Tuesday, 21 December 2010

White Treshnish, white Solstice

It is not often we can remember seeing Coll covered in snow, or Tiree for that matter. And not hanging onto the snow for so long.

Moonlight path across the sky bright line across the sea, between here and Arinagour. Early morning slight cloud obscuring the lunar eclipse but we did see part of it redden through the cloud. Farmer was further west out feeding the cows and he saw the full red disc.

All the cliches about sparkling snow, crunching underfoot. White fields lit up in the moon light. It is all true. It is all very beautiful but alot of extra hard work for the Farmer, making sure the animals are all okay, that there is water in the cattle building - still relying on the old tubs and large buckets to carry it in.

We spent an enjoyable few hours yesterday out on the Point wandering quietly around checking that the ewes and the tups were okay. This golden eagle sat on a rock and allowed me to get about 40 feet away before lifting off and flying past, only to drop down and sit on a more distant rock in the Haunn field.

It is important when there is snow on the ground to ensure the sheep have enough fodder. In the early stages of pregnancy the ewes can re-absorb the tiny foetus if the nutrition is not right, so it is important to make sure they are not too densely stocked if they are in the fields. The Point is actually quite a large area so gates already open in to the neighbouring fields they have alot of space. We watched Cheviot hoggs digging with their feet through the snow to get at the grass underneath in a field near us. On the Point there are alot of tufts poking through the snow and it would be easy to imagine that there was enough to keep them going, but Farmer decided to make sure they really do have enough and took out some hay. The bales are quite large, they make the tractor look pretty small.

Ulva School was closed Friday and Monday because of the snow - no one could get there, so the Christmas holidays have started early and the Parent Council meetings about the school closures are taking a break until the New Year.

The tracks of the hares in the snow have been amazing to see. Their 'footprint' so much larger than a rabbit, and there have been hare tracks around Shian and Duill, as well as across the Haunn field. And there is no hiding the tracks of a stag who has got into the natural re-generation woodland by the Ensay Burn. Huge hoof prints.

We wish you a Happy Christmas and a Healthy New Year.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Road repairs, snow and starlings

Whilst the rest of the country suffered the snows over the last few weeks, we escaped it all. So there was a little gentle excitement in this snowball loving household when it started to snow yesterday afternoon as it was getting dark.

During the evening, the wind got up and we had some impressive blasts before I fell asleep, with hail stones being hurled against the windows, sounding more like rapidly fired pebbles than hail. It never ceases to amaze me that during a gale we can feel the floors upstairs move in the wind - in a house with 2 foot thick walls. Good job we are sorting out the draughts and replacing dodgy windows in the New Year.

Daylight reveals the usual smattering of snow at Treshnish compared to heavier falls elsewhere but some great vertical accumulations up the windows of the house. (On Christmas Day morning 1995 we woke up and looked out of the north facing windows of the house to a total whiteout, and thinking it was foggy, Farmer opened the window and a wall of snow tumbled in to the room.)

School has been cancelled today, and therefore the Christmas party this evening. School closures meetings etc have kept me from the camera so not many pics on this posting. Morale fluctuates from high to low. Mike Russell (the Education Minister) visited the school on Monday. Pupils interviewed him as part of a project they are doing about the World of Work. His visit was a high point in amongst the lows, as he is a charismatic man and made us all feel more positive.

The metre long bird feeder was at a jaunty angle this morning blown sideways by the wind. Over the last week or so we have had a few extra visitors - two cock pheasants and a small flock of starlings. The two pheasants try and chase off the smaller birds on the ground - generally unsuccessfully, but the starlings are tending to dominate the feeders which is difficult for the other regulars who are not getting their fair share.

One of the main jobs at this time of year is ensuring that the nutrition of the animals is kept at the right level. Whilst there is plenty of foggage (grass left standing) in the fields and on the hill, it is of a much lower nutritional value than in the summer. The cows are on the hill at the moment and have been grazing right out away from their morning feed area - ranging the hill, and last night they will have gone to the south side of the hill to find shelter from the cold north blasts. So Farmer has to wait for them to come back to the troughs - if he goes at first light, they are nowhere to be seen.

The ewes are still with the tups in the fields, so if the snow stays it is easy to get supplementary feed to them. The hoggs are indoors in the cattle shed enjoying the kinder option. And Farmer is enjoying not having to pull them out from the brambles.

West and East have new wood burning stoves so they will be cosy for our Christmas guests. Perhaps we should move down there ourselves as the Farmhouse is still without central heating.

That is the snow on again - completely white out there now.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Thin ice.

The last 4 tups went out yesterday. Tupping started 3 weeks ago and the ewes will stay in the fields for another 3 weeks - grazing tools, cleaning up the pasture after the cows. We had a bit of hail before dark, which is still lying, this morning, on the frozen ground. We have been lucky that there has been no snow here, so we have not had the problems associated with hill sheep or cattle wintering outside and heavy snow. I read the Tarset Shepherd's harrowing tale of getting animals safely off the hill, and realised how very lucky we have been to escape the weather that the rest of the country have had.

The Council have closed the Hill Road from Torloisk to Dervaig and the Glen Road from Aros Bridge to Dervaig. We have been quite surprised that they have intermittently gritted the road from Calgary to Torloisk which is usually the last one to receive any attention. We must not complain though as it keeps access to Treshnish open.

The school fight continues... we were due a visit from the Councillor/Spokesperson for Transport on Tuesday. He was going to sit in on a 'real time' school run to verify the actual journey time (as opposed to timing it in a Ford Fiesta, which is what the Council staff did for the Proposal papers). Much of Monday was spent on the phone discussing whether or not the 'run' should go ahead - and why? Because the road was so treacherous. It was cancelled.

Panic in Tobermory because the shelves in the Co-op are emptying fast, and the lorry didn't come yesterday and won't come today either.

Light relief. Stopped to take photographs on my way to Dervaig yesterday. Thin ice on Loch Cuin, up to the high tide mark. Silent still air. Cockerel crowing at Shepherd's Cottage. High pitched cracking from splitting sheets of ice as the tide slowly withdrew out to sea, leaving the curled up over rock paper thin ice high and dry.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Chop sticks, carry water

It has been a cold and dry week here at Treshnish. We have escaped the snow, but it has been colder here than any early winter we can remember. Mostly bright and clear days.

Farmer has been on wood and water duty all week. We had frozen pipes to the cattle building, and several cottages ran dry too. A break in the weather meant the wood chip was delivered yesterday afternoon.

Water had to be carried up to the troughs for the bull and the hoggs in the cattle shed.

And the Treshnish water tank had to be bubble wrapped as we have not built an insulated shed round the new tank yet.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

It has been a beautiful cold and dry week. Ice on the puddles. Sun in the sky. Sharp outlines of silhouetted Mull hills against clear sunset skies, as the sun drops and darkness falls. The time of year when the island is even more of a haven - free from the mainland Christmas frenzy (as we discovered in a mobbed Fort William yesterday). Owl box 2 is in position in the Black Park, easy for everyone going past to Haunn to watch through binoculars without having to go too close.

waiting for 5pm ferry to tie up at Craignure

Out and about this week... The dreaded Council meeting took place on Thursday at Lochgilphead where Argyll and Bute Councillors voted 19 - 17 for the flawed school closures Proposals to go out to Consultation. The flaws in the papers and the way the Council has handled them give no one any confidence how the council officers will handle the consultation process.

The end of the Consultation period is 24th February so it feels at the moment like we have a long haul ahead. So if anyone reading this can pull a road safety expert out of their hat (or a writer or a pet journalist on a national newspaper or the author of a thesis on the benefits of small schools or an authority on the social and economic impacts of closing schools in remote isolated areas) please get in touch.

I have to admit having been to the inaugural meeting of the Argyll Rural Schools Network (ARSN) the night before in Lochgilphead, I felt (naively) confident that morality would win the day and that the Proposals would be thrown out, so when the result came and it was so close, I was fairly gutted.

ARSN is open to any 'closing' and any 'receiving' school. There is power in a united voice, and in pooling knowledge and information. There is a website. Locally in Argyll there is a community orientated website called For Argyll which has been running stories since the Proposals were made public. They blogged from the Council meeting, a sort of twitter I guess, so that the many folk who were not allowed into the Council Chamber could pick up the gist of what was going on. Only one representative from each meeting was allowed in, despite calls to move the meeting to a venue suitable of accommodating all those who wanted to attend what was after all a public meeting.

Behind the scenes support from the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) has been excellent. In the run up to Thursday's meeting they quickly hosted a website to hold useful information relevant to Argyll and Bute school closures, and worked away in the background to look into the facts and figures. SRSN has been invited by the Scottish Government (Mike Russell) to contribute to a working group to strengthen the statutory guidance for rural schools under threat of closure which is a good measure of the respect they deserve.

On the farm, the hoggs are all the cattle shed learning that there is more to food than grass - every year at this time, Farmer brings the hoggs in and lays out a snaking line of sheep troughs. To begin with the troughs are trodden on, upturned, and the sheep nuts scattered on the earth floor of the shed as they don't know what the food is. If there are animals in the shed who know how delicious the nuts are - like the pet lambs (Brownie etc) - they have the troughs to themselves to begin with, until the others begin to copy them and once that happens they have 'got it'! Soon they are all waiting for the sound of the shed door opening, and running in a big wave towards the man with the bag. Once they all understand, Farmer can let them out again into the fields and know that they will all come to the trough. When we first moved here in 1994, the sheep weren't fed supplementarily. What this meant was that the older ewes didn't know to come to the trough so you couldn't supplementarily feed any of them carrying twins or who were ill. It took 4 or 5 years to get the whole flock feeding, by teaching the new ewe lambs each winter to feed. Having done this now for years, it means if Farmer brings a ewe in to the shed at lambing time, he knows she will know to eat the food on offer in the shed.

Farmer tying old duvet on to lid of water tank to reduce chance of freezing.

I can see snow on Macleod's Tables (Skye) this morning gleaming in the far distance beyond Canna and on Canna and Rum too, those distinctive mountains rising above Calaich Point, dusted with a freezing covering of snow. There isn't any here, just ice on the puddles.

We had a night away visiting friends in Lochaber, and had a whirlwind trip to Fort William. Good ferry related signs caught my eye yesterday. Corran jetty is being upgraded so the wee ferry is on, and they are using a floating jetty, so no lorries - as a consequence the Harbro lorry which delivered feed to us before we left on Friday afternoon has to detour from Lochaline to Salen, Acharacle, up to Lochailort and back to Fort William that way, as there is a low bridge on the Loch Eil alternative route round to Fort William from Ardgour - Corran ferry! An extra 2 hours drive for him. Once he had been unloaded at Treshnish, we leapt in the car and drove like a snail through the ungritted Glen road at sub zero temperatures to get to Fishnish for the extra late sailing. People complain about Calmac but it is a pretty good service to be able to ring up and book an extra ferry. The only passengers were us and the Harbro lorry.

And yesterday on our way back, at Lochaline. 4 o'clock.

Monday, 22 November 2010

No matter what - it is tupping time

No matter what else is going on in the world. It is the 19th of November so the tups must go out. Well, a couple of days ago, it was the 19th and so the tups got their war paint painted on, and numbers scribbled on their sides.

Their feet were all checked a couple of weeks ago, and the special foot bath stuff we brought home from a huge farm supplies place on the edge of Dartmoor put to good use. Trailer loaded and off they went. Farmer took Friend with him to take a few pictures as I am a bit distracted by the Education Dept of Argyll and Bute at the moment (to say the least).

And that's it - the tups are out. These guys standing under the wind turbine are the Reserves -they have to wait a while longer. The hoggs - blackface and cheviot - are indoors at the moment, taking a few days off from grass ration to learn about lamb and ewe nuts. They are very skitterish, not at all used to farm buildings initially, but they soon calm down and learn to love the shake of the bag.

Serious neglect continues in the garden but a few long suffering veggies survive. We have already had a few frosts but miraculously sweet peas still flower in the Keder, and one last delphinium flowers, unbelievably, in the tunnel. The strawberry leaves have turned as have the blueberries which are so beautiful in every season.

There have been one or two serious blasts of wind in the last week and the turbine has been working hard. We have just received a quote for solar PV panels which we are going to install on the roof of the steading above the laundry.

The Councillors for Argyll and Bute meet again on the 25th, and we are hoping that they will vote to throw out the very flawed Proposal to close 25 schools. We will be there with our banners. Wish us luck!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A helping hand and an owl box

Winter light, short days. The wood is in shadow by early afternoon. Farmer and visiting Nephew got one long awaited task done. The first of our two owls boxes is up. Telegraph pole, tractor, rope beach-combed from the shore, beautiful locally made owl box made to Barn Owl Trust design, drill, nuts and bolts, and a bit of luck. It is sited facing a southerly direction (being extremely heavy, it was quite difficult to manoeuvre into exactly correct position), near the Ensay Burn in the 3 hectare area fenced off to allow natural regeneration, back into native woodland.

And on his way back to the house at dusk, Farmer saw an owl sitting on the electricity line.

The birches beside the track from the Ensay Burn up to Treshnish are nearly bare now, very few leaves left on them now, but bright fresh ivy green curling round stout trunks, in the sunshine.

The hens have been enjoying the calm today. This moulting hen is the mother of 2 chicks, who seem to have suddenly doubled in size, but still have that mother dependent high pitched call, and keep close to her at all times. They are shy of the rest of the flock, and the last to come to the food.

Despite being November we had a busy week in the cottages last week. All but one had guests - either enjoying a few nights, or some here for the full week. There were even a few walkers going through the farm yard at times, and walking along the coast. It is also whelk picking time - there have been big tides and with those, and any section of accessible shore line is picked over by one or two regular locals who gather the whelks here every year - they are sold via various dealers on the island and end up in France or Spain for Christmas. It is back breaking hard work, and approaching Christmas the price goes up and it finally becomes more lucrative.

This next week Farmer is needing to gather the ewes. Already some of them are coming down from the hill, to cast their eye over the tups in the little turbine field above the Treshnish steading, standing near the fence, getting in line for the magic date when the ewes are sorted into groups and matched up with an unrelated tup. This is a good chance to mob graze some of the fields and clean up the grazing after the cows.

The owl box can be seen from the track between the main road and the bridge which marks the march between Treshnish Farm and Ensay Farm. It is ever so slightly not standing straight....but I shan't tell the Farmer that.

Friday, 5 November 2010


Not much news from the farmhouse tonight.

All week has been taken up with school closures. We do have a petition online and it would be great if you felt like signing it. http://www.PetitionOnline.com/ulva4111/petition.html

I will write again soon. In the meantime here is a letter I sent to the Oban Times this week.

On Thursday 28th October, pupils at Ulva School were awarded a Green Flag for their achievements as an Eco School. The next evening they held a Halloween Party - the small school packed with family, neighbours and folk from the Ulva area.
In September, 3 of the older pupils sang in Gaelic at the Mod in Tobermory - winning 2 Seconds and a First in the Solos, as well as performing as a group and getting a Second.
At the Harvest Service on Ulva, the same 3 children sang (and played recorder and violin) to a packed church.
In the spring they performed in a play at the Mull Drama Festival and won 2 prizes.
As they do every year they sang to a packed church in the Easter Service on Ulva.
During the summer term, as in previous years, the children grew their own vegetables in the playground. Before half term they harvested those vegetables, baked bread and made bramble and apple jelly from brambles they had picked near the school.
The children are integrated with their local community and have a strong sense of place and belonging - as illustrated by their contribution to a National Library of Scotland project producing a state of the art Mediascape presentation for visitors to the island of Ulva.

These are some of their day to day achievements and as well as all this, the children succeed at their school work, easily keeping up with learning targets. These children are confident individuals, with a strong sense of responsibility for their fellow pupils and their environment and they contribute an enormous amount to their community - in short, they EMBODY the Curriculum of Excellence.

On Tuesday 26th October, the parents of the children received a letter from the Council telling them of their proposal to close this wonderful school.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

School closures, Awards and Case Studies

This has been quite a week.

Our anticipation of the long awaited Thistle Awards Gala Dinner in Edinburgh on the 29th were totally eclipsed by a letter we received on Tuesday 26th from Argyll and Bute Council informing us, as parents of a child at Ulva Primary School, that they propose to close the school at the end of the summer term.

Suddenly any nerves and apprehensions we may have had about going to this fancy 'do' were put sharply into perspective by the thought of the west coast of north Mull losing its only school and community building. For not only is it a really wonderful small school, but it is the focal point for the scattered inhabitants of that coastal area of the island. We (parents and local community) are going to fight it, and have been contacting our Councillors, MSPs, MPs and anyone we can think of, for support.

On a lighter note - Farmer had his photograph taken to accompany a LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) Case Study. The vet came to blood test our cattle for BVD and to train Farmer in the art of Condition Scoring his cows.

And no, the Awards were not cancelled just because we were having traumas with our school. Life had to go on, we had to go to Edinburgh to attend the Gala evening. And what a dazzling glittery affair it turned out to be - with pipers piping as everyone arrived at the EICC, trays of delicious bubbly or cocktails, the Awards ceremony itself in the huge auditorium with comedian/impersonator Ronni Ancona as MC (standing alot of the time in a cloud of dry ice), armies of waitresses and waiters serving 500+ guests (they emerged hurriedly out of the kitchens like ants scurrying in line, carrying the food, to each table, one table at a time) twinkling lights, and thistles (actually Visit Scotland use eryngiums instead of the native thistle...) - there was even a red carpet.

We did not bring an Award home with us, but we were treated wonderfully for being Finalists - lots of people said lovely things, and all in all, it was a great evening and we felt very proud of Treshnish - our 15 seconds of fame!

The red carpet to greet us. (Now that was a first for both of us).

Our table, hosted by Sustainable Tourism category sponsors, Scottish Natural Heritage. 2 of the SNH staff on our table had stayed at Haunn before, so that felt good. You can see the eryngiums.

Some one else's table. You can see the twinkly lights.

And after dinner (it was 11pm before coffee was served) a ceilidh band played and called the reels so enthusiastically it was impossible to talk any more, which was probably a good thing!

Anyway it was a great evening all in all, and on the way home the next day, we composed a letter in our heads to the Oban Times about the school.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Belties on the moor, apples in the orchard, and lots of cheese.

A while since the last post, but Farmer and family packed up the car and ventured south of the border for the first time in a long while. A short break in deepest Somerset, followed by a few days longer in South Devon. The weather was great, the people were friendly and there were local food producers everywhere we turned.

In Devon we stayed in a cottage down a narrow lane, tiny fields and lovely hedgerows and woodlands turning autumn colours - a neighbouring farm made organic apple juice (and cider) from these huge boxes of organic fruit.

The small town of Kingsbridge had small shops now atypical of the usual high street - delis, bakeries, pasty shops, butchers, fishmongers AND a Farmers Market - and as for Totnes, an organic shopper's dream.

Devon strawberries and cauliflowers, on the street in Kingsbridge.

A friend of ours advised us to eat at the Riverford Field Kitchen. Riverford Organics is near Totnes - started out as organic veg box scheme locally in Devon and now franchised all over the UK selling locally grown organic food. The Field Kitchen is on the farm where alot of their organic produce is grown. There is no choice on the menu, though there is always a meat option and a veggie option. So while our vegetarian friend enjoyed cavelo nero calzone, the meat eaters had a main course of quinea fowl cooked with puy lentils and we all shared 5 different vegetable dishes - followed by delectable puddings. I am certainly no food writer, but the food was delicious - Farmer talked about little less for the rest of the day. He said he felt as if he had just eaten Christmas lunch.

We walked on Dartmoor. There were lots of belted galloways, not as many ponies, but still quite a few...

At the end of the holiday, a full day's journey north on Friday brought us back to Oban, where we picked up the quad bike which was being serviced and onwards home. The roads feel much quieter. Certainly the ferry was not even half full.

Woke on Saturday to blue skies and a new lamb in the stack yard.

Brownie, in the foreground, has a new friend called Beauty... as Farmer's daughter was given a ewe lamb, another Zwartie cross, by our neighbour.

Dog walking. Down to the boathouse beach. Lichen on rock face. Crab supper on rock. Spot the dog.

While we were away BBC Landward came to film our hazel gloves fungus. We were not sorry to miss our big chance at being on TV!

Our guests have been doing lots of recycling, and our hens will have a lot of eggs to lay to fill this lot.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Harvesting the last potatoes and the wind

A few last potatoes harvested by Farmer in the sun on Saturday morning. There hasn't been much rain recently and so they have not spoiled for being harvested so late. We picked a huge basket of the very last broad beans (some of them quite leathery) - this year we have had our best ever success with broad beans, making up for the loss of the dwarf beans which disappeared under the forest of chickweed.

These healthy looking pink ones were from seed given to us by a neighbour.

A view of Treshnish headland from Ensay, showing the old school house at Treshnish alongside the farm track.
And down at Haunn, the views were spectacular. Toechtamhor looks out over the autumn colour of the Haunn fields and the faint silhouette of Run is visible in the distance. Our Cheviot gimmers are in the Haunn field, they will go to the tup for the first time in November.

The turbine will be one year old on Tuesday - today the generation meter was at 12,000.7kWh - 2,000kWh more than we had expected to make, so that is really exciting.

How has it been living with the turbine? On the whole pretty positive! Over the year it has generated more electricity than we have used on the Treshnish site (in the office/laundry, Studio, Shian, Shieling, Duill and the farmhouse). An unexpected bonus has been the way it has transformed our experience of strong winds. Instead of lying awake worrying about roof damage, I find myself thinking of the turbine spinning round instead, making something positive out of the gale force winds. And the windier it is the more energy is produced.

Our initial aim was to make enough electricity to cover the usage from all the cottages and the farmhouse in a year, but at that time we thought we were going to be able to put in a very micro micro-hydro scheme (in the end we discovered was not possible) which would have balanced our usage in one go.

So now 5 years on, our sites are lowered, we know alot more about renewable potential here, we are looking at further energy savings, and where/who we buy our energy from.

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