Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sheep for Milk?

I have been wondering about getting some sheep for milk production. Yes we have a farm within walking distance where we can get fresh cows' milk but it's not organic (nor is it sustainable). We could get a cow ourselves though apparently the paperwork involved in France is horrendous for cattle - just one or a thousand, same amount of paperwork. Plus we'd probably be swamped with milk. Then there's the goats but at the moment that's a disaster and their milk is naturally homogenised (the fat is naturally distrubuted through the milk, unlike most cows' milk these days that has been UNnaturally homogenised for commercial reasons) so making butter is nigh on impossible. Sheep however have milk that is very high in fat content and therefore is very good for making butter, cheese and ice-cream.

I'm researching. I quite like these Zwartbles, nice compliments to our little Ouessants.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


Well we have had blizzard conditions since 10am this morning (it's now past 2pm) and the snow is indeed quite deep. I have just been out to do 'house check' on the animals and first call was the goats. And there was poor Granny standing in a very 'bright' house - bright because part of the roof has blown off! Fortunately I think it had happened fairly recently because there wasn't much snow on the blown off panel. The other 3 goats had obviously been spooked because they had moved over to their new-under-construction house despite it still being a bit airy around the walls as the pallet gaps haven't yet been filled in. Ben has now gone out in the blizzard to re-roof and I'm in cosy next to the fire doing 'home education' with the boys - we're learning about armadillos of all things.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Great Gates

We are so very grateful (or is that 'gateful'?) to Jack, Jason and Korey, 3 of our WWOOFers who designed and made this gate for us. It has radically altered how we use our land as before the gate, we didn't use this long field on the east of our house because it was a long way round to get to it through two other fields. Now however, we have been able to relocate the goats into this field, site their house just to the left of it and have easy access. It is just SO much more convenient. Thank you guys.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Trees- What's in a Name?

We have a fair few trees on this property (sadly not as many as I'd like but we're working to rectify that). However, I have to confess that it's a steep learning curve for me to learn to identify them all and their uses. For instance, here are two Birch trees. They're obviously two differing species but up until now they have both just been 'birch' to me.

I have been aided by my trusty arborists bible "Trees" and this fantastic website

And then there's another useful piece of information on the following website that gives lots of common trees and their names in english, french, german, dutch and its botanical latin name.
This has proved very useful to me in sourcing more trees and in gaining the help of my farming neighbour when I need to know more about them.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Meat Processing Factory

Thank goodness. I have finally finished processing all the pork that needed processing. Some is in the freezer and that's fine. Some is in the brine and that's fine. But the pate needed to be mixed and cooked and that took ages because I only have 6 pate dishes and I had about 5kgs to cook. I had to cook some, weight it down, let it cool and set, freeze it, de-container it, freeze it and then start again with the next 6 pots. I'll need to get sharper eyes at the brocantes to find some more pots before the next lot needs done.

It was necessary to sort out the flair fat (the hard fat for making lard) and the soft fat before rendering. The photographs show the sorted fat before and after rendering in the oven. Note the difference in colour of the fat once rendered - the finer fat (the flair fat) is much lighter in colour. Post script - next time I won't render it in the oven as it took on a golden colour and tasted 'roasted' not neutral as it should.

I mentioned that some of the sausage mix was being left for me to add some more ingredients which I did. However, when it came to making the actual sausages, the gismo that I have for making them was untried and pathetic to say the least so the finished article was disasterous. So disasterous that I squeezed the mixture back out of the skins and put it in the freezer until I can get a proper machine, albeit a hand-cranked one so as to be sustainable. We did however have sausages for tea and the photograph shows the first meal we had from our very own grown pork (and our own potatoes!)

The rillettes was a tasty success but it took 6 hours to cook down the meat, 2 hours of both Ben and I lovingly sifting the mixture through our fingers to ensure no bone fragments nor 'undesirable' bits went into the finished product, then a further hour to sterilise the 19 filled jars for storage. Here you can see the pate and the rillettes as finished product (plus jars of my own chutney)

And the photo not for the faint-hearted, is the process of making the Fromage de Tete. A surprising amount of good meat comes off the head but the trotters were another matter. A teaspoon of meat from each! I think their main purpose is to add gelatine for the setting of the brawn. I found lots of recipes for cooking trotters though how anyone would want to eat just chunks of fat off the bone I'll never know - not my thing for sure.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

No Plough Grain Sowing

For those of you that have been following this blog, you'll know that I agonised for ages as to whether or not to plough more land for cropping this year (see this post). I decided not to.

On 29th October, Jason, Korey and I found ourselves suitable bags and got ready to load up with seed. Jason got accosted by children before going out and had to carry S around for a while. We over-sowed by hand almost an acre of meadow with wheat grain. It was a fun job that took us about 2 hours on a pleasant Friday morning. We all laughed as we were doing it and wondered if we were mad but now I'm happy to report that the grains are coming up strong though perhaps a little patchy. I hope that they have got their roots down into the ground as we are due some frost by the weekend. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Winter Sunshine

I just love winter sunshine. It gladens the heart after long, dreary, cloudy and rainy days - not that we have so many of these now that we live here rather than Scotland. It floods into the house because it's at a lower level in the sky and reaches every nook and cranny. But that there is also the downside. It shows up all the dust, fingermarks, grub on the floor, dirty windows and suchlike so that I feel quite embarrased. I have therefore today cleaned all the windows, scrubbed the floor, and cleaned off all the fingermarks from the cupboards. Most of the spiders' webs were allowed to stay as without them they don't survive and they're good fly-catchers. Goodness only knows how long it will stay sparklingly clean with three young lads living here and a farm to run but it looks good now.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Processing a Carcass

Rimmel did indeed get slaughtered and I surprise myself in that it wasn't as traumatic as I'd thought for me. I wasn't involved in the actual killing though Ben said that it was quick (well I know it was because within 15 mins of them going out to the field to lure her down with a lovely breakfast, Ben was running back for the tractor to carry the carcass back for hanging). For his account of that bit see the previous post. It sounds more gruesome to write it all down actually but to be here was different.

When it came to the butchery and processing it was over to me (and Claude our butcher of course). Ben oddly went all squeemish and wouldn't touch anything. Fortunately it was not the bloody process that I thought it would be as the blood had been drained on Monday within seconds of her being shot with a captive bolt stun gun - interestingly the French word for this piece of equipment is un matador. Immediately Claude had made this blood into boudin noir, the French black pudding, by adding some neck meat, onions, salt and pepper. I have to confess that I did not try the boudin noir (though Ben did) but it was a gift very warmly received by all our neighbours who had helped us since our arrival.

At 7am it was time to unwrap the carcass from its shroud and begin butchering. I took a deep breath. Claude began cutting, and my friend Sheena and I weighing, labelling and bagging the meat for the freezer. Claude made some sausages but left some mixture for me to make into the sausages of my choice. He minced the meat for the pate. He boned out hams and cut meat for bacon preparation.

Now we have hams and bacon in a brining solution I'd made last night ready for smoking in the coming weeks, sausages, meat set aside for making rillettes, pate ready for cooking, roasts on the bone and off the bone, tenderloins, chops, spare ribs ready for the BBQ next Spring etc etc. I'm even going to make Fromage de Tete or Brawn as it's known in the UK.

It was a long, cold and arduous morning but we finished by 1.30pm. I say 'finished' but actually there's still a lot of cooking to be done.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Slaughter Day

This blog so far has been written by me, Alison, but as I wasn't involved in most of this morning's activities, here is Ben's account....

I'm not a vegetarian.

Since I could toddle I've been an active and vociferous meat eater. Every Thursday after my cruel and heartless parents forced me to go to Silver Band practice (run by Mr Phillips, a sadistic conductor who would throw his baton at you when you made a mistake) the only thing that would keep me going was the thought of being allowed to go to Burger King afterwards to pick up a takeaway Double Whopper with cheese. However, since running the farm here in France I became aware that perhaps to hold my head high as a meat eater I needed to "man up" and actually get involved with the business end of meat production. Namely the raising and killing of the same animals I'd eaten without a second thought for the past 32-odd years.

Before this week, my "meat experience" was preparing a goose and a chicken for the table. However, in both cases the animals had died naturally. About a year ago we'd bought 2 pigs with a view to one of them being for the table. Pigs are intelligent animals. They were named (Maybelline and Rimmel) . The kids loved them. Like all the other hangers-on we had on the farm I began to think that perhaps they would become pets. However, for some reason, we also bought another 2 pigs and the combined food bill was astronomical. The hard decision had to be made. One of them had to go before winter set in. Of the two pigs, one was friendly (Maybelline) and one was a nasty bully who bit people and other pigs (Rimmel). So, nasty bitey pig was selected to "go".

Now clearly I have no background in dispatching animals, so we contacted a local butcher and discussed with him how, where and when we wanted the deed done. A date was set. We had an uneasy week. It's hard to look a pig in the eye when you know you've signed its death warrant. Alison fretted about every detail. I tried to blank the impending event out of my mind...

As the day dawned (bringing torrential rain) I leapt (well, slouched) into action and began to get everything ready. This meant setting up a big table, and starting 60 litres of water boiling. We'd set up in a bit of the barn as it was the best option. At 7.30am the butcher, his friend and another friend of ours (a local sheep farmer called Sheena) turned up to assist. The pigs had not yet been fed so basically we could lure the intended pig out of the field they lived in, and away from the others, before dispatching her.

At least that was the plan.

Nothing in life is ever simple. Although we managed to get the target pig out of the enclosure, she wanted back in. No amount of tempting her with food seemed to convince her. Perhaps she knew something was up. In the end she was penned in a corner out of sight of the other pigs, but only after slamming me to the ground by accident and narrowly avoiding a nasty "pig-trotter-in-wedding-tackle" incident.

How do you kill a pig? With a compressed air bolt gun to the head. This sounds pretty horrific, but in the scheme of things it's probably the most humane route to take. Smaller animals (like sheep) are often dispatched just by slitting their throat, or bashing them with a mallet which seems worse somehow...

So the gun goes off. It's loud, like a shotgun. Thankfully the pig falls to the floor, unconscious.

The next bit is unpleasant. Basically the pig needs to be bled, quickly. This involves sticking a knife into the pig's neck and catching the resulting fountain of blood in a bucket. That in itself is pretty grim. But once this process starts the body of the pig starts to convulse. It's a natural reaction during death. We lost one of our sheep a month ago to an illness, and as she died in Alison's arms she did the same thing. But a pig is huge. Even with four of us holding the body down it took a considerable effort to keep the pig stationary.

This moment was truly horrible. But at the same time it's the reality I think I needed to see as a meat eater. It's all very well buying a shrink wrapped pork escalope at Tescos, but ultimately something has to die to produce it. I guess I felt guilty, sick, horrified but a strange sort of deep satisfaction as well. Pigs farmed for meat are usually kept in horrific conditions. This pig had lived a decent life, free range, with company and love. She'd gone and hadn't known much about it. It was horrible, sure, but I think I had to go through it. It was sobering.

So, eventually the blood and the convulsions stop. I bring the tractor up to the top field, we load her onto the scoop and move her down to the barn for processing. First, the hair needs to be burned off. This is done with a flamegun and a scraper. In a sense this bit wasn't as horrible as it sounds. With each scrape the pig turns from an animal into a carcass. But it takes ages. When I did the chicken and the goose the plucking bit was by far the longest and in comparison to a pig both are tiny animals. I think it took about an hour or two. Once done the pig was hoisted up and the bit I'd been truly dreading needed to happen.

The evisceration.

There are plenty of things in life I think I'm phobic of. I hate spiders. Wasps. Heights. James Blunt. But the "inny bits" going "outy" of anything is my number one nightmare. It's one of the reasons I won't watch horror films or nature documentaries. It's one of the reasons I decided not to do forensic medicine (the other being I was far too stupid).

But.... I forced myself to watch as the deed was done. It was grim. As was the subsequent decapitation. But once done the remaining bit of pig looked like.... well.... a lump of uncooked meat. As this was our first pig we decided rather than process the tripe we'd recover a few bits and bobs but bury most of it under a fruit tree in the orchard. Other stuff, like the heart, liver and lungs were hung up ready for processing and refrigeration. I was very glad that bit was over, though strangely it was possibly better than when I'd had to rummage around in a chicken de-gutting it manually by hand.

Up until now it had been raining hard. Suddenly things seemed to perk up and the clouds lifted a bit, and we began to prep the ingredients to make boudin noir. This is popular in France. Essentially pig intestine filled with the fresh blood, fat, onion and garlic and boiled for a bit to cook it. Sort of like black pudding, but without oatmeal, and a sloppier consistency. The butcher helped us make this. I tried to disappear during the tasting, but he insisted. Looking at his eager, expectant face I could hardly refuse, and I managed to choke back a few mouthfuls so Gallo-Welsh relations wouldn't be tarnished, but it was pretty horrible. Later that day we delivered it as a petit cadeau to all our favourite neighbours, who were all delighted. Many had been donating scraps and spare fruit and veg to feed the pigs through the year, so it was a fair exchange.

The last task for day one was basically to wrap the pig in a sheet, and drive the tractor under cover for three days to let the meat "hang". This isn't a very popular process in France, but basically it makes the meat less "flabby" and after some discussion with the butcher we convinced him it was something we wanted to do (weird foreigners).

So, that's where the pig remains. And on Thursday, Alison, the butcher and Sheena will all be having an ad-hoc butchery seminar as the carcass is converted into ham, bacon, spare ribs and all the other good stuff. The freezer is prepared and we are waiting to taste it (the meat, not the freezer obviously). So far the chicken we processed tasted horrible (it was crop-bound, which means it died choking on food, but this tainted the meat) and the goose was so-so (it just tasted... strange....), so we're hoping the pork will taste OK.

If not we'll have a chest freezer full of the stuff to give away/sell....

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Goodbye and Thank You

Well, I have been out to the pig pasture and fed the pigs, giving Rimmel her last meal. I said thank you to her, watched as she happily guzzled her food pushing the others off their buckets in case they had something better than her, then she walked off to go and dig in the field. I re-arranged the gate access so that the following morning would be easier and therefore not stressful to her, whispered my goodbyes, and walked away hoping against hope that we had given her a happy life. For tomorrow morning the butcher arrives to help Ben slaughter her and she will provide food for our family for the winter. It was a hard call for me to make to Claude, our new butcher, as we have never willingly killed an animal in its prime before. I cry as I write this.

Her life has been, and will be, honoured by our family. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we are trying to be sustainably responsible omnivores and that means facing up to where one's meat is coming from. We are raising our own pigs because the pork that is readily available in supermarkets and most butchers has been reared like this...

... and this, in our opinion, is cruel and degrading. Rimmel has known nothing but freedom since the day she was born and will end her life tomorrow in the fields where she grew up with her nose in a bucket of delicious breakfast.

Vegans and vegetarians may scoff at the idea that farmers can be, or are, deeply emotional about the animals in their care, and with industrial farming as the reference, I cannot blame them. On a homesteading farm however the contradiction, the paradox, of lovingly killing animals in order to eat them is resolved in the depth of the emotion and care given to their living moments. Care is more than an activity on this farm, it is an ethic - an ethic that permits, and demands, the development of a deep bond between us and an animal that we may kill or have killed to eat. The fact of slaughter does not nullify the ethic of care.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Passing Time

Whenever we harvest fruit I find my mind drifts to this beautiful song and video. Beautiful but sad on so many levels. Not only are we losing those we love but also the knowledge they had and used and lived by. Sometimes I wish we could turn back the clock - I want to ask so many questions, learn so many things....

Deep Litter Beds

In August Ben built our geese a new Goose Hoose because a) the little ones were fast outgrowing the mobile dog's cage that housed them overnight and b) we wanted them all in one house to be easier for us and safer for them. The new Goose Hoose is on the right in the photograph (the old one with its roof off is in the background). It has worked well.

The thing that I am most impressed with is that it now has an earth floor (my choice). The old one had a wooden floor and was very difficult to clean once all the straw had been moved out as their poop is very watery and 'lurked' on the wood. The earth floor just absorbs it and deals with it. We can now run with a deep litter bed system. This is where fresh straw is put on top of the old and the warmth from the old straw decomposing keeps the geese warm. I cleaned it out this week and was pleased to see that the system was functioning well, that the straw was not smelly and horrible, that indeed just a fine strawy/earthy mix was forming. In the photograph taken part-way through cleaning you can see a 25cm deep layer of straw at the back, moving to earth at the front. Not a horrible wet stinking mess like the old house after just a week! This straw buildup represents 3 months of accumulated bedding. As this 'experiment' is working, we will continue with it and our geese will be healthy and warm through the winter, and we will have the bonus of less mucking out to do - truly a permaculture solution.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Curious Creatures

We are always finding lovely curious creatures in our garden and the boys are always right on hand to come and discover them with me. They often come round shouting that they've found something interesting and here they are looking at another 'interesting' thing.

This year has been no exception and our slower pace of non-mechanised farming has allowed us
a small window into the life of a field spider. Here you can see the spider's nest looking like a ping-pong ball sized hot air balloon. The intracacy of design is truly amazing and indeed even humbling. It's like parchment paper in texture, reinforced with extra dark 'strings' towards to opening at the base. There were loads of these little marvels deep in the base of the grasses of the meadows and we only discovered them
because we were scything. Had we been using a tractor or lawn-mower these wonders would have been missed, eradicated by the 'modern marvels of mechanisation'. However, by using a scythe, these nests have not been minced up with rotating blades and will carry the next generation of spiders that will hopefully guard some of our biodiversity.

Then we found this beautiful shiny blue-ish black beetle (?) that was about 2cm long. We have no idea what it is so if anyone can identify it then please do post a comment.

And then we were priviledged to see this butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Once again we don't know what sort of butterfly it is (or maybe even a day-flying moth) but I'm trying to track down a name.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Apple Pressing

Here you can see the heroic efforts of Jason, one of our American WWOOFers, who is squeezing every last darn drop out of the apples that my friend Sheena brought round. The minute she said it was for making cider, he squeezed even harder.

To that end, we took him to the Cider Festival at L'Hermitiere today. It was good fun, not only seeing how they make the cider on a much grander scale than us but also because there were lots of local producers there at a farmers' market type thing. I bought some cold pressed rapeseed oil as they had the hand-cranked machine there converting the seeds right in front of our eyes - very sustainable. Jason of course bought some cider but only after he'd had a few tastings!

There were two lovely Percheron cart horses there with little carts that tripped round the fields mainly for the childrens' benefit. We waited for 20 mins in the queue that had formed in an orderly fashion and got to front. The horses and carts approached, slowed down, we got ready with our excited children and, horror of horrors, all these french families barged past and scrambled onto the carts before we could even catch our breath!! Jason was gobsmacked, I was annoyed but Ben was nonchalant as he said that they always do that - form a queue and then ignore it. He's the one that normally queues with the boys so he should know. He said that you had fight to keep your place so the next time we got our elbows out and barged with the best of them! We enjoyed the ride!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Ivy League

Here we have one of our projects. The boys have planted up two young ivy plants that we found growing in the garden and they are going to train them around frames formed in their initials, R and B. Let's hope they remember to water them!

Friday, 29 October 2010

Another Loss

Last night my favourite little Mummy ewe, Mince, died in my arms. She wasn't very well when I went to feed them in the morning - she was just standing in one spot swaying. I quickly went to visit Francois (my farming friend) and explained the situation. He accompanied me back home and administered an antibiotic and said that we needed to get her under cover quickly. We made a pen for her in the feed barn and put down lots of lovely fresh straw and carried her in. Her feet and legs were very cold so we borrowed a heat lamp from Francois and blocked off all drafts around her pen. She seemed to be making a little recovery and ate some fresh hay but Ben came in at tea-time and said that she wasn't looking so great and was lying down on her side. And sadly she never stood up again but passed away at 11.30pm with pneumonia. I cried all night.

Today, odd though it might sound, I decided that we would shear her wool as I wanted that memory of her. Bless him, Korey one of our WWOOFers volunteered to do that for me whilst Rowan and I went to buy an apple tree to plant in memory of her. We found a lovely apple tree called Arianne as that too reminded us of another lovely WWOOFer, Ariana who was one of our first volunteers. This afternoon, Korey and Jason dug a big hole in the orchard and we buried little Mince. Au revoir my little one.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


Here in France it is not unusual to be stared at. It's a pastime, just part of life. The French can stare for hours and don't feel guilty when caught in the act of staring at you (unlike the Brits who flush profusely and look way past you into the middle distance hoping that you didn't notice them looking at you). At first we thought that they stared at us because we 'looked foreign' though we didn't know why that might be so. Now we know that they just stare at everyone and everything - it's just part of the culture. And hey, maybe they've got it right. Whenever I think of it I'm reminded of this poem and it makes me slow right down....


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

By Wm. Henry Davies.(Wm. Henry Davies (1871-1940) is to be considered as the poet of the tramps. Born at Newport, Wales in the UK, Davies went to America from Great Britain and lived the life of a vagabond. One day, as the result of jumping a train, he lost one of his legs. Davies returned to England where he continued to live the life of a tramp and a pedlar. He wrote poetry (presumably he did right along) and, eventually, he determined to print his own book and did so with the little money he earned panhandling. A copy of this first work, A Soul's Destroyer, came into the hands of George Bernard Shaw; which, in turn, led to the popularization of the poet.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Ecological Hedge Trimmers

On the 13th September we took delivery of four female French Alpine goats with their main remit being to eat some of our out-of-control bramble 'hedges'.

Here is the new goat house that Ben had part constructed, due for completion 'in the field'. Ben reckoned that Little Red Tractor would be the best way to move it out there, I thought not.

In the end it was a combination of both people power and tractor power that got it out to the allocated slot. Our thanks go to Mim, Kiera, Andy and Sarah for loaning their muscles. The goats have been named after them (except we had to do a slight alteration on 'Andy' and the name became Mandy).

The goats arrived in a camper van 'les chevres en vacances' and seemed to quite like their new home - for a week! Then we discovered that they quite liked being next to the pigs for company and that was sort of OK, but then they abandoned their own house and took over the pig house and wouldn't let the pigs in, even when it was pouring with rain. This clearly was not acceptable so they have had to be moved into the big sloping field next to the boys' woodhouse.

A secondary contribution is that maybe next year they will go into kid and we will get a little milk from them. We would of course keep the babies with their mums but realise that this may reduce the amount of milk we get (if any). It is one of the sad, sad sides of dairying that milking mammals (except humans) have to have offspring annually in order to produce milk (almost - some goats have been known to 'milk through' for two years). Those offspring are normally removed at birth in order to get the most milk from the mother. That is an awful sad distressing noise to hear the pair calling for each other all day and all night. Frequently the babies are 'disposed' of. This is one of the reasons that I can't quite come to terms with vegetarianism on the grounds of not wanting animals to die in order for the food to be on the plate - animals are still being killed in order to produce the milk, cheese, eggs etc that form part of a vegetarian diet. I can understand the vegan stance here. Our family however are choosing to be responsibly sustainable omnivores.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Birthday Boy

Yet another WWOOFer is with us and celebrating a birthday. This time it's Jack from the UK and the boys just loved his chocolate cake! It made B's eyes cross with anticipation.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Farming for a Future

We have just said Au Revoir to Thomas, an absolutely brilliant Belgian WWOOFer who worked tirelessly and autonomously despite not having any other WWOOFer company. In the time that he was with us he really became like a member of the family and I think the boys thought of him as a big brother. R and B cried when he left and he leaves a big space in our lives, not just because we don't have anymore WWOOFers for a whole week, but more because he was genuinely interested in what we are doing here. He and I talked endlessly about where the world was going and the unsustainability of it all. He learnt about Emilia Hazelip and helped us to begin converting the potager and polytunnel over to her style of land-management. If you would like to know more about Emilia Hazelip, one of my permaculture heroes, watch this

I have been agonising most of the summer over the sowing of our wheat crop, or rather, the preparation for the sowing. I look at the piece of land that we did have ploughed (see this post) and right next to it, the other half unploughed. In the 'cultivated' bit we are overrun with nasty pernicious weeds, in the uncultivated piece we have just grass and a few wild flowers. The ploughed land gave buried seeds the light of day and also gave advantage to strong weeds in the absence of grass. The more I have read about no-till farming where the land isn't ploughed, the more I believe it is the right way to go but it is brave step to take to just go out there and sow onto grassland.

Thomas left me with a copy of a BBC documentary called Farming for a Future. I watched it with R after he left and it made me cry. How can we have gone SO far in the wrong direction? And we just keep on going! I made the decision after that film that I was NOT going to have anymore land ploughed here and I feel as though a burden has been lifted from my shoulders now that I have made that choice. So, in the late autumn we will go out and sow right on top of the grass.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Rain Water Harvesting

We have been victims of our own success - or rather of Ben's success with a little help from the WWOOFers. The old lean-to veranda at the back of our barn has been undergoing complete renewal, guided by Ben, and it now looks really good.

The roof of the barn is connected to the roof of the veranda and all water is collected via one main guttering system and downpiped into water butts. However, we have had so much heavy rain today that the water butts have filled up in half an hour and have then overflowed all through the barn, making streams of water flow all over everything we didn't want them to flow over. Ben is now working on linking lots of butts together and raising them so that gravity will hopefully feed any excess off into the solar tunnel. I'll post a photgraph when it's finished.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Bread and Honey

I just love this poem that I recall from my childhood. Everytime I walk past the beehive or see the bees busy at work, or smell our fresh bread, I find myself repeating this...

Of all the meals you can buy for money
Give me a meal of bread and honey.

A table of grass in the open air
A green bank for an easy chair.
The tablecloth inwrought with flowers
And a grasshopper clock to tick the hours.

Between the courses birds to sing
To many a hidden shining string.

And neither man or maid be seen
But a great company of green
Upon a hundred thousand stalks
Talk to us its great green talks.

And when the merry meal is done
To loiter westward with the sun
Dipping fingers ere we go
In the stream that runs below.

Of all the meals you can buy for money
Give me a meal of bread and honey.

And of course this is the exciting time of year for sustainable beekeepers as it's around honey harvest time. Some conventional beekeepers might be surprised at that and declare that Spring too is harvest time, in fact that any time is harvest time if there's honey in the hive. But no, I believe strongly in sustainable beekeeping, beekeeping for nature's sake and not for greed nor commercial reasons. The bees need 12kg of honey to get the colony through the winter, any extra is a gift to the beekeeper. You can only ensure that the 12kgs is there by waiting until the end of summer. If you take honey before then, there is a chance that the bees won't be able to make enough to get them through winter and many will die. Of course, conventional beekeeping will feed sugar water when they have robbed the hive clean of honey but that isn't what the bees need. Nature meant the bees to have honey to eat - maybe the humans could have the sugar water!!

There is a lot of talk in the media at the moment about the loss of our honey bees and many blame it on pesticides or virilant bee diseases but I think we need to ask ourselves if the conventional/commercial way of beekeeping is actually significantly contributing to the losses. Harvesting too much honey is only the tip of the iceberg. See this video if you'd like to know more -

Friday, 10 September 2010

Wonderful WWOOFers

We are really enjoying being WWOOF hosts and have met many interesting people. Most have worked very hard and been keen to learn what it is to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Here are a selection of WWOOFing photographs that show some of those who have been here this summer and some of the jobs they have done (in many cases this 'job' may well be playing with the children!).

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Boars Have Arrived

On the 1st of this month the muscles of four of our current WWOOFers, Noam, Fidi, Kiera and Johanna were employed to carry in 50kg of new piglet material (with B and Calyx in a supervisory capacity). Yes, two more little piglets have joined the farm - Max & Co. purebred Gloucester Old Spots. Max is our new boar who we hope will service one of the sows in the Spring, and Co is a little castrated male who will keep Max company whilst they are little and have to be separated from the girls. We were told that if they were in with the big girls from the start then Max might be so frightened of them that he'd be afraid to do 'the business' with them when he was mature. We were slightly dubious but erred on the safe side and got Co. To start with we did indeed put all of them in together but Rimmel terrorised them and bit them so we were glad that we heeded the advice and separated off the boys in a pen next to the girls where they were safe.

They seem to have settled very well and are proving themselves to be great tractors, better than Maybelline and Rimmel. As you can see, they still have to have the riot act read to them occassionally.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

A Reminder of Spring

My mother sent us a lovely card with pressed Scottish Blue bells on it. She had collected them on the walk between her house and our old house so they were even more special. The boys were very excited as it reminded them that they too had pressed some Spring flowers in a BIG book so we got them out and they were pleased that they too could do what Oma does. We had thought about making a picture with them but they decided to save them and gather some more so that they would have a bigger collection.

Rain Around

There is a phrase that is continually being used on the weather forecast and that is 'rain around'. Now in the UK that would mean that as soon as you went out of your door there would be rain all around you, but here that's not the case. It's a taunt, a mean reminder of what we haven't had for ages and are in desperate need of. It means that big black clouds will gather, that we'll put everything under cover, that we'll put out all our rain collectors, only to see the clouds pass either side of us and not a drop of rain will fall on our farm - rain around us but not on us. This drought is going on and on.

Our 'lawn' was last cut in April - you can see in this photograph that it certainly doesn't need it!

Our maize has failed. Nine hundred holes were dug and planted with two seeds not just once but twice but due to the lack of rain we have but 5 plants! Not nearly enough or one meal for the pigs let alone a whole winter as planned.

I will have to look at ways of keeping the water where we need it as all of our land slopes away from the house and the only bit of green that's left is at the bottom of the hill. I have had to move the sheep to that green area and the geese now free-range to allow them to find all the scraps of weeds/grass that they can. All around us looks like brown, dry, arid wasteland. It is very sobering to go through such dry times and it makes me begin to appreciate how hard it must be for people who regularly go through droughts. It must be so hard to stand by and watch your livestock go hungry and thirsty.

It has made us look even more seriously at our household water consumption and we recycle all bowls of washing-up water, bathwater etc. I now feel angry when I see folk squandering water supplies. It makes you wonder, will it be Peak Oil or Peak Water that rocks the 'developed' world? We will try hard to get those who come to stay with us to appreciate just how valuable a commodity water is and how lucky we are to be able to just turn a tap and water is there.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Permaculture Festival

Last Thursday we headed up to Nethen in Belgium for a four day Permaculture Festival. Our thanks go to Alex, our WOOFER at the time, as he kindly looked after the farm whilst we were away (this is one of the difficult things about having animals - there aways needs to be someone at base to look after their daily needs).

It was wonderful and I learnt so many new skills, got so many new ideas, shared thoughts with so many like-minded folk, played barefoot with the children in lush green grass (as we have none at home!), and generally just chilled out. We made felt from raw Ouessant wool, ground wheat and made bread on an open fire, went on a foraging ramble and came back and cooked the goodies (R particularly loved this), made mud bricks, helped to build a clay oven, talked for a whole morning about scythes, visited folk who were running a permaculture small-holding in arid Israel, learnt to make more cheeses, and did a workshop on forest gardening.

The most surreal thing happened just as I was getting up early on the Friday morning. Dimly in the distance I could hear pipes sounding out the tune of, of all things, God Save the Queen. I thought that I was going mad. I mentioned it to Ben. He thought I was going mad. But then, the haunting pipes wafted in again and there it was. We both looked at each other. There in the middle of very rural Belgium, in the middle of a field, at 6.30am surrounded by sleepy permaculture enthusiasts, we listened to God Save the Queen!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Mrs Brown

Sadly we now only have four hens as Mrs Brown roosted up fine on Friday evening but the following morning when I went to let them out I found that she had 'dropped off the perch' and was dead on the floor of the hen house. I think she had a blocked crop and basically choked to death, poor wee soul. She had been the friendliest of our hens and visiting children will miss being able to cuddle a chicken - the others just run off at the prospect of a small child approaching with arms open wide. I'll miss her too as she was quite a character.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Birthday Girl

We were very lucky to have the help of a wonderful German WWOOFer, Greta and she was celebrating her birthday whilst she was here with us. We wanted to make her birthday as special as we could by way of a 'thank you' so we baked a Black Forest Gateau and got out some champagne.

The Flock Increases

The 15th saw the arrival of another 3 goslings and R has taken over as chief bird-minder. We got some more for two reasons. The first is fairly simple in that they are our ecological lawnmowers and the grass in the orchard, especially in the Spring, needs as many nibblers as possible.

The second reason is more about animal welfare. When we had four geese, Phillipa and Gertie were a 'couple' as they were the remaining two of the original three, and Nora and Nibble were a pair, each looking out for and protecting the other. After Gertie died, Phillipa went into mourning for quite a few weeks but as she came out of it she began bonding with Nora who looks quite like Gertie. This left poor little Nibble all alone and she was failing. So we got some more goslings in the hope that she would find a new interest. Happily, she has indeed taken to the goslings tremendously well and looks after them like a mother goose. Phillipa and Nora are not so bothered. In fact Nora is sometimes downright nasty to them and pecks them if they get in her way but Nibble rushes over and protects them. It's sweet to watch. Once again these birds hold me captivated.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Race Against Rain

We have been haymaking again. Our current two WWOOFers, Danny and Sarah have helped me to scythe down another of our fields and turn all of the hay for drying. It's a gentle task, though a very hot one at the moment as temperatures are reaching into the 30's. We therefore can only work the fields in the early part of the morning and sometimes in the evenings if it has cooled sufficiently. It is important that the hay is properly dry as it seals in the goodness of the grasses and plants and prevents them from going mouldy. This afterall will be part of the winter feed for all our animals except the hens.

Yesterday rain was forecast for the evening so we had to make the most of every minute to gather the laid out hay into the big hay stack. It was all hands on deck but we achieved what seemed at the beginning like a massive task by 9pm and happily retired to await the badly needed rain... that didn't come again! Sigh.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Broody Hens

So here is Neige, 3 weeks and two days into being broody. She continued like this for another week before I took action. She had no eggs under her but day after day continued to sit, sit, sit. It's a hormonal thing. I had to lift her off the nest each day to make sure she had a drink and something to eat but as soon as she'd had a wee peck she went straight back to the nest. Her comb began to lose its red colouring and became pale so I knew that I had to intervene or she would lose so much condition that she would die. So I put her in an empty cat cage for 24 hours, still in the hen house but with air circulating under her and no cosy nest. It felt so mean but it seemed to do the trick as the following day when she was let out she went off with the other hens ... for two hours then she was back on the nest again. So in the cage she went again for another 24 hours. Out she came, off she went, two hours later back on the nest. So I took the entire nest box with Neige in it outside, sat her next to the cat cage, told her that she'd be back in there if she didn't buck her ideas up. She listened, squawked then fluffed her feathers, got up and didn't get back on the nest again to be broody anymore. Phew.

We live and learn. I hated doing the cage thing. It really brought home the vile practise of caging hens for commercial gain and I really felt sorry for all the battery hens that are caged like that all their life just so that folk can have cheap eggs. The next time we will get fertilised eggs for them to sit on and hatch (we don't currently have a cockrel to fertilise ours). That would ensure only a 3 week sit and then Mrs Broody will become a happy mum.