Like many who find themselves socially isolating in the days of coronavirus, I have been busy in the vegetable garden. The difficulties of shopping, coinciding with the start of spring proper, have reminded many of the importance of a good vegetable patch. This may become even more important in the financial collapse and recession we are likely to meet after the plague has settled.
I had been planting and sowing and found that I needed labels to identify what I had put where. Without labels I would never know what had failed to grow in each bare patch of earth. Normally these labels are scattered about the greenhouse and garden scribbled with hopeful names which only occasionally become useful. But now that I needed some there was not one to be found. I could not go into town to buy new tags, as in nobody’s view could this be seen as essential travel. I needed to improvise.
Fortunately we buy a number of sheep licks each year. These come in large tubs with colourful plastic lids. These are often pressed into service as frisbees for the dogs but I realised that they could also help in my predicament. Five minutes work with some scissors and we have wipe clean colour coded plant tags and less plastic that will need to be dealt with as waste.
In miserable times, such as these, simple successes like this do tend to raise the spirits slightly.
There is a post box at the end of our drive and it a worrisome sign of the times. We placed it there because we are becoming more afraid about the unfolding coronavirus pandemic. As country after country introduces measures to try and contain and, after this fails, delay the spread of covid19 it has become clear that “social distancing” is one of the principle steps which needs to be considered. This is both for the safety of those vulnerable to the worse outcomes from Covid19 and also for the population as a whole, as it would tend to slow down and hamper transmission of the virus. As we are both elderly, and have some additional risk factors, we have decided to start social distancing now rather then waiting to be advised to do this by the government. The government has different priorities to ourselves; in addition to public safety they also have consider the economic impact of their advice – my consumer spending during visits to town might help keep the local economy floating but I am not sure that the risk-benefit ratio in this is truly in my favour.
It is unusual to feel worried. I am usually rather phlegmatic and not prone to anxiety. Although I recognise I have a tendency to pessimism I don’t recall being a gloomy about the immediate future as I do at present. However, this is a little like Pascal’s Wager; if my foreboding is correct I’ll be glad I took the steps I have, if I am shown to be wrong (and life returns quickly to normal) then I will have lost a little face and suffered a little embarrassment but little else. Indeed it is possible there may be some minor benefits from this changed behaviour.
We already live a life at some considerable distance socially form others. We live in a rural area and have few amenities where large groups gather. Our outside entertainment is infrequent (trips to the pub, the theatre, the cinema, etc) and even if we have to keep this up for a long time I don’t think we won’t be able to cope. Many of the things people are advised to give up (holidays, nightclubs, sporting events) are things we do not do in any event as we have livestock which keeps us homebound.
Our day-to-day contact with our neighbours and friends is something much more important and something we could not do without for a long period of time. Thankfully, about half of this socialising occurs, in any event, outdoors in the fields or the woods. Public Health England state the virus can be spread when people have ‘close sustained contact’ with people who are not infected, which typically means ‘spending more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person.’ So we still should be able to keep in contact with our neighbours and be ready to help each other as needed.
Our new post box was another attempt at social distancing,. Usually we keep out gates and doors open. We encourage people to enter and visit and usually this means we see people every day. Closing our gates is a way of alerting others to the changes we are trying. However, this could prove a great pain in the neck for our postman who’d have to get out of his van to open and close gates were he delivering mail. To avoid this we hung the mailbox. Each time I see it, it will remind me of what I am missing – conversations with friends. This is why I see it as a sign of the times and so depressing.
I said, like Pascal’s wager, there might be some benefits. There is one I can see already. We have changed our shopping habits. Instead of visits to the shops when we wish anything we are now only going infrequently and with definite purpose . There will be no shopping for fun. I think I’ll be better mentally for this and, if not, I’ll be better off financially.
Perhaps on a larger scale there will be the benefit that people will see the dangers of overconsumption and globalisation that these viral pandemics reveal. When the conquistadors brought influenza, diphtheria and measles to the new world they killed countess native Americans who had no natural immunity. The mass travel brought the danger. Again in 1918, with the demobbing of troops after the war, the mass travel brought a tide of death on its heels with the Spanish Flu. If you cast your mind back to the SARS epidemic I’m sure you’ll recall the men in hazmat suits at international airports trying to stop the spread of this outbreak, again mass transit proving the vector.
Our globalised world with long supply chains has allowed us to benefit from cheap goods from all around the globe. At the same time it has damaged our abilities to live in localities with any degree of self sufficiency. The food, the goods, the culture and the people that we have on our doorsteps is no longer adequate. We have become accustomed to much more and need and demand ever more. Hand in hand with this we have seen our levels of consumption spiral ever upward.
Some fear that this may be The end of the world as we know it. I don’t. If this is the end of a world which squanders resources and pollutes without care I will be happy to see it gone. I used to worry that this overconsumption and waste could be the end of the planet. It may be that I was worrying heedlessly. All this globalisation may not be the end of the planet, it may just be the end of us.
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.
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.
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.
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