21 December 2010

Winter Solstice 2010

Winter Solstice 2010, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

12 December 2010

We've got too many chickens !

That's the spirit !, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy

This boy got beaten up by a band of roaming youngsters that I call the red bunch and as he was walking away with his head down I started taking photographs of him and he suddenly perked up and strode along proudly as though to show me that he was non the worse for his humiliation.

The culprits were a large group of young red cockerels who are now at sexual maturity and are a pain in the whotsit - not just because they're fighting with all the other young cocks but also they've started to gang up on the girls and the poor things have to walk the gauntlet before being allowed into the chicken shed to roost for the night.

Anyone who has kept chickens will know what I mean - I almost feel like throwing something at them when they start their antics and the girls are becoming nervous and scatty and if this goes on any longer they'll go off the lay, their backs will lose their feathers and some of them may be tempted to sleep outside and risk an encounter with Mr Fox.

It's been a real joy all summer to see this year's chicks grow up. A high proportion of them are bright orange with a few blacks and a couple of pure whites. The garden has been brought alive by the flashing past of dozens of orange chicks running when they hear the feeder being filled up. But I counted the chickens this morning and there are fifty and an awful lot of them are young males. I'll try to find homes for the best cockerels - normally my neighbours are interested if they need to change their stock - but sadly, it's not worth feeding them all winter and the time has come to cull them and get them into the freezer.

25 October 2010

We've finally got a new worktop in the kitchen !

Now I know for some people this is no big deal but for me it's one the most exciting things that's happened for ages. (Apart from the roof but I'll talk about that another time.)

Anyone's who's ever visited here will have noticed that there's never ever anywhere to put things in our kitchen. Everything that arrives gets dumped on the table and before we eat, we've taken to simply pushing the mess over a bit to make the space to put a few plates. In the summer, space isn't a problem because we have three huge tables outside on the terrace but in the winter everything has to come inside.

I've been meaning to make a work top and somewhere to store pots and pans for ages but I've always got something else more important to do. Well-meaning friends try to persuade me to go out and bu something but I just can't do that. It's not even the money, we'd just  never dream of just buying something - unless it's for the computers or something that neither Fabrice nor I can make  ourselves.

I really do prefer things that have been home-made from recycled materials and we're fortunate to live in a rural area where people share our frugal ethics. Since we started building the house our neighbours have been wonderful - helping us to source materials and bringing anything they've got or they can get that they think we might be able to use.

Our tribal dumping ground in the photo here is an area where we stock materials. It now looks pretty organised but when we first started building it was piled high with masses of reclaimed materials which have now found pride of place in the house. Now we're looking for fittings for finishing the extension and this summer has been absolutely frenetic with 'phone calls and lorries arriving with old baths, wood, tiles, bottles, windows, sinks, stone, chicken-wire and anything else you can imagine. Some of it gets passed on to other people who we know are looking for things but a lot of it gets arranged in lots to be used for building or for making things for the garden.

We  ask people to try not to bring  polystyrene or plastic or broken bottles  and over the years they're getting better at knowing what we need  and what we  might find useful and it's incredible how they often go out of their way to help us.

The conversations go something  like this. "My son knows a place where they're pulling out a load of double glazed windows, there's nothing wrong with them, it's just that the electric shutters don't work any more. The guy said they'd be skipped on Friday, if we get there fast he'll let us have the lot for a fiver each." The logistics of how to get there fast with a van or someone's borrowed trailer are sorted out and off we go to collect the windows.(Merci Guy !)

To be honest if it weren't for all the things that people give us, our house would have been a lot more expensive to build and we'd have spent an awful lot of time in DIY shops - not to mention the fact that it would be boring to have to choose what we wanted all the time instead of just doing what we can with what we've got. Sometimes things do look a bit weird to begin with but the finished result  is quirky and interesting and totally unique.

We've use almost all our old windows now for covering firewood, making cold frames, covering straw bales as temporary shelter for tender plants and we've used   them for making our greenhouse and even as windows when they're good enough.

The new veranda is just second-hand windows we've been given and wood Fabrice cut from our land, topped by incredibly expensive hail-stone proof double layer plastic. We've   got seven second-hand double-glazed PVC French windows which we'll use at the back   of the  house just to  the right of these windows and on the east side   of the  extension. I don't really like plastic or PVC but we get a lot of storms here and I don't intend replacing anything in my lifetime. We'll paint the windows or do something to make them look OK and the fact that everything is recycled assuages my green conscience.

We've used all the stone that was easily accessible on our land, (Peak stone !) so we've asked neighbours to help us find more. They have come up trumps and sometimes even deliver it to us (Merci Christophe !) or  we go and get it ourselves.

We dump all the stones and rubble in front  of the house and when we've  taken the  best  bits out of it, (Including some roots and bulbs which have become beautiful plants !) what's left  makes a solid base for the  roads we've  been  making for the past few  years.

Anyway, getting back to the kitchen worktop. A few weeks ago I bit the bullet and bought a worktop in a shop. (I bought three because I'll need two more for the extension.) They've sat inside the front door doing nothing because we've been so busy.

We had a visitor here and after a week or so, he started to appreciate why we never had time to do anything about storage space in the kitchen, so he offered to make us something. On his next visit, he brought with him a couple of beautiful pieces of boxwood Buxus sempervirens which he used for the front legs of the table and of course, the rest of the bits he needed came from the dumping ground !

After he spent the day making it he had to go back to work at L'Ecocentre du Périgord, so I finished sanding it down and over the past week I've given it five coats of varnish and it's now dry and ready for use. Thanks Yohan, you really are a star !

22 October 2010

What an amazing sky !

Pyke dragged me out this evening. He ran around the house, teasing and showing off and insisted that I go out with him. I was a bit busy but stopped what I was doing because when he does that there's usually something worth seeing, so I let him lead me to the end of the drive, then he stood there watching the sky. He's a funny dog. 

He's a Border Collie from good working stock and we got him to work with the goats and sheep and he does help a bit but gets bored easily then runs off to chase swallows and butterflies. We've given up trying to get him to work properly. 
In the village they call him "The poet".

      Le poète est celui qui voit autrement, qui porte un regard neuf, émerveillé 
     sur ce qui est souvent ignoré par les autres hommes...
In English that means, "The poet is someone who sees things differently, in a new light, amazed at things which are often ignored by other people."
I've never known a dog before who walks around sniffing flowers. The interesting thing is that his likes and dislikes are so similar to mine. Sweet smelling roses, Jasmine and Honeysuckle have a really positive effect on him and when he sniffs a flower he likes, he looks up at me, smiles and wags his tail.
We sat looking at the sky with the clouds moving slowly towards the west and as the sun crept over towards the horizon and the sky darkened we turned and walked towards the east where the wind was pushing and dividing the clouds into puffy balls and as it got stronger the little wind turbines suddenly started chugging into life. 

The wind got stronger and stronger and my little cardi suddenly felt very inadequate so I looked at Pyke and he looked at me then we went inside to the warm. 

17 October 2010

Autumn colours

I walk down this little path every day to open the chickens then through the vegetable garden and back up towards the house to open the geese and check the goats. Then I have a cup of tea.

I'll probably walk down this path four of five times in an average day but the morning stroll is the important one and starting the tour by this path has become a morning ritual. The path is crunchy underfoot with years of discarded mussel and oyster shells and in autumn it rustles with the sound of fallen sweet chestnut and oak leaves.

I've lingered a bit more than usual this week on the path - the colours are stunning and it's interesting to see the shape of the tree trunks emerging from the fallen greenery and the new growth of biennials like the Foxglove, Mullen and Evening primrose. Autumn is a lovely time of the year, especially when you're ready for winter.

5 October 2010

Getting ready for winter

The man with the corn picker is coming to the village soon so we had to get a move on and get last year's corn out of the crib to fill it up again with freshly harvested cobs.

We kept some of the old cobs for the pigs and goats then grained the rest of it with our neighbour Guy's ancient machine and put the grain into all the containers we could find and stored it in the extension. It's the first year we've had to rush like this - normally we don't have any left at the start of autumn but last year's crop was exceptional.
The weather's been really dry here since the end of May, so this year's crop won't be so good.

This is the ancient corn picker which has been doing the rounds in this village (and several others) for quite a few years. When I see it I always think of Mad Max - a film set in a future where law and order has broken down at the end of the 'Oil Age' and baddies use weird and wonderful machines like this for just cruising around doing wicked things.
I suppose using a machine like this is wicked. I hate to think how much diesel this thing uses when it's chugging through the maize and what sort of damage it's doing to the earth below. We ought to be sowing and harvesting our grain by hand but a few years ago, thirty of us harvested a small field of corn for a neighbour and it took us several hours. This machine does the job for the whole village in just two days.

I'm sorry I haven't been blogging for a long time but we've been under a lot of pressure from forces beyond our control and I haven't felt like sharing what's been going on. I'll get back on that straight and narrow road soon.

24 June 2010

DC pump powered by solar panel for solar water heating

It seems like ages ago that we started to put up the new vacuum solar tubes. The rain and the corn planting and hay cutting have stopped us getting on with the installation but today we finished it !

I've used a photo of a pump as an introduction to today's blog post because DC pumps like these are really difficult to find - at least in France.
Someone searching the 'net for a solar powered pump (As I've done so often !) will get the information here that they need to find the right pump. The installation and operation manual of our pump is available on the 'net in the Laing website

Our old flat plate solar collectors worked by thermosiphon - that is the hot water rose and circulated without the need for a pump. (Note the English and the American spellings differ) I prefer that system as there's nothing to go wrong but as I wanted to put our new panels on the back roof of the conservatory where they wouldn't be seen which is higher that our hot water cylinder, we couldn't use thermosyphon and have to pump the hot water around the circuit.

This little pump is powered by a little 20 watt photovoltaic panel which of course only works when the sun shines and the water is being heated - so it's perfect for a solar water heating system !

The photo above shows Fabrice fitting the last of the 16 vacuum tubes which each heat a little copper bar at the top of them. They fit into a manifold where they heat the water. That was the last step in the fitting process after we'd tested the pump and bled the hot water system.

I haven't lagged the pipes or insulated the water cylinder yet just in case there's a leak, so the system isn't as efficient as it will be when it's insulated but so far everything is working as planned and the water is warming up nicely.

1 June 2010

Hens, hatching eggs, chicks and dustbaths

Our hens lay their eggs (mostly!) in empty gunpowder containers in the chicken house. Once a hen goes broody, she'll stay put on the eggs and when you approach her she has a very aggressive stare and pecks you when you put your hand near her. You can be almost sure then that she wants to be left in peace to hatch her eggs. I say "her" eggs but the chicken doesn't really mind whose eggs she sits on !

We often swop the eggs our hens have chosen to sit on, replacing them with our "best" eggs or with eggs from friends. Our huge red cockerel - the biggest I've ever seen - was a gift of an egg from a friend who said we'd be delighted with him and we are !

When the hen is settled on her eggs, we lift the barrel and its contents gently to our "inner sanctum" - a big cage inside our chicken shed where the hens can sit undisturbed by other hens who want to lay their eggs in the same barrel. By moving the hens we ensure that there's no fighting, no eggs get broken and the eggs all hatch at the same time. That gives each chick the best possible chance of survival.

Once the chicks are hatched we keep them inside the cage for about a week to make sure they're well fed and they learn to respond the their mother's calls to feed and hide under her wings when told to do so. We sometimes have to move them out once the next batch of chicks are hatched to prevent fighting either into a covered chicken tractor or into the big wide world - a very dangerous place for a little chick.

As well as the dangers from stoats, snakes and the obstacles on the terrain itself, birds of prey take chicks and it's heartbreaking to walk down to the chicken shed and find several writhing on the ground having been dropped by the birds. Keeping them inside or outside under a cage helps reduce the inevitable losses.

Chickens love to take dust baths, they are essential to the well being of your chickens to help rid then of external parasites and dead skin. If, like ours, you hens free range leave them a few corners of the garden but protect your plants and seedlings otherwise they'll break your heart !

Dust baths are especially appreciated after a hen has spent three weeks sitting on eggs and the first thing she'll do with her new chicks is to look for somewhere to take a dust bath. If you don't have room in your garden, a paddling pool filled with dry, riddled soil will do the job. The substance used must be fine enough to clog the breathing pores of the chicken's parasites.

I've tried using Diatomaceous earth but noticed that my chickens' eyes were being irritated by the powder, so I've stopped using it and I don't use sand for the same reason.

You'll have to replace the soil regularly because the chickens wriggle their way in to the the dust and cover themselves with as much as possible then shake out an impressive amount of dust all over the place.

24 May 2010

A bit of motivation to get on with things

There's nothing better for getting over anger and sadness than getting on with things. Around us there's the sound of birds, frogs, toads, lambs and chicks - all celebrating their existence. The endless optimism of the singing birds in the trees lifts our spirits and encourages us to get on with making our space more welcoming and attractive. I find physical work profoundly energising and the exercise helps us get rid of stress and prepares us to live as warriors and not as victims.

March 2006 This rose should cover the whole top half of the slope in about four years
When I need a bit of encouragement to get on and do things, I have a look at some of the old photographs I've taken of the garden and wander around taking shots of the same views now. This one is a good example of the back of our house about a year after I planted the rose in the photo. It's now more than six metres high, winding into the young oak tree which shades the back of the terrace and it's covered in little yellow flowers around the time of my birthday in April.

People often give me plants for my birthday and I plant them in this spot which has become my "Birthday Garden". It's starting to look good and does a great job of keeping our cellar cool in the summer.

The brambles and ferns are still present but I've left them for the time being to provide shade and I've cleared and mulched a space for a few more birthday shrubs planted this year which should eventually grow to about a metre.

Unless you have an unlimited budget, filling a space with plants takes time. I like the gradual process of using sentimental plants which you can nurture to maturity. They give an enormous amount of pleasure, not just to me but also to the person who gave them to me.

14 May 2010

Bisous Bourrou and thanks to all my friends

Bisous Bourrou, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

7 May 2010

Au revoir Judy - Bourrou May 2010

Our little wire-haired Dachsund Judy was in perfect health on Monday.

In the early evening we found her in a coma behind the house. Her gums were white and her limbs in spasm and I rushed her to the nearest vet. He said that she'd eaten rat poison. Neither us nor our neighbours use rat poison. She died without regaining consciousness.

We are devastated.

Notre petit Teckel Judy était en parfaite santé lundi midi.

En début de soirée nous l'avons trouvée dans un état comateux derrière la maison. Ses gencives étaient blanches et ses membres dans le spasme et je lui amenais en tout hâte vers la vétérinaire la plus proche. Il a dit qu'elle avait mangé du raticide. Ni nous, ni nos voisins utilisent le poison pour les rats.

Nous sommes dévastés.

30 April 2010

Amazing April light just before the rain

It's been hot and dry for a couple of weeks and we really need a bit of rain to soak everything I've planted over the past month or so. Yesterday evening the sky became dark and with a beautiful light and the wind stopped for just a few minutes before the drops started to fall.

I've just checked the water butts and they've been topped up overnight. Perfect timing !

26 April 2010

Stevia rises from the dead - yippee !

This is the second year this Stevia plant has overwintered.

The leaves started dying a few weeks ago and I tried watering then not watering and eventually gave up; thinking that the plant was dead.

I had a look yesterday and there's new growth from the base of the plant which means; with a bit of luck, that I don't have to look for new Stevia plants this year.

Latest lamb - small but perfectly formed

We have a few young ewes due to lamb soon so we're keeping our eyes peeled regularly on the field in front of the house since the flock have gone outside on to the new grass.

The sheep turn their noses up at hay now and we've almost stopped feeding supplements as both the ewes and the lambs are looking pretty chunky but the yearlings who are pregnant still need a bit extra so we're getting pretty good at slipping some corn and lucerne nuts in front of them and they've started to become used to a discreet treat.

This teeny weeny little lamb was born yesterday. She's the smallest lamb I've ever seen and when we saw her at first we thought she might be premature.

On closer inspection, we saw her little feet are hard and you can feel her teeth and today she's running after her mum and screams her head off when she's lost. She's pretty normal for a day old lamb really.

We're almost at the end of our terrible footrot problem. Seven of our goats still have a slight limp and I still have a slightly sore back but we're getting there.

18 April 2010

April anticipation. The weather has changed; it's getting warmer...

April anticipation, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

A young Wisteria comes into its own

8 April 2010

There's mud everywhere and the tarpaulin has blown off the hay !

5 April 2010

The self-seeded lettuce is ready to eat and the no-dig seed bed is ready to plant !

Our neighbour Robert gave me these lettuces and told me to let some self seed and I'd have early lettuce. The commercial winter varieties I planted just haven't grown at all but these ones been through frost, snow, hailstones and torrential rain and they've come up smiling and taste wonderful!

Alongside them is some Italian Parsley which is coming on well, and there was Coriander but it's disappeared after a morning frost on Saturday. Behind, is my replacement patch of wild strawberries which has always grown there and I use it to re-plant where I think the strawberries will grow well or just to give away to friends.

Next to that bed is another cage that Fabrice put up for me yesterday. I normally just cover newly planted seeds with wire tents to protect them from the chickens but this little area was just asking to be cordoned off so he's driven four or five posts in and put a chicken wire round and made me a little gate.

The ground in this little spot was used for pumpkins last year and was really well mulched - once when the pumpkins were planted and again just before the winter really started. The mulch has rotted down and the resulting earth is just beautiful, dark and crumbly and totally weed free thanks to the chickens.

I can't wait to finish off the top of the new cage and start sowing seeds in that patch of earth but after our terrible experience of foot rot which spread through our flock of sheep and goats like wildfire I've had a very bad back.

After a visit to a chiropractor who seems to have cracked me all back into place, I have been ordered to do nothing for a while - which is very easy at the moment because I can hardly move ! I should be very careful over the next week or so as my back heals, so I'll have time to devote to this rather neglected blog.

26 March 2010

Freak hailstorm in Bourrou !

Hailstones in March, originally uploaded by hardworkinghippy.

Yesterday we had a hailstorm which only lasted for about ten minutes but made a terrific racket on the plastic (hail storm proof) roof of the terrace. The hailstones we get here are huge and come down with an amazing force, bouncing off the ground like golf balls and they can do a lot of damage. Our little old van a has a few more dents but one of our neighbours borrowed our truck to pull his trailer when he went to get some building materials and as luck would have it he left just before the storm started and came back after it had finished. Where he went they didn't have a storm, so the Nissan was undamaged. The solar panels have been through this sort of thing before with no problems.

Hailstones the size of golf ballsThe plants don't seem to have suffered much - I haven't started to fill the garden up with seedlings and the perennials are almost all covered with protection to stop the chickens eating them - so that probably helped stop them being damaged.

I can't use our greenhouse which was badly damaged in the storm last year but I'm breathing a sigh of relief, because I almost repaired the roof. The corrugated plastic sheeting which I'd have used isn't hailstone proof and it would have been full of holes. Sometimes laziness pays !

17 March 2010

Protecting the vegetable plot from free range chickens

The weather's getting better and we've had quite a few sunny, warm days. It may be because we've had more chickens than usual this winter or because there's been very little growth of grass and weeds around the house
but the chickens have really pecked down every single thing that they can find to eat and the vegetable garden looks like the aftermath of an atomic attack !

If I don't do something to protect the perennial vegetables and self seeded Parsley and Coriander coming through they'll be destroyed, so covering everything has been the priority for the past few days. I can normally just lay a few sticks across the seedlings but the chickens aren't finding much to eat elsewhere so they're particularly determined and a light hand just won't work.

To protect larger plants like Rhubarb and Artichokes I normally use old fruit boxes or make bamboo criss-cross frames but last year we cut down a lot of trees suffering from Horse Chestnut Canker and so this year we've loads of Chestnut whips growing from the stools. I decided to use them to make lots of plant supports and for weaving around raised beds and they're perfect for making cages for protecting the new growth and certainly more aesthetically pleasing than old wooden boxes.

Our friend and lodger, Laetitia has started her new job just a few kilometres from here at Montagnac la Crempse just next to Villamblard. She's hoping to start learning how to make chestnut furniture and garden supports with the association "Les Enfants du Pays de Beleyme" so she got a bit of practice at the weekend and gave me a hand into the bargain.

Update two weeks later....

11 March 2010

Waiting for planting to begin - the only time my earth is bare

We're very busy at the moment building a new drive at the front of the house and planting fruit bushes and trees before spring comes.

The lambs are growing fast. We've a problem with the dreaded foot rot unfortunately, which is also taking up a lot of time.

1 March 2010

Clearing up after the storm and almost the end of lambing

We had a really bad storm in Europe this week and although the Dordogne wasn't too badly hit, it's given us a lot more work to do and the animals are stressed and jittery. There wasn't any damage to our buildings but a few trees have fallen on the fences and in the veg garden and we've been collecting debris, cutting up trees and mending fences for the past two days.

Some people in Bourrou still don't have electricity and of course we've had a lot of visits from people who need to borrow lighting, 'phone EDF or contact family and friends in other parts of France which are suffered badly after the high winds and flooding.

The weather has made working outside difficult for us some weeks now, first the bitter cold and winds then snow. Now we have rain almost every day. In the morning we put the sheep out in warm sunshine then it starts raining and we have to go and get them back in again.

The changeable weather doesn't matter too much when the sheep don't have lambs, they're hardy enough to decide for themselves whether or not they want to come in but I don't like to think of the little ones outside on the damp grass because it's still quite chilly here and lambs can go downhill quickly if they get too cold. That's one of the reasons we like to keep our sheep inside for lambing but they do get bored and there's a risk of footrot if the bedding gets damp from constant use and of course there's a higher incidence of external parasites.

Thankfully, all the births this year have been trouble-free and the lambs are up on their feet and looking for food within minutes. We've had no problems at all with new mothers and every lamb has a ewe and plenty to eat, so they're growing fast. Although it's nice bottle feeding lambs the powdered milk is expensive and not as good as the ewe's milk and after having done it for a few years, early in the morning and late into the night, the novelty soon wears off !

To begin with we had just single births which seemed a bit strange but in the past few days we've had three sets of twins - two within an hour of each other.

We had a problem with one lamb of the second set born yesterday who wouldn't stay with her mother and kept going over to another ewe when she called for her twins. We put her with her mother who then rejected her but we persisted and the problem seems to have been resolved. Yesterday evening the ewes had worked out which lamb belonged to which mother - as you can see in this video.