Tuesday 30 June 2015

4 Years Ago, Today

Albert still has his Sainsbury Dartford
Depot security badge
June 30th is one of our significant land mark dates. It was 4 years ago today that I ran out of usefulness to DHL contract distribution and the Sainsbury's Dartford Depot, allegedly, at least on my then terms and conditions. To be fair to them, they were very good to me, their 'then' longest serving employee with just under 29 years continuous service. Sadly, they don't make jobs like that any more! The settlement was very generous and I was treated really well but it was still a bitter-sweet day. My 'peers' did a special version of the morning meeting to acknowledge my efforts and I was allowed to spend a good part of the day wandering about the 500,000 sq feet depot bidding farewell to those among the 400+ employees I knew.

Our 'Hen with One Chick' now well
feathered up and starting to wander. 
Then at half past three (briefly interupted by a fire drill during which I was not allowed to leave the site) we did the proper farewell and I was presented with all the signed cards and some gifts. One of these, from those who knew that I 'hated' garden gnomes and was off to "spend more time in the garden" was, inevitably a gnome which they had even put through security check-in, so he had his own access badge with his photo and his name, Albert Green. I still have him gracing a cairn of boulders in the front garden. If any of my old 'DHL lot' read this, thanks again and I will never forget you guys. This was 2011 and is no doubt covered in this blog if you want to go look.

The 'new' Fiat Panda
From today it will also be the day we bought our first Irish car, a replacement for the belovéd red Fiat Panda, Tim, which we decided was getting a bit too close to sell by date to be relied on to do that many more years' service. The 'new' car is also  Fiat Panda 1100cc but brings us up to date by 6 years. It is basically the same as the previous one but has a different 'dash' and (Yay!) the old tape deck is replaced by a CD player. Now we can throw away the old speaking-book stories we'd been hanging onto since they were a thing, we no longer have anything to play them on. They were a couple of Shakespeare plays and some Terry Pratchett books and they have rattled around in the door pockets of the 04 reg car since we moved here.

The Captain checks out the new vehicle.
Whoever buys the old car will get quite a nice vehicle and now with shiny new front brake discs and shoes, the tow hitch carefully removed (the old wiring reinstated obviously) and well valeted throughout. We hope that they never find out that the head gasket has possibly leaked (we don't know for sure even now) and been sealed up with the Blue Devil gloop. May they drive for many more miles in the bliss of ignorance till the old lad dies of some unrelated aged ailment.

Barbara takes a look inside. 
We are very pleased with the 'new' one which seems as bright and willing as Tim did 6 years ago. We have not been any great distances yet - we brought the car home from near Ballyhaunis via a fuel top-up in Balla-D, then Liz nipped down to the PO to buy water when our water mains died (again), and now she is back in Balla-D for knitting. On that small sample, the car seems fine and we have great hopes that it will be as good as the previous Panda. When we transfered the insurance across we found that we are due a rebate because these newer cars are cheaper to insure. It is also cheaper to tax, being a modern, low emmissions engine. As far as I know it does not yet have a name, but that is Liz's department. The 'Tim' came from our UK reg letters which spelt a very abridged 'Timbuktu', but this is originally a Dublin reg car, so the only letter is the 'D' for Dublin.

One of the least focused pics I have ever taken (well, it is
very crisp on the wire!) but you can see one of the two chicks
hatched by the Elderberry Buff-Orp. 
Finally, our Elderberry Buff DID manage to hatch that egg and, in fact, a 2nd. One is the orange of a Buff Orp. the other paler, so it may be from a white Hubbard or a Sussex Ponte hen. Less than 24 hours old, these babies were already being shown how to peck at food and scratch, when I slid a shallow bowl of appropriate grub in under the wire - I think Mum was fairly hungry too, so was immediately clucking and fussing at the food so that she had an excuse to get a crop full while teaching the chicks. Well done Elderberry Buff. The clutch we gave her were a rescue of half a dozen from a hedgerow stash (it was all we had). 2 of these got broken along the way (one with a half-grown embryo inside). She's hatched 2 survivors, a third unbroken one proved to be sterile and a fourth is a Guinea fowl egg. That will also be sterile, obviously as we have no cock bird.

Monday 29 June 2015

Red Rag...

Red 'rag' to a 'Stag' Turkey? Liz's scarlet pyjamas
Liz got a nasty surprise recently when normally placid, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly, male turkey, 'Tom' decided to attack her. He did the proper rearing up, both feet off the ground, flying kick thing and caught her a couple of quite nasty bruises and abrasions one on each thigh. We'd seen him do plenty of displaying at both of us but only actually seen him square up to our 2nd-in-command rooster, 'Captain', so Liz, who had stepped out into the yard still in her PJs to enjoy the morning sun,  saw him stalk over and thought no more of it. She was taken by surprise when he launched himself and then she nipped indoors a bit quick to slam the door on the rude lad.

Is this the biggest single geranium plant you ever did see?
The variety is 'Orion'. 
We wondered if perhaps the bright red PJs had anything to do with it, and we are now sure that's what was riling him. Turkeys do very red facial displays, with all their fancy excrescences going from dull blue-grey, through bright blue to bright red, so it would be logical for red to be an unwise response. Liz has since tried the same move in all the other colours she wears, to no effect. She then tried the red PJs one more time, out at the front of the house just to test the theory with Tom way away over by the pond. He spotted her and made a bee-line charge across the drive and car port, so that she had to grab a Curver-bucket and plonk it over his head while she retreated backwards indoors. Mad bird (Tom, not Lizzie!). Generally, like most poultry keepers, we would not tolerate an aggressive cock-bird, but we are forgiving Tom for now as we can manage the behaviour by just not wearing bright red PJs out of doors during the breeding season.

In the 'craft' department, Liz has a new weapon in the armoury, a good second hand sewing machine found for her by local expert Carolyn (of the mini horses). Carolyn used to service and demonstrate machines to customers and now runs evening classes for the likes of Liz who is experienced but rusty and would be unfamiliar with these new machines with their fancy electronics and broad choice of stitch-types. Liz has one such class tonight and takes her own machine along to be shown new stuff on.

Carding Lily's first-cut wool
Meanwhile, Carolyn herself has been restoring and exploring an olde spinning wheel, using the fleece we sheared from our ewes, Polly and Lily. This is mainly Lily at the moment (just because she got that first and has put it through the washing stages and has now carded some of it). This turned out to be a bit of a problem because where I had made such a 'Horlicks' of shearing Lily in two halves (outer and inner wool), the wool strands are only half as long as they should be (2 inches instead of about 4) which makes carding easier but spinning is tricky. You have to tease lots of fibres out of the carded mass of wool and feed them onto the spinning wheel without the not-yet-spun strand of wool breaking.

Lily's wool on the spinning wheel. 
The spinning wheel is an old one from (Carloyn thinks) around the 40s and they have had to get it going again with no instructions, just from working out engineering "first principles" with only some explanatory videos on the web (and a helpful expert at the end of an e-mail). They are getting there but suffering from the machine over-spinning the wool so that it knots up and struggling to create knit-able, even wool strands. Nothing if not determined though, this wool is going to get spun and a garment or test square knitted from it "even if (she) then puts the machine away in a cupboard and never touches it again!" It is fascinating to watch the process but we think that maybe Liz has the easier task, mastering the modern electronics of the sewing machine. We all believe that there are no evening classes for this spinning skill for miles around.

Gorgeous lamb's liver paté
In the cookery department, several nice recent successes including 2 new recipes which will become 'keepers' and get filed on our repertoire. Both the new ones are from internet friends, one of whom has made a move a bit like ours, out of a long-term career (Accounting in her case) into a brand new life (professional cook/caterer). She had posted a version of cous-cous salad which sounded interesting mainly because it had no cous-sous in it (!). We like cous cous, but were intrigued by this alternative - cauliflower florets 'whizzed' up raw into tiny crumbs the size of cous-cous bits which you then steam only enough to cook them but so that they keep the nutty, lots-of-bits, mouth-feel of cooked cous-cous. You don't want them turning to veg-mush like overcooked courgette, Yuck. Then of course, you make up your salad with the usual fried/roasted peppers, toms, onions, garlic or what ever you'd normally use in a cous-cous. We were delighted.

We always say soufflé is easier and nicer with your own
good, very fresh, free range eggs. 
The other new-comer was a version of lamb-liver paté using allspice. It was suggested that if you were not an over-keen liver nut, and lamb's liver can be VERY liver-tasting, then this recipe reduced the 'livery-ness' a bit. What ever the truth, this paté was gorgeous, one of the best I have ever tasted. I like my paté a tad 'coarse' (bitty) in texture, so this was only 'blitzed' to a degree, but if you like a smooth paté then there would be no reason why you couldn't do all the fine sieving rigmarole to get the bits out. It would taste just as good. The third notable success was a cracking set of cheese soufflés, always easier and nicer with your own good, very fresh, free range eggs.

Not one to be proud of - probably should get the brake linings
checked before they are stripped bare and down to the metal!
In other news we are getting the car ready for sale (actually part-exchange) and we may have found a replacement but more on this in the next post. We do not want to tempt fate by describing a car and then it all going "Pete Tong" on us. Suffice to say that we could not look a salesman in the eye knowing that the front end of the car was making those metal-on-metal grinding noises (aside from the risk of driving around with rubbish front stopping-power), so the car was off this morning to get shiny new front discs and pads. Yesterday we had to play take off the tow hitch games. We may just buy a car for which the hitch was compatible and the said salesman had already said he'd be perfectly happy for us to excude it from any deal. No-one wants a tow hitch, he assured us.

The baby turkeys at three weeks old - they get to go outside
on warm dry days but get rescued back indoors at night. 
And finally a nice surprise greeted me under the elderberry bush. Regular readers may recall that we had what we thought was a rather hopeless mother Buff Orpington hen go broody under the bush and gave us some hand-wringing times with her fierce determination to stay right there, rather than get moved to somewhere safe and fox-proof. In the end we gave in and created a fox-barrier round her but she seemed to be too bored to be a successful broody. She first evicted one egg and left it, all lonely, outside the nest, never pulling it back under her skirts, and she spent more than an hour off the nest, sometimes two times a day just wandering around. We were sure the eggs would be chilled and lost but today (while she was off again) I checked the eggs and could see one was well into 'pipping', with the little chick's beak clearly visible moving about inside the hole it was making through the shell. Now, we have been in this game too long (even the short time we HAVE been!) to start counting babies when they are only half way out and Mum was quickly back on today. Only she will know what's going on under her skirts but Liz is joking that if she hatches more than "Hen with One Chick" she will be unbearable. We are suitably chastened and humbled by our lack of faith. The 'hopeless broody' has at least brought one to full term.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Hot Nuts?

We knew 'Tim' was sick, but did they need to drop him
outside the funeral parlour?
It was only  2 months ago (20 posts) that I was singing the praises of our ever trusty and reliable little Fiat Panda. How quickly things can change. 'Tim' seems to have taken exception to our plaudits and decided to stack up in very short order, a rake of problems which are starting to test our faith in 'him'. That's the contract, aul' fella. Stay reliable, good, cheap to run and free from faults and you are a 'keeper'; start turning all cantankerous on us and you get pensioned off.

It was a lovely (if hot) day so we decided to do a small job
in the front drive.... this turned into a couple of hours of
sweaty blackthorn-bashing.
The problems Tim decided to try our patience with were, in quick succession.....

The pale blue hatching shows the bit of 'view' which was
obscured by the blackthorn thicket. 

  1. Drinking fair amounts of radiator water, leading us to suspect a head gasket leak but we could manage that (we thought) as 2 litres every month or so was do-able. If you read the last post you'll know we came unstuck on a mission to Roscommon and had to be recovered back to Lough Glynn.
  2. First turn of the key in the morning, you expect the healthy "whinny" of a starter motor spinning the engine over, followed by the 'vroom' of a successful fire-up. We had a sudden change to the 'thunk' of a servo cutting in, followed by silence. It became a lottery whether you'd get the whinny or the 'thunk'. That problem seems to have gone away by itself. 
  3. With the possible water leak fixed by the addition of the modern version of 'Radweld' - it is called 'Blue Devil' and costs an arm and a leg per bottle, so we assume it is not just Radweld re-badged. Touch wood, it seems to be working - we were off on a test drive - an hour or two round Charlestown, Knock and Ballyhaunis. It seemed fine but then in Ballyhaunis we became aware of a worrying metal-on-metal grinding from the front left corner. This seemed to be at wheel-speed rather than anything engine related, so I guessed brake pads (worn down?), discs, wheel bearings, drive shafts etc. We stopped to inspect but then drove home carefully and every time we picked up speed it went away. I took the car down to local tyres/exhausts/brakes place, Keith Revin in Castlerea and they, today have confirmed my brakes thing, so we are into new discs and pads on both front corners. 
  4. My 'Hot Nuts' title I will explain later.
It was St John's Eve, so we were allowed
 to burn the blackthorn branches. 
As a result of all this we have, as I said, started to distrust young 'Tim' and are quietly looking for a possible replacement. That is not easy in Ireland at the moment because, with the economy being banjaxed, everyone is hanging onto their old cars and not replacing them, so there are few good used cars on the market. We want to come up to a few years newer but with basically the same size and style of car; not necessarily a Panda. We are on 04 reg and worth about €1500 and we are looking for maybe an 09 or a 10 reg. We have a couple of local dealers looking on our behalf, both of whom sucked the ends of their pencils and muttered stuff about having to tap up their Dublin contacts. Dublin seems to be the place to go at present, if you are looking for a used car. Out here in the sticks it is a used-car desert. Obviously we could have done without this spend just now, but hey, cars do not last for ever and the Fiat has done 11 years and 7 of those were very good ones for us.

Meanwhile, the weather has been kind and 2 days back we found ourselves hungry for some heavy duty gardening. We decided to tackle a thicket of blackthorn growing just inside the gate on the left which was growing out from the hedge and obscuring our view from the front gate up under the larch trees. It was sweaty work but, being St John's Eve it was the only day it is legal in the Republic to have a bonfire, so we could look forward to a nice relax in the evening burning all that while cradling a cool beer or wine. We used the trailer as a big wheel barrow to move it all round to the East Field. A very pleasant afternoon's 'serious' gardening.

A chamomile lawn? Well, maybe not.
We are always amazed and delighted by the way that bits of ground, paddled to a brown, bare muddy oblivion during the 'wet season' manage to recover in spring, greening over and turning us back to respectable 'lawn'. This is generally good old grass but this year, for no reason we can see, the brown mess inside the goose orchard gate has come back as (I think) 'stinking chamomile' (Anthema cotula), the feathery leaved 'daisy' which we called "Stinking Mayweed" in Sussex. Now, I know this is not the real 'lawn chamomile' of Mary Wesley fame. That is a sport of this plant found and developed in the 30's called 'Treneague' which never goes above 6 inches and does not flower. These guys, if I did not mow them off, would easily top 24 inches and flower like mad, but I am enjoying the fact that I have a 'Chamomile Lawn' of sorts.

Male turkey, 'Tom' caught NOT displaying. Liz
jokes that it is like catching your Dad in his
In the birds dept we are not holding out much hope for the broody geese who are now through the likely times for the known-start-date eggs but with no apparent result. The Elderberry Buff too, seems to want to come off the eggs for an hour or more at a time, sometimes twice a day, for a dust bath and a wander about scratching. feeding, drinking. She is always back on them sitting tight by evening, so we can lock her up, but that seems a lot of not sitting to us for a successful incubation. The turkey eggs in the incubator, we don't know after the long power cut where we tried blankets and mugs of boiling water but we are not sure we kept them warm. Tom, our turkey cock has now relaxed here and does not spend all his waking hours in full display mode

Lovely mugs from our craft-genius neighbour, Carolyn. 
But those 'hot nuts', I hear you ask. Just an amusing ribald comment by a garage guy. The 'metal on metal' grinding noise at the front of the Fiat today turned out to be badly worn (maybe 'bare' would be a better word) brake pads which, even if you use the brakes a bare minimum will still get a lot hotter through friction than brake-pad on metal, on the short run to Castlerea. The keen young lad who stepped up to do the investigation rattled them off the wheel studs with his air-gun and then dropped the first one out of the socket into the palm of his hand.

New tyres for the trailer (which has 2CV
wheels) have to come from my old chums,
2CV specialists ECAS in the UK. 
The shout of "OWWWW! They're flippin' ROASTing!" echoed round the garage and soon attracted all his colleagues over to try them out and join in the fun and banter. The lads were all impressed by the heat off them and, being the kind of place it is, they were all happily riffing on me having 'very hot nuts'. Ah well, maybe you had to be there. Anyway, the good news on that one is that they can get the replacement discs and pads by Monday and if I show up at 08:30-ish that will give the nuts a chance to cool down by the time they open (at 09:00) and they will sort me out as a first job for €125 all up. There's handy.

Monday 22 June 2015

81%... but where to next?

There are some wonderful macro-photographers posting pics
to the internet, so (with permission) I will use this one of a
worker by Tim Hill to head up this post. Thanks Tim.  
Our little group of 7 candidates for the Intermediate Level Beekeeping "written practical" exam taken back in March in Longford all passed. I got 81%, so I was delighted personally but pleased too for the group and especially pleased that we did well for our group leader, the Longford BKA 'Sec', Elspeth, who worked so hard preparing notes and hand outs for our study sessions. We are all very pleased with ourselves. This post will mainly be based around this process, so if you are not interested in beekeeping then you might like to click on by.

L'Aimant (The Lover) 
These 'courses' and exams are an important part of what the Federation of Irish Beekeeper Associations (FIBKA) does and there are plenty of them. If studying and exams are your thing you can progress through the baby-slopes of the half hour, 20 questions 'Preliminary' paper, through three 'Intermediate' exams, up to three 'Senior' exams after which you can call yourself a 'Bee Master'. Onwards and upwards there are then routes into 'proper' academia, with degrees in apiculture and equally high flying qualifications in honey production and so on. No doubt this is all important if you fancy a career in the commercial beekeeping world and these FIBKA certificates would be recognised internationally as proof of competence. Most people seem to do the exams for fun or just to prove they can.

Most of these exams have to be 'sat' in the FIBKA home-base at Gormanston, near Drogheda just north of Dublin, but if your County BKA can field a minimum number of candidates, FIBKA allow you to run the exams locally and appoint proper invigilators and send the papers out in sealed envelopes not to be opened before the exam time and in the exam hall. Hence our 'Magnificent Seven' in Longford. So, we did our study-group evenings and we took our exam and now we are all passed, proud owners of Intermediate Certs in "written practical" (hive and colony management). The obvious next step would be for us all to sit the Intermediate level "scientific" paper (bee biology and anatomy, honey chemistry, bee pheromones etc) followed by undergoing an apiary practical test where FIBKA examiners meet you at your own hives and test your competence at any number of manipulations and tasks - finding the queen, identifying types of queen cell, splitting colonies to produce 2nd hives or colonies and so on.

'Rhapsody in Blue'
Instead, I find myself at a bit of a crossroads and if you will bear with me, I will now ramble on in a rather disjointed, philosophical manner whilst I try to get my head round the problem. As I said - feel free to click on by. There are bee keepers and there are bee keepers - we range from the almost obsessive keeper who, like a golfing nut, spends all his time and money on the hobby, buying all the latest gadgets and gizmos, different types of hives, expensive honey extraction equipment, fancy suits, hive tools and smokers, fancy fuel for the smoker, chemicals and medication.

'Joseph's Coat'
These keepers are into the hives at every opportunity cracking the hive apart to inspect the colony condition, tweaking, manipulating, killing baby queens if they do not want them, trying out all the techniques they have learned, attempting to prevent any swarming, squeezing every ounce of honey production they can get out of the bees. They frequently extract so much honey that their bees would not have enough resources to see them through the winter, so these keepers have to feed back sugar syrup or fondant to replace the 'stolen' reserves. The bees must get no peace but these techniques work at the required level, so they have gone into the canon and are accepted practice among the FIBKA experts. These are the skills at which you must show competence in order to progress through the exam-machine and to be recognised by FIBKA as an expert and 'Bee Master'. These are also the things you are told you "must do" at BKA meetings. Going to meetings and getting involved in clubs are right up there with all the practical stuff you are obliged to learn to get on in the beekeeper world.

Red campion
At the other end of the scale are a much more laisséz faire bunch, some of whom are content to have bought their hive and their bees to look pretty in the garden and they are happy to sit back in the sun-lounger, watching the bees fly to and fro, happily buzzing round the flowers. They don't need the honey, so they don't even extract it. Down towards that end are a more recent group calling themselves 'Natural Beekeepers', who are not quite so laid back, but are mainly driven by the need to be green and ecological. They have bees to support the local population of pollinators but they do not fuss and interfere with the colonies, they try never to use chemicals on their bees (varroa mite pesticides for example) - you will just end up with a colony of bees which needs man and chemicals to survive, they argue. Far better to let the bees 'learn' over time to groom off the mites.

Fruit scones from the baker's assistant.
These guys tend to be viewed sceptically by the 'experts' - weirdo hippies and eco-warriors. There is no real place for them in FIBKA although, to be fair, they do get a slot in the FIBKA magazine and the 'Natural' way does get air-time in the FIBKA conferences. Also I do not think they would meet the exam standards, so they are never going to make 'Bee Master' unless they can talk a good game on the day.

My 'crossroads' is because I am starting to baulk at the demands and advice to constantly interfere, examine, poke and prod, and I am much more inclined to watch them from outside the hive and, if they look healthy to me, leave them be. I know I 'should' be checking for varroa mites, for example, and treating with the latest 'drug' recommended by the experts, but plenty of feedback has come down to say that these chemicals can kill or damage the queen, make the bees abscond or, just as bad, not work anyway. The one we used last year, called MAQS is basically a formic acid fumigant which is so honkingly strong that you choke when you are out in the open air peeling open the packaging - you then stick the strips into an 18 inch cube enclosed box  (the hive) with little ventilation and expect it to diffuse right down into the capped larval cells to kill the mites without harming the bees. Hmmm. No wonder we beginners are confused and start to doubt the official view.

Mum turkey starts a new secret egg stash
down between the poly tunnel and the
I find myself not at all sure I want to be that kind of expert. My current tendency is to go with the Natural Beekeepers and minimise my interference and poking, and possibly to withdraw from the exam-taking path. One strong factor tries to draw me in again. Our 'leader' Elspeth, mentioned in the first paragraph is a Scot and comes from that generation of Scottish girls who were, rather appallingly, never allowed to do science at school. Girls would not need science, it was decided by the Scottish education authorities, so they were not let do it and Elspeth, at this later stage finds herself protesting this by her determination to learn the stuff and sit the exam just to show them. She was so good to us last time round that I expect there is not one among the other 6 of us who do not feel that if she can do it, then we all ought to damned well stand by her and support her through it. Come September, when we have to sign up or not, it will be interesting to see how many of we science-trained blokes are on the list.

I am sorry if that was a bit long winded, but it is a post that has been building up in the back-burners of my brain and needed unloading, venting onto this blog. Blogging as catharsis, if you like. One wise 'old timer' in our club, a beekeeper of 50+ years experience who has never taken one of these exams in his life, just smiles and says "It doesn't matter what you do in the end; the bees will do their own thing anyway!"

New garden strip all dug over. 
The main news to tag onto the end is that we have finished digging the new garden strip out front, so that can now get its membrane, fancy gravel and plants. We are also going to move the roses from the 'Rose Walk' into here. They do OK in there but suffer from the thug-weed 'creeping buttercup' getting in amongst them, so we have fun times ahead lifting them, root-washing them to get out all traces of the buttercup and then dropping them into the new site where, we hope, the weed cannot jump into bed with them.

Then today, on a run down to Roscommon town the car went sick on us again, which is a bit of a nuisance. It made some odd noises, ran hot for a while but then cooled down again, seemed to lose power so that we stopped to take a look under the bonnet (and turned the engine off, obviously) to find it smelling of very hot oil and smoking off some the oil that inevitably builds up on old engines. We had to get it recovered back to our garage in Lough Glynn where our excellent 'man who can' is now looking at it. We suspect head gasket or some other serious problem but of course (wouldn't you know it) when the guy fired it up after its nice cooling period in Roscommon and on the lorry, it fired up beautifully and ran as smoothly as you'd like. More on this story when we know what's what.

Friday 19 June 2015

Lily Tidied Up.

On a gorgeous sunny day we bring the baby turkeys down
for a brief look at some Roscommon sky. 8 days old here.
With Lizzie missing again, I find myself of a mind to catch up on jobs and sort out things that have been hovering in the background. When Liz is around we seem to favour the bigger projects; we seem to be aware of the manhours available working as a pair; weeding the big bed, brush cutting and mowing, cleaning up that cattle race and so on. Liz is off to Silverwood-land again to help out with house-sitting while Mr and Mrs S head for the UK again on a family matter. 'Grandma' (Steak Lady) had been lined up to cover, but it's a complicated week which includes not only the eldest's 17th Birthday, but also her last 'Leaving Cert' exam - good luck with both of those, Em-J! Any parent will tell you that this is one big round of taxi-ing to activities - swimming, scouts, school runs etc, but Liz most recently reported that she was sitting there being fed chowder and steak. Times are hard and it's a tough job this niece-wrangling. I should quickly add that the Silverwood grown-ups have not abandoned their eldest daughter at this crucial time - they will be back for the Birthday and the post-exam.

Lily nicely tidied up.
My first 'tidy up' job was to re-shear the sheep Lily, of whom I had made such a dog's breakfast last time, my first ever go at shearing. She was a shaggy, sorry looking animal and Carolyn down the road had re-named her 'Polly Patch'. I was wary of letting her on the front lawn, in public view in case neighbours crashed their cars laughing. I had been trying to halter train her and had even made a rope halter and then bought to proper ones from the internet. The idea was that if I could get her to stand, calmly, tethered to the gate I could tidy her up upright, still on her feet, where she might feel more secure.

Halter training is, though, a slow old process on adult sheep. Lily has had 3 years of never feeling restrained in ropes around the head and neck, as she is big, heavy and strong enough to try to, should she feel the need, to buck, kick, pull and stampede to freedom. Gently, gently, over the days and weeks using short sessions of only a few minutes, I was getting her used to having the halter on her face, but I was not getting anywhere with restraining her and could see this tidy-up being so far away the rest of the wool on her body would have caught up.

She's not really two-tone. She'd just been rolling in the dust
on her right side. 
She needed to be shorn or risk the dreaded fly-strike (maggots burrowing into the flesh under daggy, thick, sweaty wool around sensitive areas). To cut a long story short, I decided to get stuck back in using as much 'upright' as I could (me straddling the sheep between my legs or leaning my knee into her shoulder against the gate while I worked on the rump) but then having to sit her down to finish the neck. We were all done in about 15 minutes, neither of us too traumatised (!) and she looks a whole lot more presentable, plus I have another bag of cleaner 'inner' wool for Carolyn. A daft part of my brain reminded me that I do indeed have a 'black sheep' and did produce '3 bags full' of wool. The sheep are on the front lawn today - I am proud of them again.

A row of the green-manure plant Phacelia
coming into flower conveniently close
to the hive
I've been needing to get a look into the hive to make sure that we were not bursting at the seams and in need of another honey-super (top box). If you let them run out of space they are more likely to swarm. On with the bee suit good and early this morning; it was about 07:30; the dogs and baby turkeys conspired to get me up at silly o'clock. I just needed to lift the hive lid and a cover board called the 'crown board' to see that, no, they were nowhere near filling the previous 'super'. They had drawn out the honey comb wax on a couple of frames, but there were still 8 frames of 'foundation' sheet available.

Lupins. Like sky-scrapers of colour for
the bees - mainly bumble bees. 
I am actually convincing myself here that the swarming season has come and gone without us - everyone we know round here had swarms a-plenty a couple of weeks back but our bees stayed put. This may be because having been moved here from Longford in April and given some new space then, they 'think' they have done the job already. Never say never, though. While I write this indoors on a Friday afternoon, all sorts might be going on out at the apiary.

This is my favourite of all our 'Granny's Bonnets'.
Most are reds and purples and this yellow makes a
nice change. 
On a lovely hot day recently, we let the baby turkeys out into an empty rabbit run in the yard so they could enjoy the sights and sounds (I thought), while I took the opportunity to swap out their baby-crate and the IR bulb, for a bigger brood box made out of two huge potato crisp boxes and using the new 'electric hen' heater plate. I had carried the birds down in a cat basket and left them in the run, still in the basket, with the basket door open. In fact, they are nervous little things and did not emerge from the basket all day even with food as temptation. However, they do like their new heater plate and we prefer that system to the IR bulbs which are lit 24/7 so the birds must never know when to sleep. They can now huddle down under 'Mum' as it gets dark and wake up with renewed vigour (and noisy demands for breakfast) as soon as it's light, which is about 05:30 round here at present. I wonder do they make electric hens with thick, blackout curtains.

Double flowered Granny's Bonnet
Our 'Hen with One Chick' is still doing a good job on the little one, who is now 4 and a half weeks old and well feathered. This morning I saw the pair of them in the grown-ups chicken house with Mum showing the baby how high are the top perches on the perching 'ladder'. The chick was a good 5 feet off the ground and must have got there by 3 hops up the ladder. It presumably got down safely as the pair were soon out in the garden again. You see it doing all the chicken behaviours in miniature - scratching, pecking, dust-bathing, nipping into the feeding melée to grab a treat, stretching up to flap its wings on tip-toe. Unfortunately this good news, new life story is balanced by a sad one. One of our old original Sussex Ponte hens who had been helping me garden and snatching worms not 15 minutes earlier, I found stood stock still looking very very sick - hunched over and with her back end sagged right down to the ground. Her eyes were shut. A quick inspection revealed that she'd had some kind of massive prolapse of either egg-duct or gut and had bled badly. There was no coming back from that so the kindest thing was to cull her quickly out. Then there were 2.

Enough mowing for today? The giants snooze under the
newest (empty) hive
Finally, I had been getting on with digging across the front of the house for our new flower bed. This bit was cut out from the lawn by the new sheep fence and is a strip 2.4m by 15m. It is due to be 'membrane'd, covered with pea-shingle and planted with (mainly) white flowers and spot-planted with roses. I'd been attacking it at an hour a day, which was enough to dig you from one fence post to the next. I put in an hour and a bit today to finish the job off. We have the membrane. Now we need to order the gravel - we need to get the terminology right in this "foreign" land. What I know as "pea shingle" from the UK is amber and goldie coloured, rounded stuff like small beach pebbles. I have seen that described here as 'drainage stone' and anything carrying the name "decorative stone" here is likely to get you green or blue glass 'beads' like you get round the graveyard. We are hoping that the contact name we have been given might let us come to his yard and choose from his stockpiles. It'll be grand.... it'll be fine... what could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Tuesday 16 June 2015

First-Born Feste Finished

61 lbs of ram lamb carcass
This is another one of those posts you might like to avoid if you are not happy with the butcher's stage of the production of those New Season Lamb cutlets that look so delicious on your plate. Our main event this week was the collection of the carcass of our first-born ram lamb, Feste, taken off on his final journey last Tuesday. My fears were that in having to get him out of the way because of the risk of him tupping his Mum or Auntie, he was killed at 5 months old and I thought he'd be a tiny carcass. No such thing. He was a chunky lad, and had made similar weight to the store lambs we have done before, at 61 lbs.

That old favourite job - portioning, bagging and
labelling the cuts for the freezer.
The butcher's 'mate' Joe was even given to a mutter about him being 'too big' and bigger than the ones they'd handle through the shop, but main butcher Igantius G reassured us that as he was a ram lamb he'd not be fat, just nicely conformed. That was true - we got very little 'suet' off him.

A lamb chop and a salad "of incident"
Due to Feste being born so early and therefore finished early, we actually still have a bit of last year's lamb in the freezers which we will use up before we start on this 'New Season' meat, but we couldn't let this event pass without at least trying the lamb out, so we saved a chop each from the ice and had it for supper with a lovely salad. Very nice he was too. We now need to plan those 2014 lamb shanks, cutlets and the stewing 'breast' meat into menus to clear the decks. As to lamb for those readers who are normally  included in this largesse, do not worry. We only produced three of our own lambs this year, so we are back in contact with our old sheep-supplier, Kenny about store lambs to make up the numbers. Kenny is doing his usual 'Scarlet Pimpernel' routine but we expect he will turn up all of a sudden with his usual request to meet him with a trailer and some cash somewhere.

Meanwhile, Liz has joined me (again) in being a blogger. Again because she has written a private blog for a while, but this one is a bit special. The guy running the website for nearby village 'Kilmovee' put out a shout for anyone living in the area who would like to write a guest-blog, just light hearted stuff about living here, once a month. Liz thought she would give it a try and contacted him, and got accepted/selected. She has just written her 2nd one. Liz called it "Smallholder Life" and you can find it on this link.


Scraping the floor of the cattle-race clean
We are both very pleased with it  and happy to help out - we both know how hard it can be to keep a website fresh after the initial surge of enthusiasm has worn off. Mind you, Kilmovee seems to have quite a lot going on at the moment in particular with the completion of a new 'astro-turf' (all weather playing surface) sports facility as well as a thatched roof heritage centre both of which they have managed to photo from the air, I suspect with one of those new-fangled pilotless drone camera-platform thingies.

Young European Lime tree finding its feet
What else have we been up to? We have been loving a recent burst of just a few hot days and we've spent most of the daylight hours outside. We have been digging along a new front garden bed, formerly lawn and we have been giving the cattle race a thorough blitz. The concrete of the race is a bit old and pitted and the cracks and dents accumulate pine needles and muck plus, I guess, sheep-poo, daggy bits of wool, spilled feed. It all makes for a great substrate for grass and weeds, so in the few years since we first stripped it clean for the caravan (ahh the nostalgia!) it was getting quite a healthy turf layer; it needed mowing, never mind scraping! Well, that's all done now and we are back to pristine concrete - it even got hosed and brushed down which was a job which took me right back to student days, cleaning up the cattle pens at the end of a milking down in Westfield (Sussex). Moor Farm. Even more nostalgia. See also the haymaking pic below.

Local lad Kevin R gets the vintage gear out for a spot of
haymaking in the field opposite this house. 
Back in 2015 we have now made contact with three more local beekeepers, we are suddenly over-run with them. When I first got into bees I was a bit worried that I was the only bee keeper for miles and that any new virgin queens which went out on mating flights from our hive(s) might not actually find any male bees (drones) with which to mate. We now know of beekeepers at most points of the compass within the required 10 km or so of us, so this should not be a problem.

(Spoiler: Bee facts paragraph(s) - skip on by if bees are not your thing). You may not know that an emerging queen bee must get out and get mated on a mating flight (or more than one) within a few weeks of 'hatching', or she is doomed. Male bees in warm weather go out in numbers from the hive during afternoons and gather in specific patches of 'sky' called Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) and these have to be found by the virgin queen - she zooms through the DCA chased by a 'comet-tail' of sexed up drones who each try to mate with her. She plans to be mated by 12-20 drones in quick succession (they get about 10 seconds a pop and actually die in the process), each 'successful' drone falling away from Her Majesty, to be shoved aside by the next suitor. In this way, amazingly, she takes in enough sperm from many different Dads to keep her laying fertile eggs at up to 1500 per day for up to about 4 years. It is presumably a short sex-life but a happy one. She returns to the hive to be welcomed home by her workers and never leaves the hive again till swarming time.

New toys for the chicken dept - an 'electric hen' chick-heater
and leg rings. 
No-one really knows why DCAs are where they are, though many have been 'there' consistently for decades. Some research in the German Alps suggests that the position has something to do with 'U' or 'V' shaped horizons, but beyond that it is just something hard-wired into bee DNA all around the world - the males know where to congregate and the females know where they will be. We just trust that somewhere around here, devoid as we are of alps, there will be a piece of sky which suits the boys from Moyne, Kilmovee, Driney, Feigh and is find-able by the ladies. Party on, bees. Bee genetics is a bit complex, partly because your queen is the mother of all the 50,000 bees in your hive, but also that drones are 'haploid' (they only have 50% of the chromosomes, 16 not 32) and are produced from unfertilized eggs (they have no father, only a grand-dad!), but suffice it to say that it is better for the queen to mate with a good mix of bee gene-pool from your area, not just the drones from your own hive(s). Enough, I suspect, on bees for now.

One of our honey bees on Summer Fruiting Raspberries
Anyway, our new friends are a young couple (A and TS) from beyond Lisacul to the west of us. They have a lovely neat place but no livestock as they are given to long tours of Europe in the summer months. The other is an aul' fella called Joe who comes from near the village of Moyne, to the east of us. We all met round at A+T's place just to drink tea and chat but also so that Joe could help them go through their 4 hives to check on general health and queen-right status. All good clean fun. We also met their lunatic female Patterdale Terrier, Patey who would, literally, play retrieving tennis balls all day if you had the strength in your arm to keep throwing it for her. Settle her down for a breather and relax for a few minutes but then, if your hand was low in your lap and palm upwards, you would soon find a ball dropped into the palm as Patey was bored now and needed some more ball throwing fun. Unusual name? Apparently, when she was a puppy her fur was black and velvetty like the cover of a 'Patey' style trad horse riding hat. (http://www.pateyhats.com/).