Friday 26 January 2018

Do you know the difference between your dacha and your croft?

I have been asked to give a talk to the "Acharacle Winter Group" and have been given the title, Do you know the difference between your croft and your dacha?  

If you want to give it a more serious title it might be, The social, cultural and economic role of the Russian dacha, sounds a bit pompous, but never mind.

So,..... how to do this? well I have some really nice images of dachas and I have some personal experience of them after nearly four years living in Russia but I decided to get an authentic Russian voice to comment.I asked my friend and one time colleague Tatiana Petrovna, "what does your dacha mean to you Tanya? "this was her response;

My dacha is important to me as it feeds us nearly the whole year
It pleases my eye as I have beautiful flowers and dwarf conifers
It keeps me in good physical shape with digging which is sometimes very hard
I like to sunbathe on a bright summer day.

The dacha is a place to meet friends, to relax, talk, listen to music, drink tea and wine.
When it is raining it is a pleasure to sit by the fire among people dear to you.
Or just to sit in silence with my own thoughts.
Much depends on my mood

Tanya on her dacha

The dacha as you can see is close to the heart of Russians as it has been since Tsarist times when they were largely the prerogative of the upper middle classes. During the Soviet era people were allowed small plots for recreation and  food production. Since then, after the middle of May each year there is a mass exodus from the towns and cities on Friday to the dacha in the countryside.

You can see from the figures above what an important contribution dachas make to Russian food production. The gardening is largely organic, highly sustainable and provides food security, something we no longer have in the UK.,

Thursday 25 January 2018

"Magic" eggs go on sale the days lengthen, the temperature rises and visitors arrive.

Inspecting the new sign
My poultry always look their best in January, they renewed their plumage before the turn of the year and short days together with  low temperatures have minimised egg laying.  The number of eggs laid peaks as the days lengthen and get warmer around April / May hopefully coinciding with the influx of visitors at Easter.

Regular visitors make straight for the farm gate retail park, they can't get as good eggs at home or anywhere else. They've been "magic" eggs for years, since my daughter first painted the sign, "Magic eggs from happy French hens". It's a regular feature of holiday photos as are the hens as most people never see a live hen. These have always been dual purpose , laying eggs and calming traffic.

Apart from the layers I have three Silkie x Light Sussex hens , their main job is to incubate the fertile french eggs and rear the chicks to about 6 or 7 weeks of age.I used to have a high-tec all singing, all dancing electrically heated incubator but the broody hen is much more reliable and so much easier.

 The red hens are modern, scientifically bred hybrids, they produce large numbers of big brown eggs, over 300 a year, until they die of exhaustion or go off to ,"Mrs Cheadle's Twilight Home for Chickens" at Sanna to end their days.

Happy French hens

If you select a population of hens for large numbers of eggs, generation after generation they lose the ability to go broody, hence the Silkies which have lots of feathers and have not been subject to selection for egg production.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Red kites above the M40 and a speed trap

In medieval England red kites scavenged in towns for waste food and on battlefields human cadavers they were even reputed to steal clothing from washing lines to decorate their nests and steal bones from dogs.

Wheeling, diving and gliding
Then in the nineteenth century landowners exterminated them. The birds were thought to kill lambs ( they didn't they are scavengers) and they were easy to shoot, poison or trap. By the 1980s there was a small breeding population in a remote valley in Wales. Then the 1990s saw the start of one of Britain's most successful conservation projects.

Breeding red kites were re-introduced from Spain to the Chiltern hills in southern England between 1989 and 94. As I was driving north on the M40 motorway this week through Buckinghamshire I counted 17 kites on a twenty mile stretch of road. They were wheeling, diving, gliding above the six lanes of commuter traffic looking for the previous night's roadkill, foxes, badgers, pheasants the usual victims.more on red kites in the Chilterns

They seemed to be spaced out fairly evenly along the road and this led me to wonder if they have their own territories. Or a they are performing  the role that vultures do in other places, perhaps one spots a carcass and then signals this in some way to the others who then fly in to join the feast.

Since the first re-introductions twenty years ago we now have healthy breeding populations throughout Scotland, Wales and England. Red kites are even repopulating the towns and cities having been seen in N. London and Reading. Are people in the suburbs feeding them on tinned dog food I wonder.

Bird watching while driving isn't a great idea, as I rolled into Fort William yesterday afternoon I was caught in a police speed trap for the momentary lapse in concentration, 3 points on my licence and £100 fine I guess.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Do you remember an inn Miranda .........And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees

One hundred and fifty years ago Robert Louis Stevenson (according to me) started the adventure / travel  writing business with.... Travels with a donkey in the CĂ©vennes. When, fifteen years ago we followed his route from Le Puy to Florac, I carried a copy with me that could still be used as a trail guide.

In the early 20 th century the Anglo-French writer, historian and traveller Hilaire Belloc set the pattern for future trail guides with his publication of, The Pyrenees, in 1909. Last night I sat down to read it.

I couldn't help but compare it with, Trekking the GR 10 Trail, Le Sentier des Pyrenees published 100 years later in 2009. Both volumes include; how to get there, when to go, the weather, accommodation and walking routes with maps. But perhaps most interesting is Belloc's advice on what to take.

Belloc is an advocate of lightweight trekking and the bivouac rather than a tent where a bothy ( cabane) is not available. His kit list includes; a well designed backpack that hoists the weight high on your shoulders, a  gourd for wine, a blanket, matches wrapped in a waterproof pouch, a spirit stove and billy can. Enough food should be carried for at least three days, one and a half pounds of bread per person per day (French army rations at the time) and saucisson, two litres of wine in the gourd and that's it!

Pyrenean inn, Andorra
Clothing should be of wool, all of it! Walking on mule tracks in the mountains is much more comfortable according to Belloc when wearing rope soled sandals rather than leather boots, carry a stick, map and compass. We've gone back to wool, at least for a base layer now just about every corner of the world is mapped if only by Google.

Despite being an advocate of lightweight trekking Belloc includes a chapter on inns in the Pyrenees, one of which is also the subject of his best known poem.....Tarantella. The story of a wild night dancing and drinking at an inn during a festival at Canfranc in northern Spain. On the Tarantella Trail, Oli Foster, Times Literary Supplement

Do you remember an inn
Do you remember an inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding
And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees
And the wine that tasted like tar?
And the cheers and jeers of the young muleteers....


Sunday 7 January 2018

Carrion crow a long way from home

This morning after I fed the hens I noticed two crows among the hens, a carrion crow and a hooded crow. We just don't get carrion crows here as a rule. Because they tend to be south of a line drawn from Glasgow to Bettyhill on the North coast of Scotland.

Hooded crow
The distribution of both of these species wasn't always like this. A hundred years ago the two populations were separated by a line running from Dumfries to Dundee on the East coast. Along that line the two species interbred to produce hybrids which are fairly easily identified by their plumage.Changes in the carrion crow/ hooded crow hybrid zone in Scotland . Cook 1974

Over the last hundred years a number of population studies have documented the change in distribution of the two species in Scotland, Italy and Denmark. In the Ligurian Alps the hoodies have moved further up the mountains and along the Danish / German border here has been a similar shift.

Carrion crow
Why has this happened. Immediately one thinks...... must be climate change!...... but hooded crows can cope with much higher temperatures and seasonal range of temperatures  than we experience here in Scotland from Central Russia to Spain. There mus be some other agency at work.

Modern intensive agriculture could to be the most likely factor. Carrion crows thrive in lowland Britain's industrialised agriculture and perhaps the hooded crow can't compete so readily in this environment. Similar changes in the intensity of farm production at lower levels in the Italian Alps and Germany could have driven the change there.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

The GR 10 from the Atlantic to the Pyrenees......... can I do it?

Part of the GR 10
I woke up one morning two weeks ago thinking, " I need a challenge" my children are grown up, the sheep have gone I've no responsibilities. Then I read Ranulph Fiennes biography, "Mad, bad and dangerous to know" he's the same age as me (75 this year) and still trying hard to top himself in Antarctica or the Arctic. I'm not in the same class fitness wise but it set me thinking.

Then today I had an email from Mac Hoskins, a friend from the early 60 s. Re: Your blog 16th Dec.

Regarding a walking trip, I recommend the Pyrenees.
There are three waymarked routes, two have accommodation at the end of each day
( some rather hard days). I have always taken lightweight equipment as it's normally warm from July to mid- September and wandered at will not following any particular route.
My last trip was in 2015 at 75.

The GR 10 trail is something I have wanted to do since my teens, but lack of time and responsibilities precluded a six to eight week trail walk of 1,000 km from the Atlantic to the Med. Past experience tells me that one's pack for this sort of walk should not exceed 6 kg so overnights in refuges would be a necessity especially as you have to set out on some stages with at least 2 L of water. 

A way round the pack weight would be to take a donkey (See, "Travels with a Donkey" R.L Stevenson) but when I put this to a French farmer friend a few years ago he said it would be more trouble than it was worth and it would be difficult to feed and pasture.

Then there are my knees...... but I could build in rest days, time is not important. I doubt if any of my contemporaries will join me so it would be a solo trip.

And... to quote La Passionara" heroine of the Spanish Civil War, "it's better to die on your feet than then to live on your knees".

This is obviously going to occupy some of
Mac Hoskins on the GR 10
January's wet afternoons in coming up with a feasibility study and then perhaps a plan.  Note..... this is day dreaming, not a firm commitment but it could this space.