Sunday, March 28, 2010

Planting willow fedges before the spring arrives.

Some jobs are seasonal and we have been racing against time to finish our winter jobs. A strange contradiction as we’d had enough of a reasonably harsh and prolonged winter and have been really looking forward to kinder weather but, cognisant of winter jobs still to do, we didn’t want spring to arrive until they were completed..

We’ve been very fortunate this year to have a succession of helping hands, most recently Merle and Darrell. We had a list of things to do longer than the days they planned to stay: what to do and where to start?

We began with a day in the woods, re-visiting one of the very first jobs we undertook. Three years ago, we clear-felled a third of an acre of sickly sycamore plantation (un-thinned since planting, so grown long and leggy as each tree sought light and fought over nutrients) and re-planted it with an experimental third ash, third sweet chestnut and third hazel, with the intention of setting up a coppicing cycle. Having planted them, we turned to other jobs and pretty much forgot them, just as the previous owner had done with his sycamores. We spent a happy day under a sunny spring sky clearing out the competition from our planted saplings. The photos show a before and after view plus what we think is a bird’s anvil stone used to smash snail shells; I wonder if a French thrush prefers it’s escargots with garlic and parsley?

Last on the list was to construct 20 metres of willow “fedge” (is it a hedge? is it a fence?). We needed to cut the willow from our plantation of 32 species and get the rods planted before the catkins arrive and the leaves start opening. November to March is the dormant season and so we were right on the limit. The photos show Merle and Darrell coppicing the willow rods; then sorting the rods into similar lengths, useful to maintain
a pleasing degree of uniformity and also to choose strong uprights and more slender and flexible weavers; weaving the fedge together and then a couple of shots of the finished fence, including and arch way to allow

Gabrielle passage between polytunnel and potager.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Oscar Wilde

I hesitate to say this but I do think that spring might (almost) be here. After a torrentially moist week towards the end of February, we’ve had a very dry spell, with frostily cold mornings preceding warm sunny days. However, we’ve had a couple of mild mornings and some of our 32 varieties of willow are sporting catkins, the cherry blossoms are popping and the birds are noticeably singing more optimistically.

Just before we say goodbye to winter, have a look at this photo from Musings from a Stonehead only a couple of weeks ago. Undaunted by overnight temperatures of minus 10ºC, our brave Berkshire-pig-breeding crofter sees the “bright side—the snow has completely frozen solid and can now bear my weight. I no longer have to kick or dig paths through the snow. I can walk over it.” If you want a smile, have a look at this post: the photos show his boys, plus dog, running on the frozen crust of snow … until it gives way and one young chap icily descends up to his armpits, much to the dog’s amusement.

I’m not quite so brave and after a succession of cold days, I decided the time had come to catch up with some paper- and computer-work. Strange, I know, but I have a little problem if I’m indoors while Gabrielle chooses to work outside. So she appeased my masculine sensitivities and decided on a music practice with Al, who came over a short wile later with partner Caroline. I was thus serenaded in my bureaucratic tasks. Artist Caroline, who never leaves home without her sketchbook, was also inclined to remain indoors, so ended up looking out of the window for inspiration, painting a watercolour of our enormous pile of cut and split logs (the pic at the top) which awaits me and my wheelbarrow to stack them neatly. Spot her top left of the photo below, sketchbook in hand.

We’ve had to move furniture about in our back bedroom so I could remove the wall and rebuild the room to incorporate our new compost toilet. As I moved the bed, another piece of artwork dropped to the floor. Three cheeky children (plus parents Phil and Sid) came to stay and animal-sit over Christmas and a few drawings got drawed. This one never saw the light of day until I turned the back bedroom upside- down. The childlike obsession with bum, poo and naughty words! Question: what does this drawing say about them? and what does it say about us?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Refurbishing Chairs – Part Two of an Ongoing Quest!

My latest article has hit the news stands, several weeks before my own copy of the March edition of Country Smallholding Magazine was delivered by our postlady in her mustard yellow Renault La Poste van. You might imagine that, even though I’d seen the proofs, I was impatient to see “The Strange World of a Broody Hen” in glossy print. Some of the delay might be explained by the circuitous route it took to my letterbox. I’m not sure why a magazine posted in England, heading just over the channel to France, was postmarked Frankfurt! I assume that the magazine obviously wanted to enjoy a literary Grand Tour before retiring to my bookshelf. If you are inspired to delve into the mysteries of a hen’s life, race down to your local newsagent and ask them for a copy of the March issue before April’s hits the shelves. (I’m not on commission, by the way.)

If you have something decent to read, and a cosy fire in front of which to read it, you need to get yourself a comfy chair. Here are the second set of photos of the chair restoration by our holiday cottage guest and now friend, Richard. He and Leigh are booked in for mid-August, so the dramatic tension is already rising: will he get the chair ready in time? It’s amazing, and a real pleasure for me, to see this “rescue” chair—£5 from Brighton and Hove Wood Recycling Project—lovingly brought back to its former glory. The photos show Richard in his workshop putting the original springs back on new webbing and then the detail of the webbing from below.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Building with hemp.

Hey man, hemp is so cool! But if you remove the active hippy ingredient THC (tetrahydro-cannabinol) from your variety of cannabis sativa (so that the police will let you grow it) and stuff it into the walls of your house you get a very useful insulating affect, certainly enough to keep a couple of ageing hippies warm on a cold night.

Hemp is a great plant to grow, as it’s a low maintenance but very abundant crop. A method of building pioneered in France is to mix the chopped up stalk—“shiv” in English and chenvottes in French— with building lime to create a porridge that you pack between shutters, which dries to give you a solid wall that is both insulating and very breathable.

A couple of houses were built using hemp lime in an affordable home project in Suffolk, England in 2001, their construction and performance monitored by the Building Research Establishment and compared to equivalent more conventional brick-built houses in the same development. (The Haverhill Hemp Houses–BRE). The thermal performance was apparently better for the hemp houses and outperformed calculated expectations. If I understand this correctly, there are two reasons for this: 1.) the walls have a mass to them that can store heat so that the houses were slightly warmer for the same amount of heating energy and 2.) hemp/lime walls are extremely breathable and the reduced humidity in the building leads to a reduction in the ambient temperature at which one feels comfortable .

Apropos of needing to rebuild the wall around a new (recycled) front entrance door and learning about the material with an eye on our anticipated self-build ecohouse, we tried the technique out. The photos show the new front wall under construction, a handful of hemp shiv, and Gabrielle tamping the mix between wooden shutters.

Maurice Lebret, a local farmer, now produces hemp for use in building. He supplies sacks of chopped shiv and along with bags of lime but has been thinking along loose fill lines too. Knowing how cellulose (shredded old news-papers) is blown into spaces in walls and ceilings, he has innovated a method to do that with hemp fibre. It’s an agricultural machine used for distributing animal feeds inside barns, adapted with a fill hopper and a blade to chop up the hemp fibre. Micehl proudly claims that it's the only one like it in the world! Christophe Le Petit, the guy who installed our grey water plant filter and pond, invited me round to see the machine in action.

He’s currently building a timber-framed house for his family. The structure is clad on the outside with sheets of OSB to provide racking strength, and he has tacked a breathable membrane onto the inside to complete the “boxes’ into which he blows the loose-fill hemp fibre. The photos show Christophe loading the hopper (as I try to snatch a photo while holding the other end in place) and then him aiming the tube into the spaces in the wall through a hole cut in the membrane, which is then sealed with tape when full.

One caveat I read in Tom Woolley’s Natural Building: A Guide to Materials and Techniques is that in an example of loose-fill hemp being used to insulate a floor, “the hemp has been allowed to get slightly damp and become infested with paper lice … most natural and cellulose materials if allowed to get damp can breed paper lice, which, while having no serious health effects, can be a nuisance.” Tom is an advocate of hemp lime walls, see Hemp Lime Construction: A Guide to Building with Hemp and Lime Composites. by Rachel Bevan and Tom Woolley, a comprehensive technical guide to this method. See also The Green Self-Build Book by Jon Broome, pages 91-95.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Three little piggies

This year will be our fourth of keeping pigs. We buy weaners to grow on during the summer months and slaughter in the autumn. We’ve no plans to start breeding pigs as that would be so much more complicated and we quite like the reduction in husbandry duties at the end of the year, whilst looking forward to welcoming new weaners the following spring.

The first year we had a pair of Kune Kunes. Three Gloucester Old Spots followed and last year we had a pair of Berkshires (photo shows one of ours enjoying a muddy siesta). Kunies hail from New Zealand and both the Gloucesters and the Berkshires are British old breeds. We favour older breeds of pigs over the modern white farm pig for several reasons: we’re not looking to produce the biggest pig in the shortest time; our pigs need to be adapted to outdoor life and we think it important to help keep viable breeding populations of different varieties. As we live in France, we thought we ought to make the effort to get hold of some French rare breed pigs this time. Curiously, it seems easier to source British rare breed pigs (born in France) than a French old breed.

Through talking to friends and, of course, trawling around the Internet, we found an association that occupies itself with trying to keep the Bayeux race going. If I’ve understood correctly, it seems that it’s one of the last six French old breeds. It has suffered from the commercial success of the Large White/ Pietrain cross modern farm pig. Back in 1996, there were only 15 boars and 51 sows left and, it’s true to say, with the introduction of Pietrain blood, very few pure race Bayeux remain. (Info sheet on the Bayeux, in French. Downloads as a PDF file)

Originating in the Calvados region, the Bayeux is a old cross between the French Blanc de l’Ouest and the English Berkshire: porky entente cordiale! Crossing a white pig with a black pig makes the Bayeux … a white pig with black spots, much like the Gloucester Old Spot with which it also shares floppy ears.

Towards the end of French lunchtime (Midday – 2pm) I telephoned Monsieur Thierry LERROUILLY of the Syndicat des Eleveurs de Porcs Bayeux. He wasn’t immediately interested when he knew that we just wanted a couple to fatten up (he is, after all, trying to promote new breeding pairs throughout France) but I explained that we were serious about old breeds and that owners of this rare pig will inevitably produce animals that aren’t desirable to keep as breeding stock and so we’d be helping the process by buying such animals. He warmed to the idea and gave me a couple of phone numbers of breeders, unfortunately not too close to us. “Ahh” he exclaimed, he did know of “un britannique, name of Lloyd, who lives in Finistère who he helped obtain a boar and two sows. He was sorry that he didn’t have his number but he gave me the number of someone who might.

By coincidence, we bought a couple of our Ouessant ewes from a Mike Lloyd back in 2007. I remember him showing me some piglets that had recently been born tearing around a little wooded area like a gang of street urchins (see photo). Happily, it’s the same guy and, knowing how he keeps his animals (and he is correctly registered) we could confident of buying happy and healthy animals. He had an uncertain start, with the boar turning nasty and one sow barren, so for the moment, he has had the remaining sow served with another English rare breed, the red-haired Tamworth. He’ll be able to sell us pure Bayeux next year. In the meantime, check out the black-spotted orange piglets that we’ll be welcoming here just after Easter, when they’ll be nine weeks, old, weaned and ready to go out onto pasture.