Overnight, the sunny warm weather of the past week or more gave way to wind and rain. My morning rounds of the croft were in wellies and full waterproofs. The sheep didn’t think I’d climb the hill to feed them – I had to go and find them, sheltering from the cold rain driving in from the north-east. Thank heavens that I finished shearing morning!
Heading back to the hill gate and our own croft, the sheep followed me as far as where a stream winds through a little gap in the rocky landscape, and there’s lush grass and shelter. For much of its route, the stream is incised into a slot worn down over hundreds of years, but in the middle of this sheltered dell the stream – swollen by the overnight rain, tumbles over a patch of exposed bare rock. As I lengthened my stride across the slippery rock, I caught sight of something moving below me: an old woody heather stem, carried by the water, I thought ; but heather stems don’t wriggle and writhe and are certainly not 40cm/15in or so long …
As it wriggled, snake-like, upstream towards the security of a patch of overhanging goat willow, I could see that it was in fact an eel on the rocks …
Something in my brain clicked, as a patchwork of memories linked up …
So, last July, in similar weather, what I caught sight of in the corner of my eye – something large and dark disappearing into a (different) thicket of goat willow – in our High Field, in fact, would indeed have been an otter, as I suspected – and not a figment of my imagination. If you’ve never seen an otter trying to eat an eal, then you’ve never properly laughed. Oh my, but they are so strong and wriggly and slimy-slippery!
There is much more to Eriskay than meets the eye. It’s not the devil that’s in the detail, but the delights!
A few days ago I started shearing the older ewes. The process of starting to grow a new fleece (and shedding of the old) starts later for ewes with lambs: protein got from grazing goes to providing lambs with milk, not making wool. But now – six to eight weeks after the boys and the younger girls – it is at last the turn of the matriarchs.
At this time of year, with the ewes and lambs out on the common grazings, I feed them with sheepnuts – just a small ration – to encourage them to come to me each morning, allowing me to count them, look out for any problems, and – if the weather’s dry …
… to catch one!
With the ewes huddled together, heads down, I let them get on with their sheepnuts whilst I decide which ewe to catch, and stand poised ready for the moment she’s finished feeding and is about to set off into the wilds with the others.
I’ve had enough with rounding them up and shearing the lot. It’s too exhausting for me, too stressful for me as well as the sheep, and inevitably results in cuts and other minor hurts, and the fleeces end up just a pile of bits.
I trialled the new technique on the hogs – last year’s lambs, whilst they and their mums and the new lambs were still down on our own croft fields. That trial went so well, I realized I didn’t need to have the sheep confined at all: I could do exactly the same thing out on the common grazing.
For the hogs – last year’s lambs, it was their first ever shearing (which means they can now be referred to as shearlings): I expected them to put up a bit of a struggle ; and that’s what I got. Though, that said, they were much easier to handle than in previous years, when after being driven into a fank with the help of a neighbour and his sheep dogs, the hogs were wild-eyed and reckless.
For the ewes, however, this year will be their eighth shearing: they know exactly what it’s about, what to expect – and by now their heavy old fleeces are a burden – especially in hot summer sunshine. All those I’ve sheared so far have been calm and quiet, there have been no cuts or knicks to me or them, and the fleece has come of clean and whole, with no secondary cuts. For the first time in eight years of shearing, I feel unqualified pleasure and satisfaction in my own work.
Yesterday, the weather was gloriously sunny and warm: in fact, too bright and burning for my red-head complexion! I’d taken my Canon DSLR camera with me up the hill : so, with the shearing done, I sat in the warm morning sunshine, looking across our croft, Carrick and the Sound of Eriskay – across to the glens and hills of South Uist. And this is what I saw. A work place with a view.
But how do you fancy coming with me on a stormy day, with a sheep missing? No?
But yesterday was exceptional : so rather than head back down to the croft with the fleece and all the gear, I left it there to come back to later, and headed off into the wilds of Eriskay to see the sights. Despite being ‘on our doorstep’, I very rarely get out just for the pleasure of a walk – free of any work-related purpose, so a spontaneous walk like this (still in boiler suit and wellington boots!) is a delight to treasure and remember.
But, why don’t you come with me, and see for yourself? The walk runs anti-clockwise from the hill gate ◊ We’ll be walking for about three miles over rough terrain, and it’ll take an hour and half. Don’t worry – we’ll be back in time for lunch!
Here’s an interactive map, with embedded photos. It’s easier to use in the full-screen mode – click on the control at top right of the box. This interactive map not be visible at all on the WordPress Reader.
Did you enjoy that?
Having spent ages creating the interactive map, I’m disappointed that the photos are so small and inconvenient to access – there’s no pop-up. Here’s a mosaic of all the images. Click any image for a slide show of them all.