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Happy 2019!

So, here we are, at the start of a new calendar year, and for the Hirsel, a new year too. Different farms will count the year from different starting points, but for us, it begins now, as we start planning for the next life-cycle to begin needing our care. Seeds need ordering, delayed indoor tasks can be done while it’s unpleasant to work outdoors, sheep need feeding if there isn’t enough forage, and in any case, we’ll start giving the breeding females a little extra starting next month. Donald is doing the morning rounds, as it’s too cold outside for my fingers and toes, and I’m playing with calendars, feeding and breeding schedules, and long term planning for the farm projects.

2018 was a big year for the farm – we sold our first sheepskin rugs, taking another step forward in ensuring that the lives we take from our animals are honoured by using the ‘whole beast’ approach whenever possible. It’s also a step forward in the effort to increase the value of everything we produce on the farm: we love our Hebrideans, but they don’t pull as much at the auction as other breeds, so we have to be sure we find other ways to earn from them. Speaking of this, and of rugs, this year will see my renewed focus on finding ways to work with the shorn fleeces to create felted and woven rugs, and to get our fleeces into the hands of other artists and crafters.

We loved seeing our rugs dressing up such a stylish home in 2018! Photo credit to Elizabeth Banks, who purchased rugs #2017-2 and #2017-5.

And speaking of selling… 2018 saw a Gillies from the Hirsel selling sheep at the Dingwall auction mart for the first time in over 30 years. Another milestone, in our efforts to renovate the farm!

After lambing last year, we had reached the number of breeding females our farm can support.


Hirsel Agnes, our firstborn female (2016) with her first set of twin boys in 2018.

Because Hebrideans are slow growers (one of the reasons hogget meat is so good for you!), they live with us for 18 months – instead of the mainstream industry time-frame of just 6 months – before going to the abattoir or auction.  So they overwinter with us, and need regular care, no matter the weather. In addition, we keep ‘companions’ (male castrates who can be used as company for sheep that must be isolated from the rest of the flock for one reason or another), and more rams than usual for a farm this size, due to our particular breeding program. So we’re always carrying a high number of animals through the winter, and they all need to eat, which can put a lot of pressure on the farm’s resources, natural or bought in. This means we have to limit the numbers where we can, and for the Hirsel, that means limiting our adult females to around 30. So this year, we looked at parentage, conformation and personality, and their chances of having a ‘career’ on another farm…and chose 16 females to take to auction. We also chose some of our best boys to go, but they sold privately beforehand. (We do not take the boys destined for your kitchens to the auction – we take them straight from our farm to the abattoir ourselves, saving them the transition to a different care regime than they’re used to, and holding ourselves responsible for as much of their end of life journey as we can.)

Our first trip – as sellers – to the auction house was a real learning experience…and a big success for the farm, as we earned the best prices of the day for female Hebrideans. It all came together for us when our first girls entered the ring, and the auctioneer described them as ‘well fed’. We walked out of there in a state of shock, but also feeling vindicated for the way we care for and love our animals. The fact that they earned what they did, was frosting on the cake. And it paid to sit with the girls all through the day, waiting for their turn in the ring, as we got to meet and talk with lots of other farmers, and answer questions as they came by. We’re pretty sure we know who bought our girls that day, and that they will be well cared for in their new homes. Which goes a long way to soothing our grief at having to let them go.

Our girls, waiting their turn in the ring. At Dingwall mart, November 2018

Other challenges and successes have been highlighted throughout the year on our Facebook page: the lessons learned from our first attempt at setting up a campsite on the farm; getting through the Beast from the East, and the toll that took on the health of our mamas; losing the first of our original flock to a leg injury that refused to heal; harvesting the first delicious apples from our little orchard, and cooking up some magnificent potatoes from the crop we saved from a long summer drought. We learned a lot, through many challenges, failures, and successes. And those lessons will help us and our little farm through whatever 2019 throws our way.

Saved from the drought! These beauties were worth the work it took, to get water to the field.

We ended 2018 with the news that our application for an Agri-Environment grant had been approved. This grant will make possible some much needed work for grassland, bog, and woodland improvement, as well as further encouraging wildlife to make their home on the farm alongside our domestic animals. This work needed to be done anyway, but the financial pressures of doing it will be greatly lessened by the grant. It’s the first large-scale grant for the farm, and we hope it’ll be the first of many, as we have big plans.

We started 2019 with a gathering of the neighbors at our farmhouse. This was the first time we’d hosted a social event in the house since mum passed away in 2017, and we moved into it a year ago. We were honored that so many folk came, that old connections were renewed, and new ones begun. The place was filled to the rafters with people, laughter, and plenty of food and drink. It felt like – and was – a true house warming for us. And a great start to the year.

Yesterday, we went to a couple of meetings that will kick-start some much bigger plans for the farm, which you’ll hear about in the months ahead. So buckle up, and stay tuned, because it promises to be a full and exciting year at The Hirsel…again.

Finally: thank you for taking this incredible journey with us, as we continue working to make The Hirsel a sustainable family farm again. Our mistakes are our own to learn from, but our successes are in no small part down to your support and encouragement. We hope you’ll have a chance to visit the farm sometime in the coming months, and meet all the critters you read about online. In the meantime, all the best to you and yours for a bright, love-filled and happy 2019!

– Donna (DuCarme) Gillies, January 2019

PS: watch this space for Donald’s annual newsletter, coming soon.