mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Slow on the uptake

I am the only person in my family who likes brussels sprouts – so when I was given some young plants recently I decided to conduct a little trial, feeling as I did that some were expendable.

I planted nine seedlings. Three I sprayed daily with a solution of diluted washing-up liquid, three I planted tagetes around and three I surrounded with roasted and broken egg shells. This was clearly not very scientific since I should have done nothing at all to one and surrounded another with all three lines of defence. Tagetes too are effective against insects, not slugs – but they seemed like a good idea at the time.

So, unscientific-ness notwithstanding, I can now exclusively reveal the result of my experiment, which is that I now have neither brussels sprouts nor tagetes. Most have been eaten to the stalk, others are looking threadbare to the point of no return.

The culprit is deroceras reticulatum, better know as the grey field slug, which is apparently a terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusk – whatever that is. We have an awful lot of them and they are very enterprising sorts of chaps. I found several nestling under clods of earth around the base of one of my sprouts, cleverly hemmed in next to their quarry by my thoughtful scattering of egg shells.

I decided to consult my mother whose battle with slugs and snails has spanned more decades than she would care to reveal. She is merciless in their presence and exhibits a chilling ruthlessness one feels a little disturbing in a mother. Together we looked up organic ways to get rid of slugs and I came away full of hope, why I don't know – the blessed sprouts being already history.

As we were leaving my mother's, our progress was impeded by two cats in the middle of the road who were clearly up to no good. They reluctantly slunk off as our car drew closer and the children shouted that there was a 'snake' on the road. In fact, what the cats had been tormenting was a slow-worm.

Don't get me started on cats.

It has been many a year since I last picked up a slow-worm. My eldest brother was very fond of them – and grass snakes – and there were plenty of both hanging around at home when I was a stripling. Those and owl pellets and rabbit pelts – my poor mother has never quite got over her fear of pockets ever since.
Anyway, I felt his removal was necessary since the cats had retired under a car and were waiting to resume their entertainment. My first two attempts to pick him up failed – he was just a little too wriggly for comfort. But I finally got hold of him and he weaved crossly in and out of my fingers and shat on my hand. I examined him for collateral damage and showed him to the children complete with short accompanying lecture ('Well, you see, the really really interesting thing about slow-worms is that they are not snakes but actually lizards whose feet have – oh, never mind, don't listen then'). Lastly, to the slow-worm's great relief, I hid him under some wood while the cats weren't looking.

It wasn't until we were further down the road, that a distant memory surfaced of slow-worms eating slugs. It turns out they do – and, would you believe it, their favourite sort of slug is the field grey. I had literally let the solution to my problem slip through my fingers and all I had left to show for it was a smelly hand and a dollop of slow-worm poo.

I'm sure there's some kind of metaphor for life there.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Pressing charges

We have no electricity – save for a car battery that keeps the radio and a couple of lights going. So when it comes to recharging things, such as a Nintendo DS or iPod, I have to beg for the use of a plug socket wherever one is available.

The problem with this system – aside from availability – is that assorted electrical items end up being left behind at the places they were charging.

Top of the list of important-things-that-get-left-behind is our screwgun. This is a costly item and a highly necessary piece of equipment, all of which adds to the stress of not being quite sure where I left it last.

Recently I left it at the hall where our home education group takes place. For two hours I badgered people – the caretaker, members of the group, the poor drama teacher who had next booked the hall – trying to locate its whereabouts. Eventually, I was put out of my misery by someone many more times efficient than I who had picked it up as she left.

The next day, I drove 20 miles to her house to pick it up. There I had a lovely time drinking tea, chatting about life, and inspecting her garden and cockerels. When the time came to leave I collected my eldest son, the brussels sprouts plants and bunch of rhubarb I had been given and headed for the car, to be gently asked if I would also like to take the screwgun.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I headed for a party at a community in a nearby village. 'Can you take the screwgun,' said Gully. I stared at him and pointed out that I was going to a party and it wasn't generally good etiquette to turn up with large electrical tools. But I took it anyway.

We ate, drank, made merry and left to cheerful reminders about the screwgun. Halfway home we had a phone call from the mother of one of Zena's friends – she had left her camera in their caravan. We returned to the party, collected the camera and headed home. Back at the field I opened the boot of the car and realised immediately that it did not contain the green case that houses the screwgun and which has begun to pervade my dreams.

We returned to the party. Halfway along the drive I met the people who had shouted the reminders.

'Forgot the screwgun,' I said brazening it out – I had little choice but to do anything else. They stared at me incredulously. They are a lovely bunch of people, the same bunch in fact who had stayed late to help me look for my car keys – twice – and assisted in the location of the screwgun the previous time.

I thought I could see what they were thinking.

The screwgun was in the car park where the car had been; it had at least got that far. Personally, I blame the children. I believe there is something called the 'departure-factor'. This works much along the same lines as the wind-chill factor, where the temperature feels lower than it actually is because of the wind. In a similar vein, the departure-factor makes it feel like you have more children than you actually have.

So it is that when you wish to leave somewhere, you must first locate various scattered offspring. If you have three children, there may possibly be one close at hand, another will be in the field of vision but inaccessible, and a third will have disappeared altogether. A short while later, the missing third child will hove into view, which you scurry over to collect and admonish. But on turning around, it is apparent that now the other two have vanished. And so it goes on.

At the party, this process was made more difficult by the venue, which was a large manor house with two stairways, many corridors and extensive grounds. I knew one child was in the house, one was close by, and the other – well, it was anyone's guess where she was.

I have finally learnt, through long hard experience, not to send one child after another – for that way lies madness. So I kept a firm grip on the one that was to hand and finally, after three quarters of an hour managed to get the rest corralled. This, as any sheepdog will tell you, is the critical moment. One small lapse of vigilance and they're gone. So it is at this point that the urge to throw them in the car and step on the accelerator overtakes any rationale regarding items of electrical equipment that may be on charge.
Can Post-it notes really replace a brain?
My sister suggested I write a Post-it note reminding myself of what is on charge and attach it to the steering wheel. But that is assuming rather a lot – first, that I will be able to locate pen and Post-its and second, that I will remember to write a note to myself as I chivvy everyone out of the car to whatever event we are invariably late for.

Clearly, I don't hold out much hope that things will improve – or that my home ed group will come to regard me as anything other than a screwgun short of a toolbox.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

If looks could kill

Our sleeping quarters were once again overtaken by the Stench of Death last week.

We have become inured to finding carcasses in various stages of consumption. My morning routine is usually punctuated by me stepping on a large colon: the late owner of which had been digested at some point during the night while we slept oblivious to the carnage being wrought around us.

But there are some rodents the cats won't eat. Shrews, for instance. Shrews secrete a substance that makes them smell unpleasant and taste nasty. This is clearly no defence, since the poor tiny wee things get slaughtered anyway. Owls don't seem to mind the olfactory issue – and cats just like killing to alleviate the tedium of days spent languishing around on top of warm duvets.

We live in a field teeming with small rodent life and the cats pack a lot of killing into the few hours they manage to stay awake each day. Thus it follows that a fair percentage of their cull is unpalatable, and therefore tossed dead into an inaccessible corner of the trailer, or chased there to die at its leisure.

So it is that on occasion I am only alerted to the fact that something has died by my nostrils. In this case, the level of alert was high in every sense. I systematically stripped the trailer starting from the top left corner and working my way to the door. The last corner I tackled revealed the source of the stench – there he was, hidden by a flip-flop, a poor dead little mole.

Moles are implicated in a range of agricultural misdemeanours – including crop damage and the contamination of silage with Clostridium or Listeria, which occurs when bacteria from molehill soil are gathered up with grass. They are loathed by gardeners, farmers, golf-course owners and caretakers of sports fields. A mole was even rumoured to have brought about the death of William III in 1702, who is alleged to have died of complications arising from a broken collarbone after his horse stumbled on a molehill and threw him off.

So moles are basically a pest and certainly not something we want on our land. This year we will be planting young trees, for instance, which we do not want damaged by mole activity.

But for all that, I took no comfort in finding one dead. Few people have seen a mole in real life, but I can testify that they are astoundingly cute. They have the most beautiful dark brown velvet coats and hugely disproportionate chimpanzee hands and absurd little snouts. In fact, they look like a creature fashioned by a committee. And they are blind and can't run properly on a smooth surface because of their silly big hands.

I felt very sad at how helpless he had been and gave the cat a very nasty look indeed, which he, of course, returned with knobs on from the comfort of my pillow.

It's very hard to intimidate a cat.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Creating a buzz

I was having a little snooze on the trampoline (as you do – well, as I do sometimes) when I became aware of a buzzing in my ears.

Last year, regular blog readers may recall, we planted half our field with seed designed to attract birds and insects. For a good long while it appeared that all we had managed to achieve was to feed the wood pigeons. But slowly it became clear that the half of the field we had seeded looked very different from the half we had not, and so we concluded that the pigeons had left us something to be going on with.

This all died back in winter, but this spring the planted half has exploded with colour, which positively hums with the sound of insects going about their business. The cats, who have taken full advantage of the cover the foliage provides to stock up on small, hapless mammals, return every evening covered in a fine coating of pollen grains. And I and the dog have been sneezing a great deal.

But it is a small price to pay for all this glorious abundance, which looks beautiful, smells wonderful and is clearly offering a feast to an array of insect life. These in turn are attracting house martins, who swoop and gorge in an amazing aerobatic display every evening, watched silently and malevolently by two pairs of green eyes.

Amid all this bounty, however, I can't help feeling concerned about the lack of honey bees. There are lots of bumble bees, a variety of really weird-looking wasp things, and we can't move for horse flies – literally sometimes, they bite, you know.

Our seed mix is aimed at farmers to plant on the edges of fields and is specifically developed to attract honey bees. It contains, incidentally, an assortment of seeds with fabulous names from a different age – creeping red fescue, cocksfoot, early English winter vetch, and my favourite, black medick – surely something they used to pound up and mix with cow dung and goats' urine to make a cure for baldness or dropsy.

I would therefore have expected our field to be teeming with bees, especially given that there are hives in the village, but there are surprisingly few.

Before we bought our field we spent years working out a system that would provide an income sufficient to keep a family of five, and assorted animal hangers on, but would also give back to the land more than it took as well as creating its own eco system and provide a wider benefit for local flora and fauna. One of the first headings we wrote on our grand scheme was 'Bees' - after which we pondered how we could attract and incorporate them into our system.

Perhaps the sad fact is that there are just not so many to attract. Bee numbers in the UK have declined by 50% in the last 25 years. The cause is open to debate but fingers tend to point at a combination of pesticides, parasites – such as the varroa mite, and destruction of the flower-rich habitats on which bees feed.

Recently new research, published in Science, found a close correlation between pesticides containing neonicotinoids and the ability of bees to navigate back to their colony and produce new queens. Neonicotinoids are widely used in agriculture in this country as an insecticide and are chemically related to nicotine, which I used to pay good money to inhale.

Pesticide manufacturers deny they cause any lasting damage to bees, but as Mandy Rice-Davies put it – 'they would, wouldn't they?'. The UK government also stands by neonicotinoids, and appears unmoved by the latest research. A number of European countries, however, including France and Germany have stopped using certain insecticides on the evidence so far.

Bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, so if they are in trouble it matters in a huge sort of way. Apart from anything else, I don't want my black medick to be wasted on horse flies.

Anyone need a cure for baldness?