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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 …