Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Like Ducks to Water

From egg to table ready in ten weeks!  I'd been meaning to post updates on the progress of our ducks but time has flown and they now reside in the freezer.  With a hen as a mother, they had to learn to swim by themselves and they took to it ... well, like a duck to water !

Almost as soon as they could waddle, they would dabble about in their drinking water and we gave them ever larger receptacles to play in.  The video above is of them still in their chicken tractor nursery.

They moved to more spacious accommodation and benefitted from a large fenced area to safely free-range within.  They got the lid of a child's sandpit to swim in.  The delightful commentary in French is supplied by our 9-year-old neighbour, Camille.

The intention never was to let them onto our pond.  We've read too often how ducks generally trash and mess up any pond they're put on but we were keen to see them on a larger expanse of water and couldn't pass by such a photogenic moment.

After about thirty minutes of fun, the ducks would climb out.  We got in the habit of putting them on the pond once a day and, in the end, they would get out and return to their paddock all by themselves, only needing one of us to close the gate the next time we passed by.

We're going to re-evaluate and re-design the duck raising infrastructure for next year.  We need to have a water supply close to their enclosure to allow frequent changing of their bath without having to cart heavy watering cans and buckets about and then use gravity to take the duck-poop-enhanced dirty water to our potager.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Learning to Scythe with Simon Fairlie.

Students mowing an orchard early one Sunday morning
 A few years back, I sold our fully functioning petrol strimmer and with the money bought a pair of ash-handled scythes with razor-sharp Austrian blades.  I don’t think we’ve done too badly since and (sharpening aside) it’s always ready to go and one’s never caught short for lack of fuel, 2-stroke oil or strimmer string.  Like most things, though, there’s only so far book and video learning can take you and so I recently signed up for a scything course hosted by Brighton Permaculture Trust and run by Simon Fairlie, vendor of our scythes.

Tai Chi, with sharp knives!
After the classroom stuff and an interesting history of the scythe, we ventured out onto the closely cropped lawns of Stanmer Park.  The idea wasn’t to cut anything but to practice the moves: think of a Tai Chi group wielding machetes.  Although it wasn’t the aim of this particular exercise, it was satisfying to see tiny green shards displaced by a well executed pass.

We then moved onto an area with grass around six inches high to mow.  There were arboreal obstacles and slopes and, while I wondered whether a flatter, more even surface might have been more inviting for our first efforts, this was a ‘real life’ scenario.  Simon and his two assistants wandered carefully among us, offering advice and honing our blades.

More classroom stuff, including the importance of peening and honing to keep the blade sharp.  Learning how to get the blade to the required sharpness and maintain it is as essential as learning how to scythe properly.  Even with a good technique, scything with a blade that needs sharpening is hard work and puts unnecessary strain on the wooden snath (handle) but if the blade is really sharp, you can cut grass even with a less than perfect stroke.

For the second day, we were invited to start at 7 in the morning and I think even Simon was impressed by how many of us managed to roll out of bed early enough to join him in a community orchard with the dew still on the grass.  In ages past, a team of scythesmen would start work before daybreak.  There is more moisture in the plant and so the stems are stiffer and thus easier to cut with a swing of a scythe.

Once we’d tidied up the orchard, Simon showed us how to make a rack out of a couple of A-frames to dry the cut grass into hay.  He then gave us a very useful talk on managing grassland to feed stock throughout the year, the spring excess saved as hay to feed through the lean months of winter.

red arrows show my nice straight windrows chez nous
Since I came home from that trip ‘abroad’, I’ve taken to a new regime, getting out of bed earlier and doing half-an-hour’s scything before breakfast.  I’m getting better at peening and honing and regular practice is improving my scythe strokes but I’m not sure how long I can keep getting out in the field so early.  The rewards are great as the exercise and deep breathing (out through the mouth on the cut, in through the nose on the return) feels good and seeing the morning sun wash over the oak trees while being serenaded by birdsong is sublime.
Simon explains the different blades

Buy your scythes and accessories from Simon Fairlie’s TheScythe Shop.
Mr Scythe International: Peter Vido 
The Vido family showing us how it should be done

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don’t give up on us, baby …

bouncing bunny

Our rabbit didn’t do too well with her first litter back in March.  Gabrielle had the very unpleasant experience of discovering mum in the process of eating, or at least biting into one of her tiny charges and was forced into rescuing it from maternal fangs and then putting it swiftly out of its misery.  Horrible.  Several died until one day I found the remains of the litter all cold.

We did some research and it appears that ironically, considering their immense capacity to procreate, rabbits can be very poor mothers.  It also seems that a mother rabbit eating her offspring is not fully understood and isn’t linked to babies being handled (a common claim).  The advice seemed to be to forgive her this once, and maybe even a second litter, to see if she’d come good. 

We took her to the buck again, round neighbour Annick’s house and, three weeks later, she presented us with a litter of eleven.  Over the next few days, we lost three and I wondered where we were going this time around but then we started to see signs that the remaining baby bunnies were putting on weight.  Except one.

Once they had fur and were big enough to scamper round the nest box, we noticed one little scrap was half the size and had his head held to one side and an eye closed.  He didn’t seem at all stable when moving around.  Then, one morning when I went out to feed mum, I found him outside in the run, soaking wet (it had rained overnight) cold to the touch and barely breathing.

When keeping animals, one sometimes has to intervene, as Gabrielle had done above, and perhaps it would have been kind to put this rabbity runt out of his misery.  What I did was pick him up and race back to the house, where Gabrielle took him into the bathroom and warmed him up gently with the fan heater but he refused her attempts to feed him.  Once he was warm and dry, we tucked him up with the rest of the litter.  There was little else we could do and I was convinced that I’d find him dead the following day.

He has remained very much alive!  We treated his eye with drops and he has grown a lot, almost catching up with the others.  Unfortunately for my reportage, in moments of stress, I tend towards an ambulance man rather than a Don McCullin  so I don’t have photos of the rescue from hypothermia but you can see how well he looks now in the photo above.

Part 2 – The Tree Returns from the Dead

first shoots of recovery
Back in March, with the tree layer of our forest garden  finally planned, we had to move a couple of trees  including one sweet chestnut (variety: Marron de Redon).  A bit late to be mucking tree roots about and getting a bit to big to move anyway, we would need to keep its roots well watered.  We had not a drop of rain in April.  After a fortnight of parsimonious precipitation, we had another thirty days sans une goutte de pluie

I managed to keep it, the other newly planted trees and the sixty five hedging plants going with too many trips carrying heavy watering cans.  When all seemed to be ticking over nicely, I turned my attention to other things and I found one day that all the leaves had dried up, turned brown and were just about to fall off.  I told Gabrielle and tried to be philosophical but it was still very disappointing.  I gave it a real soak and left it, not really thinking that there was any way back.

The tree wasn’t dead but had gone into self-preservation mode.  Large leaves like those of the sweet chestnut transpire a lot of water and as the roots weren’t taking any up, the plant shut down.  With a big boost of water, it’s woken up again and is enthusiastically chucking out new, bright green leaves.  I won’t let it down again and will keep a close eye on its progress as I’m not sure I’d get a second chance.
a second spring for this chestnut