Monday, 30 May 2016

Still dry!

All shut up for the night
It has been a busy old week again, but for now we have finished doing shearing for others. We are just waiting for one of our alpacas to give birth and then we will shear our girls and that will be it for the year - at least we think it will be. We have had other jobs too that needed doing anyway, such as topping the cow parsley so that it doesn't go to seed. The animals do not like it and they won't eat it so it is taking over, which means we need to get it under control. The girls have not even been bothering to go into the field with the cow parsley as it is taking too much effort to sort through in the heat. Now the flowering stems of the cow parsley have been removed they have been out in the field to eat the grass. It does mean hours of walking up and down with the flail mower for Ian though. I can't handle that machine as it is far too heavy and besides I was inside for much of the day assessing a Masters thesis on urban allotments - a very interesting read.

Such a pretty flower for an
invasive plant
I did get out and do little jobs during the day like planting beans that have been soaking for a couple of days. There is no point in planting any seed unless it has been soaked because we haven't had any rain for over two weeks, it might even be three weeks now - we lose track. It is also my job to feed the chickens since we have gone across to using flour to feed them. I add crushed egg shells, mineral powder and some dried herbs - depending on what I have, then mix it altogether with some water to make a mush. The flour is organic and a mix of different types of grain, buckwheat and I think it has a bean flour in it too. I have even used it with white flour to make bread, after sifting it for some of the hulls that are still in it. Cheaper than buying organic flour from the shops by a long way.

Enjoying the cooler evenings and the shadier spot. They look
huge and I keep teasing Ian that they have triplets. Most likely
they will have twins and by the end of the year we will only
keep four females altogether. 
Ian moved the sheep this week while I finished off planting tomatoes and a friend of ours weeded our strawberry bed - a mammoth task in itself. The sheep have been moved nearer as they are due to give birth too any day soon and we wanted them nearer to us, where we can see them and they will have less of an issue with foxes. I would hope the ram will be useful in protecting the mothers though. Normally we take down some mobile orange netting fencing to pen them in while removing their fencing and then setting up the next stage. This time we decided to buy extra wire and posts and set up the second fence first. Moving them is easy, Ian just rattles the feed trays and they follow him as good as gold. Wish they were that well behaved when we want to do anything with them though.

This was where the boys and the chickens were last year,
the grass is recovering well now
The shearing this last week was a lot less stressful than it has been because Ian has felt more at ease knowing it wasn't the way he was shearing that was the problem, but an issue with dirty fleeces. Some alpacas attract the dirt and it is a particular problem when the ground is gritty and alpacas love to roll. The large alpaca farm has clay and possibly denser fleece animals and so there were fewer problems shearing their animals. Ian has ordered the sharpener now, so hopefully we can avoid many of the problems in the future.

Oak leaves
Again we were fed well and could have spent longer at some places. One place we went to they had a friend around to translate and after one animal we had a break for coffee, well coffee, cakes, some pies made with a bread dough and open sandwiches then we sat and chatted for quite a while about alpacas. The gentleman who was translating was a beekeeper and he had to go and take care of his bees. We only had two more alpacas to shear so didn't take a huge amount of time and at the end we were offered coffee again. Only this time the coffee came with sausages, potato salad and a tomato and cucumber salad. We were stuffed. We got to the next place and set up and again offered coffee only we asked if we could have tea as we were coffee-d out. This also came with bread, cheese, salami and tomatoes. It is a good job I am now in the habit of having to watch what I eat otherwise I think we would have rolled home.

Sunset behind one of our many oak trees.
This was taken at 9:52 and it will stay
light until way after midnight
We had a bit of an adventure on the way to the next place. Twice we have had to brake sharply for wild boar on the road when travelling to places for shearing and several times had to avoid other animals or birds, such as a stork who sauntered across the road, ducks who refused to move and of course there were a few deer from time to time. Our luck ran out though this time and we hit a deer. We stopped of course and we tried to look for the animal but couldn't see it at all, our car didn't look too bad but then we realised that the grill was slightly bent and the fog light was not in good shape. The corner of the car also suffered some damage - not bad but enough to need a small repair. The fog light also needs replacing. Oh well! The hazards of country life.

Buttercups look so pretty but they are not very welcome on
our land too as they are definitely not edible for our animals.
Fortunately I think the clover is gradually driving it out
The last shearing job we did, we got on reasonably well but we didn't finish again. We had set aside two days but the people running the farm were getting busier and busier as more groups booked to tour the farm for the second day. We were already having to take breaks because groups were visiting on the first day and the owner wanted to see the condition of the animals being sheared, rather than just let us do all the work - which we totally understand. It is helpful to see the animal while it is restrained so that the overall condition can be assessed.

Rather light for so early in the morning
In the end it was decided that they would shear the remaining eight animals gradually over time on days off. It was also easier for them for us to set off that evening and so we started off home at 10:30pm. We stopped for a short while to snooze but it was a chillier night that night, in fact there was a touch of frost, so the snooze wasn't quite as long as we would like - or at least it felt that way. We rolled onto our land as the sky was getting light at 4am. We had a few hours sleep because we wanted to be up in the morning just in case our alpaca decided to give birth, which she didn't of course and we caught up with some sleep later on in the day instead.

The boys all shut up for the night too. Their paddock grass is
ever so short but they still like to eat the grass in there. When
it cools down they will be shut out of the paddock for a few
hours so the grass gets a chance to recover a bit, but when it
is so hot, they need the shelter.
We have had a school group in this week as well. We were a little surprised when the coach pulled onto our land - normally they stop at the bottom and people walk on. Fortunately the ground is solid at the moment due to the lack of rain and it was only a 3/4 size coach and not the full sized one. There were about 20 children and they were quite engaged with what Ian had to say and followed along quite well considering that they were Latvians listening to English. I am not so sure that I could have followed along in a different language at their age. The talk Ian gives on alpacas from shearing to product seems to work quite well now and we then take them to see the boys, who are more aloof. The girls, however, are much more willing to come for carrots and apples which the children brought with them and we sliced up so the animals do not choke.

Our pond is receding again due to the lack of rain
Agnese amazed us though. Ian called her over as she is the most friendly of the girls and he took hold of her so that they could feel her fleece. She never bothered at all. At one point Ian let go and she sat down with lots of children around her taking photos and stroking her. She just sat there. She stayed sitting down until the children left. Apparently some of them got some really nice photos where she looks like she is giving a big grin. Some of the children tried to feed the other alpacas and those who were quieter and more patient were rewarded with the animals eating from their hands. Many were just a little too impatient, but some learnt and with a bit of coaxing managed to feed at least one animal.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Mystery solved?

Such a sweet little alpaca.
We went to Estonia again to shear alpacas. We managed six out of ten on the first day and Ian became more and more frustrated. The shears were just not cutting well and seem to be blunting very quickly. Not all of the alpacas were with year and a half long fleeces, which are challenging in themselves (some of that fleece was about 20cm long and tangled together) but many of them had fine fleeces. It still should not have been that hard. We ran out of combs and cutters again - something that should last many, many more animals.
The black alpaca paces up and down the
fence each and every day eyeing up the
ladies. He once broke through the fence
but made a mistake and ended up amongst
the beef cows, who are not so friendly.

Sharpening our cutters and combs
We ended up travelling to see a lovely guy who had a slightly hippie look about him with his long bushy beard. He was a shepherd who had about four hundred sheep (if we remember correctly) and despite being on the older side and living in an out of the way rural place, he spoke quite good English, which suggested another side to him that we didn't have much time to enquire about. We did find out that he had been to Wales to shear a few times. He had also taken part in competitions and taught on shearing courses. His son was a champion shearer until he came down with Lyme's disease. He sharpened our shears at a fraction of the cost that it normally costs us in Latvia and he agreed that some of the combs were quite badly scoured, suggesting that the grit in the local area was causing us problems.
While Ian was observing to pick up tips, I marked some
students work, so this was my office for the day. Amazing where
you can work these days
Wile looking very smart with his new haircut
We got to our friends who have a large alpaca farm and managed to shear all but three of their alpacas, theoretically leaving us enough combs and cutters to do ten the following day. We should have been able to do all of them, but it was all taking too long and Ian's frustrations bubbled over at one point. Added to Ian's woes the transformer broke and so we couldn't cut teeth either. Our teeth cutting machine is American and so will not run on European voltages. Despite all the problems though, we have been well looked after along the way. We have been fed well and treated kindly, with many paying Ian extra for his work in appreciation.
Our hobbit home for a few days. It also has a sauna, but we have
not really got into saunas, but it made a lovely place to stay.
The girls looking shadows of their former selves

Alpacas and ponies
The last place we went to was a farm with ten alpacas and forty horses or ponies. The guy had a look at our transformer but could not see what the problem was, so he pulled out an old Russian contraption. It looked rather alarming and I was relieved to see a modern tester also appeared before Ian plugged in the tooth cutting machine. The guy even had something that would take an American plug to attach to the contraption. There was something about the chap though that made us think he knew more than the average person and in our chats later we found out he was a retired physicist.
Back at home Estelle is getting bigger every day

Trying to keep cool during the day.
We managed two alpacas before Ian's machine was starting to struggle, but earlier the guy had said he had also bought some shears, but just didn't know how to shear with them. Ian asked to borrow his to see if it would do any better and showed him the technique along the way. It started off well but before we had finished the whole animal it started to struggle - it wasn't Ian's machine then. It must be the local environment.
The rain has encouraged the barley to germinate

Barley poking through - at least where the crows have not
been digging it up

Buckwheat too has started to show through

The left hand side is where the girls were and the right hand
side is the newly fenced off area
We didn't shear any more but we sat down to a lunch of salmon soup and discussed alpacas and life in general for the rest of the afternoon. It was a perfect way to finish a frustrating few days. He did mention that he hoped people in the UK would see "common sense" and vote to stay in the EU. He could not comprehend why the people in the UK would vote to exit the EU at all. This shearing venture has cost us more than we would like, but we have learnt a lot and also met some great people along the way. Most will have us back too because Ian is the only alpaca shearer in Estonia and there are even problems finding sheep shearers, one person we met is working her way through around 50 sheep by hand. Our friend with the large farm felt it was easier to sort out the fleece when Ian was shearing, as sheep shearers do not shear the blanket - or the best wool- first. They also shear so fast that it is hard to keep up - not one of Ian's problems yet. It will be different though when he gets a grinder to sharpen the cutters and combs on-site. It will quickly pay us back just in reducing stress and wear and tear on the car.
Spring planting of broad beans, kale, mizuna, beetroot together
with cucumber and peppers for the summer. 

Strawberries in the greenhouse
 Ian emailed the people where he took his shearing course to see what they said. They suggested that it could also have something to do with the fleece density. Our animals have quite dense fleece - apart from the crias who are notorious for collecting grass, muck anything in their fleece and so it means that the dirt does not get right down into their fleece. We also do not have the grit and these two factors explains why Ian doesn't have as much of a problem with our animals and has been having so many with some of the fine fleeced Estonian ones. So I think it is mystery solved now.
We shall have grapes

Fencing off the garden to protect it from wild boar who love
It is still dry here and we haven't had any significant showers since last week's rain. Of course that rain was enough to encourage plants to put on some growth spurts and so Ian has had to mow paths and strim around many of the areas that need to be kept neat and tidy. We attempted to put up the fence around the garden and got over half done before the mosquitoes drove us inside. We will finish that off in the morning when they are not so active. I have also been trying to finish planting up the tomatoes but not quite got there yet. At least I have finished off my herb bed and most of the vegetable plots are tidied.
Chanel and her happy quizzical look

There is water to drink, honestly! So of course she has to drink
the rice water that I drained onto the path


Thank goodness our land does not have lots of gritty areas.
Alpacas love to roll
All of them do and the whites end up looking grey at first

Not quite sure why Sofie has taken to sleeping near the
chickens. She was not a happy cat today, we had to give her
the second dose of worming tablet. She is the only cat that
I have not been able to get a tablet down successfully
in no more than two attempts. She was even trussed up
 in a towel by Ian as I attempted to get the tablet down her
throat and then wash it down with water. Even tried cake!
There is no kidding that cat and she can foam out a tablet.
Still we sort of managed in the end.
We had some visitors over the weekend too. They are neighbours to us, well 2km away, which counts as neighbours in a rural area. They have wild horses and come every weekend to see to them and had heard about us, so paid us a visit. She was thrilled that we love working here in such a rural place. In her words she saw through our eyes what a wonderful place the area is. Like in many things, it sometimes takes an outsider to see the extraordinary in what to us is an ordinary place.
Outdoor broad beans and onions for onion leaves

Showing the advantage of pre-soaking carrot seed and the disadvantage
of sowing them too thickly. I obviously should have added more peat
to spread them out more

Cherry blossom time

Had to mow a path down to the office
I found out today that my presentations for the end of each year of my PhD have been very favourably received by the people doing the evaluations. All I knew was that I had passed each year without too many questions or hassles. I only found out because my supervisor asked if I had any presentations and ideas that other students could follow because of the positive reflections he had received on my presentations. Nice to know I am doing something well.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Slow week

Ian talking to the tourism group
Well it was only a slow week if you take into account that travelling around Estonia involved many detours, as we took too many wrong turnings, so we were slow getting anywhere. Apparently GPS would not help either according to the people we met along the way. It has actually been a very busy week. We started off with another tour around our land by a local tourism group. We felt we had got a much better approach to telling the story of what happens on our farm than the day before, which seems to work better. After they left we moved the sheep onto fresh grass so they didn't escape to greener pastures while we were away and I planted tomatoes until there was no more light to plant tomatoes by. In the end I dug a trench and soaked it to put the unsorted tomatoes in so that they didn't have to be watered by our friend.

I forgot I had this picture on my camera and it is Ian busy
building the toilet the week before. You can tell it is May
from this photo, Ian is wearing shorts, so it is warm enough,
but it is also before the biting insects come out - then he
covers up again.
We had three places lined up for shearing on Wednesday but they were at opposite ends of Estonia and only 9 alpacas between them. It was a good learning experience and we met many lovely people. On the first stop Ian was asked if he would shear some sheep - the answer was a polite but firm "No!" Our own are bad enough. Alpacas are much easier, once you know how to restrain them. We were offered coffee but had to decline so that we could get moving onto the next stop. Up to that point we were doing rather well, but after that timings went out the window. I tried to navigate using the Google maps that Ian had printed off, then we tried using the mobile internet but that wasn't working so well. In the end we stopped and went old school by buying a map book, after that we progressed much better.

As requested the fleece was left around the faces of these ones
and the "socks" left too, hence the hairy legs. The owner said
they never went into the trees, but obviously they were intent
on getting away as far as possible after shearing.
The next stop was at a lovely home of two lecturers near Tallinn, the capital in the north of the country. We could have stopped much longer and chatted, but we didn't have time. Part of the problem, apart from arriving late after detours was we had to help them round up the alpacas as they were new alpaca owners and hadn't got the hang of getting them to come in when necessary (we remember the same problems when we first got ours). We stepped in when we realised the alpacas were not going to cooperate readily and with the use of some ropes we corralled the four into the space where we needed them. These alpacas has been recently imported from England and hadn't been sheared in eighteen months, they also liked to roll in gritty sand and the cutters we used quickly became blunt. Still we were provided with food and cups of tea and an offer to stay over next time. It would certainly make a nice holiday if we did it that way and something we are seriously considering for next year.

Lady V enjoying the early morning sunshine. Later on in the
day it has been too hot for her.
We found the right area for the next stop but didn't find the entrance to the road to the farm, fortunately after a phone call the owner drove up to the main road and waited for us to guide us in. It was getting really late, but at least these alpacas were fastened in. We had to finish the last alpaca by artificial light, which considering we are quite far north and at this time of the year the nights are short - it tells you how late we were. We got to our friends where we planned to stop for two days to shear around 35 of their animals at about 1am and rolled into bed at 2am. At least we didn't have to be up too early, but it had been a long, long day.

The first day went okay, Ian steadily got faster and improved all the time. The lady also showed him a different method to shear that she had found worked for her and Ian found that was easier in some ways. He has to find his own method in the end that works for him and gets the job done quickly, so seeing a different approach helped. Our friends were very patient to allow Ian to train as they would like us to be able to come back again next year to help again. It has been hard for them to get shearing done as they expand and also host many groups coming from the nearby coastal resort. Although we would like to expand too, we don't have plans to get as big as they are now - our land wouldn't support such a large herd, so if this works then it is a good experience for all of us.

Mr. P. looks all skin and bone and it doesn't help that he has
been rolling around in the dust, which on a black alpaca
highlights how thin he is. Alpacas are supposed to be this
thin by the way, underneath all that fleece.
Unfortunately we had a cutter problem again (or to be more precise, cutter and comb problem - the cutters on the top, the comb at the bottom). Ian had run out of combs due to the problems he had on previous days. We had to call it a day and we also had to tell someone else that we wouldn't be able to make it to their place the following day. We are thinking of getting a sharpener so that Ian can sharpen the combs on site, but they are pretty pricey at around £850, which is why he didn't bother this time around. We had to know it would be worth it. Although it would take a few years to pay us back, the time saved on sorting out sharpening and the wear and tear on the car, backwards and forwards to the place, which is an hour and twenty minutes away, to get them done quickly makes it more reasonable. We could take them to the local vets to get them sent over but it would take at least a week that way and with multiple trips to Estonia in quick succession, it won't work.

It will be interesting to see what Chanel looks like underneath
her fleece. 
It has certainly been an interesting experience and like I said at the beginning we met some lovely people along the way. Ian's instructions for size of shearing area seemed to help and each place so far has had a reasonable working space and a good place to anchor the restraints. Sorry not many pictures from the trip as I was helping too.

A weird sunset after the rain
Getting back to our place has meant catching up on some jobs that needed doing but the dry weather we have been having has meant it hasn't been worth planting too many seeds yet. We only got the first reasonable amount of rain last night and I noticed when planting out some cauliflower plants that the ground was only damp down to a few inches. It has now gone cooler again too and so we shall just have to be patient and do a mega planting session next week.

Lovage is usually the first herb to come through
Spring is definitely coming along though and peas are beans are beginning to show through that were planted a few weeks ago and well watered in. The golden biscuit is back too, aka golden oriole; we have only seen it once, but the call it makes is very distinctive. Another distinctive call is the call of the cranes, they are so noisy at mating time and they are certainly ratcheting up the calls these days. The swallow is nesting and we have put a few more eggs onto incubate. We haven't put many on, as we would like a new cockerel for breeding, but we will see what we get with this lot.

Good King Henry - such a fabulous name for a rather plain
looking plant. Still it makes a good spinach substitute at this
time of year and I don't have to replant seeds every year
We have also had another group who we were told were a choir group from Cesvaine, it turned out to be a group from another village instead and we have no idea if they were a choir or not. They also arrived an hour early and we weren't quite ready. Never mind, it doesn't matter it worked out in the end and we had a lovely time with people promising to come back again. We had just packed up after they left and sitting down having a cup of tea when a car load of people turned up. They said they had seen our place on a tourism programme on the telly, which was news to us, but obviously word is starting to get around now.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Netty Office

In my office
I finally have an office, what do you think? Of course any of our Geordie friends will know exactly what I mean by a Netty Office, yes we finally have an outside loo. The good thing is that it is actually quite nice and cool and the internet reception was fine, so I spent the afternoon down there and worked. Not so sure I will be doing that after it has been used a few times though. It is a composting toilet though and so it shouldn't be too bad really. It isn't just a hole in the ground sort.
Taking a well earned rest in the office

Another Franken-creation using up the
off cuts from the girls alpaca house.
The little door at the back is to put a box
in for the sawdust composting toilet. The
roof was from the boys feeder that suffered
catastrophic damage in a storm. The latch
is made from wood but the hinges are new

Not a very good picture because the light was so bright. 
It has been a rush to get it finished as we were expecting a group of 54 pensioners and while I am sure quite a few of them would head off into the forest if the need arose, we didn't want them to have to do that if we could avoid it and so Ian worked on it all weekend. It has been on the list of jobs to do for a while and so it is nice that we can send visitors to that rather than them having to try and squeeze into our caravan loo.
Wool drying from a dying session the two days before. At
least that is fairly easy to do and carry on with other jobs, as
the wool boils in the dye bath for thirty minutes. 

Our visitors. Not sure there was a whole bus full
and we think there must have been 46 in the end.
Still a lot of people to show around
It was very hot for our visitors today, but many of them seemed genuinely interested and put up with beating sun to listen to our story and ask questions afterwards. Unfortunately our alpacas didn't seem genuinely interested in the huge number of people - I think the most we have seen on our land is a group of school children of around 30, so not big people either. Usually groups are around 3-8 people. They had brought quite a few tasty carrots and I sliced them up in the food processor but it was so hot the animals really could not be bothered, so we had egg and carrot salad with our evening meal and the alpaca girls got them as a treat. I also organised making felt balls which a few of them seem to really enjoy doing but not all of them wanted to take them home. Now I have a few for demonstration purposes too.
I found this picture on my camera of Eyre after having her op.
Enjoying being able to lounge around on the furniture for a

Make the most of Aggie looking cute, she will be sheared
It was funny how all those years of helping my mother and father with a jewellery stall at various agricultural shows came in very useful. I felt it was a nice enough display using a mix of our caravan table and cardboard or plastic boxes, covered with an array of tablecloths. Fortunately it didn't take me long to set up, as there wasn't much time to get ready.
Ian is wondering how he will shear Mari to keep her cute looks

It appears we now have resident ducks on our pond
Ian and I have been busy with lots of preparation now the hot weather is here. We moved the sheep to the other side of the hill where the grass is much better, before we move them back to be closer when they lamb next month. The only problem is that we haven't had much rain in the last week at all, the couple of showers we have had were not really enough to wet the ground and so the grass is growing rather slowly. The trees though are very quickly turning to leaf now and there is an explosion of green. Today the bird cherry started flowering - so that might mean we get a bit of cool weather.
Tellus enjoying the cool grass

Brencis looking very skinny
Ian also rotavated the field ready for the barley and oats - a bit late but it has been too dry anyway. I have been pre-soaking other seeds and then watering them in well and I hope they will be fine for the rain at the weekend. I also mulched them a bit with hay, to stop any hard rain from making the soil too hard for the seeds to come through. We had to connect another hose totalling three hoses to get water all the way to our orchard plot. I thought that the garlic might have been suffering due to a lack of water, but now I am beginning to think that actually a vole has taken them over the winter. We hardly have any which have sprouted and there were about 70 planted.
Estelle feeling the heat with baby and lots of fleece. We got
quite excited this week as we actually felt a baby move when
we prodded Estelle to try and find out if she was definitely
pregnant or not. We don't think she has taken to pregnancy very
well, She seemed weary right from the start - no blooming for

Ian can tell you the time of the day by the airplanes that
fly over or the buses that go past! He can even tell you which
plane it is, where it is flying to and where it has flown from,
courtesy of some flight checker on the net! 
The joys of abundant wild life. If it isn't the pigs digging up crops, it is the voles or moles eating them from their underground tunnels. Talking of abundant wildlife, this year the biting insect in abundance are midges. They have been vicious, almost like being in Scotland and I am now covered in lots of very itchy bites. I have resorted to just about every herbal remedy known and whilst they work for a while, they have not been as effective in the long run as previously. Either I am over sensitive to the little blighters or it is just the number of bites that has got to me. So far I have tried plantain, home-made fruit vinegar and lavender essential oil. They help anyway. The good thing about vinegar and lavender oil is it keeps the insects away too.
The boys doing their impersonations of antelopes

Another photo I found on my camera. It
is hard to believe that this was just 13
days ago and now it is hot and dry. 
The twice yearly job of clearing out the alpaca houses have now been completed. I helped Ian for a bit but I have also had a lot of academic work to do, so couldn't help with it all. It has been interesting juggling everything. I had an online role play of a roundtable discussion of experts to do and so I wrote a transcript for my part and sent it off to the others in my group. I had requested to do my part early but then found out that we had a lecture first. I was expecting someone to come at 5pm and the seminar started at 4:30pm, so it was bit tight. Actually I wasn't expecting our guests to arrive at 5pm because in the 8 years we have lived here in Latvia, no one has turned up on time and so I thought even with the lecture there would be a chance to do my part before having to leave the seminar - wrong! Not only did our guests turn up on time, they turned up early. Fortunately because I had sent in a script our tutor read it out and that was classed as acceptable.