Food and Frost; Trust and Goodbyes; Autumn Leaf Mould Energy Potential (Part 4: Heating a Greenhouse with an External Compost Bed – First Month’s Experience).

Having been caught out by the severity of the last 2 winters, we were a bit better prepared this year, when the cold weather arrived early. The last week has been very cold, but the carrots we lifted at the end of October, and the parsnips lifted after earlier frosts in November have all been easily accessible for suppers in their simple wooden drawers, filled with damp chainsaw shavings. It certainly beats trying to chisel vegetables from deeply frozen soil.

This year the carrots were simply hosed off in situ in their big bags, the foliage given to the poultry who seem to prefer this to the actual carrot roots, and then the roots laid closely in layers with the shavings. The boxes then being placed in our frost free outbuilding. The hubbard squash were also hung up in empty bulb nets from the barn rafters, and are another fantastic delicious and versatile vegetable which it’s nice to be able to nip out and grab quickly on a grotty winter’s day.

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Driving back from our last film/talk of the year, given to the Cardigan horticultural society this week, we thought we’d had a good journey home on well gritted roads until we climbed out of Llanybydder towards the summit at King’s Cross. We suddenly hit dense fog for the last 2 miles, which as result of the sub-zero temperatures was freezing fog, and by morning this had coated much foliage in the garden with the stunning ice crystal trimmings of a December rime.

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Inside the greenhouse these very low temperatures, which by dawn had produced a reading of minus 14 degrees C on its metal ridge, have resulted in some fantastic ice crystal formations which surpassed any etched glass designs that I’ve ever seen.

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But before giving an update on how the greenhouse compost heating project has fared under these testing conditions, I’m going to digress to touch on a subject I’ve had a few weeks to mull over. (The horrific events and tragedy in the last 24 hours at the primary school in Connecticut, America may mean that some readers may want to skip the next section as being too raw).

Several studies have shown that most prospective veterinary students list a ‘love of animals’ as one of their primary reasons for choosing a career in veterinary medicine, yet post-graduation after a couple of years in general practice a similar question asking what veterinary surgeons find most appealing about their work generates a different view. Problem solving, technical challenges or dealing with the public are likely to figure above the actual appeal of working with animals. Indeed, this change was personally evident, as I followed my own career path in the field of small animal (pet) medicine and surgery, and established my own veterinary practice in Bristol.

A significant element of the work of a small animal vet involves client counselling before, and then the actual process, of euthanasia of family pets. All of the vets who I ever worked alongside, took this task very seriously, but perhaps it’s only very recently with several years distancing me from this regularly performed act that I’ve thought a little more about it.

In my veterinary education, little discussion or formal advice was given on this sensitive area. You picked up tips and developed your own approach from observation of experienced mentor vets whilst ‘seeing practice’, and as a result of personal experience down the years. It was critical to perform the task both technically well, and sensitively. Meaningful emotional involvement with the pet owners was difficult in most cases, and perhaps unwise. Does this regular taking of life insidiously alter veterinary surgeons’ views of what they find rewarding about the job in the longer term?

I do remember fairly late in my career, becoming aware of a few strange ‘synchronicities’ involving music around the time that pets were euthanased in their owner’s homes. Was I becoming too detached from the task in hand, if I was even noticing what music was playing in the background, as I carried out the euthanasia? Or was it a subtle prompt for me to reassess whether it was right for me to continue in general practice?

The first occasion involved an elderly Alsatian where the owner had started to play an Eric Clapton album shortly after we arrived. Just as the dog lost consciousness the lyrics caught my attention: “Knock, Knock, Knockin on heaven’s door.” Had the owner planned this to be, or was it a ‘chance’ occurrence?

Secondly, a woman discussed with me at length, in advance, her desire to have her elderly dog ‘put to sleep’ at home. She specifically wanted to hold it in her arms as it was given the lethal injection. I explained that whilst this might be possible, with an elderly dog we tried to use an experienced nurse to raise the vein for the injection and limit any possible struggling or distress. In the event when the call came, the dog had collapsed on the stair’s landing in the owner’s home, and in this awkward position it was still possible for the owner to cradle the pet, whilst Fiona worked around her and managed to raise the vein as the injection was administered. It was at this precise moment that I heard the radio in the adjacent kitchen had just started playing a song by Cutting Crew. “I just died in your arms tonight“.

Undoubtedly the most powerful of these moments involved a much loved elderly ginger tabby which I’d cared for over a number of years. In the owner’s living room after a final cuddle, the cat, seemingly sensing what was about to happen, clung to the owner’s pullover and had to be gently but firmly prised away, whilst it fixed me with an apparently knowing stare. On this occasion Fiona had again accompanied me to hold the cat whilst the lethal injection was given, when of course the switched-into-competence-mode-professional denies any vital eye contact as the needle-vein-solution link has to be made.

Unusually, as we bade our farewells after the event, and left the owners to grieve, I felt emotionally drained. Even tearful.

We got into the car, and turning the ignition on, were greeted by Classic FM on the car radio. And the opening bars of the hauntingly beautiful theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams, and played with such emotional intensity by Itzhak Perlman’s violin.

Just before posting, I googled the issue of occupational associations with suicide incidence in the UK, and not entirely to my surprise found that many of the recently published studies relate to the very high relative rate amongst veterinary surgeons. I shall quote a small abstract from a paper published in 2010 by Bartram and Baldwin in the profession’s UK publication, The Veterinary Record :

Veterinary surgeons and suicide: a structured review of possible influences on increased risk

  1. D. J. Bartram, BVetMed, DipM, MCIM, CDipAF, FRCVS1 and
  2. D. S. Baldwin, MB, BS, DM, FRCPsych1

+Author Affiliations

  1. 1Division of Clinical Neurosciences, School of Medicine, University of Southampton, RSH Hospital, Brintons Terrace, Southampton SO14 0YG


Veterinary surgeons are known to be at a higher risk of suicide compared with the general population. There has been much speculation regarding possible mechanisms underlying the increased suicide risk in the profession, but little empirical research. A computerised search of published literature on the suicide risk and influences on suicide among veterinarians, with comparison to the risk and influences in other occupational groups and in the general population, was used to develop a structured review. Veterinary surgeons have a proportional mortality ratio (PMR) for suicide approximately four times that of the general population and around twice that of other healthcare professions. A complex interaction of possible mechanisms may occur across the course of a veterinary career to increase the risk of suicide. Possible factors include the characteristics of individuals entering the profession, negative effects during undergraduate training, work-related stressors, ready access to and knowledge of means, stigma associated with mental illness, professional and social isolation, and alcohol or drug misuse (mainly prescription drugs to which the profession has ready access). Contextual effects such as attitudes to death and euthanasia, formed through the profession’s routine involvement with euthanasia of companion animals and slaughter of farm animals, and suicide ‘contagion’ due to direct or indirect exposure to suicide of peers within this small profession are other possible influences.

(The above section, highlighted by me, does seem to echo my current thoughts written in this post).

So perhaps leaving behind my M.R.C.V.S. all those years ago, wasn’t such a bad move after all?

But now, at this time of the year, 7 years removed from making such life and death decisions and actions on an almost daily basis, and after living for several years with no animal dependants at all, I’ve had to face the issue again.

But from a different standpoint.

As a Turkey rearer.

And some of these fascinating, engaging social creatures which have surpassed my expectations as domesticated animals, and given me so many interesting moments over the last few months, are to be killed.

By the hand that they’ve grown to trust and depend upon.

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Shall I ever be able to rant at the radio as yet another example of corrupt practice by our leaders, movers and shakers is revealed to the world? How does the moral compass of the farmer-rearer-consumer spin and settle? Are these decisions really any harder than the countless hundreds taken by me years ago under the cloak of professional advice and competence? Will it become easier in years to come? I hope not, since a sense of loss and reverence is surely appropriate for the farmer-rearer in these circumstances.

As it turned out, eye contact was again avoided, and as the first bird was quickly being plucked by us both, as the life warmth ebbed away, under the cover of the old cowshed roof but in the open air as a heavy shower swept in from the South West, perhaps another melancholic synchronicity? From out of sight in the cloud laden sky came the unmistakable sad call of a Red Kite, drifting through the moist air of the yard.

Rarely heard here, and certainly not for many months, since last spring.

Did it mourn the loss?

Some reverential moment or memorial is appropriate for lives well lived, and this interaction with the hands that fed them, and later killed them. Having spent a bit of time researching the importance of the wild turkey in many North American Indian tribes, not just as a food bird, but having important mystical or spiritual elements in their culture, I came across a tribe name I’d not encountered before. The Catawba. They inhabited an area of what is now South Carolina, and were essentially sedentary agricultural people who also fished and hunted for game. The Wikipedia link shows a photo of tribal members with traditional turkey feather head dresses, and also mentions that the tribe used to practice infant head flattening, and had a religion based upon a different trinity of Creator (Manatou), Son of Creator, and Turtle (Kaia). (I’ll include a link here to Joseph Campbell, an American academic and teacher who studied, in depth, commonalities amongst religions and myths from around the world, and through the ages. He was particularly knowledgeable about the culture of native North American tribes. In many ways being introduced to his work years ago by a veterinary colleague, made me decide to “Follow My Bliss“, a simple life philosophy of Campbell’s. It’s possibly even one of the reasons why I now write these blogs. I discovered for the first time from the Wikipedia link above, that Campbell spent 5 early years of his life reading at length around these topics whilst living in a simple wooden hut with no running water near Woodstock, for 12 hours a day. Sounds a bit like the winter months at Gelli Uchaf).

But why had the name Catawba resonated deep in my consciousness? Then it clicked.

One of our favourite Rhododendrons, acquired from Nigel Wright in Devon, is Rhododendron catawbiense var. album. It’s budding up nicely right now and has flowered consistently well every April, since we planted it about 4 years ago. The original form of this plant is native to that part of the U.S.A. inhabited by the Catawba tribe, and var. album is a naturally occurring variant. So perhaps beside our Rhododendron is indeed the right place to mark our turkeys’ existence with something more permanent.

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With another long post looming, my update on the greenhouse compost bed will be brief for now. (Addendum: There are a lot of posts now about how this idea has developed and its implementation. If you want to find the other posts quickly, then click here). Suffice to say that it’s kept the whole inner zone frost free through the last very cold week, with a minimum of about 2 degrees C at the coldest end (away from the warm air inflow), and an average minimum over the last fortnight at this point of about 6 degrees C.

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‘The Reactor’ also seems to consistently raise the temperature of the air flowing through the spiral by about 7.5 to 8 degrees C by the time it exits into the greenhouse, regardless of external temperatures. And this is maintained fairly evenly throughout the week.

On the fourth top up of the reactor today, very slightly less material was required, and I’m getting the first hint that some basal raking out may be needed to make space for new material at the top in due course. But the pattern of higher temperatures at the top of the heap peaking 2 days after topping up (at around 45 – 50 degrees C on the last 2 occasions), has been maintained, so far. I shall try to add another graph in a week or so to summarise the data thus far, but it might have to wait until after Christmas!

The mushroom which has taken up residence in the compost bed seems to be Coprinus megalocephalus, an Ink cap classified as rare in my Guide to Mushrooms of Great Britain and Europe by Roger Phillips, and being a mushroom associated with dung (‘Copr’ = faeces).


Thanks to another comment by Dave after my last post, I must also add a  serious caveat and potential health risk associated with compost and its handling. There have been a handful of cases of serious respiratory disease in Scotland in the last 4 years associated with handling commercially prepared multi purpose compost in the UK, including a fatality. The cause seems to be an uncommon form of the Legionella bacterium, L. longbeachae. Interestingly none of the articles about compost making on line that I’ve referenced in earlier posts refer to this risk, in spite of the fact that in Australia and New Zealand, it’s been well enough recognised for a few years and has resulted in all bags of compost identifying the risk with a serious health warning. Perhaps the days of UK media gardeners advocating plunging bare hands into compost and inhaling deeply should be confined to history!

It looks like wearing my respiratory visor, which I now routinely don for handling the very alkaline ash from our wood burners and the often dusty and occasionally mouldy wood for fuelling these stoves, will have to be worn when I do anything to the compost bed. In addition, wearing gloves and washing hands after dealing with compost seems a sensible simple precaution.

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Since I’m unlikely to post anything else before December 25th, I wish all my readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

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6 thoughts on “Food and Frost; Trust and Goodbyes; Autumn Leaf Mould Energy Potential (Part 4: Heating a Greenhouse with an External Compost Bed – First Month’s Experience).

  1. A melancholic note on which to terminate your year. Perhaps the cold spell produced a degree of SAD? I can certainly identify with your feelings about euthanasing animals, as I remember very well being at the pet-owners’ end of the relationship with our much loved dogs. I know that the way the vets treated us on those occasions was both exceptionally kind and professional, but the raw emotion and the drama of the event, as well as the pain, will live with me always. I even have to admit that one of the reasons that I postponed owning a dog for so long was that I remembered pets from my youth being euthanased by my parents. Doing in the turkeys couldn’t have been fun either. I come from a particularly medical family, and I am often asked why I didn’t do medicine. One reason is that I just wanted to rebel, but underlying that was a fear of having routinely to deal with death. I certainly felt more comfortable when you got back to heat transfer in your heat exchanging compost reactor!! Congratulations on a thoughtful post…..

  2. Hello KTB,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response. Indeed a melancholic post, but it does fairly reflect my thoughts leading up to this weekend. As for SAD, who knows? Suffice to say that those clever folk at BLT (an on line light bulb supplier) clearly reckon its a good time for a sucker email Christmas card and offer to existing customers… we’ve responded appropriately this morning by ordering some new Daylight bubs for the kitchen lights to help alleviate the gloom.(Needless to say they’re pretty low energy, but we can’t quite rise to LED spots yet!). Its maybe that or go and sit on a chair in the warm greenhouse.
    I have to say that as always you were much more perceptive about the likely contact with death in a medical career than I ever was before entering the veterinary career path. Perhaps all these years later I can be a bit more analytical. Anyway, enough of such talk…..
    Unlike all you poor things who choose to read this stuff even nearer to Christmas than when it was composed, I’ve already moved on….
    I have this morning cut down our Christmas tree from the bank behind the house, and am pleased to report that unlike last year, I haven’t manage to sever a finger! Happy Christmas! BW GH

  3. Hello Julian,

    In Norfolk now and its raining! Glad to hear you got there with the turkeys. I did wonder how you would get on bearing in mind your background which must lead to conflict. There are many ways in which it can be justified although I feel that if you have raised and cared for the livestock there will always be some misgivings.

    I did wonder how long it would be before the compost heap started to fill up. I thing the material reduces by upto 70% from raw material to finished compost. But finished compost must contain a lot of material which has not fully composted. So where is the equilibrium for this process which is not “normal” for making compost? May be the bin height needs to be extended to increase the residence time in the bin. Alternatively maybe the material at the bottom from the initial fill will never compost properly so removal would result in equilibrium being reached more quickly.


    PS Our turkey came in at 22 lbs dressed and was too big to fit in daughters freezer so it will have to be cooked on saturday!

    • Hello Dave,
      Just back from Shropshire. You’ve missed the 37 mm here in the last 36 hours. Our turkeys were much lighter, but I guess burned off a bit more with running around,and I think they’re a much lighter build than the Norfolk Blacks.
      I had thought of just letting the compost heap gradually rise in height, but I think my first approach will be trying to rake out from the bottom, or failing that perhaps digging out a quarter from one end and redistributing the rest of the heap. But the temperature output is still holding there at about 7 degrees C of air warming, and I’m now approaching 6 weeks I think, so pretty fair.
      Drawing this weekend, which will be interesting. I gather you’re an expert at this….

      Best wishes

      • Hi Julian

        Xmas livened up a little to day when I found ash dieback disease in a local wood so got plenty of pics.

        Still thinking about your compost heap. As the nitrogen is used up more quickly than the carbon I wonder if just adding more nitrogen to the diminishing heap would have the same effect as adding more uncomposted material. Also as the hot air is being circulated is moisture from the heap condensing in the pipework outside the heap and helping to reduce the moisture content so the addition of a nitrogen rich liquid could have a three fold benefit!!!


  4. Hello Dave,
    Glad you got some good pics of the ash die back. I’m guessing the camera ( and …man ) have now been given a good soak in bleach before your return to your 400 ash seedlings….??
    Will update on the heap after Christmas, but with a slightly reduced quantity of poultry manure now, I added some sheep/horse droppings for the last top up. The heap does seem to dry out a bit peripherally, but the central area around the spiral pipe now looks pretty moist…it probably reflects me not wanting to spill the watering can’s contenets over the edge…
    Happy Christmas….Fiona says Lampeter and Llanybydder today have a red flood alert for the Teifi….one of a handful for the whole of Wales, BW, Julian

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