Happy Solstice

It’s been a few weeks since our last blog post but that’s not to say we’ve not been incredibly busy as usual. We did manage a little bit of a rest with a few days of holiday respite but apart from that it’s been full steam ahead as ever.

For those of you who follow us on Facebook, you’ll know that we’ve been working away on our shiny new deer fence that’s been going up. We’ve been attaching bamboo canes to the upper section of the fence which helps to deter birds from flying into it. We are in a hotspot for Capercaillie and Black Grouse, 2 birds which are in decline, so it’s important we do everything we can to avoid any casualties.

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The newly built and newly marked fence on the left snaking up the hill to protect the existing and new-to-be-planted trees

We’re starting to feel the challenge of living in a place where, at this time of the year, daylight kicks in at around 8.30 and starts to diminish by 3.30pm. It feels like such a short window of time to try and do so much in. So that’s why we are much relieved that today is Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year – when from that point on the days will start to slowly stretch out again.

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This is a picture of our view to the north. We get this amazing winter light that makes everything look yellow

Winter Solstice takes on a whole new dimension living in an area of practically no light pollution, away from street lamps and traffic. Out here in the country, darkness is VERY DARK. Which means that unless you have lighting set up outdoors, the early onset of night leaves no choice but to head inside (and that’s when we desperately invent as many reasons as possible to delay tackling that ever-growing stack of admin and grant applications!)

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A mixture of light and dark

However, Solstice seems to symbolise perfectly the meaning of living with the changing seasons. And with that come the vigorous, long days of summer and the short days of winter which allow things to slow down somewhat and regenerate. Nature’s rhythm at its best!

Now we need to take a deep breath, reflect on a very eventful 9 months on the croft and get ready to start lengthening our workdays again – we’ll take every minute we’re given. So this seems like a good time of the year to say thank you so much to all our family and friends (both old and new) for all the support and kindness you have shared with us. We have needed it and, heads up, we’re going to need some more. But for now, from us, a very heartfelt Happy Solstice.

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Happy Solstice!

 

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!

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.

 

Somewhere between T-shirt and winter woollies

Well, it looks like we’re inching our way towards our first winter at Lynbreck. The last couple of weeks have brought the first frosts and the woodburner has to spring into action most evenings these days. But hang on a minute, we’ve still got some of autumn left ahead of us! Let’s not get too carried away…

We thought we’d present you with a picture selection from this summer and the first few autumn weeks.

Summer was a slightly rainy affair at first, but the ever-changing clouds and light made it well worth it (plus we now know where to dig extra drains to stop the veg patch from flooding!)

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The sunsets weren’t too bad either…

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Flora and fauna continued to keep things interesting. However we do seem to have a lot more plant pictures than animal, the former tend to be more obliging when it comes to having their picture taken.

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An exciting discovery of a flower called Creeping ladies tresses. It’s one of the few British orchids and is found mainly in the Highlands in remnants of Caledonian Forest. We spotted it on the heathery hillside. Now that definitely calls for more trees, don’t you think?

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However flowering heather is a sight to behold too!

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These wee chappies had fledged a few days before and are by now well on their way to warmer climes.

And then October arrived with beautiful displays of autumn fog and colour. Another upside of this time of year is that we actually get to see the sunsets – in summer they waited until well after bedtime…

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We spent a great day cutting and chopping firewood a couple of weeks ago which helped stock up our supplies for next winter (good to prepare early).

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I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that those two activities will become the story of our lives…

Treewilding our croft

Well….. a few days ago we had the phone call that we’ve been waiting many months for. Our Woodland Officer Graham called to let us know that the Forestry Commission have just approved our grant application to plant 17,400 native trees (roughly…….) on our western hillside.

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It looks so bare in the distance

 

For us this is a dream come true. Well buying the croft was a dream come true but actually now starting to see our plans begin to become a reality, is just so exciting (and maybe a little terrifying, but mostly exciting).

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But we know the trees want to be there and CAN be there – just look at that natural regen!!!!

 

Increasing the number of trees at Lynbreck has always been one of our priorities and the hill ground is the ideal place for it. We’re already getting lots of natural Scots Pine popping up so we know that the trees want to grow there. In fact we would have more if it weren’t for our resident Roe Deer and rabbits but hopefully that won’t be for much longer – we’re already making space in the freezer…….

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We need lots more of these

 

And on Friday we had Willie and Eleanor from The Woodland Trust out to visit. It’s absolutely great for our little croft project to have the support of one of the major UK woodland charities. We talked about a future landscape where our native cows, and maybe even our pigs, would graze through our new and existing woodlands as well as our open fields.

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Initially we hope to use our pigs to help snuffle through and break up areas of bracken. But who’s to say they can’t go into our woodlands? Or should that be wild boar by then…….

 

So there’s lots to do now and certainly plenty to keep us busy on the now darkening autumn nights.

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This is what our dreams are made of…. planting in the snow!

 

And in other news sadly we had to say goodbye to one of our original chickens this week. Poor little thing got sickly and the prognosis wasn’t so good so we had to send her to chicken heaven. It’s all part of having working animals and the more our agricultural plans become reality, the bigger those animals will get. Our neighbour Heather shared something that she was once told: ‘if you have livestock, you have deadstock’. It’s sad but very true and all part of the crofting deal….

But onwards and upwards. We’ve now set up a Lynbreck Croft Facebook page so feel free to ‘Like’ to follow us and share far and wide!

https://www.facebook.com/lynbreckcroft/

or on Twitter

https://twitter.com/lynbreckcroft

Remember it gets dark at 3pm up here in the deepest, darkest winter….. we need something to do until those trees arrive…..

Riding the croftingcoaster

So we’re conscious we’ve been rather quiet of late on the blogging front. We just thought we’d reassure you all that it’s not because we’ve been twiddling our thumbs, staring at the beautiful view and drinking tea (although sometimes the latter do come as standard…).

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Cue inevitable ‘view’ image. This was taken last night when the light was doing some crazy things

 

So what’s the update? Well we think we’re getting there with our first agricultural grant application (don’t worry we’ll keep this short). This one is for something called a Young Farmers Start Up. In essence it’s for anyone under the age of 41 who is starting up farming or crofting for the first time. We fit the bill perfectly so we’ve been working really hard, drawing up plans and crunching numbers. It’s all about balancing the environmental decisions with starting up a viable business. Tricky enough!

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This field could do with a good old graze

 

BUT if it does all go to plan, we should have the quintessential crofting model – a few cows, pigs, bees, hens and grow some produce. It’s pretty aspirational and we’re still finalising the plan (that’s our caveat for ‘by the way this could totally change’) but we are enjoying the challenge and learning all the time.

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We’ve not done too bad on our experimental veg growing this year. As well as lots of potatoes, onions, kale, salad and swede we’ve managed….

 

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tasty carrots

 

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yummy beetroot

 

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and lots of radishes

 

The best thing though? The more we’re here, the more we realise how lucky we are to have some fantastic people around. We’ve got the most supportive, genuine, hardworking, generous, friendly neighbours we could ever have dreamt of.

And in other updates….. The tree planting project is up, then down, then up, then down, and currently down more than up (i.e. the croftingcoaster and our emotions with it!) but we are doing everything we can to make it happen.

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This tree really does need some more friends. It must happen!

 

We’ve had a busy period of friends and family visiting, all of whom have been well and truly won over by the Lynbreck effect! Our chicken numbers have now increased to 15 and we have officially started trading in eggs.

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The eggs must be good as we keep selling out! Surely that means we need more chickens….

 

But be aware of those wee chicken scamps, they’ll pinch your afternoon snack if you’re not careful……

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Yep….. they pinched our melon straight from the plate….