Friday, 30 December 2011

Turning of the tides - and a Happy New Year

This post will be short. Running out of year, before the New one rolls in. Farmer and family are off, before dawn tomorrow, to celebrate Hogmanay with friends and family - a tour round Scotland before school starts again on the 9th. So if there is not a New Year post for a week or so after we get back, please excuse!

The photos on this post are from yesterday (the tin shed near Penmore on its roof - blown out of the ground) and from earlier in the year.

Weather related issues have dogged the last few days. High winds (again and again!). Yet more powercuts! Yesterday's was caused by a fire on a hydro pole between Calgary and Ensay, which burnt through the pole. The hardy team of engineers managed to do a running repair - by lowering the top section above the burned out bit, and bolting it to the rest of the pole, thus securing the line.

Powercuts, coming when you least expect or want them, makes you realise how dependant we all are on electricity. Being connected to the national grid means that the turbine is automatically switched off in a power outage so having our own turbine and solar PV does not mean we are safe from the effects of powercuts - no smug, we are alright thoughts here! But without the electricity the woodchip boiler cannot work either (no controls, no pumps to circulate the heat) and as a result of yesterday's powercut, we discovered last night a safety feature we didn't realise it had - if the power cut comes whilst the boiler is firing, the boiler will 'boil over' and dump the excess hot water on the floor of the boiler room - so that it doesn't damage itself! It soon regulated itself once the power was restored. Thankfully 6 of the cottages have wood burning stoves and we are planning on putting in stoves to the other 2 in the coming year.

Lucky not to lose the 'solardome' greenhouse in our garden in yesterday's blast, as one of the windows blew out, but thankfully the rest of the structure stood up to the challenge.

The grass in the garden has gone yellow, from salt laden wind and excessive rain! Windward side of escallonia hedging salt wind singed and threadbare. Natural selection in the sycamore trees clinging to our garden edge, as dying branch tips hasten to the ground whipped away from tree centre by sudden gusts too strong to withstand.

Lots of candles at the ready for the next powercut - just in case!

The cows are safely in doors - dry and warm, easily fed - as long as you can open the sliding doors. Wrestling with gates in the wind that are almost impossible to open, fighting with feed bags and feeling the full force of battering rain or hail as Farmer goes to feed the hoggs is something else.

The tups are still working but they will be taken out in a week's time, and the ewes will be sent back to the hill once more.

We have had a fairly epic year all in all. Enjoyed almost all of it. Loved alot of it. Hated certain bits of it. And stressed about too much of it. What next year has in store time will tell! We don't expect to win any awards or get quite as much publicity as we got this year. But we will keep on keeping on at what we do - and a few things more than we have done before! 2012 bookings are looking good for a busy season ahead - lots of repeat guests which is always lovely, and some new faces too who we look forward to meeting.

During the coming farming year, we will be monitoring the fields and seeing how the new grazing management is affecting the bio-diversity, we will hopefully be doing something clever with excess wind power heating water for the district heating - and we will look forward to welcoming some of you here in the coming year. Happy New Year!!!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Mild mid winter

This is the Christmas blog! Our Christmas decorations are down from the attic, the tree went up today, and tattered Polish decorations hang in a window - the streaks are from the salt laden winds of 2 weeks ago. No point in washing the windows given the stormy forecast for Christmas Day.

We certainly do not seem to be having the icy, snowy blast that we had last winter. The mild weather may not be as pretty to look at as the cold clear crisp solar days of the last 2 winters but it is easier to get around, and this year the Christmas play - a combined effort by Ulva and Dervaig primary schools - was actually held at the traditional time - before Christmas (rather than way into January with the children having to sing 'we wished you a Merry Christmas' etc etc). The performance had a Victorian music hall theme this year, with about 30 Victorian children all singing, dancing and quite a few of them playing recorders, cello, violin, percussion and piano! There were two raffles - one for a Hamper, kindly provided each year by a woman from the Ulva side of the hill; and this year the second raffle was for a painting of a Highland Cow by Graham Bruce - which we won! It is now hanging proudly in the farm office!

Last night was the Christmas Party at school, which was a lively occasion with lots of very excited younger children - wide eyed and enthralled when they heard the faint sounds of the reindeer bells, followed by the appearance of Santa in the classroom. (He wears green wellies every year whatever the weather). Lots of games including the most exciting one involving putting hats, gloves and scarves on to attack bars of chocolate whenever you threw a six; and before we knew it, it was 9.50 and time to go home. Thick thick fog on the top of the hill above Burg made the drive home an interesting one.

School finished at lunch-time today. One of the girls in primary 2 told me excitedly, as we were all saying goodbye and Happy Christmas at the school gate, that her mum had seen Santa's sleigh and ALL the reindeer outside the school during the party. The look on her face said it all.

Mixed weather makes for great light at times, no light whatsoever on the darkest days. Today it has been another of those flat days with no sun, the feeling of there being no light, grey cloud clinging to the hills, reflecting in the grey sea. Damp and mild. And the wind is getting up now as it gets dark. The shortest day is over, which is always a hurdle well past.

On the farm, the feeding regime is well under way. Farmer's back is sufficiently recovered that he can carefully lift a bag of feed again so he has been doing the feeding on these dark mornings. The cows are still outside but with the ground so wet, it is likely they will be brought indoors before long. We want to avoid poaching the ground or making a mess with buggy/tractor/quad getting to the fields to feed.

Sunlight hits the Tiree ferry heading back to Oban.

And sunlight on the trees outside my window with that magical about to rain light on the sea behind.

Sincere thanks to all the lovely visitors we have had staying this year and to everyone who visits the blog - wishing you all a very Happy Christmas wherever you are, and a Merry New Year.

Monday, 12 December 2011

In between the storms

We were lucky. The Recycling Shed may have lost its roof, and we may have to spend some time clearing up things that have been blown around, but there was nothing major, and our house is solid and we were warm. We lost the electricity for a couple of hours on Thursday and all day and evening on Friday, but some areas still don't have their power back on.

It was awesome watching the sea. Words cannot express how huge long and high the rollers were making their way up the bay.

Thanks to those of you who emailed to find out how we had fared in the storm! Some die-hards would say we have this weather all the time, but I think this is only partially true. We do have strong winds, but they more often and not blow through within a few hours. In the 17 years we have been here, we have had lots of storms, and whilst the averages around 60pmh might happen quite often (tonight, now as I write!) the peaks of 91 mph on Tiree 15 miles west of here don't happen quite as often! Alot of neighbours I have spoken to found Thursday's wind very distracting, almost disturbing - unsettling certainly. I felt very twitchy all day, and only relaxed when the wind dropped. Watching the shed roof peel off like the curling lid of a sardine can was like watching footage of a American hurricane on the news, and then realising that we were in the middle of it.

I am glad there wasn't anyone staying in Duill! (It was all fixed the next day, well in time for the guests who are staying there now).

A family from northern England were staying at Haunn last week, and I was worried for them during Thursday's storm, but they assured me they had seen similar winds when living in the Far East - typhoons and cyclones! On the Friday, by evening we still had no electricity so we drove down to give them some more candles and tea lights. They were all warm and cosy in candlelight sitting by the fire, but grateful for the additional candles!

Part of the Recycling Shed roof lies in the burn.

Friday morning, we had a little snow - actually thick enough for a time to realise it might folly to send Daughter to school, so she came home again (quite pleased). Within a couple of hours it had melted. The sea was flat calm again, as if the huge rolling, huge breaking, perpetually moving, rising and falling football-pitch-sized waves had never been happened 24 hours before.

Jamie's puppy learns about riding in the buggy.

This little gate into the veg garden was recycled from the original fank, where the wood chip boiler is now. The wind blew its fastening right out of the gate post!

The Aracona hens enjoy the great outdoors. The Keder polyhouse survived the winds, but Farmer had opened the side vents before hand which hopefully saved them from being blown out, as the wind could get out the other side.

A quiet winter rhythm is taking shape. Jamie comes in in the morning to feed the hoggs - as they are in he can do this early before light. Farmer feeds the cows later on. They are receiving a bit of 'hill cow cob' - even though they are still fat from the summer grass, it is better to keep the weight on them, rather than yo-yo dieting. It is not good for them to be too fat before calving so Farmer will do some condition scoring to help assess whether they need more or less additional food. The ewe hoggs are still in the cattle shed. Ewes and tups together in their different groups in the in-bye fields. The cows are in between the Point and the Haunn field. They are all munching on the deferred grazing, left from under grazing the fields during the summer so that flowers can safely flower and set seed whilst ground nesting birds rear their young before the silage is cut.

Another storm is raging whilst I write. Torch by my side, just in case. Goodnight!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Windfalls, wind and rolling seas.

Another week has raced by, with the usual ups and downs and tribulations! Heavy rain over last weekend morphed into wind and rain this weekend, with a lot of deep red showing on the wind forecast! The turbine has been spinning away on the hill, and the numbers on the generation meter tumbling up to nearly 27,000 last time I looked. It cannot nearly be Christmas? We received our first card this week, and I have not even thought of cards to send.. another pre-Christmas panic coming up. We have one or two bookings for Christmas and several for New Year, plus a few short breaks in between now and then!

On Tuesday I went to Oban in order to go to a Renewable Heat Incentive talk, which was interesting. It took place in an atmospheric village hall in Benderloch, called the Victory Hall. The original building had a large modern hall on the side, but we were in the older room and its tongue and groove walls looked as if they could tell a tale or two - of dances and ceilidhs and Christmas plays. The Renewable Heat Incentive will be a good scheme for anyone thinking of using wood to heat their homes, and may help us further reduce the carbon footprint of the Haunn cottages - I have my eye on a pellet stove/boiler for Toechtamhor one day...

Off to East Cottage to light the stove for new guests coming in this afternoon from Edinburgh. It was lovely sitting there with the sun pouring in the window, as the stove warmed up. Peaceful and quiet. All part of the days work. (How lucky am I.) The pretty painted stone and cork boat are little momentos left by guests.

Before going out to Benderloch I went up to the market to retrieve our sheep and goat 'movement book' which was under the counter in Caledonian Marts office. We had a batch of lambs, our last ones, going through the ring too - Charlie this years pet lamb was one of them. Daughter and her friends at school had written him a good bye card, and I was instructed to give it to Charlie before he went 'away'. Our animals had already been sold by the time I got there, as I was on a later ferry, and so I brought the card home with me. I don't quite know what I would have done with the card had I found Charlie, as it actually gave me a lump in my throat to read the card - thinking of Daughter's 'humanised' lamb going off in to the 'real' world, having been petted by friends and guests all its young life so far. Once your animals are sold, you can go to the office and pick up your money then and there. In an old fashioned way you are offered cash or a cheque. I opted for the cheque! There is always a buzz when a sale is on. Lots of people catching up on the news, exchanging information, doing deals, coming and going. It reminds me of trips to Forfar Mart with my father when I was a child, that same echoey sound of the auctioneer's voice and farmers talking in the background, stock gates opening and closing, the smells, the temperature even, slightly chilled. Outside in the car park, pickups, 4X4s, landrovers, trailers and lorries fill the car parks to overflowing.

Last post I mentioned the poorly hoggs. Jamie helped Farmer vaccinate them the other day, as well as giving them a mineral and vitamin boost. They are in the cattle shed still, on a diet of hay and nuts. I went to get some logs the other morning, and there was a real calm in the building - sun streaming in through the spaced boarding, and very little sound. The general feeling now is that they are recovering which is a big relief, as they look a bit better now. Thank goodness.

The next task was to paint the tups. Jamie was doing the heavy work and Farmer did the painting. Separated groups of ewes and gimmers are put with different tups, to avoid fathers onto daughters. The colour combinations the tups are painted helps identify them at a distance! This is the time of year when the in-bye fields really get their clean up, in terms of the longer grassy tufts being eaten down - preparation for next summers wild flower crop! This is the end of the first year of our SRDP management regime, and we are not sure it has been as effective as previously, but we will know more by the end of the winter, in how well we can get rid, through grazing, of any matted grasses. Part of the agreement is that we will monitor it, and we are doing that.

I had to go down to the school on Friday morning. Sitting in the office with the Head Teacher, looking out at Ben More with its first dusting of snow this winter, a pair of sea eagles soaring around and around. The flying barn doors. This stormy weather has not been a total washout. Changes in light are stunning, as tempests of hail scud across the sky one minute followed by intense sunlight the next and a double rainbow. The sea takes on a deep greeny blue, as the sky darkens with the next downpour and the whites of the waves, huge waves, roll over and over, and afterwards again - there is Coll, having been hidden by the wall of low fast moving shower. Watching a kestrel hang on the wind, quartering the ground below it. Watching rock doves flutter past, and fieldfare disappear over the stone wall in the Haunn field.

The storm this weekend peaked last night between midnight and 3am. We live in a house with solid stone walls and slate rooves, but you can still feel vulnerable when the blasts of wind echo round the gables of the house, and blast noisely across the chimneys. Even though you know you are safe, the din can be terrifying, and the feeling of insignificance in the presence of the power of the wind.

Comforting spell in the kitchen making chilli jelly, escaping relentless rain on Saturday, using windfall apples given to us by friends in Angus. Very satisfying task for a very wet rainy afternoon. But today, the sun is strong between the showers. The wind died down almost instantly, and the sea is back to its more usual winter state.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Hoggs, whelks, nuts and nights out.

Another busy week passes, as the days get shorter. We had a brush publicity - the RSPB Award still attracting attention. The builder has departed from the farmhouse renovation having done a fantastic job, and we are in the novel position of having wood-chip heating whenever we want it, and even when we don't - but we are waiting for the plumber to come and finish off, and install a final thermostat so that we can control it all better! The boiler has been making us scratch our heads recently, with one or two minor faults - on pumps and valves on the plumbing side, rather than the boiler itself - and thankfully for those times we have been able to switch over to the fossil fuel so the our guests have been warm. I am as stingy as before on how much heating we have on in the house, as when you see that trailer full of wood-chip arriving, it is plain to see how much we consume in keeping our house, the office/laundry and the four Treshnish Cottages warm. A frightening amount!

We have had clear skies under a huge bright moon for several days, and good tides and kind weather for whelk picking. Several folk from around and about have been out picking the shoreline whelks. A back breaking job - and they earn every penny. Access to the shore is on foot in most places, so not only do they bend down for each and every one they pick, but they know in order to get them to their market, they have to carry each orange string bag full of them back up to wherever they left their car. A few seasons ago, Farmer was surprised to see a pile of whelk bags, representing all that work (and hard earned cash) left lying. Every time he went past he expected them to have gone, but they were left and ended up rotting. Sometimes the whelk pickers come in by boat. Last year a tent with food and sleeping bags was abandoned along the shoreline by Port Haunn, and we surmised this was from a mobile pair of 'whelkers'.

In November the hoggs (weaned ewe lambs kept for breeding) come in to the cattle shed to learn about 'nuts'. This especially formulated mix of flaked grains, peas and molasses is an important supplementary food for sheep, but unfortunately seeing it in a trough is not an automatic signal for the hoggs to know that they can or should eat it.

During our first lambing back in 1995, some of the older ewes contracted twin lamb disease (where they need extra food to regain condition, and quickly) but as they did not know how to 'feed' we could not get them to put on the extra bodily condition they needed. As a result we decided that from then on we would 'teach' our hoggs to 'feed'. In animal welfare terms this is a godsend, as it means you can nurse an animal more successfully back to health by bringing them in and knowing that they can 'feed' whilst you administer to them.

The 2011 hoggs have been causing us concern this week - we lost 2 to unknown causes. As in previous years, they were taken off their mothers when the main crop of lambs were sold, vaccinated, and set to graze the in-bye ground. Every day they have been checked and occasionally one has been cut out of the brambles, but other wise no problems - or so we thought.

Recently some of them seemed to have lost their usual 'bloom', their coats were 'stairy' - suffering from something but we were not sure what. The locum vet came to the rescue - she came over one evening and took blood samples so that we can find out what was wrong - as they are indoors just now learning how to feed this was quite straightforward. They had been given a combined fluke and worm medicine as soon as we realised something was wrong, and thankfully, they are now beginning to look better. And the sweet smelling 'nuts' are disappearing fast from the troughs. We will keep them in so that we can re-test or treat them as necessary and then they will go back out to the fields. As far as we can, we try to run a clean grazing system but with the extra flock on the in-bye now (the cheviots) it is more difficult to juggle within our new grazing management plan. This is obviously something we need to monitor more carefully, as we don't want the balance between animal welfare/good health and grazing regime/Conservation to get out of kilter.

The hill ewes have been gathered, and are in the fields waiting for the tups to go out with them. Farmer is still off work, though he is recovering well! The Contractors and Jamie did the gather, and picked up 2 'roughies' (unshorn ewes) and left another along the shore (on a particularly difficult part of the coast, where it is safer to leave the ewe than try risking getting a dog too close, in case she goes over the edge). Being a 'roughie' means that you have avoided coming in at shearing time and at spaining time (when the lambs are taken off). Bracken cover makes it easy for them to hide, as well as there being tricky hidden bits along our 4 miles of coastline.

Middle Cottage in November sunshine, with the 2010 corncrake nesting ground in the foreground. I have decided I would like to be on holiday here at the moment. The weather has been good for the last week or so. The island is quiet. The light at this time of year changes all the time - providing great opportunities for photographers. Lots of wildlife around. We have had visitors staying in 4 of the cottages this week, enjoying short breaks, winter weeks and special offers. A friend of ours is staying in East Cottage. She is an artist and has been out every day with her huge bundle of materials, ready for all weathers, working in the elements, and coming back to the cottage when she is too cold or light falls. We spent the evening there on Saturday, delicious meal, glasses of wine by the fireside, so warm and toasty. Coming out to fresh air and the short walk to the car, in the dimly starlit stillness of the sky, quite magical, and it was so very quiet.

Daughter's school at Ulva Ferry held a Bring and Buy Sale for Children In Need on Friday. They raised a whopping £271 in an hour and a half. The community was so generous bringing lovely items to sell, we think we will have to hold another sale at a weekend so that we can sell it all! One mum does fantastic face painting, and Farmer came home sporting a very colourful dolphin on his face. By the time he got home he had forgotten about it and went off to show in the guests who arrived to stay in the Studio!

We had a nerve-wracking day on Tuesday. Mark Stephens from Radio Scotland Out of Doors came to interview us. We stuttered our way through his questions and hopefully didn't make too much of a fool of ourselves. Dread hearing it on the radio though! Once that was over, we met up with Leianna from RSPB Scotland who had come across to make a short film (thankfully only minutes long) for the Oxford Farming Conference in January. Dave Sexton came over to be interviewed by Mark too. Dave is our local RSPB officer, and once Mark left, Dave used a flip camera, for some 'informal' filming, whilst Leianna did the more official interviewing and filming. There was an air of unreality to the whole thing particularly with 2 of them pointing cameras at us! But it was lovely to have an excuse to show them round the farm again, not that there were many flowers to look at (it is November) but the weather was fantastic and Treshnish was looking very beautiful - full sunshine and clear views.

There are still lots of European blackbirds around, with their black beaks. There are 2 of them in this brave sycamore in the farmhouse garden.

Screen Machine has been on Mull for a few days, so we had another night out this weekend - going to see Jane Eyre in Tobermory. We ate at Cafe Fish who have won the Good Food Guide Fish Restaurant of the Year 2012 - it feels very 'seaside', sitting above the ticket office on the Calmac pier, looking out on twinkling lights across the Bay through the rain streaked window panes, eating freshly caught seafood. I still do a double take when the lights come up at the end of a film and you are not in a large multiplex cinema but in the back of a lorry in Tobermory car park.

On Tuesday the last of the 2011 lambs go to Oban Market. The end of another sheep year. The Contractors, whose help has been invaluable over the last few years, are off to pastures anew in the New Year. We are extremely grateful to them for their help and we wish them well. We are lucky to have found Jamie to help us in the future.

Thank you to everyone who has been asking how the Farmer's recovery is going. He is well on the mend now. Still a long way off being able to work but happily walking a few miles again - and not in pain.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Pest control and blue eggs.

These larches defy the wind in the small copse fenced off from the sheep, for regeneration, near the cattle building.

These 2 handsome tups have come to Treshnish from Knock Farm in the shadow of Ben More. In 10 days time they will be out in the parks with the hill ewes. Next week the fank, so often still and empty, will be a busy focus for sorting out the hill ewes and the cheviots, checking over all the stock before they go out for tupping. This is when we use the higher numbers of ewes to mob graze the fields, bring down the heights of the tufts. All good for next year's pollen plants! The hoggs will need to learn how to 'feed' soon - and so Jamie has been getting the cattle shed ready - bringing the troughs in from beyond Haunn, and making sure the water troughs work.

The wind turbine field is a useful holding field for the 'odds and sods'. These are lambs and cast ewes who should have gone to market last month when we were in Shieldaig. We couldn't find a space for them on a lorry or trailer for the last sale so they are still here - probably luckily, as the return ferries from Oban that day were cancelled because of the wind and alot of farmers got stuck in Oban overnight. We have had a dry week, with only a very few showers, and most of them at night (perfect). It hasn't felt that windy either but the turbine is heading up to 26,000 units now which shows it has been windier than this time last year.

This Escallonia is outside Toechtamhor garden, it is a remnant of the garden planted when the cottage was built in the 1940's. In the spring there are rows of daffodils leading from the gate beside the escallonia to the road too. It suffered very badly during last winter, and its splayed desperate shape is perhaps not pretty, but we are loathe to remove it. Look at it flowering in spite of its falling splat in the wind. And those bright shoots on the trunk. A kindly chop and trim are needed to allow it to recover as it deserves. The further away one has completely died (bottom photo).

These handsome hens are Araconas - our new additions to the poultry flock. At the moment they are doing a great job, living in the Keder tunnel, scratching up and eating any grubs and bugs as they go. We are looking forward to having their blue eggs to give to our guests next summer.

The barn owl box in the sunshine this morning whilst walking the dogs. It is such a bonus having the brightness of the sun as the days get shorter.

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