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.
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