Jonathan: This year, July seems to be suffering some confusion as to exactly what’s expected of it. It says one thing, and then does the opposite. Today was forecast to be mostly sunny and dry, but is turning out to be overcast and drizzly. Yesterday was just as unreliable: expected to be cloudy and wet, it was dry throughout and mostly sunny. So we made the most of it, outdoors almost all the day busy with this and that. To be honest I really don’t know where the time goes! How on earth did we ever find the time for other people’s projects as well – and ambitious building projects at that?
Morning feeding and cleaning routine? It starts with us! Breakfast is muesli with fruit and nuts and yoghurt – and a good cup of tea, with talk about our plans for the morning. Then, at home Denise tackles the cats, the dog, the Buff Orpington chickens. And the house, though that doesn’t need feeding. Well, perhaps the house plants!
Me, at the croft: Chickens, geese, sheep. Taking some feed up the hill to the ewes and lambs, I took the opportunity – as I do most mornings – to take with me four wooden fence posts, balanced on my shoulder. By the time I reach the sheep, I’m sweating and my heart is pounding from the effort – and shoulder is sore and my left arm numb from steadying the load.
Compensation? Five minutes or so sat with the sheep. It helps to build in their minds a perception that this is their territory – they’re safe to remain up here. And anyway the view is beautiful, the breeze mild but cooling, and I’m watching a rare yellow-backed bumble bee working the tiny flowerlets of the ling heather.
Primrose stays with me a while, leaning into my shoulder, sozzled with milk. Her last bottle. I’m reluctant to let go of her, but I must. Over the past week or two she’s become less and less quick to run up to me, and less greedy pulling at the teat. She has sometimes needed persuading to finish even the less-than-half bottle she’s been getting. As the ewes start to move off and the other lambs with them, Primrose follows. Tomorrow will be hard. Queenie turns to look back at Primrose: she looks out for her.
Queenie herself is eight years old now, and showing her age – in a good way! She still produces good lambs – sometimes twins, and continues to provide strong leadership for the flock. And she looks good too! Maybe not the luscious black fleece of youth, perhaps a bit hairy, but good quality and full of character. Perhaps next year we’ll put her fleece to one side for hand-spinning and knitting into something to remember her by in years to come.
Back at home, mid-morning coffee and toast are interrupted by our first customers of the day – our guests from Carrick looking for hogget lamb, herbs, eggs, and some produce. (We don’t sell produce, and right now we’re selling eggs only to regular customers – but there are advantages to being our self-catering guests!). Then a string of other customers wanting this from the Hebridean Woolshed, that from the Big Garden, and others again just ‘looking round the garden’ – notwithstanding the sign on the gate that says it’s a ‘Private Garden – No Exploring, Please!’ Eventually we get to finish off our nearly cold coffee and soggy cardboard toast!
With a couple of hours to go before lunch we head outdoors to see what we can get done in the garden. Denise is weeding around the winter kale, planting out leeks into their final positions, and harvesting the onions. It’s early to harvest them, but there just isn’t enough light for them to grow, let alone ripen, and in the damp air some are already starting to show signs of neck-rot. It looks to be the worst year – by far! – for onions since we came here in 2002.
In our ‘wild woods’ – the south west and north east corners of the walled garden – I’m ‘topping’ a proportion of nettles before their flowers turn to seed: some are left for butterflies, moths and their caterpillars. The same for other native species that we could all to quickly find ourselves with too many of. Umbellifrae family, mostly, and above all a species we’ve been unable to identify, but with huge 7-lobed dark green leaves, shrouds to the flower stems, and huge white flower clusters. Our apple trees are suffering from the heat and humidy, their roots over-run by the natives: I cut them right down to the ground with the sickle, but it’s probably too late, as most have already dropped for lack of nutrients. Next year, I’ll not have the croft fencing to do, and I’ll have time to better look after the fruit trees!
Lunch is home-made sour-dough bread with rosemary and olives, home-grown salads, rice with sweet peppers and olives, stilton cheese, and a sweet, properly-ripe nectarine. And a good cup of tea, discussing our plans for the afternoon.
Jonathan: At last, I seem to be making progress. Fencing work seems at first to be all uncertainty and difficulty ; then gradually a bit more certainty – but a lot more difficulty ; and then suddenly it seems to fly along! I’m working on extending the fences along the long sides of the croft – from the south end of Bothy Field right up to the Hill Fence, and thereby forming the new Field 4, or High Field as it will be known. I’m aiming to get the west fence done first because … well, let’s just say because of local politics. The ground varies greatly, and thus the materials, techniques, skill and effort required also. But now the line is very firmly clear on the ground, most of the posts are in – just a half-dozen or so steel posts on rock and about the same of wooden posts where the soil is deep and firm enough to hold the post. (And where the ground is neither bare rock or soil deep and firm enough, you ask? Well, now that’s a big subject … perhaps for another post – or two – or three!) What’s really given me a lift, however, is completion of the new west gate. It’s sited on an eminence of bare rock by the stream just where it tumbles down across the boundary into the croft neighbouring us to the west, 1 Haun. I picked this site because of its prominence, and when I’ve done the east gate too, and painted the gates red, they will be easily picked out even from a distance by hill-walkers finding their way across the croft lands to and from the hills. The gates will in fact normally be kept locked, but they nonetheless provide a means of crossing the boundary that is both easier and safet (and less likely to cause damage!) than crossing the fence itself. In fact it’s essential to provide this means of crossing, because the new boundary fences are to be fitted with a stand-off electric fence of three wires – to keep lambs in.
The stream beside the new west gate didn’t have a name, or at least not on Ordnance Survey maps, so on the croft map I created a fortnight or so ago, I called it Abhainn* a’ Charraig, because it springs out of huge tumble of boulders at the foot of the scree slopes of Beinn Sgiathan‘s north face. However I have since recalled that the spring is in fact known as Tobar a Phrionnsa – or Prince’s Well (the prince in question being Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie … but that’s another story). So I shall be re-naming the stream as Abhainn a’ Phrionnsa. And the new west gate shall have a name too! The stream plays out a lovely melody as it tumbles and weaves amongst the rocks and little pools, and beside it the hollow steel gate posts act like pan pipes in the breeze, so this shall be An Geata Ceoil – The Musical Gate.
And there’s another sort of progress being made too. Each morning – whether I’ll be working on the fence or not – I take the black bucket with a couple of scoops of sheep nuts up to High Field – as near as the Hill Gate as I’ve been able to persuade them to follow me. On my way I call the sheep Troaibh! Troaibh! They appear from wherever they’ve been grazing since early light. They follow me in two or more skeins of ewes and lambs as we cross the lush gearraidh at the south end of Bothy Field, and then climb the steep slope into (what will be) High Field. Queenie – the alpha ewe – knows where we’re going, and suddenly trots ahead of me, pausing briefly at intervals to check that I’m following her! But her intelligence goes further than that, in fact it goes further than the spot at which I put down food for them yesterday. She seems to understand that we’re working our way slowly up the new field, towards Hill Gate, and she leads the way to the next little patch that’s suitable for putting down sheep nuts. Yes she knows that too: very short grasses and heather shoots on thin turf over hard rock – where the food doesn’t get wet or lost amongst long grasses. Clever girl!
But there’s more!! Queenie is also coming to the understanding that this high ground is where they are allowed to be – perhaps even where they are supposed to be. So, today, after they’d finished with the sheep nuts and a wee bit of sampling the local grasses and herbage, and for the very first time, she did not lead the flock gradually back down to Bothy Field and beyond, but instead settled down right there and then to chew the cud. And the others did likewise – except for two very independent-minded lambs who decided to try out the long lush grasses beside the stream. In one of these photos you can seem many of the ewes laid down with their necks and heads stretched out flat on the short turf, enjoying the warmth sunshine. Just out of shot there was Queenie a couple of the other oldest ewes with their heads up, watching me work on the fence. It seems that my presence gives them the security they need on this still unfamiliar ground! At noon, I stopped work and packed up the tools to go home for lunch: up they got, and headed off back to Bothy Field!
Well, it’s progress!
* Abhainn means a fast-flowing stream or river, and corresponds exactly to Afon in Welsh, and Avon in English
Jonathan: My last words as Grazings Clerk were those that I wrote in the newsletter for shareholders on the future of the boundary fences that enclose the islands common hill grazings. Shortly after publication of the newsletter, having received not a single expression of support for the proposed renewal – but several hostile to it – I resigned from the office of Clerk and from the Grazings Committee. In the light of recent events in other crofting communities, Denise and I were becoming increasingly concerned that we were at risk from hostilities from those – present in every community, we suspect – who seem to prefer nastiness to neighbourliness. Acting in good faith, in the interests of shareholders and the wider community, and striving to adhere exactly to the law – that doesn’t seem to count for much, these days. Crofting law now seems to work favour of those who abuse it, and the authorities take their side.
Now, it seems that our sheep – at present escaped from the hill grazing and unwilling to return there (though I’m working to persuade them to get used to it and stay there of their own free will) – are exciting the passions of those for whom finding fault in others comes more naturally than facing up to their own failings. Such as, for example, failing to fulfill their legal duties as crofters to cultivate and maintain their crofts ; to not misuse or neglect the croft ; and as shareholders to contribute as required to the upkeep of the island’s hill fences.
The island’s grazings regulations require that …
… all sheep shall be removed from the crofts to the Common Grazings on a date in the Spring of each year as fixed by the Committee ; the sheep shall not be allowed to return to the township lands before a date in the Autumn or after 1 November as fixed by the Committee.
Denise and have not and will not ‘allow’ our sheep to return ; it is the shareholders collectively who, by failure over decades to maintain the hill fence, ‘allow’ our sheep (and the sheep of others) to return!
Denise and I work tirelessly, every day (and very long days they are) at our crofting and related work. We strive to comply fully with our duties as crofters and shareholders – notwithstanding the difficulties put in our way. We are ready and willing to pay our proper share of the costs of repairing or replacing the hill fence, and have set a sum aside to cover those liabilities. (From my work on this matter as Grazings Clerk, £300 per share should be more than enough – assuming the 80% government grant will still be available.) Denise and I call on other Shareholders to match that commitment!
He that is without fault among you, let him cast the first stone!
Jonathan & Denise: Over six years or so now we’ve worked together to fence the croft to better manage the grazing, improve the vegetation, improve our sheep and … well, just improve the croft. [D: Admittedly, J has done almost all the physical work – but he does say he wouldn’t have done it, he couldn’t have done it, without me. That’s nice!]
By the end of 2015 we’d fenced two thirds of the croft, divided into three main fields (plus smaller enclosures for wildlife-priority shelter belts). We’d already spent a great deal money (our own money – no grants or loans!) and untold hours, and suffering cuts and bruises, exhaustion … and enjoying a great deal of satisfaction. Oh, and also – hopefully! – a significant improvement in the value of our croft, should we ever have to sell.
This year we hope to complete the last phase of new fencing, enclosing the last third of the croft – more than two hectares of wild ground rising 35 metres steeply (in places vertically!) up to the common grazings boundary fence. There’s a lot of it that’s bare rock, and even more it has only shallow soil over solid rock … and where it’s not one or the other it is loose stones and peat that won’t hold a fence post! It’s going to be very hard work – both physically technically. [see map of croft ⇒]
But, with two streams (that we’ve never known to dry out) and pockets of shelter with lush vegetation, an array of wild flowers, and views to fill us with fresh hopes and dreams, it is a beautiful land – and we love it. And we think the sheep will love it too!
But they’re not used to this higher ground. Not yet, anyway. In the seven years since our ewes arrived in Eriskay as little more than lambs, they’ve become hefted to the land nearest the shore – Fields 1 and 2 and anywhere within sight of our steading. It took a year for them to get used to Field 3 … and even now they’re still inventing new ways to escape. No sooner have we discovered one escape route, and improved the fence in response, they discover another way out! If you saw the ground the fence runs over, you’d understand the difficulty!
Keeping sheep on a small and infertile croft with such difficult terrain is expensive. To justify that, we’ve opted for producing niche products – meat and wool, adding value ourselves and selling direct to the public. This makes the sheep and their wool more valuable to us, and we need to keep an eye on them, and keep them in good health. We can’t simply turn them out onto the common grazings and leave them there all summer, and trust to luck we get them back!
So, our plan has been to fence the entire croft, progressively up the hill to the fence with the common grazings, getting the sheep used to grazing on the higher ground with its different (and more varied) vegetation, and then finally letting them out onto the common grazing on a daily basis, getting them to expect a small ration daily at the hill gate – our own hill gate. Keep them sweet. Keep them close.
With Jonathan spending so much time, this year, higher up the croft, working on the new fencing, it seemed we might be able to risk putting the sheep up on the hill even before the new fence was finished and Field 4 enclosed. And – as we’ve already reported in this blog – we’ve recently tried doing just that and … Well they didn’t much like it, did they! It was very stressful for them – and they wanted back down!
Now we’re not being namby-pamby about this, it’s not that we don’t want to hurt their feelings, or fear they’ll starve to death or anything like that. The problem is that if they really want to return down to the fields, we can’t stop them, because the hill fence is in such a poor state of repair. It’s of the plain wire type – for which high tension and frequent – and sound! – posts and droppers are essential.
Our croft is just one of dozens that run strip-wise up to the hill fence. Our croft abuts the fence for a little over 80m. The hill fence runs in an arc for about 5km around the north, west and south of Beinn Sgiathan, starting and ending at the east coast of Eriskay. It is at high altitude, accessible only by tramping up steep and treacherous slopes of rough ground, and is a very very expensive fence to construct and maintain. It is the joint property of all the Shareholders (we have one 64th share, but as there are many half-shares, there are around eighty Shareholders), who are collectively responsible (through the Grazings Committee) for its maintenance, repair or replacement – and it being stockproof at all. The problem is that insufficient of the shareholders have any interest at all in crofting, and so the fence has been allowed to gradually fall into disrepair. The fence is now in such a poor state that the only real solution is to replace it entirely, at a cost approaching £100k – and it’s clear there’s no support for that. The Grazings Committee could try and force it through, but only if it felt that it had the mandate of the vast majority of Shareholders. It doesn’t.
So, with broken wires, posts rusted or rotten through, and wonky gates, the livestock that do stay up on the hill during the summer (nominally early May to mid-October) probably do so only because they are so accustomed to going up on the hill each year and know their way around , and have become hefted to certain parts of the hill grazing.
Ours aren’t. So, being bewildered at suddenly being dumped and locked out on unfamilar ground, they bleat like mad as Denise or I retreat down the hill. This morning, J shut them all out, and by the time he was half way back down to Field 3, half the flock had got there before him!
And thus is that great work of utility – the hill fence – rendered utterly futile!
We’re entitled to use the hill common grazings – we pay an annual rent for our share! We’re not obliged to use our own fields instead!
We’ll continue to do our best to encourage them to stay up on the hill. Every morning J will climb up to the hill fence – leading any of our sheep he finds and can persuade to go with him, with a bucket of sheep nuts. In time, they’ll get to expect him there, and won’t bother coming down. Or at least that’s the plan!
In the meantime, if our sheep are found down in the townships this summer, roaming around where they have no business to be, it’s none of our doing! We haven’t allowed them to return to the township croft lands. It’s the shareholders collectively, by neglect of the fence, that allows the sheep to escape. Those with a mind to complain should direct their complaints at the grazings committee and the shareholders collectively, not us!