Responsible Forestry

March 15, 2016

The lack of human interference in these mountains is a charming quality. Wild animals make tracks us humans can use to explore the undisturbed scenery. The flora and fauna is rich in this biodiverse area, with many wild flowers, butterflies, birds, mushrooms, reptiles and animals.

Before the car age, these mountains were inhabited by lots of humans and the tracks were used frequently by man and beast and thus kept open. Retaining walls were built to prevent landslides, in the seemingly most inaccessible places on these steep mountainsides, and many natural spring watering holes built and maintained. Melanya is close by the old trade route used for thousands of years and there are black and white photos of town traders arriving on camels from the other side of the Mediterranean. A time forgotten but not that long ago.

The current road to our village was made in the 1950’s and only tarmac’d in 2014. Up until then the old trade route was very busy. Modern times and and machinery have led to an ‘easier’ life but there is a good feeling about living a step closer to nature. Surrounded by trees we will never be short of firewood but getting it from the forest to our woodburner takes a lot of effort. As residents we are allowed to take dead wood from these mountainsides but for the quality burn we can buy living oak trees. Lee is selective in his choosing to lightly thin a patch, instead of clear felling. As we’re only harvesting for firewood, opting for misshapen or poorly developed trees enables pristine trees to fully develop into quality timber in years to come. There are lots of self seeders but we also collect split acorns to nurture and plant on, to both replace the trees we cut down and prevent soil erosion.

Wood & trailer

Having worked in forestry and being an expert with a chainsaw, Lee has earned lots of respect here. In fact his abilities meant that when a forest fire was caused by a precarious fallen tree on the electricity cable, the onlookers (including the mayor, the police, the fire service, the head forester and the electricity company) all gave Lee the ‘honour’ of cutting down the dangerous tree. Of course the fire had already been contained and the power shut off!

 

Though nature is beautiful it also is ever-changing. The paths that were clear in early spring, when all the branches were bare and the ferns had shrivelled up and dried, are soon only useable by 4 legged animals with thick skins. Traversing these mountains becomes more extreme because of the evil thorns. So instead of wearing a suit of armour, I always go walking with my secateurs and regularly cut back the relentless bramble runners and rose hip tendrils.

The other benefit is we are free to manage the tracks and mark these routes, without red tape and politics, arguing over where we can or can’t put signs or stipulating what colour and format they should be. We have always been conscious of aesthetics and keeping harmony while making more accessible for visitors. Resident villagers and the mayor have been very welcoming of the idea and are keen to help promote the area. They have all lived here for so long they do not need them but when they use the routes they also help to keep them open. The villagers joke, saying now it’s ‘Melly’s mountains’ but all in good humour.

Fallen trees and landslides also keep me on my toes, plus every year I open up and mark a new route and I don’t just hack my way through like Indiana Jones! Branches are cut cleanly to lessen the impact on the tree or bush and stop diseases having easy access. There are so many tracks snaking about our village but the marked ones are human friendly so tourists can follow them or use the signs and maps as reference guides. Once you have got your bearings, a mountain that looks a great distance away can be reached in a few hours. The biggest plus-side for me is you can go wherever you like without being blocked by fences and ‘no entry’ signs. Nowhere is out of bounds in the Eastern Rodopes🙂

Melly


Breeding like rabbits

January 17, 2016

It was after reading John Seymour’s, ‘The new complete book of Self Sufficiency’, that the idea of farming rabbits was born. I had enjoyed the taste of wild rabbit meat and disagreed with the way shop bought rabbits live in the same, or worse, conditions as battery hens. With a large garden full of organic dandelions and clover, and all around us mountainsides covered with pesticide free supplies, I designed a house and pen system for breeding, to meet their physical and mental needs, as well as mine looking after them, to raise healthy, happy, organic rabbits.

Naturally, I have since made amendments to their housing, learning more about them as I spent more time with the fluffy bunnies. Using the internet as a guide but watching and observing, I have been able to feed a very varied diet without the need to buy stock, except for the depths of winter! Knowing which leaves and bark they like and at what time of year I have found many places nearby to keep them happy. No-one else in our village breeds rabbits and I thought my neighbours would think me mad, collecting huge dock leaves and always coming back from a mountain walk with a bag of Acacia leaves, but instead they were supportive, especially when they realised the unwanted weeds from their gardens were wanted by my bunnies. And my rabbits eat different wild food to their cows so everyone is happy!

In Autumn when everyone is readying their wood for winter, they bag up the sawdust for me. It’s a better absorbent than hay, makes a much better deep litter in winter and is good for my compost structure too!

The hot dry summer is a challenge for most humans, even those who have climate controlled housing, so having a thick warm fur coat is not ideal but perfect for sub zero temperatures, so against advice, our first brood was born in the middle of winter. Unbeknownst to my neighbours, my rabbits had a luxury hutch made from thick stone walls with wooden doors, deep litter, insulated water bottles and exterior rubber curtains to insulate and keep the worst weather out. They really were the luckiest rabbits for miles around and the first group of kits snuggled together in their nest made of mother’s fur, kept each other warm and a month later they were playing outside in the snow.

Domestic rabbit is different from wild rabbit. The meat is whiter, more like chicken, though still very tasty. Unfortunately, rabbit husbandry is not as easy as it sounds and the saying ‘breed like rabbits’ was wrong. After 2 years of successful breeding we sadly lost the stud rabbit, who we tried replacing with a male from the last litter, only to discover after 3 phantom pregnancies, he was incapable! So I decided to wait until Spring and in the following March, a male rabbit was loaned to try and mate with my resident female. However, she was in no way, shape or form, going to let him get near her and became quite savage, aggressively biting him. After a week of trying to help nature work for me, I gave up, sent him home, and resigned to restarting our breeding programme with a new pair of rabbits.

When the new pair arrived, I integrated the young female with my older rabbit for company until she was old enough to start breeding. Oddly, a month later, the small one was seen attempting to mount the larger… so I double-checked and found she had become a he! But the chance for babies was slim as the older female still wasn’t putting out, so I went back to the source and came back with an older, and definitely female, rabbit. She was mated with the other male, who was from a different gene pool, and 31 days later, 6 squirming, blind and hairless, kits were born, the dad’s colouring of white with black patches, being the most prevalent.

Cremio's kits in nest

 

Meanwhile, the original female had been put out to pasture and had the run of the whole garden until, by accident, she encountered the sex changing rabbit (who I hadn’t decided what to with) and to my surprise she let him mount her and even groomed him while he regained his stamina and had another go! Perhaps the other pregnant female had put her ‘in the mood’…

Whatever the reason, it was a lucky stroke as sadly, the first mother died when her kits were only a week old. She overdosed on wild carrot of all things, which I had read on the internet was safe but subsequently found out, is toxic. I didn’t know yet if our original female was definitely pregnant and we needed a breeding female so I decided to hand-rear the kits. It’s a very difficult task as they are such fragile creatures, the mother’s milk being so rich that she only feeds her babies once a day. Luckily my neighbour’s cows milk was abundant so I was able to give my orphan bunnies the thick, rich, creamy ‘top’. Getting them to drink the milk and not wear it was a different story but I persevered, twice a day, to give them as much ‘goodness’ as I could. After a few days their eyes started to open and bundles of fun emerged…

6 orphan bunnies

It was now mid July and the daytime temperature was soaring. I was worried about the orphan kits overheating so moved them indoors, into our cool stone house and my bumper harvest of watermelons kept them hydrated and happy. Bunnies are extremely entertaining and so cute, especially when we let them exercise in our kitchen and the tiled floor meant they were skidding around like Bambi on ice!

Assessing whether a female rabbit is pregnant or not is very difficult as she hides it well but when the older female starting nesting, pulling fur from her belly to line a nest and expose her teats, I knew immediately and moved her back to the brood hutch where she increased the number of little bunnies! I considered smuggling the orphans in with them but had read how females will kill anything with another smell and also, because of the age/size difference, I decided it was best to carry on hand-rearing. Plus this poor woman had enough to deal with, with more babies than nipples!

I had hoped that the warnings on the internet wouldn’t apply to me but it was not to be. One by one the orphans died for various reasons until only one was left. It had been nicknamed Tubs as was the ‘fattest’ of the lot. It weaned itself off milk the earliest, was bigger than the others and whenever new food was introduced, it was the most cautious. Tubs probably had the best start in life with the first of the mother’s milk but survival seems also due to intelligence. I nurtured this remaining bunny and supervised playtime with the other rabbits to socialise but Tubs had always been independent and seemed very happy to be on her own. She is the spitting image of her dad, with extremely soft fur, loves being fussed – which she gets daily, and boldly touches noses with our resident donkey.

Tubs & dad

The original female has been retired and we are very grateful to her as now have a new breeding doe, her daughter, who is nurturing her first brood of kits with the help of her sister. All my rabbits get their segregated exercise time in the larger area we have created and it’s great to see them ‘binky’ (run, jump into the air, twist their body and flick their feet). What’s even better is when I want them to ‘go to bed’, they all happily return to their safe hutches at night🙂

Melly


2015 yearly roundup

January 1, 2016

Another year has passed in the mountains and I’m pleased to report that after the wetter 2014, this summer was the expected ‘hot’ mediterranean heat that lasted for 3 months. Blue skies, bright sun and 38°C everyday. Lovely🙂

Yes it was dry and a few times our mountain spring did not cope with the village requirements but our back-up supplies held out. The vegetables survived the heat, thanks largely I think, to my improving the land with home made organic compost… which was a lot of hard work!

The trees were laden with fruit and we had a bumper harvest of walnuts. Pears were the most abundant we’d ever seen here and we made our first rakia with them. Harder to produce but very tasty with a lovely aroma and so far, definitely the best fruit we’ve made rakia from. Next year we’ll try quinces.

In complete contrast to our wonderful summer, and probably why it was so good, was the heavy overnight snowfall in March, causing thousands of trees to fall. There was a huge abundance of timber available and we took advantage of this by partitioning our large garden with inner fencing and encircling the animal enclosures. All for a number of reasons:

  1. to stop the chickens decimating my flower beds
  2. to protect the chickens more from predators
  3. to reduce the hazard of guests walking in chicken poo
  4. to give the rabbits more room for more exercise
  5. to let the rabbits feed themselves!

It does mean there are more gates but it makes so much more sense having the working part of the garden contained.

Fenced garden

At the same time we took the financial plunge of changing the greenhouse roof. We had had enough of risking life and limb, up ladders in gales, trying to hammer new patches into place and decided to make a better job of it. After the temporary repairs in March, the roof was in urgent need of replacing or the next windy weather would rip it off completely. Our regular builder knew exactly what we wanted but having an 8 metre by 5 meter roof meant it wasn’t cheap. They removed my old roof first and as expected, the sunny weather changed to strong winds meaning they couldn’t finish. But I covered all beds so everything survived the exposure, and the next day I had a permanent fix. Thanks to Lee for insisting we upgrade and getting up there, hopefully for the last time, to help secure it in place🙂

This year our guesthouse has had a few firsts – first guests to get engaged here, first travel writer, first guest to stay here 3 times in 1 year, and we were 1 of ’20 Remote Escapes in Europe’ in The Times newspaper.

Rabbits – too much has happened this year so I will be devoting a whole blog, just about them! Concisely, we have successfully breeding rabbits and they are a pleasure to farm. They do suffer in the Bulgarian summer heat but I keep them cool with bottles of iced water. I’d read it was a good way to keep your bunnies cool and at first they were a bit sceptical but soon they were stretched out alongside, resting their backs on the ice pillow. They love to be fussed and are so soft, especially the one I hand reared…

Chickens – a few more losses this year and birds of prey have been the main culprit so I made a scarecrow and my garden is decorated with cd’s – shiny discs to scare the birds. We still have lovely rich eggs, though never quite enough and my hens did not get broody to expand my stock so when a neighbour had 3 birds sitting on eggs and not enough housing for them, I volunteered and divided up my large hen house. When they were grown up, we shared the chicks. Village ethos!

Our dog is becoming an old man, slowing down and not venturing quite so far anymore. He still chaperones me wherever I go walking and I designed him a new kennel, which he loves. It even has a loft apartment for our cat!

Jakal's new kennel

Sadly our favourite neighbour’s wife died this year and it was a great loss. She treated me as one of her own and was always extremely generous. Mumum has since sold his cows, at the insistence of his kids, and he has gone to Turkey to stay with them for winter. The village is very quiet without him though he is still very much felt as I am at his house, 3 times a day, looking after his chickens. Our menagerie has grown too as I’m also looking after his donkey who I bring into our garden everyday and he is excellent at mowing the lawn! He’s very sociable and frequently comes to see what I’m up to. He’s intrigued by the rabbits and mischievous but generally an adorable guy!

Meko the donkey

My animals constantly entertain me with their antics and I have been in stitches over comedic moments, wishing I had my camera ready. Being with animals daily has given me the opportunity to study their behaviours and expand my knowledge of caring for fluffy/furry creatures. And its a lot of work but the rewards are great. I really notice the yin and yang of life here in the mountains and how cruel yet how beautiful mother nature can be.

Wishing everyone all the best for 2016🙂

Melly


It’s better than it seems….

October 4, 2015

This year has been another busy year and the late snowfall and the devastation caused to my many walks at first seemed like a huge burden. So many trees had fallen in March that many of my marked routes were impassable and the usual clearance after winter was intensified. Every year the pine trees suffer on this steep rocky mountain, the winds topple them as do landslides, but the huge weight of snowfall in just one night was immense. Many trees had literally snapped in half and clearing the road was the most important thing so routes for hikers had to take a back seat. When I was able to make a start, I had to reroute in a lot of places meaning extra markers to be made, fixed in place and maps changed.

One walk was using a timber track where a whole row of pine trees had fallen across it. I managed to climb over and under and counted 40 trees in one stretch of about 10 meters. Lee is very handy with a chainsaw and can tackle most things but after working on the roadway, tackling forest fires and clearing other walks, it was summertime and attempting this one in high temperatures was decidedly crazy! So I gave up the idea of trying to clear it and completely rerouted a large section of the walk.

It wasn’t until today, while out mushroom picking Saffron Milk Caps and Slippery Jacks nearby, I though I’d take another look to assess just how much hard work it would entail. Thankfully the fallen trees are now over 6 months dead and have become very brittle so I could easily snap branches off and break my way though. You still need to climb over and under but the dead wood is also lighter so when Lee tackles it with his chainsaw, I will be able to help drag them out of the track. Then rerouting can begin again, though as our season is nearly over, maybe I’ll wait to see what this winter brings…

Triangle walk

Melly


Winter Wonderland

March 28, 2015

After a very wet 2014 and not much snowfall by end of February 2015, we were beginning to think we’d got off lightly this time and winter was over when suddenly a huge snowfall occurred. Overnight 60cm of snow fell and kept falling for the next 3 days adding up to over 1 meter and over 1.5 meter in drifts. The gigantic amount of snow in such a short space of time meant trees and electric pylons were toppled with the heavy weight. Power was lost the first night though we were prepared for this as we often lose electricity in stormy weather so had plenty of candles, but this time the power cut lasted 16 days. What?! I hear you cry, but life without electricity is not as bad as it sounds – at least not here at Melanya Mountain Retreat. I cook on a wood burner throughout winter anyway and due to Lee’s forestry skills we had plenty of wood in, so just had to reorganise meals to fit in with daylight. Having dinner early and the fact you can’t do much by candlelight meant going to bed at 9pm was natural and as a result waking up at dawn wasn’t hard either!


Melanya in heavy snow

Getting around wasn’t easy though and if it weren’t for our animals I wouldn’t have gone out at all. The first day I could just about walk in the knee-deep snow but the next day I had to concede as I sank in up to my bum! It was more like trying to move through quicksand so snow shoes are on the list of ‘must haves’! Using shovels, we dug down half way so I could reach their houses, check on food and water levels and remove any eggs. The chickens poked their heads out but soon changed their minds and the rabbit attempted digging but must have got cold feet as she soon gave up! The next day I dug down further so they could stretch their legs a bit more and give the laying hens some privacy and also making my access a bit easier. The apple tree over the rabbit house was so laden I had to crouch down low and I couldn’t just knock it off as the snow was frozen to the branches and needed shovelling off. I was scared to let the rabbit out as the snow was so high, having visions of her hopping over the fence and disappearing into the surrounding white, never to be seen again… so I dug out the whole pen! Phew – hot work!

Melly off up neighbours

Melly attempting to get to neighbours house

We ate well for the duration as we always keep a good stock of food. The hour drive to the supermarkets means we are always at least 2 weeks in hand. The fridge was kept cool and the freezer more or less frozen with regular containers of ice from the garden, though our meals were decided by which food started thawing first. I bake my own bread and made extra for our elderly neighbours. The chickens were still laying delicious eggs and we had plenty of beer, wine and home-made rakia🙂

The elderly and ill were also very well looked after as on day 4, a helicopter flew over and lowered a Doctor into our back garden, complete with medication for patients. The winchman’s first question was “Where are the old people?”. They were obviously running on a tight deadline with so many stranded to get to and unfortunately, they had forgotten to drop off all prescriptions for the Mayor’s wife in upper Lyubino. Lee was given the nearly impossible task of trying to battle his way up there, only a mile away but with snow so deep he couldn’t walk and felt like he was swimming against the tide, making very slow progress and exerting lots of effort. But when he eventually got there he was gratefully received as otherwise she would’ve run out of insulin the next day.

While Lee was on his epic adventure, I was also having a physical day, digging out my greenhouse. The overhang of snow was almost to the ground and looked more like a frozen wave. Pleasingly, there was minimal damage. Unlike others in our village, the structure itself was still upright and only a few panels of roof had torn with the weight but the snow was still holding together so I covered all beds below and with the help of a ‘younger’ neighbour Rick, shovelled off as much as possible outside so only a few lumps caved in. All vegetables were fine in their giant igloo. Temporary repairs held for the next fall of snow and we had time to make extra reinforcements before the weather turned to rain.

Greenhouse with overhang

Greenhouse mid overhand removal

There is only one road to Melanya Mountain Retreat and without a means to communicate with the outside world, we were unsure as to the state of the road. Usually after snowfall, the snow plough reaches us the next day but 8 days later we were beginning to worry! After intrepid explorers braved the deep snow to be faced by a wall of wood, it was realised why they hadn’t reached us and plans were drawn up to attempt a start with chainsaws. As if by magic, the next morning, 3am on a Sunday, the snowplough trundled past, thanks to the army of nearby villagers who had already been cutting their way to us along the 5 mile stretch of forest track. It was amazing to see a black tarmac road after so long of nothing but white so the plans to start clearing turned into a race to town to juice up the mobile phones and contact anxious loved ones.

Tree down

Trees blocking road

Unfortunately the full devastation was sad to behold. Hundreds of trees snapped in half or completely uprooted and landslides of mud and boulders – some twice as big as a car. Last year, we were upset by a bulldozer knocking down trees to make way for the tarmac road, removing the romance from our dirt road access, but content that mother nature would soon cover up the mess. This time, the vast destruction put humans into place as only a war could have had an equal impact. It will take a long time and a lot of hard work to clear up.

Road cleared

The same day, power was reinstated to the village opposite with the nearest mobile phone mast but without power ourselves, batteries didn’t last long. Surprisingly the electric meter reader came after a few days and said we’d be another 5 days before reconnection… I must admit I felt better when he said he still didn’t have power in his village and no water either. Most towns and villages in this region were on State of Emergency as, apart from losing electricity, the water stopped too. People couldn’t run taps, flush toilets and shops ran out of bottled water. Luckily for us, our village water comes from a natural spring and unlike our first 2 winters, the pipes didn’t freeze.

My dearest neighbour Mumun, whose wife is ill, has seen many winters like this before but his 75-year-old back was playing up and it’s hard staying upright, taking buckets of water to his cows, across icy snow that has a tendency to belie it’s real depth until you lift the other foot! So he appreciated all assistance, especially when milk production reduced because of food shortages and hay levels got critical. I collapsed my own hay cock and we helped him reach his, digging paths to them across fields of deep snow, loading up the donkey or physically carrying up the steep slopes. A big thanks to Rick for his help.

Melly & donkey

Moving hay with Mumun’s donkey

So we survived and the snow has melted to reveal how much garden fencing needs repair. Of course, now power is back on, there’s a mountain of laundry to catch up on and computers soak up so much time, but I had relished hibernating and even finished reading a book! We will get a generator though, so we can keep in touch via our satellite internet, have lighting in the evenings and recharge camera batteries🙂

Melly


The Wizard of Wicked Mountain

February 11, 2015

Since our first visit to Bulgaria in 2006, there have been so many occasions where help and assistance is freely offered, often by complete strangers who refuse any recompense for their time given. The generosity of the people and strong community spirit helped us move here from UK in 2011 and since then, we have nothing but praise for Bulgarians.

Mumun with silver shoes

One person who stands out is Mumun, the man we bought our house from and who agreed to be guardian while we worked in England to pay for renovations. The house he built in the 1970’s with the help of his neighbours, is the most robust house for miles around, with all walls 60cm thick, including internal. But after years of ravage by the mountain weather, it was in need of some TLC. Nothing has been replaced since it was built and all the windows and the roof needed birthdays. There wasn’t any running water installed inside the property and the electric cables were worn out. Split on 2 floors with an external staircase, we immediately saw the potential for a guest house and set about planning a home for us downstairs and a luxurious self contained apartment upstairs. Having such a blank canvas, with not even a shelf on the walls, meant we could use our imagination. Unrestricted by plumbing pipes or internal structures, in all honesty it was a shell of a building though the traditional way the house was built from natural hand shaped stone, meant we couldn’t alter it’s floor plan and ‘knock through’ any walls or the whole building might collapse! We were able to use our western wages to improve Mumun’s house beyond his wildest dreams and he told us we have done what he wanted to do, but couldn’t and is extremely happy to see his house fully utilised. He welcomed us into his family and treats as one of his children. Our ages fit us in well with his 4 true-born who have moved far away from home but all come to visit at least twice a year.

Mumun has become our most trusted neighbour and when a stray puppy turned up mid-renovations, he agreed to look after him while we lived overseas. Jakal has turned into an extremely well behaved dog and shares his life between us, a hound with 2 homes.

Mumun and Jakal

Despite the fact he is retired, Mumun is always prepared to get stuck in and assist with work around our garden and never asks for anything in return but it’s a pleasure to be able to give something back. We are proud to be experienced enough and able to adapt quickly to his self sufficient lifestyle, and not be the ‘city’ folk who don’t know how to work the land or keep animals.

Mumun on haycock

I’m sure this pleases him too as at age 75 he doesn’t need to feel obligated to help with more than a few suggestions and even though he is incredibly strong and fit for an elderly wiry man, we can physically help him too. Although I admit, scything hay is still a skill that will take many more years of practice to get anywhere near his standard! Luckily, having worked in the UK with horses, I am competent at forking hay up to him on his haycock while he balances atop, building the stack high to overwinter. And then when his cows need food, helping take apart the cock and load a donkey to take it to his cow shed. There are no machines here, no labour saving devices, and with most land on these steep mountainsides being very sheer, using the age old methods is by far the most practical!

Mumun with hay on donkey

Of course the internet is a great research tool and helps us a lot but up here, 2500 feet on the crest of a mountain not far from the Mediterranean, the weather, seasons and timings are very different from the UK. His years of experience means he knows when to plant as the ground stays colder at this altitude and when to trim the fruit trees to get the best harvest. We have tried to make a few changes, like building a greenhouse frame strong enough to over-winter so harvesting spinach when it’s snowing is much easier, but he had a good laugh when the ferocious winds ripped the roof covering off!

Mumun likes a chuckle and I think this is what keeps him young. He regularly spins a yarn, telling us something with a very serious face to see how gullible we are. Like the first September we visited and sitting in the garden, could hear roaring sounds from across the mountains. We asked him what animals these were and he told us ‘Mechka’. “Really?!” we asked as we knew bears lived in the Rhodope Mountains but were amazed they came so close to human civilisation, giving the country’s history of bear mistreatment, but the remoteness of our village with a very small population and no industry or light pollution made it very feasible. We were extremely pleased that we had bought a house even closer to nature than we first thought… Mumun didn’t put us straight and it was another year before we realised they were stags rutting! Which actually is still an amazing sound to hear and bears do indeed come that close as we have seen the paw prints… they are just very quiet about it!

Another time I’ll never forget, was when we came home late from a day out and Mumun, who keeps an eye on our animals for me, said an eagle had been seen flying over and swooped down and took one of my chickens. I was very sad… He told me I should stay with them all day tomorrow as the eagle would be back. He was winking at Lee but I had fallen for it until the next morning when I opened their house to find all hens present. None had been taken! So later I got him back by dejectedly knocking at his door and telling him I was a bad woman as another hen had been taken by an eagle… the shocked look on his face was priceless but all was forgotten when I announced ‘joke’ and smiles and laughter broke out.

Mumun

The thing that makes Mumun so special is his whistling. Whist scything hay, restocking his wood pile, mucking out or feeding his cows, he is always rendering a tune. Not only does this make us feel happy, it lets us and any visitors sunbathing know when he is not far away! He is always welcome here yet whistles to announce his presence and observes reverence. Mumun holds our greatest respect for his cheery outlook on life, the fact he has lived a tough life in these mountains yet still pauses to look at the beautiful mountain scenery, is always laughing and smiling, even when a heavy delivery truck, bringing materials for our latest enterprise, collapsed into his cow shed and a whole wall had to be rebuilt quickly before the impending rain… and best of all, he always finishes conversations with ‘vsichko hubavo’ = every things lovely🙂

Cow shed disaster

Melly


2014 yearly roundup

January 3, 2015

Another year on in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria, and I’m still learning something new everyday, becoming more and more adaptable and expanding my DIY skills. Here’s a roundup of a few of the things that have occurred this year…

2014 has been another year where water has been a huge issue but this time because we’ve had too much. Long periods of rain when we’ve normally had dry spells and seemingly every other day has been wet from either fast downpours or being ‘in a cloud’. Villagers joked last winter it was too dry and we should get some rain sent from England. Luckily we still had hot bright sun and blue skies over half the year so my tan was topped up and hasn’t faded.

Early this year an English woman, who had bought a house in this village and started to renovate it in 2013, brought her new man out to gauge his interest and he liked it so much he proposed to her. She accepted and 2 months later they married and moved out here to Lyubino, the village of love. They are a great couple who are a welcome addition to our mountain life, like-minded in getting out of the rat race, being self-sufficient and immersing themselves in ‘The Good Life’. These mountains always give plenty of wild mushrooms such as chanterelle, puff-ball and parasol, and a lot grow in our garden as I cheated and spread the spores around last year! But because this year has been so wet, more varieties have been found and our new neighbours have helped us learn more with their enthusiasm for wild mushroom picking.

Another friend, who visited last year and loved it so much, came out again, found a house she liked in the next village and bought it. Renovations are underway and the locals are extremely happy to hear the population is growing. Coincidentally, the main road that needed constant maintenance by villagers with spades and pickaxes, has been flattened out by machines and covered in tarmac. We loved the way the dirt road made us feel far removed from civilisation but realistically there aren’t enough people living here to cope with the frequent improvements needed. Every time it rains, the rivers of water cascading down the mountain, create ruts in the sandy track and channels dug to divert the water away are never long-lasting. Now the journey to our mountain retreat is much smoother, less damaging to cars, better for cycling, and thankfully the last mile to our house is still a dirt track. Very soon the evidence of machinery will be covered by greenery and it will still be a spectacular journey.

Snowy lane landy

My fluctuating number of chickens sent me to the market to add new stock for more eggs. At the time my young cockerel, born last year, was creating havoc and constantly at loggerheads with Captain because he was trying to muscle-in on his women. He got his own back though and interrupted every attempt his father made! So as the new girls needed to be introduced gradually or the older girls would pick on them, I divided the hen-house and it meant an ideal time to give Cocka2 his own harem. He was so happy though the men still wanted to fight so I ended up with 2 families and double the work while keeping them apart! Soon after the mother hen got broody again so I gave her eggs from the older hens to sit on and included 2 from the newbies, which I thought wouldn’t be fertile as they were only half sized eggs, but it was lucky I did as it turned out my original cockerel was ill and all his eggs were duds. He was getting slower and slower and eventually wouldn’t come out of his house. He wasn’t cleaning himself and old age had set in. So once again only 1 chick was born but this time it was female and deemed the young cockerel was a good replacement. I had a feeling I should keep Cocka2 as a reserve and he was even happier when his harem grew!

Cocka2

When I bought the new hens I checked them over for parasites and was so determined not to have another bout of scaly leg mite, I didn’t notice 1 hen had no tail feathers. Because of her colours she looked more like a quail but was the most regular egg layer and in October, when the weather suddenly turned cold and egg production stopped, her tail feathers started to grow. Unfortunately the feather shafts were so thick they made her bleed profusely but soon she had a splendid tail and nice warm rear end. Another surprise being she was the only hen who resumed organic egg laying and continued daily, even after the snow fell at the end of December.

Guiness

As for rabbit husbandry, after the daddy died last year, I kept a male from the 3rd litter but the story that rabbits breed uncontrollably didn’t pan out as, after 2 false pregnancies, I inspected closer and found he had an endowment problem! So I’ve decided to start again and buy fresh blood next Spring and give myself the winter off. The original female has become our resident pet rabbit, coming to and from her pen all day long and knows it is safe. When Cocka2 sounds the eagle alarm, she races back to it. She has dug a few burrows but the stony ground stops her going very deep and our exterior garden fence is chicken wired deep into the ground. She needs to be shut in at night as we have regular fox visits, and even though she often hides and makes me tour the garden looking for her, she always goes home in the end. Having a free range rabbit is much easier for me as I don’t have to collect much food for her. She is very friendly, likes being fussed and is also wise and knows not to eat bindweed so I’ll keep her to show the new breeding pair the ropes, so to speak, after winter!

Sally

Our dog Jakal has had another dramatic year but this time it was our new English neighbours whose hearts jumped a beat – he’d tagged along on a walk with their visiting kids. When they crossed a suspension footbridge over the river Arda, he decided the bridge was too scary so jumped in the water, not realising how fast the torrent was, and was nearly swept into the rocky rapids. Everyone held their breaths until he made it to the other side and they dragged him back across the bridge to make sure he didn’t try to swim the raging river again!

Their own dog had his experience of excellent Bulgarian vets. He developed a large swelling on one side of his body and as it didn’t go down and he was off his food, I went with them to help with translating. The vet knew instantly it was an abscess and set about lancing the lump and flushing the gunk out. In true Bulgarian style, and because the vet knew where we lived, he gave them syringes filled with 3 more antibiotic doses and a bottle of fluid to continue flushing out the wound. He wasn’t ‘stitched up’ as we westerners expect, but wound left open to aid healing. Luckily for them, the dog was a very good patient and even wagged his tail when it was time for another ‘flush-out’!

Muppet the cat is still adorable and earning her keep by regularly catching mice and sparrows – both of whom steal my chicken grain and there’s no danger of extinction for them!! Unfortunately she also caught a Syrian spotted woodpecker and ate everything bar the head and wings. We see plenty of those though so she’s not in too much trouble! She also caught and killed a weasel that had made a home in my food store and was working its way through my walnuts. During a tidy up, I disturbed it from its hiding place so it made a run for it but wasn’t fast enough. Our cat looked more like a lion trying to drag its latest kill!

My neighbour’s bees had so many babies he offered to restock but this time I took my hives to share the area with his to ensure they get well looked after while I learn some more about beekeeping. The wet year and reduced sunshine wasn’t good for honey though as bees don’t fly in rain and it has been a bad year for fruit trees. Cherry harvest was small though mulberries were alright so we made our first batch of rakia from a mix of the 2. I had to travel out from my garden to pick enough red plums but made a lovely tasting rakia from them and several jars of jam. A type of greengage did very well so with the help of our neighbours we filled 2 barrels and made another 40 litres of rakia! Sadly, no-one’s grapes were useable this year, even as eaters, and pears and apples all suffered. Walnuts suffered too but I still have reams left over from last year. Of the last fruit to harvest, quince did the best so I could still make lots of delicious jam from them.

I’m pleased to say I have learnt to make bread, a skill I didn’t master in England as it’s cheaper to buy ready-made, but as we live such a long way from the shops and we get 25K sacks of flour delivered for 18 lev (£7.20), it made a lot more sense to make our own. So we bought a bread-maker and using our cheap overnight electricity we got up in the morning to the delicious smell of fresh bread. Bread machines are great but they always leave a hole where the paddle sits and restrict shapes to loaves when I like to have rolls and French sticks. So I started using the ‘dough only’ setting and shaping it myself until one day I hadn’t connected the paddle and didn’t realise until the morning! I didn’t want to waste the ingredients I had measured out the night before, so mixed and kneaded it by hand. To my delight it wasn’t difficult and so I have added another string to my bow. Though it does require day flexibility as the yeast reaction is random – the 1st rise in summer can be as quick as 1 hour whereas in winter it can take a whole day – but is well worth it🙂

Melanya Mountain Retreat guest house is going from strength to strength and we’ve had another year of wonderful reviews. Upkeep of this house and garden is quite demanding but I’m loving it. The hot sun and freezing winters have taken their toll on exterior wood so this year, I took advantage of dry spells and sanded down and varnished everything! Window frames, picnic benches, BBQ area, garden seating, animal houses… plus there’s the DIY entailed making extra nest boxes and shelves to give the hens a better house, building separation walls, repairing doors and gates, fencing new veg beds to keep the chickens out, making new garden benches… In fact I’m enjoying wood work so much I’m building a huge rabbit house extension to improve my working environment and with extra storage.

Another thing I’m learning is milking. Our 75 year old neighbour, who we barter with for milk, yogurt, butter and cheese, has become ill so I help her husband feed, muck out and milk the 2 cows they have. He’s still much faster at milking than me but then he has a few years head start! Ideally he should sell one of the cows and reduce the workload. He keeps joking one is for me but he knows I’m not ready for a cow. Maybe one day but it’s a lot of work, milking twice a day and then processing the gallons of milk… I simply don’t have enough time!

One piece of information learned you might like to know, Bulgarians do not need to add a culture to their milk to turn it into yogurt as it exists naturally in the air.

Lastly, we have been tackling our damp problem as against all odds, even though our house is on the crest of a mountain, because it’s mainly rock substrate, when it rains heavily the water can’t dissipate quickly enough and our house is flooded. We knew our main problem was the back garden being higher than floor level but also that the house is built of stone and stone needs to breath. So after research on the internet we decided to install a French drain. We hired some local men to dig out lots of earth, sand and rock, line the base with gravel and tubes with holes all along, and fill back in with 20 ton of pebbles. I always wanted to live in a castle and now I do as we have a moat around our house! Though I’m not acting like a princess, far from it – our workers hired a big drill to break up the rock to remove and I’ve been working hard, putting it to good use. Firstly I filled up the chicken run with about 15 barrows as it was getting very low from the ground compacting and me taking some away each time I scoop up chicken manure. I even made a retaining wall as their run is on a slope and when they dig and bathe they send it all into my veg garden! Secondly I’ve improved my vegetable bed paths by lining them with plastic sheeting and covering with sand in an attempt to stop those pesky weeds. Thirdly I used the best stone excavated to build a retaining wall for a new flower bed around our BBQ area and filled it with the good topsoil and saved flower bulbs. I also copied the French drain idea and installed a pipe at the end of the roof drain pipe to assist me with natural watering. So I am looking forward to Spring and crossing my fingers all my planning and planting works!

And we are very happy to announce the damp problem has been solved and our lean-to food store, which was normally under 4cm of water after heavy rain, is bone dry!

I think I’d better stop now and wish you all a happy new year and don’t worry – when you come to visit I have plenty more stories to tell🙂

Melly