Tuesday 28 April 2015

The Un-Planned Harvest

The remainder of the honey extraction went well as we settled on a workable and non-messy technique. We worked our way through the four, two-sided frames at a couple or three of sides a day and ended up with a very satisfying 22 of our small jars, at 150 g (net). 3.3 kg total. These little jars come from Lidl containing their very reasonable 6-pack paté variety pack and are superbly useful for things like this. We have a lot of people eye-ing up our honey keenly and by potting it up in these 'taster' quantities, we can make plenty of them happy. Oh, and K-Dub... we did try out your method but could not get the honey to leave the honeycomb. K-Dub had suggested that if we un-capped a frame and put this into our tall fermentation bucket at an angle, then whirled it round my head, I might generate enough centrifugal force (I might mean centripetal) to throw the honey out of the comb. Well, I whirled and whirled till my shoulder was nearly dislocated and got no more than a thimble full, hence our change to the warm-gravity method described in my previous post.

Honey on ciabatta for breakfast.
In celebration of our new largesse, Liz decided to knock up a ciabatta bread to eat it on. Neither of us appreciated how sloppy is ciabatta dough and how it spreads out sideways during the rise. The 'knock down' phase prior to the 2nd proving was more a case of trying to pull it all back into one lump but in the end it went into the oven like that and came out as easily the biggest ciabatta either of us had seen. Perhaps we will divide the dough into three or even four 'loaves' next time.

This ciabatta was easily 14 inches square.
That is the oven-tray it is cosily resting in.
No matter, it just got quartered and the 4 portions will get used up via fridges or freezer as appropriate. It was delicious, especially with the honey for breakfast. It has that lovely 'big air-holes' mouth feel, a bit like crumpets.

With the honey all extracted, Liz has rounded up all the 'cakes' of spent wax with a view to washing them clean, melting and re-cooling the whole into an 'ingot' and then trying out some warm jam-jar alchemy involving coconut oil (4 parts to one part of beeswax, we are advised) to make furniture polish. I will let you know how we get on.

Brine cured pork leg joint
Our attempt to brine-cure some bacon did not go quite as well according to plan. Liz cooked it with an old favourite (Delia, I think) recipe in which the joint is slow boiled in Coca-Cola. Sounds horrific but works surprisingly well. Normally, that is. This time, though, it was superbly tender and was very edible but was possibly a tad salty, probably at our salty limit. We think that this is because although the brine cure worked well, I did not have any specific instructions for "3 inch thick round of leg" so I went with ten days in the brine, but then we got all distracted by Liz coming home, then not, then yes, and it did not get rescued till it had been soaking 14 days. Liz soaked it overnight in water but then did not do the boil, water change, boil, water change again thing as she was using the Coca Cola.

A late frost on Saturday night tries
 to catch us out
All is not lost, though. That joint will be converted into bacon'n'bean soup/stew (with no need to add salt!) and the other two joints will be soaked when they come to be used and get cooked through several changes of water. You live and learn. Any future joints will be brined for fewer days, possibly as few as 3-5. We do not need the salt as preservative, after all, as these 'bacon' joints go into the freezer. The brining is more to give us a change to 'bacon/gammon' from straight pork.

Rather white for the end of April.
A rather brutal change in the weather tries to catch us out as we get frosts, cold winds and lashing rain with gritty bits in it; proper wintry showers. It was all forecast accurately by the superb Met Éireann team, of course, which gave us a chance to go and cover up the sensitive stuff, mainly asparagus shoots, and it is too early to hit much in the way of 'set' fruit blossom (only the plum and damson seems to have got that far yet). It did hit some new emerging leaves on my poor 'baby trees' though, some sweet chestnut which has barely topped grass height yet looks badly 'scorched'. I hope it has the reserves to put out some replacement leaves.

This gap will be Goldie and Nugget's new run.
The bad weather rather pins us down for outdoor work but this week I do not mind. I am creating a new run for our giant rabbits, Goldie and Nugget in the 'gap' behind the yard wall and the sheep fence. This needs a 'bedroom' so I am back in carpenter mode building a sleeping house for the ladies which I can do in the (now) turkey house out of the wind. The chosen patch of ground is a nice lumpy-bumpy piece of rough grass into which a variety of mud, old cow poo and stone was tossed 3 years ago when the mini digger cleared our yard. We are hoping that the banks and dips will give Nugget enough to aim her well developed digging instinct at without her needing to tunnel out. She can build a nice safe warren under there away from Mr Fox if she needs to with a 'Mummy annex' for Goldie in her autumn years. There is also a wealth of good grass in there and taller stuff which will benefit from a bit of lagomorphic management. Finally one little minor hiccup in the Hubbard dept, as one of the 12 dies while we are out shopping. We have no idea why, you normally don't. Little birds go from quite happy and healthy looking one minute, to dead and cold next time you look without pausing at 'ill'. The remaining 11 all seem happy enough and are eating plenty and putting on lots of weight. More pics of them soon.

Sunday 26 April 2015

A Taste of Honey

Now, there's taste in Birthday presents,
a straw skep.  
With Liz having been away on the actual date of my Birthday, she proposed that I should have a second "Official" birthday on the next available day so that I could catch up on the missing presents and coffee in bed and the special meal. We decided on Saturday (25th) and I had a lovely day being spoiled. The presents had a decidedly bee-keeping flavour and included the lovely straw 'skep' in the pic. Every home should have one, don't you agree? These were the actual hives back in the days before modern wooden hives were designed but had the disadvantage that you could not remove the honey on portable frames like we can now, so the colony had to be destroyed at harvest time to get the honey out.

Nowadays, we do not willingly destroy our bee colonies,and the skeps are used as swarm-catching baskets; they are much better than cardboard boxes or other containers because the bees can cling to the inside and hang on in there while you move them about. I also think they are beautiful artifacts so I have wanted one since we had bees, even though I am not at all sure I will ever get the chance to use it in anger.

Beef Wellington. Happy Birthday to me!
The meal was a treat, which we served on our best table linen ( a gift from Montenegro via 'Steak Lady'; thanks SL). Liz did a starter of langoustines and the main course was a Beef Wellington of rare scrumptiousness; the 'duxelle' mix round the meat was mushroom, onions and bacon. Dessert was a splendid blackberry Pavlova. For most of my life I have not been a fan of meringue because, as far as I knew, merignue was always impossibly sweet and like spooning crunchy sugar into your mouth. I do not have that kind of a 'sweet tooth'. If we were served lemon meringue pie I would try to sneak the meringue layer across to Liz.

Blackberry Pavlova
I am now converted. Meringue from Liz here is made with our real eggs as well as way less sugar, and is slightly soft and yielding rather than brittle. The fruit, too, is always done nice and naturally, with hardly any sugar added. In this case these were blackberries picked by us from John Deere Bob's field hedgerows and the mild un-enhanced flavour was beautifully evocative of the summer sun on picking day and the taste of the blackberries you always sneak as you walk round with the bucket, picking them. One for the bucket, one for me? No, not quite. We picked 5 kg each that day - we'd have been sick of them.

Fillet steak.
We lubricated the starter and dessert with chilled rosé and had a more meaty Rioja for the main course - a lovely 'Gran Reserva' grade Batturica (Tarragona) 2007 bottle from the amazingly good vintner, Lidl's supermarket (!) yours for just €7.99. The steak, too had been a good find - from our local favourite butcher (who is also our lamb slaughterman/butcher), Ignatius G Victualler. He had cut it out especially for us and kept it for us. Very reasonable in price, too.

Liz slices the cappings off a frame of
honey comb. 
Before I give the 'rescue package' bee hive back to our benefactor in Longford, I have to clean it and re-populate it with new frames and foundation, so we needed to 'dispose' of the used frames and sort out what to keep. You will know from earlier posts that some of these frames were full of honey, so we decided to have a go at extracting this. Bee keepers normally do this during mid/late summer after each 'honey flow' (i.e. at the end of the oilseed rape flowering season, or after the clover, or fruit blossom or heather), and do it with a gentle 'centrifuge' machine. The frames fit into the rotor of the machine and you spin the honey off them after slicing off the crinkly white wax cappings.

The mess of honey and wax sits in the muslin. The potential
for creating sticky mess is awesome. 
We have no such machine so we had to try letting the honey run out down through a muslin sheet, helped by gentle warmth from a double-boiler arrangement sitting on our range. Some of the honey comb was liquid enough (what they call "run honey"), presumably from blackberry blossom or other flowers. Some though was hard crystallized (granulated) so was probably ivy honey and was only going to drip through if it was warmed up. You have to do this very gently (roughly blood heat and a bit). Do not go anywhere near 60ºC or the wax will also start to melt and the honey will lose a lot of its flavour. Much of honey flavour is from bases, salts, amino acids, proteins and volatiles in it, as well as pollen so the more you mess it about, the more the quality goes down. You must also not use steam or damp-heat as honey is hygroscopic and takes up water easily from the surroundings. If it can stay at only 17% moisture it will keep for ever, but if the moisture content rises to 20% it can start to ferment, trying to turn itself into mead and developing bad 'off flavours'.

Double boiler set up on the range. 
Anyway, to cut a long story short this all worked and when we were satisfied that it would bimble gently through the night at not much more than blood heat, we left it to dribble and by morning we had a nice load of honey in the pan under the collander  which we were able to decant into a couple of jars in the morning. The 'dip a finger in' test told us that it was a bit special and certainly tasted a whole lot better than the commercial honey on our kitchen shelf. Liz promptly cooked up some toast and we had toast and honey for breakfast. We don't generally eat a lot of honey here (maybe 3 jars a year?) but we may do now that we have some proper stuff. Anne and Simon, who turned up later in the day also tried it and were impressed.

Generally speaking we are not about a huge production of honey. We like the bees for the 'wildlife gardening' reasons and to help with pollination locally. We never anticipated extracting much crop, preferring to leave the bees with it to help them through the winter. That is why, after all, the bees make and store honey - their survival through winter is at stake. We were going to ensure that the bees had enough (30 to 40 lbs per hive) and only steal a frame or two if these were excess to that. Only our hive failure led us to this happy coincidence and this lovely stash. Every cloud, we suppose, has a silver lining.

There are a few bubbles in it but our first honey is a lovely
pale colour and truly delicious. 
With all the honey extracted from the honey/wax mess, we now have the option of trying to recover the beeswax which Liz fancies turning into furniture polish or 'lotions and potions'. After however many seasons in the hive being trampled over by thousands of dirty, outdoor, bee feet, the wax can come off the 'extractor' dark brown or almost black but now we are not so worried about heat, so the wax is melted in the company of hot water so that it washes as well as going liquid and then you leave the whole to settle and cool. In theory you get a disc of clean. re-solidified wax 'floating' on your cooled down water, which you can then use in the alchemy to follow. I will let you know how this bit goes when we have processed a few more frames. Honey comb is so fine and delicately built that you do not get much wax out for each pound of honey; typically 1/8 as much.

We are having fun and learning all the time. The jars you see in these pics are from our first frame of honey. Since then we have started a bigger batch using 2 more frames. I don't think there is any chance of us going into commercial production but it will be nice to give a few jars away to friends. I was always amused by thoughts of what we would call the brand - honey is famously good to buy locally because there is a firm belief that eating local honey helps guard against allergies to local pollen, hay fever and so on. I wondered if we'd get away with using "Bees@Feigh", Feigh being the local 'townland'. However, the rhyme with 'bee' only works if you are an ignorant Brit, like me, and think it is pronounced 'fee'. It is not. It is another one of those 'Anglicised' Irish words (for deer), translittorated by the British military and map makers when they were 'in charge'. It is actually pronounced  'Fi' like the word 'fit' without the 't'; it is a very difficult word for Brits to say as we expect either a long vowel or a consonant. Bees@Feigh would just confuse everyone and might even put off the locals who you'd be hoping were your customers.

Rhubarb pie with a polenta crust.
The other mildly amusing aspect of this job is the HUGE potential for making a sticky mess. The honey can drip and then get on everything and the wax will happily re-solidify out of your washing up water as soon as it leaves the kitchen and cools down in the waste pipes en route to the sewer. We end up being oh so careful with the honey and keeping a pan JUST for the wax which will never get used for anything else. Well, we do if we want to see another Birthday, anyway!

Friday 24 April 2015

Old Mother Hubbard's Class of 2015

New piggies, turkeys, the first cuckoo calling from down in the bog, swallows, eggs by the dozen, 'hins' going broody; it's all getting a definite Spring flavour round here and now, the cherry on the cake, the arrival of this year's batch of one day old baby 'Hubbard' chicks. These guys, apart from being impossibly cute at this age are a GOOD THING but readers who are a bit squeamish about the more 'awkward' side of meat production might like to skip a few paragraphs. You just carry on thinking that chicken reaches your shopping basket, created in an expanded polystyrene tray with cling film over it as if by magic.

The new chicks in the brooder. The IR lamp
substitutes for Mum's warm breast. 
This is our third year of 'growing' Hubbard chicks and they really are our favourite meat-bird for their taste and their massive rate of adding weight, which gives you a family-sized oven-ready carcass in as little as 4-5 months even in our relaxed, fully-free range system. Hubbards are a hybrid variety developed by the big commercial hatcheries and are the Republic of Ireland's 'go-to' variety for the big commercial units if they are producing 'Free Range' or 'Organic' oven ready birds for the supermarket.

As you'd expect, this means they are dealing with massive numbers - hatchery rooms good for tens or hundreds of thousands of eggs and young birds and customers turning up with articulated lorries to collect their chicks. These kind of people do not normally entertain tiny customers like us, who would want just a dozen, so Hubbards are not a big thing with the hobby, back yard and small holding type chicken-rearer. Fortunately for us, Mentor Anne and Simon, who used to be in the industry (they produced organic eggs for Supermarkets all round Connacht) still have contacts in this world and still get away with buying birds each year even though they buy on behalf of just 3 customers, themselves and 2 others (one being us).

We are delighted and very grateful each year when the call comes "Do you want some Hubbards this year - we are going up there on Wednesday?" (Thank you, A+S!) We just have to have our brooder-box ready on the day and, when we get the 'we're home' text, nip down and collect our dozen from Anne's place. Oh, and then, of course just feed them, rear them, keep them safe and then, as substitute Mum*, generally look after them for the 4-5 months. Anne and Simon have to drive all the way up to the hatchery in Co Monaghan to collect them, up near the Northern Ireland border; it was a hot sunny day and they were parched and pooped by the time they got home.

Pear blossom in the orchard.
Meanwhile all else is chugging along nicely too. The bees appear to be thriving especially in the gorgeous, blue sky warm days we have been amazed by this week. We do not want to check for that possible missing queen just yet - we are waiting at least the 9 days in which anything she had laid by April 17th (when we had the clumsiness problem) will have hatched (3 days) and been fed as a larva in an open brood-cell (6 more days) before being capped over to pupate till day 16 (worker) or 24 (drone). By Sunday (Day 9) when we might inspect, we only have to find eggs or open larvae to know that the queen survived our abuse and is still laying.

An epic batch of nice garlicky hummus (chick-pea paste)
We do not have to find the queen herself, one tiny bee in a colony of 10,000. She is very mobile, good at running for cover and keen to hide when you pull the roof off her colony and let the light in. But a healthy queen in early summer will be laying, famously, 1000-1500 eggs every day, so a quick sum will tell you that with roughly 23 standard honeycomb sized cells per square inch, she is laying a patch of new brood 43-65 square inches in size each day. I am just looking for any one of about 9 such patches in the hive. Should be able to manage that, even if we can't see Her Majesty! One factor which might delay this even more is a forecast change from the lovely sunshine to more typical rain and chilly winds; I cannot open the hive safely with the temperature below about 15ºC for risk of killing all those square inches of babies by hypothermia.

Free range or solid fuel burning range?
The new turkeys have settled quickly in brilliantly. We find them much more socialised (humanised?) and 'tame' than other new birds so we think they must have been handled frequently or had a lot of contact with people in their former home. On one occasion Liz was sitting out on the front terrace in the sun and the hen, Barbara was mooching all round her feet while the cock-bird (or 'stag'), 'Tom' started displaying at Liz just to make sure she knew he was not having her touch his 'wife'. He got so close her, he was nudging Liz's leg with his puffed up chest. On another occasion, I'd gone out walking the dogs and, it being a warm day, I'd left the front door open. Liz was cooking in the kitchen but came back in to find Barbara strolling round the house, quietly checking out the book cases, leather sofa, chairs and then the range (see picture). Liz let her get on with it and then shuffled her quietly outside as she saw me returning with the dogs.

Fritillaries possibly naturalising in the
grass of the front lawn under the trees.
The piggies too, have settled into our routine well and have been receiving visitors. One neighbour likes to turn up with her little girl after school and sometimes with friends of same. They have been visited and admired by Anne and Simon and even by K-Dub and Carolyn; K-Dub was also curious to see what the turkeys looked like up close because he might (only might, you understand!) buy a pair himself. The pigs happily trot up to the fence to receive gifts of sliced apple and are just now starting to let me touch them and scratch them behind the ears. They're in.

Aran knits. A world of "impossibly complex" patterns on a
sixteen row repeat cycle. Soccer helps, apparently.
Amelanchier canadensis (Snowy
mespilus or  'shadbush')
Meanwhile, indoors, Liz's knitting has taken a dramatic turn as she is trying out Aran patterns. When she was about to head off for her ten days of minding 'Daddy', this seemed like a brilliant idea and I will definitely love the product. Getting into it, though, sitting down with Dad while the TV burbled some Match of the Day soccer game that he was glued to, she realised how "impossibly complex" the patterns are, with their variety of cabling, 'basket weave' and other stuff on a 16-row repeat. She tells me she took 5 hours to get the first 'cycle' sorted and could not change her focus for risk of getting it wrong. Slowly, though, it all settled down and she found that the footie pundits warbling away in the background were very calming even though she has no more than a jot of interest in the game. She tells me that Dad would TRY to explain that this one was an important game because.... blahhh... blahh...relegation zone... away goals.... Burnley........blah blah burble burble zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

In the garden, all sorts of lovely flowering and blossoming is going on. We have fritillaries on the front lawn which we think have come from seed which ripened in the two seed-pods we saw last year. As with the crocus leaves and primroses, we are delighted that both the geese and sheep leave these alone. A nice Amelanchier we have had to protect behind sheep-defences now that the lawn is a sheep field, they would browse off all the new growth and blossom.

Blue being a tart.
*Longer term followers of this blog may recall that in 2013 we got extremely lucky with this and the chicks' arrival coincided with us needing to give back to Anne some ducklings which we had hatched under  our ace broody hen "Broody Betty" (sadly no longer with us). We were able to do a sneaky swap and BB was delighted with the transformation of her 5 waddling, water-loving charges into 8 loud-cheeping, willingly pecking and scratching, water-hating, chicks. You don't get that lucky very often.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Tom and Barbara

Tom and Barbara in our woods.
It was almost inevitable. Great fans of "The Good Life" and frequently 'accused' by our friends of being like the Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal characters, it is no surprise that we have named the turkeys "Tom and Barbara". Ahhhh Felicity Kendal.... be still my beating heart. I was one of those (millions) of blokes who sat glued to the TV watching her every move and was very fed up when she went on to star in 'Solo' where she actually had a boyfriend. No, Felicity! You can't do that! You mustn't! Ah well, teenage dreams (I was 18).

Handsome chap.
This isn't so much as a post, more a chance to flash up a few better pictures of the new turkeys now that they are out in our beautiful April sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, wall to wall azure. The pair spent the first daytime shut into the middle section of the goose house where they could relax and recover, and then yestereday I built them an 8 foot square pen just outside the door, so that they could spend the day familiarizing themselves with the sights and sounds of our yard and the comings and goings of me and all the other livestock.

She may go off lay after the move but she must have  still
had one 'up the pipe' for us. 
The plan here is that they don't bolt out of their crates when you first arrive and vanish off across the fields in unfamiliar territory, never learning what 'home' should now look like. On day three (today), I make sure I have a quiet day when I can be around all day and I let them out to explore, establish that they are happy and likely to stay, and then just keep a watchful eye on them while they find their way about.

A turkey egg for comparison.
It has gone well and it has been enjoyable as well as interesting, learning what they are about as they learn our ways here.  Tom, it seems, is a very show-off-y lad given to displaying at every opportunity. He does it if he sees me, or either cockerel, or even if Barbara wanders over. Amusingly, he and Min, our Guinea hen also seem to have taken a shine to one another, I guess she's on the look out for a male of roughly the right shape, and he's got an eye for the ladies.

That swarm box all varnished up.
He puffs up all his facial bits - the blue skin of his head and neck blister up with scarlet lumps (this is his caruncle), his snood (the retractable but long dangly 'nose' bit above his beak) and the wattle (big, bright red flap on the front of his throat which ends in big red lobes at (roughly) the collar-bone. His tail stands erect and fans out like a shorter peacock tail, his wings drop and scuff hard along the ground sounding like a cardboard box being dragged. His puts his head back against his shoulders and gives loud, bassy "chuff" coughs which seem to vibrate the very floor. He throws his head forward, his snood waggling as he 'gobble-gobble's and the feathers all over his chest and all along his back stand up so that his body looks enormous.

He also seems to be a bit of a 'male chauvinist pig', or maybe Barbara is just more cautious. I let them out at 20 past 8 this morning but only he came out. Barbara remained on the perch in the house making pathetic wheedling noises identical to those made by our older bitch 'Deefer' when she wants help being lifted onto a high chair. He was quite happy, strolling about, exploring, displaying to one and all, meeting all the chickens, cats, geese and so on in the bright, warm sunshine. I don't know if he'd told her to stay put while he made sure it was safe, but this was till going on at 11 a.m. when I decided enough was enough. If she didn't get some sun and air today she'd be left out. I tried to tempt her down with some food on the ground, but then just picked her up (she made no protest)  and carried her out of the door where she could see him. The pair have now spent the afternoon together and seem quite happy.

One of last year's Buff Orpingtons - all
growed up. 
The lady who sold them to us explained that come evening they may not naturally make their way home to roost, so I might have to shepherd them home the way I do the geese. I am told that she will go first and he will try to keep his body between me and his wife to protect her. He will also not want to take his eye off me as we move in case I try anything sneaky, so he will try to walk sidways or backwards home. Could be fun.

And tonight's the night. My good lady, the lovely Lizzie comes home to me on the 8 o'clock train after her ten day stint of minding Mr 'Steak Lady' as his own good wife returns from the Malta sunshine. The sun is 'splitting the stones' (they say here), the sky blue and cloudless, so she may wonder why she needed to go to Malta but they are a gang of Bridge players and they always have a whale of a time. This was Malta, past ones have been to Egypt and to North Africa. She jokingly calls them "SKI" holidays. Not the snow and zooming downhill on planks, you understand.... the SKI stands for "spending the kids' inheritance". Go the Steak Lady!

Sunday 19 April 2015

Of Swarm Lures, Turkeys and Kangaroos

A post of three thirds. I wonder how many bloggers started with a title like that tonight? I like to keep my subject headers a bit 'noticable' so if you are entrigued, read on and enjoy it. Two of these stories are triggered by tip-offs from Anne, but the first is a tribute to ace carpenter K-Dub, who we have met before (16th June and 6th July 2013)

A swarm-lure or 'bait box'. 
Bee keepers seem to spend a good part of their time worrying about their colonies swarming. Swarming is that event in (roughly) May/June when your old established Queen bee ups sticks to set up a new colony with half your workers leaving behind (you hope) a queen cell or two containing pupating replacement (virgin) queens who will take over. It is the honey bee's way of doing that Darwinian thing of increasing in numbers and taking over the world. It has worked very well for them for 30 million years, well before man started 'helping' them. The individual bees breed by normal insect-ish means  but if they did not swarm, then they'd stay in the same hollow tree for ever, so swarming is the way that the colony, hive or 'super-organism' increases in numbers.

I've never had much time for Smithwick's beers, but this 'Blonde'
was OK. Impressively quaffable. 
Bee keepers can try to stop this by a variety of methods but it is a forlorn hope - the urge to breed is hard-wired in and they might as well try to stop their teenage daughters from fancying the local boys, or their dog from chasing that she-dog down the road who is on heat. All they can really do is hope to influence the timing and then work to contain the swarm within their apiary and thereby not lose half the honey-gathering workforce.

Ooops. We seem to have acquired a couple of turkeys.
One such way is to build a 'swarm-lure' or 'bait box'. The idea here is that the swarm 'swarms' out of the hive but then gathers on a handy bush or tree (or bank ATM machine, fence post, car engine bay, sky-scraper) to regroup (around the queen). The swarm then sends off scout bees to look for a more sensible home (hollow tree, chimney etc) and, within a few hours, has a committee meeting, decides on the best location found and zooms off to go and invade it. The beekeeper tries to pre-empt this by providing, in a handy tree, a more attractive new home than any available in nature.

The theory goes that this should be a box of roughly 40 litres capacity (a 15 inch cube or so) about 12 feet off the ground, containing some old hive frames which will smell familiar to the scout bees augmented, some say, with lemon balm scent (which apparently smells nice to bees). People build them out of all manner of scrap wood, planks and boards, rough aul' wood with splits, knots and cracks. Nobody spends any money on them as the hope is, as I said, rather forlorn. The bees have to swarm, and find your box and decide that that is the best accommodation around. Good luck with that.

Charlotte de-crates the hen bird.
I decided to give it a try and knew that the nearest carpenter around who might have a supply of scrap wood, was old chum K-Dub. I made contact and punted my 'scrounge'. K-Dub was happy to oblige. Come down, he said and raid my scrap pile. I scrapped into a notebook a quick drawing of what I'd need based on the required internal dimensions which would suit the bee hive frames.  Well, K-Dub being who he is got all intrigued by the idea and, instead of leaving me to find scrap wood, started offering to cut 'this bit of board' to size on his huge, powerful, bench-saw, then started to assemble it and quickly (less than an hour) built me a superb, luxurious box which knocks anything I have seen into a cocked hat.

The swarm bees (if they happen) will be dazzled! It is glued and screwed, It has a landing ramp outside the entrance hole and handles to lift it by. K-Dub even gave me a tin of old varnish which he'd had on his shelf "for 4 years", that I might paint the box and return the rest of the varnish. That guy is just THE BEST kind of neighbour, friend and carpenter. If I'd taken the wood and done it myself, I'd still be doing it now and there'd be splinters, gaps, jaunty angles and Heaven knows what. The bees may well have used it but this box will feel like the penthouse suite!

The male ('stag' or 'Tom') is not sure whether to come out of his
And so to turkeys. You may have spotted some pics higher up the post. I have been hankering for turkeys as my next species in 2015 for a while and had mentioned this to Anne. She tipped me off that there was a poultry 'Bring and Buy' at Kiltimagh (in Mayo, our neighbouring county) today. I fancied a couple of young females of the old fashioned 'Bronze' (single breasted) variety and an unrelated male (they are called 'stags' or 'Toms') to use as our parent generation. These guys would not be eaten for Christmas, but any progeny would be fair game (next year). So, with Liz still away, I rounded up Charlotte (who also needed some turkeys for a friend) and we 'went equipped' - money, pet-carriers, early start.

Crates in the car.
Well, Kiltimagh turns out ot be a rather small event with only half a dozen sellers including the petting zoo owner but among these was a lady with a crate in her van containing an immense and impressive 2014 breedable pair of turkeys. The hen was apparently in lay (so Charlotte bought half a dozen fertile eggs for her friend) and the stag/tom/male was strutting his proud stuff with tail up, wings lowered and all his facial extravagance on display. This is all retractable bright blue and red skin and we now know is known as the 'caruncle, snood and wattle'. He was also 'gobble gobble'-ing loudly to protect his woman. He stole my heart. To cut a long story short, we bought the pair and they are now at home in the middle part of the goose house, settling in prior to being allowed out free range (in stages). More pics of these guys in future posts.

Kangaroo steaks.
Finally, our local branch of supermarket Lidl has gone a bit crazy with frozen meats of all sorts of different species - wild boar, ostrich and even kangaroo. Anne had commented that Simon was quite taken with the latter as it was lean and of fine texture without being as gamey as venison. You should always try these things, so I was in Lidl yesterday and picked up some kangaroo. Well, I was impressed. The only serving suggestion on the box seemed to be a rather basic two-side fry, 7 minutes a side which gave it a 'well done' finish, to which I added a 5 minute rest. On reflection you could easily do a rare version. The pic on the box looks quite pink, so I think that must be what they have done for the advert.

I served mine with new potatoes and a mix of roasted veg with Cajun seasoning (courgette, peppers, red onion, tomato, garlic) and washed it down with an Australian Shiraz (homage to the Ozzie-ness of the kangaroo?). I had deliberately not flavoured the meat, except for a bit of salt, because I wanted to taste the base flavour. It worked well though it would be quite pricey at €5.99 for the pack, though possibly intended for two and my only other (piffling) criticism was that the meat was already chopped into 5 small bits, rather than  two decent steaks. Worth a try, then, if your Lidl's are doing it. Thanks for the tip-offs Anne on both Turkeys and Kangaroos.

Saturday 18 April 2015

As Fit as a Butcher's Dog?

3 dogs with a burnin' yearnin' to get amongst those piggies.
Poppy (Poppea) is closest to camera. 
It is almost a standing joke that a lot of folk who own dogs the size of our Westies, let them get way over weight. Rotund little barrels of flab with a leg at each corner, they waddle along slowly, slack on their leads in front of little old ladies who are bimbling along equally slowly. They never get any real exercise and they are spoiled rotten by over-indulgent "parents" who see them as their babies. They cannot run and they certainly cannot turn round to lick themselves clean. They usually die fairly young (maybe 7 or 8 for a Westie which might otherwise manage 14 or 15). I am, of course, carefully not mentioning any weight issues for the human; I am a bit short on moral high-ground there.

Towser (sitting) and Poppy
We have always tried to keep our dogs a bit leaner and more fit and in this we are completely at one with friend, vet-skills trainee and experienced show-dog preparer, Charlotte. Charlotte is quite evangelical on getting definition into that 'waist' and being able to feel ribs through the sub-cutaneous fat and feeling spinal processes. She tells us that fertility in particular in dogs, falls away as weight increases. She is currently involved in an amusing 'battle' with a Dalamatian bitch owner who would get her dog into pup using the services of Charlotte's superbly fit stud-boy 'Pongo'. At the moment this is failing because the lady-dog is, to put it mildly, 'indulged' and Charlotte is patiently (and generously) letting the lady try and try again (normally you'd get one try and a follow-up for the stud fee) while trying to subtly get through to the lady at each visit, that if she could only get some weight off......

Deefer chilling.
Well, in our case, Towser and Deefer have always been fairly slim and fit, but young Poppy was always given to scrounging round the other dogs' bowls after they had eaten. Up till about 6 months ago we were feeding tinned food (the best brand round here seems to be "Brandy") but also a biscuit mixer. The dogs were not eating the whole bowl full, they were sometimes not interested at all and they were also given, as Westies can be, to squitty bums. Charlotte noticed the extra 'cover' on Poppy at one of the groomings and commented, only voicing what we already knew but had been letting slide. Time for a diet, then for all three. We took them off the biscuits entirely and reduced their ration to one third of a tin each morning and evening. They only get the smallest (dried meat) treats occasionally and very rarely get bones and never kitchen scraps or offerings from the table while we are eating.

Well, you can see from the pictures that the new regime has worked, especially on "the Popstar" and their new slim lines are revealed after their April 13th spring buzz-cut. That 2 inch fleece no longer hides a multitude of sins. We hope Charlotte will be pleased. The bad news from this is for Pirate the formerly emaciated stray cat. He has definitely piled on the weight since we 'rescued him' and Charlotte is now zeroing in on him for being covered in "rolls of blubber" so he too is now on reduced ration. 2/3 of a tin per day instead of the full tin. He's not happy and comes wailing for food if he hears us in the yard but, hey, he's a lucky rescue stray and does not need to be quite that rotund. Meanwhile, 'Poppy' is mainly Liz's dog and I have been instructed that Liz's prefered spelling is 'Poppea'. Who am I to argue. Poppea it is from now on.

These narcissi are following on nicely
from the big daff-shaped daffs. 
On a completely unrelated tack, a previous post had me noting that I had found hand-cut turf workings down at the Kiltybranks dog walk, and I put some pics up on here of the cut areas. By complete coincidence, a guy living near here was in Googling "Hand cut turf Kiltybranks" and was amazed and delighted to see my pics of his workings and got in touch. To cut a long story short, I met him down there (we'll call him Paul the Turf) on one of my dog walks and we got talking and comparing notes. It turns out he is also a Brit and has been over here just a few months more than we have.

One of our new hellebores.
He and his good lady actually looked at our house when they were house hunting but she didn't fancy it because it was 'spooky'. He remembers the old VW Golf in the bramble patch. They just fancied a chunk of turf cutting bog, so they bought a slice of Kiltybranks and he has been happily cutting and drying his own turf ever since. Lovely bloke and a good contact. He also has a lively rescue dog called Sam, a collie, who was more than happy to race around with my three while Paul and I chewed the fat.

In beekeeper land, I am still without my faithful 'colleague' (Liz is down in Silverwood till Tuesday) but our new 'oppo' T-McC was around this weekend and the weather was gorgeous on Friday, so we two decided to go ahead with the big job of moving the bees (and frames etc) from the 'new' hive to my old white boxes. This mostly went OK but (shhhhh) between you and me, I have to admit to a bit of a scary, messy, error which nearly undid us, in which we narrowly averted disaster and which served to remind us that we are yet only beginners at this art. I won't go into huge detail - that'd be interesting only to beekeepers, but basically we decided (on the hoof) that we needed the brood frames out first, as they would go into the bottom box of the new build. I would therefore crack off the whole 'super' (shallow top box = honey store) and lay it to one side while we lifted out the brood frames one by one.

Unfortunately the gift colony was set up as 'brood and a half', with nothing between the brood box and the super above, and the bees had done a good job of gluing the frames below to the ones above using 'wild' honey comb (brace comb). When I went to lift the super, which was really heavy with honey anyway, some of the brood frames below came with it leaving me with a seriously heavy chunk of hive which I could not put down to sort out, could not slot back in place without risking bad damage (including to bees and the queen) and could barely hold up. Big problem!

Liz and Mr SL visit on Friday to admire the piggies.
I managed to put it down at a jaunty angle to avoid squashing too many bees, but the gaps meant that bees were pouring out of the tower in huge numbers and T and I were at serious risk of getting attacked and stung. Well, this is the short version of the adventure, so suffice to say that we remained calm and  withdrew a few feet to let the bees all calm down and they amazed us by all starting to relax and go back inside the badly stacked hive boxes. We were able to go on with the job, briskly reverting to Plan A, which was to take out the super-frames one by one before starting on the brood box and, that way, we got it all moved and reassembled before barrowing away all the now redundant hive boxes and frames, retreating, pleased not to be followed by any bees who might still be upset with us. Within ten minutes the flying bees were all back round the entrance and queuing to go back indoors.

One problem remains. In our rush to rescue the situation we did not thoroughly search every frame for the queen, so we did not see her and there remains a risk that I have inadvertantly killed her in the bodged job. We know she is (wing) clipped and marked, so if she fell from any of the frames onto the grass, she would be lost and unable to fly back into the hive (some bee keepers believe in cutting off half the wings on one side to prevent queens flying off when it is swarming time). I will not know for sure that she is still with us until we can examine the hive again and either find her or find new laid eggs which would be evidence that she survived our abuse. We finished the day determined to leave well alone for at least a week to let everybody (including the bee keepers) get over the trauma. We learned a lot. There you have it, warts and all.

In one final 'story', before the bee task, I received a lovely visit on the Friday from Liz, who brought Mr SL and Mrs Silverwood up on a flying visit, mainly so that they could meet the piggies, lambs and the rest of the gang. The pigs came out and were charm itself for their guests, who were bribing them with slices of apple. We all adjourned to JD Bob's favourite eaterie, Durkin's in Ballaghaderreen for a spot of lunch. Very nice too.

You will be relieved to know that the bees are all calm now and spent Saturday coming and going from the hive as normal. I will let you know how Her Majesty is (or isn't) in a future post.