Not a great deal happens on the croft during the winter months, just a meander around the estate to check the fences and the giant hedge, cast an eye over the desolate vegetable and cottage garden and scan the beach for driftwood. I also look in the polytunnel on a regular basis to ensure that all is well with the over-wintering plants and what is left of the winter veg and herbs, and to get out of the wind for a few minutes. Ideally all the hedge and grass cutting, muck spreading and general maintenance should be completed before the autumn equinox, and with the freezer and store cupboard full of garden produce and preserves, the gardeners should be ready to snooze by the fire until the spring. In reality it is only in years when we have a calm, dry autumn that all the jobs are completed. Last year the autumn was wet, which is why I’ve still not finished the muck spreading, but on the Hebridean time scale this is not a serious problem. The days are now noticeably longer, but I rarely begin planting in the vegetable garden until late April and even if it’s not too wet, too cold or too dry, the weather can be very unpredictable. It has taken a while, but I have now come to terms with the fact that our growing season is very short and there is little to be gained by starting too early.
Muck and seaweed spreading may not be the most romantic of the winter chores, but on a bright, cold winter morning it can be invigorating and leaning on my fork to rest from my labours I can appreciate that I have a muck heap with an unrivalled view! It is one of the most important of my winter chores, as the annual application of organic matter is essential for maintaining the health of our soil. Our thin sandy soil needs nurturing and not force feeding with heavy applications of fertiliser. A think blanket of muck also reduces the loss of our precious top soil by wind erosion, and although it may look unkempt, until the vegetable beds are manured they keep a thatch of weeds and plant debris to help retain the soil.
Fortunately when it comes to managing our grassland I have some help. We use a system of conservation grazing to maintain biodiversity and to ensure that each summer there is a wonderful array of wild flowers and grasses, an abundant supply of insects for our nesting birds, plenty of bumblebees and hoverflies to pollinate the flowers, and butterflies and moths to delight the eye. In the autumn and early winter our neighbour’s heifers wander over the headland munching that last of the sweet grasses and carrying out a little light manuring. There are however, some areas of the croft which cannot to be grazed by cattle or cut by the mower. Over the years the grass has become progressively more tussocky so that it is now deep enough to hide a colony of penguins and consequently the wild flowers have started to diminish. Fortunately specialist help is not too far away.
One of our friends has a small flock of Hebridean sheep and is always grateful for the offer of extra grazing, even the rough tussocky kind. Our native breed of sheep, are small and lightweight, perfect for grazing on fragile, sandy soils, and will happily munch even coarse tussocky grass. They remind me more of small goats than sheep and have a mischievous glint to their pale golden eyes. As long as they are well-fed they are content to stay, but otherwise they can be prone to wander and a gate or a cattle grid is not a major obstacle.
If you are a vegetarian, please skip this next bit. Hebridean sheep are slow to mature and they are usually finished as hogget (meat from lambs over 1 year of age) or mutton (from sheep over 2 years old). The meat is dark, lean and has a slightly gamey flavour, which is what you would expect from animals raise on unimproved grassland feeding on a wide range of plants and grasses. The native breeds can be reared and finished on the island which is a more ecologically and economically sound way of producing meat in an environment with is best described as agriculturally challenging.
One of the islands’ great assets is the machair (coastal grassland), but to conserve this rare and important habitat the land has to be managed and conservation grazing is the only option if we wish to maintain the biodiversity. Rearing our small, native breeds of sheep and cattle is currently as uneconomic as raising the larger breeds of sheep and cattle which get sent to the mainland to be finished, but environmentally they have a great deal more to offer.