Sunday 27 January 2013

Axe Workshop And Charcoal Making Course

This is going to be a long post but I'll let the pictures do the talking!
On this blog I'll concentrate on the charcoal making and on my other blog I'll talk about the axe side of things.
Setting up camp in heavy snow was interesting!
A snowy tent
It didn't dampen our spirits though!

Starting to pack in the wood for the charcoal burn

The compost toilet - almost looks picturesque

The barrel full for the charcoal burn, tightly packed in

Tipping the barrel over the fire (that's why the wood is tightly packed into the barrel)

Some time to roast some chestnuts
Watching for the smoke to change
Stopping the burn with soil

The charcoal the next day cooled and ready to bag up

The group next to a "cord" of wood we'd set up
A great weekend learning some new skills and practising old ones.
It was also a great opportunity to camp in conditions where I normally wouldn't bother! I wasn't cold once so I must have dressed right.
The snow made the course more interesting if anything, hunting for fire wood became harder as was keeping the fire going. I also learnt a little more about making charcoal, it was a completely different way to how my brother and I were making it in a 45 gallon drum a few years ago and it reinforced the knowledge I already had about it.
I love weekends like this! If anyone is interested I really recommend their course -

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Camping In The Snow

My wife thinks I'm mad. That's normal. But this weekend she thinks I'm Stark-Raving!
Just because my brother and me are camping out?
Some of my kit for the weekend - two sleeping bags might be a good idea do you think?
My brother and I are both off up to a wood in Staffordshire to go on an axe workshop and charcoal making class this weekend. It involves two nights out under the stars, although with all this snow I don't think we're be seeing many stars in the sky.
This is through Survival School who we've done a couple of courses with before, so we know it's going to be good. Previously we went on an Introduction to bush craft weekend course (back in 2007) where we learnt loads and a week long course for "extreme survival" (2010) into the Scottish Highlands with just one bag of kit each. This week long course was great fun and a good test of team work and skills, from skinning a deer to firing a flare (I might do another post about this course as it was so good).
I love it, we're both into our bush craft and survival skills and its a great way to spend a weekend together where we're not working, just messing around in the woods like we did when we were kids.
The snow should make things interesting as I've never camped in it before.
Any tips or things I should take?
I'm keeping kit to a minimum and I've resisted the temptation to buy more "stuff" to go on this trip with. I've always been told "The more you know the less you need" and hopefully I'm getting pretty experienced at it now.

Friday 18 January 2013

Storage Problems

I think that most modern families have a common problem - not enough storage. We certainly do.

Just a tiny selection of some of our books!

Our little girl is growing up so quick and getting through clothes at a rate of knots, but as we want more children we don't want to throw any of these clothes away. I have been taking some to my mothers in plastic boxes as well as some of the toys she's grown out of. The trouble is I can see mothers patience running thin as I try to hide another box in her house.
Tiny little loft hatch - not good for much!
I'd like to keep this stuff here if I could, but there's a big problem - or rather a small one. We've got a tiny little loft hatch.
It takes some squeezing through, so large boxes of baby clothes and car seats have got no chance. I finally decided to do something about it when I was putting the decorations away and having to "launch" them through the hole!
I bought a complete loft hatch with its own ladder, sprung loaded and insulated hatch. they're good qualitity and I fitted five of these in the same house i was working at last year so I knew what I was doing. With today's near blizzard conditions I decided to get it fitted.
The new, all singing, all dancing loft hatch!
Now I've got the hatch fitted I'm going to board out the middle section of the loft (I'll raise the floor up so it won't squash the insulation) and fit a couple of lights (this will be another weekend not this one!). That way it will make it much easier to store all our baby stuff for future use and maybe things like camping gear and sewing stuff can go up there to, just coming down when we want to use it. By having the loft easily accessible it means it's not such a chore to go into it.
And before anyone says it  - don't worry I'm not going to overload my loft. All the weight will be spread (there's plenty of load bearing walls that finish in there as well) and nothing of any real weight will be stored in there. Also our roof isn't a modern truss roof designed to the minimum requirements, ours was built at the end of the forties, things were always over engineered then and the ceiling joists seem substantial for the spans (trust me I'm a carpenter...).
Anyone else got any storage solutions? We still need more - books mainly but we don't believe in hiding them away!

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Making Cereal Bars

Mornings are a slightly rushed affair in our house. And although I have a full bowl of muesli every morning (and have done since I was about 7 years old), my wife insists on having a "cereal bar".
As I do the food shopping I really begrudge buying these bars, for the same price as my big bag of muesli you get around 10 tiny bars. This set me thinking as to whether we could make our own - the "we" as it was Daddy-Daughter Monday.
Ready for some stirring
We decided to look at recipes on the Internet and find the one that was either - a) looked the easiest or b) contained ingredients we had in the store cupboard. This didn't really happen, so I decided to "adapt" a recipe (how many meals I wrecked from doing this I've lost count).
Quite a few ingredients
We brought a host of dried fruit and seeds during the weekly shop and when we got some we set to it.
The ingredients were -
200g of rolled oats,
100g of rice crispys (or cheap rice snaps as I bought),
200g unsalted butter ,
6 table spoons of golden syrup,
two table spoons of linseed,
two table spoons of pumpkin seeds,
two table spoons of sunflower seeds,
100g of dates and dried apricots,
Some currents for good measure.
two bananas mushed up
Quality control was tough...
Nothing too tough about this - melt the butter, chop everything up (fruit and seeds) and mix it all together. Bake it for 20 minutes and then see that it doesn't really stick together. I was a bit disappointed about this, I think maybe it was my addition of the rice crispys that might have done it (I wanted to make sure it wasn't like flapjack) or the fact that I only put in half the golden syrup in by mistake!
Almost bar like
Some of it made good bar like chunks though and my wife had it for breakfast this morning and said how nice it was.
It was also a great way to spend an afternoon with my baby, as she loved every minute, she talked me through every step, stirred the mixture and tasted all the different fruit and seeds that went into it (although she wouldn't lick the spoon at the end - I had to instead!).
So it wasn't a complete failure but wasn't quite as cereal bar like as I was hoping, maybe next time.
 Has anyone else made cereal-type bars (not flapjack I can make that) and if so were they any good?

Saturday 12 January 2013

First Time On A Shoot

A late night phone call on Thursday changed my weekend. A family friend, Tim, rang and invited me to attend one of their shoots, all my plans went out the window instantly!
Although I'm a keen hunter (that said it doesn't happen very often) I've never on an organised shoot before, or shot pheasants or ducks really, so I was keen to experience it. As well as this the farm isn't very far away so it's a great way for me to meet people in the area and get some much needed exercise!
A dog keen to do what it was bred for
I was however a little worried about the etiquette and what to wear. One of my friends at work had lent me some of his shooting gear so I had more chance of looking the part but I'm sure I broke the first rule by turning up in a white transit! Luckily it's a very informal syndicate shoot and everyone was really friendly and not stuck up at all. 
We did about 5 "drives" over the day (where the birds are driven towards the guns), but as it's only a small shoot we didn't see a very large number of birds. With 10 or so guns we only bagged 30 birds over the whole day (and a squirrel).
But it wouldn't have mattered if I hadn't taken a shot all day as it was nice to be outside with like minded people from all walks of life, and to watch the dogs work was a joy in itself. There was 8 or 9 Spaniels and about 3 Labradors all doing what they were bred for. The one lab fetched a bird from a fast flowing stream without skipping a beat, and most of the others worked hard to flush birds from the rough patches and pick up any we shot. Watching the dogs like this was probably the best bit of the day.
5 pheasants and a duck should provide tea for quite a few nights!
The sum total of what I shot was one duck. I seemed to have bad luck on where I was placed, I didn't fire my gun after the first drive as the birds were either too low or too far away. I'd rather not take the shot than take a chance on wounding the animal so my cautous aporach saved me from wasting too many cartridges but didn't make it any less fun.
As it's getting towards the end of the shooting season some of the regulars are getting a bit fed up with game, this worked in my favour as I managed to walk away with 3 brace of birds (much more than I shot), so that gives us a number of cheap and tasty teas to enjoy over the next week or so.
Today was a great experience and it felt like a true scene of the english countryside. Now I've just got to decide what to do with all these pheasants...

Monday 7 January 2013

Plastic Bags On My Daughters Feet...

Yes this is as bad as the title suggests! For our first "daddy-daughter" Monday of the year I wanted us to do a little gardening together.
When it came to us doing some gardening however we hit upon a snag.
This is the first time she's been able to get "about" outside, she's not walking yet (although not far off I recon!) but she's crawling really well and into everything! The trouble is she's a small baby and when we've taken her to get some shoes and wellies (wellies are much more important I feel!) they've said her little feet are too small and sent us away so she can grow some more. She's only just a baby size 2 so they had nothing in stock.
Well I didn't want to disappoint her (and I was fairly sure we were due no visitors) so I took a different approach to the problem.
Plastic bags.
Sandwich bags to be precise.
Put on with sellotape.
If I'm honest it's not my proudest moment as a parent but she didn't seem to mind.
Anyway, outside tidying up my front boarders my "crawling baby whose into everything" didn't move an inch, just sat there chatting to me as I cut down some old roses!
Must go on ebay tonight!

Sunday 6 January 2013

Plucking Ducks

A friend I work with is very keen on his shooting and he came in on Friday with three ducks for me. He knows I like my game and I like it even more if its free!
The trouble with free "gifts" of meat is that they always involve a bit of work, so this afternoon I filled a feed bag full of straw (the warmest makeshift seat there is) pulled up a large tub and started plucking.
Three ducks for a decadent Sunday roast

I can't say preparing meat (birds especially) from scratch is a job I particularly enjoy, but I love eating them and hate to see anything go to waste (which can be the case on large organised shoots where due to the labour involved they throw most away). Having an area outside to do it makes it easier as it can be quite messy. One day I plan to make myself an area where I can do things like this in some comfort!
A comfy area to do some plucking!
I've never prepared ducks before and man do they have some feathers and soft feathers at that! I didn't bother with the wings much (just chopped them off with the axe in the background) but there was plenty of meat on the rest of them. Plucking is quite easy once you get into the hang of it, pluck with your thumb and index finger, grab small amounts and in a short, sharp motion pull away from the way they naturally lie.
Once I'd plucked them I singed the downy feathers that were left with a flame, then removed the head and legs before gutting them.
I'm not in any way as fat as this picture makes me look!
Inside the house I rinsed them out and washed off the singed feathers before adding some salt, pepper and olive oil and putting them in the oven.
Three cooked ducks

The meat tasted amazing, full of flavour and tender, much better than an intensively reared animal. Three ducks was far too many for the two of us (I won't let my daughter eat it just yet as there's the chance there could be shot in it) as there was loads of meat on each bird but I'm planning on doing another meal in the week with the leftovers.
This was my first taste of wild duck and it won't be my last!
Anyone else tried anything for the first time lately?
And any ideas on what to do with leftover duck? I'm thinking over indulgent sandwiches first!

Saturday 5 January 2013

Thoughts On Sheep

I wrote this a few years ago and just found it kind of fitting for a January night I think:
I never, ever, thought I’d say this.
But for the last few years around this time I always seem a little restless in the evenings, kicking my heels and not knowing what is wrong with me. Last year I worked it out and it turns out that I miss the one job that I used to moan most about!
We had, at one point, about 300 sheep on the farm. For as long as I can remember I’ve always helped with the sheep but lambing was the bit that took the most time and caused the most stress. Everyday was the start of a massive list of chores that had to be completed only to be redone the next day. When I was at school we used to feed twice a day and I used to help both times, sometimes getting changed out of my overalls in the school car park. Luckily in a rural community smelling of sheep isn’t the worst thing you can smell of!
When I started working we switched to feeding at night only, just chucking the sheep some hay in the morning to give them something to chew. I used to get home on a cold winter night after spending far too long on a cold (and probably wet) building site, warm myself up for half and hour then go and feed the sheep with Dad. This would take upwards of an hour but sometimes a lot more if we had a ewe on lambing, a lamb that wouldn’t suck or a ewe that wouldn’t “take”.
When I was doing this I didn’t realise how much Dad was doing it for me as much as the farm, because when I left home and moved 50 miles away he gradually got rid of all the sheep over a couple of years.
Now two years later I still think this is a little sad, with no sheep of our own left but he seems so much happier for it and mum no longer has to suffer the January and February depression that used to accompany lambing.
He’s much happier sticking to growing crops and selling machinery, now his business is expanding fast with two full time employees and my brother part time, he’s much happier talking to people than sheep. And less likely to find one of them has drowned in a water bucket over night (hope I’m not tempting fate here!).
Me on the other hand, I forever long to live in the past, where keeping sheep would earn you a decent living and to start your own farm you didn’t have to be a retired judge with ambitions of having a pony!
I really do love the upbringing I had, bottle feeding pet lambs, watching lambs race round the pen, the quiet that falls in the barn after the sheep have been fed. I hope that when I have children I can give them some of the same type of memories that I have and hopefully they can learn the work and effort that’s needed to raise animals for meat and learn to enjoy the process.

Well two more years have passed since I wrote that, and now I'm much closer to giving my child that upbringing with our own little homestead. Hard work and good luck have seen to that, but I'm sure there's plenty more of both to come!
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