Friday, 29 January 2016

Whither the weather?

Writing about the weather is one step more Scottish than our infamous tendency to talk, endlessly, about it. So I'll keep this short:

It is dry. Very, very dry.
Since 1st December 2015 we have had a total of 4mm of rain. Average rainfall over that period is 74mm, so we are 95% down.

It is too warm, for January.
Here at the Croft - we are 300m above sea level - we have barely had frost all winter; just a handful of sub-zero nights. In normal winters we get many frozen nights and a few pipe-bursters that drop below -8ºC.

As a consequence we have mosquitoes active in January (the frost would normally kill most of them off), and bees that are awake and about but can't find nectar.

And now there are concerns over forest fires - something we worry about in July, but not (normally) in January. Here is the February rain forecast from the European Forest Fire Information System: the beige areas mean lower than average rainfall is forecast, and thus higher than average fire risk.

You still not sure about global climate change? Really?

Monday, 12 October 2015

Breast is best

We have had a couple of cases of mastitis recently, and so have had to bottle feed two or three lambs. In some cases this is complete substitution (the mother had no milk) and in others it has been an addition to their diet.

I compared the live weight of lambs with the meat weight - i.e. the carcass processed by the butcher. The carcass includes just the bone and muscle structure, not the internal organs, skin or contents of the body cavity.

Here is the result:


Date Live Weight at Slaughter (kg) Meat weight (kg) % Meat /Live Bottle Fed
31/10/2015 23.5 9.2 39.15% Yes
03/05/2015 21.1 9.8 46.45% Yes
31/03/2015 27 15.1 55.93% No
17/08/2015 19.2 8.8 45.83% No
17/08/2015 21 10.99 52.33% No

The ratio of meat to live weight seems - this is a very, very small sample - to be higher in the lambs that fed naturally. Naturally feeding lambs had an average 51.4% meat:live weight ratio, while bottle fed lambs had an average 42.8%.

There are some published papers on this, for example this paper on milk source and body weight [1] but none, that I know of, on Ripollesa sheep.

Time for more research, methinks!

Joaquim Casellas at the Autonomous University of Barcelona has confirmed that there are no studies of this issue in Ripollesas. He has pointed me to this useful study on goats which shows that maternal milk vs milk powder does cause differences in fatty acid composition. 

This leads me to think that one possible explanation of the differences in meat weight:live weight is that bottle fed lambs may build up more body cavity fat (which is discarded in the butchering process) than ewe-fed.

1 Hernández-Castellano, L. E., I. Moreno-Indias, A. Morales-delaNuez, D. Sánchez-Macías, A. Torres, J. Capote, A. Argüello, and N. Castro. ‘The Effect of Milk Source on Body Weight and Immune Status of Lambs’. Livestock Science 175 (May 2015): 70–76. doi:10.1016/j.livsci.2015.02.011.

Micro Mammal Murder Mystery

I just found this wee chap dead on a leaf.

Leafing life

It is an Etruscan Shrew (Suncus etruscus), the world's smallest mammal.

A mystery, Mr Holmes?
 But what happened to her? Her neck has been opened by something, but who would do that and then not eat her? She was lying on a melon- plant leaf about 60cm from ground level, so was she caught, killed and then dropped? It's a mystery...

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Tender moment

"Just nipping down to the butcher to get a bit of meat."

"Get something tender, dear. A nice but of lamb, maybe?"

Millions of households, millions of Saturday mornings. It's the butcher, or it's the supermarket, but the story is the same; a bit of meat for lunch or supper.

We said goodbye to Fat Face the lamb, yesterday, off to the butcher's too...but from the opposite direction.

It's a difficult moment, even when you have been doing it for years. You know that the lamb has had a good life, probably better than millions of other animals, with care and affection and, in the case of Fat Face, a visit to the village to be blessed by the priest on St Anthony's day this February.

You know all of that. And yet it hurts to hand him over to the butcher.

And it should hurt. Because meat production is not some distant, automated, faceless process. The meat you bought this morning in the supermarket used to walk around enjoying the fresh grass and hay. We should treasure it, not just fry it. For those like me who do not want to be vegetarian, we should remember the animal before.

Keeping sheep makes you tender.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Mummified with Mummy

In republican Catalan, the queen bee is "la mare", the mother. And when mother is missing, everything in the hive goes wrong. There are not enough workers to defend the hive and the dreaded wax moth gets in.

But when mother is home, enter at your peril:

A bit stuck up
Here is what happened to a dragon fly that entered one of my hives; it was mummified in propolis. This is the sticky compound produced by bees from tree sap, buds and other places. The defender bees - these, just in case of any doubt are all female - surrounded and attacked the dragonfly, removed its tail and coated it in gluey, sticky, propolis. Not a nice way to die, but probably a warning to anything else that might want to get in there.

When mummy is at home even dragons are mummified.

Bottling it

I adapted a recipe from my favourite bottling book*, and bottled little Catalan pears in Priorat wine:

  • 4 tall jars
  • about 1.5kg pears
  • 1kg sugar
  • 500ml wine
  • 500ml water
  • Spices (I used cloves, cinnamon and juniper)
  • Juice of one lemon

A nice pear
Pour water and wine into a large pan. Add the sugar and stir while cold until as much of the sugar as possible has dissolved. Heat gently, stirring, to ensure that the sugar fully dissolves, then boil gently with the lid off for 15 minutes. You should have a rich syrup. Cool, for about 30 minutes.

Juice the lemon into a bowl. Peel each pear, cutting out stalk and core, and dip in the lemon juice.

Pack the pears into clean, sterile jars. Pour over the syrup and shoogle the jar about a bit to get rid of bubbles. The jar should be filled to 1cm of the rim. Place tops on jars but not screwed tight.

Place jars into pan filled with water to at least two thirds of the height of the jars. I put a dishcloth in the pan to prevent the jars from banging together. Boil with the lid on the pan for 40 minutes. Open the pan lid quickly and screw down the jar lids fully. Put back the lid and leave to stand overnight while the whole lot cools down.

Label and store in a dark cupboard until you can resist them no longer...

*Lasnet de Lanty, Henriette, and Michèle Parfonry. Confits, confitures et conserves. Sens pratique. Neuilly-sur-Seine: Dargaud, 1978.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Honey, I'm waxed

My plans for a hive-full of honey have been poleaxed by the wax moth, Achroia grisella. Against the advice of my mentor, Miguel the honey man, I had kept a hive without a queen. The results - a weakened hive unable to defend itself against the moth - are dramatic:

Moth invasion

Coo-coo cocoon

I took down the hive at the weekend, scattering the few bees left there to the four winds, and incinerated the whole lot as a precaution.

Burn 'em all