Friday 31 January 2014

DVO Joe gives us a Green Light

We're very pleased with ourselves this week as we have passed our inspection by the District Veterinary Officer for Roscommon, Joe, fit to keep pigs. We get our Herd Number and paperwork through the post in a couple of weeks. We were reasonably confident we'd be able to "talk a good game" but nervous that the guy might want to see actual fences, the 'ark' and any buildings we would be using for isolating sick animals and so on. That is all in the future and, if we could wing it this way, the investment would depend on our getting the Herd Number in the first place.

Supervising the three westies to make sure they slept enough
In the event we needn't have worried. DVO Joe was a really nice bloke and we could see straight away that he was not going to do a 'jobsworth' on us.  It had been dry for a couple of days and the puddles had drained, so we could walk him round without it looking like a quagmire, and he was impressed by our big well drained mud-less 'Secret Garden' with its down-slope banks helping it to shed water. He was impressed by the amount of space we are assigning to the pigs, and could see our standard of fencing and housing from the existing sheep fence and my woodwork on hutches, runs and coops. We quizzed him on the logic and legality of allowing the wallow (all pigs need a wallow) to be part of our rain gulley and how close their pen might come to our septic-tank soak-away. He was happy to advise and adjust; maybe he was more comfortable with having steered these beginners back onto the straight and narrow at least once.

We got the impression that the inspection is as much about fencing, shade, wallows, concrete, buildings and cattle races as it actually is about checking that we looked competent, sensible and responsible. Joe presumably decided we had an adequate supply of the last three, gave us the green light and then agreed to come in for 'tay' and some of Liz's fresh baked scones. This even though he had another smallholding to visit and inspect before he headed up north to do some export inspections, cattle destined for the UK. Now we are approved we can give some serious thought to all this fencing, ark-building and piglet buying that we had, up to now, been putting off till May and the (pig keeper) training course. The scone-bashing came out again a bit later as we collected Vendor Anna and partner Paul from the airport at Knock. They'd left their car here for 2 weeks while they sunned themselves in Lanzarote, making use of our 'Park and Ride' offer. They were delighted with the scones after meagre Ryan Air victuals.

Lamb Paté. Nothing to do with this story what so ever.
So there we are in 'responsible citizen' mode, making our piggies all official and we've carried that campaign on by investigating the planning implications of a huge new infrastructure project which promises to cut a swathe through here between our holding and the town of Ballaghaderreen. This is a huge electricity grid improvement project running lines of bigger-than-normal pylons across from north County Mayo where they pick up from the wind farms, through Co. Roscommon and through to Carrick on Shannon. Naturally this is all going through the planning stages right now, proposed 'corridors', consultation, displays of maps in public buildings, opportunities to object and so on.

Everyone is mad keen interested to see how close the pylons will come to them and whether there is compensation payable for blight or enforced changes of land use and how much Grid West will be paying in 'sweeteners' as environmental and community grants for projects near the wires. We went along to a display of maps etc and chatted happily to the young lady on stand, who answered all our questions and loaded us down with brochures and print outs as well as giving us the latest 'gen' on recent press statements. There is money to compensate you if you have just bought the property and were hoping to plant forestry, and if you were planning a build and have that through to signed off final planning permission. They will also compensate you if you already have forestry that needs felling in the path of pylons (a corridor as wide as two tree heights either side of the the wires). There is money if you are 'too near' the cable runs, quite generous if you are within 50 m (€30k) but falling away on a sliding scale till you are 200 m away. (Needless to say the pylon lines will not be running close to many houses).

But don't hold your breath if you have already spent your new found riches in your dreams - the latest 'gen' has it all back on the drawing board as the Ministry Man, Pat Rabbitte has now announced that it is all going back for a review of whether to do the cabling up in the pylons or underground. This one could run and run. It is called "Grid 25". I hope they didn't mean 2025. For our own part, all the existing routes pass more than 5 km from our back door, so no cash for us.  

Wednesday 29 January 2014

The Two Marys

 She may not realise it yet, but Mentor Anne has done me two big favours this week. The first was simply to lend me a book, in this case "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by one Barbara Kingsolver (pub. Faber and Faber, 2007, ISBN 978-0-571-23356-4). I must admit, I had never heard of this lady. Liz had, but had picked up her novel "Poisonwood Bible" one year as a beach-reading holiday novel and had found its fictional tale of a family trying to make good in Belgian Congo while Civil War raged and the CIA tried to install a puppet government a bit grim and unsatisfying.

Well, be that as it may, THIS book is not fiction. It is the autobiographical account of BK's move, with family, from the desert city of Tucson Arizona, to husband's (Steven L Hopp) small farm in the Southern Appalachians to try to live the good life, and I am finding it one of the best books I have read in a long time. I love it. BK writes seriously about all that is wrong with modern diet and farming and amusingly about all the things they have tried to do to change their own way of life. She chimes in with me on so many of the things I also believe in and that we are trying to do here in Feigh, sourcing food locally, avoiding things with too many food-miles, choosing high welfare, free range, better fed animals and birds for our meat and eggs, growing our own fruit and veg, eating what is in season, even down to more prosaic things like keeping family meal times 'sacred', sitting round the table properly to eat while you talking to your family members. They shop in farmers' markets and seek out 'diners' which support local farmers and source their ingredients from the local (farming) community. They cook simply allowing the fresh veg and fruit to 'star'.

Goocie is still cranking out eggs, one every other day.
She also set one ball rolling for me which I'd not 'rolled' yet myself, the interest in 'heritage' or 'heirloom' varieties and seed saving. Inspired, I was straight onto the internet to find a company which sold these varieties of veg, determined that this year, at least some of my veg would be these old, free-fertilizing, non F1, non 'commercial' (i.e. not bred for uniformity and tough travelling survival), non GM varieties (and more importantly, not varieties patented by the 'big 8' seed companies, Monsanto and their merry chums). The company supplying us is called 'Brown Envelope Seeds', based in Skibbereen in W. Cork and they seem to test all their varieties in Cork before they sell them, so the catalogue is a wealth of comforting expressions like "made a good crop even in 2012 (in Cork)' These seeds are not the cheapest but we chose 8 for our starting line up including...

2 bunnies where there are not meant to be bunnies!

Golden Friese (Yellow Swede)
Gaucho (drying bean)
Little Leprechaun (lettuce)
Best of all (white / purple) Swede
Vintage Wine (Tomato)
Irish Green (Pea)
Boltardy* (Beetroot)
Purple Guatemalan (Broad Bean)

*Yes, I know Boltardy is a widely available beet from the commercial boys but it is an old variety and hard to beat.

The seeds were quickly and efficiently despatched to us, I think it was 48 hours (possibly 72) from first finding the company to having the seeds in my hand through 'An Post'. That doesn't happen too often with the 'commercial boys' !

The gang catch some afternoon sun
Anne's second favour was to find me some more contacts in the Bee Keeping world, in this case Athlone based Niall who is an experienced expert but, more importantly, for us, his good friends with a bee keeping equipment shop, Mary H and Mary McN, widely known as "The Two Marys". The Two Marys have their 'shop' up the other side of Drumshambo in the hills near the border with Northern Ireland (actually County Fermanagh, so we were nearly in UK by mistake!). The 'shop' is actually in three out buildings, so you move between the three to see the clothing, hive parts, tools etc. The buildings are gathered round the ladies' farmhouse in a beautiful setting - steep wooded valleys and a racing mountain stream, the up/down inclines on the approach lane had us wondering how you'd ever get in and out in a car in the snow.

Seasonal veg'
The Marys are lovely people - friendly, helpful, very knowledge-able and great to talk to. Not only did we 'find' all we wanted to find in the way of bee gear, they also have a sale on selling 'slight seconds' at very good prices, which had us promising to return armed with cash where we had been thinking we'd wait till we'd done 'bee school' before we spent anything. It also turned out that one of the Marys is to be the lecturer for the first lecture in our training course on Feb 10th, but also that the other is a landscape gardener by trade. I'd spotted some old seed heads of purple verbena sticking up and commented on them. "Ah!", she said, "Are you gardeners?" and when she found that we were indeed gardeners, she generously started passing us potted cuttings of lilac, hyssop, white species fuchsia and so on to take away with us. We are delighted to have met these ladies and will thoroughly enjoy doing business with them.

I am smiling now as I type this. I have just re-read this post and realise that I am suddenly 'surrounded' by lovely, helpful and very wise women. There is Liz of course though she was not in this story, as too weren't Carolyn and Charlotte of the mini horses, rabbits and George the gander but there is also Mentor Anne, Barbara Kingsolver and now the Two Marys. There is also the Kent 'crew'. I should be fairly safe staying on the straight and narrow, shouldn't I?

Sunday 26 January 2014

"Book Learning"

Book Learning. Grand as far as it goes. We are madly trying to absorb as much information as we can on the 2014 projects - bees and pigs - and have read our little socks off on books, magazines, websites and leaflets. We have talked to as many people as we could persuade to give us advice and we have, as you know, joined a 'club' and been to one bee-based meeting. We probably 'know' way more than it is healthy to know for 2 people neither of whom has ever opened a beehive and lifted out a bee frame to examine the contents, or been closer to bees than idly spotting them on the garden flowers ("Oooh! I think THAT one is a honey bee!") or had anything to do with pigs other than helping to run 2 porkers down the ramp from trailer to slaughterhouse (about 5 seconds!).

You can't beat a turf fire for visual effect.
No. We are now hungry for hands-on, practical experience and 'monkey-do' learning. We want the bee training sessions to start, and especially the apiary based practical ones. I want to try myself out in the middle of a wary, loud-humming, cloud of potential stinging insects to know that I can be as cool, calm, relaxed, gentle and slow moving as I am with rabbits, sheep, geese and chickens. I want to know that I can be sufficiently careful that I do not risk 'rolling' bees between the close spaced bee frames (which annoys them) or squashing any between hive sections when reassembling the boxes. I want to know that I can move among pigs and bond with them, come to understand them without being nervous of them - they are big, strong and heavy, potentially dangerous animals when full grown, which need treating with respect. I expect I will be OK on both counts; I generally am. We are currently looking out for a pig rearing/keeping course aimed at small holders. Tipperary in April looks favourite so far.

Meanwhile, one of our favourite annual celebrations came around, Burns Night, our chance to eat haggis with a clear conscience and, this time, to have some guests to supper, Carolyn and Charlotte of the mini-horses, plus K-Dub and little Henry (2 in February). Being lamb-rearers, of course, this is not some kind of commercial, mass produced haggis boiled in a plastic (or gut if you're lucky) sleeve. It is the home made version constructed by Liz from our own lamb products; this year some breast meat, heart, liver and 'lights', plus, of course, oatmeal, onion and spices. 'Lights' for the uninitiated, is lung tissue; we managed to persuade butcher Ignatius G that we really did want a lung (just one) to try out just this recipe. Liz bakes the whole in a casserole dish.

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face..... haggis.
For a starter we diverged a bit away from Scottish fare with a favourite salad - leaves, pomegranate bits, goats cheese, pickled sweet red peppers and toasted pinenuts. The haggis came, of course, with neeps and tatties and an onion gravy. Dessert was a bit 'fusion food'. Liz crossed cranachan with pavlova (why not?) and came up with a pavlova with a meringue base, a good layer of cream, then blackberry coulis and berries, topped with toasted rolled oats.

Cranachan x Pavlova
We have, inevitably, a mountain of this food left over even though everybody bar Henry piled in with gusto and did it justice. H was a little excited at his first evening visit to 'Matt and Dizzy's' house and was not in the mood for settling down to eat this unfamiliar food but he was still a pleasure to entertain and he enjoyed himself. "Dizzy" (sorry, I mean Liz) has since been on the internet talking to chums who also have left over haggis and mashed spuds, and someone has come up with the very promising idea of haggis and potato 'pasties' which have GOT to be worth a try. We have very little 'neep' left so some of our lovely fresh sprouts may get thinly sliced and added to the pastie filling.

We had lit the fires at both ends of the house, so we had a lovely turf fire going in the living room as well as the range in the dining room. We do not usually have real turf in the house as we'd only use it on the open fire, which we don't light very often; it does not go very well in the range. However, I had taken some eggs round to neighbour Una and she was trying to pay me money for them. I asked instead if I might have some of the lovely long dry turfs she has in her shed; they look very picturesque in the log basket and would burn nicely on our fire for our guests when we adjourned through to the comfortable chairs. We didn't go very late. The visitors were mindful of the need to get little Henry to bed by 9:30-ish but, more importantly, K-Dub was due a very early (04:30) start as he's off to the Bavaria mountains on a motor bike, to be part of the annual "Elephant Rally", camping.

Rooster 'Mr Buff' shelters in the goose house. 
We take our hats off to you, buddy, rather you than me. The weather is not looking particularly promising, it is snowy and windy in Bavaria at present, but he has a good ex-military tent and a sleeping bag which is good to minus 30 degrees C and, anyway, hey! He's a ruffty tuffty biker. I used to enjoy my 2CV camps but they were generally in the summer and I had the car around me when I was driving to and from. K-Dub is on a bike in just his leathers and helmet through the night to Dublin, then all across Wales and England to the Channel Tunnel, then all across mainland Europe to his snowy forest 'home' and all his biker mates. Safe journey, K-Dub. Look after yourself.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Bee School

'National' standard style hive.
We have decided to get into bees and keeping our own hive on the holding. This has got to be good from the point of view of the environment; reacting to the falling bee populations but would also mean that we had more bees locally to pollinate our fruit trees, veg and other plants. Plus it would be fun and it is something I have wanted to do for many years but never had the chance. We have therefore started to ask around for local bee-keeper contacts and have received a lot of help from friends on the internet (Thank you, Rho!) and locally who have now put us in touch with the Longford Beekeeper Group just over the county border. This (hour's drive) might seem a bit daft as there would surely be a group locally, but these were the group we found first and they are a lovely bunch of friendly people, so we are getting in with them for the moment.

A 'frame' of bees; not mine yet, picture 'borrowed' from the
Longford Group (Hope that's OK Elspeth!)
Off we went then last night to our first meeting in Longford town centre to meet our new friends, Joe, Kevin, Dieter and co. They are quite a big group (26 last night) and lively and friendly AND we were excited to find, they are just about to start a training course for beginners which runs through to May leading to the "Preliminary Bee Keepers' Certificate". We sat through the meeting and listened to the discussions on the agenda and both of us actually piped up with contributions from the complete beginner's perspective.

2 hens pick over our pile of John Deere Bob's calf muck
There was then a short presentation by an experienced bee keeper for the benefit of newbies like us on the parts of a standard "National" style beehive; he, Dieter, had one there with him, empty of course. We stayed on after the meeting to talk some more, to join up with the club and to enroll on the training course. It was a good event all round and we learned bags of 'stuff' about bees and hives. We feel as if we are launched already. We now need to get started properly with our beginner mini-hive (called a 'nucleus colony' or 'Nuke'). This is a box containing only 5-6 'frames' of wax on which a young queen and about 6000 bees are starting a new colony. If you play your cards right this Nuke box starts to quickly fill up with the thriving colony and you then buy a full sized hive (which can cope with 70,000 bees), transfer your frames into that and from there it is onwards and upwards, gaining more experience, becoming obsessed, starting to add more hives and so on. We are, for now, only thinking we'll run one hive, but you never know. More reports on this project to come.

I am always completely impressed by the idea of coppicing, the idea of cutting trees down to near ground level every 15-20 years or so, so that side shoots will sprout from the base/stump ("stool") and grow into poles which you can then harvest at the next cut. In Kent, in Challock Forest we had square miles of sweet chestnut cut this way, the poles having been used over the centuries for fencing and building wood, for charcoal making and for pit-props in the Betteshanger and other Kent coal mines. To me it is the ultimate form of sustainable forestry and therefore in sustainable cropping too.

When I was studying ecology at Uni, it was a given that coppiced tree stools in ancient woodland were the oldest known living things on the planet. They had been cut down at least 80 times, every 20-25 years or so for 2000 years or more. Each time the shoots grew from the outer side of the stool, so increased the diameter of the base, eventually marching out into a 'fairy ring', the centre having long since died off. The ring was now many yards across and interlocking with neighbouring rings like some complex Venn diagram or Spirograph drawing. The scientists could check DNA and estimate the rate of spread of individual plants and could thus estimate the age of each stool.

This big ash pole did not come from that tiny cut top left.
It is from a bigger cut out of shot (arrow)
Well, we don't have ancient woodland and our ash in the Secret Garden may only be a few cuts old but it gives me a real buzz to be taking down these ash stems knowing that it is entirely possible that I may be doing it again, aged 70 or so in the future. Meanwhile, they make great logs. Ash, seasoned, is one of our favourite woods for burning on the range. It is also beautiful to split with the axe when I'm feeling all macho and need to do 'man stuff'.

Irish 'Cooleeney' Camembert
We have been delighted recently to find some very nice cheeses in our travels. I have never been that confident of Irish cheese. Growing up, we loved our mature and vintage Cheddars and you could not be any ruder than to describe a cheese as 'like Irish Cheddar' - the only Irish Cheddar you could find back then was insipid and tasteless, described as 'Mild'. Yuck. Liz growing up was only ever given processed kiddies' cheeses like the famous "Calvita" brand. I am told it is worse than the 'Vache qui Rit' (laughing cow) stuff. So Liz, proudly off on her first French "exchange" as a teenager with the Treil family outside Paris, announced to her new hosts that she 'didn't like cheese'. Outraged by anything so preposterous, Mmle Treil set about introducing the young Liz to the huge variety of French cheeses starting with a creamy Camembert and working their way through to the smelliest Pont l'Eveques, Maroilles, Livarot (Le Colonel) and so on.

Rhubarb Crumble and 'real' custard made with eggs.
Of course, we are both real cheese hounds now and will try anything and enjoy them as long as they have a good flavour. We have even been on a specific holiday to the famous cheese area of Normandy hunting down some of these cheeses. We are happy to tell you that even our local Lidl Supermarket now stocks a nice Irish vintage cheddar (Valley Spire) and sometimes a very presentable Tipperary Camembert (Cooleeney) along with perfectly acceptable Parmesans, goat's cheeses, feta and so on. They feature regularly in our trolley load.

Sunday 19 January 2014


One of our most successful crops in 2013 in terms of yield, productivity and the general beauty and cleanliness of the crop was the Jerusalem Artichokes. Back in February 2013 we planted just half a dozen tubers each of 2 varieties, 'Fuseau' and an old fashioned 'knobbly' type obtained from Mentor Anne, each planted as a short row in a 4 m raised bed. The tubers quickly sprouted and rapidly grew into the expected 8 foot tall 'sunflower' style windbreak which were blown around a bit by the strong winds coming across Vendor Anna's 5-Acre field so that I had to stake them.

One of the 'Mini-Buffs' gets comfy in the nest box
When the greenery was all done, I cut off the stems a foot from the ground and left the crop in the ground; it copes very well with that being, after all, an over wintering organ which seems unaffected by slugs and other pests. When we started digging we realised we were in for an impressive crop - at least 2 kg coming off each plant, and half a wheel barrow from each row. If we were going to be eating or even selling these, we'd have been on to a winner. Unfortunately we have tried the first 'fruits' in small quantities and find that both varieties have that marked effect on us for which 'Fartichokes' are famous.  We tried a variety of cooking methods from roasting to boiling and so on, but all to no avail.

Red Elf Cup fungus, prolific in our hedgerows now.
(Sarcoscypha coccinea)
This is amusing if you are still a school boy but we find it excessive and downright unpleasant to the degree where we have decided not to grow them in 2014 and to 'bin' the crop. But wait! We are currently thinking about 'doing' pigs this year and if we do then they will be kept in the Secret Garden and one thing everyone knows about pigs is that they love rooting around for tubers and underground food. So, just for the 'waste not want not' reason, we decided to dispose of the crop by planting them at random in the area where the pigs may be kept. Liz and I barrowed them round today from allotment to Secret Garden and spent a happy hour with me digging random holes with the pointy ended Irish shovel, and Liz tossing in a couple of tubers into each hole. They may grow, they may not. They are under the trees. They may produce a crop, or not, and the pigs may or may not happen and may or may not dig them up and like them, but it has got to be better than tossing them onto the compost heap.

Fiat Panda goes 'farm vehicle' again with a load of hay
I have had to 'rescue' the Guinea Fowl a couple of times over recent days when they have developed a wanderlust and wandered down beyond the main entrance gate. One of them sneaks through the hedge into the lane and then gets separation anxiety and kicks up a ruckus shouting to the mate, who is either still in the garden or has nipped through the other hedge into the 5-Acre field. They would probably sort themselves out in time and return safe. One of my friends on the poultry discussion forum is a game-keeper and says that his Guineas used to find themselves half a mile from home but always got back safely by night fall. We just worry about the lane and the farm vehicles charging about, and the 'ruckus' that would happen if 'separation anxiety' turned into bereavement does not bear thinking about! So we hear it kicking off and we sprint down to the gate and try to round up the wanderer which, needless to say, nips happily back through the hedge and does a pheasant impression, exploding into the air, clucking and flying 6 feet above the ground all the way back to the poly tunnel followed by the other bird.

Re-Coppiced Ash with 21 tree-rings.
Also AWOL tonight (all be it in full view) are the two ex-Silverwood 'pet' rabbits, Ginny and Padfoot who nipped through a gap in their fence which I inadvertently created when moving them to new grass. These ladies have done this to us before and are the devil to recapture as they are very fast these days and nip down to our Northern boundary where there is a collapsed, ancient corrugated shed (might have been an outside loo) which has sagged down a 5 foot bank. They hide under the sheeting and are safe from getting grabbed by us. They also seem to be safe from foxes and mink as they have played this game before and always seem to be there to greet us in the morning.

Tonight's supper, 3.06 kg hubbard carcass!
We catch them by either rounding them up into the Kitchen Garden where we can corner them against the chicken wire, or in Ginny's case, when she runs into the chicken house for some reason, and can be easily shut in and grabbed. That, though, will have to be tomorrow. It is dark now and there is no way we can catch them at present so they will have to take their chances with our bushy tailed, red furred chum. Good luck Ginny and Padders.

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Country Lore (John Deere Bob says...)

The Whooper Swans on Lough Feigh are very noisy at the moment, especially on these cold, crisp, windless, moonlit nights. We can hear them clearly honking and chuntering to one another when we go outside in the evenings to check on things and 'patrol' the dogs (those are mainly about comfort stops for the pooches than checking the boundaries, but if it deters our bushy tailed red-furred chum then so much the better). Local Country Lore has it (this translates more accurately as "John Deere Bob tells us that...") that the geese being noisy is a bad sign, a sure indicator of cold weather and frost to come. I suspect that rather, we are hearing the geese more because the air is already cold, crisp and still, and the sound travels better.

2 plus 1 makes three?
Our goose issue continues, with George having paired off firmly with one of the females (Goocie) to the exclusion of the other (Goosey) whom he now drives away, all be it fairly gently and with no killer instinct. This is not too much of a problem during the day, while they are out in the orchard, but he was having a bit of a go too, inside the goose house at night, where she had less chance of escape. As a result she was reluctant to be shepherded 'home' and showed every sign of not wanting to go in. She slept at least one night in the 'foyer' bit just inside the door while George and his chosen one claimed the 'bedroom' part.

We decided we needed to separate them so that she would not get hurt while we sorted out what to do. This proved dead easy; I re-opened the door and she exploded out, as if she couldn't get out of George's way quickly enough, and between us, Liz and I gently shepherded her round the building to the yard-side door and back into the goose house but outside the wire mesh. She now sleeps there among the feed bins and hay bales, safe and sound. I have put a bucket of water in there for her. She trots back to the orchard each morning to rejoin her sister and His Lordship.

William the Conqueror, still our alpha male.
Meanwhile I have posed a question on my poultry discussion website to ask any goose-keepers what they advise. Is this 'One-Woman Man' thing likely to stick, or will George relent as we come into spring time and Goosey joins Goocie in the egg-laying game? Naturally, there were as many suggestions and opinions as there were replies, but they made for some interesting reading. At one end we had 'do nothing, keep them together like you have' and he will accept her as the hormones start to flow. At the other I had an interesting suggestion - to separate George from the chosen one and make him stay with the 'reject' goose till he learned to love her. In between was even a suggestion to keep the gander with each goose on alternate days. Anyway, we decided to play the waiting game, separating the lonely girl at night and reuniting everyone in the morning, hoping that as spring progresses and George comes into sexual maturity (he's only a youngster and has never actually met any other geese till he arrived here, so he'll only now be learning some inter-goose social skills) all will be well.

Our chickens, on the other hand, have all now settled down into a lovely, stable rhythm and pace of life. We have 9 hens from the various sources (the original 'Lovely Girls', the '8-Ball' and the Hubbards) and these are marshaled around , protected and 'seen to' by our two remaining roosters, William the Conqueror and 'Mr Buff', our big Buff Orpington from the 8-Ball group, hatched at Easter. These two boys get on really well with William having a slight edge on the 'alpha male' scale. They all sleep together, with the Guinea fowl on the perches in the main chicken house except that is, for the Marans Girls (Bubble and Squawk) who persist in going to bed in the smaller 'temporary' house, but that mainly because we have not pressed the point and forced them to move in with the rest. I probably should.

In other news, Liz dabbled her toes back into education and training, going on a 'Train the Trainers' course just before Christmas, mainly as a way of consolidating her existing, but UK-based, skills into a form recognised here in the Republic where they even look a bit sideways at her Open University degree. Well, this being Liz, she can do this training stuff with her eyes closed, so the certificate we received this morning carries the very satisfying grade "Distinction". Go Lizzie!

And last but not least some more of our tongue in cheek long-distance therapy by voodoo-chain-saw. One of Liz's contacts had been suffering from the unpleasant ailment, cystitis, and felt she'd quite like the word included on our 'death row' of words painted on logs so that they could be symbolically rent asunder. All done now and the pictures are posted on the image sharing website. That nice piece of (re)coppiced ash you can see me cutting through is neatly stacked in the log store. The contact is now cured but I suspect that the genuine antibiotics she was prescribed may have had more effect on that than our messing 500 miles away, but we hope we brought a smile to her face.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Craft and Conflict(s)

We mixed a bit of fun in with the logging today to answer a friend's desire for a bit of 'revenge'. One of Liz's friends is having a torrid time at work currently being asked to take over and rescue a failed project in another department but at the same time keep the colleague who has failed, sweet. The failing project ex-manager is known only as 'SHE' and she is not at all impressed by being rescued and replaced and is being a total bitch but Liz's chum has been instructed by the boss to (using modern parlance) "suck it up". We suspect that SHE is only still in the job because the company has failed to even start a disciplinary process so cannot actually sack her yet. We think her time may come if she is found guilty of even half the devious and conspiratorial manouvres that have been reported and which include pouring poison into the ear of the external client for whom the project is being done.

Be all that as it may, cleaving through wood with an axe has got to be a good way of venting one's spleen so Liz jokingly offered to paint the word 'SHE' onto a chunk of wood and have me chop it to bits while she took photographs which the friend could then look at and dream of being able to exact a more physical and satisfying revenge on this hated enemy. How could we refuse? Therapy at a distance by axe-murder. The friend (and others) were delighted with the pictures and are suggesting (tongue in cheek, presumably) that we could take commissions! Mad Boss anyone? Evil Nurse D?

Also in a possible conflict situation is the new gander, George. We can't be sure yet but I saw him today having a pop at one of the female geese and moving as if to claim the other, as if he has 'chosen' one of the girls and decided to reject the other. Tonight as I tried to shepherd them home, which normally works easily as a group of three, he suddenly lunged at one of the girls causing her to veer off track and refuse to go into the goose- house with George and the 'chosen one'. I had to call Liz to assist and between us, via several circuits of the building past the no-longer-comforting-bedroom-doorway, we finally got her to go in. This may just be a one-off, heat of the moment thing and they may all be good again tomorrow but we will have to watch this closely. We can't have George going all one-woman man on us, particularly if he is going start beating up the 'rejected' sister. Watch this space on this one.

Meanwhile we have gone all 'crafty'. From Carolyn of the mini-horses, came a generous supply of baby milk formula tins (SMA brand, the 900 g size) with lids. Liz decided these would be ideal for storing bakery ingredients - flour, sugars, nuts and so on - and would prevent the over-stuffed avalanching cupboard problem which you may know from your own experiences. We set about hunting (unsuccessfully) for coloured 'Fablon' book covering 'sticky-backed' plastic but finally settled on shelf covering sheet. Liz scored some of this by asking in a number of hardware stores for "the stuff your Granny used to cover her shelves with". This had the man in Cahill's on Castlerea Main Street nipping upstairs calling back "I know EXACTLY what you mean!" and reappearing with a choice of colours.

So with the tins cleaned out we started a little cottage industry with Liz measuring and cutting and me smoothing the film onto the curve of the tins. Liz then fired up the label printing computer and thus these rather nifty storage tins are born. We have used up the ten we got and are now off down to Carolyn's to scrounge more, of which she has a good supply, having fed Hungry Henry (2 in February) on the contents. Up-Cycling!

Thursday 9 January 2014

Settled in.

Left to right, Goosey, Goocie and George. 
Our new gander, George, has settled in well with his new women. They were a bit shouty on the day we took the previous gander away from them, maybe suffering from separation anxiety but have calmed right down now. There was no fighting - I just saw one prod by one of the geese which had him nipping a few paces out of range, but that evening all three allowed me to shepherd them 'home' to their night quarters where they all three seem to be a lot calmer and quieter about their supper feed. Perhaps it was the old gander doing all the hissing and shouting to make sure that once I'd put the feed in I got out of the way again fast; George does not do this.

William and 'Miss White' (a Hubbard) peck at the frozen pond.
George's former life had him in a bit of lawn with a couple of drakes but just what Charlotte calls "a small paddly pool" to bath in. He does all the head-dipping and showers water over his back and preens himself but we are wondering if maybe he has not learned how to swim. So far he has not ventured into our bigger water bodies (the enamel bath, half of a blue plastic drum and a 5 foot diameter, butyl lined pond) for any kind of total immersion baptism. He watches the women go in but does not dare to see if he will float. No doubt he'll get there; the other geese took days and weeks to learn the ramp up to the bath. So for the moment he looks a little grubby, and not the pristine white of a well splashed, dipped goose.

Sorry for the poor picture. Guinea fowl in flight. 
We are amused by the ability of the Guinea fowl to fly despite being wing-clipped by the guy who sold them to us having clipped their wings, allegedly knowing what he was doing. He proudly showed us to cut only one wing (which would be correct) and to only cut the main primaries back to the point at the tip of the alula (thumb) feathers. Well these guys could fly over Liz's head (about 5 foot 1 inch) from the day they were clipped, so as a method of preventing them tree-roosting or straying it was doomed to failure. This did not, as it turned out, represent a problem because they have been perfect angels from day 1, never attempting any of these bad habits. Min, the female, is seen here descending from the orchard gate; she rather took me by surprise and hence the poor photo quality.

Blue skies! (and a First Quarter Moon)
Meanwhile, we have surprised ourselves by being able to stick rigidly to our New Year's Resolutions. We decided jointly to have a 'dry' January after the excesses of Christmas, so not a drop of alcohol has passed our lips. Admittedly this is only the 2nd weekend but we are feeling good about this and we are likely to hang in there. Liz decided no more smoking indoors, so she now goes outside whatever the weather to puff away. The plan is to make the house no longer smell of tobacco smoke, but it has also had a good effect on the actual amount she smokes. She has even gone outside in the worst weather when I am saying "Ah come on - surely you'd be forgiven in this gale and rain!"

Knitted by Liz - Raglan sweater
My other resolution is to FINISH the winter with a full log store instead of a part, or 'almost', empty one. This too has been going well and lately I have been attacking some big trunk/bole pieces of ash which Bobby and I cut last winter (and in doing so killed my old chain saw). These bits sat around in the yard all year deciding whether to be rustic benches or firewood but I have now started slicing them up and splitting the slices into 'logs' for the range. Today I treated myself to a splitting wedge to cut down on the damage I am doing to my good axe by belting it from behind with a sledge hammer when it sticks part way through the grain.

And finally, Liz has finished my Raglan sweater, her biggest project since the most recent outbreak of knitting. We are both very pleased with it and she has showed it off to the Knit and Natter club where the ladies know about these things and are impressed by the even tension and consistent knitting, as well as by the skill with which she has sewed it all together. Liz is now scouting through an enormous pile of knitting mags borrowed from Carolyn for what to create next. Any suggestions?

Tuesday 7 January 2014

George and the Ladies' Christmas

Red Kuri Squash - nice fudgy texture when roasted.
Hot on the heels of my 'Wren Boys' post comes another tradition from these parts which was new to me, that of Ladies' Christmas. Mrs Silverwood's post in Facebook has it thus. “Nollaig na mBan” or “Little Women’s Christmas” is an old custom that’s still celebrated by women all over Ireland. It goes back to the days when large families were the norm. Men never lifted a finger in the house to help, and were never expected to. If a man washed the dishes, he would be called an “auld woman” by other men. No full blooded Irish man was prepared to risk that!

Ominous sky precedes our latest "Category Orange" storm, Christine
But each year, after the Christmas holiday, tired women finally got a break – for one day, at least. On January 6th (the same day as the Epiphany), men would take over of the housework, offering women a chance to go out to relax with each other." Nollaig na mBan would be pronounced 'Nollag na Morn' or there abouts. Now call me a cynic but I think this tradition might be more 'fondly dreamed about' than actually happening. I cannot see those kind of blokes, Irish or otherwise, who'd let their women do all the work and never lift a finger, suddenly bringing their women folk tea and toast in bed on Day 12 and happily volunteering to knock up a delicious curry for when they get back from the pub.

George and the author. Note rainbow.
Readers who have been with me for the past 12 months, will know of our goose in-breeding problem. Our first three geese, Goosey, Goocey and Gander joined us last January advertised as a breed-able trio and we didn't know enough then to spot that Gander had serious wry-tail (or to realise that this might be a problem). We also suspect that they may have been a sibling group possibly even from the same clutch, brother and sisters. They settled in and got nice and clean and healthy; it was when they started breeding that we got some problems - infertile and dead-in-shell goslings, deformed babies with necks twisted round, goslings who went lame after a month or two, completely losing the motor control of their legs or just fading and dying. Out of 17 eggs incubated, we ended up with just 2 full grown young ones.

We decided to cease breeding with these three birds and to either just collect eggs (which one of the geese is still producing every other day all through Christmas and the New Year) or to swap out the gander so that we could out-cross rather than in-breed. Step forward then, our friends Carolyn and Charlotte of the miniature horses who had come out of geese after all sorts of fun and games with mink attacks but had been left with one lonely successful gosling.

This bird, named George even before anyone could sex him was hand reared by Charlotte and is as dotty and tame as anything, loving to have his neck tickled and to be cuddled and handled. As he was on his own, he grew up with Charlotte's motley mixture of call ducks and 'Swedish' ducks and most recently was running with a couple of drakes whom he used to marshall and follow around. We THINK he is a gander. A friend of Charlotte's who keeps a lot of geese thinks he is, from the stance and behaviour but admittedly did not pick him up to check his equipment.

George meets his women (He is closest to camera)
To cut a long story short, we have swapped out 'Gander' with 'George' today and George, after an hour in a holding pen to make sure they'd not fight and to let him see his new surroundings in peace, is now released into the orchard with the girls. They were a bit shouty when their previous fella suddenly disappeared, perhaps anxious to attract him back, but seem to have settled down now with George. I am hoping they have bonded enough to be able to shepherd all three 'home' tonight and shut them up in the relatively confined space of their sleeping quarters. I may have to quarter them apart for this first night. So.... welcome aboard George.

Nearly finished. Raglan sweater.
In other news we are currently surviving the recent wind storms (latest was named Christine; I don't know when Atlantic anti-cyclones started to get names) with, thankfully, no more damage. We experimented with a red kuri squash, a gift from the Silverwoods, and found that roasted it has a lovely delicate flavour and a fudgy texture. We will keep some seeds and try to get it to grow in our calf muck heap. Liz has almost finished my raglan knit sweater, the biggest thing she has attempted in this recent burst of the craft. Meanwhile we are sploshing about in wellies with mud everywhere after the recent, seemingly relentless rain, and wishing spring would come and it would all dry out a bit.