It seems only a short time ago that we had warm sunny days, dry days, pleasant days, in fact, ideal days for lambs to start their lives. However, our ewes eschewed starting lambing during this period ; “too easy” they said. They have waited until just after the hail and sleet of yesterday and the start of Storm Gareth today and decided that this is the perfect time to start lambing. The pervesity of ewes knows no bounds.
We have our fingers firmly crossed and our lambing box at the ready and I’ve made this short post just to explain that there will be little activity on this site for the next few weeks.
The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-
Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.
We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.
At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.
This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.
This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.
At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return
It is often the case that someone’s rubbish is someone else’s treasure. This sharing of rubbish is well organised in our valley. The woman above us keep horses she need to get rid of large amounts of horse manure, we shift it and convert it into a valuable feed for the vegetable garden. The joiner who lives to the north creates lots of wood chipping and sawdust which he needs to move. We take it to augment our animal bedding. There are few things which don’t have a use to someone.
This week our neighbour down the valley was felling a large old oak to make a lintel for their new hearth. Prior to felling the tree they needed to clear the decades of ivy which had grown on it and, as a consequence of the prevailing winds, was unbalancing the tree which would have made a simple felling awkward. They had trailer-fulls of ivy which they were considering taking to the dump. Fortunately, they discussed it with us first and we happily informed them that goats and sheep are extremely partial to ivy. At this time of the year there is little else green for the goats, as they are not keen on grass, and both they and the sheep find it an excellent supplement to their diet.
The pleasure of finding a new use for something discarded has even extended to junk mail. I am not a very good consumer and don’t get very much of this unsolicited bumpf, but my wife daily receives leaflets and brochures urging and luring her to buy the new fashions. I am not sure that the sheep and poultry will find the new styles in the Johnny Boden catalogue to their taste and, to be fair, my wife rarely does more than browse these booklets. But there brochures have their uses. After shredding they help bulk out the poultry bedding. Once they have been well soaked in bird poo they compost down well for further recycling. They can also be made into briquettes, if they are made into paper mache blocks, which are a good replacement for firelighters in starting a fire. For both of these purposes it would be better if they had less glossy pages, indeed newsprint would be better, and I will need to write to them to suggest they use less expensive paper and fewer inks (It could save them a few bob and me a bit of work; a win-win situation).
However, the best thing about this junk mail is simply its delivery. When it appears on the mat it dilutes the other mail and reduces the obviousness of bills which is to be welcomed. It also ensures that nearly every day we have some mail rather than none. It also lets us know that the postman has been even on days when nobody in the real world had wanted to communicate with us. However, this is a double edged sword – is it better to know that the postman has been and nobody in the world wanted to talk with us ? Or is it better to look at the empty mat and think, he’s not been yet, perhaps that important missive will arrive later on?
It has been an odd day today. Although still February it has felt spring like. No, correct that, it has been like a summer’s day today. All day it has been warm and sunny, in North Wales even in Summer this is unusual.
I decided to take the opportunity to start preparing the vegetable beds. I got the Goldoni fired-up and after 2 hours we had the first pass completed. The poultry also enjoy this task as they can follow the rotary plough and take their pick of the insect life that it reveals.
I was glad to have this task to do for two reasons. Firstly, I am due to restart the goat house bedding. We use a deep bedding system for the goats. This means we add to the straw bedding on a regular basis over the year and the bedding gets deeper and deeper. It also stays warm and dry, if topped up, which the goats like. But after a period there is the task of mucking out a few tons of straw which has been liberally mixed with dung and urine. This is a hard, back breaking task, that must be done in one go (as otherwise the goats would have nowhere to sleep that night). I can’t avoid it for much longer but breaking the ground did give me an excuse for today.
The second reason was the Six Nations International Rugby competition. I knew, in my guts, Scotland was not going to perform well today and I could not really stand the stress of watching this. It was marginally less distressing to listen to it in the radio and being busy did distract and ease the pain. I could hear Scotland valiantly fighting, but losing, and this was rather less unpleasant than watching it happening in all its gory detail. Fortunately, I am now of two nationalities. My Scottish persona felt the bitter disappointment of loosing to France but my Welsh persona had the great pleasure of watching Wales win again England an hour or so later. This was a wonderful antidote and lifted me enough that I thought I might tackle the goat house tomorrow – possibly.
To round off the day nicely, whilst rotavating I uncovered a small buried treasure. I thought that I had collected all of last years potatoes but I was mistaken. In the middle of a run there was a small cache of some Pentland Javelin and Red Désirée potatoes. Not many but enough for a couple of meals. I had intended to be well behaved in my diet today and keep my carb count to a minimum. This, however, was obviously a sign, just like Wales’ win, to allow me to disregard my diet at least for tonight. I decided to have the potatoes fried in butter. These small delights had gone to all the bother of keeping themselves hidden until today just to cheer me up. I really had to eat them, despite my diet, it would have churlish not to.
I can, unfortunately, be pretty certain I’ll find no pleasant surprises when I shift the tons of dung and straw from the goat house later this week. Unless another comes along and takes priority.
We made some of our own presents this year. This was possibly unwise as neither of us could be described as artistic or skilled at craft. Rudimentary knitting is as far as we get, and the results of our endeavours with wool and needles would scarcely bring a smile to someone’s face over the festive season. However, as part of our endeavour to be self-sufficient, and due to our abomination of waste, we wanted to use the sheep skins of our lambs after slaughter. So we thought learning to tan hides would be a way to kill two birds with one stone.We would use the skins and have no need to buy Christmas presents as we could give rugs and jackets to our friends and family. This plan only half-worked. Therefore, if you decide to follow the instructions which follow, then stop half-way through.
The first stage of tanning is to salt the skins.
This means covering the whole area of the skin in a layer of salt about 0.5cm thick. Don’ try and do this with a salt cellar you are going to need about 1kg of salt per skin. Table salt or, if it is cheaper to buy, then dishwasher salt will suffice. This stage starts the preservation by drawing the moisture out of the skins as it drops on the floor. It is best to leave the skins for up to a week under the salt. Check them daily and renew the salt at any areas where pools of water have formed. The area you are working in will become wet and damp as the salt draws out all the water from the skin.
The following stage is scraping. You need sharp knives and any metal implements which
will allow you to scrape off any bits of meat of fat which are adhering to the skin. There are fleshing knives available at a cost, but kitchens knives, paint scrapers and a bee-hive tool work jus as well. This is very slow work but you have to persevere until a smooth, thin, white skin is all you have left. It should be about 1-2mm thick. Your hands will probably dry out during this process as the salt and the work will pull out all the natural oils in your skin. I found that, when I was doing this, if I went out in the rain, my hands looked as if they had been in a long hot bath as my finger tips went white and wrinkly very quickly.
The following stage is the actual tanning stage. You need to soak the skins in acid for a few days. There are many traditional
ways of getting an acid for this procedure. Originally the brains of the animal would be smeared on the skins for the syringomyelic acid they contained, and in the middle ages there was some poor unfortunate whose job was to collect dog poo (as dog poo and urine are slightly acidic) for the tanning process. We decided against these strategies and went for oxalic acid which is quite easy to obtain as it is a common cleaning preparation (often used as a decking cleaner). We sent up three bins and the skins went through these over the next weeks. The first 4 days in the acid solution, then a day in
a bicarbonate of soda wash (to neutralize the acid and start the cleaning) then a few days in a solution of soap flakes for simple cleaning. During each of these steps it is important to stir the mixture once or twice a day with a wooden stick.
Once you have completed these stages you are into the home run. The next stage is to dry the skins by hanging them on a line somewhere. Then daily pull and stretch the skins to make them pliable. This must be done multiple times and which considerable force and vigour as it breaks down the fibres in the leather and makes the leather supple.
This, I have to confess is where we
made our fatal mistake. While we dried the fleeces well and did try and bend and pull them, we did not do this adequately and when the skins finally dried the leather was too hard and rigid. It was tanned but not, by any stretch of the imagination, supple. This part of the job can’t be skimped unless you are going to be happy with wall hangings or rugs, where flexibility is less important.
This unfortunately did not deter us. We had set our mind on Christmas presents and were not going to be so flexible as to let some stiff leather put us off. After some deft work with leather thongs and a needle we constructed a jacket.
Now the leather outside is indeed waterproof, and the inner wool lining is very warm, but is does lack a little in finesse and fashion. It looks a little too Neolithic, or Game of Thrones, for day to day wear. I fear if we both wore matching jacked to the supermarket we might even be viewed as a little eccentric. But as proof of purpose it has shown it is possible to tan the skins and next year, after much more diligent work at the drying stage, we hope to have flexible, supple leather. Version 2 might even be wearable in public.
Farmers and smallholders often hold the view that sheep are born with a ‘death wish’. Much of sheep farming is less to with ways to breed, rear and grow them than to working to stop them killing themselves. You make fences to stop them hurling themselves in front of traffic. Once the fences are strong they manage to garrotte themselves in the wiring and resist all your attempt to pull them out. If there are no fences they’ll try getting entangled in the branches of hedging. If there is anything poisonous they will find it and try it, and I am not convinced they don’t lure in the dogs, foxes and crows that cause so much trouble. If the Samaritans ever consider expanding to the animal kingdom their first new section should be for sheep and their suicidality.
As there is less forage at this time of year the sheep become more adventurous in their search for food. They climb higher, reach farther and jump deeper than they usually will consider. This was the problem behind today’s escapade. I had noticed when out walking that one of my neighbour’s ewes was standing knee deep in a bog. It was looking perplexed but un-distressed and I presumed just enjoying a new range of forage. In the return leg of my walk, a half an hour later, I found her in the same position but now sunk to her shoulders and clearly tired and fearful. As I went to see her she become more frightened, struggled a little (as she was tired), and due to her struggling sunk a bit lower into the bog.
I didn’t have much time, I needed to get a rope and to get her out. It was late afternoon and it would be dark in half an hour or less and at he rate of her sinking she could be fully under water in that amount of time. I ran home and retrieved my waders and a rope. I don’t like running at the best of times but I have discovered a new horror – running in waders ! This is almost an impossibility, although you try to make all the right running movements, the constriction of the waders holds you back so you make little more speed than brisk walking. You look as ungainly as it is possible to look and the noise of rustling waders is sure make certain that anyone in the vicinity will know to turn and look for a free laugh.
Fortunately when I got back it was still light and I was able to drag her out with the rope. She was exhausted after her struggles and cold to the core. She couldn’t bear her own weight though (other than being cold and wet) she had no injuries. Fortunately I spotted a local passing in a pick-up and managed to get his help. (He was driving slowly after a fit of laughter caused by seeing somebody trying to run while wearing waders). Between us we managed to get the ewe over the wall, into his pick-up and have her taken back to the farmstead to get dry and warm. I’m optimistic she’ll be fine after this. But I am also certain that this won’t be the last time this winter we will be dragging sheep away from their doom; they are drawn to it like moths to the flame. It is the way of things.
On the plus side I always find the week after Christmas a rather flat and sad time. The modern Christmas seems to have lost both its Christian and Pagan roots and to have become something rather greedy and egotistical. So I welcomed this opportunity to help an animal in distress, and my neighbour, and the happy outcome brightened my day.
Today started dreadfully. It was cold, but sunny, as I started my rounds to feed and water the animals. When I opened the door to the first henhouse I was stunned with what I saw. A brown hen was in the middle of the floor dead, her head bitten off and near her body. The partial corpses of three small chicks were scattered around the base of the hut more or less eaten completely. The turkeys were cowering in the corner as were some chickens and one solitary chick. Something had got in during the night and taken four of our birds in one attack.
I took this badly as I was very fond of the old brown hen. In human terms she was clearly geriatric and would have been drawing her pension. But she battled on and this year, well after spring had ended, took it upon herself to go broody and hatch out two late chickens. She was an excellent mother to these two, she never left their side and she shepherded them through the day to make sure the turkeys didn’t bully them out of their share of the food. Her surviving chick has looked lonely and scared today as she hangs around the edge of the, now paltry, flock.
This type of attack is usually the result of a weasel and we were troubled by these last winter. Sometimes a fox will do the same pattern of removing the heads but there was no way for a fox to get access into the henhouse. I scoured round the area to find out how this had happened and found, once I moved some chicken droppings, that the wall of the henhouse had bowed. This had created a gap, just big enough to poke my little finger through, but big enough for weasels to gain access.
I spent today fixing this gap and checking all the other henhouses for similar problems. As I worked away I remembered the old phrase of locking stable doors after horses had bolted and felt bad that I had missed this and let it happen. We usually loose a proportion of our stock to predation by hawks, foxes and the like. I take it as a fact of life, they need to live also. Though I must say that I find the ways hawks eat their prey alive very cruel, and the way foxes and weasels will slaughter all in a hutch, but eat only a few, very wasteful. But what was making me feel bad about this was that I had missed the gap developing. I should have seen it and fixed it before the weasels found it, I am meant to be the more intelligent animal.
This evening I have merged this small flock with another. We had one very pretty cockerel I didn’t feel we could send to the pot and he had hardly any wives. He would occasionally make unsuccessful forays into the other cockerels’ areas to try and lure hens away. Here, at least, was a solution to his problem. This evening he is tucked up with the turkeys and some new wives. Over the next few days they will have to spend their day in the hen-run associated with this house (rather than roam free) until we know that they see themselves as a family; as members of a small new flock.
This old hen has also done something very useful. She reminded me of a valuable lesson. Halloween is meant to be the time that we think of death and the departed but this has largely gone to be replaced by a another secular fun day for adults and children alike. A month after Halloween this old hen reminded me, because I felt ashamed, to think about death. To think that once people have died it is too late to go back and fix things. We should look around and recognise that now is the time to do things, not later on or tomorrow. If I am not careful the regrets I could have in the future could make todays’ sadness seem very minor. There are lots of gaps that need fixing and things which need checking and I shouldn’t wait until a calamity makes me realise this. For this reminder I thank her.