Friday, 27 September 2013

Broadband Reality of Rural Life

A lot of businesses involved with British wool are located in the countryside and rely on the internet for running the business.  Many more 'growers' of British wool, our sheep farmers, are rural and need good internet for the daily business of running a farm.  Yes, I've realised how much paperwork is involved and how much of this is able to be done on line IF you have good enough broadband.

There are still areas of the country of course that don't have any broadband - they rely on dial up connections.  The Government is planning to address this, but it seems there are issues.  This is an article from Rural Mole on the subject.

This is my bit of rural - the valley in Orkney where I live and farm now.  More fields and moorland than houses.  When I lived in central Newcastle upon Tyne we had cable broadband and got 20Mb/s, which was pretty reliable.  When it did go pear-shaped because the provider had sold more capacity in the area than was available the community complained en-masse and more capacity was provided.  Power in numbers!

Now we have a BT broadband connection with our contract specifying 'up to' 10Mb/s.  No doubt our valley is on the list of rural areas that have great, fast broadband of 'up to' 10Mb/s.  The key there is the 'up to'.  The reality is that the greatest speed we have ever received is LESS than 2Mb/s.  The usual maximum is 1.6Mb/s.

So, with the advantage that I can recall life with reliable, 24 hour, 20Mb/s, how does life compare with 1.6Mb/s?
Well, I can't read The Orcadian on-line  easily.  I can get a page to come up quickly, but enlarging it enough to read means sitting at the laptop waiting, or going away to do something else for 2-3 minutes.  That's for every single page turn. means waiting for images to load - a tedious waste of time.

Uploading information to the blog or website is also a hugely slower process than it used to be - some people with businesses need to regularly upload lots of images to their websites and for them, time is money.

But the situation is actually much worse than this.  During most evenings and weekends, and sometimes during the day the speed drops off to less than 0.7Mb/s, sometimes down to this (yesterday evening)

What does less than 0.7Mb/s mean?
Well I can't do internet banking, emails won't load, most websites time out, and even speedtest times out so our speed record excludes everything below that speed.

In other words we're cut off from the basic necessities of 21st century life - but don't forget, our area will be listed as a BT success of a rural area getting 'up to' 10Mb/s.

So, in all the discussions about bringing broadband to those areas that don't yet have it - and that MUST be a priority for the Government - remember that even BT's claimed successes are not all they're made out to be.

All these households here below receive a BT service that is far from what it's claimed to be and far from what we're paying for.

 So what is the Government going to do about that, and for how long will BT be allowed the advantageous monopoly it has but does not deserve based on current achievements?

I've also, with such recent experience of living in an urban community, asked myself, "who most needs reliable, consistent, usable broadband - those in cities or those in the countryside?"
 I no longer have easy access to banks, libraries, cinemas, shopping centres, Council offices and all the other places I took for granted I could visit cheaply and quickly.  In the 21st century a lot of these services can be accessed on-line.  An essential lifeline for those who live many miles from any of these.  Yet these are the people who have the worst broadband, if any, of our entire population here in UK.  That cannot be right, and I think it's the duty of our Government to properly address this issue and make themselves fully aware of the reality of the situation behind all the charts and maps they'll have been provided with.

ps - in answer to the inevitable question, when we can face the horrors of the BT call centre, yes our wireless is working properly and all the 'inside the house' techie side of things is working to give the best possible broadband service.  Sorry BT - it's all down to your side of things!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Books about Sheep and Wool

Today is a proper murky day, stuck in a cloud with lots of rain, so I'm inside sorting through my books.

The ducks are enjoying the rain on the lawn, the sheep are getting on with grazing despite it.

I've put all my books about breeds of sheep and using wool from different breeds together on one shelf.  I thought it might be helpful for anyone new to the joy of knitting, spinning and crafting with wool from different breeds if I had a quick run through of my 'breeds library'.

I'll start with the books that I took around the country for Woolsack stuffing events, where we also had a display about British sheep and their wool.

I've written before about the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius - there are now lots of reviews of it, some of which are here.

British Sheep & Wool is a British Wool Marketing Board publication (ISBN 9780904969108).  The National Sheep Association describes it here (scroll down).  I can't find any reviews so I'll do a brief description here.  It's a book of over 70 of the breeds of sheep farmed in the UK with some great photographs of the sheep and a lock of fleece from each breed.  It's divided into sections according to the classification of the fleece and/or the sheep.  So sections include 'Fine', 'Mountain', 'Naturally Coloured' and a useful section titled 'Cross' that has some of the common mules farmed in the UK.  The essential alphabetical index of breeds is on p178 at the back.

It's a great book to have on a display table because of the size and quality of the photographs and the small amount of written information for each breed.

 For certain information, such as when the breed and the breed society were established it's the easiest place to quickly get the dates, and it's very good on the cross breeds or mules as they're usually called.  If you're sheep spotting out in the British countryside then you're more likely to see mules and crosses than pure breeds, so this book will help you with breed-spotting.

Next a little pair of books by Jack Byard: Know Your Sheep and Know More Sheep.  Postcard sized and with a photograph and brief description of over 80 breeds of sheep found on British farms between them.  I've managed to track down some reviews of the books here:  Know Your Sheep and Know More Sheep.  The information is mostly about the sheep with brief mention of the fleece.

Next two books that include patterns for knitters and one full of inspiration for knitters, spinners & weavers.    The Knitter's Book of Wool has been comprehensively reviewed since it's publication in 2009 - here are details of the book and reviews.                    A more recent publication by a British author with vast experience of working with wool from British breeds of sheep is Pure Wool by Sue Blacker.  There is a really detailed review of the book here.  I must confess that now Pure Wool has been published, I tend to refer to that when choosing which breed's wool to use for a specific project.  I've learnt a lot about how to swap breeds for particular patterns from this book, which I can highly recommend.

The third book may need to be ordered from America, but it's a wonderful read and very inspiring.  Handspun Treasures from Rare Wools, ISBN 1883010845.  This is a description of the Save The Sheep Project which lies behind the book.  The description of the book says:  "Bringing together the art of spinning and wools from rare breeds of sheep, Handspun Treasures from Rare Wools catalogs the 29 touring pieces from the Save the Sheep Exhibit.  It also includes photos and information on endangered breeds, plus photos of several dozen other pieces that illustrate points about the rare-breed fibers and what makes them indispensable for contemporary handspinning.
I've just spotted while googling that there is an e-book of Selections from Handspun Treasures.

In Sheep's Clothing, below, is information about spinning with wool from different breeds of sheep. and reviews of the book can be read here.  (ISBN 9781931499385)

I'm also including two books that I've really enjoyed reading, Ryder's Sheep and Man and Alan Butler's Sheep.  The latter being the much more approachable way to learn about the influence of sheep on the development of civilisation over 1000s of years.  And no, I've not read every page of Ryder and I'm hoping it comes out an an e-version one day so I can read it away from home and when travelling.  It's heavy!

Next a book and a little treasure of a booklet.

 Real Shetland Yarns is about Shetland and its sheep - it is what it says on the cover:  a collection of woolly tales and memories.  There is a review of the book by Kate Davies here.

If you're curious about the seaweed eating sheep living on North Ronaldsay, then the booklet by Liz Lovick is a must-have read.  Liz has thoroughly researched the island and its sheep and combined this with her knowledge and love of working with North Ronaldsay wool.  The result is a delightful and fascinating read that will leave you wanting to visit the island yourself as you share Liz's enthusiasm for these little sheep and their wool.  The booklet can be purchased as a booklet or pdf download from the Northern Lace website.

Next a look at some European sheep - most of which cannot be found in the UK, but through the Blacker & Beyond with FFSB group on Ravelry, my interest in sheep breeds doesn't stop with British sheep.

Schafrassen der Alpen, or Sheep Breeds of the Alps, is in English and German and can be ordered here. It is just as it describes - detailed information with photographs about breeds of sheep found in the Alps.  The discussion about it on Ravelry is here.

Wools of Europe is the multilingual catalogue of a travelling exhibition in 2010 that highlighted one hundred European sheep breeds.  For each breed there is a photo of the sheep, part of a fleece and an article made from its wool.  It can be ordered here
There is a discussion about how to get hold of it from around the world here

Finally, the newest addition to my library - The Field Guide to Fleece by Deb Robson and Carol Ekarius.
As you can see, rather easier to carry around than the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook (FFSB).

A great little pocket book at a price that makes it a definite as-well-as rather than instead-of the FFSB.  The photographs of the sheep and a lock of their fleece are superb and the information is just what you need if planning a project with fleece, fibre or yarn from a breed, when out fleece buying at a fibre-fest or even when deciding what breed(s) of sheep to keep with a consideration of their fleece in mind.

I would also like to draw people's attention to the entry for Brecknock Hill Cheviot.  That was the one British breed that Deb didn't have a sample of.  It is entirely due to the chain of farmers who passed around my request for a sample of fleece last winter, long after all the Brecknock's wool had gone to BWMB, that a few locks were found in time.  I was thrilled when an envelope containing the locks arrived for me to wash and send on to Deb in time for the photography.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Morning After The Storm

I was up and out of the house this morning as soon as it was just light enough to see - we had a storm last night.  Well, it's been going since Sunday with another couple of days to run according to the forecast, but last night had the Met Office wind warnings.

Our neighbours had advised about what to tie down and the best place to position the trailer before tying that down.  We'd also gone round the garden and fields picking up all the stuff that might blow around.  I wasn't worried about the ducks or the hens, but my Boreray Boys....... they look so small and are a little more limited for sheltering options in the paddock than in the big field where they'll be spending the winter.  So I gave in to my 'just bought the new baby home' feelings and put a bale of straw where it would create a cosy sheltered corner from the direction of the wind.  Firmly tied to a strainer of course!  For those who know as little about fencing terminology as I used to, strainers are the big posts like telegraph poles that are gate posts and at the corners of fencing.

First to see the ducks, which as usual were pottering about the lawn looking as if they'd been doing that all night.  They do everything in a close gang and their main objective in life seems to be to keep as far away from people as possible.  More about them another time.

 Then a quick look at the burn and pond - normally a lovely quiet place with a gentle trickling of water and a nice stone walkway across it, well above the height of the water.  I could hear from the other side of the lawn that the trickle was now a roar.  Only one of the stones is still above water.  It seems the stone seat has survived the storm though.

 Then further along the drive to the entrance to the paddock.  It was the Boreray Boys I was really concerned about.  We're still at the stage of creeping up on them since I've not been able to get closer than about 10ft so far without them shooting off at high speed.  Anyone thinking of staging spectacular sheep racing should use Borerays.  Or North Ronaldsays, which are equally fleet on their absurdly dainty legs.

A heart stopping moment - there was a motionless white shape lying on the ground by the gate and the wrong side of the bale of straw.  I could see the other 4 sheep comfortably cuddled up in the sheltered corner, which was easily big enough for 5 sheep.  Had my smallest sheep, Bertie, succumbed?  I had to get close enough to check.  Of course they heard me and all, including the previously motionless white shape, shot off down the paddock.  It was Boris the ram who had been sleeping unprotected from the wind.

Relief that they'd all survived the stormy night was slightly hampered by guilt at having woken them.  I must learn to be more trusting of the toughness and intelligence of these Boreray sheep.  Of course I'm a little anxious by the fact that their droppings are now marginally less firm than they should be.  No mucky bums that I can see (some of them have dark fleece on their tails) and a little tummy upset is normal I guess after the huge change in their lives, but I shall be watching them closely till things look at peak health again.

So having shot down the paddock they settled down for a good graze.

 I must say I was not amused though to see a patch of mud on Bilbo's right shoulder.  As soon as I've got these boys tame and listening to my every word we'll sit down together for the 'fleece management' lecture.

Finally the hens, and this seemed to be the only casualty of the storm.  Their metal water container, which I'd made sure was full and heavy to lift, had blown over.  Fortunately that was easy to refill and move nearer to the windbreak on the west side of the hen house that had protected their feeder.  The girls had wisely decided to stay inside but of course came out to see me when I was spotted.

You'll realise that some of the boys have names now.  Well all but one, and I really mustn't leave the one unnamed for any longer. 
From left to right they are Brookes-Wright, Bertie, Bilbo, Boris and yet-to-be-named.

Boris was named even before I met him and as you can see he's the largest of the Boys.  He was a singleton.  The others were all twins.  He has a red mark on his rump, a black nose and what looks like eyeliner round his eyes.  He also has a nice pair of fleecy testicles for future work as the tup.

 Then there is Bertie, the smallest.  He has a green mark on his rump and a similar coloured face to yet-to-be-named but his horns are lighter.  He is a very sweet lamb and is the first to have taken a step towards me.
Next there is Bilbo, who has been named for his possible escapology tendencies.  He's been all round the paddock closely examining the gates and fences and can often be seen gazing at the fields beyond.  He's got a white face with black nose and eyes and a blue mark on his rump.

Yet-to-be-named looks quite similar to Bertie but he's larger and has a distinctive black streak at the base of his horns.  I feel very bad that he's not got a name, but to be honest I'm confident none of the others realise they have names yet so I suspect he's not feeling left out at all.  He has an orange mark on his rump.

Finally there is Brookes-Wright.  He's possibly the easiest to recognise from afar because he's got a dark brown face and his horns show up very well against it.  He's also got patches of dark fleece.  He too has an orange mark.

Those of you who know your horned sheep will already have spotted something - he's got horns as big as Boris the ram........ yes, he was either born a rig and just had the one testicle removed, or one of them escaped out of the scrotum and into his abdomen just after banding.  So he has testosterone and is growing ram horns.  The errant testicle is now clearly felt just under his skin, so he'll possibly be seeing the vet for a minor procedure in the future.

Anyway, with all this complication in his life I decided he needed a name to match.  Several of my ancestors in the 17th and 18th centuries were called Brookes Wright.  Most were Yeomen and land owning farmers.  Some were publicans and one organised boxing matches.

From a 1743 newspaper:
'This is to acquaint all Gentlemen Wrestlers, that at Brooks Wright's, at the Black Swan in Great Brington, near Northampton, will be wrestled for, on Whtison Monday, a HAT OF ONE GUINEA PRICE,  a Free Gift: no less that twelve men to wrestle, and all to wrestle in Pumps, or shoes without nails: to put in by Twelve of the Clock the same Day, and to wrestle at One.  Brooks Wright being a Gamester, is excluded from wrestling himself.'

In 1747, a Statute Sessions was held at the Black Swan in Great Brington:
'for hiring Men and Maid Servants; and for the Diversion of all Gentlemen, Ladies and others, on the Statute Day will be the famous Blakesley Morrice at the same Place, where everyone may depend on good Entertainment, and good and Civil Usage, from their humble servant, BROOKS WRIGHT.'

One of the earliest Wrights had this in his will:

"to William Chambers, my old jacket and petticoat (an undergarment for men): to Richard Masters, another of my old petticoats: to Pettifer, my old hose: to Peter Turlington, a new petticoat: to Richard Kenning, a fustian doublet: to Thomas Hatton, a russet coat: wo William Wright, my best violet coat or my best russet coat, whichever one of them he will choose: to thomas Russell, a russet jacket and a green jerkin: to John Hatton, my oldest green jerkin: and I bequeath to Thomas Sampson, my older violet coat that I wear every day.

So I'm sure you'll understand why I felt it was most appropriate to name my gorgeous coloured-fleece rig, Brookes-Wright.

Here are all the boys relaxing together - before the storm!

From left to right, Yet-to-be-named, Boris, Bilbo, Bertie, Brookes-Wright

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Boreray Boys

Friday 13 September 2013 was a momentous day in my life.  I became the proud owner of 5 male Boreray lambs.

Now it's possible that someone reading this may not be aware that there have been some very BIG changes in my life over the past few months.  So first thing to state is that I'm not trying to keep 5 Boreray sheep in my Newcastle back yard.  Instead they are happily grazing in the little paddock area, just below my lounge window that overlooks half of the fields on my Orkney farm.

Anyone who knows anything about sheep is of course going to be thinking, "What is she thinking starting off with a breed like Boreray?"  Yes, there is definitely some sense in thinking that.  I know the list of breeds that are good for first time sheep-keepers with an interest in fleece.  The problem was that I'd handled too much Boreray fleece not to be totally entranced with its variety and properties.  As a spinner I wanted to have lots of Boreray to play with.

That's not the whole story though - I mean, if anyone knows where to purchase Boreray fleeces .......

The real reason is that I'd fallen in love with these feisty, stubborn, independent and intelligent sheep.  My fate was sealed the day I walked into a field with Christine at Gaerllwyd and the 4 rams there had started coming towards Christine and the all-important bucket of feed, then seen me and rushed to the far end of the field.  They didn't like the look of me as a stranger and their desire for the food treat was irrelevant to them.  I however really liked them.

Now I'll tell the 'how we ended up in Orkney' story in another post because it won't be of interest to everyone.  Brief description of the farm is that it's on West Mainland and is up an east facing valley so we have more shelter than many parts of Orkney and even have some trees growing round the house.  We have fields on 3 sides of the house plus some moorland over the road for future expansion of sheep grazing.  This is the view down the valley to the sea from the moorland.

The reason I've got all males is that friends who know about sheep and fleece advised that wethers would be much easier to start off with and I knew that they would give the best quality fleeces throughout their lives.  I'd also learnt enough to know that getting sheep from a farm with similar conditions to my own would maximise the chance of the sheep doing well in the windy conditions up here.  So it was a quick phone call to Bob in Assynt earlier in the year to ask if I could buy any male lambs he had.  This is Bob's website with photos of a few of his sheep.

Time for a gratuitous lamb photo - here are some of my Boys in May

 After a couple of month's growing, here they are in early July, together with a photo of Boris, the lamb below with the black nose. Yes, Boris is a very silly name for a castrated wether!  Well, Boris is half of my future flock because he turned out to be far too good a potential tup to be banded.  Once I knew I was getting a tup the name for him was obvious.

So yes, I've got a challenging breed for a beginner and I'm starting off with a ram...... Let the fun begin.

So there began all the preparations at the farm to
get ready for the boys - the paperwork! I'll say no more about that side of things, except that the staff at the local Government office for this sort of thing were very helpful.

At the beginning of September the lambs were spained - separated from the ewes and weaned - and finally a date was sorted when we could get a ferry and drive down to collect them.
 This gave me a lovely opportunity to see Bob's ewes and rams in person - well as close as they'd let me get.
 You can see the ewe lambs on the little hillock still with their mums.
If I've remembered correctly the boy's father is the ram on the left of the photo.

Then the exciting bit as the lambs were put into our trailer and we started the journey home.
They travelled remarkably well, and it looked as if they'd slept during the ferry crossing.  By the time we landed it was dark and proved impossible to see enough to back the trailer round the bendy bit into the paddock area so we introduced more hay and topped up the water and left them to sleep in the trailer for the night.
At dawn today we were up and out to check on the Boys - they'd had a very comfortable night and probably slept better than me since I did wake a couple of times wondering how they were doing.

Well as you can see they'd resisted the opportunity to have a wild party in the trailer overnight and were looking very calm and collected.  Soon they were exploring the paddock and settling down to a good graze.  I should mention at this point that dear husband did a splendid job of reversing the trailer down the bendy slope without bashing either trailer or strainer, nor upsetting the Boys.  And all this before his morning coffee, having been woken at some unearthly hour.

Followed by a nice calm ruminating - the sheep that is, not the reverser of trailers.
I work on the theory that sheep won't lie down and relax if they're nervous, so this was a rather lovely sight.

ALL the boys on the farm have done very well indeed!