Wednesday 31 October 2012

Murder in the byre

Jon Haylett (Ed. of Kilchoan Diary)  is responsible for the title.  He called in at lunchtime just as the last of the geese was being finished off by two teenage helpers Arthur and Isaac from Sheffield. The geese were eating two bags of feed a month because the grass has stopped growing and they should have been in the freezer a month ago.

 If you are thinking of keeping geese beware. Each morning for the last month or two they have emerged into the grass park goose stepping and screaming, "Sieg heil".... at least that's what it sounds like. They bully the ducks, refuse to go inside at night and have to be driven and they pull pieces off the hen houses. Enough....they had to go...into the freezer for Christmas.

If you do want to keep some geese you might like to know how to pluck them so here goes. Find a barn, garage, workshop or byre, there'll be feathers everywhere. Fix a strong chain to a beam. Kill the goose humanely and hang it at chest level from the chain. Wear a pair of soft grip industrial gloves and start on the back. Grasp a small bunch of feathers between thumb and forefinger and pull upwards in the direction that the feathers lie. Pull them against the grain and there's a good chance you'll tear the skin. It takes ten minutes to do the section from the base of the neck to the tail.                                                 

 Start on the breast being very careful not to tear the skin especially along the sides where there are deposits of  fat.  Carry non round to the back, up to the tail and down towards the head. I don't bother to pluck the wings, its too hard. Cut them off at the first joint, you don't lose much meat and the bird sits well in the roasting pan.

There's always a cover of small downy feathers left that are impossible to pick; you can singe them off with a spirit lamp or blowtorch if you are careful. Now take them into the kitchen, eviscerate them, put them in the freezer and pour yourself a gin and tonic.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Grass suckers for sale

Another day at the livestock auction this time it was our old "cast" ewes. They are sold largely because of age; missing teeth, infertility and loss of one or both sides of the udder because of mastitis. I once met a Farmer in Hampshire who went out of her way to buy toothless but otherwise fit ewes because they were cheap and she looked after them well enough to make it profitable, she called them "grass suckers".

We  don't get much for them but as my neighbour observed, "its better than having to dig a hole for them if they don't make it through the winter". The Auctioneer's cheque just covered the cost of fuel and topping up the tank. We had a conversation about where these ewes or parts of them end up; meat pies, pet food and possibly ice cream.

There were older ewes for sale who had all of their teeth and two working teats these were bought as "correct" as opposed to "cast" and will probably give the new owners another crop or two of lambs.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Kids go wild on the hill

I brought the kids home in mid July, since then they have lived in their spacious, well ventilated loose bow with daily walks, weather permitting.

Today everything was ready for their release into the hill park.The boundary has been fenced. There's an electrified wire on top because goats like to climb fences. and I have spent the last two days digging up and carting away foxglove plants which are very toxic.

 As  soon as we turned them loose they went wild, running, jumping and whirling around in mid air.

Bouncing around  on the rocks is good for their feet and means less foot trimming for me. They did after all evolve in hot, dry mountains and they haven't lost the mountaineering skills.

After three months of semi-confinement they aren't quite as fit as they might be and they slowed down to a sedate walk with the goat herds. They are actually better behaved than dogs; they come when called, walk to heel and wait while you attache the lead. The dog isn't needed, in fact if he tries to herd them they either ignore him or head butt him

Monday 15 October 2012

Fire alarm ?

If you'd been driving into the village this afternoon you might have thought there was a huge fire. It wasn't smoke, just ground limestone, very dry ground limestone. Luckily there was no wind to carry it to washing lines and parked cars.

Spread at two tons an acre , 4.8 tonnes per ha., for readers in Brussels, it should have a strong neutralising effect on our acid soil for the next five years. This will mean that any fertilizer applied is more effectively used and plant growth will be stronger. The lambs might even grow more quickly.

Lime spreading is highly mechanised as you can see and we could not have done it without the help Elaine and Gillespie Cameron at Millburn who provided the loader, Ardnamurchan Estate supplied the spreader and Angie John did the driving.

Fields on four Kilchoan crofts that don't seem to have had lime applied in living memory are now on the way to being more fertile and productive.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Mink on the move

Early autumn and the mink population is at its peak again, they are on the move looking for territories and an easy meal. Their weakness is their curiosity and they'll enter an unbaited trap if its in the right place and smells interesting.
Ferocious mink

Mink are ferocious. This one snarled, bared its teeth and screamed at me when I was tasking the photograph.

If you keep poultry you can't afford to relax, the hens and ducks have to be shut in their houses at dusk.

Outside during daylight they are relatively safe because most of them can escape but if a mink gets into the house there's no escape and they'll all be killed.

Friday 12 October 2012

Small scale sustainable agriculture and La Via Campesina

Not many people know this....... 70% of the World's population depends on  food produced by smallholder farmers, peasants, fishers, pastoralists and indigenous people; this includes Crofters. Over the last fifty years large scale industrialised agriculture and the food industry have created the impression among consumers that they produce most of the World's food; they don't.

Next week the "Committee on World Food Security" meets in Rome and investment in agriculture will be an issue. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRCD) and the United Nations (FAO) claim that industrialised farming is the solution to world hunger and that large private investments in agriculture are needed.

In reality large scale agriculture hampers small scale production by  reducing smallholders capacity to produce by : controlling markets, affecting rights to seeds, hampering access to land etc. Small scale farming also provides employment, especially for women. In Rome, delegates from the international peasant's movement, "La Via Campesina"( the Scottish Crofter's Federation (SCF) is an affiliate) will argue that food security depends on more public investment in small scale sustainable agriculture and that family farms need protection against the power of corporate agriculture.  I just thought you might like to know this, it is after all your food and your food security.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Intensive sustainable crofting: Lime burning

An old lime kiln at Swordle . Jon Haylett

The lime arrived this week in 1 tonne bags, its finely ground limestone the granules are about the size of sugar grains. The smaller the granules the greater the surface area and the more easily it is dissolved in the soil water.

Agricultural lime used to be even finer.  Historically ground limestone was burned in kilns to make it more readily available to plants. The lime kiln at Swordle (in the picture above) was used to do just this. These old Crofters knew a bit about chemistry.

The chemistry of lime burning

Stage 1
Limestone ( CaCO3) was burned, lets say 10kg and turned by heat into Calcium oxide or quicklime (CaO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) which went off into the atmosphere leaving about 6 - 7kg of "quicklime".

CaCO3 + heat = CaO + CO2

Stage 2
Calcium oxide or "quicklime" (CaO) is unstable as  it readily soaks up water  from the environment. In the process it becomes more stable as "slaked lime".

CaO + H2O = Ca(OH)2

Stage 3
Even slaked lime is not completely stable, it takes up carbon dioxide from the air over time and reverts to its original chemical form calcium carbonate. Our original sample of limestone would weigh 10kg again.

Ca(OH)2 + CO2 = CaCO3 + H20

So why did the people of Swordle go to all the trouble of burning limestone if it was going to revert to its original chemical form?  Well.... the texture was different. During the process lumps of limestone were converted to a powdery, floury form (without crushing and grinding) this dissolved more quickly in acid soils. Quicklime once "slaked" with water was mixed with sand and used as mortar in building before the advent of Portland cement.

When the oil runs out we may have to repair the old kilns as the energy cost of grinding limestone makes the process too expensive. Fraser Darling again!......" a crofting family could dig enough peats in a day to fire a kiln to produce enough lime for the croft".

Intensive sustainable crofting : "The Chicken Tractor"

The "Chicken Tractor" is, I think, an American idea. Its a lightweight portable poultry house without a floor.The hens inside scratch and rake the grass underneath until the vegetation is removed the soil fertilised and then the whole thing moves on a length and does the next bed. You can clear, cultivate and fertilise without any machinery and raise poultry too.

Poultry fold unit

This idea reminded me of the poultry fold units that were quite common when I was a boy. These were used on grass fields or to glean stubble after harvest. They were light, strong, vermin proof and very well made.

Units were moved daily, food and water had to be carried to them and eggs collected but labour was cheap just like here where the opportunity cost of my time is zero as a retired person.

As the poultry moved over the field they ate grass, then harrowed and fertilised the grassland with substantial amounts of poultry manure. My design is 15' x 4' roughly 9 sq yds. In theory two of these units will cover an acre in 263 days about 30 weeks.

 This is very  crude drawing but good enough for the Playboy Joiner to work from. The lighter end with the nest box has a pair of small wheels and the heavy end is capable of being lifted on to two larger wheels for transport. The design of this aspect needs more thought! and advice.

Now for the arithmetic. Hen manure is hot stuff; 4% Nitrogen, 6% Phosphorous and 4% Potassium. balanced for grass production. Fifteen hens produce about 1.8kg of fresh manure a day or 0.5kg of 4:6:4 fertiliser dry matter. OK enough of that.....its a lot of fertiliser and combined with nitrogen fixing clover should avoid the need for chemical fertlisers......we'll see.