Sunday 26 May 2013

Bluebell time

Photo: Jon Haylett
Mid May and it's Bluebell time from the Lizard to Cape Wrath where there are drifts of bluebells in woods and shady damp places. This image from Jon Haylett was too good not to use.

Its a plant with an identity crisis, with two common names; bluebell and wild hyacinth and since I was one of a tiny minority doing A level Botany in the 1950s the Latin name has changed twice. In my "Excursion Flora" it was Endymion non-scripta then it became Scilla non-scripta and latterly in 1991 Hyacinthoides non-scripta. This keeps Botanists in a job I suppose. Locally it's continued existence is threatened by Hughie's pigs and building development.

Emergency B&B

From time to time visitors to West Ardnamurchan turn up late in the evening and at the peak season have difficulty finding a bed for the night. On Thursday John Chapell had two benighted travelers looking for beds at about eight o clock after we had just been discussing this possibility in the afternoon when I said I would do B&B in an emergency. This would be frugal B&B, no en suite bathroom, no tea making facilities, cockerels crowing from 4.30am and no fried breakfast. However, "on parle Fran├žais", after a fashion... a fashion easily recognised by French people because I learned my French in Quebec forty years ago.

My visitors were delightful and appreciative of a non traditional breakfast of muesli, boiled eggs, fresh bread and goats milk.

I don't want to make a habit of this largely because of the laundry and cleaning so next time benighted travelers will be directed to the Ardnamurchan campsite where Trevor now has his flat, "The Bothy" available.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Unintended consequences : A competition

Back in March the government rejected a call for a "precautionary moratorium" on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides which are widely believed to contribute to the decline in number and health of honey bee colonies. Here in W. Ardnamurchan there's no oilseed rape so no neonicotinoids to affect the bees by disrupting their ability to navigate back to their hive. The Government's failure to support a precautionary ban on these insecticides when they are banned in France, Germany and Italy is worse than disappointing, it shows total disregard for the precautionary principle.

So here's my challenge...... if you can give me one example of an environmental problem that is not an unforeseen effect or unintended consequence of new technology you will win a prize of a dozen eggs. The eggs to be collected when you are here on holiday or delivered to the winner if living in Kilchoan.

I am confident that you cannot do this because in a capitalist economic system a business has to implement new technology as soon as possible in order to gain a competitive advantage.  Its also in the interest of the companies selling the new technology, Bayer in the case on neonicotinoids. As  a result the  "precautionary approach" to innovation is curtailed or ignored. The UK government isn't just the political front of the City of London, in the case of neonicotinoids its in cahoots with the farming and agrochemical industry.

Answers via the comments section please.

New Ixworth genes

Rare breeds like the Ixworth can easily become inbred, they don't have enough genetic variation, like the aristocracy and tend to become infertile. That seems to be what has happened to mine. to try to solve the problem I have bought eggs from four other breeders in Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Leicestershire. Hopefully the geographical distribution will lead to an increase in genetic variation.

I have to be able to identify where they came from so they have coloured leg rings. the rings have to be changed as the birds grow otherwise the flesh grows round them so they now have new leg wear.

Only 9 hatched from the 24 eggs, 5 of them from the Cornish eggs. I should be able to put together at least 2 breeding trios of an unrelated cockerel and two hens.

The aim is to keep the breed going. You never know, someday the market might want chicken with flavour and texture.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

A home made cheese press

The old, Tala tongue press we were using as a cheese press wasn't up to the job, it came apart last time we used it. A trawl of the internet unearthed some DIY plans from the highly sophisticated to the down right crude so I ended up with a hybrid. You need to exert up to 1 tonne pressure on the cheese so the construction needs to be sturdy and here it is.

The base  block is 75 x 50mm and the beams 50 x 25mm well seasoned oak from the Loch Sunart temperate rain forest at Resipol, remnants of a piece I bought to make a fire surround.  The threaded steel rod and M10 nuts came  from Screwfix and compression springs from Ebay......simples! I am still waiting for wing nuts to screw the beams down and the compression spring is too weak. You need a spring that is rated at about 1kg per millimeter of compression (40lbs per inch) that's on its way.

Sandy Adam, the wood turner at Achosnich, is making the followers, 25mm thick oak discs that go between the beam and the top of the cheese inside the mould. The whole thing is then set in a roasting tin to catch the whey as it oozes out of the curds.

Apart from the springs and the followers all of the components were just lying around the workshop so we should have a working press for less than half  price.

The nutritional wisdom of hens

The biggest single cost in domestic or commercial egg production is hen food. Layers pellets have been formulated to supply all of the energy, protein, mineral and vitamin needs of the laying hen; assuming the hen is kept in a cage. But my hens spend most of the day foraging for animal and vegetable material so there must be scope for reducing the feed cost, or so I thought.

Layer's pellets
In the literature on poultry behaviour and nutrition there is convincing evidence that given a choice of feeds then hens will select a diet that adequately meets their nutritional needs, that they exhibit, "nutritional wisdom".
So.... I thought that if I offered the hens ad lib access to layer's pellets high in energy, protein, minerals and vitamins alongside  cheaper grain such as oats they would select their optimum diet and that it would be cheaper than layer's pellets alone.

Mixed grain - wheat, maize and oats

Not so!  Its hard to believe but straight grain is actually more expensive than scientifically formulated and manufactured layers pellets. Layer's pellets cost 46.6p/kg , mixed grain 46.9p/kg and oats 50.5p/kg.On close examination the grains in the "mixed grain" are the poorest quality; small, shrivelled and cracked so it must be highly profitable to sell this at the same price as layers pellets. I can't think of any other reason why a manufactured product with imported ingredients, expensive processing and computerised formulation costs less than a basic raw material which is largely unchanged after it leaves the combine harvester here in Scotland? 

I may have to go back to mincing and cooking domestic vegetable waste in a big iron pot; bread, potato peelings and cabbage, to reduce the feed bill.

Monday 6 May 2013

Chicken tractor and fertiliser spreader

The thirty Bresse Gauloise pullets and cockerels that hatched eight weeks ago have outgrown the brooder house and needed new accommodation this week. You are the first to view the prototype "Chicken Tractor and Dung Spreader.

There is no floor to this house, the birds roost on perches and their dung all falls directly on to the grass. The house is moved on, one length  each day to spread high value fertiliser on another three square metres. as soon as the house is moved the hens then come along and scratch in the manured area, removing moss and aerating the turf. You can see the effect, the grey patches and poultry manure. This is after three days.

As with all new technology there are unforeseen snags.  Despite putting plastic on the base of the skids its very heavy to move and the birds have to be outside or they might be trapped by the moving building. I have overcome that by inserting a piece of 1" iron water pipe under the skids before pulling. It works but its not ideal. Because there isn't floor predators are a possible problem so its limited to fairly even ground with no gaps between the skids and the ground. On the plus side this is a cheap way to house growing stock, the dung is spread evenly and  its well ventilated.

Some modifications are needed. A strong welded mesh floor to exclude mink etc would allow the dung to drop through and the addition of Screwfix wheels would enable me to move it more easily.

One after thought was the door flap ( see pic) there are times when you want to shut the birds in or exclude them so a flap over the electronic door for use in daylight is essential.

Thursday 2 May 2013

"Marking" the lambs.

"Marking" is the end of the lambing. Its when we find out how many ewe lambs and how many wether (castrated male) lambs we have. Each farm and croft has a mark unique to the district and in the past each Police Station held a register of marks, clear and unequivocal signs of ownership that can't be lost like plastic tags or wash off in the rain like keel. The Craigard mark is the, " back bit o the far lug", a triangular nick in the rear edge of the right ear with a stainless steel clipper. Its another of our farming euphemisms that the Dormouse is forever picking up on, for example "weaning" is tearing little lambs away from their distraught mothers, "culling" is killing and "marking" cruel, barbaric disfigurement of little lambs. She is right of course, farming jargon ( subject specific linguistic register) does tend to cover up whats really going on.

Moving on.... we have a lambing percentage of 140, this has been the same at this stage for the last four years. What really counts is the number of lambs weaned and taken to the mart and ewe lambs kept for breeding. That's the real lambing percentage.

What is the near side and what is the far side of an animal?  It goes back to the days of the horse I think (correct me if I'm wrong). If you are standing facing a horse you would normally mount it from what is your right side, the horse's left, near side, as it faces you, the far side is the horse's right. I assume this terminology was automatically applied to other farm animals,