Jonathan: Last evening I took five of our Hebridean wedders [castrated males] on a long drive north to Lochmaddy. I came back without them. By now, this morning, they are probably already in the cold store. This is the first time I’ve done this. All yesterday morning was made making final preparations to round them up without mishap. Just before lunch – with the help of a bucket of feed and some encouragement, I managed to get most of the sheep into the holding pen, but not six sheep led by the most difficult of the wedders. Mid afternoon my neighbour Seonaidh came over with his son and the two dogs and within 5 minutes the rest were in the pen too. Seonaidh helped me hoist the five wedders into the trailer. Since the rest were all in the pen, I checked their feet for condition and trimmed as required, and then let them out. And then the 45 mile drive north. It was dark when I got to the abbatoir, and difficult to see as I reversed the trailer up to the lairage [pens for holding animals prior to slaughter]. With the help of Ruaraidh I cajoled the sheep out of the trailer. Black sheep in a black night. I never even saw their dark eyes large with fear – I never had time to really think about what I was doing. But now it is done; and I don’t feel what I expected – neither the sadness nor the guilt. Only the wondering whether the meat we’ll get back will be worth all the expense and work over the past year. Hoggett lamb [slow-maturing naturally-fed animals killed at over a year old] fetches very good prices – certainly the best cuts. But how much of it will there be? And – ironically – we could never ordinarily afford to buy it from the butcher or supermarket. There you are, you see: where’s the sadness for a life taken, the guilt at taking life? All I have is the calculations!
Jonathan: A beatifully bright and cheerful day today, if a cold breeze. More work on the electric fencing in the sheep field. I’m trying to make it so that the sheep can’t just quickly slip under it. There’s three strands already and that ought to be enough – it’s a great deal of work to add yet another, so instead I’ve been dismantling a line of fence leading to the fank, and using the posts to reinforce the main boundaries. The idea is to have fewer lines, but less easy to get through without getting a very unpleasant electric shock. However not enough fittings to complete the job! So that means buying more stuff. I’m concerned about the accumulating expense on what is just a borrowed field, and on sheep that don’t yield much of a profit! This time next year I want to have a proper field on my own croft with new permanent fencing. I’ll have to see if I can get a grant towards it. At least that would add to the value of the croft, whereas electric fencing does not.
Jonathan: First off today was to deliver 32 skeins of our own Hebridean wool to Rona in Hacleit, Benbecula, as agreed payment for the Hebridean sheep we bought from her last year. She’s had to wait a year for her payment, but we’ve had to wait a year for the mill to process it! I also collected from Rona her fleeces from this year: there’s very little value in the raw fleeces, but Rona’s s happy first and foremost that the wool gets put to a good use: if the raw fleeces are of any particular value, then we pay her in vegetables, or preserves or something like that.
Next to the crofting township of Aird, also in Benbecula, for my first lesson on dry stane dyking. £30 for four 3-hour lessons. Learning from a recognised master – Neil MacPherson, hard-working crofter on the island of Benbecula, and also a talented dancer and teacher of (traditional) dancing. There were ten students, all very keen to learn, and believe it or not 4 of them were women, of ages from 20s to 60s. Most of my walling experience has been with repairing the high wall around our garden, but generally re-packing into the face of the wall stones that have fallen, and repointing with lime: very different to building up a dry wall from scratch! After registration and safety tips, we had a brief introduction to the types of stone we’d be working with (essentially square rock from the ground and round rock from the beaches!) and then got on with stripping turf from the line of the wall, setting-up A-frames, and then building up the wall. Three hours passed very quickly indeed! Thankfully it was, if cold, sunny bright and dry.
After that it was round to the croft next door to collect three lovely Hebridean ewe lambs I’d agreed to buy last time I was home. (I already have two from Catherine MacLennan. They have good pedigree sheep, have lovely fleeces, and have been very well looked after.) They were all ready and waiting for me, and I just needed to transfer them to my trailer, do the paperwork and pay up, and then we were away home. Oh, and with a bag of fleeces as well!
45 mins or so later, at the croft in Eriskay, I had to gently persuade the sheep out of the trailer: they are very used to people and were very easy to handle: I needed to get the details off their ear tags for my own records. The other sheep were the other side of the house, out of view, so I’ll be back tomorrow to see how they are integrating.
And finally back home to find the last batch of parcels I sent from Welwyn Garden City have arrived, and to unpack and find a home for all the contents. The oil-filled radiator I bought in Comet, Hatfield, is now here in my office, keeping my fingers warm as I type this.