Friday, December 28, 2007

We're currently in the UK seeing family and friends and normal service will be resumed very shortly, when I'll finally get round to telling you all about "the Big Pig Day", recount the tale of a frozen water pipe the day before we were going to leave, finding and preparing "road-kill" (a pheasant, in fact) for the table (and, no, it wasn't me who hit it, officer) and talk about very small houses.

In the meantime, here's a French joke I was told recently by Henri the electrician working on neighbour Paul's renovation project: to have a good meal, a Frenchman soulève ses manches (rolls up his sleeves) but an Englishman traverse la Manche (crosses the English Channel - to France): it's wordplay on manche ... oh, how we laughed!
Enough foolishness, back soon ...

Monday, December 17, 2007

I haven’t been blogging so regularly recently as I’ve been busy working … proper work, paid work, that is. There have been some changes to the health system here in France, the effect of which, for us as “inactif" foreign jonnies, is that we are under threat of losing our little green credit card-sized carte vitales. Health care isn’t free at the point of delivery here, you pay when you see your doctor but, with a carte vitale 70% of the charge is reimbursed to your bank account within days. One thing I should just say is that the standard of healthcare is second to none, so no complaints there and, to be honest, we’re not complaining about the changes as we’ve made a choice to live here and, when in Rome (or Brittany) …

No complaints, but a problem requiring a solution and, after several phone calls to the health service helpline, we discovered that one of us needs to work for at least 60 hours in one rolling month just once a year, to qualify. Which is how I came to find myself working under a system called chèque-emploi (the person you’re working for pays you and also separately pays your tax and social charge contributions, doubling the cost: the lowest paid person in France effectively pays over 50% tax!) I must thank neighbour Gérémie for finding me the opportunity to work for the requisite hours and I intend to buy him an impressively old and expensive bottle of French wine once we regain our entitlement to our carte vitales.

Wage labour has meant that I’ve had less time to do necessary work onsite and it’s been a relief this week to get back to our own stuff and to my infamous “list of things to do”. We’ve wanted to move our small flock of Ouessant sheep for a while but they needed a shelter built before we moved them. Paul, our ever-generous pig-farming neighbour let me collect a vanload of wooden pallets for free, which I used to construct said shelter (see photo below). After pricing up corrugated iron, then plastic sheets for the roof, I settled on an unfeasibly cheap plastic tarpaulin. Thus, a sheep shelter for our small flock of five sheep has cost around 15€ (£10 / $20). In comparison, have a look at this animal shelter for no less than 560€ (£379 / $750). At 12€ per hour, chèque-emploi, I would have to work for a week and a third to earn the money to buy one. While trying to be ecologically sustainable, we've always got our eyes on how to be economically sustainable too ... and to this end, we've just laid down our pork futures, see my next blog. To read the most up to date information about the health service situation I was talking about above, look at the British Embassy website.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Meat – Part 2 We’ve had chickens almost from the moment we moved in, then came the geese and this year we added a female rabbit, five sheep and two pigs to our developing permaculture smallholding. We slaughter our own chickens and, last year, the geese (although this year they went to the local poultry farm to be slaughtered and plucked) and I’ve helped Samuel and Julie despatch and prepare rabbits. It would be fair to say that I’ve become habituated to this, so while I always concentrate and take care to do it swiftly and humanely, it doesn’t bother me on an emotional level. Now though, it’s time to slaughter our two pigs and we are both a little apprehensive. They’ve never had names, just known collectively as “the boys” but, of all the animals here, they seem to be the most intelligent, have loads of character and are very tame (apparently a trait of their race: New Zealand Kune Kunes).

As they are for our own consumption, we are allowed, in European law, to slaughter them at home, rather than take them to an abattoir. We think that this will be less stressful for them and are on the lookout for a boucher de campagne (countryside butcher) who comes to your home to slaughter and butchers the animal; some of them also then prepare various charcuterie like sausages and pâté. I’ve spoken to two and have another to contact. My own reaction to killing the chickens has always been that once dead they cease to be the bird that we’ve raised and cared for and are now a carcass to be plucked and drawn and divided up. What’s important to us is how he proposes to kill the animal and how “caring” he is with them. Perhaps a strange word to use, I can illustrate that with what happened at the poultry farm with our geese: the guy was calm and he handed the birds firmly—so they wouldn’t flap about or escape—but also carefully, so as not to hurt them.

We’ve bought a DVD from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall called A Pig in a Day which is excellent. He’s passionate about his pigs. Advice on how to rear pigs is followed by clear explanations on how to cut up the carcass and prepare charcuterie using just about everything but the oink. His step-by-step approach undoubtedly looks easier than it will be for us beginners. I’ve also done research into despatching animals and recommend the website and publications of The Humane Slaughter Association. The usual method of farm or home slaughter here is to suspend the pig by its back legs and cut the throat so it bleeds to death. We don’t want ours to know anything about it, so want the pigs to be rendered unconscious—before they’re hauled up and stuck—using a captive bolt stun gun. In Meat part 3, I’ll tell you how it went … vegetarian readers should look away now.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

As I type, the weather here is absolutely rotten and so I thought it timely to show you some holiday snaps: this is one of our rabbit, Bunny Lapine, on safari. No, I jest, she’s not in the Kenyan Masaai Mara but she’s been encased in a mosquito net ever since we heard that the viral disease myxomatosis was killing our neighbours’ rabbits (see my blog of 26th November).

It’s spread by flying, biting insects, like rabbit fleas and mosquitoes, so the fine netting was the first line of defence. Gabrielle went to see our local vet, Dr Hamedi Mouli, to buy some vaccine and, as we’d been helpfully warned by a comment to this blog by Renée about another rabbit malady, rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease, she brought back two vaccines, some hypodermic needles and instructions. He really is a super guy and spent quite some time explaining to her exactly how to administer the injection (which involves mixing two components and delivering it subcutaneously) and, to make really sure that she understood, grabbed his own unsuspecting pet cat and gave it a vitamin injection to demonstrate the correct technique.

Our neighbours’ son, Tangui, has a work placement coming up with that same vet and so I thought it would be fun for him to take part in the inoculations. The bottles contained 10 doses, that’s nine for Bunny and her eight offspring, leaving one for neighbour Kysinia’s pet rabbit. She works during the week, so we’d agreed to do it today. Tangui enthusiastically came round this morning to ask when I was going to do it. I went round to call for him at 3pm but two rings on the doorbell failed to elicit any response and, seeing his parents’ car absent, assumed he wasn’t there and went ahead, only to discover later that he’d stayed home all day, waiting for my call and had missed the action. There might well have been ten doses of 0.5millilitres each but the smallest of errors on the first nine left me short, so I intend to buy another batch, not expensive at all, and do Kysinia’s rabbit, and the rabbits of our two elderly neighbours, Solange and Annick, and, imagining how I’d have felt in the same situation, I’ve absolutely promised Tangui not to do it without him.

I’ve never administered an injection before and had only the instructions given by a French-speaking Egyptian vet via Gabrielle and some useful stuff I’d found on the Internet. We started with the eight bundles of fun and finished with mummy. To administer an injection to a rabbit, the technique is to pull up the scruff of the neck into a “tent” and pierce one layer of skin, trying to avoid going all the way through and spearing one’s own fingers, then pull back on the plunger to make sure no blood is sucked up, thereby ensuring one is in the right place, then squeeze. None of them made any complaints and I didn’t unwittingly inoculate myself either. We’ll leave her wrapped up in her protective mosquito net for a couple of weeks until the vaccine has protected them. It’s a similar delay before we can administer the other vaccine against VHD.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The permaculture design process starts with a base map (done) and proceeds to a site survey, which includes such items as landform, climate, soil evaluation, existing plants and biodiversity, access, etc. David Holmgren, one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept (along with Bill Mollison) published an excellent case-study of his own site, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens: 10 Years of Sustainable Living, and therein explains that he studied how the land had been used historically before he embarked on a site survey, which relates to the situation at the time of the survey.

Where we live used to be part of a farm. Our next-door neighbours, Philippe and Maryvonne, with their children Tangui and Lisane, live in what used to be the farmhouse. Our house used to be a large wooden barn storing straw and hay bales and housing a rudimentary milking parlour and our holiday gîte, a cob and stone building, used to be a little stable. Kysinia, another neighbour, supplied some photos of how our property and land used to look at the point of sale by the retiring farmers, Roger (French, so pronounced “Ro-jh-ay”) and Denise. The land has served up many surprises: such as when we started work on the gite garden—having impatiently omitted the soil survey—and hit a concrete hard-standing almost with the first thrust of the spade (see my blog of 3rd February).

One of the next stages of our developing permaculture smallholding is the installation of a Solar tunnel, a brand of polytunnel, to extend our growing season and enable us to grow a greater variety of crops. Where to put it? We considered access, sun and shade, provision of water and what other purposes could make better use of the site, before choosing the spot. When we looked at the “historic” photos of the land (see second photo at top) it was evident that it used to be a driveway suitable for heavy agricultural vehicles and was thus likely to comprise lots of aggregate of differently sized stones but little soil. We re-considered the placement but felt that, for the reasons we’d originally chosen it, we should stick with it.

I then spoke to Paul, our pig-farming neighbour, and asked his advice. Both he and another neighbour, the venerable Annick, remember there being a small storage building at that site, adding further layers of historical information to the photos.
We agreed that it was worth passing Paul’s plough over it, with it’s huge tines that apparently wouldn’t be damaged if they encountered large stones and lumps of concrete. This would loosen the heavy clay soil enough for me to get in their with spade and hands and pull out the worst of it and then make a decision what further to do. Once the plough had passed, it was evident that the ground was in far better condition than we’d hoped for and it appears that the hardcore and stones were laid from the now-absent building and thus the land that it actually stood on was just compacted earth.

Paul then offered to go and change the plough for the harrow and give the earth another go over, which would level out the ground and save about a weeks digging with a garden spade or two days with a borrowed rotovator. It took him less than five minutes and I think is completely compatible with permaculture principles (thank God!) in fact, David Holmgren himself justified using large earth-moving machinery at the set-up stage of his own project. What wouldn’t be so appropriate for us is to find excuses to use the diesel-powered plough on the same bit of land every year.