It’s been a ritual, for the past two to three months. Morning rations of sheep-nuts, and an armful of hay. The nuts go into plastic troughs, hooked over rails of a gate, and the bundle of hay is tied to the top rail.
Whilst D and I were away, it was Becky that hosted the party of six – Scott the ram, and five younger boys. But now I’m back from Navarra and dressed once more in my boiler suit, I’ve re-started – just this morning, in fact – work on the new fencing, further up the hill.
After I’d fed the boys, I set off up the hill with a big fence post on my shoulder. On reaching the depot for fencing materials, and having dropped my load, I stopped to take in the view – and a rest after my exertions. Somewhere in the near distance I could hear the whinnying of horses – Eriskay ponies, in fact. There’s plenty about in winter, when they are allowed down from the hill grazings.
Walking back down to the croft store for another load, what did I come across, but a troop of ponies passing along the ‘old road’ that crosses our croft, and helping themselves to the hay. Gate-crashers, indeed!
Gate-crashers: Eriskay ponies helping themselves to sheep feed.
After a long journey, we’re back in Uist : home, sweet home! (No, we haven’t moved permanently to Navarra!)
Becky’s pleased to see us! Tilly’s pleased to see us! (And judging from appearances, Tilly’s tail is even more excited to see us than Tilly herself!). Pickle is pleased to see us, even if her demeanour is intended to convey her displeasure at having been abandoned by us in the first place. Dusky and Tabatha have each demonstrated their delight at our return by kneading our laps with sharp claws and squeaky purrs. Tom trots ahead of us to show us his empty bowl.
Becky’s done an excellent job of looking after home and garden. And, at the Big Garden Croft – over the water in Eriskay, everything is in excellent order. It’s true that we now have one chicken less than we had before we left, but after that first early-morning raid by an eagle, Becky shut the chickens in for a few days, and there were no more losses. All the sheep are present and in good shape. (Now half-way through pregnancy, that shape is getting rounder by the day!) They really do enjoy their morning supplementary ration of sheep nuts and hay!
Becky can’t be expected to do everything for us, whilst we’re away, so there’s a lot of jobs to catch up on – not least the the administration and bureaucracy of modern life (especially a life of multiple self-employments).
Then there’s re-stocking with animal feed and hay. Winter maintenance, decoration and improvements at the holiday lets to complete. The compost heap built up in 2016, and now matured, has to be dug out , and spread across about a third of the walled garden’s growing plots : the 2017 compost will take it’s place (thereby being thoroughly stirred up and aerated) and then over the next couple of months seaweed will be collected from the shore and piled up on top.
On the agenda today : shopping to re-stock the pantry shelves ; sawing firewood ; spinning wool ; checking our stock of potatoes ; filling the vehicles with fuel ; financial records ; and of course, inevitably, everything to tip out of our travel bags and put back in their proper places, and dirty washing to launder.
Horns and Plenty. Ram lambs.
Left-overs from an eagle’s breakfast. Fewer eggs for ours.
Checking the electric fence voltage.
Breakfast Gate. Bothy Field.
Checking the boxes of potatos gone-bad. None, thank heavens – but some sprouts to rub off.
After excellent sales during the 2017 summer season, and an unexpectedly steady trickle of online orders since, the Hebridean Woolshed is sorely depleted of stock, and likewise the Big Garden of jams, chutneys and preserves. After nearly a month of our the winter making-season away from home, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do! And to add to the pressure, this year we’ve quite a number of early bookings for our two holiday cottages : not just in March, but even in February. No wonder we’ve scarcely had a holiday in more than fifteen years!
Having, now, a place of our own to go away to (albeit with not a little difficulty) does seem to have given us fresh motivation to make the most of what we have here, to give it our very best.
The principal natural product of these islands is grass. Grazed by deer, cattle and sheep, the grass is converted into meat and other animal products. But, as Autumn turns to winter, the daylight hours become shorter than the list of things to do, the skies are more often darkened by cloud, and sunlight is as low in energy as it is in the sky. The grass stops growing, and what is left standing will soon be gone unless most of the livestock is sent elsewhere, after the late autumn gathering.
The Big Garden Croft, and Carrick – The Blue House, Isle of Eriskay
For most crofters, their lambs and calves of this year are sold at the marts, going to the mainland to be finished off on lowland farms until they are ready for the butcher’s hook. We follow an older, traditional practice of keeping most our lambs over the winter (providing supplementary feed as necessary), and through a second summer and autumn, to produce a slower-grown, leaner, and richly-flavoured ‘hogget lamb’. (A hog or hogget is a sheep more than twelve months old, but not yet two years old.) So, for us, this is the time of year to say goodbye to our lambs born last year.
But we’re not selling them on for others to profit from. No, we have them professionally killed and butchered and packed for us to sell direct to personal customers who come to the walled garden, here in South Uist. Most of our customers are visitors to the islands, and many of them are ‘frequent returners’. These days, most find us first on the internet.
The 2017 growing season was blessed with plentiful warm sunshine, a good measure of rain, and winds rarely more than a stiff breeze, and every living thing felt better for such a year. And that certainly goes for our Hebridean Hogget Lamb! This has proved to be our best year for numbers of lambs born (from the same number of breeding ewes as in previous years), their survival and growth, their finished weight, and the quality of the meat.
Hebridean Hogget Lamb 2018 : Whole Leg
Hebridean Hogget Lamb 2018 : Loin Chops
The only downside is that we’ve had to buy even more freezers : and even then they are packed full to the point that we have to be very careful in positioning the topmost layer of packed meat so as to ensure the lid goes down properly or the drawers can be opened and closed without jamming!
This year, we’ve widened the choice of joints and cuts, to cater for requirements varying from campsite barbeques to big friends-and-family dinners.
We’ve had to lend one of our own domestic freezers to help out with the glut, so to help us recover this freezer space for our own needs, we’re offering a 10% discount on sales between now and 3rd January 2018. This is, obviously, for customers calling in at the walled garden, as alas postal sales are impracticable. Just one thing: you need to say you read this post online!