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!
Jonathan: The planned swap of rams was completed today. Raghnall drove down from North Uist with High Bank Pioneer in his trailer, and together we put him (that’s the ram, not Raghnall) in with the girls. Back here at the Big Garden, An Garradh Mor Ram 20 (just Handsome to his friends – we never have found the time to think up names more imaginative than those given by the Registrar) came out of his temporary pen (actually the trailer) and into Raghnall’s, and then away to a completely new life in North Uist. Perhaps he’ll even start going to church; and certainly there’ll be none of that allowed on Sundays! Anyway, a new ram (well, four years old, but new to our ewes!) for nothing more than the cost of a bit of chase around the township on Sunday.
Yes about that. All’s well that ends well, they say. Ahem. Well, you see, Handsome came back from his desert island on Friday, and we had no choice but to keep him in the trailer for a few days until Raghnall could make it up south to us. Well the trailer is as big as a lambing pen and he had it all to himself, with plenty of bedding, food and water. He seemed content enough. Sunday morning our neighbour DJ came round to see us about something, and we said – Have you seen our handsome young ram! (You know, with intonation inviting favourable comment, rather than a serious question). Minutes later, DJ back at the door – The ram’s away; the back gate (of the trailer) is open. No, not a joke. Really.
We searched high, we searched low, we ran hither and then we ran thither. Black sheep there! Where? – Don’t you mean there? Would you believe it, of all days that day had to be bright and sunny, and every rock and boulder cast a shadow, deeply dark and sheep-shaped. Sheep everywhere, real ones, white ones: you’d think someone would have seen a black sheep trotting along the road! By now I was seeing sheep in my imagination, particularly little black lambs along with their white-fleeced mums, and the look of astonishment on the crofter’s face … and a long queue of unhappy neighbours coming to my door. Oh heavens no! We flung our net wider, and drove out west to Pollachar: as we went along, DJ called out – there he is over there (indicating a point about a half mile away on a rocky prominitory) … or is that just a rock? I strained my eyes … and then that rock-shadow moved ….
Back in the trailer, Handsome didn’t look at all contrite, and seemed all too aware of his right to remain silent. He had, it seems, absolutely nothing to offer in response to my questions. Not least: How come he made it nearly a full mile along the shore, without stopping even to politely enquire after the health and wellbeing of three flock of gorgeous young ewes, all ready for a romantic interlude? To be honest, though, I’m only to glad that, after his year alone on a small island, he had eyes only for GRASS!
Jonathan: This afternoon, two long-running threads came together for a long-overdue sheepy excursion ‘down north’ (as they say here in Uist). Back in late summer we placed an ad in Am Paipear saying we were buying fleeces, and Raghnall MacIain in N Uist phoned us to say he’d got some we might be interested in. It’s a very long way for just a few fleeces, so we needed to combine the trip with something else, and only a few days ago – many weeks later – did the arrangements for the afternoon’s two activities come into synchronicity. We met up with Raghnall at the quarry he owns. The fleeces were in the kind of tonne bag used for aggregates or fertilisers, sat in the middle of a vast industrial shed. As with most fleeces we’ve been to look at, the sheep were shorn far too late, when the old fleece has already separated from the new and has become matted and dry. Most of the fleeces were useless, but we agreed terms for taking a few which we could extract bits for use for hand-spinning lessons. After business on the international trading floor was complete for the day, we returned to Raghnall and Karen’s croft in Middlequarter (near Solas) where we had a brief look at High Bank Pioneer, a 4-year old Hebridean ram we’d tentatively agreed to swap with our own. Short of catching him and inspecting him closely – and there was no dog to do this – all I could do was look quickly at his profile, fleece condition, whether his feet were causing him difficulty, shape of horns …. there’s so much that can be taken in – almost subconsciously – by just watching a sheep moving for a few seconds. Anyway he looked good enough – though to be honest there’s not a lot of choice, and we certainly have no use for our own ram, as he’s closely related to all the ewes. That settled (the swap will happen when we get our own ram back from his desert island) we turned south again, stopping off in Haclete to pick up Rona’s six wedders, which we’ll grow on until next spring. Just one thing, though: the six ready and waiting for us in the fank (Rona had to go out) appeared to be eight and one of them a ewe! No answer on Rona’s mobile, so what to do? Well it would be reasonable enough to assume that in fact there were 7 spare wedders in the end, not 6, she’d not had a chance to warn us; but when asked if we wanted any more ewes, I’d actually answered no not this time. Left on her own in the fank, the young ewe was getting very anxious and trying to jump the fence, so we decided the best thing would be to take her with the others and sort out any mess afterwards. Back home in the evening from checking, dosing and releasing the sheep at the croft, Rona called: and the upshot of that is that our flock is now up to 33 Hebrideans, not the 31 we’d planned for. That’s now 1 registered ram, 16 registered breeding ewes, 15 wedder lambs, 1 ewe lamb.
Jonathan: This afternoon I drove down north to Aird in Benbecula to collect eight sheep I’d agreed to buy. One Hebridean from Catherine: we already have five ewes from her flock and very nice they are too; but this time it’s a wedder – a castrated male intended solely for the butcher. The others were from her neighbour Alasdair – a model crofter if ever there was one. These too are wedders, but whilst six are Hebrideans, one is a cross of a Hebridean on a Boreray ewe, and so has white fleece. Though now 6 months old and with lovely long fleeces, they are still just youngsters really, and very cute. We’ll be growing them on for another year, when they will go into the freezer as hogget lamb for sale from Xmas 2012 and into summer 2013. They travelled extremely well: with a generous layer of fresh straw in the trailer, they were reasonably comfortable, despite the dreadful weather. Arrived at the croft D and I took details from their ear tags, dosed them against fluke and ticks etc, checked their feet (trimming as necessary) and then let them out into the field. A lot of bleating from those first out back to their friends still in the trailer, but otherwise they got straight on with what’s important to a sheep – eating. Both D and I are very pleased with the good shape and weight of these lambs, even the two smaller ones (one Heb and the BorererayX), so hopefully we’ll improve on that over the coming year. Here’s me with the BoreraryX.
Jonathan: By mid afternoon the day looked set to end as it started – dreary. Not windy – a flat calm. Not wet – nothing more than a spot or two. Not grimly overcast – just a dull grey blanket of cloud. Just dreary. Not that we couldn’t work outdoors if we really wanted to: but dreary seemed a good – or bad – enough excuse to spend the day on indoors jobs. But just as we were clearing up from our evening meal, the sky lightened and cleared … and out we went to sort wool. Our neighbour DJ sheared most of his sheep yesterday: they’re a motley lot, and as much Blackface as Cheviot. But fresh from the shears and sorted and graded as soon as possible we can make something decent with them: in this case a white blend to complement and contrast with the black Hebridean. So out at the front of the house we set up a couple of make-shift benches; we dragged the woolsack back out of the store; and in the course of a couple of hours we’d worked through the lot: softest and finest set aside for hand spinning, but the greater part of the whole lot back into the woolpack for sending to thee mill for spinning. The waste – mostly the kemp and the dags – piled up on the ground as we worked, with Tilly woffling her nose into the smelliest bits and the cats chasing locks caught in the wind. So there we are with greasy hands, wisps of wool stuck to my beard and a lock of wool behind D’s ear, and into the garden comes a very petite woman, very neatly dressed, looking for some eggs to buy. What a contrast!