Burning ring of fire

  • Posted on: 22 September 2021
  • By: MrWurster

We generate a huge amount of tree prunings. Our orchard management has evolved to make use of the prunings as stock feed.

This time of year we are mid-lambing. The sheep get penned up in a notionally secure 4 acre paddock overnight. I say notionally, because there is a security breach of some sort every so often.

But after a week or so there's not much feed left in the paddock.

So each day I cut a trailer load of olive prunings and at the end of the day haul it into the paddock. The sheep come running. I don’t have to round them up, they push and shove to be first in.

The lambs are born, usually, over a four week period, sometimes six. Then we keep penning them up for a few more weeks until even the littlest lambs look big and strong enough to evade a fox.

So after ten weeks or so, there's a massive pile of sticks left after the sheep have cleaned off every leaf. They even eat the bark off the larger branches. Which is why, on a normal day, sheep are NOT allowed into the olive orchards!

A few months in the sun and the prunings become dried out and pointy, horrible and matted, difficult to separate.

Last year the pile was almost 200 metres long, two metres wide and up to two metres high. That's a lot of sticks….

So far the second phase of processing the prunings is to mulch them. First year we did it ourselves, city-slickers with more perseverance than sense, putting at least 100 cubic metres of prunings through a basic domestic garden mulcher. It took weeks and a lot of skin.

After two years we changed tack. We got someone else in to mulch them. That was a better approach. Especially as I seemed to be generating bigger piles each year, as I became more ruthless in pruning the trees.

But last year it took three blokes, an arborists mulcher and a truck an afternoon, and the bill was eye-watering. Sure, I finished up with a huge pile of fantastic, organic wood mulch, but I could have bought it and had it delivered for much less if mulch was what I was after.

So this year rather than piling in neatly in a readily accessible long row, butts laid out in the same direction to allow easy pickup, I just built a massive bonfire stack. I chose a capeweed infested area, and built the stack about as big as two buses parked end to end.

And with a couple of days rain predicted starting late in the afternoon. I lit it up. I figured it would burn out in a couple of hours, and the rain would shut the whole thing down at the end. Around me on the same morning other bonfires were going off. I wasn't the only one thinking along those lines….

All went well. It was a breezy day, I lit it at the downwind end, and it took off. With such a big stack of dried olive sticks the flames were up past three metres in the air. I walked around the stack, pushing isolated sticks and branches into the stack. As I went around the back I had to swerve out quite a distance as the radiant heat, fed by the breeze, stretched out towards me.

So why was my Kelpie, Fry, sitting around the back? He was far enough back to avoid most of the heat blast, but it was an odd place to wait it out.

I spoke to him. He looked at me, and back at the fire.

The penny dropped. Over the months the pile had accumulated, a rat or rabbit had made a nest in the pile. Fry and Bertie had previously indicated there was something of interest in there.

Then it occurred to me…where was Bertie?

"Where's Bertie Fry?"…one of the most common questions I ask the bigger dog. My heart sank….Fry looked meaningfully into the fire.

Bloody Bertie had gone into the stack to chase a rat!

He's never made much noise. In all his adventures, getting stuck, lost, he doesn't make any noise. The only regular sound he makes is to stand at the back door and growl to be let in. I called him, coughing a bit as the smoke swirled lower.

Jack Russell's are not the most obedient dogs, but Bertie does respond to genuine anger (and fear!) in my voice. And suddenly he was at my feet. Not too close, in case he was in trouble.

I grabbed him and picked him up. He was hot, smelled of smoke and singed hair, but no burns that I could see.

I carried him back to the buggy and chained him in the back. There's a lead fixed there just for him. I use it a lot!

Another 20 minutes and I recentred the fire, pushing the remnants into a smaller and smaller pile. Then the rain came down and we went inside.

Later that evening I went out to check it was properly out. In the middle of the burnt ring was a hole. Bertie had indeed been in the middle, digging out a rat nest.