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Wednesday 18 June 2014



It may be winter but it’s a beautiful time of year. There have been crisp, frosty mornings when the mist weaves around the hills and lays in the valleys looking all the world like whipped egg white. The low sun and autumn colours touch everything with gold on the drive into work in the mornings. The great broad skies lit by the sunrise as I drive to work, make a wild, multi-coloured backdrop to the stark tree silhouettes. At every turning I see a new picture that I wish I could photograph or paint. I’ve become hooked on the different tree shapes – some stark, almost Japanese in their simplicity, others gracefully weeping, others coppiced when young so the thick branches rise up like tulip petals. As usual however, there has been little time to ‘stand and stare’.

The last several weeks have been more busy than usual. Work has gone crazy, such that I’ve needed to work evenings and weekends to meet deadlines. Between work crises, I’ve endured several ute problems – mostly owing to my own stupidity; killed and butchered Henry the sheep; sold the guinea keets; pulled up metal stakes in Sandy Bay in the dark and helped concrete Bronte’s greenhouse and carport foundations.

We were digging the trenches for Bronte’s foundations at the end of the last post. That same Easter week Bronte put in shuttering along the trenches at the lowest points and the concrete was delivered. There followed a mad hour of concreting, with Bronte shovelling and directing the chute and me desperately trying to level the concrete with a large piece of wood and a trowel. Bronte thought I was doing a good job, but once the shuttering was removed, the concrete surface looked like a sea in a strong swell. We shot the last of the concrete into the trailer, hauled it down to Peppa’s pen and shovelled it just inside the gate to make an extra stretch of hard-standing. Of course, it’s just moved the start of the mud to further into the pen itself. I need stepping stones through the mud to firmer ground. I’m sure the piglets would also be appreciative.

Bronte was downcast following the concreting because the temperature stayed under 10degC for several days. In the end he decided to accept the ruling of a US website that said that the longer concrete took to cure, the harder it would get. The greenhouse has still not risen from the ground, although Bronte has purchased windows and doors off Gumtree and from the Tip Shop respectively.

I lost a couple of guinea fowl keets – despite them being eight weeks old - and it took me a while to figure out the problem. Because it was late in the season the days were short and I believe they had insufficient hours in which to feed. Also it had turned very cold at nights. I reinstated the heat lamp overnight and hung a lamp on a timer over the cage and had no more losses. I sold all the keets in short order – four to one guy. Wish I’d had more as he told me he knew of others who wanted to get into guinea fowls. The little keet – the only survivor from the third batch – pined away once his older neighbours were sold. Not surprising but rather sad. I’d given him a fluffy raccoon to help keep him company but it was not the same as having friends of his own kind.

I had a big sort-out with the chickens. Luke helped me catch all the old layer hens and the five pullets in the peacock cage. I culled the old hens (apart from Super Hen who has laid me a lovely large egg every day even through the winter) and assigned the pullets between the two roosters. Since then the pullets have begun laying - after enduring a several week egg shortage, we are now awash. Bronte’s chuffed that he can once again have fried eggs on toast. The rest of the young hens and roosters in the turkey pen were also caught and are now in the freezer. We even ate the old hens but they were decidedly tough!

Rocky the buck has calmed down and I assume he’s done his job. If pungency were an indicator of virility then we can expect a bumper crop of goat kids come spring. His odour has noticeably reduced over the last fortnight, such that I was able to trim his hooves this week without having to wash my clothes twice afterwards. Once again the goats led me a merry dance. I caught Shiny by the horns and she ducked under my legs and drove me around the slippery yard – I just couldn’t get my footing. At last I grabbed the fence and clung on. When I caught her again I was furious and dragged her to the clipping post with Jenny-super-strength. The only consolations were Dusty lovingly huffing in my ear and the satisfaction of getting all their overgrown hooves sorted.

Goats eating tomato plants

The tap bringing water from the creek shot off one cold morning

My rotten attempt to strap tap safely back onto pipe

Huge fire Luke and I made in the goat paddock

Nothing left afterwards but mulch

Gravel collected near goats to make route through wet area

Foundations for gravel

The pigs finally gave birth a fortnight ago. Peppa went first as expected, but to my disappointment only had four piglets – three pink, one black. I was expecting seven or eight. She seemed very mopey leading into the birth and for a couple of days thereafter. She hardly touched her food for a week. Worried, I mixed up a bucket of milk, eggs, peanut oil, minerals, worm medicine, pureed apples and sugar. She slurped that down happily and seemed very much herself again the following day – may just have been coincidence of course. I gave her a similar mix (without the medicine) the following day. Blaize only had five piglets, whereas she brought up eleven at the last farrowing. Unlike Peppa she was feeding straightaway afterwards, but only picked at her food for a few days. I gave her a similar milk mix and she quickly improved.

Newborn piglets

A week later - trying to steal Mum's food

Blaize’s piglets are more lively and curious than Peppa’s. They are awful time-wasters. When I feed Blaize, I watch them snorting and tumbling across each other’s backs and nibbling at ears and tails. They point their twitchy snouts at me with interest but run off oinking at the least threat. Bronte says they are like piglet ‘trains’ when they run in single file. Last week, when I fed Peppa, I’d seen no sign of the piglets and approached her hut with great trepidation. I half expected to find corpses. Instead there were four little fat sleeping sausages, lined up alongside one another, grunting in their dreams.

Just prior to farrowing

One of Blaize's new-borns

A week later

I haven’t really made an effort to look into why we had such low birth numbers. It may be that Stan was shooting some blanks, or the sows were carrying worm burdens or perhaps they lacked something in their diet. I ought really to do some research in order to avoid disappointment in the future. I have to make a decision soon - whether to sell or eat the piglets when young weaners (eg three months’ old) or keep them for six months before selling or butchering. I expect them to grow quickly and reach a good size given Stan’s enormous bulk. However, if I let them grow on I have the problems of housing and feeding them. It would probably mean making a new, larger pen and shelter. However, I may then be able to sell them to the local abattoir which is apparently often looking for good free-range porkers.

To my relief the last two young turkeys appear to be female. So we are back to default numbers of three females and Clive the gobbler. The girls have regularly been getting over their high fence and stalk miserably back and forth on the outside trying to get back to Clive. On feeding days, they visit me in the garage, chuntering and clucking with necks outstretched. Having worked out how to get out, one would think they could figure out how to get back in. Similarly, sometimes an errant hen gets out of its pen and takes several days to find its way back inside. The ducks however, fly in and out at will. I’ve finally stymied the turkeys by affixing a fence on top of the gateway where they were roosting and clipping one wing on each. Clive the Attacker is too heavy to fly out. Somehow, when we were catching the hens, Clive ended up in the peacock run and I had the fun of catching him. I managed to grab him by the legs and lug him back to his own area. I reckon he’s 15kg. He’s eyed me most warily since then.

Clive on the loose

Eyeing Luke

New fence

As mentioned, I’ve consigned poor Henry the sheep to the freezer. I was awfully worried beforehand, but despite Bronte’s campaign to ‘save Henry’ I was determined to be practical. I rigged up the block and tackle (the new one I got for Christmas) in the back of the goat float, hitched it to the Suzuki, and drove into the paddock alongside the goat yard. Once the goats were safely shut in the yard I was able to place Henry’s food at the back of the float and despatch him there out of sight of the goats. Immediately I attached the back legs to the hook on the block and tackle and hauled him up. I left him there whilst I clipped a number of goats’ hooves and then drove back down to the tractor shed. I managed to transfer the block and tackle onto a big girder in the shed and left the body hanging there overnight. It was ideal weather, cold and dry. The following day I carefully removed the fleece in one piece. It was quite a task given its sheer weight. I dropped it into a wheelbarrow to deal with later and gutted the carcass into another wheelbarrow. Delving about in this mess to find the good bits to cook for the dogs was not pleasant. 

Goat float with block & tackle
After skinning, before gutting

I left the carcass hanging for two days in the cold weather – much against my better judgement. However, all the reading I’ve done suggests that hanging is important and that it needn’t be at fridge temperatures. It remains to be seen I guess! Luckily it was a long weekend (for some reason we have a public holiday here for the Queen’s birthday) and I was able to do the butchering on the Monday. That was a surprisingly easy task, particularly since I’d learned that a wood-saw was adequate for cutting through ribs and other bones. I skinned the lower legs and gave them to the dogs who slunk off in different directions to secrete them. I was left with spine and lots of trimmed fat, most of which I dropped into the pig pot to flavour the next batch of cooked spuds. A large chunk of fat went into the birds’ cooked food to keep them warm in this cold weather.

There was approximately three kilograms of left-over meat which I’ve since minced for the freezer. Besides this, there are four rib roasts (not too much meat on these) and four leg roasts. I’m ambivalent about cooking any of it in case it turns out to be awful!

The fleece is now in the garage where I’m working on turning it into a sheepskin. A large board placed over the brooder pens has made a great work bench. Firstly I stripped off the biggest chunks of fat and meat that clung to the hide, and covered it with a thick layer of coarse salt. Yesterday I brushed off the salt and begun to peel off the thin layers of subcutaneous fat and meat. This has turned into a major task. I’m only about three-quarters of the way through after two hours. It’s difficult to know when you’ve got down to the final ‘leather’ layer.

Salt with Luke design

After a certain amount of research I’ve embarked on making my own tanning cure. At present the ashes from the wood-heater are in a rubbish bin with a bucket of water. When drained, this should result in a weak solution of lye – potassium hydroxide (KOH). When this liquid is heated with sawdust I should achieve a weak solution of oxalic acid. Not much of this is needed to cure a fleece (apparently). Other tanning products include brains (yuk), egg yolks, tannin (obviously), alum and borax. Since the last two are alkaline and I’m working with oxalic acid, I’ll stick to low pH products. 

Swallowing my revulsion I retrieved Henry’s head from where I’d dumped it with the waste guts, but whether I’ll be able to extract the brains I’m not sure …  I can certainly supply some egg yolks. Commercially available tanning products use chrome, an extremely toxic heavy metal which I don’t want to use. Plus, I’m trying to do this cheaply. At least I’ve not scooped up dog poo, which was used to tan hides in Mediaeval times (tanners often stamping the hides into a mix of poo and urine with bare feet). There is a point at which I draw the line! I thought I might look into extracting tannin from wattle bark however, since we certainly aren’t short of wattles.

Other than animal stuff I’ve also continued to paint the outside of the house at odd moments and have finished another window and the outside laundry door and frame. However, it’s really been too cold to do much even if I could find the time.

Luke was finally persuaded that his tomato plants were finished for the season. I cut them off at ground level, picked off all the biggest tomatoes and fed everything else to the goats. The goats were most suspicious at first, but finally chomped everything up. Amazingly, even after feeding both pigs and birds with tomatoes we still had 8kg to turn into sauce. After looking up promising recipes on the net, I made half and half hot chutney and slightly milder relish. The green tomato sauce I made earlier seems to have matured and is really great with meats of various types. I add it to stews and sauces and I reckon you could even eat it on toast.

Also on the home-made produce front, I finally got around to straining and bottling the blackberry liqueur. It’s fantastic! Everyone who’s tried it (except Bronte) has waxed lyrical about it. I took a big bottle to a neighbours’ fireworks party, noticing that the bottle soon emptied – and gave some to another neighbour. Unfortunately, it’s not something I can sell! I have a snifter now and again in the evenings. The fireworks party was great fun – here in Aus, you’re only allowed to buy fireworks for use on one night (cracker night) between 6 and 10pm. Apparently, it’s ‘Empire Day’, whatever that is. Unfortunately we weren’t really dressed for the freezing evening and retired from the fray after only two hours. I’d like to have a hillbilly party here to celebrate our 10-years-in-Tassie-anniversary coming up in July. I’ve been inspired by ‘Justified’ to which I’ve become quite hooked!

The rotten ratty rats began coming into the garage as soon as it turned cold and nibbled off a large quantity of Bronte’s little trees. They don’t eat the trees, just use the tiny bits of vegetation as bedding material. They were even in his apple crates outside. I was alerted by the dogs whining and wagging beneath the crate for much of the day. I managed to catch the one in there – felt sorry really as they are engaging little critters with their long whiskers and fluffy tummies. So much for my new 'multi-rat catcher' that I bought off the net. It looked so promising. However, I find the bait gone and poos on the inside, but no rat! Maybe we have super-rats.

Luke and I had a great sorting session in the garage, moving all my stuff into one corner and sweeping the floors. Moving the brooder cages was a massive effort. I had to enlist Bronte’s help, he with the heavy crowbar, me with a long plank. We created enough space for another rat-proof table for his young trees, using garbage bins as supports for a big table-top that Bronte and Luke had salvaged locally. 

I recently made two big firewood forays. On one occasion I took Bronte’s medium chainsaw (I’d never used it before – it was great compared to the little one I’m normally only allowed to use, which stalls regularly and saws crookedly) and tackled a big pile of logs and old wooden bridge supports which lay on our new land down by the creek. I managed to haul home a huge ute load and we all worked together to split it over the following days. Luke likes to split wood now – he’s remarkably strong and persistent for his age. He gets on better with the axe, which leaves the splitter free for Bronte or me.

On another day Luke helped me forage for pine wood and cones beneath an old untidy radiata also on our new land. We brought enough logs back to keep the pig brews going for the past few weeks and the bags of pine cones make terrific kindling.

One Tuesday evening, coming home late and tired from work, I pulled up at the Grove Shop in the dark and filled my diesel ute with unleaded petrol. When I asked to pay for diesel they informed me that I hadn’t actually bought diesel. Luckily Bronte and Luke were on their way back from childcare and came to see me in the shop. Bronte steered the ute out of the way and took me home (he was a bit cross). I rang my breakdown assistance service (for which I thanked my prescience) and after much deliberation got the ute towed back home. No garage was open that late and I couldn’t face helping Bronte to drain the tank in situ during the evening. It would be a night when I’d agreed to make cakes for a morning tea the following day and when I had to get hay to the goats.

Bronte had to leave late the next morning to take Luke to the bus and me to work. He also had to hang around in the evening to bring me home and work the hours back he’d missed. On the Thursday I fed the animals and tried to figure out how to drain the tank. I decided to jack the vehicle up on blocks in order to have more space to work underneath and room for one large container to catch the fuel. Once I unearthed the jack, it took considerably more time than I was expecting to get the car on blocks. Then when I wriggled underneath (in the mud) I couldn’t find a drain plug. I lay there wracking my brains. I couldn’t find any mention of a drain plug in the log book and couldn’t reach Bronte at work. Eventually I called a Holden dealer in Hobart who reluctantly took my call and informed me that my car’s tank didn’t have a drain plug! Aaargh.

So I had to change tack and figure out how to siphon out the petrol. Luckily there was a spare length of hose in the garage. After pouring some petrol through it to clean out any spiders and dust, I tried to push it into the tank via the filler pipe. What a job that turned out to be. When I investigated, the pipe was kinked, reducing the inside diameter. Eventually I trimmed the hose into a point and bit it to make it flat. With a great deal of effort I pushed it through. I ran the hose under the car and down the slope alongside the tractor shed and balanced there precariously in the wet grass with my various containers. I was terrified of sucking and getting a lungful of petrol. To begin with I could only get short slugs of liquid. When I straightened the hose, it eventually worked and siphoned out all 65 litres. We’d bought 20l of diesel on our way home from work the previous day so I was able to refill with that. After slowly lowering the car off the blocks, I was just able to get to Huonville to pick Luke up from soccer on time. Bronte’s since been using the siphoned petrol in his car.

The next minor ute crisis was finding that one of the tail-lights wasn’t working. I ignored it for a couple of weeks, then tried replacing the bulb. This made no difference. It couldn’t be a fuse because that was for both tail-lights. Bronte wielded his voltmeter and reckoned the problem was way back in the cable run. I sighed and gave up and took it to a guy on the outskirts of Huonville who specialises in electrical repairs. I set off to trudge the 2km into Huonville, not looking forward to the walk back to pick it up! After about 15 mins my own car passed me, turned around and pulled up alongside. It seemed the fault was just a fuse in the box under the bonnet – stupid me, not to think of that. That particular fuse box applies to left and right lights, rather than back and front. Anyhow it only cost me $20 and he threw in a couple of extra fuses. He reckoned a problem with the goat float electrics had blown the fuse.

The little Suzuki has some very idiosyncratic electrics. When I operate the foot brake, the clock re-sets to 1:00 and the full beam light comes on the dashboard. Luke and I reckon it’s like a time machine in the Suzuki – where it’s always one o’clock. When I take my foot off the brake, the handbrake light comes on and stays on. The radio can only get Triple J and then only intermittently. The radio doesn't turn off with the ignition so if you forget to turn it off, it drains the battery. Apart from these oddities, all the other electrics work pretty well!

I spotted a bargain in the ‘flea-market’ in the paper recently. 130 long steel fencing posts were advertised for $4 each. Unfortunately the paper had come out on a Monday and I hadn't spotted it until Friday. Remarkably they were still available and when me and Luke arrived as it was getting dark at 5pm, the seller let us have them for $3 each. He kindly also gave us a load of light split wooden posts (like fence palings) and allowed me to come back another evening (in pitch dark in my work clothes) and pull up another 15 or so (for free) with my post puller-upper (or whatever it’s called).

He was an Italian guy who’d been in Aus for donkeys’ years running a commercial catering company and still had an incredibly broad Italian accent. Coincidentally Bronte had met him some years ago when discussing stormwater issues with the local residents as part of his Council role. The posts were used in Giovanni’s tiny steep vineyard that he'd nurtured on a vacant block alongside his house with a sweeping view of the Hobart harbour. I told him about living in Bedford which has a large Italian population from south of Naples. They used to club together to get boatloads of grapes delivered from Italy and then make wine in massive wooden presses in their back gardens.

Young Lukie has started playing soccer again and is chuffed having scored two goals last Saturday. His team started this season in the same vein as last year, by losing each match by double figures. However, after some initial ‘grading’ matches, Huon Valley was thankfully demoted to Division 4 and the team actually drew last week (5,5). We’ve been watching the World Cup with great interest. We are supporting the Socceroos and England (both of which lost their first matches). I have Portugal in the sweep at work, which lost its first match 4,0!. Bronte and Luke have converted the dining table for table tennis use. I guess it’s a good thing really as it’s a constructive game Luke can play inside on cold wet days. 

Early morning soccer in the fog

Rainbow over soccer pitch

Luke mowed a dribbling course with the ride-on!

Murphy watching table-tennis

Luke has also started playing guitar at our instigation. Bronte has long felt he has unfulfilled musical potential un-awakened by his parents - and didn’t want Luke to suffer the same fate. So we’ve engaged Brad, who sounds like a Cygnet hippy, but I am perhaps misjudging him. He’s certainly motivated Luke. Bronte has taken the opportunity to also buy himself a guitar and I’m suffering endlessly repeated badly rendered renditions of Smoke on the Water, the Simpsons theme tune and the first bars of Mission Impossible.

Luke’s taken up the ‘Premier’s Reading Challenge’ which is to read 10 books between early June and mid-August. It’s a laugh really, because he reads virtually a book a day. I have to sign against each book title on a special form. At the top, it asks the child to write down the number of books they plan to read in the period. Luke’s written ‘50’ and I have no doubt he’ll achieve that target. I recently bought him the diaries of Adrian Mole from a garage sale. He read them with great glee, chortling at the bits where Adrian measures his ‘thingy’.

Hobart has been taken over by Dark Mofo for most of the month of June, spreading its dark red tentacles into every corner, even the Huon Valley. Dark Mofo is the brainchild of David Walsh, founder and funder of Hobart’s amazingly avant garde MONA museum, an esoteric mix of exquisite old pieces and shockingly original new items. On Saturday, I attended a rally to save Tasmania’s World Heritage forests. Afterwards I met up with Luke and Bronte and after some frustrating but essential shopping in Hobart (where we had to fight our way through a screaming crowd of fans of Justice Crew who had set up an impromptu gig in the middle of Elizabeth Street Mall), we visited a Dark Mofo exhibit in the old Town Hall gaols.

We were fascinated to see the gaols but disappointed that there was no information re the history. Instead they were just the dark backdrop to an exhibit of prisms lit by projected light – interesting, but didn’t hold one’s attention for long. Afterwards, as dusk fell, we watched the testing of 18 enormous lights sending bright beams up into the clouds from the Hobart waterfront. Visitors can move levers to radiate the beams across the night sky. I did a double-take as I drove home late this evening; I could see lights moving across the underside of the grey clouds and wondered what it could be until I remembered Dark Mofo. Today the Town Hall was awash with Mofo staff preparing the great ballroom for a lavish Red Queen ball. Their attention to detail can’t be faulted. Even the fluorescent tubes in the toilet light fittings were wrapped in pink acetate to cast a luridly pinkish light on the guests.

The rally I’d attended was a last ditch chance to convince UNESCO to ignore Australia’s bonkers premier’s request to delist around 80,000 Ha of old-growth World Heritage forest, for logging. It beggars belief. He thinks climate change is ‘a load of crap,’ and having cut funding to anything related to renewable energy or research into climate change, allocated millions of dollars to chaplains in schools. He’s recently embarrassed Australia on the world stage by trying to develop a coalition of countries to oppose any international moves to reduce carbon emissions. He also referred to Canada as ‘Canadia’. What a dope.

To make matters worse, our equally short-sighted state premier is determined to reverse the Forestry Agreement that was so hard-won over four years of intense and exhausting negotiations between environmentalists and representatives of the forestry industry. The Agreement protected 400,000 Ha of state forest including the temperature rainforest above us. It seems so wrong that legislation achieved following so much sweat and tears, can be summarily overturned by the next government. So, tiredly, we’ve resurrected the West Wellington Protection Group, to do what little we can to protect our small piece of paradise.

I give Murphy a hot-water bottle on the sofa these cold mornings