Thursday 31 December 2015

Last of the 2015 firewood

Newly felled timber is about fifty per cent water, the best firewood contains twenty per cent water so for every tonne of green firewood we have, on average, to get rid of  300 - 400 kg water from every tonne.

The logs come with a waterproof covering, the bark, so most of the water loss is through the butt ends ergo to speed up the drying and seasoning I cut the 5' lengths of wood up into 15" lengths to increase the surface area  available for moisture loss which is quite fast in early summer but this load was collected in August.

Splitting these short logs further increases the surface area but as we move into winter atmospheric humidity increases and the moisture in the wood becomes increasingly difficult to remove. The logs in the picture were about 30 % moisture as tested by drying a sample in the oven, they are burnable but a further ten per cent drying would be good.

The workshop is dry and draughty so we've stacked the last couple of tonnes indoors with wind blowing through the gaps ( gaps big enough for a mouse to run around inside the stack). It's a slow time of year for wildlife photography so I roped in Hamsa to help with the skilled work. It may be useful firewood in another three or four months.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Mull of Kintyre to Ardnamurchan Point severe gale 9 to storm force 10

It's 4.15 pm it's dark and the wind is howling. The Norwegians ( and the UK met Office are both forecasting severe gales (23 m / sec) for the next 12 hours increasing to storm force 10 ( 28 m / sec). For those of you in the USA still using imperial measure that's 51 mph increasing to 68 mph with gusts of up to 80 mph.

So I spent the afternoon trying to anticipate the 80 mph stuff and it looks as if everything might be sufficiently battened down  Along with the gale there is probably 50 mm (2 inches Ian) rain on the way, not too bad by our standards just high humidity. But Jenny Wren the highland pony was still out on the hill, she is tough and rugged up but we decided that she could spend the night indoors.

Despite not having been indoors for some years she remembered that it means a good dry bed and old hay she walked straight into the old byre without any problems.

This continuous wild, wet windy weather has kept Mimi inside much of the time for the last three weeks, she is obviously bored. For a little light relief slashes my arm if I get close. That's something they don't tell you about wild cat hybrids. I'm running out of TCP and plasters.

Monday 28 December 2015

Ormsaigbeg Community Woodland - Another hurdle dealt with!

Approximate extent of the proposed woodland view from the war memorial
We had another site meeting in December with the Woodland Trust (WT) and the Forestry Commission (FC). In October our proposal was drafted by Willie Beattie of  WT this had to be examined by the FC to ensure that the site is suitable for the proposed planting, hence the meeting with Ian Collier.

 Willie's report is summarised below, I will include his full report elsewhere on the blog.

The soils are mainly shallow peaty podzols and podzols with gleying on the lower slopes. there is evidence of some tree cover around the crofting in-bye, comprising oak, larch, rowan, sycamore, hawthorn, hazel and willow. 

Proposed woodland types are ; upland mixed broadleaved woodland (W9) on the bracken dominated areas, upland oak-birch with blaeberry (W17) on the better soils and Scots pine on the heathy knolls higher up the slope.

Ecological site classification (ESC) indicates that the site is able to support a good range of native species with exposure being the main limiting factor.

The proposed extent of the woodland is outlined in red in the image above, it extends from the eastern boundary of the grazings west to above the end of the Ormsaigbeg road. It's about 70 ha., or 160 acres.

If the FC approve the proposal the next stage will be to inform all the shareholders in the grazing and to hold a meeting for all those interested where Willie and I will try to answer any questions and to provide more detail.

Monday 23 November 2015

The downside of goat farming - An ethical dilemma

If you are a milk producer with either dairy cows or goats there is a downside, the male offspring are not necessarily in demand for meat. This is especially true with goat dairying. There is a strong demand from ethnic markets, specialist restaurants and in some farmers markets but this demand is low compared to the number of males born.

Forty years ago most goats were kept in small herds more or less as pets, today there are goat dairy farms with up to 1,500 milking females such has been the growth in demand for milk and cheese. Fifteen hundred females produce up to 1,000 male kids a year. The majority are killed at or near birth because the farms specialise in milk production. Even if these animals are killed humanely its an ethical problem, " is it better to have a short but happy, pain free life than not to have lived at all beyond 24 hrs?"

Some farmers are trying to find an answer to this dilemma by developing a market for "Cabretto" , kids are reared up to about 40 kg live weight and then sold into various niche markets.

This is also a dilemma for those of us keeping just a few goats, you could be overrun by male goats very quickly if as happened this year all of my kids born were males. Luckily some of my neighbours either like goat meat or are interested in trying it.

The kids were reared on their mothers, mother being milked once a day in the morning for up to 10 12 weeks before weaning, they then grazed out of doors in good weather, last Tuesday I took them to the Mull abattoir. It's a compromise but as Churchill said to Joe Stalin, "the alternative is worse" when Stalin claimed that democracy was a flawed system.

To cheer you up after that, take a look at some happy goats; go to Youtube and look for, "Giggle with the goats" you won't be disappointed.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Fence post indicators of air pollution - Air quality is best in the west!

Wooden fence posts last about 20 years at most in this climate. They usually rot where they meet the soil surface. But towards the end of their upright life they start to rot from the top developing a little ecosystem of their own with mosses, lichens and grasses.

Fencepost ecosystem : Mosses and lichens
The commonest fence post moss is Heath star moss (Campylopus introflexus) it's an invasive species, the mossy equivalent of rhododendron, it got to Britain in the early 20 th century from the southern hemisphere  and is now found, on fence posts from the Scilly Isles to the Shetlands. Not just fence posts it's on the surface of peat bogs and my roof tiles.

Lichens are the shrubby type (Cladonia spp.)  a combination of algae and fungus growing together symbiotically. If you see them the air is clean as here in Lochaber. The algae in the symbiotic partnership are super sensitive to sulphur dioxide a major air pollutant in towns and towns and cities.

When I lived in Moscow the air was so polluted there were obviously no lichens, no mosses and only one species of insect (Faecal mosquitoes that lived in the drains) because the air was toxic like the air in London now.

So just another indicator of why it's best in the West.

PS. I have just remembered there are two insects in Moscow, I forgot the cockroaches. They were not a problem because you could buy little cardboard boxes that you placed in cupboards  they contained something very nasty, radioactive polonium perhaps. These were known as "Cockroach hotels" like "Hotel California" the cockroaches checked in but never checked out.

PPS. the second pic is another of my cousin's high speed watercolours. He reads the blog in California, gets his paints out, does an impression of my photo and sends it to me. Its better than the original image I think.

Friday 20 November 2015

Why do farmers and crofters bother - incomes down again in 2014 /15

"We'll be redundant next!"
Each year the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looks at a sample of farm businesses with a turn over greater than £25,000 to see what has  happened in the last year. The results were published at the end of October and raises the question, " why do farmers carry on, when their income could be significantly higher if they didn't bother?".

In most cases  most types of farm  business made a loss before the payment of SFP ( single farm payment or subsidy). They didn't make enough to pay themselves or their family work force. After the SFP , payments for conservation projects and diversification which includes holiday lets, horse livery and wind turbines a loss was turned into a small profit but still not enough for a "living wage" and re-investment. You will not read this in the Daily Mail but there are farmers who only get by because of working family tax credits.

Farmers have, historically, been capital rich but cash poor and the present situation puts English and Welsh  food production in a very precarious position It must be very tempting to liquidate the capital then give in, give up and go away, turn the farm over to housing, industrial development or a banker looking for a safe haven for his bonus because he doesn't trust the banks.

Crofters generally don't have this problem being both capital poor and cash poor, lambs have always sold for less than the cost of production but it's easier than buying and maintaining a ride on mower.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) .......... Good for Kilchoan's livestock producers.

Livestock on the way to Mull
My uncle Dave was a butcher. Out the back of the shop was the, " Killin hoose", better known as a slaughter house but today we would call it an "abattoir" sensibilities have changed. Here on the peninsula we don't have an abattoir, the nearest is on Mull a 25 mile round trip from Kilchoan. Until the end of October the only practical abattoir to use was at Grantown on Spey a 300 mile round trip.

With the advent of the RET and much cheaper ferry tickets the Salen abattoir is the best option, its sixteen pounds for a return ticket, takes less than half a day to get there, unload and get home. this opens up a whole range of possibilities for marketing livestock products we can sell direct to the customer.

The abattoir does a complete job including butchering, packing and even delivery. A "Farmer's Market" is now a real possibility where Crofters can sell their lamb, beef, goat and even venison. If salads, vegetables, fruit, seafood, free range eggs, baking and preserves are added to the mix it will be worth a visit by locals and summer visitors. The first is scheduled for 9th May 2016. 

Tuesday 17 November 2015

"Norwegian Wood ".......... A book review

I do admire the Norwegians as my Antarctic exploring neighbour Trevor knows and as I have said before, they are the best at getting to the South Pole, blowing up Nazi power stations and making sensible use of their oil revenues for everyone's benefit. You might add they are tall, good looking and knit nice sweaters.

Now there is another world beating Norwegian activity: chopping, stacking and drying firewood. It's all in a new international, number two best seller, "Norwegian Wood". So I am not alone chopping, cutting and stacking wood as a hobby, there are thousands more romantically inclined woodsmen out there who read about their pastime.

The number two best seller bit must be true, I read it in the Guardian yesterday then immediately ordered a copy that arrived at lunchtime. I have put the fire on, a wood burner of course and have skimmed through it before settling down to read

There's excellent advice on tools, techniques and stacking logs as an art form, the illustrations are
200 year old woodcutter and his logs
brilliant. I will then pass it on to Dormouse who thinks I am slightly crazy doing all this manual stuff but the woodcutters in the illustrations all look happy, healthy and even older than me. This is the ideal Christmas gift for practising or armchair woodsmen with an interest in renewable energy.

Monday 2 November 2015

Mobile fold unit for 12 to 15 hens

Fold nits 50 years ago
Breeding poultry here is challenging. Predators are the main problem; american mink, pine marten and foxes. I don't mind trapping and killing mink or shooting foxes but pine martens are quite a different matter, they are protected by law and very attractive. So I have designed and built a high security fold unit.

Up to fifty years ago, before battery cages and dep litter housing most commercial poultry were free range or at least kept out doors many in fold units. these houses were light weight, strong and easily moved by hand, the hens had access to grass, were kept in small groups ( up to about 30), were protected from foxes and the worst weather then moved to fresh pasture each day.  Battery cages, controlled environments and labour costs rapidly got rid of this system. I am reviving it !

Ready to pick up and move
The unit is relatively light and can be moved easily when the hens are shut in the roosting compartment. Weather board cladding on a 75 mm by 50 mm frame ensures that it is strong enough not to twist and fall apart when moved. The Trolley picks up one end of the house on two stub axles, I then  press the frame down to ground level, insert a piece of wood between the house and the frame, walk to the opposite end, pick it up and move it, then reversing the procedure. It works beautifully.

There will be a feeder and water trough in the run, poultry manure will be well distributed through the slatted floor and hopefully the hens will be safe. even the nest box on the end has to have a fox proof latch.

In position
Tonight after dark, because that is when hens are quiet, almost comatose, and eay to catch they will be transferred from their old hen house.

Welding and fabrication of the frame was done by Jim Caldwell, you can find a drawing in, " Making Mobile Hen Houses", Michael Roberts  Golden cockerel press, 2004.


Sunday 1 November 2015

Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve - Arctic alpine wild land walking

Gnarled old birches the seed source for the recovering woodland
Thirty five years ago the vast arctic alpine plateau of Creag Meagaidh was bought by a commercial forestry company for commercial forestry, the plan was to cover 1000 acres of species rich grassland with conifers, probably sitka spruce. The glen and the plateau had been long overgrazed by sheep and deer but their grassland diversity survived without trees. The Nature Conservancy Council ( now SNH), the RSPB and celebrity ecologist David Bellamy got involved, the land was put back on the market and Creag Meagaidh became a National Nature Reserve.

Over the next ten years the red deer population, estimated at over 1000 was reduced to less than 100.  Yesterday Hamza (Ardnamurchan's resident wildlife photographer) and I saw the effect of excluding grazing, the birch woods have regenerated heather and blaeberry have replaced the hill grasses and its an altogether more beautiful and valuable place than it was or might have been under commercial forestry.

Coire Ardair
This extraordinaty national asset is open to all, from snow and ice climbers in the gullies above Coire Ardair, to hill walkers on the tops and birdwatchers in the glen. Its not exactly, " a thing to do around Kilchoan, its a three hour drive from here but as it's just off the A 86 you could visit on your way here or on your way home.

Inexperienced walkers can't get lost there's a well engineered path from the car park to Coire Ardair through the birch woods and then open
Coire Ardair water colour by my cousin Ian
hillside. There are still deer to be seen along with dippers in the river and snow buntings beside the path. In summer there are nesting dotterel, one of Britain's rarest breeding birds, up on the plateau together with golden plovers and more snow buntings. Don' miss out on this tract of Scottish wild land that is accessible by walkers of all abilities.

Amazing technology... Ian read the blog in California this morning, then dashed off a watercolour based on the photograph.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

High tide and the bees

Just above high tide
I've had a colony of bees on Jim Caldwell's croft at Porthurik ( I have that spelling from a Gaelic speaker!) all summer, just above the tide-line, after yesterdays high tide they must be moved. The next neap tide in a couple of week could have a nor-westerly wind behind it and that would push the water even further up the machair than on Tuesday.

Moving them is a bit laborious, if you don't move them far enough they will fly back to the original hive site, you can get away with less than three feet but further that three miles is the minimum. So I'll have to strap the boxes together, put a ventilated screen on top and ship them home in the truck. This works well, when we moved from Ayr to Northumberland in the 70 s the bees, three colonies went with the furniture on a Pickford's removal van, none escaped and they all survived.. It wouldn't be possible today.... health and safety issues!

Monday 19 October 2015

Things to do around Kilchoan - Sgurr Dhomhnuill highest point on the peninsula

Sgurr Dhomhnuill from Druim Garbh
Last month we had the finest little mountain in the west. Now we have the highest mountain, not in the west but on the peninsula, Sgurr Dhomhnuill You have to be an experienced hill walker for this one, its a long walk in and a long walk out almost completely free of footpaths, very rough under foot with steep scrambling so beware. Choose a dry, windless day like yesterday.
Sgurr Dhomhnuill is more " around Strontian" than Kilchoan, its an hour driving to the highest point on the road between Strontian and Polloch, you can park slightly off the road opposite the telephone mast. If you are elderly and slow like me prepare yourself  for eight to nine hours of very hard going.

Ben Nevis and Glencoe
The rewards are splendid. Yesterday the silence ( no wind) was only broken by rutting stags bellowing below us in Glen Scaddle. From the peak  there is a 360 degree panorama from Schiehallion to Ben Nevis then the peaks of Rum, closer to home the view of Ben Resipole is unfamiliar, the overall impression is of wild, wild country.

In Kirstie Shirra's Cicerone guide, " Scotland's Best Small Mountains" she describes the NW ridge of Sgurr Dhomhnuill as "steep" it is, very, very steep grass and rock, you have to track the foot prints of earlier climbers to find a
Ben Resipole, Loch Sunart and Loch Sheil
way up. We decided not to retrace our steps but to carry on down SE ridge to Druim Leac a Sgiathain. It was a good move, so was the tea and cake at the Ariundle Centre still open at 5.00 pm on Sunday.

Friday 16 October 2015

Italian egg layers - Ancona bantams arrive

These Ancona bantams are Scots / Italians.

Originally imported from Italy in the mid 19th century but bred in Fife for the last 50 years by Joe Stenhouse and his father before him. If all you want is eggs, no meat for the pot, then bantams, especially these are ideal

They don't take up much space, they are decorative, friendly and  great egg layers, Joe's strain does over 240  a year quite large white eggs and of course they eat half as much as large fowl.

So far these have been kept indoors to accustom them to their new housing then they'll be let out to range and rake about. I am told that they are friendly but a bit flighty so need to be approached and handled calmly and quietly.

Next job is to find or hatch an unrelated male to produce hatching eggs in the  Spring

Thursday 24 September 2015

More "real free range eggs" needed

Design by Rachael
My lambs averaged  £42 a head in the mart last week, that's about what it costs to feed them, house them, dose them, inject them and get them to the market. The one enterprise that does leave a margin is the hens, visitors can't get enough of their " real free range eggs".  An hour after I put them out in the roadside box they are gone and people are soon back for more.

You will never get a fresher, tastier more brightly coloured egg. This is almost entirely because  my hens are truly free range . They scratch and hunt in the midden, along the roadside, in the grass, inside  the buildings when its raining and in the shrubbery that simulates the S. Indian jungle where they evolved. Worms, insects, seeds, leaves add to their scientifically formulated layers pellets. I have even seen one swallow a whole mouse.

Supermarket free range eggs  take much longer to get to you, about 10 days and  are produced by hens living under a regime that regulates how many can be kept in one house, the minimum floor space and outside grazing which is usually a short cropped grass field which isn't very interesting to a hen. Mine also have a choice of nesting sites, from the goat's hay rack, to tunnels under bale stacks in the big shed and the nest boxes provided for them , choice makes them  happy I think.

There's also the company of a handsome, randy French male
Demand is high from Easter until September when the visitors are fewer and the hens begin to moult, the days shorten and the temperature falls. Production picks up again in mid February and peaks in March before the visitors arrive.  The plan for next year is to buy some "point of lay" pullets in the Spring to supplement the La Bresse hens whose main jobs are hatching egg production and traffic calming. 

Sunday 20 September 2015

A to Z of things to do around Kilchoan - Beinn Resipol Hill Race

The summit dominates the peninsula between Salen and Strontian its 825 metres above sea level and a 7.5 mile round trip from the shores of  Loch Sunart.

 Yesterday the winner of the hill race completed the course in 1 hour 10 minutes.

That's an average speed over the course of five miles an hour but on the downhill section the top runners flew past at over ten miles an hour waving arms for balance and with  great leaping strides.

I took part, in a less active role with John Dove,  as course marshals we were only a 30 Min stroll from the start, an appropriate job given our combined ages add up to 145 years. Not only is the winner's time remarkable but all 64 competitors completed the run in under three hours. the last time I was on the peak it was an eight hour round trip.

Next year its on again, same weekend, same place.

Monday 7 September 2015

Another midnight visitor Pt.2 - Pine marten video

At last I've worked out how to insert a video. Its a slow process my learning how to do these things, like an amoeba, trial and error, one step forward two steps back.

Another midnight visitor : Pine marten hunting

The gate into the hill park seems to be a major nocturnal route for wildlife.

Yesterday there was a little heap of pine marten scat on the track its easily identified at this time of year as its full of berries mainly Rowan and my raspberries.

This morning there was a whole series of images, the pine marten was footling about for quite a while until Mimi my hybrid wildcat showed up.

You would expect pine martens to live in trees, they don't, they make their home in abandoned buildings, cairns of rock and the lofts of holiday homes if there is even the smallest entry.

 Over the years I must have lost more than 30 hens to pine martens, always at night when there has been the slightest security lapse. Once inside the hen house they kill everything possibly because they are panicked by the even more panicked hens. The only solution is maximum security, no holes, electrically operated doors that close at dusk and my own form of biological control, having a pee beside the hen house, after dark of course. This technique was first demonstrated to me by an old Shepherd 50 years ago when he made a nightly round of the lambing pens to keep foxes away.

If you are here on holiday a trail camera in the garden of your cottage is a great way to watch wildlife and better for pine martens than feeding them jam sandwiches on the bird table.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Midnight visitors - Badger and Hedgehog.

Something was helping itself to hay from the feeder in the hill park this week, there were trails of flattened grass up to and through the fence Sue thought it was badgers, perhaps stealing hay to line a sett. I borrowed Jon's trail cam yesterday to find out what was going on and it worked.

Half an hour after midnight a badger turned up snuffling around a trap set for mink (see video still). Ten minutes later a hedgehog followed.

When we lived below the N. Downs our parish in Kent was estimated to have the highest density of badgers in Europe, you almost tripped over them on evening walks, it was relatively easy for them to excavate setts in the soft chalk. Here in Ardnamurchan there is only a thin scrape of soil overlying boulders and bedrock so finding a home must be difficult for them.

If you haven't read Roger McGough's poem , "The Badgers and the Goodgers" find a copy. Once upon a time there were two species; the goodgers were sweet natured and nibbled moon beams while the badgers swore and fought all the time, they drove the goodgers to extinction.

In England the UK government is killing badgers again in a misguided and unscientific attempt to control TB in cattle. Its a political move to please their farmer voters Each year a dairy cow produces roughly seven tonnes of faeces and urine (slurry) which is then spread on grassland the nocturnal feeding ground of badgers.Could the cows be infecting the badgers ?

Hedgehogs eat worms, I wonder if they follow badgers around to pick up any worms that the badgers have unearthed and not eaten?

Saturday 5 September 2015

Cosmetic wood burning stoves increase UK carbon emissions : A light bulb moment

Domestic users can hire this log splitter
I haven't been to many conferences since I retired and have realised that if I come away with one good idea then it was probably worth attending.

Yesterday I attended a , "Wood fuel summit" organised by Lochaber Environmental Group; the delegates and speakers were trying to find out what was needed to boost domestic wood fuel usage in Lochaber. The consensus seemed to be, " a reliable supply of competitively priced firewood sourced locally".

The UK is bottom of the European league for domestic energy use from bio-fuel sources at less than fifteen per cent. The Swedes are top at over 70 per cent. As usual the Scandinavians are best at  doing the right thing; everything from reducing CO2 emissions to welcoming Syrian refugees.

There is potential for more wood burning in homes in Scotland we are more or less self-sufficient in timber but the UK as a whole imports 80 to 85 per cent of its needs..... according to one speaker.

The " light bulb moment" was when I realised  that currently most firewood is going into wood burning stoves in sitting rooms around the country to provide a centre piece to the room; this is in addition to electric, gas or oil fired central heating. Rather than reducing CO" emissions. We are adding to the problem by cosmetic wood burning.

Effective CO2 reduction by domestic wood burning doesn't just need a better, more reliable  locally grown and competitively priced source of  wood fuel. Better strategic and tactical thinking about how wood fuel is used in homes is needed so that it heats water, fuels central heating and even cooking.

One last observation; forestry and wood fuel meetings attract a high proportion of delegates with beards......over 50 percent yesterday, perhaps we have the highest percentage of bearded wood fuel enthusiasts in Europe?

Thursday 3 September 2015

A to Z of things to do in Kilchoan - Ragwort removal

This was Dormouse's idea because she thinks that sometimes visitors may become bored. Under "R" for ragwort you can set about removing it just as Alasdair did this week. First you have to buy a highly specialised tool, ragwort remover ( see image) at the Waitrose garden department in Embra so it's not a cheap pastime. There is no shortage of ragwort in flower at this time of year and little danger of it becoming extinct.

For the last 100 years myths about the toxicity of ragwort abound. My favourite is that it is a "notifiable weed" i.e.. you should report it's occurrence to DEFRA, if this was true and people did it the machinery of DEFRA would grind to a halt because its everywhere.

The toxicity of ragwort isn't a myth but it does vary in severity. If plants are incorporated in hay and subsequently fed to livestock, particularly horses, poisoning can be acute and fatal. However recent research in the Netherlands has shown that goats and sheep must eat their own body weight of the stuff for it to kill them. This is highly unlikely as it has a very acrid taste apparently. I haven't tried it.

When I wrote about ragwort once before I was contacted by an irate entomologist who told me that ragwort is an essential food plant for the rare cinnabar moth and I was contributing to its demise by removing plants so I don't need to be told this again!

Friday 28 August 2015

White tailed eagle, Great northern diver magnificent wild country - Day out on Loch Sheil

Loch Sheil
I have been meaning to do it for years, a trip up Loch Sheil on the "Sileas" from Acharacle to Glenfinnan 18 miles on one of Scotland's biggest freshwater lochs. The loch is remote enough for Northern divers and breeding sea eagles which we saw and Scottish wildcats which we didn't see but its enough to know that they are there.

Mike Tomkies the naturalist and writer lived on the north shore at Gaskan for 14 years. During his time at Gaskan Tomkies wrote some classics including "Wildcat Haven" an account of how he raised and released three litters,
two of them pure wildcat and one of hybrids. Most of his books are out of print but widely available second hand. About eight miles up the north shore of the loch Gaskan still seems to e in a good state of repair, it belongs to Loch Sheil Estates who still lease it to wild country enthusiasts.

Wildcat Haven is also the title of our own local wildcat conservation initiative here on the peninsula aimed at creating a safe habitat for Britain's rarest mammal by trapping and neutering hybrid and feral cats. Find out more at

Thursday 20 August 2015

Workout at the "bio-fuel gym"

Essential tool - logging tongs for dragging and lifting
I collect my logs at  the Forestry Commission firewood depot, up to this point they are mechanically handled; a machine cuts tree off at its base, cuts it to size and drops in behind. A skidder ( big tractor with a grab) picks it up and moves it to the roadside where its collected by a lorry with a grab.

The  ten stage"bio-fuel  workout" is as follows:

  1. Drag the log off the heap with logging tongs and into the trailer I load 70 logs which roughly equates to 1500 kg. 
  2. At home drag the logs out of the trailer and stack neatly in the shed.
  3. Lift logs on to the saw horse and cut to size 30 - 40 cm.
  4. Throw logs into a heap
  5. Pick up logs by hand for splitting with a maul or hydraulic splitter.
  6. Throw split logs into another heap.
  7. Pick up split logs throw into a wheelbarrow and trundle off to the woodshed
  8. Throw or stack logs into woodshed for curing ( 6 months)
  9. Put dry logs (20% moisture) into basket and carry to kitchen.
  10. Pick logs out of basket to feed the beast (Rayburn solid fuel stove) that does my heating, hot water and cooking in winter ( 8 months) then wood burning stove in the evenings during summer, immersion heater for hot water and baby Belling for cooking.
I bend down and pick up 1500 kg of wood, of ever decreasing size and weight ten times. Think of each step in the process as a workout, a total lift of 15 tonnes over a period of about  12 hours for each load. Heating, hot water and cooking need eight loads, 12 tonnes a year but 120 tonnes lifted!

The annual total of gym equivalent hours is 96, almost two hours a week.

I don't have to pay for gym membership or Lycra clothing which in any case is totally banned and ridiculed by Dormouse if worn by any male of any age.  Therefore I could deduct £300 per annum gym membership from the cost of logs and haulage according to my own logic and economic theory.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Haylage baled, wrapped and stored in beautiful weather in 48 hours.

Haylage is something between silage at 30 to 40 % dry matter and hay at 20 %. Yesterday it was warm, sunny and fragrant, like S. California after what seemed like months of rain and wind. The grass was cut on Sunday afternoon then baled and shrink wrapped yesterday afternoon at about 50 - 60 per cent dry matter.

There are fewer  bales than last year, partly because we baled less water and partly because growing conditions haven't been ideal.

The last swath that wouldn't quite make a bale I turned a couple of times in the sun and wind then stored it loose in the shed, it will keep the goats going for a week or two, its greener, fresher and looks all together more appetising than last years dry dusty stuff.

The last job is to spray paint faces on the end of the bales to keep the seagulls off then fence round to keep the sheep out.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Saving native Scottish black bees : SAMMBA

There are some distinct advantages to remoteness, especially if you want to breed bees that are true to type. Here at the west end of the peninsula there are very few bee keepers and few colonies of bees so we are using this comparative advantage to reproduce native Scottish black bees. The native bees like the native humans are small, dark and seriously tough; they fly in bad weather, survive on meagre rations, work hard and are very polite. This is why we are trying to reproduce and multiply them, bee keepers want them for obvious reasons and we want to preserve them for their own sake.

Black bees are native to Britain and Northern Europe, since the last ice age they have become adapted to the the environment but this wasn't good enough for Victorian and Edwardian bee keepers, they wanted more honey so they imported bees from Italy, bees that like hot sunny windless days when they do produce a great deal of honey but they are rather bad tempered and we don't get many hot, windless, sunny days here in the NW Highlands or any where else in Scotland for that matter.

 The aim of the project is to breed Queens that are as true to the native type as possible and to use these to change and confirm the nature of more mongrel / hybrid colonies of non-natives by breeding Queens reproducing them and then re-queening the hives of local bee keepers.

Today we had an open day at Glenborrowdale Castle gardens to explain the project and how bee breeding is  done. There is another open day next Sunday 24th, another opportunity for those who couldn't get there today.

I'll leave you to work out what SAMMBA stands for, no prize, answer below.

Sunart, Ardnamurchan, Moidart and Morven Bee-keepers Association.

Monday 10 August 2015

A short history of dairy farming or Why UK dairy farmers are up shit creek without a paddle and history might offer a partial solution to the crisis

Marx told you this would happen!
History for the dairy farming sector began in 1933. Up to then dairy farms were many and small their product a perishable liquid, heavy and difficult to transport, they were exploited by the large and powerful dairy processing companies.

Dairy farmers and their families lived on, " the smell of an oily rag" according to John Cherrington farmer, writer and TV broadcaster.

The UK government's solution  was to set up producer marketing organisations, Milk Marketing Boards. Their aim was to preserve and increase farm incomes and to protect them from the inherent economic weakness of agriculture...... a huge number of small producers selling a bulk commodity to a small number of buyers.

For 60 years the milk boards provided a reliable service. Tankers arrived daily to collect the milk then the milk cheque arrived promptly every month. To some extent farmers traded short term profit opportunities for long term stability and it worked well.  The dairy farm I spent my time on as a child in the 50 s had 12 cows and managed to support three families. Dairying prospered under the aegis of the MMBs. In the early 70 s when I started work as an agricultural advisor in SW Scotland farmers worried about their calving index ,silage quality and mastitis cell count, all technical stuff. The milk price was rarely mentioned, it was OK.

In the 70 s and 80 s when I was managing dairy farms myself; production per cow had more than doubled in 30 years and the EU had a surplus to deal with by intervention buying. There was talk of milk quotas coming and they would be based on historical milk sales. My solution was to milk 3 time as a day, production went up by about 15 per cent then we had milk quotas imposed in 1984 ours was quite large. We relaxed  and went back to twice a day milking the quota wasn't a problem.... things were still OK.

The MMB business model, "command and control" didn't fit with Thatcherite ideology of the 90s so they were abolished.  A free market would encourage competition and increase efficiency. In short it would solve all problems . Farmers and their unions being inherently conservative with big and small c went along with it. There was talk of turkeys voting for Christmas in some quarters

 Once quotas were removed in 2004 the production potential of European dairying took off in the belief that an expanding global market could absorb the extra supplies. The global market soon became over supplied then Russian sanctions against EU dairy products made matters worse. The Russians have suffered too, they have to eat Russian cheese.

Supermarkets are blamed for using milk as a "loss leader" and subsequent low farm gate milk price; its part of the problem but not the whole story. Those farmers who are carrying out direct action are in danger of alienating the supermarket's customers. Meanwhile the farming unions want the EU to intervene, there's a fat chance of that happening! The main problem is that we are in a global market for milk and there is global over supply depressing the milk price throughout Europe.

*There were 9,724 dairy farmers in the UK at the start of this month (August 2015) in August 2004 there were 15,500 a fall of 38 % in eleven years. That means that at farm level there are 9724 different business management decisions to be made about the problem of low milk price. You can't generalise about farm businesses, they are all unique

 The decision to give up milk production is hard but it obviously sounds sensible in many cases.. Some of those who have stayed have decided to add value and to deal with the consumer directly as producer retailers or by making cheese and ice cream.  A few like the current arch villain in The Archers (Rob) are setting up mega dairies to achieve economies of scale and annoy their neighbours.

No one has yet suggested bringing back the Milk Marketing Boards but they could be part of the solution.

Dairy farmers  did well under the MMBs, the old kindly, condescending , land owning Tories and a Labour Party which treated them as hardy, yeoman sons of toil.  Perhaps they should look to Jeremy Corbyn for an answer reversing the political ideology of the past 30 years.

* Source: data/producer- numbers/

Friday 7 August 2015

Finest little mountain in the west - Beinn na Seilg (Hill of the hunter)

Kilchoan's Matterhorn
As you sweep into Kilchoan at the start of your holiday( observing the speed limit!) the village is dominated by a shapely miniature mountain, Beinn na Seilg the most westerly 1000 ft mountain in mainland Britain. Very few visitors ever climb it despite it having much better views than Ben Hiant. But then there is a clear footpath up Ben Hiant and many people are reluctant to venture off paths if its a  choice between the two do this one.

From Craigard head NW past my poly tunnel, through the gate (closing it securely), follow the fence on your left up to the steel gate on to Ormsaigbeg common grazing. Head for the old stone fank (sheep dip and handling pens) now unused. From the fank climb up to the Lochain Ghleann Lochs, I am assuming that you have an OS map and can read it.!

There is an old iron fence post on the col overlooking the lochs, from the post contour round the slope of Stacan Dubh to the burn running into the the northern loch then follow the ridge with it's gabbro outcrops to the summit of Beinn na Seilg.

The view is panoramic from Coll and Tiree in the south to Barra fifty miles out in the Atlantic then north to the Small Isles and Skye. Return by the same route for the view of Kilchoan, Ben Hiant, Loch Sunart and Morven. I've been meaning to spend a night out on the peak to see the sunrise over Morven and Sunart but so far this year the weather and the needs of livestock have prevented this little expedition.

If you are a climber ( I retired after my last trip to Skye nine years ago;our combined ages on the rope were 132 years and I realised that I was too fat, too stiff and just too old) north of the summit there is an outcrop with climbs from moderate to V. Diff on gabbro,  Skye in miniature.  For routes see, The Western Highlands, SMC, 1931. I told you I was old.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Fat pony syndrome

I told you it wouldn't take long for "fat pony syndrome" to set in. Jenny Wren has had her head down grazing continuously for the last two weeks. Result...... can't see her ribs so tomorrow a bit of electric fencing will be needed to confine her to a much smaller area.

In the meantime riding lessons have begun for Gracie, Connie and Rosie are well on their way to being competent horsewomen but Gracie is at stage one; sitting confidently without a saddle then stage 2 being led up the road with her hard hat on of course.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Something not nearly so nasty

Much better!
For those of you who were concerned about "Charlie" the charollais tup, he is much better. The Vet's prescription of antibiotics and the application of "Camrosa ointment" have dried up his nasty facial lesions, they are healing and he is a lot friskier although he doesn't have to go to work until November. Not here of course of he would e mating with his daughters. So if you want the tup that fathered Alistair's lambs that topped the sale in Fort William last year get in touch.

Albert Einstein and the bees : Ignore the science and give in to the chemical industry

Native black bees in Kilchoan far from oilseed rape and neonicotinoids 
Bees and bee colonies are dying at an alarming rate and this has lead to journalists (even in the Daily Telegraph) quoting Einstein; "If bees disappeared man would only have four years to live". Its doubtful if Albert ever did say this but there is some truth to it. About one third of global agricultural output depends on pollination by bees, these crops supply about 35% of our calories and many of our minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.

The UK government has just lifted the EU wide ban on neonicotinoid seed dressings to control flea beetle in  oilseed rape crops, despite  overwhelming scientific evidence that this stuff does affect bees. Its a political decision ignoring the science. Perhaps that's why they haven't published the minutes of the latest UK Pesticide Safety Committee meeting. Could be that the discussion didn't suit the chemical industry and the NFU.

Our bees here in Lochaber are safe enough its when they are foraging in oilseed rape crops that the bees are poisoned. It seems that any species that ingests oilseed rape tissue, pollen or nectar is susceptible. According to one credible scientific source it only takes 5 maize seeds treated with neonics  to kill a partridge.

Lab experiments  have shown that the bee's ability to navigate and find its way back to the hive is damaged by these chemicals. There is an important principle at stake here; The "Precautionary Approach" it means we should assume that there will be damaging side effects of new technology and it should therefore be thoroughly screened, tested and evaluated for environmental safety.

It seems that the pursuit of profit at any environmental cost is compromising the UK Government's obligation to keep us safe and the environment healthy.   Members of the Pesticide Safety Committee might consider resignation en masse in protest.  But of course they won't!

Without the Pesticide Safety Committee's work we would still be using dieldrin and DDT ,nerve gas derivatives, to control parasites of sheep while poisoning wildlife and Shepherds.

Friday 24 July 2015

Little Grey Fergie splits the firewood.

My neighbour  Alan offered to split the logs I sawed yesterday. What an offer! The alternative meant a whole day with a maul and splitting wedge, the wood is unseasoned and very tough to split. In an hour and a quarter we processed a tonne of logs with Alan's tractor driven splitter which he buiolt from bits of scrap metal and an old hydraulic ram.

Linked to the Fergie hydraulics it exerts about 12 tonnes pressure at the splitter blade and goes through the toughest wood smoothly, quietly and quickly. Its a pleasure to use. I did suggest that people would pay for the experience of operating it at today's Sports Day but of course you have to consider "Elfin safety!".

Harry Ferguson probably did more to revolutionise post-war British farming than any other person. He provided a vast range of tools to fit his tractors including a saw-bench but it seems that he never thought of a log splitter.

The tractor was built in the 50 s and then renovated by Alan, it putters away driving the hydraulics sounding and smelling as a tractor should.......... smells almost as good as a hot chainsaw cutting pine on a cold winter morning. 

Monday 13 July 2015

Something really nasty

Our Charollais tup has had really nasty skin lesions on his muzzle. At first I thought,  "Orf" ( Contagious dermatitis) but it obviously wasn't contagious, non of the other sheep have developed the symptoms. I tried an antibiotic spray without much success and then it just got worse. Then just as you do before you go to a Doctor's appointment I looked it up on the web.

Dermatophilus congolensis sounded nasty enough; crusty skin rubbed off when it itches followed by a secondary infection. Its caused by a bacterium but it is spread by direct contact like orf

His companion the Cheviot tup hasn't been affected
Today we got him penned up and the Vet had a look. She decided that it is probably an allergy to midge bites, the bites set up the reaction, the skin itches, the animal rubs and a secondary infection makes the exposed tissue red and ulcerated. So we are trying a heavy duty antibiotic by injection every two days for a week. It won't shift the allergy but it should deal with the deep seated infection. A dose of systemic insecticide might help to keep the midges away but I'm not optimistic.

He has produced some first class lambs and he has to go this year or he will be mating with his daughters. He'll be difficult to sell for breeding with his scarred face so will probably end up in pork pies and pet food.

Pony baggage : Fat, teeth and new shoes

Jenny Wren getting fat
I've always been on the periphery of horses and horse ownership as I am now. Paying a fortune for riding lessons for children was my way of avoiding all the baggage and even more expense that comes with ponies. Spectators see more of the game than the players so here's what I've seen over the years.

Ponies get fat on fresh air and weeds, even in what seems to be a bare paddock and pony owners are for ever thinking; " does my pony look  fat in this". This being a horse rug. They have very efficient digestive systems; the ponies not the owners, so unless they are working really hard like Black Beauty or my Grandfather's Clydesdales did ..... don't feed them anything at all when they are at grass, especially in the Spring when the green stuff is full of soluble carbs.  Manage them so you can still see their ribs.

A horse's teeth grow continuously otherwise they would soon wear away to stumps, they are not just there so that horse people and every Irishman can tell how old your pony is, they also contribute to making Vets wealthy because they need regular home visits for tooth maintenance with a file.

Finally but most importantly; they need new shoes and pedicure more often than their owners. This means that you need a Farrier. Farriers have arcane and mysterious skills acquired over many years at college, in the Army and the gym. Never forget that they are doing you a favour by attending to your pony entirely at their convenience and by taking all major credit cards for the eye watering fee.

I am still avoiding the baggage because Sue Cameron, Connie and Rosie deal with it.

Monday 6 July 2015

Jenny Wren : Arab x Highland pony arrives

 A big surprise for Rosie and Connie, Sue Cameron's grand daughters this morning; a pony arrived for them.

Jenny Wren is an Arab x Highland pony, good looking but sturdy, the good looks from the Arab genes and the toughness from the Highland genes.
She must be tough and hardy she has been out wintered on wind swept Hebridean island for three years without a shelter.

Formerly a trekking pony on Mull she seems quiet and well mannered but hungry. As soon as the head collar came off her head was down and she was eating. We'll have to keep an eye on her she could get fat very quickly up there.

The plan is for the girls to ride her under their Grandmother's supervision while they are here in the school holidays and as Gracie is now two and a half its time that she can get started.

Up to the hill
Tough, hardy and good looking

Saturday 4 July 2015

The N. Atlantic coast : unfit for human habitation?

Somewhere out there in the murk fifty boats are competing in the Tobermory regatta, battling  a wind driven downpour and white capped waves. Indoors I have just lit the Rayburn , Mimi has given up hunting for a sleep in my chair, its July 4th. The last prolonged spell of good weather was in November 2014. Ten years ago we looked at moving to S.W. France where a farm could be bought for the price of a house in the UK.

We took the train to Tarbes, hired a car and went house / smallholding hunting.

The estate agent explained that there were basically three types available. Houses built or renovated by the French were beside a main road with stylish  d├ęcor, lots of stainless steel and impressive vegetable plots. Houses renovated by Brits had terracotta tiled floors, oak beams, wood burners and a skip load of empty wine bottles. The third category was described as, " habitable" , this meant that the former farmer occupant had recently expired and the corpse had been removed,  lots of scope for "remont" !.

Despite there being many suitable nice places we decided against moving to southern France its benign climate and promise of a rural idyll. Much of it is as remote as Kilchoan and where ever you go you need social capital, friends and neighbours you can rely on. This is difficult to acquire unless you are moving to a job, have children in school and are willing to join the village cycling club.

Language isn't a problem, Dormouse has read Proust in French, mine largely acquired in Quebec, is passable and  mildly amusing to the natives. I do admire the place. France is the most civilised country in the world; its almost worth enlisting in the Foreign Legion to get French citizenship after five years service.

So here I am, in waterproofs most of the time on the edge of the N. Atlantic wondering sometimes, "is this fit for human habitation" after all, as a species,  we evolved in the tropics and sub-tropics, perhaps it was a mistake to move too quickly and too far from the sun.