A little piece of Heaven

Last Sunday morning found me driving through the back lanes of North Pembrokeshire. The sky was that perfect blue you only get on a May Morning, the Hawthorn was starting to flower in the hedgerows and the verges were thick with wild flowers. In places the cow parsley was so thick that it was almost as if I was driving along the beach between two breaking waves. Then my first glimpse of the sea which was a stunning turquoise blue as if trying to emulate one of those posters of Greek islands!

I would not normally go to a meet-up all the way over on the West coast but I had wanted to see Brian and Dot’s place for a long time and also this was the second meeting of the newly re-launched Pembrokeshire group so I wanted to do my bit to make sure the turnout was good.

My destination was a small farm on a little back road high up above Strumble Head just West of Fishguard. Brian and Dot live in an old farmhouse which has been cleverly divided to provide two homes, one for them and one for their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Stone outbuildings have been converted into three holiday cottages and a house for their son and daughter-in-law. Each resident family has their own outside space and a piece of garden for growing food though there are no fences so it feels very open and joined up. The rest of the land is managed co-operatively. And everywhere there are views across the fields to the sea. Bliss! Find out more about holidying there and see more photos here )

The turnout was good, two people brought children and there were three visiting dogs which all added to the fun. I had left my dogs at home – the rescued lurcher would have panicked and it was too hot to leave her in the car.

After excellent coffee and a chance to chat and to meet a couple of new members we set to work. A field is being turned into a forest garden with space in the middle for a yurt. Brian and Dot had put posts in to mark where they wanted trees to plant trees and mown a circle of grass round each. Our first job was to put down a layer of cardboard on each circle and then pile mulch on top. Some of us took the sellotape and plastic labels off a large stash of boxes they had collected from local businesses whilst others laid it on the cut grass or barrowed mulch from a huge pile at the edge of the field.

Lunch was a chance to sit outside and admire the view as well as continue chatting and sharing ideas and up-coming events. Then it was back to work.

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I had to leave early because of having left the dogs at home but by then all the circles were ready for planting and work had begun on putting new trees into the old hedge to improve the shelter belt. The others stayed to get the yurt frame up ( definitely a job for several people!) and Dot very kindly took photos of that for me.

What a perfect way to spend a glorious day in May

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A muted Hooray!

The BBC’s Welsh news carried a report this morning that ‘the UK Committee on Climate Change is advising that Wales should cut the numbers of sheep and cattle, plant more trees and encourage heavy industry to clean up’ (read the full article here) What’s not to like?

Weeeellll?

Whilst some smallholders of my acquaintance keep sheep and poultry primarily as pets not many of them keep cows. Cows, at least on any commercial scale, involve getting up at silly o’clock every morning, seven days a week, bank holidays and Christmas included, to do the milking. And repeating the procedure in the late afternoon meaning that even a day out has to be a short one. At the large organic dairy farm up the road Charlie, the manager, milks over 200 cows every day except between Christmas and Easter-ish time when the cows are dry because they are pregnant. At the moment he is calving (regular checks, helping any cows which are struggling to deliver their calf and frequent visits from the vet for the problem cases) AND milking the cows who have had their calves AND feeding the calves which are old enough to be taken off their mothers. He cares about his cows but he does it because it is a job, it keeps a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Even if only one or two cows are kept, as Michelle and Phil do at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust (links at the bottom of this post) going on holiday is a logistic nightmare

cow 2

Sheep are just as demanding. At lambing time shepherds sleep in their clothes and patrol at frequent intervals day and night ready to intervene if a sheep is distressed. And there is hoof trimming, fly-strike prevention (Flies lay their eggs in the mucky wool at the rear end of a sheep, the eggs hatch and the maggots eat the flesh into sores. Regular trimming of the wool and vigilance are needed to prevent it) and then there is shearing…

Like most of us farmers get satisfaction from doing a job they are good at and of course there are compensations but for most it is as stressful as any other type of self-employment and physically grueling. Farming is not for whimps!

So reducing numbers of livestock would help them right? Would you be happy to take a pay cut even if it meant working less hard? No, I thought not.

The Government seems to be taking the Marie Antoinette approach ‘Let them eat cake’. Or rather ‘Let them diversify’

farm cottages

That often means tourism. Not every farmhouse is easily adaptable to B&B. Not every farm has a set of picturesque outbuildings ripe for conversion to holiday cottages and not every farmer makes a good host. Even if you enjoy welcoming people into your home and have the right infrastructure it is hard work and a precarious business. And it has implications for the community. Until Pemberton’s Chocolate Farm closed I regularly encountered drivers who were quite unable to reverse to a passing place along these single track lanes. So instead of them going back 100 yards I would reverse a quarter of a mile. An irritation for me but no joke if you are in a tractor with a trailer behind waiting whilst they panic and weave their way slowly back, or are a courier driver with an algorithm imposing deadlines on you that take no account of such things (townies all, those algorithms!) More importantly some villages on the coast have become ghost towns in Winter – they might as well put up a ‘Closed’ sticker on the ‘Welcome to..’ sign on the road in.

yarn

Plan B is ‘Added value’. Make your milk into yoghurt or ice-cream, get your fleeces spun and sell the wool or, better still, knit or weave it and sell your crafts, sell your meat direct to the customer on-line. Animals were traditionally sold through the marts and not every farmer can, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. And as for on-line, unless there is serious investment in good broadband for rural areas, dream on sunshine. Read about my switch to a satellite based system (here) Compared with the speeds and reliability on my landline it is fabulous but pathetic compared to the service my son gets in Luton.

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my internet satellite dish

So unless the drive to reduce livestock numbers is associated with increased farm payments, or increased prices for the food they produce, or investment in alternative employment and infrastructure, the result will be even more rural poverty and homelessness.

Secondly, what about those fields which will no longer have animals in them? Left to their own devices they will become massive bramble patches with a few chest high docks and nettles thrown in. Not what the tourists pay to come and see. Give them a few decades and they will transition through scrub woodland (mainly blackthorn round here) to woodland. Of course they could be planted with trees to shorten the process. The Government could fund that and pay farmers ‘rent’ for the land. They could call it a ‘carbon sequestration services payment’. Mmm can’t see it happening somehow, not in the long term. And sitting at home living, effectively, on benefit would not be good for the mental health of the farmers. They could be encouraged to manage the woodland but that is a very different skill set from farming and one they would have to learn. Even if they did where would the market be for all that extra firewood, coppice product and timber? What would they live on until the trees were big enough to be harvested? Questions, questions, questions and a shortage of answers.

Thirdly those animals currently supply the food chain. Unless the population as a whole reduces its consumption of dairy produce, eggs and meat, the shortfall will be cheerfully filled by the supermarkets importing more. There would be no reduction in global carbon emissions because no overall reduction in animal numbers. But the animals would probably be reared to lower welfare standards according to the expert I heard on the food programme (listen to it here) Wales could feel virtuous by ‘off-shoring’ the problem.

If only life was simple!

I will welcome comments, arguments, or questions whether you agree with me or take a different view, but please keep them respectful, thoughtful and evidence based.

My pictures are supplemented by ones from my good friend Michelle Laine of Scythe Cymru – find out more about her and her family’s low impact lives here and on facebook here The picture of farm cottages for holidays is from google images.

A Quick Update on Trees from Seed

If you have been following this blog for a while you may remember I posted about growing trees from seed (read it again here). None of the Apricots which had germinated in the fridge survived but 3 more sprouted after I put them in compost in the greenhouse and they seem to be thriving. And a cherry picked from a tree in my daughter’s garden has germinated too. The fruit on her tree are so bitter that they are inedible and even the birds leave them alone! It is therefore very ornamental with spring blossom and beautiful crimson fruit which hangs there for ages.

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What has been really impressive is the apple pips. I have no idea how many I had saved but so far I have pricked out 138 plants, no that is not a typo! And there are lots more still in the trays but ready to go into pots. These are, of course, unknown crosses so there is no way of knowing whether they will be crabs, cider, cooker, eater or just horrible. Not all will survive but they will fill quite a lot of space and as I have chalara on the Ash trees they will be welcome.

Send for Reinforcements!

Each year I aim to cut trees on a different part of the garden to provide fuel for future winters. Following the tradition of coppicing I cut right to ground level which allows the roots to throw up new shoots and after 5 – 7 years they are ready to harvest again. By this means I am always cutting fairly slender stems which are fine on my small woodstove and easy to handle. In addition I cut some of the bigger trees around the place to bring them into the same management system. Hopefully it will not be many more years before all the big ones have been brought into coppicing – before I am too doddery to manage to fell a large tree safely!

This year my chosen plot was the second half of the bank below the vegetable patch. I did the first half 2 years ago but last year was unable to finish the job because of my broken wrist. I also decided to lay the ones right on the bottom edge as a hedge – it made me feel safer!Because I did not cut much last year stocks are lower than I would like and with Rob in the cabin needing his stove alight all day in the winter it is important to cut a lot this year.


This are bank will look like the photo on the right in 2 years time

I had made a start and when Rob arrived to we finished the job quite quickly between us especially as he has, and is happy to use, a chainsaw whilst I stick to handtools. Then we moved on to clear the trees which were growing out of the stream bank. I had been wanting to get them down for some time but as they were growing out over the stream they were very difficult to do with an axe. Rob donned wellies and cut them whilst I stayed on the bank to take away the debris. It made an amazing difference to the light! unfortunately it also makes the garden less private for now but once the new shoots grow all will be well and the new growth can be managed more easily.

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One tree, though, defeated us. It was an Ash which had been cut back at some point in the past. The result was a massive trunk leaning over the stream with a tall, not insignificant diameter stem rising from it but also twisting and leaning. Neither of us could work out which way it wanted to fall and there was no way we could get a rope high enough to guide it without climbing it. What we needed was a tree surgeon. So Rob rang his friend Richard and asked him to come and help.

As tree surgery is Richard’s profession I would have to pay him so I decided to ask him to do some other trees whilst he was on site. I had left several on the bottom edge of the bank where I had cut 2 years ago. They were too big to be laid, too close to the edge for me to feel safe swinging an axe and were leaning out over the car port and the lower greenhouse, so whilst I knew where they would fall it was where I really did not want them going!

Richard came, looked and promised to be back the following Tuesday. Luckily Rob used to work for another tree surgeon and has all the necessary certificates to act as groundsman so by having Richard here on a day when Rob works for me there was no need for me to pay for another man to come and help. The weather that day was foul! Sleet, snow, rain and very cold. I had set off to the Welsh class and turned back when the snow started to settle (I don’t mind being snowed in but object to being snowed out!) Nevertheless the two R’s got on with the job telling me politely but firmly to stay out of the way – as an amateur I was simply another risk. Because of that the photos are rather ‘long distance’ and it was too cold to stand around waiting for the perfect shot. The last tree came down as the light started to go. By the last hour they were willing to let me help shift brash away as they were running out of time, getting tired and only had a few small ones on the bank below the veg patch to do.

Because Rob and I can clear up the brash piles and carry the useful wood to the shed at our leisure the brief to Richard was to just get everything down and tidied as much as was necessary for safety. So on Wednesday we spent the day sorting out the tops from the big Ash by the stream. We haven’t started on the pile on the veg patch yet! And there was no way we could carry all the usable stuff to the woodshed until we have sawn and stacked what is already in there. I have made a start on that but it is going to be a l-o-o-o-n-g job! But there is a very real primitive satisfaction from seeing a well stocked woodstore.

Unfortunately Richard recognised that a lot of my Ash trees have chalara which is apparently now endemic in Wales. I cam manage the existing trees and if they fall there will be no catastrophic damage now the leaning ones have gone. The dilemma is to do with planting more. I have been saving seedlings which come up in the veg patch and replanting them in woodland areas but maybe this is a waste of time since they are likely to be infected too. Maybe I should only replant hazel, sycamore and oak but there are a lot fewer of those and what if some of the deedlings are a resistant strain? Thought needed!

Egos and Gaia

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the nature of work and what work we value (if you missed it read it here). Another idea which has been buzzing around in my head was sparked first by something Cassandra Lishman wrote on the Lammas facebook page.

For those of you who have not come cross it before Lammas is an eco-village which was established on an over-grazed sheep field just over the hill from my home. Each household has its own plot and has built (or is in the process of building) some kind of dwelling on it under  the One Planet Development planning policy (read my post on that here) of which it was a pioneer. The access tracks , community hub building, water and hydro-electricity supplies and some other things are held in common. You can read more about it here.  You may even have seen the building of  Simon and Jasmine Dale’s home on ‘Grand Designs’ or read about the fire which destroyed it on New Year’s Day 2018.

Anyway, like all villages Lammas, being full of people, is not always all sweetness and light.  There have been disputes over all the things neighbours fall out about fueled by the passions and dogged persistence that enabled the project to happen in the first place. The point Cassandra made (as I understood it) was that much of it came down to over-inflated egos – my truth is the truth and so you, with your truth, are wrong.

Then Jasmine (now living locally in a rented home and planning to sell their plot and do something different) sent me a draft of an article she had written for an on-line magazine, Dark Mountain, for me to critique before she submitted it. It was about the life journey they had taken and which had led them to Lammas and now to uncertainty about the next stage. Like many of us they had seen that humanity has damaged the earth and had thrown themselves heart and soul into trying to do something about it. So much self-denial and striving had left them battered, bruised, dispirited and having to re-assess.

The third strand was a novel about an alcoholic who eventually achieved sobriety with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous but only after she had reached rock bottom and admitted that she could not do it for herself. Inevitably there was a lot of detail about the AA programme and how it works with the word ‘ego’ occurring frequently and being seen as the block to progress.

Mmmm!

We call this era the Anthropocene. We have changed Gaia in ways we never planned, never anticipated and we have only a vague idea what the consequences may be. Probably we did so because we came to see ourselves as separate from, and vastly superior to, everything else. It was all there for us to benefit from; to use and abuse as we liked. The problem has been our over-inflated egos, our lack of humility.

But maybe, just maybe, our next mistake will be to think that we should / could put it right. Like some heroic surgeon, god incarnate with a scalpel, we want to make it better (and make a name for ourselves in the process?). We will look for techno-fixes which we hardly understand and the consequences of which we can barely guess at. We will fall out over the best strategy – No more plastic straws, permaculture, organic, sylvo-pasture, vegan, extinction rebellion… My truth is the truth. Egos again!

My experience of living on this plot of land for 24 years tells me that if Gaia could speak she would probably tell us all to get out of the way. She is perfectly capable of healing herself if we would only stop interfering.

So.. I stop cutting down trees for firewood? Get rid of everything with a plug on it (even solar panels have high embodied energy)? Eat only what I forage? Socialise and exchange ideas only with people who live within walking distance?  No thanks!

But I can try to live ever more lightly on the land. I can ask myself what impact my choices are having on the world around me. I can stop imposing my ideas, designs and will on my land and ask what it wants to be – then we negotiate. I am a part of nature. I do not need to abase myself or deny myself the things I need (need not want). Hair shirts are not sources of joy. There is no need to actively deflate my ego.

Will I ever get the balance right, my ego its correct size? Who knows. Probably not. Or is this whole piece a load of arrogant nonsense?

 

What a Weekend!

My last post was about what counted as ‘work’ – especially for people like me who are supposedly retired but who expend just as much energy as ever being productive. Whereas most people in paid employment breathe a sigh of relief when Friday afternoon comes round and they can have a weekend ‘off’, for me, quite often, the weekends are the busiest part of the week and the sigh comes on Monday morning! Last weekend was a case in point.

On Saturday there was a workday at Dyfed Permculture Farm Trust which is one of the groups I support so off I went. But not by the direct route! I had arranged with my friend Martin, who re-furbishes old tools and sells them through the Eco shop in Cardigan, to buy some new bowsaw blades. As he staffs the shop on Saturday morning that was the best time to collect them. Another quick stop in Newcastle Emlyn was needed to buy cream and yoghurt to go with the apple and mincemeat crumble I had made as my contribution to lunch so I finally arrived just before everyone else stopped for a tea break.

The job for the day was to put everything back into the barn kitchen after it had been given a massive make-over. The barn is used by Phil and Michelle to store the hay they make by hand and various bits of equipment. And like most sheds and barns it also becomes the home of lots of ‘might come in useful’ things that are given to the Trust. It is available as a venue to hire for courses and events, and people camping in the fields use it too. The kitchen had been kitted out over the years with a motley collection of old furniture, pans, crockery and cutlery plus an elderly but still functional gas stove. And over the years ‘stuff’ had accumulated. As far as I know no-one ever suffered any ill-effects from eating in there and most of what I ate was prepared off-site and brought to be shared but let’s just say I decided not to take a ‘before’ photo!

The new kitchen – almost tidied!

Last year we all agreed that it was time to do something about it and we asked Matt Douglas, who has lived at and around the Trust land on and off over the years so is well known to us, to strip out the old furniture and build us a new kitchen in the space. Matt is an artist who supplements his income by doing jobs like the kitchen in return for somewhere to live,  plus some pay if he works more than part time. He had already done a great job for us on a caravan which leaked and needed upgrading. One workday last autumn we emptied all the cupboards and sent loads of junk to the re-cycling centre so that he could start work. Then, using mostly a collection of old doors we had been given and other salvaged timber he made a partition to close off the kitchen from the rest of the barn and designed and built us new kitchen cupboards and worktops in the space. He was amazingly creative in finding ways to make something out of stuff that had mainly been destined for skips! I should perhaps explain that Phil’s Dad was a womble before anyone had heard of wombles! He collects materials that other people are throwing away, brings them to the Trust and spends his visits using them to help Phil and Michelle.

A new volunteer, Lindy, offered to wash up the crockery, pans and cutlery before it went away and it took most of the day! We re-homed almost everything and sent the rest to the recycling centre – we must have been even more ruthless this time! We also dug under the hay stack to find an old rayburn that we had been given and moved it roughly into place in the kitchen ready for it to be renovated and installed.

In the gardens

Sunday involved a trip to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales with the Carmarthenshire Permaculture group to hear about the next phase of their ‘Growing the Future’ project. Phase 1 was about encouraging more people to grow their own food and there is still work happening with schools on that front plus a demonstration garden run by Peter and Alison who administrate the permaculture group. Phase 2 is work identifying the best ways to attract and provide for, pollinators in gardens. Three PhD students are running experiments and hope to produce a wildflower seed mix tailored to Wales. Because Peter is also very interested in local history he told us about another ambitious project in the Gardens to restore as much of the landscape to how it was when the estate was bought by a wealthy gentleman in the Regency period and laid out as parkland with seven lakes, most of which had been lost.

The Growing the future garden

I left there after another delicious shared lunch because it was also Hen Galan, Old New Year’s Day and the traditional time for Rob, Jeni and I to wassail our apple trees. Rob S who has come to live in the cabin and I went over to Llanfach and we blessed the trees there with toast soaked in cider, recited a traditional rhyme then banged pans with wooden spoons to scare away the evil spirits. Then it was back here to bless my trees. As well as an orchard right at the top of my land, there are other trees scattered around as I try to establish where they do best, so we just did the one on the drive as a representative. Then it was indoors to eat the supper I had prepared, drink cider and wine and generally have a lovely evening in good company. No photos because it was too dark outside!

A really enjoyable and interesting weekend spending time with old friends and making new ones. But a quiet Monday was very welcome!

Apple and mincemeat and crumble

This recipe for mincemeat came from ‘the crafty cook’ who had a slot on Classic fm years ago – so long ago the weights are imperial!  It contains no fat, is easy to make and can be used straight away or stored. I have made it most years since. I layered it in the crumble I made with apples I had bottled from Marie’s orchard.

Mincemeat

2lb eating apples grated

1lb sultanas

1lb raisins

8oz currants

8oz mixed peel

4oz soft brown sugar

grated rind and juice 1 orange

1/2 teaspn allspice

1/2 teaspn nutmeg

1/2 teaspn cinnamon

1/2 pt cloudy apple juice

Mix everything together in a big pan and simmer for 1/2 hour. Meanwhile sterilise and warm some jars. Pot the mincemeat and screw on the lids.

Crumble topping (the cheat’s way)

by weight – I used 3oz for each part because it was a big dish but any spare keeps in the fridge for a week or two or in the freezer for ages so if you make too much do not worry – you have some for another day

2 parts plain flour

1 part semolina

1 part porridge oats

1 part demerera sugar

1 part butter

Melt the butter and combine well with everything else.

Put a layer of apples in an ovenproof dish, spoon a layer of mincemeat on top then put a layer of crumble over that. Bake for about 30 mins at 180 – 200 deg until nicely brown on top and everything is hot and cooked through. Exact timing depends on the size of your dish!