Friday, 13 January 2017

Stirring It

The 100-400 mm 'pap' lens I use for the moon close-ups
and some of the wildlife pics.
A short-ish post, this one and another where the photo's bear little relevance to the main story. When you know what that is about you will understand, I am sure. The pics in this one are some of these final '365' project shots saved from the dying embers of the 'year'. There are also a few 'snow scenes' from the rather pathetic flurries of wet sleety snow that we have had over the last day or so. Who can resist a Christmas Card scene after all?

Candle Snuff fungus growing in our front lawn.
My "Stirring It" title comes from the main task today. In my youth, our family in-jokes and clichés frequently had us accused of "stirring it" and family members were occasionally awarded the 'wooden spoon' for stirring above and beyond the call of duty. The job, which I volunteered for before I knew the detail of what was involved was to help a friend re-start a fancy septic tank system which had become a problem.

One of our favourite Irish cookery books, Theodora Firzgibbon
Our septic tank here is the basic one, a single tank where digestion happens (if you're lucky and you don't put too much bleach down it!) followed by a big pit filled with broken stone and beach pebbles which drains away sideways into the half acre field as a whole. This one today was a much more fancy affair; a real eco-bio-digester arrangement with 3 formal chambers and then the stone-filled pit but followed by 3 beds which take and use the nutritious clean 'water' outflow.

The first beer that came to hand as I came in from the snow
and North wind; Shepherd Neame's 'Summer Sizzler'
The first is yellow flag irises, the 2nd tall bull rushes and the 3rd is willow which, I am told. puts up 20 feet regrowth every year and which they can harvest for making hurdles, wicker work or even, if they wanted to shred it, bio-mass for solid fuel fired heating.

First snow flurries.
Their problem was that after a particularly warm and busy weekend in August (lots of guests leaving...um...deposits), the digestion process in Tank #1 had been over-whelmed and the solids were now acting as a dam. We needed to re-mix this crusty mass and get everything gently flowing again in a down-hill manner. Ah well, in for a penny, as they say. We had to ignore the fact that the first snow of 2017 was all over the ground. I had made it there after all. These guys live up on what is called an 'upland bog' here. They are at the top of a mini mountain but that does not result in the good drainage you would expect. Their land is basically bog or forestry with only a few acres round the house 'improved' to grassland or hard standing.

The full moon sinks towards the snowy
ground
To cut a long story short, an hour or so of stirring and scraping the deposits off the sides of the tank had it all chopped up and converted back into a flow-able "slurry" which we could now see was starting to move downhill to the next tank and the lady suggested we wash our hands and come indoors for warm sausage sandwiches. Job done. I wish they were all that easy.

Snow in the lane this morning
The snow had been forecast since Tuesday and I was yearning for it like a child. This not because I wanted to rush out and start a snowball fight with the neighbour's children or build a snowman, but for the '365' picture potential. I am almost at the end of the year of photography now and seriously short of inspiration on what to submit for 'today's three photo's'. There are only so many pictures of ruined barns, cute calves and pretty flowers that you can get away with and some Christmas Card snow would give me an easy ride for 24 hours.

Hey ho. Just like when you were a child, snow always seemed to let you down, flurrying down in disappointingly small quantities and failing to "stick" (we used to say "settle" in Hastings) no matter how many times you looked out of the window. Well, it is no different for 59 year old '365' photographers and I was not to get my Winter Wonderland. I had to try to make the most of the dusting and a convenient full moon.

I have to be careful what I wish for, of course. The year before we arrived here (so 2010/11) they had a brutal winter with temperatures down in the -10ºC area and 18 inches of white stuff. People were nipping off to the village PO in tractors because there is no gritting or snow ploughing round here. You just have to stock up on supplies, shovel your drive (and the neighbour's) clear and wait for the to-ing and fro-ing of farm vehicles to make the roads drive-able again when a thaw comes.

We don't want too much of that. I'd sooner do without the 365 snow scenes. Stay warm.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Looking Forwards

With Christmas and the New Year all done, dusted and packed away we start to feel like we should be looking forward to the new season, Spring, new stock and all the fruit, flowers and veg leaping into action. In the previous post, I wrote that we were waiting on the splatter of tiny feet with a batch of 7 duck eggs in friend Sue's incubator. That has all now happened with three lovely healthy ducklings hatched over the 6th and 7th, collected by us on the 8th and now going through the first "brood box" week.

We use a semi-transparent plastic crate for this (well, a series of crates of increasing size to suit the growing babies) and our "electric hen" (warming plate) and we feed chick-crumb with plenty of water on the side (as these are ducks and they prefer their food dibbled in the wet) plus, for the first week, finely mashed hard boiled egg with the shell finely chopped and mixed back in.

Curiosity might not kill the cat in this case!
We are reminded each time we do this, that ducklings do not naturally creep under mother's skirts (if she is swimming, they'd submerge!) but climb instead onto her back. The ducklings are the same with the electric hen and you can generally find them all hopped up on top in a huddle. As I write this they are 3 days old and thriving. They have good appetites and have quickly learned about food, water and keeping themselves clean. You can not let them out onto the water properly till they are about 3 weeks old, as their preen-glands have not yet developed or started to produce the water-proofing oil for their feathers. In nature their mother would have oiled them up in the nest.

Hopefully the parents of this years piglets, pregnant sows
Iris and Plum.
I may also have mentioned that we had been in contact with our piglet-breeder, a guy called Adrian who farms over near the town of Boyle. You may recall that although last year's piglets came from a chap called Dermot in Wicklow, 3 hours drive away, we did not have to make that drive ourselves. Dermot was coming most of the way here and if we'd meet him in Boyle, we could get away with a half hour drive and a bit of piglet-wrangling in Boyle's market car park.

Half grown piglets at Adrian's place.
These are about 5 months old
The reason Dermot was up here was to collect a sow from Adrian and take it 'home' to get it pregnant by one of his boars. That sow and another have now produced a couple of litters each and are pregnant again (pig-people like to keep their sows in pig as much as possible because if you 'rest' them they can be a devil to get back on heat). One is due this month and the other in March. We hope to take 2 gilts from the January litter, which will be weaned after 8 weeks, in March. Sue is hoping for the same. Obviously it is all in the lap of the gods at present - as with humans there is no telling whether they will successfully 'farrow', or when or how many piglets might result and how many survive to weaning. Litters can be as big as 15 piglets or down in the 5s. All we can do at this stage is wish them all luck and pray hard.

Polly with last year's twin lambs in March (2016)
In the sheep department I had been getting a bit concerned at a stiffness or lameness I had seen on a couple of cold damp mornings in our oldest ewe, Polly. At 9 years old, Polly is at least 5 years older than any commercial 'serious' sheep farmer would keep a breeding ewe. They are allowed a couple of seasons and then generally turned into mutton at 4 years old. Well, every day is a school day with livestock and I now know a bit more about shepherding after seeking advice from Mayo Liz, the person who we are sure knows more about elderly sheep than anyone - she supplied us with Polly (and Lily and Myfanwy) in the first place aged 7 and still has some of her other ewes at 13 years old.

Mineral Lick for sheep.
Every time I see a lame sheep, I have been reaching for the foot-trimming shears and paring away any shaggy edges of 'toe-nail' I found. Well, apparently you should not always do this - restrict foot trimming to 1 or 2 times a year. Sheep get over most foot problems much faster untrimmed. Then, too, I have learned all about "The Mineral Bucket". This I possibly should have known because way back when I was a student doing a bit of milking, I remember the cattle had access to great big salt-blocks to lick. Also I know, in theory, that those goats you see creeping out along the sheer vertical walls of dams in Europe, clinging on by the edges of their toe-nails to the joints in the stone, are doing it to get to the salt deposits encrusted on the wall by water seeping through the dam.

Polly beats Myfanwy to the mineral lick. 
Be that as it may, Mayo-Liz always gives her sheep mineral licks in Winter because the quality of the grass falls away and they might lack minerals in their diet. This might be why Polly is getting stiffness in her joints, especially if she is starting to lose teeth through old age. The 'lick' is a mix of minerals and salts thickened up to a very stiff, clay-like consistency with molasses and is dark brown in colour. All the sheep love it and the older 3 (born at Mayo-Liz's) all piled in with delight. It was like an old friend! They lick and nibble and try to rasp away at the stuff goo with their lips, teeth and hard-pad (top jaw) trying to beat all the competition off till they have had enough. The bucket is now a stop on their endless circuits of the field. I THINK I can detect a new spring in Polly's step but that might just be fond imagination.

Not so chatty now, Mr Fox?
Finally a bit of fun to close off the fox story. We are fairly sure that we have solved that problem for now with our shooting of the boy-fox back in November and our new habits of keeping the birds in if we are both off site seems to have driven off the older girl (plus my man-with-shotgun from Jan 2015 has shot 2 other animals recently on his own place). Well, I thought it might be fun and cathartic to take a stuffed toy fox to our first archery club session on Sunday - we are for ever shooting at coffee cups, balloons and other bits of junk when we get bored with shooting at the official targets.

The only good fox?
So it was - we sat Brer Fox on a little wire hoop in the target at 40' range. I was actually the first to hit him and with a very lucky first arrow (right in the mouth) but he was soon getting peppered by all and sundry and starting to leak stuffing. Ah well. All good harmless fun. I should quickly re-assure my readers who do not know this story or about archery, we would not dream of taking a bow and arrows to the real thing. It is illegal throughout the British Isles to hunt any animal or bird with a bow and arrows. I am told you can still hunt that way in parts of Europe and USA but have to use the very powerful "compound" style bows and even then it has to be under license.

Towser.
So there you have it. 2017. Bring it on.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Nollaig na mBan (Ladies' Christmas)

The tree stripped and Christmas packed away for another year
Say it "Nollag na Mahn" for that authentic Gaelic effect. Readers who were with me in January 2014 will have already heard of this break and 'day-off' for the hardworking ladies of the household. This is a tradition in the West of Ireland which is thought to pre-date those blow-in Christians and their 'Epiphany' malarkey (when the 3 wise men finally rocked up to the crib and Bethlehem). The ladies of the household, having slaved for 2 weeks for their men-folk, finally earned a day off. The men would hold the fort, feed the livestock and do the house work.

One of the marmalade kittens does justice to a bit of left over lamb
In my head, I was proud of the lads! I imagined them feeling sorry for their ladies at last and gallantly (patronisingly? chauvinistically?) granting them the day off, "generously" palming them an amount of spending money and helping them into the buggy to which they had already hitched up the mare. Have a nice time, ladies.

A nice range of egg colours. Top is a duck egg. 
Not a bit of it apparently. Back in the day the law and (even more important) village tradition of what was right said that this was their right, entitlement and due and they did not need any man deciding that they could do this. They'd done their 2 weeks and they were outta here. If Mr Farmer got a slice of cold pie left for him in the meat-safe then fair play to him.

Ash bark.
The tradition has died out a bit and is forgotten in most areas, but out here in the West it still hangs on. Locals will shy away from organising public events (dances, social nights) on 6th Jan because "people like to organise their own family things around Little Christmas" (the other name for it). Mind you, Liz tells me that in the cities , the bar/pub/restaurant trade has started to try to re-introduce it hoping that the gangs of local women, released for the day from the chores of home and the kids and bent on shopping, might finish their free days with a meal of a few drinks with the girl-friends. As a quick aside to this, the lady currently curating that Twitter account (see previous post) tells us that in the Amish (Plain People) areas of up-state New York, they celebrate "Old Christmas" on this date.

We did a reasonable job here, making sure to look after Lizzie. She got a nice lie-in, then taken shopping in Roscommon. There was a lunch, then a relaxing afternoon and then I cooked the supper and she is even now  sipping gently on a glass 'Barefoot' Malbec. A small stash of chocolates sits waiting on the dresser. That, we guess, is it. The 'real' Christmas is done and tidied away, and the Ladies' Christmas has now followed it for this year.

Warm socks.
That's it for this post, too. I am being brief (can't be rattling away in here when I am meant to be looking after the good lady!). I was hoping to bring you pics and news of the 'splatter' of tiny webbed feet but those little ducklings are taking their own sweet time battling their way out of the shells. There were 7 eggs. As I go to print, Rob tells me we have 2 out of their shells so far and more 'pipping' (chipping their way through) but these little mites don't all survive this stage, so I won't do an update till we are sure how many 'survivors' we have.

11ºC today and plenty of bees flying. Plenty returning, too, with
their 'shopping baskets' full of  ivy pollen. Happy Nollaig na
mBan, ladies. Not too many drones around in January to be doing
the house work while you're gone, mind.
The one single thing we found lacking thru Christmas was good old fashioned holly. In all my dog walking and car-mounted exploring, I could find no bush from which to steal a sprig for the Christmas pud, only neat little clipped specimens in gardens. We have every other broad-leaved species, but no holly, so we were off today to the local garden centre. Of course, since then, as is the way of these hunts, we have seen holly bushes everywhere and we know that they can be propagated from semi-ripe cuttings.

An optimistic tree growing in a wall.
Well, we have one now. May it live long an prosper. We paid €5 for ours. We were amused to learn that a local shop was selling prunings for use in wreaths etc at €7.50 PER BIT! No flies on these local guys when it comes to merchandising.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

All Good Things

All good things, so they say, must come to an end, and we are now at, or coming to, the end of some crackers. Once again, I do not have many pics specific to these subjects (at least, not ones I haven't already used), so I will fill in with some nice '365' pics. That is one of the "things" anyway, so it works... ish. The other two are Christmas itself and my week of being curator on 'that' Twitter account.

We would normally dismantle Christmas here at some convenient weekend between New Year and 12th Night, demolish the tree, pack all the 'stuff' away into its crates but we were both enjoying this one so much that we had decided to do the job on the 5th (the 12th Day and all that). However, one of the delightful kitten-cats (we think) did a very smelly poo, we thought, under the tree and Liz, faced with a pot-holer style elbows-down crawl under the low branches to locate and remove the offending item, unilaterally decided that enough was enough. Demolition day is today!

Some of the hens are coming back into lay at last and the
surviving Marans hen has started (dark brown egg)
This afternoon, then, we have been finishing Christmas including me going back over the rooftops etc and all along that 48m fence you have heard about in other posts concertina-ing up the fairy lights. We're done. We both agree that this has been our nicest and most enjoyable Christmas for a while though it is hard to pinpoint any specific reason. Everything about it seemed to go off well from the start - planning, lists, preparations, the visit and everything we wanted to do. The food and drink were well judged and superbly executed, the present buying/giving was a success and the subsequent wind-down has been beautifully relaxing. Peace and good will to all reigned. We are all still smiling even as we pack the paraphernalia back in its crates. May we have many more as good as this one was.

Horsehair caught on a fence.
I noted in the previous post that inter-leaved through the back end of this Christmas was my week of being curator of the @smallholderIRL Twitter account. That too went very successfully and well and seemed to hit the right note(s) and has met with widespread thanks, approval and praise. That is always nice because you are always aware that you are firing off these soundbites that you think are funny, wise, appropriate, pithy or what ever but the 2500 followers out there are 99% unknown to you. They might vehemently disagree with your opinions, not find your quips funny, be irritated by your timing or tone. Some (we call them 'trolls') are just miserable gits who get their kicks by saying rude, nasty or provocative things just to see if they can get a rise out of people. All life is there and it can be tricky finding the right approach.

First 365 pic of 2017?
Lovely when you do though. I was fortunate in my assigned week running from St Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) to New Year's Day, so I had a couple of rich veins from which to draw my 'copy'. I had all the 'Wren Boys' tradition on St Stephen's Day, all the leftovers cookery, cold turkey sandwich jokes etc and then I came up with an inspired plan for New Years. Again, no idea if it would work - it might have fallen flat. I decided to 'First Foot' any followers who might not have a bloke to do it, or might not have heard of this Scottish tradition.

Happy New Year! First Footing 'treats' for the
Twitter account
I had set the account up during the day, telling them what to expect and all about First Footing, told them they needed to have the back door open before they open the front, to let the old year out, then I'd "arrive" (on Twitter) to greet them and hand them (a picture of) the plate containing the bread (signifying food), coal (warmth), salt (savour) and whiskey (good cheer). It was easy enough to do and went down OK - there was a reasonable smatter of comment, 'like's and thanks, though I did get the impression that most were a bit flummoxed and plenty had either gone to bed early or were at a 'proper' celebration with real First Footers. Ah well.

Icy Puddle
Nobody boo'd me off stage anyway and I woke up that day to run the account till 5 pm. when I had to hand in the 'keys' so that boss-lady (Margaret Griffin) could set it all up for this week's curator, a lady who does her small-holdering in up-state New York (would you believe - the account does 'foreign' guests now and then). This lady is currently amazing us all with tales of farming among her neighbouring 'Amish' folk and lovely pics of the area with snow on the ground and all those lovely Amish horse-drawn carts and buggies trundling through it. She tells us that they sometimes see bears and moose strolling about. They are, I think, only 'small' by USA standards - she talks of 100 head of cattle including a 60-70 head milking herd of Holsteins. They are within spitting distance of (I think I have this right) a National Wilderness Park called the 'Adirondak Park' - a MILLION acres of wilderness!!! Makes my week seem quite pedestrian!

Incoming female Mute Swan. I thought for a while she'd
land on my head but luckily she veered off. 
Also now in its final month, a project of which I have spoken countless times since we started back in February 2016 (and before it was actually born). This is our '365 Lisacul' thing, a photo 'diary' of the year (actually 366 as it was a leap-year) in, of and from the 18 townlands around our village. This was Liz's 'baby' really; she had borrowed the idea from our good friend Nathalie Banaigs who was in charge of the one done by Faversham, the town we lived in in the UK. This with Nath's blessing, of course.

I agreed to be the safety net / back stop. I would take at least 1 (actually always 3) usable picture EVERY day without fail from 1st Feb 2016 to 31st Jan 2017. I am delighted to be able to say that, so far at least, I have delivered this with no missing days. It has had its moments and frustrations and I have been unable to make some of the pics I had dreamed up work but over all it has been a blast. I have learned a lot and certainly hunted down all manner of nooks and crannies in the 'patch' which I would probably never have been to without the incentive.

I guess I know more bridges, lanes or corners where one townland finishes and another starts, than do most of the locals. I have also met lots of lovely people whom I would not otherwise have encountered. Plenty of them stop in their cars when they see me nose-down in a ditch trying to get just that angle on an orchid or something, or trying to pick my way through a bog where they know there is no safe path! Oh, so YOU'RE the camera guy!

New Year's Day sunrise through the trees.
Well, just 28 more photography days to go on that one - wish me luck. I'm not out of the woods yet. Then Liz and the team have the fun job of selecting which pics go in for what day. She has 30 contributors at this stage. It would be quite fun to be a fly on the wall that day.

Roast lamb, sprouts and chestnuts.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are now settling into the New Year and starting to think about 2017. 2 livestock issues are pressing. We are off to meet our prospective piglet supplier in a couple of days. This guy is a new breeder of Oxford Sandy and Blacks (OSBs) who was setting up last year when we got our pair of gilts from our man in Kildare - you may recall that we had only to do the short drive to Boyle because he was driving up here anyway. It was to this new guy that he was going, to retrieve a sow, to take her back to Kildare to get her 'in-pig' (pregnant) by one of his home boars. Secondly, we have some duck eggs in our buddy Sue's incubator. These were laid by our surviving duck and we hope, fertilized by our surviving drake. Those two (William and Mary - some kind of connection with the 'of Orange' royals due to the Duck and Orange thing) are now our "parent generation" thanks to Mr Fox removing all the competition. The slap of tiny webbed feet is expected any day now (5th to 8th -ish). This will be our first Christmas (Re)Stocking. Geddit? OK, sorry. I'll save the witticisms for Twitter.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Speaking too Soon

Our own ham and our own green tomato chutney make for
a delicious "left overs" sandwich. 
Sometimes I "go to print" on these blog posts with a funny feeling that I may have spoken too soon - my confidence and complacency; my urge to rush a good story onto these pages will be my undoing. This has been close to the truth no fewer than three times over Christmas as I will now relate. The pictures may not be relevant but you will probably cope.

Still some chocs left when I took this. All gone now!
Three posts ago I was happily relating that we had decorated the Christmas Tree, that the kittens had had a brief play with low-hanging baubles but then got bored and moved on and that we'd sat down with a Gluhwein thinking "Job well done". Not for us the horror stories of trees wrecked by cats. I even included a picture of my old favourite decoration, a plaster lobster dressed as a waiter delivering a tray of 'beignets' (fried buns), a prized souvenir of my one and only trip to New Orleans.

For a party claiming not to have drunk much
we were still well laden for the "drive of shame"
Well, no sooner had I gone to press and my back turned than the kittens managed to upturn the tree with Liz seeing it all in slow motion ("NooooOOOO!!!!) and diving to save it but too late. Very little damage done but my lobster hit the tiled floor and smashed into 3 pieces. We have found his body and his arm holding the tray of beignets but where his tail 'flukes' have gone we have no idea.

A first sign of Spring - the daffs in the
lane emerging.
Next up, my joy at having solved the jackdaw problem with my bloke, accompanied by Soldier the Cat, shinnying up those ladders to demolish the jackdaw nest and fit our jackdaw-cage pots to prevent anyone moving back in. Storm Barbara had other ideas. The next morning saw one of the 'cages' lifted out of the chimney pot and dropped into Liz's rose garden.

Odd disco lighting effects from the sun
reflecting off the fancy candle-cover at the
bottom of this picture. 
The design of these, you may recall, involves a flat cone top like a Chinese 'paddy-field' worker's hat, with a ring of outward-sprung rods which you pull together to fit the ends down inside the bore of the pot. You can imagine that the 'hat' must give a fair amount of lift, like an aircraft wing 'aerofoil' in a cross wind, and I suppose the wagging back and forth in gusts might 'walk' the legs up the chimney bore like a ratchet. Being worried about the lack of draw (caused in the end by the jackdaw nest) I had asked the guy to position the pots high up, well proud of the chimney. My mistake. He is coming back to put the fallen one back - I will get him to set them lower this time.

Our 3 roosters hang in the polytunnel to
await processing in the kitchen
Finally, I told you that we had taken the fox trap back to Sue and Rob's, confident that our fox was shot dead and the problem solved. I was not happy the following morning to find that *someone* had got at the three roosters we had hung in the poly tunnel overnight to await processing in the morning. A head had been pulled off one leaving a bloody, strap-like, skinned neck hanging down and a small puff of torn out feathers on the grass  outside the tunnel. My heart sank. I was convinced it was a fox, though I was surprised the beast had not ripped down a whole bird (or all three). Mum in Law (Steak Lady) has since suggested that it might, in fact, have been a cat. That makes more sense. I had not thought of that.

A litre tub of yogurt and one of those roosters make the basis
of a rather fine curry. 
Other than that, we have just been chugging our way through all those left-overs, recovering and tidying up the place, making the most of the relaxing days between the two main events.

The Ministry post us details of a new grant
scheme but we are too small to be eligible
I have been serving my 2nd ever week (1st was in January) as the "voice of Irish smallholders". Well, the Twitter voice anyway - I am this week the "curator" (= guest twitterer) of the @smallholderIRL Twitter account. If you don't 'do' Twitter or have no  experience of it, it is quite fun. It is a very fast and chatty but very lightweight and ephemeral space where you can look in, chat away to who ever is 'on' and then drop off again. You can only speak in 'soundbites' (140 characters) so it is no place to go for a heavy, wordy discussion, though some people do post links to longer articles. You can click through to them or not according to preference and time available.

The '365' project is about to enter its final month.
Like Facebook, users tend to accumulate like-minded 'friends' and coalesce into groups. The small holder group currently has 2500 'followers' not all small holders. When you log out it 'twitters' away without you with hundreds of snatches of chat a bit like stepping out of the pub for fresh air. When they are said, they are quickly gone, pushed down thread by more recent 'tweets'. As I said, 'ephemeral'. Nobody really goes in and then back-tracks down the old stuff, though there is a way of getting it to 'remember' posts where you were included, replies to your posts and so on. Occasionally posts or links strike a chord with lots of posters and the 're-tweet' them to pass them on and that story spreads far and wide, it "goes viral" in modern parlance. It is basically harmless fun but I love the fact that I can share my experiences with 2000+ other small holders all trying to meet and solve the same problems, enjoying similar weather, admiring the same sunsets and munching on their turkey sandwiches and pickles.

Talk to you again next year.