Sunday, March 31, 2013

A big welcome to the fourth 'A'

Last week's great excitement was the liberation of the sheep, plus their lambs, from confinement in the sheep barn. A riotous occasion that showed how truly stupid sheep/lambs can be. You would think humans could just open the doors to the grass rich green fields and the ewes would pour out, followed by their offspring. Wrong.

Many of the ewes do rush out, followed by some of the lambs – not necessarily related one to the other. A few ewes rush around in circles looking for their lambs whilst a large number of lambs hide in nooks and crannies, resisting all encouragement to go outside. The main management tool, up till now, to get this exercise sorted in as short a time as possible, has been the wooden barrier, skillfully manipulated by A ¹ = Arnold. The wretched thing (barrier, not Arnold) weighs a small ton and is not very effective.

Given that A's 2 and 3 (Alexandre and Audrey) were temporarily absent, I was permitted, requested, bullied into helping, though I am only a D. I knew the theory but was hardly dressed for the job, in stockings, skirt, ear-rings and a new, clean pullover. The final six lambs were fished out of their hiding place by me on my knees in the shitty straw, reaching under a manger, catching a leg, hauling them out and passing them to Arnold. He then tipped them over the gate from which they could go to their bawling mothers – mothers who were bawling with their mouths full of fresh grass. This took 45 minutes

Arnold and I both dreaded the reverse action that evening, when all had to be brought back in from a much larger space, with many, many more hiding places. This requires walking round the field, rattling the grain pan and walking back towards the barn. Then going down to the fields again a couple of hours later to see who was outside the barn, bawling to be let in, usually the smallest lamb.

But this time a new, four legged sheep management tool was brought into play by Alexandre. He wanted to see how the young Haska, (the 'H' is silent) his dog, would behave when the sheep were in the fields. Haska has the same colouring – black and tan - as Bianca, Clea's dog, pre-dominantly Beauceron, a short-haired French sheepdog breed, whose favourite activity was rounding up the sheep into a square and then waiting for further instructions. The sheep apparently could not tell one from the other, obediently formed a line, lambs alongside, and trotted into the barn. The reverse action the following morning took ten minutes. A 4 welcome to the La Chaise management team!.


Forgot to mention last week that it was St Astier's 1,000th birthday – of church and town. Many celebrations in both, with expositions of medieval life and early pictures of the town.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sing 'cou-cou'

It may be only a few days after the official (French) start to spring on March 20th but the season seems already well established. The dawn chorus has become more dense, more complicated and lasts all day. Song birds are very competitive. I no longer hear the white owl's warning call as it hunts for small rodents at day break because day break comes when I am still deeply asleep.

The early violets have been joined by a rush of other wild flowers, mostly yellow, like the butterflies, the cowslip or coucou in French was probably the first. It is a medicinal plant, leaves rich in vitamin C but also saponines, so not edible by humans. The dandelion, or pissenlit, whose leaves are eagerly picked for the local (bitter) spring salads, is prolific in the horse-fields, it is known as the 'horseflower' in Dutch. And yes, pissenlit does mean 'bed-wetter', it is a diuretic, so why eat it? The only way to make a pissenlit salad edible, in my view, is to add crumbled crispy bacon and some toasted pine nuts, then eat, interspersed mouthfuls with authentic country bread and glugs of decent wine. In the marshy areas we have a few celandines – souci d'eau – a plant of the ranunculaceae family. My favourite wild flower reference book Quelle est donc cette fleur* observes that it is mildly poisonous, bitter tasting: Il est donc preferable de ne pas la manger en salade. End quote.

These commercially raised primroses have come back for the second year....
The curious thing about the cowslip is its relationship to the primrose, both primulaceae but only the cowslip grows on our soil – except where I have planted commercially raised primroses, as above. A few kilometres from us, on a shady bank, there are nothing but primroses to be seen – odd. One year, when replacing the window box primroses with geraniums, I could not be bothered to replant them elsewhere which I normally do, being parsimonious. I threw them over the wall into the woods. And the next year, there was a 'cowslip' plant that had exactly the colours of a rejected primrose. Odder.

hopefully happy ducks on Black Pond
Well, the cowslip may be called 'coucou' but I have yet to hear that bird's call which should easily be heard above that of all the others. Perhaps it is just a little late, not quite trusting that spring is really here. The daily showers that come down hard and fast at unexpected moments may discourage it, as they do humans. But one small, rain related creature, has not been discouraged. The mid-wife toad, with its rain drop cry ' ploop, ploop' – seems to have established itself on the Black Pond in the Woods, along with the wild ducks. The ducks, too, are making themselves heard. They are quacking which, apparently, is what ducks do. Our tame ducks were Muscovies, also known as Barbary ducks. They do not quack. It took me some while to distinguish the 'quack-quack' from all the other bird noises. Keeping my fingers crossed that the ducks are here to stay.

*Quelle est donc cette fleur?. By Dietmar Aichele, translated by Thomas Althaus, illustrated by Marianne Golt-Bechtle. Publisher, Fernand Nathan, Paris 1975.

Monday, March 18, 2013

waiting for the moon - again

There is no accounting for daffodils: there has been a sudden rush to flower with the majority of the plants either appearing in the rose hedge or the brambles. I believe roses and brambles are related plants – think of the thorns - but no time to check that out now. Of course, some of the 'daffodils' will be narcissi when they condescend to open but they open later than the standard daff. What I do not understand is why/how the daffodil developed a flower that is too heavy for its stem. Many of the flowers, when fully opened, are virtually touching the ground. Then, unlike most wild flowers, put them in a vase and they start to stand up straight. They cannot be lacking water – the rain, it raineth every day.

It is also encouraging to note that the orchids are back under the ash trees that form such a welcoming clump of shade for the sheep in summer. Every year I worry that the weight of sheep settling down will destroy the plants. They certainly destroy the flowers. As always it looks as though it is the purple spotted orchid (dactylorhiza maculata) that has returned, flat circles of large, dark green, black spotted leaves are easily visible. It will be a race between self and the sheep to get at the flowers first.

Meanwhile we are going to let the former horse fields just grow naturally for the coming year and see what comes up. There used to be some serapia orchids, Aphrodite's own flower, behind where the horse boxes were built but I think their big feet may have killed the plants. We shall wait and see. For the rest, there still seems to be clover of various colours, wild chicory which seems indestructible but, sadly because it is a lovely colour, dies promptly when cut for ornamental purposes. With any luck the wild sage in its three colours of white, pink and blue, will come back also. I have recovered all the golf balls that the horses stamped into the ground.

It seems that the deer that used to jump the fence so they could share the horses' hay have damaged the grove of parasol pines. Some of the bark has been eaten, probably during this last snowy winter (the horses may have refused to share their meals) but not so badly that the trees are likely to die. We buried our last labrador, Edward the Black Prince, in that grove of trees, so the site is important to us. Audrey says she will protect the trees against deer for the coming winter – just this Sunday I heard the strangled bark of a male deer establishing his territory. Terrine de chevreuil aux pistaches, I mused.

One lucky or clever ewe has manipulated, bullied – I am not quite sure what word to use – the triple A team into bottle feeding her twins four times a day. And she still gets breakfast, lunch and dinner brought to her. There are seven ewes who have not delivered, with luck at least four of them should do so around the full moon on the 27th of this month. The ones who do not look remotely pregnant are quite likely (loi d'emmerdement maximum = French for sod's law) to deliver lambs in the fields in the course or April or May. Oh, joy!  And more joy today, Monday 18th - the ewe who had a prolapse last year and this year has just successfully delivered very small twins.   The twins are so small one wonders if there is not a third lurking....

Monday, March 11, 2013

spring is sprung

Only nine days to the official start of spring but the signs of its imminence are unmissable. Now we can actually think of something other than the irregular arrival of lambs even though eight mothers have still to produce. The lambs to ewes ratio is now 1.5 and we are all very proud, especially gold star god-mother Audrey.

Underground the moles and the worms are busy, the neat worm casts contrasting with the untidy heaps of the mole's mining activities. We have stopped feeding the birds for there are insects as well as worms to keep them happy. Stopping the dog from attempting to dig up the moles is more difficult. We assume she only want to see what is happening, not actually to eat the moles, but it causes unlovely chaos. And Haska does not have the absent Elvis-non!'s excuse of terrier blood in her veins. She'll get over it, is easily distracted by a new stick.

violets in lime tree

Above ground the flowers are a joy. The first to show their heads were the violets. There was a bunch of practically white violets under the vegetable garden's magnolia and, nestled between the roots of the lime tree, a contrasting very dark Victorian mauve violet. Not only does the violet come in a huge range of colours, the number of defined varieties seems to have doubled in the past hundred years to around 400 plus. But there is still only one violet that is of any culinary use – the 'odorata' – but try distinguishing her from her sisters – not possible for amateurs. I have tried to make crystallised violets with moderate success, my eau de vie de violettes was a total disaster. Some things must be left to experts.

below: daffodils coming up amongst the roses....
and gendarmes on lime tree

The weather, as befits Spring, is erratic. We had a few beautiful, warm and sunny days, so decided to start airing the gîtes ready for the summer. I had forgotten that, if a freezer is in a place where the ambient air is colder than the air inside the freezer, it will defrost, then re-freeze when the position reverses. So I found 2 x legs of lamb and one shoulder, that I had carefully frozen and stored, which had gone through this process in one unheated, shut down gîte. Not funny.

What is funny is that inanimate things seem to have multiplied, as well as those living. For some reason I have two spare single mattresses...perhaps I had bought new ones from a retailer who would not take the old ones away. But where had I stored the old ones over the past year? No time to waste brain power on such idle matters when there are curtains to be washed, cupboards to be cleaned and bugs to be chased back to their proper home, outside.

Ah yes, Spring brings out the bugs as well as the flowers, some of these, too, are pretty – such as the red and black spotted gendarmes on the other lime tree.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On being absent

The art of management, I learned when I was paid to write on the subject, is to delegate a well defined role to the right people. And then to let them get on with it, presuming on their abilities and initiative. Actually this is not as easy as it sounds and not just for control freaks like myself. Especially not in the country, dealing with 'nature' and all unpredictable things under that umbrella.

This by way of introduction to the fact that I am away from La Chaise, not far and not for long but far enough and long enough to feel truly out of it and to be considered truly out of it. Whatever it is. I sent Arnold a text message enquiring as to how many lambs we had on how many ewes. Answer came there none for quite some while. Then a (harassed) 'don't know, lots, mostly twins, have managed to mow all the greens'.

Given the speed and capability of modern communications, one should be able to be away and yet be informed but, somehow, country people do not use the telephone, or email, very much to pass on information. Admittedly, if another ewe has a cross-birth there is nothing much I can do about it from the end of a telephone, except approve the summons to the vet. But this latter action would have been included in the act of delegation. A pat on the head can wait.

To be honest, I would feel comforted to know more of what is happening but am reluctant to be a hovering presence over those (Audrey, Alexandre,Arnold – how many farms have a triple A rating?) who are dealing with the successes and the problems on a daily basis.

The one exception is that I would like to know what is in the post. For some reason, corporate or other administrative offices cannot conceive that the intended recipients of their doubtless very important communications might be absent. You might call it lèse bureaucratie. It holds up 'the system' than which there is no greater crime.

We have a problem with a company which had better remain nameless for the time being. We had to return a piece of electronic equipment to it, duly accompanied by a bordereau. This latter is a slip of paper that enables a package to be received without any human being troubled with taking responsibility for the same by reading the description of the contents. It can be scanned. Computer mediated communications has rendered all of us illiterate as well as incompetent.

Unfortunately the bordereau did not arrive before we had to leave, so package was sent without same and – apparently, upon reaching its destination, according to computer records – has been returned to us. Only we are not there to receive it. Doubtless it will have been returned recorded delivery which only waits for a few days before being returned to sender....This could run and run, in circles. The thing is: the company concerned claims it will charge us for non return of equipment within a given time.....I see a row brewing.