Jonathan. Bringing a croft back into proper productive use after years of neglect, underinvestment – or downright dereliction, is no small task! We certainly undestood that when we put in our bid for the tenancy, back in 2007, but only as high-level aspirations: keep a variety of chickens free-range and sell attractive quality eggs) and low-level guesstimates ; Clear out the old creel store and fix it up as a hen house – £200. Say it quickly and with conviction and who’s to argue? (Well it cost a great deal more than £200 and yet the hens are still arguing the merits of the case! But I digress.) There are some who bring to such a task a bulging bank balance – which runs to waste in paying others to do all the work. Some abound with creative ideas, but lack the practical skills or hard work and patience to acquire them. Yet there’s one necessity that can be neither brought nor bought, and cannot be accumulated as capital, yet is indispensible to many endeavours of life, not least working the land and keeping livestock. And that’s the good will of neighbours. Tolerance of our failings ; help when really needed ; advice that takes account of our own peculiarities of character, our aspirations and our circumstances – not a lecture. If the value of capital is realized only when put to work, and the good judgement of a budget only when well spent, then good neighbourliness is made manifest only if acknowledged, if actually put to use. And with that in mind, let me say this: We will not be keeping Highland cattle on our croft, as we’ve long intended to. They’re too big and and powerful for us to manage without help, and even when quiet and contented they can casually wreck a good fence just by scratching their neck on the wires. So thanks, Seonaidh, for telling us what we needed to know: not when it was too late to do anything about it apart from soldier on regardless or give up and lick our wounds, but in time for us to really benefit from that advice, when we’ve time and opportunity to redirect our ideas and energy into something more suitable for our circumstances.
Jonathan: D and I were away from home this morning – together for once, and not just to cleaning at our holiday lets either! No, much further afield – to Lochmaddy in North Uist, in fact. Seven hogget lambs to bring home from the abattoir. ‘A bit on the lean side’ he said, meaning that they weren’t particular big and there was very little fat on them. The mainstream market for lamb is leaner than it would have been in the past, but all meats are expected to show a significant proportion of fat. Hebrideans are a niche market (along with the likes of North Ronaldsay) with a reputation for darker, fuller-flavoured meat, very lean and such fat as there is being low in cholestorol. And that seems to be exactly what we’ve got! The seven wedders have come back with an average butchered weight of 9kg: they were 15 months old. Last time (October 2010), five wedders were 15kg average weight at 19 months. The difference? Their last four months were spent grazing down the verdent grasses and wild flowers of later summer early autumn, not requiring much effort, so much of the additional 6kg was fat – and very obvious it was too. By contrast, this year’s wedders have ‘finished’ on coarser upland vegetation that takes some getting – and that’s where the lean-ness and flavour comes from. Once out of the cold store and into the back of the car, the aircon was turned up to max (or is that min?) and we set off briskly for home before we caught a cold! This afternoon we’ve sorted and packed the meat as leg, leg shank, shoulder, shoulder-shank, chops, loin chops, scrag end (really a lot better than it sounds!), kidneys, … dog food … and bagged and frozen the meat, with a number of roasting joints set aside fresh – for those who have placed advance orders.
Jonathan: Fencing the ‘middle croft’ – between the new road (it was built the year I was born) and the old road – has proved far more time-consuming than I’d ever imagined. The materials were ordered almost a year ago – late August 2011, but whilst the wooden posts and wire were delivered fairly promptly, by the time all the special steel ‘rock posts’ were here we were locked in the grip of the longest, windiest and wettest winter anyone – even the oldest and keenest bodach or cailleach could remember. Working outdoors with generators and electric drills was simply out of the question! But once lambing was over and the fine weather had become a settled feature of this year’s Spring and early Summer, there was no excuse but to get on with the job whenever I could spare time from engineering work. The fence type I’ve adopted – high tensile strained wire with droppers – is well suited to lone manual work, as there is nothing too heavy for one person to lift and carry (the heaviest is a 2.4m x 150mm square post, or for that matter the generator at about 60kg). But this is not the familar sheep-netting fence of woven wire mesh – it is simply individual horizontal wires (7 plain, 1 barbed) pulled to a very high tension. The spacing is maintained by fixed posts every 10m or less (depending on the rise and fall of the ground) – either driven wooden posts or metal posts resin-anchored into the rock, and between these (at a spacing of 2m to 3m) lighter battens of wood spanning from bottom wire to top, the wires being stapled to wood and passing through holes in the metal posts. This type of fencing relies on very high tension, obtained with a special tool. That’s where the problem lies, because at corners, gate posts and the such like, the combined pull of 8 wires is pretty awesome, and even with good strong stay-posts, the post can be pulled out of the ground. There’s no problem where the soil is deep and firm, or there is bare rock – but where the soil is about 200mm of loose soil over a matrix of boulders and peat, it is extremely difficult to get a firm hold, and improvisation is necessary. I would say 95% of the fence required only 5% of the total effort, but unfortunately the 5% that has taken me weeks and weeks to get right has been the length following the public road, providing everyone from my neighbours to holidaymakers with a free demonstration of how to and how not to make a fence. Belle – you’ve been a great encouragement. To the gentleman from England who said We don’t have anything like this in Norfolk! I’d like to think it was the sheep and the rocky ground you were so delighted to photograph, and not the complete and utter disaster with the gate. And finally, to Nick, Caroline, Jo, Hannah and Robert – thanks for coming to listen to my singing fence, and yes the gate is now good to go, and properly set back so that – eventually (when the access has been properly made up with stone) – I will be able to reverse the car and trailer off the road.
Jonathan: As the lambs on the croft have grown and are more ‘mobile’, their mothers seem more willing to leave the security of the peninsula which they seemed to have made their maternity ward, and are coming to me for their morning treats. With a judicious shaking of the feed bucket and some encouraging rustling of hay, I have over the past two or three mornings enticed all of them back into the field, where I will have a bit more control over them. Out of the 16 breeding ewes, I now have 11 lambs (including U9 at home) from 10 ewes, so there’s possibly another half dozen or so to come. 8 of the 11 lambs born so far are female. I need the sheep back in the field because on 1 May all livestock have to go up on the common grazings, or be contained on the crofters own land. The field in question is borrowed until I complete my own fencing work: but the grazing is thin after the long winter, so I’ll have to continue feeding hay and sheep nuts until I can get the fencing work complete and the sheep transferred to my own new field.
Jonathan: Well, from the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inpsections Directorate, otherwise referred to as SGRPID. I thought it was one of those pesky sales calls at first: you’ve been selected for … an inspection of your sheep. Before I could recover my bearings, he was reminding me that notwithstanding the fact that half my sheep are roaming – quite legitimately – out on thousands of acres of rugged and inaccessible mountain, moor and rocky shores, and even if I had a dog it would be a couple of days work to get them in, and that I do actually have a ‘day job’ to do, it is my legal duty to present them for checking that they have the EU-mandated eartags in place. Let’s just say that did not endear me to the fellow, and I would dearly have loved to give vent to my views over the army of officials and technocrats who draw enviable salaries with job security and gold-plated pensions, all at our expense, and have the power to devise (and continually refine) rules and regulations sufficiently onerous and complex to keep themselves in the comfort and ease to which they feel entitled, and to marshall ranks of officials to enforce their will; and whilst I’m on the subject … But as I’d already put the phone down (I hope his ear hurts!) it was only D who had the opportunity to consider, review and suggest refinements to the polemic. Anyway, as the other half of the flock (Himself and his ewes) are still in the field, I agreed a time and that was this morning at 9am. He didn’t have much to say for himself, The Man from the Ministry, and neither did I. After he’d made a proper show of disinfecting his boots and overtrousers, I led him to the field gate and told him to wait there. Trobhaibh, Trobhaibh mo graidh! (Come hither, Come hither, my dears – Gaelic is so poetic!) and over they all came and as I fed them sheep nuts from my hand (that No 8 is so greedy!) I pointed out to The Man all the ear tags and gave details of ages and thus justified why some (those born before 1st Jan 2010) only had one ear tag. He seemed satisfied with that, so then it was back home, where I left The Man in the cold conservatory (the rest of the house is even colder!) and brought down my computer to him. My record-keeping and paperwork is (even if I say so myself) immaculate beyond the call of duty, so taking the reasonable assumption that the sheep out on the hill would be to the same standard (generous, don’t you think?) The Man anounced I’d achieved a score of Zero – ie no ‘failures’. Phew! The Man, just perceptibly relaxing somewhat from this trial, volunteered that actually there was a mistake; but it was the Ministry tjat had got it wrong, not me. According to their records – he showed me – my home address was in New Brunswick, Canada. That would have been Alexander Lachlainn MacDonald, I said: the previous croft tenant, and even that address was long out of date. (Alex inherited the croft tenancy, and having no use for it sold it to me and then flitted to Florida, and who can blame him.) So off he went, the Man from the Ministry, to do his inspecting work elsewhere. Looking around at others’ sheep in Eriskay and in South Uist, there’s many with no tags at all, or only one, so I’m sure that’ll please the Mandarins of the Minstries of this and that: their jobs would be in question if all the farmers and crofters turned out to be a squeaky-clean goody-two-shoes like yours truly!