The pallet pig ark has long been one of the most-read posts on this blog. It’s the first animal structure I ever made and will always be my favourite. But although I’ve shown it in place a few times, I’ve never actually demonstrated how it’s put together.

(Apologies in advance for the new, low-quality photography that will sometimes be featured in this blog – I’m now carrying an inexpensive smartphone. In the near future, you can also expect low-quality videos, but they should be worth watching if the microphone is any good. I can’t wait to record the birdsong in spring and early summer.)

Back to yesterday – as part of preparations for the 2014 glamping season, we moved the now-called pallet goose house from the orchard to its new location at the bottom of the guest field. Here it is ready to go up:

pallet house parts

I’ll walk you through the assembly and point out adjustments made since January 2008. Bearing in mind this is at least the ninth time it has been assembled, you’ll see why I’m deliriously happy with the structure. All the pieces can be moved by one person except the base and back wall. This wall is attached using two L-shaped brackets (added because the pigs kept pushing it off the base):

pallet house back

Next, a nice, light side is attached with an L-shaped bracket. You’ll notice the chicken wire holding in the straw insulation has gone. This was a terrible idea, as it broke so easily. Fortunately, I had some ply lying around and bodged these onto the uprights to make a more airtight inner layer. I didn’t bother with treating it and it seems to be fine:

pallet house side 2

Before screwing the L-shaped bracket down, the wall is fixed with long bolts through the top (we’ll come back to that piece of leaning wood in a few seconds):

pallet house top fixing

And bottom (this shot is of the second wall, to add confusion):

pallet house fixing

The front wall is then added and the leaning piece of wood at the back becomes a lintel:

pallet house lintel

Finally, the roof is lifted on from behind and screwed directly into the top of the uprights:

pallet house finished

I originally put the roof on a light wooden frame but it broke the first time it was moved. On the ground at the back of the house will be a container for catching rainwater.

All that remains now is to make a door from another pallet and we can herd the geese down the field to their new enclosure. (Could be a low-quality video opportunity there.) We haven’t kept geese behind an electric fence before, so there’s room for a bit of chaos in the days ahead. It’s basically there to keep our dogs away during the day and foxes out at night.

One of the first things I heard about permaculture was how easy it is – a “no-dig” solution to the world’s insatiable demand for food. My mind conjured up images of someone (me perhaps, or Her Outdoors) wafting seed at the ground, then coming back  later to wander through our very own Garden of Eden, trees dripping and ground heaving with all manner of perfect fruit and vegetables. A smallholder’s paradise, where chickens take care of the pests and all you need to do is lie in the shade and plan what you’re going to do with today’s harvest.

It’s an attractive image, especially when you’ve spent seven years creating this:

veggie patch work

This was our veggie patch yesterday (the first time Her Outdoors has been happy to have it photographed). The ground was initially dug over by pigs, and all the “raised beds” were dug by hand, fertilised with Pepito’s manure, wood ash from our burner, rotated to help prevent disease (“help” is a key word here), nurtured, slaved over, repaired using wood from écovallée and stared at dejectedly. It’s been a labour of necessity, love and hope – and if you’ve ever done any gardening (I haven’t – Her Outdoors did this pretty much on her own), you’ll have looked for an easier way to get the results you want.

So when someone tells you about no-dig food production, you look into it.

Having read a bit and watched a few permaculture videos on youtube, permaculture can be fantastically easy. Provided you have the ground terraformed by JCBs, have uncountable tons of topsoil and manure delivered by fleets of trucks, and a huge amount of money to spend on seeds. Oh, and a sub-tropical climate with massive amounts of rain followed by months of sunlight. And plenty of time. And help.

What if you have none of those things?

One answer, found through permaculture, could be hugelkultur. If this is the first time you’ve come across this excellent word, it won’t be the last. Anyone who’s tried it raves about it. 

Last winter, we built a small “flugelbed” (any Swedish-sounding word works for us) in the polytunnel. It wasn’t a real krugelschmugel – more a raise bed half filled with rotting wood and manure, topped with earth from molehills. It’s been great. Carrots thrived in the sifted soil, free from pests who haven’t evolved to fly up to that altitude. Unfortunately, the deer have enjoyed breaking in and using it as a salad bar, leaving beautifully cropped plants next to telltale hoof prints. Our response will be to create a deer-proof fence around the polytunnel when we get round to it, which will surely do… something.

But that’s not the point right now.

The point is that we’re starting our first shnugelbed outside. It’s a very long-term project but one we’re very excited about. Lacking a JCB, Her Outdoors prepared the area to be used by leaving a tarp on the ground for a year or so. After the rain loosened the clay-heavy soil, she spend a few weeks carefully removing the bindweed:

veggie bed digging

Yesterday the hugelproject looked like this:

veggie bed before

All we needed to do next was place the soil to one side of the (uphill is wise here):

veggie bed after

We’ll be returning to this project regularly to monitor its progress. In a few years, the results should be spectacular.

The wood I mentioned below arrived yesterday and looked like this (the pallet is mine, for scale):

brasse of wood

In volume terms, it’s one “brasse”, which is four “stère”, each stère being one cubic metre. It’s oak that’s been dried for a year and cut to 40cm lengths to fit our fire. When stacked, it looks like this (the wood’s on the right and is two rows deep):

wood stacked

With this small pile on the pallet, ‘cos I didn’t have time to rearrange the lefthand side of the wood store.

wood stacked 2

In financial terms, it was €250 cut and delivered. A friend told me he gets a brasse delivered by a local farmer for €160, but it’s mixed and has a lot of chestnut. (We’ve only just started burning oak and immediately found it lasts twice as long as chestnut and burns hotter, too.)

I’ll let you know how long it lasts. I’m hoping two months.

I don’t know if you’ve read one of Julia Donaldson’s many brilliant children’s books, called “A Squash and a Squeeze”, but it’s been a bit like that in écovallée.

We started with land, just as we’d planned.

We took in a horse, to eat the grass (of course).

We raised some pigs, who grew pretty big.

Then added some hens, who lay eggs in their pen.

We were given some rabbits, that bred, um, like, more rabbits.

We tried a duck, but he went home (worst luck).

Then we had geese – mild, not wild, geese.

Add to this crew the cats, dogs, kids and us two.

At 12.5 acres, the smallholding began to feel just that – small. And every next animal we discussed – a cow, or goats, or sheep – seemed like an additional strain rather than an exciting new possibility.

Because apart from food, water and the occasional vet visit, a cow needs a shed and a shed needs building. Goats need a smaller shed, and very good fencing. Sheep need good fencing and big holes digging, when they die for no reason (whatever the season).

And when you do everything in the most labour-intensive way – by hand – without money – often alone – all of these things are quite daunting. (It would have been easier to start with existing farm buildings, but all we had was a field.)

Last year, having hand-sown, grown, scythed and gathered a crop to cut down the animals’ Winter fuel bill, but not having the time or energy to process the harvest, we realised we’d reached our holding’s limit to growth.

We said goodbye to the last pig – and the workload now doesn’t feel quite so big.

I’ve always said that pigs are easy – that they look after themselves. But that’s not quite true. Once the fencing’s up and the pig house in place, they’re good for a few days, although it’s worth checking the fence regularly to make sure it hasn’t been earthed up. And every few weeks, it’s worth pulling all the earth piled up near the fence outside the fence for the same reason. Then it’s just a question of feeding and watering the pigs twice a day, in our case carrying it all up hill (they’ve been living up hill for years). Watering in winter can be annoying when you fill their trough and they immediately turn it over so you have to fill it again. But it’s only really annoying when you have to carry the water 500 metres from our bathroom to start with because the outdoor tap is frozen.

Then there are the hunters. Or rather, the dogs. Hunting is a popular hobby in rural France and wild boar is one of the most popular targets. One big problem is that a hunting dog doesn’t know the difference between a wild or domestic pig. Twice we’ve had our pigs attacked by innocent-looking terriers. And every time we’ve heard a dog barking – usually on a cold and misty Sunday morning with the first cup of coffee in hand – we’ve donned clothes and boots, then jogged to the pig area to protect our livestock and shout at people with guns.

Now we don’t have pigs, we can enjoy our coffee in peace. The urge to run is still with us when we hear the bells round the dogs’ necks, but it will fade in time.

Without the pigs, feeding time is more fun. There’s more room to give attention to the rabbits, chickens, geese and horse. I look at the hill where the pigs were and am glad I don’t have to carry heavy buckets up there. I won’t get flabby – there’s plenty of other heavy stuff to carry (outdoor kitchens to make, platforms to build etc.).

And the other animals are all eating more interesting kitchen scraps.

So yes, we’re all happy. We’re really quite pleased.

It’s not such a squish – more, a breeze.

At the end of every Mayan long-count, season, year, five minutes (or whatever timescale you use), it’s worth having a good look at your life and deciding what works and what doesn’t.

One of the things we’ve decided doesn’t work for us any more is pigs.

About five years ago, I blogged our reasons for getting into pigs. It’s been an easy experience on the whole, but continuing to keep them was going to get harder. Successive pigs have cleared the areas we wanted clearing and, to save the trees, we were going to move the next set into the horse field. But the only place for them is South facing, which meant we were going to have to build more structures and put in infrastructure.

The financial cost of feeding the pigs has also been noticeable this year, living on (by Western standards) a very low income. We planted a field with an animal food crop, cut it, stooked it, stacked it – all by hand – and still have it sitting down there waiting for threshing. We haven’t had the time, energy or space to process it. Sometimes Pepito breaks out and buried his face in a stack. Occasionally I catch deer having an easy meal. We don’t know how much grain we harvested, but we both decided the physical cost of growing food for big animals is not sustainable. After watching a couple of very interesting films (“Forks over knives” being one), and realising how many vegetables we could grow – or even buy – for the €15 a week we were putting into our pigs, plus how much they tie us to the land, we decided that these would be our last.

I suspect, if keeping animals for meat was assessed at a global level, the conclusion would be the same. The energy investment for the return in meat wouldn’t make economic sense. Large animals would disappear from our landscape, meat from our diet, and the world would be a healthier, happier place. You don’t believe me? Watch the film.

We’ve also decided to stop breeding rabbits for meat and will be keeping some for pets. You might think this extravagant, but if you’d seen a young rabbit and his mother survive myxomatosis, you’d probably do the same. Our last rabbits will live out their days and be buried here. We’re even reducing our stock of chickens.

But this once-in-an-age review is about more than livestock. Having fewer animals means doing less work, which gives us more time to use our other skills. Next year, Her Outdoors is going to create a range of crafty products using recycled materials, and more art (among other things).

I’m going to start working for people as an extreme gardener, join a band, get involved in the transition town movement (I just learnt our nearest town has become the first in Aquitaine) and sell my professional skills as an ethical copywriter.

All of this feels very appropriate, positive and timely.

On which point, I find one thing about the Mayan calendar very exciting. For the first time, billions of our fellow humans will be focused on the destiny of our species at the same moment. For one day, we will have the opportunity to look at ourselves and decide what works and what doesn’t. In the days that follow, we will have the opportunity to become a better species. To find a more healthy balance between work and play. To use more of our talents. To move, collectively, from fear and survival on a rock floating through space, to joy and thrival.

I have a feeling that the new age is going to be excellent.

For various reasons, some of which I’ve already touched on, we’re taking a (possibly permanent) break from pig keeping. To give you the benefit of our experience over the last five years (and to remind me what I’ve learnt for future reference), I’ve decided to blog our final Pig Week in some detail.

If you are a vegetarian, you might want to unfollow for a couple of weeks.

One of the most troubling parts of rearing pigs for food, for me, especially early on, has been deciding when it’s time for them to leave for the Great Sty in the Sky. Actually being the one responsible for ending a life throws up many emotional and spiritual issues. Fortunately, weather, availability of helpers and other factors, provides a very small window of opportunity. That window has just opened.

Tradition has it that you should only process a pig (my term for killing and butchering) in a month with an “r” in it. Thanks largely to human activity since the industrial revolution, September and October were far too warm this year. Earlier this month, I took advantage of a cold evening to say goodbye to our second-to-last pig – and I’ve just booked someone to come and help me with the final pig. I won’t tell you exactly when. Just that it is soon.

The pig in question is about 18 months old (as compared to factory line pigs that are killed at about six months, I understand) and has spent his life in our woods. He probably weighs around 150kg (I’ve read some UK abattoirs are refusing to process pigs heavier than 100kg) and his size alone will present me with a number of challenges. He has cost about €10 a week while he’s lived here but cost very little to begin with. In all, we’ve probably spent about €800 on the pig and are looking forward to many months of “free” meat.

Our plans are to use one leg for prosciutto, one for a ham stored hung in the air, streaky and back bacon (smoked and unsmoked), sausages, chorizo, salami, some joints and curry. I’ll explain all the details as we go.

I saw something online yesterday about a farm offering courses on a “Pig in a Day”. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also offers courses like this. We’re going to demonstrate how long the process actually takes (in reality, well over a week) to provide some balance. As you’ll see from earlier posts, we’re not novices. This will be the 12th pig who has lived on the smallholding. I have personally killed one and butchered nine and a half of those.

If you’re still with me, I hope you will find the following posts helpful, educational and, above all, respectful.

From a smallholding point of view, I’m fortunate enough to have my birthday at the end of the Summer. It’s a time of plenty.

Plenty of tomatoes:

Plenty of butternut squash:

(I told you there were plenty of tomatoes.)

This year, there was even plenty wine and beer brought by visitors to écovallée. Which meant I didn’t have to spend my birthday money on anything. Which gave me the opportunity to entertain wistful ideas, like the buying of a longbow I promised myself years ago (until I saw how much they actually cost), or a new pair of gloves (although there’s really only one big hole in one of them at the moment), or something I hadn’t even thought of yet.

Unfortunately, the economic reality of smallholding caught up with me and what I actually bought was this:

From left to right: a 40 kg bag of maize, a 25 kg bag of rolled barley, a 10 kg bag of corn and a 25 kg bag of rabbit food. These are things that have to be bought with alarming frequency (except the corn – that’s a treat for the chickens and geese) and which are increasing in price at an alarming rate (and will continue to do so, until the oil runs out).

I was going to use the opportunity to write an indepth post about the economics of smallholding, including an aside about the impossibility of self-sufficiency in the early 21st Century, but that will have to wait. It’ll take a bit of time to write and I really have to get back to work on the caravan project.

So I give you this slightly self-indulgent woe-is-me post instead. (Cue world’s smallest violin.) It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have used the money to buy fuel, like last year. And the year before. (Violin fades out.) But I can’t ignore the fact that the chickens got me something in return:

Which would be perfect. If I only liked eggs.