Making Silage!

Shetland sheep are a really hardy breed and, living here on Fair Isle, they certainly have to be.  They live out year round (aside from when they’re brought in for a couple of days after lambing) and are exposed to the worst of the weather – torrential rain, snow, hail, 100mph+ winds…… Throughout the winter months they get a daily feed of sheep nuts but, with the grass very sparse, they’re given good amounts of silage to ensure they’re eating enough to see them through to lambing & keep them in good condition.

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Silage is a really precious commodity here and almost every croft has at least one designated ‘silage park’, from which we try and get enough bales to see us through the winter.  But how do we actually get the silage in the first place?  In May we spread fertiliser and then the park will be closed off (and we hope the sheep don’t find a way in!).

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In July and August the parks get cut – the outsides will get cut first and then later the insides.

After a few days the ‘wuffler’ is brought in which turns the cut grass over, helping it to air and dry.  We also turn it by hand, using special hay rakes, to help it dry further.

The baling and wrapping is a real community event – everyone helps, from young to old, and we work from croft to croft.  The baler works its way round the field, usually followed by two people, whose job it is to ensure the bales roll clear and then to push them into groups around the field.

The tractor then comes round and the bales are hefted onto the pallet.

The bales are then deposited next to the wrapper and we stack them so that they’re easy to roll directly into the wrapping mechanism.

We each tend to have our own ‘position’ and job, so get into a good routine.

Occasionally the weather turns and we have to get the tarpaulin out……

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Over the course of a couple of weeks, stacks of bales start appearing around the island, and there’s a big sigh of relief/celebration when the last bale has been wrapped and stacked!

October Hill Caa

I realise that I’ve a) posted nothing in six months, despite all my intentions and affirmations of blogging more, and b) posted nothing about what is possibly THE one event you were all curious about – lambing!  I will try and catch up on missed opportunities over the forthcoming weeks, for what it’s worth, but for now I thought I’d tell you about a recent event.

As some of you may know, we don’t just have sheep on the croft here – we have ‘hill sheep’ too.  More specifically, each croft has 20 ewes (its ‘share’) which are kept on the common grazing land.  These sheep are rounded-up around five/six times per year, which is a whole-community event.  This round-up – or ‘caa’ to give it its local name – is done completely on foot, relying solely on people and their dogs to bring the sheep en masse down to the cru for clipping, dosing, foot care, etc.

Even though Fair Isle is only 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles at its widest point, with a total population of less than 60 – of whom possibly only a half take part in each caa – how on earth do we achieve it?  One of the great features on Fair Isle is Feely Dyke – a high, dry  stone wall built right across the island, from East to West, with just a cattle grid allowing access from North to South (and vice versa).  This ensures (most of the time!) that the hill sheep stay on the common grazing ground of the north of the island, separated from the croft sheep of the south of the island.  So that’s narrowed our search area by 50%.

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Unfortunately, the 300 or so hill sheep don’t go round in one big flock, more’s the pity, they tend to stick to smaller groups of between 6-20 sheep.  They scramble down cliffs to access ‘inaccessible’ geos, they hide amongst the undulating landscape……for every five sheep we manage to caa you can be sure there’s one that’s eluded us.  Hence why there are usually two caas within a couple of weeks of each other, to try and get in the second caa what sheep we’ve missed in the first.

We usually stick to a similar plan of action on each caa – our first aim is to get all the sheep off Buness and from the north-east of the island, moving them down parallel to the road and up onto Vaasetter.  From here they’re pushed around the head of Vaasetter, down the cliff line, into a holding field, then across the road and down into the cru (it sounds so simple……).  On the day, this went really well and we got a good number of sheep on this first pass.

The second aim is then for one group to head to the very north of the island and another group to work up the west cliffs, meeting in the middle and pushing the remaining sheep down the centre of the island, around the airstrip and up to and along Feely Dyke, then down and into the cru.  This started well, then we had a bit of a bomb-burst and got a call to say there were about 30 head of sheep coming down behind us…… Within the last couple of hundred metres of Feely Dyke, just when the end’s in sight and you can almost taste the bottle of water you stupidly left down at the cru, a few ewes and lambs split off from the main group and bolted back up the island.  Dogs and weary bodies were dispatched to retrieve them and we managed to get most of them back to join the others.

So what is the purpose of the caa?  Well, on this occasion, we had several jobs to do: a) all this year’s lambs were taken out and shared between the crofts; b) the rams were all taken out and moved to a secure field further south where they’ll be kept until we put them back to the hill for tupping; c) the ewes had their feet checked and were dosed; d) a count was done of all the ewes so that each croft knows what its hill share stands at for the year.

It was a long but satisfying day and, once the lambs had been delivered round the various crofts, it was great end to the day to see my hill lambs settling into their new surroundings!

The Road to Hell……

They say ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, well I’ve had so many good intentions with this blog that I must surely have passed through hell and be well and truly ensconced in Purgatory by now.  On a plus note, I guess it means that Paradise can’t be that far away……

I started the blog full of enthusiasm and, yes, good intention, seeing it as the perfect platform for sharing updates and photos with friends and family of our move to Fair Isle and our first year (and onwards) here.  The enthusiasm hasn’t ebbed, but somehow there is always something more pressing, something that demands my time and the poor old blog is continually relegated to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list.

My initial feeling was that each post should be meaningful, well thought out, crafted, put together and clearly considered.  In my mind, of course, this translates to ‘time’ and so, whenever I’ve thought ‘ooh, I should put a blog post up about this’, the next thought is always ‘oh, it’ll have to wait till I’ve done x, y, z, a, b, c, etc.’ and so another day passes, and another, and another, and now it’s, what, nine months since the last proper post?

So I’m trying to change my mindset now and accept that the people who follow this blog are just interested in what we’re doing, what’s been happening around the croft, whether we’ve survived the latest Storm unscathed and that the length of post is almost immaterial, as long as I post something!

I don’t know whether to try and catch you up with everything that’s happened since last summer or to make a fresh start anew with what’s happening NOW.  Perhaps a combination of the two.  At the moment we are about a week away from the start of our first lambing season, a prospect about which I’m terrified and excited in equal measure. We are doing the last few repairs to fencing, so that the lambs can be turned out safely, and Shaun has been busy building lambing pens in the byre out of old pallets.  On the animal front we now have three dogs (Nieve, Scott and Lyra), three cats (Ruffalo, Scampi and Tortuga), three hens (Posy, Perkin and Pootle), one grumpy ram (Gordon), 32 ewes (I shan’t list all their names) and 15 gimmers (or theirs) – young ewes that have not had a lamb yet.  Spring is finally making herself known: the daffodils are appearing, there’s frogspawn in the pond, the skylarks are singing and migrant birds are being sighted and there’s slightly less of a chill in the air……

 

Happy New Year

I know it’s been a while, and you probably thought we’d disappeared off the face of the earth, but we’re still here! Just a very brief post to wish you all a happy New Year and a peaceful and prosperous 2016.

As you can probably imagine, one of my resolutions is to be a more frequent blogger……

  

An Amazing End to a Beautiful Day…

(This was from Thursday but didn’t post!)

We’ve had such a beautiful day here on Fair Isle today – one of those days when there’s nowhere else on earth you’d rather be. Blue skies, sunshine, a bit of warmth to the chill wind we’ve had of late – the island comes alive. Tuesday was my and Shaun’s one-year anniversary and I thought I’d done pretty well in getting him ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy on DVD. He went one better (or, actually, several better) and arranged for Kenny to take us out on his boat this afternoon. We could not have had a better day for it and HUGE thanks to Kenny for such a brilliant surprise (and to Shaun for arranging it)!! We did some rod and line fishing and Shaun and Kenny caught five big Pollock and a massive Piltock, then we went on a tour round the entire island – something I’ve been desperate to do ever since first coming to Fair Isle last year. At some point I’ll try and post the photos I took on my ‘proper’ camera but, in the meantime, I hope you enjoy these phone-shots from today.  

   
         

Last Post Today, I Promise……

I know, I don’t post anything for weeks and then today you get three posts. Just thought I’d share some photos of the veg we’re growing at the moment – all given to us by very kind people on the island. It might not be the most exotic or exciting collection but it’s a start and we’re thrilled with it all!!

   
       

Twice in One Day……

Elena is due back in on this afternoon’s plane so I thought I’d make the most of her internet one last time. Shaun and I have had a really productive day in the garden so I thought I’d share some photos with you.