Spring has at last sprung, and the land and sky around Eight Askernish is stirring with promise of new life. Skylarks soar and sing, and Lapwings swoop and dive …
Indoors, final preparations for our first guests of the 2017 season. Outside, spring sunshine is spurring the willows to bud, so now’s the time to take and plant cuttings, making good the wear and tear of the past winter – from wild storms and hungry deer.
Jonathan: After two days of dreich keeping us indoors, we’ve been making the most of better weather today by working (mostly) outdoors.
Pity our poor chickens, who spent their first full day confined indoors for 30 days: three of the four UK national governments (all except N. Ireland) have issued orders requiring all poultry owners to prevent their birds having contact with wild birds. There’s an avian flu outbreak in continental Europe, and the order is intended to reduce the risk of it spreading in the UK. This is the first time this has been done, UK-wide, and our first experience of such a lock-down.
This morning Denise and I went over to Eight Askernish (which is about eight miles north). Denise finished off the cleaning up after the carpet-fitting and re-decorating, getting the house ready for for guests at Christmas and New Year. I was outdoors, fixing a leaking gutter, wire-brushing rust off the clothes line poles – to re-paint another day. I tidied round the garden too … and spotted fresh clumps of deer-poo! I called Denise out to take a look together: deer-poo is quite distinctive, rather like sheep poo, but the pellets are elongated – even pointed. When I come back to paint the poles, I’ll have to set up the wildlife camera – perhaps I’ll have a bit of luck and actually capture wildlife on aforesaid wildlife camera. It’s good to be working together like this, putting things in order, and planning future work together.
After lunch, back at An Gàrradh Mòr, we were both out in the garden. Denise was pulling weeds to take to the hen house so that the girls still get their ‘greens and we still get yolks that are deep yellow. I too had a wheelbarrow and fork, but took it out through the garden gate, across the road, and down the bank onto the beach. Last night, out for a walk with Tilly before bedtime, the storm was abating, the skies clearing, and Tilly and I had stood – me in my wellies – at the line where the surf turned back on itself, the sea sparkling with moonlight. The sands, too, glistened in the silvery light, clumps of shadow revealing great heaps of seaweed thrown up by the sea. It was that seaweed that’s been taking me down to the beach this afternoon. Three barrow-loads taken home to feed the soil of our garden – or rather, today, the soil of a greenhouse, feeding it for next year’s tomato plants. Seaweed Season has arrived! Gathering seaweed will now continue – every day if weather permits – bad weather to cast up the seaweed, better weather to collect it! – until Easter.
Kilbride Bay – view to Eriskay
Kilbride Bay – view to Barra
Kelp, Kilbride Bay, Isle of South Uist
Seaweed from the beach.
Kilbride Bay – collecting seaweed
Barrowing seaweed from the beach.
And last, but not least, Denise and I moved the new batch of seven Welsumer chicks into another greenhouse, where – as we do every winter – we set up a small wooden hen house used for rearing chicks – now no longer needing the heat lamp – until they’re ready to join the main flocks. The chicks have now finally joined Lucky, who made the same move three weeks or so ago. Poor boy, he’s been getting more and more distressed by his isolation: it’ll take a few days for things to settle down, but they’ll get on just fine!
Jonathan: Recently I’ve been spending the occasional half-days at Eight Askernish installing the new whole-house ventilation and heat recovery system. But I’ve not been alone. and that’s not all that’s been going on there. Most of the willow trees now look as though they’ve been through a shredding machine – and a malfunctioning one at that. The blanket of orange-brown leaves fallen and decaying over the banks of mombretia have been scuffed away and there tubers are scattered over the ground. And were there any room for doubt as to the nature of our nocturnal visitors, there are little piles of dark brown nuggets – like sheep poo, but bigger and more pointy. Red Deer! At this time of year they are very hungry, and come down from the wild hills that line the east side of Uist to maraud our gardens. They’re stripping the bark off the younger willow branches, and the mombretia tubers are full of starch and vitamins.
Many islanders insist there are too many deer, and they need to be heavily culled to reduce numbers. Disturbing the mombretia is not really much of a problem – the tubers they leave will soon multiply, fertilized by the deer poo ; but the willow trees – and indeed trees of any description – are extremely difficult to grow and short-lived, and after the deer have finished with them they don’t exactly enhance the garden – and anyway will die off very soon. We’ve decided to respond by expanding our planting of rosa rugosa, the thorny stems of which protect it from deer, but which provide numerous benefits to all concerned: they grow well even at this extremely exposed site ; they provide excellent low-level privacy, shelter – for humans and for birds and insects ; they produce lovely flowers over a long season that scent the air, and then colourful hips which feed birds through late autumn and early winter ; and in early spring the green tips are tolerant of browsing by deer, as the taller shoots need pruning back anyway – it stimulates stronger growth nearer the ground.