Saturday, 22 December 2007

Is it Really Christmas?

Well that’s the question I was asking myself today as I mowed the lawn stripped down to my t-shirt. It was positively hot by comparison to a week ago. I didn’t cut much grass but ‘hoovered’ up rather a lot of leaves from the area that is euphemistically referred to as my front lawn. Removing the leaves has enabled me to see the lizard orchids that have already started growing even though they won’t flower until May next year.

There are at least a dozen showing at the moment, slightly less than the number of molehills that have appeared over the last month. Still the molehills give me some nice crumbly soil to rake into the multitude of hollows that make up the lawn. The supermarkets and garden centres are full of poisons for everything in the garden including moles but I really don’t want to kill them. I’m trying to discourage them when the tunnel in the direction of the lawn by hitting the ground in front of where they are going, in the hope of heading them in the other direction, into the field where I’m happy to leave them in peace. It seems to work for a while as does raking the molehills flat when they are trying to build them. It’s quite mesmerising to watch the molehill slowly growing and Patches sits for hours watching them too. I think she’s hoping the mole will poke it’s head up and she’ll be able to get it.

I’ve had an electrician round today to prepare a quote to completely rewire the place. As I feared, a lot of the wiring is a DIY bodge but some of it he passed as OK and doesn’t need replacing but I’m saving really hard for what I know will be a very large bill. While showing him round we ventured into the attic space and just caught sight of a cat running and hiding. One of the sad things in France is the number of feral and abandoned cats. The attitude seems to be that they can look after themselves so it doesn’t matter if you just leave them. I was pretty sure I recognised this one though. I call him Mr Tibbs and sure enough when I went back later I saw that it was him. Mr Tibbs introduced himself back in July by meowing under the study window one evening. I thought that if he was brave enough to do that he was probably hungry and sure enough a plate of food disappeared in double quick time.

Snowy & Mr. Tibbs

He called again for a couple of days, disappeared for a week and then came back for another couple of days. The last I saw of him was after he’d had his fill to eat and he walked all the way down the drive to my house. He gave a quick look back when he was halfway down and then disappeared into the field about half a kilometre away.

Having not seen him for so long I thought that he might have been shot by one of the hunters (rumour is that they take pot shots at cats if bored) or eaten a poisoned rat or mouse, so I was rather pleased to see him again. He’s not feral so I guess he’s been thrown out. He’s very wary but will let me sit 3 or 4 feet from him while he eats. The other 4 cats have no problems with him being round so I guess he’s got an invite to stay from all concerned. I call him Mr. because of his swagger but he could be a she; I’m hoping I can get close enough to find out before kitten season starts.

Snowy and Cid with Mr Tibbs this summer

While up in the attic I came across an old pickles crock and am going to have a go at making my own vinegar. Rhonda Jean posted
how she makes it on her down-to-earth blog yesterday and there are lots of other sites on the Internet too. I have some cider on the go at the moment so might start with cider vinegar, or should I use the last glass of red wine that’s in the lounge or open one of the known undrinkable whites I have and use that. Decisions, decisions. Maybe I shold try all three :D

Friday, 21 December 2007

The Waiting Game and the Windowsill Garden

Today has been spent hanging round and not really being able to get on with things. The reason? My alpaca, Noissette is due to give birth any time now. Today was her due date but they can be up to six weeks early or six weeks late. As the ground and wind are cold even if the air temperatures are just into double figures here, there is a chance of her cria (baby) getting hypothermia. This means checking on Noissette every hour.

One fat alpaca.

I thought that today was going to be the day, she separated herself from the others and also spent more time sitting down. Both are supposed to be indications of impending birth but it was not to be.

On the whole it’s widely accepted that if they haven’t given birth by 2.30 pm then they are unlikely to that day but it means that getting to the shops at the moment has become a little difficult. I hang around until 3 pm, then it’s half an hour to the shops but I have to remember to be back for 5.30 at the latest to lock the chickens safely into their house.

So I was able to make it to the shops today. I don’t want to be shopping tomorrow and there is practically no Sunday shopping here. It is getting a bit too close to Christmas for my liking so I was really glad to get the shopping done. I got all the essentials, more paraffin for the portable heater and I bought a camping gas light and burner – essential for when the power goes off. I also spent far too much on food but with luck I won’t need to do a large shop again for a month or so.

I thought I’d show you a few things I’m growing in the house at the moment. First up is my lemon. I’ve got 2 trees, the first one I bought is a small one which promptly dropped it’s flowers and small fruit when I brought it home. It’s struggled this year but I’ve now given it some specialised fertiliser and it’s responding well and starting to form flower buds. The second lemon tree I bought kept all its fruit over the summer and 2 have ripened since I brought it inside.

It’s also flowering again and scenting the whole room wonderfully. I’ve found an old paintbrush and I am pollinating the flowers as they open.

This group are the pineapples I'm growing. The one in the terracotta pot is well rooted now, the one in the plastic tub has just been placed into the coarse compost and I’ll leave to root for a couple of months while the last one is just starting it’s drying off. It will hopefully be a bit like BOGOF just a wait of 2 to 3 years between the first and the free one!

Next up is an avocado – I really would like to get it to last more than a year or so. It’s common for them to last that long on the seed store but fail to make a good enough root system to survive. The little sapling beside it is a lychee that I planted last Chinese New Year. Lychees are back in the supermarkets here ready for Christmas so I’m going to see it I can get a few more seedling.

And lastly this little group. In the bottle, the dead looking twig is a piece of willow that has rooted and I will grow on to plant down by the pond. I will probably coppice it to provide a source of willow canes. In with it is a very sad looking piece of geranium that broke off when I was putting the geraniums in the barn out of the frost. I’d read somewhere that willow water was a natural rooting compound. So far I’m not convinced.

In the little glass bowl are some date stones being pre-soaked before trying to germinate them and in front of that is a piece of ginger. I’d bought a large piece of ginger a couple of months back with the aim of trying to grow some. I've got 2 large pots currently in the cold frame as there is no room for them in the house. This was a small piece left over after cutting pieces for the two pots but as it is trying so hard to grow, I’ll find space for a little pot that can stay inside.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

A Quiet Day

It’s been a lovely day here today, there’s been a warm wind blowing up from the Mediterranean and it’s been a positively balmy 11 or 12 degrees. The breeze did get a trifle strong around lunch though. I stuck my head out to do the hourly check on the alpaca that’s due to give birth sometime around now and was greeted by the sight of the tarpaulin that protects the hay bales flapping around like a gigantic flag. It took nearly an hour to get it all back under control and roped down again. I’ve no idea the best way to rope round those large round bales. I’ve tried to get the rope low enough to be below the widest point but also found that by best Girl Guide reef knot was failing to hold tight and keep it in place.

At the same time as I was on my way to check the alpacas I noticed that I had no water in the taps. I have well water and every so often the system gets an air lock so I went down to the pump house to give everything a good kick, which usually solves the problem. This time though I was met by a whirring pump and an empty pressure vessel. My first thought was for my electricity bill. There was no on/off switch in the pump house so I returned to the house and began puling out fuses in the fuse box. I still couldn’t stop the pump – I seem to have a few bits of wiring where fuses are not in the fuse box, goodness knows where they are or if they even exist. Eventually I found that pressing the re-arm button and holding it in I could stop the pump. By then I’d guessed that the problem was likely to be a blockage around the water intake so I released the pressure from the pressure tank and waited a few seconds. I let go of the re-arm button and the pump started again and to my joy began to fill the pressure tank and thankfully it has kept working so far.

The rest of the day has been spent on finishing bits and pieces in the house. I’ve finished putting up the curtain rails, the idea being to cut down draughts by hanging curtains. The only problem with this has been that even my longest curtains from the UK are about a foot or two too short. The ceilings here are high, still while they may not stop the cold air seeping in at the bottom; they still stop the hot air going out at the top. New curtains will have to wait until I can make some.

I also spent some time chicken watching as expected, the girls have accepted the cockerel with no problems. He’s obviously taken control and it’s nice to see them all out together moving round as a flock, the girls spent their time as two groups of two.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

An Early Birthday Present

Today was a lovely sunny and warm day, reaching 11 degrees on the patio, I even made a start on mowing the lawn. It doesn’t really need doing but a cut now will mean that if the spring is wet I will have a little more time before it becomes critical then. It’s also doing a good job of picking up the dried leaves too.

I was awaiting a visit from the vet to help me vaccinate the alpacas and trim their toenails. I’m really glad the vet did the toenails. All the alpacas were reasonably fine until the last one. Her toenails were long but not overly long so they were only getting a light trim. However it turns out she has quick that go almost to the end of the nails and they started to bleed. If it had been me on my own I think I might have panicked a bit so it was reassuring to have the vet there to say that it would all be OK. A quick squirt of antiseptic spray and they should be fine. The alpacas also all got another worming shot and should be fine now until March/April although I might have to dose them again for the other worm that’s in the ground.

My friend Sandra in La Vienne organised a CamelidDynamics training day with Julie Taylor-Browne a month back and kindly invited me to participate. It was a very intensive (two days crammed into one but there were only 3 of us), and an extremely rewarding day. The principle of CamelidDynamics is that you don’t use force or strength against the alpacas to get them to do things. It interested me because the alpacas are as tall as me and heavier so I would lose in a war of strength. What you do is try to think alpaca and use their fight/flight instinct to move them in a controlled manner. There is also a technique of catching them with a pole and rope that is near enough foolproof. If you try making a grab at their necks they usually see you coming and get out of the way before you make contact. Having caught them in a low stress way they are then more likely to stand still and I also learnt a way to hold them that doesn’t remind them of a predator clinging round their neck. It sounds a bit airy-fairy but I was really astounded how simple it was to implement and how effective it has been.

And the birthday present?

There was I, sitting watching the evening news, when Ann knocks on the shutter and insist I put on boots and come out. Torch in hand and boots on feet I set off to find out what was going on. Had I had my music on, as I do sometimes in the day, she wouldn’t have got me out but she was convinced I had heard her car come up the drive. She had bought me a gorgeous cockerel to go with my Lacey Ladies for my birthday. We popped him into the hen house and they all had a little bit of a chat and then settled down. I’m not sure what I would have thought if he’d walked out of the hen house tomorrow without me knowing he was there. He is lovely and I will post a picture of him tomorrow. I can see that I will be spending a large part of tomorrow watching chickens.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Health Insurance French Style

No blog yesterday as I had an early night. The reason being that I had to get up this morning necessitating the ‘setting of the alarm clock’. I’ve probably only set the alarm 4 or 5 times in the last 8 months. So it was a real shock to the system this morning when I was woken not by the alarm but by the telephone. My friend Ann who was coming with me to Villeneuve this morning had very sensibly rung to make sure I was up. My alarm was set but due to the power cuts I’ve had over the last few days, my clock was running nearly half an hour slow. One very quick tea and croissant later and we are ready to go.

The reason; I’ve been trying to register for health care more or less since I got here. Once I’d been officially registered as a farmer I though that would be it, but no. The other week I received a letter to say that while I was now a member of the MSA (the health and benefits for farmers society) I wasn’t entitled to join the health scheme. No reason given of course, so today my friend, Ann, and I went to the local MSA office in Villeneuve to find out why.

It turns out that under the vagaries of French law, you need to have a certain amount of land to qualify. This amount is not standardised but goes by commune (parish). In my commune it’s set at 11.5 hectares. I have 11.33 hectares therefore I didn’t qualify

Well Ann and I just looked at each other in disbelief. The gentleman who was dealing with us said not to panic, as there were ways round this and asked me what I was growing on the land. Currently it’s 5 hectares of cereal. The area I want to turn into coppice/productive woodland wouldn’t help. I told him I wanted to do a small bit of market gardening and he said “No way”! His advice was never ever to say I was doing market gardening as it would mean that I would have to pay much more tax, (another of the joys of the French tax system, if you do more than one thing, and you have to be registered to do anything, you have to pay National Insurance for each thing for which you are registered). His way out of it was to register 0.5 hectare as vegetable production. I’m covered for that as a farmer and….any land registered for that use has a weighting. Each hectare miraculously becomes a nominal 3.25 hectare. So my half hectare suddenly becomes a little over 1.55 and puts me over the magic 11.5 hectare barrier. So I should be covered – but I’m not celebrating until I have the official letter saying that I’m covered.

I also got the last piece of roofing onto the alpaca shelter and hammered down with Ann’s help. Yesterday when I was doing the primary fixing I had my usual supervisor, Snowy.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

I’ve made it onto French television!

And didn’t have to blockade a ferry port with my tractor either.

Today I had set aside as a do nothing day. I do this most Sundays but invariably something comes up and today turned out to be no different. I did manage a very lazy start and then the ‘phone rang.

The next village after mine was expecting a visit from Père Noël. Like the rest of France (transport sector, legal profession, students), the reindeer had gone on strike and Père Noël had arranged to arrive by donkey and trap. The only problem was that the trap wasn’t big enough for Père Noël and the present and he needed another helper to bring the presents along in a wheelbarrow.

A quick trip via the North Pole and I’m reincarnated as one of Santa’s little helpers skipping along behind the donkey cart pushing a present laden wheelbarrow.

All the children from the village were there and after the distribution of the present under the Christmas tree by the church they all got to have a ride in the cart. Then it was drinks and nibbles in the village hall. It was a lovely afternoon – seeing the looks of joy on the children’s faces was wonderful. The owner of the donkey and cart had arranged for the regional TV station to come and do a piece for tonight’s news. It will be broadcast again tomorrow and then be on the Internet too for a week.

It was interesting to note that Père Noël and his two helpers were all English. It seems we are the only ones who willingly dress up and play the fool if required.