Butter Fingers. (Or Post-Apocalyptic Skill #143)

When I was 11 my parents gingerly stepped onto the long winding path to self-sufficiency, with me caught up in the slipstream of their dreams. A goat or five installed here, a fistful of chickens sprouting up there. Another sliver of garden being dug up for veggies. A steaming compost heap or two adorned with exotic-looking fungi courtesy of the deposits harvested from the circus elephants stationed in the town park once a year…

For 6 years we continued to live our own version of The Good Life in respectable, staid suburbia – a village of the kind that on the whole doesn’t keep farm livestock on the lawn and stash cockerels in the cellar to stop them from crowing at crack of sparrow. Most people grew begonias and roses in neat beds, not rampaging artichokes and a thicket of raspberries laced with goosegrass. They mowed their lawns at the weekend with petrol mowers not small tribes of friendly guinea-pigs in rectangular runs moved block by block up the lawn in a stately progression of increasingly nibbled patches.

Behind the polished brass knocker (one of my pocket money chores) of our conventional front door, I would lie on the living room carpet, chin in hand, and pore over Home Farm magazine and other such edifying publications of the day for those who aspired to knit their own yoghurt. Chief of these was John Seymour’s classic The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. I would study the sepia pen and ink illustrations for hours, noting the perfectly square 5 acre plot with stream, woodland, barns and garden all in precisely the right places and aspects for maximum efficiency.  If 5 acres was too hot to handle then there was an alternative 1 acre diagram – but I always got the feeling that Guru John considered it very much a poor relation and only for those slackers who wimped out of the full-fat version. These curiously weed-free sketches were a thing of beauty in which he laid down the law on crop rotations, the requisite livestock and sundry skills needed to keep such a utopian dream ticking over like a harmonious baler. They were my childhood holy grail – a box-ticking list of things You Have To Have To Survive.

Guru John, it turned out, was painting pictures to sell dreams neatly packaged up in words to fund his own self-sufficiency. When we finally landed some years later, limbs and brains akimbo, surrounded by colour-coded packing cases, bewildered goats and transplanted chickens on our 15 acres (fifteen, John!) of north-facing Welsh hillside we quickly learned you don’t buy the dream as a plan. You sweat it out of every pore and your haemorrhaging wallet…

Still, 20 years on, what’s left of the original troops seem to have thrived, Nietzsche-style. No one would paint sepia-tinted images of our lives, least of all me. But by sheer bloody-mindedness and sometimes farcical twists of fate, I’ve accumulated a CV that consists of a range of post-apocolyptic skills that could give an Amish a run for their buttons. I may be entirely unfitted for the 21st Century Big Smoke but I have scratched a number of obscure notches on the barn door frame. What can I say; it makes for novel party conversation…

One other tome I had devoured actually included a prescriptive List of Things You Should Be Able To Say You Have Done. I’ve forgotten most of them but one that did stick in my mind was making butter – and I’d knocked that one out when I was a mere 14 years old. It took about 3 days and gallons of goats’ milk settling in shallow bowls, frantic skimming off the top and an awful lot of shaking this cream up in an empty jam jar. The resulting tiny soft white lump of grease I ended up with looked unappealingly like lard thanks to the lack of carotene in goat’s milk that makes cow’s butter a rich yellow. It probably took more calories to make than it would replenish. But my dad kindly ate it all the same whilst telling me about my thrifty grandparents in their pre-fridge days close on the heels of rationing, shaking up tiny pats of butter from spare cream so as to avoid wasting it.

Shortly after my parents scored a huge antique butter churn in an auction for a few pounds. It leaked like crazy, spraying liquid up the walls as it was cranked and would have required huge amounts of cream to justify putting it into action (even if said cream wasn’t going to dribble straight out between its wooden ribs). And I wasn’t about to try harvesting that much from our goats slight offerings or risk imbibing who-knows-what from its musty-smelling wooden interior. I think it got left behind when we moved. Still, the knowledge I’d actually done it once – tick! – gave me a warm buttery glow even if I’d not repeated the experience for a quarter of a century.

Until the other week that is, when I passed an array of Kilner products in the local kitchen shop. It amused me that something you could only dig out of a garage sale two decades ago was now being manufactured for the Country Loving lifestyle. It amused me so much we just had to buy one…

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It stipulated whipping cream but I think I’d try double cream next time. You also have to leave it to stand for a few hours to get to room temperature so that it will separate out as you churn. Anyway, 600ml later and we were off.

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The instructions say it would get frothy after a few minutes. After 5 or so it would thicken, after 8-10 it would become stiff and then suddenly separate out into butter and buttermilk shortly after.

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After 10 minutes I handed the churn full of still-liquid cream to my mother and rubbed my aching forearm…

After 5 minutes more churning she too paused. We agreed to adjourn the dairy activities and allow it to warm up for another hour.

Some time into the second stint of churning (I wasn’t counting any more) it looked vaguely like it was thickening.

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We briefly discussed if it was cheating to use an electric whisk to give ourselves a boost and then return it to the churn for the finishing line…

Dismissing all unworthy thoughts of kitchen aids, I woman-fully resumed churning and soon it started to whirr in a slightly lower key.

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…and stiffen…

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…and then suddenly, as if by magic, the yellow butter grains appeared sloshing around in creamy buttermilk.

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I poured off the buttermilk (this tastes like skim milk and is great for baking with).

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You have to rinse every last trace of buttermilk from the butter – it’s less relevant in our refrigerator days perhaps but the watery component of milk and cream is an ideal growing medium for bacteria and leaving traces of it behind in the lipids would cause the butter to spoil (or go bitter just like poor old Betty Botter’s batter butter in the tongue-twister).

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You need really cold water – ice-cold – especially in a heatwave like we’re having at the moment. It’s probably over-stating the obvious to say if you use warm water it will melt your brand-new butter pretty darn quick. Marley appreciated the first rinsing with tiny blobs of butter grains floating about it in and chased his bowl around the kitchen getting the last licks out! A couple of rinses got clear water and then you work it with butter hands to squeeze out all the remaining water.

This being our family, we naturally just happen to have a pair of butter hands packed away. These got scrupulously cleaned of 25 years of dust and soaked in Milton to sterilise. They work really well to squeeze out the water – if you keep them dipped in cold water the butter doesn’t stick to them at all.

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Salt was traditionally added to help preserve butter. You don’t have to salt it though and those who try to reduce dietary salt might appreciate the pure taste of fresh butter. But mostly we’ve got used to the flavour of salted butter and I added a sprinkle of my favourite Halen Môn sea salt from the shores of Anglesey. And then worked it in.

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It occurred to me this action was not unlike mixing cement by hand with a shovel. Which is another of my random skills set.

I also nipped off a tiny amount to experiment with adding smoked sea salt which I love. This butter is pure indulgence and not something you will fry onions in. This is what you spread on a thin naked cracker and savour every tiny crumb…

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I’d watched butter-making demos as a child when visiting Acton Scott Historic Working Farm Museum. The “dairymaids” there would show the patterns imprinted into the pats of butter – an easy way to “label” a farm’s butter so people could know who had made it.

Imprinting pretty patterns wasn’t that high on my list but I did press a lattice into the top before putting it in the fridge to firm up as the temperatures are around 24 C at the moment – not your average Welsh weather!

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Yesterday my mother made a small batch of scones using some of the buttermilk. It was immensely satisfying to eat home made scones, with home made butter and freshly picked strawberries – even if we didn’t produce the cream!!

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Making butter this way clearly isn’t economic, although it was actually only slightly more expensive than buying it ready made – without accounting for the initial purchase of the churn. 600ml of cream produced just over 250g of butter plus around 300ml of buttermilk so it is fairly productive even if time-consuming. We don’t milk goats any more and whilst I’ve long wanted a Jersey cow, that’s not going to happen anytime soon and we’d be as fat as ticks living off that much dairy produce anyway. We’re not likely to buy cream just to make butter. Although I’d probably eat less if I did which would be a good thing.

But it was hardly the point of the exercise. Although I’d still buy butter to cook with, it’s nice to know that I can make butter if I feel like it for gifts. Or if there should be spare cream leftover so it wouldn’t go to waste – just like my grandparents did. With an awful lot less shaking and jam jars.

Way to go, Kilner, that was a better bit of butter than I’ve had for a long time. Now where did I put that scone…

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Birds and Bees

Don’t worry, this blog post really is just about birds and bees!!

This week I’ve had to handle both creatures in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated a few days before! I happened to be in the right place at the right time for a little swallow that had taken a wrong turning on Tuesday. I was next to my mum’s conservatory whilst she was out on errands and heard some fluttering noises. I put my head around the kitchen door just in time to see a Swallow flitting desperately from one side to the other trying to escape through the glass. It came to rest in the corner and Ginger the big tom cat prepared to leap on it. I roared at him and also dived for the corner and managed to bat away Mr. Ginger and scoop up the poor Swallow just in time.

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Luckily it wasn’t harmed at all and flew out of my hand just after I took these and went off to catch more insects.

The Swallows seem to be all nesting in barns this year. The house eaves have been taken over by a population explosion of House Martins – which is a good thing as they are on the Amber list. They really seem to like the wood cladding and bulkhead timbers as well as the shelter of the big overhanging eaves of my strawbale house – perhaps they recognise a fellow straw-and-mud-building fanatic when they see one!! Joking aside, the fact that the timbers of my home are durable ones that haven’t had any form of chemical treatment to preserve them probably helps; we chose them specifically for our own health and for the environment so the stamp of approval from these little guys seems like a small justification for that.

I’m not sure if they re-use nests or build new ones every year. There are some fairly solid constructions up there already but these pairs seem bent on a place of their own. I’ve not seen any coming or going from this one for example – apparently goose feather decor is so last year dahling.

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I’ll have to keep an eye out in case it actually has eggs in; we’ll soon see some hungry beaks poking over the edge if it has!

On the other side of the purlin are a young couple hard at work and having major domestics about how to go about it. I have to say that I somewhat sympathise with them – it’s always easier to work on a creative project like house renovations on your own I find!!

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This one has really got an eye for detail – or thinks it has. It’s quite fussy and precise about where each beakful of mud and twigs needs to be put and takes its time over placing carefully.

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This one just hasn’t got the same flair – apparently. It got told in no uncertain terms to go fetch some more materials and just stop messing up the progress willya?

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So the next time it just did a quick drop off before heading back for more gloop!

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I know where they’re getting it from, there’s a muddy patch near a dripping water butt tap that is perfect for them and I see them when I pass there several times a day. It’s outside the barn where I shear my sheep too and as that’s been one of my tasks this week there are plenty of woolly, strawy materials for them to dunk in the gunk to make a really well insulated and strong nest for their coming babies.

On the other side there’s more building going on too.

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I think somebody has already started on their family as one of the old nests is in use.

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It was hard to try catch them in flight but although the photos aren’t good, it’s nice to see them frozen in midair as they zip about so quickly you just can’t see them properly at all in real time.

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The other thing I didn’t expect to handle this week was our bees. I used to look after them but I became allergic to them about 5 years ago and I don’t go near them now. I do think they’re a vital part of the smallholding ecology – without bees and trees there would be no nature. And I really love their honey!

My mum has been looking after the bees in recent years with lots and lots of help and advice from some good friends who live quite some way away. Like most jobs it’s easier to do things with two people and bee-keeping is one of them. It’s important to work quickly and quietly once the hives are open so as not to annoy them more than is necessary and not to chill the brood (baby bee larvae) and eggs. Full supers of honey are pretty heavy to lift as well – in all, an extra pair of hands really helps.

I know mum was anxious that the bees might swarm on a warm day earlier this week and they certainly looked and sounded like it was on the cards for early afternoon. So I said I’d give mum a hand; it would be a shame to lose either a swarm of bees or the honey after the work she’s put in (and me, I’ve been helping to build some new hive parts!) So I cobbled together a bee suit out of various weird odds and ends and we went through them and moved some bees around.

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Hopefully it’s given all the bees enough work and space to be getting on with for now.

I removed this chunk of brace comb from the brood chamber. It had capped brood in and a little honey but it needed to go and the hive was chockfull of baby bees in the making – so although I don’t like despatching even one bee, it had to come out. I left it in front of the hive for the bees to clean out. I’ll probably remove it soon and melt it down and filter it into pure beeswax to store.

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They’re all busy working today. Just watching them on the flight board this afternoon, it’s funny to see how many crash land and roll in! Their pollen baskets on their legs are so full, it must be really heavy to fly with and awkward to manoeuvre. I’m glad they have lots of flowers to work though. Such a busy month of May!

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A River Runs Through It

The river theme for my yarns started with this yarn I blogged about yesterday. When I was planning it, the lustre of the wool once scoured really caught the light like sunlight playing off water and so I thought a watery theme would give a good yarn name as well as giving a sense of place. It helped with my decision to enhance that by adding 20% silk for a really shimmery lustre that is brought out strongly on the dyed shades.

I’m lucky enough to live in a really beautiful place. Wales is a very varied country and the scenery never fails to nourish me whether I’m at home or travelling elsewhere. At home we are on the top of a hill looking down into valleys – or cwm – whichever way we look.

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We catch quite a lot of weather here! The high level of rainfall drains off our wet clay soils and, along with the natural springs that rise all over the land, flows into the ditches we have to maintain. And at the bottom of our fields, this water run-off starts to form a very baby stream which almost dries up in summer. In the rare summers that it is scorching hot, it’s nice to go down under the trees and listen to this tiny waterway trickling its first “steps” to the sea.

It flows into the brook down to the village and from there into the first small river it turns into – the Afon Miwl. This joins up with the River Severn which is our local main river – or Afon Hafren in Welsh – and from there carries on to England and meanders its way south before heading out into the Irish Sea at Bristol. From small beginnings powerful things can grow and I liked the thought that the small batches of fleece my sheep were growing on our little fields were slowing gathering together before being turned into a proper grown up yarn.

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Late last Autumn I started to wind and dye a few skeins to test out my colour palette. When it came to photographing them, I knew I had to go down to the river and take the wool back to where its namesake flowed. This walk down the Captain’s Pitch is one that Marley and I enjoy occasionally – despite the fact it’s reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a local man murdered on his way back from chapel in the distant past!!

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The October light filtered through the trees for just half an hour or so as I tried to catch the colours (and not topple my basket of yarns off the bridge into the stream!)

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The colours played nicely against the moss of the bridge.

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And the soft shaded light really brought out the lustre.

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There are remains of various mills around this area. The farmer who lived at our smallholding before us was very interested in local history. Before he died he tried hard to enthuse me in the same passion. Sadly in my late teens and early twenties I didn’t fully appreciate all he wanted me to understand, nor had I yet developed the love for my new home, something that takes time to root and flourish. I thought he’d told me that the mills along here were sawmills and that the oak they milled from this land base was felled to provide timbers for the ships for the Royal Navy fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

I asked for help from someone who has long been associated with local history and textiles in this area and who was also a mutual friend of my farming mentor and she kindly corrected my hazily remembered misinformation, for which I was very grateful. She explained that although later they were converted to grain and sometimes sawmills, in the 19th C they were in the main fulling mills used for the local flannel cloth industry which was in its heyday in this area. As you might imagine, I was delighted to know that the mill was used for woollen textiles rather than wood!

She also directed me to the Cynefin project archives of the tithe maps for the area so I could see for myself the “flannel racks” or tentering frames where the wet woollen cloth was stretched and dried outside after fulling. They’re marked on land behind the trees opposite the bridge where I took the yarn photos above. This shows very clearly to what use the power of the river was being put – and in the 1840’s it was most definitely for wool! This screenshot detail of the overlaid map shows the racks as well as the Walk Mill woollen factory and river.

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I’m a bit clumsy with technology, although it is undeniably as useful to me as it is to others. In the main I prefer to do things by hand, it sits more comfortably with me and I find working things out by hand less frustrating. So when it came to making yarn labels for this yarn and for my other dyed yarns I wanted to draw – literally – on the landscape around my home. Whether looking west to the Cambrian Mountains as above or Snowdonia

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or behind us to the Kerry Ridgeway bordering England or to the soft undulations of the fields around my home…

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…wherever you look are hills, mountains and misty valleys; sheep, cattle and trees. They are connected to each other sustaining, shaping and evolving with the humans that tend them all. I started to sketch a stylised version because these are the things of my daily life.

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Which eventually turned into this label for the Hafren and Gwy yarns.

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And in the case of this Afon Miwl yarn, I’m able to bring the detail right down to the animals names!

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Afon Miwl is quite a sleek drapey yarn with little elasticity. Although it knits as a fingering weight / 4 ply yarn, its dense 80% longwool/ 20% silk worsted construction means its yardage is closer to sport weight yarn at around 290m / 100g (or 317yds / 3.53oz). It is in 100g hand-dyed skeins and is priced at £22.50 per skein. Colour batches are small, around 3 skeins in each colour batch.

It definitely lends itself to shawls and lace knitting. I think it would be amazing woven and hope there may be a few remnants after skeining that I can try this with myself.

I haven’t skeined all of the yarn yet but there will be around 150 skeins in total. And that’s it. I’m unlikely ever to make this yarn exactly like this again. The first batch of around 50 skeins will go on sale shortly once all the labelling is complete. Do feel free to sign up for my newsletter (subscribe button on my website www.barber-blacksheep.co.uk) to be informed of the planned update time.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my yarn project and will maybe want to knit with it too!

Nuts about Autumn

We’re back into my favourite season again! September has been changeable and October certainly didn’t start promisingly yesterday but today is glorious and crisp, chilly and sunny. All the hope and beauty of Autumn, crystallised in one dewy, smokey, morning that begs to be wrapped in a hug of woollen knits and natural fabrics whilst cherishing a cup of cocoa…

I’m not really done with summer or our short Welsh growing season yet though. I’m doing too many things to concentrate on the veg plot properly and as ever, I realised too late how much I was going to miss fresh tasty veg from the garden to make the best of it. I did squeeze a few things in the areas I managed to weed in time but this year I decided to really try properly to extend our growing season in the polytunnel instead of growing summer mediterranean veg in there only. I’ll come back to that in another blog post to show you what I’ve managed so far and what I’m planning.

Outside our temperate climate is heavily into autumnal orchard fruits just now. Some have been picked, I missed to gather the damsons altogether so no damson gin this year (but mum put a few in the freezer). And although the blackberries have been amazing, we have a cupboard bursting with jams and jellies so any bramble jelly would probably not get eaten for a few years! I’ll make a blackberry and apple crumble later today but otherwise I’m happy for the wild birds to stock up rather than gather and freeze fruit we probably won’t use.

One fruit I most definitely want to rescue before the wildlife get it though is a rather special first appearance of walnuts.

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The house my brothers and I grew up in had a neighbouring garden with a prolific walnut tree in it. The squirrels would strip it each year and bury the nuts in our garden. I spent many hours watching them as a child, chewing the green husks, digging furtively whilst keeping a lookout and patting the ground back over. Invariably a lot of these walnuts would get forgotten by the absent-minded furry thieves and we often had seedling walnut trees popping up which my father would lovingly dig up and pot on. He’d give the small tree-lets to friends and when we moved here he brought the last baby trees he’d grown on with us and planted three that grew big enough in the hedgerows on our new farm.

They all survived for some years. Two are definitely still growing although one got plonked down in an unfortunate place in its container and became pot bound and is still rather tiny due to the restricted root system now too deeply entrenched to dig up easily. One over the far side of the farm I haven’t checked on for a while, it may have got lost and trimmed off in the hedges as it’s alongside the road. Those hedges get cut by machinery each year so we can’t always control how much gets cut back!

But the third down our drive has grown and grown and now overshadows our polytunnel. I can’t bear to cut it back though, I’d rather get a new polytunnel. Walnuts take some 20 years to fruit although you can buy grafted varieties which fruit sooner. Daddy’s Walnut has never fruited but to me it’s a special tree, it reminds me of him and his love of nurturing living things and is a link not just to him but to my childhood home. We discovered this week however for the first time ever it has just a smattering of nuts, it felt like a kind of birthday gift.

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I don’t know if the squirrels will steal these before they ripen. But in a way it doesn’t really matter – I’m just happy Walnut is settled enough after 19 and a half years to have nut-children of her own. It would have pleased Daddy immensely to know it had finally fruited more than 20 years after he carefully scooped it out of our garden flower borders to give it a chance at a future elsewhere. I wish I could tell him…

The orchard we planted a decade ago has definitely come into its own.   Despite our harsh climate, the constant battle against weeds and occasional butchering by my escaped sheep, the apples have marched on like the stout troopers they are. The pears and plums lag behind and the cherries are really too delicate for this high up. But apple-picking and juicing is only just around the corner now and the orchard looks so pretty with all the different varieties … in a wildish overgrown kind of way.

The quinces have cropped extraordinarily well – Vranja normally only puts out a couple of fruit – if that. This year she is covered. Not really sure what to do with all of them as they are too hard to juice and will need to be processed some other way involving cooking … that’s an awful lot of quince jelly and cheese!

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Almost no pears but the Duchess has done her best. They aren’t very pretty but once ripe the peeled pears are tasty and I’ll be making pear mincemeat with them most probably.

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Brambles aside, there are still a few autumnal soft fruits. My favourites; raspberries and alpine strawberries are welcome at breakfast or with some yoghurt for dessert.

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Not everything growing in the orchard is a fruit or nut. You may remember the goslings we hatched earlier this year? They grew into large white geese in the space of weeks and are full-size lawnmowers that have done a great job of keeping the grass down without the aid of fossil fuels. It’s said that geese eat as much grass as a cow. I thought that was a granny’s tale but now I’m starting to believe it! Adult geese just nibble but hungry growing goslings can rival teenage lads for the amount of food they can pack away!!

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My mother’s hives have done really well this year too. We had more than enough honey and because we don’t farm them to sell honey my mum decided to leave the last crop of honey on the hives for the bees to keep over-winter instead of feeding them artificially despite the supers being rammed full of capped honey. Unfortunately this kindness may have backfired as the heavy honey crops have attracted raiders … one hive is able to hold its own but the other had lost its queen and had a virgin queen later in the season. This one has been heavily raided by wasps and the bees have had their hands ? feet ? full trying to defend the hive. You can see one just coming in to land here behind the darker coloured bees.

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The bees will valiantly drag out any intruders, trying to pull off legs and wings, dropping the heavy wasps over the edge of the flight board. I watched one last week fly staggeringly some 5 metres dragged down by the wasp in its grasp and then it carefully dropped the stripy burden into a spider’s web stretched between two grass stalks before flying back to the hive. I was amazed at such a deliberate action and may have let out a cheer for the clever bee. We try to help them (and next year we’ll be taking the honey off!) by shutting down the entrance and putting out wasp traps.

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But only time will tell if this colony has been weakened too badly too survive the winter. It’s tricky because wasps too have their place. I’d just rather they didn’t kill our our bees!

There’s always something to be done when you’re surrounded by growing things! So far we’ve got most of our wood under cover and there’s hay and straw in the barn. But the apple-juicing is the next major task and I’ve still more wood to cut up and stack before the winter closes in. Onwards to next week with gratitude for the kind weather we’re having. Long may it last…

 

A Welsh Yarn

This is a story about Wales, about sheep, about wool – a Welsh yarn. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin…

I’ve been dropping hints about yarns for a long time now. Creating and selling proper Welsh grown yarns from my own sheep is something I’ve desperately wanted to do since before I started selling my fleeces as BarberBlackSheep.

When I first started keeping Gotlands and crossing them for different coloured fibres I had this idea I’d somehow handspin everything. Hmmm… maybe not!

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Having yarn spun commercially from individual fleeces or from breed specific flocks is actually quite tricky. Within the UK there are now very few commercial mills that can cater to the small market and of the mills that can spin the kind of worsted yarn that benefits the kinds of fleeces I grow there are only two. And only one of these can deal with the tiny quantities of fleece I have.

When I switched from keeping commercial meat sheep to Gotlands I did so with the aim of looking for the “perfect” sheep. Over 10 years later I think I’ve now realised that this doesn’t exist within the parameters I was looking for; an animal is always going to lean towards one characteristic or other.
I was going through a rather zealous eco-friendly stage after a prolonged period of ill-health that forced me to give up my job in my mid-20s. Having ignored and even scorned the knit-your-own-yoghurt / wholemeal-socks brigade as we thought of them I was forced to think differently – but there’s nothing like chronic illness to burst an arrogant bubble.

My long and uncomfortable quest to find my health again involved facing a few home truths I’d chosen to ignore and realised that what we eat, wear and live in has a major impact on what we are. Having gratefully clawed my way out of debilitating pain over 18 months I threw myself 110% into natural food, clothing, toiletries and even housing in that way that converts do! I was interested in permaculture concepts and became somewhat obsessed about sustainability, often setting the bar impossibly high. No aspect of my life was spared the scrutiny of sustainability and that included the animals we were keeping.

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The meat sheep we’d kept till then were bred purely for the European export market. The fleeces went to the BWMB for not very much money and the sheepskins from the fat lambs would have been a waste product, I believe most likely going to China for making trainers (although I’m not certain!). I don’t have a problem with animals being farmed for meat or eaten as a moral principle I do however feel very strongly that nothing should be wasted, that we should never take lives unthinkingly and few things make me as angry as meat or animal products that gets thrown away. I wanted a sheep that’s fleece was as valuable as its meat but unfortunately we consumers dictate demands that often require a specialist breed rather than a dual purpose one.

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Wool growing sheep are usually rangy rather than meaty but we like juicy plump joints of meat; those sturdy, well muscled breeds that provide the kind of cuts the butchers require don’t have soft, snuggly fleeces for fine spinning.
I considered several traditional breeds for some time and narrowed it down to either Wensleydales or Shetlands for different reasons.

In 2006 I went to the Royal Welsh Smallholders Show which also included the Green Building Exhibition and the very first WonderwoolWales – fraction of the fabulous show so many of us went to last month. I had recently taken up knitting again and was learning to spin but I’ve always been a bit obsessed with textiles so I was blown away by the idea of an exhibition about textiles and wool.
I got chatting to a lady on a felt making stand and said I was hunting for “the perfect sheep” and she said “Gotlands!” and I said “whats?!”. She pointed me in the direction of Sue Blacker who had just bought Natural Fibre Company and was moving it from Wales to Cornwall (Oh how I wish it were still in Wales though!) and also had a flock of Gotlands and was manning the Gotland breed stand with another Gotland breeder. Gotlands in the UK are marketed as “the three crop sheep” for wool, meat and pelts (back in Sweden they are generally used for pelts).
There weren’t any Gotlands on show but she had photographs and Sue told me what massive personalities Gotlands have and then I saw some of the handspun overdyed yarns the other lady had spun and I was sold from that second.

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Over the next few years I fiddled around trying to breed from my two foundation ewes I acquired and crossing a Gotland ram onto another couple of different breed ewes we already owned. I quickly discovered I liked crossing for fleeces types more than I liked breeding pedigrees!

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I also realised that creating a “perfect” sheep is not a question of putting one breed onto another and hoping for the best. Genes will play the lottery, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes the results are predictable, other times not. First crosses can vary wildly, new breeds are created by selectively breeding those first crosses back to each other to reinforce the desirable characteristics whilst culling any that don’t meet the grade and I quickly realised also that a 15 acre smallholding combined with a shepherd with a complete inability to part with anything as adorable as a Gotland sheep is not cut out for creating a new sheep breed!

However I did get some interesting sheep and fleece types out of my experiments. One of the most special is what I refer to as Swedish Mule (neither a slipper nor a cocktail – a sheep!). A straight Gotland/BFL cross, it’s like the best of both breeds with none of the downsides. I bred 4 of these before I sold my ram. I’ve only ever sold a couple of their fleeces, I’ve carefully stored them over the past 4 years and last year I had enough to reach the minimum quantity for processing.

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Artisan yarn like this is really expensive to produce; having discussed the yarn a year ago I had to save up the capital to do this project and so it was late autumn before I could afford to ship the fleeces to Natural Fibre Company with my heart in my mouth for the next stage of a project I’d wanted to do for so long.

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The yarn came back a couple of months ago – it’s truly beautiful and I’m very happy with it. The yarn I designed is a worsted spun 4-ply/fingering weight yarn blended with tussah silk to enhance the wool’s characteristics – specifically created for a drapey, lustrous luxurious yarn perfect for lace shawls or other items where lustre and drape is an advantage. It’s limited edition, it will be costly and there isn’t actually a huge amount of it. It will also probably never be repeated exactly like this because I now have only 3 of the sheep whose fleeces it’s made from, having lost Boudicca to pneumonia last year. So I wanted to be sure exactly how I was going to sell it, skein size, colours etc.

If this project works well then there are other kinds of yarn I’d like to create from other fleeces I have stored once I’m able to afford to do so. I’m aware that my tagline “made in Wales” that originated from starting with my own fleeces is drifting further away from it’s roots in my products although everything I dye or card myself is made here in Wales and strongly influenced by the Welsh landscape and everything I stock has been carefully chosen for a reason such as the stunningly beautiful Haunui New Zealand Halfbred which has such great provenance behind the sheep and the business.

A couple of months back I realised that the Cambrian Wool project (part of the Cambrian Mountain Initiative) which had been in discussion for some years was getting close to launching so I started making enquiries about stocking their yarns to dye myself to compliment my own homegrown ones.

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It’s beautiful and I’ve spent some times in recent weeks finalising the palette of twelve shades I will be offering these lovely Welsh grown yarns in … as well as future yarns I hope. I’ve chosen initially to stock the DK weight to compliment the 4ply/fingering weight of my own yarn and it’s created from Welsh Mule, soft but robust and springing, perfect for garment knitting.

So there you have it – two contrasting Welsh yarns, spun in England and dyed in Wales. Coming to a shop near you soon!! ;0)

In my next few blog posts I’m going to tell you about the new colour palette I’ve been creating; it’s inspired by Wales and by my childhood memories so each of the colours has meaning for me and make my heart sing when I look at them. I can’t wait to share them with you now it’s done!

Goose Bumps

We’ve kept geese for quite a few years. In the past we’ve reared them under their mothers but geese don’t always make the most diligent of mummies and it didn’t always work out very well. We’ve also had eggs incubated by friends and had the older goslings back to bring on. I don’t think we’ve ever incubated them ourselves though, or if we have it was so long ago I don’t remember it. We’ve hatched other poultry at home but goose eggs escape my increasingly patchy memory!

My mum bought a new gander a while back; Steve McGoose of the Great Christmas Dinner Escape. Steve has grown up into a massive, beautiful and filthy tempered bird – I can often hear mum out in the orchard begging for her life – well OK, shouting at him as he noisily attempts to attack her – but the intention was always to raise some goslings again. This year she borrowed an incubator from friends and set 9 eggs to hatch. We tried candling them a couple of times at the appropriate intervals, I was pretty certain they were growing nicely but goose eggs have very thick shells and it’s actually quite hard to see through them even using the very strong studio lights I use for product photography!

On Sunday night the first egg started pipping and by morning was showing cracks. When I got back from work on Monday evening, the first gosling was flopping around with spiky wet down in amongst the other eggs in the incubator and more eggs were showing signs of pipping. Over the past 48 hours 5 eggs have hatched out. We think the other 4 probably won’t although we’ll keep them in the incubator for a little longer just to be sure.

The famous Five however have now moved to a brooder box. Cuteness overload warning. I’ve been chittering about them in my Ravelry group and promised I take photos. I just “took a couple” now and when I uploaded them found I’d taken around 70 pictures…So I thought I’d edit them out and put some pics of the cheeky chap pies on here!

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Two have leg issues, one I think will come OK with a little physio and possibly splinting with soft handspun wool to get his/her legs under it. The smallest one unfortunately seems to have a deformed leg and we’ll have to see how it goes. It may be that as it gets bigger it might be kindest to put it down; geese are large and heavy birds and would not be able to hop around on one leg like my little lightweight one-legged blackbird friend in Anglesey. For now they’re looking out for each other.

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The biggest gosling – or gullies as they are known locally – is no shrinking violet. He’s a chip off the old block and is very bossy and has lots of attitude. Despite being around 24 hours old, Steve Junior is going to be a handful as he grows up it’s already clear!

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Geese imprint on the first thing they see which means mum and I are big geese to these guys. If they’re out of their box and we walk away they try to paddle after us. The ones without leg issues are surprisingly nifty on their feet already!

They aren’t camera-shy either!!

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They’re hungry little chubsters tackling the chopped grass I’ve given them, strands of my hair if I get too close and even a nice juicy finger. This is Steve Junior again by the way…

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After working out his beak isn’t yet big enough to savage my fingers he triumphantly climbed on top of my hand instead to claim the high ground – victory of another sort!

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They actually want to be warm and to snuggle and I need little persuasion to snuggle baby animals either so I did give them a group hug and they nestled under my chin.

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Steve II wondered if I’d fallen asleep, a quick nibble (pinch – yow!) on my eyelid reminded me I had work to do and I sat up ready to put them in their brood box again. I discovered that I had stowaways inside my handspun Blank Canvas sweater I was wearing under my coat. It turns out even baby geese appreciate Me Made May!

There are two and a half geese in there, one is heading for my armpit, one snuggling down inside the collar and the third tucking it’s head inside because by that stage there was no room in the inn and standing room only outside the venue.

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Baby animals are big time wasters – but in a nice way! They grow so fast though and I miss having babies around the place,  we don’t breed much anymore. I think I will be spending a bit of time in mum’s conservatory over the next week or so playing Mama Goose. Like this…

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Of Kites and Kerry Hills

Come take a walk with me?

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Marley and I have a new favourite walk. It’s quite a long one so we don’t do this every day but we’ve walked it a couple of times a week since New Year – I’d walked and ridden parts of this before many times as part of it are country lanes around my home and sections are bridle path I rode when Cobweb was in her younger days before she retired. I’m wary of walking footpaths across my neighbours’ land however though. Even when there are public rights of way I’m very aware of the frustrations this can cause farmers and landowners. On the one hand it’s great that everyone can access beautiful countryside and get exercise and enjoyment out of our gorgeous land. And we should definitely encourage people to get out more and what better way of keeping healthy as well as learning to appreciate our natural resources.

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But many of my friends are farmers and although the majority of walkers and ramblers respect others and the countryside, there are always a few who spoil it for everyone. Some of my friends have had to deal with the consequences of walkers not shutting a gate, or shutting one that’s meant to be open.

In one case this caused weeks of extra work and expense and resulting in the deaths of sheep when a walker carelessly left several gates open on a footpath and my friend’s rams that were many fields away from his ewe lambs that were too young to be mated wandered over and did what sheep do and the resulting mayhem 5 months later completely messed up their lambing season, already a stressful and exhausting  time for sheep farmers, extending it by several weeks and costing money in unwanted vets bills for caesarians on some ewes and loss of animals for the ewes and lambs that didn’t survive. Other friends have a footpath running close to their house and it’s not unusual for walkers to take a short cut through their yard where their working sheepdogs run free and their children play. Most people are apologetic when they realise they are trespassing, but some are rude and belligerent when politely asked to return to the footpath – which doesn’t help matters.

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There is also the matter that farmers have to take care which animals they put in fields where there are rights of way to ensure that members of the public are not put in danger. So whilst it’s up to you to keep your dog under control and not stray from the path or annoy livestock, the farmer also has to ensure that aggressive animals are not kept in fields where they might attack people using those paths. If walkers chose to take short cuts, not only are they trespassing but they’re also potentially putting themselves at risk by entering fields where animals who are protecting their young or guarding their females might take exception to the presence of strangers or dogs.

Having said that, it’s really important that we learn to appreciate both sides and so that farmers can work the land they rely on to grow food for us all and that those who want to can still experience the wonder and beauty of the countryside. Unlike some other countries, we’re not free to roam wherever we want – and given the small size of our country and the way it is farmed that’s probably for the best for everyone’s sake. However there are many fantastic walks to be had on existing rights of way and I’m pleased that around here people are trying to encourage landowners to maintain them so we can all safely use them.

So given my respect towards my neighbours which means I tend to stick to roads, I’d never yet walked the middle section of this route, it’s a public bridle path but it runs right through the middle of the farmyard of some of my neighbours. However some of my friends and I walked it with our dogs on New Years Day to walk off some of our festivities from the night before (fortified with leftover sausage rolls, pork pies and blackberry gin!) and it’s just so uplifting and gorgeous I just can’t help going back again and again…

We live almost on the crest (bryn) of a hill which borders England and Wales. To the front of us is a sweeping valley which means our view stretches away out over the entire breadth of Wales to the mountains of Snowdonia and the gap across to the Cheshire plain and Northern England. The vista is vast and almost scary at times it’s so huge.You can see miles of weather sweeping up country;  often a prelude of a few minutes warning before it hits us. The valley behind us is by contrast quite small – carved by ice thousands of years ago it’s just a short hop to the crest of the Kerry Ridgeway behind which splits England to the East and Wales to the West in this part of the borders. Sometimes I’m envious of my friends who live on this side – their valley is short and cosy, they get more sun. But then again all I have to do is walk up our lane and I can share that too so perhaps we have the best of both worlds being “the folks who live on the hill”.

So after days of rain we snatched a few dry hours and headed off in this direction. The lane winds down steep hills (exciting when there’s black ice or fallen wet leaves around!!) lined with overhanding trees and twists and turns for a mile down into the valley itself. We turn into a No Through lane surrounded by wooded hills and pasture land grazed by sheep. There is something very special about this to a spinner – these are no ordinary sheep, they are Kerry Hills belonging to my neighbours.

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And the pastures that they graze on are the land the breed was developed from at the foot of the Kerry Ridgeway itself.

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Kerry Hill sheep are primarily a meat breed. They’re striking looking animals with their black markings. Until a decade ago they were on the RBST list of breeds at risk but they’re more popular now, especially with smallholders and in other parts of the world so they’re no longer considered a rare breed. My neighbours actually farm them commercially on their beautiful and immaculately kept land and in an environment where continental breeds of sheep have now dominated the landscape as a way of merely breaking even for farmers, it’s especially gratifying to see the sheep in the land for which they were bred. I had the same feeling seeing Herdwicks grazing the glorious steep fells in the Lake District. I’d never really “got” the widespread attraction of Herdwicks but when seen grazing in their home environment instead of a show pen it suddenly becomes apparent that they are the perfect animal in the perfect place. And it’s the same with these jolly little Kerry Hills.

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They just look “right” with the Kerry Ridgeway behind them!

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Nowhere looks wonderful in midwinter unless it’s snowy and frosty. Our own land is tired and grey and muddy; we and our animals are longing for spring now and the grass to grow and the ground to dry out. These softer more gentle pastures however are managed meticulously and even in January look beautiful in the winter sun. I had serious grass envy!!!

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There are some rather cute donkeys with their big horsey chum in the smallholding next door too. A couple of days ago they were right next to the road and came over to the gate for a cuddle and to touch noses with Marley who got on his hind legs to bump the very tall horse on his muzzle. The donkeys looked hopeful but I only had dog biscuits in my pocket …

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After this we Marley has to go on his lead, we’re about to go through the farmyard with its beautiful old brick buildings and cows bedded down on straw for the winter (it’s too wet in Wales for cows to live outside, they poach the clay ground and wreck the grazing). Obviously I wouldn’t take pictures of someone’s home, but really I do wish I could show you. It’s so beautifully tended it’s such a brilliant advert for how good farmers can be. Sometimes I see the brothers who farm here and wave at them; one is married to the sister of my next-door neighbour. I think he’s a bit surprised to see me walking through their farm every few days now but at least Marley has been on his best behaviour whilst on their land!

Once out of the yard we head through a gate (that opens and shuts beautifully! This is unusual…) into some rough land where they have hayracks and troughs down for the sheep. This tells me they’re either pregnant ewes being fed before lambing or fat lambs being fed overwinter before being sold in spring. Either way, I’m still on private ground where livestock are so Marley stays on his lead here too although he has quite strong feelings about this! Especially if he spots a sheep peeking out from behind a gorse bush or tree …

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He pulls at the lead here; he wants to go explore but it’s out of the question. It’s a shame because the other day I was watching a pair of Red Kites soaring above us and it’s very hard to get a photograph of that with one hand when you’ve got an impatient labrador jiggling around on a lead on the other.

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This was the best I could manage. I’m still quite pleased about it though, I’ve never managed to get any photo of Red Kites before. When we first moved here in the mid-90’s they weren’t around. I saw my first one here about 8 years ago and for several years it was still a matter of great excitement to spot one over the house but they soar so quickly on their huge wingspan that by the time you’ve run for a camera they’re far away. Once terribly rare, they’re one of Wales success stories and well known at the Red Kite feeding station. They’re now established here too in small numbers and I see them more often but it’s still something that makes me stop and smile. I was just lucky to snap this before the kite disappeared behind the hill and Marley dragged me off in the opposite direction in pursuit of Nice Sniffs.

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There’s this little stream winding though the woods and with all the rain it’s swelled and rushing with waterfalls. The air in here is fresh and bracing with the water spray’s negative ions and the damp sweet breath of the trees. I love this kind of place; it makes you feel 100% more alive. Marley seems to like snuffling a few extra deep breaths too!

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We twist up off the tracks now and up a steep muddy path between gorse bushes and shrubs. They’re already starting to come out although in the cold I can’t smell that wonderful warm scent of gorse – somewhere between coconut and bananas I think!

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I start to warm up on this hill climb; struggling with an over-eager Marley invariably means by the time we’ve reached these gorse bushes I’m stripping off layers and trying to wrap them around my waist without letting go of the lead!

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And then we leave this farm via a more rickety gate tied shut in time-honoured fashion with baler twine. Much more common and super-irritating to riders on horseback!!

I still tend to keep Marley on the lead here because he’s a bit unpredictable about his exploring and my training isn’t as effective as it might be (hence the pocket of dog biscuits!). But when he seems to be in a cooperative mood he gets to run free for a bit.

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You can’t see here but beneath those impatiently tapping labrador paws is running water; it’s been so wet this winter than even this forest path is like a thin stream. The first couple of times I walked this in my walking boots. Now I just wear wellies; the inconvenience of walking in them is offset by keeping my feet dry! It’s also a section that runs through a shoot. I think I’m safe on this path when I hear guns but then again sometimes I wonder …

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It’s not as pretty in this section of forest, it’s wilder and less tamed, sometimes even spooky, but I still love being in the trees.

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And there’s also native broadleaved woodland on the other side; it is managed by someone as evidenced by the tree guards.

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Finally we come out of the conifer section and to a clearing where they do clay pigeon shooting, the ground is littered with broken bright orange “pigeons” which seems a pity. Several forest tracks meet here – this is where I used to ride through on my pony years ago but on a different track going round the back of the hill. The piles of logs stacked here smell sweet in the summer sun, now they’re mossy and damp.

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We take the highest track out of the clearing; to me this seems like the last stretch although we’re more than half an hour away from home still.

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This week the snow was falling through the trees in this bit and it felt like Narnia …

The last section of woodland is planted with birch trees. I adore birches, especially Silver Birches – they’re one of the plants that remind me of my Granny who had some in their garden when I was a child. She was a really keen gardener and she loved her Silver Birches and would wash the trunks from time to time to keep them gleaming and white unlike these which are green and orange from growing in a damp woodland.

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The fallen birches sprout all sort of interesting fungi.

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Marley wouldn’t let me take any more photos of them though!! Woof! We’re nearly at the last gate and back into sheep country!

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Which means he’s back on the lead again as we top out of the woods and look back over the Ridgeway and the valley we’ve just climbed out of.

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The last bit also means we have to walk through someone’s yard although these farm buildings have been converted into beautiful holiday cottages. If I didn’t already live here I’d probably go on holiday in one of them! I did once house-and-dog sit in one of them though for my boss when his family rented one when he was building a new home.

And then it’s back down the drive to join the road again in our own wide valley looking North West to where in the far distance beyond these near hills you can see parts of Snowdonia when it’s a clear day (but not today!).

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It’s still 20 minutes trundling along the road to home but we walk it so often Marley and I do it without noticing, dreaming of hot cups of tea and a warm fire to snooze by…

It’s a long walk and a long blog post but I hope you enjoyed it. Not everyone is able to get out for a bracing country walk so perhaps this might make up for it a little.

Advent: December 9th

Just a short entry today. I’m still dipping into old photographs from the past year or two as I’ve had little time to take new ones lately and the weather has been so manky, it’s hard to find a moment to head outdoors with a camera.

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So here is a sweet picture of a calf belonging to some farming friends. Born a couple of days before I visited, it’s a Belted Galloway – or Belties or Humbugs as they are sometimes affectionately known as. Really lovely beef cattle from Southern Scotland, my friend’s mother-in-law decided in her 70’s to start breeding Belties and this was one of the first Beltie calves born on their farm.

It’s not a great photo – the mother was understandably protective of her baby and stood between it and us when they were in the yard. You don’t mess with cow mummies – they’re dangerous and with good reason. So I just got a few quick snaps once my friends had loaded this little chap in the trailer for moving before I had to give in gracefully to Mother Beltie!

Advent: December 7th

Returning to images from The British Museum again, today I’ve chosen a very humble object but one that was essential throughout the history of agriculture right up until the present day. And one that has particular interest to me as a sheep keeper and fibre artist.

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These shears are around 2,000 years old and are from Hertfordshire, England. They look remarkably similar to the hand shears I use for dagging (clipping the tail wool) my own sheep. My oldest pair, now relegated to gardening duties are in about the same condition too!!

I now shear my sheep with an electric shearing machine. But for the first few years that I sheared my own sheep, I blade sheared them using the tool of shearers throughout the centuries; effective, well designed and standing the test of time. A good blade shearer is not much slower than one using a machine and shearing competitions often still have a blade category. Although no one would shear large flocks of sheep professionally this way now, it’s good to know that shearers continue to keep up these hand skills.

Before sheep were domesticated, they shed their wool naturally in late spring and summer leaving clumps of it dotted around the countryside for humans to gather and use for clothing. Over the millennia than humans have domesticated animals for their own use, they selectively bred sheep to retain the wool which meant it could be gathered at will at one time – shearing. Almost all modern sheep have lost the ability to shed their wool although most breeds fleece will “rise” in late spring where the new growth pushes through and indicates where and when the sheep need shearing. Primitive breeds of sheep can still lose their fleece. Because I keep a couple of more primitive breeds, some of my own sheep do this to an extent although they need a helping hand to get rid of the last bits of felted wool from their bodies. Because I shear the best wool from my sheep in winter, the spring growth is short and poor quality and I utilise the sheep’s natural ability to shed it to save me work by picking the optimum time to clear off this wool. It has no value to me and has served it purpose to keep the sheep warm since moving back outside after being housed in the depths of winter and so gets discarded.

This is generally a quick process compared to the laborious clipping of the quality fleeces. Often I will use a combination of electric clippers and my low-tech, traditional blades to achieve this. It’s nice to know I’m following in the footsteps of my sheep-farming ancestors across the centuries when I’m working.

Advent: December 6th

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Oops… getting behind again!

I thought you might enjoy this picture I took in the summer. Our bantams are very friendly little birds and often pop down to the house to visit. But after Tommy the cockerel died, Henrietta was more than usually at a loose end. During the summer our house doors are often open and the animals come and go as please. Sometimes this also includes Henrietta!

She discovered that it was more genteel to hang out with the elderly Badger and Silky basking in the warmth of the conservatory than peer at the noisy boisterous big chickens through the mesh of their run in the paddock. So on more than one occasion we found her cwtched up on the rug in here. Silky is oblivious to her presence but Badger the 3-legged collie looks less impressed at sharing the mat!

Now everybody has their own kind to keep company with; the bantam chicks have grown up and Henrietta spends her days with them and Badger of course has Marley now to keep her on her doggy toes – what’s left of them anyway! But who knows when summer comes, Henrietta might be back … with all her friends in tow!