my head a post one of the poultry keepers had posted on our discussion website yesterday about a disastrous fox attack which had lost him 20-30 rare and unusual ducks. His son had left a gate ajar. I was clinging to the fact that I had found no feathers, no carcasses or evidence, plus that there had been no noise from dogs or geese and, anyway, I doubted that a fox or a mink would come visiting while all the cattle racket and men shouting was going on and calmly stash 6 fully-feathered (i.e. not wing clipped or pinioned) poults into his carrier bag undetected. But where were they?

Liz came out too, and we started even checking sheds etc in case they'd wandered in and the wind had blown a door shut on them. Liz was even heading for the caravan to check when I saw all 6 stroll back through the field gate from the cattle field. Imagine our immense relief as the 6 reunited with the 2 and the 8 went back to gang-mode. We imagine that they became separated during the cattle move but, like with Gosling 6, we will never know. This time it had a happy ending.

Unfortunately I need to report a sad story, this time for our two sick goslings down in the 'hospital' at Carolyn's, 'Lucky' and 'Dip'. The ladies had become very concerned for these 2. Lucky, as he got heavier was becoming more and more unable to use his left leg, the one damaged when the gander (?) hurled him a cross the room on that first day of hatch. He now sat on his breast with his leg sticking out behind, unable to walk, and shuffled himself along the floor, pushing on the other leg. His sibling was able to walk but had one foot all curled round like a Chinese bound-foot and had very unco-ordinated control of his neck and head. Charlotte had been persevering mercifully with his physio-swims but he could not swim unaided and he still tired so that his neck would then flop his face under water.

I went down to check them today. Poor little mites were obviously quite happy and oblivious, cuddled up together, the best of buddies in their rabbit hutch. I discussed it with Carolyn and then decided that enough was enough. As the weights of these birds started to increase, these leg issues would only get worse and the geese would start to suffer. So I am sad to report that I put these guys down, obviously as quickly, cleanly, quietly and respectfully as possible and without either seeing the other. Where you have livestock, so the saying goes, you have dead stock. I would like to go on record here and thank both Carolyn and especially Charlotte who has borne the brunt of all the 'nursing' and physio. Without you guys these two would certainly have not gone on this long and between us we gave them every possible chance. Unfortunately, you can't save them all. Thank You for trying.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

We're on the Edge

Both Liz and I consider ourselves reasonably good gardeners - experienced, knowledgeable, competent, all the good green-fingered things you'd want. We have to admit, though, that we are just rubbish at 'edges'. We always set out well - we know where the edge of the border, bed or patch of grass should be and when we create it it looks nice and neat - a tidy row of stones or logs, some black membrane tucked in or a neatly clipped fringe of grass or hedge.

We always MEAN to keep it that way. "This time" we'll really weed it, trim it, fuss over it and keep it neat. That, however, is where it starts to go wrong. We never do keep those weeds from creeping from here to there, blurring the edges, or that grass from sneaking between the stones. We are more in the Gertrude Jekyll style of the border plants burgeoning over onto paths than the 'parks and gardens' neat clipped, everything in its place, style, though GJ would be horrified to be associated with our laziness and laissez faire work ethic!

So, there we are with two big piles of spoil from the pond-digging, determined to take advantage of the lack of annual weed seeds and perennial weed roots in this subsoil by using them as flower and shrub borders in the pond garden. They have been leveled and raked so that they stand 6-9 inches above the grass level and now covered in compost. We just barrowed the compost on and the chickens have spread it about for us. The edges are just low banks of soil tumbling into the grass. The grass is DEFINITELY going to try to invade the soil and the soil is bound to be scraped down into the grass by the chickens.

Step forward, Mentor Anne and Simon who have got hold of a whole pallet of (80) 2nd hand scaffold boards for use in their own raised beds and generously offered to sell us a few. This meant a chance to roll the roof back on the 2CV, hitch on the trailer and go for a sunny run down the lanes to Anne's place. Liz went into design mode and we laid them out 'roughly' where we wanted them and then set to seating them in place. The soils is still fairly crumbly and loose, being not long out of the pond hole so it was easy enough to mark a straight line, then shovel from the outside up onto the bed, offering the board up a few times to check levels and position.

I had some metal strapping to join the boards, so we did not even need to fix them to posts and drive the  posts in. We are quite pleased with the effect as were the geese, goslings, chickens and young chicks. We are fairly sure that even we can mow right up to the board outside and do any weeding needed inside but time will tell. We eventually sat down to admire the handiwork but also to start to think about whether a buddleia might just 'go' there, or the lilacs here. Maybe the dogwoods, or those spent tulips, some of the freebie seeds from Pud Lady?

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Red Tide?

How's that for an impressive algal bloom? Do not be alarmed or get upset on our behalf; read on. If like us you have ever constructed ponds and proudly filled them and set them 'running' from new, you will probably have given birth to a few algal blooms in your time but we have to admit this is our first RED one. Algae, you will probably know, come in a variety of flavours from the well known and common 'Green', through Blue-Green and into Brown and then Red, as well as covering the range from very simple single-celled organisms right through to what we all know as 'sea-weed'.

The green variety are generally caused by an increase in the levels of nitrogenous compounds in the water and, as many people know, can be helped and avoided (though we've never done this) by adding barley straw. The bacteria trying to break down the straw find themselves short of nitrogen (in the straw) so they draw it from the water, thus reducing the nitrogen level in the water and starving the algae. Blue-greens are similar but are known for the risk of poisoning the water with a nerve agent called 'anatoxin' as they die and break down, which is never a good idea if cattle are drinking from that water.

Your man the Red Alga is of a different cloth  altogether, being generally marine (i.e. sea water rather than fresh) but also commonly caused by phosphate and phosphorus compounds in the water. You will recall that the very day we completed the pond was the day it stopped raining and the heat wave started so we, despite our misgivings, opted to fill the pond from the mains. 2 factors almost guaranteed to help an algal bloom along are warmth and intense sunlight. We had gin-clear water and a black butyl liner, not a bit of shade or any plants at that stage; the whole acting as a big solar panel.

Also Roscommon Water Board are currently suffering from contamination in the supply with a protozoan called Cryptosporidium which causes diarrhoea and we are under an official 'boil water' notice in parts of the county, and may be using chemicals to try to stop this PLUS we have heard, to help remove the natural peaty brownness of the water. Whatever the causes, our pond warmed up a lot and Bingo! our red algal bloom. This appeared overnight a few days ago, first as a slight red tinge on the bottom sediment, but then, as the water warmed up in the heat wave, causing a haze in the water which stopped us seeing the deepest parts of the pond. It has followed a textbook course, and we have the small flecks of 'scum' you get with red alga, looking like wind blown grass clippings. Admittedly we also have actual grass clippings!

As I said, do not be alarmed. We have not killed the pond. It is not a toxic waste dump you are looking at here; It may look a little shocking and scary in the pictures but it is still very much alive with oxygen getting to all levels. We have undiminished and increasing numbers of boatmen, pond skaters, water beetles and all manner of other whizzers up and down through the depths of the pond, the plants we have started to accumulate are all healthy and alive and the geese are still happy to swim in it and drink from it. The advice is that as soon as the temperature drops, the light levels fall and the rain water starts to dilute the (suspected) phosphates or other treatment chemicals and/or the algae exhaust the supply of what ever caused the bloom, it will fade away again. For that reason we are quite relieved that the heat wave is over and it is raining again. We are certainly not about to reach for any more chemicals to add to the brew to try to 'kill' the algae, or indeed to pump out and re-start. We will keep you posted on the progress of our own private red tide.

On a calmer note, Liz has found a knitting circle in Ballaghaderreen as a way of getting 'off campus' once a week, getting some female company, meeting new friends and honing the knitting skills. Our mini-horse owning friend from down the road, Carolyn tipped Liz off on this one; it turns out that Carolyn is also a keen knitter as well as being a demon sewing machine user, ex-shop-demonstrator and repairer. This also gives Liz a new way of relaxing when book reading and messing on the internet pall and can be done indoors as well as out. She has her own gentle pace and rhythm and , so the ladies of the circle tell her, a good feel for a nice even tension. I am looking forward to a nice new jumper.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Doubling in Size Each Week

We were told when we first started with the geese that goslings grow amazingly fast and 'seem to double in size every week'. You'd take that with a pinch of salt, wouldn't you, but we can report that it is very true. Ours are now two weeks old and seem to have suddenly put on a growth spurt in leg and feet size, neck length and body length. Their little wings have not grown yet and now seem to have been left behind in this race for size so that they now look like tiny vestigial stumps such as you'd expect on a flightless bird.

They continue to thrive and we are hoping they are leaving behind the 'vulnerable to hooded crows' stage. One little one continues to worry us a bit. We seem to have 5 big bruisers and one smaller one who seems to be always lagging behind, off on a world of his own, still pecking at grass when everyone else has moved on, or still dawdling round the pond when everyone else is out, dried off and preening. Yesterday at midday-ish when I went out to check I could see only 5 goslings so we feared the worst and went into 'search' mode, both Liz and I combing the grass, ditches and bumps in the ground. We gave up the search and thought him lost, gone for good.

Then at about 3 pm I was out there again and there were six again, so we assume he was off dawdling, got left behind but then, fortunately, the parent birds passed his way again and he heard them and came running.

We have had two small tragedies in the rabbit department, both maybe related to the hot weather and, maybe also to my inexperience and bad husbandry. You will recall that I found 4 of Padfoot's litter outside the nest box and wriggling in the dewy grass. I rounded them up and gave them a shallow 'tray' (the bottom 3 inches cut out of a box) to contain them. It did not occur to me that there might be other babies scattered about the 'bedroom'. On Saturday there were actually 5 in the tray, so either Mum had found one and brought him into the fold, or he'd crawled there. Unfortunately there was a 6th now lying in the gap between the back of the tray and the outside wall and this poor little mite had died of lack of Mum's milk. His little corpse was all slack and loose-skinned. I could kick myself.

Meanwhile I had looked into Ginny's box and her kittens seemed to be safe enough at the far end of the hay from the 'door', so I had not given them the tray and 'Berlin Wall' treatment. One of these little ones had managed to escape the nest and had gone on to escape the mesh run too (small gap underneath where the ground was not 100% flat) just before we, unawares, let the dogs into the orchard for their off-the-leads romp. Towser had found it and had it in his mouth when we rescued it. It managed a few gasps but then expired. I suspect that the sweltering heat is what is making the babies move about, to try to find somewhere cooler, so we have now put 5 inch high 'walls' in each box to stop escapes, moved the runs to more shady spots AND covered the tar-felt roofs with a good layer of cut, tall grass to stop the intense heat. Everybody seems to be sleeping happily and it is much much cooler in those hutches. I should just say that this, on the latest count, leaves Pads with 5 babies and Ginny with 5-6.

Meanwhile, the horses have been moved, by means of electric fences, to the front lawn and primrose path. They seem to prefer this kind of grass - regrown mower-aftermath to the long straggly, not-yet-cut stuff. Suits me - less mowing of lawns for me. It is also quite fun that they can now come right up to us when we are lazing at the terrace table on the front terrace and we think it looks very picturesque from the lane outside to see three horses on the lawn, swishing their tails or rolling luxuriously on their backs in the sunshine.