Monday, September 29, 2008

The curious tale of Wun Hung Low.

Back at the end of March, when our first three lambs were born, Gabrielle was away and I didn’t feel capable of embarking on castration—for the first time and on my own—using rubber bands put in place with an Elastrator (see pic). One places a rubber ring on the pliers, squeezing the handles opens the ring, two tiny sheepy bollocks are pulled through and the pliers released. The lamb may exhibit some discomfort for a small amount of time but thereafter seems not to bother. As the testicles grow, they are strangulated and soon drop off, painlessly ... allegedly! Our sheep are half the size of a regular farm sheep and so you might imagine how small their balls are aged one week (it’s not appropriate to use this method when they’re any older than this). Our friend Renée has encountered a difficulty with one of her own lambs this year, it becoming evident, some months later, that only one testicle had been trapped by the ring, the other growing to full size, giving him the comportment, and “firing power” of a normal ram. She called him “Womble” aka One-Ball. (The Wombles see pic, are stuffed furry characters in the eponymous children’s TV show of the 1970s.)

Having missed the one-week window of castrating opportunity, we were obliged to wait some five months later, when the vet would be able to use yet another set of pliers, called a Burdizo (see pic) to squash the connecting tubes (thus, more correctly a vasectomy). The day (4th August) arrived but not Dr Mouhli, rather his equally competent but very slight female colleague. My job was to hold the poor lamb by its rear feet, his head trapped between my knees, leaving his tackle exposed for the crushing ministrations of the vet’s Burdizo. The problem was, when the pliers were open, the vet couldn’t get her small, lady's hand around both levers to operate them. I understood the problem and wanted to help. The vet was crouched in front of me with the pliers in her lap. Delicately, so as not to cause alarm, I reached for the pliers … a slight confusion, then relief when she realised what I was after. I let her guide the head of the Burdizo over the target area and when she nodded, I squeezed. The lamb wiggled (male readers should now empathetically close their legs and inhale through clenched teeth) and a long minute ticked by before the pliers were released and the whole procedure repeated for the other side. Job done, the vet did tell us to let us know if it hadn’t worked and she, or Dr Mouhli, would redo it.

I remember thinking at the time: how we would know that it hadn’t worked? I have now the experience to tell you. We have four male lambs together in one field. One arrived this year, with his mum but without his testicles. He has therefore not developed horns and has grown less quickly than his testosterone-powered mates. One of the other three now has longer horns than the other two and has started being a bit more aggressive. Hmmm … a whiff of testosterone methinks. So, the other day, I decided to upend all our male lambs and have a look at their undercarriages. Sure enough, the aggressive tiddler with longer horns has got one small ball (correctly vasectomised) and one huge one.

So there you have it: the strange but true story of “Wun Hung Low”. I shall phone the vet tomorrow ...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another way to recycle unwanted books. By way of a post-script to my last blog, here is something else you can do with a surplus paperback. Instead of weeing on it to reduce it to compost, you can turn it into something edible: mushrooms. Gourmet Woodland Mushrooms sell mushroom spawn to sprinkle through the pages of a book pre-soaked in water. Just 2 – 3 weeks later, the mushrooms begin to grow, giving you between one to three flushes of edible oyster mushrooms per book, apparently.

I’ve not tried it myself but have successfully grown oyster mushrooms in a polythene bag containing wet straw and whole toilet rolls; the principle is the same. You can read more of our own mushroom growing experiments. So far, in our woods, we've inoculated logs and stumps with chicken of the wood, pearl oyster, fir oyster, shiitake, and conifer cauliflower mycelia. This must be the ultimate permaculture food: you use mushroom mycelium to “eat” waste wood and turn it into food, almost without lifting a finger.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

piss poor: adj. pronunciation: \_pis-_pu_r, -_po_r\
First used in 1946, meaning very bad, extremely poor

As I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages, I went to university relatively late in life, aged 38, where I did a degree, one half of which concerned the study of English Literature and, incidentally, met my good friend, David, who has aspirations of getting a novel published. Neither in the critique of said literature in my many essays, nor in the professorial marking of those essays, would you have encountered the words “piss poor”; we chose our words much more carefully. However, some literature is truly bad and perhaps worthy of strong words. If you’re trying to write and get published your first novel (like David) and feel that you are gifted and are really onto something (David’s too modest to put himself in this group) how embittering to see some of the crap that’s already in print … or perhaps even heartening: giving some hope that one’s meagre efforts might encounter the printing press.

We've accumulated some trashy novels somehow, handed on by well-meaning friends or perhaps left by holidaymakers in our gite. What precisely, do you think we should do with novels such as one described on its cover as “Glasgow Ice Creams Wars meets Shirley Valentine”? We tried to sell them at our village’s vide grenier (literally, “empty one’s attic, a boot fair by another name) but didn’t, so I decided to pee on them instead: a liquid critique. Where’s the permaculture in all this, you might ask? Compost … I’m advocating turning pulp fiction into rich, crumbly compost.

It’s from an idea I read in Lifting the Lid: An ecological approach to toilet systems by Peter Harper & Louise Halstrap. They explain, “Good composting needs carbon, nitrogen, water and air. Urine has plenty of nitrogen and water. Fibrous materials like straw have carbon and air. This is the basis of the straw bale urinal.” p129. To digress for a moment, I feel I have to include their instructions on how to use said device: “For men it is fairly straightforward. Women can simply ‘stand astride’ the bale, or sit on two narrow planks, or indeed dangle from a branch if the bale is well-placed.” ibid. Just imagine! They go on to describe an “urban version” of corrugated cardboard in a plastic box, with a “more whimsical” version using books.

In permaculture terms, outputs of part of our system (trashy novels and my urine) becomes an input into another (as compost for our vegetable growing). Remarkably, the paperbacks have proved exception-ally absorbent, more so than the sawdust usually found in my garden pissoir and a lot more so than any paper kitchen wipe I’ve ever bought. (This photo shows them in the second week of their experimental immersion.) Why then buy kitchen roll made from recycled paper? Recycle it? Just tear the pages straight out the book as you read them. How about a dual use recipe book, also a kitchen wipe? I’ve even got the brand name:
“Cook-n-wipe: A Really Absorbing Read”.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I'm due to write the sequel to Life and Death on the Farm Part 1 but I’m afraid I need to insert another chapter. No sooner had I blogged about the shame of losing a chick to a tomcat than we had a much bigger worry on our hands. I apologise that this is a much longer blog that usual but I think it’s worth explaining the story in detail.

We check in on all our animals morning and evening, even if we have no need to feed them. Late one afternoon, just before we were due to go out to a vernissage at the art gallery in our village we were doing the rounds. Gabrielle had vigilantly spotted that all was not well with one of our ewes. She had her head down, was separated from the others and didn’t come over to eat, classic symptoms that all is not well with one’s sheep.

We’d recently bought a second-hand dog transport box from our friend Renée (who runs a pet boarding, care and relocation business). As our sheep are tiny, they fit comfortably inside the dog box, enabling us to transport them without needing to put them in a trailer. We phoned the vet to tell them I was on way with a poorly sheep and Gabrielle, following a whirlwind scrub up and change of clothes, cycled off to the gallery.

Dr Hamadi Mouhli is a wonderful chap: calm and efficient, realistic yet optimistic and always with a friendly smile. He quickly established that the ewe was running a temperature and had a swollen half-udder and teat, she had mastitis. He gave her three injections: an anti-inflammatory analgesic, then intramuscular antibiotic and, following an emptying of the udder, expressing bloody milk, another antibiotic straight into the affected teat. He gave me an additional two treatments for the teat and explained again what I needed to do. He also gave me, for free, an electronic thermometer, what I now realise is an essential item in the stockowner’s toolkit. By the time I got home, the ewe was already perking up, the effects, no doubt, of the pain and fever relief rather than the antibiotics.

She was not out of the wood yet though and two days later, when I’d finished the short antibiotic treatment, she was no better, the teat was hot, although her body temperature was normal and she was inflated and solid along the length of her belly. I spoke to the vet on the phone. He invited me to come in and he’d give me a balm to sooth her udder (which he poured some out of a large bottle and didn’t charge me for) and three packets of a powder to give her for the oedema (the swelling was due to fluid retention). Two days later and we were still concerned. Another phone call and this time he offered to come to us. Although her body temperature was normal, things had got worse in her udder. He gave her another two injections—one each of anti-inflammatory analgesic and antibiotic—and then explained the likely course of events. She now had gangrene in the half of the udder—which sounds horrendous—but the udder is isolated from the rest of the body and the udder would eventually fall off and the wound scar over (This photo shows this process beginning). We could save the animal but not her udder, no more lambs for her.

Dr Mouhli gave me the bottle of antibiotics, a syringe and four clean needles and instructions on how to give intramuscular injections. He explained how I should stretch her head over my knee then locate myself relative to a bone below her throat, her shoulder bone and the ligament running along her neck. Aiming now for the middle of this triangle, I would be assured of finding muscle. Teasing the hair apart I would push the needle in almost all of its length (he’d supplied appropriate needles) and then squeeze. After, I should rub the muscle to distribute the antibiotic, whilst cooing, “there, there, all better now”.

He only charged us for the bottle of antibiotic and not for the callout or consultation, as he happened, so he said, to be in our area at the time. Each day, we’d gently catch the ewe, I’d inject her with her medicine and we’d take her temperature, inserting the new thermometer up her sheepy bottom and leave it there until it went beep; 39ºC is the normal body temperature of a sheep. She’d finished her treatment, her temperature was normal but when I checked in on her one afternoon she was looking very sorry for herself. We wondered whether we’d lost the battle and how much more we should put her through. I’d even spoken to our pig-farming neighbour Paul on how we could dispose of her body. Another phone call to the vet, who suggested that she was just in pain (you might imagine how painful it is to have a part of you turn gangrenous and fall off) and invited me to come in for more medicine. Really busy, he apologised for rushing me but gave me the end of a bottle of anti-inflammatory analgesic and several needles, along with instructions on how to administer this subcutaneously: a different technique altogether, involving pulling he skin into a tent and then piercing it once to inject into the void beneath the tented skin. This was also for free!

She perked up quite promptly but sagged again before each daily injection. After three days, I judged it appropriate to wait until she seemed to need relief before administering any more medicine. She now shows no further sings of distress even though the udder had started to separate from her body (see photo above) and we keep her sprayed with blue antiseptic (which I usually manage to stain my fingers with) to avoid secondary infections and dissuade maggots. The photo shows how she is today, including blue make-up. She is clearly much better and eats like a horse—well, at least a very hungry sheep—and was even, for reasons unknown to Gabrielle and I, prancing around the field in the four-legged way young lambs do, even though she’s really an old lady with grey hair and some missing front teeth.

People often ask us, “How do you know all this stuff?” The answer is, we don’t and I wanted to show you how it’s really possible to involve larger animals in your permaculture designs even if, like me, your stock keeping experience is limited to the childhood care of a hamster. In no particular order, you need: a good relationship with your local vet, a thermometer, a copy of a good veterinary dictionary, access to the Internet via your search engine of choice (an amazingly useful source of info, photos and diagrams) you also need to check your animals regularly and get to know your animals so you can notice, straight away, when they’re off-colour. You can also adapt, according your your own circumstances, for example, a dog transport box served us adequately in the absence of a purpose-made animal trailer.

One thing we’ve learnt through this experience is that it is inevitable, if you keep animals, that you are going to lose one from time to time and that one should be prepared to accept that. So, although we are very happy that we nursed our ewe back to a reasonable health, we’d like to register our sympathy with Val, who lost a ewe from the same disease this summer. At the end, Val was even syringing water down the poor ewe’s throat to try to keep this inert animal hydrated until she had to take it to the vet for the last time. The photo at top shows our ewe immediately after the birth of her lamb this year. I claim no great philosophical insight but the pain of nursing an animal to death pretty much balances with the joy of witnessing the loving birth of a spring lamb.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Beginner's Guide to Felting by Gabrielle. It’s been quite a crafty time for me of late. After the sheep shearing we had a pile of wool to deal with and it my job to find things to do with it. I have never learnt to knit; my mother did try several times to teach me but it was evidently not one of my talents. I read all about felt and liked what I read. Felt is easy to produce, probably one of the oldest crafts, and produces a material that is warm, waterproof, flame proof and extremely hardwearing.

I set to with the holy trinity of distance learning: books, friends and Google to discover what I needed to know. I first washed the wool in a mixture of soda crystals, soap flakes and warm water, taking care not to agitate it too much (which would start the felting process a stage too soon) and using, to excellent effect, a plasterer’s trough and a wire shopping basket from Tesco’s (liberated from its mundane supermarket existence to a new life in the country) in order to lift and lower the wool in and out of the very hot soapy water. Once the wool was washed, rinsed and completely dried (this in itself takes several days) I carded it using my lovely new drum carder that was a Christmas present from Stuart. The wool was now like candyfloss, lying in large rolls, called rolags (see photo at top with the finished article. The correct term is apparently a "batt", thanks Emma, for your comment, below) on the kitchen table and was ready for felting.
I set myself up with an old bamboo blind, a large piece of bubble wrap, soap flakes and a kettle for an ongoing supply of hot water. The basic principles of felting are to lay wool out in fine layers then soak it with hot water and soap then agitate it: rolling it up in a bamboo blind lined with bubble wrap works perfectly.
I have mostly black wool from our Ouessant sheep but also some lovely creamy wool from a Val’s flock, so I was able to add a contrasting motive to my first piece of felt. I was really pleased with the result and may turn it into slippers or simply keep it as one piece for a cushion. Full of confidence after this early success, I’ve since started to experiment with natural dyes: more on that soon.
For further guidance, a useful web article, The Ancient Art of Felt-making by Amanda Hone and a book, Complete Feltmaking by Gillian Harris.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Guest Blog: As I said in my last blog, we’ve had guests for a week, fellow blogger Kristen (l’ arpent nourricier) (lit: “the nourishing small plot of ground”) and his wife, Christine. Kristen is an engineer by trade and very analytical by nature. His project is to devise how to produce food to feed his family while still working four days a week as an engineer. Secondly, as a fluent speaker of English, he wants to transfer to the French-speaking Internet as much material he can from the vast corpus of information for small-scale, organic farming published on the English-speaking Internet. Thirdly, he hopes to get to know like-minded people and participate in projects involving local, small-scale, organic farming. I invited him to write a guest blog, over to you Kristen …

For me, there are four steps one may follow to learn a new trade:
- read everything available in books or on the internet
- view videos that show how it is done
- practise under the guidance of someone more experienced
- improvise alone and learn from one's mistakes

Learning from one’s own mistakes can be disheartening, even dangerous, sometimes leading to giving up, which is sad. Learning from other people's big and small mistakes is very valuable. While most books and videos will generally show you only the right way to do something, so that you may be completely unaware of all the mistakes that can be done, Stuart's blog shamelessly documents the mishaps along the learning path, which is why I have found it a fantastic source of inspiration. I love a “master” who remembers about where a pupil can trip or err.

Teaching takes time. Especially when the apprentice starts from zero. This is why steps 1 and 2 are so important: by learning first everything that can be learnt without a teacher, not only does one save a lot of that teacher’s precious time, but also one completely changes the learning process. Instead of a dull accumulation of seemingly neutral information (remember math at school?) it becomes a series of eureka moments, because now every new learning fits like a new piece in a nearly finished jigsaw puzzle. And the work of the teacher reduces to a succession of “did you know this?” “have you seen that?” or the occasional “you'd rather do this that way”.

The common practice with permaculture courses is for students to pay a monetary fee. While this makes perfect sense, it makes me uneasy because not all students can afford this (to say nothing of travel costs). Indeed I am convinced that permaculture is not a wealthy westerner's utopia, but a true hope for the world, including people in impoverished peoples in our own and less-developed countries. Perhaps, then, a solution could be the medieval master-apprentice system, with the master teaching and providing basic food and shelter, while the apprentice contributes to the completion of the master's projects. Maybe I am just being miserly, but I do believe this is a very sensible way to envisage permaculture teaching (or any other discipline, for that matter).

This is why I am so supercalifragilistically grateful to Stuart & Gabrielle for accepting my bold proposal of coming over for one week while on holidays in Brittany to give a hand in return for everything I was sure I was going to learn. They took a risk when they accepted, all the more so as Stuart had pictured me as fortyish, bearded, and American: apparently because my writing is full of Americanisms. The week was an extremely enriching mix of work and observation: weeding the small-scale edible garden at their holiday gite, learning to slaughter and butcher a pig (not hands on, though - such things should not be rushed) sorting the compost piles, trimming the low branches in a pine-tree plantation (photo shows L-R, Stuart, me then Gérémie) watching the ballet of chainsaws while Stuart and Gérémie felled pines for the first thinning, understanding how the composting toilet directly feeds the gigantic oak-tree, clambering through the willow collection, perusing the extensive permaculture and eco-construction library, watching permaculture films, discussing permaculture from the grand design to the little tricks … and, most importantly, becoming friends.

I hereby offer return the same favor to all candidates eager to spend a week or two on my arpent nourricier. Stuart and Gabrielle are first on the list.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Permaculture Podcasts: Ah, what technical ages we do live in. The computer is master, the Internet king, we even have virtual friends now, via this blog. On of them turned into reality this week when Gabrielle picked up Kristen, l’ arpent nourricier (lit: “the nourishing small plot of ground”) and his wife Christine at the local train station. We’d struck up a relationship via blogging, emails and shared interests and they’d offered to come and help out for a week in return for lodging. It was going to be a “holiday” for them, with their young son Camille enjoying a week with his grandparents. We spent a very happy time together. The photo shows the three of them waiting for the train to take them home, Camille was happy to be reunited with Mum and Dad but clearly not enjoying his moment of celebrity.

It’s been a very rich week, of which you’ll be reading more, but one thing that I’ve learned about, via Kristen, is podcasts. I’ve heard of them but never taken the effort to find out what they are, how one gets hold of such a thing and how I might use it. Think of a podcast as a radio show (even though some of them are produced specifically as podcasts, available only on the Internet) recorded for playback at your convenience on your iPod or MP3 player. Kristen had first suggested them when he watched my video reports
of a days harrowing in neighbour Paul’s tractor, where I described listening to music on my iPod to make the repetitive day a touch more interesting: why not take the opportunity to listen to educative agricultural debate, he asked?

I’d like to be able to give you simple instructions to get you started but, with the wide variation in computers and personal music players, that’s beyond me. You could do worse than start with the Wikipedia explanation of a podcast.

I’ve spent today down in the workshop, trying to get everything arranged all neat and tidy before I start building work on our barn conversion to expand our holiday gite accommodation and listened to several interesting podcasts from The Land Stewardship Project (suggested by Kristen).

To get you started, here’s a podcast (from Agricultural Innovation, Inc.) of an interview with one of the founders of permaculture Bill Mollison. Bill tells us how permaculture came about, how to conserve water and soil, and a number of other things. If you like that, just go Googling for “podcasts” and “your subject of choice” … happy listening.