Wednesday 30 May 2012

Happy, L'il critters"

The ducks are in the hay park just below the kitchen window. You don't have to stand and watch them for long before you realise what interesting birds they are. They are happy, "L'il critters" with just a few basic needs; food, water, the company of other ducks, more water and a secure pen. Give them all this and they'll be thrilled.

When they discover water deep enough to dunk their heads in, muddy puddle, bucket or pond they joyfully splash and preen. Between bouts of splashing they sleep ( in the shade today) and eat just about anything organic they can find; lettuce, cabbage, worms, growers pellets but best of all fresh grass. If you want to know what sex they are the ducks quack the gander doesn't. He's at the top left corner wth the dark head and green bill.

The geese aren't so happy go lucky. They're a bit stiff, stuck up and spiteful chasing the ducks off the water or out of their preferred patch of shade.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Heat stress

Too much heat is a problem for poultry despite their having evolved in the jungles of northern and central India.

With temperatures in the high 20s this week the hens have been looking for shade as even the hen houses are too hot. The garden wall is popular, its shaded and there's a slight breeze when you are 50cms off the ground.

Its a problem for the globalised poultry meat industry too. Dwarf strains of meat type poultry with naked necks to maximise heat loss have been developed. Feather growth on the head and neck is inhibited. This gene is combined with a "dwarf gene" in the breeding females which have a lower food intake, the breeding hens are therefore smaller and easier to manage. The offspring are not affected and have high growth rates.

Meanwhile back at the croft there aren't any dwarf genes that I know of, the hens have a full complement of feathers and plenty of shade to simulate the N. Indian jungle environment.

Monday 28 May 2012

Re-constructing a whale.

For once, today, I was up to date with chores, animal husbandry and gardening so a day off was in order.

At the top of the hill we have one of the best campsites in Scotland with long views down the Sound to Ben Tallaidh, sea eagles soaring and terraced pitches where the campers don't look out on to each other. This is an alternative enterprise for the Crofter, MD and toilet cleaner Trevor who needed  a hand today to re-construct a Cuvier's whale skeleton, a good project for a day off.

The skeleton had been arranged across the wall of Trevor's "Whalebone Bothy" but was taken down so that Stephen French (Artist) could paint the outline of the whale as a piece of graffiti. 

Today's job was to re-arrange the skeleton, strung together with a steel cable over the graffiti. So I offered my unskilled help which mainly amounted to holding the vertebrae while Trevor fixed them to the wall.

This is the kit Trevor retrieved from mass of stinking, maggot infested blubber and bluebottles. Its now nice and clean, dry and bleached by the sun.

Juggling the bones.

3.30pm its not quite finished but we'd had enough by then, still some serious tweaking to do to get the right curve and flow of the spine.

This could be the view from your tent. Yellow Flag irises are a flamboyant sight of early summer here in the Highlands, great swathes of them cover the wetland, ditches and pond margins.

Its not so popular in Canada and the W. United States where it is considered an invasive weed on a par with bracken.

Thursday 24 May 2012

The "Austrian" Scythe

I finished cutting the bracken in the hill park this morning using a scythe, because petrol strimmers stink, they are noisy, they spray your legs with wet grass, stones and if you are very unlucky dog shit. A scythe on the others hand zips along, it sings through the bracken stems and lays them in neat windrows. I have even seen a scythe beat a strimmer in a mowing competition.

 My grass mowing scythe is the Lamborghini of scythes,its beautifully constructed, light and fast.The alternative, the "English" scythe is cumbersome, heavy and dull. Its blade, which needs constant sharpening, is ground steel riveted to a mild steel backbone and  the snath is heavy ash. The Austrian blade on the other hand is hammered out of a single piece of steel into an edge which when sharp will cut tissue paper.

The scythe on the left with the aluminum snath and shorter heavier blade is the one I use for bracken, nettles and brambles. The long narrow blade on the wooden snath is the racing version for mowing hay. Both can be sharpened to a razor edge.

After a morning's use and honing the cutting edge becomes rounded and convex so has to be re-shaped to a concave profile on the peening anvil or jig. Free hand peening is highly skilled  and can ruin a blade if not done well so I use a jig set in a block of wood. The jig consists of two steel cylinders that sit on a steel peg, the cutting edge is passed under the cylinder as it is hammered. This happens twice with cylinders of differing profile and the blade is returned to its concave cross section.

I prefer to sit on a low stool to do this , holding the blade with my left hand and hammering with my right while balancing the blade tips on my knees. Once the peeing is done the blade is honed with a coarse stone then a fine stone before being fitted to the snath and honed again while on the snath.

 More later on adjusting the snath to your height and build, setting the blade and mowing.

Monday 21 May 2012

First Corncrake, by the Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

I saw my first Scottish corncrake tonight. The bird had been calling for several days between the Blue Lagoon, a little tidal pond at the foot of the croft,  and the petrol pumps at the Ferry Stores.

From the top of the slipway we watched it for about ten minutes as it stood in a clearing in the flag irises. When the the corncrakes first arrive these irises are the only cover available before the hayfield grasses are tall enough and thick enough to hide them and their nests.

Its tempting to get out at sunrise ( 5.00am) tomorrow for another look and perhaps a photograph. The image below does contain a corncrake in the triangle between the net drying poles and the upturned green boat. You'll have to take my word for it.

It is in there!

Sunday 20 May 2012

New occupant in the byre

The swallows are back but seem to prefer the workshop to the byre, their nesting place in the past. The first birds to move into the newly weatherproof and renovated byre have been wrens. They have built a nest roofed with moss on the side of a rafter. Unlike the swallows they don't need an open door, they flit in under the eaves.

Photo by "Raptor"

Tuesday 15 May 2012

There's gold under bracken

Bracken is the most widespread invasive weed in the highlands, it usually grows on the best drained most fertile hill soils, hence the old adage,” there’s gold under bracken, silver under gorse and copper under heather”. If eaten it’s poisonous to cattle, sheep, pigs and humans, shade from the fronds reduces biodiversity, it harbours deer ticks, grass productivity is reduced and the dead stems are a fire hazard in the Spring.  Hill farmers and Crofters eligible acreages for Single Farm Payment are being reduced in line with the area of bracken infesting their land…so how to control it?

The EU has banned the use of Asulox (the most effective anti-bracken herbicide) once existing stocks on farms have been used up.  Cutting twice a year for three years is the most effective control measure so today the Austrian scythe has be in action again on the hill.

In the picture on the left you can just see the bracken fronds emerging through the litter of last years stems. I was once told that there are 40 tonnes of bracken rhizomes under every hectare of bracken, this is why it has to be cut twice a year for two or three years to kill it.


 I have cleared 99% of it from the hay park in front of the house, four years ago it spread up to about 15m into the field but in today's picture below there is none and its time to continue with the hill park which I started last year.

  The Austrian scythe is the ideal tool for this job; its lighter, sharper and tougher than the traditional English scythe which is heavy, cumbersome and needs constant sharpening.  I only managed an hour and a half today as my hands need to harden up and its rather difficult to photograph oneself while scything.

The blade of the scythe on the left is hammered from a single piece of steel, this is the secret of its sharpness and light weight. The snath (handle) is ash with adjustable handles according to the mower's height and build. It needs sharpening about every ten minutes when cutting grass but can go on longer in bracken as there are fewer stems per metre square.and grass is very tough.

The mower carries his sharpening stone in a water filled metal pouch on his belt. There's no need for the enamel pail of water that I watched mowers use when I was a boy. The whole outfit is light and a delight to use. In the hands of an expert is can beat a strimmer at grass cutting and can be used all day. But more about the scythe some other time. Its worth a whole post to itself.

The area in the bottom half of this picture was cut twice last year and the bracken is well on its way out. The bit above is some of that cut today.

This old road to the hill grazing was impenetrable four years ago but the Austrian scythe has cleared the bracken and brambles.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Chistmas is coming.......

The geese aren't getting fat yet but they are growing at one a hell of a rate. They were hatched at Easter, four weeks ago and are now bigger than our four month old Khaki Campbell ducks and the hens.During the first four weeks they have their fastest growth rate, growth and feed conversion efficiency fall after that. Despite their low conversion efficiency geese do scavenge well and need very little concentrate feeding. The villages of the Russian countryside have many flocks of geese foraging in the roadside verges and fields; one Russian goose can feed a family for a week I was told.

Four week old geese on the move
Western Europeans have been eating goose for thousands of years particularly for the mid-winter solstice feasts.Geese have been the perfect fowl for small farmers down the centuries; they are economical to keep, they live by grazing and can be fattened on domestic waste products; stale bread, vegetable peelings etc. Turkey replaced goose as the Christmas meal when they became cheaper as a result of industrial production systems. But goose is regaining its popularity as the centre piece  of the Christmas meal as an alternative to tasteless turkey meat.

Ours will be fairly lean, "Michaelmas Geese" reared exclusively on grass from now on until the grass stops growing at the end of September at Michaelmas..... 29th September. When geese were kept until after harvest thet were known as  "Martinmas Geese" (Nov 11th)  finished on grain, potatoes or even chopped turnips, they were consequently fatter and meatier.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Its best in the and sunny.

Its not often too hot here to gather the sheep and deal with their feet etc but today was too hot for sheep and Shepherds. Its been a good day for idling in the shade.......people and animals who work in the sun tend to sit in the shade.

Its a fallacy that ducks like rainy days, they enjoy sunbathing , up to a point, then when it gets too much they dive for cover, its all that down.and feathers I suppose. They, the ducks seem to have been taunting the goslings who are still penned up during the day. This is just until they become habituated to their new house and will go back in a night. Don't forget the pine martens, mink, foxes and sea eagles.

The goslings at four weeks are as big as the three month old ducks but not yet big enough to fend for themselves so they are locked up with everything else at sunset.

Four ducklings of unknown breeding hatched under a broody hen on Monday. They were started off in the incubator then set under the hen once she was sitting well. You slip the warm eggs under the hen in the evening as you take away the "pot" eggs she has been sitting on. She only had to sit for two weeks, the incubator did half the job.

This is much easier than fiddling with incubators and infra red heat lamps. Next year I might rear everything naturally under broody hens. You can programme them to go broody. Just leave a few eggs in the nest-box and they soon get the idea. If they see another hen with chicks that gets the hormones flowing too; they are soon sitting tight, ruffling their feathers and pecking your hand when you put it under them.
Embden goslings sunbathing