Sunday, April 25, 2010

Happy Birthday, Chris !

Sorry it’s two days late, Chris, but we’re busy, as I think you’ll understand (I’m typing this at quarter-to-nine on Sunday evening after a very long day and we still haven’t eaten yet).

Chris has been our latest volunteer, a willing soul, if ever there was one. He turned 60 on Friday, hence this tribute blog to a very hard working—and now slightly older—permaculture volunteer.

Just to demonstrate that we’re not “ageist” here in Brittany—we work everyone as hard—here’s a list of things that Chris got up to in the week he was here:
• repair pig ark and move into position;
• harrowing and re-seeding of old pig paddock;
• construct a shave horse following plans in Permaculture Magazine;
• build pallet enclosure around pig ark;
• come with me to collect pigs (4 hour return journey into the centre of Brittany);
• build wooden gate for pig paddock
• clear brambles;
• a day moving stones with borrowed tractor, while making regular visits to check up on newly born lamb;
• digging to ready the ground to sow a flower meadow;
• 1/2 day off, then lunch at a neighbours house followed by a walk in the woods (time off for good behaviour!) then an afternoon barrowing and stacking logs;
• empty compost bins;
• and then construct new pallet compost bins.
The photos should speak for themselves. To explain the moving rocks thing, neighbour Serge, who works for a building a renovation company, has been bringing back hardcore for his driveway. There is lots of stone that’s good enough for building, so he suggested that I could help myself to the stone and , in return, I could get rid of a pile of broken concrete that we’ve had for the last three years. On a sunny April Sunday, we shuttled between our straw-bale-house-building-site and Serge’s house with an old-but-in-perfect-wording-order Massey Ferguson borrowed from Paul. This arduous task was broken up by frequent visits to check in on a newborn lamb and mum. The following day, neighbour Alan remarked that he’d seen “our prisoner breaking rocks”: do you think we’re working our volunteers too hard ?

With the smells of our home-reared pork dinner roasting in the oven and a glass of Bordeaux to hand—Gabrielle’s is a Sauvignon—we raise said glasses to wish you a Very Happy Sixtieth Birthday and thanks again for all your help.

Monday, April 19, 2010

New arrivals on our smallholding

We’ve got a string of new arrivals to announce. First up, this year’s piggies, a trio of Tamworth/Bayeux ladies. Our latest volunteer, boat-building-qualified Chris, had the necessary woodworking skills to make running repairs to our pigs ark, which were fraying about the edges after three years of service.
The pigs have come direct from a sty, so we built an enclosure out of wooden pallets around the ark to provide them with a reassuring sense of security for the first few days in their new home.

Two days later, we removed one corner of the pallet fence to allow them to explore the wider world in their own time. A further two days of walking about under the sun and we now have the new smallholding pleasure of rubbing suntan cream into scorched pigs ears! The same day, our final lamb arrived—another girl, making two of each this year. As usual, I had a quick look over the lamb, then tipped mum onto her backside to have a squeeze of her teats. There is a (strangely) blue waxy plug to keep the teats hermetically sealed and a couple of tugs was enough to jet a stream of milk and reassure me that all was well downunder. The first milk, the colostrum, is essential to give the lamb the antibodies it needs.

Her eldest brother, Valentin, was born back on 14th February and is quite a big chap now, so, for the first time, I decided to isolate mum and lamb for the first twelve hours to make sure mum got a fair share of sheep nuts and the pair of them were spared the inquisitive noses of the other ewes and lambs.

Five days later, we took the afternoon off to go fishing. The pond at the end of our horizontal plant filter grey water treatment system has been established for six months now and is home to a variety of watery wildlife that has turned up of its own accord, such as newts, diving beetles and daphnia and it was high time we added some fish. Christophe, who dug the pond and installed the plant filter, invited us over to his place to catch some common roach, in Latin, rutilus rutilus (so good, they named it twice!) and gardon in French.

We borrowed a couple of rods from friends Ian and Caroline, helped ourselves to a few worms from the compost heap and headed over to Christophe's. It was easy fishing and we soon had six healthy fish in our lidded bucket.

They are silver fish with red fins and stick together in a shoal, so make a beautiful and engaging addition to our pond. So I read, roach easily adapt to local circumstances and have a great tolerance for organic pollution, a useful attribute as although our water is clear, remember that it is the outlet of our grey water treatment system. And as I was wondering whether they’d have enough to eat, I learn that they adapt to scarcity by growing slowly and staying slim! They’re a great addition to our livestock and we both now pause when walking by the pond to see if we can spot our small silvery shoal.

And we're not the only ones!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lambing for Beginners at Moulton College

We’ve some new arrivals to announce (including a new lamb) but, attempting to keep a certain chronological order to this blog, I’d better tell you about the lambing course I attended at Moulton College on Easter Saturday. There is a local agricultural college here in Brittany but, unfortunately, they don’t do short courses for particuliers (members of the public). My parents live in the same town, so I was able to visit to visit them at the same time.

All good courses probably start in a classroom but showing is better than telling, and doing is better than either, so our instructor Sam Herring soon had us in the lambing shed. We were a mixed bunch of students with, for example, Charlotte still at school studying A-levels hoping to become a vet and Jim who’d arrived via the army and IT industry but is now drawn to the job his father still does (aged 71!) shepherding in the Borders.

This is our fourth year of lambing with our rustic Ouessants and we have, so far, never had any problems. In fact, it’s so quick we don’t see it and though Sam showed us the signs to look for—a seated ewe with her head in the air, licking her lips and arching her back, I’ve never seen these hints of impending lambness before. Our four ewes lamb in the field—to be honest they are always in the field—and so I was seeing a completely different approach to sheep husbandry. All the mums-to-be are re-located into a sheltered, straw-lined barn under constant supervision until they’ve safely given birth and proved themselves capable of taking their lambs back to the field. I assume that access to the ram is programmed as well, to ensure that the ewes give birth over a relatively small time span. In contrast, Monsieur goes back with his ladies when we wean the lambs, so he can enjoy his pleasure as the mood takes him and not have to indulge in the sheepy-shag-fest of his commercial brothers. The result is that our first lamb was born on 14th February and the last arrived last Sunday.

That spread of births over several weeks wouldn’t have suited our teacher Sam.
Can you imagine trying to plan your lessons around the capricious birthing behaviour of a group of grass-eating beasts? We were lucky though, as we had several births throughout our day, including the most difficult at the end. I’ve already said how powerful the “doing” part is in learning and Sam plucked a bouncily healthy lamb from one of the pens to show us how to tie a rope round its head to help it from its mother’s womb: the right way to do it is to pass the rope around the back of its head and tie the knot in between its open jaws, that way you pull the nose out first and without strangling it.

We strapped a prolapse harness around a baa-ing ewe who hadn’t prolapsed and inserted a feeding tube into the stomach of a lamb who didn’t need one (to share the inconvenience around Sam did select a different lamb for each of us). These mild disturbances to healthy creatures were invaluable to us students as the next time we need to use the techniques might be a real ovine emergency.

Right at the end of the day, Peter, the very-experienced head shepherd told Sam that a ewe he’d had his eye on had gone an hour now and needed some help. She was a “shearling”, meaning that she’d been sheared once but this was her first lambing and so things can be a bit more complicated, added to which she doesn’t really understand the strange thing happening to her body. We were invited to feel the correct presentation of the lamb (a nose and two front feet) before one of the students (whose name I can’t remember—sorry) took hold of the legs to help the lamb out. During this “emergency”, Pete’s mobile phone rang. Calm as a cucumber, he answered it, giving directions to someone coming to the college. My response would have been: “Can’t talk—I'm on the lamb!”

A perfect end to a fabulous day and I shall feel so much more prepared to deal with our lambing seasons in the future, thanks to Sam and Pete. the photos show an introductory talk in the lambing shed; me inserting a feeding tube into a lamb; Sue feeling how a correctly presented lamb feels; an assisted birth; and, in case you were worried, the same chap up on his own two feet and drinking from mum.

For more info on lambing, click on the following link for a free handbook from DEFRA, which will open or download (depending how you have your computer configured) as a PDF file: Improving Lamb Survival

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Permaculture Pasture Improvement: Part 1

If you’ve arrived on this page, having “Googled” or “Yahoo-ed” your way here having searched “permaculture pasture improvement”, prepare for a degree of disappointment because I don’t actually know very much about the subject; I wish I did.

Through growing experience, we’ve learnt that different breeds of pigs get involved with the land to varying degrees. Our Kunies grazed a lot; the Gloucester Old Spots rooted more but are known as orchard pigs in that they’ll eat what’s on the surface, such as windfall apples, before starting to root; but the Berkshires were true organic ploughshares, turning the whole of their paddock into a tribute to the Battle of the Somme.

We didn’t want to leave the earth bare over winter but the choice of groundcover to sow at the end of November is very limited; it’s certainly not the time to sow grass. Our farming neighbour Paul suggested oats. We were two weeks late and it didn’t get away (as his had done) but provided plenty of free food to wild birds and our roaming flock of chickens. We needed to re-sow with a good pasture mix and, as often, I did plenty of research on the Anglophone part of the Internet.

Although I’d already found an English supplier, I thought I really ought to make the effort to find the French equivalent. The Breton seeds should better suit Breton earth, I reasoned. Julien, who farms a dairy herd with his mother and is hoping to convert the farm over to organic beef when his mum retires, is becoming a bit of an expert in pasture. To cut a longer story short, he put me in contact with a German woman near Rennes who could supply (mostly organic) pasture seed mixtures.

With her advice I chose a suitable mix for our soil type and needs. It arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of a man-in-the-ubiquitous-white-van, all the way from … Germany ! Doh. Our ever-helpful pig-farming neighbour Paul lent me his elderly Massey Ferguson with a harrow attached. Although it took several passes, it only tilled the first four or five inches (100 – 125 mm) of the soil, so didn’t bring up subsoil and bury humus as huge modern ploughshares do.

I sowed the seed with a modern plastic seed spinner, walking up and down the field and then across. I passed the harrow once more, to turn the seed in, then returned the tractor. In a rather round-the-houses sort of way, Paul vaguely suggested that I roll the ground, pressing the seed into contact with the soil and leaving less on show for them pesky birds. That extra job made a late finish, largely ameliorated by a pint of English bitter beer. I shall report how the new grass fares.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Even more volunteers ...

In my last post I mentioned that we have been very fortunate to have had a succession of willing helpers come and share our winter with us. I wrote about our experiences in an “articlette” (an article within a larger article on volunteering) in Living Woods, our favourite magazine about wood and woodlands. Click here and the article will open or download (depending how your computer is set up) as a PDF file.

With the gite now turned over holidaymakers, we had called a stop to volunteers until next winter, that is until Chris contacted us, promising boatbuilding skills. We don’t currently have need of a boat but that’s a very high level of woodworking, so how could we refuse? He turns up next week, the day after I get back from a short trip to England to see ageing parents and attend a lambing course at the local agricultural college. (It’s not a language thing, our local French college just doesn’t do short courses for particuliers.) Also turning up next week will be this year’s piggies, a trio of Tamworth / Bayeaux crosses.

And still on the subject of volunteers, I’ve somehow neglected to give thanks and an honourable mention in despatches to Russell and Laura, who stayed with us before Merle and Darrell (see previous blog).
Once I’d shown him how to use the Drivall post-rammer, he clanged away energetically while I put the finishing touches to the sheep shelter he’d help me knock up the day before and pitched a dozen or so perfectly upright posts, which will create a catching area for our sheep. Meanwhile, Laura helped Gabrielle pull the winter covers off the vegetable patch, so to speak, and the photo shows them planting up dwarf camomile in a patchwork of left over paving slabs at the entrance to our polytunnel.

And it gets even better! Laura offered to cook for their last night with us. She phoned her mama for some advice to get the details right, making us smile with her animated conversation conducted in her beautiful sing-song Italian. I can’t remember the name of the recipe but imagine a meat lasagne, with the layers of pasta replaced with cooked rice.
Delizioso of course, and a great recipe to keep in mind when you’ve found some left-over cooked rice in the fridge, just as you’ve run out of pasta sheets!

Coming soon: serious stuff as we aim to reduce our energy consumption further by upgrading the wood-burning stove in the gite, replace the lighting in our bathroom with LED down lighters and a low energy heated towel rail and insulating it with sheep’s wool and details of the lambing course that I’m just about to go on.