Beginnings and endings

Only a short post today as we have been quite busy. February has not yet finished but the ewes have decided that Spring is upon us and it is time to start lambing. About 3 weeks earlier than usual and choosing, as is often the way with sheep, a cold day with snow showers as the most opportune day to bring new life into the world.

Here they are just minutes after delivery, still in the pink early sunshine and with the iodine stains on their navels. The two brothers look healthy but I am worried that this ewe had twins. We had hoped, by avoiding flushing, we might avoid getting twins. Singletons are easier births and put less strain on our limited pasture. In any event the two boys and their mum look healthy.

This week has also been busy as we dispatched the ducks. We kept one, even though we know she will probably be infertile, to remind us of how pretty the ‘muscberries‘ were. As an easily prepared supper we found this recipe ideal for the end of a day spent outside in the cold.

  • 4 duck legs
  • 1/2 bottle of red wine (stuff left over from a party because nobody really liked it)
  • 2 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1 punnet mushrooms sliced
  • 2 onions chopped
  • water and cornflour

Place all the ingredients in a casserole dish. Add the red wine and enough water to cover the ingredients. Cook in the Rayburn at a low temperature for at least 2 1/2 hours. Towards the end use cornflour to thicken the gravy to your preferred consistency. Serve with mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage. This is a simple meal with plain earthy flavours but a comforting way to end the day.

Animal Husbandry 101

Animal Husbandry 101

Unfortunately this blog needs the reader to understand the basics agricultural science and animal husbandry. I will try and simply these as best I can and I hope that what follows is not too dry nor technical. I am sure that any reader of average intelligence will be able to grasp the fundamental principles with only a modicum of effort. Let us start with the basics – the animal. Figure 1 is a schematic of a basic farm animal and, as we will show later, is a satisfactory diagram for all livestock including cattle, sheep, pigs and even poultry or exotic species such as llamas or alpacas.

Figure 1

As you will see from Figure 1 there are two ends to your animal : the front (or pointy) end and the back (or round) end. One of the first tasks in farming is to be able to tell these ends apart. The front end the the usual end that leads when the animal is moving and the end it will present to you when it wants to be fed, or wishes to injure you. For this reason, the pointy end often comes complete with jaggy horns or sharp teeth. While the front, or pointy, end is the prettier end it is also usually the more dangerous.

The round back end is the end that follows when the animal is moving. This is the end you will see when you are trying to capture your animal. Something you will learn quickly, when you have animals, is that all your animals are faster than you when you want to catch them. You will spend a lot of your time looking at the rear ends of your animals as it disappears into the distance. A primary reason for knowing the ‘ends’ of your animals is that it helps understand the throughput of the animal. The front end, to use the modern computer jargon, is the input end while the back, or round, end is where all the output arises.

The rear end has multiple outputs. At the bottom , on some species, there are dangly bits; these, with a bit of manipulation, give production of milk and subsequent dairy products. Above this is the first of two openings. This one, if all your stockmanship has gone well, will give rise to meat production by giving new small versions of the animal. Above this is the most prolific output opening. This is the source of animal excrement something the budding farmer has to become familiar with very quickly as they will spend a large part of their time covered in this.

It is a mistake to call this last product animal waste. It is only waste if you waste it. The entire agricultural revolution that allowed humankind to start to grow and colonise the world was based on animal excrement. Humans discovered that by rotating crops, interspersing harvests with periods leaving the ground fallow, and using animals to manure the fields they could make land much more productive and stop the loss of nutrients from the soil that otherwise would follow on taking the crops as produce. This allowed a sustainable cycle to be developed. The soil gave nourishment to the plants, the animals and we ate the plants, and then we and the animals nourished the soil. Ultimately by being buried in it when we died.

This revolution allowed us to expand as a species and provided the energy and population growth which permitted the next great revolution : the Industrial revolution. In this there was the formation of large towns and cities and a growing disconnection between town and country. This broke the cycle that had been established. Now nourishment was taken from the land and moved to the towns for consumption. In the urban areas the excrement was not returned to the countryside and the nourishment was not returned to the land. There had been systems where ‘nightsoil’ was collected and returned to be used as manure but after the link between cholera and human excrement became known this fell from favour. The problem became much worse with the development of flushing toilets and sewers which meant the excrement was sent out to sea where sometimes it us harmful rather than contributing to a growing cycle.

Even Karl Marx was aware of this problem and he wrote :-

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum, and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population, crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.

Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1894

For a while this breach in the cycle was filled by importing large amounts of guano (bird poo) from across the other side of the world until the discovery of the Haber-Bosch Process which allowed the production of chemical fertilisers. All modern agriculture now uses this method of chemical enrichment of the soil to try and compensate for the loss of sustainable and natural ways for farming. However, there are serious concerns that this method of working is not sustainable and we are ignoring potential irreparable damage to our soils.

Indeed, rather than dealing with this threat we are increasing its risk. Our growing use of monoculture crops and the practice of feedlot farming (where animals are penned and fed concentrated feedstuffs, usually cereals, to rapidly fatten them) further break the sustainable cycles we know we need. Even with regard to waste we have not learnt much. We have, on rather faulty logic, essentially ended the recycling of food waste by feeding swill to animals (usually pigs). Now this food waste which could have, after going through the guts of a pig, given manure for the land and food for the people (and hence reduced the need for production) instead finds its way into landfill. At best it finds its way into anaerobic digestion plants to create biofuels which is a very inefficient way of dealing with it. This is only considered because the food waste is considered ‘waste‘, were it considered a resource it would not be undervalued like this.

So, in conclusion, the round end, although it is often the smelly and dirty end of your animal, is possibly the most important part of the beast and what comes out of it should be treasured and not squandered. There are good reasons to think that this also applies to our own round ends and we should seriously think how we start using the one thing all of us manage to effortlessly produce.


If this sparks an interest the book Humanure may be well worth reading.

An ill wind ..

Only a short note today as we continue to be battered by the storms. Storm Dennis has not shown himself any milder than Storm Ciara who blew through last week. Though Dennis’s winds might be a little weaker he has brought a great deal more flooding in his wake. Although his wind speeds might be slightly less, his effect, on top of a week of heavy rain and sodden ground and pre-existing damage following Ciara, is proving to be fairly widespread.

When I go outside, when there is a lull in the noise of the wind or the rain, all I can hear is the whine of chainsaws. I don’t have to walk more than a few hundred yards to see the telltale sawdust of where someone has cut and tidied a fallen tree to keep the roads open.The fallen trees have brought many fences down, hence sheep, liberated from their fields, are often our company as we walk around the circuit.

I thought possibly Storm Dennis had put paid to the old adage “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good“, surely, I thought, there is no-one who has benefited from this. This must indeed be an ill wind. But then I remembered the ducks. The wind damage had caused a break in the banks of the stream above the duck house. This coupled with the high volume of water had lead to the formation of a pool across the path into the duck yard. This appeared to the ducks like a purpose built en suite, they didn’t even have to walk down to the river to perform their ablutions. Though my wet feet made me curse the damage they, on the other hand, were perfectly happy with the new arrangement, “it’s an ill wind etc etc ..

The Incredible Journey

The grandchildren visited this week. They came down from Scotland for a weeks mini-break during the school’s half-term. Their visits are the high point of our social calendar and something to which we really look forward. One ‘side-effect’ from these visits is that they make me feel my age. If you want to feel old then spend four days with a 7 and 9 year old. Halfway through you will remember what it was like when you had kids of your own and shortly afterwards you will wonder how you ever managed. Looking after kids is a young person’s game.

There used to be a huge beech tree here.

Their visit coincided with the visit of Storm Ciara to Wales. We had days of gale force winds and torrential rain followed by the light relief of a day of snow when we built a snowman. This gave us the opportunity to go for walks to see the results of the power of the wind, to see the uprooted and torn trees and the destroyed outbuildings. When we were able to go outside we were able to occupy the children by getting them to help us re-roof the turkey house and repair the fences around the hen runs. They really enjoyed this as they got to use real tools like a hammer and a staple gun. This was a better way to entertain the children; free, educational, and useful providing them with skills for the future and without all the noise and cost of the activity parks and play centres we often used.

We were, for long periods, unable to go outside but, sticking with a theme, we kept our spirits up by teaching new skills. The kids are aware that in Taid’s house, ‘taid’ is Welsh for grandfather, the fire and cooker don’t come on by flicking a switch. Here you need to set a fire and light it and there are different approaches for the open fire and the Rayburn.The kids really enjoyed setting a fire; making tinder out of newspapers, collecting and arranging kindling, getting logs ready and finally striking a match to start it all off. I also hope that now they know the true meaning of the word ‘tinder’ and this might inoculate them against the future definitions from their smartphones. However, there was a feeling that their grandparents were not only ‘old’ but almost ‘historical’ like something you might see on a visit to a heritage centre!

In the evenings the education was much more two-way. They taught me games I still don’t fully understand, on the Nintendo Switch and with Pokemon cards, and for the first few nights they chose the films we would watch. Two of these were surprisingly enjoyable. “Early Man” and “Abominable” were good fun tales on the themes of friendship and loss and well worth watching. The less said about “Teen Titans Go”, “Steven Universe” or “The Thundermans” the better. However, it was when I chose a film that I felt extremely old and began to see some of the differences in the culture my grandchildren inhabit and mine.

Less tears than Old Yeller

I chose “The Incredible Journey” having recollections that I enjoyed this film when I was their age. As we started watching, for the first quarter of an hour, it was clear this this was not holding their attention. There were no effects, no action, and not even any talking animals and I noticed that the kids were giving as much time to the screens on their laps as to the television itself. They thought they were much wiser than I was at their age, they knew that the animals would not die “they never do in films”. I forbore from telling them the fate of Bambi’s mother or that of “Old Yeller” . As the film progressed they decided that it must be all CGI as animals “can’t act”. They refused to consider that they may be real animals handled by wranglers. I guess that the rabbit, that Luath chased, might have hoped that the kids were right and he had had a CGI stand-in stunt rabbit. However, once they started to believe that these were actual dogs and a cat they started to be more interested in their actions.It seems you have to think something is real before you will truly care for it.

By halfway through the kids had been captured by the story. Having seen the bird and rabbit eaten they now knew that sometimes animals don’t make it through. They had started to worry about the trio of animals fate, and they started to think perhaps they wouldn’t get home. By the end they were on tenterhooks and when the last of the trio, Bodger, came over the hill in the final scene there were gasps of relief and joy.

Chatting afterwards about the film it was clear that the themes of friendship, loyalty and perseverance had been taken on board. It was touch and go at the start and if I hadn’t insisted I don’t think they would have persevered with the film. A good story, wonderful photography and landscapes and good acting seem no longer enough for a film to succeed with an audience of children. Like our food, our books, our music and so much of our culture we now need high intensity, easily digestible pap. This does not bode well for our future.

Next time they arrive, and it is my turn to choose, it will be “Old Yeller” we will watch. The simple tale of the love of a boy and his dog will be perfect. I hope that I’ll be able to avoid crying at the end. I’ll be rather depressed, disappointed and worried if, however, the kids don’t cry.

Weather back to normal

Early Birds

I feel rather like the early bird who has caught the worm. Last month I had noticed that out chickens were behaving strangely. Or rather more strangely than usual. In early January, and still in deep winter in anybody’s book, they had started laying heavily. They were supplying eggs much faster than we could use them and clearly though that the spring had arrived. They had started to create clutches and shown signs of going broody. This was an easy mistake for them to make as we had very mild temperatures and nothing really wintry at all.

This posed a dilemma. I had to decide in January whether I should put some of these eggs into the incubator for hatching. However, although I knew the hens thought spring had sprung I did not know if the cockerels had been infused with the vernal spirit and had sprung into action. If not, if the cockerels had correctly thought “This is still winter”, then I might be trying to hatch a clutch of unfertilised eggs. Not anticipating any miracle I decided to put a batch on and see what happened.

I needn’t have worried. The chickens determine the mating it seems. Cockerels don’t give a fig what time of year it is and they’ll happily mate all year round as the progeny above confirm. This is another unsettling sign that our seasons and are changing. It is not without consequence as I now have chickens born while the ground outside is better suited to building snowmen than scratching for food. I’ll need to rear these chicks indoors under a lamp for a considerable period before I can let them out. Let us hope they prosper despite the inopportune timing of their entry to the smallholding

 

More appropriate seasonal activity