The lambs born this Spring are already too big to be on the eagle take-away menu, and I’ve sheared all the lambs from last year – the hoggets. So, as they’ve grazed Bothy Field down as far as it’ll decently take, it’s time to move them onwards and upwards. Today they’ve moved up into High Field – though, as the fencing is still not complete, I’ll be relying on the fact that the vegetation there has nevere been systematically grazed, and there’s little chance they’ll make much impact on it in just a few days. In a day or two, I’ll take them through our hill gate out on to the Beinn Sgiathan common grazing, where they’ll stay until Autumn. I’ll still be checking them daily – and that’s a long walk over rough ground, but it’ll give our own fields a rest, and our wallets too: the sheep will have a huge area to roam in search of fodder.
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 ⇒]
Leave is Leave! An Garradh Mor flock of Hebridean sheep shut out on Eriskay Common Grazings
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.
Who the hell are they!?
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.
New hill gate down to house and shore
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!
Jonathan: Having completed the new hill gate the other day, I’ve been itching to put it into use! Yesterday I led the flock out of Field 3 (we still haven’t settled on nice names for our fields) up through what will in a few months be fenced-in as Field 4. We went through the new gate and out onto the common grazing. One young ewe was a bit alarmed at the Pied-Piper-like procession. She refused to come out of Field 3, and stayed behind with her lamb, bleating wildly as the others disappeared, with me, out of sight. The others followed me, the ewes in line, pausing briefly here and there to sample some of the delights of what will be Field 4. Wild sorrel and thyme, young heather shoots, a variety of grasses, and a lovely drinking place at the shallow crossing of the stream. Their lambs – less mindful yet of where their mother’s milk comes from – are more into climbing up rocks, jumping down again, racing hither and thither.
Through the new gate – most without any delay, others a bit more wary ; and then, after the sheep nuts are dispensed and eaten up – off exploring the common grazing – or at least this little bit of the hundreds of hectares of the Beinn Sgiathan Common Grazing. It’s unfamiliar ground to them, and they’re cautious. They keep together, following Queenie (the alpha female) and keep me and the gate in view. Soon the flock realize that the grazing on the common is very poor (due to years of over-grazing). Its only merit is that there are hundreds of hectares in which to look for the best food, shelter and water – none of which they yet know anything about. So, been there, looked about, and now can we go home please?
I called, they came, and together we proceeded slowly back down the hill to Field 3. It’ll take some getting used to, but today we’ve made our own little bit of history – a new hill gate brought into use, and making use of the common grazing for the first time! In fact it could be the first time that our grazing share – the share belonging to Croft 11 Bun a Mhullin – has been used since the 1960s, or possibly much further back.