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.