Friday, 18 May 2018

Like a Duck to Water.

Shearing the first ewe, helped by Charlotte
The main story today (certainly the freshest) was the shearing of the sheep. We were coming round to that time of year and the forecast spoke of a heatwave held back only by a Northerly air-stream which had been keeping our temperatures down in the 14ºC. Sheep-folk begin to worry about heat and the dreaded fly-strike but we need 3 rainless days to make sure the sheep are dry.

Charlotte tackles Polly, our grey Jacob cross ewe.
Waterlogged fleeces and electric hand held clippers are not a good mixture even for we smallholders; the commercial boys worry more about the wet fleeces not being sale-able to the buyers as they are 'dishonestly' heavy. Our wool all ends up on the compost heap so that side of things does not worry us. This year I have ace sheep-wrangler and stock-person, Charlotte (of the mini-horses) back down from Dublin, working locally and keen to help with any shearing I do on her days off. Elizabeth is happy to step aside and we all benefit from the "shearer's chocolate cakes" which get baked while we shear.

Self conscious 'naked' sheep?
So, there we were, all organised from Tuesday and delighted at the lack of rain come this morning, so I raced out to Sligo to collect Charlotte and then we were all go. I love working with Charlotte and even now, 6 years in, I still learn from her. My shearing technique is to zoom up the sheep from dock to neck in long "blows" which can be fast but can leave the sheep striped like larch-lap fencing. Charlotte tends to scoop little blows out, rolling the cutting edge away from the sheep almost as soon as she has 'delved' into the fleece. It's a bit slower but very neat. The whole sheep has maybe a few mm more 'pile' left but there are none of my 'almost pink' patches or any stripes.

All done here. Charlotte is just practising her 'upside down'
technique on one of the lambs. 
We are both impressed by how much heat 'comes out' when we open up that fleece with the first 'blow' up the spine. On a sunny, windless day, the girls are living inside a 3" to 4" pile woolly overcoat and I am sure their skin temperature must be up there at blood heat. When you first glide the shears up the spine and 'unzip' the fleece, the sheep's skin is way, way hotter than your hand - probably 10-15ºC hotter.

Nobody wants the old fleeces so they
go on the compost. 
Healthy sheep have temperatures of around 38.5ºC. By the time you finish shearing, 30 minutes later, the whole animal has cooled down and the skin is more like human skin temperature. They get a whole new lease of life and go scampering round the field with relieved expressions.

The gang spent some time in the orchard prior to shearing.
The other thing we all love is the sudden change from spherical, broad-in-the-beam shaped sheep to tiny, thin, angular, goat-bony light-weights who look not that much bigger than their lambs. They were possibly rounder than normal this year because we'd been struggling to get some good grass into them to get some condition on after them lambing in the hard Winter, and we'd moved them into the orchard for a couple of days. My hope was that when we called them into the cattle race to be 'done' they'd not be so starving that the small amount of 'crunch' they'd get wouldn't leave them bleating piteously. That went OK.

The oak (left) before the ash? You decide. 
Friends of the Blog may also recall that the biggest ewe, Myfanwy, had not (yet) lambed, and I do not actually know whether she is pregnant. Back in February when we 'offed' the ram, Pedro, one of the reasons was that he had started attacking Myfanwy and I did not know whether this was just sex fore-play or annoyance at her rejecting him. In theory, as he was with us till Feb 5th, she might still lamb till 5th July. I was keen to get Charlotte's assessment once the ewe was sheared and we could all get a look at her shape and her udder. The consensus is that she's just big, having not needed to feed a lamb (or two). Ah well.

Hen with ridiculous hair (Donaldina (Trump)) goes broody
in the duck box.
Meanwhile, I am amused to note that our drakes, newly bereft of their last lady-duck have suddenly taken to going on the pond. For 2 years they have showed no interest and I have been delighted that they've left the pond alone with it's gin-clear water and healthy plants (and fauna). Back on Wednesday I may have been witness to the tiny, short, insignificant-looking event which changed all this. I had gone out to sit by the pond with the dogs all milling around harmlessly at my feet. A Guinea Fowl was calling from the 5 acre field behind me and then came zooming over to land on the grass nearby.

A new sight here - ducks on the pond. 
The dogs, excited by this flurry of movement took off at a run towards the Guinea which set one of the drakes off also flying about 2 feet from the grass. Quite by accident, I am sure, it touched down right near a dog and opted for a bounce and sidestep which pitched it into the pond for possible the first time in it's life. I watched with amusement at it's change of body language and facial expression as it went from "Oh crap! Now I'm in the pond!" via "Coo... I seem to be floating....perhaps this is not so bad after all" to finally "Mmmm... I LIKE this... look... I can paddle my feet and swim!".

Our 3 young lime trees are suddenly
covered in leaves.
There has been no holding that drake back since and he has now taken his brother on to the water to share the joy. The pair go every morning for a dabble, a swim and a water-borne preen and splash about. It remains to be seen how much damage they do and how long their welcome lasts.

Another wishbone for the car. €170 supplied and fitted
(incl. wheel alignment)
There have been just 3 other stories brewing. The car has had to go back to the garage (ker-ching €€€€€) to have to 'other' side wishbone changed and the steering re-aligned once more, for uneven tyre wear. "State of the roads round here," said the man, "I'd recommend to anyone to get alignments checked every 6 months" Never heard of that before in the UK, but there are many potholes here, plus savage 'sleeping policemen' and just general yumpy-bumpy bog roads.

In with the new, out with the old. Lidl's at Castlerea.
Our local and much loved Lidl supermarket is temporarily erased from the face of the earth. The new shop has been under construction 'next door' for a while but for 3 weeks the old has been shut while they make final changes and move all the trading across. I was impressed by how fast 'they' cleared the site. I had shopped in there on Tuesday 8th May. By the time I tried to shop again (Tuesday 15th) it was shut, demolished and cleared away as if it had never been. Impressive feat.

The pigs look great under the now fully in-leaf beech.
Finally, we are now expecting the arrival of our next Help-X volunteer, Laura D, our first try at having a helper of the female persuasion. She was booked in for Monday but has since asked if she might arrive on Saturday (tomorrow). We have no problem with that except that Elizabeth has the car down at Steak Lady's place (There's a Royal Wedding on, apparently and the Ladies are going to do it justice in their own Living room, sat around the TV with the fancy hats, party food and drinkies). I would not be able to nip and collect her from the railway/bus stations. So Laura, not to be put off, is going to try her 'travelling' skills out against the trains, buses, taxis and possibly hitch-hiker picker uppers and try to get here anyway. Good luck, Laura. Safe journey. See you soon. Just don't know HOW soon.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Repeal the 8th

Gorse to our North glowing in the morning
Any Irish person of around Elizabeth's age will tell you a similar story of the Irish education system's attempts to teach them all the Irish language. Irish schooling is famously identical throughout the land. There is only one 'examinations board' so every child from Cork to Donegal and from Galway to Dublin learns exactly the same syllabus from the same books and takes identical exams on identical dates and at the same times.

Apple Blossom
In the case of the Irish language which was taught very badly, in a dry and dusty fashion, 'by rote' and using some dire text books, this meant that those same people all have the same memories of hating having to learn Irish which they saw as a dead language and of no relevance to their 'modern'  70s and 80s lives. The main target of this loathing was a story of the life of one 'Peig Sayers' who lived a life of poverty, cold, damp and outright misery on a then almost uninhabited (and now uninhabited) lump of rock off the West coast, called Blasket Island.

More blossom
Elizabeth has shared many memories of having to read 'Peig' with many people she has met over the years since. It is like we Brits remembering how "bad" school dinners were. I have since read the book myself (in English, of course) and I can see what they mean.

That keyhole bed all restored and ready for use again.
Peig herself was allegedly quite a wonderful lady, a gripping and entertaining story teller much called upon locally for evening socials. She was old and blind by the time she came to 'tell all' and I have been told that the telling would have been well spiced up and peppered with 'naughty' bits, racy asides, dodgy anecdotes and other fun. Sadly she dictated it to a stodgy brother who wrote it all down but then only submitted a very clean, wholesome version for publication.

Hostas by the pond. The rather odd perspective because we are
looking down at a blue sky reflected in the water. 
Worse, says Elizabeth, was that Peig lived through all the "interesting" bits of recent Irish history including the Land War, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the establishment of the Irish Free State AND the establishment, finally, of the Republic of Ireland WITHOUT MENTIONING ANY OF THEM. How, asks Elizabeth, did her 'story' ever become the Education Dept's choice of the best possible book in Irish about those times?

'Repeal the 8th' voting paperwork
But hey, Peig Schmeg. Where am I going with all this? Only here. Heaven forbid anyone is reading this in a hundred more years time and researching how life was for a newly arrived smallholder trying to get his head round Irish ways, and wondering how I failed to mention that the country went through two really traumatic, historic events at the time. In May 2015 there was a Referendum aimed (successfully) at changing the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage and this month there is to be another on a thorny abortion issue currently enshrined in the 8th Amendment of the document. .

Guinea Fowl
If you want to know what it is all about, then much has been discussed and printed on the subject and it would be quite wrong of me to pretend to be unbiased or knowledgeable. Suffice to say it is a deeply entrenched issue which has split the country and not on political party lines - it has divided families and friends and made people question long-held views. A lot of the divisions are (according to polling) between  young and old, city folk and rural dwellers, male and female, religious and not and rich and poor. Probably enough said on this one. The vote is on May 25th. Anxious moments as we wait for the day and the count.

Sometimes this is all you get when a duck is taken. Some flat
grass by the fence and a few feathers.
Meanwhile, I am sad to report that our fox came back and quietly took our final female duck. This happened at about 8:30 pm by which time the Guineas were tucked up in bed, so did not raise an alarm shout. Only when I went to shepherd home the ducks, did I spot the loss, and then, when I went searching I found the tell-tale flattened grass and a few feathers by the fence. We now have just 2 adult drakes, so no eggs for the moment, but we have 3 ducklings doing very well in the nursery and 12 eggs in the incubator. We'll be back.

Chinese style pork ribs. 
I have moved the fox trap down to that place on the fence and baited it but we've had that thing 2 months now and all it has ever caught is chickens and cats. I do not hold out much hope. Worse, I was out walking the dogs today and got chatting to old friend of the blog, Mike the Cows, who was fixing a fence down the road. He'd been topping off (mowing) rushes in a field down there and had 'flushed out' a group of 3 adult foxes with his noise and clatter. Also, he knew of a fox earth with a vixen and cubs "just below" a near neighbour's house. 4 adult foxes and some cubs, all within a mile of the place!

I'm amazed we are doing as well as we are. Till next time, then.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Slow News Day

Cowslips in the local verges.
This post might be a bit short but, hey, Elizabeth tells me that the 'voters' tend to like 'same old same old'; it makes them feel comfortable that nothing is going to rock their boat or upset their millpond calm. I will pepper it with a selection of vaguely relevant pictures and maybe you, the reader, will fail to notice that I am not actually saying very much.

Dad-duck is paying a lot of attention to the new ducklings. 
Readers will think from the previous post that we are now letting our sheep out of their secure field to graze the longer grass and herbage around the garden, secure in the knowledge that they are well behaved sheep and will not do a runner into the neighbour's 5-acre cattle pasture.

Another barrow of cut hawthorn for the
log store.
Um. Slight change there - I let them out single handed on a recent day and watched all 9 nip through a gap. I had to stay with them lest they vanish we knew not where but rapidly phone Elizabeth to appear at the gap with a bucket of grub and tempt them home. All safe and sound now but the extra strand of barbed wire I added to the hedge below the one they had dipped under only stopped 3 of the 4 ewes the next day. Our oldest ewe, Polly was shimmying under it like a pro. They are now 'grounded' for the fore-see-able but by now the grass is growing so fast in their field that they will barely notice.

Thus order of a dozen asparagus crowns arrived looking more
28 to me including the scrappy bits. Thank you very much,
English's Fruit Nursery of Co. Wexford. 
The weather has continued mainly mild, so we have been getting on with the serious gardening, even in the absence of any Help-X support. I have gathered up all my wind-felled hawthorn and stacked it into the log store. I love that in May my store is filling up rather than stripped bare.

Asparagus bed with 'marker' row of catch-crop carrots
An order for a dozen asparagus crowns (Connovers Colossal var.) arrived containing my dozen nice fat crowns but also 16 more bits and pieces which English's might have seen as scraps but they look very good to me, so they have all gone into the ground in their lovely clean, weeded, mulched railway sleeper bed. We are looking to crop our first spears this year from crowns planted 2 years ago. Unfortunately the first spear to appear this week was broken off either by me in planting the new plants, or a chicken helper. Never mind. There will be more.

2 cuckoos, each pursued by a starling. 
We are suddenly surrounded by cuckoos. I noted that there were four calling in my 05:00 dawn chorus in the previous post. Since then I have seen 2 chasing about each pursued by a small songbird (possible starling?) and, today, 2 just cruising through our airspace unmolested. I had the camera in my hands for the chased two.

We loved this clever marketing campaign by Lidl Ireland. It's
mainly for the kids, but they give you a free seed pack with every
€20 spent. A tiny peat-pot about an inch cube, a pellet of peat and
a small amount of seeds in a paper strip, plus instructions. Our six
so far are doing very well. 
I have been out and about lately, helping various neighbours. Yesterday this was helping to repair some fencing down by the local main drain/stream and involved me wading about in the stream bed, praying that the water would not be too deep for the wellies (I was close, but OK). The local beef lads use the stream as water for their bullocks, and they cut 'slip-ways' down to the stream using  a digger.

We are re-starting the keyhole bed on the
The stream bed is 6' below the grassland at this place, so this lets the cattle down to below the height of the fences. Our job was to scramble down the slipway to fence off the river end of the slipway, so that bullocks coming down to drink could not wander out into the stream and go strolling up- or down-stream, escaping into the neighbour's territory.

A hole in the head. 
Meanwhile, there I was dozing 75% asleep on my pillow one night when a dog (Deefer?) decided to walk across the pillows to another position. As she walked by she just nicked the middle of my forehead with a toenail. I was vaguely aware of the pain and the small trickle of blood but slept on. In the morning I had a superb 'Harry Potter' style Z-shaped streak of dried blood down into and across one eye. It stung and the dried blood made it difficult to open that eye, so I washed it off before thinking to photograph it.

Ox Tail Stew under construction.
Finally, in 'breaking news' we hear tonight that the 'struggling writer in his garret' described in a recent post, Mr Dan, who was writing up a Masters thesis in Economics (actually supply chain resilience) in our spare room has passed his exams. That's all we know for now. He was chasing a 'Distinction' but our source does not say whether he got that. Well done Dan.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Plant More Peas, You Fool!

Pear blossom
Dog owners will know that every now and again dogs get sick. #1 Daughter here, my 12 year old bitch (Westie) is, fortunately, one of those who will tell you in advance that she is feeling sick and needs to be let out to eat some grass and sort herself. Even at 05:00, that's better than her leaving it till she actually 'produces'. Deefer 'tells' me by whimpering miserably every couple of seconds which wakes me up and I can then hear that her belly is squelching and gurgling dangerously. I cannot sleep through that and it wouldn't be fair to.

Apple Blossom
So, at 05:00 on Monday morning, I am out on the front lawn with all three dogs (you can't leave two indoors - they would bark and wake the Woman of the House). You know what? It was beautiful. It was barely light with dawn just starting in the East. It was warm and windless, dry and calm.

For the first time this year, our young greengage tree has blossom
The Dawn Chorus was going at it hammer and tongs and (I think) four cuckoos were calling from the four points of the compass. A cock pheasant was throwing in the odd 'ker-chang!' and a wood pigeon was cooing energetically. In Sussex, they say that the wood pigeon shouts "Plant more peas, you fool!", or so an ancient, weathered, son-of-the-soil farmer (Les) I used to work for told me back in the 70s, anyway. It sounds about right. At one point a large-ish bat flew through in a straight line... possible Liesler's Bat then but I'm no expert.

The beech leaves are coming out. I love that 'acid green' colour
and , yes, that is an out of focus pig in the background. 
We did our quarter of an hour of allowing Deefer to eat the long grass and try to be sick, then we all trooped back indoors. We did it all again at 06:00 and then gave up and woke up and got up properly at about quarter past 7. Deefer declined her breakfast but you'll be relieved to know, she was OK and sorted by lunchtime.

Polly the ewe enjoys the longer grass round the
willow archway.
Meanwhile we have got ourselves firmly into the routine of letting the sheep out twice a day to get at the longer grass outside the field. So far this has held no fears and caused no escapes. We supervise them out for between half and a whole hour. Either the two of us do it or either of us are happy to do this single handed. I say 'supervise' - what we actually do is stand around leaning on fences, chatting, or take a coffee and sit in our 'Darby and Joan' chairs out by the pond in the warm sunshine. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and pleasant "job".

Ewes and lambs round the pond.
The sheep, including all the now weaned or nearly-weaned lambs do a brilliant job mowing the open spaces but even better, nibble in close all around the edges, trees and fence-bases where you'd not get with a mower. They take grass, ground elder, creeping buttercup, selfheal, cow-parsley (Queen Anne's Lace here) and any other herbs they can get.

Tightly curled tail is the sign of a happy pig.
They fill up that rumen in about 45 minutes, at which point you can see they are losing focus and would, given the chance, go for a lie down. You would have to supervise that, too, which might get a bit boring. Luckily, at that stage they are very biddable and more than willing to follow any human carrying a bucket of grub back to the gated field to take their rest. They have a small helping of their 'crunch' as a dessert and we leave them be for a few hours (or over night) to ruminate that lot (cudding) before we do it all again. As a result, they are puttying on some good condition and I have not yet had to fire up the mower.

Plant more peas, you fool!
In other news. and as a nice segue from those Wood Pigeon calls, we have been thoroughly enjoying this proper improvement in the weather and have made a good start on the vegetable gardening. Elizabeth went off today in the car with a wad of cash and returned with trays and trays of seedling plants - caulis, cabbages, carrots, parsnips etc, plus pot-grown herbs and packets of seed - peas of course!

Elizabeth trying to garden 'helped' by chickens. This involved
a lot of shouting at birds and shoo-ing them off with a stick. 
Friends of the Blog will know that with Help-X Carsten's assistance, the three 'empty' railway sleeper beds in the Kitchen Garden got a  thorough weeding and a good mulch of compost. The two strawberry beds have also now been weeded. The empty ones are now well planted with the new plants but with space allowed for succession planting. Inevitably this involved the chickens all trying to get involved so there was plenty of repelling 'boarders' and the new rows are now securely protected by our chicken-wire cages and frames.

Kato trying to work out how to get up to the
starling's nest above that overflow pipe.
I have also been down a couple of times to help archery friends Con and Niamh with various 'many hands' tasks down at their place including today putting the conical canvas 'hats' on the two round-houses they have in their repro fort. It's a bit like putting up a small marquee and involves plenty of wrangling canvas while balanced at the top of a ladder clinging to the central upright pole of the house. All good clean fun.

That is probably enough for this one. Talk again soon.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Final Fry Up, Final Milk Feed

He looks well served. What will the rest of
us be having?
Our normal procedure for seeing guests off the premises involves giving them a "proper Irish Fry" breakfast on their final morning before dropping them off to the airport. The fry, which would be well loaded with sausages, rashers, white pudding, black pudding, beans, mushrooms, scrambled eggs etc sees the guest right through the flights and any onward journey without needing to eat airline or motorway services food.

Last year's pigs and I make the May pages
of the OSB calendar. Bottom left here.
Our Help-X lad, Carsten, however, was not a great one for the breakfasts, preferring a light meal of just bread and butter, glass of fruit juice and cup of tea. Also, he was not flying, only catching a train at 2 pm headed west to the town of Westport; with that timing, The Woman of the House was always going to do him a fine packed lunch.

The Amelanchia is looking like doing us
a fine job flowering this year. 
Carsten still wanted to experience this culinary delight though, so we opted for having the fry as his final evening meal. He definitely enjoyed it and dipped back in many times for seconds, thirds etc.

The sheep in 'The Woods'
The rest, as they say, is history. I dropped him to the railway station for his train and he is by now, we hope well installed at his new job on Achill Island. Up to now I have always said that the best kind of Help X guest are the ones you'd use all the good adjectives for - fit, strong, able, helpful, fast learner, safe, happy, positive etc. For Carsten I am going to up the 'ante' and add another clause. - ones where you wish they weren't actually leaving! I could easily have used Carsten for another week or more. Ah well. Welcome back here any time, friend.

By chance, Carsten was also the last guest to bottle feed the lamb, Bábóg. I had 2 grass-related problems and we solved both on a '2 birds with one stone' basis, plus a third thrown in for good measure. Out in the East Field the grass is still very shorn (by the sheep) and is not moving much yet in this slow Spring. The sheep were shouting hopefully for hay or crunch every time a human appeared. Meanwhile, in the wooded bit by our drive, the grass and herbage was getting long enough to need mowing.

First class transport for ducklings to their
new, outdoor quarters
The fence there is not good and certainly not sheep-tight, so I'd been wary of letting the sheep at it in case they headed for the hills. Elizabeth, fortunately, is braver than me about these things and thought that the sheep would be so delighted with this new grazing and browse, they'd stay around, at least till their bellies were full. After that they'd be biddable enough to be led meekly home to the secure field for a lie down and a ruminate. So it proved and they have now had 2 days at this.

What's this odd green stuff under our feet?
On the first day we both noticed that bottle-fed Bábóg seemed to be tucking into the green stuff with gusto. Weaning bottle fed lambs is quite a tricky process because you have to do it hard and fast. Their little rumens get out of balance ferment-wise if you keep giving them big shots of milk.

Dad introduces himself. 
The advice is to let them get to 7 weeks old (tick) and "make sure" they are eating around 250 g of 'solids' per day, then just STOP the bottle feeds. We both reckoned that she was eating easily that so Nurse Elizabeth (I/C Maternity Unit), dropped the axe and lo!  the girl is weaned. Even she seems to understand and her hopeful bleating has all become very uncertain and half hearted. After half an hour in the woods, her little tummy (OK, huge fat gut) is bulging and she needs a lie down with the rest of them. So that is it. She's done. Does anyone need a third of a bag of Lamlac formula powder?

Turkey sex here seems to involve a lot
of standing on top of your wife and not
a lot of contact between the vital 'bits'.
Our other progress since Carsten departed is that the ducklings have now been moved to their new quarters, a rabbit run with a 'bedroom' section. It is so warm at the moment that we think they can do very well without the 'electric hen' which never really works for ducklings anyway. It is designed for baby chicks to creep in under it as they would their Mum's skirts, and feel the warmth on their backs. Ducks is different. If they tried to creep in under Mum they'd be under water, so their instinct is to climb up on her back and blag a piggy-back ride. When they sit up on top of the electric hen, they do not get much benefit from the warming plate.

Towser climbs onto the keyhole bed, the better to observe
So, they spent the day outside in the lovely sunshine meeting a succession of our other birds who all happen by in the course of their free range circling. All three of our grown up ducks came and said 'Hello'. Time enough for them to meet face to face when they are big enough to cope with those drakes 'laying down the law'.

Roast Lamb supper.
That is probably enough for this one. It is 9 pm and I should probably go and have the now-nightly argument with the Guinea Fowl about the need to go to bed before Mr Fox comes calling.