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
We were fortunate in that we lost our broadband and telephone service a couple of days ago. In the high winds a branch was blown off an ash tree and as it fell to earth it brought the fibre optic cable with it. This was fortunate as this was the only real damage we sustained in the gales. It could have been much worse; property could have been damaged, fences could have been breached or livestock harmed. All that did happen was that we lost some communication and our access to the Internet. It ha also be useful and instructive to discover how reliant we have become on the web and how much time I wasted with it.
The first thing I noticed the number of times I could not immediately Google the answer to multiple pointless questions. Was Ed Shearan in Game of Thrones? Is Baghdad bigger than Tehran? When did GK Chesterton die? I am in the habit of checking these as they arise. It is so quick and easy, a trivial task, that I never remember the answers I get and thus never become truly wiser. There were more important questions (Can goats eat Christmas trees?) but we were able to look these up in a reference book where there is a handy reference list(*) which will still be there should the electricity follow the Internet in deserting us. This was a minor annoyance and easily circumvented by more traditional sources of information.
The second thing that was missing was also information. I realised that I was receiving a great deal of my news through this medium. I world start each day reading the news in my bed on my mobile phone and often end the day in the same way. A newspaper, the radio and television not only sorted this problem but also gave me better quality news. It gave me a wider range of information and opinion that had not been filtered down to appeal to my biases and prejudices. This points to a news years resolution – I will wean myself away from reliance on the internet, and especially social media, for receiving my news.
The other things I realised was how much of a toy the internet is for me. I was not using my phone or computer as a tool but as a toy to amuse me. It was something to fritter time away. Rarely was my use actively constructive, usually is was simply as a diversion. I realised how hooked I was on this as it reminded me of when I stopped smoking. For months after my last cigarette I would find myself reaching into my pockets for cigarettes and a lighter. Now I was performing the same motions, patting my pockets, to check my phone rather than my next nicotine fix.
The most fortunate part of losing this distraction was the amount of time it liberated. Not just time spent in pointless activity, but it removed the diversionary attractions which often sideline plans.
I had a large amount of goat dung and bedding to deal with, which is never a fun task and one that can nearly always be postponed or sidelined. With the new free time I felt best to make some use of it. I gathered up some residual side cuts of timber, left over from the last time we were making planks, and decided to make some raised beds. The lining was made of old plastic feed bags and the preservative was two old tins found in the garage (Hence the two different colours). After a couple of days work and no special expenditure I had a couple of fuctioning vegetable beds. These may not look much now but wait until the summer when they start to be productive.
I think I can say, quite definitely, that I was fortunate to lose the broadband connection. I now have beds, have used some rubbish and have formed a new year’s resolution. It is true that I am not up to date with what is happening with Kim Kardashian’s buttocks but I think I will survive this loss.
(*) They can, in moderation, indeed it can be a useful vitamin supplement.
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)
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.
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.
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 🤨
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.
(*) For obvious reasons we have decided to call these creatures Muscburys. This is much nicer than the official name of Mullard.
Mea Culpa! I should have posted this much earlier and I apologize for the delay. Two years ago I was felling some trees which were a mixture of larch, eucalyptus, oak and beech. During this time I learnt a life-lesson that I vowed I would pass on to anyone who would listen. I had hoped that once I have passed away that, in the future, someone would say “At least I was warned. I knew what to do” and I would be able to rest in peace knowing I had made an impact on the world.
Today’s workout was aimed at the arms and back. It had simple gym equipment; a bow saw and a maul (It is not called an axe, it is a maul, or at least a sledge axe). My intention was to start taking this years felled wood and splitting it for storage. Three hours of this is a good workout in anyone’s book. This year we had mainly cedar, oak, ash (because we have some Ash Die Back disease) and beech. It was then I remembered – I had not warned people about the beech tree, I had failed in my duty to the world!
There is a lot to be said for beech as a firewood. It is a dense wood which has a lot of thermal energy stored within it and an excellent firewood when properly seasoned. The chart below shows some of the properties of woods when they are considered as sources of fuel :-
Million British Thermal Units/cord
Therefore, I was quite happy to have a large quantity of beech for next years stove and oven. All I have to do is to season it. Beech takes about 12 months to dry properly when it is split and stacked. Thankfully I remembered something that I had intended to tell the world and had forgotton – It is vital to split beech when it is green. Some woods split better when wet and others when they are dry. The firs split very easily when dry for example but most hardwoods split more easily when still wet.
Beech doesn’t like splitting even when it is green. It takes a lot of force, a lot of swearing and a lot of time to split beech. It will sorely tax your patience and really test your mettle. There will be times when you look at one of the rounds which has resisted your onslaught and you will think “stuff this for a game of soldiers, let’s move onto the cedarfor a while“. But don’t be tempted , because if beech is difficult to split when green it becomes impossible once it has seasoned. Seasoned beech and eucalyptus are well-nigh indestructible. You will bring your maul down with all your might only to find it makes a minor dent, a loud bang and slips away jerking your hands leaving the log intact. These lumps of seasoned wood will take on the strength of rock and will drive you insane as you try to split them manually. It is best to bypass this stage and just buy, or rent, a hydraulic log-splitter.
This is the message I must leave for the world – Always split beech (and eucalyptus) shortly after felling; never, ever leave it until they it has dried. Remember this message, you will thank me one day.
(*) Coaling is the ability of a wood to form good slow burning coals which will last and is an excellent property for use in wood-stoves
I have hardly engaged with the broader outside world at all this week. I have hardly read a newspaper, watched a political show nor debates politics to any great degree. Indeed, apart from the annoyance of occasional tweets on my phone, I was out of the loop most of this time. Therefore, I have no erudite comments on the state of the world which, I imagine, is much as I left it last week.
The reason for this was very simple; I had too much to do in the real world on my doorstep. The first rush came because we had an unexpected dry spell and some unanticipated hot days. Our neighbours have a meadow, which we graze over the winter, and they thought this would be a good time to take a crop of hay from it.
After a quick cut, we then had three days of repeated turning by hand, before we gathered it in. We were working against the clock as there were thunderstorms and heavy rain predicted for the fourth day. For the gathering we used the pick-up, rather than our usual system with tarpaulins, as the field is a bit of a distance from our hay barn. Friends had arranged to visit us some time back, and they arrived in the middle of the work. I felt rather guilty that they were dragooned into the labour, but they reassured me that they enjoyed the experience. The meadow did prove to be productive giving us about 5 small bales of good value hay.
No sooner than had we finished this work than opportunity to have the assistance of an experienced forester to fell some of our trees came available. We have Ash-Dieback (a fungal disease) in a number of trees in our woods and need to fell these. One ash, about which we were uncertain if it had dieback disease, we found to be hollowed out for the bottom third of its length. Definite evidence of dieback and it would not have stood for another winter!
While I will happily fell smaller, straight-forward trees, some of these were large and complicated and beyond the level at which I can safely work. We also had a large fir tree which had become overgrown and bifurcated and was dangerously close to the house. This one was rather reluctant to fall and needed quite a bit if nudging by the wedges which you can hear being driven home in the video below.
I fear that this video does not give a good impression of the size of this tree and people might think that I am a wimp because I didn’t fell it unaided. Having heard of so many deaths and injuries locally due overconfidence, and people tackling unwise timber jobs, that I don’t really mind being considered a wimp. Forestry is the most dangerous occupation; you are safer as a soldier carrying a gun than as a forester with a chainsaw.
I may be a wimp, but I am an alive wimp and a wimp with my quota of all 4 limbs. Also, in my defence, it was a fairly large fir tree if you look at it from this angle :-
The fight of Les Gilets Jaunes may be starting to settle in France and it seems Macron may have managed to survive their onslaught on his presidency. Unfortunately we have had problems with our own yellow jackets. Over the past weeks we have been plagued by wasps and have encountered quite a number of wasp nests.
Wasps get a much worse press than bees. They are seen as violent aggressive insects who will sting with impunity as, unlike the bee, they do not die after the attack. However, wasps can be social animals like bees and are also useful pollinators. They pollinate a broader range of plants than bees and also eat many insects we consider pests, like aphids. They are also edible and the most common edible insect on sale in rural China.
There are thousands of species of wasp and most have little or no negative interaction with people at all. Most are black, small and would be mistaken for flies. Unfortunately one type, the yellow jacket or Vespula Vulgaris, is the wasp everyone knows and this is the black and yellow pest who will fight you for your picnic food. This one, and the hornet, taints the reputation of all the placid, shy and retiring wasps that we meet day in and day out.
Unfortunately some nests the wasps have made have been in places that has meant I have had to destroy them. One was in the kitchen window of the holiday let and another was face height at the door to the barn. As we keep bees I had the kit to dress up and tackle this fairly safely but I must admit that I always have my heart in my mouth when I have to move the nest. However, I was able to get both without any great drama, and we can move about again without hassle.
The nests are themselves interesting, quite different to the constructions the bees make; smaller and made of paper rather than wax. As you can see in the video below there are larvae at all stages and some still developing. The circular structures are pretty and fascinating to look at – when the adult wasps are not in the vicinity.
I can remember often uttering phrases such as “from what I can glean” or “I glean that the management had plans to close the unit“. All these times I spoke about gleaning I never actually did any gleaning, and was unaware of the origins of the verb, until recently. Today, however, I, and my wife, were mainly occupied in gleaning.
Gleaning is the action of collecting leftover crops from fields when either the form of collection, e.g. mechanization, or the quality of residual produce, make it uneconomic to collect 100% of the harvest.
Today we gleaned our neighbour’s field for some hay. His cutters and balers do not work into every corner of the field and there is plenty of good quality hay which goes to waste because it can not be gathered mechanically. When we collect it by hand we save on our feed bills for the goats and our neighbour benefits, marginally, by having a tidier field. By gleaning after the main harvest we increase the productivity of the field to closer to its maximum.
The practice of gleaning has a long history and is discussed in the Hebrew Bible where it was seen a right for the poor – only the poor were allowed to glean, not the rich landowner, when the crop was taken the remainder was to be left for the gleaners. It was in 1788 that the right to glean in England was removed (to secure property rights), prior to this often a church bell would toll morning and night to let the poor of a village know when it was right to glean the harvested fields.
As it increases the efficiency of the harvest by reducing waste we need to promote gleaning but it need not be as physically demanding as our day raking the loose hay in the fields. The developing action of giving unsold food in supermarkets to the poor is a modern form of gleaning, as are the trends to gather and use the “ugly” fruit and vegetables that can’t be sold in the normal trade. At its extreme “dumpster foraging” is a form of gleaning as it saves some of the harvest from being lost.
It is shameful that we waste up to 40% of the food we harvest. We need to try to tackle this problem. In America the Society of Saint Andrew is the largest gleaning organization, here in the UK it is The Gleaning Network. Excuse the dreadful pun, but I’d urge you to try and glean as much information as you can about this and see if there are opportunities for you to take part in this activity.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. Deuteronomy 24:19
We have just finished making hay. This is perhaps the busiest time of year for us and is certainly the most laborious task we have. We must spend three to four days in the fields cutting, turning and moving hay under a scorching sun – if there isn’t the heat the whole process is rather pointless. The power scythe largely held up after its repair though it did lose a few teeth on stones in the field which has left the main slope looking as if it is wearing a Mohican haircut.
We did manage to get all the hay in although we had a delay of a day because of an unexpected cloudy day which brought some showers. We kept the hay in wind rushes in the field during this day and resumed the turning and drying the following day. Although we feel we are not using much modern technology, and think our work looks like something a medieval peasant would recognize, during the rainy day I realized just how reliant we still are on modern technological developments.
We require at least three consecutive sunny, hot and preferably breezy days to make hay. Modern farms who take a lot of sillage can wrap the produce up in huge, black, polythene bales and allow anaerobic digestion get to work. The rain doesn’t worry them as much. We can’t do this and need to be able to predict the weather over the next few days. I just don’t have the skills for this, despite knowing many of the old rhymes which are meant to help, and rely on AccuWeather or the Norwegian meteorological site (yr.no) which is unnervingly accurate in our patch of North Wales. It is my opinion that our ability to make our own hay reliably, and hence feed our stock over the winter, without this aid would be severely compromised. I am going to have to look and see if there is any way I can learn some of these old skills and see if we can become a bit more self-reliant and independent.
In any event, we are still pretty primitive and manual in our hay making and by the last night I was dog tired and wanted to do nothing more than to eat some hearty but unhealthy food and sit and ache and throb in front of an undemanding film. The film channel that runs nostalgic material seemed a good bet and it was showing “The L-Shaped Room“. To tell the truth a number of British films from this decade blur into one in my memory. They all become a black-and-white, rags and riches, melodramatic morality tales. I knew this was not “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” but half-remembered it as “Room at the Top“.
‘Room at the Top’ is a wonderful film and I initially thought I was going to be disappointed when I realized, after a few minutes, I was not going to watch a working-class anti-hero, fighting for power and philandering with an older woman. Instead I was settling down to watch the sad tale of a single French girl living in poverty in the seedier area of London and coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy. I was thankfully very wrong. “The L- Shaped Room” is also a wonderful film. It too has excellent acting and in particular Leslie Carron shines and carries this film throughout; although it has to be said that all the actors warrant praise. The script is accurate and the moral and practical dilemmas facing the characters are well explored. All human life is here, the unmarried pregnant woman, the jobless men, the black immigrant, the old and lonely lesbian lady, the prostitutes working at the bottom of the house, the failed writer, they all play their parts. But interestingly they are not stereotypes, they are not there to be pitied as victims, but rather they are there to remind us that we all human and all have something to offer.
Though sad and downbeat in the main the thread which ties the film together is the ability of people to make connections with each other. These can be connections we would never anticipate, but they form the mesh which supports us in our day to day lives. Friendship, love and affection come from all sorts of people and when it is honest and true its source does not matter. I can not say much more about the film without risking giving away the ending (if it has an ending!) and can only say that it is a warm and enveloping film which you should consider watching if you have not already seen it. In theme and feeling it is akin to “Midnight Cowboy”, this might not seem likely but if you watch both you will understand what I mean.