Coo school

Today was our first day at coo (Scottish for cow) school. Well….. sort of….. As we’ve never had our own cows before, we thought now is the time to learn before we have our own stomping all over the croft (and us!).Up here, as well as a great view, we also have great neighbours who have pledged to give us a hand in learning the ropes of keeping livestock. So when neighbouring crofter Heather asked if we’d like to come over to help with her cows today, we gladly took her up on her offer.

Heathers cows were having a visit from the vet. Before we arrived Heather and Hamish had done the hard job of gathering all the cows into the shed. From that point we helped to herd the first lot into a smaller pen, ready for the vet. Using a bit of blue plastic tubing to give them the occasional prod (or whack if needed!), we started to get into the swing of it.

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They’re clearly having a great time in here….

 

The calves were up first and they needed to be tested for BVD (nasty cattle disease). The calves, one by one, were ushered into the crush and the vet took a small blood sample from the tail of each one. We watched the exciting stuff from the side-lines whilst filling in the paperwork, recording the ear tag number of each one and the corresponding sample the vet had taken.

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One of the cows in the crush

 

Then it was time for the big girls! Just like the calves each cow was ushered into the crush but this time it was for something completely different. The vet re-appeared with a back pack and a cable attached, a strange head set with glasses and a loooooong plastic glove that was only going one place….. It was time to diagnose who was pregnant and when the new calf might be arriving! One by one the cows stood patiently as the vet did what she needed to do (exact details not required). On the end of the cable was a camera which sent images of inside the cow to the inside of the glasses she was wearing (yep, amazing…). The images were so clear that Heather even saw one of the unborn calves blink!

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The vet in action

 

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Heather opening the crush to let the cow out when all was done

 

And at the end of the day, the outcome couldn’t have been better and come late Winter/early Spring we should start to see some new-borns emerging. We’re definitely volunteering to help with that job!

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Screefing till the sun goes down

Those of you who have had the pleasure of planting trees will be familiar with the verb ‘to screef’.  It’s a term commonly used in the treeplanting world and means to clear a space in the vegetation into which the tree will later be planted. It’s extremely important to get the wee saplings off to as good a start as possible, especially when they are planted into an area of extreme climate and challenging soil conditions (our site has both to offer). So one important factor is to minimise competition for water, nutrients and light by surrounding plants. Queue screefing!

Vegetation control can be done in various ways – we’ve decided to go for two of the most backbreaking options. Believe me, screefing sounds like a ‘cool’ word, but cancel any gym subscriptions if screefing is what you want to spend your winter doing.

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Brushcutting

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Got to make the most of that daylight these days…

As most of our hillside is covered in heather, herbicides wouldn’t prove to be very effective (and we’d rather avoid using them where we can) and we opted not to create mounds of exposed soil with a digger, as the disturbance to already existing pine regeneration would be too great. Hence we’re using a brushcutter to clear small patches. It won’t kill the heather, but as it’s slow in growing back, it will give the trees a head start. And an addition of fertiliser will provide the saplings with a further boost.

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Mattock screefing – a perfect workout for one’s abs

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Laying out the wooden stakes

We’ve been using the mattock in areas of grass and bracken to clear the top layer of turf and expose the soil.

Part of the tree planting preparation is to mark the cleared spots with wooden stakes and bamboo canes. Not only will this make it easier to find them when it comes to planting, the stakes and canes are also what the tree guards will be attached to.

Areas with big populations of rabbits (which will have to be hit back this winter) and dense bracken have all been marked with wooden stakes, which will have mesh guards attached to them once the tree goes in. These guards are high enough to protect the trees from ever-hungry rabbits, but will also provide a bit of stability once the bracken starts to collapse in autumn (although we do plan to keep the bracken down as much as possible).

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A fine sight – the gully being decorated with 3000 stakes

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The areas above the gully have been marked with bamboo canes, as we’ll only be using vole guards there (they don’t need much to hold them in place). There seem to be vole runs everywhere so better to be safe than sorry. We currently have 8000 canes in place and as my father pointed out, the hill is beginning to resemble a giant hedgehog!

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One of the big challenges? Trying to work in random patterns and avoid straight lines (us humans seem to be designed to work in regimented lines)

What about the deer you ask?

Well, as we explained in the last blog article, the croft will be stalked regularly. However we have currently got a team of dedicated fencers here turning the planting area into our version of Fort Knox. The posts for the deer fence are almost all in place and even now before the netting is on, one can imagine what a strong and effective deterrent this will be. Lucky trees!

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Our march and formerly stockfence being transformed into a mighty deer fence

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All that needs to be done after the fence goes up is to mark it with canes to make it visible to low-flying birds like grouse.

If all goes well, we’ll be able to complete the planting preparation before the arrival of any heavy snowfall. And then the wait begins until spring when the rewarding job of creating our woodland begins…

 

Oh deer

We are well into the winter up here in the Highlands. Snow (or more like cold, wet sleet) has been falling on and off all weekend and it’s been somewhat of a shock to the system…. The wind hasn’t actually cut us in two yet but at this rate we may need to go straight for a double thermal whammy. Single layers just don’t figure up here…

With the autumn foliage nearly off the trees and the ground vegetation dying back, we’re seeing lots more deer across Lynbreck. We mainly get Roe Deer but there is a big population of Red Deer in neighbouring Abernethy.

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This is a big Red Stag spotted a couple of months ago. It’s amazing how close you can get to these huge animals

Roe deer are a beautiful and elegant native Scottish animal. But there are lots of them. Lots. In fact lots and lots and lots. Apart from us humans, Roe Deer have no other predators (although we’ve heard of a Sea Eagle carrying off a new born before but that doesn’t much happen). And the thing is, Roe Deer just LOVE newly planted trees. Do you see where we’re going with this?

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This wee Rowan tree is on the edge of one of our existing woodlands. It’s not a great picture but you can see that one of the top branches has a white bit at the end. That’s where it’s been snipped off by a Roe Deer

So our new trees will be surrounded by a deer fence to keep them safe. But it still means that we have to keep a close eye on things. Deer have been known to jump these fences in some situations and can you blame them? Imagine a whole 10hectares of your favourite food, taunting you….

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But it’s not just eating the trees. Roe Deer (and others) can damage trees by rubbing their antlers to remove the velvet or mark territories. This causes a lot of damage to the bark and can kill the tree

But we also need to start reducing the population across the whole croft. Our existing woodlands are a safe haven for deer and they’re also a feeding ground. Any tasty natural regenerating trees and flowers will be munched – if the rabbits don’t get to them first that is.

So all this means a call to action. Any deer shot on site will be skinned and butchered and put into our freezer for winter casseroles and stews. Nothing will be wasted where we can help it. The phrase ‘it’s a tough job but someone’s gotta do it’ springs to mind – but it’s meant in a very literal sense.

Deer, oh dear, oh dear.