Thursday, 30 October 2008

Local Resilience – Bluetongue

This is a blog entrance I have thought about a lot; when was the right time to talk about bluetongue, what it meant to us and to the local farming community in general and did it mean anything to people visiting the area.

Bluetongue arrived in Eastern Asturias in late June and I suspected the first symptoms on one of our sheep at the beginning of August. It’s a viral disease which only affects ruminants (no danger to humans what so ever) and is transmitted by a midge which arrived in Europe in recent years (supposedly due to climate change). There are different serotypes of bluetongue, but they all affect sheep quite seriously.

As part of the Asturian governments preventative plan against Bluetongue our flock was vaccinated by the vets of the Ministry of Agriculture in April, as was the entire sheep population of Eastern Asturias. So when sheep started to die from it in July there were a lot of questions being asked, and in particular “why are sheep which have been vaccinated against bluetongue dying from it?”

For me (and most farmers) there has been a huge mismanagement and with holding of information on the situation. We still don’t know if the sheep were vaccinated against the wrong serotype, if the vaccine came defective from the laboratory which produced it, or if the vaccine had been stored incorrectly by the Ministry of Agriculture at some stage.

The consequences of this bad management by the Minister of Agriculture have had a devastating affect on the farmers in the area. If the distress for the farmers seeing their animals suffer and die wasn’t enough, there was a complete lack of understanding towards the problem from the agricultural ministry. There was mountains of paper work (associated with the disease) which the farmers were suppose to fill out, but not even the local agricultural office could help them with the bureaucracy or the necessary procedures, as they didn’t know what to do, as there was no clear directive coming from above.

In total we lost 6 sheep to bluetongue (about 10% of the flock) and I reckon at least another 10 showed symptoms but pulled through. We were lucky because mortality rates in sheep were generally very much higher. Our neighbouring farmer lost 70% of his herd and another close farm lost 50%. Since talking to the local vets it appears as though the Xalda sheep (the indigenous breed we keep) appear to be more resilient to the virus. They might be small sheep but they are hardier and better adapted to difficult conditions.

I must say I found it a very difficult time when the disease hit our farm, feeling so upset for our animals which were suffering and at the same time helpless and frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the system and the inability of being able to do anything to improove the situation. I have the utmost sympathy for the farmers in the area whose livelihoods have been affected.

A white xalda sheep being vaccinated.
A couple of weeks ago the second vaccination program was completed on our farm, (and in the whole of Asturias) and along with lower temperatures there are now no sheep showing symptoms. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope the vaccines work for next year.

The only good thing for me, which came about from all the problems associated with bluetongue, was that I felt the need to “escape” and that’s when I started doing a lot of walking in the mountains again, and I am so glad I have!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Farm Flora Guide – a celebration of biodiversity.

The culmination of ten months work and study, this new “book” is hot off the press and already being thumbed through on one of the hotel’s coffee-tables. To date, 322 species of wildflower have been identified on the farm, of which 308 are portrayed in this book of colour photos, grouped into families, including details of where they can be found.

Three areas of the farm are managed specifically for wildflowers, these being the Wildflower meadow, Castañarina meadow, and Cuevona meadow. Over 80% of the species identified have been found in these meadows, though many also appear elsewhere on the farm. Each meadow is managed in a different way:-
The Wildflower meadow is cut for hay in early July (exact timing depending on the weather), and grazed by sheep in late autumn or early winter. The wildflower meadow is small and dry, and characterised by its columbines and orchids in the spring, then a swaying carpet of yellow rattle in early summer. It has the greatest diversity of species per unit area of any of these three meadows.

La Castañarina meadow is cut for hay in July and grazed by sheep over the winter, with some areas grazed by our two Asturcon ponies in late summer. It is a large south-facing meadow, with several diverse habitat types, reflected in its having the greatest number of species (210) recorded in it of any of these three meadows. Three orchid species have been recorded only in this meadow (out of the ten found on the farm) – man orchid, autumn lady’s tresses, and small-flowered serapia.

Cuevona meadow is not cut for hay, but is grazed by sheep in early spring and early autumn. It contains some of the wettest areas on the farm, reflected in the species found there – bog pimpernel, heath spotted orchid, heath speedwell, compact and soft rushes, and wild angelica.

This area of Spain is regarded as having a high level of flora biodiversity, and the number of species found on the farm reflects this. Because we farm organically, with diverse cropping and grazing systems, and with wildlife in mind, the farm is a haven for wildflowers, insects, birds, and other forms of nature.

Now all that remains is to photograph the other 14 species – a farmer’s work is never done!

Entrance by Hugh Taylor

Monday, 20 October 2008

Mountains and coast

Making the most of the lovely autumn weather Joe and I went for a coastal walk and a swim on Sunday and then today Monday I climbed Peña Castil a high mountain in the central massif of the Picos.

This is really what makes Asturias so exceptional, the combination of a stunning coastline and spectacular mountains in such close proximity.

For the walk on Sunday we did one of the self guided coastal walks we have available for guests at the hotel; “Circular walk of Torimbia.” This is one of the most beautifull beaches in the area and just happens to be a nudist beach.

The walk starts in Niembro and passes by the church sitting on the edge of the river estuary. You then carry a long a foot path with spectacular views of the coast line when you soon come to the idyllic beach of Torimbia. After walking around the beach the walk carries on over the headland (more views) and back to the car. It really is one of our favourite short walks.

One of the reasons for doing the ascent of Peña Castil today was to assess its suitability to include in our self guided walking notes. With an ascent of 1550m I don’t think we could term it an easy walk! Its summit at 2444m is certainly the highest mountain I’ve climbed in the Picos and as you can imagine the views from the top were quite something.

Looking towards the Eastern Massiff of the Picos de Europa from the summit of Peña Castil

The famous Naranjo de Bulnes seen from the asscent of Peña Castil

Thats Asturias; mountains and coast, and much more; just fabulous!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Macrolepiota Procera

This mushroom: Macrolepiota Procera or “Parasol” makes a frequent appearance on our farm in the autumn. It can grow very large very quickly. It’s the only mushroom we eat and serve in the restaurant, being totally unmistakable with any other type of mushroom. It also tastes lovely and due to its large size with a cap of up to 20 cm in diameter, makes a good meal.

We had a short period of rain about 10 days ago followed by warm weather over the last week, and this has obviously been ideal growing conditions for them. There’s an explosion of these mushrooms on the farm at the moment, with over 100 examples seen today! Unfortunately they spoil very quickly and are normally in optimum conditions to eat for less than a day. So Joes been cooking some and preserving them in olive oil ready for later use. Buen provecho!

Friday, 10 October 2008

Apple Harvest 2008

We started picking our apples yesterday, and between yesterday and today we have harvested about 2000 kgs of apples. Apple trees are prone to biannual bearing, meaning one year they tend to produce a lot of fruit and the following year less. With our plantation this will be a year with less fruit so we should finish the picking quite soon.

So what does the harvesting process involve?

First we hand pick a few apples in boxes for use as eating and cooking apples in the hotel.

Then we gently hit the trees with a stick so that the apples fall to the floor.

After that we pick the apples from the ground, separating the good apples from the bad ones putting the good apples in the sacks, (not the bad ones of course.)

Then comes the hard part; humping the sacks to the nearest farm track.

The tractor then takes the sacks of apples from the farm to a central point, normally the hotel car park.

Then Antonio comes to collect the apples and takes them away to be transformed into the lovely apple juice we serve in the hotel.

Friday, 3 October 2008


With autumn here and winter approaching its time to make sure there is a good supply of wood ready for the winter. Our major source of wood comes from the Eucalyptus trees, which have been invading the farm at the top of the Castañarina meadow. Rather than clearing them in one go we have been taking a couple of trees down each year; more or less what we estimate we will burn in one winter. We cut these large trees in late summer; split the wood while it is still green (as it is easier) and then store the wood for a year, ready for use the following winter when it is drier.

Dead trees and windfalls are another source of wood. The dead wood tends to be drier so we normally use it the same year. We’ve slowly been changing our approach to this type of wood. We use to only use the larger branches for the wood stoves, burning the smaller twigs and branches on the farm. However over the last couple of years we have been using the smaller twigs for kindling.

We break them into small pieces and store them in boxes or wherever. Preparing so many small twigs for burning is quite labour intensive, but I’ve come to learn that’s normal with a more sustainable lifestyle, you substitute petrol and machines for human labour!

Some of the wood is used in the hotel in the open fire in the downstairs lounge, but most goes for use in our own house where all the heating is done with wood and we can also heat the water and cook on wood as well. So with the wood prepared we are now ready for those wet days in winter (if they come) when we can just sit in front of a log fire and chill out!


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.