Saturday, April 26, 2008

For some time now, we’ve been waiting to put our bunny to the buck again. A month ago, we took her next door to an elderly neighbour, Solange, whose previous buck (since gone for the pot, bless him) sired our first litter. She wouldn’t exactly say “no” but she wasn’t sure that it would work, as she’d put one of her own bunnies to him the day before. I had to smile at the thought of the shagged out bunny gigolo putting his paw up and saying, “enough already”. I had my suspicions that he would indeed be more than ready. However, no sooner had I dropped bunny off than Solange’s normally reclusive and taciturn daughter, Christine, was vigorously signalling for me to come over. She’d seen that our bunny had a problem.

Thanks to Christine’s alertness, we found out that our bunny had a blocked and crusty ear. The following day, we went straight down to our Tunisian vet, the calm and kind Dr Mouhli, who pronounced that she had “la gale” (mange), caused by tiny mites. With bunny held in place by me and the veterinary nurse, he applied some disinfectant and swabbed out the worst of it, giving me some medicine to apply each day for a week. It’s a problem that’s easily remedied but I had a worry regarding Solange’s rabbits. When I vaccinated our own rabbits against myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease, I offered to vaccinate Solange’s too. I had spare doses and it would also benefit us if the surrounding domestic rabbits were protected but she declined. If her rabbits now fell ill, perhaps even to myxi, I was concerned that the finger would be pointed at our scabby-eared bunny. Happily, that didn’t come to pass, although I felt less inclined to ask again if we could use her male. So we turned to the venerable Annick.

With her usual open-smiley-ness, she ushered me and bunny through her labyrinthine garden to a row of Concrete Clapiers (rabbit hutches—biligiual alliteration, respect please!) where I (we?) were given the choice of two bucks: a large albino with shifty pink eyes or a smaller-but-cuter dark brown one. I went for colour over size and in bunny went. In the time it took Annick to close the front grille, with it’s broken catch, and start to explain how she kept it securely closed with a log of wood, Monsieur had “served” bunny twice: no advocate of Tantric Sex then, unlike the popstar Sting. When we came to pick her up an hour or so later, our 75+ year-old neighbour was full of jokes about how many rabbits were we collecting and how our rabbit must be heavier now! And she reminded us that, all being well, we’ll have a new family of baby rabbits in exactly a month’s time. Click here to read about rabbits as a highly nutritious, low fat, low-cholesterol meat rich in proteins and certain minerals and vitamins.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

“I like Wagner’s music much better than anybody’s. It’s so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing you.” Bob Marley, Jamaican singer, composer and guitarist, 1945 – 1981.

When we were searching for a place in Brittany, we had no intention of running a gîte (rural holiday cottage). We were searching for the elusive combination of a building plot for our straw bale house, along with enough agricultural land for our permaculture aspirations. When we found what we were looking for, it came with a cute little converted stable, which we started renting out. It’s worked really well for us and we’ve had some great experiences with our holidaymakers. Some people keep themselves to themselves and we respect that and others come and chat and feed the animals … and play music.

Tony and Louise have travelled all the way from Cumbria, in the very north of England, and Tony packed his violin. When I was telling them about our lives here in Brittany, Tony’s face lit up when I said that Gabrielle plays violin with a couple of local Breton folk groups. They came around for aperos this evening and Gabrielle and Tony made some beautiful music together, though I’m not sure whether it would have been adequately loud for the King of Reggae. So, if you play music, don’t forget to bring your instrument when you come to stay in our gîte.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Friedrich Nietzsche. What a load of rubbish! What about a heavy cold, eh? Philosophy is definitely overrated.

We’re back in business with permaculture pigs. Last year, we began pig raising with a pair of Kune Kune pigs. (To read about our experiences with them, click on the first link on the right under the heading “Magazine Articles"—it will download as a PDF file.) This year, we have chosen three Gloucester Old Spots. They arrived a bit manic but have already become habituated to a scratch behind the ears and a rub on their backs. We’ve created a proper paddock with strained stock fencing, rather than the electric fencing of last year. We’ve added one single line of barbed wire at the bottom to discourage them from digging under the fence but many people have warned us that this won’t be enough—we’ll see.

In our two years of permaculture smallholding experience, pigs are by far our favourite animals as they are so characterful and intelligent; it’s a little more difficult to get as emotionally attached to a nervous sheep that keeps its distance, for example. Gabrielle went up to see the pigs today and then called me over as, when collapsing on her side after a tummy tickle, she saw that the female pig was covered in insects. (I should make it clear that it was the pig, not Gabrielle, who was pole axed by belly stimulation; I’m not sure how I should arrange that sentence to read better.) I managed to grab an example between my fingers and we both ran inside to try and identify it. I photographed it with my digital camera and enlarged the image (see my photo at left) as Gabrielle fetched our copy of Black’s Student Veterinary Dictionary. Gabrielle then searched the Internet, via Google, and I started leafing through the book. Within a minute or two, we’d identified the culprit as a pig louse, Haematopinus suis. After lunch (remember that the whole of France revolves around lunchtime and it just wouldn’t do to turn up at someone’s house at 1 o’clock) I ran down to Paul’s and Christiane’s (our pig-farming neighbours) who gave us some pour-on medicine to administer today and again in four weeks (it only kills the beasties, not their eggs, hence the second application).

It’s always unsettling to be presented with a problem but, sometimes, it’s not too serious and one thus ends up more knowledgeable that before … so perhaps Nietzsche had a point; perhaps he even kept pigs himself?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Perennial plants are permaculture plants. With good ground cover, to prevent weeds, they provide food without (so much of) the effort. I’m not sure how long-lasting it is compared to other perennials, but we've read that asparagus can crop for up to an impressive twenty years. A lovely fresh, green, early vegetable, even it if makes your wee smell, the asparagus for sale here in France is usually blanched, so we have a regional reason to grow our own.

It needs a well-prepared bed with all the perennial weed roots removed and we added coarse grit and rock dust (ground granite) to improve the drainage of our heavy clay soil. I have also created a hard edge to the raised bed, recycling some old wood planks donated by neighbour Serge. Exhausting work but great value, if it means I don’t have to do it again for so many years.

We bought one-year-old crowns, which gives us a head start compared with planting seeds, although we’ll still be waiting another two full years before we can start cropping them to eat. Apart from the thorough preparation of the soil, the planting instructions were a right fuss and palaver too, with a long trench being dug first, then little earth mounds created to sit the buds on and arrange their huge, gangly root system around.

As I told you in my blog of 4th April, that we are recent converts to the surreal sitcom, The Mighty Boosh. As such, I couldn’t help thinking of the half-pink-octopus-half-human-head character, Tony Harrison and at first made Gabrielle laugh, then no doubt got boring, as I imitated his dull tones every time she planted an asparagus (we had thirty plants). Anyway, you be the judge: look at our asparagus photos, then a short clip from the show.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Twice a week, just before midday, a little white Citroën van pulls up our lane, accompanied by two or three hearty parps on its horn and parks outside our gite: it’s Nadine, sister of Jacky our boulanger, delivering bread. I think she provides a greater social service than the mere delivery of bread, as she takes time to chat with her customers, often elderly, who perhaps don’t otherwise get the chance to talk to too many people. The venerable Annick doesn’t fall into this category and is more than able to collect her own bread yet will never fail to meet up with Nadine, buy a long pain and natter for a few minutes (in the photo, Annick is on the right).

One day last week, I happened to be passing with our billy goat on a lead. I only tether him if I’m working next to him and I’d let him get tucked into a patch of brambles while I was constructing some more stock fencing nearby. It was time for lunch, so I was retuning him to his field. When I got to the bread van, I stopped to say my “bonjours” to Nadine and Annick and I explained that the billy was my débroussailleuse (strimmer). “Très écologique” they said and then Annick went on to explain how I would be effectively eating my own hedge as the billy eats the hedge and then we eat him, which put me in mind of a passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet is playing with words and ideas as he describes how a dead king, buried, will be eaten by worms, one of which might be used as fishing bait.

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

What does thou mean by this?
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.
(Act IV Scene 3)

Which is all to say that the next time you pass by the quotidian French rural scene of an elderly country lady gossiping with the bakery delivery woman, don’t be mistaken, they’re operating on the same intellectual level as William Shakespeare!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cat’s: Part 2. I had my tongue tucked firmly in my cheek when I was discussing the relative merits of feeding scraps to Annick’s numerous cats rather than chucking them in the bin. Both Val and Mandarine posted comments, warning me of the catty disease, toxoplasmosis, so I reached for my brand new copy of Black’s Student Veterinary Dictionary. (Top tip: if you want to buy one, the student version has a soft cover but is identical in content and much cheaper). I read that toxoplasmosis “is a disease of man and of most warm-blooded animals. It is a major cause of abortion in ewes but the signs of disease in other species can vary widely.” Infection can be via “oocysts present in feline faeces … [which] can survive outside the body for 17 months (p 714).” So cat poo is potentially very much more insidious than just the annoyance of getting it stuck on your shoe.

I remember from school a mathematical modelling of the population of foxes (predators) and rabbits (bouncy food items) which goes something like this: 1. Few foxes let the rabbits multiply. 2. More rabbits mean more food so the foxes multiply. 3. Many foxes eat more rabbits, whose population thus declines. 4. Few rabbits, so foxes go hungry and decline and then we’re back to square 1. It was represented on the blackboard as a pair of sine waves half a phase out of synch. Now we don’t need this level of theoretical analysis to see that if we make more food available then the (already large) local population of cats will increase. It’s a shame really as they’re all a bit scrawny but more food will definitely mean more cats, rather than the same number of cats better nourished.

Gabrielle’s had a cat before but I’m not a catty person, having an allergy to cats indoors and I grew up with a dad who used to throw water, stones and even half bricks (always missing, I can assure you, he played rugby for the town, never cricket) to discourage them from our garden and its wild birds, so cats were “bad”. I can now see their appealing side but wouldn’t choose one as a pet because of the aforementioned allergy. I’ve heard it said that dogs have owners and cats have servants and it appears that one of these cats has chosen us and spends most of its time hanging around our house, rather than with the others. Not wanting it adding to the population, nor wanting to have to drown kittens in a bucket, we decided to do our bit and get her spayed, wormed and de-flea-ed. She lives outside, gets fed alone and is starting to look better by the day. If you live near us and fancy a cat, we can introduce you to the venerable Annick, who’s more than happy to give the cats away but shows no other inclination to control their numbers. And if you know anything more about toxoplasmosis or have had an experience with it, please post a comment.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

“Our virtues are most often but our vices disguised” François de la Rochefoucauld (Author, 1613-1680). If you’ve had a job interview or assessment centre in recent times, you will know that it's now fashionable to explain to your prospective employers how your weaknesses are also—rather surprisingly, you might think—your strengths. Impatience is definitely one of my failings but I would, if faced by a stern interviewing panel, plead that this affliction gives me a certain drive, which gets things done. And recently, I’ve been very impatient that seeds I’ve planted haven’t worked!

Our animals have (touch wood) always been a success story: they pretty much get on with it themselves and our duties have been to provide housing, fencing and food and they do the rest themselves. Vegetables have been a different matter altogether. It’s truly a miracle how the tiniest of seeds sprouts and grows, yet how quickly a sturdy courgette seeding is felled by a slug and a vigorous tomato plant wilted by mildew. I’d bought some Siberian Pea Shrub, Bladder Senna and Gorse seeds from the Agroforestry Research Trust, shoved them into some potting compost and impatiently waited for something to happen … which it conspicuously didn’t. Martin Crawford of the ART has been very patient and helpful and recommended Peter Thompson’s Creative Propagation, wherein I learnt that some seeds need a helping hand to get started.

Do you, like me, wonder why a seed needs to be either scarified or stratified before it bursts into life? Does Mother Nature not want her progeny to reproduce? The example that made sense for me were the seeds of plants that would regenerate the landscape after a forest fire: the seeds literally need to undergo a baptism of fire before they wake up.

So, after much impatience, pain and impotence, I read that the seeds of the aforementioned Siberian Pea Shrub, Bladder Senna and Gorse all need scarifying and I am pleased to bring you another episode of Permaculture Vision, as supplied by the “Blind-Leading-the-Blind” production company, ably assisted by the “It’s-the-First-Time-I’ve-Done-This-and-I-Don’t-Really-Know-What-I’m-Doing” editorial team, which will (almost) show you the different methods of scarification. I think that splitting the atom must have been easier than this! (And by the way, sorry for the monotone voice and wooden presentation, I clearly don't have a future in TV!)

Friday, April 04, 2008

We haven’t been inundated with gîte bookings, despite the goat massage special offer, so I guess everyone looked at the date! In fact, we are currently empty, a few days gap before the next guests arrive. Our last vacanciers, Wendy and Clive, were due to arrive early afternoon (a week last Saturday) just two hours after the previous holidaymakers had left, a proper changeover with plenty of things for Gabrielle and I to do to make it clean and cosy, including setting a fire in the Godin stove. In the end, and halfway down the log pile, they arrived at quarter to one the following morning, having been delayed on their ferry trip by appalling weather.

They’d thoughtfully phoned ahead to tell us about the delay and we decided to wait up together to see them into the gite. We’re usually in bed by 10.30, 11 at the latest and it was going to take more than a couple of matchsticks to keep our eyes open so, too tired to read, we surfed around the channels looking for something half decent to watch on telly. We stumbled upon, rather begrudgingly, an entire night of the surreal sitcom The Mighty Boosh. We’d both seen bits of episodes before but never got the point of it in the few minutes before bewilderment set in and we turned over. Thanks to Clive and Wendy, the heavy seas and the lack of anything else on TV, we’ve been “Booshed”. We (think we) now “understand” it; either way we found it hilarious, "genius" in fact.

Amongst other talents, Clive and Wendy were pioneers: Wendy trying out the (spoof) goat massage (see the photo taken by Clive below) and the pair of them road-testing our first ever sausage-making course, using pork from our own pigs (see photo at top)

Clive is a talented photographer, a subject he also teaches at university; click on the link to have a look at his website. For reasonably-priced, quality sausage-making machinery and other supplies, call Tim at Weschenfelders.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Shiatsu de Chèvres – Goat Massage

Special Offer! Sore back? Tired and tense? Stressed from overwork? If you book to come and holiday with us in our beautiful little gîte in the next four weeks, for a small charge, we can offer a new and exclusive service. Treat yourself to a relaxing if somewhat uncompromising massage by goats or, as we call it here in Brittany, Shiatsu de Chèvres.

Play the short promotional video below to see how it works and see the obvious benefits afforded by a short time with our team of expert goat masseurs. Please don’t hesitate to ask us any questions about this alternative therapy. Don’t delay though, it’s sure to be popular and it’s only being offered over the next four weeks.

(Please note that no insurance is offered and you will be asked to sign a disclaimer before beginning treatment. Please also note that the photo above is for promotional purposes only and you should rather imagine a French Alpine goat taking the role of the beautiful lady in the white coat.)