Am Bratach No. 310
August 2017

View from the croft gate
by John MacDonald

July once again, and as it is my birthday month I am not short of reminders that I am one more step up the ladder of life. But we should be thankful that we are still on the ladder and able to take part in most croft activity. I gave up on sheep a few years ago as I was just not fit enough to catch and coup a hefty yowe to see if her foot just needed a trim or was the problem more acute. I suppose we could have invested in an up to date handling system and a turnover pen and kept going but it seemed time that I handed over the sheep side of things to my daughter, who seems to have a flair for working with the said animal.

Indeed, in the sheep industry of today ladies seem to be making an impression, a long way removed from the traditional role of the shepherd’s wife caring for the sustenance and welfare of the clipping and handling squad of her day. I was rather impressed a week or so ago when watching a television programme about the Highland Show in Edinburgh. Not having attended this show for quite a number of years, such programmes are viewed with satisfaction.

This programme featured the lady from Am Bratach heartland who has made quite a name for herself in the sheep world of today. She was asked for her choice of sheep from the vast array on display. Looking over the popular commercial breeds of today and crosses she plumped for the wee Shetland yowe, saying how good they were as mothers and for cross breeding. I was most impressed with her choice and now I am wondering if I could handle a small hobby flock. The idea keeps me musing so you never know.

The cattle are out on their summer pasture and when I see them there all seems right with the world. For a number of years we were denied access to this traditional pasture but things change as do estates and the present boss is more amenable to having cattle graze, with an emphasis on animals from the bordering crofts. The new boss had made strict rules: cattle and horses only (strictly no sheep) and to be off the grazing by the end of September. That is what we used to do anyway. He has backed his policy up by having the fences renewed to put an end to sheep leaking onto the pasture. I am not sure what his aim is, the estate being what is termed a sporting estate and this infers tweeds and guns and things to shoot at.

The pasture land in question used to have a healthy population of rabbits and was a popular place to set snares but the rabbits have disappeared, as has most other wildlife. In the absence of the indigenous species game birds are introduced. We are quite used to having pheasants around the croft and some of the survivors become almost croft pets. Partridges are also released and I enjoy seeing them on the croft again. The introduced species is the red-leg variety. The croft of my younger days was often visited by a covey of the grey-legged partridge. They would be round the corn stack picking up seed and I suppose that this was a contributing factor to their continued existence. They were quite numerous in those days so occasionally the .22 would be taken out and one chosen for the pot. They were not as strong in flavour as was a grouse.

As expected, come July the weather reverted to unpredictability. We managed to get the sheep clipped but not having the luxury of a special shed we are vulnerable to the weather. So we had to set to and adapt the facilities which we presently have. Our biggest shed was built away back in the nineteen sixties with the storage of square baled hay in mind. For this it did indeed serve its purpose but times change and the era of the big round bale came in and our shed was not designed to store these and accommodate the movement of tractors. So it was abandoned as a hay shed and used as a general workshop, store and garage.

This year, setting a date for an outside clipping has been difficult and so eyes were turned to our workshop shed. With an expansion of some cattle gates we might just have enough room to get the sheep under cover. So a day was spent giving the shed a much needed clean out. Finding a host of long lost tools and oddments was a bonus.

The night before, the clipper was quite anxious with much watching of weather forecasts and analysing weather charts. It was mainly dry but with annoying showers. One heavy shower late in the evening saw us rush to get the sheep all inside for the morning. But seeing then all crammed inside did not seem right. An analysis of the cloud formation indicated that we take a gamble and release them out again. At least we did know that we could fit them in, just. We were lucky in that the night remained dry and come morning we got them in and the clipper arrived nice and early. To facilitate catching, various gates had been collected and tied together. But nothing works better than practice and soon adjustments were made and the system perfected. The trouble is, come next year, if we still need to use the shed, will we remember how we set up the system that worked? Our clipper has travelled the world clipping sheep and so we asked him how we compare to facilities in other parts of the world. He said that he was impressed when in New Zealand, where the clipping sheds were specially designed and laid out for the task in hand. We are thinking that perhaps it is time to set about getting a more specialised sheep shed.

Sheds built in the nineteen sixties carry a big handicap. Back then the popular roofing material was asbestos and in this world of health and safety this is a bad word. Having an asbestos roof also makes you a target for cowboy tradesmen. I am never sure where they come from but you can rest assured that the arrival of a strange van is not usually good news. “See that asbestos roof there. When did you last have it sprayed to keep it watertight? I have the last batch of spray here and we can do it for a special price.” You know fine that you are being targeted for a dubious transaction. But there is an element of truth in the observation that the roof could do with a clean and a spray but ignorant of a benchmark price with which to compare the offer leads to a fit of indecision, then I usually give in and agree to it being done, after a bit of haggling over the initial price. Something the same is happening with our machinery. Maintenance and repairs do not come cheap but to ignore them is only storing up trouble.

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