On Nature

I came across an article the other day entitled Humanity ‘Sleepwalking Towards the Edge of a Cliff’: 60% of Earth’s Wildlife Wiped Out Since 1970, and while I applaud the thrust of the article (we’re collectively doing a great deal of damage, and may ultimately wipe ourselves out), the framing, like so many other pieces of this type, is all wrong. Consider this quote:

“human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations”

The statement about our future notwithstanding, this reduces “nature” to an external thing that we have some sort of power over, when in fact the exact opposite is true.
Nature is not separate from humanity, it’s not an amenity or a tourist attraction, it’s not something we just experience on the weekends, a place we choose to go camping, or to dump our garbage in when nobody is looking.
Nature is a vast cyclical process of life and death, of which humanity is just one relatively insignificant yet insufferably arrogant piece. We each participate in it, all day, every day.
Nature is the song that surrounds us now, and one that will carry on well after we are gone.
We need to listen to that song, and learn to sing along with it.

Wildlife Monitoring

In December 2016 we participated in a community wildlife monitoring program, run as a collaboration between the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Kingborough Council, the Bruny Island Environment Network, Bruny Island Community Association, Private Land Conservation Program, NRM South, Derwent Catchment NRM, BirdLife Australia and the University of Tasmania. The idea is to establish a network of long-term wildlife monitoring sites on private land, to figure out what lives where and how our native animal populations are faring over time.
For us, this meant setting up a wildlife monitoring camera for a few weeks, and taking an audio recording of bird calls one morning for about 20 minutes. At the end of the period we went through the photos, deleted the irritatingly large number of photos of moving shadows and vegetation, and recorded the actual wildlife spotted in a spreadsheet. The same thing is being done on many different properties over a wide area. The results of the research from this pilot program should be available some time this year (2017), and hopefully another round will be done in future at the same sites to see what’s changed over time.
Aside from the small family of skinks living in the log the camera was pointed at, we got photos of some combination of pademelons, Bennetts wallabies, spotted-tailed quolls, eastern-barred bandicoots, bettongs, brushtail possums and at least one echidna. Here’s some choice shots:
IMAG0006IMAG0247 IMAG0715 IMAG1341 IMAG1672a IMAG2442
…and here’s a video of the entire set of interesting photos, one frame every two seconds to make everything reasonably easy to identify:

Finally, if you’ve got a pile of JPEG images you want to turn into a video like the above, and you’re running Linux, something like this should do the trick:

# ffmpeg -f image2 -framerate 25 -r 0.5 -i %*.JPG -s 640x480 my-video-file.avi

How to Make Rough Cider

Rough cider, or scrumpy, is trivial to make at home, and delicious. All you need is apples, a means of juicing them, and a source of yeast. For that matter, it’s trivial to make anything beer-like in strength. I’ve never understood jurisdictions that prohibit or limit home brewing – as is pointed out in the rather excellent Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation, if you want 5% alcohol, you can get it by combining four litres of water, half a kilo of sugar and some yeast.
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The Inaugural Chicken Husbandry and Slaughtering Workshop

Last weekend we held our first chicken husbandry and slaughtering workshop. This resulted as a lot of the people who get eggs from us ask us what they can do with the cockerels they hatch. For health reasons we don’t offer to take them back. Plus it’s ideological. If one is going to hatch eggs we feel one should be prepared for the inevitable results of that hatching i.e. there will be some blokes. Pretty much guaranteed really. Too many people abandon cockerels by the side of the road here. It’s really sad and there is no excuse for abandoning any animal one is responsible for. My first advice to people asking what they can do with their unwanted cockerels is always that they should eat them. Honestly they will be the best chicken you have ever eaten. This elicits two types of response. One is “I don’t know how to kill them” and the other is “I could never do that”. For the latter we offer a couple of suggestions. The Raptor and Wildlife Refuge of Tasmania does accept live roosters. You can find more information here. You can also contact Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary. They have some devils and may be interested in taking cockerels. Any place that has captive devils may be interested in taking cockerels. For the former we ran this workshop.
The very frosty cold day kicked off with a tour of the farm during which we explained our husbandry practices. We talked about how to house your chooks, discussed how and how much to feed them, and discovered how to make sure they are well and happy. But soon the moment of truth was upon us and participants had to chop off their first chook head. There was some trepidation, mostly people wanted to make sure they weren’t going to cause the chook any suffering. Facing such existential realities as death can be confronting. It is especially so in our society, which is living in denial of death. But in the end everyone got their chook’s head off very quickly and efficiently.
dave and cone sm
Soon we were in the midst of a giant pile of feathers as everyone plucked their chook. It was awesome to see everyone pitching in and helping each other pluck their chooks.
Happy plucking sm
Once all chooks were plucked it was over to the big table for instruction in gutting. We explained the process in brief, then demonstrated on one bird: remove the feet, the crop, the neck, then slit across the underside below the vent, reach up inside and pull the innards out, then finally cut around the vent, and you’re done. After that, everyone started on their own chooks. Some attendees were faster, some slower, but everyone got the job done well. Reactions to the various sensual assaults varied, “Wow, it’s still really warm inside this bird”, “I’m nervous about using too much pressure when pulling the guts out in case I rupture an intestine or something” — “It’s OK, you need more force than you think you want to apply, but then suddenly it all just works smoothly”, “I’ve done this before, but your method of cutting around the vent is easier that I used to do”, “Is this meant to smell like this?”.
dressing chooks sm
As we sat around the fire and ate chickeny dishes there was much discussion of farm life in Tasmania. It was interesting to hear the diverse perspectives on raising one’s own food, both animal and vegetable. Some themes were agreed on by all, the satisfaction of producing one’s own foods, the strange priorities of government, the need for awareness of animal rearing practices, and the desirability of sustainable systems.
We had more people wanting to do the workshop than we could accommodate so we have decided to do another one on the 3rd of July. Please email me to book.

And Then The Rains Came Down…

Ok, so maybe we jinxed it by posting about how little rain we had had this year. We have had 176mm of rain in the last three days. 78mm of that in the last 24 hours, and it’s still raining…
Remember our last post where we bemoaned our dam looking like this.top dam low apr 2016
Well now it looks like this.top-dam-super-full-June-2016-sm
Our rainfall graph, which looked like this.
Now looks like this.

The Tragic Tale Of The Rain We Totally Didn't Have

Water is one of the essentials of farm life. It is also one that we tend to take for granted, especially here in southern Tasmania, renowned as it is for being cold and wet. However the times they are a changin’, and much that once was is lost. This image shows the sad state of our rainfall for the last five years. i.e. an ever diminishing curve, interspersed with extreme events.
But graphs are hard to parse. So here are some images that show what the numbers translate to in real life.
August 2015top dam full aug 2015
January 2016top dam mid jan 2016
April 2016top dam low apr 2016
So, basically, doom. Fortunately this is only one of our three dams. Unfortunately only one of the other two, our largest dam, from which we get water to flush our toilets and to water the garden, still has water in it. It is however at the lowest level we have ever seen it, and shrinking rapidly.
We are in a much better position than many of our neighbours. One reason is that we are at nearly 400 metres elevation. Because of this it is a bit cooler than in the valley and we get some moisture from clouds that are passing even if they don’t rain as they have to rise over our hill to continue on their journey eastward.
Another reason is we don’t have much stock. On our ten hectares, 25 acres in the old money, we have six sheep, two miniature cows, two pigs and all the chickens. The cows and two of the sheep are here as refugees. They belong to my sister who lives lower down in the valley and who consequently has no grass at all. Next month we will be getting our own miniature cow, but still that is not a lot of load for the land.
Because we don’t have a heavy load of stock we were able to make hay. We got about a third of the hay we grew last year due to the lack of rain. Hay was in very high demand this year as no one else grew as much as usual either. Because of our stocking rate we actually need very little hay for winter. Only if someone is confined to a shed for say, lambing, and we have to feed them will we need hay. This meant we were able to swap our hay for straw, which was also in high demand due to the lack of rain. We need straw for bedding for the pigs, they need to be kept warm and dry in winter, and for flooring and nest lining for the chickens. Pigs will also eat barley straw. For the rest of the animals there should be  enough grass to keep them going through the winter, unless we don’t get any rain before it gets so cold the grass stops growing for winter…

A Dam Intake That Doesn't Suck

We live on a fairly steep hill. The house is slightly more than 340 metres above sea level, and there’s a large dam half way up the length of the property, at an altitude of about 370 metres. Some clever person installed a run of one inch diameter poly pipe from the dam down to the house with various tap fittings along the way, so we’re able to use gravity fed dam water in troughs for animals, and to water the garden beds, and even inside the house to flush the toilets (which is much better than wasting potable tank water).
Given the abysmal rainfall in recent months, the dam is the lowest we’ve ever seen it. The last time it got close to this low was during what I like to call the “eight month summer” of 2012-2013. So the water level has been receding towards the intake for the pipe that goes down the hill, and that intake was only a couple of metres from the edge of the dam, and sitting on the dam floor where all the silt, sediment and weeds live. On the Easter long weekend, while watering down by the house, the feed from the dam stopped. The water pressure had actually been poor for some time, but it was then that we completely lost the siphon action. Time for a new dam intake.
The existing intake consisted of a bucket with holes drilled in the lid, containing a fish pond filter, with a tap and pipe coming out the top. There were rocks in the bottom of the bucket to weigh it down.
20160328_163952This is not ideal. Really, you want the intake to be close to the surface of the water where crap won’t get sucked up, so we went and bought a 200mm polystyrene float and a foot valve, which looks a bit like this. That’s probably not the exact model I purchased, but you get the idea – it’s a grille over a ball valve with a spring, which allows water to be sucked out of the dam, but if you have to pull the intake out of the dam to clean or inspect it, the valve won’t let water flow the other way, so you don’t risk losing the siphon.
Conveniently we had an extra length of 1″ poly pipe lying around, so I attached the foot valve and float to the end of that and was able to extend the feed further out into the middle of the dam. Turns out I did need to lash a small rock to the end of the pipe to hold the foot valve under the water, but it’s now just slightly below the surface as opposed to slightly above the dam floor, so the water is much cleaner.
20160328_164525In the above photo, the white ball is the float. For comparison, the old bucket intake was pretty much where the end of the left-hand chunk of wood is.
Then came the fun part — restarting the siphon. There’s a gate valve a little way north of the house above all the other taps that feed off the dam pipe, so I closed that, then went back up to the dam.
20160328_164216The pipe that leaves the dam goes over a rise, but there’s a convenient join in the middle, so I disconnected the pipe there, and we put a funnel made from an old juice bottle into the pipe that runs down the hill. Morgan held this end up high, while I got buckets of water from the dam and poured them into the funnel to re-fill as much as we could of the ~170 metres of pipe. The amazing part about this is how the water behaves. You start pouring it in, it slowly goes down the funnel and disappears. Then a few minutes later there’s gurgling noises as air works its way back up the pipe, half the water you poured in is forced back out of the pipe into the funnel, then it all subsides again. It’s actually a lot of fun, and of course you end up soaking wet due to various minor mishaps.
Once we figured no more water was going down the pipe, we reconnected it to the intake at the top of the rise, then I went back down to the house, opened the main gate valve, turned on a hose, and water… came… out… very… slowly… There was sporadic coughing and spluttering from the pipes as air shunted around, but I was worried we hadn’t put enough water in to kickstart the siphon properly. So I went to the filter a few metres down from the main gate value and unscrewed the bottom cap.
20160328_164126This presumably created the clearest, widest flow of water/suction possible. When the flow slacked off, I put the palm of my hand over the bottom to seal it and waited until the water pressure built up again. Once this became slightly uncomfortable, I removed my hand and water blasted out. I had to repeat this maybe half a dozen times until (I assume) all the air was bled and proper pressure restored.
Then it was back down to test the lower taps on a couple of garden beds, which showed better water pressure that we’ve seen any time in the last few years. I call that a win.
For my next trick, I’ll replace the main gate valve. The damn thing seems to have developed a small drip.

Hatching Eggs – The Broody Hen

So you have decided to hatch some chicken eggs and keep chooks. Whether you are doing it for purely utilitarian reasons, educational reasons or because you have a terrible chicken addiction (I may possibly fall into this last category) there are a few important basics to get your head around.
egg development small
To hatch eggs you are going to need either a reliable broody hen or an incubator. Sadly Barnevelders, despite being the best chickens in the world from every other perspective, do have the slight failing that they do not have a great propensity for sitting. Consequently I hatch most of my eggs in incubators, although I am trying to breed some mothering back into my trusty Barnies. If your hens are not good sitters you can get in a hen or hens for the purpose of sitting otherwise it’s incubators. The very silly looking Silkie chickens are excellent sitters, but their extremely docile nature can mean they get bullied by other birds.
There is no way to make a hen go broody. Locking her in a box with eggs will not make her sit. Don’t do this. However if a hen is broody when you don’t want her to be you can put her in a cage with the wire side under her and hang it up. Because she can’t make it warm underneath her she will give up after two or three days.
One of the most common questions I am asked is how one knows if a hen is really sitting or if she will give up. The truth is one never really knows, though if a hen has successfully sat before she is more likely to stay sitting. Once the hen has been sitting for three days she might be broody. Put your hand near her head and see how she reacts. She may make a low trilling noise as your hand approaches or she may peck you. If she does both of these things then she may well be serious.
Don’t worry if she is sitting on eggs that are not the ones you want to hatch. Once you have ascertained that she is serious you can easily swap these eggs for the ones you want her to incubate. The best time to swap eggs is at night. Chickens’ brains go into neutral in the dark so they are much less likely to react to your actions at night. To swap eggs first make sure the eggs you are going to put in are not freezing cold. Is she is serious she will have pulled feathers out of her breast to make a bare patch so that the eggs have good contact with her skin to keep warm. She may well reject cold eggs, pushing them off the nest.
A sitting hen needs a nice dry, secure location to sit. It should be rat, snake and other vermin proof. Nesting boxes in the hen house are a good option as then the hen will still benefit from the protection of her vigilant bloke, should she have one. Nesting boxes should be placed lower than roosts as otherwise non broody birds will try to roost in them in their quest to be roosting highest. However they should not be placed underneath where other birds roost or they will soon become contaminated with manure. If a hen pushes eggs out of the nest it is most likely because the eggs are rotten so don’t go putting them back under her.
It is also vital that a broody has excellent pest control. She is literally a sitting target and will accumulate a lot of insect pests if you don’t take care. Plenty of Diatomaceous Earth is the best thing. See this post for information on what it is and how it works.
There are some drawbacks to having a broody in the house with other hens. Hens may try to steal eggs from under a broody or they may try to usurp her nest. This results in eggs being damaged or not being continuously sat on and thus the incubation temperature not maintained. For these reasons you might like to make your broody’s spot inaccessible to other hens.
If you are going to enclose your broody remember that she needs enough space to get off her nest to toilet and to eat. You want her to be toileting as far from the nest as possible in order to avoid contamination of eggs, which can result in rotten eggs. She should get up once or twice a day but she won’t stay up for long as the eggs will soon get cold.
Because they don’t get up for long it is important to provide sitting hens with excellent quality feed. A good grain mix is essential, as are green vegetables, spinach is excellent. Because hens lose a lot of weight while sitting, foods that are high in fat are also a must. I feed mine bacon with plenty of fat on it. Having high quality food available at all times in one reason you need a vermin proof enclosure.
Chicken eggs take 21 days to incubate, however development doesn’t start until the eggs have been at the right temperature for at least 16 hours. Incubation time is affected by temperature. If it has been very cold the eggs will hatch a bit later and vice versa if it has been very hot. Don’t panic if you haven’t seen any chicks after 21 days. The very worst thing you can do is disturb the hen to look. Once the chicks do hatch they will not come out from under their mum for at least a full day. In this time they dry out and recover from the very hard work of getting out of their egg. They don’t all hatch at exactly the same time so the hen won’t move until as many as she thinks will hatch do so.
If there is no sign of chicks after 25 days then is the time to investigate. At night, take the eggs out and shine a strong light through them, making sure you keep them warm while you do so. This is easily achieved by placing the egg on the end of a toilet roll and shining a light through the roll in a dark room. You should be able to see a big air bubble at the blunt end of the egg while the rest of the egg is opaque. If you don’t see this then the eggs have not developed. If the entire egg is dark the egg is probably rotten.
Do not let your hen sit for longer than four weeks. If the eggs haven’t hatched by this time they never will and the hen can die of starvation if she remains sitting. She will need a good month to regain her normal weight before she can sit again. Sadly hens are often more determined to sit than aware of this fact so then it is necessary to take matters into your own hands and put her in the hanging cage.
Once your eggs have hatched the chicks will need good quality food. They don’t eat for at least 24 hours after hatching as just before they hatch they absorb the remaining part of the yolk and this feeds them for that time. After that they need green food immediately and a good chick starter as well as fresh, clean water.
I always put crushed, dried chilli, whole garlic cloves and apple cider vinegar into all my birds’ water. You need to get a good cider vinegar that says “with the mother”. The mother is the active part of the vinegar and vinegars without this are lacking the necessary nutrients. About a teaspoon of chilli, one clove of garlic and 20mls of apple cider vinegar per 5 litres of water is all that is required. Making sure these are in your birds’ water will help to avoid disease outbreaks.
I eat my birds and so I use Tasmanian Seedhouse starter as it is the only one available here that doesn’t have medication in it. Unless one is crowding a lot of birds into a too small space, or not practicing good hygiene one is unlikely to actually need this medication. If you can’t find a chick starter that doesn’t have medication look for a game bird starter as they often don’t have medication.
Once the chicks are able to be out foraging with their mum they need protection from predators that allows them access to green food as soon as possible. I keep mine in netted yards until they are twelve weeks old or they get gobbled up by hawks, owls and eagles. Birds raised by a hen really do do better than those raised in incubators. I suspect this is because they learn to eat a wider range of foods. Incubator raised birds often have to be taught to eat slugs and snails for example. If they don’t encounter these nutritious treats when they are first learning to eat they don’t seem to learn that they are food. They will eventually learn to eat them if put with other birds that eat them but having a good mum is vital to success!