Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle … oh, and Repair. This is a postscript to my 4th May blog, when I proudly showed off my CD player repair. I was banging on about the all-to-common event of having to “throw away” (to be buried in landfill) a perfectly good electrical device just because one small, yet irreplaceable, part has finally finished functioning.


Our kitchen blender managed to shred its rubber sealing ring (I don’t think it had been properly screwed together after washing it one time) so liquids were out of bounds until we replaced it. Happily, in this instance, replacement components are easily available. What shocked me initially was the price. At first glance it seems the list of components available would allow you to build a blender from scratch … but at the price of a small family car. With electrical appliances coming in from the Far East at unfeasibly low prices, it’s sometimes cheaper to buy a new thing and bin the old one rather than repairing it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that, but it becomes an ecologic rather than an economic repair. I guess that with all the infrastructure required to store and deliver these bits, bearing in mind that it took over 15 years before I needed the little plastic wheel for the CD player and over five years before I needed one replacement sealing ring for the blender, that the manufacturers need to charge a large amount, pro-rata to the cost of the part, to make it feasible. After my initial feeling that I was being ripped off, I must say that I’m happy that these replacement components are available at all.


And yet another “R”, Replace. Annually in Europe 360 million car tyres enter the waste stream representing annual waste load of 2,5 million tons and I’m about to add another. A couple of weekends ago, we borrowed neighbour Paul’s oldest tractor, a scruffy but serviceable Massey Ferguson and an apparently even older trailer, to get our year’s harvest of logs out of our woods. Over the course of two days, one of the well-worn trailer tyres started losing chunks of rubber and I was caught between not wanting to encounter the gendarmes with so little tread, not wanting to end up stranded with a full trailer and flat tyre and the seductive thought that if I could just get away with another couple of trips, it would all be done for the year. Paul’s incredibly busy at the moment (more of that in the next blog) and I dare not ask him to stop what he was doing and try to sort out the trailer.


I did manage those last couple of trips and when I returned the tractor, I pointed out the tyre destined for the waste stream to Paul. I felt that I’d contributed to its demise, even though I hadn’t overloaded the trailer nor driven too fast or otherwise mistreated it but when you “break” something when borrowing it, you feel obliged. I offered a participation (contribution) towards the cost of a new tyre whereupon he just broke out into laughter. The tyre, apparently, came off some sort of American military landing craft that had made its way into France via the beaches of Normandy during WWII and so was at least 60+ years old! Now I know that the trailer wasn’t in daily use but that is impressive, on any terms. Wouldn’t it be great if tyre manufacturers made tyres with a true lifetime’s guarantee: so good that when you crushed an old banger, you took the tyres off to fit to your new car?

Monday, May 19, 2008

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Shearing Ouessant Sheep: Part 2. We move from Dolly the pretend sheep to the real thing. The first ram didn’t go too well: I now realise that the comb was too far back in the head and so the cutter’s teeth were almost at the same spot as those of the comb, leading to a greater likelihood of nicks, and poor entry into the wool. He’s tidied up for another year, won’t win any beauty competitions and has a few small battle wounds—all immediately sprayed with antiseptic spray—for his trouble but we are friends again and this hasn’t stopped him running straight up to me to eat from my hand. After him, we went back to square one, with loads more research, a new set of comb / cutter purchased and extensive practise on Dolly.


Next in the barber’s chair was the castrated male lamb or, as he’s over a year old, I should say “hoggart”. Aesthetically, he’s my triumph, as he looks like black velvet all over and only a couple of nicks. These nicks by the way, seem not to be serious and reminiscent of the sort of thing my father used to cover with little torn off squares of tissue paper after shaving in a hurry in the early morning before rushing of to work in a shoe factory. I must point you to our friend Val’s blog, wherein she tells us that her regular professional shearer, when presented with her Ouessants last year, “laughed and commented on needing a magnifying glass but did a reasonable job considering they wriggle like eels!” Well they do wriggle like eels but, if you have no previous experience, like us, it’s impossible to know whether that’s normal behaviour or not.


She also tells us that “the Ouessant has more wool on it per pound/kilo of sheep than any other in the world and so from under a large fleece a very small sheep emerge[s]!” She’s not wrong. On finishing shearing a Ouessant, one sweeps up the wool and then immediately wonders where the sheep has gone ... it must be here somewhere. What has been reassuring to us, is to hear Val, who has been sheep farming for longer than she cares to remember say “I have never in all this time sheared a whole sheep” (although she’s regularly trimmed up the mucky bits at the rear end).


The three ewes were, overall, a bit easier than the boys. We found a lump in front of the old ewes udder but have the vet coming here in a weeks time to blood test all our animals (Aujesky’s disease for the pigs and Brucellosis for the sheep) so he can have a look at that then. The oldest ewe was the calmest and was rewarded by just getting a single nick and the last ewe got a few but the shallowest … I failed to shear a complete sheep without a nick. Val reassured me that in all her years of having her sheep sheared professionally, amongst the various jobs handed out—catching sheep, rolling and stacking wool, etc—there was always someone whose sole duty was to wield the blue antiseptic spray.


Photos-wise: the video at the top is a little action shot and from this and the photo, you can see how I’ve had to adapt the positions on the shearingworld website to a kneeling position because their so b***y small! And the third photo is probably the most useful, as it shows me demonstrating the wonderfully effective McKenzie method back remedy position. Below are the shorn ewes with their lambs.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

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Shearing Ouessant Sheep: Part 1. Welcome to anyone who’s come here via Renée’s Ouessant sheep forum for whom I promised I’d document our attempts at shearing our own sheep. We only put our little flock together last year and so luckily only had one to shear, the patient old ewe, which Renée helped us with using her dog clippers. They did the job but aren’t really the right tool, so we borrowed some proper electric shears (Heiniger) from Paul and Christiane, our pig-farming neighbours, who also have four Rouge de l’Ouest sheep (not woolly pigs). They warned me that the clippers didn’t cut that well, which we confirmed when we had a go at our ram.


I thought that our full-time sheep farming, part-time maire, Jean-Luc would be able to advise me. He looked at the shears and pronounced the comb the wrong type and recounted how, just a few days ago, the professional sheep-shearer visiting his farm had finished early and asked if there was anybody else in the neighbourhood who wanted their sheep sheared … doh! Nobody is going to turn out for just five sheep, so we were back to plan A, with Jean-Luc offering to find us the right comb and cutter for the borrowed shears. Looking in the catalogue at Paul’s, the cutters seemed to be the right thing for sheep, a fact I confirmed when I spoke to Susan, a technical adviser with CoxAgri, whose website is massively more detailed than Heiniger’s own.


Though they’re trade only, Susan, and her sales colleague Norma, were more than willing to help me out of a fix and despatched a “Farmer’s Pack” (a comb and two blades) immediately. The problem with always being a complete beginner (a position we all-too-frequently find ourselves occupying) is that we have nothing to compare something to. Should these blades cut better? are they sharp enough? Being able to compare the before and after, we discovered that the condition and sharpness of the cutter and comb are really important, as is the setting up of the two in relation to each other and the adjustment of the tensioning wheel. The cutters need lubricating and, on Val’s advice, again, halfway through shearing a sheep.


The video shows us practising on Dolly, the pretend sheep, a concept that anyone who’s done first aid or ante-natal classes would be familiar with. We printed off some excellent diagrams and advice from shearingworld.com and had many practise runs before we attempted our second sheep. More on that on tomorrow’s blog. The photo shows me clipping sheepy toenails another of several jobs that we got done all at the one sitting. The photo also shows how the passing years have done for my own hair negating my personal need to be shorn!


Friday, May 16, 2008

Why put a chicken on the head of a soldier ?


Where have I seen that before? The first photo is an artistic perspective on our little flock. It put me in mind of a musical encounter I once had with the Italian Army, at a summer country show, while living in the Limousin (see my short video below). Is there any strategic reason why the Italian army, one and all, choose to wear a chicken’s arse on their heads?

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… and pigs might fly!
Have you ever heard a proposition--such as “Arsenal will win the Champions’ league” or a politician will actually tell us the truth—and replied “and pigs might fly” or “when pigs fly”, meaning never? Well prepare yourself for some exciting football and truthful politicians, because I can (almost) provide you with proof that pigs can indeed fly.


The next two of holidaymakers Gail and Jo’s photos shows our three Gloucester Old Spots in take-off mode, just about to leave the ground with ears flapping and landing gear (four porky legs) being folded up. Unfortunately, when our pigs did indeed take off, Gail and Jo were so flabbergasted that the camera was dropped and no photographic proof exists. More unfortunately, the pigs have now taken a no fly oath (something to do with CO2 and Global Warming, they tell me) and have refused to repeat this feat. So, much like the single decent photo of the Loch Ness monster, you’ll have to take it on faith.


On November 4th 1909, the first flying pig was assisted (in the form of crating him up in a waste paper basket and strapping him to the wing strut of his aeroplane) by the unfeasibly named John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara, GBE, MC (London born aviation pioneer and Conservative politician, 1884 – 1964). Apparently, he did all this precisely to confound the idiom and prove that pigs can fly.

Monday, May 12, 2008


I’ve always been slightly flummoxed by the apparent paradox around the two proverbs that must simultaneously be true: “many hands make light work”, yet “too many cooks spoil the broth”. How many people does one need for a particular task? Not one too many nor one too few. How many Californians does it take to change a light bulb? (I can't remember the punch line of that joke).


Back on February 7th, I told you about the first half of our exchange with a group of French friends: we gave them a course on how to build “fedges” and structures out of living willow rods, with the understanding that rather than paying us (a complicated process to legitimise in France) they would all give us a days labour in our woodland.


Yesterday, we hit pay dirt, insomuch as they came to our woods, as promised and gave us some invaluable help to collect up all the logs I’d sawn up whilst cutting a piste forestière (forest ride) to give us vehicle access to the largest trees at the rear of the woodland. We split into two, with Thierry and Éric helping me load the logs and husband and wife team, Guillaume and Annick, getting stuck into our first experimentation with growing a hazel / sweet chestnut / ash coppice, which was looking very much like a bramble patch before their ministrations. It was a day of exchanges, with Paul, our pig-farming neighbour, lending us an old Massey Ferguson tractor drawing an ancient trailer, for woodworking services already provided by me on his house renovation project.


This being France, the day revolved around lunch, which Gabrielle was exclusively occupied in preparing. We were proud to offer a barbeque mixed grill of rabbit (our own) satay sticks, organic veal ribs and goat (our own) cutlets. And some vegetarian options for Éric. I did smile as I heard one of the others (I can’t remember who) suggesting to Éric that he should have some meat, as it was so good, and they wouldn’t tell Virginie, his partner; the French, in general, really don’t understand the concept of vegetarianism.


The day was more than the sum of its parts. Guillaume and Annick achieved way more than I ever thought we’d get done and thoroughly enjoyed working in the woods. Likewise, Thierry and Éric worked very hard and we took out a total of six trailers of logs before the day drew to a natural close and it was all done in a great spirit of friendship: nous vous remercions!

Friday, May 09, 2008


I’m the first to admit that we (mostly) haven’t a clue what we’re doing here and if there’s any didacticism going on, it’s definitely from the point of you learning from our mistakes, rather than us being the experts dispensing wisdom. Having a humble viewpoint is not such a bad thing though. Coupled to that, Permaculture
is experimental. So we’re learning from new about established stuff that lots of other people know about (but not us, yet) and we’re also trying to design our smallholding along permaculture lines, i.e., learning about stuff that nobody else might yet have tried, so we tend to approach all things with an open mind.


We were told by several people, for example, that it wasn’t possible to cure Prosciutto-style ham in Brittany because it was too humid or we’d at least need to smoke it first. We followed the instructions on Hugh’s Pig in a Day DVD, figuring that if he can do it in the UK—which has never had a reputation for being less wet than Northern France—then it must be worth a try here.


The process wasn’t without its worries though. As it was winter, we read that we didn’t need to worry about flies. But birds? Our wild birds have become used to us feeding them and a leg of ham, hanging in the breeze, looked very much like a three-Michelin-starred bird feeder. So down it came, on our return home after Christmas, then the pecked bits were judiciously trimmed off and a bird proof but wind permeable container fabricated out of an old French farming rabbit cage donated by neighbour Kysinia. A few too many damp days with not a breath of wind and I was beginning to get concerned that we were going to be proved wrong.


One of the issues was how long we should have left the leg entombed in salt before hanging. Hugh says “For every kilo, the leg should have 3 days in the salt. Knock off a day or two to 'sweeten up' the cure.” But our leg was from the pint-sized Kune Kunes and so the days-per-kilo ration left us with so few days, I’d already added a few for luck. I took the ham down, trimmed of the dubious moist bits, put it back in the salt and searched for information on web forums and Kune Kune breeders. The most help I got back was helpful best guesses, as I couldn’t find anybody who’d done this with such a small hind leg. My suspicion is that the formula should be in the form of a “minimum of so many days plus so many per kilo”.


Happily, once hanging in the air again, we got a spell of cold, dry blowy days and a fine dry coating of good white mould formed, without any suspicious moist, black, smelly, bad bits. Again, it should have been left up there for several more months, according to Hugh’s advice, but after smelling and prodding it, I impatiently pronounced it fit to taste … and it’s great! Not overly salty and good texture and taste. The doubters have been the first to praise it (we’ve been handing out morsels to taste al over the place). All to say really that one shouldn’t discount the invaluable savoir faire of people who clearly know but that also shouldn’t be a barrier to sensible experimentation.


I was intending to write about our recent attempts at shearing our sheep but got lost in pork after the intro; so I’ll tell you about that soon.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

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“Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar” (old proverb). Our CD player is technically disadvantaged: the CD tray goes out and in with an uncertain, clunky movement (see short video at top, with authentic French commentary). I seem to have a useful talent for unbolting things, working out how they function and sometimes repairing them. After unplugging it (important safety tip!) I took the cover off to reveal, amongst all manner of other electronic components, a silly plastic wheel missing some teeth.


A few months ago, we were invited to dinner by Miranda and Grahame. Grahame is a designer and inventor. I was complaining to him how it is that tool manufacturers supply a sturdy plastic case, which is rendered less than useful as it can only fit the original tool and only then if it’s been packed by some expert, nimble-fingered far-eastern factory worker. As soon as the cable has been unravelled and a couple of extra blades bought, the case is a right old struggle to close; surely a tweak of the design would be easy. And then he revealed to us that, in his experience as a designer working for them, manufacturers don’t give a *(insert “monkey’s cuss”; “toss”; or, like Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, “damn”, as is your want) for the customer. I was shocked, honestly.


Another manufacturers' trick is to design in obsolescence—so we are thus persuaded to purchase another thing—or, even worse, to design the thing to fail. Now this needs careful calculation, as if it fails too soon, we’ll be put off that brand but, if it doesn’t fail at all, we won’t need to buy another.


My Marantz CD player is 15 years old, seemingly a long time, but it was destined for landfill if it got any worse, all for the want of a tiny plastic wheel. The specialist HiFi shop that sold it to me initially offered some hope that they could supply a replacement part, then dashed those same hopes a week later when they told me Marantz had stopped making them. I was now on a mission and just as I was about to ask The Oracle (Google) when another Internet solution popped into my mind: eBay. It took me a while playing around with search terms but I eventually found Ducksy Tse in Hong Kong who could sell me one. It arrived this week, with clear instructions, took five minutes to replace and it works perfectly.


To learn more about the Story of [all the]Stuff we keep on accumulating, have a look at this great 20 minute video by Annie Leonard. And the saying at the top has nothing to do with ships but is rather “a dialect version of ‘sheep’ and refers to the smearing of tar on sheep against various infections, a practice common in Shakespeare's day.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (15th ed. p.1018) which is apposite as I’m currently treating one of our sheep with an antibiotic cream for a case of conjunctivitis.
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