Friday, 21 July 2017

Small farms, small food businesses and sustainable food and nutrition security (SALSA)

This week I was interviewed by Carole  Doyle a researcher from the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen.James Hutton Institute find out more Carole was interviewing Crofters as part of a large EU / UN project assessing the role of small farms  in food production and sustainability in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Here she was looking at the role crofting has in local food production and consumption of locally produced food. find out more about SALSA

Kitchen table interview
With global population estimated to become 9.7 billion by 2050 this is important. It's clear that we need a shift to a sustainable system that produces more food of higher nutritional value while maintaining ecosystem functions.

We small farmers are important. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2014 estimated that about 1% of farms were of 50 hectares or more and they occupy 67% of the farmland. The majority of farmers (72%) have less than 1 hectare and occupy only 19% of the land. they have a vital role in household and local food supply. In the EU there are 5.8 million semi-subsistence farms.

During the last 40 years in the UK agricultural economists have advised government not to concern themselves about food security. Houses, roads, and factories could be built on grade 1 land because we could import food from Europe and elsewhere.  As for farm subsidies to support food production we only have those in the UK because of the political clout of EU farmers. After we leave the EU subsidies will be toast!

61% of Romanian farms are semi-subsistence
It has often been said that we are, "only nine meals away from food riots and revolution". Politicians would do well to heed this. Small farms producing food for local consumption will have a vital role when the post- Brexit economy collapses and there are food shortages. We will be as poor as Greece but without the sunshine.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

"Fly strike" and "dagging" ........ it's the peak of the season for blow flies in sheep

John Alec cleaning up the ewes
Here in the W. Highlands heat and humidity peak in mid July, some sheep have dirty wool contaminated by dung and urine. Conditions are perfect for fly strike. Blow flies lay their eggs in dirty humid wool, soon the maggots emerge and burrow into the sheep's flesh. It's a painful and distressing condition for the sheep.Fly strike in Scotland

"Pour on" systemic insecticides are a routine preventative treatment but despite this in July there always seem to be one or two cases of infection that have to be identified quickly. This week we had one.

Each day when out on the hill "looking" the ewes and lambs this i one of the things that the shepherd is looking for. Infected sheep tend to wag their tails continuously, rub up against the fence or even bite at their wool.

Yesterday we had to bring in six ewes with dirty backsides for "dagging" to remove the wool around the rear end as this attracts the flies. There was only one infected sheep with just a small patch of maggots that was quickly dealt with and treated. Soon the ewes will be clipped and the threat will be over for them. The lambs however still have their wool and are at risk up until November.
Mid-July warm and humid....... the blowfly season

Monday, 10 July 2017

A keystone species in the Arkaig Community Forest - Wild Boar are back

I thought that after days of rain we might see a hunting osprey yesterday, we didn't. But we did see evidence that a long lost ( since medieval times) keystone species is back. We saw real, fresh evidence of wild boar in the woodland. they had been digging, snuffling rootling and tootling in the grass surrounding the fishing lodge at the west end of the oak wood.

There is corroborating evidence from Glen Loy, an adjacent glen where trail camera video verified their presence. Wild boar in Glen Loy

Keystone species stirring things up
In the UK wild boar come under the "Dangerous Wild Animal Act and if you want to keep them you are required to pen them behind chain link and electrified fences. However, these are highly intelligent and great escapers. Wild populations were established in the south of England  during the great storm of 1987 crashing trees brought down the fences. It's thought that these Scottish boar were originally escapees from the Glen Dessary estate to the north and west of Loch Arkaig.

It was estimated in 2010 that England has 1,300 wild boar in captivity and many thriving populations of boar living free in woods outside of the fences. In Scotland there were thought to be three wild populations. Distribution of wild boar in Scotland 2010

A delicate footprint at 11 o clock from the key
This is great news, a large mammal extinct in Scotland for over 600 years is back and doing its job of literally stirring up the place where it lives, playing a critical role in the ecological community. This is what a "keystone species" is. Like the keystone in a brick arch it holds everything together, remove it and the arch collapses.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Midsummer day..... A walk in the Black Wood of Rannoch

Caledonia pinewood ecosystem
After the last ice age 7 - 8,000 years ago a great woodland  extended across northern Scotland, from the rain forest oak woods of the western shores to the pinewoods of central and eastern Scotland.

Yesterday,  Midsummer day, we walked through one of the 35 remnants of the great pinewood ecosystem, the Black Wood of Rannoch. The wood, over 1000 ha, has survived because of it's isolation and an enlightened forest management policy during the last 50 years.

During the 1st and 2nd world wars much of our ancient forest was felled and with the felling we lost both natural and cultural value.  You can read more about this in an excellent Forestry Commission website describing the history and conservation of the wood.  Black Wood of Rannoch, Forestry Commission, Scotland

The Black Wood is still isolated. From Kilchoan it is  a 300 mile round trip by road. The greener and easier alternative is to take the train from Fort William to Rannoch Station then a taxi. Rannoch and Kinloch Rannoch are among Scotland's most isolated communities but they have an excellent alternative  bus service.

Reliable, fast and friendly
When I was last at Rannoch the communities were served by a daily bus service from Pitlochry,  Now we have, "Demand Responsive Transport" . If you want to travel by bus between Rannoch and Kinloch Rannoch (15 miles) you phone one of the taxi operators in the scheme to arrange your journey. It costs £3.00 for visitors, £1.50 for locals and of course it's free if you have an over 60s bus pass. An excellent service. Kinloch Rannoch, Demand Responsive Transport (DRT2) . It's  efficient, reliable and friendly.

Back to the wood! It's an easy walk, 5 miles and 3 hrs, excellent for families. The Scots Pines themselves have 300 year old life cycle
and you can see the whole age range within this semi-natural pinewood ecosystem. It's "semi-natural" because of human use and influence over tha last 7,000 years.

Wood ant nest.
Semi-natural implies that humans and their influence is non-natural, reinforcing the notion that humans are not really part of the natural world and apart from it. But that's another argument and perhaps another blog post.

Using a wood ant nest to find South - the thatched nest of pine needles usually has a longer, gentler slope on the southern side to maximise the interception of sunlight for solar heating of the nest
Red wood ant, biology, behaviour and ecology

The walk could be improved by provision of an interpretive guide, Aspects of the first 50 years of conservation management are there to see but you need to have read the forest management plan (above) in order to see and understand what is going on. For example plantations of non-indigenous species such as Sitka Spruce and Lodge pole Pine are being replaced by indigenous broad leaved species to restore and expand parts of the wood.Future Forest 2015

Rannoch Station Tearoom

Yesterdays winner of the"British Carrot Cake Society  Award" for the biggest and best slices of carrot cake, 2017.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Photographing Red Throated Divers at the nest........ you need a licence!, cunning and patience.

Wildlife programmes on TV and relatively cheap high quality digital cameras might  encourage you  to take up wildlife photography but beware. You need a licence to photograph certain species in the breeding season, on or around the nest in the case of birds in the UK. The full list of these Schedule 1 bird species is on the British Trust for Ornithology website; Protected bird species in Britain

Red throated "loon" in N. America
I had to tell you that because today Hamsa and I were moving his hide so that he could film breeding red throated divers. He has a licence. I was there to help and under his supervision so "legal".

To get one of these licences you have to show to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) that you are an experienced photographer by submitting examples of your work and two references  to support your application. Licences are not easy to get.

You can't just walk up to a nest site and set up your hide. On day 1 the hide might be 150 m from the nest. Then gradually it is moved closer , so that the parent birds are not spooked into abandoning the nest.  After ten days or so you might be in a position to start filming. An assistant is still needed.

Divers are not good at arithmetic so; two people walk up to the hide, the cameraman gets inside and his gofer walks away.  The divers are fooled into thinking there is nobody there. In evolutionary terms they are the neanderthals of the bird world, crows are the intellectuals.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Are farmers themselves spreading bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in the UK?

The UK farm census figures for June 2015 showed that the average yield of a dairy cow was 7,912 litres.  If a cow produces 7.9 tonnes of milk a year it also produces roughly 7.9 tonnes of excrement, urine and dirty water each year. This is usually stored in a slurry lagoon until it is convenient to spread it on grass land or maize stubble.

Heifers - not cows but a nice pic
Dairy farms are usually stocked at about one cow to each acre, each acre provides grazing and silage for a year. So we have 16 million tonnes of really nasty stuff ( slurry) being spread on 2 million acres of farmland or 8 tonnes to each acre devoted to milk production. This doesn't include the slurry from beef cows .

In the UK as a whole there are approximately 200 packs of fox hounds recognised by the Masters of Foxhounds Association, 150 of them are in England and most hunt on horse back.

From early September until Spring there are 200 packs of hounds running around on the 4 m acres of farmland treated with slurry and also on the adjacent land. There are also wild animals, badgers, foxes, deer etc.running about on this land.

It seems reasonable to ask, could the slurry spread by livestock farmers be contributing to the spread of bovine tuberculosis? I did a search of the literature and the answer is, yes.

There is a risk. TB pathogens in slurry could be transmitted to other livestock and wildlife. See -
The potential risks of slurry spreading

The Canary....... the unspeakable......the uneatable...... and bovine tuberculosis.(bTB)

You may be wondering what canaries have to do with bovine tuberculosis, bear with me.

The Canary is an online site devoted to investigative journalism and today it ran a story about an outbreak of bTB in southern England .

Badgers are being shot in parts of England to control bTB
(Against much scientific advice)
The UK Government,  Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has an ongoing campaign to eradicate bTB, this cost £100m  and the slaughter of 28,000 cattle in 2015. Part of the campaign involves the shooting of wild badgers, thought to be vectors of the disease.

Oscar Wilde once described people who hunt foxes, on horses with dogs as, " the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable". Fox hunting with dogs was banned in England in 2004 but there is still an influential lobby trying to get the legislation overturned, The whole thing is "political" because Wilde's "unspeakables" are part of the Conservative Party cohort of loyal supporters.

Fox hunts still exist and are claimed to do non-lethal trail hunting and recreational rides with their hounds, these hounds are expensive to maintain and are often fed on carcasses of "fallen stock", dead animals from nearby farms

That's the back story.

In April this year 25 hounds belonging to the Kimblewick Hunt in southern England had to be euthanized because they were infected with bTB and 100 others hounds were placed under a monitoring regime. These infected hounds had spent the previous Autumn and Winter chasing across over 2,000 square miles of farm land. See the Kimblewick Hunt website, .

The DEFRA map of TB outbreaks in the UK ( shows that there have been 336 breakdowns in TB control in the Kimblewick area this year, the highest in the UK. A Vet quoted by The Canary has said that there is, " a bTB epidemic locally".

Before our recent General Election Mrs. May announced that if she had a majority government she would have a free vote on the reinstatement of fox hunting with dogs. It is strange that it took investigatory journalists to release this story and that DEFRA were silent. Obviously an oversight!