The month of September is behind us now, and we are starting to prepare for winter. There are not so many visitors on the island as we head into a warm autumn. The lambs were sold over a month ago and the calves in early September. It is time to think about buying new tups (rams) and making sure we have ordered in the straw for bedding the cows indoors.
The weather forecast for tomorrow is for wild, windy weather, the beginning of the winter gales no doubt.
The hills are turning autumn ochre and brown, the rowan trees are dripping with berries, and the swallows left about a week ago. I have been hearing the stags roaring on the hill as the rut has begun.
We farm Treshnish, a coastal hill farm on the Isle of Mull – about 750 Ha, of which 80 Ha is in-by (the better ground) and the rest is hill. 15 Aberdeen Angus cows and 80 Cheviot & Zwartble cross ewes live on the in-by, with 400 Blackface ewes on the hill. They are the key to the improvement in biodiversity here – as well as having farmed organically for 10 years until 2009, having a balanced stocking density and having not used any artificial fertiliser since 1997.
Even after 19 years, we still thank our lucky stars that we made the giant leap from farming in deepest Surrey, within earshot of Gatwick airport, to this remote headland on the Isle of Mull. It is a far cry from the mixed arable farm we left behind, but we have never regretted it, and times like today, when the sun is shining, gentle breeze blowing, and views stretching out before us, we continue to feel grateful that this place is our home.
As most of the sheep live on the hill, checking them involves a lot of walking. Today (the day before our 25th wedding anniversary and with the air sunny and calm before the storm) I decided to join Somerset as he walked round the headland. I am glad I did, it was absolutely beautiful out there. As well as checking the sheep, we came across two lots of grouse (wild), disturbed several groups of red deer, one led by an impressive stag – as well as watching ravens, putting up snipe and finding some late flowering harebells and a fresh red admiral butterfly on a stalk of heather.
3 miles of cliff and raised beach coastline provide good rough grazing for the Blackies, but bracken is a constant battle, especially as a lot of the ground is inaccessible. Somerset cuts it successfully wherever he can, and is now making silage on some bits of ground where the bracken used to be higher than the bonnet of our Massey 135. The helicopter is called in for the steep areas.
We signed up for our first environmental scheme in 1995, and have not looked back since. The biodiversity on the farm has improved beyond belief, and there is no way we could stop what we are doing now! We run a small sustainable self catering business on the farm, and our guests hugely appreciate the wildlife they encounter on the farm and the beauty of the wild flowers.
In June this year, I went down to the launch of the Coronation Meadows project at Highgrove. This initiative was conceived by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and is being managed by Plantlife. It’s aims are to support and encourage the restoration of ancient meadows and creation of new meadows in order to stem the loss of any more valuable plant habitat.
It is a great honour to us, to have had a meadow considered worthy of being part of such a valuable project. The field chosen is the Haunn field, which will be used as a donor site for other meadows in the county of Argyll.
Plants which flower in this field include a healthy population of both Wood Bitter vetch (Vicia Orobus) and Field Gentian (Gentianella campestris) as well as many different orchids.
The stack yard is now full of September cut silage bales, cut late in the year, allowing ground nesting birds to safely rear their young. This is just one of the prescriptions we are bound to, under the SRDP Rural Priorities scheme, which dictate stocking densities and closed off times.
It is always a bit stressful checking that we have got it right, particularly as we rotate our silage fields in a 4 year rotation. So each year there is a different rule. The habitats we manage on the farm include: wetland, coastal heath, Atlantic hazel woodland, species rich grassland, open hill and peat bog. The timing of the grazing is key to encouraging more bio-diversity, and keeping the right amount of cattle and ewes on the in-by.
The field we cut this year is recovering now, and the cows have already been enjoying the aftermath. We partly winter the cows indoors, so that they are close at hand for calving, but also so that we can use the dung on the fields that we cut for silage.
The sales are sufficiently far behind us that we have almost forgotten that our lamb prices were pretty poor, though the calf price fared a bit better. Flocks of Twite and acres of wild flowers don’t pay the bills, but they are a reward of a different kind which we never tire of, and which we share with our holiday cottage guests.
For more information about the farm: www.treshnish.co.uk/thefarm
Photo credits: Carolyne Mazur