Feeding the birds

On our way home from the vets last week we stopped in a café to break the journey. While sitting with our sandwich we noticed that there were groups of sparrows and robins watching us expectantly. We duly obliged by tearing off bit of bread for the birds to enjoy. It was clear that the local bird population had learnt that this was a good place to hang out as it was pretty likely that they would be fed.

Looking beyond the birds, who were tame enough to eat out of your hand, I noticed the faces of the other patrons of the café. It was clear that everyone else, old and young, were enjoying doing the exact same thing. Everyone was sharing their lunches with their feathered friends and thoroughly enjoying doing so. This is a long-standing pastime which has pleased people through the ages. Feeding the ducks is a common way to spend a pleasant afternoon in the park for town dwellers and Julie Andrews sang about the pleasures in the song “Feed the birds (tuppence a bag)” in the film Mary Poppins.

It lead me to think; “Why do we enjoy feeding the animals?” This is not the same as feeding farm stock, or pets. There is clear necessity to feed these animals and there are clear rewards also in terms of produce or affection. However, we seem to get pleasure from the simple act of feeding animals. I am aware that feeding often allows us to appreciate the beauty of these animals up close, and more easily than if we did not feed them, but I think it is more than this. These were sparrows which were capturing the attention of the cafe-goers not finely plumed, exotic birds of paradise.

I think the song gives us a clue as the reasons for our pleasure. In the song we are encouraged to spend money to feed the birds because :-

Come, buy my bags full of crumbs;
Come feed the little birds,
Show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry
Their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds,
” that’s what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

The pleasure we get from this activity is primarily being able to act well, being able to be kind and benevolent. In days when the media tends to spend an inordinate amount of time reminding us how badly people can behave it was pleasant to watch people revealed a truer aspect of our nature. As a species we have an inbuilt tendency and nature to want to help and care for others; not just for ourselves, our family and friends, but of all other people and even for animals of other species. It is in our nature to do this and it is very important to us. We need to be thought of as good we can not exist without it.

When I worked as a doctor I saw many people coping with a whole variety of differing illnesses. I was struck by how well people endured these. No matter how painful and distressing, no matter how disabling or disfiguring, the vast majority of people soldiered on bravely. Thoughts of suicide, and requests for euthanasia, were remarkably rare. On the other hand when I attended patients with depressive disorders the situation was much worse. When these patients were troubled by ideas of guilt or shame, when they felt isolated and removed from the affections of others, when they no longer felt themselves to be good people thoughts and acts of suicide became distressingly common.

As a species we need to feel that we are viewed as good. We need to know we are worthy of affection and love. We gain a lot more pleasure from being benevolent than through gratitude, as they say, it is better to give than receive. Feeding the birds reminds us of this important side to our nature. It is probably true to say that without the knowledge that we can be ‘good’ life is not worth living.


I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Acts 20:35

A hazelnut in every bite

A hazelnut in every bite

This is perhaps the best time of the year as now all the labour expended starts to show dividends as we can start to harvest what we have grown. Even better, it is the time of year when the hedgerows are full of free produce. Going on a walk at this time of year can be made much more rewarding by the simple act of carrying a bag with you. Mushrooms, blackberries, and windfall apples can make a walk  very interesting and add greatly to the pantry on returning home. I am aware my neighbours are collecting likewise and sometimes you can tell you have been dilatory in going for a walk as many of the ‘goodies’ have been taken. However, I have been very aware that many people miss one of the best items to forage; nuts, especially the hazel nut.

The hazel tree is prolific producer of nuts and for the past month it has been dropping its bounty on the paths and roads in heavy crops. The squirrels are aware of this and will manage to collect copious quantities. Indeed, as they work round the clock, they will manage to collect many more than you unless you are very diligent. One way to circumvent this problem is to collect some nuts even though they are green. You can empty your bag when you get home into a dark dry area, and they will ripen over then next few days.

Now it quite possible to eat hazel nuts raw and the only preparation you need for this is a nutcracker and a bowl for the shells. This can be an excellent accompaniment to a TV drama on dark evening. However, a better strategy, in my opinion, is to roast the nuts. This is simply done and adds to the versatility of your haul.

Simply warm an oven to 140 degrees. While it is getting ready sit and listen to the radio while you crack the nuts and lay them on a baking tray. Once the tray is covered put them in the oven and leave them for 20 minutes.  When they come out wrap them in a damp dishcloth. This will steam the nuts and then, when you rub the nuts inside the cloth, help remove the slightly bitter skin that coats the nut. Put the nuts in an airtight jar and use as you wish – snacking, crushing and adding to muesli or yoghurt for breakfast, as a base for a variant of Nutella, or as a component of biscuits or flapjacks.

This is really simple foraging and something that is very rewarding. Indeed, as I think about it, you don’t even need a bag as it is likely that you will have pockets while out walking which will do just as well. And, if you are not wearing trousers on your perambulations through the lanes then collecting hazelnuts is not likely to be high on your priorities)

Do you want adjectives with that?

Do you want adjectives with that?

We pay a lot for our adjectives. I agree that sometimes these “describing words” are quite helpful but increasingly they seem to act more as financial multipliers rather than as any aid to understanding. Well at least in the world of commerce they do. In the real world they are still valuable, I still want to be able to distinguish between the large, angry rabid dog and the small, friendly puppy dog and it is useful to know that the red mushroom is poisonous while the crinkly orange one is edible. However, in the world of commerce the adjective serves a much less reputable function.

This is a more expensive car than it first appears

In many areas of trade there are multiple vendors who are selling essentially the same things. The differences between their products is miniscule and often imperceptible. In the world of car sales there are some adjectives that are helpful – big, four seater, diesel powered, red, etc. However, many of the differences are so slight as to be unnoticeable. Even when differences are real often people aren’t aware of them. People who buy a 12-valve version of the car have paid extra for these ‘extra’ valves, but did they really compare the car to the its poor 8 valve sibling. Probably not. Indeed, this kind of difference is not really perceptible so one ends up spending money on something you (and importantly others) can neither notice nor appreciate. In this case the adjectives can come to the rescue. The vendor will probably affix a badge, with the adjective, saying “12v”, or “twincam” or “turbo” to your new purchase so that you, and others, know that you spent well over the odds for your vehicle

I’m glad my bacon comes from Staffordshire

However, it is in the world of food that these adjectives really prove their worth as earners. The more adjectives that precede the item of food, the more you will be expected to pay for it. Rarely do these adjectives tell you anything of value. If you buy bacon you will probably have to pay double for “Black Country Staffordshire Bacon”. How do I know if Staffordshire is better than Herefordshire or Lincolnshire ? It really means very little. Once you add a few more adjectives ‘Farm fresh’ or ‘hand reared’ we can soon have easily tripled the price. There are few things that can’t be made more expensive by a judicious use of adjectives. Fried bacon is all very well, and cheap, but ‘pan fried’ bacon is obviously a bit more costly. In the world of fried food adjectives can not only increase the price but can also change the health and class status of food. Deep fried vegetables are obviously unhealthy working-class food but a dish with a side of tempura vegetables is clearly healthy and quite suitable for the middle-class palate.

So, I am going to try a new diet and attempt to steer clear of unnecessary adjectives. I’ll have bacon, egg and chips for tea tonight (£3.50) rather than ‘Sweet cured, hand-reared, Black Country Staffordshire bacon, with free range, organic, farm fresh eggs and a side order of hand-cut, chunky, artisanal, triple cooked, Ayrshire potato chips’ (£9.50) . As it seems £6 is a lot to pay for chips that are of uneven lengths and I can use the money for a ‘tempura‘ Mars Bar in lieu of dessert. That will be healthy and help me keep up with the Joneses

Sudd Drain Duon / Sloe Kir

Sudd Drain Duon / Sloe Kir

I don’t get on with Blackthorn, I never really have. There is a short spell in May when its white flowers, along with those of the Hawthorn, brighten up the hedgerows. But this is a very temporary pleasure and the plant quickly returns to its true nature as a dense, spiky and dangerous bush. It is no surprise to me that this is the wood witches prefer to make their staffs and wands. It really can be an evil wood, anyone who has had to try to work with Blackthorn will know that it is one of the few woods that actually fights back. After trying to clear a patch of this bush from our sheep field I looked as if I had spent the afternoon trying to pack angry cats into a duffle bag, my arms were so scratched, ragged and torn. So I don’t like Blackthron but I do respect it.

Usually this time of the year the Blackthorn manages to annoy me again. In our patch of land, due to the elevation and climate, most soft fruits do badly. We get small crops of apples, plums or damsons. However, the Blackthorn teases us with its heavy crops of sloes. Every year they seem better, the bushes are laden with plump, juicy blue berries which grow without an ounce of help from us. There is an obvious warning here. The reason the bushes are so heavy with fruit is partially because no-one likes it. When the cherries, apples or plums appear the birds and wasps closely follow, but sloes are so disgustingly tart that everyone leaves them alone, leaving them on the boughs to taunt me.

There is a tradition of making sloe gin and although we have done this it is always a bit unsatisfactory. There is little cost saving, or increased independence, in a recipe that requires you to first purchase gin. Further, although you end up with a flavoured gin which might be better than drinking neat gin (which is very much like drinking perfume) it is still not truly a great drink. Sloe gin is the last drink to be drunk at the party when all the good popular drinks have been finished. Sloe gin, like Ouzo, Palinka or Unicom, is drunk when other drink has been taken in sufficient quantity to impair your judgement, encourage you to make rash decisions and has dulled your palate to a significant degree.

I was therefore delighted to find a recipe that might make sloes useful. Rather than making sloe gin or jelly I decided to make sloe kir. This is a sweet cordial that is incredibly quick and easy to prepare, the recipe is below. This is a sweet drink with a clear sharp kick to it. It tastes of plums and cherries and evokes the taste and smell of fresh ripe damsons rather than reveal is hideous true nature. Using it like kir in fizzy wine or water is very pleasant on a hot afternoon and it can also be drizzled over ice cream.

I can now look at blackthorn bushes benignly and hope they give a bumper crop of sloes. The tide in the battle has changed and for once we are on the winning side.


To make this juice add 1 litre or sloes and one litre of water to a pan. Add 450g of sugar and bring to the boil. Keep this simmering for three quarters of an hour then drain it through a sieve. Next pour it through a muslin to leave you with a dark red liquor. This can be kept in the fridge for a week or frozen for use later on.

Sloe Kir

A plague o’ both your houses.

Democracy has many problems as the old story of the lamb and two wolves voting on what to have for supper clearly illustrates. However, as Winston Churchill opined ” democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried“. Democratic systems are probably the only way that mankind can live in reasonable harmony and in stable and fair communities. However, for democracy to work a few basic principles need to be observed.

The democratic process needs to be inclusive, so that no-one and their opinion is excluded. It needs to equitable; each person’s vote must carry the same weight are every other persons. There should be a secret ballot so that there is no possibility that others can coerce the voter’s decision, and the democratic unit should be small enough that every vote does count and the system avoids, as far as is possible, the risks of the tyranny of the majority. Finally, the executive of the state must act in accordance of the democratic decisions, it can not pick and chose amongst the outcomes which it agrees with and which it will effect.

Britain’s system had in the main held to these principles and could lay a reasonable claim to the title of “the mother of all parliaments” but over recent times this seems a much less apt description.

I am not simply talking about the reneging on the results of the EU referendum, which three years after the vote has still not been enacted in any form whatsoever, but also of the recent shambles in the house of commons when the constitutional safeguards that we normally relied upon have been sorely, and perhaps fatally, tested.

Firstly we had Boris Johnson attempting to prorogue parliament in such a way as to reduce the amount of time for discussion and scrutiny in the House of Commons. There is also a strong suspicion that he lied when he described the reasons and processes behind this.

Secondly we had John Bercow, the speaker of the house, shamefacedly ignoring the traditions of neutrality of the speaker and being vocally and proudly partial. While this might be seen as useful to some MPs at the moment, as it suits their long-game, we may strongly regret tolerating this precedent in the future when less benign options are being processed.

Thirdly we have our opposition parties trying to avoid an election. Some, like the liberals, have a sizeable component of MP’s who never stood under the banner of the party they now purport to represent. To these parties it is more important to overturn Brexit than it is to even know public opinion, let alone follow it. They clearly think the public has made a mistake and want to correct it but are fearful that the public might not yet have got onboard with the message. Their priority is their agenda, it is not working in agreement with the outcome of a democratic process.

It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Die Lösung (The Solution)

Die Lösung

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas.

Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht 1953

Even if the opposition parties do get around to thinking they should put a democratic veneer on this charade we will still have problems. A second referendum violates the basic democratic principle of “one person – one vote” – they are saying “those of you who voted last time don’t count we want the vote of a new populace“, as Brecht suggests.

When we do this once we can do it again, and we are damaging faith in democracy itself. If the state starts to ignore democratic decisions then the whole basis of democracy is undermined. There has been precious little regard for our political leaders over recent years, it seems there soon will be even less. Why vote when your vote may not count or the system is so rigged that change is not forthcoming ? I think none of the main parties can expect to see their popular base growing and I would be very surprised if we didn’t continue to see populist parties, on the left and the right, who listen to the public (or at least pretend to) growing in strength. The blame for this can squarely be placed at the doors of the existing parties. To misquote Shakespeare :-

A plague on all your houses.

Review : Parker 62cc Chainsaw

Review : Parker 62cc Chainsaw

One of the more expensive tools that I need to buy is the chainsaw. With the amount of wood we process we could not do the work by hand. My trusty Husqvarna has got a problem with its chain brake and I dreaded entering the autumn and winter with only a faulty saw. One good storm can mean you need a fully functioning chainsaw immediately at the most inconvenient time. Our last tree came down on a Sunday evening; not a good time to find you need to purchase a new saw.

My Husqvarna will be fixed soon but I needed a spare saw to cover this kind of eventuality and decided I would chance buying a cheap Chinese saw for emergencies.After much research (asking my friends and looking on the internet) I decided to opt for the Parker 62cc petrol chainsaw. The reviews were good and, although manufactured in China, it was offered by a British company which could be convenient for any future spares and services.

Lots of added extras for the price

The most surprising thing about the chainsaw was the price. Under £90 got me a chainsaw with a 20 inch blade, two chains, a toolkit (spanners, screwdriver and chainsaw file) and a carrying case. The speed of delivery was also good as it arrived here in rural Wales within 72 hours of ordering. It was easy to assemble just requiring the bar and chain to be attached, then to be filled with oil and petrol (mix of 25:1 using the supplied mixing flask) and I was ready to go.

Pleasant appearance and well balanced

Looking at the construction it is fairly well put together and fits the hand nicely. It is rather heavy as you would expect with a 20 inch bar but the 62cc petrol engine works this easily as it develops 3.5 horsepower. I may put a shorter bar on in the future. I need the 20 inch bar at the moment for felling, as I have some large trees, but for general day-to-day wood management a shorter bar (16 or 18 inch) is a lot more convenient. It is also safer as it is less tiring to wield and a lot less prone to the problems of kick-back. The longer blade does require much more careful handling as it is more difficult to keep an eye on the nose of the blade so that it doesn’t foul on anything and jerk back towards you.

I am glad to report that the machine starts very easily. This is one of my most important factors in choosing an appliance. I hate standing in the cold and wet, sweating, swearing and ranting at an engine that won’t start and that I have probably flooded. Two or three pulls on a cold start, or one pull on a warm start, and it fires into action. The vibrations are well damped and the machine is comfortable to handle. The Parker brand blade cuts fine and time will tell if it lasts. I have used the machine for a week now and been very pleased with its performance. For the price I am very surprised at how well it works, fingers crossed that it has reasonable durability.

I have attached a video of the saw working on a piece of beech. My apologies that I have no models to employ so the viewer is left with the author demonstrating. This clearly shows that old men are sometimes close to the limits of their strength when faced with relatively small logs but, on the other hand, the chainsaw trousers are, I believe, very fetching 🤨

Old man with logs

Jumping the gun

There what’s seems to be one; someone so eager to get going that they start too early. This time it seems to be our neighbour’s horse chestnut tree. Over the last two weeks, and in the middle of August, it had started to change colour and signalled that it thinks it is autumn.

It is nice to see this flash of auburn and red in a sea of green. It is a pleasant reminder that Autumn is on its way. Though some may disagree, I’d propose that autumn is clearly the best season; a time to enjoy the fruits of the land without the cold of winter or the work of spring and summer. However, there is also some sadness. I think this tree is behaving in this strange way because of changes to the weather, the droughts, and the changed water table in our area. Therefore, while it signals good times ahead it is also an alarm siren that we are damaging our environment

Playing God

Playing God

We are rather apprehensively awaiting the villagers coming to the farm tonight. They are probably gathering their pitchforks and readying their torches to be lit as soon as darkness falls. They said it can’t be done and, more importantly, shouldn’t be done. But I fear that they have heard that we have been responsible for affronting the natural order, for playing God, and for creating a monster. (Well eleven monsters actually).

Due to a number of factors, but mainly the predation by foxes and the goshawk, we were left in an unusual situation with our ducks. We had one Aylsbury drake and three Muscovey hens. The drake was militantly amorous with the girls but we were of the opinion that their frequent, and violent, couplings would be fruitless.

Most domesticated ducks, the Aylesbury, Indian Runner, Pekin, or Rouen for example, are descended from the mallard (Anas Platyrhynchos) and these ducks can interbreed and create hybrids quite easily. The Muscovey (Cairina Moschata), on the other hand, is descended from a different root and thus interbreeding is much less frequent. So infrequent that our neighbours, experienced poultry keepers, were certain they would not mate successfully. However, our Aylesbury drake disagreed and has managed. Now two Muscovey hens have hatched out 10 ducklings. We are sure that the Aylsbury is the father as no other drakes, wild or domestic, have been available. It is likely that these mules will be infertile and it is difficult to determine what they will look like when mature (all ducklings look much the same).

Hopefully the cuteness of these little fellows will placate the villagers when they arrive and we, and our monsters(*), will be left in peace. On a slightly less cheerful note their cuteness matters less to me than their taste, but I better not let the angry mob hear that.

Dad, Mum and Offspring
Out for a stroll

(*) For obvious reasons we have decided to call these creatures Muscburys. This is much nicer than the official name of Mullard.