Fallow Deer October 2017
  From time to time we see little herds of these animals pass by on the hillside and have always wondered what they were. We've now positively identified them as the Fallow Deer. Johan has even found one of a buck's huge old antler while out riding on his horse.

They are not really indigenous to the area (or country, for that matter) and have actually been declared a Category 2 invader species. They like mature deciduous and mixed woodland with dense undergrowth - just the kind of vegetation we have around the farm. We'll have to watch them very carefully as their diet ranges from grazing, browsing and right on to berries. And where there's too much daytime human activity they will become more active at night.

These three does came across the foot of the hill one afternoon grazing peacefully on the new green shoots where the fire had swept through a few weeks ago as they ambled along their way into one of the black wattle forest on the hillside.

 
 

Since moving out to the farm we've become very aware of invader species and their problems - and uses. Mainly because most of the trees on the farm are actually invader species!

But our aim is to manage them as a resource by keeping their spread under control and not just aimlessly eradicate them. The trees, after all, are capable of providing the fuel energy for our heating and cooking needs on the farm for the rest of our lives.

Full invader species info on the official South African Invader Species website.


  Starting the Growing Season
  Although we're already a month into our growing season, we haven't had any rain yet (that 2mm we had towards the end of September wasn't really even worth the mention). But all the plants can feel the warmth in the soil and the air and everything is shooting new leaves. After their heavy winter pruning, the Elderberry bushes were first to shoot and have a big head start on our other fruit trees. They have also flowered early and abundantly this year. Hopefully we'll be able to harvest some of the berries before the birds can get to them.

The lucerne pasture is really struggling. We water it whenever we can, but lucerne needs a lot of water to get established, and then a lot of watering again after every harvest. But we have to persevere on this third attempt at establishing that lucerne pasture - we're really going to need the lucerne as extra supplement for the sheep. And the ducks and chickens love the treat from
  time to time as well.

There's also been a lot of work going on in the large crop area before it gets too hot to work out there. Bakkie loads of horse manure have been collected and dug into the soil. Three large areas are almost ready for planting. Now all we need is some good rain!

Elderberry flowers
   Elderberry bushes doing well
   Lucerne pasture a bit patchy

 
Hard work fertilising in the large crop area preparing soil for the growing season

  Forest Shelter Workshop Roofing Redesign
  Well, not really a complete redesign. Just a slight pitch change to allow the leaves to fall off more easily (as the structure is actually in the forest) and an extension of the truss beams on one side so that we can get the rabbit hutches under the roof so they don't get all wet when it rains. We're glad we held off on this project as the little changes will make a big difference to the functionality of the structure.

The revised sketches have been emailed off to our two local roof truss manufacturers for quotes.

 

  And Another New Google Earth Image
  Just a few days after discovering the "latest" Google Earth image on the internet, up pops an even more up to date one. This one is dated 16th September 2017 and although nearly 18 months later than the last picture, you can see just how much work has been done on the lands.
 

That large crop area just to the left of the pumphouse has now been cleared of grass and the net fencing around it and the fruit tree orchard defines the areas nicely in the picture. The horse manure compost heap just to the left of the large crop area is also visible, as well as our little "driveway" running up between the netted off areas where we will be able to get the tractor around to the other areas to cut the grass.

And if you look carefully, you can even see our flattenned haystack in front of the garage and workshop block and a bit of the little "alcove" going into the forest behind the garages where we're busy working on the forest shelter workshop.

  And coincidentally the picture was taken just one week after the big veldfire swept through and burned the hill and the entire area over the hill. Below is a wider view of the entire area affected by the fire. The terrain up there is rough and the fire could only really be controlled when it got to the farm roads. Our little farm location is circled in green about a third left and bottom of the picture. And if you mouse over the picture it will show what the area looked like last year in May.
 

  Sheep Shed Roof
  Quite a bit of working went into that sheep shed roof as well over the past few weeks. and although I've done a few little roofs now, my mind just didn't seem to be on this one. Probably too many distractions at the time. But none of the mistakes weren't too serious - it's just that it's not quite the way roofing should be done.

Firstly, as the roofing beams weren't fixed into the brickwork with roofing wire like normally done with brick walls, I attempted to lock them into place afterwards by running a perlin across the outside front and back walls. This did the job of locking them into place nicely but meant there wouldn't be the normal perlin at the ends of the beams on which the guttering could be attached. But we're not going to gutter the roof anyway, so that doesn't matter too much.

Then as an afterthough I decided to extend the roof a little further from the walls to try and protect the door from the rain. That meant the beams were a bit short. Also not too serious - just looks a bit odd.

And then once all the perlins were nailed down onto the beams I found the whole roofing timber "structure" was too low. The walls were sticking up a centimeter or two almost all round. And there was no way I was going to grind and chip those cement building blocks all round, so I
  wedged each beam up in their wall slots to get all the perlins above the level of the top of the walls. I'll fill around the beams with a bit of mortar later.

Once all that finnicky fiddling was done I measured for the roof sheeting and ordered it from JCP Roofing in Nigel as BSI Steel no longer seemed to be interested in doing the smaller roofing jobs. JCP did a superb job on the sheeting at around the same price and were also able to supply the polycarbonate sheet. So much better being able to get everything from one supplier.

A few hours up there spacing the sheets and screwing them down onto the perlins and the roof was on and the sheep will now be properly protected from the rain (when it comes).

Inside, the white diffuser polycarbonate sheets giving the sheep
lovely light in their shed during the daytime

    Odd looking roofing edging on
    this project, but still functional


  Antelope Bulls
 
Majestic pose of an alert waterbuck bull    

Really big eland bull not so welcome around the farm     
And suddenly we have five waterbuck bulls plus a very unwelcome eland bull!

A small bachelor herd of four waterbuck bulls drifted in over the hill one day. It's been a while since we've seen more than one around. Our original lone bull doesn't seem to mind the new guys invading his territory, although we do see them all "sparring" up on the foot of the hill from time to time. But they must be young bulls, as it seems to be more like play that serious fighting.

Then few days later a huge eland bull joined them for a bit of grazing on our side of the game farm. But he's not so welcome. We've had a few attempts at chasing him off but eland are so unpredictable when being chased - they always seem to stampede off in a direction that you don't want them to go. And this guy just keeps coming back.

From our experience, they're also rather persistent. We lost our entire sunflower crop to a lone bull last growing season. We're very worried he'll hop over the log fence onto our farm one night and wipe out some of our plants. We'll continue trying to chase him off over the hill back to his part of the game farm.

 
Mixed antelope bulls on the grassland in front of our farm, all posing nicely for the camera

  Sheep Routines
  And those sheep, they're becoming quite a big part of our daily lives. They're not as stupid as people make them out to be but can be extremely stubborn when they've spotted a green tree or plant within striking distance. And we're finding that they each have their own little characters.

We're now slowly setting up a daily "sheep routine". Not sure if it was a good idea, but initially we just kept them in their enclosure so they could familiarise themselves with their new home. Then we started herding them out into the grasslands a few times a day. They seemed to feel a bit insecure out there and after grazing for a while would often dash back to their enclosure. And we had to be ready for them as on the way back they often headed for our plants around the
  workshop area. So Martie' solution was to put a little cowbell around the ram's neck. Now we can hear when they're dashing down to the enclosure and get into action quickly to guide them into the enclosure gate before they get distracted by our plants. But we're finding that they're coming back to the enclosure less and less now and seem to only dash back when they're thirsty, even though we have a bucket of water out where we put their lick.

One good thing with sheep is their natural "following" instincts. They drift around and graze as a group and don't stray off in different directions like cows. This makes managing them out in the open fields so much easier. And although sometimes a little over enthusiastically, Charlie fetches and herds them back on command so well. She's just such a natural sheepdog and learned her skills early in life from Dakota when we used to have to herd the cows away from our building site. We're slowly teaching the puppies to fetch and herd as well but when they're out there in a pack, they still seem to think of any running as play.


    Martie out "mowing the lawn" early one morning

    Our sheep out grazing while Mandla cleans up the haystack.
    The dogs use the haystack as a playground and flatten it continually.
 
Our little herd of sheep with the waterbuck bachelor herd grazing in the background on the hillside

The sheep very happy in their enclosure in the forest. Picture taken out of the upstairs workshop window.

  Falling Branches (and Trees)
  Our change of season August winds have extended well into October now and are showing no signs of letting up. We have had a few glorious early mornings with no wind but by mid morning the hot dry wind is normally howling through the forest. And it's really taking it's toll on our trees, although it is nature's way of selectively cleaning out the weak trees which are felled and to also remove any insecure branches.

This rather large branch came down on the edge of the forest next to the garden shed and growing tunnels. Scary! It looked securely attached but must have simply got too heavy and with a good gust of wind, broke clean off from the trunk. Thank goodness there was no damage to any of our structures. It took Mandla a while to cut it all up for firewood and clear the driveway so we could get a car through there again.


  And down next to our forest pathway through the forest, with a big crashing sound one day another fairly big tree came down. Rather odd as it was deep into the forest, so well protected from the wind.

But very noticable in the picture below, is the fire damage - probably from more than one fire many years ago. Doesn't look like the surviving trunk had any fire damage on the outside, but looks quite soft and rotted at the base. And that's what happens - the burned stumps create a concave area where water collects and after a few years rots the base of the good trunk.



  Birding Hour
  Nothing special or exotic here right now, just the regulars in our feeding tree and opportunistically hanging around the growing tunnel next to it where we are presently keeping some of our chickens. There's always a free meal available for them there. We're still waiting for our migratory birds to arrive.

On the left, the cute little Cape White Eye. Below left, the female Southern Masked Weaver and on the right the male changing into his bright yellow summer breeding plumage.

Then below that, on the left a female Cape Sparrow. The Cape sparrow is not as common on the farm as in the suburbs - but we do have a pair or two come in and visit us from time to time.

And bottom right, the White Browed Sparrow Weaver. Not really indigenous to the area (more from a bushveld type habitat up north of Gauteng) but we're seeing more and more of them around. They make big grassy weaver type nest up in the trees and sing beautifully (although sometimes a bit noisily) throughout the day.

 
 

  Rabbit Mystery
  Something very strange is happenning in the rabbit hutch area. While cleaning our original breeding pair female's hutch, Martie discovered eight newborn kits snuggled deep in the dry grass in a little nest!

The big mystery is that although this female is kept in the hutch next to the breeding pair male (with two wooden partitions
  between them) this female hasn't been with the male since her last kits many months ago. We have strict hutch cleaning routines where Martie removes the rabbits from the hutches one by one while either she or Mandla cleans the hutches. So that should rule out any "accidents" during the hutch cleaning routines.

So, how this female got pregnant is a complete mystery right now. And where on earth do the white ones come from?! Maria (who we got the original breeding pair from) says she had some white rabbits, but it was a very long time ago. We'll have to just continue trying to figure this one out.

   Another eight newborn kits in the temporary box

  Rain
  After that bit of light rain over the first few days early in the month, we didn't have much rain towards the middle of October. The temperatures rose to almost heatwave levels and things were starting to get dry and dusty again.

Then suddenly around the 20th a big cold front came through. It produced snow on the mountains in the Cape and very unstable air following through to the highveld. Below is a storm to the north over Johannesburg the day before we got our rain - our first real thunderstorm and accompanying downpour of 40mm. Also notice those little specs out there on the hillside - our lingering eland bull count is now up to three.

The rain brought great excitement for all farmers in the area and we had to giggle when during our early morning radio check the morning after the rains, one farmer reported the rainfall on his farm as 46mm outside, 15mm inside.

 

  A New Friend - and a Herd of Foes
 
Sheep and egret working well together     
While keeping an eye on the sheep we noticed their new friend hanging around with them. The Egret walked along with them wherever they walked all day (the sheep actually stay out in the fields most of the day now), stabbing at insects that get disturbed from the grass around the sheep. It hung around with them for a few days and even followed them right back into our yard a few times.

Then a rather large herd of eland were spotted on the horizon. They didn't
  seem come further than the new cow fence Che had erected to keep the cows away from our area as they had little ones that probably couldn't hop the barbed wire fence. They hung around the area for a few days and then one day Johan came along in his Landy to repair Che's gate. This spooked the herd and all the adults stampeded and hopped the fence. Somehow the youngsters got through as well and we ended up with about thirty eland on our side of the farm. We had to be alert for any log fence jumpers all the time while they grazed the new grass on the foot of the hill. But the sheep didn't seem to mind them and they didn't seem to mind the sheep. But just be aware, sheepies - those are not friends!

Tired of being on constant eland standby for a few days, we decided to take action and after a lot of very frustrating chasing, we eventually managed to herd them off over the hill back to their side of the game farm.

 
Just ignore them sheepies, they'll go away eventually

A few of the young eland and their very alert mommies

  Seedling Protection
  We're still having some field mouse problems - they're eating our vegetable seedlings before they can establish themselves as plants.

But Martie has a solution: each seedling is now encased in the top of a clear transparent cooldrink bottle. The bottle neck is too small for the mouse to get in and if he does, even if he does eat the seedling, we'll get him - because I doubt he'll be able to get out of the bottle. We can still water the seedlings and they get enough light to grow into reasonable sized plants before we can remove the bottles.


  Worm Farm Maintenance
  While we were cleaning up the forest area around the sheep enclosure we decided to tidy up the worm farms. Their plastic containers had been put directly on the ground in the forest behind the old wooden compost heaps and it was always a tedious job to pour out the worm pee from the taps on the bottom of the base containers.

So we levelled off a patch of ground, put together a little table support using some spare cement building blocks and put the planks from the front of the old wooden compost heaps onto them to make a table. Then the worm farm plastic containers were moved onto the tables and Martie and
 
Martie and Mandla working on the worm farms    
Mandla decided that while we were moving them they may as well to do some worm farm maintenance. The compost was getting a bit hard in the old container so Mandla helped to break it all up and move all the worms into the fresh compost.

Some worms


  Sunflowers and Mealies
  A few days after that 40mm of rain the soil was still nice and soft so we took the opportunity to get out into the fields and finish digging the planting trenches and mix in the compost for our sunflower and mealie crops.

A lot of hard digging and turning the soil over and then a few hours hand planting the seeds and we can now sit back and wait for them to germinate. The long term weather forecast shows fairly regular rain over the next few weeks, so hopefully we don't have to water too much in between. That could be problmatic as we struggled to keep up with the watering last year - and this year we have planted double the area.

We now have 5 rows of MIgardener Mammoth sunflowers (thanks Niki) and one row of Nigerian Black sunflowers from seeds that were dropped during the eland attack on last year's sunflower crop and have sprouted. Those seedlings have been replanted in one of the rows. All the sunflowers have been planted where the mealies were last year (our crop rotation program).

We then also have 9 rows of those lovely Revolution mealies. Each of our rows are 20 plants long so if all goes well that should give us a really good crop yield next year.

 

  Up in the Modelling Workshop
  It's been a while since I've posted any hobby workshop activities. It's slow going on the Ibis up there: I'm presently covering the wings with balsa sheeting and planning the servo installation for the flaps and ailerons while giving a lot of thought to their hinging systems.

But after doing quite a bit of flying in the back yard over the past few weeks (when the wind wasn't howling) with my docile little Mini-Phoenix and very mean and hot Omei, I've decided to put an electric power system into the Ibis as well. It's just so much easier to step out into the back yard and launch the model - no laying out 200 meter lines across the veld for the winch and having to fetch the parachute after every flight. Not to mention lugging the winch and battery up there into the veld as well. With electric power, if you need to go up (or go up again), you just switch on the power and in a few seconds the model is back up to launch height.

  So one day on the way to Joburg to see clients I popped in to Al's Hobbies and Al matched up a controller, motor and propeller that would be able to get the estimated 2.5kg model up into the air efficiently. The model aircraft electric systems are so interesting, with various combinations of motor and propeller resulting in different motor loads and battery current draw. The trick is optimisation - best performance vs current draw from the batteries. On the right, all the components selected for the new installation.

Then it was an evening and the next morning's work and the motor was installed neatly into the nose of the Ibis fuselage.

 
Marking off the nose before cutting it off   
   Nose off and trimming to get the spinner to fit
  I thought I was gong to have a real problem with this installation as the fuselage wasn't designed for an electric motor to be put on the front of it and the front of the fuselage wasn't round. But once the nose cone was off, the open front could be "squished" round when the round plywood firewall was pushed into the opening from the back. So everything worked out perfectly.

And once the firewall was trimmed to fit it was tacked in place and finally fixed into the inside of the fuselage with epoxy and fibreglass cloth and then coated outside with a layer of fibreglass cloth to give a smooth finish when painted.

   Fitting the firewall with motor
   mounting template
   Firewall and motor fitted and
   folding propeller system assembled
 
Fitting the spinner - propeller folded out for power   
   All fitted - propeller folded back neatly for gliding

  Eyes Just Opened
  Very cute. Eight little kits with their eyes now all open and hopping aimlessly around in the hutch all day with their mommy taking good care of them.

We still haven't solved that big fertilisation mystery, but it's always great to have some little ones around. And interesting to now have some white bunnies as well. Funny how when the breeds mix you don't get spotted and striped half white, half grey ones - they're either grey rabbits or white rabbits. And we've now got four of each. Nature is truly wonderful.

We've now sent the previous litter of kits plus a few rabbits from the litter before them back to Maria's farm where her new tennants there also want to have a go at breeding rabbits for slaughter.

We're now left with our breeding pair, a few of our favourites and the new litter of eight kits - a bit easier on our food supplies. And we've been able to reorganise our hutches so that they're all a lot more comfortable out there.


  Forest Shelter Workshop Roofing
  On Time Trusses in Heidelberg came up with the best deal for our roofing trusses and within three days of giving them the go-ahead, our trusses were delivered. I did pop into their offices when I confirmed the order and we made a small adjustment to their drawings where I wanted the entensions on the four trusses to be an extension of the top chord. They were planning to make all six trusses the same and then add the extension pieces by overlapping the extensions to the top chord - probably a bit more economical on materials where they could use standard lengths more efficiently. But there was no extra charge for the change and it checked out ok on
  their engineering calculations.

The trusses came on a very long truck so we had to have them offloaded onto a flat grass area just inside our front gate and we had to carry them around to the back of the property.

Next job there was to seal them before we put them up. I worked on that in the early mornings and late afternoons - too hot in the driveway through the day. And all the time while painting I was looking over my shoulder at the two large trees that had to come down before we could start on the forest shelter workshop roof. The picture on the right shows their size. How on earth were we going to fell those trees safely?

Six trusses carried to the driveway and prepared for sealing    

First truss sealed - five to go    
    The height of those trees!


  More Fruit Trees
  We've still got a few spaces open in our fruit tree orchard so one quiet day we took a ride out to our favourite little nursery Hardy Plants Nursery and bought another three plum and our first three nectarine trees. Mandla spent a day digging the big holes, filling them with a fresh compost/soil mix and planting them for us.
 
 

And to finish off the month, here's Mandla planting the new trees and keeping an eye on the waterbuck bull on the other side of the large crop area (or maybe the waterbuck bull keeping an eye on Mandla from the other side of the large crop area). Not a situation we've ever had while planting our fruit trees in the suburbs!