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The June Lull

While most of the rest of the UK has been enjoying / suffering a heat wave depending on your take on warm temperatures (I would be in the moaning about melting camp personally, I do not function well in the heat) it’s been cold and wet here on Rum. The cold is fine, wind has been keeping midges at bay and the wet has at least meant no concerns about drinking water drying up, having to water the crops constantly or feeling sorry for dehydrated animals. It has kept us indoors more than we’d usually be at this time of year though.

The crops are mostly doing ok – the raised beds look full and healthy, probably the best so far and we have had kilos and kilos of strawberries. Enough infact to have actually made some strawberry jam for the first time ever here, usually we just eat them all fresh. Only two precious jars for our own consumption but strawberries are definitely a winning crop to continue with here. They tolerate the poor soil well, enjoy the long daylight hours and seem adept at grabbing the sunshine when they can get it to ripen fast. Peas, beans, onions, garlic, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflowers are all seeming to be growing well although the actual harvesting is a fair way off yet. The asparagus is over for another year. The herbs have not done so well on first sowing so I’ll be doing another lot, probably direct in the ground now and all of my salad has bolted and gone to seed so I need to get sowing some more of that too. I’ve been feeding crops with concentrated comfrey feed from last years crops of comfrey leaves chopped up and floated in net bags within water butts of rainwater. Having all the raised beds contained within a fenced area has been fantastic – no more losing things to the deer or our birds and so far my mulching has not created too many slug related problems. I would like to find a better mulch than cut grass though if I can – not least because hopefully next year it will be sheep grazing rather than Ady cutting the grass, plus Rum is really a bit wet for grass cuttings to be the idea mulch. I’ve potted on the best looking tomatoes and moved them into the outside mini greenhouses. I’ve still got the rejects – they are no good to feed to the pigs and there is something slightly murderous about chucking them out. Every year I plan to just sow fewer seeds and every year I don’t!

The sheared sheep are doing well. One was a bit limpy on her front leg for a day or two – the first sheep ailment we’ve had. Ady has them so relaxed around him they will come for a scratch under the chin so inspecting her leg and foot was a stress free task for all concerned. There were no wounds, no swelling or heat and her foot was showing no signs of foot rot or other nasties so we just kept a close eye on her and within a day or two she was fine again. We assume she twisted or sprained it.

We are yet to see our first hatchlings this year, which is very late but not unwelcome given our intentions to downsize the flock in advance of going off for the winter and uncertainty about our plans next year. Mrs Turkey returned to the croft having given up on her nest. We had a few days of concern about Mr Turkey who had lost condition and perkiness during her absence and didn’t cheer up as we’d expected once she came back. We penned him for a few days and ensured he was eating lots, gave him a tonic of apple cider vinegar and within about 48 hours he was back on form and is now strutting around and displaying again as usual.

Sadly we lost a goose this week. She appeared struggling to breath and ailing. We caught her and inspected her, tried to give her water and having decided she was either choking or taking her final breaths so swung her to try and clear her airways. Sadly she died. We did autopsy her though and our conclusion was that she was egg bound, a condition which affects lots of female poultry and is very hard to diagnose / treat. As the cause of death is poisoning from the unformed / unlaid egg she was not suitable for eating either.

We also lost my favourite cockerel. He was the prettiest we had but the main reason I liked him was his crow. Having kept chickens for about 10 years I’ve learned that all cockerels have their own crow. They vary from 3 to about 6 or even 7 syllables, some short, some long but are always the same for each bird. This particular bird actually had the traditional cock-a-doodle-doo as his crow and was the first cockerel we’ve had that did. Every spring when the ganders start getting all feisty the cocks start scrapping with each other with any dominant ones deciding they need to fight it out. We always separate them to try and prevent this but sadly this year we had a casualty.

Of course the main reason we keep animals here at all is for food. The last two weeks we have also been busy processing some meat for ourselves. We killed several cockerels and drakes and one of the pigs. The chickens were the best we’ve reared for the table yet – we did pen and fatten them for the final couple of weeks. The drakes were the first of our ducks we have killed to eat and were delicious. The pig was the eleventh we have done here and probably the final one – it leaves us with just two, who have become pets really.

It has meant that for the last two whole weeks all of our meat has been of Rum origin – either venison we processed ourselves or our own pork, chicken or duck.

In other news The Shed has been doing a roaring trade. Mostly in jam and eggs but we’ve sold candles, bath fizzers, paracord midges, friendship bracelets and a glasses case. So while the wet weather has been keeping me indoors I’ve been busily replenishing stocks.

When I read all that back perhaps it’s not quite the lull I imagined!

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A very woolly week

After our first taste of shearing last weekend our friend Mike came up the following day and supervised Ady and I shearing half a sheep each.

Which left us to shear sheep number 3 all by ourselves, which we did a couple of days later having very clearly observed the difference in sprightliness between sheared and unsheared sheep once the weather warms up. A non-weighted down sheep is a way happier, friskier creature. They definitely rediscover their inner lamb!

Scarlett created celebratory sheep cupcakes for us as a reward!

The collective shearings fill a huge sack with fleece ready to start the next step in the learning process.

I’m an OK knitter, a pretty good crocheter and an amateur but practised needle felter so all that fleece is calling me with the promise of so many crafting adventures. But first I need to learn about the step inbetween taking it off the sheep and going at it with a needle or hook.

I have a number of books which refer to various ways of preparing fleece into yarn so have been pouring over them and learning about carding, staple length, working ‘in the grease’ and worsted weights.

And playing with a drop spindle. Which has netted the smallest amount of very slubby yarn, a small amount of improvement and a lot of dropping the whole lot and uttering swear words!

I LOVE the opportunity to learn a new skill, really enjoying every aspect of it from the steep learning curve of having zero skill to that light bulb moment of ‘oh I get it’ and then the improvement with practise and the satisfaction of acquiring a new skill. Even more so when the new skill results in something tangible. Something we can use, consume or create with. And because I am very keen to be as able and independent as possible I love it even more when I can complete every single step of something myself.

Further updates on progress as it happens…

And to complete the woolly week I have been asked if I would like to send some of my creations to a pop up shop showcasing the work of artists and makers for the summer. I’ll share more details of that once it has launched but it’s a really exciting project I am delighted to be part of and so I need a bit more stock of my midges and freeform creations to send there. Today was midge making.

How fab would it be if my creations were from wool I had dyed and spun myself? One day, maybe.

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Take that coat off – so I can wear it.

The Croft 3 creatures all have to be at least dual purpose, preferably more. So the birds provide us with eggs for ourselves and to sell, feathers for crafts and are also used to fatten for our own table, for selling on as livestock or to carry on breeding the next generation. The pigs prepare and improve the croft ground and feed us.

The sheep are our newest acquisition livestock-wise. As ever we started small with a flock of just three – bred and reared on our neighbouring Isle of Muck. Keeping it local, supporting the neighbouring farm and ensuring we were taking animals used to the conditions and climate of the Small Isles. They arrived with us in August last year. We took three ewes – not just two incase we lost one, all girls because we wanted to ensure that they were going to fare well on Croft 3 and on Rum, not more than we could confidently manage and learn with.

We had worked a little bit with sheep before. I worked as a volunteer shepherd for the local council back in Sussex doing a few shifts each month of checking the various small flocks scattered over council owned chalk downland to graze the pasture without impacting on the land. Although I had a weekend of training which included handling sheep a fair bit I never actually had to use those practical skills during my shepherding stints. While we were WWOOFing we worked at several places which had flocks of sheep. We were around for some lambing and some shearing and some breeding but none of that experience ever compares to keeping your own livestock.

We had concerns about the climate and conditions of the croft / Rum for sheep and all they would face in the changing seasons here. Winters are harsh in terms of being very wet and windy but we have various shelters all over the croft for the livestock but heavy fleeced sheep carrying around wet cold fleeces can be pretty miserable. Their feet can struggle with the soft constant mud and the boggier parts of the croft are a haven for the snail part of the life cycle for liver fluke. During the summer Rum is notorious for ticks, midges and clegs all of which will plague livestock, plus of course the usual sheep concerns of flystrike. So we’ve embarked on a careful regime of vigilance, taming the sheep to be hand fed and stroked so that inspecting and treating them is fairly easy and stress free for both them and us and so far they are faring very well.

Our first big challenge though was shearing them. Having ensured they are definitely not pregnant (despite our careful plans two rams from another croft on the island were regular visitors last autumn and were discovered to not be as castrated as first thought meaning there was a slim possibility of lambs. That was very much not our plan so we were very relieved when the potential due date came, passed and is now long gone. We’ve had a very warm May and the sheep have been increasingly looking uncomfortable and fed up in their very thick fleeces. We’d had a few offers from folk we know who can shear and had more or less arranged it when a friend who is very knowledgeable about sheep announced he was coming for a visit to the island and would bring along his shears and give us a lesson.

Today we caught sheep number 1 and she very patiently (and calmly) allowed our friend M to show Ady and then supervise as Ady continued the job.

She looked so happy and relieved to be free of that fleece and has been by far the most active of the three sheep for the rest of the evening.

Leaving us with her fleece.

And if our friend M is a whizz with the shears then his wife D is cleverer still and came armed with her travelling spinning wheel! Sat out on the sporran, with an appreciative audience of Rum folk who had come up to watch D spun a small amount of the fleece which I then crocheted into a small square.

Our first fleece from our first sheep spun and turned into our first square. All within about 20 minutes of coming off the sheep’s back.

I love it when our self sufficient ambitions pay off in the shape of delicious food. I also love it when we are able to create material we can craft with or even clothe ourselves with.

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Next Steps

Life continues as usual Up On The Croft (feel free to sing that to the tune of ‘up on the roof’ – I do, regularly, accompanying myself on my ukulele). Crops are doing well, first strawberries and asparagus have been harvested and consumed, most of the seedlings are now in the raised beds. The netting is fixed back on to the fruit cage and the ‘walled garden’ (what we call the area of raised beds we have fenced in now) to protect from the birds. We have various broody birds on clutches of eggs including a couple of ducks, geese, several hens and our turkey. We have passed the date when we would have had lambs and are fairly confident we’ll have no piglets this year either. We’re doing well in the shop with one flavour of jam already sold out. It’s the traditional bramble & apple which is often a best seller and perversely I deliberately never make quite enough of because it annoys me that people choose that over the adventurous alternatives such as bramble & rose, bramble & chilli or bramble & aniseed! Actually bramble and rose is looking like the top seller so far this year to be fair.

In other news though we are thinking ahead while living in the here and now. Our plans to leave Rum for the winter are firming up nicely.

Our current plan is to leave the island mid November and head down to the south west of the UK, an area we know well and have spent lots of time in. We will spend the darkest months of the year there, catch up with family and friends, have a proper family Christmas and then head back up to the country to arrive back here in the spring time. The finer details are all still to be ironed out over the coming months but we at least have a place we know we’ll be over the winter in order to get that perspective and time away from here that we feel we need in order to come up with the what happens next part of our plans.

In the meantime, having never been to school Davies has reached school leaving age. Our first entirely autonomously home educated child who will now never go to school. Seeing the young man before us now staring to prepare to stretch his wings and strive toward independence only fuels our certainty that for us this was entirely the right choice. I don’t blog much about our Home Ed choices – that is not what this blog is about and the stories are no longer really mine to tell as they belong far more to Davies and Scarlett but it feels appropriate to mark the end of one chapter of our family adventure and share the start of the next one.

At every stage of our parenting / Home ed / life adventures we have considered ourselves partners with Davies and Scarlett in their lives. They have always had really big loud voices in what happens next and the choices we make. The option of school, or indeed a different type of Home Education was always open to them if they ever wished to explore it. Many of their peers have chosen to study for qualifications over the last few years – some from home and some from attending school or college either full or part time. The option has been there but has felt superfluous up to this point. Davies is starting to consider what he would like to do next and having done lots of research (psychometric tests, careers quizzes, online research into various jobs, talking at length to me – after all I did used to be a recruitment consultant!) he has decided to take his interest in psychology and social sciences further and learn at a more in depth level. Several of the career options he is interested in will require qualifications and so we decided that the time was right to study at a more formal level, learning more about a subject that interests him, gaining the relevant skills in demonstrating his skills in research, retaining information, constructing arguments, writing essays and debating ideas and getting a qualification. Davies is not at this stage interested in leaving home or attending a college (although we would utterly support him if he was and find a way to enable that to happen with him living either with us or staying with family) and likes the idea of continuing to learn as he always has done, at his own pace, research and interest led, interacting with others who are equally interested in the subject matter and exploring what he has learned in context with the world around him. Our research into the learning experience and particular subjects he was interested in led us to the Open University.

So, after various phone calls and emails back and forth between Davies and the enrolments team he is now set up ready to begin an access course in October in People, Work & Society. It’s very part time, will be an excellent gateway to further education if he decides to carry on that way, will expand upon subject matter he is already interested in and give him a great introduction to more formal study, assessments and distance learning. If he wants to continue then it will lead to starting a degree next year which he can study for around his other interests and passions. Meanwhile when we are over in the winter Davies will be 17 so we are planning to get him through his driving test so that he has even more independence and ability to start striking out when we come back to Rum next year.

Exciting times ahead.