Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Another generation of goats and goat keepers.

I have worked with all types of farm animals  during the last 60 years and the most attractive are goats, they  are intelligent, clean, efficient milk producers, small, friendly, affectionate and safe around small children.  Milking twice a day got too much for me in my seventies so the three milkers were re-homed. Now the next generation are keen to keep them.

My daughter has just bought a two year  old Toggenburg x British Toggenburg goatling for mating this Autumn and milking next Spring. Goats do need companions but until we find another kid in late Spring this one will have to make do with the horse, Arran.

The work can be minimised by once a day milking .Kids are separated from their mother at night but can still see and nuzzle her through the bars of the pen. Mother is then milked in the morning and the kids can suckle her all day out on the hill. Milking is easier and so is the kid rearing.

There should be just enough milk for the family's day to day needs and occasional cheese making and of course the grand children grow up with a sense of responsibility for their animals. Most importantly we now have three experienced volunteer adult relief milkers for occasional weekends and holidays.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

A very rough guide to Alpine mountain hut etiquette in France

Twenty years ago we were staying in a Canadian Alpine Club hut in the Rocky Mountains, the occupants were international but all European. The log hut was situated in a alpine meadow, there were vast supplies of firewood for the stove, rocking chairs and rough hewn tables, it was perfect. Then came a knock at the door as we were eating, the knockers were Canadian," what is this place?" they wanted to know. They didn't know about this amazing resource although it was in their own country and perhaps you aren't aware of what is available on our European doorstep.

Pyrenean hut
French mountain huts are open to all not just grizzled, ultra hard core mountaineers, families and children are welcome. You could have some spectacular encounters with wild nature, congenial company and walking adventures.

Most French huts are operational from June to September and demand is high so book ahead.  Phone the Guardian at your chosen hut, it is appreciated.

Guardians can be grannies with their grand children, fit young people or hard bitten veterans of this business who have seen everything, be polite, speak French. Pay cash, be aware; "la carte bleu n'est pas toujours acceptee !" Take your boots off at the door, wear hut shoes or the Crocs that are provided.

You will be allotted a sleeping space with mattress, pillow and blanket in a dormitory, carry your own sheet sleeping bag. Even over 2,000 m in the Pyrenees you won't need a sleeping bag. If you are old and need to inspect the loos at night ask for a space near the door, you don't want to disturb the others. You might find flushing toilets indoors near the dormitory or you may need to go outside to find hole in the floor that you squat over, it varies. Get used to shaving in the dark with cold water or grow a beard.

There is a three course meal at 7.00 pm; soup, main,regional cheese Angel Delight. Although France is the home of great cuisine most guardians in the Pyrenees use a Russian soup recipe from the Gulag system and I remember Angel Delight from the 50's but thought it had been banned in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, apparently not. Order your wine before the meal.

You will meet a lot of cows, don't be afraid , talk to them..."bonjour madame, ca va bien?" it works every time.

Travel as light as possible these are mountain huts! For a good night's sleep take ear plugs, headlamp, sheet sleeping bag and toilet kit. Don't expect a cell phone signal, wi-fi, Instagram, TV or lighting after 10 pm. Take your garbage away with you.

In France the refuges are referred colloquially to as " Les Refuges CAFF"  the CAF is the Club Alpin Francais , there's lots more information on the web.

You don't have to stay overnight. In the Alps you can walk up or in some cases take a ski lift to a refuge for a very nice lunch and congenial company.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Ghostly apparition or pine marten..... can you help to identify this animal?

These blog posts flit between North Northumberland and Kilchoan. Today it's a possible pine marten sighting .  Elliot the Red Squirrel Group trapper and ecologist has a blurred image on one of his camera traps, it might just be a pine marten.

Two years ago my friend Bob Burston saw a pine marten at the side of the road by the wood. He's a witness of impeachable integrity, a retired Anglican clergyman. Then I found what might have been pine marten scat in the wood last Autumn. Elliot's image is small and blurred, you have to scrutinise the image carefully to find it. Here it is:

At the foot of the tree trunk on the right you can see a pair of eyes and ears

Here it is again slightly enlarged , what is it?

The ears are rather long and erect so it could be a fox, it's unlikely to be a cat and pine marten is definitely a possibility. The image at the top left is for reference and a fox cub below.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

An encounter with elderly pines and black grouse

Some few thousands of years after the end of the last ice age (10,000 bp) a great wood extended across Scotland from the valleys of the Cairngorm plateau to glens of Lochaber in the west. The climate was warmer and drier, soils were better drained and less acid. Pine trees thrived.

Trees of many ages and open spaces
As the current inter-glacial period progressed precipitation increased, soils became more acid and peat began to form. The pines retreated, neolithic farmers used fire and stone then iron axes to clear the forest. More recently two world wars took more of the pines.

Today we have about ninety remnants of the great wood scattered from Glen Nevis and Ardgour in the west to Glen Tanar in the eastern Cairngorms. Among the biggest and the best remnants are Rothiemurchus and Abernethy where I've been today. This a favourite walk of mine from Loch Morlich over the pass of Ryvoan to the valley of the river Spey it's an encounter with the, "Great Wood" it's trees, shrubs , birds and some of it's mammals, no wolves or lynx unfortunately.

Huge, gnarled ,elderly heavy limbed  "Granny Pines" 300 - 400 years old and their offspring of many ages predominate mixed with birch and alder in the wetter places. In the absence of sheep and with  deer control the forest seems to be self-sustaining, a microcosm of the Great Wood.

Loch an Uaine (The green loch)

Apart from this encounter with the old trees I had a second reason to visit. I wanted to see if a black grouse lekking site that I first discovered about twelve years ago was still in use.Black grouse are very loyal to these places.

The grass was short and green, beaten down and fertilised by the grouse. I found black body feathers in the longer grass to windward and grouse scat on the ground. The site is still in use between dusk and dawn.

Black grouse conservation in the Alps

Friday, 22 February 2019

Woodland free range eggs

The earliest ancestors of my hens were domesticated in S.E.Asia over 5,000 years ago, these Red Jungle fowl lived in the jungle undergrowth and woody scrub that provided food, shade and shelter. Watch your hens and you will see many behaviours that originated in woodland.

Woodland hens in the new plantation
Under summer sun and heat mine head straight for the hazel scrub on the hillside where they dust bathe, feed, socialise and occasionally roost. Despite the 5,000 years of domestication they still seem to prefer their ancestral habitat to climate controlled intensive housing. One tenet of the poultry welfare code is that they should be able to exhibit, "natural behaviour" access to woodland must surely provide for this; shelter, shade, food, water (my hens prefer to drink from puddles rather than metal or plastic drinkers).

In 2018 the last of my sheep were sold. They were becoming heavier and stronger as I got older and of course I could not see a profitable future for upland sheep after we leave the European Union. The hens stayed and this year there will be more of them. Some of the sheep pasture has already been planted with a mixture of native broad leaved species and Arran the highland pony grazes the in-bye field. Marketed as "Woodland Eggs" they must be even more attractive to visitors.

At the moment there is only tree cover from the hedgerow trees and hazel scrub, it will be some time before the former pasture becomes woodland, but there are environmental benefits; carbon sequestration, control of  water run off, increased biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Pine martens kill and eat red squirrels too!

Many thanks to those of you who voted in support of the Coquetdale Red Squirrel Group funding bid with the AVIVA Community Fund ( 25/10/ 2018). Your votes got us through to the final but we failed to win the £10,000 needed.

Feedback from the AVIVA judging panel said that the project was innovative and well presented. However it was too short ( 6 months) there were concerns over sustainability and ability to measure the impact. The proposals did not impact people and community directly! This is fair enough it is a "Community Fund" after all and AVIVA kindly gave us a £500 consolation prize. What next?

It looks as if we need to learn about crowd funding and appeal directly to the public with social media as there is the possibility of an apprentice scheme.  the Cumbria Wildlife Trust have two apprentices currently working on red squirrel conservation; doing surveys, data handling etc., this may be a possibility for the future.

In the meantime you may be interested in more stuff on red squirrels and the impact of pine martens in habitats where they co-exist. I may be guilty of over optimism about the positive effect of pine marten predation on grey squirrel populations where reds and greys coexist.

Some recent research indicates that pine martens eat quite a lot of red squirrels can make up 50% of their winter diet in some areas.  see this link..........Why the pine marten is not every red squirrel's best friend               

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Funeral pyres of unsaleable sheep ?

In December 2017 the total number of breeding sheep in the UK was 14.7 million plus 18.6 million other sheep; wether lambs, hoggs, non-breeding ewes and rams. UK farm livestock numbers Dec. 2017
December is when our sheep population is at it's lowest.

"Peak sheep" June 2019
Lambing begins in January and gathers momentum through late Winter and Spring reaching peak sheep population in June.

In June 2018, two months after we leave the European Union there will be between 34 and 35 million sheep in the UK. We are likely to face tariffs on sheep meat exports to the EU which currently takes 94% of sheep meat exports tariff free. There could be some millions of surplus unsaleable sheep running about this summer.Prospects for UK beef and sheep after Brexit

If we have 5 million surplus ewes after March 2019 ( see the link above) what is going to happen to them? Abattoirs are already booked for weeks ahead, domestic sheep meat consumption has been declining steadily for 50 years; the prospects for sheep farmers are grim. There's a possibility we could see the army in action and funeral pyres like those during the Foot and Mouth disease epidemic 18 years ago.

Bear in mind that this will be just one aspect of the economic self-harm inflicted by a "no-deal" exit from the EU.