Holistic crofting

Last week Lynbreck Croft went on tour (well one of us did…) down to deepest darkest Englandshire to attend a course run by RegenAg UK on Holistic Management. We were fortunate enough to be given a scholarship place funded by Holistic Management International so we were very grateful to be in attendance.

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This was the first lesson to be learned. We’re not quite there yet….

Holistic Management is a very clever, yet very straight forward way of setting up, running and managing a farm or croft business. It’s all about setting a clear vision for what you do, planning how you’re going to do it and figuring out not just how it’s going to pay for itself but how it will actually make you a bit of cash – maybe not a millionaire but certainly a few spare coins.

 

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There were lots of different people in attendance from long established beef and diary farmers as well as aspirational farmers to representatives from bigger organisations including the National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust. And there was no sitting back and simply getting fed information – interaction and involvement was key!

 

The best thing about the whole model is that in addition to the business side, it pays particular attention to good environmental land management. It’s all about having healthy, organic matter rich soils that grow plentiful herb and wildflower rich grasslands providing food for happy, relaxed cows.

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On Day Two we saw grazing in action. With tenant farmer Rob Havard, we visited a National Trust estate where planned mob grazing is producing astonishing results

 

How does this happen? Well it’s a mutually beneficial relationship based on entirely natural principles. In its simplest form, good soils produce (or have the ability to produce) good forage for cows. In return cows help to keep the grass growth vigorous and fertilise constantly through poops and pees. The trick is to keep the cows moving regularly so that they don’t eat too much or too little of one area and the natural fertiliser is spread across your whole grazing area. Another clever trick is to give the cows some wildflower seeds in their mineral licks. Once it works its way through, the cows are effectively spreading new seeds to help introduce/keep/spread a mix of herbs and wildflowers. AND as an added bonus, overtime these soils will grow in organic matter and perform a similar role to trees in helping to lock up carbon!

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There are only 2 words to describe this scene – Happy cows!

 

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But we had to do some work as well. Measuring the grass sward and using these figures to help us calculate how much grass there was across an area and then how many cows it could feed. This then helps to determine how big a mobile paddock has to be to provide enough food per day for the cows

 

It all sounds a bit too good to be true eh? But we think we might just give it a go. There’s lots of thinking to do, planning to do and figuring out to do but if it does work (and there are plenty of examples to back this up) well we might just be on to a winner. Let’s just see how we go…..

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Oh and there was one other highlight. Fantastic food provided for us every day by course co-ordinator Natasha, with food mostly sourced from the produce of participants farms. We weren’t able to contribute as much as others (yet, I hasten to add….) but we happily brought some eggs from our chooks.

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The cycle of life

This week provided us with a very thought-provoking experience. It has made us think a lot about the cycle of life and the role we are allowed to play in it. We think living ‘on and off’ the land is all to do with respect for life, as well as respect for death.

A few days ago I shot my first roe deer (see previous blog post for background). I had been out stalking a few times previous but came back empty handed. However this week I got myself into a position where I knew it was now or never. After watching it through the scope of my rifle for about a minute, I pulled the trigger.

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This little makeshift hut was here when we bought the croft. It provides good cover from which to stalk over the gully

 

What happened afterwards is now a haze. The whole thing was over in about 10 seconds. But what I do know is that from the point of committing to the shot, the focus centred on ensuring a quick, respectful death. When it was all over we quietly gralloched it on the hill, removed its head, buried the lot and carried it home.

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Our make shift larder – table, butchers saw and a gambrel on a pulley (to hang the carcass). Ignore the rest of the mess in there….

 

We have made a make shift larder in the croft house so on our return we skinned it, butchered it, bagged it and it all went into the freezer. It was really important for us to make sure that we used as much of the animal as we could and everything else would be returned to nature. After that we had a VERY large dram….

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Some of the larger cuts of meat we butchered

 

So in summary the whole ordeal was quite a new and humbling experience, and one that will happen again in the future. This is something we believe we have to do and is an integral part of our woodland establishment, croft management and land stewardship. The deer I killed lived a good life eating unimproved and untreated (pesticide or herbicide treated) grass, flowers and trees. Its meat will be full of natural goodness. If we can raise our livestock to have as good a life, eating vegetation rich in a mixture of flowers and grasses and a bit of rough grazing that is as good quality, well then our work here will be done.

 

So enough for now. Time to start preparing the venison for dinner tonight. Happy New Year one and all!

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…