Tuesday 29 May 2018

A Long Walk

Scorchio! This was Met Éireann's short-range forecast for
4pm today (29th May)
Scorchio! The island is currently enjoying a very nice, mini-heatwave with temperatures soaring up to 26 and 27ºC. All our friends are delightedly taking pictures of the lanes outside their farms and commenting how different they look from when there were 7' snow drifts only a few weeks ago.

A pleasant surprise in the polytunnel. I don't remember
planting this.
My diary tells me that we have not had any rain since about 3rd May except for one wet night on the 21st, between us shearing our sheep and then doing Sue and Rob's. The ground is as dry as dust and those sheep, which must be very relieved to be 'naked' spend most of the day sleeping under trees in the shade.

Of course, our Help-X volunteer, Laura, who hails from the South of France, is a bit disparaging of our 'heat'; she is more used to 40ºC as 'hot' but we let her away with that as she is still a brilliant help, an absolute boon, a very easy to please guest and very pleasant company. Her current jobs-of-choice are anything to do with mowing and keeping the garden bits spick and span.

This much-abused broom is finally doing colour
She will push that mower for 5 hours and only take breaks when you bully her inside for tea and cake or lunch. Today she was on 'edges' with the shears , edges of lawn, sides of raised beds, all round bases of young trees. We are in danger of looking like manicured parkland.

Laura's new admirer - the male turkey
follows her everywhere. Here she is
actually bring tea out to us but it looks
like she is fetching him some!
She is also what they would describe locally as "a mighty one for the walking". If not pushing a mower for all those hours, she likes to do at least 10 km per day. She walked from here to Ballaghaderreen one day (neither of us have ever tried it - it is a 15 minute car ride!), she climbed Holy Mountain 'Croagh Patrick' one day prior to coming here, having done a 10 km walk in the morning and then on Sunday managed a 4 hour, 20 km one.

Sorry poor photo (bad phone) but can you just
see the 3 foot roundel target 450 feet away down
this path? Nor can I. 
Archery has moved out of doors again for the Summer and our shooting field is almost exactly 20 km from here, south of Castlerea. Laura expressed an interest in coming to see what we were about but asked could she then walk home. We explained that it was 20 km up (gentle) hill and down dale and would take her all afternoon but, no, she knew all that and wanted to do it anyway.

Another fun target for the new outdoor season.
You have to shoot this life-size fox at 40 feet but
THROUGH the car tyre. In front of the stand is a
little owl-model at 20 feet if you need a warm-up.
I suggested that after 2 hours of archery, I would be driving past her on the way home, so I could always rescue her if she'd had enough. Well, I did pass her and stopped to offer a lift but she just smiled sweetly and declined, saying she'd see me later. She eventually wandered in home at ten past six, not a bother on her, as un-tired and un-ruffled as when she had set out. Oh to be 22 again.

3 of Shtumpy's new babies. 
Meanwhile we are enjoying a bit of a population explosion among the baby chickens. In the last post I described our 6 successful hatchings from the grey hen 'Cat Basket Lady'. Next up was our ace Mum with the deformed foot, 'Shtumpy' who managed 2 hatches last year and kept all her charges alive despite her 'disability'. She has just hatched 4 babies from 6 eggs and is now starting to bring them off the nest and show them the ropes.
Laura cooked us this superb apple tart.

This will, we hope, be followed by the 14 duck eggs in the incubator, due 'out' Thursday or soon there after. These are a mix of Sue and Rob's Muscovy ducks (the big meaty, bi-colour birds who are half way to being geese) and our last Khaki-Campbell eggs from just before the final female was out-foxed, plus a few KCs from Sue and Rob to make up the numbers. I don't know what % success to expect here - our KCs have been very low and these are the first Muscovies any of us have tried - but if we get all 14 we will be feeling a bit over-run. Fortunately, it is most unlikely. We may be lucky to get any.

Finally, an even sillier hatch story, and not my finest 'management' hour. Out in the goose-field/orchard, we have a 4' x 2' x 2' nest box intended for ducks, which we call, logically, "The Duck House". This was adopted by one of the hens (Donaldina) 12 days ago to go broody in, so I found her 8 eggs to sit on and promised to lock her up each night safe from the fox. As time went by I suspected that another hen (or more) was nipping in there each morning, bullying Donaldina off the nest and laying her own daily egg into the clutch.

When the politics goes the way you want it to....
I did not get an opportunity to check while there were no birds in there, till today. TWENTY eggs!!! The poor hen can barely spread her 'front' out enough to cover them all. The experienced chicken-keepers among you will also have spotted another problem looming. All the eggs are similar colour (so it's probably one hen repeat laying) so I cannot tell which are the original 8.

Montana putting on a good show.
Come June 7th, Donaldina will have brooded those 8 for the full 21 days but the others for fewer days, so the 8 will hatch (if we are lucky) leaving the nest full of part-developed embryos. If we rescued them to the incubator we might then get one hatching on the 8th, one the 9th and so on. That would be a tricky clutch of babies to manage. Ah well. We shall see. We will cross those bridges when we come to them.

Shtumpy's first hatch,.
There is just one tiny fly in the ointment of our warm days - last night we suffered our first theft from the honesty box. It has been there for months and never an egg or a single cent stolen (as far as I know). Last night, though, some toe-rag cleaned out my money tin and left the dozen eggs in there. It was just 20, 10 and 5 cent coins, total value no more than €1.30, so we'd guess kids, but we don't get any passing kids (on foot anyway) so we'll probably never know. Ah well, guys, who ever you are, don't go spending all that at once now.

Friday 25 May 2018

Six Chix

4 more chicks hatch among the duck eggs.
I left you with a bit of a spoiler in the last post. We had just saved the life of the first chick from the broody hen whom we had named "Cat Basket Lady" having found the little mite hypothermic and revived her with the warmth cradled in my hands. She had been returned to Mum and went on to survive the night. We had sat back happy with our one chick. Elizabeth even made the conciliatory comment that she had "always wanted to find out whether that cliché about being 'as fussy as a hen with one chick' really worked". However, the story did not end there - there was plenty more drama to come and a plot twist or two.

Feeding the new babies indoors before reintroducing them to
On that first day, Mum decided to come off the nest, which is usually a sign that she is done, has hatched all the good eggs and now has to rear those babies and leave the duff eggs behind. Ready or not, those eggs get chilled and die. When you clear the nest they usually prove to be infertile, or part-developed and dead-in-shell, so you find out that she is a good Mum and knows what she is about. This lass, though, is a first time broody, so she came off the nest with her one (we thought) then went back on, and off and on and so on. We just had to wait and watch.

Mid morning, the hen came off properly, fed the one, and went for a sit down elsewhere, so I knew I could clear the nest but wait, another hen had nipped in to lay today's egg, so at least the abandoned eggs would be kept warm. Meanwhile a fully dry, mobile black chick appeared with Mum. It must have been with her all along, but staying hidden under her skirts, perhaps carried between Mum's wing and body. Then there were 2. Eventually, the laying hen finished her task and hopped off the nest, so I was able to clear the old nest. Another surprise was in store.

Mum with 4 of the babies.
When I looked into the nest I could see a fully hatched but still wet baby chick in there and at least 2 more eggs 'pipping' (starting to break open with the baby pecking inside). I decided to gather up all 8 eggs and bring them into the incubator where there was just enough space between the nearly 'cooked' duck eggs. By evening, 2 more had hatched and overnight another bird emerged.

Mum with all 6
We were fairly confident we could introduce these to Mum, giving her a total of 6. Hens do not, in our experience, reject 'foreign' babies in these early days. You would normally sneak them in when it gets dark at roosting time so that Mum would wake up and just take on board that there were a few more mouths at breakfast.

Upside of being woken early by the dogs. This lovely 05:30
sunrise over the East Field.
We went with a slightly earlier (braver?) method. We fed them all indoors that afternoon and found them all to be very quick learners, all happily copying our chop-stick 'pecking' mime at the food. So we went out to the Mum+2, put a plate of food in front of her and our 4 'foreigners' beside her. Like magic, the 4 merged with the 2 and Mum accepted them all seamlessly. We now have a hen-and-six wandering round the yard in the sunshine, and she is mothering them like a pro. Happy days.

Short back and sides? Anything for the weekend, Madam?
On Wednesday, we were back at the sheep shearing, this time, over at Sue and Rob's where Rob was actually in the UK (Mum's 90th!). I knew that if I took my Help-X volunteer, Laura, along we'd be able to give her some real work, not just standing watching the "experts" (ha!) at play. That was exactly what she got - she was as exhausted as the rest of us. There were 4 ewes to shear, those same 4 to be given liver-fluke meds and 6 lambs to ear-tag.

First up was the tagging. I showed Laura how to do the first one but after that I was the only one nimble enough to catch them. I was grabbing them, holding them up for Laura, and she was banging in the ear tags. One for the CV - "I have ear tagged 5 lambs". The shearing went well, too. Laura wound up as chief 'holder', hanging onto the collar and lead that kept each sheep fairly still, whispering 'sweet nothings' into their ears to keep them calm, while I sheared.

I am delighted with this ewe - my 'personal best' ever shearing
I was delighted with one ewe in particular, a 2nd-time sheared Suffolk cross Galway. For some reason her fleece was beautifully clean right down through and she was a big calm lady who stood for the cut as good as gold. The sides came off almost in one piece each and I never needed the trimming 'scissors' (Jakoti hand shears) or nicked her by mistake, even once. I'm calling it a 'personal best'. By comparison the other ewes just got 'normal' treatment and I should confess I made one bleed a little (oops).

Sue introduced a bit of mischief into the job by spotting one of the girls with so many squirts of the blue anti-septic spray, she looked like a Dalmatian. Anyone passing their place is going to think I have cut the ewe to ribbons. Sue has told me since, that it was foot-rot spray she was using, so it all washed off or faded in the night, to save my blushes.

Can we go back out now?
What else have we been at? Actually some good honest, Help-X partnered 'garden' tidying. We have cleared through some big nettle patches up what we call the 'Primrose Path', the 'Keet Run' and into the East Field. Sitting here by the Dining Room window I can actually see through into the sheep. Before we did the job, the new nettles almost reached up to the lowest branches of the hawthorn bushes.

Dressed to kill. Laura and the brush cutter
Today we broke out the brush-cutter and did battle with the tall weeds (docks, goat-willow(!), rushes and creeping buttercup) in the area briefly known as my veg' patch. Friends of the Blog will know that I literally "lost the plot" 2 years ago, and then brush cut part of the wilderness and covered it with black plastic last year. This year I am re-attacking the paths and the beds that did not get sheeted over. One of these days I may even plant something in there.

Somewhere out in that wilderness....
The only other 'landmark' worthy of note is that today was the day for the vote on the all-important Constitutional Referendum on the '8th Amendment'; that thorny abortion issue. These referendum votes are only allowed for Irish citizens, so I had to sit this one out, but Elizabeth, of course, went down to tick the box.

Laura joins the ranks of #PigWimmin 
We now have to try to get a night's sleep with only the data from an exit poll at 11:30 pm, as the real count does not start till 09:00 tomorrow morning. The Woman of the House will be glued to that news feed; of that you can be sure. By the time I next write we will all know the result.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

One Woman Went to Mow

Laura is quickly adopted by Towser.
Welcome to our humble abode, then, newest Help-X volunteer, Laura-D. She has settled in well and is already into an impressive work-rate. She is great - happy, relaxed, friendly and dead easy to host. My family will understand when I say she'd have you reminded of our cousin Jo when we were all that age (22) - outdoorsy, hiking, travelling, bursting with energy, health and enthusiasm, hungry for new adventures, places, culture and experiences. Keen too, to improve her English, which she is already good at; we have been enjoying some of the charming 'mistakes' and also reaching for the Collins Dictionary when smallholder type words come up that are not in anyone's French vocabulary ( Guinea Fowl = 'pintade', shear (of sheep) = tondre, etc).

Mowing round the pond.
She managed to avoid a possible adventure just getting here. Planned to arrive on Monday, which would have been easy for one of us collecting her from Ballaghaderreen bus-stop, she opted at the last minute, to journey down from Sligo town on the Saturday. I was car-less as the Woman of the House was down with Steak Lady enjoying the Royal Wedding but Laura was confident she could knit together a hitch-hike door to door.

That's exactly what happened, much to our amazement and she pitched up at 3 pm. She'd done the Sligo to Balla-D bit in two 'legs' with very little waiting, paused for lunch in Balla and then, walking towards the road out, was picked up by a lady who recognised Laura's description of us - our names, the 3 white dog-eens and the egg Honesty-Box out front. The lady, who we *think* may be named Mary, dropped Laura right to our gate. 60 km in 3 lifts with no waiting. Only in Ireland, I think!

I am always impressed when a Help-X volunteer turns up
with some decent, 'stout' boots.
New experience for me, then (Elizabeth usually does this one but she was absent), I had to show Laura to her room, the guest towels, how the shower worked and all that 'hospitality' stuff, plus feed the guest their first supper. It also meant she was landed and ready (keen) to start work on the Sunday. It was a good enough day, so I decided we might do some mowing. I anticipated we'd share the job, few 'laps' each, take turns to empty the box and move obstacles etc.

Pulling nettles (ortie) helped by various poultry.
Not a bit of it. Laura was straight into the groove and, after a quick training/safety session she was away. She tells me she LOVES mowing and "in the 'Ouse of my parents, this is my job ALL SUMMER!" Fair play. She mowed all around the pond garden (about an hour and a half), paused briefly to say 'Hello' to the returning Elizabeth and take refreshment but then asked for more. The orchard, by then, had been well grazed by the sheep and I had topped off the docks with the brush-cutter, so we moved them off onto the East Field and Laura mowed all that, too. We are so tidy, and all 2 days before I thought we'd even start.

Enough rhubarb to keep you going there,
So, that was Laura in and installed and now very much part of the picture for 2 weeks. "What else have we been up to?" I hear you ask. There was an interesting pig-related adventure which was, like greeting the new guest, a new one on me. The Guinea fowl had kicked off on one of their alarm shouts, so I raced to the kitchen door and let the dogs go streaming out free. They took off in the usual fox direction, to the 5-acre field. The Guineas, I immediately saw, were in a completely different direction, up on the walls of the cattle race and the chicken-house roof, so our problem was down by the pig-run. The dogs were out of it.

We found our first Guinea Fowl egg.
It was immediately apparent, too, that a magpie was shouting its head off too. Running round there I could see a floppy magpie shape down on the ground among the pigs and a magpie jumping up and down on the back of the gilt (female piglet), pecking her furiously and shouting like crazy. I *think* a young magpie had fallen out of the nest up there, landed among the pigs and got rapidly chewed despite a valiant defence by Mum.

Always a risk but worth it for the grazing done to the orchard
grass. Sheep damage to the bark of a young Bramley tree.
I raced for apples with which to distract the pigs while I rescued the baby but only 2 pigs came to greet me, Pig #3 turned up a few minutes later and spat out the half-chewed remains of a magpie wing so that there was room in that mouth for the apple. Thank you very much. Internet friends say that this is a frequent happening and reminds us regularly that pigs are, in fact, omnivorous and with a gut and tastes very similar to our own. Fresh, raw, tender baby magpie. Probably a delicacy somewhere!

Genevieve and Jezebel
On the Monday it rained 'cats and dogs' (Laura's expression!) but we were unconcerned. We mainly had indoor and car jobs lined up. We briefly 'owned' 6 cats, with 2 kittens joining the ranks for a couple of hours. These were 2 little cuties 'bred' by our friends Sue and Rob but destined for a life with 'Sparks'. We just had to collect them, sex them and hand them over when Sparks came to lunch.

We almost certainly saved this little mite's life when she fell out
of a nest-tray and could not get back in to Mum's nest.
Sue's kittens can sometimes be a bit feral, being born in one of their barns and only really seeing humans at feeding times. In this case, a black and white fluff-ball was actually quite friendly and welcomed a cuddle. It's sister (a grey fluff-ball) was a bit more feisty and will need some handling to get used to people. The first is now named Genevieve and the latter Jezebel.
Happy first breakfast

Yesterday, we came round to hatch-day for the hen which had gone broody in the spare cat-basket in our Tígín. Right on schedule, we could tell that she had at least one baby hatched - loud cheeping was coming from under her skirts. She is a first time Mum and this nearly went horribly wrong. Early in the brooding she had kept losing eggs out from under her, so I'd slid a garden-type seed-tray in there to make more of a compact 'bowl' for her nest. All good so far.

This is how you do it, baby.
When the hatch started, though, one little mite fell out of the tray into the basket as a whole and, unable to clamber back in got very cold. She would almost certainly have died of hypothermia had Elizabeth not gone out there to show her off to Sparks, and found the limp, very cold body on the verge of expiring. In our third 'new one on me' experience of this post, I took the chick into my hand and wrapped her up in the warmth of my skin. At first I could feel the coldness of her through the chick-fluff, not quite as bad as a lump of meat in the fridge, but well 'down there'.

Some first asparagus.
However, in 45 minutes I could feel the little body coming up to my skin temperature and then she started cheeping. We had almost certainly saved her life. When I was happy enough she'd made it, I took her back out to Mum and slipped her back under those skirts. I also moved the tray and wedged a piece of wood down the gap to avoid any more 'man overboard' accidents. This story does not end here but I will save the overnight survival, first feed and the addition of a second, and possibly a third chick or more?) for the next post.

Friday 18 May 2018

Like a Duck to Water.

Shearing the first ewe, helped by Charlotte
The main story today (certainly the freshest) was the shearing of the sheep. We were coming round to that time of year and the forecast spoke of a heatwave held back only by a Northerly air-stream which had been keeping our temperatures down in the 14ºC area. Sheep-folk begin to worry about heat and the dreaded fly-strike but we need 3 rainless days to make sure the sheep are dry.

Charlotte tackles Polly, our grey Jacob cross ewe.
Waterlogged fleeces and electric hand held clippers are not a good mixture even for we smallholders; the commercial boys worry more about the wet fleeces not being sale-able to the buyers as they are 'dishonestly' heavy. Our wool all ends up on the compost heap so that side of things does not worry us. This year I have ace sheep-wrangler and stock-person, Charlotte (of the mini-horses) back down from Dublin, working locally and keen to help with any shearing I do on her days off. Elizabeth is happy to step aside and we all benefit from the "shearer's chocolate cakes" which get baked while we shear.

Self conscious 'naked' sheep?
So, there we were, all organised from Tuesday and delighted at the lack of rain come this morning, so I raced out to Sligo to collect Charlotte and then we were all go. I love working with Charlotte and even now, 6 years in, I still learn from her. My shearing technique is to zoom up the sheep from dock to neck in long "blows" which can be fast but can leave the sheep striped like larch-lap fencing. Charlotte tends to scoop little blows out, rolling the cutting edge away from the sheep almost as soon as she has 'delved' into the fleece. It's a bit slower but very neat. The whole sheep has maybe a few mm more 'pile' left but there are none of my 'almost pink' patches or any stripes.

All done here. Charlotte is just practising her 'upside down'
technique on one of the lambs. 
We are both impressed by how much heat 'comes out' when we open up that fleece with the first 'blow' up the spine. On a sunny, windless day, the girls are living inside a 3" to 4" pile woolly overcoat and I am sure their skin temperature must be up there at blood heat. When you first glide the shears up the spine and 'unzip' the fleece, the sheep's skin is way, way hotter than your hand - probably 10-15ºC hotter.

Nobody wants the old fleeces so they
go on the compost. 
Healthy sheep have temperatures of around 38.5ºC. By the time you finish shearing, 30 minutes later, the whole animal has cooled down and the skin is more like human skin temperature. They get a whole new lease of life and go scampering round the field with relieved expressions.

The gang spent some time in the orchard prior to shearing.
The other thing we all love is the sudden change from spherical, broad-in-the-beam shaped sheep to tiny, thin, angular, goat-bony light-weights who look not that much bigger than their lambs. They were possibly rounder than normal this year because we'd been struggling to get some good grass into them to get some condition on after them lambing in the hard Winter, and we'd moved them into the orchard for a couple of days. My hope was that when we called them into the cattle race to be 'done' they'd not be so starving that the small amount of 'crunch' they'd get wouldn't leave them bleating piteously. That went OK.

The oak (left) before the ash? You decide. 
Friends of the Blog may also recall that the biggest ewe, Myfanwy, had not (yet) lambed, and I do not actually know whether she is pregnant. Back in February when we 'offed' the ram, Pedro, one of the reasons was that he had started attacking Myfanwy and I did not know whether this was just sex fore-play or annoyance at her rejecting him. In theory, as he was with us till Feb 5th, she might still lamb till 5th July. I was keen to get Charlotte's assessment once the ewe was sheared and we could all get a look at her shape and her udder. The consensus is that she's just big, having not needed to feed a lamb (or two). Ah well.

Hen with ridiculous hair (Donaldina (Trump)) goes broody
in the duck box.
Meanwhile, I am amused to note that our drakes, newly bereft of their last lady-duck have suddenly taken to going on the pond. For 2 years they have showed no interest and I have been delighted that they've left the pond alone with it's gin-clear water and healthy plants (and fauna). Back on Wednesday I may have been witness to the tiny, short, insignificant-looking event which changed all this. I had gone out to sit by the pond with the dogs all milling around harmlessly at my feet. A Guinea Fowl was calling from the 5 acre field behind me and then came zooming over to land on the grass nearby.

A new sight here - ducks on the pond. 
The dogs, excited by this flurry of movement took off at a run towards the Guinea which set one of the drakes off also flying about 2 feet from the grass. Quite by accident, I am sure, it touched down right near a dog and opted for a bounce and sidestep which pitched it into the pond for possible the first time in it's life. I watched with amusement at it's change of body language and facial expression as it went from "Oh crap! Now I'm in the pond!" via "Coo... I seem to be floating....perhaps this is not so bad after all" to finally "Mmmm... I LIKE this... look... I can paddle my feet and swim!".

Our 3 young lime trees are suddenly
covered in leaves.
There has been no holding that drake back since and he has now taken his brother on to the water to share the joy. The pair go every morning for a dabble, a swim and a water-borne preen and splash about. It remains to be seen how much damage they do and how long their welcome lasts.

Another wishbone for the car. €170 supplied and fitted
(incl. wheel alignment)
There have been just 3 other stories brewing. The car has had to go back to the garage (ker-ching €€€€€) to have to 'other' side wishbone changed and the steering re-aligned once more, for uneven tyre wear. "State of the roads round here," said the man, "I'd recommend to anyone to get alignments checked every 6 months" Never heard of that before in the UK, but there are many potholes here, plus savage 'sleeping policemen' and just general yumpy-bumpy bog roads.

In with the new, out with the old. Lidl's at Castlerea.
Our local and much loved Lidl supermarket is temporarily erased from the face of the earth. The new shop has been under construction 'next door' for a while but for 3 weeks the old has been shut while they make final changes and move all the trading across. I was impressed by how fast 'they' cleared the site. I had shopped in there on Tuesday 8th May. By the time I tried to shop again (Tuesday 15th) it was shut, demolished and cleared away as if it had never been. Impressive feat.

The pigs look great under the now fully in-leaf beech.
Finally, we are now expecting the arrival of our next Help-X volunteer, Laura D, our first try at having a helper of the female persuasion. She was booked in for Monday but has since asked if she might arrive on Saturday (tomorrow). We have no problem with that except that Elizabeth has the car down at Steak Lady's place (There's a Royal Wedding on, apparently and the Ladies are going to do it justice in their own Living room, sat around the TV with the fancy hats, party food and drinkies). I would not be able to nip and collect her from the railway/bus stations. So Laura, not to be put off, is going to try her 'travelling' skills out against the trains, buses, taxis and possibly hitch-hiker picker uppers and try to get here anyway. Good luck, Laura. Safe journey. See you soon. Just don't know HOW soon.