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Okay, I admit it. I'm a fraud. While promoting the hunter gatherer lifestyle I was secretly herding and milking goats.
Now that I have come clean, let me tell you about our recent experiences as herders.
In July Mrs M and I stayed at a gîte in France, 3000 feet above sea level in the Pyrenees. The British couple who own the property live in an adjoining house and keep various animals, some as pets, others as a resource.
Mrs M and I would like, one day, to be self-sufficient. What better way to guarantee our food is not sullied by modern techniques? So in July we took a keen interest in the animals and what it took to look after them.
"You can't really go on holiday" was one of the key things we were told.
After the July holiday, Mrs M and I were so taken by what we'd seen that we offered to look after the animals if the family ever wanted to take a holiday.
"Yes please - how about October?" was the response...
TrainingWe arrived a couple of days before the family were due to go away. We needed to be trained.
The Animal InventoryHere is the list of animals:
Goats - 4
Sheep - 2
Chickens - 20
Cats - 2
Dog - 1
The Delinquent DogThe wild card in the menagerie was the dog, Tango (pronounced Tongo, since he is French!) In July he gave the impression of being well-intentioned but partially unhinged. Even once he knew who you were, he could do any of three things when he encountered you - bark repeatedly, ignore you, or press himself distractedly against you with a sort of offhand affection.
He was kept indoors when the postman came. We would need to establish some trust and authority or he could be trouble.
The RoutineAs with many humans, animals are at their most stable and happy when they have a good routine. During the two days of training, I took these notes:
The routine was as follows:
- Turn off the electric fence around the chicken houses
- Give food and water to the five chicken enclosures
- Open each chicken house and release the free-range hens from their shed
- Let the sheep out of their enclosure
- Prepare milking pots and food for the goats
- Drive down to the goat shed
- Milk Cordelia, who is currently pregnant, meanwhile giving straw to the other 3 goats
- After milking, rope up the goats and take them to their enclosure
- Check the electric fence and turn it on.
- Check the water in the enclosure and replenish if necessary.
- Take the milk back, filter it, and freeze it
- Corn for the chickens - the free rangers congregate by the garage for this, the others have it thrown over into their enclosures
- A little more food for the young cockerels because one of the hens from another enclosure flies over and eats from their food tray
- A little corn to the sheep from the hand, to retain their domesticity
- Shut the chickens away and turn on their electric fence
- Shut the sheep away
- Shut the goats away
The PerksOf course there are some perks to all this work. Even though it was winter, one of the free range ladies did oblige us with a couple of eggs during our tenure, which I duly consumed with some leftover lamb:
In addition, how could we resist having a coffee each morning with raw, minute-fresh goat's milk?
Food and MealsWe had a number of fine evening meals. This was largely courtesy of Carfour supermarket's organic section rather than the local butcher, who was closed for the week:
As well as keeping animals, they also have a fairly large vegetable patch, in which she grows pumpkins and courgettes, amongst other things. Our hallway looked like this when we arrived:
Needless to say, we were invited to help ourselves.
While I was mooching around the grounds barefoot, I trod on a few hard lumps in the grass. On inspection, I discovered a number of buried sweet chestnuts. There is a large chestnut tree there and although there were almost no chestnuts remaining on the ground, it appeared the many squirrels had kindly set some aside for us earlier in the month ;-) We roasted these with one of our dinners.
I also found a buried walnut, but sadly was unable to locate the tree from which it had come.
We also ate at a couple of restaurants - the photos below are of (we think) a duck gizzards starter. The main course was duck breast in a rosemary sauce.
The Disappearing HenThe first two days in charge went like clockwork. We felt like Dr and Mrs Doolittle.
But this was too good to be true. The thing about animals is that like humans, they have their own agenda, and it does not always tally with that of their keepers.
On the second evening, only five of the free range chickens reported for bed. We had shut away all the other chicken houses, the electric fence was on, and it was almost completely dark. Had the fox eaten her? This seemed highly unlikely, given we had been around all day, and being eaten by a fox is not something one would expect a chicken to do quietly.
So we rang Suzanne, who told us that this particular chicken occasionally roosted in a tree when it was mild. So, reluctantly, we closed the free range hen house for the night.
The following morning, with relief, we discovered the missing hen had rejoined the gang. This is her:
The Traumatised MouseOn the third day, I found a mouse behind Tango's water bowl. It's eyes were closed and it appeared unable to move much. I was not sure whether it was a baby mouse from a large species whose eyes were not yet open or an adult mouse from a small species, potentially traumatised by one of the cats. The fact that it was hairy suggested the latter. I put the mouse somewhere safe and quiet to recover or die, whichever nature decided.
Goat PandemoniumAlso on the third day, Mrs M and I were relaxing on the patio after lunch . The sheep were grazing nearby, the free-range hens were grubbing around by the garage and Tango the dog was snoozing at our feet.
The sound of animal bells is a common one in the Pyrenees - there are sheep, cows and horses all around in the fields and hills, all wearing bells so they can be easily located. Our goats also had bells. So when we heard the faint sound of bells getting closer, we didn't think much of it.
But as the sound grew closer and more rythmic, Mrs M and I looked at each other. Was the farmer using our driveway to move his sheep? The sound got louder and louder and panic began to creep in. Whatever was wearing the bells was clearly about the make an appearance from behind the hedges.
When it did, pandemonium broke out. It was the goats, who had leapt over their electric fence and come trotting up the drive. A whirlwind of feathers erupted as they ploughed through the chickens. The sheep bolted. Tango did what any dog would do and barked loudly and incessantly. Meanwhile, two of the goats had mounted the patio table and were inspecting our lunch plates.
Mrs M managed to get Tango inside and I managed to get hold of the billy goat's collar and that of Miranda, the light brown girl goat. They did not like this, but one has to be firm. I led them back down the drive. The herd instinct compelled the other two to join us and once we were round the corner they all began trotting back. Goats are clever. They knew exactly what they were doing. Mrs M and I felt rather like stand-in teachers being taken advantage of by a rowdy class of pupils.