Spring Beekeeping

warre beekeepingThe appearance of the dandelions, which began a few weeks ago, is the cue to think about the “spring expansion” of our Warré bee hives. Last week’s warm sunny weather was the ideal opportunity to carry out the work. Here is Phil and his beekeeping assistant, wheelbarrow loaded and ready to go.

In Warré hives, expansion is carried out by placing empty boxes underneath the existing boxes of the hive – nadiring. This gives the bees extra space in which to build comb and expand the colony as the spring build up of numbers progresses.

The brighter coloured box on the bottom has been "nadired" onto this kive

The brighter box on the bottom has been “nadired” onto this hive

With the mild winter and reasonably early spring a couple of the colonies were already fully occupying their existing boxes. While Phil lifts the hive, his assistant takes an empty box and places it on the hive floor. The remaining boxes of the hive are then put back on top, all with minimal disturbance to the bees.

To fuel the spring increase in activity bees dilute honey stores with water so they can be consumed . Bees do have a rather odd taste in drinking water though! Many gather water from around the cow house which is heavily flavoured with cow dung, or from pots of compost around the polytunnel.  These bees are delighting in the water in a bucket of rotting garden weeds! Dozens can be seen here when the sun is shining.Bees in a bucket

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Spring Trim

Mowing in the gardn with Falci 128With the lighter mornings there is time to slip in a bit of work before breakfast. Here’s Phil using a scythe to tidy up the grass around the annual veg beds. Another useful opportunity to assess thSharpening Falci 128e Falci Model 128 blade.Falci 128

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Electric Fencing to Manage Grassland

Another spring time job is setting up the electric fencing on the spring / early summer grazing. Over the years I have worked with it a lot and come to appreciate its flexibility and usefulness and learnt some useful tricks to counteract some of its disadvantages.

Goats and sheep and electric fence

Note four strands of wire – a high one to stop the goats jumping over and a low one to stop the lambs creeping under!

So why do we use it? Subdividing fields into small parcels means we can move grazers frequently. The sheep and goats will be on the 2 acre bottom paddocks from now until the first aftermath grazing is available on the hay fields. Using electric fencing, the paddocks are divided into six roughly equal areas.

The animals are moved to a fresh area each week. The first patch will have been rested for about 5 weeks before the grazers get back to it again. This is beneficial for intestinal parasite control and it lessens the effect of the sheep / goats overgrazing their favorite plants while ignoring the less palatable, which can occur when set stocking on an area. We have also found that there is more opportunity for flowering on the resting areas, potentially benefiting pollinators.

Right - grass after one week of grazing and one of resting, Left - grass after one week of grazing

Left – grass has had one week of grazing. Right – grass has had one week of grazing and one of resting,

Why use electric fences rather than erect permanent fencing? It allows us to manage grazing where it would be inappropriate, time-consuming or expensive to erect permanent fencing. Electric fencing is also highly flexible. We have tried out several arrangements on the paddocks before settling on the pattern we use now. Should stocking change in the future there is scope to change again. And come autumn time, when we use the paddocks to graze the cow, we can take out the sheep fences and use the electric fencing to strip graze instead.

Ok, the bad bits – it’s not cheap to buy initially, it can be time-consuming to set up, can get into dreadful tangles if you don’t treat it with respect and can be extremely frustrating when the sheep insist that the grass IS greener on the other side and they ARE going through to it!

electric fence gate

Electric fence “gate” in one of the semi-permanent electric fences.

With planning, and sufficient posts and wire, we now set up a series of semi-permanent fences, much reducing the time spent taking down and re-erecting fences. An appropriately powered fencing unit and carefully erected fencing generally keeps the sheep and goats in place from spring to early autumn. In winter when grazing is sparse the sheep test the fence much more. We have found that making the fenced areas bigger at this point seems to help, then we revert to extensive grazing on the hay fields in the depths of winter.
Trimming-under-electric-fence.JPGA cunning way of storing lengths of wire on sticks, learnt when WWOOFing as a teenager, and electric fence “gates” between paddocks keeps tangles to a minimum and makes frequent moving of livestock much easier. And of course, should the grass get away from the livestock, a scythe is just the thing for trimming the grass under the fence and preventing it shorting out.

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Solar Cheese

willow the goat kidThe first of our two goats kidded on 2nd April, meaning we again have more milk then we can consume fresh or as yoghurt. The other thing we have in excess is electricity, having finally completed the installation of our 2KW Solar PV off grid system.

6 panels on the south to south east facing solar shed

6 panels on the south to south east facing solar shed

I decided to combine the two excesses and use only home produced power to make my first cheese of the season, hence a Solar Cheese.

My favorite cheese to make is Halloumi. It is a very forgiving cheese, so ideal when trying a bit of experimentation, and always a hit with the children (most important!).

I used a slow cooker to pasteurize the milk, warm it to the correct temperature for renneting and for cooking the curd. I usually use a water bath (double boiler) on a gas ring – this ensures even heating and avoid scalding of the milk as might occur if the gas flame was used to heat the milk pot directly. The slow cooker was an excellent substitute, giving slow controlled heating with no scalding and requiring very little attention apart from the odd stir and temperature check.

....and 3 more on the south to south west facing roof of our house

….and 3 more on the south to south west facing roof of our house

After draining and pressing, the cheese is cut into 1/2″ thick slices and soaked for an hour in whey which has been heated to 190F. It is this stage that is unusual and gives Halloumi it’s unique property, namely that it does not melt when fried.

I used a microwave to heat the whey at this stage, as slow gentle heating was not necessary. Yes, a microwave! I know people have mixed feelings about them, however they can be a very energy-efficient way to heat food and it is another way that we can use our solar produced energy to cook, so avoiding non-renewable fuels. The 8 minutes it took to heat the whey to the correct temperature used as much energy as about 1 hour of cooking in one of our slow cookers, but of course did it in a fraction of the time.

Once the cheese is removed from the whey, it is dried and salted. It is left for at least a day before eating to allow the salt to penetrate the cheese, although it can be hard to wait.

The final stage will be to fry up slices in a pan heated on our electric camping ring, then we can have delicious Solar Cheese for lunch!

We need to be imaginative when looking for ways to use our solar electricity, as we do not have enough power to run many standard electrical appliances eg a standard electric cooker. However, it is very satisfying to use it to replace fossil fuels that we would otherwise have burnt.

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Spring time in the Garden – Mulched Potatoes

For the last few years we have built an outdoor haystack. This serves as an emergency backup for the indoor stacks should we need additional animal feed in a really severe winter. Its primary purpose is to “store” mulch material for use in the garden in the spring, as there is little fresh to harvest at this time of the year.

potatoes and haycardboard mulchWe have grown potatoes using a hay mulch very successfully for many years now. A layer of well-rotted manure or compost is spread on a bed. The potatoes are laid on top then the whole lot covered with at least a foot deep of hay. While this method may not give the highest yields it is worth considering if you can lay your hands on plentiful mulch material. It is quick, adds plenty of organic matter to the garden bed and harvesting is very easy – simply peel back the now shrunken mulch and pick up the potatoes!

bed of muck

We usually use a lot of bracken as mulch in the garden in the autumn. However last autumn, we saved the majority of the bracken for use as animal bedding (far more than needed as it turned out!). The lack of autumn bracken mulch, combined with a heavy work load and a very wet autumn / winter that made working on the garden challenging, has meant that some beds are much less tidy then we would like at this time of year.

This has led us to resurrect a technique we used extensively when establishing the garden. Cardboard mulching gets untidy beds or even previously uncultivated ground into a fit state for planting with minimal effort on the part of the gardener.

Tall weeds on the bed are scythed down and left where they drop. Persistent weeds such as nettles can be pulled / dug out if necessary. The whole lot is covered with salvaged cardboard boxes, followed by a layer of muck / compost and a covering of hay to make it look tidy, keep in moisture and suppress weeds.

all done
After a couple of weeks the bed will be ready for planting, slightly longer if the bed was very weedy. Obviously it will not be suitable for sowing seeds direct, but strong plug / pot grown plants are easy to establish.

One point to note is that mulching should be done when the soil is damp. Otherwise you risk trapping dry soil under a thick layer of mulch that will not easily be re-wetted, especially if there is cardboard in the layers.

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Improvers Scythe Course at the West Country Scythe Fair

Scythe festival flier 2016

Philip will once again be co-teaching on the Improvers Scythe Course in the lead up to the West Country Scythe Fair in Somerset this June.

An excellent opportunity to improve your scything as well as meet and socailise with the wider UK scything community. Book your place now!

To book, email Simon at scythes@myphone.coop tel 01297 561359


Why Struggle? 
Learn how to get your blades sharper and to scythe expertly
at the
at the
West Country Scythe Fair

Friday 10 and Saturday 11 June 
• mowers with some experience who want to develop their skills;
• team leaders managing volunteers or staff;
• people who want to teach scythe use to others.

Over two days, you will get personal attention from three of the most experienced teachers in the UK:
Christiane Laganda, scythe and yoga teacher from Austria;
Phil Batten master peener and scythe competition winner from Scythe Cymru;
and Steve Tomlin author of the definitive scythe manual Learn to Scythe.

The course covers: correct set up of the tool; your mowing stance and style; sharpening, peening and repairing blades; teaching and organizing volunteers and novices.

The venue is at Thorney Lakes. Muchelney, near Langport http://www.thorneylakes.co.uk/
The cost is £125 for individuals, £150 for organizations, £80 concession for unwaged. Meals are provided. Camping on site is available. Includes live Gypsy Jazz from the Gaulois Brothers on Saturday evening.

Nicole Clough of Bucks Berks and Oxon Wildlife Trust who did this course two years ago writes:
I came away with a far deeper understanding of the scythe and my technique, as well as the tools and course structure to teach others in a safe and efficient manner. It has revolutionised our team at BBOWT, and we now use scythes for a great many of our tasks. As a result our management is more wildlife sensitive and volunteer friendly. A number of my colleagues have now also done the course, with more booked on in the future. This has enabled us to train in the region of 50 staff and volunteers across our three counties in just 2 years. Great for wildlife, great for people.

To book, email Simon at scythes@myphone.coop tel 01297 561359

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Spring Peen your Scythe Blade!

Spring is here. This is an ideal time to get your blade out and give it a thorough service ahead of the mowing season. Give it a good clean and get out your peening equipment, repair any dints and damage, sharpen the edge. We have a Peening and Sharpening Workshop on Sunday 3rd April if you need a bit of help and support to get started or are looking to expand and improve your existing peening skills.

Below is a video by Neil Dudman introducing the art of jig peening. Our workshop gives you a chance to try out all these skills and more. Numbers of participants are kept small so that you will receive plenty of individual attention and support, whether you are trying jig peening for the first time or attempting blade repair using an anvil.

We will work through the whole process, from setting up a peening station to taking hammer to metal. A good part of the workshop is dedicated to allowing you time to practice the skills on your own blade (or our practice blades), either with a jig or freehand on an anvil. By the end of the day you should feel more confident about your peening skills and have a sharper blade to take home.

Peening Workshop
Peening Workshop
Price: £40.00
Date :
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