Monday, February 25, 2008

Val, our knowledgeable and vastly experienced Somerset smallholding friend, emailed me to say, amongst other things, that she was sorry if she’d put me off writing "Goats: Part 2" by being outspoken about tethering goats. In fact, the only reason I haven’t written Part 2, is that we’ve been immensely busy with our goats (plural, as we’ve added two more) and there’ll be Parts 3 and 4, the rate we’re going.

So, Goats: Part 2 it is then … I told you that we’d put the vasectomised ram lamb in with the pygmy billy goat (billy pygmy goat?) for company, which still left us with some accommodation quandaries. The ram is in the field with the three pregnant ewes and it’s high time (as advised by Val) that he was out of their way so that they can eat their concentrates in peace and won’t be barged about in their delicate state. He’ll also need company but the ram lamb is currently in with the goat, where he is exhibiting quite goat-like behaviour, bouncing up and down Pallet Mountain and enthusiastically tucking into the brambles I cut and throw in for the goat.

The problem with being near brambles, if you have a thick woollen coat on, is that they hook on and I arrived recently to find pandemonium: the ram lamb running in large circles whilst a bemused billy goat looked on. We need to imagine ourselves within the minds of the respective beasts to understand what was going on in their goaty / sheepy worlds. Of all the animals we’ve had here, the sheep are the most nervous and flighty. Hooked by a bramble branch caught in his coat, he was towing around what appeared to be a complete hedge, which I guess he imagined as some sort of chasing beast, always just on his shoulder and the only sheepy response to which was to run and then run some more. The goat however, is viewing the same bramble hedge as diner, a somewhat mobile dinner, “Meals on Wheels” perhaps, which never slowed down enough for him to eat it.

It’s at moments like these that our inexperience shows. Now add into the mix two beautiful bonny young goats born only last Monday which are currently in a pallet corral in our downstairs hallway (see photo at top) and being fed by us on the bottle four times a day. On their first excursion out, we tried them with the billy goat (see video below) who initially seemed quite happy to have company but, after he’d completed the essential sniffing of nether parts, he wanted to square up to the little male and mount the little female. It was amusing to see the little male, just two weeks old, facing off the billy, rather than running for cover but clearly we couldn’t leave them in with him. So we tried them with the three ewes and all seems to be well.

I would have typed this yesterday but, right at the end of a very long day, as Gabrielle was shutting up the chickens in the chicken house, she announced that Mrs Bantam had gone broody. The significance was that she was now blocking up the nestbox where all the hens conveniently lay their eggs; the nursery hutch has Mrs Silky with three chicks in it and the Chicken Tractor now has three growing rabbits in it. Instead of typing this blog accompanied by a glass of cidre artisanale, I helped Gabrielle clean up and repair a wooden rabbit hutch we’d been given by Caroline and Alastair, then install Mrs Bantam, adding another three eggs; if she’s going to all the effort, we might as well make the most of it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bunny Bits This is a sexy blog! Perhaps not exactly titillating but it does contain close up shots—and video—of genitalia, so be warned. I’m typing this after the 9pm “watershed”, so I assume I’m complying with my social responsibilities.

Very simply, I’m going to tell you how to tell the fe/maleness of your rabbit. When we originally chose Bunny Lapine from Sam and Julie’s litter of rabbits, it was not immediately clear that she was female and neither Sam nor Julie had previously experience of sexing rabbits. It gets easier the bigger they get and so we turn to the venerable Annick, our neighbour and expert in all things concerning the French countryside, to supply us with the definitive answer.

The video at the top shows Annick’s dexterity with a feisty young rabbit, along with a certain bashfulness in front of the camera (Annick, not the rabbit) telling you how to restrain a rabbit while inspecting the important bits. The next two photos show a female’s, then male’s parts. So now you know!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Something I recently read triggered off my literary bête noir, the misuse of metaphors and similes. My early morning duties include getting the animals up, fed and, at the moment, thawing their drinking water, followed by the serious business of perusing the BBC’s football website, with a mug of tea, to see what’s new in the absurd world of modern professional football. There, I read how one of my team’s players holds a player from a different team in high regard: "He [Ronaldo] is a player I like to watch," admitted Adebayor. "He has a lot of quality and watching him is like watching something else, it is like playing on the PlayStation sometimes". I was similarly astonished a year of two ago when I read that a young rookie racing driver described his first go in a Formula One car as “just like playing a computer game.”

Nowadays, it would appear, Real Life is like a computer game. Call me old-fashioned but I always thought computer games were meant to simulate real life. This brings to mind an episode in Father Ted (popular 1990’s sitcom) where the wise Father Ted Crilly (middle, top ) is trying to explain the differences between dreams and reality to the feckless Father Dougal (left). Exasperated by Dougal’s inability to understand, he draws a simple diagram of the outline of a head with the word “dreams” written about where the brain should be and “reality” written outside the outline (see my pic at top). Faced with a situation a bit later, Dougal desperately tries to remember what he’s been taught and we, the viewers, see the words transposed in Dougal’s mind (see other pic) with humorous consequences. So where does this all leave us and our confused youth? Stuck, weirdly in some dreams / real life / simulation liminality … and I thought Global Warming was our biggest problem.

To finish, and by way of comparison: what I consider to be a really good example of a simile. From my current bedside book, Scenes From a Smallholding” by Chas Griffin (a title I read about on Melanie’s blog and which I also thoroughly recommend as humorous, informative and easy reading) here’s a description of a fearsome wind.

“I’ve never seen the point of wind. Rain at a pinch: but wind? I’m not talking lambent zephyrs here, but the stuff that hurtles off the Atlantic, like a wringing wet Rottweiler looking for trouble.” (p. 177).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Goats: part 1. In the last blog, I mentioned our six month stay in one of Caroline’s gites, where she had a mixed flock of free range chickens and a couple of goats. Apparently, the goats came with the property when they bought it, so she ordered a book on goats from Amazon to learn what to do with them. The first words she read in the book were (something like) “if you’ve bought goats to keep your grass in trim, you’ve bought the wrong animal, you should have bought sheep”, which strikes me as a really negative way to start a book about goats, no matter how true it might be; there are softer ways of breaking bad news.

Gabrielle has never been that enamoured of goats, something about their eyes, she says, perhaps subliminally connected to devilish symbolism from medieval times. In my Dictionary of Symbols (Tresidder, 1999. p92) I read that, on Judgement Day, “Christ is to divide [the goats] from the sheep and consign them to everlasting fire”; so if, on the Big Day, you fail to make the cut at the Pearly Gates, you can presumably console yourself with tasty barbequed goat.

Goats are browsers and need a certain bulk in their diet which grazing just on grass won’t satisfy. I sold my petrol strimmer last year, re-investing the money in a beautiful Austrian scythe but having a mobile living strimmer seems even more permaculture and when we were offered a pygmy goat for free, I started to get very excited and even Gabrielle warmed to the idea. We placed an order for a female pygmy goat for essential company (it really is most unkind to keep farm animals in solitary confinement) and, the day after paying our deposit, were offered even more goats (see Part 2).

I looked around agricultural suppliers on the Internet to find designs and dimensions of hayracks and then built one for the cost of just a few screws, with some beautiful ash wood donated by our neighbour Kysinia. I mounted it under cover from the weather inside the field shelter and then, with yet more free non-reusable pallets from our pig-farming neighbour Paul, I built a wooden mountain, for the goat to jump around for fun. After two days alone, with the hope that the goat would get used to us more quickly, we’ve introduced our castrated Ouessant ram lamb into his paddock for company, until his girlfriend arrives at the start of April. The goat spends the day out on a tether and is then returned to his paddock to run around freely. It’s early days but our permaculture plans seem to be working, as the photo below shows him getting tucked into a bramble patch.

Inevitably (for me, that is) I also bought a book on goats: keeping a goat on a tether is, I read, “not recommended”. “The smaller goatkeeper (I’m nearly 6 ft tall, whereas Gabrielle is only 5 ft 2 ins, so how does this apply to us?) would not be wise to consider buying a male of any age …” It also advises disbudding (so horns don’t grow) all goats to avoid injury to human goatkeepers. So, keeping our male, horned goat on a tether is breaking all the rules. In conclusion: I recommend buying a goat ... I'm not so sure I'd recommend buying a book on goats!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

When I first came to France, I had ideas of running some small business based around willow. We’d been inspired by going on one, then two courses run by one of the UK’s very first willow experts, Steve Pickup of The Willow bank. Initially, I moved to the Limousin (in Central France) buying a barn then an old mill, all while wearing the rosiest set of rose-tinted glasses available. The mill was obviously next to a river and millrace and the field to the other side was, unsurprisingly, decidedly damp. According to permaculture principles, when looking at a wet field, one shouldn’t immediately think of how to install drainage pipes to dry it out but rather see an opportunity to plant something suitable to such moist conditions, such as willow. My wet field fed my willow dreams.

In fact, starting a business in France seems to be prohibitively expensive, which may have lead George Dubya Bush to say “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur” (allegedly) and also means that loads of young French “fout le camp”* and journey to England to work and start businesses. So, willow became just a pastime and thus I have many books on the subject and no less that thirty-three different varieties growing here, on our permaculture smallholding.
* (literally: “to split”. “Les jeunes fout le camp” was used as a headline in an edition of Libération, the French leftish newspaper, 11th Aug 2005).

Having searched France, and thought we’d found the best place, we wisely (rather than impetuously, as in the Limousin) decided to rent a place for six months to be sure that Brittany was right for us. There’s only so much house-hunting one can do and we eventually persuaded our host Caroline, to invest in a living willow structure to be built (grown?) in the play area of her family gîtes complex. We designed a structure for children to play in and around and which demonstrated the versatility of Steve’s technique, comprising a dome, a crawl through tunnel and a snail-curve of a wall. The top photo shows it during the summer when fully leafed up.

And so to the present … Eric and Virginie asked us to help them construct a living willow hedge (or even fence, Steve coined the term “fedge”) at their home and I suggested that we run a course. The “payment” for the course would be a day’s labour each in our woodland. Two other friends plus their neighbours joined us for a very cold and windy day and we punctuated the work with the obligatory relaxed four-course French lunch, involving lentils and split peas, etc., as Virginie is a very rare thing, a French vegan.

The photos show, in order: marking out the pattern (in this case a straight line, and making the planting holes, firming in the uprights, weaving and tying and happy smiles once it's all finished. Have a look at Steve's website for details of courses, kits and a great instructional DVD you can buy.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Crystals and past lives, unicorns and fluffy bunnies ... or perhaps just plain fluffiness. Gabrielle and I label ourselves “permaculturalists” but there are many things within the permaculture ambit that we don’t go for. And I think that’s OK, permaculture's an experiment, not a strict doctrine, an umbrella, a wide church. I remember describing my own permaculture design course to friends as 80% useful stuff and 20% fluffy hippieness. Maybe I’m too straight-laced, maybe some of the fluffy nonsense actually does work but can’t be explained scientifically, who’s to say?

In Permaculture Magazine we read of copper gardening tools and silver water stirrers and our brows crinkle with a benign mixture of amusement and disbelief (some of this stuff is quite expensive). These things live on a continuum, rather than there being a science / fluffiness dichotomy and so, in Permaculture Magazine, issue 51, we read an article on rock dust, entitled “Stone Age Science”. There’s lots of evangelical promise but it’s annoyingly short on detail. The idea is that soil is comprised of weathered rock (nearly 50%) air and water (40-50%) and organic matter (5%) and that, as soil ages, “essential trace elements are lost though weathering, intensive farming and plant growth.” With rock dust, apparently, you can re-mineralise your soil and so grow better and more nutritious fruit, nuts and vegetables.

I have to say that there was enough scientific logic to tickle my taste buds and so I wanted to acquire some rock dust, but at £8.50 for a 20 kg bag, it is far too expensive for us. And as I don’t know of any French stockists, importing something as heavy as ground up stone just wouldn’t meet any ecological principles, however good it is. One of my failings is that I can be like a dog with a bone when I get an idea in my head, and I wanted some rock dust.

With neighbour Alan’s trailer attached to my green van, (it’s green in colour, I’m not claiming any special ecological merits for it) I drove off to the nearest quarry. You know the difference between builders’ merchants and DIY stores? They sell a lot of similar stuff but you really need to be “in the know” to feel comfortable in the builders’ merchants: compare “gi’us ten metres of sawn four-be-two and a kilo of 2 inch galvanised clouts” with “excuse me, I’d like some wood and some nails please but I’m not entirely sure what exactly.” A French quarry is ten times worse. Huge lorries, huge digger and tractor things, a weighbridge, a portacabin office and not a sign giving any useful information about what one should do in site—something like a secret society in fact—incorporated with the specific aim of making outsiders feel incredibly small.

To be fair, I may have felt small but they were extremely accommodating and the secretary, her male colleague and a lorry driver who happened to be in the office got really involved in this crazy Englishman’s quest for rock dust. In the end, they pointed me in the direction of a granite quarry not too far away, which turned out to be more of the same. So I wandered about feeling incredibly self-conscious and eventually spoke to a guy driving a big digger, who directed me to the office. No one on reception, I poked my head into an office: (the following dialogue was in French)

I explained my quest for rock dust, which I assumed would be a by-product of their enterprise and could I possibly liberate some and pay for the privilege.
Over there, next to the white thing, by the flaming thing (I didn’t understand all).
And will there be someone to help me load it
A shovel
And where will I find a shovel
Over there
And where do I pay
Offhand shrug type of gesture meaning, as far as I could ascertain, help yourself, it’s free, mate and please now f**k off and let me do some work.
And who shall I say that I spoke to in the office?
Thank you, have a good afternoon and au revoir
The same to you, au revoir (the French are terribly polite, even when being impolite.

The tale ends simply: I shovelled up as much of this permaculture gold as I could. The guys working the stone inhabited a place that William Blake would have painted as Hell, with ear-splitting noise, flames and sparks and huge slabs of stone being dangerously moved around in slings as I loaded the trailer a shovel at a time. The machine operator either took pity on me or I won his respect, either way he helped me load up the trailer and I had to force a tip on him, a small gesture to enjoy a drink on a Friday evening, whilst I was thinking how much this would have cost if I’d bought it! The plan is to use it in half the polytunnel to see if we notice a difference. To read more, click here and here