Tuesday 13 December 2016

More night visitors - Young red deer stags

The red deer rut is tailing off but there are still gangs of adolescent stags wandering around. This morning at about 3.30 am they were in the hay park in front of Cruachan 150 m up the road.

I was walking over this field yesterday on my way down to the seashore and realised there had been a number of deer grazing and resting. They had probably come down from the woodland below the common grazing, down to the shore and along to the lowest fence and best grass.

The older stags are still in charge of their mating harems on the hill and these younger ones have to wait until their elders are too tired towards the end of the season or until they are older and big enough to assert themselves.

It's interesting that we now have these deer in the township because if I am going to plant trees I will need more than plastic tubbes to protect them, I'll need deer fencing and this is hugely expensive.

Thursday 8 December 2016

Avian flu... bio-security measures ... oops!..two days late. I should watch more TV.

"Nice out today"
Two regular blog readers asked me this morning, " what are you doing about avian flu? are you keeping the hens indoors? At the time I wasn't doing anything at all. So I had a quick look at the  Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspection Directorate" website. It was so much easier to write when it was the plain"Department of Agriculture" but that's progress. I discovered that I am required to keep my free-range hens indoors for 30 days as from 6th December.

Without consulting the hens I organised their incarceration for this evening, two days late. I was aware that the flu had arrived in the South of France and thousands of geese destined for Christmas pate de foie gras  were slaughtered last week. Now it's in the Netherlands so our government feels it necessary to be seen to act.

Strangely there is no housing requirement in N. Ireland. If infected migratory birds can get to mainland Britain from Asia you would think they could make across the Irish Sea..

Even if you only have two hens in the back garden they must be banged up too.

Ricky and Scott turned up at four thirty to help. You have to wait until dark because then the hens become very sleepy and docile. I was able to lift them off their perches, pop them in the cat basket, then they were whisked off to their new pen in the old byre. The pen that we fortunately built and pine marten proofed in the summer.

We will probably find out if it's pine marten proof, they are more likely to be killed by a pine marten than avian flu.

The politician's do have to be seen to be doing something and covering their backs at the same time you might think.

Sunday 4 December 2016

Night time serial killer pine marten caught on camera

A bantam, a hen and two chickens were missing yesterday morning. They had been persistently roosting in the shrubbery and I had tried to get them back into their house but they wouldn't cooperate. They paid the price. If poultry aren't safely locked up at dusk a pine marten is sure to get them.

The pine marten will then return the next night looking for an easy meal so I set up the trail camera behind the house where the massacre took place. The first image was a pine marten sniffing around the hen house.

Mimi, my hybrid wild cat, was on the other images also sniffing around but I'm pretty sure that she would give a pine marten a wide berth.

Friday 2 December 2016

Craigard woodland croft

When the Highland feudal landowners turfed their tenants out of their homes and off their land in the 19 th century they stopped just short of genocide by providing the dispossessed with strips of poor quality land above high water mark.

Remnant of  wildwood, Glen
These holdings or "crofts" were not large enough to support self-sufficiency so the Crofters had to work for the landowner at starvation wages.

Towards the end of the century Crofters acquired some rights to their holdings. These rights brought obligations; mainly to use the land productively.

We are required to carry out agricultural, horticultural or other productive activities which can also include forestry. Most of us keep sheep which only show a profit when you add the Single Farm Payment or subsidy from the European Union.

People in England voted in June to leave the EU. Here in Scotland we voted 72 % in favour of remaining. but when we do eventually leave we will no longer get the EU farm payment ergo if we keep sheep it will be a loss making enterprise. Sheep will largely disappear from the crofting counties. So what are the alternatives.

Providing tourist facilities is a possibility but we already have three campsites in the village and people looking for B&B want en-suite bathrooms (croft houses are too small and bathrooms are expensive to install). Equestrian enterprises and golf courses are acceptable but both require large amounts of land , management expertise and capital.

Forestry is an alternative as long as you are not looking for a cash income in the next forty years. Of course the best time to plant trees is twenty years ago. Second best is now so I think that the sheep will have to go with their lambs in the Spring and I'll start planting trees this winter.

I'll need a new title for the blog, "Craigard Woodland Croft" perhaps.

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Mary Jane's dual purpose poultry and roadkill

From time to time old photos turn up unexpectedly.The one on the top left (with the ducks) was sent to me recently by Bill Woods Ballard. Bill and his family have been coming to Kilchoan for their annual holidays for many years and Bill thinks this was taken by his sister in 1995.

In twenty years not much has changed. There are some changes, MJ put on a new roof then I replaced the door and glazed the window.

I tried ducks for a few years, they are phenomenal egg layers. But there's a downside. Large amounts of grass go in one end and even larger amounts green muck come out the other end.  They had to go.

Hens aren't so bad, they ingest less grass and water but still leave hazards for pedestrians, they also go into their house at dusk without prompting. At mid summer, when we have eighteen hours daylight the ducks have to be driven indoors.

Both lots of poultry have another vital function.... traffic calming. No one wants to run over them and they rather like the middle of the road. this has had the tacit approval of the local constabulary.

I've only lost one in a road traffic accident. It was standing by the roadside as Trevor came down the hill with his wide wheelbase boat trailer. It didn't realise it was wide axle..... splat... two dimensional roadkill.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

The United Banana Kingdom - Another rant

Ben Tahlaid from the kitchen window at 4.00 pm yesterday

At ten minutes to seven this morning, dozy and still half asleep I switched the radio on to hear that Nigel Farage would be our next ambassador in Washington. The thing is ..... I wasn't surprised or even angry, I just accepted it as the latest episode in the drama of transition from United Kingdom to.... United Banana Kingdom.  Once I was fully awake of course I realised that the BBC were just reporting the latest inappropriate utterance from President elect Trump

OK... this blog is supposed to be about crofting, sustainability, environment and life in  a remote W. Highland village but every so often I can't resist a rant and in post Europe, post truth, post any understanding of economics UK there is plenty to rant about.

Breathing clean air but expelling a lot of methane
You might think that there's nothing to bother about up here beside the sea, beneath the mountains, breathing clean air that has travelled 6,000 km across the Atlantic. But here in Scotland we  are being dragged out of Europe against our will and I am angry about it. Not just because it's economic self- harm on a massive scale but because I like being European.

I like being European because I like the other Europeans, the Dutch, French and German visitors who come here each summer. Scotland has had long and close relationship with Europe, until 1906, if you were born in Scotland you could apply for French citizenship and get it automatically.

Sixty two percent of us voted to stay in the EU and we don't want to be part of a closed, narrow minded, impoverished group of islands in the N,Atlantic.

I expect Nigel Farage to be elevated to the House of Lords in the New Year honours list but I don't expect the Foreign Secretary to be sacked for gross incompetence.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

"Up goes a guinea, bang goes a penny, down comes half a crown"

Tame pheasant on the doorstep soon to be "sportingly" shot
It's  1st of November, I'm in Northumberland and it's the first day of the pheasant shooting season. Soon tens of thousands of tame pheasants, will be used as living, moving targets for shotguns. The people doing the shooting must enjoy it because  it a very expensive pastime.

The economics of pheasant shooting were nicely summed up 100 years ago as above," up goes a guinea, bang goes a penny and down comes half a crown." The ratio is about the same but the actual costs must be ten times higher.

The costs are probably higher for grouse shooting; so in order to make it a bit cheaper for the bankers, oligarchs and wealthy land owners  we, the taxpayers,  do help out by giving them generous subsidies via the EU Common Agricultural Policy. They keep a few sheep on the grouse moors so qualify for this dole, it's socialism for the rich.

The sheep are needed to soak up the parasitic ticks that would otherwise kill lots of the grouse. So we  are in effect directly subsidising the grouse shooting. Just thought you might like to know this!

Friday 14 October 2016

A walk in the rain forest.......... Things to do around Kilchoan

Sunart Rain Forest in early morning mist
Yes.... rain forest. The Sunart oak woods are officially and ecologically classed as "Temperate rain forest". These woods do have something in common with the seasonal tropical rain forest; "epiphytes"... orchids and ferns in the topics;  liverworts and mosses here in the N.W.Highlands.

Sunart also has some similarities with the coastal rain forest of the Pacific Northwest; epiphytes, high annual rainfall, sea mist and clean air.

Constant rain enables trees to grow on the thinnest soils, you often see quite large trees, usually Rowan growing on the tops of boulders ,its the rain that enables this. Our clean Atlantic air means that the lichens and mosses flourish ,  their absence is a good indicator of pollution.

Park at the RSPB car park just west of the entrance to Glenborrowdale Castle then follow the footpath from the road side up into the big old oaks. Yesterday the the sun shone, roe deer had been up the track before us, a pine marten left it's shiny black turds full of rowan skins on a rock. No eagles and no red deer on the surrounding hills but it's enough to know that they are there somewhere.

You emerge on to the road east of the distillery with a short walk to the Nature Centre with it's excellent cafe and lunch.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Lost farming skills

A couple of weeks ago I watched a huge John Deere tractor direct drilling winter wheat into the stubble of the previous bean crop. A process that used to involve at least ploughing, cultivating, drilling and rolling is now done in one pass by a tractor that is computer controlled and guided by a GPS system. The driver was there presumably to switch the machine on and off and to take it home on the road.

I used to think that farm workers were some of the most skilled people who had a vast fund of knowledge gained largely informally by experience over lifetimes. Computers and robotics de-skill the workforce so that they become machine minders, there to deal with malfunctions and breakdowns. Not much better than working in a call centre.

Do it "wrong" and there's a good chance the horse will bolt forward and
kick up her heels
 flattening you when you release her
A horseman would have been the equivalent of that tractor minder a hundred years ago. Now how many people could turn a horse and cart into a field without taking out the gate post; or put a horse between the shafts of a cart and then load the cart safely. A gang of five or six of us used to "single" turnips by hand with hoes.  What would happen if cyber warfare hackers destroyed the GPS or control software? Just in case, I thought I'd show you how some of these things are done. I found them in an old training manual for the," Women's Land Army" published in 1941.

I'll hang on to it, you never know when it might be needed again.

Cornish Game cockerels are faster growing than La bresse

Cornish game centre
Until scientific quantitative genetics was applied to poultry breeding in the 1950s most table chickens were pure bred Light Sussex, Indian game, Dorking ....  a whole range of traditional pure breeds that grew slowly to heavy weights. Then growth rate and feed conversion efficiency became the main selection criteria. This resulted in today's fast growing, industrially produced broilers in your supermarket.

Supermarket chicken has the taste and texture of soggy cardboard ( except perhaps for free range organic brands). Traditional table breeds, raised on grass, fed on grain and finished at anything up to five months of age are completely different. The difference is like that between farmed salmon and wild caught salmon. Wild caught fish have better texture and flavour.

This year I hatched some Cornish Game just to find out how fast they grew and what they tasted like when compared with my La Bresse poultry. In France La Bresse are a real luxury, people are prepared to spend up to fifty Euros for one. You can see them displayed in chill cabinets, still with the head on and their distinctive blue feet and legs to make sure that they are genuine.

Cook and chickens
This morning when I weighed a carcass of each the Cornish Game weighed 3.6 kg at 20 weeks and the La Bresse 2.3 kg at the same age. The Cornish Game had grown fifty per cent faster under the same conditions. Of course this wasn't a properly replicated and controlled randomised trial. It also appeared that the CG had more breast meat than the LB.

On Thursday they will be cooked by Mrs. Campbell and then tasted by a panel of five. Results on Friday.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Re-introducing lynx to Scottish woodlands.... what a great idea!

I saw lynx once; they were kittens, two of them lying in the sun on a rock by a Canadian river. The memory is still vivid after 50 years.  Beautiful, elusive, shy, hunters they live deep in the woods (boreal forest ) surrounding the earth south of the tundra. They once lived in Scotland and there is a remote chance that they could be re-introduced.

Of course there are powerful interests ranged against the idea, " sheep will be killed, livelihoods will be at risk" cry the NFU (National Farmers Union) and the SCF (Scottish Crofters Federation) of which I'm a member. No doubt the deer stalking and shooting lobbies will add to the clamour. In Canada they live largely on lemmings (voles) and snow shoe hares. Here they would be
 powerful enough to kill deer calves and we have too many of them anyway.

The occasional lamb might well be killed if it strayed deep into the forest but the total will be far less than the 10 per cent of the annual crop lost near birth to starvation, exposure and disease each spring. Income from tourism exceeds that from sheep in the crofting counties and it's growing. Visitors come for the landscapes, the peace and quiet and the wildlife.

I would just like to know that lynx were living out there I don't need to see one. But if you want a utilitarian argument and a justification in dollars or pounds sterling - introduce the lynx and more visitors would come. Just to know that there was large cat ( about the size of a slim Labrador) among the trees would enhance their experience and there would always be a chance, however slim, that they might see one, or a pair of kittens sunbathing.

If you want to find out more just google, re-introduction of the lynx to Britain.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Mrs. Cheadle's Twilight Home for Chickens

Another downside to free range
Every year millions of old hens, usually at about 18 months of age are slaughtered to make room for the next batch of young layers. They mostly end up in pet food or meat pies. Birds are caught by casual workers employed by gang masters. They do the job at night. Hens are packed in plastic crates and hauled by lorry to an abattoir for slaughter. My hens are more fortunate.

After two years as laying hens producing eggs for sale and for hatching my old hens went off to the seaside this morning to live out their days on Mrs. Cheadle's croft at Sanna. I am very fortunate in having someone who is prepared to do this.
2016 pullets and cockerels now liberated from this rearing pen
As hens grow older they lay fewer eggs but the eggs do tend to be bigger. Large intensive commercial egg producers can't afford to keep them on but Sue Cheadle is prepared to keep them until they literally fall off their perches. She likes hens and is a kind person.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, this year's crop of pullets have the place to themselves and aren't being bullied by the old girls. They are busy sorting out a new pecking order, in the sun, ranging over the fields, roads and garden where they have just stripped the last of the pelargoniums. This is the downside of free range poultry keeping.

In return for Mrs. Cheadle's kindness I should add that she has just started a new business,"Sanna Spice Indian Cuisine" . A complete range of Indian dishes are cooked to order and delivered after 6.00 pm. Tel.01972 510760. I am just about to have my lamb bhuna.

Thursday 25 August 2016

Walk in an ancient forest - South Loch Arkaig

Alder groves on the Arkaig river
The Woodland Trust and the Arkaig Community Forest group are trying to buy the Loch Arkaig and Glen Mallie pinewoods from the Forestry Commission. Yesterday I went to have a look at this remnant of the Great Wood of Caledon. Outside of the wood it was hot and dry. Then I stepped into a shaded, cool and fragrant forest for a five kilometre walk through groves of ancient trees.

Venerable oaks

Alder groves line both banks of the River Arkaig perhaps to same extent they did 2000 years before the Romans arrived in Britain. Giant venerable oaks clothed in lichen, mosses and ferns line the track together with birch, holly, rowan, alder and even a few beech. This has to be one of the finest forest walks in the West.

But no Scots Pine. It wasn't until I got out of the wood and looked back that I saw them high on the hill above the broad leaved woodland and commercial conifers planted in the 60s

It was what I expected; wide spaced gnarled old survivors with birch and heather under story. this is one of about 90 remnants in the highlands of Caledonian pine a genetically distinct and endemic sub-species, in it's own distinct pinewood ecosystem.

If you love woodland walks don't miss this one,there is a route plan on the "Walk highland" website and a Woodland Trust video at woodlandtrust.org.uk/pineforest. The Trust are planning to restore pinewood by removing the spruces and lodgepole pine, encouraging natural regeneration,  new planting of native species and of controlling deer and sheep. I should add that the pinewood is also habitat for wildcats, pine martens and a whole range of birds.

Pinewood above the birch and conifers
If you want to stay, there's the MBA's Invermallie bothy where I had my lunch on  chair in the sun..

Monday 22 August 2016

Tough old trees

Older than me and much tougher
Hawthorn grows anywhere and everywhere; on the coast, halfway up mountains, along railway tracks and even on the roofs of abandoned buildings.

My hawthorns have to be the toughest of all, there are only a few but the oldest must be seventy to a hundred years old. This hardy old tree has withstood Atlantic gales, snow, frost, drought, sheep grazing, deer browsing , salt spray and countless other abuses but this year it doesn't have any berries, neither do the other hawthorns on my boundary.

Another hawthorn of similar age blew down some years ago, before I came here, and has continue to grow while horizontal on the ground. This despite having over the years grown round and enveloped a steel fence post that is now almost lost within it's trunk. It has produced berries in previous years but not this year.

An internet search hasn't produced an answer I can only surmise that the deep frost we had at the start of May damaged the flowers and prevented fertilisation.

The rusty spike sticking out of the wall is an axle from an old farm cart used as a straining post many years ago.

Steel post enveloped by the trunk

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Buzzards making hay while the sun shines

vole spotting 
Just as sea gulls learned to follow the plough hundreds of years ago, buzzards follow the silage making equipment. They seem to know each operation; mowing, turning, windrowing and finally baling. The don't bother much when the grass is turned and spread in the sun but when the drying grass is rowed up ready for the baler and there are clear strips between the rows they are circling over the hay park or perched on a fence post.

It's mainly voles that they are after, small furry chaps that hide under the cut grass. As soon as there is some clear ground between the rows and less cover for the voles the buzzards are here. This evening after the bales are cleared and stacked the birds will be back patiently waiting. Their telescopic eyesight can see a rabbit, I have read, from a mile away so the voles don't have much chance when the bird is only 100m up in the air.

Fewer places to hide
The old cockerel gets a bit agitated, as soon as he sees an airborne predator he calls to the hens,"Oi... there's a buzzard up there" and they scurry away under cover.

Friday 12 August 2016

Cabin fever and the long term weather forecast

I first heard stories of "cabin fever" in Canada 50 years ago. Trappers and Prospectors living in extreme isolation deep in the winter woods were affected when days were short and food monotonous.  They often ran out of tobacco and cigarette papers then became seriously bored with each others company. The early symptoms included lying in bed all day shooting mice in the roof, with rifles.  When they tired of this they frequently shot their partners.

Then there was the 2002 movie "Cabin Fever" a horror film  universally panned that had an approval rating of 0%. It involved a group of students weekending in a remote cabin, the usual assortment of mad dog, drifters and neighbours plus a flesh eating virus.

Here in W. Ardnamurchan it's a bit different. In August the days are quite long, I don't have to eat pine marten, I don't smoke, my neighbours are mostly sane and I have just shot the last mouse.

No, it's the bloody incessant rain, gloom, grey skies and being housebound by the weather that causes stress, anxiety and glumness. Even Mimi the cat just sits and stares out of the window all day. On the bright side. I checked the Norwegian , BBC and XC weather forecasts Sunday will be dry! sunny! and warm!

Thursday 11 August 2016

Black Rain over Ardnamurchan

Wet hens and the Isle of Mull
The rain has been non-stop for three days, there were 30 mm overnight and no sign of it letting up. I feels almost like the Brahan Seer's prediction that, " black rain will come to Ardnamurchan and all the sheep will go blind".

Kenneth Mackenzie (the Brahan Seer) lived in the early part of the 16 th century and was gifted (or cursed depending on your view) with second sight when he looked through a hole in a stone (the "seeing stone" ) that he found as a boy on the Isle of Lewis.

He made what seemed bizarre predictions that came to pass long after his death; the building of the Caledonian Canal, the Second World War and many more including the "black rain" prophecy It hasn't happened yet, it just feels like it today.

These  continuously  wet, grey miserable days brought his long term forecast to mind. We should have made the haylage two weeks ago, no exterior painting of the house has been possible.

Kilchoan Bay and Ben Hiant in Summer

Friday 22 July 2016

Champion cheviot gimmer

Pick the winner
Before going any further, a gimmer is one of last year's ewe lambs and Nan breeds Cheviots, white, hornless hardy sheep. In the picture below they are orange or gold this is how they are shown. Sixty years ago in lowland Scotland the hills of Perthshire lit up in the evening by these golden fleeces.
then it was not for showing, the sheep had been dipped with nicotine dip to kill parasites.

The champion should have a long, flat, wide back; rounded haunches and a tight fleece. you can pick the winner from the second image. These are characteristics that mean the lambs are well muscled and fleshed out when slaughtered and hopefully this gimmer will pass on her best characteristics to her offspring.

Nan has had the champion three times now. She isn't only a shepherd, she drives the fire engine, is a member of the Coastguard team and plays in goal for Kilchoan ladies football team.

Monday 18 July 2016

Plant hunting in the rain

Northern marsh orchid
Mull appeared out of the cloud and murk at lunchtime, for the first time since Friday. the rain has been continuous and heavy. Visitors come here to see wildlife, eagles and otters are top of their lists usually but eagles tend to hole up at home in this weather and sitting above the shore hoping for an otter isn't much fun. However down at your feet, at the roadside up to Ormsaigbeg there's a linear nature reserve in full flower.

Roadside verges in the lowlands tend to be dominated by vigorously growing grasses and cow parsley. these things respond to the fertilisers that drift out of the fields and can outcompete less vigorous species. High fertility results in low diversity as a rule.

Here our thin soils, high rainfall and very little fertiliser lead to high diversity and at this time of year among the plant life it is astounding and extremely colourful. You don't need binoculars or brilliant eyesight, plants move rather slowly.

I felt a bout of "cabin fever" coming on at lunchtime so set off up the hill in the rain, head down and walking slowly in plant hunting mode. Probably most exotic are the northern marsh orchids only inches from your wheels when you drive up the hill. Then there are all of those species that were common in the lowlands fifty years ago;  vetch, wild pea, harebell,thyme, bell heather, bugle, the list goes on.

Monday 11 July 2016

Cornish game - The Texels of the poultry world

Texel sheep are seriously ugly, they look as if they just collided head on with a bus but they grow fast, have great meaty carcasses and the butchers like them. Cornish Game ( also known as Indian Game) are the feathered equivalent although definitely not ugly.

The breed has its origins in Cornwall during the 19th century. Breeders crossed the Red Aseel a pugnacious fighting cock with the Malay and Black Red game to produce a table bird of great quality. Built like a Japanese Sumo wrestler with a broad muscular chest, a good bone structure to carry a lot of flesh and a friendly temperament the Cornish Game became the meat breed of choice.

In the USA they developed a slightly smaller but equally meaty white version which in the 20th century provided the basic set of genes for the broiler chicken. Quantitative genetics, scientific breeding, commercial expertise and demand for cheap poultry meat signalled the end of big roasting chickens that were anything up to six months old at slaughter, broilers were cooked and eaten at three months old. Since then after perhaps 100 generations of selective breeding broilers arrive in your supermarket at nine weeks old.

It is still possible to find good strains of Cornish if you want to taste real roast chicken or Coq au Vin. I was able to find some eggs, in Cornwall, earlier this year and these birds are now ten weeks old,  four cocks and three hens. Three cocks to eat and the best one for breeding next year.

Monday 4 July 2016

End of the breeding season

Some of this year's La Bresse young stock hatched in March
At the end of June the breeding hens deserve a rest they have been producing hatching eggs since January and are looking a bit tired. They will still be laying for the rest of the summer but without the attentions of the cockerel, he will be kept separate.

Mating in poultry is a pretty rough affair, the cockerel leaps on the hen grasps her with his claws then jumps off and looks around for another mate. Over the breeding season the hens tend to lose quite a lot of feathers from their backs and can be quite severely clawed to the point of bleeding.

Fertility tends to drop off after mid summer mainly because the cockerels are losing their libido and are not quite so interested. Of course introducing another cockerel  and some competition can renew their interest.

Some of this year's breeding hens are going to Orkney in the Autumn along with the same cockerel, they will start to moult and by New Year should be pristine with a new set of feathers. Increasing day length after the winter solstice kick starts the laying and breeding season for another year.

Next years breeding hens are just about to start laying, they were hatched in early March and will be put into a breeding pen before Christmas probably with a Cockerel from Germany.

Friday 24 June 2016

Crofting outside the EU - the sheep clearances.

At least the hens leave a profit
I never really thought it would happen. Angry disaffected workers on low wages with insecure employment plus a bunch of elderly "Little Englanders" ; their grievances hi-jacked by incompetent right wing political freaks ( Johnson, Gove and Farage) have led the UK over an economic cliff in the dark.  So what next for Scottish and UK agriculture especially crofting.

The right wing economic think tank the Institute of Economic affairs (IEA) promotes free market solutions and feeds ideas into Tory party policy making. They claim that current farm subsidies in the UK increase the real price of our food by 17% and should be abolished. The Brexit campaign leaders (UK Provisional Government) gave us a a policy and fact free campaign so there is a good chance that they will adopt this once they have power ( in the absence of any ideas of their own).

Across the EU farm subsidies average about £10,000 per farm business per year but this average hides wide variation. Here in the UK it ranges from about £600 -700 a year for a croft up to hundreds of thousands for the big landowners and even millions in some cases. The Editor of the Daily Mail for example is reported to get £150,000 a year land subsidy for his deer forest in Wester Ross. So where does this leave us Crofters?

Last year it cost me roughly £50 to get a lamb from conception to market at Torlundy. My average income for those lambs was £43.50 less the auctioneer's commission. A loss per head of £8.00. I carry on doing this because of the Single Farm Payment and Less Favoured Areas supplement of about £600. Without the SFP it would be madness to carry on. This would also happen on many of the 18,000 crofts in the crofting counties.

It's not all bad news removing sheep from vast tracts of the Highlands would result in naturally regenerating woodland on common grazings and croft land;  a big plus for conservation.


After the last bout of CAP reform payments were based on the area of land owned and actively occupied not the commodities produced. So its a "land subsidy" not really a farm subsidy.

Friday 10 June 2016

"Peak Green" - Organic food and June in the English Midlands

Peak green in S. Warwickshire
Summer came as a surprise in the West Highlands after a long winter ( and Spring) of storms rain, snow, frost, mud and gloom. Early June was gloriously sunny and hot.

Here in South Warwickshire the countryside has reached "peak green", the greenness is overwhelming like the heat. It's also peak pesticide time.

Hot dry weather means mildew on cereal crops and burgeoning aphid populations have reached their thresholds for action. The sprayers are out because it's windless too and spray drift is minimal. As a student I absorbed an agricultural orthodoxy that high yields were our ultimate goal, pesticides were safe because they were extensively tested and we needed them to feed a fast growing world population. As a farm manager I went on using them for years until cracks began to show in my logic.

Organic enthusiasts were eccentric and unscientific; Britain had never been better fed or more neurotic about what it ate. But: to quote the late Muhammad Ali, If you think the same when you are 50 that you thought when you were 20 you have wasted 30 years".  I was wrong.

Field beans sprayed yesterday in full flower when bees are most active
Two things have convinced me. First Dormouse buys only organic fruit and veg from Riverford Organics, its delivered to the door in re-recyclable / reusable packaging every week. The Riverford stuff is top quality in every way, flavours are better, it's seasonal, only a bit more expensive than the supermarket and it tastes so much better. Spraying  isn't just killing the target species, aphids, it's killing everything else including the ladybirds that eat the aphids and honeybees. That is happening worldwide in all sorts of crops with all kinds on animal life.

Last week driving to Glasgow airport in the small hours, I started with a clean windscreen and it was almost as clean four hours and 180 miles later. There was hardly any "fly squash". Fifty years ago I would have had to clean the windscreen at least once. Even the West Highlands appear to be affected. We can all do something about it if we buy and grow more organic food.

As for "peak green" at the end of June cereals will be yellow, the beans will be slowly turning black all foliage here will have that dusty min-summer look.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

A walk round the wild island - Isle of Rum excursion

Last week a small group of us from Kilchoan walked a circuit of the Isle of Rum.  From Kinloch to Dibidil on day one, then via Harris to Guirdil and finally up Glen Shellesder and back to Kinloch. This was all done in full sun, high temperatures and a cooling easterly breeze, perfect conditions.

Overnight we stayed in the MBA (Mountain Bothies Association) bothies. These peculiarly Scottish mountain huts are weatherproof, usually have sleeping platforms, a fireplace or stove and resident mouse. There's no running water, no electricity and the toilet is a long walk with a spade. Anyone can use them and there is no charge.

Sounds idyllic but there is a downside.  It's the synchronous stereo snoring of the other occupants. Why is it the snorers don't keep themselves awake? On night two, at Guirdil, I slept outside on the short, springy turf above the beach. Midges weren't a problem because of the breeze, my ex-army bivi bag kept the ticks out and the dew off, waves rolling on to the shore sent me to sleep.

The island is a National Nature Reserve. I t was probably too hot for eagles but the wild flowers were at their peak, the deer were due to calve and we had wild goats peering at us from the crags above Papadil.

The food was good, the weather perfect, the company excellent and the mountain-sea-landscape without parallel. Try it some time!

I should have added...... combined age of the six members of the group 390 years, 65 +or- 8 each.

Friday 20 May 2016

Crofting - a major contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide - replace the sheep with trees perhaps?

When I put the last of the logs under cover I was feeling quite smug; I heat the house and hot water with wood I also cook with the Rayburn  most of the year.  The house is well insulated, I use mainly low energy light bulbs and I'm fanatical about switching things off.

Yesterday I found the WWF "Farm Carbon Footprint Calculator"  on line. I spent 15 minutes completing the questionnaire with details of fuel use, cropping, livestock, purchased feed, fertiliser and agrochemicals, capital items and the house. The result was a shock.

Despite relying on  mainly renewable fuel, keeping grazing livestock and poultry, driving only 6,000 miles a year I generate over 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.  What can I do about it?.

I thought that my truck would be the biggest contributor. Its two and a half tonnes  and pulls a 3,500 kg load. I use it for firewood , livestock, hay and straw haulage but it only generates 20 % of my total carbon. The sheep are the biggest culprits as they generate 37 % of the croft's CO2 emissions.

We need more young trees, they absorb more CO2
Planting trees would help, they soak up carbon dioxide and eventually they will provide someone with firewood on the doorstep without fuel miles. The 150 million trees in Kielder Forest soak up 2 kg each of CO2 per annum (Forestry Commission). Carbon capture depends on the species, the growing conditions and how the trees are managed. So how many trees would I need here to get my carbon emissions balance with carbon capture?

At 2,500 trees per hectare ( the plant population for commercial forestry) I would need 3 ha commercial woodland;  slightly more than twice the area of the whole croft. Last year there were 19,422 crofts in Scotland if Craigard is typical (unlikely!) total carbon dioxide emissions were nearly 3 million tonnes.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Cornish game : velociraptors and Christmas dinner

Velociraptors - Behind bars to protect the public
The Cornish game chicks hatched three weeks ago look like infant velociraptors but most of them  are destined to become Christmas dinners.

 Originally bred in the early 19 th century these short legged, broad, heavy birds were found to be very good when crossed with other breeds for meat production.

Breeders were looking for heavy weight fighting cocks but these were too stocky, heavy and docile. When scientific breeding based on quantitative genetics produced the first broiler breeds, Cornish game were part of the genetic mix. At the moment they look a bit like their dinosaur ancestors.

I'll keep the best males and females for breeding the rest will be Christmas dinners for friends but there is a drawback to this gift. The law requires you to clean it and dress it yourself, I'm not allowed to, so it will come without feathers ( dead of course) and you will have to do the rest.

Next year the plan is to cross the Cornish game with some Bresse Gauloise to produce the finest possible table bird. 

Getting home from the South.

I last used the Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William twenty years ago. Since then I have used buses, trains planes, hitch hiking and hotels to get home by public transport and minimise my carbon footprint.

On Sunday I used the sleeper again, it was perfect. I slept for 9 hours, breakfasted at Ardlui beside Loch Lomond and arrived exactly on time at Fort William thirteen hours after leaving London.

The sleeping cars must be forty years old but the cabins are immaculate, ingenious examples of design. There's a place for everything, a rather narrow but comfortable berth and after dawn..... dramatic views  of the W. highland mountains and moorland.

Last year the service franchise was taken on for 15 years by SERCO, I'm no fan of our privatised railways now largely run by the national railways of other European countries ( how can
they be privatised when they are run by the nationalised railways of other countries?). Fare increases, delays and big subsidies from the taxpayer have been the result but I will reserve judgement. So far it's been an improvement.

My ticket was a gift from friends, so much better to be given an experience then, "stuff". With Senior Railcard and advance booking I'll be doing it again.