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

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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’

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

Getting creative

I love making things but haven’t posted about the creative side of me for a while. It was only when I was reviewing some photos that I realised how many things I had made recently.

The first was a blanket for my grandson Sean. Since he started at Swansea University (read about him here )he has been saying that he is sometimes cold in his room. I suspect that he has been sitting still for too long late at night – hopefully studying but probably gaming on his computer! He had been taking his duvet cover off and wrapping himself up in that so I thought I would make him a blanket. He is young, male, only recently domesticated and there is not much space for him to store things in his room in Halls. So I used synthetic double knitting in boy colours! And since I get bored knitting a whole blanket in one piece I did squares and crocheted them together. To make it more fun I devised a number of variations on a theme of stripes of stocking stitch and reverse stocking stitch.

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Then it was my daughter’s birthday and I spotted a remnant of linen in the Ecoshop in Cardigan. Just enough to make a cushion. I had some felt left over from making Christmas decorations and there were tulips beginning to flower in the garden. Hey presto..

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Looking for the felt I saw most of a ball of Aran weight wool left over from a jumper I made a few years ago. Several of my own cushion covers are coming to the end of their lives so I fiddled around and devised a pattern. There is a similar amount of blue in the same yarn so maybe there will be a pair soon.

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Then Mrs Snail and I went on a course at Studio 3 in Cardigan to learn how to make a coptic bound book. She has already blogged about our day so you can read about it (here) Mine was a birthday present for my son so I had to stay quiet about it until now!

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Finally my new friend Roni came over and showed me how to turn a bowl on the lathe. She is a professional woodturner (find her here) and makes some beautiful things but also proved a very good and patient teacher so it was great to learn from her. We found an old piece of wood which was already cut into a disc shape but it proved to be rather rough and a bit too old so it was not worth sanding and polishing. Even so I was quite pleased with what I produced and have started on another with a better bit of wood.

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Apart from the book they have all involved designing as well as making so my creativity has had quite a good workout recently!

A Little Bit of Magic

Regular readers will know that I belong to both the Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Permaculture groups and am a regular at their meetings. (You can read about previous visits here here,here,and here

Last Sunday I was the host. The sun shone so we were all able to sit out on the new deck (more about that here). With 16 adults and two small children it felt comfortably full but not a squash. After cups of tea and coffee plus cake (my nickname is Sue cake!) and a chance to meet up and chat we spent a few moments remembering one of our group who had just died suddenly and sending loving thoughts to his wife. Linda from The Woodland Farm (the woodland farm)had brought a beautiful bunch of her flowers and I lit a candle for him.

Then I explained my how I was going about the designs for my Diploma in Permaculture Design which focuses around planning how I can continue to thrive into advanced old age despite living in such a rural place. We toured the garden so they could see how I had begun to implement those plans and the changes since their previous visit.

Everybody brings something to share for lunch and it was laid out on my kitchen table. What a spread! Almost all the dishes had been grown or made at home – beautiful salads, home made breads, fermented veg from Phil and his partner Lauren at Parc y Dderwenfind them on facebook here. Most people also remembered to bring their own plate, mug and cutlery so there was hardly any washing up for me to do later.

Usually everyone helps the host with a job in the afternoon – a chance to have a lot of hands and, in my case, some younger muscle on one of those big jobs which are daunting for one person on their own. This time I decided that what the garden needed most was appreciating! I work on it but do not make enough time to just sit and enjoy it. So I invited everyone to wander, sit, enjoy and chat. I am so glad I did because watching them relax and find pleasure in what I have created was hugely rewarding – a little bit of magic indeed!

My grateful thanks to Brian for taking photos whilst I was too busy to manage a camera and to Phil for the picture of my mindmap.

Wilderness to Wonderful

The area immediately south of the house has always been a problem. Originally two tied, farm workers’ cottages and a cowshed were built here but they were abandoned in the 50’s, bought in the 70’s for a song then renovated and extended as one dwelling. The old front doors faced south with a path of massive slates all along that side to allow access. They were picturesque but lethally slippery when wet. From there a steep bank dropped to the more level gardens next to the stream and when we arrived there were faint traces of steps down to them. The door into the living room was very heavy, solid and difficult to open. Around it a porch had been built of reclaimed wood and windows but it was rotting away and although lino (also disintegrating) had been laid over the slates weeds were coming up in the gaps. Something had to be done – but other things such as plumbing and wiring took priority.

After a few years we had the remains of the porch demolished, the slabs lifted and a concrete path laid in its place. Our plan was to replace the solid door with a glazed one and build a lean-to greenhouse over most of the south face for solar gain and insulation. Sadly John died before that phase was started but eventually I got those jobs done. The sitting room went from gloomy and chilly to light and comfortable.

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That left the bank! I planted shrubs but they were no match for the bindweed, nettles and brambles which had infested the ground and got their roots deep down into the stone. On such an uneven slope crawling around trying to chop down the weeds with secateurs and shears was backbreaking and it really needed to be done several times a year. In addition the double doors of the greenhouse opened onto nothing and cleaning the glass involved teetering on a narrow strip of ground. There was a tiny area outside the kitchen where I could sit with a cup of coffee or eat lunch but if one person came it was a squeeze and with two visitors impossible. There had to be a better solution.

Using a digger to remove all the material back to a vertical below the path risked de-stabilising the path and house and I would have to build a facing wall. Terracing the slope would give very narrow terraces and the same problem of undermining the house. To build a retaining wall at the bottom of the slope and fill in behind to create a terrace would be prohibitively expensive.

It was when I went to visit Jono and Pamela Gaunt that the solution stared me in the face! In a similar situation they had built a huge curvaceous deck which appeared to float above the valley. With their permission I explored underneath it and worked out how it had been built taking lots of photographs of the construction. Could I do something similar? Did I have the carpentry skills and physical strength?

A chance conversation reminded me that my friend Martin had worked for a local landscaper building garden structures so I sought his help. He came, he looked, we measured and we planned. He was happy to do the job and, like me, favoured a design with curves, built of solid local timber rather than off-the-shelf decking boards. The Gaunt’s deck was one level with space for an outdoor kitchen underneath but I didn’t think I would use such a space. Should we create a shed under there? My experience is that sheds get filled with clutter. So Martin suggested that we make two levels. Once the sides were blocked with trellis or shrubs there would be very little light for the weeds which should give up.

The first job was to clear the bank rescuing the better shrubs and replanting them somewhere else then cover it with old carpet to discourage regrowth until the deck could be built. As I had broken my wrist Marie and Rose did that job for me. (You can read that post here)

To a large extent the detail of the design had to be made up as we went along since the posts had to go where blocks could be placed to support them out of the wet without too much digging out. At the end of day 1 I realised that although it was pretty much as we had agreed it was too small for a really big, sociable table. Luckily Martin and Pete had had the same thought and were very happy to extend the lower level. That meant there were not enough planks to finish the job and more had to be ordered. I was able to use the top level after only a couple of weeks (Martin and Pete could only work here 2 days a week and some weeks Martin was away so nothing happened. They were so good and so nice to have around I was happy to wait) The lower one was only finally completed in the autumn.

Now I step out of the sitting room into the greenhouse and then through the double doors to a beautiful level area where I can sit with my coffee or lunch and enjoy the view of the stream, or down easy steps to the bigger level if I am having friends over. The big, self-seeded Ash gives dappled shade to the big table in summer and the small sycamore does the same for the top deck in the evening. We even managed to incorporate a small pond and there is a long, curving bench to fill the gap betwen the levels. Bliss!

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One Good Turn…

My friends Marie and Rose come over during the Christmas break each year to help me in my garden for a day and twice a year, when they have a ‘slash and burn’ event I go to help them. Some years ago when Marie bought her guest house the garden was a jungle. At the time she was working in an office to pay the bills and work on the house was her priority so a group of her friends offered to visit and spend a weekend working on clearing the garden and described it as ‘slash and burn’, a name which has stuck!. This became a regular event every early spring and autumn and the garden is now beautiful. It also provides a lot of the food (all vegetarian) she cooks for her guests and a surplus which she sells at the award winning St Dogmael’s produce market. You can find out more and see pictures of the house and garden here

Two years ago the opportunity arose to buy the adjoining walled garden which used to supply the house with vegetables and fruit. It too had been neglected for many years. The box hedges were tall trees, self-sown ash and sycamore were growing in the beds and the stone walls were covered in ivy. The apple trees still produced an amazing crop of fruit every year and seemed to be very rare old varieties. The chance would not come again for many years so Marie took a deep breath, borrowed some money and bought it. And so another slash and burn project began!

Over last winter, with the help of next-door neighbour Andrew and one of Marie’s friends who was staying with her the entrance was repaired, the self-sown trees felled, the box hedges cut down and the beds dug ready for planting. When I arrived on the Saturday morning to join the group of volunteers the space looked so much bigger and the apple trees seemed to be breathing freely again!

The job we were given was to clear the base of the back, south facing, wall of ivy and dig out the roots at its base to clear a bed ready for planting with soft fruit which would be trained up it. Pulling the ivy off the walls was a painstaking job but fairly easy; getting the roots out was hard work and Andrew set up his winch on the biggest ones. Molly couldn’t resist having a go with it!

I was not able to go on the Sunday when planting began but I was thrilled to see that some blackcurrant cuttings I had taken off bushes in the main garden when I pruned them at a slah and burn a couple of years ago were ready to be put out in one of the big beds. When I went to one of Rose’s events on the following Tuesday I took some rooted cuttings of Worcesterberry from my garden and a couple of grapevines, also grown from cuttings off my seedless white desert grape. I can’t wait to see the garden when all the clearing and replanting is finished and I love the thought that I have played a small part in bringing it back from dereliction and propagated some of the new plants.

Nature is amazing

Each year I save tree seeds when I can. Mostly these are from fruit I am given or buy to eat although last year I picked up acorns that had fallen on a nearby lane and that I spotted on one of my dog walks. So by late autumn I had acorns, apple pips (mostly from fruit given me by Marie at Over the Rainbow), plum apricot, peach and cherry stones, and rowan berries from the young tree I planted a couple of years ago. I also had some bright red cherries from the tree in my daughter’s garden which are so horribly sour and bitter they are inedible but even the birds turn their beaks up at them so the tree is very ornamental! All these I put into peat or sand in recycled plastic cartons and stored in the fridge to chill over winter.

A couple of weeks ago I retrieved them to begin putting them into trays of compost in the greenhouse to see what would grow. Last year I got quite a few apples, a cherry and a sweet chestnut so I was quite hopeful that something would come of them.

To my amazement when I opened the first pot, which was Apricot stones in dry sand, there were several which had germinated! Only 2 look good enough to survive but even so! Years ago my late husband ate an apricot and found the stone had split and the seed was beginning to grow so he potted it up and later planted it in the greenhouse. It fruited well but because of his poor health he didn’t prune it well enough or consistently enough and it grew too big so had to be taken out. Maybe I can be more successful now that I have more greenhouse space and am able to prune every year. I looked in the second pot labelled Apricot and found that in that one I had used damp peat – no sign of germination there. Maybe they were a different variety of apricot or from a different orchard but I was curious as to whether it was the sand / peat that made the difference.

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Then I opened the pots of apples – some of the ones with damp compost had germinated whilst the ones with sand had not! Again I cannot be sure that any will survive but again my interest was piqued. Was the difference between the two types of tree significant or just chance?

Sadly nothing else was showing signs of life but then nothing germinated in the fridge last year. They are all now in good compost in trays and I will wait and see. I have made a note to myself to be more methodical next year about splitting batches and experimenting with different media to store them in. I still have so much to learn about gardening! One of the permaculture principles i ‘Observe and Interact’ so that is what I shall do – but in a more organised way than usual!