Tuesday, 30 September 2014

'Wake me up when September Ends'

The morning mists have begun to creep across the river meadows here as a signal of approaching autumn.  Things are on the move with the season; Ospreys have been seen several times over the last few weeks, flying over Mottisfont on their long journey back to Africa – I was lucky enough to see one myself wheeling over Long Lash last week – and I watched a V formation of at least 30 geese fly over the village honking directions loudly to each other.  For some reason this time of year seems to be peak spider time – every time I have wandered the woodlands or fields I emerge looking like Old Father Time with a wispy white beard and hair from all the cobwebs I’ve walked into.

A busy spider in my garden - it was interesting to watch it weave its web and see how the silk emerges from its body.

The fields next to the river as you drive into Mottisfont have had five Devon Red (also known as Ruby Reds or Rubies) cattle in them, all of which are pregnant and counting the days until they pop forth a miniature version of themselves.  These beautiful cattle are part of a much larger herd that belongs to one of our tenant farms on the estate which also grows crops as well as having animals.  I knew the cows were due to give birth in September time so every time I have driven passed that field I have slowed down and cruised along to get a good look and see if I could spot any sign of the action.  Finally, last week my curb crawling was rewarded when I spotted a small reddish brown blob next to one of the cows.  I pulled over and snuck into the field for a closer look and there lying in the long grass, its wet fur steaming slightly in the September sunshine, was a tousled looking calf, no more than a couple of hours old.  I didn’t get too close as I didn’t want to disturb them or anger the mother but she seemed content enough with grazing nearby and uttering soft ‘moo’s’ to let her calf know where she was.  I watched the female calf (despite the umbilical cord tuft which people often mistake for male genitalia, I couldn’t spot a ball-sack so I could see she was female) wobble onto its hooves and stagger over to its mother, obviously feeling the impact of being folded up for 9 months – must have had some wicked pins and needles to stretch out!  The remaining four cows are still to calve, so fingers crossed for the rest.
Whats that in the grass....

A bright shiny new Ruby!

 Now I mentioned in my last post that hay was being cut off an area of Stockbridge Down, in order to improve the diversity of this stretch and also provide some winter feed for our flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep.  I had envisaged a moderate number of bales, being that I thought the grass was quite thin and of fairly poor quality, so I was guessing maybe up to a hundred if that.  However the result blew my guess out the water, when the contractor rung me to let me know how many bales were on their way to Mottisfont – 348. I frantically started dragging my colleagues and volunteers into a pledge to help me unload and so it was that as the sun began to sink one evening, two huge hay trailers and tractors chuntered into Mottisfont, looking like they had the ramparts of a castle made of hay on the back.   

We led them to the barn we were to keep it in and began the monster task of unloading by hand which actually proved quite enjoyable and much quicker than I feared, with 9 of us working at it.  Dave and Dylan took the job of placing the hay and stacking it correctly, whilst myself, Laura and the contractor were chucking it down from the top of the hay trailer to the rest of the team who waited below in a human chain style to grab a bale and pass it on to the next person.  The bales were of much better quality than I had hoped for – they were packed tight with thick grass and smelt lovely and sweet and dry which, being that it was a late cut and the morning dew had been heavy, I hadn’t thought we would get.  It was so dry in fact that the dust being thrown up was unbelievable – I had my bandana across my face as I think we were all getting a healthy dose of farmers lung – and you can see from the photo’s how much was in the air.  However I am sure the sheep will appreciate the effort involved in this task when the time comes – and when they get hungry!

Unloading in the blizzard of hay dust

The re-enactment of the building of the Pyramids

All in, safe and dry.

 In one of my blog posts last year, entitled ‘Waders of the Lost Ark’ I mentioned how we all had to jump in and clear the backlog of weed that had got choked in an overgrown side stream of the river, and had consequently flooded the gardens.  Well ever since then this stream has needed to be cleared back completely, have all the overgrown shrubs cut back and have the fallen trees removed and for the last few weeks Ryan, myself and the volunteers have been working on this.  The volunteers did a sterling job of cutting it all back both sides of the bank so that we could actually see the stream clearly and see our next problem; there were several very large, old fallen trees spanning the width of the ditch that were going to require sawing up and winching out.  So whilst Dave took the timber trailer and removed the log piles, Ryan and some volunteers chipped up all the brash and myself and a couple of other volunteers began the task of removing these fallen titans from where they had lain quite happily for the last decade or more.  The chippings that Ryan created from the brash were to go to an area on the estate where we will be planting trees this winter and so they will act as a good mulch mat to prevent weeds growing around the new saplings.


Putting my chainsaw trousers on again I felt the perceptible shift of the seasons slot into place – chainsaw trousers meant felling season was almost upon us!  Or it could have been due to the sawdust and leaves that remained stuck to my trousers from the last time I used them….
A job I had hoped would be simple and take a day inevitably was much more complicated and more time consuming.  Some of the stems were so old and rotten that when the winch cable pulled tight, the chains around them would just smash through the rotten wood and lose their tension.  Stems on top of stems meant we had to laboriously winch them out one at a time instead of pulling two or three in one go which took longer time- but you just cannot rush winching.  I set up a diverted pull for the first day, to enable us to pull the trees onto the opposite bank to the tractor – by running the cable from the tractor and winch, across the stream to a pulley and strop which we put around a sturdy tree on the other side and then attaching it to the fallen trees, I could winch them onto the bank into the undergrowth instead of out into the parklands where we had the tractor and where we would then have to remove them offsite.  However due to the nature of the job with the rotten stems and the crowd of deadwood to pull through, the cable sometimes lost its tension and jumped and this meant that at one point it jumped off the pulley wheel and wedged itself down the side of the wheel and the metal outer casing – which stopped play completely.  However with the aid of a hammer and vice, Tony soon had it released and bent back into shape and the show could go on.

Day two saw us doing a straight winch of wood up the bank we were on and into the park fields which should have been straightforward enough.  However they gave us some good challenges in that I was crosscutting the massive stems to separate them from their root plate, with my chainsaw which was essentially too small.  After cutting from the top and both sides and what I could reach underneath, we would then attach the winch chain and winch on an angle in order to try and snap the remaining holding wood.  This worked for three of them but the biggest one wasn’t giving up without a fight and we had to keep winching it from back and forth angles to try and snap the middle hinge and I kept nibbling away with a chainsaw each time the trunk shifted position and I could reach uncut wood.  After several good attempts where I had to resist the urge to push the winch beyond what it could do, and the entire stem and root plate was in danger of being pulled fully into the ditch and blocking it completely, we stopped for a tea break and pondered the situation.
Handy use of scaffold bridge to span the ditch and allow us to work on the tree stem without sinking in the silt...

 Approaching it with tea filled fresh eyes, we decided to give it one more go from another angle.  I repositioned the tractor and revved up the PTO, jumped out and pulled on the winch rope to retract the cable with my fingers crossed….the slack reeled in, it tensed, pulled, held, aaaaand CRACK! With a snap and a crack the stem finally broke off from where I had cut it and came thundering up the bank like some titanic wooden tsunami, before coming to rest on the field. Yeeees! Job done.  Looking at the snapped off bit, we could see that the heartwood that had been holding it together and which I hadn’t been able to cut with my saw was barely 5% of the whole width and was partially rotten – but it had still held firm for many attempts, showing how tenacious Beech can be.
Winching out the Beechy Bu**er at last!

Some of the stems that came out the ditch.

And finally the late summer warmth has combined with the harvest time and produced a fair apple crop in our orchard at Mottisfont this year – and this can mean only one thing; its cider time!  I spent a couple of evenings after work gathering fallen apples from the orchard and knocking some down with the help of a long stick (I did get the odd funny look from passer’s by.  I climbed up the apple tree in the staff carpark and shook it vigorously like some kind of apple scrumping school boy and listened with delight to all the heavy thuds as the apples fell around me and hit the ground. Between the orchard and the carpark tree I had a very good mix of apple varieties, which always helps add depth of flavour and body to the cider.  All I needed now was a small proportion of crab apples which do the job of adding tannins to the juice.  Ryan told me of some crab apple trees in Oakley copse on our estate and so I drove there and to my glee there were two trees absolutely heaving with crab apples.  I stood on the roof of the truck and shook them down and they fell like pale green hailstones, bouncing off my bonnet, my windscreen and my head – I’m still finding some inside the truck that must have snuck in through the open windows.  

Mottisfont Orchard apples - lovely mix.

Loaded Crab apple trees!

Loaded with my lot of apples and a load from the apple tree in Matt’s garden, we used the scratter and cider press where Matt works to create a fabulous 16 gallons of apple juice – and it tasted stunning.  Matt tested the ABV (alcohol by volume) potential of the juice and it came out at around 6%.  By the time it has gone through the entire process and had sugar added, it will have gained around 2.5%, so it is looking to be some killer stuff.  It is all now in demi-johns just starting to froth up and begin the fermenting process, the first stage of a long but very worthwhile journey – watch this space…
Pressing the apple pulp and producing beautiful juuuuuicce.

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