January 2008

UPDATE: This is the most popular post on this site, from a google-search point of view. Stay with it. The answer you’re looking for is at the end. (I should also add, now I’m familiar with the tool, it’s a fantastic piece of kit.)

In “Farm and Smallholder Fencing”, Michael Roberts raves about the Gripple. His Gripple section begins: “If you have not come across this system before then you don’t know what you’re missing!”

I hadn’t. And I didn’t.

But when I went in to buy my Fencing Stuff for the Orchard/Chicken Run a few weeks ago, I insisted on buying a Gripple. The shop assistant (clearly missing something – probably the humility to say: “What the hell’s that?”) said I didn’t need one. I confidently overruled him, despite the unexpectedly large (from memory) 85-euro price tag.

Having decided the lowest of the three (to be) tensioned wires on the orchard/chicken run fence was the least important, I grabbed my Gripple and began my mistakes there.

Immediately, I found it to be quite counter-intuitive. Not just because it looks open when it is closed…

And closed when it’s open…

But the little Thingies…

Seem to work best when apparently upside-down. With the Gripple also, apparently, upside-down. Maybe I’m using it wrong, but it works for me. Now.

One thing I struggled with initially, was how to put the wire you want to tension in the cleat. I watched the DVD last night, but all it shows is a guy with forearms the size of thighs joining wire he could obviously do by hand.

I just referred to the book, looking for a phrase along the lines of: “As with all tools, there’s a knack to using it” without giving the knack. (I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, but clearly about another tool.)

Instead, I found the following indispensable piece of advice: “Open the tensioning tool as wide as possible and you will see that the wire gripper or cleat opens as well.”


Books, eh?

After yesterday’s sudden death, I thought you might want a nice, easy blog with lots of pictures. I know I do.

First, here’s a shot of the lintel I made earlier, with new pigs rooting around in the background, and an idea of what two pigs do to a 40 x 10 metre (yard) stretch of grass if left alone for eight days:

Next, here’s the tools on the wall shot I promised “dave” in a comments section a while back:

Which leads me nicely onto my favourite tools – a section that’s nowhere near as boring as it could be.

In first place, a late 19th Century boxwood ruler made by John Rabone & Sons, which came from a treasure chest of tools last used by my Great Uncle, a shipwright. They really don’t make them like this any more:

Which is a shame:

But you can still pick them up on ebay:

In joint first place, a hammer my mind calls “Lumpy” whenever I reach for it. Which I do ahead of my shiny new claw hammer:

And second joint first equal, a cordless screwdriver my dad gave me when he came a few weeks ago:

Having used some of the ancient equipment now nailed to the wall, it was a joy to drill a hole with this baby. And thanks to solar panels, I’ll be able to use it as long as the battery lasts. Which is already way longer than the Bosch cordless screwdriver I bought a few years ago.

Tune in again tomorrow, when you will see me grapple with a Gripple. I’m serious.

Yesterday, one of our pigs was off his food. Being the bigger of the two (and the one I would definitely call a greedy pig, who wolfs [?] down everything you put in front of him – except spinach), this was a bit of a worry.

On close inspection, Clare discovered quite a serious lice infestation. Which explained some discomfort, but not the shaking. Not to worry too much. He drank some water. He pooed. We left him to sleep it off.

This morning, Clare took some warm milk and bread to cheer him up and the pig was dead. We knew we were going to have to face this kind of thing sooner or later. Turned out to be very soon.

I phoned the people we bought him from to see if there was an infection of some kind and Marlene said all their pigs were OK. On what to do next, her advice tallied with the vet’s: We should dig a deep hole and bury him. (If you’re from the UK, you’ll know that one dead animal can mean half the country being quarantined or a generation of animals being needlessly culled, but as I must have said elsewhere things are different over here.)

Now, I don’t know if the mafia have ever made you dig your own grave and then let you off with a warning, but digging a deep hole is bloody hard work. Even when you’ve got a pretty big hole to start with. It’s only just less hard to fill it in again.

But what could have been a very dark day was lightened by Marlene and Gary’s kind offer to replace the pig. They didn’t need to do this. Chances are, the pig had some kind of congenital heart or lung problem and it was just one of those things. They’ve only lost two pigs in two and a half years and never quite like this. For some reason the pig decided to go to the great sty in the sky.

However, because taking one pig (a brother to the pig/s we have/had) would have left their sister all alone, I went to Campagne this afternoon and picked up two little pigs.

The little family has been reunited to squeals of happiness all round and the two new (to us) pigs are rooting around in probably the first grass they’ve seen on the inside of an electric fence.

Here’s a picture of the pig in happier days:

I’ll leave you with a business idea I had a few years ago that I never developed. It was to be a company offering an alternative burial service for people who thought black was a bit too 20th Century. I can’t remember the name, but the strapline was: “We put the fun back into funerals.”

If you want to do something with it, it’s yours.

If you’ve seen the currents projects sidebar in the last few days, you’ll know that attention has at last returned to the orchard/chicken run. (The one that should have been finished in November.)

So far, we have a square trench, about 20 metres on all sides, surrounding several two-metre-high posts. The corner posts have leaners to stop them falling over when the wire goes up (I hope – I really hope). And two posts are set just over a metre apart, to form a door.

To finish, all we need to do is add a lintel to the door posts. Tidy up the trench. Fix tensioned wire all the way round at the top, middle and bottom. Hang one curtain of chicken wire from the top wire. Hang a second curtain of chicken wire from just above the ground, feed it into the trench about a foot down and a foot across to frustrate foxes. Fill in the trench. Buy and plant the trees. Build a chicken house. Collect the chickens that are currently in their eggs. Ah – and make a door, without which the whole the would be pretty pointless.

You have no idea how much mental energy I’ve expended on Designing a Lintel. You’re not alone in this. It is, literally, unmeasured.

But today, I strode into the workshop resolved to solve the problem once and for all time. I paused – a short pause – to look at a piece of oak recovered from the woods that was part of an earlier lintel plan, then went to an old door leaning against the wall. This, I was about to smash into very useful, if unattractive, pieces.

I looked closely at the door.

I went back to the oak post.

It was still heavy.

Even cut to the right length.

Too heavy for those door posts.

But like a man who has decided to cut a six-foot piece of oak in half, the long way, because it is The Right Thing to Do, I picked up my (nearly new) saw and went to work.

There are two things I can tell you about long-but-satisfying task of cutting a big chunk of oak, lengthways, by hand:
Thing 1) It takes a long time.
Thing 2) It is very satisfying.

It started in 1990.

I thought it had something to do with my manful move from lager to bitter. But it might have been because I hadn’t done any serious exercise for five years. Or any other kind of exercise either.

The move from 30 to 32 was natural. Maybe even inevitable. At size 34, I thought I had achieved a comfortable maximum – an impression left behind, along with most of my wardrobe, by the maniacally depressing jump to 36. Years more of commuting, desk flying and very good food had me, even more unhappily, holding a pair of 38s.

More than once have I run into someone I used to know who said: “Blimey. You’ve let yourself go a bit.” It looked like the rest of my life would be one of managing my stomach’s suburban sprawl.

After a few short months of working “on the land”, I am happy to report that my jeans are hanging off me and I desperately need a new belt. Today, I’m even wearing a shirt and T-Shirt combination my mother-in-law gave me a few years ago that I just couldn’t throw out.

Size medium.

This physical devolution (which also seems to be appreciated by her outdoors) could be the result of all that post bashing, pig-ark lifting and shit shovelling I’ve been doing recently. But I haven’t had a pint of beer since August.

It’s very easy to say: “Pig ark? We could build it out of pallets.” I know this because I’ve heard it said. And testing my theory of ‘Clare is invariably right in the end so why not just skip to the bit where I agree with her?’ I agreed.

I could tell you about removing ring nails without breaking the precious pallet wood. Or without bending the nails, so you can re-use them immediately. Or about painting wood treatment on marine-ply floor by candle-light because the pigs are arriving the next day. Or about hitting your thumb with a hammer – hard – twice – and still walking home at dusk feeling like you’re having one of the most fantastic days of your life.

But I won’t.

Because that would deprive you of the joys of finding these things out for yourself. Or not. (Whichever comes sooner.) So I’ll just show you the finished product and tell you that I am more tired than I have been for a very long time.

And stronger. And younger looking.

Ark One is made almost entirely from Found Things. I did buy 8mm marine ply for the floor, anti-water and anti-pest treatment, and some nuts and bolts, because this ark is made to break down into its component parts. For cleaning, and transporting into the woods. (More on that in a few months.)

Here’s the front, with chicken mesh holding in the straw stuffing:

Here’s the back, with our new residents rooting around:

And here’s a beautiful thing Clare made to keep our horse shit happy:

Talking of Pepito, the vet saw him the other day and told Clare we should build a shelter for the winter because he’s getting on a bit.

“Field shelter?” she said. “We could build it out of cordwood.”

1. And the Angle of Self Sufficiency did say: “Thou shalt build an ark.”

2. “Is it going to rain?” asked Alex.

3. “Not that sort of ark, thou muppet,” replied the Angle. “‘Tis for thy pigs, that they shall be kept warm in all weathers.”

4. The next question was obvious. “With what am I supposed to build this pigging ark?”

5. “Those pallets you got from the dump should do nicely,” said the Angle. “Though you’ll have to cart them up to the workshop single-handed. And without a cart.”

6. Having read from the good book, “A Guide to Tradition Pig Keeping” by Carol Harris, Alex agreed. And on the 15th day of the first month, just after breakfast, he did build himself a workbench to facilitate the process.

7. “There’s a floor in this plan,” Alex observed.

8. “Verily,” said the Angle. “And after you’ve made it, you can break for coffee. Then leanest thou the wall that will face the prevailing wind and a third pallet that shall be one side, and takest thou a photo, and bloggest thou thy labour.”

I’ve known many Steves in my time. To be fair, almost all of them musicians.

(Twenty years ago today, I could have put a jaw-droppingly good band together, using nothing but Steves. But then I wouldn’t have been in it.)

I don’t know if my new friend, Steve, plays anything. I do know he’s a Michelin-star chef. And he knows exactly what to do with a chainsaw.

SAFETY WARNING BY WAY OF A(N APPARENTLY TRUE) STORY: This guy asked this other guy for a quote to cut down this tree. He was quoted, say, €200. “Bloody hell,” this guy says. “You can buy a chainsaw for that!” A short time later, this article appeared in the local newspaper. This guy had died. Severed an artery in his leg. With a (presumably €200) chainsaw.

Not in this lifetime do I want to find myself floating away from my body thinking: “Well that was stupid.” Which is how I found myself spending a very wet afternoon with Steve last week, learning how to live with yet another seriously dangerous piece of farm machinery.

The rules of chainsaw use are fairly simple:
o Wear chainsaw trousers.
o And steel toe-capped boots.
o And a helmet.
o And gloves.
o Stop when you’re tired.
o And never use a chainsaw when you’re alone.

Steve told me that last one as he dropped me off at the end of the day. I thought he was kidding. After all, I now know how to use a chainsaw. But he added: “Someone needs to be able to use a phone.”

By way of a thank you for saving me from possible injury or death (especially as I’m uninsured), here’s a link to Steve’s website. He’s running gourmet cookery courses this summer from nearby Beaumont’s Moulin de la Ville. Very exclusive. So don’t tell anyone.

I can’t help feeling that everything is more urgent than everything else.

The fruit trees should have been planted in November. I still have three corner posts that need leaners. An 80-metre trench that needs moving a few inches closer to the fencing line. Plain wire and chicken wire to put up. And a door and lintel to make.

Not in that order. That would be ridiculous.

Then there’s a polytunnel to buy and erect. A source to find (might start looking at the bottom of Pepito’s field, near the waterfall). Woods to clear. Grass to mow. Fires to burn. Buildings to build. A dossier to write. Meetings to have. And sooo much more.

So we went to Le Bugue this morning to meet Marlene. She has pigs. These pigs:

These pigs:

Entire fields of pigs:

At the moment she has 87. In a couple of weeks she’ll have 85. The other two will be turning the soil over in what will become our veggie bed. They don’t have much time. We’re going to be planting the (unbought and unsown) seedlings from our (unbought and unerect) polytunnel in April.

Which means I now have to focus on building a pig ark and fencing the veggie bed. Single-handed. (While the other hand claps urgently behind my back).



SHE: Do you want the good news or the bad news?

ME: The bad news.

SHE: I’ve stabbed myself with a screwdriver and I’ll probably be out of action for a couple of weeks.

ME: And the good news?

SHE: We need to move Pepito immediately. The lower half of his field is flooded. Actually, it’s more like a river.

ME: (GLAD I DIDN’T ASK FOR THE GOOD NEWS FIRST) Lunch is ready in ten minutes.

After looking up some new vocab (thumb muscle, screwdriver, stab, tetanus), and a relatively quick trip to “Urgences” in Bergerac, the river in Pepito’s field has subsided and slowed and we are both looking forward to different types of single-handed work over the next couple of weeks.

Starting with… more fencing.

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