Jonathan & Denise: It was a month ago – at the beginning of December, that the news came that an outbreak of Avian Flu [Bird Flu] – which had already caused a great deal of loss in continental Europe – had reached our shores. The order soon came that all poultry was to be kept indoors or by other means entirely segregated from wild birds. The order applied in every part of Great Britain [that’s Scotland, England and Wales] and for 30 days. Unfortunately, during that time, there’s been wild birds found dead across the UK in which Avian Flue has been found, and sporadic outbreaks amongst poultry flocks. These flocks have been destroyed by the authorities, and biosecurity zones set up around the site of the outbreak. Compliance amongst back-garden keepers, small-holders [homesteaders in the US?] and – as we’ve seen with our own eyes – Hebridean crofters, has been far from complete. So it was no great surprise that, a few days ago, just before the 30-day lock-down was due to end, the authorities extended it until the end of February – another two months.
Jonathan: It’s been a cold dreich day, so we’ve kept ourselves busy and warm with a cable tug of war! Well, not quite a war, though the pulling to and fro between us did generate a few choice words! When we built Carrick back in 2008-2009, we’d planned to erect a 6kW wind turbine on the croft land and connected to the electrics in the house. For various reasons that turbine never happened, but we put in a duct from the service core at the middle of the house, under the roadway that goes past the house into Home Park field, and then towards the site of the wind turbine. We put the duct in for Justin. Justin Case. ;~)
Well, it’s almost eight years later and it still looks unlikely a turbine will ever be put up, so we’ve decided to use the duct to run a cable down to the hen house, by the shore, and potentially onwards to another building that we’re thinking of putting up. That’s a 100m run of cable just to the hen house, and 40m of that in the duct.
Unfortunately, due to lack of experience in these matters at that time, the duct we installed is just 50mm inside diameter, and not double-skinned, so it’s corrugated inside as well as out. It also has two or three tight bends – and is nearly 40m long! The cable requiree has an outside diameter of 16mm (more like 24mm at the leading end, where the draw-wire is attached) and stiff: Just thinking about the difficulty of pulling it through has been enough to bring me out in a sweat!
A few days ago we opened up at each end – making a hole in the plasterboard in the utility room, and digging up the end of the duct in the field. We attached a light steel wire (on a 400m reel) to one end of the draw cord supplied with the duct (a rather flimsy thing, though surprisingly strong) and pulled the wire right through. Now we had something substantial to pull back with.
Yesterday I set up the reel of electric cable (as above photos) by the field end of the duct, and firmly connected its armour wires to the new pull-wire. Today, Denise and I set about puling back the cable (together with a replacement pull-rope, just in case we ever need another cable – and are able to pull it through!).
Denise was indoors, pulling, and I was outside – kneeling in the mud and rain! – pulling. Or rather we took it in turns to pull, as the cable end kept snagging on the corrugations (and, no doubt, those inadvisably tight bends) and it needed constant to-ing and fro-ing to keep the cable moving on. A foot or so forward, half that back, then forward again – but perhaps by not as much. After half an hour or so, we we’d got may be 30m or so along the duct, but as the resistance increased I was having to push the cable as much as Denise was pulling it. Another quarter of an hour of pull-push persuasion. Then, suddenly, a call from Denise on the walkie-talkie: It’s through! Another metre or so and then there was enough to make the connection in the house.
I disassembled the make-shift reel stand and rolled the cable down the hill to the hen house – 60m or so. I’ll need to be careful on the exact route I bury it (I have to weave my way between exposed and shallow rock) but – thank heavens – it looks like the 100m reel will be enough.
I’ve a lot of other jobs to work on right now – so many of them are ‘urgent’, so it may be a while, but before long the croft hen house is going to be a lot better with lights, power for cleaning equipment and power tools (instead of daisy-chained extension leads from the croft store, or the generator), and maybe BBC Radio na Gael for those rainy-windy days when the hens don’t much fancy going outside at all …
Jonathan: A few days ago, returning to the house from work in the garden, I turned at the corner of the house, and immediately my attention was caught by something lying on the grass, right by the concrete path. For a moment I thought Tilly had been ‘busy’, but then realized it was something much more lovely … but dead. Still warm … but dead. A Redstart – with a broken neck. I looked up: directly above – the north-facing windows of the study. Directly on the other side of the house, the south-facing windows. Alas, a bird seeing straight through the house … a fatal mis-judgement … and out of luck.
Earlier that day, having completed my usual morning livestock duties, I stayed a while at the croft to start preparing shelter and feeding arrangements for the sheep over winter. Last year we’d made use of the now disused Low Hen House (before our time it was a store for boat tackle). The windows are broken and boarded-up, and the rusting corrugated roof lets in wind and rain … and if it was lucky to get through last winter intact, it’ll be even luckier to do so this winter. We’re planning to demolish this shed, next spring, and we’ll replace it with a new shed – one designed for livestock. But, until then, this is all we have. We must mend and make do; and, with luck, it will do! So, with that in mind, I opened up the shed to see what needed doing to prepare it. Well, for one thing, that broken window needs boarding-up again, and the soiled bedding taken away to the compost heap … But what’s this in the corner? A nest made by a hen – getting in through the broken window, of course. The nest has been abandoned. Eggs are scattered about, some unbroken and cold, others cracked in two by a chick that has failed to break free. There are two or three broken eggs – empty … and a little heap of newly-hatched chicks, cold and flat. I found a bucket into which I could gather up the sad remains. I collected up the chicks one by one and … but what was that? Did I sense a movement – no, not a movement, a mere twitch a barely percepitble internal inflection – in one of those chicks, cradled in the fingers of my hand, between nest and bucket? Surely not! I put the chick against my face, the better to sense even the slightest of warmth, of breath, of a beating heart. Nothing. The head lolled about in my fingers, it’s entire body cold and limp. And yet …
I continued about my business one-handed, the chick safely enclosed in the warmth of my left hand. I carried sacks of feed one-handed, re-arranged the trailer one-handed, changed out of my boiler-suit and from wellies back into shoes – one-handed (not easy!). I showed a neighbour the wee chick, and she shared my hope it might somehow revive. And I drove to the Eriskay shop … with the chick in the warm of my trouser pocket (so I could drive two-handed, of course!). And as I paid for something or other at the shop till – there was a cheep from my pocket! Three or four days later, here he is – Lucky by name, Lucky by nature!
Jonathan: It’s now three weeks since Denise came back from Stornoway after her operation. Three weeks that have been kind to Denise, kind to both of us – and for that matter kind to the islands and everyone here, islanders and visitors alike.
Denise’s previous two operations (for the same condition, though more limited in scope and neither triumphs of medical know-how) left her in severe pain for weeks, and unable to resume normal life for months. This recent operation was more extensive than previously – in fact it was the most extensive ‘intervention’ that the consultant had told Denise might be needed. We expected Denise would be away for a week, and out of action for many more. But just a day after the operation, the consultant was joking with Denise, wondering whether he had operated on someone else by mistake – she was not only up and active on the ward, she was so cheerful ! She was discharged after just three days.
Driving home from Balivanich airport, Denise was full of news about her journey, the airport, Stornoway town, Lews Castle, the hospital, hospital food, hospital toilets, the staff and other patients (I could scarcely get a word in edgeways!) … but scarcely a word about what she actually went to hospital for!
No sooner back at home, and despite my protestations, Denise got straight on with preparing a meal … and indeed she’s simply got on with her normal daily duties … but with me doing all the bending down, lifting, carrying, anything involving abdominal strain or tension – or any risk of those things. And that’s the way we’ll continue a good while yet. Denise has gained time for reading, for experimenting with new ideas for the Hebridean Woolshed. Oh, and for planning a holiday … but more on that another time.
So, my daily duties have increased somewhat, not least by taking on Denise’s flock of Buff Orpington chickens, here at the walled garden. As a result, there’s less left of the morning for my work at the croft. Which is a pity, because I could be making the most of the fine weather, progressing the new fencing for High Field … well I could be if I wasn’t waiting for a delivery of custom steel fence and gate posts! No matter … the good weather has allowed me to get numerous small improvement and maintenance jobs done – lots of lines struck through on the task list (though not necessarily as many new tasks as have been added).
Thanks to three weeks of mild, mostly sunny, and nearly rainless days, glorious autumn has been all the more glorious! The play of shadows across the hills. Morning mists rolling over the crests of the mountains. Skeins of geese in silhouette against the sinking sun. Catching the shepherd’s call to his dog, carried across the waters, stilled for now, of the Sound of Barra. Toadstools swelling amongst the grasses. Rocks, grass, cloud and water, all re-imagined in the black and silver palette of the full moon ; and turning homeward with Tilly as the dew begins to settle.
There’s a few days more left of this weather, it seems ; but let’s just take it one day at a time.
Yesterday I cleared out a stone culvert (or cundy in Scots) that has been so long choked up with silt, and its openings obscured with rushes, that it was only the hunch of a certain retired civil engineer that prompted the effort to try and find one. Cleaned out, it solves two problems at once: draining a patch of ground that is perpetually waterlogged, and providing a means to extend electricity and water supplies from one side of the old road to the other. Scraping out the silt at the base of the cundy with a shovel, there came a dull crunch of breaking glass … and what’s this bobbing out of the cundy on the muddy water? A Grant’s Whisky stopper! And is that a faint whiff of whisky in the air? Now I’m wondering whether some of the famous Politician whisky was Grant’s!
Tomorow the 2015-born lambs have an appointment in Lochmaddy. A very important appointment , an appointment very first thing in the morning. This morning was spent rounding up all 33 ewes and lambs – both last year’s lambs and those born this spring. We sorted the going from the staying, the latter being dosed with treatments against ticks, blowflies, worms, liver-fluke … and let out again. The six gimmer ewes from 2014, plus five of their half-brothers were loaded into the trailer. (Coinneach, has a much more interesting future ahead of him … though for now he’ll stay in Home Park with Rhubarb for company.)
After lunch we set off for Lochmaddy. With a heavy trailer – and livestock to be careful of, it’s a drive of an hour and nearly a half. Offloading the sheep is a matter of practicality and paperwork. It’s when you drive away that you have time to reflect. The eleven have had a good life – two good summers, and a winter between. They’ve grown well and are in good health … but, alas, that’s not an end in itself. This next step is what justifies the whole – and without it we could not, we cannot continue: there wouldn’t be any flock of sheep at all.
It’s not just meat on the bone they’ve put on but also (no, not fat – hopefully not!) they’ve put on a lot of good wool on their backs. Really good wool! And that’s the heart and soul of the Hebridean Woolshed. So all the sheep going to the abattoir were sheared before being loaded into the trailer!
Jonathan & Denise: This evening’s edition of BBC’s Landward – featuring the Hebridean sheep of Kirkland Bank Farm in Perthshire – appears to have piqued viewers’ curiosity, and they’ve set about searching the internet. Thanks to those who found our website first, we’ve now sold the last of our current stock of Hebridean Hogget Lamb from our own flock.
For the rest of you, it’s now less than a fortnight until the lambs born in 2014, having spent one summer following their mums – and a second summer definitely, absolutely not following their mums (let alone a despairing crofter-shepherd!) return from a ‘trip to Lochmaddy’. [That’s a euphemism for … well, you know.]
Vacuum-packed fresh (ie unfrozen) lamb will be available Wednesday 2nd November only for pre-orders. Frozen lamb will be available from Saturday 5th November.
2016 prices held for orders received before 1st December!
For more details of Hebridean Hogget 2017, see Hebridean Sheep >.