Monday 31 August 2015

Sausage Stuffing Failure.

The impressive looking sausage meat grinder /
sausage stuffer. This is it doing the first (coarse)
pass on our cubed belly pork. 
The expression "You don't win them all" was ringing in our ears today when we failed rather disastrously to make any more than 4 sausages. The short version of this story would read 'failed to slide any casings onto the stuffer horn' which, if you have played this game, you may already be problem-solving me.

We had been loaned the use of an almost-new and very shiny, impressive looking sausage meat grinding machine cum sausage stuffer to have a play with some of our belly pork. These machines are like an electric version of aul' Granny's hand grinder -  a funnel drops the diced meat down a tube, a worm-drive pushing meat through a perforated plate via a spinning blade but they convert, by swapping the blade and plate for a plastic spacer and a tapered plastic tube over which you slide the concertina'd tube of "sausage skins" (casings). You run the twice-ground meat, rusk and flavourings mix back through and allow the casings to be gently pulled off the horn by the mix extruding through the exit hole. Every 3 inches or so you give the filled casing a deft twist and then you expertly knit three strands of sausage into those professional links of 'sossies' that festoon butchers shops. What could possibly go wrong?

On the right 'plain' sausage meat; on the left with apple and sage
We were grand to start with, going great guns, "away on a hack" as they say. The meat all went through the grinder, got mixed with our expertly prepared seasoned and wetted rusk mixture, got split into two and run back through the grinder on the smaller 'screen' - 5 mm holes - in two halves, one as was, the other with apple and sage added. We broke for coffee and the man-made casings which came with the machine got to soak in warm water, still in their concertinas as per the instructions.

4 sausages was our lot. Not our finest hour. 
That is when the wheels came off the operation. Right there where it is all supposed to get funny, with endless potential for schoolboy toilet humour and good old British smutty innuendo and 'double-entendre'. The casings, once wet and pliable are meant to slide easily onto the horn using wet slithery hands to (yeah... I know... stop tittering at the back!) slide yards of it up there, hand over hand so that you can subsequently pump as may yards of sausage meat down the horn carefully releasing folds of casing concertina as you go. You try to avoid air bubbles and take care not to split the casing as you deftly twist the  filled skin every 3-4 inches or so. We have since seen YouTube videos showing demonstrators whizzing yards of casing up their horns, barely pausing to untwist the empty casing lest it become entangled at the end.

The chickens celebrate Liz's Birthday
Our problem was trying to get ANY of the casing over our 'horn' end without splitting it. It was a stretch to get it over and even when we managed to get a start, it was very tight to try to slide it up the tapered shape of the horn tube. The casing inevitably burst after a few inches, and the split would then run the full length of the loaded bit and you had to start over with a cut off, unsplit empty end. We took turns, both trying to help.

Bergamot, a gift from Anne last year. We thought we had
killed it all, but we have 2 surviving clumps.
Eventually I reckoned I had very slowly got about a foot on, so Liz started pumping (Stop it!) and we created 3 sausages before the casing then split once more and we had to start again. I then got another short length to work, one more sausage, but we were by then so fed up and frustrated that we decided to freeze the remaining meat for pies, scotch eggs or a 2nd attempt when we knew what we were doing wrong or what was wrong with the method or kit. Our total output for all that effort, then, 4 bangers and a 1.1 kg lump of frozen sausage meat. I put pictures of what we had up on Facebook to see would anyone suggest anything or spot any howlers.

The hollyhocks are looking good out front.
The concensus seems to be that we have a wrong size of casings for the spout/horn. This could well be right. The outside diameter of the smaller, exit end of the horn is 21 mm. The concertinas of casing in their raw dry state are about 16 mm internal diameter. We may well be trying to slide chipolata or Irish breakfast sausage casings up the horn designed for standard British bangers. To be fair, the lenders of the machine had not tried out these particular casings and are now in search of bigger ones and possibly natural 'gut' casings. We are all beginners fumbling around in the dark. They will probably be the next people to try this so they are as interested as we are in getting it right. None of us knew that you could get different size casings unless you were trying to make big salamis and chorizos etc and the butcher would not have known the machine size when he generously handed the pack over. Finally, to add insult to injury, I tried 2 of the sausages we HAD made and they split badly as soon as they hit the fat of the frying pan, so I squished them flat with the spatula - I might as well have just lumped in a couple of uncased patties of the meat! Delicious though!

Brawn with loads of fresh parsley in it.
Well, we may not (yet) be any good at the sausages but we are pretty good at other foodstuffs. Liz claimed the brawn job this year so she had all the fun of boiling up those heads for hours with a few trotters thrown in for added jellification. She has produced a classic among brawns having adding late on in the process, fistfuls of the fresh parsley which now thrives in our polytunnel and has also produced as a sideline 5 good litres of an epic pork stock which sets as a jelly when it cools. To freeze it in foil portion-tubs I was more slicing blocks off than ladling it out.

Salmon baked in cream with cucumber and lemon juice.
My chance to shine came over Liz's Birthday weekend. The family tradition is that the Birthday girl/boy can choose the menu but the spouse cooks it and Liz, having sneaked the chance to cook 'first chops from new pigs' from under my nose (delicious, fried with crushed juniper berries and lemon juice), let me do family favourite, Theodora Fitzgibbon's old Irish recipe of salmon baked in cream with cucumber and lemon juice. We both love this recipe while always being delighted that the lemon juice does not curdle the cream.

Split pig skulls as art materials?
Lastly we may have taken the "everything but the squeal" and recycling thing a bit further than was wise this week. We have a friend in Wales who is a successful professional artist. No names at present because we have not checked with her that she doesn't mind me posting a link from these less hallowed halls; this lady holds exhibitions of her latest work and installations. We know she is good and does well and we admire the quality of her work but she will not mind me saying that the product is not to everyone's taste; you would maybe call it 'thought provoking' if you were being ambivalent, perhaps 'unusual' or 'weird'; if you were being less polite. Liz finds some of it rather too unsettling to want any in the house on our walls.

By the admission of her own website "Her themes are magical, often found in folklore, fairytales or the manifestations of the strange around us, but just as magical is her transubstantiation of thoughts into haunting visual images – her translation of woven baskets into a drawn language as intricate and ordered as the baskets themselves, her conjuring of pieces of lace or coral as reliquaries of past life, or her invention of a scene so impossibly familiar that one wonders if it has rekindled a spark of lost memory." In practise she paints raggedy crows and magpies perching on babies cradles, pictures featuring skulls and mythical runes and folkloric stuff.

Tidy sized mushrooms coming off the front lawn now.
When she is creating 3D stuff, models and the like, the work can include real teeth and other parts. For this reason, it occurred to Liz that the lady might like our pig skulls from the brawn-boil, teeth and all and when Liz suggested it, our artist was delighted. Naturally, Liz wanted to clean them up a bit before posting them off so they got more boiling and a good scrub and pick over with an old toothbrush and assorted sharp 'picks'. They are packed and ready to go - we just need to decide what desription to put on the customs docket! We will be fascinated to see what the lady makes of them and with them. That may be years away. She apparently finds or sees things and they can then be a long time rattling round in her head before she thinks of something to make with them.

Friday 28 August 2015

The Butcher's Apprentice

Mary and Isabelle enjoy their last few days, here chatting to
one of the westies
This is another one of those posts you might like to avoid if you do not want to know about the messier side of meat production. The back end of this week saw our two Berkshire gilts 'finished' at just over 6 months and weighing around 60 kg each live-weight. I have posted before that these ladies were way lighter than last year's Tamworths who were fed to demand and laid down what we thought was an excessive amount of fat. Even JD Bob was a little disparaging about their size, but we know he comes from a tradition of pig rearing in Ireland 40+ years ago when very fat baconers were the thing. No, we stuck to our guns and we are delighted with them.

Practise loading - the pigs get fed in the trailer for 2 days prior
to D-Day. That way they load without fuss when you need them to
They were booked into pork butcher Webb's in Castlerea for Thursday morning which puts us into needing to practise-load for the Monday afternoon and for Tuesday and Wednesday. Readers here last year will know that we built a special 'race' from their gate to the top of that slope into which we could 'plug' the trailer with no room for pigs to sneak round the sides. On D-3 we then give them a nice long, leisured explore. It doesn't do to hurry pigs anywhere. You are better off throwing down some fruit and letting them find it at their own speed.

Who needs a fridge-van? 4 half pigs and a bag
of 'bits' fit into the Fiat with the seat down.
Then on D-2 and D-1 we feed them in the trailer and they soon get into the rhythm of sprinting up the race and the trailer ramp, shoulder-barging their sister to one side in order to claim the 'best' bowl of meal. Then on D-Day morning you put the bowls in with only fruit (no nuts) and up they go so that you can quietly close the trailer door behind them. The 'no nuts' thing is just because the butchers prefer you to 'fast' pigs prior to slaughter so that the innards are more manage-able at the cleaning stage (Sorry if you're just enjoying your tea!)

I get to play with the new bone-saw
This year we had decided to have a go at the butchery ourselves. The slaughter (including cleaning the carcass, scalding and scraping and splitting in half down the spine, costs €50 per animal and the butchery costs another €50, so we were saving €100. We had a rough idea what to do and, for a laugh, we watched a You-Tube video on "Cutting up half a 'hog' ", 2 and a half minutes of American 'good aul' boys' complete with bushy beards and baseball caps plus random discussions of last night's drinking session and chicken noises off! However, this unlikely 'training resource' explained perfectly where to make the first cuts, how to pull out the 'leaf-lard' (big sheet of top-quality fat which lines the abdominal cavity) and other useful tips, so don't deride it till you've tried it.

In we went, then with all the big chopping boards mustered on the (bleached and scrubbed!) dining table and the knives and my new bone-saw all razor sharp. We completed the first animal in about an hour with a nice ham selected and readied for brining for Christmas and a whole leg chosen for a dry-cure 'Parma' ham style air-dried long mature. I took a break to walk dogs and for coffee, before we tackled the 2nd animal. We found that we were getting better with each half-carcass - some of the first cuts were a bit 'rookie apprentice' but the 4th was a better, more pro-job. I was particularly pleased with how the proper saw worked having only before experienced a carpenter hack-saw (worse than useless). If anyone reading this is contemplating butchery, then your bone-saw will be €40 or so very well spent. It cuts through bone in a jiffy and never clogs with sinew, bone fragments or myelin sheath. We also like quite thick pork chops and we were delighted to find that by sawing through the 'discs' of the spine and running a knife up between the ribs we got fewer, but thicker chops. If you look at supermarket chops you will find that they are half a vertebra and various sharp-ended part ribs because they are band-sawed through perpendicular to the spine, every half inch or so regardless of where the ribs and vertebrae sit.

The Christmas Day ham.
We weighed one of the halves and found it to be 21.3 kg, so a whole animal is 42.6 kg, which is a very useful 71.6% conversion live/carcass. That is about right for pigs. We had also had the heads, hearts and livers back from Mr Webb and the kidneys were still in the carcass halves. Mr Webb had also very generously offered to split the heads ready for the brawn (head-cheese) making and I only needed to cut them again top from bottom (separating the jaws) for them to fit into Liz's big brawn-pots. As I write this, they are now boiled or boiling gently prior to all the onward processing tomorrow. We love our brawn and Liz has found a smashing recipe which uses plenty of parsley; a herb we have in abundance growing in the polytunnel.

A leg gets well smothered in dry-cure
mix (salt, sugar, star anise,
bay, peppercorns, coriander and chilli)
We also decided to try some more salt curing. We picked out a nice cut of ham weighing 6 kg and have brined it in a wet-cure mix of salt, sugar, bay, onion, garlic, lovage, mustard seeds, cloves, chilli, allspice and peppercorns. This will get just 48 hours in brine, then be cleaned, patted dry and frozen till December. Next we chose a full leg intending to do the 'Parma' ham salt cure / air dry on it. This gets a longer cure (21 days) smothered in a dry mix of salt and sugar plus I had some fun with the big pestle and mortar "lightly crushing" a mix of star anise, bay, peppercorns, coriander and chilli. I love all that pounding. I think my favourite expression in this area is when you "pound the garlic to snot". 'Nuff said, maybe. The cure recipes have come from our lovely new books from Steak Lady. Thanks, SL!

Liz surveys the wreckage.
How am I going to fit all this into the freezer?
Well, 4 hours or so in we were all done. Mountains of bagged pork cuts and bags of scraps, dog bones and suet have been assigned to their places in the big stand-up freezer(s). The sawn-up heads are being reduced to brawn. The cured joints are sitting in their cure. There was only ever going to be one thing on the menu for supper tonight - those lovely thick pork chops.

Liz served them with slices of Ottolenghi's cauliflower cake and we both decided two small edits of the recipes to suit local conditions. OUR pork chops need nothing like the amount of butter that Nigel Slater uses for dry old supermarket chops and OUR eggs do not need the support of all that yellow turmeric to make the 'cake' look bright. The dogs have also done very well today what with some bits of raw pork rib (their absolute favourite food) during the butchery and some roasted ear and tail later on as a treat.

More dustbin lid art. This time for the turkey 'finisher'
That was that. Pigs and butchery all done for 2015. Next year we are fairly sure we will do this again but try with the Tamworth ginger pig breed again but on our 'maintenance diet' of 1.4 kg meal per animal per day; to see if we can reduce the thickness of that subcutaneous fat layer. Meanwhile the pig patch is in recovery mode, even though it is very poached up and wet. We plan to let it all dry out a bit then slot some spring bulbs into each hoof print, rake it over and sow buckwheat and more phacelia into the bare areas. We feel nicely 'Harvest Festival' ish. All is safely gathered in, freezers are rammed with meat, Autumn is looking like it is here and we are both very well fed tonight and pleasantly mellow on Lidl's very quaffable 'Baturrica 2010' (tarragona) Spanish plonk. Cheers.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

All Growed Up?

We do not claim to be experts in Meteorology but we are reasonably knowledge-able (A level in Geography, Environmental Science as part of the degree, that kind of thing) and we are sure that we had around 3 inches of rain over Saturday night into Sunday morning. This would be quite amazing and I am sure I would think "pull the other one" if it was only being told to me by a "bloke in the pub". I remember that rain guages are all a standard shape and size, with known diameter, knife-sharp horizontal rim, placed out dead-level in an uninterupted air-flow and so on. Well, we don't have that but I did have a vertical-sided bucket which I am 99% sure was empty the day before, and accumulated a good 3 inches of rain overnight. My second witness would be the all night roar and hiss of rain on roofs and windows. My third the huge puddles all around the place on Sunday on what had been only damp ground and I would also draw your attention (M'Lud) to the River Lung under Feigh Bridge being higher than I have even seen it and Lough Feigh being fuller. Under the bridge a large diameter pipe drains water into the river from fields on the west bank and is normally a good 6 feet above the water so that water falls in quite an impressive 'force'. I have seen on previous wet spells, the water half way up this pipe but yesterday (Monday) it was over-topped. Finally in Met Éireann data, Knock Airport had 37 mm on the Saturday, up to midnight and I can easily believe that another 38 mm fell after that (data not yet published - perhaps they are double checking their figures too!)

A first tiny egg from 'OneChick'?
Meanwhile, back with the poultry, all hunkered down in the buildings out of this rain (and me hunkered down playing on t'internet) we think we have had a first egg from 'OneChick'. OneChick was hatched in late May by one of the Buffs in the Tígín, so she is only 3 months old; a bit young to be laying eggs but if not her, then we don't know where this came from. There has only been the one so far, so maybe she is just practicing being a grown up.

OneChick at 3 months.
Actually, we are a little confused by her parentage and as she grows up and starts to look like an adult bird, we are no longer so certain she is purebred Buff Orpington, which had been our first guess. She is losing her Buff-Orp shape and getting a bit longer legged and necked. Also she has a few dark feathers in her wings and one or two dark tail feathers, which I do not think Buffs are "allowed". She also has a dark 'cere'; the flesh where the nostrils come out, above the base of the beak. None of our pure Buffs have that. Her father will definitely be a Buff as these are the only roosters we currently have, but if biological Mum is not a Buff, she might have been either of 2 other red-ish 'breeds' we have. We have the red Hubbard, 'Miss Scarlett' still laying. We also have a couple of hybrids which we call the 'Mini-Buffs'. They were bought as Buff eggs but proved when hatched and grown to be smaller and short-legged like some kind of bantam as well as having dark feathers in the tail and cape, as per Sussex hens. Ah well, she is a delightful little thing and if she proves to be a reliable layer, she is welcome here.

Part of the last joint of the 2014 lamb meat, a leg coated in herby
bread-crumbs and then slow roasted at 100ºC for 6 hours.
Hot on OneChick's heel in the growing up race, come the Two Chicks hatched by the Buff under the elderberry bush. These two are now two months old, fully feathered but not very independent. Up till last night they had all crowded into the little space in the Tígín at night, where OneChick was hatched. Then last night at lock up I found the pair wandering in the yard, cheeping in a confused manner, but with no Mum in attendance. I eventually found her in the grown-ups coop happily settling down to roost with her 'sisters'. She had apparently decided to move house without telling the youngsters or they had not been listening. I had to shepherd them gently into the coop where they continued to cheep on the floor as if seeking permission to sleep in this strange adult world. I checked them a few minutes later and they had worked it out. They were up with the Mums and Aunts on the perching ladder. Poor sweet little mites.

Em-J in the Debs dress
Talking of growing up, another 'Proud Uncle' post - the niece and God-Daughter, Em-J who featured in a recent post as getting good results in her Leaving Cert exams is tonight making that modern Rite of Passage claimed by all young Irish ladies, the 'Debs' (Debutantes' Ball). Best bib and tucker for the lads, glad-rags, hand-bags and the best jewellery for the lasses, with Mums, Grans, Aunts and assorted family friends all converging on the place to help get the Deb ready and to see her off to the posh 'Reception' at 4 pm. Liz has hot-footed it down to Silverwoods to be part of this and to spend the night celebrating at the homestead with the Silverwood parents. She has promised to take some pics and ping them up here via the miracle of the Internet, so I promise in my turn to edit them into this post as soon as I get them.

I am unable to attend (though sure I'd LOVE to spend several hours in female 'getting ready' mode!) because I have 2 other 'growing ups' to worry about - our piggies Mary and Isabelle are now 'ready' and booked off on their final journey Thursday morning. Our experience tells us that the best way to persuade pigs to climb up an unfamiliar wooden ramp into a trailer is to start 3 days earlier, giving them their breakfasts and suppers up there. They soon learn that the trailer is 'safe' and full of food so that, on Thursday morning we can load them quietly and calmly with nobody getting stressed out. That is the intention - in an ideal world the pigs get right up to the slaughter-man's stun-gun (or humane killer) without a Scooby-Doo that they are in danger.

Friday 21 August 2015

The Wild Bunch

The turkeys seem to have melded into an all-age gang. Here
one of the first hatch is far left, then Tom and Barbara, with the
surviving 2nd hatch ('Solo') far right and the other plus the young
Guineas at the back.
First in this post. a quick note to close out the story of our sparrowhawk and, more specifically, whether I could have done any more for her. Anne told us of "Eagles Flying", a falconry centre half an hour's drive away. I e-mailed their office describing our situation to see what they could offer in the way of A&E vets and recuperative care.

One 'Lothar' replied with

"Having an absolutely fresh fracture, it is not a major challenge to reset the bones, as long as the joints are not affected. Ideally the bird will be anaesthetized before the procedure. Of course 9 pm is not the best time to find a working Vet,  but the wound could have been dressed up, the bone ends disinfected and kept moist (saline solution) and the bird kept dark in a box until the next day. A Vet being very good with these things is Dr. Niall Curran, Animal Hospital, Moneen, Castlebar"

Steak Lady (left) and Mr SL (r) bring the sun with them for
a quick visit to look round and catch up. 
Fair play to them for a good, helpful and professional reply. In answer to a follow up question they replied that they would of course be happy to accept the 'fixed' bird to do the recuperation and possible rehabilitation and release back to the wild. If you are ever in our situation then, as they say. "now you know" but for me, reading between the lines from my slightly guilty viewpoint, having destroyed the bird, I could see a couple of issues which still lead me back to having done the right thing. One was that Niall Curran, though no doubt an excellent vet, probably does not work for free and Eagles Flying looked a bit like they were swerving the vet costs in my direction. The second was that I was not 100% sure the hawk could ever be released back to the wild so that I might have just created one more captive 'zoo' bird. So, there it is. Make of it all what you will.

Ear tag number 274. I love this bullock. 
My other continuing saga is of JD Bob and the cattle which you will be delighted to know are now pretty much sorted, all be it with 2 new twists in the plot. Bob himself has now been diagnosed with a possible broken bone in his foot and hence his failure to 'get better' as quickly as he'd like and we therefore have a run to Roscommon's embattled hospital next week for X-rays etc. Then last night quite late we took an anxious call from Bob who had spotted a break out. One of the groups of 7 bullocks had managed to break a fence post and escape into the neighbouring farmer's land, hungry for some female company. We had a bit of running around today, then (another example of Bob failing to rest his injured foot!) to extract the 7 from the girls' territory and repair the broken fence.

The original 'Wild Bunch' (those who were jumping the fences "like hunters") were finally corraled and collected by the meat factory. Everyone was pleased to be finished with them.

Theo, who is a tiny little man, is almost eye to eye
with our enormous turkey, Tom as they warily
check each other out. 
On Tuesday we play host to Liz's Mum and Dad, Steak Lady and Mr SL who come up to give Liz a bit of an early birthday treat and presents, to have a look round and to take a light lunch. With impeccable timing the sun bursts through the cloud and we can all enjoy a beautiful warm sit out front like normal people do in warm sunny August in places other than Roscommon (!).

Those biro-thick feather shafts emerging from Tom's tail.
Tom the turkey comes over to check out the 'strangers' but quickly decides they are harmless and welcome and joins our matey little group at the terrace table. As he grows back his new feathers after his moult which had him very threadbare and woe-begone, he is now starting to look magnificent again. The 'shield' feathers on the lower wing are a beautiful burnished bronze colour and the tail fan is starting to look a bit peacock shaped. We are impressed by the size of the feather shafts for these big feathers, which are as thick as a biro.

This lovely set of books were part of Liz's birthday present.
Finally a bit of sad news to relate as we lost a good friend, Sean R suddenly. He was a lovely, popular man and always so full of life, the father of one of the students Liz teaches and husband to Dawn, who has appeared in these posts. They were the family involved in recent goat-move posts and the people who gave us the cat, 'Soldier' because they were planning to move back home to the UK. Our thoughts are with the family at this sad and difficult time. Rest in Peace, Sean; way too young and taken too soon. We will miss you.

Monday 17 August 2015

New Horizons

Pretty but disappointingly scent-less, these lily bulbs from Lidl
I wrote in the last post of our having to hospitalize one of the younger turkeys, struggling with a bloody, cut swelling on the right side of his (her?) head just behind the eye. We think this poor guy had taken a whack from the sparrowhawk before that had been chased away (unsuccessfully, you will have read) by our big male turkey, Tom. Well, the little fella struggled on moopishly through Weds, Thurs and Friday but, although we got some cod liver oil and some water into him he did not eat anything and did not recover. On Saturday he went downhill fast and by 5 pm the kindest thing seemed to be to put him out of his misery. Shame.

One turbine is up. A second, to it's left is still on the ground
in 'kit form'
On our northern skyline we suddenly have two new features, huge wind turbine towers as part of the new Roosky Windfarm. This impressive title actually only covers the pair of them. The 'farm' is around 3.5 km from here, roughly North. When the huge tall crane appeared I assumed it might be for drilling of water-wells but, no, this windfarm has had planning permission since 2003. It is all on the land of one land owner and he agreed to the farm and takes, I gather, an annual 'compensation' from the power company Gaelectric. The turbines are being assembled and erected by, a big civil engineering company.

The websites for Gaelectric and Moriarty are not that up to date but I read that the two turbines plus associated buildings, cabling and power sub-stations etc will cost around €8m, they can put out 4 MW of electricity and supply the power to 1800 homes. The towers are 84 m high and the blade (propellor) diameter is 80 m. With one blade vertical, then, the total height is 124 m or 406 feet. There will also be a meteorological mast on site.

The second turbine under construction.
Unless you have been living in a bubble these past few decades, you will know that these things are controversial and there are plenty of folk who are anti, either because they don't like them near their property, or they do not like the visual impact on scenery, or they have concerns about migrating birds and such. I have to say that I am quite supportive of the need for alternative sources of energy (though not nuclear power, till we find out how to dispose of the waste) but I do accept that we are not at the end of a design / improvement road yet.

View from our hilltop with a standard lens - not that much
of an eye-sore!
Also, I might think differently if these tall structures were our immediate neighbours, of course. We are told that they can be quite noisy when spinning in a good wind and we like our country silence. I have taken a standard-lens shot from our hill top to give you a more realistic view of what we see. Not that much of an eyesore, I think you'll agree. If you look closely at the first pic you might be able to see the many turbines of the bigger Gorteen windfarm "behind" our pair, up on that hill. If the bright sun glints on the spinning blades and white towers and there is a dark sky behind, you can see those distant turbines too. Liz and I both find them quite graceful and elegant in design.

Bob's cattle tuck into some new season silage. The weather
had been so poor for grass growth that they had grazed off
all his non-silage land and he had had to bring this group
indoors to rest the grass.
Closer to home, I am still assisting JD Bob with his cattle. (Amusing aside warning!). It is definitely "cattle" round here because these are bullocks. The word 'cows' is only applied to the females, so you can ask Bob how his cows are and he will look you straight in the eye anxious to correct your wrong impression of him as a farmer and say "I have no cows, Matt, only these bullocks and a few 'weanlings' "(young calves just off Mum's milk). I am regularly caught out by this 'trap'. Lost in translation. This has been a bit of a run around with different groups of cattle being shifted between loactions while grass fields were rested.

The outdoor group get a couple of cow-with-calf-at-foot
pairs put in with them to try to calm the flighty boys down. 
There was added drama when a couple of more flighty bullocks took off across the fields at a round-up "jumping the fence like a hunter" (said Bob) and spent some time in with Mike-the-Cows's rental grazers (and the bull, Felix). The escapists have now been extracted from that group but not before one of them over-ran his 30 month old limit for top prices at the meat factory in Ballyhaunis. This is not, apparently, the same as the 'mad-cow' age limit in the UK, but the meat factories deduct money for older cattle for quality reasons. At least one of the cattle-men I have spoken to chunters about the factories "just playing games" to diddle the farmer, when they themselves are currently doing very nicely out of the Euro/Sterling exchange rate, thank you.

White lace cap hydrangea.
For me this 'work' is nearly done. Bob is getting better each day from his leg injury, most of the cattle from the indoor groups have now been returned to their rested fields and the 'escapists' plus a few more are due to be collected by the meat-factory's cattle-truck in a few days. I will miss them (especially gentle old 274 with his pale-buff limousin colouring and big soft eyes, bless him). I like cattle and I admire these beefy, chunky 2-year olds, plus I like working with them. We do not have the land or infra-structure to 'do' any of the full sized commercial-beef animals ourselves, but we have talked about keeping one or two of the diminutive Dexter variety. Dreams, I guess. May never happen.

The bee blanket in use this week.
Even closer to home, Liz has been getting on with the sewing-machine 'evening classes' and has started to branch out from throw cushions and test squares. I commissioned a 'bee blanket', a roughly 18 inch square of dense, opaque material which you drop over the hive frames when you go in to examine the hive, and then peel/roll back frame by frame as you work. This saves having to expose all the bees immediately to daylight (and heat-loss) before you need to - you start at the back frame and it takes a few minutes to examine each, so the last frames can stay snug and dark while you work.

We prefer the white variety of Japanese Anenome, though
 these flowers are a bit rain-bashed.
Liz has also decided to give a try to making actual bee-keeper suits with all the zips and all-enclosing shape that they entail, including the wire hoops stiffening the veil and the mesh visor itself. She has sneaked my suit off to one evening class to get the pattern worked out and has today been measuring me in all directions and has gone in armed with all the special cloth (white 'drill') and bits and pieces. Brave girl.

Thursday 13 August 2015

A Pig in a Poke.

An excellent list of As, Bs and Cs
gets Em-J a handsome 425 points.
This blog has now been running for so long that our dear niece, Em-J, who first appears as a lock-gate wrangler on our 2007 narrowboat holiday aged just 9, has now moved all through 'big school' and come out the other end as one of the tens of thousands of students getting their 'Leaving Cert' results this week. For my UK readers, Leaving Cert is equivalent to 'A' Levels although thought to be slightly higher by many UK Universities. The exam takers take up to 9 subjects and the Cs, Bs and As all contribute points to the final score. These points mean you will either get accepted by the colleges and Uni's or not. We are very proud of both the 'victims' we have anything to do with (Em-J and one of Liz's students, Tilly) who both came out with superb results and enough points to get to Uni (all be it Tilly is actually moving back to the UK and had applied to Gloucester Uni.). UK readers may also be interested to know that these courses and exams are standard across the whole country - all the students sit exactly the same exams on the same days and time, papers are marked nationally too and results come out all from one database and website. Anyway, well done Em-J and Tilly. We are very proud of you.

Piglet pyramid. There are 12 here. 
An amusing distraction and adventure came our way on Wednesday this week when we were asked to help "catch 9 piglets". These babies belong to our friends Rob and Sue and had found themselves born into a pig ark in a big grass field instead of a barn where they had been intended to be born. Worse, the nice new grass field the parent pigs had been moved to just before farrowing had become a victim of the heavy rain through July and August and was a quagmire of 4-6 inch deep mud, too squelchy to run through in wellies.

The author releasing one bagged piggy in the barn
Total pig-ignorami may appreciate the following study notes.

  • 5 week old piglets squeal and scream like mad if you upset them by trying to lift them up or take them away from Mum. They make a ferocious racket!
  • They are the size of a Westie (dog) and weigh about the same, maybe 7-8 kg? 
  • The normal method is to grab them by one or both back legs and let them hang head-down, which makes them go quiet. 
  • Piglet legs taper fiercely down from ham, through shank-end and hock to trotter and there are no nice knobbly heels or joints to get a grip on so if the pig's leg is muddy it will slip through your hands like a sausage coming out of a hot dog. 
  • Fortunately, 5 week old piglets are quite narrow at the pelvis and if you have big hands you can grab a chunk of back end which is cleaner, and lift the piglet like that.
  • If you are on your own and dive into the ark to grab a piglet, you may catch one but the remaining piggies will scatter to the 4 winds in panic, out of the ark door and into the field where, trust me, you are not going to catch them. 
  • Full grown sows and especially boars are over 100 kg and can easily knock you flying and make a serious mess of your good looks if they attack you. They can also run much faster than a wellie-clad person across a muddy field. 
  • Parent pigs, especially sows do not like you interfering with their babies and making them squeal. They will surely come over to investigate even if they decide you are not actually murdering their offspring.
  • On the other hand they are also hungry, greedy animals and if they realise that by investigating the squeals, they might be losing out in the food being handed to their colleagues at the other end of the field, they will probably say "Oh... alright then" and trot back to the shouting food-deliverer. 
Safe, warm and dry in the new quarters. 
You may by now have started to get a picture of the fun we had. Rob had tried to catch them on the Tuesday but he was working solo, so he had only managed 2 before his already injured leg cried 'Enough!' running through the mud. Grown up Grandson Lewis had grabbed a third. There were 9 for us to catch, but on Wednesday, we were going at it mob-handed - 5 humans. Rob went off to the top of the field armed with copious amounts of food in a rattly bucket, to distract the grown ups. Liz and Sue were armed with many feed sacks and cable ties plus straw to lay on the mud to make a bit of a path. I had a big mesh frame to use as a gate for the ark and Lewis had the job of going into the ark to catch and bag piglets. I stood outside the ark with the gate wedged against the opening with my foot to stop barrelling piglets from charging out when they realised what Lewis had in store for them. 

Liz's normally clean and precious pink Hunters do not look
quite so pristine now!
In the event, the plan worked and Lewis was able to catch and bag all 9 piglets one by one. Once the piglets were cable-tied into their bags they went quiet and only wriggled, trying to get to their feet when all visual clues had vanished, which was a mercy as the sow then ignored them and just looked baffled. One piggy did escape past my gate but kept circling back to try to be with its siblings inside the ark, so I got a chance to lift him back in. Periodically Lewis would pause to hold the gate while I marched bags across to the ladies, who would then ferry these wriggling bags to the barn and release the captives. One of the sows did get a bit upset by the squealing and come look, but she seemed to relax when she could see the babies through our gate. She made one lunge-attack at Sue's hand but never tried anything with me and never even tried to nudge my legs. We just paused to let the squealing subside and everything to calm down and the sow would trot back over to Rob, till the next set of lifts and squeals. 

Liz took this superb pic of 'our' sparrowhawk.
We had arrived at 11:30 and had a cup of tea before we started, and we had them all rounded up and another tea plus a slice of cake by 1 pm. A good and enjoyable mission, which I know Rob and Sue much appreciated our help in. Great teamwork. 

Wrapped around that job I am now also helping JD Bob with his cattle. The old boy has slipped on the foot-steps trying to get down from his tractor and badly barked and bruised his shin, so he is hobbling around like an 'aul' wan'. Forking silage and throwing 25 kg sacks of cattle feed around are a bit beyond him so we are helping out. I love cattle anyway and until I came here I had only had to do with dairy animals. It is nice to get some experience of these big, beefy, 2 year old Charolais and Limousin bullocks

This female sparrowhawk stands helpless to move her badly
broken left wing. 
Then on Wednesday evening at 7:30 pm an experience which was at once a once-in-a-lifetime thrill AND an upsetting horrible tragedy. The thump on the kitchen window set the dogs barking and told us of another bird-strike but we get a few of these and they are normally chaffinches or sparrows which seem to bounce off OK and you rarely find them injured on the ground. This, though was a magnificent female sparrowhawk. Sadly, we quickly saw that she had smashed one wing, compound fracture with blooded bone ends sticking out through broken skin. She was not defeated, though and would happily have raked my hands with those razor-sharp talons while lying on her back and had a go with the beak. We needed to drop an opaque cloth over her and I put on my chainsaw gloves just to try to pick her up and get a look at the injury. Tom the turkey did not help - he took exception to the bird-of-prey screams and the fact that every chicken in the place was clucking loudly and anxiously, and charged over intent on stomping her to death. Liz fended him off while I rescued the hawk.

As far as we know there is no vet round here who even knows about birds (chickens), never mind a specialist wildlife rescue centre who could help fix this fine-tuned thoroughbred. It can only have been agony for her everytime she 'bated' and flapped in a panic, to have the whole wing grating against her shattered humerus. There was only going to be one outcome to this. Although I hated having to do it to such a beautiful, beautiful bird, the only sparrowhawk I have ever got this close to, we took  few pictures and then ended it for her. I apologise if I have upset anyone with this. 

Baby turkey in the sick bay.
This morning we woke up to a sick young turkey, a patient for the sick bay. When she did not emerge from the shed pleading for breakfast, I went in a found her standing on the floor looking pathetic and with a badly swollen and blooded side to the head just behind her eye. The swelling was almost closing the eye. We have no idea how she got injured (kicked aside by Tom in his heroics last night? It might even have been the sparrowhawk having a go before it hit the window) but all you can really do in these circumstances is give them quiet, warmth, food and water (plus cod liver oil if you choose) and pray that they might recover. Some do. Some just mope around for a while and then you find them stiff and dead. This little one has hung in there all day and is still alive at the time I write. We have put the 'electric hen' (warming plate) in her crate as a substitute 'cuddle' with her gang.

...And then there were the Perseid meteors. Unusually we had lovely clear skies last night so we could already see a gazillion stars including the broad sweep of the Milky Way overhead. We had gone out to gaze upwards at around 11 pm and were quickly able to see the streaks of the meteors running through from roughly NE to the East. I tried to take a few pics with my 'posh' camera but although I took over 2 dozen long-exposure pics, I never managed to have the camera open when a meteor whizzed through. They either just beat my shutter release, or they waited till the shutter clicked closed. Never mind, we SAW them, which was the main thing. Most of our UK contacts were complaining of cloud cover and a no-show. I will not bore you with a pic, which would surely just be a black square - blown up on screen you can see the myriad stars but not, I think, on a postcard sized print. The Perseids are going great guns till about the 15th, so maybe you will get some clear-sky luck tonight? Good hunting.