Monday 31 March 2014

Lonely Roads.

"Lonely Roads" on day 1
Today a bitter-sweet tale, a bit more tragic than we are used to and one in which we have been unable to help in an animal welfare story to the degree we would have liked. Sometimes, that's the way it goes. Unusually, I am not going to name any of the parties involved, only because I do not know some of them and I only have word-of-mouth summary of events. Also we do not know the sex of the chick involved, so 'he' is just going to be assumed male for convenience. We think he is Rhode Island Red (hence his name) but he is almost certainly in-bred.

This poor little mite came to us at less than 6 hours old (hatched) having already had a rather bizarre, eventful and traumatic life, 3 'owners' and 2 homes. There had been a big incubator into which Owner 1 had 'set' 40 goose eggs and, finding he had spare space had sneaked in 7 chicken eggs. Owner 2, as we understand it had objected to this and gone to retrieve them but had managed to miss 2 and leave them behind to run the full course of incubation. I am not sure how this is possible; I do not know the design of the incubator, but we are told that immediately on hatching and while still with wet feathers, this chick was grabbed from the incubator and passed to Owner 2 as 'your problem'. These people are not set up for chicken rearing and have no brooder-box, Infra-red lamps etc and this is all happening at the crack of dawn on Saturday.

Day 3. Note the right leg held in an odd position
Owner 2 panics and phones the only chicken-person she knows and this is a good friend of ours, Owner 3. Owner 3 has a bad cold and has gone to bed with a good dose of sleepy-making "Night-Nurse" (or similar medicine) and takes the call while groggy with sleep, cold and soporifics. She only half understands but thinks she is getting some chicken-meat because owner 2 "cannot hand prepare" it, so she accepts the delivery and even asks Owner 2 at the front door whether it is breast meat or leg meat (!). The poor baby by now is still wet from the egg and stone cold, limp. Owner 3 rushes to find a hot water bottle and towel (to wrap around it) and probably saves the poor thing's life.

Goldie, hopefully now pregnant.
Wide awake now, Owner 3 realises that she is also not set up for rearing chickens having come out of chickens last year and dispersed all her equipment, so she nips round to the next 'chicken' people on the list, and that is us. We have never reared baby chicks; we always let 'Broody Betty' handle that but, hey, we have an IR lamp and a crate, what could possibly go wrong? In for a penny, as they say. One thing working in our favour is that chicks hatch having just absorbed into their abdomen the remaining yolk-sac, so they do not need to eat for 48 hours or so.

We have you surrounded? Ivy almost rings the hawthorn.
Sadly here, the story now takes another down-turn but don't give up on us yet. Lonely Roads is a spirited trier and, now warm and dry, he survives the night, seems to like being handled and cheeps loudly with excitement at regular intervals. Unfortunately he is not good on his legs. A chick at 24 hours hatched should be sprinting about like a little clockwork toy. Roads is all alert and holds his head upright but is flopping about and squirming along the deck, seemingly only able to use his left leg. His right leg juts out at an odd angle and he puts no weight on it and is unable to open the foot flat. He puts his weight on the heel joint (at the top of the un-feathered bit of''leg') or rolls it onto the side of the crunched up but limp and floppy toes. By day 3 he is up on his one good leg but can only balance if standing still. This is not good. A one-foot chicken has no real future, if only because he would not be able to scratch for worms and grubs. Things are not looking promising.

Tea cosy by special request.
My in-breeding comment earlier is due to the fact that his feet also have extra toes and we know that, especially in Ireland (where we have first hand experience with in-bred geese) the gene pools can get very 'narrow' in these named variety birds. This may be the cause of Roads's bad leg, or possibly there might have been rough handling or damage done by the chilling. We, of course, have no idea. Well, the hard-nosed breeders would probably have been calling 'cull him out, don't waste your time' by now but we decided to give him a week and hope for a repair job.

Primroses along our East boundary.
This, however, is not the end of the tale, as the little lad may be full of shout and beans but he is refusing to eat anything. He has pecked at the tiniest crumbs of hard boiled egg, 'chewed' very half-heartedly on about a quarter cc of cod liver oil and maybe shipped some water. This is now day 3, so he should have used up his yolk stores by now and be ravenous, piling into offered food and fighting off brothers and sisters in the competition to eat. If this goes on he may be making the decision for us as he will fade very quickly if his problems include an inability to learn to recognise food, peck it, eat and swallow. So, Friday is his D-Day. I will let you know. Wish him well but don't get your hopes too high.

Meanwhile, in a previous post I noted that we had been improving the pasture. We seem to have also improved the boundary hedges and flora too. All around the East Field we had badly overgrown hedges with overhanging ash and hawthorn, and great thickets of bramble arching out 8-10 feet into the field and self-layering. We had to cut all this back in order to install the new sheep fence and have since had sheep on it (and then horses) nibbling away at the re-growth, so that we have let a lot more light into the hedge-base. This year we have been rewarded with an impressive flowering of primroses, plants presumably hidden and repressed by the shading tangle of brambles. In some cases these primroses are, themselves, well out into the field, maybe 3-4 feet inside the field.

Friday 28 March 2014

"Swolly" Hole

We find ourselves both involved in errands of mercy. For Lizzie a run to Galway with Carolyn of the mini-horses. This is mainly about a hospital visit but the girls also go for an explore around Galway, being a city close to us that we had not actually visited yet. It was known to have a Marks and Spencer for the clothes and underwear but Liz also discovered a branch of that favourite source of bed linen, a TK Maxx. The M&S proved to have an excellent vintage cheddar cheese, in this case their "Cornish Cruncher" variety from the Davidstow Creamery.

Wind-felled, Ivy-clad, hawthorn tree
For me, a call from John Deere Bob to cut up a couple of size-able trees blown down in the storms of November and now causing him fencing issues as he goes to turn out cows onto the spring grass. As well as the fields in the immediate vicinity of his house, Bob owns 12 acres the other side of Lisacul village in an area of small fields with overgrown mossy stone walls from the tops of which sprout way overgrown hawthorn and ash trees which were presumably once the boundary hedge. They are now 20-30 feet high and weighed down with a dense canopy of ivy. No one has maintained these hedges for a good few decades (not just Bob, everyone in the area does the same) and the trees are now top heavy and get blown over by the gales of November taking lines of fencing with them. The ivy stems criss-crossing round the trunks to form a tubular 'net' of ivy wrapped around the hawthorn wood make the cutting up of these trees an interesting task, and the thick leafy shroud make it hard to see where to cut anyway. It is slow work. I always take my bill hook down with me and chop away some of the ivy so I can see what I am at.

JD Bob's Swallow Hole
The piece of ground is also interesting to the physical geographer in me. The geology here is lower carboniferous sandstone and (mainly) limestone, so features the occasional swallow hole (they say it "swolly hole" here) and Bob has one at the bottom of one of these fields. It is a good sized feature. The stream running through here is a good 5 feet wide and 2 deep even when it is running slowly; the clear but brown stained water coming off the local peaty soils and bogs. At the hole this all just gurgles away through some openings in the big blocky rocks, to reappear, Bob tells me, way down the valley, below the village, quite near to the main river (The River Lung).

Yellow arrows show the 2 main holes
At the site of the swallow hole is a large basin looking like a nearly dried up lake, with a good lot of twigs and bits of rush and reed at the 'tideline'. Obviously, when the stream is in spate, the swallow hole gets partially blocked by this debris and cannot cope with all that volume of water, which fills up the 'lake' but I could see no sign that the lake overflows as a surface stream. It must be quite an impressive sight to see all that water spiraling round the "plug-hole" as it gurgles away underground.

Meanwhile in the 'zoo' we have a couple of breeding attempts to report which seem to have got parked up for now. The Guinea Fowl have given up on their daily disappearances across the lane, which we had put down to the possible daily egg laying. They did this 7 times but have now stopped. We never found the alleged nest so we will probably never know why this happened and then stopped happening. Maybe she was just having a practise run, maybe she did lay eggs and they got predated by rats or mink, maybe the current chilly NE winds put her off thoughts of spring. The birds remain our most wander-lusty and today we saw them at the far side of the East Field and the wrong side of the fence, actually outside our property, so maybe they are still at it.

When I last posted on the subject of geese, one of the females (Smudge, named for a bruise like dark smudge in the feathers on the right hand side of her head, behind the eye) had accumulated 16 eggs and we were expecting her to go broody any minute. Well, that was the 21st March, and it's now the 28th, so she is now perched on top of 19 eggs as she goes to lay (or her sister does), some of which are double stacked and she still shows no intention of sitting. I am not sure what to do about this. Do we give up and clear the eggs away, or do we keep on keeping on? One thing is for sure - if she DOES go broody over the next few days, I will not be leaving her all 19 to incubate. 19 baby goslings is a bit more than we can cope with.

We have decided to breed from Goldie again, taking advantage of the fact that Charlotte (mini horses) has just bought a NZ White buck ("Kiwi") who seems to be a bit of a go-er and she has him working his way round any of her lady rabbits who she wants bigger kits from. Our meat-breed doe, Goldie, you may recall, had a bit of a thin time of it in the motherhood stakes last year, kindling 7 babies but all bar 2 suffered overnight deaths for reasons we still are not sure of. Some of the later ones, when autopsied, had hugely full bladders so it is possible that some kind of urine-tract issue (blockages?) was the problem. We are giving her another go this year hoping that this was not genetic or was just a 'first litter' one-off. Watch this space. She was mated today, and they take 31 days to cook, so due date is 28th April. Maybe by then we will have broody geese, hidden up broody Guinea Fowl and maybe even our hen Broody Betty back on the case.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Waiting for the Eleven

Change of day-length vs days through year (50N).
We are doing really well for eggs at present, what with it being, I suppose, peak season, Equinox an' all that. We have 11 hens and have had two days in the last week where they have laid, between them, 10 eggs, though the norm is around 7 eggs. We are also getting one every other day from each goose and, we think, a daily Guinea fowl egg since the 18th. Today we thought we might be on for the 'full chicken house', 11 from 11 - we had already collected ten and there was a cackling, clucking racket going on mid afternoon as if someone was proclaiming another arrival, but no, it was a false alarm and the girls are keeping us waiting.

Min (left) and Henry (right)
I love all the physics around Equinoxes and day-length, At the Equinox, most people know, we have equal daylight and night-time hours (well, almost, there is some detail around this to do with latitude and the not-exactly perfect elliptical orbits) but this is also the time of the fastest CHANGE of day length. We are effectively accelerating towards summer at the fastest rate, with days getting longer at around 3 minutes per day, 21 minutes a week (spread across both ends of the day, of course), which is why you can easily see and feel it. This currently affects us more intensely than when we lived in the UK, because chicken 'bed-time' moves with darkness hours, and is currently around 7 pm, earlier on gloomy, cloudy evenings, later on bright sunny ones. Our 'bee school' starts at 8 pm, an hour away in Longford town, so for yesterday's we'd been worried since the previous class that we might have to be late for this one as we chased the last few chooks to bed before we could set out on the journey. It was close, but luckily Monday evening was cloudy, rainy and I could lock everyone up by 6:45 pm. For the next two sessions, it will not matter because the clocks will have changed.

Enjoying the spring sunshine
We also do very well for meals created from left overs; we throw very little food away which, in turn, means we do not have to worry about cooking too much. I have been enjoying a superb parsnip soup born out of big dig of the roots. Tonight was cold roast lamb (leg of Dora) with that lovely, soul-food, winter-warmer "Champ", mashed potatoes cooked back up with left over leeks and sprouts with some runner beans added and, beautifully, including the golden "burnt crispy bits" (BCBs; a food group in their own right!)

The entrance to the turf 'mine'.
Talking of left overs and springtime, the lovely weather has me out in the garden re-starting some jobs abandoned last autumn as it got too wet and cold, one of which is the earth bank which houses the half buried horse-drawn hay-rake. At the hay rake end we were uncovering some old hand 'won' "sausage" turfs and wondered whether we have in fact a 'clamp' left over from the TK-Min or even the TK-Max days. Well, I am now working in from the other end, a good 15 feet away and have come across what may be the other end of the clamp. We suspect that this is not any kind of official clamp, more a pile of turfs which got buried under some bulldozed topsoil, but they are lovely. They are up to around 5 inches diameter and cylindrical, the longest bits up to a foot long. They are buried like the ice-cream in a baked Alaska and it is a simple matter to lift them out from the entrance to the 'mine' as I work my way along the bank - I am getting barrow loads. Free fuel for next winter if I can get them dry.

Finally on the spring theme, we hear from our sheep man, Kenny O'C that he has just started lambing with a first batch of 5 lambs born on a lovely sunny day. We have put our order in for 5 again as last year, including one for the Sparks's and one for the Silverwood tribe. We'll probably get them, all being well, around July time. Their field is currently resting after its horse residence through the winter, and is already starting to look visibly greener. It is also pleasingly free from the rushes which badly infested it when we moved in. That is down to the mowing, strimming and sheep and horse grazing and gives us a little glow of pride at having improved the pasture we took over.

Friday 21 March 2014

Sixteen to Sit On

In our 'book', geese are meant to come into egg laying in spring when they start to receive the attentions of the gander. They will then accumulate 12-14 eggs before conveniently going broody and sitting on them. These "facts" are based, of course on what we've read plus picked up from Anne and Simon plus one chaotic breeding season when our gander was probably the girls' brother and the two geese nested so close together that each could rob all the other's eggs while she hopped off the nest to bathe and the other would then rob them back in her turn. In short we never knew WHERE we were and resolved to do it better this year. Anne will tell you, though, that these 'facts' are no such thing and birds will do what birds will do, unpredictably and surprisingly to keep you, the poor human, on your toes.

The purr-fect excuse to not do the ironing today?
One of our geese ( you may recall they were named Goosey and Goocie for a laugh but between Liz and I we never knew which one we were talking about, so they now have new add-on names which refer to distinguishing features, Goocie is 'Smudge' and Goosey is 'Black Feather'), Smudge, stayed in lay all winter, all through Christmas and is still there now, an egg every other day. She became (Gander) George's first love and he started 'loving' her a good month ago. We decided to let her start accumulating a clutch. Black Feather came back into lay on the 8th Feb but she was sleeping in separate quarters. We knew she wasn't getting mated, so we have been collecting her eggs for the kitchen. Since then, George has now accepted both the geese, so we are all happy families and Black Feather is now laying in the same nest as Smudge, so I have just had to know which day it is and let Smudge carry on accumulating (odd day dated; e.g. 5th, 7th, 9th etc) while robbing Black Feather's even-date (4th, 6th, 8th) eggs. So far so good. Smudge, though has now got up to 16 eggs and is showing no sign of going broody. The weather might be the reason.

Making up bee hive frames. This one for a honey 'super'
After a nice dry, spring like week which had us out gardening and even enjoying a rain-less St. Patrick's Day parade, we are back to wind, rain and wintry showers. This morning I got a nasty surprise while out chain sawing up some logs when I felt a rat-a-tat on my hard-hat and the mesh visor started to get less 'see through'. Snowy wet hail was hammering down on my hat, sticking in the visor mesh and going down the back of my neck. A joke's a joke, but that wasn't.

Finished hive frame. This one for the deeper 'brood' box.
While we are on the 'egg laying' subject, we are now convinced that Guinea Fowl hen, 'Min' is laying eggs in the hedge or scrub at the far side of the field opposite our property. For 4 consecutive days she has nipped off secretly for 2-3 hours, returning at about 3:30 pm. She announces her return with her 'Buck wheat buck wheat' call and Henry is ridiculously delighted to see her, like some sloppy love story re-union. Yesterday she called from the gate and Henry flew the full length of the driveway at 5-6 feet above the ground to be back with her. It's quite sweet. We had seen him hovering around the bit of hedge we think she is using, and once she was back we went for a sneaky check of the brambles etc but could see no sign of the eggs or nest. We are a bit lost on what to do about this so we are clinging to the fact that she should be safe enough in that thicket from Mr Fox (who is still keeping, much to our delight but also surprise and confusion, a very low profile; we (touch wood) never seem to see foxes or mink). We hope (barely able to believe that this could happen) that she goes broody out there, successfully sits for the 28 days and then leads the keets home in a picturesque little 'crocodile'. We are not happy about this but short of trying to contain these wanderers in some kind of aviary, that seems to be our only hope.

Meanwhile a prompt email shout from the Two Marys sorted me out a bit of confusion over assembling bee hive frames. I have two sizes to build, the tall, 'thin' sort for the (11 in the) brood box, and 10 less tall, 'thicker' ones for the honey comb in the 'super' (as in 'upper') boxes. I had a random collection of parts not assigned to either type as well as being a pair of side bars short, so I was a bit stumped. Mary McN has now sorted me out and I am 'away on a hack'. Indoor craft for rainy days. Mustn't put the sheets of foundation in yet though. Being wax, if it gets warm it can sag in the frames making them all uneven for the bees to build from. If it gets cold it can be brittle and can shatter in the frames, so we build the frames up to part-complete and store the sheets of foundation flat at room temperature.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Meandering Min

St Patrick's Day goose egg
Regular readers may remember the fun and games we had last year with a wayward Sussex Ponte hen who decided to lay her daily egg away across the fields in a hedge. We named her Wandering Wendy (though we never really were able to tell our 5 Sussex girls apart) and we used to try to predict when she'd slink off and try to follow her or even get ahead of her by running down the lane. These 'Operation Chicken Watch' manouvres did eventually lead to us discovering her stash and being able to bring it home and she has since mended her ways. Today we got 10 eggs out of the 11 current hens (a new record!) and ALL were laid in sensible places, the rabbit 'Maternity Ward' hutch in the chicken house (currently empty of bunnies and left open), the official nest boxes or the Cuckoo Marans' out-station coop.

St Pat's Day Breakfast fry.
No, it is the Guinea Fowl hen, 'Min', who has today caused us a bit of concern. I saw, out of the corner of my eye when standing in the kitchen, a shaggy collie type dog sprint down the neighbouring 5-acre field past the gate. Naturally I went out to check 'we' were OK and whether there might be people in the lane who had let their dog get out of control. I later saw this dog skulking off down the lane westwards, still with no attendant humans, apparently sniffing at all the rubbish in the verge, so maybe lost and hungry, or dumped and scavenging. Returning to base we realised that we had the cock-bird Guinea Fowl 'Henry' but no sign of Min. We thought that Min was not missing due to the dog, as there had been no 'shouting' or trauma and Henry was wandering about happily with the chickens, very quiet and unconcerned. They make a devil of a racket if ever they get separated, even by just wandering to either side of a wall or bush, so we couldn't imagine he'd accept having his wife snatched in front of his eyes with such lack of drama.

Donkey cart, pig in cage, geese on roof
and goat and sheep tethered behind.
The Guineas are probably our most wandering of birds and we regularly see them at the boundaries, often nipping through into the 5 acre field, or down beyond the 'allotment' and orchard (to our North) and still, more worryingly, occasionally in the lane where they are, at least, very sensible and street-wise around the traffic. We also know that Guineas will often lay their eggs in a hedge and ignore all your nice tidy, hay filled and INDOOR boxes. As we are now in March, we therefore hoped that the missing Min was just a sneak off to lay an egg and that Henry had been told to go 'act natural' so as not to draw suspicion. I had a quick look round but could find no sign of Min though we did see Henry gazing under the caravan at one stage. We left them to it and an hour later we were both relieved to hear Min's 2-tone "buck wheat buck wheat" call as she had arrived back on site and was now summoning up Henry, who rapidly appeared. We have no real idea which direction she came from (this time) but Liz thinks it was from the front garden or lane. We wonder whether the silly girl has decided to lay her eggs (and then go broody?) down across the lane somewhere. We will have to do a bit of Operation Guinea Watch, see if we can track her hidey hole down.

No man's land.
(Other) Regular readers may recall that we are gradually working our way through the site here 'designing' bits of garden to suit the area but that (again) last year we realised that we had a bit called, jokingly by us, "The bit we don't talk about". It was between the hay barn and the orchard, and has now become the big pond, the paths and the raised beds edged with scaffold board. Well, now we have another one which keeps prodding at us. It is a small section between the bottom of the yard, the top of the gulley, 'the bit behind the wall' and the 'back of the goose house. It is an awkward sloped area which had also suffered the indignity of spoil from the yard being dumped on it during the build, so it is a lumpy bumpy mess of clay-wrapped rubble, rushes and poor drainage. We are now looking at it with sharp and critical expressions on our faces.

Busy Bees
You may have spotted the plethora of St Patrick's Parade pictures. We decided to do St Pat's properly this year, having the fried breakfast and attending the parade in nearby town Ballaghaderreen, followed by a Guinness or two in town (for me; the lovely and very generous Lizzie offered to drive) and then a supper of bacon, cabbage, mash, carrot and parsley sauce. The parade was quite fun, though small and very 'Balla' flavoured (by which I mean that all the local issues seemed to have a float to publicise their cause; 'Leave the By-Pass and shop locally!' and 'Stop the lines of pylons!', for example)

Bypass the Bypass
There were five or so marching bands from local schools etc who all seemed to be playing "Star of the County Down" as they passed us and a more grown up marching band (Ballagh Pipe and Drum) playing "Forty Shades of Green". There was a nice float from a petting zoo which featured a cart pulled by a donkey containing a cage housing a pig, geese on the roof and a sheep and a goat tethered behind. There were nursery groups (we loved the Busy Bees in their yellow and black stripes!), bikers, classic cars including a Cadillac with acres of 'hood' and 'trunk', tractors, tow trucks, an open-sided lorry, a racing car, fire engines and all manner of noisy and brightly dressed people. All seemed to be going well.

A good crowd of watchers
And so we retreated to Durkin's bar for a well earned Guinness or two and thence home for a lie down. Much later came our patriotic supper - 'bacon and cabbage'. These daughters of Steak Lady, though, they do not just do the veg and ingredients and whack them onto your plate snack-bar style. The cabbage (green), mash (white) and carrots (orange) get laid out onto the plate to represent the Irish national flag.

The 'bacon' was also a bit special and an eye opener to me. Liz had heard of a recipe in which the bacon joint is boiled for a while in, among other things, Coca Cola. Neither of us drink Coca cola and we would never normally have it around the house, but we had a couple of cans left from one of the visits last summer, so in it went to the Nigella Lawson recipe. It was only a mass-produced supermarket bacon joint but I have to admit that it was sweet and delicious cooked that way.

Finally, in a less well known aspect of 'Paddy's Day', it is the day by which you are 'meant' to have your seed potatoes in and your onion sets. I am happy to say that after the dry, warm week leading up to The Day, all my ground had a chance to dry out and I have been able to get 'out there' and plant my 3 nets (6 kg total) of Sarpo Mira (main crop), plus 2 kg each of Sharp's Express and Rocket (First Earlies) as well as my white, gold and red onion sets. The season has started.

Saturday 15 March 2014

I'm after Connie

Pig Ark complete and in its final position
St Patrick's Weekend and a chance for even we Brits to be as Irish as possible. This gives me a chance to post on a subject which has been building up, much to my amusement, and that is the 'divided by a common language' thing. In theory, both the Brits and the Irish speak 'English' but you do not have to be around Irish people for long to realise that you can go well astray if you just plough on in normal chat and conversation, using your colloquial English.

The hive now painted white and
sitting on its new stand.
I, for one, am constantly delighted by the colourful turns of phrase used by the locals here and, if I can remember them I sometimes make a note of them, determined to use them in a post like this one.

John Deere Bob, for example after a dry dusty job; "Wait while I fetch a glass of water, I'm as dry as a fish!"

Bob again on me teasing him about using two tea bags in the mug, which he always does when making us 'tay'; "Ah, you need it a bit strong, water is no good for you!"

An expression to describe well-muscled women who might be able to lob a few hay bales around; "Beef to the heels, like a Mullingar heifer!"

Banana cake, from a recipe via Mazy
One of our bee keeping lecturers on being asked if an anti-varroa-mite product was toxic "Sure, there's a fearful bang off it!"

Bobby again in a conversation about bee keeping; "Ah now, I wouldn't want any of that. I'd be worried they'd be at me at night, like some manner of faeries trying to get me"

and then when frightened by a child-like crying while tending sheep, "The power was lay-ving me legs till I got back inside the house".

Spices bound for home made mango chutney.
We love all these and there have been a million more which I have not had a chance to write down. These are all harmless and enjoyable, but in some turns of phrase, to use the English version can get you into all kinds of confusion and trouble. One such is 'savage', the latest buzz word for 'brilliant, really good, 'cool', used by both adults and the youth. We were at young Henry's Birthday Party chatting to a farmer and the subject of our having geese came up. Farmer James was impressed and asked "Are they savage?". I was concerned to reassure him that, no, they are quite tame. I went waffling on about the gander, George, being especially so, having been hand reared by Charlotte. I spotted the confusion furrowing his brow but just took it to be a problem with my accent. It was only on the way home that Liz explained about the local use of 'savage'. James must have thought I was a right dope!

Crocus now fully out in the sunshine.
Another one which I am struggling to get used to is the use of the word 'after'. The Irish use it in an almost chronological sense, so when they say "I'm after buying a new car" they mean "I have very recently bought,,,". JD Bob uses it to decline our offers of tea by saying "Ah, I won't, I'm just after tea". Down in the south east of England, I have been regularly using it to mean 'looking for' or 'hunting', so I'd happily go into a shop and say "what I'm after, is the latest edition of Practical Pigs magazine" or "I was in the pet shop, I was after tinned dog food"

Pulmonaria flowering in our 'woods'.
You may be ahead of me here, but I think you can see how this would lead you into trouble. If it is objects or shopping you are 'after' you might get a confused look. 'I'm after dog-food' to a shopkeeper would get you a confused look and the poor guy hunting for a suitable reply to someone who has just walked in and appears to be saying he has just had (eaten) some Pedigree Chum. But yesterday I needed to go into the bank and seek out a specific member of staff. As you (may) do, I parked the car and walked across the car-park mentally rehearsing how you'd put this. "Excuse me, but I have been asked to come in to the bank and ask for Connie".

Mango chutney
Luckily it occurred to me that I could get into all kinds of trouble if I breezed in and opened with "Hi, I'm after Connie!" They would all be falling off their chairs and thinking of suitable rejoinders covering the possibility that I might be proudly announcing that I had just been up to no good with one of their esteemed members of staff.

But enough of this. Our lovely spring sunshine and rain-less-ness continues and today, for the first time since December, I was able to get right in to the muck heap with a tractor load of bullock-muck from Bob's. I've been dropping it on the hard standing and barrowing it round for fear that the tractor would sink without trace into the grass. We have all the crocus now fully out in the sunshine and even some Pulmonaria (lung-wort) breaking bud in our woods. We are hoping for good weather again tomorrow so that we can get some seed potatoes and onion sets in. And to cap it all on a lovely St Patrick's weekend we think Ireland are just 'after' beating France in a bit of a tight one and thereby winning the 6 Nations Rugby. Our contribution was to NOT watch or listen lest we jinx the 'Boys in Green'. We only dared look when we knew it was well over.

Happy St Patrick's Day (Beannachtaí, na Féile Pádraig oraibh)

Thursday 13 March 2014

Pig Ark

A very welcome rain-less week is currently drying out our ground beautifully, so that our thoughts and plans can turn to gardening and getting on the ground without damaging the soil. Our crocus bulbs, planted last autumn have finally felt the sun on their petals and opened properly - they'd been sulking in that nearly-open state that crocus do when the rain is falling. Our tête-à-tête daffodils in the tub outside the front door are also cracking on now. But we are being patient and letting the soil dry nicely before we rush in and we have plenty of 'hard standing' tasks we can do, not least building the pig ark.

This we have un-ashamedly 'lifted' from the Haynes Pig Manual written by Liz Shankland (but actually designed and built by her husband, she says). It is based around 8 by 4 sheets of plywood and corrugated iron rolled to fit round these as a roof. We have had some fun putting this together, one of those nice projects where we can work together. It is quite a substantial construction incorporating tanalised '4 by 2' and '3 by 2', with a floor of 7 by 1 inch planks. It is in two sections, the floor and the roof.

The floor frame on its own was too heavy for one person to lift. The roof is a bit lighter but whether we can realistically flip it up off to clean out the ark remains to be seen. I suspect I will be crawling in there on hands and knees and shoveling out straw. I am told that pigs are clean animals and will not dung in their bedroom, so it would only be their mud I am crawling about in!

The ark will sit in the new pig-pen down in the 'Secret Garden', well out of range of any extension leads that I can deploy to drive power tools, so the roof section has had to be pre-drilled in bits up by the Tígín and then carried down to be assembled with my cordless, re-charge-able screw driver. We have also given the semi circular boards a coat of varnish / wood preserver, 'Sadolin's "Antique Pine" colour. So it might look like Class 3 Floor-grade 18 mm plywood to you, but I assure you it is now the finest word in sophisticated piggy accommodation. In this post are various pics taken 'en route' I will put up a pic of the finished article in its woodland setting when it is complete.

We have been out shopping over the last couple of days and have scored some notable successes. In general, the Irish do not 'do' gardens, with most houses having a broad expanse of grass with a few spot plants and trees. Garden centres as we Brits know them are few and far between and do not stock much in the way of unusual plants. We have yet to find what we'd call a 'specialist nursery', though they may exist. Our biggest local garden centre is probably Ardcarne which has a branch in Boyle, but also one in Roscommon Town. The Boyle branch seems to disappoint more often than satisfy us, but in Roscommon on Wednesday we managed to find several things we'd been hunting down; bare root summer-fruiting raspberries and bare root Ribes, first early seed potatoes (Rocket and Foremost) and red cabbage seed. We also picked up some heritage variety blue potato 'seed' for a bit of fun.

Then today we dropped in on one of our favourite shops, Flynn's 'Alladin's cave' of a hardware shop in Castlerea, the like of which has long since died out in the UK; seeds and hats are jumbled in alongside porcelain hen and chicks statues, bacon, glass 'chimneys' for oil lamps, playing cards, willow pattern china. devotional pictures, camping 'gaz' cylinders, local gaelic games sweaters, white spirits and meths and so on. Our mission, though, was bee related. We had heard that Mr Flynn was a bee keeper and might be selling bee equipment. He was indeed, and quickly furnished us with a price list for hive parts, bee smokers, beeswax 'foundation' and frames. We'd also heard that he might have seed for fodder beet, something we might be able to grow to supplement the food of our pigs. Again, he was there, quickly finding a commercial sized box of the stuff, from which he measured us out a 'handful' into an envelope for our €2 worth of seed. How much seed did we need? An area, we said, about the size of (glancing around) your chill cabinet! Ooops, though - the seed is agricultural 'pelleted' seed. The seeds come coated in a tiny bright red sphere of insecticide and fungicide to help them go through the seed drill and give them a good start in life. There goes our claim to be 'organic' this year, then!

Sunday 9 March 2014

A Million (more) Trees

This year's batch of the 'Million Trees' heeled in
Long term readers will remember that last year we got involved in an ecological conservation project to "Plant a Million Trees in One Day".

See post at

The very ambitious project struggled a bit when Ireland was hit by its first outbreak of Ash Die-Back and the Forestry guys licencing the project had to freeze and recall all the ash trees which were to be one of the main species. The project was saved from delays and possible total loss by the team managing to get other species through (all be it on a very creaky, under-resourced distribution system) so that everybody who had 'signed' up at least got a starter pack. An estimated 100,000 trees were planted which would not have been planted were it not for the project so I, for one applaud them. More power to their elbow.

More calf muck from John Deere Bob
I was delighted, then, when I received an email telling me that they were on again in 2014 to try to get everyone some more trees, if possible, the remainder of their previous order, if they still wanted to 'play'. This time the distribution, still a purely volunteer effort, was a whole lot more localised and diffuse, and I was asked to only go to just south of Roscommon town, rather than all the way to Enniskillen. A very nice lady, Eilish, was there to meet me and give me my trees; plus she invited me in for coffee and we had a good chat about small holdings, sheep and mini-horses. Like us, she has fields she needs to keep grazed or grow something on (she's thinking herbs or lavender). 8 or 9 cats seemed to be strolling in the driveway, sitting on the car bonnet or under the car while we chatted. Thank you for that, Eilish. Thank you, too, Project Leader, Imogen. You guys are an inspiration. My trees are now 'home' safe and heeled in to a raised bed in my 'allotment'.

A bit of fun for the dogs today. I would normally groom them myself but our friend Charlotte of the mini-horses needs to practice some dog grooming as part of her college training, so my three 'volunteered' to be groomed down the lane. Charlotte also had charge of a couple of young ones today, daughters of a friend of Carolyn, named Felicity and Olivia, so all three girls were determined to get stuck in. I had to drop the dogs off at midday and make like a proper 'customer' stating my preferences, but then leave them all alone to do the job. They'd phone when we were all ready.

Towser shows off his 'tattoos'
Well, I can happily report that the dogs are beautifully cut, washed and shampoo'd. The ladies also had a bit of fun with a set of stencils and "blow colours" which Charlotte had got from her grooming gear supplier, taking advantage of the fact that these dogs are white; we have red paw prints, the word 'Rockstar' written in purple, we have a unicorn, a star, a butterfly, a Hallowe'en witchy cat, the word 'DIVA' (on Deefer, naturally!) and a blue heart on Towser's rump. They wash off easily enough and, in fact, were already fading by that same evening as the dogs lay down to recover from their 'ordeal'.

Way, way better for the grooming team than yesterday's experience, which saw them dealing with a criminally neglected, badly matted long haired collie, an aggressive boy named Toby. This dog had come to the attention of vet Aoife because the ISPCA had been called in and would need to take the dog away from the owners if they did not get it groomed. The girls handled the dog with 2 muzzles on him and with Aoife on call to sedate the dog if he was too badly stressed - he was and the job was completed with Toby half way under.

Bee hive gets a coat of white gloss, outside only.
Charlotte did not manage to get any before and after pictures but I have seen the wads of matted fur in the rubbish bucket. One was a good 10 inches across and an inch thick and the poor dog was wearing it (and three others) like a saddle. The dog's neck was a mess of cow-muck encrusted 'dreadlocks'. It went home a very short-haired but clean version of its former self with Charlotte advising the owners that they need to bring him back before Christmas. I suspect that they will do no such thing till the ISPCA come calling again. No peace for the vets round here.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Pig Pen

Pig pen main gate. The orchard is on the left.
What with having freezers full of meat, portions of cooked stuff and veg and having leeks and sprouts still growing, our weekly shop is normally a very modest affair - bread, milk, bakery stuff, wine etc. Just recently though we have gone into 'project' mode and we seem to have been shelling out money hand over fist. The poor old hoover finally needed replacement and Liz is buying a 2nd hand sewing machine. There is the beehive and now the frames and other equipment and there will soon be the bees themselves. There are the parts for the pig ark. We have had a tow hitch fitted to the Fiat (that one was €400) and we are looking for a small stock trailer. Most recently there is the fencing for the pig pen.

We always knew how vital good fencing is to any livestock enterprise and that is one of the biggest costs you will face. Fencing the orchard in 2012 cost €600 and, last year, the East Field set us back €1050. I use a good local contractor who we call 'Paul the Fence'; a one man band with old but efficient fencing gear and a seriously ancient MF tractor with a 50 kg weight 'pile driver' on the back for the big posts. He's a great bloke and we get on really well. He does not mind (and seems to appreciate) me helping out labouring and we chat away, yarning while we work swapping stories and the time flies. He loves his food, so Liz, who loves to cook for an appreciative audience gets into top 'catering' mode baking biscuits and cake for tea breaks and potato cakes or home made pork pie, hot for lunch stops.

Monkey-strainer pulls the 'barbed'
Neither of us had actually kept pigs before or, indeed, done any pig fencing so we are only guessing but I have read and seen described a version which is basically sheep wire with a strand of barbed top and bottom. The top strand dissuades pigs from trying to rear up at the fence and look over. The bottom stops them trying to root underneath from whence they can push up powerfully potentially lifting the posts out and the fence up high enough for them to get under. Some systems back this up with an electric fence (or even rely solely on the electric fence) but I cannot bring myself to trust only that method, so I like something physical in the way of containment. Also electric fence 'pulsators' are mad money!

So we decided to go with the sheep wire and high tensile (green) barbed wire. We also decided that even though a polygon roughly 35 m N/S and 25 m E/W was way way too big for what 2 piggies would need, we could give ours a satisfying and exciting environment (and save fencing money) by allowing them all the area between the existing orchard fence and the existing East field fence. Our N/S runs were already there and would only need the bottom strand of barbed adding. Our E/W runs already had their end posts against which we could strain our wire going that way. We just needed a gate and since this was to be just a pig and pedestrian entrance (no tractor access) Paul had a spare one from a previous job lying about.

Main rain gulley is now the 'wallow'
You can see from the map above that this pen gives the pigs (from left to right) a bit of grass meadow (which may not last long!), then the lovely gnarly bank with its sticking out hawthorn and beech roots and the huge black spruce trees. Then there is the 'under the trees' bit in the shade of the spruce and, on the east side, the big ashes I am re-coppicing at present. This was TK-Max's vegetable plot till he inadvisedly planted the spruces as saplings in the 60's and is more recently a 'forest floor' of thick pine needle litter. Finally, along the east side is the 8 foot wide, 3-4 feet deep rain gulley which takes all the rain water from the house roof and yard. We thought this would make a nice wallow for the pigs, but it created for the fencers an interesting task of running fence across it at either end. Lots of splodging about in wellies too, especially on the Thursday morning when it rained and rained and soaked us through to the underclothes!

All completed now, though and we are all very pleased with it. Paul was joking that we will have to let him know if it 'works' and contains the pigs, so that he can then add 'Pig Fincin' to his adverts.

In the 'pig ark' department, I have all the parts for a nice ark on order. It is to be one of those 'Anderson shelter' style huts you see in fields of outdoor-reared pigs, with a curved galvanised corrugated iron roof. Our local builders' providers proved able to supply the curved sheeting and we both raked out our 2-Pi-R mathematics from school to find that for a 4 foot radius curve, you'd need a 12 and a half foot sheet to start with.

The Fiat gets a tow hitch.
The steel man asked that I come along to see the sheets rolled (and to explain to him exactly what I was after) so that we both knew what we were at. I was happy to. The rolling 'mill' turned out to be an ancient and venerable, rusty dusty beast about the size of a dining table with an old fashion electric motor and flappy drive belts, which they hefted out of the corner of one of their sheds into the daylight with a forklift. The guy ran our (3) sheets through several times each, turning up the tension at each pass, and then setting the sheet down against floor markings to check we had an 8 foot wide 'building'. Fascinating to watch. The sheet and the wood will be delivered on Monday. That's my jobs sorted out for next week, I'm thinking.