Friday 30 August 2013

Despite the Best Efforts...

Despite the best efforts of Met √Čireann and of lone New Zealand writer and weather-herald, Ken Ring ( August has mooped past without delivering any really hot weather and delivered us to the threshold of Autumn. We can't REALLY complain; we had amazingly hot dry spells in June and July and our August has been warm even when breezy and cloudy, so it has not stopped us doing anything and the garden has cropped away and the livestock has all got on with the job.

Hubbard chicks at Day 30 stretch out in a sunny patch catching the rays
We have been fascinated to see the Hubbard chicks develop. These guys were bought as something for Broody Betty to 'mother' when we took the ducklings from her and, rather excitingly, our 8 were only part of a larger batch which ended up in 2 other destinations and would enjoy 2 other feeding and brooding regimes. It has been fun to compare 'notes' with Mentor Anne's batch - indoor brooded under a heat lamp to start with and fed organic (and GM-free) chick-crumb.

Ours were brooded by Betty, of course, and were quickly out free ranging and scratching for worms and grubs, but were fed 'ordinary' mass-produced (i.e. not organic) crumb. By 20 days they were very different. Anne's seemed to be 10 to 20% bigger than ours but still covered only in chick fluff. Ours were smaller but were well feathered up, with wings showing primary,secondary and covert feathers, with well feathered bodies and with tails. It is interesting to think about whether the active outdoor life has them cooler and quickly growing feathers, while the indoor, heat lamp version has them not needing feathers as quickly, so able to put all that protein to body weight. It would be good to know how the third batch are doing and under what regime.

Now, at 30 days, Betty's work seems to be done and she is rarely with them. She has rejoined the 'Lovely Girls' and possibly re-started laying eggs. We have found a couple of new eggs; we have not seen who is laying these yet but BB may well be credited with them. They now find their own way about without her, moving round as a reasonably tight group like the 8-Ball did and take themselves off to 'bed' all piling into one of my new nest boxes rather than perching with their 'Mother'.

Time finally ran out for our unfortunate little under-developed gosling, Fotherington Thomas. He lost the use of his right leg and did not look at all like improving despite a week of enhancing his Vitamin B3 and giving him physio-therapy swims on the big pond. We culled him out yesterday and now that he has been put through the kitchen-preparation stage we think we know why. His poor little scrawny, thinly muscled body (he was only 790 g 'oven ready' at 3 months) was built on a frame with what looked like every structural mis-shape of skeleton he could have inherited from his wry-tailed Father. His whole spine and pelvis curved round to his bad side and his neck had a serious 'chicane' double-bend half way down. We are now convinced that our adult geese are a sibling group and not, as advertised, a breeding trio, so we have been guilty of extreme in-breeding, brother to sister(s). At least that is a mistake easily corrected - we will just use the eggs next year and not let anyone go broody. At some point we may swap out the gander for one from a different blood line. The three remaining goslings all look fine, so they may just be the lucky 3 out of the 17 eggs originally 'set', in the DNA lottery of life.

Our orchard, you will recall, is all very new and has only been 'in' a year with planting started in August last year with one or two year old whips and 'feather' trees. We intended only to let it all sit for the first year getting established. We were happy that it blossomed but were not expecting any great fruit crop this year, so we were not disappointed when little fruit set but the Victoria Plum down at the far end of the orchard has quietly been getting on with producing a couple of dozen good sized plums. These are now colouring up well and starting to feel a bit ripe. There will not be enough for jam, but we should get a few desserts out of them and maybe a few for the fruit bowl.

The vegetable garden continues to pump out a lovely selection of vegetables more than enough to keep us and all our guests going and to make a big dent in the freezer space. We will need to invest in a decent size chest freezer this year to cope with the lamb meat. I was out this morning picking a yellow builder bucket full of runner beans and climbing French beans. I have been digging new potatoes of varieties Foremost and Ratte which fortunately escaped the blight. I have not started yet on the double-length row of Sarpo Mira main crop but they have such healthy foliage I cannot believe there will not be a shed load of tubers underground. I am storing them dried a bit but unwashed, in paper sacks in which I buy seed-wheat.

You can see from the pictures that I am still very good for rainbow chard, flat leaved kale and black (Tuscan) kale and calabrese and my small, spring-sown globe artichokes are even producing tiny chokes (which we will probably not actually eat; we will let the plant build up strength and start on that next year). We started into the carrots for the coq-au-vin this week. I have also been making sure to succession-plant to ensure a continuing crop which is not anything I was particularly good at in Kent so that I have more peas and radishes about to start and young beans at the 'first true leaves' stage.

The Jerusalem artichoke plants are huge, towering, 8 foot 'trees' so we are hoping for some good yields there, the French beans keep on coming and the turnips, which we found way too bitter, have kept the rabbits very happy for weeks as a supplementary food and a nice change from grass and herbs. The crunchiness of the turnip roots will also have been good for their teeth.

As crops finish and we move into Autumn proper, I need to be thinking about over-winter crops like onion sets, broad beans and Spring cabbage. It's all go.

Thursday 29 August 2013

50th Food Festival?

Here we are, then, all quiet again on site after having just dropped our latest group of visitors back to Knock Airport. It is always lovely to have good friends stay and enjoy the place and these had the added plus-point of it being a chance for us all to celebrate a 'significant' birthday together for Liz. These were long-term and very best friends from the Faversham days, Diamond and her husband John who you may recall were married in Greece recently around the famous "Happy Webbing" cake and not-quite-so-long-term friend, Mazy-Lou.

This, rather superbly, brought together three ladies who are amongst the best cooks we know, so the holiday event was always likely to turn into a foodie extravaganza and so it proved with everybody chipping in marvelous recipes and some beautiful eating. John and I were reduced to 'service and supply' roles and largely evicted from the kitchen but you can hardly complain about being asked to gather and prep veg', make 'tay', wash and dry up, lay tables, chop wood etc when you are being fed and 'watered' so handsomely, can you?

A HUGE thank you too, to Mentor Anne and Simon on the 'supply' side in this case by giving us a gorgeous haunch of venison. We gather they had tried it and found venison too 'gamey' for their tastes but it was definitely a case of 'their loss is our gain'. Thank you very much, A+S! The venison was just one in a series of superb meals coming, in this case, as "Roast Venison in Red Wine Gravy" - the meat was marinaded in olive oil, peppercorns, thyme, juniper berries, red wine and orange peel for 36 hours. The gravy is similar but has redcurrant jelly and beef stock.

Dessert on that occasion came from Mazy who tried us out on a new recipe as a birthday cake, a chocolate mousse 'Genoise' sponge, this one off page 453 of Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery Course (pub Kyle Cathie). Genoise sponge, in case you did not know is one used in many French gateaux recipes. It was a great success and we have plenty of it left over. Diamond did her gorgeous mashed spuds. All veg were from the garden, of course.

This quality and effort set the standard for the visit and has us remembering it as a Food Festival which will be hard to top. Other days saw us taking on an enormous roast pock shoulder and an elabourate cheese board which included Cooleeny (Tipperary Brie), Cashel Blue, a goat's cheese and a Crozier Blue as well as the Camembert, Cheddar. There was a superb coq-au-vin which featured our 'late' 8-ball Sussex rooster, "Son of William" and a delightful, genius sticky-toffee pudding with caramel sauce.

Breakfasts were light and 'roll your own' yogurt and toast style affairs except for the final morning when we have now established a good tradition of sending folk off to their planes or cars with a belly full of "Irish Fry" - sausages, rashers, white pudding, black pudding, Mazy's scrambled eggs, beans, mushrooms and 'tay' or proper coffee. Even the 'down-times' and non-special lunches were rendered a bit 'foodie' - one day we had cold pork sandwiches, but the bread was actually special rolls (more like individual loaves) and Mazy knocked up a delicious sweet spicy BBQ sauce to smear on them.

In between all this food there was plenty of time for catching up with old friends, relaxing, enjoying the 'farm' and the livestock and sipping the occasional wine or Bloody Mary (or indeed Bushmills). There were outings to local towns and to Knock Shrine and Basilica. John loves chopping kindling and I was more than happy to let him work away - I now have a big Curver bucket and 2 coal sacks full of neatly chopped and lengthed kindling wood. We had a play at the pick-axe earth bank. He also come with me on the dog walks. Diamond fell in love with the geese and chickens and was fascinated to see that the chooks take themselves off to bed as it gets dark, while you have to shepherd the geese home to their night time quarters. Our only regret was that firm local friend John Deere Bob did not drop by. He is busy with 2nd cut silage and bale carting. The visitors had heard so much about him and Diamond met him last time she was over so we had hoped to get everyone together for a chat but it was not to be.

And so, another successful and very enjoyable bit of 'hosting' comes to an end and peace returns to the 'farm' disturbed only by the crowing of William, cheeping of Hubbard chicks, baa-ing of lambs, honking of geese, roar and clang of a nearby silage baler and the busy hum of the fridges as they try to keep the gourmet and bountiful left-overs in fit condition... you know how it is. We will not have to shop or cook for a while.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Of Poorly Goslings and Vitamin B3

Carolyn of the Mini-horses phones seeking our help. 2 of her (4) 6-week old goslings over successive days have suddenly gone lame, unable to stand and then quickly died within the next day or so and a third is going the same way. Will I post a query onto the poultry discussion forum which I moderate, to see has anyone met this before and knows a solution? Meanwhile she rescues the poorly third goose to an indoor pen under her heat-lamp. My poultry 'lot', as usual, quickly come back with helpful suggestions. Sudden lameness in water fowl can be the result of waterfowl not being able to extract Vitamin B3 (Niacin) very well from cereals. As most poultry feed is either cereals or is cereal-based , feed for water fowl can be supplemented with Brewer's Yeast (tablets or powder) or with "Abidec" baby-vitamins in their drinking water. Apparently you do not use niacin itself, as this can caused liver damage. Thank you, if you should ever read this, 'Landkeeper' and 'Rho-B' for those suggestions, which I passed back to Carolyn.

Well, Carolyn's sick gosling is back on his feet and the healthy fourth one is still healthy after a night under the heat lamp and never got as far as being given Brewer's Yeast but, blow me if we didn't wake up this morning and only 6 of my geese came paddling out of the goose house when I opened the door. Our small, backward fella, Fotherington Thomas had gone lame over night and was suddenly unable to lift himself off the bedding. I carried him, protesting, out to the orchard to be with his family but he just sat down on the grass while they fussed and honked around him. I wondered whether he might just be a bit stiff or pins-and-needles-y and had slept badly on the leg and might recover.

Well, he was still there at 8 am. He seemed to have the same symptoms as described by Carolyn - his body, wings, neck and head all fine and bright, alert and still with an appetite. One leg also, apparently, still OK but his other (his right leg) being useless and limp so that he could not stand or walk. Thanking my stars for having done that enquiry on the poultry forum, I headed for Balla-D to obtain Brewer's Yeast powder (and got lucky when the pharmacist turned out to be an experienced and knowledge-able keeper of chickens and rabbits, all be it with no knowledge of geese lameness specifically).

Foth' was rescued back to the goose house where I set him up in one of the cattle feeding-bays on a bed of wood shavings and hay into which I put a hot water bottle wrapped in dog-towels and within reach of him I put a pot of water with the yeast powder suspended in it, and a bowl of various foods including chopped grass, sprinkled with more yeast powder. He settled down to quietly get on with it and, I noticed, took some of the water and the feed.

In the afternoon he was still nice and bright, so we decided to try him out on a bit of physiotherapy, swimming on the clear water of the big pond, where we could see if he was using the right leg at all and where the family could see him and know that he was not yet in the freezer (!). He was using the leg a bit but not a lot, but he seemed to enjoy the bath, a chance to duck his head under, preen, eat some of my aquatic plants and swim about. The other geese, we fancy, were looking on through the orchard fence a bit enviously; they are not allowed anywhere NEAR the big pond now.

One of my 'things' is that I hate to use or hear used the expression 'runt of the litter' It always strikes me that people who use the word, or the expression 'there is always a runt of the litter' go about expecting a runt and quickly latch onto the smallest baby and mentally set him aside for lower expectations, or a cheaper price if he's a puppy, or for some kind of Class 2 treatment. Runts also seem to get culled out first by anyone trying to be 'hard nosed' about their small holdering or farming. Well 'Foth' would definitely have been 'down there' if we were so inclined (and maybe hadn't had the real poor do-ers, Lucky and Dip). He has always been about 2/3 the size of his thriving siblings, day dreaming while they scoffed food, a bit bullied and pushed aside, left behind when they all tear about the orchard. We don't have 'runts', though. We may have babies who are a bit smaller than the rest but they are grand and they will catch up. We have fallen in love a bit with Fotherington Thomas and actually suspect that if he recovers from this one, he may be a 'keeper' if the grown ups will have him. Don't get your hopes up, mind. If his leg will not mend he will have to go down that route.

Meanwhile, the La Bresse from the '8-Ball' woke up and crowed to match William. Bad decision, La Bresse. Should have gone down the egg-laying route. It can be better news all round.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

(Almost) Eco-Vandals.

Sometimes the jobs you think are going to be a pain in the butt turn out to be really easy and the ones you thought would be easy are the difficult ones. In the former category, we had firmly placed persuading Broody Betty and the Hubbard chicks to 'move house' into the adults' coop after we'd stolen their home to give Goldie the rabbit back her peace and seclusion. We had visions of trying to gather the chickens up at 'bed time' and shepherd or move them from A to B. You can not move Betty if you do not also bring the chicks as she gets anxious that you are stealing her babies. The babies, equally start to shout and holler if they think you are trying to drive them somewhere where Mum isn't. They scatter and nip around behind you lest you try to corner them and they are fast, plus there are 8 of them. The only way (without upsetting anyone) is to move all 9 birds at once, all being able to keep the rest in sight all the time. Tricky.

Up to now, at around 19:30 pm she would gather the babies around her and hunker down on them at the top end of the cattle race, not actually going into 'her' run till I appeared with food and whistled her up. I do a two-tone whistle which all the stock now come to know means "Listen up! Food may be available!". She would then bring the babies running to get the food in the run, where-upon I would shut them in.

This time I expected her to hunker down the same way and wonder when I'd let her into the (now occupied and closed) run. It was raining gently, so I also worried they'd all stand around in the rain, confused, getting chilled and wet. I under-estimate Broody Betty - she never ceases to amaze me! We noticed during the day that she had been taking the babies in and out of the adult coop through the pop hole, so I'd been making sure there was food for them on the ground. When the evening came, instead of hunkering down in the cattle race, we were delighted to see Betty lead the babies into the coop through the pop hole and when I crept over to peer in, there she was on the lowest perch with 8 little chicks all lined up next to her! Sometimes you see the sweetest things in this line of 'work'!

The only issue then became that the 8-Ball (who are also Betty's "children" but now 17 weeks old) became a bit alarmed that 'their bedroom' had been invaded by all these extra birds and they milled around inside and outside the pop hole trying to work out how to get through all this 'traffic' to their normal places on the 2nd and 3rd rung of the perch ladder. It grew dark and they were still milling so that in the end I wandered over to 'nudge' the final two into the coop and shut the pop hole door. Peering inside I could see confused 8-Ball birds climbing into egg-laying nest boxes or standing in corners or trying to get to the 2nd rung without using the first rung. The Hubbard babies were sitting on their perch like they MEANT to stay there! They all sorted it out to their satisfaction, anyway and were all in good spirits when I opened up in the morning. We await this evening to see if things will go as smoothly.

And the easy jobs? I am hoping that most of my readers will have heard of Gunnera, that gargantuan exotic plant looking like a giant rhubarb which grows beautifully by the lakes and ponds of English stately homes. I remember one, particularly, growing by the pond at Great Dixter, near my home in Hastings; we have somewhere old pre-digital pictures of my two brothers and I standing under its huge leaves.

Well, we have a non-descript gap betwixt the lawn and the front wall out by the main entrance to this place which needs a special plant and is also taking some of the drainage of rain water running down the drive; puddles accumulate in that corner. Well, Liz has a 'significant' birthday coming up very soon and fancied a Gunnera to fill the gap - it would be different and distinctive, we thought, so I set about trying to find one as part of Liz's birthday present. Luckily, in searching the internet for places I might buy one, we came across this article in the Irish Times website.

It seems that far from being a good idea, Gunnera in the damp West of Ireland is an ecological nightmare, a thug and a dangerous invader. It is up there with Japanese Knotweed and Canadian Balsam, not to mention grey squirrels and the pond-weed Crassula. "Years after its indictment as an ecological menace", says the website, "this huge plant still creeps invasively along the cliffs, streamsides, roadsides and damp meadows of the western coast, shading out native vegetation and building up huge seed banks to crowd out everything else". It goes on... "In Ireland, Gunnera spreads largely by its creeping surface rhizomes and the scatter of plant fragments, rather than by birds eating the seeds. But by 2008, it was recorded at 1,168 locations on Achill, forming dense thickets on marginal agricultural land and fringing the island’s bog roads with its enormous leaves."

OK, we thought, maybe that isn't such a good idea, then!

We went instead, to our local and very helpful small local garden centre in Castlerea when the Son of the business listened to our story and steered us in the direction of a white flowered shrub which was new to us, Amelanchier canadensis. This will do us a good height and a nice spread to fill our gap and will look lovely from the lane as from the front door. It has gone in with the usual 'introduction' - a cardboard collar over the ground, a 3 inch mulch of calf poo and our two talismanic expressions to wish it luck. I use Geoff Hamilton's well used "There! That should get away nicely!" and Liz goes with Alan Titchmarsh's privately admitted to "Grow you bugger!". How can it fail?

Tuesday 20 August 2013

One thing led to another...

Our 4 male bunnies, leant to Charlotte to try to sell them at the Swinford Show have come back to us unsold for the very good and simple reason that there was no Show, well not on that day, anyway. The lady with the stand on which Charlotte was to help out got her dates mixed up, asked Charlotte to help on the Sunday but then went on the Saturday without Charlotte and there was no 2nd day (Sunday). "That's her every time" was the exasperated cry! Charlotte was then looking to hang onto the boys anyway but the bunnies had other ideas and all spent the day trying to dig their way out of their run (interestingly something they do not do 'at home').

We took the opportunity of Charlotte being here with her rabbit-wrangling skills to finally sort out our 'children' into sex groups. We now have a run with all 6 bucks in it (1 from Padfoot, 3 from Ginny and 2 big ones from Goldie) and a run with 9 does (4 Pads, 4 Gin and 1 big albino from Goldie). We took Goldie herself out and put her with the other 2 Mums thinking she'd get on OK in there being too big to be any risk from the Silverwood pair and too docile to trouble them. This bit of the plan did not work and Ginny and Padfoot turned into aggressive bitches, wanting no part of this big docile brown invader, harrying and trying to kick her. By this morning she was hiding squeezed in behind the hutch with some tufts of fur around her, depressed and lethargic, the picture of misery and despondency.

I have rescued her now to the third run which was temporarily the night-roost for Broody Betty and her 8 Hubbard chicks, rendering them homeless. She (Goldie) is fully recovered and enjoying the peace, eating grass and mini-turnips and occasional treats of red clover flowers or stretched out in the sunshine. The 'bitches' are also back to normal and all the groups of bunnies are in happy family picnic mode on new grass on the front lawn. The turnips, incidentally we are a very successful size crop I grew of 'miniature' turnips (white flesh,  white skin, purple tops etc) which, for some reason, are unpleasantly bitter to the taste, so we humans are ignoring them but the rabbits love them.

Betty and the Hubbards will presumably gather in their usual place at around 8 pm waiting to be put to bed in 'their' run. We are going to try to persuade them that the real chicken coop is a perfectly good substitute. I am not sure Betty will wear this!

The Roscommoner's Vegetable Growing Bible, Klaus Laitenburger's "Vegetable For the Irish Garden" advises against trying to ripen your onions the UK way - lift them out of soil to break the roots, and lay them on the ground in the sunshine. They will just stay wet, he says, in the Irish weather and rot. Do it indoors, he advises, or in a greenhouse. That would definitely have been true last year when we all drowned, but this year we seem to be getting enough dry sunny breaks for it to be worth a try, so I have now lifted my spring-set crop and it is spread out across the front terrace table (which has a mesh top) doing a good job of drying out.

Time now for a quick warning to those readers who do not want to know about the messy side of meat production. Pass by these next paragraphs. If you are still with me, then another story of our inexperience and beginnerishness. In my head I had the figure that the goslings should be ready to start 'finishing' at 3 months old so I was psyching myself up for the unpleasant but necessary task. We had also noticed that the parent geese had started to reject the now fully feathered and grown-up looking young ones, bullying them off food and kicking one or two out of the family group.

We were told that they are coming to that stage where in the wild, the parents would evict them and they'd be off to find their own territory and groups of other youngsters. Charlotte even advised that we might need to clip some wings again else the young would be off across the Roscommon bog-lands and heading for Lough Feigh or Lough Glynn. I decided that it was time to start culling them out and to start with the one we could see being bullied by Goosey and Goocie. Not to go into any detail of the day, we did the deed and in so doing learned quite a bit including that 3 months is WAY TOO YOUNG. The one we culled had a live weight of only 2.974 kg (6 lbs or so - all our recipes talk about 5 kg (10 lb) oven-ready birds!), had a very proud sternum (breast bone), very thin breast muscles and was hell to pluck. The outer feathers came away easy enough but the downy layer feathers were mainly still 'in pin' (like little artists brushes in their tubes) and, in many cases only starting to erupt through the skin. The gutted out, 'oven ready' weight was only 1.628 kg.

We now know, of course, that these are all features of birds killed way too early; if we had given him the 5-6 months we know now is advised then his muscles would have filled out and the secondary feathering we were struggling with, would have grown through properly and could have been gripped properly between thumb and finger. We are advised that the norm would have been for a spring hatching but, Mentor Anne adds, goose fairs would normally be in November, with people buying the birds for finishing off by Christmas. We will be leaving the remaining birds for at least another 2 months and giving them plenty of corn to bulk them up.

With our culled bird out of the flock, the gang all seem to have settled down again, happy families and no bullying. Perhaps our bird was a gander or was provoking the bullying and eviction for some other reason. Either way they are all back together and even Fotherington Thomas is in the 'in crowd'. If it stays that way then all well and good. If there are any more outbreaks of friction we may need to think about penning them separately.

Meanwhile please feel free to have one more smile at our expense. The plucking inevitably leaves some fluffy down still on the goose and you are advised to singe this off with a blow torch (or, more bizarrely, strip it off using the hot strips ladies use to wax their legs with!). I do not have a sensible, hand held blow torch but, bought for our house-build, I do have a big flame-thrower torch used to melt torch-down tar felt. Some people use them to burn weeds out of gravel drives. Picture Liz trying to hold the plucked goose as far as possible away from her body while I selected the gentlest 'flame thrower' setting. Trust me. That bird has no more down!

Saturday 17 August 2013

Selling the Children

Anyone in Ireland will happily tell you what to do if you want to buy or sell baby bunny rabbits - go on (or put an advert on) the advertising website "Donedeal.IE". It's like a massive Classified Ads section on line with a gazillion sellers advertising and another gazillion buying. Bound to work! Cute pictures, sensible prices, what could go wrong? Well in our case, with 12 'pet' rabbits to sell, the progeny of Ginny and Padfoot, it is not working. For the first month or so of the advert we had not a whisper. The website tells me that we had over 100 'views' but they must have all gone in, found us wanting, and gone off to hunt rabbits elsewhere.

On advice we dropped the price. On more advice, this time from Mrs Silverwood, we "bumped" the advert back up to the top of the lists (another €3 for the second 'insertion') and she also changed one of the pictures. I had photographed one of the babies held by Liz when she'd been wearing gardening gloves; Mrs S thought this might look like these were some kind of fierce bunny which was only safe to handle in gloves. Suddenly we had 2 phone calls and an enquiring e-mail. One lady was going to come over on Saturday, another chap would phone me on the Thursday to arrange a visit on the Friday. I was getting hopeful and I should have known better.

Hubbard chick at 17 days, steppin' out.
We know from experience that one of the differences between the Irish culture and the English comes out at this point - the agreeing dates and making arrangements thing. Liz tells me, tongue in cheek, that there is no word in the Irish language for "No" or "Yes", so that they would always hedge around a bit. "Will you have a cup of tea?" you ask. "Ahhh", they will say, "I'm just after having tea". Even their Referendums have to be worded carefully. You do not have a 'No' camp and a 'Yes' camp. The question has to be phrased so that the answer is "I do not agree with this proposition" (or you do agree).

Combine this with the natural politeness of the Irish; they do not want to offend you by saying they do not want your rabbits. They would rather tell you something you want to hear, than an unpalatable truth. We had this so many times with tradesmen during the house build, I should have got used to it. It should have come as no surprise when the email came to nothing, the lady failed to show and the guy failed to either phone or to show. It was not looking good; we still have 12 bunnies eating our grass and slowly getting bigger, coming up on the 3 month stage where males need to be separated from females, with Goldie's babies following on behind.

Luckily we have another string to our bow. Our friend Charlotte, of mini-horses fame, is off to a Show in Swinford (Co Mayo) this weekend with some of her own baby bunnies to sell and has offered to take 4 of ours along too. Her own babies were getting a bit same-y in colour (she'd sold all the more interesting colours). It so happened that we have 4 males and 8 females, so Charlotte has taken our 4 males and thereby also solved the problem of us having to separate the sexes. Good luck selling those tomorrow, Charlotte! When she runs out, she will also pass our phone number on to any customers who show up with un-met demand.

Maybe we will 'clear' some of these bunnies after all. Liz is rather wickedly joking that any kids who now come to view, she will straight out and tell them that any unsold bunnies are headed for the freezer, so that the children bully their Dad into 'rescuing' them from this evil woman. I'm not sure that is allowed in rabbit selling ethics, but it might just work.

The pics on this blog have just been some I have taken today of the fast growing Hubbard chickens (now 17 days old) and of the garden, some nice hollyhocks imported as seed from Faversham in Kent when we moved, the forest of marigolds which I had only intended as companion plants to the raspberries and a prospective pumpkin for the Silverwoods. Here now is a first white waterlily in the big pond. Its sister plant has also produced a flower, so we hope the flying insects will buzz between the two and fertilize each. The pond is still crystal clear and we are enjoying it immensely.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Home Grown

One of the absolute delights of living this rather alternative life style is the ability to look down at a delicious plate full of supper and know that we grew all or most of what we are looking at. Tonight's here is haggis from our own lambs, our own (mashed) spuds and our own calabrese. Yesterday was our own lamb chops, spuds again and a delicious medley of broad and French beans, peas, garlic and onions, with only the tomatoes and anchovy being shop-bought. My toms are not quite there yet and we will struggle to grow an anchovy bush in our climate (!).

If you exclude the 30 km round trip for the lambs to the butchers, then we are also very low on food miles, with most of this coming from the kitchen garden just outside the kitchen window (sometimes I pass it in through to Liz; I don't even walk it in round the yard!) and the rest from the 'allotment' about 100 yards away.

I know some of you have issues with eating animals we have named and known but I am personally delighted and have a clear conscience knowing that my lambs were very well cared for. They ate good grass, herbs and browse, enjoyed the freedom of the orchard and fields with the sun and rain on their backs. They were never chased about in a stressful way or harassed by dogs, children or vehicles. I know exactly what food went into them and that they loved it and ate heartily. I know that the only medicine they got when they lived here was one wormer/fluke dose when our man Kenny thought they were not growing as fast as they might.

When the time came for their final journey they did not go to some big, anonymous meat plant, but to our little local butcher, Ignatius, carefully selected and recommended to us. They were the only lambs in the batch that day, so there was no hanging around in pens listening to, and smelling the 'process' happening to other animals and the vet was there to see due care and professionalism. The carcasses are then hung by the butcher for a week to relax before being cut up in front of us. I firmly believe you would struggle to find this whole process done better or with a higher regard to welfare (though I accept that an organic diet could be seen in that light, ours were not fed organic 'crunch'). They were also sired by Jacob rams which are known to be good for flavour, being a traditional breed and all of these factors showed up in the quality of the meat which was tender and tasty throughout. The chops and the haggis I have mentioned are almost the last of the 2012 meat; we have a small quantity of liver left, and then we are done. It has been, in our view, a very successful exercise.

The veg is grown as well as I am able in good rich deep Roscommon hilltop soil (actually double-depth as I flip one 'spit' upside down on top of the existing grass when I am making the ridges in my allotment) enjoying the sunshine (this year!) and plenty of rain and being grown organically. I use no chemicals, not even the widely accepted ones like dilute washing up liquid for green fly. Everything is hand weeded and, if necessary, caterpillars and slugs are picked off by hand; in fact this has not been necessary at all. The nasturtiums and marigolds attract plenty of insects for pollination and even seem to distract the large white ("cabbage" white) butterflies, so that we find eggs and caterpillars on the nasturtium leaves rather than the kale. We leave some plants of lines like leek and chard to go to seed to keep the bees interested and try to save some seed. We are able to nip out and pick the veg for a meal minutes before it goes into the steamer, wok or pan.

Then there is the cooking, of course which is mainly Liz these days, though I do get involved occasionally. Liz has the knack of cooking all this bounty in simple ways with little additional flavouring and no overly spiced or sweet sauces. The lamb comes slow roasted or normally roasted with maybe just a smear of garlic, anchovy and rosemary paste, the chops maybe just slightly salted. Heart, kidney and liver are also cooked to show off the natural flavours. Veg' is generally steamed rather than boiled to keep the maximum fresh flavour or is as salad or quick stir-fry, nothing done to get in the way of the as-picked flavours. We use very few sauces from tins or jars and even when we do a curry it's a Madhur Jaffrey one - with the spices bought individually and added - quarter teaspoon of this, half a teaspoon of that.

We must be bursting with vitamins and nutrients!

Tuesday 13 August 2013

The 8-Ball

Sussex Ponte young rooster
Cast your mind back, if you would, to my post of 28th April this year ( and those little multi-coloured fluffy chicks hatched out under Broody Betty on her first sitting of the year. Those little mites are 'all growed up' now and most of them are bigger than the existing hens including BB herself. They are 16 weeks old now and approaching that significant poultry keeper's milestone 'Point of Lay'. Here even the ones which are very difficult to sex like the white Silkies we had back in Kent, and the black Jersey Giants we have here now, should either lay an egg or shout "Cock-a-Doodle-Dooo!" and give the game away.

La Bresse cross with a Buff Orp (head obscured)
There are 8 of them all still surviving and they have formed a tight-knit group who range around the 'farm' quite independently of the 'grown ups', always together. We call them "The 8-Ball" because they remind us of a group of golfers wandering round a golf course bantering with each other about who is playing with Top Flite balls because there's one here in the rough, who's sneaked onto the green, who's just played a blinding wood shot and inventing spurious scores to "card" (a well known 'verb' known only to golfers and sports commentators).

Jersey Giant (black) and Mini-Buff
The 8-Ball were hatched from eggs which came 5 from our own (Sussex Ponte) birds and 7 as a generous donation from Mentor Anne and Simon; a mixed bag of the main breeds they stock - Buff Orpingtons, Jersey Giants and a La Bresse cross. As luck would have it, only one of our 5 eggs hatched but all 7 of Anne's managed to. The 8-Ball now comprises one SP, 2 Buffs, 2 JGs, a La Bresse cross and 2 of a cross between Buffs and something smaller and possibly bantamised; these two are way smaller than their siblings and a lovely dark golden colour - we call them the 'Mini-Buffs'.

Buffs, the Sussex rooster and the La Bresse cross
As I said, some chicken varieties are hard to sex till they are at point of lay. Anne and Simon who are way more expert than us are not even prepared to take a punt on the Jerseys. Others start to show shape differences much sooner, so that we have known that the Sussex was a boy for weeks - bigger legs and feet, sticky-up tails, more developed wattle and combs and so on. They also seem to start behaving like roosters or being treated like hens by our existing rooster, William. He tries to mount them and we say "Ah ha! She might be a girl then!" Two of the youngsters start squaring up to one another as if to fight, and we suspect they are boys (though Simon tells us that sometimes 2 hens will do this as part of the pecking order process).

The 8 Ball gather round (and on) the keyhole bed.
Taking all this into account we think we have a male SP and a male La Bresse. We think the big pale pure Buffs are one of each. Both the mini-buffs may be hens and we have no idea on the Jerseys. I do not need to tell you that this can be bad new for the boys. You can only have one rooster in this set up and William the Conqueror is filling that slot, though the main rooster can tolerate and become quite matey with a 'buddy'. We quite fancy starting a Buff Orpington group, so we are hoping that William will get on with the Buff we think is a male. All the other boys may have shorter careers, possibly in the catering line. All the girls we hope will join our laying flock.

In other news we have been out this evening observing the Perseids Meteor shower. It was, to start with, a gorgeously clear night of the sort we have only ever experienced in Ireland, clear skies and no light pollution. There was a small amount of cloud low down on the NE horizon, just where we were expecting the Perseus constellation to rise. Liz was on an ironing marathon today and still going strong at 11 pm, so I went out to see what I could see. I took the bat-detector with me and very quickly started to hear the patter and squelch of either lots of bats or one bat lots of times. This was at 45-50 MHz, so we guess pipistrelle.

Sure enough, I saw a quick burst of 6 meteor streaks tracking from North across the Great Bear. Brilliant exciting stuff and I was keen to get Liz out there too, so that she could see some. When a hazy cloud came across from the west I feared she might miss the show, so I interrupted the ironing and called her out but sadly, too late - that was it. The bats kept whizzing around, one so close to my face I could feel the draught from his wingtips, but the haze grew thicker and we saw no more meteors. At 11:45 we called it a night and Liz came in to finish the ironing. There's dedication! Never mind, the Perseids are 'on' for a few days yet and we might get another clear sky tomorrow or the next day.

Sunday 11 August 2013

A Nip in the Air

Although we are still in August, after the heatwaves of July, we are feeling a definite autumn chill in the air, particularly after about 20:30. We have been lighting the range some evenings to retain the coziness indoors. My thoughts inevitably start to turn to autumn jobs like stocking up the wood store ready for winter as well as the need to 'finish' some of the livestock.
Patience for the moment though; we are still in summer and we have not yet got through our burst of visits - we are still due, possibly, one from the Sparks and the Dublin crew and, more definitely, one from the Kent 'lot', Mazy, Diamond and John. I am also due a quick trip over to the UK in early September. We will worry about autumn jobs after that. The Hubbard chicks, seen here doing a fine impression of "dunhill chickens" will be around even longer, not due to make their 84 days to target weight till late in October.
The 2CV has had something of a reprieve; we have decided to spend some money and keep her on the road, if we can. She has been into the garage getting her corrosion and bodywork issues sorted and the electrics/lights fixed. Aaron at the garage also tried to fix the emissions but in turning down the carbon monoxide to the ridiculously low level of 0.03 % by volume (which is a pass), managed to rocket the hydrocarbons up to 1500 ppm (which isn't!). That used up my re-test "wriggle room" but at least we know that this is all that is wrong with the car and how to fix it. We need a Solex carb service kit at £29 or so which includes the long tapered needle-valve required to allow fine tuning of gas mixtures. Unfortunately I have to then re-submit the car for the full test, which means they could find something else, but we feel like we are getting there.

I have created the sheep feeding trough pictured out of the planks salvaged from the old TK-Min kitchen internal door. This door spent some time as chicken house door before being retired when K-Dub renewed all our outbuilding doors. Recycling to a band playing! This wood gets several jobs before finally going into the range to make heat.

I believe I have missed mention of another visit which happened before the Silverwoods, this one from a very long time friend of mine, Anna P from Sardinia. I have known Anna since college days, when she was the penfriend of a cousin of mine who found herself living in the same city as I was for a while, Cambridge. She is a linguist and language teacher, I was doing some research sponsored by the then MAFF (now DEFRA). Her work and language skills take her all round the world. She has spent time teaching in China (she speaks Mandarin) and Russia but now lives in Malta where she teaches Italian. She has made friends all over the place (including me, of course) and often jets around catching up with them. This trip was to an Athlone-based friend, Neil, and brought her to within an hour of us, so she phoned me and we invited them up to eat. She had a good look round and saw all the animals including the mini-horses on their final day.

It occurred to me that we had not recently posted a picture of the two of us, so here are Liz, myself and Julie B taken by Dave B at our picnic in Kinvarra harbour. There you are - curiosity satisfied?

Friday 9 August 2013

The Green and Red of Mayo.

Oh the Green and Red of Mayo
I can see it still
Its soft and craggy bog-land
Its tall majestic hills
Where the ocean kisses Ireland
And the waves caress its shore
Oh the feeling it came over me
To stay forever more
Forever more

The lyrics there from one of our favourite songs by local boys, The Sawdoctors, "The Green and Red of Mayo" to celebrate the fact that our lambs are all from Irishtown County Mayo and therefore entitled, (Nay! Expected! Compelled!) to support Co. Mayo in the 2013 All Ireland GAA football competition. This is the nearest Ireland comes to an FA cup final, although half the country would say that actually the GAA All Ireland 'Hurling' competition is WAY more important. As well as being split into counties, Ireland seems to be split into hurling supporters and Gaelic football supporters and ne'er the twain shall meet. In the football side, Mayo are doing rather well, having creamed the defending 2012 champs, Co. Donegal a couple of weekends ago in the quarter finals, to make the final four.

However, readers who really know me will be smiling that I am even trying to write about sport when what I know about UK football after 56 years could be easily written on the back of a postage stamp. Once when Liz was extolling the virtues of Ryan Giggs, I said "If he's THAT good, why doesn't he play for England, then?" (It's because he's Welsh, apparently!). However, the locals round here LOVE their footie and hurling and flying your county flag is a big thing. Ours is the Roscommon flag, Blue and Yellow, but the 'Rossies' get knocked out in the early stages and most people have taken down their Roscommon flags. Mayo is now the thing and the roads are bright with green and red flags, bunting and even big elabourate windmill things with green and red 'sails'. We thought it would be a bit of fun to let our Mayo-born lambs join in the display.

We bid a fond farewell today to our visitors this week, Dave and Julie B, friends from Kent and my old barge-related life. We've had a real blast with them and they have been superb, ideal guests. They seemed to quite fall in love with the place and enjoyed the house, the 'farm', the livestock, the pets, our hospitality and the area. Julie was particularly taken with the pups and (eventually, when she deigned to approach Julie for a fuss), Deefer. Dave is more of a cat-man and made a great fuss of Blue, but also had a soft spot for our silly, one-ear-up-one-ear-down bunny in Padfoot's litter.

We've had some excellent times together and we are now sad to see them go as we dropped them to Knock Airport for their 3 pm flight home. I have since had a text from Dave saying they are safe as far as the M23 and thanking us for it all. Not a bother, Dave and Julie, it was lovely having you and you are welcome back when ever you like. I will be catching up with them soon when I visit UK and stay on board SB Cambria in Saint Katharine Docks as part of the Classic Boats Festival.

We counted the dogs, cats and rabbits after they had gone to make sure none had been smuggled out. We know what these Westie fans are like!

Wednesday 7 August 2013

More Hosting, Less Posting

It's been a bit quiet round this blog lately on account of real life impacting upon my cyber-existence (I know! How dare it? The Nerve!). Hot on the heels of our visit from the Silverwoods and the swap out of ducklings for baby chickens under 'Old Mother Hubbard', comes a week long stay by 2 very good friends from my Kent days and the Thames Sailing Barge world, Dave and Julie B. For these guys a first visit to Ireland so we were keen to 'do it right' and being also mad keen fans of all things traditional-sailing-work-boat we knew we could score some strong brownie points by taking them to Kinvarra to see the Galway Hookers. We made a good day of it too, coming home by our favourite Scenic Route, nipping through Galway and Spiddle but then up through Connemara via Casla, the 'other' Kinvarra, Maam Cross, Maum, Lough Corrib and Cong. It never disappoints and yesterday in the patchy sunshine it was bright with the orange Montbretias, meadowsweet and purple "wild" fuchsias growing in the verges and hedgerows. The mountains did their lovely colour-changing thing as the fluffy cumulus clouds blew through and the rangey, leggy, be-horned mountainy sheep were on hand to populate some lovely photo-opportunities.

The tide was only just starting to come in at Kinvarra so there was no hooker-sailing activity but the sun was warm and Liz laid on a gorgeous picnic on the harbour grass. This week high tides were at 0600 and 1800, so not a lot of use, but we were joking with Dave that if he comes back next year we'll consult the tide tables before picking a week, and maybe try to coincide with the hooker races (mid August) so he can see some sailing action.

In other news we have now taken delivery of our 4th and 5th lambs for this year, having decided that the grass is long and lush enough to support the 5, rather than just our first three. Kenny delivered these last night in his big 4-wheel-drive and trailer. Our first three were around the 27 kg mark when he brought them, these are rather heavier, at 33-35 kg but they are the same approx 2 month old and weaned off their Mums. Our mission is the same as last year, to get them up to around 50 kg on a mixture of our grass and a supplementary feed called 'Fast Lamb Crunch' (a mix of corn, cereals, molasses etc).

Kenny was tied up in the evening with a guided farm walk, admiring some Belgian Blue cattle, so it was not till 23:30 that he arrived, so we had to do the unloading in the dark with torches. The new two are a ram and a 'yow' lamb and we have named them Dora the Explorer and 'King Unicornio' just so that we can enjoy saying that these two irritating kids' TV characters are dead and in the freezer. Sorry little Robyn Silverwood (5), I love you madly but a bloke can only take a certain amount of American nasal-voiced squeaky-clean cartoon TV shows and we need our grown up jokes sometimes. Just be grateful these are not (Peppered) Pig and Postman Paté.

The new lambs are now settled in nicely and good mates with their former brothers and sisters and they even came over for a bucket feed when the 3 old-hands did so this morning. I had 2 of the old stagers eating out of my hands this morning, which is good progress in the charm offensive.

Ah well, more 'hosting' today, as we take Dave and Julie to the Museum of Country Life up in County Mayo.