Friday, 14 October 2016

A walk in the rain forest.......... Things to do around Kilchoan

Sunart Rain Forest in early morning mist
Yes.... rain forest. The Sunart oak woods are officially and ecologically classed as "Temperate rain forest". These woods do have something in common with the seasonal tropical rain forest; "epiphytes"... orchids and ferns in the topics;  liverworts and mosses here in the N.W.Highlands.

Sunart also has some similarities with the coastal rain forest of the Pacific Northwest; epiphytes, high annual rainfall, sea mist and clean air.

Constant rain enables trees to grow on the thinnest soils, you often see quite large trees, usually Rowan growing on the tops of boulders ,its the rain that enables this. Our clean Atlantic air means that the lichens and mosses flourish ,  their absence is a good indicator of pollution.

Park at the RSPB car park just west of the entrance to Glenborrowdale Castle then follow the footpath from the road side up into the big old oaks. Yesterday the the sun shone, roe deer had been up the track before us, a pine marten left it's shiny black turds full of rowan skins on a rock. No eagles and no red deer on the surrounding hills but it's enough to know that they are there somewhere.

You emerge on to the road east of the distillery with a short walk to the Nature Centre with it's excellent cafe and lunch.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Lost farming skills

A couple of weeks ago I watched a huge John Deere tractor direct drilling winter wheat into the stubble of the previous bean crop. A process that used to involve at least ploughing, cultivating, drilling and rolling is now done in one pass by a tractor that is computer controlled and guided by a GPS system. The driver was there presumably to switch the machine on and off and to take it home on the road.

I used to think that farm workers were some of the most skilled people who had a vast fund of knowledge gained largely informally by experience over lifetimes. Computers and robotics de-skill the workforce so that they become machine minders, there to deal with malfunctions and breakdowns. Not much better than working in a call centre.

Do it "wrong" and there's a good chance the horse will bolt forward and
kick up her heels
 flattening you when you release her
A horseman would have been the equivalent of that tractor minder a hundred years ago. Now how many people could turn a horse and cart into a field without taking out the gate post; or put a horse between the shafts of a cart and then load the cart safely. A gang of five or six of us used to "single" turnips by hand with hoes.  What would happen if cyber warfare hackers destroyed the GPS or control software? Just in case, I thought I'd show you how some of these things are done. I found them in an old training manual for the," Women's Land Army" published in 1941.

I'll hang on to it, you never know when it might be needed again.

Cornish Game cockerels are faster growing than La bresse

Cornish game centre
Until scientific quantitative genetics was applied to poultry breeding in the 1950s most table chickens were pure bred Light Sussex, Indian game, Dorking ....  a whole range of traditional pure breeds that grew slowly to heavy weights. Then growth rate and feed conversion efficiency became the main selection criteria. This resulted in today's fast growing, industrially produced broilers in your supermarket.

Supermarket chicken has the taste and texture of soggy cardboard ( except perhaps for free range organic brands). Traditional table breeds, raised on grass, fed on grain and finished at anything up to five months of age are completely different. The difference is like that between farmed salmon and wild caught salmon. Wild caught fish have better texture and flavour.

This year I hatched some Cornish Game just to find out how fast they grew and what they tasted like when compared with my La Bresse poultry. In France La Bresse are a real luxury, people are prepared to spend up to fifty Euros for one. You can see them displayed in chill cabinets, still with the head on and their distinctive blue feet and legs to make sure that they are genuine.

Cook and chickens
This morning when I weighed a carcass of each the Cornish Game weighed 3.6 kg at 20 weeks and the La Bresse 2.3 kg at the same age. The Cornish Game had grown fifty per cent faster under the same conditions. Of course this wasn't a properly replicated and controlled randomised trial. It also appeared that the CG had more breast meat than the LB.

On Thursday they will be cooked by Mrs. Campbell and then tasted by a panel of five. Results on Friday.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Re-introducing lynx to Scottish woodlands.... what a great idea!

I saw lynx once; they were kittens, two of them lying in the sun on a rock by a Canadian river. The memory is still vivid after 50 years.  Beautiful, elusive, shy, hunters they live deep in the woods (boreal forest ) surrounding the earth south of the tundra. They once lived in Scotland and there is a remote chance that they could be re-introduced.

Of course there are powerful interests ranged against the idea, " sheep will be killed, livelihoods will be at risk" cry the NFU (National Farmers Union) and the SCF (Scottish Crofters Federation) of which I'm a member. No doubt the deer stalking and shooting lobbies will add to the clamour. In Canada they live largely on lemmings (voles) and snow shoe hares. Here they would be
 powerful enough to kill deer calves and we have too many of them anyway.

The occasional lamb might well be killed if it strayed deep into the forest but the total will be far less than the 10 per cent of the annual crop lost near birth to starvation, exposure and disease each spring. Income from tourism exceeds that from sheep in the crofting counties and it's growing. Visitors come for the landscapes, the peace and quiet and the wildlife.

I would just like to know that lynx were living out there I don't need to see one. But if you want a utilitarian argument and a justification in dollars or pounds sterling - introduce the lynx and more visitors would come. Just to know that there was large cat ( about the size of a slim Labrador) among the trees would enhance their experience and there would always be a chance, however slim, that they might see one, or a pair of kittens sunbathing.

If you want to find out more just google, re-introduction of the lynx to Britain.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Mrs. Cheadle's Twilight Home for Chickens

Another downside to free range
Every year millions of old hens, usually at about 18 months of age are slaughtered to make room for the next batch of young layers. They mostly end up in pet food or meat pies. Birds are caught by casual workers employed by gang masters. They do the job at night. Hens are packed in plastic crates and hauled by lorry to an abattoir for slaughter. My hens are more fortunate.

After two years as laying hens producing eggs for sale and for hatching my old hens went off to the seaside this morning to live out their days on Mrs. Cheadle's croft at Sanna. I am very fortunate in having someone who is prepared to do this.
2016 pullets and cockerels now liberated from this rearing pen
As hens grow older they lay fewer eggs but the eggs do tend to be bigger. Large intensive commercial egg producers can't afford to keep them on but Sue Cheadle is prepared to keep them until they literally fall off their perches. She likes hens and is a kind person.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, this year's crop of pullets have the place to themselves and aren't being bullied by the old girls. They are busy sorting out a new pecking order, in the sun, ranging over the fields, roads and garden where they have just stripped the last of the pelargoniums. This is the downside of free range poultry keeping.

In return for Mrs. Cheadle's kindness I should add that she has just started a new business,"Sanna Spice Indian Cuisine" . A complete range of Indian dishes are cooked to order and delivered after 6.00 pm. Tel.01972 510760. I am just about to have my lamb bhuna.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Walk in an ancient forest - South Loch Arkaig

Alder groves on the Arkaig river
The Woodland Trust and the Arkaig Community Forest group are trying to buy the Loch Arkaig and Glen Mallie pinewoods from the Forestry Commission. Yesterday I went to have a look at this remnant of the Great Wood of Caledon. Outside of the wood it was hot and dry. Then I stepped into a shaded, cool and fragrant forest for a five kilometre walk through groves of ancient trees.

Venerable oaks

Alder groves line both banks of the River Arkaig perhaps to same extent they did 2000 years before the Romans arrived in Britain. Giant venerable oaks clothed in lichen, mosses and ferns line the track together with birch, holly, rowan, alder and even a few beech. This has to be one of the finest forest walks in the West.

But no Scots Pine. It wasn't until I got out of the wood and looked back that I saw them high on the hill above the broad leaved woodland and commercial conifers planted in the 60s

It was what I expected; wide spaced gnarled old survivors with birch and heather under story. this is one of about 90 remnants in the highlands of Caledonian pine a genetically distinct and endemic sub-species, in it's own distinct pinewood ecosystem.

If you love woodland walks don't miss this one,there is a route plan on the "Walk highland" website and a Woodland Trust video at The Trust are planning to restore pinewood by removing the spruces and lodgepole pine, encouraging natural regeneration,  new planting of native species and of controlling deer and sheep. I should add that the pinewood is also habitat for wildcats, pine martens and a whole range of birds.

Pinewood above the birch and conifers
If you want to stay, there's the MBA's Invermallie bothy where I had my lunch on  chair in the sun..

Monday, 22 August 2016

Tough old trees

Older than me and much tougher
Hawthorn grows anywhere and everywhere; on the coast, halfway up mountains, along railway tracks and even on the roofs of abandoned buildings.

My hawthorns have to be the toughest of all, there are only a few but the oldest must be seventy to a hundred years old. This hardy old tree has withstood Atlantic gales, snow, frost, drought, sheep grazing, deer browsing , salt spray and countless other abuses but this year it doesn't have any berries, neither do the other hawthorns on my boundary.

Another hawthorn of similar age blew down some years ago, before I came here, and has continue to grow while horizontal on the ground. This despite having over the years grown round and enveloped a steel fence post that is now almost lost within it's trunk. It has produced berries in previous years but not this year.

An internet search hasn't produced an answer I can only surmise that the deep frost we had at the start of May damaged the flowers and prevented fertilisation.

The rusty spike sticking out of the wall is an axle from an old farm cart used as a straining post many years ago.

Steel post enveloped by the trunk