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

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Buzzards making hay while the sun shines

vole spotting 
Just as sea gulls learned to follow the plough hundreds of years ago, buzzards follow the silage making equipment. They seem to know each operation; mowing, turning, windrowing and finally baling. The don't bother much when the grass is turned and spread in the sun but when the drying grass is rowed up ready for the baler and there are clear strips between the rows they are circling over the hay park or perched on a fence post.

It's mainly voles that they are after, small furry chaps that hide under the cut grass. As soon as there is some clear ground between the rows and less cover for the voles the buzzards are here. This evening after the bales are cleared and stacked the birds will be back patiently waiting. Their telescopic eyesight can see a rabbit, I have read, from a mile away so the voles don't have much chance when the bird is only 100m up in the air.

Fewer places to hide
The old cockerel gets a bit agitated, as soon as he sees an airborne predator he calls to the hens,"Oi... there's a buzzard up there" and they scurry away under cover.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Cabin fever and the long term weather forecast

I first heard stories of "cabin fever" in Canada 50 years ago. Trappers and Prospectors living in extreme isolation deep in the winter woods were affected when days were short and food monotonous.  They often ran out of tobacco and cigarette papers then became seriously bored with each others company. The early symptoms included lying in bed all day shooting mice in the roof, with rifles.  When they tired of this they frequently shot their partners.

Then there was the 2002 movie "Cabin Fever" a horror film  universally panned that had an approval rating of 0%. It involved a group of students weekending in a remote cabin, the usual assortment of mad dog, drifters and neighbours plus a flesh eating virus.

Here in W. Ardnamurchan it's a bit different. In August the days are quite long, I don't have to eat pine marten, I don't smoke, my neighbours are mostly sane and I have just shot the last mouse.

No, it's the bloody incessant rain, gloom, grey skies and being housebound by the weather that causes stress, anxiety and glumness. Even Mimi the cat just sits and stares out of the window all day. On the bright side. I checked the Norwegian , BBC and XC weather forecasts Sunday will be dry! sunny! and warm!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Black Rain over Ardnamurchan

Wet hens and the Isle of Mull
The rain has been non-stop for three days, there were 30 mm overnight and no sign of it letting up. I feels almost like the Brahan Seer's prediction that, " black rain will come to Ardnamurchan and all the sheep will go blind".

Kenneth Mackenzie (the Brahan Seer) lived in the early part of the 16 th century and was gifted (or cursed depending on your view) with second sight when he looked through a hole in a stone (the "seeing stone" ) that he found as a boy on the Isle of Lewis.

He made what seemed bizarre predictions that came to pass long after his death; the building of the Caledonian Canal, the Second World War and many more including the "black rain" prophecy It hasn't happened yet, it just feels like it today.

These  continuously  wet, grey miserable days brought his long term forecast to mind. We should have made the haylage two weeks ago, no exterior painting of the house has been possible.

Kilchoan Bay and Ben Hiant in Summer

Friday, 22 July 2016

Champion cheviot gimmer

Pick the winner
Before going any further, a gimmer is one of last year's ewe lambs and Nan breeds Cheviots, white, hornless hardy sheep. In the picture below they are orange or gold this is how they are shown. Sixty years ago in lowland Scotland the hills of Perthshire lit up in the evening by these golden fleeces.
then it was not for showing, the sheep had been dipped with nicotine dip to kill parasites.

The champion should have a long, flat, wide back; rounded haunches and a tight fleece. you can pick the winner from the second image. These are characteristics that mean the lambs are well muscled and fleshed out when slaughtered and hopefully this gimmer will pass on her best characteristics to her offspring.

Nan has had the champion three times now. She isn't only a shepherd, she drives the fire engine, is a member of the Coastguard team and plays in goal for Kilchoan ladies football team.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Plant hunting in the rain

Northern marsh orchid
Mull appeared out of the cloud and murk at lunchtime, for the first time since Friday. the rain has been continuous and heavy. Visitors come here to see wildlife, eagles and otters are top of their lists usually but eagles tend to hole up at home in this weather and sitting above the shore hoping for an otter isn't much fun. However down at your feet, at the roadside up to Ormsaigbeg there's a linear nature reserve in full flower.

Roadside verges in the lowlands tend to be dominated by vigorously growing grasses and cow parsley. these things respond to the fertilisers that drift out of the fields and can outcompete less vigorous species. High fertility results in low diversity as a rule.

Here our thin soils, high rainfall and very little fertiliser lead to high diversity and at this time of year among the plant life it is astounding and extremely colourful. You don't need binoculars or brilliant eyesight, plants move rather slowly.

I felt a bout of "cabin fever" coming on at lunchtime so set off up the hill in the rain, head down and walking slowly in plant hunting mode. Probably most exotic are the northern marsh orchids only inches from your wheels when you drive up the hill. Then there are all of those species that were common in the lowlands fifty years ago;  vetch, wild pea, harebell,thyme, bell heather, bugle, the list goes on.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Cornish game - The Texels of the poultry world

Texel sheep are seriously ugly, they look as if they just collided head on with a bus but they grow fast, have great meaty carcasses and the butchers like them. Cornish Game ( also known as Indian Game) are the feathered equivalent although definitely not ugly.

The breed has its origins in Cornwall during the 19th century. Breeders crossed the Red Aseel a pugnacious fighting cock with the Malay and Black Red game to produce a table bird of great quality. Built like a Japanese Sumo wrestler with a broad muscular chest, a good bone structure to carry a lot of flesh and a friendly temperament the Cornish Game became the meat breed of choice.

In the USA they developed a slightly smaller but equally meaty white version which in the 20th century provided the basic set of genes for the broiler chicken. Quantitative genetics, scientific breeding, commercial expertise and demand for cheap poultry meat signalled the end of big roasting chickens that were anything up to six months old at slaughter, broilers were cooked and eaten at three months old. Since then after perhaps 100 generations of selective breeding broilers arrive in your supermarket at nine weeks old.

It is still possible to find good strains of Cornish if you want to taste real roast chicken or Coq au Vin. I was able to find some eggs, in Cornwall, earlier this year and these birds are now ten weeks old,  four cocks and three hens. Three cocks to eat and the best one for breeding next year.