Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Days are Getting Longer

I love it when the evenings start to draw out: more daylight for busy smallholders. The 21st didn’t herald the end of the world (apparently never actually predicted by the Mayans ) but it was the winter solstice and, just 5 days later, I honestly do feel the evenings are slightly longer. It wasn’t the light that forced me in to the comfort of a warm wood stove and a cuppa this evening but that it’s blowing a hoolie outside. Appropriate, perhaps, as I was in our nascent forest garden preparing to plant a windbreak … but it was too windy!
For Christmas, I’ve bought Gabrielle a taster day at a horse driving school and as an extra surprise, I asked friend and local farmer Laurent, if he would take us out for a ride round the fields in an open carriage drawn by his lovely 3 year old filly called “Alouette”, a big, beautiful Breton cheval de trait.

“Another century”, Laurent shouted, as he drove Gabrielle, her daughter Christina and fiancé Bob past camera-holding me, so I’ve tinkered with the photo to give it a feel of days gone by. Not as convenient or efficient as our ageing Peugeot but what a delicious way of getting about.
As it’s the season for crap cracker jokes and inspired by being pulled around a field by a horse, here’s one of my favourite funnies:

the horse's arse
The Queen is riding in a horse drawn carriage, accompanied the King of Tonga. One of the horses farts loudly. Somewhat embarrassed, the Queen thought she should say something, so she turns towards the King of Tonga and says, “I’m terribly sorry,” to which the King replies, “You should not have worried, your majesty, I thought it was the horse”.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Projectile vomiting

It is deeply impressive how far a small child can project vomit: the length of our stairs, splattering walls and balusters. Having given up blogging, then restarted, I haven’t done much since, despite many newsworthy events but details of yesterday evening’s disagreeable disgorgement need sharing.

Gabrielle has one daughter, Christina, who turns 26 next Wednesday. I don’t have children but think I understand the basic concept: they’re like grown-ups, just smaller and slightly less developed. Less developed, for example in that, feeling bile rising , young children are less inclined to raise a hand to their mouth and remove themselves rapidly to a bathroom; spontaneous expression is more their game.

We thought we’d give our friends Mélanie and Bruno some precious time off running up to Christmas, and take their delightful children out for the afternoon. The plan was to have a look at the lights and decorations around town, help them buy presents for their parents and have afternoon ‘tea’ (goûter). 

We walked around cold streets, went into warm shops, drank hot chocolate and ate sticky cakes. We mixed that all together on a merry-go-round, drove them home, excited but tired and sat them in front of our warm wood stove.

Dad came to take them home, elevated Jeanne onto the crook of his arm, giving her extra potential for parabolic projection and then, with absolutely no warning … bluuaaaagh ! I feel that it just added to the afternoon a realistic authenticity to the pleasure of having children.

Other-news-wise, we’ve had gold-star* volunteer Andrew here and, with his help, the new gite now has stairs, front door and window in and the building site is now closed until after the festivities. During these works, I had a nasty encounter with an angle grinder, which involved a dash to casualty and a visit to theatre, with my arm anaesthetised, for a deep clean and stitch-up. The latest of our pigs have gone to slaughter and we’ve made and ‘canned’ pâté for the first time as another way of storing meat outside of the freezer. Details of these and other happenings very soon.

(* To qualify as a ‘gold-star’ volunteer, you should work as hard as a Roman galley slave flogged with freshly-picked nettles, smiling throughout and keep coming back for more. Click for details of volunteering opportunities.)  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Three little eco-piggies and their straw bale house

The blog is dead; long live the blog. After trying to sound the Last Post on my last post, I received several comments (thank you) saying they were sorry to see it go. We received a couple of bookings for our holiday cottage, the people mentioning that they’d been reading the blog, people liking Gabrielle’s new Facebook page for the gite also mentioned the blog and Dave, an old friend from Brighton, who knows a thing about business and writing took me to task and told me I must keep blogging. So, here we are, risen from the still-warm ashes is the new blog … broadly based on the old blog.

getting to know each other
Sunday morning and I got up to feed the cats, set a fire in the stove, make a pot of tea (taking a cup to Gabrielle, of course) and then switch on the telly for a repeat of last night’s Match of the Day. Once the Arsenal game was over, and still in my pyjamas, I put my wellies on to go and feed six hungry pigs. 

We are in the habit of just having two or three pigs at a time, so why six? Local pig farmer Laurent won a local prize for the best farm this year and so ran an open day. Their pigs are housed inside and effectively hermetically sealed from the outside world and its germs (hence he never needs to administer antibiotics). Everyone who enters the building has to take a shower and change their clothes. For the open day, he put an old sow and four of her piglets in an enclosure for the visitors to see. He couldn’t return these pigs to the barn, in case they carried with them some problematic microbes, so decided that we would look after them.

piglet buries himself in warm straw
As I helped out on the open day, once people realised that I was English, they easily deduced that I was “l’anglais qui va prendre en soin les porcelets”. This didn’t quite make sense to me but I kept hearing it from different people. At last, with all the preparations made and the first few hundred people through the gates, Laurent took me to see the indoor pigs outdoors. He put his arm round my shoulder and said, “Stuart, I’ve got a favour to ask you…” Aha, so that’s what everyone was talking about.

The piglets, four castrated boys, came to us at 8 weeks old (the barn-raised pigs are normally weaned at 3 weeks) when they would be robust enough to cope with life in the open air. We then had the conundrum of how to manage them alongside our existing pair, two Tamworth x Berkshire gilts (= young female). How would they get along with their big sisters? Could we manage to feed them, ensuring that the bigger, old breed (hence put more fat on) pigs ate just their ration and the youngsters got theirs? We couldn’t find any advice in any of our books and toyed with the idea of separating them with an electric fence.

just big enough for the tiddlers to enter to eat
In the end, we built a new pig house, put the youngsters in the original pig ark, which is surrounded by pallets, so we could keep them separate as they got to know each other. Within a day, they were all together but, with a hole too small for the girls, only the tiddlers could get into the pen, so we fed them inside and the gilts outside. We’re still doing that now and it works fine. As soon as they were able to choose, the boys decided to doss down in the new pig shelter with the gilts but amusingly had the habit of taking their afternoon siesta in the pig ark.
And the new shelter? We didn’t have money to spend on a shelter to house six pigs that would never get used again, so constructed (with help from my visiting mum) a more-than-adequate structure out of pallets, straw bales and some reclaimed sheets of insulation. Now wasn’t there some sort of parable warning of the perils of pigs building their house out of straw? Not having wolves in this part of France, there is no risk of lupine huffing-and-puffing and so the pigs are as safe as houses in their straw-bale eco-home.

"I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in!"

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Behind closed doors

So that birds, bees and even sheep, have babies, mummy and daddy have a special cuddle. Thankfully, this is usually done out of sight and so that, when trying to forecast a flocks fecundity, a raddle harness with coloured crayon is attached to the ram. When daddy and mummy sheep emerge from their 'bedroom', we can see if he’s been about his business because she will have a coloured mark on her back.

After he’s had an opportunity to service all the mummy sheep, the colour is changed. No more colours should mean that she’s pregnant and doesn’t appreciate further attention. If not, then she should receive another coloured mark. This continues through several colour changes until we surmise that all the ewes are served.

On the scale we do things on our three-acre permaculture smallholding, this is a set of equipment and a sophistication we don’t have. However, as you can see, he wastes no time: within less than a minute of being (re) introduced to his harem this autumn, he turns on the charm. No need for a raddle harness to indicate his enthusiasm. In five years, he’s never missed one.

We’ve put the ram to the ewes slightly later this year. Ewes have a gestation of around 147 days and I referred to a table in Tim Tyne’s book, TheSheep Book for Smallholders, so we can start to expect lambs from March onwards.

A new livestock disease—Schmallenberg virus—that affects cattle, sheep and goats, has come to town. The disease first appeared in cattle in the Netherlands and Germany in August 2011. Our vet, Hammadi, told me that he’s seen evidence of the disease locally. Although adult animals recover after several days, the virus has also been associated with reports of miscarriages and stillbirths associated with congenital abnormalities. 
One of our sheep gurus, Renée has suggested a couple of tactics: leave tupping (the ram going about his duties) later in the year, when the colder weather has reduced the flying insect population and avoid putting this year’s female lambs to the ram. The aim is to avoid ewes being infected around the moment of conception or to give time for the ewes to get bitten by infected insects so that they build up immunity before they get pregnant. This is the latest we’ve put the ram in, so we shall see what that gives in terms of lambing dates and their health next spring.

In print again: 

I’ve written a two part feature on “The Permaculture Smallholding” for Country Smallholding Magazine. The first part is in the current (November) edition, available in your newsagents now, with the second part in the December edition available from October 26th. (They publish a Christmas edition, 13 editions in year, hence the early publication date.)

This blog:
I started blogging to keep me sane. We had so much to do when we began that I felt like Sisyphus, rolling a stone up a hill, only to have to do it all again … and again … I set myself unreasonable daily targets which I inevitably failed to achieve and so was expending all my energy without seeing much progress. As soon as I started recording what we got up to on the blog, it rebalanced things as the sore bones at the end of each day related to an online record of a load of achievements, plain for me to see.

Titled as a “permaculture blog”, it became successful, Google-wise, and I thought of trying to record stuff that would benefit other permaculturalists. There’s a lot of blogs out there that better serve this purpose. Without any specific intent, it evolved once more into a tale of our daily lives in support of our holiday cottage business. The blog has also developed (through practice) my writing skills and I’ve had many articles published. 

I’ve recently looked at the ‘hits’ on the blog and the majority are people searching for images so I’m now wondering to whom and to what end I’m blogging. Am I just hollering into the void? Gabrielle has set up a Facebook page for our gite and we think that this is the best medium to promote our holiday cottage and I can contribute blog-style content to it. All of this is to say that I’m going to stop publishing here but please do visit us on Facebook and our gîte website. Even better, come and visit us in person: rent the gîte, or offer to volunteer.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Trash bugs – a minute walking dustbin

My mum’s been to visit and we went for a walk together in our woods yesterday. We were identifying different trees and I handed Mum leaves from an ash, hornbeam, sweet chestnut and hazel. When we came out into the sunshine, she had a closer look and saw a scrap of dust … that moved.

Not having a magnifying glass to hand, I took a photo on the macro setting for later analysis—not easy as it kept moving. Downloaded and blown up, we were still none the wiser. We knew it was a living thing as it moved and was too small to contain batteries. Someone or something had taken a tiny little bug, spread glue all over, then emptied the contents of a miniature dustbin on top of it.

We couldn’t find it by flicking through our identification books, nor by following the keys, so tried the Internet. But what terms should I try? “Insect covered by detritus”, then “debris” and then I found it. Sometimes referred to on American sites as a “trash bug” it seems that it is a lacewing larva.

Having identified the bug and now wanting to furnish as many useful facts about the lacewing, I turn to Bugs Britannica  (by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey) and am horrified to find that the “lacewing larvae lack a functioning anus”. Whether you believe in God or evolution or both, you have to admit this is a serious oversight. Open-mouthed in astonishment, I read on, “so they store up their body waste until the moment when, after changing skin one last time, the void it all in one go. Apparently, some lacewings can be identified by the shape of this single enormous dropping.”

They are sometimes known as ‘stink-flies”, as they use this disability in aggressive fashion, excreting if handled. If your now seriously doubting this stinking-trash-bug has any endearing features, I will immediately disabuse you of that notion by saying that a single lacewing larva could consume between 1000 to 10,000 aphids during its “lifetime” before it metamorphoses.

Reckoning that one lacewing mummy and daddy might produce 300 eggs, that’s a lot of aphids that won’t be bothering your broad beans; "you do the math", as an American gardener might say.

Here’s a few of the websites that were helpful:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Milky mysteries and creamy conundrums

French milk, Ukrainian technology

Milk used to appear on the doorstep. A square wire basket with a moveable arrow lived outside the front door and, as if by magic, each day when we woke up, four silver-topped milk bottles sat waiting. Unlike Father Christmas, the milkman really does exist. The more modern habit is, of course, to buy your milk at the supermarket.

The other end of this tube is connected to a cow
This has felt increasingly strange to us as we can see cows from our house and there are four dairy farmers in our small village. A couple of times a week, a huge tanker arrives to take the milk away to a processing place (I don’t know where) then it’s bottled up and transported again to supermarkets, where we drive to buy our milk, cream, yoghurt and butter.

The recent row between farmers and supermarkets in the UK made us think about this again and a video on Karl O’Melay’s homesteading blog  provided the answer. We ordered a cream separator from Katya in the Ukraine now all we needed was a steady supply of milk, so I cycled off see Hubert, who has a dairy herd of around 40 Holsteins.

We agreed a price and, once a week I visit him during evening milking and fill up two 5 litre containers with unpasteurised milk, fresh and warm from the cow. Meanwhile, Gabrielle has assembled the cream separator and run some warm water through to bring the internal mechanism up to temperature. About ten minutes cranking gives us 600ml of cream and 9.4 litres of semi-skimmed milk. The downside is having to clean all the components of the separator afterwards.

Hubert’s family have been drinking unpasteurised milk for years without problems. The flock and the milk are monitored by the authorities and the coop he sells the milk to, so we feel there is minimal health risk; in fact we wonder whether it might actually be more healthy containing beneficial bacteria, enzymes and vitamins that pasteurisation would otherwise remove. It even seems to taste better, in our opinion. The entry in Wikipedia shows both sides of the argument, and is worth a read.” 

Our next project is to give the butter churning attachment a go and Gabrielle has yoghurt making on the list as well. If you want to have milk delivered to your UK door, this site might help. And, if you’re reading this in France and wonder whether they have “un homme du laitread this article (in French) of a French milk producer who’s looked across the channel for inspiration and decided to try delivering their milk “à la façon du « milkman » anglais”.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Shearing Sheep

Weather to shear. The whether-or-not depended on the weather and as we’d ‘enjoyed’ le temps pourri (rotten weather) since some super days back in March, I thought the sheep would be glad to hold onto their outdoor coats. Their summer-wear, like our own, was left safely in a suitcase in the attic.

I have to admit an ongoing apprehension as shearing approaches. I have got a British Wool Marketing Board blue certificate (three sheared correctly under the examiners eyes in half-an-hour) but our pint-size local breed Ouessants seem too small for the Bowen-method moves. 

My knee is about six inches too high to clamp the brisket effectively as I waltz around a beast that is not domestically docile like the north country mules I trained on but rustically wriggly. (By the way, if you’re reading this with good experience with undersize sheep and some demon tips to pass on, please post a comment.)
haircut, followed by nails

The other aspect of my apprehension is the risk of cutting the sheep. One must avoid the temptation to push wool away, which can tent the skin leaving it vulnerable to the next ‘blow’ of the shears but rather pull the skin towards oneself, so flattening it out. The odd graze, like the shaving cuts my Dad used to cover with a tiny square of tissue, is OK but a few years ago, I did cause a little wound in the soft skin under the ‘armpit’ of one young chap that necessitated taking him down the vet’s for a couple of stitches, not great for my self-confidence. As I only do around a dozen a year, I haven’t built up a high level of confidence through familiarity.

I’m better once I get started but the bad weather played to my procrastination. I’ve checked my notes and I sheared in May (2009) then early June (2010) then mid to late June last year and this year is was mid July when la météo confidently announced a string of hot days coming up. The later dates weren’t about my reluctance but more an experimentation to try and find the optimum time to shear.

Received wisdom is that the strands of wool get a break point in them at a certain time of year and that hot weather makes the sheep produce more lanolin which also helps shearing. I have noticed that some of our sheep are easier to shear than others. Last year, my very last one, when logically I’d be at my most tired and the clipper combs and cutters at their bluntest fell off it as if I’d suddenly turned into an Australian champion shearer.

There’s another issue, which is that of flystrike, where a (certain type of fly) lays it’s eggs on a sheep, whose maggots then start burrowing into the poor beast. Animals are particularly at risk between April and October when the weather is warmer  but recently shorn sheep are seldom struck which is therefore another reason to shear as soon as one can when it gets hot.

ready-felted rug
Habitually, I’ve borrowed some Heiniger electrical clippers off a neighbour but wanted to have our own and I bought a Zipper from Horner Shearing. It still has the motor in the grip, like the similar models from Heiniger and Lister, but it is slimmer in the hand, giving more control and it shears like a dream. Bearing in mind it’s only rubbing a cutter over a comb, I don’t understand why it is so good but it’s a bargain at the price and I can’t recommend it enough. Confidence in one’s tools helps a great deal.

a cat sat on the mat
In all the waiting the sheep, some more than others, had begun to shed wool and were looking quite clean around the belly and neck. I had high hopes that these would be the easiest to shear but it turned out that the two ewes who’d shed the most had managed to felt the wool themselves and, after a bit of a fiddle, it came off like a rug. Nothing to do but throw it down somewhere and after no more than five minutes, the cat sat on the mat. 

All done in a day and not a single nick, I think I might just be getting the hang of this.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Back in 2008, our talented, artistic friend, Alastair , painted us a man sharpening his scythe of one side of our house. We live in an agricultural barn, converted into a dwelling by the previous owner. It seems that, having got round three sides of the building, he ran out of money for weatherboarding, and the fourth side is sheeted out in OSB. This wall is under cover, so is the least obvious, but we were happy for the opportunity to smarten it up with Alastair’s help.

We don’t have deep enough pockets to be buyers of original fine art, so it was serendipitous to find an artist long on talent and short on heating wood: we swapped split and seasoned logs from our woodland ready for the woodstove and cooking range of Alastair and Caroline. So pleased were all parties with this elegant swap, that we reconvened the following winter and the farmer got a wife … and we had a problem!

I’m an enthusiastic, perhaps even evangelistic, user and assiduous sharpener of an Austrian scythe on a wooden snath (handle) so it was not unreasonable that people reacted, “that’s Stuart” and thus logical that they would infer the woman was Gabrielle. The problem arose because the painted scythesman was a handsome chap but the woman, how can I put this? she had a face like a slapped arse. 

Perhaps she’d got out the wrong side of bed but who really knows why she looked so grumpy … and old … and she was plucking a chicken with artistically real drips of blood. We said thank you but Gabrielle was never sure and the more she heard “that’s Stuart and this must be you” we knew we had to ply Al with more firewood and replace the lady.

A coat of white undercoat magicked away the miseryguts and a few deft strokes of acrylic and we had an attractive young woman demurely harvesting something (not sure what, exactly but no drips of blood). Gabrielle is happy!

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. I’ve been occupied with smallholding duties and article writing deadlines. As if we didn’t have enough to do, we were visited recently by one of Gabrielle’s girlfriends from our old town of Brighton. A CEO in the voluntary sector, Jo had some advice for our holiday cottage for rent  business: never mind the blog, we should be Tweeting and Facebooking.

I’m yet to be convinced of Twitter but Gabrielle has embraced Facebook and you can find us here

Monday, July 30, 2012

Making a very large hole in a wall

borrowed tractor to remove spoil
Necessarily slow, the barn renovation continues.  This is building à la ancienne, like they used to when these buildings were originally constructed and I’m often having to teach myself how to do what I’m doing, turning to historical reference books and the Internet to help.  That plus generally working alone and smallholding duties getting in the way, you can see why this project lacks any hint of vitesse.

going ...
Having hacked away at the old oak beams that used to hold up the upper floor, discovering good heartwood that got planed into shape at friend Jim’s workshop I was ready to fabricate a new door opening.

going ...
I now needed a big hole.  Chopping into a massive cob (earth) wall is satisfyingly easy (especially with a super Milwaukee medium breaker but I rather wanted the tons of earth that comprise the upper wall to stay where they are as I cut away the wall beneath.  Neighbour Serge, talented builder by trade, came round to advise me on how I could support everything using beams and Acrow props and reinforcing an upstairs opening.  So far, everything is staying where it should!

gone !
Because the entire double carré en bois would be too heavy to manoeuvre, I assembled the inner and outer frame, then, with Jim’s help again, carried these into position and joined them together with traverses.  Knocking tenons into mortices with a rubber mallet is very satisfying, even more so, knocking oak pegs into holes, locking it together.  
Friend and professional carpenter Henri had made the tapered pegs and I drilled a tapered hole (16mm, changing to a 14mm bit halfway through).  Each peg is smeared with grease (I used Vaseline) and then knocked in with a wooden mallet.  I’ve cut them off with about an inch spare and when the wall is once more complete and the door hung, I’ll give all the pegs another tap and then cut them off much closer.

A very useful resource if you're doing similar renovations on old Breton properties is the association Tiez Breiz

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Things that go ‘screech’ in the night

Zied swung by our permaculture smallholding the other day to ask us if we could help him identify a type of owl that was living in one of the old outbuildings at his dog kennels.  There was a big pile of old hay upstairs that he considered a fire hazard and wanted to remove but then realised he had something living there.  No soft “twit-twoo”, Zied recounted that his birds let out horrible shrieks, screeches and hisses.

An owl that lives in a barn?  Hmm, there’s a clue there.  I have a book withaccompanying CDs  and played the call of the barn owl (Tyto alba): it sounded suitably screechy.  I couldn’t get hold of Zied, so played the recording to his answerphone.

I got a text late one evening, "if we hadn’t gone to bed, did we want to come up and have a look at the owls".  A couple of minutes later and we were standing outside the gates, equipped with a camera and torch.  While I gently crept up a rickety ladder, Gabrielle stayed outside and so it was she who saw the pair of barn owls fly out of a hole in the wall.  The place was littered with owl pellets and I grabbed a few for later examination.

I have to say that I was disappointed to have missed them but as we went to leave, one of the barn owls appeared front of the headlights and flew for a good 50 yards before perching on a telegraph post.  By the time I’d retrieved my camera from the back seat and wound the window down, the owl had flown off … silently.

Owls have two technical advantages that allow them to creep up (in a flying sort of way) to unsuspecting prey before they run away.  The first is soft or tattered fringes to their main feathers that dampen sound and, secondly, additional velvety down feathers that absorb the remaining noise.  I’ve seen them at falconry displays and they really are silent.
Camille analysing owl pellets

To help me analyse the regurgitated pellets I called on our bright, enthusiastic and confident 10-year-old neighbour, Camille.  I couldn’t get any information from the Ligue pour la Protection d’Oiseaux website, so reverted to the Anglophone Internet and downloaded this free and comprehensive guide from the Royal Society for the Protection of Bird’s website. Our examination began with a few minutes with the dictionary, translating voles and field mice, so that Camille could annotate the English diagram with campagnols and mulots, etc.

Camille and I soaked the owl pellets in a bowl of water and, armed with tweezers and a magnifying glass, we teased them apart.  This pair of owls are efficient hunters: there were at least four rodents per pellet.  The identification key was in the form of a flow diagram and at one moment, we had to pull a tooth and count the number of roots, four telling us that this belonged to a wood mouse, Lat: Apodemus sylvaticus and, in French, a Mulot sylvestre see photo below.
dinner for a barn owl

I did get in contact with the LPO and they have advised Zied to wait until mid-September before removing the pile of old hay and supplied links for instructions onconstructing nest boxes to replace their nesting habitat. 
For info on barn owls in English, have a look at the barn owl trust’s website.

By the way, the etymology of the French name of barn owl–effraie–seems to be that it derives from 'effrayer' (to scare or make afraid) and they have in the past been considered bad omens.  They are now a protected species in France.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Old Queens and virgin queens ...

Our venerable Britannic majesty has just celebrated 60 years on the throne.  Royalty is a subject I’d best avoid when visiting our neighbours, recently retired farmers Paul and Christiane.  Christiane buys magazines like Paris Match and avidly follows news of William and Kate, etc., but, if I happen to call in and sit down for a coffee and Paul catches sight of said magazine, he takes me to task on why ‘we’ still have a royal family.

I’ve tried explaining (from the fence-sitting position of being neither a royalist nor a republican) that they certainly bring in a lot of revenue, etc., but he won’t have it.  I’ve asked whether he’d have us bring back the guillotine, with which they did for their own noblesse: no, he recoils; he just wants them retired off.  We have a Queen with a (albeit symbolic) legal role and a working prime minister and the French have a president and a prime minister.  “Why do they need two persons then?” I counter.  Oh, they do different jobs, he responds, but with a doubt in his voice.  I have him on the ropes and ask why the Germans make do with a chancellor and a president, their president being as symbolic and un-politically involved as our queen.  Why does the British prime minister correspond with the French president but not the German one?  What does the French prime minister do?  I sense victory and we start talking about the safer subject of agriculture.  

We appear to be changing queens.  I’m not sure Elizabeth is about to abdicate; I’m referring to our new colony of bees.  There was a strange to-do a couple of days ago, with a cloud of agitated bees surrounding our hive; I’ve never seen anything like it.  As I called Gabrielle on her mobile to tell her, they all started making their way back into the hive.  She later rang our Brittany bee expert, Richard and we now think that this may have been a ‘re-queening’ with the new virgin queen exiting for an airborne shag-fest before returning to the hive to start laying.

our first swarm
When I popped back for a quick visit at lunchtime the day after, (I was helping dairy farmer Hubert re-roof a barn) I found Gabrielle looking intently at the bees.  “Is this what you saw yesterday?” she said.  Indeed it was but this time they formed into a stable lump suspended in a little silver birch.  Gabrielle phone Richard for advice while I got all our protective clothing and other beekeeping paraphernalia ready.  I then clipped of a few small branches to expose the swarm then, once Gabrielle had a firm grip on the branch, I cut it free and Gabrielle walked calmly towards the hive.  We’d prepared a ramp up to the opening of the hive (a sheet of wooden board covered in a white sheet) and Gabrielle then sharply shook the branch to dislodge the bees who fell with a sort of dry splosh onto the ramp  and immediately started making their way up the board and into the hive.  Phew!  And a great feeling that like the new queen, we were no longer bee ‘virgins’. (see video above)

Richard had told us to try to put them back in the original hive.  If they were re-queening, then this would work but if there were two queens (think Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I ) then they’d swarm again and then we would have to put them into another hive.

cutting down swarm
… and swarm again they did, two days later.  We installed our new mini-hive with just five frames, which Richard calls a nucleus and the French, une ruchette.  (Thanks to Andrew, friend and volunteer, who built this from offcuts of exterior ply only a couple of weeks ago.) Same technique but the bees didn’t seem 100% sure, a lot of them remaining in clusters on the outside and underneath.  Gabrielle phoned Richard and I called Olivier, who lives and keeps bees in an adjoining village.  Both of them are also experiencing bees expressing somewhat unusual behaviour.  Olivier turned up within five minutes in a white van that should have had a blue flashing light on top for added authenticity, I reckon.  While he was there, the bees did seem to go inside, aided by some gentle persuasion from Gabrielle with a soft brush and so we got some white wine from the fridge to boire un coup, the traditional way to say thank you.

queen excluder grill over entrance
Celebrations were perhaps a touch premature and the bees became unsettled again.  Olivier had given us a strip of plastic grill (cut from an old ‘queen excluder) with the advice to put it across the opening for a couple of days, once we were sure that the queen was inside (the key issue); this would prevent her from leaving again and causing another swarm.  Olivier left and the bees did swarm again but this time we let them enter by the top of the ruchette, them filtering down between the frames.  They all went in and Gabrielle filled up their feeder with sugar syrup and then had to rush off for a gig with her violin.  In early evening, with little activity, I attached the grill to the front.  All seems well and we now have two hives of bees.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


Inspired by Tim’s educational Aigronne Valley Wildlife blog, here’s a slice of the wildlife that we share our bit of Brittany with.  First up, a recording made back in March this year of  male and female Tawny owls calling to each other. (Photo of tawny owl by Nigel Blake)

The classic “twit-twoo” is, in fact, an impression of two tawny owls calling to each other.  The female calls “ke-wick” (the ‘twit’) and the male responds
"hoo-hoo-oo-oo-oo".  When you hear "ke-wick hoo-hoo-oooo" you are listening to a pair of tawnys.  Both can be heard in my recording.  (More detail on the calls)

Buying plants for our (then new) wildlife pond, Gabrielle saw plenty of frogs in and around the plant containers.  She joked to the owner, “can I have that one please as it seems as if it comes with a free frog?” Marie Mad laughed and said she was welcome to catch some if she could and gave her a jar.  Gabrielle installed five tadpoles into our nascent watery ecosystem—the pond is the endpoint of our grey water treatment system—and we hoped for the best.

We’d also introduced some roach and were then concerned that they were eating some of the other wildlife, decimating our population of diving beetles and having a go at some of the smaller newts.  We thought of cane toads and Australia; had we done the right thing?

The plant life has since expanded greatly, increasing places for smaller beasts to hide, and the pond seems to be in a healthy equilibrium.  We did see the odd green frog last year and then this year we heard them … and there’s a lot more than five!  Whether these have anything to do with Gabrielle’s five tadpoles or they have made their way to our pond independently, they seem very happy.  This recording (click on 'video' above) was made late one evening, from our bedroom window. 

This isn’t one of our own honeybees (see previous blog) but rather one of the many species of bumblebees.  Looking at its colouring and the hairy back leg, my best guess is that this is a Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee  Bombus rupestris.  Please post a comment if you can confirm this or otherwise tell me what it is.

Last up on this nature trail of a blog is a walk in our woods having prepared ourselves by going through a French book on soil indicator plants (click to download as a pdf) translating the names into English and then went for a stroll to see what we could find.  Gabrielle’s a lot better than I at plant identification but even she found some plants new to her despite the fact that we've walked through these woods many times.  I’d never even heard of the yellow archangel Lamiastrum galeobdolon before but we found one and it suggests a fertile, moist soil that is only lightly acid or neutral in pH.  It is also known as an ancient woodland indicator species.
yellow archangel Lamiastrum galeobdolon