Wierd weather provides yet another reason to dabble with self-sufficiency. Last summer’s floods left more than 300,000 Brits without fresh water and 50,000 without power.
2008 is shaping up to be another bumper year for kayak sales. If things do go wrong, many of us lack the wherewithal to fend for our family. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A little research and preparation can leave you less reliant on supermarkets. Whether you want to generate your own electricity to beat potential power cuts (and Russian gas-baron price hikes) or simply keep a few chickens for fresh eggs in case you get snowed in, the web is the ultimate utility -at least until it goes down.
THE SIMPLE LIFE
Self-sufficiency websites are generally simplistic and a but dumb, focusing on content and compost rather than flashy graphics, and the UK-based selfsufficientish is no exception. It is packed with practical things such as alternatives to mains-supplied water and is full of handy links to like-minded sites. It also boasts quirky ideas from enthusiastic contributors around the world. Take, for example, the Australian Nev Sweeney’s improvised hay box cooker, in which a casserole full of freshly boiled ingredients can maintain its heat for up to 20hr in order to cook a hearty beef stew under its own residual heat. It works like a slow-cooker but needs no external power.
The problem with many such sites, though, is that they are often more about downsizing or saving the planet than putting food on your plate, and this can soon grate. The better sites, such as Allotment.org.uk, avoid this trap, though; see tinyurl.com/34npvl for down-to-earth tips and even a practical advisory service for the budding smallholder.
With celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall promoting free-range birds for meat or eggs, the chicken’s stock has arguably never been higher. Keeping a few hens in the garden provides eggs for a family, and they make great pets for children. The Poultry Club of Great Britain has a solid advice section on all aspects of rearing, at tinyurl.com/2u8gg3. Birds cost about #10 a head depending on breed but should give you an egg most mornings. For the occasional omelette you won’t need a cock for your flock they make too much noise for the suburbs and can be aggressive -so unless you’re breeding for the pot, opt for an all-female harem. Whatever breed you choose, your feathered friends need a home, and the newbie-friendly omlet.co.uk supplies nifty Eglu houses and runs for hens that will blend into an Islington back garden.
The company even provides the birds. Eglu prices start at #360, but there’s nothing to stop you cobbling something together from scrap wood, as long as it’s foxproof. For ideas on coop designs try backyardchickens.com .
If the husbandry bug bites, and space allows, www.smallholder.co.uk has good articles on the fundaments of raising animals, from alpacas to bees. On that note, the touching Beekeeper’s Diary at conwy-valley.org.uk is genuinely sweet.
If your garden is to be an emergency resource, a vegetable patch is a must. Dinner is on your doorstep and a leek pulled from the ground minutes before going in the pot tastes far better than one that’s wallowed in a warehouse for a week. This requires a commitment of time and effort, but is very satisfying. Most home-growers start with a few herbs in pots, or a tomato patch, and graduate to a fuller garden.
Keeping edible goodies in the ground all year requires some planning, and even crop rotation. Thankfully, gardenaction.co.uk has a simple calendar and a forum in which gnomish types often answer queries.
Start by positioning a plot in full sunlight, away from trees and hedges, which leech water and nutrients. Then dig around the Times Online guide at tinyurl.com/2bq3cl, where the spadework has been done for you. To expand your harvest variety seedsofitaly.com sells all manner of seeds.
BE WATER WISE
Drought and floods, potentially caused by climate change, will have a big impact on water supplies, say experts at water.org.uk. The possibility of changing weather patterns makes it imperative to have a supply of drinking water to hand. Opinion is split about the shelf life of bottled water so consider replacing any stores at least once every two years. Or if the stomach-churning truths at water-pollution.org.uk put you off mains water for good, the alternative is to sink a well or borehole on your property, which if fitted professionally should banish water bills and additives such as fluoride. However, a site inspection must be carried out by the Environment Agency, and a new installation costs between Pounds 5,000 and Pounds 15,000. The Groundwater Forum has practical tips at tinyurl.com/youcua.
For a quick fix, the water purification tablets aimed at backpackers will keep you hydrated in an emergency, although better still is the SteriPEN Adventurer water purifier, which uses ultraviolet light to destroy 99% of microbes in less than a minute.
With water and a belly full of food, all is good with the world, but as power supplies become less reliable and the weather more freakish, keeping warm becomes an issue.
A wood-burning stove can be built into most homes, even in smoke-free areas, and will give enough heat to warm all but the largest of houses. Expert advice is recommended, though, and stovesonline.co.uk offers guidance on building regulation requirements and a good range of multi-fuel stoves.
Wood is a good carbon-neutral, renewable energy source. The Forestry Commission has done extensive research on this and offers practical PDF-based resources at tinyurl.com/ 2y6wmc.
The Log Pile (www.nef.org.uk/logpile ) quotes running costs of wood stoves as lower than electricity and gas, so you won’t necessarily want to wait until the next natural disaster to fire the beauty up. The site, run by the National Energy Foundation, says electric heating costs 3.9p to 7.6p per kilowatt hour (kWh), gas 2.8p, and woodchip from 1.5p to 2.1p. Logs can be free, but the cost can rise to 5.1p per kWh if they are bought in small quantities. Finding renewable wood can be trickier, but www.bigbarn.co.uk/logpile/indexen.php is an excellent sourcing tool.
Most of us don’t have a stream to harness for free electricity, but that doesn’t mean we can’t generate a little backyard buzz, either from solar panels or from wind turbines. With politicians keen to prove their green credentials, grants are available from the Low Carbon Building Programme for certain micro generation technologies.
Wind systems use an inverter and controller to convert DC electricity to AC. Any excess electricity can be exported to the grid and sold to the local electricity supply company. According to the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, an emergency back-up supply of 1kW might cost #1,500, whereas a 2.5kW to 6kW self-sufficiency system would cost between #10,000 and #25,000 installed.
In a power cut, the food in your freezer will last about eight hours, Southern Electric advises at tinyurl.com/35j7ct. Fear not: Machinemart.co.uk sells a 2.0kVA generator powered by a reliable four-stroke Honda petrol engine that can provide the equivalent of mains power for #305, at tinyurl.com/3e4t9g.
I am a huge fan of raising my own chickens. I take great pride in it, also eggs make a great source of protein and depending on how many hens you keep are always in plentiful supply!