Am Bratach No. 231
January 2011

View from the croft gate
by John Macdonald

Well, we now have confirmation of our fears as to why the geese returned early: so has winter. It’s bearing on croft activities was immediate as we endeavoured to cope with very hungry stock. The sheep were on fields that had still some rough grazing and the expectation was to see out the start of the tupping season with just a few blocks of supplement. However, the snow lay to such a depth that it was a re-run of the snow of last winter, only it came much earlier. How it will project onto the lambing performance, we will just have to wait and see. The subject was approached on one of the few radio programmes that devote a wee while to farming news. The commentator was afraid that in extremely cold weather the sheep are not as receptive to mating and the tup is not up to his usual performance. I would not blame him in a -17C frost.

There had been a heavy run on the winter bale store and what we thought was sufficient to see us through to Spring is becoming to be put into question. A further complication arose whenever we unwrapped the first bale; it was not at all good. Not all the bales seem bad and so the better ones are kept for feeding the sheep while the inferior stuff is given to the cattle along with a pail of something thrown on top to make it more interesting for them. It puzzles us as to why there is such a discrepancy in the quality of haylage. Admittedly, some of it was not too good in the first instance, being baled and wrapped as a rescue operation when all hope of getting it as hay was as futile as getting a nice dry spell of weather. Along with the fact that the material itself was light meadow grass, which made it difficult to turn into a dense tight bale and so there was probably too much air trapped inside it when it was wrapped. Just a theory, but I would be interested in knowing if anyone else experienced a similar problem this year. The bales are not holed and so that is ruled out as a reason.

We are glad that we managed to get most of the calves away before the cold weather set in, but rather regret keeping the heifers back for future stock and so putting an extra strain on the fodder supply.

One pleasant result of the deep snow was that the parish was turned into a Christmas card countryside. The birch woods suffered once again, as they were weighed down with the weight of snow and, like as of last year, some have split or broken. Come the Spring, I can see myself having to take out the chainsaw once again to clear my favourite burnside walk. At one time, this was a well used path through a small birch wood gorge with a nice waterfall at its head. People used it for a place to go on a Sunday in the days when walking was the only safe alternative to consulting the good book. I must admit that since my youth and associated urge to cast a rod in our local burn, I rather neglected this walk, as did most other people and so the birch and bracken took over. Then, a year or two ago, health problems led to me being strongly advised to walk a lot as it was good for me and I remembered this path which led to the falls. It was pretty much a no-go area, and so the real exercise began when I set about to hack and saw my way through the jungle to reclaim the old footpath. It was not even on our own land but on that of a neighbouring common grazing, so what I was doing was probably illegal. But such is the situation as regards many common hill pasture lands in this day and age that very few know or care unless there is issue over development value.

I think back to the days when I was a youngster and a time when the parish was criss-crossed with walking or cart tracks. They were well used by the people of the parish as shortcuts to school, church, shop or neighbour. But the older generation died out and were replaced in part by people not having grown up in the parish at a time when these paths were regularly trod and so they were not inclined to use them. Add to this the coming of the car for every croft and nobody walked any more. It is surprising how soon a footpath can almost disappear when not used; turn your back and birch, whin and bracken will take over in no time. Then a new generation or incoming people question if there was ever a path there in the first place. Some will erect a fence way across the old path and if not challenged it is gone forever.

I think that the Crofters Commission was very negligent in the early days for not providing stronger protection of old paths and much damage was done to freedom of access. The commission now appear more sensitive to this issue, but a fairly recent problem is the rise of crofter forestry, which has blocked off quite considerable areas of land, hill land especially.

One plus came about when footpaths became included in the suite of things legible for payment under Rural Priorities [in the Scottish Government’s Rural Development Programme]. Many crofters suddenly remembered that here was an old path running through their croft and now it was worth money to them and so nice new signs and gates appeared and chains disappeared. It was too good to last and so it is no longer considered under the suite of things that presently attract payment under “rural priorities”. Come to think of it, not much of what is on offer is of interest to the average crofter. Authority has a great knack of appearing to offer much but in a way offering very little, somewhat like politicians, so I guess that figures. But it would be good if every now and again, they included an incentive to preserve our old paths.

On the grand scale of things, Sutherlandshire neglects what should be a great asset, namely the vast network of stalking paths constructed by the estates which cross the whole county, east to west and north to south. Some are indeed used, but only by estate workers and of the general public, only the dedicated or intrepid few. I can think of a grand walk out from Brora up past Carrol Rock, then to Ben Armine and across to Loch Choire and from there to Dalnessie, Badenloch or best of all, The Crask, a most worthy stop-over. From there it should be possible to link up with the paths that cut through the Reay Forest where the vista that unfolds around you must stand there with the best in Britain.


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