Thursday, March 27, 2008


Recycling? The question I’m posing today is whether giving scraps to a cat could be considered as “recycling”. Things for which we have no further use, and that can’t be re-used or recycled, are thrown away. But, in fact, there is no “away”. When living in Brighton (England) I did some voluntary work for The Brighton & Hove Wood Recycling Project where I had the opportunity to go behind the gates at a landfill site. It was a dystopian scene, like something out of the film Mad Max, with huge tractors rolling on huge steel-studded wheels crushing and spreading a fetid mass of detritus, with the apparent aim of squashing as much stuff in before that landfill is declared full and is sealed up. Great … if you’re a seagull or a rat.


Gabrielle and I try our best with recycling, the local authorities taking plastics as well as the more generally accepted glass, cans, cardboard and paper. And and we have, of course, a compost bin but, for some time, Gabrielle has been suggesting that we do an audit of the stuff that makes it to the black bin liner, the stuff we throw “away”, with the aim of reducing it. Because we have the privilege of having more space on our smallholding than either of us were used to living in town in the UK, we can absorb more waste on our own land: I’m thinking of inert stuff like concrete or roofing tiles (see my blog of 7th February 2007). And we think we might have discovered another local waste recycling facility.


Last Monday, we slaughtered and processed four chickens and three rabbits. Gabrielle is preserving the rabbit skins by freezing (!) until she’s ready to have her first go at tanning them. Apart from the meat, we eat the offal and make stock from the carcass, but there are some bits that just have to be thrown “away”. Stuff encased in black plastic bags and then buried, doesn’t get a chance to decompose aerobically, with the help of creepy-crawly decomposers, and just putrefies, when it gives off methane, an even more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2. Our close neighbour, the venerable Annick, has a clowder of around thirty cats (check that out for a collective noun!) and we often see them around our place.


You can see where I’m going with this: we give the scraps to the glaring of cats (cats are well served with collective nouns) who hoover them up cleanly yet leave the unsavoury by-product of cat poo. At least this gets washed way by the rain, if it doesn’t get trodden on first. If you have any other good uses for cat poo, please post a comment!

Sunday, March 23, 2008


To the question, “Do you like children?”
W.C. Fields responds, “I do if they're properly cooked",
which I thought particularly apposite, as we’re knee deep in edible (eventually, rather that immediately, that is) children.


March it may be but I’m not so sure it’s Spring, unless Spring is noted for howling winds, sheets of rain, flurries of snow and temperatures low enough to separate a brass monkey from his testicles and a mountaineer from his fingertips. However unsavoury the weather is, and unsuitable to delicate new-born creatures you’d think, some sort of biological clock has indicated it’s Spring for our various mums about the place. We have thirteen chicks from three different hens, born over the last two weeks and this morning, when I did the rounds, I discovered (please roll round the fingers of one hand, raise it to your pursed lips and do a little trumpet fanfare for me …) our first ever lamb, born overnight, without apparent complications and wobbling around the field next to its very attentive mother. I managed to grab it on the third attempt—just hours old, its already impressively mobile—and check the undercarriage to see that he’s a little ram and the umbilical cord looks impressively clean and dry.


We put them on two-hourly watch but have now seen him sleep, suckle and follow his mum around the field, so we think we’ll just leave them to it now, she’s done alright so far on her own. I started to bang in a few more fence posts for the pig enclosure—I’m on the home straight—but had to give in to the inclement weather and decided on a much nicer task of typing a blog accompanied by a mug of hot tea and some toast, thickly spread with butter, raspberry jam and chunks of cheddar cheese, thanks Gabrielle!
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Friday, March 21, 2008


”My life will be sour grapes and ashes without you.” Now I don’t know who the author Daisy Ashford (1881 – 1972) was referring to but I wonder whether she new that a sprinkling of ashes would have been good for her sour grapes?


When I visited the field with our three extremely-wide-surely-about-to-give-birth-soon-or-else-explode Ouessant ewes the other day, I found neighbour Alan at the bottom of his potager (vegetable patch) fiddling around with his soft fruit. He was concerned that the little fruit bushes, the gooseberries particularly, hadn’t got off to a great start and had read that they benefit from potash. The word potash can mean a lot of things but, in this context, is simply another word for the mineral potassium, one of the plant grower’s holy trinity of Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous. He asked if he could come and get some from our permanent bonfire site. Now, on our Brittany permaculture smallholding, we work on a need-to-know-basis: when we need to know something, which is regularly, we either look it up in our pile of books or, more often and more lazily, type the question directly into Google.


So I looked up “making potash” and found some useful advice on Philip’s blog. The ash needs to be collected before it gets damp / wet, otherwise the good stuff, the potassium, will leech away, leaving just the ash. I now realise that all the ash that I scrape up and sift every few months must be next to useless. Anyway, he advises you not to have your potash-producing-pyrotechnic-performance (I can never pass by a good opportunity for alliteration and if I’ve overdone it and confused you, I just mean a bonfire) on the site of a previous fire, so I thought to start afresh. We’re currently fencing in the top triangle of our large field to become a piggy-paddock, which needs to be ready by the start of April. The hedge on one side has been a bit neglected over the years and there was a good two metres of woody matter to cut away to get to the original fence line. Gabrielle, a bit of a time-and-motion expert, suggested we burn it more or less in situ, rather than dragging it all the way down the field to the regular fire pit.


We had our fire. It was very satisfying to drag—Gabrielle and I on either side equipped with garden rakes—a huge, nasty, prickly ball of brambles (“oh, what a lot of lovely blackberries you have in your garden”) straight on top of our raging inferno and hear it squeal. The evening brought a grey sky, a cold wind and the threat of une giboulée de mars, literally a March shower, which my Collins Roberts dictionary translates as “April shower”, and I thought we were just an hour ahead of the UK? Not wanting to get our potash wet, nor burn myself, I raked and raked the embers until I felt they were safe enough to overnight in a steel wheelbarrow. Even so, I placed a plumber’s fibreglass blanket between the metal barrow and my expensively lovely un-deflateable tyre.


The resulting residue has been twice riddled and shared out between us and Alan. And a word from Joy Larkcom’s Grow Your Own Vegetables: “Ash from wood fires and bonfires contains potash. Slow-burning hardwoods are particularly rich in potash. Potash is very soluble and is rapidly washed out in rain, so either work fresh ash into the compost heap or store it in a dry place and apply to growing crops in spring.” (p 49) Our permaculture potash will be sprinkled around our fruit bushes and roses and is even useful, allegedly, in deterring slugs and snails, on verra (we’ll see).


Sunday, March 16, 2008


Goats: Part 3 I’ve just had my 47th birthday. I’ve never had children. Can anybody explain why then, when I wake up in the morning, put the kettle on, switch on the computer, poke some life into the remaining embers in the wood-burning stove and then look out the window to see if our two young goats are up and about and waiting for their first bottle of milk, I call down to them, “do the bubbas want their num-nums”?


Veal calves and baby goats are a necessary side product of the dairy industry: the mother cows and goats need offspring to stimulate their milk production and then the dairy industry needs their milk. I’d never made this connection when I lived in the city; milk arrived, as if by magic, in almost-silent battery powered floats driven by nocturnal milkmen, only ever seen on a Saturday morning, when they came with the week’s bill. We heard that the local organic goat cheese farm, with a mixed flock of Alpine and Poitevine goats, had surplus youngsters for sale and we picked up two “orphans” to be fed with powdered milk via a bottle, four times a day (but thankfully not during the night).


In permaculture terms, an output of one system (the dairy industry) becomes an input of our food system (meat consumption). We plan to give them the best of conditions for their short life; they’ll be ready for slaughter after only ten weeks. We tried them out on the field with our billy goat (see Goats Part 2) and then put them with our three pregnant ewes, until Val contacted us and told us that the goats would have digestive problems if they were being bottle fed and had access to grass. Fed by mum, on demand, goats can get gradually used to grass and other forage, allowing their rumen (one of their many goaty stomachs) to develop. Our intention was to slaughter the male for meat and keep the female, with our other goats, to eventually become a milker. We’ve now learnt that there are different feeding regimes, even different types of milk powder, according to whether the goat is to be kept to breed from or slaughtered early for meat. It’s impossible for us to have a different regime for two goats that live together, so we’ll eat both of these and start again next year.


They are now kept in a sizeable pen, with a shelter and straw bed, access to oats and hay and are let out after feeding for a ten minute supervised run around, where they do what most children seem to want to do: find the most dangerous, precarious thing, then jump all over it; they also like jumping over us, once they’ve finished with the bottle—see video.
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Wednesday, March 12, 2008


“Someone’s been eating my porridge!” said Daddy Bear, which is much as I felt when I went to our woods last week and found some earthworks done at the entrance with a couple of trees uprooted and lying horizontal, blocking the new forest ride (access route) I have cleared over the last few weeks. I was so perturbed that I forgot to take a photo for a blog and so you have to make do with a picture of disappointed, porridge-less bears. It didn’t take me long to work out the most likely story. There are two parcels of building land in front of the wood and one of them had a new gravel entrance laid, bridging the fossé (ditch) and the ditches either side had been cleaned out, so they drained properly, all done by a big digger. The fossé runs down one side of the little lane into the wood, then passes beneath it, to emerge the other side, where it runs into and through the wood, thence into the River Rance. To clear the bit at the entrance of the wood, the digger driver had uprooted the trees and just pushed them out the way. Was it the local commune (i.e., municipal) or a private building company that had done this?


I suppose it was particularly upsetting as I have taken some considerable time getting all the correct permissions to do the cutting I wanted in order to manage the woodland along permaculture lines. I’d only recently been called to the mairie to collect the last permission and was feeling all proud of myself to have done it properly, when French friends and neighbours were wondering why I didn’t just cut the trees down without asking for the requisite authority. The mairie was closed that day, giving me 24 hours to calm down and reflect on the whole thing.


Meanwhile, I got on with the work that I’d planned, which was to donate some tree trunks to Jim, a friend and green woodworking expert and “plant” some mushrooms. It’s impressive to see him slit a 2.5 metre length of trunk into quarters, using just an axe and a lump hammer. In exchange for the wood, he was giving me a helping hand to clear the last bit of the ride and to help with the permaculture mushroom experiment.


I’m cutting down sycamore and wild cherry, which both form a large part of the woodland and are both unsuited to the situation. The harvest of wood provides all our heating needs and we’re replanting with more suitable species. This will take place over several years. Being deciduous species cut during their dormant season (winter) they will coppice (re-grow) necessitating some further work, such as kicking the new growth off, to kill the stump. As it is a relatively new wood—it was pasture divided by hedges just 25 years ago, it has a relatively low biodiversity with few varieties of mushrooms, and even fewer edible. The permaculture mushroom plan is to inoculate the stumps with the mycelia of edible mushrooms, such as Chicken-of-the-Woods and Oyster mushrooms, which will invade and ultimately decompose the stumps. The theory is that I get my chosen fungi in place before the ever-present airborne decomposers get a look in. My supplier is the extremely helpful Adrian Ogden of Gourmet Woodland Mushrooms. Neither sycamore, nor wild cherry is the first choice tree to use but that’s what we have; Adrian suggested COTW on the cherry and oyster on the sycamore. This year’s an experiment and, if it works, we’ll go large when we cut the next plot, next winter.


A succession of 8mm holes are drilled and inoculated wooden dowels hammered in, by far the easiest technique I’ve used. I’ve plenty more to tell you about mushrooms but will keep you in the dark for the moment. (The photos show an oak stump I inoculated with pearl oyster mushrooms.)


I did go to the mairie the following day, where I discovered that the works had been done by the commune, that there were no more disturbances planned and that I could log up the obstructing trees (not originally on our land) and keep the wood, so I’m happy now. One last thing, there were two manhole (inspection) covers where the water crosses the lane underground. One was marked with fluorescent paint and had been avoided by the digger driver; the other wasn’t, had been driven across and cracked but not broken and I found it by falling down it … ouch.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Making ends meet … with words: Our aim has never been self-sufficiency and, even if it was, I reckon that we’d still have a need for a little bit of the folding stuff with which to engage with the cash economy. So, on two levels, I’m chuffed to bits, as I’m proud to be published and have even been paid for the privilege. If you rush out and buy this month’s Country Smallholding, you will be able to read an article, wot I wrote, all about our permaculture Kune Kune pigs we raised out on the field last year.


We’re no strangers to the pages of Country Smallholding, as our friend, Mark Sampson, writer and builder of a straw bale house in the Lot region, wrote a couple of articles last year based on our lives here in Brittany. We invited Mark to our September wedding. Initially, he excused his young daughter—and thus wife Debbie as well—from the very long trip (he travelled the furthest, notwithstanding he actually lives in France and we had guests coming from the UK) as school had just started back, known here as La Rentrée. A day or so later, he called again, slightly embarrassed and profusely apologetic, to say that he’d looked into getting a train ticket and found it just too expensive. It’s then that I had one of my all-too-rare “light bulb” moments of inspiration and suggested that he should write an article on our wedding, thereby earning his train fare. Eleanor O'Kane, the editor of Living France magazine, was taken by the idea and so Mark got to travel and cleared a bob or two besides and we got a lovely extra souvenir of a wonderful day.


Both Eleanor and Diane Cowgill (editor of Country Smallholding) have generously sent me the articles as PDF files, which you can download to read by clicking on the links under “Magazine Articles” on the right. I hope to sell some more articles but if either Mark or I ever have need to rush out and earn a couple more centimes in the future, I spotted a great business idea this Saturday near the food market in Rennes: click on the arrow to play the video below and watch out for the necessary technical adjustment halfway through.


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