Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Is it a pig? Is it a sheep? Or a “shig”? Or a “peep”? Or perhaps even a cow? If you think you know the identity of this gentle and a little overweight lady, answer by posting a comment below and we’ll try to think of a prize for the first correct answer! And don’t be so sure that you know the answer, as it’s already foxed a few of our farming friends here.

On my list of “things to do today” was a visit to the vet to buy some sheep medicine: insecticidal and antibiotic sprays and a worming potion, in fact anything to keep our newest charges upright and breathing. Not that they are ill but it’s just that in the business of catching all manner of diseases and ailments and dying, sheep wrote the book. One of Life’s paradoxes: when you consider the Welsh mountain sheep stoically braving a blizzard, for example,you’d be forgiven for thinking they were extremely hardy; which they probably are but they can also be fragile. So, while I’m getting to know our new characterful charges (Gabrielle’s away for ten days) I’m diligently reading my beginners guide to sheep keeping, and stocking up with an arsenal to keep foot rot, fly strike and intestinal worms at bay.

We have also benefited from a lot of good advice from several friends, click on the names to have a look at their own blogs. There’s Val, a sheep farmer in Somerset, England, who I met through the first article I wrote for Permaculture Magazine and the second article explains what happened (click under links to download the article as PDFs to read). She’s always ready to spend some time dispensing advice over the phone or via email. She’s contemplating the pros and cons of moving her farming business to France as all her land is rented and she has no opportunity to rent or buy a barn where she is currently. When she was recently over here, she visited Renée to give some advice and a demon-stration of feet trimming (see photo). We sub-sequently bought our ram from Renée, who is a fully qualified veterinary nurse and runs her own dog kennelling business. She’d be the first to admit that she’s no expert in shearing sheep, but she has huge amounts of experience clipping dogs’ coats and this has stood her in good stead as our ram’s coat is immaculate and she showed us a Ouessant fleece she’d sheared off in one neat and single piece, chapeau!
(The French for “I take my hat off to you”).

Also in France, is Sheepish, a scientist-turned-French sheep farmer, who’s finally unleashed her creative bent and is furiously blogging away, attempting to condense 15 years of smallholding life into a putative year: preparation for the book she wants to write. She’s already emailed us some advice and we shall continue to read her blog avidly for more pearls of wisdom and hard earned experience. And at a distance, is Monica, who has a smallholding in Georgia, USA, where she raises raising Icelandic sheep and Irish Dexters but is currently really struggling with drought and hoping (!) for a hurricane to bring them a splash of rain.

One currently trendy permaculture idea is living in ecovillages, an idea pioneered in Denmark, where there are several good working examples. People live in their own house but share communal space and buildings. The idea appeals to me but Gabrielle is not so sure, having spent many years in two different communal living situations and having experienced people problems first hand. Having said that, Sally, one of the friends she met in the first housing coop, has this bit of personal philosophy, “I’d rather deal with the problems of living with people than the problems of living without them.” In the meantime, we have our “virtual” ecovillage of farming friends giving help and advice via their blogs!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Geese—allegedly—are silly: hence the expression, “silly as a goose”. But they are also characterful and we get tremendous enjoyment walking them from their fox-proof home to the field in the morning and back again in the evening. One of them has had a poorly eye—not uncommon for geese, so we understand—and we’ve been treating it three times a day with eyewash followed by antibiotic drops. Morning and evening, contained in their house, it’s fairly easy to get hold of the goose in question as they all run into the corner together, making a tremendous fuss, and then hide their heads, much as very young children cover their eyes with their hands and then thus believe that you can’t see them. But the midday treatment involves lots of running, chasing them around their enclosure, and often ends up with me on the floor before I have a firm grasp on the bird. The way to catch a goose is to get a hand around the neck, gently but firmly, after which progress is arrested and one can scoop up the rest of the bird. Squatting down, I then held it, sat on my thigh with my arm over its body, leaving both hands free to turn the head, while Gabrielle administered the medication. She’s away for a few days, so I now sit on top of the bird and use my teeth to hold bottle tops, etc. The eye looks a lot better and I shall stop treating it soon.

Regarding the relative intelligence of animals, if geese are silly (and I’m not convinced they are) then chickens are definitely not birdbrains. Ours are completely free-range during the day. The downside is that we’ve lost a total of five over the year, some perhaps to a fox. But we have positively identified a neighbour’s dog, Chados, being responsible for killing three and, after some friendly negotiation; he is now always tied up when he’s outside their house. The upside is that they range where they please, eat what they want (giving us amazingly tasty eggs with the deepest orangey-yellow yolks) and get up to some immensely entertaining antics. Aside from the well-known pecking order, they have some very complex behavioural patterns and are all clearly different characters. Our latest cockerel is by far the best we've had: he is ever watchful and will let his hens eat before he does. He is protecting to the point that I now need to pay close attention if we have small children come to feed the hens and chicks. Not content with shagging our five hens several times a day, he crosses the road in the morning to visit Alan’s and Carole’s eight hens (seven now as ones died, shagged to death, according to Carole!) and Celine’s and Michel’s two bantam hens. Much to everyone’s amusement, he runs across in the morning and walks, perhaps even swaggers, back in the afternoon—when he hears me whistling the hens back into the henhouse—with a certain macho self-assuredness, and I can imagine him smoking a cigar and wearing a smile too!

Our first lot of chicks are now cheeky adolescents and I’ve got one “trained” to squat down and then leap and flap up to my forearm, scramble up to my shoulder and wait there to be fed grains of wheat. It’s impressive to see, like some trained falcon yet more weighty and benign. The last guests in our holiday cottage remarked on seeing this whether I’d find it difficult to slaughter these chickens to eat, having become so attached. My response is that I find it easier to live with precisely because I know what a free and rich life they have lead. In doing some research for this blog—via the ever helpful Google—I typed in the search terms “chickens intelligent” and discovered this link from a vegetarian website called GoVeg, which is really worth a read. Their aim is to convert you to vegetarianism; my suggestion is that, if you eat meat (like us) then eat animals that have been well cared for. I’ll tell you more about chicken behaviour in my next blog.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It might be a bit of a cliché, but do you ever feel like saying “stop the world, I just want to get off”? Well, I’m pleased to report that I did just that yesterday … and it was great, and I thoroughly recommend that you try it as well. When things are on my mind, they often stay on my mind far later in the evening than is creatively useful, leading to a restless nights sleep. I never have nightmares as such but I do stare at the ceiling in the early hours of the morning contemplating such sexy conundrums as how to construct stock fencing or curved borders for raised vegetable / flower beds. And whilst, in the greater design of our whole plot, I have lots more fencing to do, I have completed—that is to say, completely completed (hooray!)—the fencing in the back field, and built a sheep shelter in the middle, such that it can be used whichever half of the field we’ve got the sheep in at the time.

So, we borrowed a suitable trailer from neighbours Paul and Christiane and headed off to more central Brittany to see a Monsieur Le Bigot about a pair of ewes and their lambs. We were sorry to learn that one of the ewes had died and so only one ewe with her lamb was available to take away and we shall therefore make efforts to buy another ewe / lamb combination, or a weaned female lamb from somebody else, sometime later in the year. To avoid consanguinity—that is, to maintain genetic difference—we bought a ram from a different flock: “Dumpling” from Renée, who’s becoming a Ouessant sheep expert.

All the sheep are registered and have ear tags. We have completed transit papers and I’ve just telephoned the Etablissement départemental d’élevage to tell them that we have bought sheep for the first time and need to register as owners of these sheep. We will be given our own number that we will use to ear-tag any lambs that we’re lucky enough to raise next spring.

At the end of a long day, that had also involved bureau-cratic visits to the Centre des Impôts to submit our tax returns for this year and a visit to the health service to sort out some more paperwork, we went to check out our flock. After gazing together, happy and moist-eyed, at our new acquisitions (neither of us has ever had sheep before) Gabrielle bagsed the shower first (we were off out to friends for the evening) and I remained in the field, sat on the floor with my back to a fencepost and a beer in hand, just watching the sheep. There was a languid evening sun and I had a couple of swooping swallows for company and the constant chatter of Annike’s bantams to my right, accompanied by the occasional cock-a-doodle-do and, for a few minutes, the world just stood still. I took time to enjoy the magnificent solid and straight fencing that had caused me so much worry, sip my beer and smile at the characterful sheep … ahhhh! As we continue with our relentless list of “things to do”, I hope to factor in a few more of these global pauses and make sure that I enjoy life as the world spins.

Monday, May 21, 2007

It's been raining steadily all night here and the rain gauge is nearly full with 28 mm (just over an inch) of rain, so things are decidedly soggy and I'm staying inside to catch up on some paperwork. If you are similarly meteorologically compromised and need a smile, check out our friend David’s blog, where he plays with words, history, philosophy and photos, including some of men with seriously impressive whiskers.

He lives in Brighton, England, where we used to live before we moved to France. Click on the link to read a little of the history of Brighton (as David thinks it should have been written) and his theories regarding Winston Churchill’s choice of headgear.

And as for permaculture, we’re collecting our sheep and lambs tomorrow, which I’ll tell you about in my next blog.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

“How disappointment tracks the steps of hope.” Letitia Elizabeth Landon (English poet and novelist, 1802 – 1838). (Inspirational photo is, apparently, of Cape Disappointment lighthouse in Washington State, USA, along with some chap in fancy dress ... looking decidedly disappointed.)

Often, as I wander about doing jobs, I ponder about subject matter for blogs and I’ve long been meaning to correct the idea that we live in some rural utopia by telling you about some of the disappointments that have accompanied our successes. I thought that I’d tell you about some of our animal problems, illnesses and losses and was going to say how much more serious they were (affecting sentient beings) than losing a few vegetables. That was until last Saturday, when returning from a very hard physical day’s work taking down the stone pigsty (see previous blog) I found a very downcast Gabrielle who reported that we’d lost a half of all the seedlings she’d sown, nurtured and then planted out in our raised vegetable bed system according to the cycles of the moon. Some serious wind over a couple of days and an onslaught of slugs (this month is as wet as last month was dry) had done for the poor things. Receiving such news when already exhausted, I didn’t have the emotional reserves to comfort Gabrielle, in fact I was almost upset AT her: “can’t she at least look after a few vegetables whilst I’m exhausting myself doing proper man’s work all day, every day?” A symptom of my own disappointment transferred onto her; I rapidly saw sense, although we were both still left with round shoulders and a heavy heart: bloody permaculture nonsense.

Growing organic, perma-culture vegetables, fruit and nuts precludes the use of super strong snail and slug killing pellets produced by caring chemical corporations and we’re left with such helpful advice as “pick them off by hand” and “set beer traps”. Now I have spent many a damp summer’s evening in gardens by torchlight picking slugs up with ever more slimy fingers AND I have noticed that it does actually reduce the population. I’ve also bought nematodes, microscopic creatures that eat gastropods (the Latin name for slugs and snails) from the inside: go guys, and show no mercy! You can, perhaps, sense my anger at these slow-moving, gentle vegetarians? But I’ve always, in a boyish fashion, poo-poohed beer traps as being a complete waste of beer and that it would be better to drink this precious commodity while reflecting on what to do about the slugs. However, hallelujah! I’m a complete convert.

Once we’d picked ourselves up from the depths of our veggie despair, we realised that, if we are to progress in our permaculture adventure, then a large part of our learning will be via the disappointments and thanks to them, in the future, we’ll be able to evangelise on how to grow delicious vegetables under a straw mulch without being bothered by hungry univalves. So we had to fight back. I’ve bought nematodes before and, to be honest, had limited success. In fairness, I think soil type and dry spells immediately after applying them, haven’t helped. Our raised bed system under straw mulch has softer soil and retains moisture (essential for the nematodes survival) well, so we thought we’d give them one more try. A note about the straw mulch: it has many good qualities but a downside is that it provides a very good (from a slug’s point of view) habitat and actually exacerbates our problem. Whilst looking at the website, I also came across some anti-slug collars which one places around each seedling to provide a physical barrier. However, they are very expensive, considering the number we’d need, and aren’t tall enough to both seal against the soil and rise clear from our straw mulch. So we manufactured our own version out of empty plastic water bottles which our neighbours Alan & Carole have been saving for us (see photo).

Results: smiles have returned, along with a certain sense of impending victory. The beer traps are outstand-ingly successful, even using the very cheapest beer. The collars have been 90% successful and Gabrielle has suggested forgetting the return, which is time consuming to make and can be overcome by the most persistent and courageous of our foes, and just make a simple collar from a whole bottle, which delays their climb enough that they can be picked off easily.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Merci, mes amis! In my last blog, I was complaining (that’s too strong an expression, as I love our life here) of having too much to do and it’s exactly at times like these when one needs willing friends. I’ve previously told you (22nd April) about the mutually beneficial arrangement with our new neighbour Philippe to remove his pigsty in exchange for me keeping all the stone for our proposed straw-bale house. It’s only when I started taking the thing to pieces (with Philippe’s and his son Tanguy’s help) that I realised the enormity of the task; clever ideas backed up with self-confidence and enthusiasm can be a real drag at times! 9am, Saturday morning and (in the photo, I’m first left, then) Christophe, Jean-Luc and Samuel arrive to share croissants and coffee before a full day’s pigsty dismantling. Another big thank you is due to Paul, our pig-farming neighbour, who trusted me with his huge John Deere tractor with a bucket on the front to manoeuvre the stone just over the road to our building plot.

It was an exhausting, yet happy day, with lots of laughs, and I have many fond memories, including, on more than one occasion, looking out of the cab to see Christophe on the left waving the bucket downwards and Samuel on the right simultaneously indicating that I should raise the bucket. Normally, the French work the mornings and afternoons without a break, which they more than make up with by spending anything up to two hours devouring a four-course lunch with wine and coffee. An English workman, in contrast, will enjoy tea breaks but probably spend a 40-minute lunch break eating sandwiches in the cab of his van whilst reading a newspaper. I’m all for cultural integration, so we had both. I’m hoping to arrive at the perfect European working day by also including the Spanish after-lunch siesta! The main course was the rabbit I shot at Christophe’s house (see last blog) and, whilst everyone else got tucked into the tender, tasty meat expertly cooked by Gabrielle in a cider and mustard sauce, Christophe toyed with his, with markedly less enthusiasm, perhaps confused by the memory of cute bunnikins romping around his garden eating all his expensive shrubs.

All our normal jobs also needed attending to and so we were grateful for Camille’s help (5 year-old daughter of our neighbours Celine and Michel) in herding the geese from field to their house in the evening. A quick beer together at the end of the working day and return Paul’s tractor then straight in the shower to get ready to go out in the evening to a pig roast to the benefit of some young local lad who’s apparently the go-cart champion of Brittany; I hope he remembers our generous sponsorship when he becomes an unfeasibly rich Formula One driver! Photo shows a scrubbed up and relaxed Christophe sharing a joke with Gaëlle.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

There are times (like now!) when I feel exhausted and overstretched. My day today: up at 5.30am, dress, splash of the face (haven’t shaved for about a week) and a scrub of the ivories and, without a tea (so English) or a coffee / café (so French) I’m off to Christophe’s and Gaëlle’s to try and bag a rabbit. Why? They’ve only just moved into their new (half-renovated) house and have paid a paysagiste a fair amount of money to plant up their garden with shrubs which are now rapidly being eaten by three rabbits. They are likely escapees from the next-door neighbour who, like many country-living French, breed rabbits for eating. Faced with his neighbours’ problem, he quite understandably denied any involvement. However, as head of the local chasse one would think that he is ideally placed to solve their problem with a trap / shotgun. But no: just a Gallic shrug of the shoulder—a non-committal gesture only the French can execute so effectively—and a fairly useless suggestion that they should surround all their shrubs with anti-rabbit netting. Added complications: it’s outside the official hunting season and we’re unsure whether this applies to the rabbits as vermin rather than as game and, don’t forget, the neighbour is the head of the local chasse.

I arrive a touch early to a house in darkness and three rabbits bouncing around nibbling shrubby shoots. I call Christophe on his mobile to avoid waking the whole house up and he arrives five minutes later with ruffled hair, bleary eyes, unshaven … and in his underpants. Gaëlle subsequently arrives somewhat less dishevelled and sweeter smelling and with a breakfast cigarette and battle is joined. I can’t get a clear shot at a distance I feel sure of a clean kill at and there follows a comedy of bouncing, somewhat cute, rabbits and sleepy running around French friends trying to herd them towards me. The rabbits are tantalisingly close but, with a backdrop of a neighbour’s plastic swimming pool, I refrain, conjuring up hilarious images of pulling the trigger instantly followed by its catastrophic watery deflation. Christophe and I retire to battalion HQ for coffee and cake leaving Gaëlle on lookout duty.

Eventually, one rabbit presents itself and I’m able to get very close by creeping inside a shell of a building (more renovation) to the side of their house and, like some latter-day sniper, I get a clean shot and the rabbit drops immediately. The emergence of the neighbour stops all this subterfuge and I return home with a fresh rabbit in time to wake Gabrielle up with a cup of tea. It’s time to move the geese’s electric fence onto fresh grass and that involves measuring out and mowing a square (to stop the electric fence shorting out) hammering in pegs and moving a connecting all the electrics. We then launch all the poultry and set about the rabbit with the aid of a book (we’ve never done this before) a sharp knife and a new cup of tea. Next job: drive down the tip with a vanload of neighbour’s stuff—never alone with a van. Profit from the opportunity to reclaim a solid wood sofa frame (which I’ll recycle into a garden chair for two under our willow arbour) and a pile of cardboard for mulching our recently planted saplings in our wood, give the guy at the tip a bottle of very cheap French Merlot (previously planned for) to say thanks, which he was overtly grateful for, feverishly nodding and winking, whilst theatrically hiding said bottle up his jumper.

Home for breakfast, a beautiful poached egg with a runny yolk on crisp wholemeal toast smothered in salty butter (cholesterol … pah!) another strong coffee (come on, let’s get this heart attack over with soon!) House guests—Tam and Jen, two good friends of Gabrielle’s—wake up. I then cut up 150 (1 metre / yard) cardboard squares to mulch the saplings and, after a quick lunch of rabbit risotto (Gabrielle is the Queen of making an impressive meal out of leftovers) it’s off to the wood with Jen and Tam to mulch the young trees while Gabrielle goes swimming with the local primary school (comprising one class with all ages in it) to help out the single teacher. I’m astonished how different the wood looks in just a few weeks and the saplings are engulfed in knee-high grass. There are some losses but otherwise the saplings are doing well. However, I also planted ten small Christmas trees and I can’t find them. I eventually find six out of the ten, by which time Jen and Tam have finished and we return home.

They go off shopping and it’s time to round up our free-range chickens, only to discover that we’ve lost one of our larger red hens and that makes two losses in a week: a fox, no doubt. I spend some time pacing our land looking for signs of chicken or fox and pondering what we should do to avoid losing the whole lot. I then spend another hour and a half mowing the large field. I walk the geese into their house for bed and examine one of them who seems to have a poorly eye and so it’s back to the bookshelf for some goose health advice. I notice that the gite woodpile is low, so go and chop some wood as we have guests in at the moment and it’s a cool evening. I put an electric plug on an extension lead for neighbour Kysinia who’d chopped the old one off whilst trimming her hedge and finish off the working day by emailing Douglas, a friend who’s very knowledgeable about smallholding, to ask his advice about foxes. Then it’s dinner (thaks again, Gabrielle) and bed … aaarh.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I last wrote about the permaculture design proposal for the small garden in our holiday cottage back in February and, as we have just finished the hard landscaping and fencing and there is just some more planting to be done, it’s now time to show you what we’ve done.

To recap: having followed most of the permaculture design process, but skipped a couple of important points in our impatience to get started, we discovered a large concrete slab under just a thin covering of topsoil which interfered with what we wanted to do. It didn’t seem very “permaculture” to bring in large machinery to remove and cart away this “problem” and so we adapted the then current plan. Large though it was, the slab didn’t cover everywhere and it seemed sensible to relocate the paths where the concrete was and the flower / vegetable beds and lawn to where it wasn’t. We did remove some concrete to make this compromise work but not much.

An important lesson we have learnt from our experience is that, no matter how thoroughly the plan on paper has been prepared, it changes dramatically when applied to the site. Once marked out with string, sticks and lines of sand, the proportions didn’t seem nearly as pleasing as they’d looked on paper. All was not lost, and the plans provided a good starting point from which we adjusted sizes and shapes actually in the garden. The photos show the progression from the neat site map—a to-scale representation of its original state—through various incarnations of (mainly) Gabrielle's creativity, to the garden as it is now.

The design brief was to create an edible garden, a private quiet place of relaxation for our paying guests and, at the same time for anyone who’s interested, a living example of small-scale permaculture in action. It will be low-maintenance, look beautiful, smell wonderful, and provide herbs, salad, soft and top fruit, nuts and a range of vegetables so that guests can help themselves to anything that’s ripe. It's got a camomile lawn, will also have a creeping thyme ground cover, has a living willow arbour and fence and a path covered in woodchip we've made onsite. We’ve reused and recycled lots of materials in its construction and incorporated rainwater catchment and bird boxes and bug houses. We want to put in a van tyre potato tower but we can’t yet work out where to put this relatively unsightly edifice.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I’m way behind on some of what we’re up to here. We’ve had guinea fowl come and go, geese are back on the field, we’ve ordered sheep but we’re waiting on the fencing before we take delivery of them … and we’ve got a rabbit! French nouns are either masculine or feminine and some, like the word for rabbit, (un) lapin, can be both, so a female rabbit is une lapine . She’s called “Bunny” but before you criticise us for such a cliché, we’re thinking, not so much Bunny as in Bunny Rabbit, but “Bunny Lapine”, a whole lot more sophisticated and evocative of some 1960s Hollywood B-movie actress (see photo) who got her chance at fame not by star quality and acting ability but rather via the casting couch, offering “favours” to some grizzled old cigar-smoking director who’d never quite made it big.

Our Bunny will also have to sleep around and there are plenty of neighbours offering male rabbits and / or advice: Kysinia has offered Bunny the opportunity of some bunny-lurve with her buck but he’s an ornamental pet variety and far too small, in Annike’s opinion, to produce usefully edible offspring. So Celine has come to the rescue, with a huge male, who’s still a virgin. I don’t think we need to worry whether or not he’s up to it, as I believe that bunnies actually wrote the book on shagging! Celine’s buck gets to make the bunny-lurve—queue Barry White music—and Bunny Lapine gets to lay back and think of France while enhancing her career, and we get a production-line of “highly nutritious, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat rich in proteins and certain vitamins and minerals.”

That link is from the United Nations Food and Agriculture division and, before you leap to take us to task about even dreaming of eating such lovely pretty fluffy darlings, take a look at the following link telling that rabbits are now the most abused pet in the UK. All the animals we own are in the food chain but we firmly believe that they should enjoy the best possible life before being swiftly and humanely despatched ... and don’t worry, we haven’t got a dog.