Monday, 12 October 2015

Breast is best

We have had a couple of cases of mastitis recently, and so have had to bottle feed two or three lambs. In some cases this is complete substitution (the mother had no milk) and in others it has been an addition to their diet.

I compared the live weight of lambs with the meat weight - i.e. the carcass processed by the butcher. The carcass includes just the bone and muscle structure, not the internal organs, skin or contents of the body cavity.

Here is the result:


Date Live Weight at Slaughter (kg) Meat weight (kg) % Meat /Live Bottle Fed
31/10/2015 23.5 9.2 39.15% Yes
03/05/2015 21.1 9.8 46.45% Yes
31/03/2015 27 15.1 55.93% No
17/08/2015 19.2 8.8 45.83% No
17/08/2015 21 10.99 52.33% No

The ratio of meat to live weight seems - this is a very, very small sample - to be higher in the lambs that fed naturally. Naturally feeding lambs had an average 51.4% meat:live weight ratio, while bottle fed lambs had an average 42.8%.

There are some published papers on this, for example this paper on milk source and body weight [1] but none, that I know of, on Ripollesa sheep.

Time for more research, methinks!

Joaquim Casellas at the Autonomous University of Barcelona has confirmed that there are no studies of this issue in Ripollesas. He has pointed me to this useful study on goats which shows that maternal milk vs milk powder does cause differences in fatty acid composition. 

This leads me to think that one possible explanation of the differences in meat weight:live weight is that bottle fed lambs may build up more body cavity fat (which is discarded in the butchering process) than ewe-fed.

1 Hernández-Castellano, L. E., I. Moreno-Indias, A. Morales-delaNuez, D. Sánchez-Macías, A. Torres, J. Capote, A. Argüello, and N. Castro. ‘The Effect of Milk Source on Body Weight and Immune Status of Lambs’. Livestock Science 175 (May 2015): 70–76. doi:10.1016/j.livsci.2015.02.011.

Micro Mammal Murder Mystery

I just found this wee chap dead on a leaf.

Leafing life

It is an Etruscan Shrew (Suncus etruscus), the world's smallest mammal.

A mystery, Mr Holmes?
 But what happened to her? Her neck has been opened by something, but who would do that and then not eat her? She was lying on a melon- plant leaf about 60cm from ground level, so was she caught, killed and then dropped? It's a mystery...

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Tender moment

"Just nipping down to the butcher to get a bit of meat."

"Get something tender, dear. A nice but of lamb, maybe?"

Millions of households, millions of Saturday mornings. It's the butcher, or it's the supermarket, but the story is the same; a bit of meat for lunch or supper.

We said goodbye to Fat Face the lamb, yesterday, off to the butcher's too...but from the opposite direction.

It's a difficult moment, even when you have been doing it for years. You know that the lamb has had a good life, probably better than millions of other animals, with care and affection and, in the case of Fat Face, a visit to the village to be blessed by the priest on St Anthony's day this February.

You know all of that. And yet it hurts to hand him over to the butcher.

And it should hurt. Because meat production is not some distant, automated, faceless process. The meat you bought this morning in the supermarket used to walk around enjoying the fresh grass and hay. We should treasure it, not just fry it. For those like me who do not want to be vegetarian, we should remember the animal before.

Keeping sheep makes you tender.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Mummified with Mummy

In republican Catalan, the queen bee is "la mare", the mother. And when mother is missing, everything in the hive goes wrong. There are not enough workers to defend the hive and the dreaded wax moth gets in.

But when mother is home, enter at your peril:

A bit stuck up
Here is what happened to a dragon fly that entered one of my hives; it was mummified in propolis. This is the sticky compound produced by bees from tree sap, buds and other places. The defender bees - these, just in case of any doubt are all female - surrounded and attacked the dragonfly, removed its tail and coated it in gluey, sticky, propolis. Not a nice way to die, but probably a warning to anything else that might want to get in there.

When mummy is at home even dragons are mummified.

Bottling it

I adapted a recipe from my favourite bottling book*, and bottled little Catalan pears in Priorat wine:

  • 4 tall jars
  • about 1.5kg pears
  • 1kg sugar
  • 500ml wine
  • 500ml water
  • Spices (I used cloves, cinnamon and juniper)
  • Juice of one lemon

A nice pear
Pour water and wine into a large pan. Add the sugar and stir while cold until as much of the sugar as possible has dissolved. Heat gently, stirring, to ensure that the sugar fully dissolves, then boil gently with the lid off for 15 minutes. You should have a rich syrup. Cool, for about 30 minutes.

Juice the lemon into a bowl. Peel each pear, cutting out stalk and core, and dip in the lemon juice.

Pack the pears into clean, sterile jars. Pour over the syrup and shoogle the jar about a bit to get rid of bubbles. The jar should be filled to 1cm of the rim. Place tops on jars but not screwed tight.

Place jars into pan filled with water to at least two thirds of the height of the jars. I put a dishcloth in the pan to prevent the jars from banging together. Boil with the lid on the pan for 40 minutes. Open the pan lid quickly and screw down the jar lids fully. Put back the lid and leave to stand overnight while the whole lot cools down.

Label and store in a dark cupboard until you can resist them no longer...

*Lasnet de Lanty, Henriette, and Michèle Parfonry. Confits, confitures et conserves. Sens pratique. Neuilly-sur-Seine: Dargaud, 1978.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Honey, I'm waxed

My plans for a hive-full of honey have been poleaxed by the wax moth, Achroia grisella. Against the advice of my mentor, Miguel the honey man, I had kept a hive without a queen. The results - a weakened hive unable to defend itself against the moth - are dramatic:

Moth invasion

Coo-coo cocoon

I took down the hive at the weekend, scattering the few bees left there to the four winds, and incinerated the whole lot as a precaution.

Burn 'em all

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Dropping Beauty

This is the Two-Tailed Pasha, Charaxes jasius, feeding on chicken droppings outside the Croft.

Pasha-nate about poultry products

Beautiful, isn't she? Despite the diet...

Thursday, 6 August 2015

And over to Skye...

Benbecula, the sheep who lived, has given birth. Our second lamb in two days. 

The new boy on the block is called Skye, and he's a strong wee chap:

Likes a drink, does Skye

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Thistle and Spike

Yesterday evening our oldest ewe gave birth to Spike. Born at only 3.5kg he is underweight.

Thistle's thirsty boy

Thistle is not the world's greatest ewe, and has never been very good at feeding her lambs. We have lost some as a consequence. 

So we all helped; we dried Spike off and then spent an hour trying to get him onto the teat - in vain. I milked Thistle to get some of the precious colostrum, and then fed it from a syringe into Spike's mouth. By midnight Spike was still not feeding, but he was looking a lot better. 

This morning he was still wandering around the place a bit aimlessly, but when his wanders took him near Thistle he suckled. He will probably be fine, but I will be checking him each hour to make sure.

Lambing - it's a nerve-wracking business.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Flame of life

Yesterday night we had to put out the flame of life of our wonderful tup, Phoenix. 

He was born here on the Croft on 8th November 2007 the son of a black sheep, Mildred. Black sheep represent good luck here in Catalonia and I was lucky with him. Phoneix was the ram with hay fever, and the father of all the lambs born on the Croft in the last seven years.

Mum, son, and daughter

You learn from animals, and I have learned a lot about sheep from Phoenix. Starting with his birth; I thought that Mildred was just a bit overweight... I went up to the field on that day in November and found a new lamb, and an old sheep (Polly) dead of natural causes. His flame of life ignited as hers went out.

Butt me no buts

And now the cycle has been repeated, although this time with more knowledge - on the part of the humans - about what is going on. For one day before Phoenix' flame was put out a new lamb - we called him Flama - was born.
The new flame

The flame of life burns on.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

I'm jamming...

Today's batch of apricot jam looks pretty good:

I adapted the recipe from my favourite jams and conserves cook book: "Confits, Confitures et Conserves" by Henriette Lasnet de Lanty and Michèle Parfonry (Dargaud, Paris, 1978). Just in case you don't have your copy handy, here's the instructions:

1kg of apricots
450g of sugar
Zest and juice of one lemon

Stone the apricots. Reserve six stones and crack them open. Put the kernels into the pan.

Chop up the apricots into rough dice. Pop into the pan.

Zest the lemon and put zest and juice into the pan.

Heat up gently to boiling, stirring to ensure it does not stick. Boil with the lid on for 5 minutes. This softens the fruit into a mush. Cook approximately 15 minutes. Take off the heat

Add sugar. Stir, until all the sugar is dissolved.

Return pan to the cooker, and heat up to fast boil.

Test for temperature with a jam thermometer. When it reaches 102ºC turn off the heat.

You will need 3-4 jars, washed, rinsed  and heated in the oven.

When you have potted the jam, put the jars in a bain marie (i.e. in a pan of water, up to their necks.) I put a tea towel in the base of the pan to stop the jars banging about too much. Bring up to boil, and boil for 20 minutes. Screw down lids tight.

Label and store. The flavour from the kernels will spread through the jam, so store for a week or two at least.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Chick feed

We planted chickpeas for the first time this year, and keep finding the pods empty.

Now I know why:

Helicoverpa armigera?

It looks like the moths lay an egg inside the chick pea pod. They are possibly Helicoverpa spp, conceivably Helicoverpa armigera. According to the Queensland Dept of Agriculture site "chickpeas secrete an organic acid (malic acid) from hairs on their leaves, stems and pods, making the crop unattractive" but the moth larvae enter the pod and eat my chickpeas. Here is a pod with a scar where it has been penetrated:

I'm in here eating your chickpeas, Crofter!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Make hay while the sun shines...

...and it has been shining. Rather too much in fact - today we hit 30ºC at mid day. The Croft is 330m (1,000 ft) above sea level, and even here it's roasting.

Hot spot
 We cropped a record 63 small bales from our two main fields:

Baling hay, the old way...
The sheep have been sheared:
Cool sheep

 It's summer, but it's early, so everyone here in Montseny is starting to worry about forest fires...

Monday, 18 May 2015


Our Great Tit (Parus major) chicks are getting ready to fly. We counted six of them...

Eating, Parus-style

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Repro Croft

Everyone seems to be reproducing this Spring - er, apart from your writer. The Treecreepers have made a nest in an old fruit tree and are bringing up a clutch of four or five young.

Certhia brachydactyla, in a hole

Meanwhile, round the corner these two were having a good time on a flower stalk. I am hopeless at bug identification but I think these might be Scentless Plant Bugs. Order Hemiptera, Family Rhopalidae. But any better suggestions very welcome.

He's bugging me...

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Passer over Parus

We have had double bubble this year with the nesting boxes.

Here (look closely) is one, with a busy parent just back from feeding the chicks:

Tree sparrow, Passer montanus

And here is the other. This one has a video camera inside, so I can see four chicks, and the parents coming in every three or four minutes with food.

Great Tit, Parus major
Nature is blooming on the Croft.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Bee day

I've been at the bees today:

I can't give up smoking

I am a total beginner at bees, so I'm likely to make mistakes. But this, for pretty well sure, is a frame of capped brood in the typical oval laying pattern at the centre of the frame, with a ring of larvae around it, and a ring of honey beyond that:

I was framed, mate

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Patrick Plods Along

I moved Patrick the foal and his mum Marguerita into a newly-fenced field today. The field is called "Camelot" because it was (King) Artur, a friend, who opened it up for us.

Bramble Breaks Out

Bramble the lamb is small...and can still slip under the fences. Here she is, on the way to freedom:

Saturday, 21 March 2015

High protein wheat free bread - recipe

After months of research in my cuisine laboratoire* I have come up with a wheat –free recipe for bread, that works.

1 level teaspoon sugar
150 ml milk, warmed slightly to tepid
100g oat flour
1 sachet (11g) dried yeast,  or use live yeast if you prefer
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
50g rolled oats
200g chickpea (gram) flour
50g butter, melted
1 large egg
1 tablespoon warm water, to moisten
Olive oil

Set the oven at 190ºC
Warm the milk to tepid, dissolve the sugar in it. Mix the dried yeast, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt with the oat flour.
Pour the warm milk and sugar mixture into the oat flour, stir and leave to stand 10 minutes.
Beat the egg. Melt the butter and cool a little.
Add the rolled oats, the chickpea flour, the egg and the butter to the mixture, and stir for 5 minutes. Add a little warm water to moisten the mixture – the dough should be hard to stir but not impossible.
Cover with a damp cloth, and leave in a warm place for 2-3 hours. It will rise a little.
Oil a small bread tin, and line with greaseproof paper (baking parchment.)
Put the mixture into the tin. Using the back of a spoon, oiled with olive oil, smooth off the top, spreading a little oil across the top as you do so.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes. Check with a skewer – it should come out dry.
Remove from oven and leave to cool for 10 minutes in the tin. Then turn onto a cooling rack and remove the baking parchment.
This is a high protein bread, thanks to the combination of the egg and the chickpea flour.  Using my copy of Eat Well and Keep Healthy (Macdonald, London, a million years ago) given to me by my Mum when I was 18 (which IS a million years ago) I estimate that each slice of bread, weighing in at 50g, contains 8g of protein. That’s more than three times as much as in a slice of normal bread, and about the same, gram for gram, as white fish.

*Yes. I'm joking.

Mother, saved

This female salamander, whom I guess to be pregnant - she was certainly big bellied - was stuck on a wee wooden ledge in our irrigation tank.

This is NOT floating my boat

I lifted her out, took a photo and then popped her under some damp leaves. Later I saw her under the outlet pipe for the tank, having a shower.

An amphibian in the hand...

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Patrick takes a run

Here is three-day old Patrick. His namesake was not even thinking about crawling at the same age (yes, I remember), but this wee chap can already get up a fine speed. And then at the end Laialuing can't bear to be left out of the action...

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Arrival of Saint Patrick

Today is Saint Patrick's day (and would have been the 81st birthday of my mum, Patricia)...and today at 09:00, wee Patrick was born to Marguerita:

Just arrived...

Mum! I've got so much to tell you!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Stripped Ease

I am trying out strip grazing at the Croft, and it's working well.

My pink half of the drainpipe...

The donkeys get a fresh strip each week (as do Barcelona FC...) and I get a neatly trimmed and manured field. Marguerita is especially keen because she is eating for two:

Yum for Mum

It takes about 45 minutes to move the strip along - I'm using chestnut posts and what is called here "pastor electric" ("electric shepherd"). Easy, really.

Monday, 9 March 2015

A sheep off the old block

Here is Bramble.
All together now: Sweeeeeeeeet!

This is Bramble a couple of days ago. She had a thorn in her foot and that had led to an infection (you can see that she has picked up the sore foot, in the photo) and a fever. I cleaned her up in the kitchen.

My foot hurts

And this is Bramble's mum, the same kitchen, in April 2011.

Hmm. Strange grass, here...

Benbecula had fallen ill with Clostridial disease, so we poured a beer-bottle full of bicarbonate of soda down her, and she lived.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Orful, but recovering

We've had a mixed week here on the sheep front, but with a happy ending.

I found that one of our lambs - Bramble - had what looks like orf, caused by the parapox virus.

I'm gummy, mummy
Her mother, Benbecula developed mastitis in one side of her udder at the same time and we have been supplementing her one-sided feeding with the bottle.

So Pep the Vet put me, and Benbecula, onto a strict treatment regime of antibiotics and milking out the gooey stuff that Benbecula was producing from the sick udder. 

The regime seems to be working. Benbecula's teat is no longer producing puss, and Bramble appears to be feeding from both udders again. Thanks, again, to Pep.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Man in Felt Hat

There is no demand for the wool from our Ripollesa sheep.  Each year we have sheared the sheep and then thrown out the wool. Local farmers burn it.

Shear madness

That is, until this year.

This year my friend Jordi asked for our wool. He wanted to try making felt. So we gave him a couple of bags of not-very-clean fleece, full of bits of straw and worse.

And look what he made:

Mediaeval Selfie

My new felt bonnet is like an oven inside - with a hat like this you would be a very comfortable mediaeval peasant, or possibly a cosy Almogàver.

Yes, I know. It's not the latest in headgear fashions. But by goodness it works.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Benbecula and Bramble

 The latest addition to the Croft. Here is Bramble, just 2 hours old...:

Saturday, 17 January 2015

We hate to boast...

...but we couldn't resist:

We keep Ripollesa sheep, so we are members of the breeders association, ANCRI. As part of their improvement programme we keep records of lamb births, weights and ages. ANCRI compile all of this data - from 48 farms around Catalonia - so that each of us gets a picture of how well, or not, we are doing.

The 2013 data has just arrived...and the Croft is the most productive Ripollesa farm in Catalona. Yes! Un-B-Leavable!

The numbers: Our "Numerical Productivity" (the numbers of lambs that went to slaughter, divided by the number of ewes) was 1.8 in 2013. The average across the 48 member farms was 1.03.

And of course this is where the boasting ends. We are managing our tiny flock differently from other farms. We don't keep lambs to grow up as ewes - because we have just one male (Phoenix), so if we kept the lambs he would be mating with his own daughters (er, not good.) So all our lambs went to slaughter, boosting our "Numerical Productivity." And the fact that ours is the smallest flock in the data set also makes a difference.

But we are also the top in one other score, which is more relevant: our lambs are the heaviest births in the national Ripollesa flock.  Average birth weight here at the Croft in 2013 was 4.8kg, against the national average of 3.5kg.

All of this is no credit to us, because we are rank amateurs compared with the other Ripollesa shepherds. But it is credit to Pep Martinez, our wonderful vet, who has been able to transmit to us innocents a load of sheep-care knowledge. Thanks Pep!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

What are they? The 2015 Quiz

I saw these three over the Christmas holidays. I have almost no idea what they are, so that's the 2015 Quiz: tell me what they are.

This brightly coloured bug was in the bark and ivy of a willow tree near us. He appears to be wearing the Estelada - the Catalan national flag. The distinctive white spot on the tail must be an identifier, but I don’t know of what. He might be a  Fire Bug, Pyrrhocoris apterus. But then again he might not.

L'Estelada, en insecte?

I found this one inside the underground box that protects our water pipe and taps, on the edge of a mixed (holm oak and pine) woodland. My guess: Rana temporaria, the Common Frog. But s/he does not have the distinctive V shape (chevron) on her back.

Je suis le frog

I found this on the edge of the track above the house. Distinctively white droppings, with a spiral twist and a pointed end. According to "Animal Tracks and Signs" by Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrom these are characteristic features of fox (Vulpes vulpes) droppings. So, maybe a fox?

The Swiss Army drops in