Monday, February 28, 2011

An author's note inside The Sheep Book for Smallholders by Tim Tyne advises that the book "is not a veterinary manual, nor is it a miserable catalogue of the numerous ways in which a sheep may choose to die..."  So, you see, sheep don't have the best reputation for staying alive but, touch wood, the worst problem we've had in nearly four years of keeping a small ovine flock is one case of summer mastitis, which had a favourable outcome.  Perhaps it's to do with them being a rustic race (Ouessant) and living outside all the year. 
Still, one can't help worrying about these allegedly fragile creatures, which is why I've uploaded this little video of this year's lambstwo boys and a girl (with one more due soon).  Please have a look and give us your opinion of how healthy they look!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Volunteers : the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Our call for volunteers last winter was incredibly successful and I suppose led, if not to complacency, then to assumptions and an over-reliance on this free help.  We created a supra-“list of things to do” with our volunteers and anticipated a moment, perhaps in early March, when we would survey, through tired eyes, an incredible list of things done.  It was not to be.

Two couples had to cancel, both victims of the current economic climate.  One poor chap lost his job and so their five-year plan to become smallholders, and their more immediate plans to visit us, rudely evaporated.  The other couple were thrown a pair of job interviews, too risky to let pass and they, understandably, cancelled too.

A young woman had booked a week with us and, just before she came, asked if she could bring along a chap she’d befriended while volunteering.  Without another thought, we said ‘yes’ and lived to regret it.  In retrospect, our failing was not to discuss and agree with him what we offered to volunteers and expected in return.  To be brief, we mutually agreed that it was not working out and he left halfway through the week.  Thank goodness for Sue and Andrew.

I’ll hand over to Sue now, to tell you of their week with us.

Andrew's bridge
Insomnia Leads to Brittany
Gully when full
Unable to sleep one night I got up to make a cup of tea and read.  From one of my favourite blogs, an invitation to "volunteer in Brittany" jumped out at me and one click later, I’d found the ideal holiday for Andrew and me.

Pulling the plug
A few weeks later we arrived at Stuart's and Gabrielle's smallholding, to a warm welcome from our hosts  and an excellent supper of pork chops from home reared pigs.

The following morning we all went to the woods to start work, smashing through a ball of brambles to open an access way between two parts of the wood separated by a gully.  A section had been filled in to allow a passage (once the recalcitrant brambles had been dealt with) and a buried pipe connected the ditch.  Except that the pipe was blocked, creating a substantial amount of surface water.

All drained
Andrew and Gabrielle started to clear out a gully and, sure enough water began to move slowly towards the riverbank.  Taking a breather from chainsawing, Stuart poked his nose in and started pulling handfuls of leaves from the end of the pipe.  Suddenly a muddy tidal wave surged forward filling Andrew's wellies, the warning shout too late.  It was very satisfying to see the difference as the waterlogged area drained.

I got my first taste of the Kelly kettle and so began my quest to make a cup of tea for us all in the wood.  My first mistake was to only get half of the boiled water in the pot … oops!  After a lunch of home-made broccoli and blue cheese soup, bread, cheese and beers, we went back to the woods.  At the end of the afternoon it was back to our gite with its wood-burning stove, long hot showers and then over to the house for another excellent evening of good food, wine and chatting.  That night we slept really well, no chance of insomnia here.

Learning to spin
The second day involved more tree felling and pole-sawing off lower branches of some of the standing pines. It was very satisfying to see what a difference four people could make in such a short time.  At my second attempt at tea making, all went well until I put out the fire by spilling water on it as I lifted the kettle.  Half marks awarded :  tea to drink but no top ups again.

The third day began with a sausage making session using home grown pork. It was really good, especially learning how to tie a string of sausages and is something we'd like to do at home now.

First skein of wool
While I taught Gabrielle how to spin, Stuart and Andrew started building a bridge for another woodland ditch.  Andrew’s just retired from working as a carpenter/joiner, so Stuart was happy to defer to Andrew, scavenging for suitable old timbers while Andrew designed it.
Bridge building

Saturday was our day off.  We drove to the coast to get our fix of the sea and then on to Dinan where we looked at the arty shops. Having felt that we'd "eaten out" every night with Gabrielle's great meals we had a simple supper of bread, cheese, sausage and fish soup eaten in front of the wood stove.

Sunday was our last day working and we were back in the wood.  Stuart and Andrew installed the bridge and added the handrail, a small oak Stuart had felled for the purpose, Andrew then stripping the bark with a draw-knife and carving a snake's head at one end.  Gabrielle and I cleared brush and stacked logs. Tea making time arrived : failure again leaving the cork in the spout 9risking an explosion!) and needing help to stop the fire going out.  
Andrew using draw knife

Afternoon teatime would be my last chance at conquering the Kelly Kettle.  I used extra dry kindling, so the fire took well, the water boiled, not a drop was spilt and we all had full mugs of tea and top ups too, hurray !

Oak handrail

It was at this point that Gabrielle came over the bridge and presented me with a certificate and my tea maker's badge !
Andrew and I enjoyed our week immensely.  Gabrielle and Stuart are excellent hosts, hard working and full of fun with a great deal of knowledge.

Proud girl guide!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The difficulties of photographing animals.

I have a secret yearning to be a famous wildlife photographer.  Actually, that’s not true at all, when I consider what’s behind those award winning shots: the before dawn starts, the endless hours stuck in a cramped hide, the repeated frustrations when the beast either doesn’t turn up, doesn’t behave as meant to or just turns his back and walks off away from camera.  I am hampered by a pathological lack of patience (poor Gabrielle) a lack of seriously long lenses and other expensive equipment and the stubborn refusal of wild animals to cooperate.

Let’s take, for example, the sweet little Jenny Wren.  This tiny bird possesses an enormous voice (which is what caught my attention) so perhaps I’d have been better off with a tape recorder instead of a camera.  Belt hung compact camera to the ready, zoom to 300mm equivalent, elbow steadied on oak post and click.  Spot the bird (hint: it's in the centre).

A better idea: we have a couple of peanut feeders outside our window and occasionally, despite some flappy bunting Gabrielle hung, we get one poor dear crash into the glass.  It usually takes them a couple of minutes to stop seeing stars before they gather themselves and fly off ... just enough time for me to get my camera out.  Telephoto lens?  No, I got right up close to the obligingly concussed subject and used the macro setting, waited for it to open its eyes and click.  By the way, it did fly away happily ever after.

And lastly, we’re proud to announce the first of 2011’s lambs and … it’s a boy!  Photogenic he may be, but it’s difficult to get the detail out of the shadow with a black sheep.  I twiddled around with the settings in iPhoto but then couldn’t resist making the grass greener and softening the edges! 
Award-winning photographer?  I think I’ll stick to the day job!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Learning to spin wool

It is not enough to say that hand-spinning is one of the industries to be revived. It is necessary to insist that it is the central industry that must engage our attention if we are to re-establish the village home.”  
Gandhi Young India 1926

I’d like to dedicate this blog to our friend Val who is enduring some pretty nasty treatment for breast cancer at the moment.  We’ve finally got around to spinning some wool and it’s on an Ashford wheel that Val kindly gave us a while ago.

We liked the idea of spinning our own wool but we didn’t know how and, being busy people, we’d only flirted with trying to find someone locally to teach us.  Serendipitously, one of our latest volunteers is a competent spinner and turned up well equipped to teach Gabrielle, with her two wheels, along with a lazy Kate and a niddy noddy.  
Sue teaching Gabrielle how to spin
We started the morning making sausages, then Andrew and I went off to our woodland to construct a bridge out of reclaimed timber (see next blog) leaving Sue to teach Gabrielle how to spin.   

While pedalling gently, carded wool is teased into a hole and magically twisted into a thread, which is wound onto a bobbin.  With two bobbins full and mounted on the lazy Kate, the spinning wheel is turned in the opposite direction to ply the two threads together, the wool being wound onto a third bobbin.  The wool is then taken off the bobbin and wound onto the niddy noddy giving a lovely skein of wool. 

Until I emigrated to France, just 6 ½ years ago, I was a townie, 
Gabrielle learns to spin
a city dweller, un citadin.  Woolly jumpers (more likely a polar fleece) and cuts of meat were something I went to the shops to buy.  Now, we home rear practically all the meat we eat but, apart from a very rustic Russian-style hat that Gabrielle made me out of felt and rabbit skins, we still buy clothes.  Can I now report to you that, in searching for independence and self-sufficiency along Swadedeshi lines, we’ve taken up our charkha and are going to start spinning our own clothes ?

Fashion fan Christina
Uh … No !  At least not anytime soon but Gabrielle is now inspired to carry on learning.  Which is just as well for her daughter, who, might now have a vested (woolly vest?) interest in Gabrielle producing homespun woollen clothing.  Christina, who admits to being a “fast fashion addict”, recently watched a (UK) television programme, Channel 4 Dispatches: Fashion’s Dirty Secret, and was horrified to see that sweat shops are alive and kicking and right under her nose in London’s east end.  She’s written a very frank and self-aware blog wherein, realising her complicity as customer, has decided to pledge to “not buy any fast-fashion, or non-ethical clothing for a year.”  

She’s set herself these rules:
·      I must not buy ANYTHING that is not second hand or ethically made (so I don't have to give up shopping all together)
·      I will research and investigate ethical fashion brands and alternatives to the high street.
·      I will not accept the normal 'we are working towards better conditions' excuses from big brands when it comes to sweatshops.  If there is any doubt that anything is made those conditions I will not go anywhere near it.
·      I am allowed to keep and wear all of the high street clothes I have amassed up until this point (obviously!)

Niddy-noddied into a passable skein of wool

She’ll will be posting regular updates of her “struggle” as well as profiling ethical brands and ideas on her blog.  I’m sure that Gandhi would approve of Gabrielle’s and Christina’s efforts.