Monday, 28 September 2015

Anarchic Grannies and Alpacas

Alatskivi Castle, Estonia is based on Balmoral Castle in
Scotland. I wasn't far from Balmoral Castle on my last
field trip with a conference. This was where we had our
conference dinner
Another mixed week, as you may have guessed from the title. I love the phrase anarchic grannies, what a wonderful picture it conjures up. It was a phrase used by a Finnish architect, Marco Casagrande, in the conference I attended to describe the Taiwanese grannies who grow food wherever they can and are often quite influential in challenging the status quo. It certainly turns the assumption on its head, that it is the young who change the status quo. It actually reminds me of the interviews one of my Masters students did, where he talked to one lady from a group of pensioners who had challenged the local authorities. The authorities kept voting out mayors in one particular village and the pensioners had had enough of this behaviour. They got together and petitioned the council to let the mayor stay and to let him get on with his job. I guess they have not got a lot to lose at that stage and so take it upon themselves to do something. Brilliant! So if you are feeling over-the-hill and past your usefulness, just remember the anarchic grannies of Taiwan.
All ready for dinner

Perigree moon taken from the alpaca paddock, Sorry no
pictures of alpacas, must take some more soon
As for alpacas! I'm home alone with them. I got back from the conference a day earlier than I had originally planned, also a different route than planned. Someone in their infinite wisdom decided it would be a good idea for the Latvian train to set off earlier than the arrival of the Estonian train that usually connects, due to the extended time taken because of rail track work. At least I found out that the buses do connect after that, as long as I cross over the border into Latvia, which fortunately is only a 20 minute walk and a route I normally do in reverse. At least it meant that Ian and I spent a whole day together, before I had to take him to the airport. He is with our daughter and her family so that he can help our son-in-law with some building work. Our youngest son travelled up to see him too and so he had a small birthday party with chocolate cake. He's also had fish and chips so I hear and therefore he's very happy.
The castle garden

The lake
The alpacas are sort of behaving themselves, at least at putting away time. I have no complaints about that aspect. However, Aggie has escaped twice already and I have to go up with the sledge hammer to hammer a post back in the ground tomorrow morning. I am just fortunate that none of the others decided to escape along with her. The boys had a bit of a ding dong this afternoon, with Tellus our male chasing the others around the field and paddock and trying to bite them. I am now wondering if he got a bit worked up due to Aggie being too close and perhaps he was showing off or demonstrating he's boss. No idea, because I hadn't noticed if Aggie was out at that point. I know occasionally our very mild mannered alpacas will start to fight, but fortunately not often. If they had carried on, I would have gone and sorted them out, but it only lasted about five minutes before calm resumed. The exercise probably did them some good.
The bridge over the lake

Near the train station on the way back from the conference
Wish I could say that Sergeant Wilson was behaving, in other words our free range cockerel. He has been stalking me occasionally and once he actually did go for me. So far I haven't had to strike back as such, as he has backed off as soon as I turned round to him. He's a bit of a coward really, but I could do without the sneak attacks. If he carries on like that he is going to be caught and put in a box to calm him down and to get the idea he is not boss.
Not the best place to sit I don't think. Ian was recharging
the batteries in the car. The water level had got a little too
low and so they weren't charging properly. All sorted now
It is a good job Eyre was not around when
this little fella was. She is getting so good at
catching mice and voles. This is taken
without a zoom, it let me get so close to take
a photo with my phone camera. It didn't seem
to be very afraid at all. It should have been,
if it wants to live much longer.
Eyre our kitten is also being a bit of a pain. She seems to get under my feet wherever I stand, which is not helpful when cooking. I had to put her away just so I don't stand on her. She also spent about 20 minutes trying to sit on my chest while I was trying to do some work and she wouldn't settle on my shoulders, where she would often sit. She was put away again. It sound bizarre to say we put her in the toilet because of course we do not mean that literally, we mean the little room of the caravan. Fortunately once in there she settles down and she never disturbs us at night.
The skies have been amazing just lately. This was the view
in one direction one morning, just after I had let the alpacas

The opposite direction was equally stunning
On the subject of being out in the caravan, it is starting to get cool these days and the temperature is rather low at nights. It is a good job caravans are quick to warm up and we adjust to the lower temperatures anyway. Hot flushes do help a little in that respect, since they have started up again. It means I don't really get that cold at nights. It would be quite nice and peaceful being out here, but I have got a bit of a cold which is making me muddle headed. I nearly forgot to close the barn tonight, but remembered in time and last night I forgot to put the chickens away in the arks - fortunately they are relatively safe due to the netting, at least from foxes and the like. The free range ones usually go away earlier before the alpacas as it is much easier to put away the alpacas without the chickens under feet. They also go away earlier because they have started wandering too close to the greenhouse in the evening.

The state of many of my brassicas. These are even in the
greenhouse! They are not safe even here. There were not
many insects around for so long, I think we got complacent
then suddenly the cabbage white caterpillars appeared and
stripped the leaves before we knew what had hit us.
Anyway, must finish there, I still have the washing up to do and I can't go to bed until that is done - oh the joys of being in a caravan. The table is the base for the bed and so it needs clearing before the bed is made up, hence I have to do the washing up first. It is also getting a little cool and so being under a duvet will be a much better.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The smiles of the little children

Decorations linked to the design of the
conference website and booklet
I am part way through a conference and it is tiring. I was tired before I came as I had deadlines to meet and harvesting still to do. I love meeting people but I also find the conferences overwhelming in some ways. Of course there is the presentation, which I don't actually find too bad, but I do find the preparation time consuming, so that is annoying. The overwhelming feelings comes from the point that conferences are full of people and we are supposed to network. I can do it, but really by nature I am a contemplator and an introvert so I find that kind of interaction exhausting after a while. I prefer small groups to interact with. Fortunately this conference is quite a friendly affair and I am on home territory so to speak, as it is my department that is holding the conference. I can tell I am tired though because so far I have managed to leave my bag, rucksack and coat lying around on different occasions. Fortunately I have realised quickly enough and found them.
Sofie has started to tolerate our little one more and even
coming into the caravan again, obviously sensing the need
to make peace as the colder weather draws near

Soft autumn light on the field
I was chatting to a colleague (that term does amuse me, but what else do you call someone you interact with in terms of work, even if it is not paid work?) about the format of conferences and I said that whilst presentations are useful for distilling the work into an easy to communicate form, I don't really find them very helpful from the point of view of finding out about other people's work. I would much rather sit down with a cup of tea and a piece of cake and chat about what people are doing. I would like to do that in two ways, firstly with people doing similar research and then again within a mixed group for a different kind of synergy. I think it is the networking that is the most important part and I wonder how that can be facilitated most usefully. (I wonder at this point if I have lapsed into academic-speak)
The maples are turning an incredible red

Aspens turning yellow
Anyway through the tiredness, the actions of young children have made me smile. They also remind me of why I am doing what I am doing. I want to be able to contribute to a better world, where each person is valued for who they are and for the contribution they too can make to it. The first incident was seeing a small child sat on the pavement on a warm autumn morning. Leaves strewn about her and her mother crouching down. The mother was helping the child to interact with the leaves and she had drawn leaves on the pavement with chalk. The child too had added her drawings. It was a sweet scene of mother and child appreciating the season around them. I wonder if it is normal for parents to do that, as I have seen a lady with two young girls high stepping through the grass to avoid getting too wet, to observe the bark of a tree and a man bending down on the pavement with a young boy and I assume a microscope to observe something. Adults and children absorbed in their natural surroundings. Very encouraging after listening to many presentations on the value of green spaces or even blue spaces for mental health.

Looks like the flies are getting in a last minute boost before
the weather turns
Another child belongs to one of the students at our university and she has occasionally started babbling along in the presentations, before being swiftly removed by her mother - an amusing interruption in what can become a heavy session of presentations. She has such a sweet little face and she is half way between being interested in people and being shy. Her little face lights up with half a smile before sort of half running to hide behind her mother. I love the way you can interact with little ones just with facial expressions, language does not always matter.

A windy day
After those heartwarming scenes the sight of the plight of the refugees, almost seems like a rude interruption. But where would you go if you were fleeing not just one but two awful regimes? If the unthinkable happened what would you hope for from others? There are no easy answers of course, there is even a sense of damned if you do and damned if you don't. Syria has had a drought for the last five years and so the resources of the people are depleted and that is only the start of the issue, added to that there is the dictatorship that is too remote from its people and an ideological, hatred filled group and it is a recipe for mass movement. People sometimes say what about the neighbouring countries? Well some are taking many refugees and they do not have the resources that the West has. If the climate change scientists are right then it is not a case of one lot of migration, there will be many. So we have to think about how we manage that in the future and not waiting for disaster to happen and then squabbling over the response. These are real people with real hopes and dreams that have been shattered by war, poverty and human traffickers.

Our excellent little mouser, or our barn is over run with
little critters
So apart from conferences and contemplating both the good and the bad in the world what else has happened this week? Well you may have guessed by now that Ian is home alone with the alpacas whilst I have travelled up to Estonia again. Yet again I have left Ian to celebrate his birthday on his own (at least next year, the conference is set for a week earlier). I did bake him a beetroot and chocolate cake before I left, in fact I baked two of them. I have also met up with an older chap again who knew my Aunty Betty, who was a hill-farmer in The Lakes many years ago. It was fun talking about The Lakes and vegetation in the area and in the Baltics, because he is a plant ecologist. I read a comment on Bill's blog (he regularly comments here) that says the average American only knows ten plants, this chap reckons he knows 95% in Western Europe and I can believe it. I am not sure I will ever get that good, but I would like to know most of the plants on our land. Many in the rural areas know a lot of plants, but not just what they are called but what you can do with them. One of the young women at university has hand-written journals of useful herbs from her grandmother - such precious records!

Interesting clouds
Ian didn't get off to a good start after I left to come up here. I set off earlier than originally planned because I attended a meeting on Scientific Good Practice organised by the Estonian Science Council, as they want to set up a code of ethics for Estonian researchers, so that wasn't good. It was also raining and Agnese accidentally spat in his face, he left things at home to eat and read and his radio hadn't charged up. Fortunately the sun came out and things got better. So hopefully the week ahead will be better for him.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Animals behaving badly

Who me? Turbjørn is often our most uncooperative and
most difficult to catch. He is better than he was though.
As I sit here in the caravan and begin to write my blog, Eyre our kitten is in the toilet, well not literally in the toilet, but in the little room. Locked in there for trying to eat Ian's food. It is not as if he had left it unattended, he was just serving himself another portion and she started tucking in, right under his nose. She needed a good lesson in leaving human food alone. Potatoes in wild mushroom sauce is not cat food! She is not the only one misbehaving though, our boys have escaped four times this week, three times on the same day and once after they had a new area fenced off so they had new grass to eat.

Even Brencis has been misbehaving too, as he has been
trying to bite the back legs of Agnese and Estelle. He has
been getting a kicking from the other alpacas for his naughty antics and rightly so
They had plenty to eat where they were, especially for our two portly alpacas, but they were obviously bored with that, or rather presumably Herkules, had been using a post as a scratching post and down came the wire and out he went, followed by the other two. The next time a spring which is used as a gate, came unclipped somehow and we have no idea how that happened or who was responsible but two escaped that time. The next time was when a wire broke on the fence because Tellus was trying to eat the nice, lush grass that he now knew was just on the other side. The fence needs replacing, but there is no point at the minute because they will be going into the new alpaca house when it is finished and that will have a new fence. For the time being the wire has been replaced by four posts for an electric fence - it's enough.

Just checking Brencis' fleece
The fourth and last time we hope, was after Herkules again used a post for scratching and got out of the  new section that had just been fenced off with the electric wire, along with Turbjørn. We had been up the top end of the land, sorting the sheep out, who were being very well behaved and stayed within their fenced area, when we came back two of the boys were roaming about. They both seemed to have got the routine by now and were fairly easily herded back into the paddock area. The electric is not normally switched on, as it is not often needed, especially in a freshly fenced off area. It only drains the batteries which is not good for the batteries anyway, but occasionally we do put it on, just to remind of them of where their limits are. Needless to say, they are being reminded for a few days at least.

The girls enjoying the afternoon sunshine
We continue to battle with the various skin problems on our animals, but at least Veronica's side is starting to heal up quite nicely. I had been using comfrey and plantain spray to calm the irritation, not sure if this has helped or not (it sure calms down the itchy bites I get, so hopefully the same for Veronica) but she has stopped nibbling at her skin and opening up more wounds. The number of flies that were also contributing to the problem has dropped right off too, so that also helps. Herkules still looks a mess, but it isn't getting any worse and he has had regular oily cream applied to his skin. That will stop when I am away and we will see if his skin is any better. We finally got around to cutting Turbjørn's toe nails today. He should have had his done at the same time as the others, but he was downright uncooperative. Today we haltered him up and made absolutely sure that we succeeded and I think he realised we were determined, as he quietened down to let us get on with the job this time, after trying to get away a bit at first.
Schisandra chinensis or five flavour
berry is ripe. We had one the other
day and it is was a rather powerful
taste. They say one berry is as good
as five cups of coffee and I can see

The first of the squash plants harvested and the beans
from the field. Those beans did okay, but another section
was dreadful. I got a handful of beans at best.
It has been a time of harvesting and clearing this week. We want to get a container to store things in and we needed to put it somewhere out of the way, which meant clearing a whole load of wood that hadn't been dealt with, some was okay for burning and some was past its best. The wood that was okay was re-stacked neatly and the stuff that was past its best was put down the field where we grow some of our crops to make another hugeltur pile. It is basically a pile of rotting wood, covered in hay and compost for plants to grow in. It will help to build the soil in a low lying area that easily floods - well that's the plan and if we can get our act together and not let it get too infested with weeds again.
The tidied site, ready for a container

Not many red grapes left now. The
tomatoes were denuded today to ensure
that we don't have blight in the
greenhouse and also to hasten the
ripening of the tomatoes. You can also
see a couple of bunches of beans
hanging, these ones should be red in
colour. The ones in the field were beige
We have now cleared the land of short beans, onions, carrots and buckwheat. None of them have been sparkling in the amounts we harvested, but we have plenty to keep us going over the winter. It is still amazing to us as we stuff our faces with the most gorgeous red grapes that they have cost us very little to grow. Admittedly the greenhouse cost us to grow them in and the original plant to buy, but year after year it keeps us in grapes for quite a while. It would cost us a fortune to buy them in the shops for sure and they would only be a big shop treat, as there isn't a huge range of fruit and vegetables in our local supermarkets, especially over summer. There is no need to stock a huge range in the shop as so many grow their own around here. So as the red grapes are nearly gone, the green grapes are just about ready and shortly after that a different kind of red grape. The dark grapes are earmarked for wine, although they taste nice, they have a lot of seeds in them. It is not just grapes of course that we are tucking into and one meal last week I counted 12 different vegetables and two herbs. Quite a range for one meal and would have cost a fortune in a restaurant, as some were quite unusual like the cucamelons.
Only the second load of tomatoes on for tomato sauce.
Good job we still have some in the freezer from last year

We often stay out in the caravan these days and one night
the sky was clear and full of starts. It is so amazing the sky
at night where we are because there is so little light
As we were collecting in our sometimes rather poor harvest, it still made us think that we put in a certain amount of seed and we still get back more than we put in. The potatoes were especially good this year, as I mentioned last week. The carrots were not great per seed, but the seed was old and some of the carrots I pulled up this week were huge. The large carrots will be kept to provide us with more seed for two years time, since they continued to produce even though the seed was old and in a rather poor year - always a good point in its favour and the size was good into the bargain. It is often said though that the market is the most efficient way of dealing with demand and yet so many anomalies occur to disprove this. A farmer plants a seed and it returns 8x, 30x, 100x on the investment, but it is still might not be enough to make a profit, because other costs can suck the money away or in a good year the abundance drives down prices. Other inputs can also cost too much and on top of all that the system is skewed. All that even when the products are in demand. How is that efficient?
It is not misty in the greenhouse, but
the lens on the camera. It is still possible
to see the height of the sweetcorn though.
We may have one or two cobs, but the
majority is for seed for next year.

The mornings can be glorious too
It is also hard to judge demand as well as difficult to judge what is going to grow well in a season. We grow a variety of crops, so that at least something does well. Our broccoli was doing very well and then we were caught unawares by the munching wee beasts, aka cabbage white caterpillars. We now have skeletal remains, they may recover in time to give us some more broccoli. The kale will recover, but we had hoped to have far more and be able to feed it to the chickens in the back end of the year when they are in the greenhouse and I am not so sure about that yet.

Monday, 7 September 2015

15 minutes of fame

Tommy tomato
We had our first signing session this week, we were all highly amused. Ian and I went to get some chicken food from the agricultural merchants and the ladies at the till pulled out the newspaper with the article about us. Ian jokingly pretended to sign it and they handed him a pen for him to do it for real and then I had to too. We were giggling about it for much of the day afterwards. We boringly only signed our names but we should have put some greeting on it I suppose. Didn't think about that until afterwards.

A red rainbow
One of our neighbours has been visiting regularly and this week when she came she mentioned it was her son's birthday that day. She explained he doesn't like big flashy presents or a big birthday party, even though he is only 8 years old. He likes time with his family and to make a birthday cake with his Mum. He was thrilled to get a walk with Agnese as a treat and a bunch of grapes. It is lovely when a youngster is so appreciative of the little things in life. Mind you, those grapes are good.
A moody view from the greenhouse during
coffee time

20m3 of wood, cut and stacked ready to start on the new
alpaca house. I am only there for height comparison and only shifted a few planks. Ian did the most of it, along with a little help from the guys cutting.
We had a bit of confusion over a school visit this week, and so on a day we were expecting a visit from the school that didn't materialise we took a visit to Depot - a diy place in Jekabpils and spent mucho money. We needed screws and metal brackets so Ian can get on with the alpaca houses. We also bought a leaf blower, not for blowing leaves you understand or even to vacuum them up, but to blow the alpaca fleece when it is in the tumbler that Ian made earlier on in the year. This will help clean the fleece of dirt and small fibres. We also bought some big bags for sawdust and a kneeling stool for gardening.

Agnese posing for the camera for the
smiling alpaca selfie
Eventually the mix up was sorted about the school visit and four very enthusiastic girls and their teacher turned up for an extra-curricular English lesson on alpacas. Ian talked about alpacas and their care and then we all went for a walk with Agnese. She did very well, as of course the girls wanted to keep close to her and stroke her. In fact she was so good she produced the most amazing smiling alpaca selfie. Funnily enough we got a booking today from another school for a school visit. I will be away and so Ian will have entertain them, but since he did  pretty much all the talking the last time, I don't think that will be a problem. It would be more of a problem if it was me, because I don't think Agnese would cooperate to go on a walk with so many children, in fact she might even be quite hesitant to come near as I am the big bad veterinary substitute - in other words they see me more often when one of them needs treating for something. Ian also knows much more about the alpacas' daily habits because he looks after them all the time.

A picture by a very talented friend of ours
We have had rain on and off this week, a definite indication that the seasons are changing. It is great we can sit in our greenhouse when we have visitors if it is a bit damp, as we did one morning, sitting under the grapevines eating grapes and drinking coffee - perfect! It was a very early visit by someone who has been going to visit for quite a while and not quite made it yet. We were beginning to wonder if the guy who was cutting the wood thought we just had a never ending stream of visitors as we have had so many while he was working. I suppose we have had this year. Quite a surprise for us really.

I forgot to take a picture of the potatoes, but I did manage
to remember to take a photo of the carrots I harvested.
Although there weren't many, due to using old seed and
the rather slow germination rate, there were still more than
in the picture, honest. You can see also see one of the three
or four wheelbarrows full of weeds I removed.
During one dry spell we got our potatoes harvested. We were a bit worried about how many potatoes we would get this year because we only planted a smaller area and it has been a cooler year, warm, dry and not always sunny days but cold nights. Despite all of that we got as much as last year and a far better size. Many of them are chipping size (not that we make regular chips any more and Ian has to make do with oven chips, but it gives you an indication of size) and quite a few were even baking size or even extra large baking size at that. Ian decided that since it had rained the area would be too wet and so difficult to use the two wheel tractor for lifting the potatoes, so it was decided to dig them by hand. We weren't looking forward to it, but when we got there and removed the soggy straw off the top, the ground was actually bone dry. If anything we would have had difficulty due to the ground being a little hard in places. On the whole though it was fairly easy work.
Many of the carrots were also a decent
size, despite having fought valiantly
amongst the weeds (maybe that's their

There is still a bed to harvest. Spot the
As we weren't looking forward to it and Ian seemed in a bad mood, I asked him if there was going to be any swearing. His answer was "there might be." He was very good though and he didn't swear once, I on the other hand did. Nothing that bad and for many it wouldn't even be considered swearing really, but if you know me you would realise that swearing isn't something I do. The first occasion was after picking up what I thought was a potato and thinking it felt a bit weird, as if it was hollow; it turned out to be the most enormous earth coloured toad. I am not sure who got the bigger fright. Fortunately I hadn't speared it with the fork or anything and so it made its escape, although I do confess it flew a little way. The next time wasn't so drastic and was because I was standing on something that I had been trying to avoid standing on (can't even remember what it was now). Not having kids around is obviously not good for me. I will have to behave from now on.
A weird sunset after the rain and before the day of showers

Waste wood! Well not quite waste, but all the odds and
ends that now need sorting into wood for burning, for
chipping for the road way and so on.
After potato harvesting we had just finished lunch at home when we got a call from our neighbour to ask where we were. She was out on our land with her husband's brother and they wanted to see the alpacas. It wasn't a problem and we were on our way shortly after the call. They had a teenager with them and unlike the four girls that came earlier in the week, she was not going to see the alpacas and stayed in the car. Funny how different people can be. The little girl of the family enjoyed seeing them though and fed Agnese and our neighbour did really well telling the family many of the details of their care. That could be because she does look after them for us from time to time.
Some of the sawdust we can now use for our composting
toilet. Should last us a while

Just in case we run out, here is some more. We also use it to
store carrots and beetroot and there are plenty of those
One of the regular parts of the day is we have porridge for breakfast every morning. I know many people will go yuck! but we make up a big batch and have it cold, it is just easier and cheaper for breakfasts that way. Ian likes to eat as soon as he gets up and therefore hot porridge in the morning will not work. We have also been eating our porridge with berries pretty much since July. First we had the strawberries and just as they finished we had blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries, albeit with a little gap in between. Just after those the raspberries ripened followed by the grapes. Now we are eating blackberries along with the grapes that are still going strong. We have just a few more of the red grapes and then the green grapes seem to be ripening along with the autumn raspberries. Perfect!  Even better, our neighbour gave us some strawberries that ripen later on in the year and so hopefully in years to come we won't have so much of a gap between the strawberries and currants ripening. For winter we also have a few of the berries that I managed to bottle in syrup and some grapes dried to make raisins. After that it will have to be fruit from the freezer.

Our kitten says thank you for building her a very large
One of the weirdest things to happen this week is I have a gorgeous bruise on my chin as if someone has socked me one. I can't even really remember hitting my chin hard on anything, I sort of vaguely remember catching myself one day, but for the life of me I can't really think of what exactly happened and certainly nothing to end up with the bruise I have. The only thing we can think of is that maybe I hit myself in the area where I had a filling earlier this week and perhaps it was something to do with the area where I had an injection, because the filling was nothing major (unlike my previous visits). I don't usually bruise easily either and so that is not the reason. I just have to be careful not to be seen around town with the bruise and end up giving Ian an undeserved bad name.

After all that playing around it is time to sleep. She looks
all cute and cuddly there, but I am not so sure that is a
good idea now. I found fleas on her today and one of the
fleas escaped. Hmmm!
I will have to do some changing plans this week. I was hoping to go to Sweden for at least a couple of weeks to work with a university there, but it is looking like this is not possible now due to a lack of funding. Estonia have had a good programme of funding for higher education that funds two trips a year. My Aberdeen trip was funded by it. The funding period ran out at the end of May or June and they were supposed to have a new funding period in place by the end of May, which didn't happen and it is still not in place for the beginning of the academic year that always starts 1st September (unless it falls on a Sunday, not sure about Saturdays these days). It is now really too late to apply for funding to have it in place for the beginning of October and so it looks like I will have to cancel the trip. There is no funding from the Swedish side either, there would be if I was Estonian or Latvian, but not for British citizens. I could find funding for a 3 month stay but that is not really something I would be happy to do and Ian certainly wouldn't be happy with that. Rather frustrating, as I only wanted to spend two or three weeks there.