Saturday, 7 November 2009

Hunter Gatherer in Goat Herding Shame

[Click on the small pictures in the main story to see larger images]

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...
We arrived a couple of days before the family were due to go away. We needed to be trained.
The Animal Inventory
Here is the list of animals:

Goats - 4
Sheep - 2
Chickens - 20
Cats - 2
Dog - 1

The Delinquent Dog
The 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 Routine
As 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:

First light:
  1. Turn off the electric fence around the chicken houses
  2. Give food and water to the five chicken enclosures
  3. Open each chicken house and release the free-range hens from their shed
  4. Let the sheep out of their enclosure

After Breakfast:
  1. Prepare milking pots and food for the goats
  2. Drive down to the goat shed
  3. Milk Cordelia, who is currently pregnant, meanwhile giving straw to the other 3 goats
  4. After milking, rope up the goats and take them to their enclosure
  5. Check the electric fence and turn it on.
  6. Check the water in the enclosure and replenish if necessary.
  7. Take the milk back, filter it, and freeze it

Mid afternoon:
  1. Corn for the chickens - the free rangers congregate by the garage for this, the others have it thrown over into their enclosures
  2. A little more food for the young cockerels because one of the hens from another enclosure flies over and eats from their food tray
  3. A little corn to the sheep from the hand, to retain their domesticity
  1. Shut the chickens away and turn on their electric fence
  2. Shut the sheep away
  3. Shut the goats away
The Perks
Of 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 Meals
We 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 Hen
The 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 Mouse
On 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 Pandemonium
Also 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.
The wildlife in the Pyrenees is spectacular at this time of year. We have recently bought a new digital camera and were able to capture some of the flora and fauna we found:
I did some great Paleo/Primal workouts in between all this, an account of which, including some videos, can be seen on Train Now Live Later: Hikes, Rope Climbing and Log Throwing in the Pyrenees.
The Menagerie Grows
The day after Mrs M and I left, the family bought three ducks. Their home will be in an enclave of the sheep enclosure. We hope, time permitting, to get the opportunity to do this again. We certainly feel very lucky to have been able to do it once.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Sounds like a wonderful experience!

Pim said...

Just recently found your blog thanks to a collegue and I went primal on monday ;) You have some nice articles and they are easy to read (I am Dutch)

Nice post and I'll be following you!

Methuselah said...

Thanks Pim. Good luck with going Primal.

Aaron Blaisdell said...

Great story! Thank god I live near three good Whole Foods and have a decent farmers market in my town every Tuesday. ;-)

Nelson Beads said...

What a great vacation for you and the owners. How I wish I could have been there.

thania said...

Methuselah, looks you both had a wonderful time . Thanks for being so generous and sharing it with us.

Your photos are getting better and better, I love the little violet flowers that grow in the grass,me on the other hand have lost my camara, there is so much offer in the market that I cant decide which one to buy.

By the way you are in great shape, #paleo #primal :)

Methuselah said...

Thank you Thania - I am flattered.

If you are happy using digital, I can recommend the Kodak EasyShare M340. It only cost us £90 but seems to do everything we need. However, it may have been on 'special offer' at the store we bought it, so elsewhere it may not be so cheap.

Grok said...

No harm no foul ;) Farming is cool again! Haha

Being tied down the the responsibility of the animals is about the only thing that's kept me away.

I can hunt when I want/need... but the milking must go on! Grok was onto something ;)

Methuselah said...

Grok - I guess the important thing for us was just getting closer to understanding animals as a source of food rather than pets. I would love to hunt like you do, so I guess this was at least a step towards that. Not so easy in the UK though...

thania said...

Thanks Methuselah, It is amazing the photos are taken with Kodak EasyShare M340, My husband couldnt believe it , I was looking in Amazon co uk and everyone seems to be delighted with it.

Great information amigo.

Felix said...

Sounds like a great experience. Has this week of goat herding changed your view on trying to be self-sufficient? My parents had chickens 25 years ago (a few "tree-campers" as well) but I think the no-holiday-issue would keep me from doing it.

Methuselah said...

Felix - it has confirmed what I think we already had accepted - that growing and rearing your own food is a massive lifestyle change to be carefully considered. I like the idea of taking part in a cooperative activity whereby people collectively run a farm and mutually benefit from the food - yet do not have responsibility for it 100% of the time. I know of at least one case where has been done in the UK but am not sure how common it is. I am hoping I can persuade enough of my friends in later life that it's a good idea so we can set up our own!

Asclepius said...

Methuselah - HF-W at 'River Cottage' is actively encouraging Co-Op farming under a landshare scheme.

One of my mates is involved with on in the Peak District. (

The whole 'Co-Op' farm thing does overcome the problems of holidays etc...but as my mate says "Don't do it if you think food is going to be cheaper!". Your gain is in the quality of food and as you are more connected with animal welfare, it is more 'conscience free' I guess.

It is definitley a niche practice at the meoment but seems to be gathering pace.

Methuselah said...

Thanks for the info and link, Asclepius - that's very encouraging. By the time Mrs M and I have got round to thinking seriously about a lifestyle change, perhaps the momentum will have sufficiently gathered that there are lots of options out there.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Sounds like great fun! We had ducks once upon a time. They gave us great eggs! Unfortunately, one night I forgot to shut them up in their coop and some carnivore came and did them in in some fit of reckless killing. Felt really bad about that- poor ducks. Keeping animals means you're responsible for the buggers. I think it's a great idea to share the responsibilities in some cooperative way- allows for you travel, etc.


Methuselah said...

Cynthia - thank goodness none of the animals we were watching met a similar fate. We did not relish the idea of telling their owners we'd somehow allowed them be killed. That said, I think she would have been very understanding.

PJNOIR said...

Go for it. Good clean protein rich fermented milk products like goat cheese and FAGE yogurt is too important to disregard. Besides, if we really lived like early humans we would go LONG extend period of time without food. A very little during the winter- are you willing to do THAT?? Go have your cheese.

Shelley said...

Methuselah, I love the Pyrenees, thanks so much for your wonderful post. I stayed around the Massat area, and my friends used to own a bicycle lodge, but moved recently. They have a dog named Bongo.....

Methuselah said...

Shelley - sounds cool. Perhaps all dogs in France have names ending in -o?!

Shelley said...

I thought you may have changed the names to protect the innocent ;) an addendum, there is a little wine and cheese shop in Massat, I bought a bottle of Domaine de la grange, 2003, from the les corbieres of languedoc roussillon. We drank it Saturday night, and it was one of the best reds I have ever had, and thats saying something. Cant be had for love or money here in the states, so we drank probably the only bottle! Wines of that region are my hands down favourite...know its not paleo and all, just sayin' ;)

Methuselah said...

Shelley - red wine is pretty much the only alcohol I drink, and we had some great stuff in France. I like to think of it as semi-paleo ;-)

Val said...

Stumbled across your blog which is quite enjoyable... I agree w/your assessment that the mouse was an adult who had been traumatized by one of the cats. If it didn't have any puncture wounds, it probably survived!

Methuselah said...

Thanks Val - it would be nice to imagine he/she is still happily roaming the grounds.

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