Sunday, May 31, 2009

The frailty of the human condition. I/we are often making bold statements and resolutions to improve ourselves. This might manifest itself, for example, as saying to my beloved over breakfast, “shall we have a no-alcohol day?” The easy answer, “Yes” is followed by a hard day’s physical work (justification) the turning of the clock to 6pm (tradition) and perhaps cooking up some of last year’s lamb for supper (obligation) we find ourselves glass-in-hand (transgression). Hmmm.

The words “ecologic” and “economic” share the “eco” bit. Post Christmas, embracing “the global financial crisis” and the fall in the value of the £pound in relation to the €uro, I decided, for “eco” reasons, to have a book-buying embargo. I have a bit of a book-buying fetish, not the worst of vices compared to sex-drugs, rock and roll perhaps, but a burden nevertheless. The period of denial was between the present-receiving times of Christmas and my mid-March birthday. I’m proud to say that I controlled myself during the prescribed period of abstinence but rather let myself down by gorging after the famine, using my generous parents’ birthday money to buy, let me be honest, three-months worth of books at one go. Hmmm.

Before I go and roll about in patches of fresh nettles (which are growing strongly all over the place) in penitence, I shall tell you what I bought and why. In no particular order:

Victorian Farm, by Alex Langlands, Peter Ginn and Ruth Goodman. Résumé of a recent series on the BBC of a year-long re-enactment of life on a Victorian Farm, a period of immense change in agriculture. Current reading, looking good so far.

The Hand-Sculpted House, by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith and Linda Smiley. A how-to, and somewhat philosophical, tome on cob (earth) building, recommended by Rachel and Tom, architect friends of ours. We’ve both read it cover-to-cover and it makes our Top Ten of eco-building books.

Surviving and Thriving on the Land, by Rebecca Laughton. Recommended by my permaculture teacher, Patrick Whitefield. Not yet opened.

Mole Catching: A Practical Guide, by Jeff Nicholls. I’m interested in this elusive creature and how it might actually benefit the land, as well as obviously being a pest at times. I’ve already read the Shire Album on the mole and, while I’m not looking to learn how to trap or kill this furry, myopic, subterranean critters, the book (apparently) explains about their lives and habits. Also unread.

Sacré Cordon Bleu, by Michael Booth. Travel writer and restaurant critic spends a year in Paris at the famous Cordon Bleu. We’ve both read it. He writes very well; it’s informative and often funny: recommended.

Clear Heart, by Joe Cottonwood. Recommended by our friend, Kristen. A good read and a good change for me to be reading a work of fiction, rather than yet another how-to book. Recommended.

The Memory of Old Jack, by Wendell Berry. I became aware of Wendell Berry, through his agrarian essays. He’s an organic farmer, essayist, poet, and writer of fiction. Jack’s life related during a day of reminiscences, starting slowly, it ended up un-put-downable with perceptive characterisation. Recommended.

Gaia, by James Lovelock. The original Gaia hypothesis with up-to-date corrective notes by Lovelock. Even if you don’t agree with all of it, it will change the way you look at the world. For a scientific book, it’s easy reading. Highly recommended.

Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps, by Claude Goodchild and Alan Thompson. I was taken by the retro cover. Published in 1941 to advise rationed householders how to put their own eggs and meat on the table. Dated, of course, but nevertheless some interesting tips.

An eclectic mix: I'm enjoying having a pile of books on my beside table, working through them one at a time. Stage 2 of my book-buying embargo is currently in progress, “delayed gratification” the new mantra. The spirit is weak, however and I can’t promise anything.

Continuing this perma-Cultural theme, I’ll tell you about the recent eco-film festival at our local cinema soon. And getting back to more conventional aspects of permaculture, I shall pose (and then answer) the question: “digging swales isn’t exactly rocket science, is it?” And tell you about our recent trip to a local apiculteur (bee keeper).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I apologise for yet another blog on sheep—we do get up to other things here as well—but a short tale of a visit to our permaculture smallholding by a veterinary surgeon bearing Belgian chocolates is too good a subject to pass by.

Blue tongue, or fièvre catarrhale ovine (FCO), as it's known here in France, is a midge-borne disease affecting
ruminants, originating in South Africa but which has now made its way to Europe. In a good example of sensible cooperation and quick action, governments and drug companies have worked together to get some vaccines produced and disseminated out to sheep farmers in record time.

Still optional in the UK, here in France, it is now obligatory for owners of sheep to get their woolly charges vaccinated against two serotypes, 1 and 8. As it’s been a rush job, the vaccine comes in 100 dose bottles and must be used on the day that the bottle is opened. We’ve only got a small flock of 8 adult sheep and there will be many other people like us, just keeping a few sheep for grass cutting, personal consumption or both. This is quite a headache for the vets, who’ve been charged with vaccinating all the sheep in their area. What they try to do is coordinate a visit to a large farm that leaves a few doses in the bottom of the bottle with a nearby small flock, no mean feat of organisation.

I was happy to get a phone call from the vet’s secretary recently (to be told that the vet would be arriving in half and hour or so) even though I was up on the barn roof laying slates. I clambered down and exchanged barn roof mountaineering with chasing small black sheep as my afternoon’s sporting activity. In timely fashion, Gabrielle retuned home and we soon had the sheep penned up, awaiting the vet … who, after three hours, didn’t turn up. His apologetic secretary told us that he’d been called away to an emergency (nature of his business, of course) and that she’d let us know when the next opportunity would present itself.

It was a Saturday morning, we’d been given a days notice and the alarm had been set, so we could get up in time to catch the sheep and be ready. The early bird might catch the worm but we almost missed our vet. Still in dressing gown and tea-making mode, I heard a car reverse in. Seconds later, it was on the move again and I pulled back the curtains to see our vet discreetly pulling away, having seen all our curtains still drawn. I flew downstairs and raced across the wet grass in (appropriately-named) slippers to cut him off at the end of the lane. He returned and we quickly dressed and attempted to catch the sheep. The greedy boys are no problem but the ewes with their lambs were, refusing to follow the offer of food into their shelter. The always busy, ever smiling and enthusiastically accommodating Dr Hamadi Mouhli kindly offered to pass by again later that morning to do them, once we'd got our act together and penned them up.

They were vaccinated for serotype 8 last year and serotype 1 for the first time this year, necessitating a booster three weeks later. We were ready and waiting this time and when he did turn up, not quite so early this time, he gave Gabrielle a box of Belgian chocolates “to apologise for getting you out of bed last time.” I’ve said how special our vet is before but turning up to inject a handful of sheep bearing chocolates must make him unique in the world of veterinary surgeons.

The last photo shows Dr Mouhli sawing off the horn tips of one of last year’s lambs (now called a hogget), whose horns were curling around into his head. He’s using an abrasive metal cord pulled backwards and forwards vigorously as I keep the hogget’s head steady.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Not me at the keyboard for today’s blog but rather a contribution from a recent holidaymaker in our holiday cottage, who decided to “sing for his supper”. Over to you, John …

Hi Gabrielle and Stuart - I have written a few notes on my enjoyable week spent with you both for your blog. I’m still thinking about the different things I did there and all the tips you both gave me!
Regards, John.

I arrived at Saint Maden on the sunny evening of Easter Sunday. The countryside was bright green with a blue sky and a fresh nip in the air. Stuart and Gabrielle welcomed me with a warming cup of tea and a cosy cottage, in which they’d set a fire going for several hours in an old Godin woodstove.

I'd volunteered to do some work, but it wasn't the dreaded "report for duty at sunrise to milk to cows" that a Welsh colleague had suggested might be the regime, Stuart and Gabrielle offered a very civilised start with morning coffee at 10. Good, I fancied a sleep-in, sorely needed after months of 50-60 hour workweeks. Before going to bed l had a quick poke around outside the gite...but not too far as it was pitch black and strangely, almost scary without the sounds of cars, people or even dogs for that matter, to disturb the tranquillity.

After the first of many solid nights of sound sleep, and a morning walk to the local baker, I reported for duty. The plans sounded more than reasonable, Gabrielle suggesting a few hours work each day in exchange for an evening meal. This meant l could combine my 'training' with sightseeing, perfect!

That afternoon Gabrielle asked me to weed the newly replanted camomile lawn in the beautiful gite garden. Just an hour later, though, I heard Stuart start up the sit-upon lawnmower. I had a long-held ambition to drive one of these devices, so I persuaded them that I could be better employed doing the mowing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when I found top gear and let loose the throttle, giving me the feeling I was go-karting rather than grass-cutting :-)

I tended to start my days with a brisk walk to the baker. Tasty bread at a third of the price I’m used to paying in Geneva region of Switzerland, where I live. I enjoyed an afternoon wandering around the wonderfully preserved medieval part of Rennes, but after an hour or so of that I was itching to get back to the smallholding and see what I could do.

I took up Stuart’s offer to watch him humanely despatch one of their chickens, and then participate in plucking and drawing it. It would “hang’ for a day, then spend a day in a red wine marinade, before reappearing on the dinner table.

Stuart and I spent half a very rainy day in their woodland, slipping and sliding around as we harvested the logs he'd cut over the winter, moving them across a small stream into a clearing for future transport back to their permaculture smallholding. I enjoyed the physicality of it all but we were both happy to stop after three hours and enjoy a well-deserved lunch break at a local auberge: a classic French workmen’s lunch with a bottle of vin de table plonked down in front of us even before the menu arrived and then four courses of hearty food, all for the reasonable price of l don't what, because l didn't pay :-)

An afternoon’s trip to the seaside, about 40 min away, turned out to be a decidedly damp affair, however, golf umbrella in hand I persisted and enjoyed the stiff sea breeze before heading back to Dinan for a seafood meal at one of the many inns by the river. [Thanks to George for the visual metaphor.]

Helping Gabrielle in the vegetable plot [see photo at top] I learnt so much about growing vegetables, including a revelation that l have been able to put into effect immediately after returning home … concerning, of all things, nettles.
They might sting like hell but now I have a use for them, natural nettle “tea” liquid fertiliser. What will my neighbours think when they see me take nettles out of the land that lies between our two gardens compared to my usual habit of dumping my cuttings there.

On Friday evening, we shared our final meal together, a wonderful Coq au Vin, accompanied by a mixed salad from the garden scattered with edible flowers and all washed down by a 2002 bottle of Hermitage. It was a fitting end to a wonderful week, a week of relaxation in a tranquil setting, a slower pace of life, lively discussions, experiencing life on a smallholding and working my body physically, something I appreciated more than my habitual 8-10 hour workday sitting in front of a computer screen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Learning how to shear sheep: Part 2 I was impressed how well we all did on our first go and, following my own stumbling previous experiences, I was chuffed to get the fleece off in a single piece, leaving a fairly clean sheep with not a nick anywhere. It was all down to the technique and some good instruction by Paul and the college’s resident shepherd, Pete. The technique is called the Bowen method, developed in the 1950s by a New Zealand chap called Godfrey Bowen and it’s a precise dance of feet, knees and clippers around a sheep. After cleaning the belly and rear end of wool, the shearer starts with the left rear leg, then opens up the wool under the neck and clears the front left leg before laying the sheep on her back and shearing up the left side of the sheep, ending up with delightfully satisfying long blows from the tail to the neck. A step-over and the shearer begins to sit the sheep up again, shearing down the other side of the neck and the right front leg as he does, moving down the right side of the body to the right left leg, leaving the fleece in one piece. These are then rolled up and stuffed into a huge woolsack for despatch to The British Wool Marketing Board

The Saturday was “Sheep Shearing for Beginners” and most of us returned on Sunday for the “Improvers” course. Ken (see the video on the previous blog) couldn’t join us, which is a shame as I think it’s fair to say he produced the cleanest sheep with the best technique at the end of Saturday and he would have got his qualification on the Sunday. Jon was there again though, a big strong chap with the lightest of Irish accents who teaches philosophy for a living. I couldn’t resist teasing him with “why shear?” He said that his six-form students looked at him blankly on Friday afternoon when he announced what he was going to do for the weekend. Pete agreed with me that there are probably many more shepherds who are philosophers than philosophers who can shear sheep, making Jon somewhat unique.

Paul started the second day showing us how the comb and cutters are sharpened, leaving two slightly concave surfaces, which flatten as the clipper head is tightened up. Another new experience next as the sheep were still in the field where we joined Pete and his collie dog to help round them up. I’ve never seen a sheep dog work in the flesh (only on TV) and it’s fabulously impressive: quick as a rocket but stops dead at Pete’s whistle. Once corralled up, there was a system of moving barriers and ever smaller pens to allow us first to sort lambs from ewes and then to put them in holding pens near to our shearing stations.

The second day was great for consolidating our new skill and, after lunch we had the opportunity of going for the first qualification. There are four levels: blue (why blue, I don’t know) then the usual bronze, silver and gold. For the gold standard, I think you have to provide proof of being a Kiwi through three generations of your family and then shear a thousand sheep in a day, blindfolded, with one arm behind your back. For us mortals, shearing three sheep within half an hour, using the correct technique and leaving the sheep looking reasonably clean, would give us our blue badge. I’m extremely proud to say that I managed it although I needed to lie on the floor in between the second and third sheep to put my back back into shape and ended up soaked in sweat. We also ended the day covered in lanolin (from the wool) and, slightly less agreeably, sheep poo and I also have a couple of wounds on each elbow, where I’d been towed across the concrete floor by a couple of ewes who made a break for freedom before I’d finished with them.

A big thank you to Paul Attard and Pete Smith of Moulton Agricultural College for a fabulous weekend. The video at the top is Pete showing us how it should be done. There is a real lack of sheep shearers in the UK (not sure about here in France) and, although physical, I think it’d be a great job but just not for 48-year-old me, with a bad back. We’ll be shearing our own sheep later this month.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

“I speak Eengleesh, I learn it from a boook”. So says Manuel, the Spanish waiter in the classic 1970s comedy series, Fawlty Towers. The fun and games that ensue from his inept attempts to communicate suggests that certain skills require more than just a book. From our own experiences, I can tell you that sheep shearing is one of them.

In our first year keeping sheep, we only had a ewe to shear as the ram had been clipped before he arrived and the lamb didn’t need a haircut. With help from our friend Renée, we trimmed our ewe with a pair of dog clippers, while she calmly stood upright, with a dog collar and lead on: not your standard method. The following year, with a ram and four ewes to do, we borrowed some Heiniger electric clippers off neighbours Paul and Christiane and downloaded some instructions from the Internet. Gabrielle then stitched together Dolly, a “sheep” cloned from a selection of soft furnishings for me to practice positioning the sheep and moving my feet around, which is essential to master. I then sheared our sheep with increasing levels of success; that said, I realised I needed to learn how to do it properly.

Which is why, last Saturday morning, I found myself in a classroom in the immaculately sprawling Moulton Agricultural College in Northampton with a friendly and diverse group of trainee shearers. Within the first five minutes, I’d learnt enough about how to set up the comb and cutter in the shearing head to justify the cost of the course. Paul, our instructor, showed us diagrams and told us the theory of how we would manoeuvre the sheep, controlling it with hand, feet and knees and, in no time at all, we were heading for the shearing shed.

There’s no way of easing oneself in gently—“today, we’ll start you off shearing the back leg”—no, we each had to grab a whole sheep out of the pen, pull her head round towards her back while simultaneously pressing down firmly on her rump, the goal being to put her on the floor, so she can be dragged into a seating position. Think of it as a sort of sheep judo. And then we got stuck in, shears chattering away, wool peeling off and, every once in a while, a sheep saying "I've had enough of this nonsense" and making a break for freedom.

I’ll tell you more of how we all got on in my next blog. The photos show: our brief classroom introduction, setting up the equipment, expectant sheep, and two pics of us shearing. The guy with the huge smile is Ken, an expert, high quality tailor who was experiencing the very beginning of the process that results in the cloth he cuts for suits (that's also him in the video at top).

One man's rubbish is another man's treasure.
I’ve spent the last week in England, staying a few days with my parents and also learning how to shear sheep. I helped my mum and dad clear out their garage: a three-day-long task of dust, mouse droppings, nostalgia, surprises … and quite a lot of old toot. Thanks to the Northampton branch of the UK based charity Tools for Self Reliance we’ve turned one man’s (Dad’s) “rubbish” into another man’s (an artisan in some rural African community) treasure. With a small number of paid staff assisted by an army of volunteers, old tools are polished, sharpened and refurbished until they’re good enough to be boxed up according to particular orders and shipped to partner organisations in Africa. Have a look at their excellent website to learn how you can help, where your nearest branch is and what tools they do and don’t need.

Owing to a pair of bright yellow lines painted on the road outside, mine was a fleeting visit and I didn’t manage to get anyone’s name. In the photo above, a member of staff shows one of the boxes of refurbished tools, along with a packing list, ready for despatch to Africa.

Having read their website, I see that they don’t have a need for certain tools (e.g., typewriters, computers, books, lawnmowers, cooking pots, bicycles, knitting machines, domestic quality power tools and gardening tools (except heavy duty spades and shovels, used for building). However, don’t let that put you off as they either pass on these unsuitable or surplus tools to other charities, use them in their own workshops, sell them or, in the last instance, send the metal to be melted down and recycled and use the wooden items to fuel stoves. When I mentioned the name of this blog, the other member of staff and the only other visitor burst into big smiles. It seems the Northampton branch of TFSR is a hotbed of permaculture. The chap in the day-glo jacket was perusing the shelves. He told me that he helped manage four acres of community permaculture orchard in Northampton and I assume, from what I’ve just said, that he is looking for good second-hand gardening tools.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

I’m currently away from my post, absent without leave. I’ve voyaged afar and find myself in Anglia, Blighty, the land of my birth, where, rather by careful planning than fortunate coincidence, I’ve spent several days staying with aged parents and also attended a superb course at Moulton Agricultural College learning how to shear sheep.

As your intrepid permaculture reporter, I’m here with notepad and camera but, absent-midedly, without the computer-to-camera lead that would allow me to post photos on this blog. So await, with breath baited, for illustrated updates this coming week. This will include a visit to the inspiring Tools for Self Reliance (Northants branch) subsequent to my helping to clear out my parents garage and all the low down on the wonderful shearing course.