Friday 27 February 2015

The Birds and the Bees

Being of a naturalist bent, one of the little 'hobbies' and interests I get up to to keep me out of mischief is doing surveys for the various Irish bio-diversity groups and submitting the data onto their websites, happily contributing sightings to the various map grid-ref squares in this part of Co Roscommon. The groups (Birdwatch Ireland, the Pollinator Group, the Newt Survey  and so on) are all trying to update their distribution maps for the various species and to then keep them up dated so that they can see trends in populations. They are using the modern method of engaging the public (or "Civilian Scientists" as they seem to call us (yoiks!)). We sign up through various websites, register our locations or walk routes and then start punching in sightings and data.

Buff/white tailed bumble bee. Picture blagged from the net.
In the UK, I know, one of the favourite such events is the 'Big Garden Birdwatch' where tens of thousands of volunteers agree to watch their gardens for an hour on a given weekend in January and score the biggest number of each species seen at any one time. We used to get over 30 house sparrows in ours and always prayed that the sparrowhawk would zoom through during the hour. Here, Birdwatch Ireland do things very differently, and you actually 'survey' for 13 weeks continuously from early December till the end of February (actually Sunday 1st March this year). You just keep an eye on the place and remember the biggest numbers of each species you saw at any one time each week, re-setting your mental counter to zero each Monday morning. We don't often get anything too exciting but this year we have had crossbills, a sparrowhawk and long tailed tits, as long as they are "using" the garden, not just over-flying. So this year I actually included a single grey heron, who was flying over but very low and curved round the big pond, definitely checking it out for fish potential.

We joined the Irish Farmers' Association just because it
ended up costing us next to nothing. 
By happy co-incidence, just as the bird watch finishes, we start the bumble bee survey. In this one you agree to walk a specific route (a dog-walk, say) of 1-2 km at least once a month from March through to the end of October. You map the route (on line) and describe the countryside (etc) you walk through and then on each walk you count the total individual bumblebees seen - you are allowed to assume that the lady you saw in the first 100 yards of the walk has not actually followed you in order to get counted several times! Obviously you need to get your eye in to sorting out the various species but fortunately, Ireland does not have many 'flavours' and there is another 'let off' around the two commonest species too.

A well mashed hedge. Nice one lads.
The workers of the buff tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) and the white tailed one (B. luconum) are impossible to tell apart in flight even by an expert as the buffs can get quite pale (i.e. white) and the whites can get quite buff, so they are ID'd by dissection once dead (it is all on lengths of leg sections, internal layout and shape of face). We field surveyors are instructed to score them all as B Terrestris (agg), i.e. aggregated with the counts of luconum and the website is set up anyway to round them all up, no matter where you enter them. I only got involved in this after we got our honey bees, in June last year, so this will be my first March. In March the bumbles start to get active but it is only the fertilized queens you see to start with, who have got mated last year and then hibernated. These portly ladies apparently amble about a bit gathering their strength before they get stuck in to creating comb and laying some eggs to produce the drones and workers to assist them. It is the big queens you see in March and April, and then the workers more into May.

Clean air and plenty of damp makes for
some quite 'woolly' lichen growth on even
young trees. 
As well as these formal long term surveys I also submit any sightings for one offs like road-kill mammals or unusual animals or birds seen while I'm out and about. There are also surveys and websites 'out there' for most other forms of flora and fauna that might take your fancy, but we do not have the breadth of botanical skills to do the plants, for example. We tried to get involved in some bat surveying last year but a promised training session did not materialise in Roscommon (though the Silverwoods managed to go hunting Daubenton's (Water) bats in Co Laois) and we have not heard from the group since. We are reduced to sitting outside of a summer evening sipping our wine in the twilight while the 'bat-box' (ultra sound detector/modulator) hisses faintly in the background till our thoughts are interruped by the squelches, burps and pitter-pat emitted by a passing Pipistrelle.

Enough of that, now. "What of the fallen tree?" I hear you ask. Chatting to Vendor Anna, we find that the big spruce which fell in the last post, dates from the mid to late 50s, so it may be only 60 years old. Anna (then 3 years old) moved here with the parents and the Grand-Dad in 1953, she thinks, and Grand-Dad passed away in 1955. It was Anna's father (we call him TK Max here) who planted the trees as little whips at around that time as a windbreak for the then vegetable garden. Well, those whips are still doing fine, Grand-Dad, except for our recent tumbler, but at 60 feet tall they rather impede the growth of any vegetables in that space, so our pigs have taken over now. The other big spruces, the ones in the front garden for example, are considerably older, taller and thicker of trunk and would have been here long before the TK's time, but do not show in the 1900 picture of the house we have. We know that there were periodically Government grants available for tree planting and we think that TK Max availed himself of some of this cash.

The owner of the newest car in our lane also owns the oldest
still-in-use vehicle, this lovely old Ferguson tractor. He (Ian)
uses it for the odd bit of forestry and trundling about.
And yes, that V-tread tyre is on round the wrong way. 
Meanwhile, I am without Liz at present as she is over in the UK for a long weekend. A gang of her internet chums are meeting up down in Bridport (Dorset) for a few days of posh eating, pubs, drinks and socialising. They do this every year and call it their 'AGM' and because this is the first one since Diamond died and Diamond used to be on those internet forum sites as "Mrs Butterfield" (as in the song), this event is named the "Mrs Butterfield Memorial AGM". Liz has even written a small eulogy to read out at the main dinner, full of Diamond anecdotes and in-jokes. Have a great time you 'wrong-mo's  and make Diamond proud.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Black Spruce Down

We couldn't have arranged for it to fall as well if we'd done
it with professional equipment.
Well, there was an interesting night. We don't want to see too many more like that one. We do loathe those winds just North of Westerly, that come howling in across Vendor Anna's 5-acre field. It was not meant to be anything special; the AA-Weatherwatch boys were only predicting a 'Yellow' warning for Connacht and we have survived 'Orange' ones with no damage before. To cut a long story short, then, this one must have featured some mighty gusts of wind at around 7 pm while we were indoors eating supper because it has toppled one of our huge black spruce (Picea mariana) trees, this one between 55 and 60 feet tall (approx 17 m) (well, 'tall' last night.... 'long' now, I guess!) and with a bole circumference of 1.67m (5 feet 5") down in the pig area / Secret Garden.

The root plate lifted the corner of the pig ark by 2 feet.
We did not hear the falling of this tree and I only found it at 10 pm when I went on a last thing damage check and spotted that the pig ark seemed to be canted up at a jaunty angle. I thought that the wind might have lifted the roof section away from the base and went in to check, spotting the trunk in my torchlight, a massive grey shape where none should have been. The trunk lies diagonally across the Secret Garden with the top hanging over the rain gulley but just falling short of reaching the rather new (and expensive) sheep fence.

The fallen trunk lies diagonally across the 'Secret Garden'
with the top hanging over the rain gulley
We had had an evening of noisy gusts and of trees thrashing about and I had found more than the usual number of broken branches and twiggy bits on the drive and front lawn (and hanging off the post and rail fence) on my pre-supper dog 'patrol'. On an 8 o'clock patrol I found the roof of the young Buff-Orpington's mini-coop lifted off and flung against the wall of our normally very sheltered yard. That gust must have come straight down the cattle race. Liz helped lift the heavy roof frame back into place and give the 4 confused, huddled birds no more view of the sky. We also noticed that the yard was strewn with tins and plastic bottles - our recycling bin had gone for a Burton even though that too is protected on the east side of the house. A big offcut of plastic sheet had also made its way from the compost heaps, into and across the yard, and neatly parked itself by the Tígín door. It was some crazy kind of windy.

A new garden seat?
It was only when I decided to do a final final patrol at 10 pm after the dogs' "Last Out" that I spotted the pig ark thing. We went to take a closer look. Obviously there was nothing we could do in the dark about the tree, but the poor pig ark was groaning and creaking where it was now hanging from its two diagonal corners. I can just about drag it on its sledge runners one side at a time, so I pulled it down to flat ground where it could have a more comfortable night. I had visions of it breaking its back  like a sailing barge which has got jammed athwart (there's a good word!) a tidal creek as the tide goes out.

A flurry of more snow over the weekend had these tulips
back to looking wintery.
We were lucky really - nobody or nothing got hurt and no damage was done to fencing (or the pig ark). The tree fell neatly down into the garden and (we found today) actually landed on a concrete cavity block, neatly propping it a few inches above ground to make sawing easier. Also this morning, when I took the spare stashed straw bales out to make the ark lighter to move, I found a neat little nest with a clutch of young-Buff eggs. It is actually a tree we had been looking to take down anyway but without a contractor and risk of annihilating fences we could not see how to safely drop it. Mother Nature found a way.

New gap - red arrow
I love a good maths problem, so I decided to try to work out how much of the wood would fit into my wood store, which takes 2.4 cubic metres. Schoolboy maths then, says that the volume of a cone is Pi * radius squared * (height/3). Well this tree is 16.7m high and had a base radius of  0.2625m, so the main trunk alone will generate 1.205 cubic metres of wood. That'll do nicely. I just need to cut it up. No pressure.

The geese enjoy the new sheep drinker.
Of course, all that happy stuff is now. Last night we didn't know any of this, we just knew we were faced with a riotous stormy night with scary gusts shaking the house and a high potential for more damage, injury to livestock and more trees falling. No peaceful beauty sleep for either of us, we both tossed and turned, waking up at the slightest rumble or rattle, worried what they might signify. It was a relief when daylight finally arrived and with it calmer winds and a chance to go out and find that no new damage had actually happened. We had survived another one. What a relief.

Bobby the collie, picture borrowed from my blog post 27th
September 2014
Perhaps we earned ourselves some good 'karma' by the dog "rescue" we had done earlier in the evening. Readers may recall the appearance of a multi-coloured shaggy collie dog back last September, who turned up all loving and friendly (but devoid of any ID). He vanished again and we were only able to tell the owner who came driving along in a 4 x 4 that he had been here. Well this time he was as friendly and as unconcerned about chickens and rabbits but when he wandered into view of the sheep they spotted the unfamiliar animal and panicked and ran (to be fair, the dog did not chase them). Polly is very heavily pregnant at the moment and doesn't need that kind of stress no matter how self-inflicted, so we knew we had a problem and we could not just leave the dog loose to wander off. Rumour has it that passing stray dogs to the Dog Warden just ends up with a destroyed dog.

Liz tries out some 'basket weave' knitting.
Time for some 'detective' work; load soggy doggy into your car (nice wet seats!) and drive around in the gloaming till you find someone to whom you can ask "Do you recognise this dog?" Luckily my first ask was Mr McG and he knew the dog and where it lived so I was a few calls at 'the wrong house' from my happy re-union. The dog is called Bobby and is a well known wanderer who comes across the valley (OK the 'bog') from a house we can see from our own garden, about a mile away roughly NE of here. The owner was a lovely lady who I now know a bit and have swapped phone numbers with in case Bobby should come a-wandering again, which we are almost certain he will.

A calmer night tonight, all being well.

Friday 20 February 2015

In The White

Plumbing bits.
Learning a whole new skill this week, I have been indulging in a little Farm-Plumbing. The local tradesmen need not fear me taking away their business, there is little skill involved, I will not be bending any copper pipes or blow-torching any solder joints in a professional, leak-free manner. All you need for this kind of plumbing is to be able to saw through a plastic pipe straight and do up a plastic fitting to a sensible degree of "hand-tightness". Oh and if you let the rubber ring seals fall out of the fitting or take out the white plastic "olive", then you need to be able to put them back in the right places and the right way round (hands up if you spotted a fact drawn from personal experience there!).

Step-down fitting from the IBC's
big-bore outlet.
We have had the big 1010 litre pallet-sized water butts (they are properly called IBCs or Intermediate Bulk Containers) on site for years but the one on the east end of the house has never had any of the stored water drawn from it or used, it has just sat there full, waiting for me to buy and plumb in a sheep drinking trough just 10 m away in the East Field. For this mission, I didn't even need to know what fittings I needed - the guys at Connacht Gold down in Castlerea are so used to farmers wandering in and saying "I need to connect a pipe from x to y.... what fittings would I need?" that as long as you are using their standard "half inch bore, heavy" pipe, you're away on a hack. I told them I needed a step-down from the 2 and a quarter inch thread outlet of the IBC and (because I do have a rough clue what I'm doing, thank you!) a T junction to cope with a possible future T-off to a pig drinker, and because I was buying the trough from them, the guy dipped a hand into a few of his drawers and rapidly assembled a small stack of fittings. He even dissembled some and put them back together to show me how they should 'go'. The pipe even comes pre-marked in metres, so the guy just had to read the metre number of his previous end and then add the 12m I asked for and cut there. Simples.

Sheep drinking trough all plumbed in and filling nicely.
Back home, all I had to do was pick-axe up a trench across the 'drive' (only compacted gravel), saw my pipe to length and then assemble it all, test my pipes and back fill the trench. Job done. No great shakes for you seasoned farm-plumbers but this was my first go at it, so I was quite proud of it, all be it it runs quite slowly as the float-valve thingy is designed for mains pressure and ours is just working as a 'syphon' from the IBC, just over a metre of head pressure.

A clearer pic of the lamb's ear tag.
We were smiling, though at the thought that we would now be able to take the Government's "Water Conservation Grant" money with a clear conscience. British readers may not know about the uproar going on 'over here' as the State tries to introduce water charges nationwide. Brits grow up in a land where paying water 'rates' is just what we do. You try to get a job, try to buy a house and there after you just pay all the utility bills that go with it, water and sewage included. Not so here, water has been free, certainly for recent decades though we did have to pay €1900 to get connected 3 years ago and now, under the umbrella of austerity measures borne out of the crashed economy, Ireland is going water-metered and getting charged for its water.

 The Irish, in general, are not happy and in some cases they are 'not happy' enough to be objecting fiercely and even violently - refusals to register as water customers, marches, lots of  'frank and open' discussion, even attacks on meter installing workers and court cases leading to imprisonment. The widely held view is that the Government have not handled this at all well, bungling the consultation, hiring hugely expensive consultants, delaying for ever being able to tell anyone how much they would be charged and then drip feeding out concessions as if forced to by the loss of control of the story. There are now concessions for areas where the tap water is not fit to drink (still under a 'boil-water' notice), there are allowances of so many thousand litres of free water per child under 18 per household and, most recently they have published the charge amounts but said that each house will be able to apply for a "Water Conservation Grant" of  €100 as long as you register. Amusingly for us, the charges for the first year(s) at least might be as low as €80 per annum, so the grant will more than pay for it in year 1. I would (cough) have been very troubled taking this generous hand-out (cough) had I not done my bit of water-saving plumbing. Mmmm.

Line-caught North Atlantic mackerel.
Meanwhile, back in the garden you may recall that we have been hankering after some single snowdrops to pep up our 'bee-food' range in the pollen for February department; that is assuming we ever get weather warm enough in the snow drop season  to attract the bees out on any significant foraging flights. The one snow drop fact I am certain of from reading, listening to GQT and my own experience is that the best way to buy snow drops is 'in the green', i.e. when the bulb has finished flowering but still has green leaves.

Healthy snow drops in Una's garden.
In Kent we had a fine population growing, spreading out from a gnarly old James Grieves apple tree. Every year we'd buy another 25, 50 or even 100 bulbs in the green from special offers we saw advertised in national newspapers (The Telegraph one year, I recall). We wanted to do the same here and we were disappointed that none of these offers 'worked' in the Republic of Ireland; we think there must be a regulation against shipping growing plants across country borders, even root-washed.

What we aspire to; neighbour Una's magnificent drift
of flowers along her drive-side bank.
There is one Irish website which purports to be a snowdrop specialist nursery (with all the weird (and sterile) double and triple flowered varieties, species and variants ( )) but as far as I can see it is defunct - I have never managed to get a reply out of it, anyway. We were therefore at a bit of a loss. I found a couple of tiny clumps in 'no-man's-land' in a  roadside ditch, so we appropriated them. This year, though, we have had a result as eagle-eyed Anne spotted a local florist selling pots of snowdrops still in flower ("in the white" we guess?). We snatched up 5 of these at €2 per 3 inch pot.

Our starter population, a filched mini-clump
and 5 potted bunches. 
At first sight we thought they were a bit pricey, 2 'yo-yo's for a tiny clump of 4-6 stems, but when we did the sums, five pots of 5 plants, 25 plants for a tenner, was not that different from the special offer prices we'd been paying for in the UK. In addition, we may have found another light at the end of the tunnel. An internet chum who is a professional gardener has heard our plea and reckons he can do us a batch of 'in the green' from his own stocks when they are done flowering (Thank You, Anchs!). We'll get there. These garden jobs are always best done slowly and patiently, we never did go in for the 3-day make-overs of Alan Titchmarsh and his "Ground Force" team.

These few snowdrops have gone into the lump of ground under the trees we jokingly call the 'Shallow Grave' (see 19th Feb 2012 post at ). When we first exposed it by clearing tall nettles we found the heels of 2 farm boots sticking up perfectly placed to suggest that someone had pitched a dead body in to a hole head first, legs spread, and then buried him leaving the heels sticking out. It's actually not so much 'fertile, well drained soil' as a heady mix of soil with broken glass, bottles, jars, plastic and metal bits - a right old rubbish tip which it's not safe to work without tough gloves. Every time I use the handfork to create planting holes I keep a feed-sack with me for the rubbish, but it is a nice, picturesque mound in which we are growing fox gloves, pulmonaria and hellebores as well as, now, snow drops. Watch this space, but patiently?

Tuesday 17 February 2015

To Kildare in the Car Boot!

The 2 surplus Buff Orpington roosters, now gone to Kildare
Our advert in the classified ads website '' to sell our excess roosters bore fruit and a gent promised to drop in to collect both the surplus birds en route home from Donegal to Kildare following a weekend family event 'up there'. He had a long journey in front of him and no real idea when he'd arrive; some time between 4 pm and 7 pm, he guessed. In the event, we had 'company' that evening, with Sparks and his Good Lady down for some good Indian cookery but I had no problem adjourning to the yard for the few minutes it might take to hand over the birds.

Celeriac, surely the ugliest veg, but delicious and flexible.
My man (Derek) phoned at 18:30, as instructed from the local village, to get directions and for me to go and stand in the lane in my big yellow Hi-Viz coat. They actually drove in in a 2-car convoy, it turned out that the birds were not, in fact, for Derek, but his brother in law, in car 2. The cars seemed to be full of people, kids asleep in the backs and so on, but only the 2 guys hopped out. They declined tea. They just wanted to get on with it.

Striking some dogwood whips.
Actually, they did not seem to have much clue; I tried to show them 'round' the birds health wise but they were not very interested. I like to at least do a superficial health check on any bird I'm buying; just the basics like bright eyes, bright red clean wattles and comb, clean legs with healthy feet, good clean cover of feathers and a quick check on the bird's vent (stick his head under your armpit!) for lice and fleas. I had also warned them that I had no box to put the birds in and they assured me they would bring their own box. Maybe I should have thought twice about handing over these birds, but I judged the man to be sound, so I handed over the pair and relieved them of the money. We all walked back to the parked cars, where upon the bro-in-law opened the car boot, empty but for newspaper down to protect the lining, and carefully placed the birds in. It was pitch dark except for my head-torch, so the chickens just settled down there and the man gently closed the boot lid. That was that. The convoy moved off, headed for Kildare where these two roos are promised a life of looking after a flock of Jersey Giants and Buff-Orps which has recently lost its own rooster who, the guys told me rather non-specifically, "met with an accident". I assume fox, but I didn't ask. I guess not the best ever transaction we have been part of but acceptable, we thought. Good Luck boys.

Feste with his new ear tag.
Today, Shrove Tuesday, was the day that our young lamb, Feste, came up to 6 weeks old so was due to be tagged. My 'bible' (the Tim Tyne book) says do not tag till the lambs reach 6 weeks as the ears are just too small to take these rather heavy-duty tags (they work well on full grown sheep). To do this we needed to get him (and the grown ups) into the cattle-race where we could restrict their escapes, so we took the opportunity to give Mum (Lily) a tidy up round the butt, where she had got a bit 'daggy' when she was scouring, living indoors. We both like to get involved in this and it is a whole lot easier with one person holding the sheep while the other roots around under the tail (or in the ears, in the case of Feste)

Grazing on the front lawn. 
I'd been assured by Charlotte that my dog clippers would be no good against a sheep fleece but (you know me) I felt I had to try in order to prove it to myself. If I could even just 'crotch' the animals with my clippers I would be able to produce a nice tidy animal with guaranteed no skin nicks. But no, Charlotte was right of course. The clipper head hit the wall of wool fibres and stopped dead. I was back to my dodgy scissors and, with Liz wedging the sheep against the gate with her knees, I was easing poo-y clumps of wool away from the skin of Lily's bum so that I could scissor them off without risking cutting her. She was quite happy with this till I got down a bit close to her udder, when she started trying to kick a bit, but Liz gentled her and made sure the lamb stayed close to her face (so she'd know he was OK) and we got the job done. You get all the most pleasant jobs, shepherding!

Top of the ditch. This was the easy bit. The ditch vanishes
into the background under the trees the other side of that
fence. It's a bit sloppy down there!
Talking of bad jobs, I was down in the rain gulley today clearing the ditch. The pigs use it as a wallow and had collapsed enough bank down to form a low dam at the fence line, so the rain water coming down our efficient under-yard gulley drains stops dead here and forms a pool. I had to create a slit trench through this clag to a point lower than the bed of the 'pool', so it was back on with the wellies and paddling around in the sucking swamp without losing a boot, weilding my traditional Irish pointy-end shovel. Liz could not resist getting a picture.

And so to Pancake Day! Lemon and sugar is your only man.

Friday 13 February 2015

A Simple Fencing Job

The 5 geese are allowed on the front lawn now. 
More fencing for us. We decide to run a length of sheep wire along the inside of the new post and rail fence up the drive and around the front lawn. You may recall that this lawn was fenced in with post and rail because neither of us wanted to sit on the 'terrace' out front looking at green high tensile barbed wire, sheep wire and standard de-barked farm-field style fence posts. The post and rail, though, is good for adult sheep which are tall, large-bodied beasties, but would not stop the geese or the baby lambs, who can just dip down on their hunkers and shimmy under the bottom rail.

Rather too much pork belly for we two, but it does lovely
cold left overs. Cous cous salad accompanies.
The answer, in these parts at least is to staple a run of non-high-tensile (i.e. cheaper!) sheep wire along the inside. Not being green (it's just 'galvanised' colour) it dulls down and fades from view but it has the 6 inch square mesh format which can stop lambs, geese and even Westies. The smaller chickens seem to be able to slip through with a bit of a wriggle and a wrestle of the wings. They could also fly over if they only thought about it but one thing we've found with chickens is that if they can see through a fence and then butt up against it and feel it at ground level, then a 3-4 foot fence will stop them. Give them an opaque barrier like a wall or a wooden fence, and they will try the flying thing and find that they can 'hop' over a 6 feet tall barrier with ease. Our Sussex Ponte hens are regularly to be seen on the 6 foot wall of the cattle race and we have pictures of one up on the roof ridge of the goose-house (ten feet up?)

Liz's new baby.
With the post and rail shored up we have been able to mix and match the grazing arrangements a bit. The poor old geese have nearly exhausted the grass in the orchard. "There's not a pick left", as Bob would say, so we have been able to shepherd them round to the lawn for some good, longer stuff to fill their bellies, all be it watching them closely in case they decided to annihilate my precious crocusses. They didn't. The next day we had them in the East Field and the ewes and lamb were let loose into the lawn 'paddock'. The lamb, in particular, seemed to enjoy this.

Bramble-bashing by the veg patch.
Regular readers will know that I have recently savaged the hedge along the east side of this, the hedge which grows from the top of a long-buried stone wall. We now have a steep-sided, 2 foot tall bank with some 2 feet tall, 2 inch diameter, gnarly hawthorn (etc) trunks sticking out of the top. The lamb thinks this is adventure playground stuff - he goes spronging up and over, or weaves along the top like a small boy balancing along the top of a brick wall, while his Mum and Aunt fill their bellies on the lawn grass. We have also seen him challenging his Aunt, 'Little John' style stopping her from coming over the bank by hopping into the way to block her progress. We feel a bit sorry for him as he has no playmates (yet) but his Aunt seems to indulge him and play a bit, limited though she is by her own pregnant bulk. Next year we are determined to get all the lambing, should the lambing gods smile upon us, synchronised, so that the babies can grow up with little chums to play with, and give the Mums a break.

Other than that, we have been trying out the new toy, our brush cutter. We are delighted. It is light enough for Liz to manage it. but powerful enough to do the necessary amount of damage to the brambles, plantains, rushes and nettles (even the young ash and elder suckers). We 'learned it' a bit tentatively in the 'woods' by the drive but got well stuck in by the time we were thrashing along the bramble thicket next to the vegetable patch, tackling the former nettle patch by the muck heap and whacking the rushes at the bottom of the yard leading on to the rain water gulley.

A rooster given to us by a friend to kill
(she can't cope with necking them) gets it.
His name was 'Pineapple'. Are we allowed
to call the curry "Pineapple Chunks"?
We are confident that we will have a much tidier small holding this year and we are looking forward to attacking some new green nettles and Queen Anne's Lace (Cow Parsley) in the woods when they start, docks and rushes and ground elder. I used to enjoy swooping down upon them with the 'Old Father Time' scythe but you could only really use that on tall stuff, patches which were already shouting 'neglect' at any visitors.

We already know that in the bits of woodland where we can get the mower, grass starts to grow, and we love that rather 'Capability Brown' look of the grass and the trees, so we are wondering whether a strimmer used often enough under the trees would lead to a tidy, grassed look (with some planned sweet woodruff, Lady's Mantle, snowdrops, foxgloves, Pulmonaria and cyclamen) rather than the current nettles, ground elder and elder suckers. It might be less 'green' but it should, surely, look more 'deliberate'.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Aches and Pains.

No, not chain-saw injury, but rat damage!
I ache like an aching thing. I must be getting too old for all this physical stuff. (OK, not serious really). I had a good old session mucking out JF Bob's cattle barn again yesterday and then today Liz and I were over at Vendor Anna (and Paul)'s place beyond Carrick on Shannon attacking the overgrown hedge we started on back in November before Christmas, the snow and our hosts' 3 week escape to find some Canary Island sunshine all intervened.

Breakfast of Champions - boiled goose egg and toast
'soldiers'. 7 and a half minutes, boiled to perfection.
The muck-shoveling is quite physical but not a problem. It's the hedge that takes it out of me, as it's full of thick, chain-saw sized trunks which need taking off at "roughly head height", so I spend a good part of the day hefting the saw up and holding it there while I make the cut, or clambering around trying to tie ropes on even higher so that Liz can put some tension on the stem and stop it falling into the telegraph wires and onto the lane. I hope I don't sound like I am complaining - we LOVE all this stuff; one of the things that attracted us to this small-holder life in the first place was the chance to do some serious gardening and spade work.

A first egg from the young Buffs (right)? We now have no
idea what the egg on 13th Jan was, maybe a sputter from the
Guinea Fowl?
And we get fed. of course. Any job which involves getting fed is better than any job that doesn't and Anna knows the way to our hearts with her delicious lasagna and apple crumble. No, not on the same plate! So a good time was had by all and the hosts now have a much improved panorama down across the River Shannon from their front door. There were just two uprights that the 'Health and Safety' Manager (Liz) would not let us touch and these had grown up to form a 'Y' wrapped around all three cables running down the lane. These though, Paul thinks the phone people should be willing to come and sort using a man-up cherry picker, especially as we've done all the hard work for them.

The fire hood gets a second polish.
So, 9 o'clock this morning saw us loading all the gear into the car, but we needed to head for the chainsaw main dealer in Boyle (East Brothers) first as I needed chain and bar oil for the machine, a new 4 mm round-file (for sharpening), a new chain (the existing one was well past its sell-by) and, annoyingly, a new pair of posh, kevlar, safety gloves. My 'old' pair (only 3 years old) had survived all the abuse I've dished out in my inexperience in 3 years of using the most dangerous piece of kit on the 'farm'. They were well used looking and soiled but had no nicks or cuts, tears or even undone stitching. Then at some point between me taking them off last week and stashing them, as usual, in the shelf in the shed in my chainsaw hard-hat, a rat has eaten great holes in the old leather of the palms. Thanks, rat! I hope you were one of the ones Blue has recently 'terminated'. So we needed to buy a new pair; simple enough except that my hands are quite big (XL) and all the XL shelves were empty except, by coincidence, for 'Stihl' gloves.

New brush-cutter / strimmer
While we were in that Alladin's cave of man-toys, we also accidentally bought a brush cutter / strimmer. This is a piece of kit which you need for the margins of your territory, where my little lawn mower dare not go and where you cannot allow sheep or rabbits to keep the herbage down. We've borrowed one in the past, to knock back the rushes in the East Field, but we hadn't bought one for ourselves. Every year Liz glowers at the nettles which grow in our 'woods' and I glower at the brambles along the side of my veg patch, at the rushes which grow in the field and the docks and plantains which erupt from the orchard turf, unchallenged by the geese. The geese would not top off a plantain even if they were down to the clay everywhere else. So we bit the bullet and asked the man if he might have a machine tough enough to tackle briars, docks, plantain and rushes but light enough to be managable by Liz (she insisted on being the main destructive force in this department so did not want a hulking great 'professional' machine that only I could lift). We therefore have, sitting in the living room on the sofa waiting for its first outing, a Stihl FS55, a 2-stroke with the 'handlebars' fitting and a shoulder harness. I think I can probably predict what we are up to tomorrow, more physical stuff!

Saturday 7 February 2015

Grafting (and Knowing Too Much about Cars?)

Our gnarly old apple tree. Route of main 'trunk' follows
yellow arrows.
That's 'grafting' as in splicing bits of apple together, not the Northern version of hard work; I am not claiming to be any more diligent than last year. You may recall that we have, tucked away at the bottom of what is now the pig run and ancient, gnarly apple tree growing on the steep bank to our North where there is the rusting wreck of an equally ancient outside toilet - maybe from the 1960's as Vendor Anna can remember it from her childhood.

Grafting a scion into a T-cut made in the
of a new-tree limb
The loo has long since collapsed down the bank and the tree has fallen down after it till, almost horizontal, it came to rest leaning on an old ash tree. Since then it has struggled to get back to the daylight above its original planting space by growing in a hairpin bend (see picture). In terms of its job as an apple tree it is a dead loss, all gnarly old wood, riddled with canker, very few blossoms and, in our experience, no fruit. It is also not in a position where you could realistically prune it to give it a new start in life. JD Bob remembers it as a fruiting tree and says that although he does not know the variety, it was a red striped apple, so maybe a Pippin of sorts.

Splice graft on 'twigs' of similar diameter.
I have often wondered whether we might resurrect it, in DNA at least, by taking graft material from its newer, less diseased wood, and splicing this onto a new rootstock. I have never done any grafting but I have seen plenty done. In a former life I worked for Geest (the banana outfit), but in Spalding we also had all the 'Van Geest' horticulture section who used a mainly Dutch labour force to mass produce their roses and fruit trees. The Dutch lads were on piece-work and would whizz along the rows, deftly cutting, splicing and binding in batches of 10,000 plants.

Baking with our own sausage meat. This
pie and these fine sausage rolls.
I have found some decent small branches/twigs on the old tree and, this week, an opportunity arose to buy 2 good rootstocks for €10 - Lidls were selling off some last bare-root dessert apple trees. I have tried 3 methods of grafting across 4 grafts. If they work, then 'happy days' - if not I will just grow the apple trees on till Autumn and have another go at a more sensible season (Autumn - the grafts like to do all their healing and scar tissue in the winter, so that they can romp away (hopefully) in spring, pushing sap through a healed cambium layer). These (3) are,,,

  1. Slotting a 'scion' of just green cambium and bark with a side bud (peel the heart wood sliver off the 'inside' face of the slip) into a T-cut in the side of a new-tree limb
  2. 'Side grafting' a piece of twig onto the end of a cut limb which is bigger than your twig, by matching the cut face of the twig to the cambium of a cut in the side (like the cut you'd first make in trying to sharpen a pencil)
  3. 'Splicing' a twig onto a twig on the parent tree which is the same size.
I am leaving the original (new) tree attached to act as a 'Mother limb' which can be cut away if the grafts take. I had no proper grafting tape so I used masking tape and string, and I had no graft-sealing gloop (or tree grease) so I'm just winging it. If we can get these grafts to take and grow, eventually producing the mythical striped apples, we will name the variety TK-Min after the house's previous owner. We'll see.

The Fiat gets parked with its nose in
the clouds. 
I mentioned previously that we were struggling with a strange car engine problem which was looking awfully like an expensive, open-engine job; a head gasket or burnt valves. Well, touching lots of wood and trying desperately not to tempt fate, we may have it sorted after a good few hours of diagnostics and trying things mainly by ace local garage man, Jimmy H who also turns out to be something of a Fiat expert by happy coincidence. I normally love all that investigation-diagnostics-problem-solving stuff (it's what I used to do at work) but it's not quite so enjoyable or relaxing when your mode of transport and ability to shop and buy stock feed depends on it.

Bleed nipple on water hose (screw removed)
I probably know more about Fiat Pandas now than it is healthy to know. My knowledge and experience has up to now been on old crocks like our family Morris 1000, my first car (an Austin 1100) and the 2CV. The newer cars I have owned since I started earning sensible money have all been on finance deals which tie you in to getting the car serviced at a main dealer (Thank you, Hidson's of Rainham, Kent), so all the new technology, modern engines and electronoics have passed me by. My old cars only ever had one ignition coil. I was unaware that even babies like our 1 litre Panda now often have 2 coils (each serving 2 plugs) or even 4. Our man Jimmy, with his disgnostic codes sussed that we had a miss-fire on cylinders 1 and 4, so was able (once 'we' suspected the ignition) to predict that Coil B was at fault, sourced a new one (only €30) and had it swapped out in 45 minutes.

The new metal rectangle here is our shiny new Coil B
I have also got to the bottom of the infamous air-lock problem in Fiat Pandas and sorted that. Panda's apparently have a design fault, with their heater matrix way higher than the radiator filler, so most people (including us for a while!) only manage to part-fill the coolant system and drive around like that in bliss of ignorance, ignoring the fact that the temperature guage rises when you idle and there are sometimes odd screechy noises where the water pump is pumping air (well, steam, mainly). We now know that to fill the system you must park the car with the front wheels 18 inches higher than the back (i.e. on a ramp) and open bleed nipples at various places plus have the heater set to max. This way, when you glug water into the filler, if you also squeeze the rubber hoses you will worry all the air out. I managed to get 3 more litres of water into the system which had seemed full (at the filler); the system only carries 5-6 litres, so we must have been driving around half full. Scary.

The ever more chunky lamb, Feste.
Finally, we have at last had a good thaw. The snow is all gone and the big pond is almost free of ice. Air temperatures were up towards 9ºC. There were a few bees out flying today, presumably enjoying the chance to muck out the premises. This is the sensitive time for them. We read that no bee colonies really die in winter, they die in early spring when they make the mistake of trying to start getting active (the queen starts to lay eggs, for example) before there is sufficient food 'out there', or enough that they can access. In deepest winter the whole colony clusters into a tight ball to keep the queen and new eggs warm (34ºC) and they can actually starve surrounded by all the food, honey and pollen stores because those reserves are an inch away from the cluster and nobody wants to leave the cluster to go and get them - if the individual bee body temperature drops to below 8ºC it will die. Tough times. We are pleased to see the temperatures back up at 9ºC so that the workers can leave the cluster to get stores in and leave the hive to go hunting pussy willow, snowdrop and crocus pollen and nectar.