Saturday, 24 December 2011

Season’s Greetings!

Wishing all our readers – guests past, present & future, friends and family – a very, very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2012!. As ever, we’re thankful for all your support and help in making 2011 another successful year at Banceithin.


We’ve lots of projects planned for 2012 – not least the long overdue rebuilding of the clay oven in time for summer 2011 (or maybe even Easter if I nag, beg and plead sufficiently) - so there’s sure to be plenty of mishaps and misadventures to keep the blog busy in 2012.

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i Chi!

House of Wax

“How hard can it be?”, said Dave. “Don’t you just roll it?”. Oh yes, candle rolling, sounds simple doesn’t it. We had the wicks. We had the beeswax. We had the confidence. All we needed was a warm room. Oh, wait a minute, we live in a draughty Welsh farmhouse where warm rooms are in short supply. That explained why the first attempt was less candle rolling and more wax snapping. Dave had a brainwave - warm the wax sheets in the oven. Pop it in, just a low heat, don’t want to melt the wax. Whoopsie, forgot we’d just cooked dinner. That’ll be a tray of melted wax then.


Dave had a second brainwave - why don’t we just mould a candle instead of roll one ….


Hmm, maybe not. Not sure that purple dog turd candles make good Christmas presents.

Dave had a third brainwave. I wasn’t sure we had enough beeswax sheets left to cope with another Dave brainwave. The oven’s too hot, but what about using the open oven door as a warm rolling table.


Finally, a genius idea. Dave’s brainwaves are like buses – if you wait long enough one will turn up that takes you where you want to go!

IMG_6600  IMG_6604

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Bo v. The Wickerman

Why did God create sheep? Where’s the logic in creating an animal for which every day is an end is nigh day and every rumination is a potential last supper? Was it a prototype for a higher being that He forgot to shelve or a last minute bish bash bosh, bit of this bit of that pukka creation a la Jamie Oliver?
Don’t get me wrong, I am starting to warm to my flock of three, especially now their true characters are starting to show through – Myfanwy the shaggy girl, ringleader and chief trouble maker; Babs the greedy girl with spotty ears and a “don’t mess with me” attitude; Margo the shy girl and ditzy blonde of the flock who’s always on the wrong side of the fence at feeding time.
Maybe I expected too much from an animal which, according to “The Sheep Book for Smallholders” (available from very few good book stores) is “intrinsically tied up with almost every momentous episode in the history of mankind”. Where were your sheep when JFK was assassinated? Can you be sure they weren’t in the Book Depository or on the infamous grassy knoll? Maybe the original design was flawless, and it’s hundreds of years of man’s tinkering with breeds to suit his needs that has left me with a flock of three with fluff for brains and a genetic predisposition to acquire any infection, disease, mite or worm that passes within a 50 mile radius of their field.  
There’s a very good reason why the pig is recommended as the ideal animal for the smallholder – give them a warm bed, rooting opportunities aplenty, buckets of nosh and the occasional belly rub or back scratch, and all is well in the land of the pig. Meanwhile, over in sheep world, there’s hoof trimming, foot spraying, bum cleaning, coat shearing, then vaccinations, drenchings and squirting stuff into their mouths. None of which can be done at arms length, all of which require you to catch the woolly escapologist in the first place. And to think that the vet advised us to spray Myfanwy’s dodgy hoof twice a day – the funniest joke I’d heard since hearing some fool advocate beekeeping for smallholders because bees require “minimal upkeep”!
Surrounded by hills, we live in a natural amphitheatre, with our field the stage, and every hilltop farm a seat in the Gods from which to view the daily performance of “shepherding for idiots”. We’ve experimented with various herding methods. There are the carrot techniques involving troughs of sheep nuts cunningly positioned in a narrow corral alongside the pig pen - tears from me as a hurriedly closed gate slices open my little finger, sighs from Dave as yet again Myfanwy demonstrates her high jumping skills, squeals from Blanket the pig as she grabs a mouthful of Myfanwy’s fleece through the fence, and ill-suppressed sniggers from all as Squaddie Dad launches himself at a hastily departing sheep and is dragged to his knees as Myfanwy exits stage left. Then there are the stick techniques involving a motley crew of assorted family and friends stumbling across the field, arms outstretched, being given the run around by our wayward sheep while the bemused dog either hides in the corner of the field or maintains a safe distance behind the electric fence. Now I know why the show is called “One Man & His Dog” and not “One Man, His Wife, His Parents, Two Friends, A Pig & His Sheep-shy Sheep Dog”.
IMG_6534(A giant appears to be tweaking Dave’s ear!)
But carrot and stick are nothing compared with the lesser known “Wickerman” technique. You won’t read about this in “The Sheep Book for Smallholders”. In fact I doubt any farmer in the whole of Wales has hitherto deployed the secret weapon of sheep husbandry that is the “Wickerman” (although that’s probably more to do with lack of necessity than lack of knowledge). It’s ideal for the inexperienced sheep owner who, like us, has a completely useless sheep dog, not enough bodies on hand to form a sheep proof human chain, but whose flock consists of the fastest sheep in the West. All you need is a father-in-law and two very, very long tree branches. Place a branch in each of your father-in-laws hands, stretch his arms out, get him to walk slowly across the field towards towards your flock and hey presto, you’ve mastered the Wickerman technique! Guaranteed to corral even the most unruly of sheep. Be warned there can be unexpected side effects. Symptoms of excess use of the Wickerman herding technique can include outbreaks of cowboy impersonations ….
IMG_6548 Squaddie Dad, available to hire for weddings, bar mitzvahs and all your sheep herding needs – payment accepted in red wine and cake!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Time please, gentlemen!

The last time I pulled a pint it was 1995, the pub was called “Harkers”, and I was a 22 year old law student earning minimum wage serving up flavoured vodkas and pints of strong continental lager to the townsfolk of Chester. Fast forward to 2011, it’s the “Rhos Yr Hafod”, and I’m a 38 year old ex-lawyer earning nothing at all serving up fags, crisps and pints of real ale to the farmers of Ceredigion. Had the Ghost of Careers Yet to Come whisked my 22 year old self into the future, such an unexpected twist in the anticipated career path would have come as quite a shock. Just as well my 22 year old self didn’t have a vision of her 39 year year old self in an agricultural store buying Myti-Lite Foot Rot Shears and a can of Foot Master violet livestock spray or someone might have been calling for the crash cart, warming up the paddles and shouting “clear”!

Way back when, in a fit of foolish enthusiasm and under the influence of alcohol, Dave and I offered to mind the local pub if ever the need arose. Six months later and there we were, behind the bar, serving up pints with a head you could stick a flake in and pass off as a Mr Whippy in a glass.


Working in a pub licensed to serve until 2:30 a.m. came as a shock to someone whose finely tuned body clock thinks bedtime starts with a mug of Ovaltine at 10 p.m. On our first night we were both so knackered by 1 a.m. that Dave grabbed a horn from the wall display, wiped the dust off the mouthpiece and called last orders with a squeaky parp – I’m not sure who was more surprised that he’d done it, him or the last remaining hardcore locals who were promptly turfed out into the night. Once we’d dusted off our mental arithmetic, spilled a few beers, messed up the till a few times and generally tested the patience of the customers, we got into the swing of things and actually started to enjoy our evenings behind the bar.  The silver lining on the cloud of late nights and sleepy, grumpy mornings was getting to know the locals. And what a fine bunch of people they are….

… the evening starts with Iwan drinking his 5 o’clock pint of Youngs, telling stories peppered with “flipping ‘ecks” and singing the occasional dirty song, then there’s Mark who played rugby, his daughter Jess who goes out with Rhodri, whose brother is Alisdair, who works for Charles who runs the local shoots and is married to Liz, who always drinks coffee and tomato juice, both of whom are friends with Gareth who collects military knives and calls me Sue Perkins and drinks with the other Charles, who wrote a song that was stolen by Phil Collins, together with George who owns the caravan park and Dafydd who’s a local councillor and Bill who wasn’t well, all of whom are driven home by Kevin who drinks coke. Then there’s Paul with the crazy eyes who goes out with Sian who hated her haircut so much that she cried, Dai who was in the Welsh champions tug of war team but now rows across oceans even though he only learned to swim in his fifties, Roger the tax man who Dave over charged by £60, the other Dai who’s married to Mary who plays darts with Paul and Sian, the other Dafydd who plays darts with Mary, Paul and Sian, and a David who speaks with a Welsh-Essex accent and plays darts with Mary, Paul, Sian and Dafydd…. are you still with me? So there’s Will Chips whose surname isn’t Chips but is known as Will Chips ‘cos he ran the first fish ‘n’ chip shop in Aberaeron, Tiny Tim who fell off his tractor and fractured his heel bone but isn’t to be confused with Skinny Dave who is someone else entirely, and last but not least there’s Gwilym whose dog saved his life, wants to sell us Welsh cattle and loaned us The Veterinary Book for Sheep Farmers even though he’s never owned a sheep.

D’you want ice and lemon with that?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Being Bo

Never before have I empathised with a nursery rhyme character. I always thought Bo must have been a sloppy shepherdess to lose her sheep so carelessly. I owe her an apology. I’d had my sheep for less than 24 hours before I lost them, although unlike Little Bo Peep I did know where to find them as I saw them hurdle the fence, disappear through a gap in the hedge and head for the hills, tail not so much wagging as kicking up metaphorical dust into my face. Not a great start to my shepherding career. It wasn’t entirely my fault. It was early in the morning, and unlike Bo in her frock and carrying her crook I was wearing pyjamas and carrying stale bread, plus I wasn’t expecting to find sheep in the pig field, or rather I was expecting a delivery of sheep but wasn’t expecting the farmer to slip them into the field under cover of night. I’m not sure who was more startled at first, the sheep or Teri, but the flock of three took one look at the dog and exited stage left. Obviously, only ever having met real collie’s up until this point, the flock were not to know that Teri has no interest in sheep and considered them nothing more than an inconvenient obstacle barring the well worn route to her beloved pigs. Never having seen a sheep in flight before, the ease with which each one sailed over the new fencing rather took me by surprise. There was nothing for it, I’d have to drag Dave out of bed and head off in search of my errant flock of three.

Having located the woolly escapees in the corner of the next field, it took an hour to slowly, slowly corral them back into our field via the most circuitous route possible. After breakfast it was straight out with the barbed wire, hammer and staples to raise the height of the fencing.


Needless to say Teri remained locked in the kitchen for the duration of this endeavour. You won’t be seeing her and Dave in the World Sheepdog Trails any time soon, unless the event is changed to include pulling blankets through tiny tyres, aggravating cat flaps or trading sticks for balls. Steve and Charlie joined the party though – perhaps there’s a market for a show called One Man & His Two Cats, “cwm by”, “lie down”, herding mice into a box - I’ll get on the phone to Channel 5 ….


If I’m honest, I haven’t warmed to Babs, Margo & Myfanwy (yes, the flock have now been named). It’s hard to engage with an animal that insists on keeping its distance. Mostly I see woolly bums moving away from me, or ears pricking up and eyes peering suspiciously at me over the grass. The pen has been constructed but stands empty, the sheep nuts have been bought but remain uneaten. Plans are afoot to rectify this though. Enter the electric fence! 

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,
And can't tell where to find them;
Leave them alone, And they'll come home,
Wagging their tails behind them.

Little Bo-peep fell fast asleep,
And dreamt she heard them bleating;
But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
For they were still a-fleeting.
Then up she took her little crook,
Determined for to find them;
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they'd left their tails behind them.
It happened one day, as Bo-peep did stray
Into a meadow hard by,
There she espied their tails side by side,
All hung on a tree to dry.
She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye,
And over the hillocks went rambling,
And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,
To tack each again to its lambkin.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Honey Monster

Have I told you how amazing honey bees are? If you’re not convinced, get hold of a copy of “The Buzz About Bees” and then tell try telling me they’re not one the most incredible creatures on the planet. As my first full season as a “beek” (that’s cool geek speak for beekeeper) draws to a close, I have a new found respect for the honey bee and as daft as it sounds I’m really rather fond of my colonies. It may come as a surprise to those who have the misfortune of hearing my frequent wails and tales of woe (most notably my long suffering husband, parents and parents-in-law), but I’m glad I persevered, and just a little proud of myself for doing so as over the year the rollercoaster ride of beekeeping has seen rather more dips than rises (unless you count the financial investment in bees & kit, in which case it’s a ride with a rise to leave the Blackpool Pepsi Big One in the shade!). There has been many an occasion when the words “give up” have loomed large in my mind, but each time those words teeter on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop as the next disaster befalls a colony, wiser beeks than I insist there are good times ahead. And they were right.

My first colony has weathered some serious bad times. First there was the flood (my grasp of basic physics failed me and I inverted the feeder of sugar syrup over the open hive without waiting for the vacuum to form). Then there was the famine (as I was safe & dry indoors during 2 weeks of heavy summer rain, the colony ate it’s way through all the honey stores & were on the verge of dying of starvation). Then, after the colony pulled through and made it through another long cold winter, all hell broke loose after summer turned up in April, the swarming began, I flapped & faffed and the colony ends up without a queen! No queen, no eggs, no brood, no new bees. Whoopsie. A wise beek came to my rescue, yet again, and lo the colony proves it will not be beaten by inexperience, incompetence, neglect and stupidity. How do I thank them for being so marvellous? I steal their honey!

Give them fields of rosebay willow herb and clover, and let them work their bee magic …

 IMG_6211 IMG_6213 IMG_6215

… sticky hands, sticky arms, sticky everywhere, spin the extractor & out it flies …


…. my oh my, such delicious, glorious, golden honey. Thank you muchly my fuzzy, buzzy critters.

As I swirl this deliciousness on hot buttered toast I feel a twinge of guilt. I’ve never felt guilt over honey eating before. But then up until now I’ve never really appreciated the effort that goes into its production, the miles flown, the energy expended in maintaining hive temperature at just the right level as another Welsh summer lives up to expectations. I feel sadness as well as guilt, for as the end of the nectar flow draws nigh and the bees strive to bring in those last drops to replace stolen stores, my beek rollercoaster plummets down another dip because evil doers await my bees – the wasps descend. Last week, colony 3, my apple tree swarm, was overrun with the yellow peril. I rushed to their aid with jars of jammy water to distract the wasps from the scent of honey. Within hours the jars were awash with drowning wasps, but still they came. Having all but wiped out colony 3, the wasps drifted over to colonies 1 and 2. I’ve squished the wasps with my hive tool. I’ve cursed them. I’ve emptied jar after jar of jam into wasp traps. I’ve washed hundreds of wasp bodies down the stream. Yet still my poor bees are besieged. I fear the worst but dare not open the hives for making the situation worse. Fight bees, fight!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The last major eco project

The final frontier has finally been breached in terms of making Banceithin as sustainable as possible. We have always purchased our electricity from Ecotricity on an 100% green tariff, but we have also always wanted to generate a large proportion of our own energy. The cost of installing a wind turbine or solar panel array was out of our reach and, until we had completed the refurbishments, we didn’t want to risk spending our last bit of capital, but with the majority of work at Banceithin completed I started to look into micro generation again.

The UK government have introduced a tariff scheme for small producers of electricity to encourage more people to install micro generation systems. The tariff pays you a set amount for every kW hour of electricity you generate, which is index linked for 25 years. You also get a dramatically reduced leccy bill, and if you produce more energy than you use, your energy supplier will pay an addition unit rate. All in all it added up to a ‘no brainer’ - with our savings earning under 2% in any bank account, a micro scheme should return between 8-12%. With these facts in hand, we then had to choose which technology would be best suited for us. I always had a romantic notion that a wind turbine would be best for us here in Wales, but on further investigation, the cons quickly outweighed the pros.


  1. We visited a 4 kW turbine near us during a windy day, and were amazed how noisy it was, a really steady high frequency whirr.
  2. Having moving parts, a wind turbine would need more maintenance.
  3. Wind turbines, and especially their installation, are more costly than photovoltaic panels.
  4. The feed in tariff for wind turbines is less than for solar PV.
  5. You need planning permission for wind turbines, and that is a sensitive subject around here…. Solar panels below 4 kW don’t need planning permission in England and Wales.


  1. ????????????????????????????????????????????????????

The main reason not going for solar initially was that we just thought it seemed ridiculous here in Wales, but these modern panels still produce even when it’s cloudy (though admittedly not as much). Maybe it’s something to do with the fact the panels are manufactured in Wales!

So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we plumped for the wind turbine…… no no, just joking. We went with a local company, who did our electrical work here on the cottages, for the provision and installation of 22 solar panels with a maximum capacity of 3.96 kW hours. We’ve had them installed on the wood shed which is south facing, and the contractor increased the angle of elevation of the panels from the paltry 6 degrees of the shed roof, to 15 degrees, which increases the performance of the panels, and allows the self cleaning coating to work.


The 22 panels on our wood shed.


The ‘Sunny Boy’ inverter (no really, that's what the manufacturer calls it, not us!) converts the energy created by the panels into usable 240v AC power fed back to the house, with excess being sent back to the national grid. Unfortunately the Sunny Boy has a digital display which tells you how much power you are creating at that moment, and how much you’ve created in that day. This means I am continually ‘popping’ up the shed to check on how much we have generated and reporting back to 'er indoors. I have been very impressed with the performance so far. We have an average daily usage of 14.5 kW hours, and with the panels in for a couple of weeks now, we have been creating anything from 7 kW hours to 25 kW hours. The 7 kW hours was produced on a dreadful rainy day here, but that was still virtually half of our daily usage….though it is August…..

One of the the best bits about the install is that the contractor has installed lights and some power points to the shed. My work bench now is fully lit and will allow tinkering long into the night!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

How many bees make five?

Back in May I thought I caught a swarm of bees. Silly me. Turns out that was no swarm, just a few bees out on a jolly on a sunny afternoon. A REAL swarm is really big, huge, ma-hoosive, biblical, of epic proportions. No really, I’m not over-egging this.

Once upon a Saturday I went about my business as usual – changing beds, hoovering, nagging Dave, making cake – before taking Teri for a stroll up the lane. As I wandered back up the drive, dreaming of a cup of tea, piece of cake & some quality time with “Cosmos, Earth & Nutrition” (it’s a book about biodynamics, burying horns, planting by planetary movements and all that jazz), I became aware of a background hum, that became a buzz, that became a roar. Oh me, oh my, the sky was black with bees, a serious amount bees. Think Exodus and the ten plagues of Egypt! Obviously I remained calm and at no point did I suffer flashbacks from a night watching the 1970’s film “The Swarm” and I certainly didn’t run to the front door shouting “disaster, disaster, let me in, LET ME IN!”.

While I fumbled with my bee suit zipper, Dave watched in awe as the swarm condensed into a cloud & slowly drifted en masse over the roofs of the cottages, up the drive, looking for a temporary home. So there they were, tens of thousands of bees clinging in a clump 12 foot above the ground in an apple tree. And there was I, climbing up a ladder, sweating in my bee suit yet again (note to self, must get suit dry cleaned), box in left hand, brush strapped to a pole in right hand, heart in mouth. With every step up the ladder, the tree swayed and the curtain of bees swung & wobbled like a living jelly with multiple legs, wings & stinging things. Urged on by brave Dave standing at a safe distance, I looked a bee in the eye and swiped at the swarm with the brush. And again. And again. “You missed a bit!”, came the helpful cry from the ground.


The bees were now everywhere – the air, the box, the tree. I just had to hope that my swiping had knocked the queen into the box. We bundled the box into a blanket to create an enticing dark space with a wee gap to allow bees separated from the swarm to find their way back to the colony. All we could do now was wait and hope, and greet the arriving guests (of the paying human variety rather than the unexpected non-paying buzzing variety)!


Bees are truly amazing creatures. Word got round that the queen was in the box, and in they came, crawling through the gap in their hundreds, literally a river of bees flowing inside. An hour later, as dusk descended, we had a box full of bees, with only a few stragglers still hanging around the apple tree as the last wafts of the queen’s pheromones dispersed.


A few shakes of the box and some bee spillages into the grass later, the swarm was ensconced in a hive with a sugar syrup welcome hamper to feed on. And lo, two hives become three. I think that means I can now officially call that patch of field an apiary!




Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The White Ghosts

I was unreasonably annoyed when nest cam had to be removed from the bird box. I was unreasonably pessimistic when Dave cobbled together am emergency owl box cam as compensation for lost blue tit chick viewing opportunities. More fool me as owl box cam has been an outrageous success. We’ve been privileged to watch the barn owl chicks develop from being a mere twinkle in Mr Barn Owl’s eye, to the gawky, greedy, screechy teenagers they are now. 

Who needs the sharks and Nazis of Channel 5, or the pregnant teenagers and streetwise superheros of BBC 3, when each evening we can flick to the Owl Channel for live action from our own treetops!  There’s mystery – is that one egg, two eggs, three eggs or, oh my God, I think there’s four eggs. Romance – Mr Barn Owl brings furry edible gifts to Mrs Barn Owl. Sex – Mrs Barn Owl lets Mr Barn Owl get jiggy in return for said furry edible gifts. Comedy – how many fluffy owl chick faces can you fit in a 20 cm diameter hole. Suspense – will the fourth owlet ever get fed or will his bigger greedier siblings starve him to death. Dance – stretch the wing to the left, stretch the leg to the right, bob up & down, turn your head upside down. Horror – rodents swallowed whole or ripped to shreds on a nightly basis. High drama – owlets falling backwards off branches, owlets getting wedged between branch and box, and owlets clinging to ledges by just a beak and a claw. All this and more every night on the Owl Channel.


The eldest owlet must be at least nine or ten weeks old as it's flying well. By eleven weeks an owlet should have made his first prey capture and perhaps started to disperse. Ours are clearly not so keen on the dispersal idea. If they hang around much longer, mum and dad will start chasing them away. Better to jump than be pushed (especially when you live above a house of inquisitive chickens), but any day now we’ll flick over to Owl Channel to find nothing but an empty box. The time will come when our four intrepid owls must make their own way in the world. What a sad day that will be, not just by the fact of their leaving, but by the even sadder fact that the first-year survival rate for juvenile barn owls is as low as 25%, so statistically only one of the four is likely to live to see his 1st birthday. So if you’re driving around at night, spare a thought for all those dispersing barn owls, slow down, and watch out for those beautiful white ghosts.


Sunday, 26 June 2011

Here piggy piggy

So I have embarked on the biggest challenge at Banceithin to date. Whilst the refurb project threw up it’s fair share of obstacles, I was ultimately dealing with bricks and mortar, which could generally be persuaded to do what I wanted with a ‘tap’ from my trusty mallet. Working with flesh and bone is a different matter entirely. The butcher who prepared our last batch of piggies is selling up and moving on, so I have decided to do all the butchery from now on! This throws up all manner of issues, the main one being not having the appropriate facilities for meat preparation to allow us to sell to the public. During one of her research sessions, Philippa found a council run ‘Food Centre’ only 30 minutes away which you can hire by the day and is heavily subsidised to help small producers get into the supply chain without the need to invest in a bespoke butchery unit. RESULT!

For the last three weeks I have been undertaking various training courses to get up to speed on the whole process of turning a pig carcass into various yummy treats. The first day was an official food hygiene course where I learnt about bacteria, bugs and how not to sneeze over raw meat. I had to sit an examination at the end, and whilst I knew it couldn’t be too tough, I found myself getting palpitations when the examiner made the statement that sends shivers down most people's spines –“You may now turn over your papers”. The actual exam turned out to be pretty straight forward, mostly common sense and I have just received my certificate.

With that under my belt I did a two day pig cutting course. I can now split a carcass into it’s ‘primal’ cuts, being the shoulder, hand and spring, the loin and belly, and the leg and chump. I’ve deboned a shoulder and leg and have got the butcher's knot down to a fine art. The next stage was to make sausages out of the cubed shoulder. The machines at the centre are fantastic and can mince 10kg of pork in a couple of minutes. The centre made us use ready made sausage mixes, used by all supermarkets and most butchers. We’ve decided the Banceithin sausage will not be like those other sausages, and we want to control everything that goes into them, so I have been starting to do small batches in our kitchen to get the herb and spices mixture right.

I’m looking to do three types of sausage, a good breakfast sausage with sage, a spicy one and a garlic one.


The first test was ok, but my mincer was set too fine so the sausages were a little firm. Next test I’ll be using the coarse setting, though this process is more about getting the flavour right, as I will be using the Food Centre's equipment to make the sausages to sell to the public.

The final training day this week was to learn how to dry cure and brine cure meat to make hams and bacon. Mmmmmm! It’s so simple, and I can’t wait to produce my own bacon. I just hope we don’t sell too much of it, as I want to keep it all for myself!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

And the winner is …

The omens were not good from the start. First stop on the Green Tourism Awards road trip was the supermarket, to stock up on nutritious road trip snacks to keep us perky for the long journey, you know the kind of thing I mean – cheese puffs, bacon fries, fizzy cola bottles. As I rummaged amongst the cobwebs in my purse I heard the till operator mutter about something being inauspicious. At first I thought she was passing judgement on my snack choice, but then I noticed that my purchases added up to “£6.66”. Yikes! Obviously putting something back was not an option, so I laughed in the face of superstition and strode confidently back to the car, muttering under my breath “this trip is not doomed, we’re gonna win, this trip is not doomed, we’re gonna win…”.

The rest of the day passed without a hitch. I didn’t drop beetroot on my parents carpet at lunch. We didn’t get stuck in a monumental M4 traffic jam. I didn’t spill red wine on my white shirt at dinner. We didn’t have the airbed with a leak. Maybe Lady Luck had stowed herself away under the dog blanket and joined us on our journey to the Big Smoke.

Well if she had, come the next morning she’d upped and left us. Can’t say I blame her. The price of a beer in Pizza Express was nearly enough to send me scuttling back over the border. The bad juju started with an iron, or more specifically, a broken iron. But that was ok because Dave would be able to iron his shirt when we got to our friend’s place in Wimbledon. Oh dear, said friend doesn’t appear to be answering her phone. That’s ok, she’d be home by the time we’d driven across South London. But she wasn’t. Dave failed to make himself understood by her non-English speaking cleaner so off he went in search of the local laundrette. As luck would have it there was one round the corner. This is the laundrette that only closes on Christmas Day and one other day in the year. What are the chances of us turning up on annual steamer servicing day! And so it came to pass that just hours before the awards ceremony was due to start, Dave is stood in his boxer shorts on the pavement of a leafy residential street in Wimbledon changing into suit and crumpled shirt.

Time for a pre-awards ceremony pint to calm the nerves brought on by all this bad juju. What’s that you say? None of the beer pumps are working today? Okay, okay, I get it, I’m reading the signs, we were never supposed to win! 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Fastest pig in the West

I’m sure you’re heard of “Babe”, a rather successful kids film about a small pink pig with a talent for sheep herding. I think we may have the reverse situation on our hands. Teri is a Welsh border collie. She’s supposed to have an instinct for sheep herding. She prefers pig herding.

For the past few weeks the sheep on the neighbouring land have been helping themselves to our tasty pasture. Each morning there can be up to 30 sheep and lambs grazing around the pig pens. This is of no consequence to Teri who, without so much as a cursory glance in their direction, makes a beeline for the pig pens, leaving me, in dressing gown and wellies combo, to corral the sheep without canine assistance and shepherd them back where they belong. Meanwhile, Slater and his girls rush to the fence line to meet Teri, there follows a short stand off, nose to snout through the wire. Teri leans forward bum in the air, nose to the ground, poised to run. The pigs stand their ground, beady eyes fixed on Teri. Who will make the first move? The pigs turn tail and make a mad dash across the mud to the other side of the pen. Teri takes the perimeter route. Who will get to the other side first? This performance continues, with the pigs zigzagging the length and breadth of their pen pinball fashion. This happens every day, two, three, four times a day.

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At first I thought Teri was the ringleader, with the pigs simply reacting to her, but the more I watch this routine, the more convinced I am that it’s the pigs who are in control. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the pigs positively revel in this ritual, and quite deliberately rev Teri up. There’s a knowing smile on Slater’s face as he leads his girls in a race to the other side, ears flapping in the wind, four trotters leaving the ground as Rosie leaps the food trough like a championship hurdler, mud flying up as Honey takes the corner at a cracking pace, Blanket at the back trying to keep up. All very amusing, but not ideal when you’re trying to fatten your pigs not break the porcine land speed record!


Saturday, 14 May 2011

Keep Calm & Carry On

I procrastinate. A lot. When I’m not procrastinating I’m getting distracted. In between procrastination and distraction I’m writing lists of things to do that I can procrastinate over and be distracted away from. Absent deadlines or pressures I’ve morphed into a butterfly brain flitting and not completing. No surprise then that this week I found myself in possession of a swarming bee colony.

The fact is that honey bees live to swarm. It’s their bee all and end all! No swarming, no procreation of the species, and if ever there was a species that needs to procreate it’s apis mellifera. Sitting in bee school lessons hearing of swarms, how to catch one in a cardboard box, how to prevent one happening in the first place, was all well and good, but the whole time a voice in my head was saying, “don’t worry, it’ll never come to that”. Somehow I convinced myself that my colony would break with thousands of years of evolution and be the colony that never swarms but lives happily ever after in the same hive just churning out honey and causing no trouble. Admittedly this was flying in the face of the evidence before me at each hive inspection. Ostrich. Head. Sand. My bees were intent on building queen cells. Every queen cell is a potential swarm. At the last count I had six of the beggars. And still I procrastinated. The books said I should create my own artificial swarm immediately. My head said, maybe tomorrow.

And so it came to pass that on the only day in the calendar so far this year when I am out all day and due to go out the same evening, a quick post-polytunnel watering hive check revealed that all hell had broken loose at bee central. Bees were pouring out of the hive. Before my very eyes the front & sides of the hive were blackening with a blanket of bees. It’s compelling viewing. The air was thick with bees. If I lose the swarm I lose two-thirds of my colony. At current prices for a new honey bee nucleus, that’s potentially £120 pounds worth of bees flying off over the hedgerow. If it was a deadline I’d been waiting for, I certainly had that now!

Bee suit on, with heart pounding, I tracked the line of bees.


The buzzing grew louder and louder and reached a crescendo about 15 feet along the hedge line. I could hear them but I couldn’t see them. So into the grassland, round the other side and into the ditch I go, and sure enough hanging in the thick of the blackthorn tree was a small rugby ball shaped cluster of my bees. I’d never seen a real swarm before. I thought I never would. Now face to face to with one (or rather face to thousands of 5-eyed fuzzy faces), I felt strangely calm, albeit a hot & sweaty kind of calm. I spread my sheet in the ditch, placed my bucket under the swarm, and reached for the branch loppers. Damn and blast, the angle was all wrong and there was no room for manoevre. I swapped loppers for big stick and gave the branch a whack. Dave chuckled at my performance as the Ninja Beekeeper in the hedge inexpertly abusing a tree with her Kendo sword.


Easy to laugh when you’re watching from a very safe distance.

According to my bee book, one whack of the branch and the whole swarm should fall in heap into your bucket and stay there. When you’re standing in a field in West Wales, sweating in your bee suit, what you actually get is a face full of bees. The bombardment on my suit sounded like a heavy shower of gold ball sized hailstones. Very persistent hailstones that keep coming back for a second, third, fourth attack!

Some whackings later, I had a bucket of bees. Me and my black cloud of angry bee followers headed back to the apiary (grand name for a patch of grass and two hives). According to my bee book, it’s a straightforward task to tip your bucket of bees into your empty hive brood box. When you’re standing in a field in West Wales, dripping with sweat in your bee suit, what you actually get is a trickle of bees dropping into your brood box and flying back out to join the bees that escaped en route. Meanwhile, on the other side of the hedge, the swarm was re-forming. If I don’t get the queen, this could go on forever. It took four increasingly fraught and sweaty trips before the swarm stopped re-forming. My state of mind wasn’t helped by the fact that Steve was determined to test the “curiosity killed the cat” theory to the limit, to-ing and fro-ing across the field with me. It’s difficult to reason with a cat at the best of times, but trying to do so while holding a bucket full of furious bees was never going to work.

The next morning all was quiet down at bee central. The only clue that something untoward might have taken place was the presence of discarded lopped off tree branches scattered amongst patches of flattened grass.


Muted buzzing sounds emanated from the new hive. My swarmed colony had survived their first night. By midday bees were emerging from the hive – thankfully one by one not all at once!


Monday, 9 May 2011

What big eyes you have!

I take back what I said about pesky foreign imports. Or at least I redirect the insult from the nest cam to the Japanese made TV. Turns out that nest cam was in perfect working order. Hats off to the import company who took it back, replaced it without question, and probably put our names on the blacklist of numpty luddites not fit to own gadgets. Although we now had a working nest cam in our possession, it was way too late in the nesting process for us to set it up again. Mrs Blue Tit would be none too happy with a ham fisted human lifting the lid on her house, rummaging around in her nest & leaving her with the beady eye of Big Brother watching as she pops out an egg or two or ten.

Dave came up with a cunning plan to turn the bumble house into a weather-proof camera box (don’t worry, no bumble bees were evicted as the box has only ever housed slugs, spiders & the occasional mouse), cobble together some supports from his ever expanding collection of random bits of wood that may come in handy one day (a true Welsh farmer in the making), and erect the contraption on the tree opposite our owl box.


We’d long ago given up hope of our resident barn owl finding himself a mate this year. He screeched himself hoarse but we’d only ever seen him on his own, so assumed his dulcet tones were not doing it for the females, or worse, that the harsh winter had been too much for all his fellow barn owls. Owl cam proved us wrong. Mrs Barn Owl was in residence. We were even treated to grainy footage of what looked like a spot of owl loving!

Owl cam has no lights and makes no noise, but I’m sure the owls somehow know that they’re being watched. During the day all that can been seen is the sleeping form of huddled up owl, with the occasional wave of the wing or twitch of an eye if the chickens are being particularly shouty about their egg laying. Come nightfall though, Mr Barn Owl starts playing peek-a-boo with the camera….


… before clambering over Mrs Barn Owl and exiting to bag himself a vole snack, leaving Mrs Barn Owl behind.


Yesterday Mrs Barn Owl also left the box for a very short while. Owl cam picked up the shadowy form of the treasure she’d been guarding. Yes, the owl loving has borne fruit and we think there are at least two eggs in the box. We’re bemused as to why she has chosen to lay so near the entrance and our hearts sink every time we see Mr Magpie hovering near the box. He has his own family to look after up in the ash tree behind the house and I fear he has plans to feed them an owl egg omelette. Don’t panic, magpie scaring patrol will now be part of the daily rounds and fingers crossed we’ll have news of owlet hatchings to report very soon.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

It’s official, Springwatch is coming to Ynys Hir

It’s finally been announced that the RSPB reserve I have started volunteering at has been chosen as the location for the BBC Springwatch program for the next 2-3 years. Ynys Hir is a cracking little reserve between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth, it has ancient oak woodland descending into a wetland reserve and onto the Dovey estuary. I had a fab day yesterday as I was allowed to join the nest box inspection team who weekly check the 300 nest boxes to log the nesting activities.


John and Neil checking a box amongst the Bluebells


I was lucky to check the first box on the reserve to contain chicks, which weren’t much bigger than my thumbnail! This one was a Blue Tit nest.

The rest of the day was spent constructing a ramp to the new overflow car park to accommodate the influx of visitors expected once Springwatch starts. Our workshop at the reserve is currently being transformed into the main studio for Humble and Packam, but as of yet I haven’t been asked to do any ‘spots’ on the show itself, but it can only be a matter of time.


After being taught the technique for checking nest boxes, we decided to check the three boxes I put up at Banceithin. I made a little cork stop to put in the hole prior to opening the box. This is to stop any bird flying off, as they don’t tend to fly out of the lid when that is opened. We luckily have two boxes with tiny little Blue Tit females sitting on their eggs. At this stage we can’t tell how many eggs there are, but there can be up to 10! We have also had the House Martins return and are busy nesting in the eaves, a Magpie nest in a tree by the back door, and a Red Start building a nest in the loft, which is very unusual. There are lots of Swallow but I have yet to track down their nesting sites. We have also got some great news about our Barn Owls, but Philippa is going to dedicate a full post on that!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Swapping Sindy for Spring

This year I am experiencing my first spring. There have been other springs in my life, obviously. I am knocking 40 afterall. The operative word is “experiencing”. As a child I was too busy planning Sindy’s weekly wedding to Action Man to notice the passing seasons. As a teenager my attention was diverted by the contents of “Smash Hits” and “Just Seventeen” magazines and the big questions in life, such as is Boy George really a boy or is he in fact a girl. In the student years spring was all about study and beer, beer and study, and too much time spent in a below ground radio station. There then followed a seamless transition to London, long hours, office walls and a computer screen, when spring was little more than a tree in a pavement surrounded by dog s**t passed en route to a tube or train station. Even the move out of London to a house with a garden didn’t bring spring any closer to me – it just meant more to do in the garden and less time to do it in – spring was a restorative glass (bottle?!) of wine in front of the TV and the occasional glimpse of Bill Oddie on a sofa with Kate Humble rambling on about birds and badgers. Last year, my first spring here in West Wales, wasn’t really any different as my world consisted solely of paint, polyfilla and soft furnishings. This year, however, everything is different. This year I have time. More of it and moving through it at a slower pace. This year I have the inclination. Perhaps it comes with the onset of middle age and watching too many episodes of River Cottage or perhaps it was always there, hidden away, biding its time until all those other distractions fell away. And this year I have the location. Slowly but surely our little patch of West Wales is emerging from building work and neglect and taking on a life of its own.

Did we always have so many dog violets and primroses in the hedgerows along our lane? Was there always garlic mustard growing just about everywhere? Have gorse flowers always smelled of Hawaiian Tropic sun cream? And who knew that blackthorn has flowers before leaves but hawthorn has leaves before flowers? It’s a tricksy thing is nature.

Spring highlight so far is the blue tit nesting in nest cam box.


Spring lowlight so far is nest cam breaking down just as nest building gets interesting.

There were tears and tantrums but to no avail. Our resident blue tit had done her best to take out the camera by pecking at the cables in the box, risking mild electrocution in the process, but she needn’t have bothered as the simple fact is that the camera’s a dud. Return to sender! Just for once I thought I’d be watching my own footage instead of nest watching vicariously through Packham, Humble & Co. Damn and blast those pesky foreign made imports.

Saturday, 2 April 2011


First let me apologise to any regular readers about the recent tardiness and lack of blog updates. I completely blame the evil that is ‘Chirper’, ‘Tweeter’ or whatever it is. Since Philippa immersed herself in the 142 character world, it seems the blogosphere has taken a back seat. I made an announcement today, over some rather yummy cheese on toast, that I would take on the baton of the Banceithin blog, and log the progress of our first full operational year.

Bertha the boiler has again been busy providing the warmth to start germinating our first seeds that are destined for the poly tunnel.


Chili’s and toms


The window sills are awash with new young plants. We have loads of tomatoes, Matina as our main crop, Favorita as our cherry variety, Sparta as our bush tomatoes and a couple of Italian plum (San Marzano, Costoluto Fiorentina) which Philippa is in charge of. I have assumed responsibility for herbs after criticising Philippa for the lack of parsley and coriander last year. You can imagine the conversation, with the words “…well you can b***** well do it this year!” ending the discussion abruptly.


Mmm, tasty parsley… that wasn’t that hard was it :-)


I love my pond, it’s official. The plants I pulled out from the ditch and transplanted into the new pond have actually flowered and it seems that they are Water Crowsfoot and are oxygenators. In terms of bugs I’ve spotted two types of water boatmen, pond skaters, snails, tiny beetles, and my favourite, the whirligig beetle. This iridescent beetle whizzes around in circles on the surface. The tadpoles have all hatched and are swimming around happily, but they need to keep away from the water boatmen, who apparently are quite partial to a little wriggler.

Philippa and I are continuing with our volunteering work. I’ve started working at a different RSPB reserve, and very excitingly it is going to be the venue for this years Spring Watch, but as it’s not official yet I’ll have to keep the site secret. I have been asked to help during the time the team are there. I am hoping for the role of Miss Humble’s cushion plumper, but expect I’ll be asked to man the shop to handle the influx of Humble and Packham spotters.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Another year, another project

Regular readers may recall the clay oven project. Alas, the clay oven project was not one of Dave’s success stories. I’m not expecting to be baking pizzas in it any time soon.


To be fair to Dave, the collapse was not entirely his fault and blame must be shared by me and Mother Nature. Mother Nature’s contribution to its downfall was freezing temperatures and layer upon layer of snow. My contribution, which exacerbated the effects of Mother Nature’s contribution, was to insist that the protective tarpaulin be removed as it offended my aesthetic sensibilities, and besides, who wants to go on holiday and gaze out on a countryside view marred by a bright blue unavoidable plastic mound in their line of sight.

I am assured that the clay oven project has not been abandoned, just delayed while the design is reassessed. It’s just as well that I didn’t part with any cash for this piece of building work, as otherwise a strongly worded letter would be winging its way to the BBC “Rogue Builders” team.

Nevertheless, in true rogue builder form, Dave has already moved onto another job – Project Pond.

Project Pond took me by surprise. I think it took Dave by surprise too as when he popped out that morning he only intended to build a log pile frog sanctuary. It was baking day (also known as heavy bread day) so I was busy throwing flour around in the kitchen, blissfully unaware of the excavations taking place up at the polytunnel. Next thing I know he returns to the kitchen, red of face and sweaty of brow, and declares “I’ve dug a pond”. 

Teri is an enthusiastic pond assistant. Ever since her walk (or rather wade) along our perimeter stream, Teri has been displaying aquatic tendencies. Any body of freshwater (the sea is still a scary salty mystery) is a Teri magnet – in she goes, out she comes, in she goes, getting muddy, dropping her ball in the deepest part. So a Pond Project involving two of favourite activities, digging and splashing, made for a blissful morning of mischief. 

Of course the problem with impromptu pond construction is the lack of appropriate materials. The d.i.y. pond liner was abandoned in favour of a “natural” wildlife pond, which was abandoned in favour of blowing some cash on a proper pond liner when the pond drained of water overnight. Lining a pond with sheet of liner approximately a hundred times bigger than your pond is no easy task on a windy day. That’s the trouble with internet shopping, you never quite know what you’re buying.

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Sometime later, with a bit of snipping, swearing and sweating, the new liner was in place.


Mercifully this time the pond water didn’t drain away overnight, and with some creative use of stones and logs we have a finished product waiting for inhabitants. There’s a big stone for the bees to use as a drinking platform, and a strategically placed log for the frogs to climb in and out. All that’s left to do is steal some plant life from the neighbours pond.



Mind you, I’m not sure how attractive a residence it will be for the local wildlife when the cats use it as a drinking fountain and the dog thinks it’s a canine splash pool.

Needless to say Project Pond has turned out to be slippery slope at the bottom of which is a stockpile of yet more projects. Currently we’re browsing for a new shed because the existing tool shed is about to become a duck house!