Thursday 28 January 2016

Crofting in 2036

The Scottish Government published it's first estimates of national farm income for 2015 this week, it's down again by fifteen per cent. Milk producers took the biggest hit, down 23 % because of global over supply and low prices. The lowest income levels were of course in the Highlands and Islands.  This is all against a background of lower feed, fertiliser , fuel prices and CAP subsidies down 13 %.

I should add that the "Basic Farm Payment" our CAP subsidy has not been paid making matters much worse for farmers and crofters with overdrafts and outstanding bills to pay.  Fifty years ago there were at least ten crofting families keeping cattle and sheep, growing potatoes, turnips  and oats and making hay for winter between my croft and the end of the road. Now there are three of us who are over seventy and one forty something keeping sheep and buying in most of the winter feed.

2036 Second homes , camp sites, no doctor and no crofters
If things continue like this the community and the landscape will look very different in 2036. We keep sheep and few hens, winter feed is largely bought in and we all lose money. This year we averaged £42 per head for lambs sold in Fort William, I estimate that it cost at least £50 to rear them and get them to market.

If you want to build a house here the planners insist that you paint it white, the traditional colour and they are very keen to give planning permission for second homes because Highland Council gets more council tax. Our politicians have forgotten that the reason why crofting and hill farming were subsidised in the first place. It was to keep people here on the land. It was a social subsidy not a farm subsidy.

I predict that in 2036 this crofting township will be uninhabited in winter, dotted with white painted holiday homes set in a landscape of abandoned croft land, tumble down stone walls and no GP surgery within 50 miles.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

South 7 to severe gale 9, veering west 5 to 7 becoming cyclonic 6 to 8 later.

More gales, huge waves, driving rain and the hens sheltering indoors with the sheep to avoid being blown away. A typical winter day. The best bit about this weather is the poetry of the inshore weather forecast at 6.00 am on BBC 4. The report is explicit but very concise, this morning it went like this:-

    " Mull of Kintyre to Ardnanurchan Point.
      South 7 to gale force 9, veering westerly 5 to 7 becoming cyclonic 6 to 8 later. (Wind speed)
      Rough to very rough, occasionally high in far north west. (Sea conditions)
      Rain at times.
      Moderate to good becoming poor." (Visibility)

     For any one who doesn't understand this format the explanation is in the brackets.

Miss Mimi
It must be severe gale at the moment because I struggled to walk into it when I fed Nan's sheep, The ferry to Tobermory is cancelled because of the, " rough to very tough" and  I can't see Mull which is only 10 km away.

At nine o clock I went down to the shore to see if all was well with the Shepherd's Hut, it was fine, it's well anchored and has survived worse conditions than this.

The kitchen stove needs to be shut down completely in these conditions or it burns too fiercely and gets through enormous amounts of firewood.
Miss Mimi decided it was a day to stay indoors when she heard the inshore forecast this morning.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Mating season - La Bresse hatching eggs for sale

The hens and the cockerel are coming into peak breeding condition as the days lengthen and the temperature rises and it's time to think about hatching and rearing this years pullets and cockerels. The number of offspring produced depends on the production of eggs for hatching.

The eggs must be clean, slightly more than average size, uncracked and fertile. At this time of year fertility can be as high as 95% but declines with time largely due to the males. To keep up the genetic diversity I import some eggs each year from Ralf in Germany. Researchers have found that  heavier and bulkier males are less effective at mating. So it's time to think about setting the incubator in early February.

The eggs hatch around 21 days later ( + or - a day), say the end of February. The chicks are then reared in naturally increasing daylight to start laying at the end of July to start the annual cycle over again and in time for peak demand during the summer holidays.

If you want to try my strain of La Bresse "Farmyard hens" I will have hatching eggs available from the first week in February, the eggs are £2.00 each plus postage (£4.00 of 1st class within UK).

Thursday 21 January 2016

Farmyard hens and the great egg hunt

It's a month since the winter solstice and the increased day length has stimulated the hens to start laying again, they start slowly and build up to a peak of laying towards the end of March. The egg hunt has started.

All housing systems for hens except conventional battery cages usually involve collecting eggs from nest boxes. Farmyard hens like mine have too many choices when it comes to selecting nest sites, they have boxes in the main poultry house but they range all through the buildings often preferring stacks of hay or straw bales, hay racks and dark corners where they return day after day.
Commercial layers are mostly reared in houses without perches, the birds lie on the floor. As a result of this housing system they do not learn to perch and have no opportunity to investigate nest sites before they start to lay at about 20 weeks. As most nest boxes are above floor level to make egg collection easier birds have to fly up to a perch before entering the box and as a result large numbers of eggs are often laid on the floor where they become dirty and cracked.

Well hidden in a straw stack
Traditional ideas about hen nest site selection could be wrong too. I always believed that hens prefer dark nest sites but recent research shows that some birds will lay in brightly lit nest boxes, again it seems to be down how they are reared, if reared in bright conditions they will lay in well lit boxes.

When hunting for nests I always look in the dark places first and I'm usually right, sixty plus years of egg hunting must have developed the skill.

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Stressed out or chilled out sheep?

On a wild, wet and windy day I look at the ewes in the sheep house and think,"they are just so much drier, cleaner, warmer and well fed in here". But just how comfortable are they?

50 cm trough space each
Ventilation is good, they have adequate fresh air, a dry bed, continuous access to haylage, half a meter of trough space each and a water trough so they should never be hungry or thirsty. During the day some are eating, some are dozing and some just standing and thinking. But conditions are different they don't have much personal space, something between 1.5 and 2.0 square metres the area recommended in the welfare code.

Out in the hay park they have over 400 square metres each, loads of personal space.  I have spent some time quietly watching . Being
Two gallons of water per day
closer together they do seem to have more aggressive interactions and those lower down the social hierarchy, the gimmers, are nervous. The older, bigger and heavier the ewe the higher she is in the social ranking. Gimmers are  smaller and less than two years old so at the bottom of the heap.

With only half a percent of the living space they are used to outside  and disruption of their daily routines of grazing, sleeping and dozing. Perhaps like people in overcrowded prisons this leads to stress induced aggression, withdrawal and depression. There has to be a PhD thesis in this for
Add caption
some budding animal scientist.

This is their third winter indoors and they have become much more habituated to people and machinery. I can walk up to the ewes and put my hand on them so they are not scared or anxious so that's one source of stress removed.

Gillespie's tele-handler has made life a lot easier, don't need to move the barriers now it just picks up a bale, hoists it over the feed barrier and drops it precisely where it's needed. More  help for the aged!

Monday 18 January 2016

A bio-fuel cooperative for the village?

"Bio-fuel coop"  means trying to get neighbours to share a 25 tonne ( 4 -5 cord if you are N. American) load of firewood.

According to Dormouse I'm too old for this!
The Forestry Commission firewood depot is sixty miles away  at Torlundy. Bringing ten tonnes home with the pick up and sheep trailer in six loads means 70 fuel miles per tonne,  wear and tear on the truck and wear and tear on me.  At 40 pence a mile this brings the direct cost of the wood to nearly £50 / tonne.

Twenty five tonnes of firewood calls for a large articulated timber truck with a crane so access to the unloading site is important. Unloading over the fence into a field seems to be the best option.

Those of you who received a copy of, "Norwegian Wood" for Christmas and have read it rather than just looked at the pictures will know that winter felling when the sap content of the wood is low speeds up the seasoning process. When it's stacked outside with it's waterproof covering of bark, in the rain, its not going to get much wetter but it is important to get it logged up into small pieces and into store as quickly as possible.

And this.
In this climate two years of seasoning under cover is ideal but six months of Spring and Summer is almost as good if small logs are stacked under cover in the wood shed in May. Size does matter. Small logs have a much bigger surface area relative to their mass than bigger logs so can lose moisture more rapidly.

I am told that a polythene tunnel with the ends open and the sun beating down is the fastest way to dry firewood but at some expense so will continue to rely on the corrugated iron roof that heats the shed like an oven on good days.

Sunday 17 January 2016

The "Mole catcher" forty years on

Rooting around in the loft this morning I unearthed a forty four year old photograph of a mole-catcher at work. The long hair, sideburns and donkey jacket with string round the waist gives you a clue to the date, nineteen seventy two. It's not just work clothes that have changed Health and Safety legislation just would not allow it now.

The Ministry of Agriculture gave you a licence to buy strychnine, one of the deadliest poisons known,  to kill moles in pasture land. After getting enough strychnine to kill an elephant or a pack of hyenas you mixed it quite literally in a can of worms. The only safety measure was to have the can on a string, no rubber gloves you'll notice.

Next you found the mole run, scraped away the soil above the entrance and used a small twig to lift out a worm and then drop it in the run.this was repeated across the field. Next day, no more moles and no new mole hills to blunt the blades of the mower or to contaminate the silage. He did wash his hands afterwards and placed the can along with the strychnine on a high shelf  in the workshop for the next time. This was hazard and safety awareness at the time.

The mole-catcher survived but the haircut is now a number four all over and he's about ten kilos heavier.

Saturday 16 January 2016

Free range, grass fed goose - one for the pot

Eating as much grass as three sheep
Do you eat free range, organic chicken? If you do...... read on because this post is about eating goose, wild goose, goose that is definitely organic and has led a life doing what geese do, so no welfare issues here. Neither are they an endangered species here on the west coast, they are a feral and non-migratory.

Seventy years ago greylag geese from the west of Scotland were introduced to and bred in England for hunting. During the intervening eighty or so years their numbers have grown from about 1,000 to an estimated 100,000. The greylags eat grass mostly, four of them eating as much as a sheep.

For the past couple of weeks a gang of about thirty ( the equivalent of seven sheep) have been grazing the hay park so I thought, " the season doesn't end until the 20 th February so I'll have one for the pot". It would be dispatched quickly and humanely with a rifle, not blown to bits with a shotgun so easier to pluck, clean, cook and eat ( no lead shot to pick out of the meat).

There is a downside. Wild geese do a lot of flying, therefore are muscular and tough, flying uses a huge amount of energy so there is little time to lay down fat; the meat can be very dry. Geese are definitely a game bird so are not lacking flavour and require a specialist approach to cooking. Hanging to mature them isn't necessary Hanging game is an obsession of upper class cook book writers and weird aristocrats who like to eat stuff that is in an advanced state of putrefaction.

The goose is now ready to pluck, clean and cook; the subject of another post perhaps.

Friday 15 January 2016

The world's most spectacular scheduled bus route - Loch Sunart Corniche

Meeting the ferry from Tobermory 8.00 am
Nice to Menton along the "Grande Corniche" is one of the world's spectacular drives; the Alpes Maritime on your left and the Mediterranean littoral on your right. It's mainly used by tax exiles and gamblers to get back to Monaco and of course car chase sequences in James Bond movies.

For us there's an even better drive, "Loch Sunart Corniche" from Kilchoan to Corran Ferry, ideally with a bus pass, through forty five  miles of Scotland's finest scenery.

Rum and Eigg from Kilmory Junction 
I thought, "there  has to be a list somewhere of the world's most spectacular scheduled bus services and our's should be number one.

 There isn't a list!  I just googled it.  So have  claimed  it as number one in the world with the title of this post.  Now anyone who Googles .... "World's most spectacular scheduled bus route"  will discover it, it will go viral and Martin our driver will be famous.

The bus leaves Kilchoan at ten minutes to eight exactly but arrival time in Fort William can vary because of snow, ice, road traffic accidents, rough seas, straying
Sgurr Donhuil, Strontian
livestock, deer and slow drivers. It usually gets to town at about ten fifteen

There is a downside to this. If tourists flock here.... there may not be room for us.

The journey, between the mountains and the sea takes you through the Sunart Temperate Rain Forest in Glenborrowdale. then down to Strontian where you get a glimpse of Sgurr Donhuill through the trees, it's the highest point on the peninsula. Up and over the Tarbet Pass below Gulvain and on down to Ardgour and the Corran Ferry.
The Glencoe peaks

Spread before you are Glencoe and the Mamores snow covered and shining in the winter sun.

There are twenty miles between Kilchoan and Salen then another ten to Strontian with a lot of wild country and wildlife in between. I have seen otters, eagles and deer from the bus.

The Corniche ends at the Corran Ferry, it's a further eight miles to Fort William.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Degressivity, Socialism for the rich and Crofter "customers".

"Haud me back!"
I didn't know what," degressivity" meant either, until half an hour ago. Neither did Spell-check or the Oxford English Dictionary, the really big version. However, it is a key part of CAP reform in Scotland. Farmers who have been receiving an annual basic payment of over £120 k a year will have this progressively reduced by 5% per annum with a cap on payments at £400 k p.a.
Can't argue with that.  Perhaps it's the Scottish government signalling an end to socialism for the rich (SFTR). It's the invention of non-words by bureaucrats and EU functionaries to exclude the common people, me,  from any debate  that irritates me.

I did think that if I applied my mind, or what's left of it,  I might be able to break the code and understand how the changes are going to affect Crofters. If you want to try this for yourself take a look at
  1. Scottish farmers and crofters are going to get the lowest payments in Europe and in the UK on average of E128 / ha. compared with a UK average of E225, this what the UK government negotiated for us.
  2. The country (Scotland) is divided into three payment areas; area 1 is the best land capable of arable production which gets E176 / ha. Area 2 is better quality rough grazing E28 / ha., and Area 3 the poorest land gets 8 / ha. Crofters get the lowest level of payment in Scotland and Europe.
  3. The biggest SFTR scam,  "Slipper Farmers",  those who do nothing but still collect the payment can no longer do this, you have to carry out real farming activity but no doubt their land agents will find another dodgy, unethical loophole.
And another thing - like railway passengers and tax payers we are now "customers" even though we don't buy anything from them. Could this be a result of the CCCC ( Conservative, capitalist, consumerist, conspiracy) At this rate by 2020 we'll all be Serfs.

Feeling incensed about this I went out and had a rant to the sheep, you can see their level of interest in the image above.

Sunday 10 January 2016

Hitch hiking again - You need optimism, stoicism, wet weather gear and a shave.

If I travel home from England to Kilchoan on Saturday by public transport I have to hitch hike the last leg on Sunday as there isn't a bus. Today the 53 miles from Fort William to Kilchoan took five hours, two lifts and three hours standing at the roadside.

Corran Ferry -
possibly Scotland's coldest, wettest, rawest place today.
I am always optimistic; surveys show that 91% of drivers in England do not pick up hitch hikers but in the Highlands this drops to 80%, so 1 in 5 will give you a lift. Once you are over the Corran Ferry to Ardgour it's 4 out of 5 locals who stop. Hence my optimism.

Stoicism is essential but natural to most Scots. The weather can be appalling, the people who do not stop may look smug but they are not necessarily over anxious, Daily Mail readers on their way to Church, give them a wave.

Today I was wearing five layers of  warm, wind proof, waterproof clothing the value of which when totalled by Dormouse comes to nearly £900, the price of a small second-hand car. I could have done with another layer.

When you are standing by the road with your thumb out and a crudely lettered destination notice many motorists and their passengers think you are strange, but not necessarily a psychopath, because you do not own a car. Beards add to this impression.

After an hour and a half on the " golden mile" Fort William's, B&B quarter, Susie pulled up in  her little blue van. We had a good discussion about food in alpine mountain huts, walking in Corsica and why women rarely pick up male hitch hikers, She went out of her way to drop me at the ferry.

Shaun, another local,  gave me a lift from Ardgour all the way home. Again an animated discussion; this time on deer management, hydro-electric schemes, firewood and quality Scottish beef. You see it's not just about getting from A to B you meet interesting, entertaining, kind people who reinforce that optimism.