It’s time for a livestock update. It’s been a big year for new Croft 3 creatures, both bought in and bred and reared here on the Croft and as we head towards the toughest part of the year we can think about how everything has settled in so far.
First the sheep. Three of this years lambs brought across from our neighbouring Isle of Muck. The four Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna are geographically very close but are very different places in terms of geology, size, vegetation and even to a degree weather conditions. Rum is easily the harshest although I think Muck possibly has wilder winds. There is more livestock kept on the other three islands than here on Rum as there are established farms and crofts on the other islands where we are still quite newly established in keeping livestock and crofting here on Rum. Historically there have been sheep here but it was our fellow crofters on Croft 1 who brought the first sheep back to Rum since the clearances when they introduced Soay sheep back to the island a couple of years ago. Their initial stock of a few ewes and a ram bred successfully but struggled with last winter’s harsh conditions.
We have limited experience with sheep. Prior to leaving Sussex I signed up as volunteer Lookerer – part of a council run initiative to protect chalk grassland on the South Downs by grazing with sheep. The sheep were from a farmer, the land owned by Brighton Council and the flock who were grazed over various locations were tended by a team of volunteers who visited them twice daily to ensure they had water, their fence was intact and that all the sheep were fit, well and walking ok. We had a weekend of training in basic sheep handling, learned about the various ways that sheep die and I came away mostly with the message that keeping sheep is basically an ongoing battle with a sheep’s overwhelming suicidal tendencies! It seemed to be that a shepherd spends almost their whole time preventing a sheep from dying. It’s a wonder to me that sheep have not made themselves extinct. Foot rot, fly strike, liver fluke, getting tangled up and falling onto their backs… the list was endless. I had practical lessons in turning and handling a sheep, setting up and checking electric fencing.
We had quite a bit of sheep wrangling experience while WWOOFing – from the cossetted and named sheep we came across at two different hosts in Glastonbury – hand-sheared, hand fed, all named and kept as pets. We stayed at a farm during lambing with huge numbers of sheep, took lambs to a slaughterhouse and generally got involved in rounding up, herding, chasing and heading off large numbers of sheep who regularly don’t perform in quite such a sheep-like following the herd manner as common sayings would have you expect.
Keeping sheep on Croft 3 was always part of the plan and this year we finally made it a reality. As with everything we’ve done here we’re starting small. Three ewes, a hardy breed, good for meat and fleece, good grazers. They arrived safely, settled in well and after a couple of weeks became regular escapees! They seem to push under the mesh enclosure while eating and then look up and realise they are not inside their pen any more and seem really confused as to how that happened and how to get back in again. They are still on the croft, still penned in and secure within the croft fence and gates and showing no desire to roam any further, infact they seem visibly relieved when we manage to herd them back in their pen each time. But we have a pen to keep them in a set area so have today re-enforced the pen with a second layer of netting and pegged it down to the ground all the way around. This makes it at least four times harder to break out in my opinion. By no means sheep proof – if I’ve learnt anything in my brief period as a shepherd so far it is that sheep seem to enjoy proving you wrong – but certainly more secure than it was before.
In other livestock news the pigs have been pretty quiet this year and we’re hoping they remain that way for the duration – no surprise piglet litters until the spring please! We are aiming to keep everyone who might make that a reality apart until at least November but as pigs are also masters of escapology particularly when females are in season we don’t always manage that. So far I think we’re ok.
On the bird front we have five wee chicks still penned with their mother, a late surprise clutch of chicks who will just about have time to get big and be released before winter really settles in. This years older chicks all seem to be doing fine, growing well and mixing in with the flock. We will separate the cockerels from this year in the next month or so and pen them to fatten them. We will also do the same with any male ducklings from this years hatches. It’s still a little early to tell male and female ducks but early counting and educated guessing tells me it was a female heavy hatch which is good. The muscovy ducks are still penned as they seem to be the most vulnerable to crows, we could probably release them all now but we have a croft sitter here in 10 days for a week so may as well keep them penned and safe until after that. Particularly as they are captured in the fruit cage and are doing a fine job of eating any slugs and caterpillars and other wee beasties who might try and set up home on the fruit trees and bushes over winter and do harm.
The biggest challenge will always be taking animals through a Rum winter and it is fair to say that despite our care and attention only the strongest survive but certainly the born and raised creatures always seem to do the best. Fingers crossed we get through the coming season with as few casualties as possible.