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Sunday 26 February 2012

I’m currently taking a break following exhaustive bushfire preparations. There is an uncontrolled fire burning around 45km north of us, which has already taken out over 800Ha of bush and grassland. Residents of local townships have been put on emergency alert. Luckily the strong north wind we’ve experienced over the last couple of days has eased, but the temperature is still way over 30degC and occasional burnt bracken fronds are drifting onto our land. We’ve done everything we can: got the fire pump in position and tested it, laid out the hose and tested it, made mops and filled up 44gallon drums on all our decks, filled up the baths and sinks and got loads of buckets, towels and smoke masks at the ready. The tractor and Suzuki are parked on green grass well away from the hay and I’ve doused the Suzuki and the wooden ute tray, plus all the hay in the open tractor shed and everything else that’s flammable. We’ve got wet rags ready to put under the roller doors to the garage and are tuning in regularly to local radio and the Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS) website. There is little else we can do and really the odds on the fire reaching us are pretty slim. Poor Laura, our new WWOOFER, was getting rather scared but has been reassured by local radio telling residents of the Huon Valley not to worry (easy to say). I’d woken in the night and smelled smoke and came upstairs to check the TFS website and the prevailing wind direction; at that stage the fire was not considered a threat to any residents.

Bushfire skies!
We’ve had a few small outings over the past couple of weeks. On Kristina’s last weekend, we went up to Snug Falls, which we enjoyed so much the last time. This time we kept a particularly close watch on Bruce, who we managed to lose last time. This time it was Rosie who gave us a scare. Despite being tied tightly in the back of the ute, she managed to nearly hang herself over the side – lucky that Bronte heard her paws scratching at the ute panels. She was very sorry for herself for some time afterwards. After the Falls we headed for Snug beach and to round the trip off went to the Margate Tip Shop (we can’t pass it without rummaging around for any little treasures). This time I came away with 2 security screens (perfect for hay dispensers), books for Luke and odds and ends of wool. Bronte was pleased with his haul of ultra-cheap flowerpots.

Kristina and Bronte at Brookfield for tea & cake before Snug Falls!

Snug Falls
Luke finally went back to school on Thursday 16 February so in order to give him a bit of a treat on his last day at home, Laura and I took him up Mount Wellington for an explore. We ended up getting rather more than we bargained for since we thought we’d go on a ‘short’ walk from The Springs which got steeper and rockier and more precarious with each step. My knees were aching by the time we got to a small waterfall which was our destination. Then we had a marathon climb back up to the car – even Luke was tired out. Yesterday and today we had small creek adventures. Bronte took Laura and Luke down the creek to our little waterfall and today I drove them down to where our creek meets a larger one coming down from Wellington Park, where we scrabbled down the bank and walked upstream for some distance. We could have walked back to our house, but were concerned about leaving the house for too long with the bushfire threat hanging over us. The creek is very picturesque, tumbling down over slabs of flat rock between cliffs, trees and grassy banks.

The weather has been its usual variable self, changing from 30degC one day to 15degC the following day. On these two consecutive days Hobart went from being the hottest capital in Australia to the coldest. This weekend we’ve had a real heat-wave, with both days being the hottest we’ve experienced this summer. This has followed a few weeks where it was starting to feel positively autumnal; the days seemed so much shorter and it was cool in the mornings and evenings. There has been little rain recently but we are still benefiting from the 64mm in 24hrs we experienced a couple of weeks back, such that our paddocks are still quite green.

We’ve been busy on the farm as usual. In line with my policy of extra care and vigilance with respect to the goats, we’ve vaccinated and drenched them, clipped their hooves and also dosed them with pellets of selenium. Tasmanian soil is known to be low in selenium and I didn’t want there to be any possibility of mineral deficiency leading to low birth rates, abortion etc – now that we are fast approaching breeding time. I couldn’t find any reliable means of giving the goats selenium other than these pellets which are like small cylinders about 1cm in diameter and as hard as bullets. They are slow-release and apparently should last for 3 years. The instructions were to insert directly into the gullet! So I cut a short length of old hose, trimmed and sanded one end so that it was very smooth with no ‘step’ in it. Laura popped a pellet into the end and then held the goats’ mouths open while I slipped the hose (lubricated with olive oil and molasses) directly down their throats and then poked the pellet out with a length of wire with the end folded back so there was no sharp point. Amazingly it seemed to work and no goat has suffered any ill effects since.

I’ve finally built a hay container for the young goats to keep the hay dry and off the ground – and also to stop the goats peeing and pooing on it. I built it using tip shop purchases: an old school desk (complete with dried chewing gum and graffiti underneath), one of the security doors and an old metal bed base. It worked perfectly, covered with a sheet of old corrugated iron and given a lick of paint.

We’ve had a small tragedy on the chicken front. The youngest hens that I’d bred in the incubators were in a separate pen with a floppy top. However, a quoll managed to find a small weakness in our fence, pulled back a bit of wire, got in and killed 11 of the 15 chickens. The 4 that survived were the only ones smart enough to fly out. They are now in the covered peacock run getting bullied by the peacocks which are moulting and feeling sorry for themselves – especially Pasha who is now devoid of his beautiful tail. Anyhow, one animal’s misfortune means bounty for the pigs who are now feasting off chicken boiled with potatoes and cherries. The piglets have grown very fast and are fat, shiny, stripy and cute. Occasionally they chase each other around the pen like mad, grunting away to one another. When they want a feed off Mum the squealing is so loud it sounds like a herd of pigs being slaughtered.

Owing to the chicken losses, we’ve changed priorities and are busily reinforcing the big bird complex comprising the turkey run, Henry the rooster’s chicken run, the weaning pen and the peacock enclosure. I’ve built and hung a gate of which I’m very proud and I’m now working my way around adding an overhang to the fence to deter possums and quolls. I angle-ground a roll of chicken wire into 3 x 30cm lengths and am fixing those to the top of the fence using netting clips and angling it out with an assortment of GI strap, stiff wire and old black electrical cord (the last proving quite useless). It’s beginning to look like a prison camp complete with razor wire.

I’m starting to quietly panic about getting the new goat paddock done by breeding time and also painting the outside of the house and windows before it begins to get too wet. The track for the new paddock is just about clear – one more real go at it and it will be complete. I need to get a load more metal stakes; I’ve found some damaged stock that I can get a bit cheaper than normal. Unfortunately I can’t get cheaper 2.4m ones which I need to protect the trees that Bronte has recklessly planted within my fencelines! They are $9 each and I need 3 for each tree minimum.

The house is daunting me as it is such a different proposition now than when I first painted it. Then there were no windows in, we had some scaffolding and ladder platforms in place and there were no cobwebs. Now, I have to clean all the cobwebs off, mask the windows and flashing and somehow find ways of reaching the bits of house 5 or 6m off the ground over terraced and otherwise uneven ground. I had a bit of a brainwave yesterday and thought I’d get some quotes for a cherry picker. That would solve all the problems (and be a bit of fun).

We’ve recently made a new batch of soap and a load of jars of blackberry and crab-apple jelly. Both have been real successes. Kristina was keen to help make some soap and I had about 3kg of clean fat (lard) in the freezer. We decided to experiment and use turmeric and ginger to give it colour and possibly scent. I was a bit concerned that it would either smell like curry or turn you yellow when it lathered! However, it’s turned out to be a really good soap, lathering beautifully and not smelling of pork! It’s also bright yellow in colour. We used a few rabbit moulds since it’s close to Easter, as well as the usual oval King Island yoghurt pots.

Laura (our new WWOOFER), Bronte and Luke picked a load of blackberries and we had a major jelly session. On one day we cooked and mashed the fruit for an hour or so, before pouring it into half an old duvet cover strung inside the upstairs shower! We left it to drip overnight and ended up with over 5 litres of juice! Cooking it with sugar was a bit nerve-wracking as it never seemed to reach a setting point but in the end we bottled it anyhow. To our surprise it set nicely in the fridge and tastes gorgeous. We’ve got about 13 jars of it. Rather than waste the rest of the blackberry harvest, I’m planning to send Laura out again (before she leaves us on Wednesday) to get another load. We can always use them as gifts or eat our jelly to the exclusion of all other jams and preserves!

Luke and Bronte are both fine. Bronte has been madly planting trees (sometimes stealing my WWOOFERs) and then having to water them regularly. He got bitten by a leech on the ankle recently and ended up with an old lady’s leg, so swollen he could hardly get his shoe on. Of course Luke and I thought it was a great hoot. Now he remembers to tuck his trousers into his socks and wear a pair of home-made ‘gaiters’ like I generally do. I cut the toes out of old pairs of socks and pull them over my socks in order to keep the latter tucked in and to stop them runkling up in the bottom of wellies (gumboots).

Luke has broken his own vortex record at Little Athletics, throwing almost 1m further – 28.3m. I certainly can’t throw that far! He also set a new PB (personal best) in the 200m by 1 second. This was yesterday morning in nearly 30degC heat! They postponed the triple-jump till the following Saturday but I was rather disappointed as obviously the heat suited him. I’m so pleased he’s back at school as we were both going stir-crazy, but it hasn’t slowed him down or quietened him in the least.

Last week’s Little Athletics’ meet was somewhat distracted by the gathering of several log trucks and around 500 forestry workers and their supporters in Woolies carpark in Huonville (just opposite the athletics’ ground), prior to marching through the town. This was in protest at the lay-off of 40 workers at the two Ta Ann veneer mills, one of which is sited at Southwood down in the Weld within the Huon Valley. The pro-forestry groups blame environmentalists for everything that has happened to prices and markets – ignoring the facts that Australia is a high-wage economy, we have a high dollar which makes our exports expensive, and purchasers now want a guarantee of sustainability, generally meaning plantation timber. Ta Ann still sells its veneer as ‘eco’ timber and apparently has certification in some countries which identifies it as coming from plantation timber. This is clearly not the case. Ta Ann is still getting supplies from coupes within the 430,000Ha of high conservation value forest defined in the Intergovernmental Agreement on forestry (IGA) and emphatically protected by clauses in that document. As is usually the case however, Forestry Tasmania was able to persuade government that it still needed to log within the 430,000Ha, including two coupes in West Wellington.

What peeves me most is that to extract the possible 25% of recoverable timber for Ta Ann, they bulldoze down everything else that is standing, prior to burning it and re-seeding with only gum-trees. Also they label West Wellington as ‘re-growth’ implying that it had previously been clearfelled and had since re-grown. This is not the case: it has been subject to spot-sawmilling through the years and was affected by the 1967 fires. Owing to this huge bushfire, which affected most of southern Tasmania, Forestry Tasmania sees fit NOT to leave this high altitude forest (home to healthy devils, spotted tailed quolls, wedge-tailed eagles and other endangered species) to grow and mature, but rather uses its degradation by bushfire as an excuse for clearfell. Also, to my chagrin, the Mercury has not published my letters on the subject. I’m planning a series …

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Fabulous sunset a week or two ago. We sat watching TV in the lounge room  and I suddenly noticed
everything had  gone pink outside. When we looked at the sky it took our breath away!

So much has occurred in the last month I hardly know where to begin. To name a few things: we’ve stored 414 bales of hay, brush-cut a track through the bush for the new goat fence, spread 14 tonnes of gravel, hauled an enormous fish-farm net into place into the farrowing pen, mowed (by hand) a big fire-break around the house and been on many adventures and outings.

The boys have gone now having had three weeks with us. Tracy and Katrijna - the WWOOFERs - have also moved on. We now have a lovely German girl staying with us, but for all too short a time. A couple booked for next week had to cancel but we now have another Northern European girl starting early next week. I need to make the most of WWOOFERs at present, since once it turns cold in a month or two’s time, I shan’t feel able to ask someone to work in the cold and rain (even if someone were willing to brave Tasmania in Winter!).

Getting the hay in was a major achievement. It took all of one afternoon and evening, then as I couldn’t sleep for worrying I started again at 5.30am the following morning. Gradually, the boys joined me and we finally got finished late morning. As a reward we went to Hobart, watched a movie (I don’t recommend Happy Feet 2) and joined Bronte at the Hogs Breath CafĂ© for dinner. It was a fearsomely hot day with no relief in the restaurant.

Another marathon effort was spreading a truck-load of rough gravel on the other side of our tractor crossing en route to the goat paddocks. It lays wet there and gets terribly rutted and difficult to negotiate over winter. This time it had left great holes and was a real mess. So I got the truck to roughly dump the gravel over the area and then spent a couple of hours getting it level. What a job – I realised then why the women tennis players grunt when hitting the ball as hard as they can, I was grunting at each shovelful with the sheer effort. I’m pleased with it now – there must be 250mm or more thickness over the wettest part so I’m confident it will last a fair while.

Bronte took the boys (and Luke) for a day of mountain biking on Mount Wellington and Tolosa Park (North Hobart). They had a great time and Luke was very brave and determined on his new bike over the bumpy tracks at Tolosa. They also had a day of making their own boomerangs. The boys spent an age sanding and decorating theirs – they were works of art. Luke made a lovely job of his too. Bronte finished Tracy’s for her and we all signed the back of it – hopefully it is a nice souvenir of her stay here. The boys mowed a cricket wicket between the house and creek and tried manfully to roll it flat with a concrete pipe (they were on a hiding to nothing there - even worse Michael broke his first boomerang on it). Sean made some great stumps and bails - although Rosie chewed up the bails before they could be used!

View from Mountain Bike track on Mt Wellington


Towards the end of the holiday I went with Luke and the boys for a creek adventure. We headed up Crabtree Rivulet, negotiating slippery moss-covered rocks and many fallen trees, before eventually reaching Willies Falls. The Falls weren’t in full flow but still looked very impressive, set in a great gully with smooth sheer rock sloping up on one side. At one point the whole steep bank above us was a scree slope balanced atop a large, half-rotten fallen tree. Michael tempted providence by sitting under it and Luke scrambled across the face of it while I had my heart in my mouth. The boys and Luke set such a great pace going up the creek, that I was quite knackered when we got there. It was clear that Luke was too but wouldn’t admit it. It was only after a couple of mishaps that I made him slow down & stick with me – much to his chagrin.

On another day I took them all to Hastings Caves and Thermal Springs. I let them go up into the caves – which are incredibly impressive - while I waited at the Springs. They all seemed to greatly enjoy the tour and we all went on the local walks and had a swim in the warm pool afterwards. If only it wasn’t such a long drive, I’m sure we’d be tempted to go there more often. On the way back from the Caves we picked up 'Clive' a 4-month old turkey gobbler, who looks like a mini-Darth and hopefully will prove in time to be more prolific than William (he couldn't be worse). We also went round to the 'brethren' - frankly we are not sure what they are, but they appear to be some sort of religious community who live in Glendevie. We've bought goats and a gobbler from them in the past - this time they had no spare turkeys, but we came home with some luscious plums and blueberries from their roadside stall.

The boys and Tracy came and supported Luke at Little Athletics, both in Huonville and at a multi-centre event at The Domain. Mike was able to compete at a local championship as a guest 'under 15'. It made it altogether more fun for us to watch two competitors. It was made more interesting by Mike having only opponent, a certain 'Wes', who is a darling of the centre - Mike really gave him some keen competition, thrashing him in the 800m and the discus.

There have been a few incidents on the farm front. Little Pea, the younger peahen, hatched out 4 peachicks which all promptly died within a few days. No idea why, but they didn’t seem to figure out what to eat, despite us putting out tempting dishes of crumbles and other goodies. The pigs as usual have proven their worth once again by producing another litter of 8 little cuties. This is Blaize’s (formerly ‘Ginger’ or ‘Stripes’ or ‘Mrs Pig’) first litter and she’s been a great Mum, very attentive. It caught us by surprise and I had to rope in the boys to help mend the fence on the other pig pen that I’d mowed down with the Suzuki and goat-float only the previous week. It was too difficult to move Mum & piglets so instead we shepherded Connor into that pen (now mostly covered with fishnet to discourage digging). He’s a little disgruntled but is coping well. Tracy and I caught the piglets a couple of days later and castrated the boys and notched the ears of the girls. As usual there were more boys than girls – 6 out of 8! However, the castration was over very quick and they were fine once back with Mum.


Pig fence repairing

Fishing net spread in pig pen - Connor's new home

One day old piglets
There have been ups and downs with the goats. We sold 4 for a tidy sum early in the year and have only 4 young ones left now, one boy which we plan to eat and 3 does to grow on to enlarge the herd. It was clear that the weaning paddock was unhealthy (the babies kept scouring) so we moved them out of it after 3 weeks and got them into the smallest paddock up the hill and moved the mums too so they were separated by two fences. They all seem to have settled down. There has been a bit of sickness in the main herd too but we seem at last to have got on top of it and they all look in fine fettle now. When we’ve had problems it seems to have struck overnight – one day a goat is healthy and eating, the next it’s either very sick (scouring badly, lagging behind and not eating) or dead. Despite closely re-reading all the goatie health stuff I can find, I still can’t be sure what has been happening. I’m monitoring them very closely and any goat that looks even mildly off-colour is instantly treated for worms and given a large dose of my ‘kill or cure’ goat remedy: a mixture of molasses, olive oil, bicarbonate of soda, rehydration sachets, vitamins and concentrated garlic. It seems to work – providing I get to them quickly enough. The only answer is to get the new paddock finished and to keep them well supplied in the meantime with hay and browse, in addition to their grain and chaff rations. Today we struck lucky, finding that the Council had cut down a load of wattle branches on our road, prior to bringing the grader up. We asked the Council and then collected the lot – 4 huge ute loads. The goats aren’t terribly impressed as wattle isn’t their favourite, but I’ve no doubt it will disappear over the next few days.

The weather hasn’t helped things much recently, being either terribly hot and muggy (great for parasites) or pouring with rain (again great for parasites). Nevertheless it was gradually drying off locally, so we thought it important to completely tidy up around the house and beyond, to minimise our bushfire risk. Bronte has been slashing madly and I’ve been hand-mowing all the awkward bits around the house. Hauling the mower up and down the steep slopes was awfully hard work and just about finished me off. It didn’t help that the grass had got to nearly 2ft in places, having grown so quickly. Plus I was mowing in 30degC and 80% humidity. However, it’s about done now and does look very neat.

I’ve done a heap of brush-cutting too, partly on my new paddock fence-line, which is almost totally cleared now (helped by Bronte & the boys chain-sawing and moving a big fallen tree) and also on and around the veggie patch and some of the slopes which were just too steep for a mower. The veggie patch and its banks were so dreadfully overgrown that brush-cutting was the only option. No doubt the debris will make great mulch to improve the soil for when we finally finish building the veggie cage and plant something!

I’ve finally cracked sausage-making! The goose sausages referred to earlier were pretty awful as expected and were mostly fed to the birds. However, I closely followed a recipe another day from the book which came with the mincer and sausage-filler and – amazingly – the results were absolutely delicious. Just the right texture, moistness and flavour! Can’t wait to try some more now.

Sausage-making with Tracy
Have also tried my hand at making liquid soap, ie handwash, with mixed results. Several of the bars from the last soap batch turned out a bit peculiar, so I decided to have a go at turning them into handwash, having consulted several techniques listed on the internet. We grated ours in the food-processor, then added water at a rate of 4 x the weight of soap, brought it to the boil and simmered for 15 minutes stirring occasionally, then let it cool overnight. It was quite bizarre, like a really thick jelly. I consulted more recipes, added more water, boiled it again, added some salt and loads of rosemary and lavender essence and now it’s sort of usable. Having decanted it into various plunger and squeegie bottles, some seem to be better than others for some reason – for instance some are much too watery. I added more salt to one and shook it vigorously and that seems to have helped. Must do the same with the others. But it does wash ones’ hands quite well and smells lovely! Trouble is it’s a rather gruesome cat-sick colour.

 Kristina and Luke helped me clean all the windows in the entire house, inside and out a couple of days ago. I thought it would be a quick job, but it was a nightmare. For one thing we have an awful lot of windows, for another many are a long way off the ground! I removed all the fly-screens first and then brought the ladder indoors in order to clean the inside of the skylight in the dining room. That was quite terrifying in itself. Then I had to climb up onto the roof and clean the outside of the skylight windows. That was actually considerably less frightening! But then came cleaning the outside of the upstairs windows all around the house. The plan was for me to go up the ladder and scrub them with detergent and for Luke to hose them down afterwards. I’d been told by a window cleaner that this does a perfectly good job. The hitch was that the ladder was awkward and didn’t always reach and also that Luke didn’t believe that hosing was an important job and spent most of his time aiming at the dogs, me and Kristina or jetting the water into the ground. I gave up on some of the highest windows and scrubbed them with the mop from the inside – that was hard work in itself and somewhat precarious. We also had to wipe down all the flyscreens which were dusty and cobwebbed and then re-fit them all. I was quite exhausted at the end – but even though they are not perfect, wow, what a difference it has made!

Murphy Cat and Rosie Dog have been having good fun together recently. When it gets cooler in the evening, Murphy goes out and taunts Rosie from the long grass with his ears flat and eyes like saucers. Rosie comes crawling up excitedly and gets repeatedly whacked until she goes nuts and starts running round and round in circles whereupon Murphy leaps upon her each time she passes. It’s a scream to watch. Trouble is Rosie gets just a bit too rough for Murphy sometimes and I have to step in and rescue him.

We had a bit of bad news a while ago. I rang up the agent to find out the latest news on the land we tried to buy alongside us over Christmas. It seems that far from going to an overseas buyer (as we thought) it now belongs to the daughter and son-in-law of my arch nemesis: Peter Pepper, ex? Forestry Tasmania and now sadly, on the Huon Valley Council. It is he who sent out e-mails with lies and exaggerations about me, terming me a political activist and saying I was in league with extremists. There is no other person that I loathe with such a passion (even the Horrible Hogman)! I still feel bitter about it and get a pang each time I drive past the ‘sold’ signs. We are hoping that the daughter might be a different type of person but I daresay she has been fully briefed (with prejudice) about us, by her father.