Sold!

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Last Sunday I got a call from the MacDougalls from the neighbouring croft to say they were taking some of their lambs to the first sale of the year in Fort William and would have some space left in their trailer if I wanted to get my lambs away too. It was a welcome offer, especially as it would also mean I could head straight from the mart to visit my wife in the hospital over the weekend without having to take home a trailer first so the following day I booked in all 8 lambs for my first sale.

Catalogue

I have often heard that the worst place to be in a sale is last in the ring – the buyers tend to already have bought all they are after so the price falls away as folk lose interest. The second worst place to be in the sale is first – which is where it turned out my name was drawn in the catalogue, but seeing how it was my first sale anyway I was already holding cautious hopes regarding the price my lambs would fetch.

As the day of the sale grew closer I decided to keep 2 lambs back for myself The first one of the year “21” was noticeably bigger than the rest of the group so I was keen to keep it for the freezer – but seeing as it was also my father’s favourite and he had made it quite tame that ambition was unlikely. The other had breeding potential – or so I thought until I turned it over and found it was actually a wether. In the end I kept back the first and last of the lambs: “21” and “28” – both ewe lambs.

Decision made as to who was staying and who was going it was off to Fort William with a big bag of nerves and excitement. At the mart I met Paul, the auctioneer who kept me right when I was buying at Dingwall  the year before. Again he was really helpful and told me the lambs should go into the ring in 3 groups; the biggest 2 followed by the single tup lamb then the final 3. The MacDougalls kept me and my lambs right as they were moved from their pen towards the ring.

After a quick ring of the bell I was into the ring with the first 2 and within a couple of minutes all 6 were sold and I was a wee bit richer. As things turned out I didn’t embarrass myself with the price I got for my lambs – they averaged £44 compared with the sale average of £39.14 so a good morning’s work and a great start to the weekend.

Sale Report

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An Inspector Calls

About a month ago I got a call from my mother while I was out at work to say someone had parked by their house but had then disappeared up over the croft. She had bumped into the man on his return while she was collecting the mail at the door – as it turned out it was an inspector from SGRPID. I was worried about what the outcome would be of the inspection and what he was looking for. As it turns out he was checking the boundaries of the croft, and he came back to finalise his inspection and discuss his findings today.

Thankfully there were no major inaccuracies: a wee tweak here, a wee reduction there. In particular he said that the south eastern corner of the croft was too overgrown to be included on the croft’s grazing map – so getting it back knocked into shape and back on the map will be this winter’s priority. It’s full of old coppiced hazel trees, overgrown hawthorns and clumps of gorse so will probably take a few weekends’ worth of sawing, chopping, burning and strimming.

Showtime!

The local agricultural show in the North of Mull, the Salen Show was on the 8th of August this year. While I had been to it before many times, in many ways it was a first for me – first as a member of the organising team, first as a helper setting up the field the day before, and a first as a competitor’s helper rather than just a spectator. I had been thinking about entering a lamb for the show myself but the eartags I ordered came with the wrong flock number on them so were useless. Instead I helped Alan with his Cheviot entries and started the day by meeting him early at his field to load the sheep.

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He was keen to get to the show field early so as to unload the sheep before there was too much traffic on the main road,  as well as to get a pen near the ring.

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It was a dry, bright morning and it wasn’t long before the remainder of the pens started filling up with other Cheviots, Texels, Hebrideans and of course Blackies.

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At the show the Blackies are in a league of their own and even have their own ring. The bigger farms on the island tend to enter Blackface sheep rather than other breeds, though most of them have Cheviot flocks too. The Blackface have a certain prestige and at one point when I had to wrestle an escaped Cheviot back to its pen I got jeered at from the Blackie competitors for having such an unworthy sheep near their prized Blackies.

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As well as all the sheep there were of course Highland and various other breeds of cattle on show, as well as hens, horses and dogs.

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Despite the austere reputation of the Blackface sheep at the show the Cheviots had the last laugh as the best Blackface sheep went into the ring against the best “Other” sheep at the Show, this year’s being a Cheviot lamb from R & S MacDougall’s flock – and the superb Cheviot won.

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With the serious business of sheep judging and the awarding of rosettes over by the early afternoon Alan and myself, along with most of the other crofters and sheep farmers, headed to the beer tent for a few lemonades. After more than a couple of drams I tried but failed to win the “Toss the Sheep” competition. All in all a great day.

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Dressing Up

I got a call from my crofting mentor Alan to see if I was interested in seeing how the sheep are prepared for the shows.  He’s got a special beauty booth and was going to be helping Iain, one of the other Tobermory crofters, get his sheep ready for the first of the local agricultural shows on Mull in Bunessan. It was a lovely day and I had nothing major planned so jumped at the chance to join in.

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Up at the field the sheep were already penned in and ready to go.

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On the back of the trailer the tools of the trade were already at hand – the socket set for the beauty chair.

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Alan’s beauty chair was inherited years ago and a precious rarity he had repaired earlier in the year.DSC_0217

 

With Iain’s best ewe chosen she was loaded onto the platform then with her head secured, raised up to make tidying her coat easier to work at.

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Alan deep in concentration.

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Before.

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After. Comparing the clean cut side in the photo above with the scruffy side in the photo before it’s clear the difference a gentle trim makes to the appearance of the ewe.

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The ewe’s makeover isn’t complete with out a colour , this year’s look is… a splash of sunshine.DSC_0262

Ready to win rosettes.

 

Shearing, Shearing and more Shearing

It’s been a long while since I last wrote and a lot has happened both on and off the croft.

First and foremost, my wife and I are starting a family soon with our baby due to be born in October. I wouldn’t have mentioned this on the blog, wonderful and very welcome news though it is, as I intend it to be about crofting matters only but one of the consequences of our rural life has meant that Naeko has had to leave home, work and the island and is now being kept in the hospital in Paisley for monitoring due to complications with her pregnancy. If her situation doesn’t change she will be there until the baby is born now. If we lived in the city it wouldn’t be an issue so the crofting rural life is not without its difficulties and disruptions at times.

In the last 2 months the main activity I have been involved in is sheep shearing, either learning from observation or from having a go myself. I wanted to learn how to shear my own rather than just pay a contractor to do it and think it’s a skill every sheep owner should know at least how to have a go at should it prove necessary. I asked a few of the Tobermory crofters if I could watch them in action as a few of them still shear old school with the hand shears and they were more than happy for me to join them.

The shearing calendar on Mull runs as roughly as follows: hoggs, tups and any show-worthy contenders get sheared first sometime in June; while the ewes are left a few weeks longer in case the weather turns cold and the chill stops them producing milk for their lambs. The lambs born in the spring don’t need sheared; in their second summer they become the hoggs previously mentioned.

I joined Alan one Saturday morning to watch him hand shear a few show contenders before helping him dose his lambs. When it comes to the sheep destined for the local shows in August they are invariably hand sheared, even if a clipping machine is available, because it isn’t such a close shave and leaves more on the sheep to later tweak to get them looking just right.

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After helping with dosing the lambs I headed over to another of his fields to see a couple of friends – the tup lambs that had been in with my ewes over the winter.

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About a week later I heard from another Tobermory crofter, Iain, that he was getting his tups machine-clipped by Lachlan MacLean and his son Jamie from Knock farm and invited me along to watch. This was a great experience too seeing the huge strong tups turned over and half their bulk vanish before your eyes – and with the shearing machine and generator going, quite a fast, noisy contrast to the gentle, slow action of the hand shears. As I watched closely Lachlan explained the differences between his and his son’s technique, in part down to Lachlan being left-handed but also due to the fact that methodology has changed over the years.

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Then in the middle of June I joined a 2 day British Wool Marketing Board shearing course for beginners  in Tyndrum. Of all the training courses I have done in the last year or so in preparation for owning sheep this has been the single most transformative. The 2 days spent shearing taught me so much about sheep handling and gave me far more confidence working with the animals.

On the first day the instructors, 2 of the best in the country people have since told me, Dougie Lambie and Eoin Campbell, began by showing us how to set up our “gear”, explaining the different components of the shearing equipment, then Ewen twice showed us how to shear a blackface hogg – before telling us to get on and try shearing the remaining hundred or so. There were a lot of young guys on the course who it was clear, while we rounded up the first lot into the pens, had been around sheep far more than me so it was extremely daunting when it eventually came round to my turn to grab a hogg and pick up my handpiece.

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Trying to remember the technique with a live animal beneath you was terrible at first; I found my mind going blank at times wondering “where do I go next?” before the sheep spotting its chance and thrashed a break for freedom. Holding it and getting it back into a restrained position, all the time bent over meant by the time I eventually got through the first sheep I was exhausted and had back ache. Dougie had told us right from the beginning the first day would be the toughest, and there were times when I thought “I’m just not cut out for this” but gradually the steps started to make sense and the sheep became easier to handle. I was bruised and battered down my legs when I got back to the campsite that night so had a few beers with a big pub meal.

The second day was far easier right enough and as a group we sheared far more then on the first day, so much so the SAC farmers had to bring us down more hoggs to keep us going after lunch. By the afternoon I was able to put all the moves together and shear a sheep without hesitating in the middle and with the sheep comfortable and content to sit. That evening I met my father and brother in Glasgow to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert and on the drive down I felt a great sense of achievement, despite the aches and pains.

With an understanding now of how to shear, albeit with a machine, I felt ready to give my own sheep a go with a pair of hand shears so over a July weekend Alan and I worked together and sheared both of our flocks, starting with his on the Saturday morning, then some of mine in the afternoon, followed by the remainder of mine on the Sunday morning, and finally the last of his on the Sunday afternoon. We had a great time working together; it was slower, and thus more tiring than using the machine, but it was a far more sociable form of shearing as we could talk freely above the snips of the shears and also had a few visits from locals passing by over the weekend, exactly the kind of cooperative, communal crofting life I hoped for.

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Spring Cleaning 2

The hillside next to the road is covered with pockets of brambles and gorse, being spread from the neglected patch of ground left when the main road was moved slightly a number of years ago so before the gorse in particular gains a foothold Naeko and I set about cutting, clearing burning the spiky bushes in an incinerator over the weekend.

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The weather remained dry both days while we worked, the air perfumed with the coconut scent of the yellow gorse flowers, lizards scuttling through the brush, ships slinking up and down the Sound, cars revving and motorbikes roaring out of town, children laughing in the back gardens of the estate nearby, but tormented tears following; on Sunday the windless air settling the smoke plume on the hillside and in our clothes, by the end of a weekend walk around the croft we coud easily see the progress made but still how much remained.

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Lambing Over?

Despite getting off to a good start in February it looks like my first lambing season will be a bit of a disappointment  At best it will be a long drawn out affair, but worse still, it may already be over. This morning the last of the 6 Uisken ewes lambed but as yet I have had no lambs out of the Blairbuie 8 which were the group I was hoping to breed replacements from. It’s not all bad I suppose as it has been a gentle introduction to lambing for a complete novice and I have learned a lot in the last 6 months – and it leaves me plenty of room for improvement next year. Given my time again I would have invested in a proper harness and crayons for the tups, as spraying their chests didn’t work very well – I knew my calendar was complete nonsense in the first week of April when it didn’t correspond to what was showing in the field. Spraying their chests led to them catching the ewes while feeding at the troughs and a lot of false positives.

Back in November I had also been offered a tup to buy for £350 but after buying the ewes couldn’t afford it so stuck with my prearranged tup lamb option. I keep wondering if I had been able to stretch my finances whether the investment would now have been a sound one. Anyway I guess the “what ifs” are part of the motivation in crofting and even though I’m not yet finished with this year’s lambing (likely there will be an unplanned blackie cross in July), I’m already looking forward to tup time again in November.

Spring Cleaning

When I first set up the electric fencing for the sheep I deliberately excluded an area next to the carpark, which had been an obvious dumping ground for visitors to the craft estate and others as it was full of scattered sharp and rusting metal objects, rotten wood and general filth. With the potential shelter from trees and extra grazing for the sheep it was top on my list of places on the croft due a spring clean before the grass took hold and hid the debris for another summer.

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I sorted through the mess, making piles of metal, wood and plastics – grateful that I had worn rubber gloves after discovering a bag of human faeces kindly tossed over the fence from one of the mobile homes that sometimes stop for the night in the carpark presumably. Rotten eggs abandoned by the neighbouring hens were the other smelly surprise. It was a weekend’s work bagging the metal for the scrap man, burning the rotten wood in the incinerator and removing the old plastic pipes, etc but now the fence has been relocated the sheep seem to appreciate the extra shelter.

Another Lamb

When I got back from work late tonight I counted the sheep before going home for dinner and found one missing. It was one of the expectant mothers so immediately I set off up the hill to look for her, filled with both excitement and trepidation. At the top I spotted her sitting among the bracken and as I neared spotted a lamb nestled beside her. Seeing both the mother and lamb rise to their feet and frighten at my approach I backed away.