Whaz up?

Arnie and his girls have been busy too!

It’s hard to belief it’s been 6-ish months since I last wrote for our farm blog. I sometimes wonder, with my love of words, why I can’t seem to write a blog more regularly. I think it’s because, when it’s all going on, I’ve no time to write about it. And when things have slowed down a bit, and I could write about it all…there’s a million things to catch up on. But here we go…!

My last blog was about the upcoming harvest of our hogget and mutton. It’s all in the freezer now, and yours for the asking. In that blog, I mentioned that we’d be keeping our prices at 2021 levels, but actually, we’re going to do better than that. The Cost of Living Crisis is hitting many in our community, so we’re slashing our prices: any cut for £10/kilo (while supplies last): shoulder, rolled or on the bone, legs large and small, ribs, and cutlets. Hogget or mutton. We’re holding mince and dice at £13/kilo, as those items cost us more to produce, but also lowering shanks to £6/kilo. Some of the cutlets are frozen in family sized packs, and some in packs of just two pieces. Some of the on-the-bone shoulders are enormous (for Hebrideans). So get in touch if you’re planning a dinner for yourself, your family, or a whole batch of visiting relatives – we’ll make sure you have what you need.

Are you on a lower energy tariff at night? Our rolled shoulders or small-cut leg portions are perfect for slow-cooker preparation. I set it up during the evening kitchen clean-up: a small rolled shoulder, a large wedged onion, and few garlic cloves and whatever herb/spice mix catches my fancy. Not too much salt, as it cooks down, you can always add more later. Pour in one can of fruity cider, and two cans of water. Set the cooker on low, and switch it on after the night-tariff has kicked in – mine has a timer, so I set it for 8 hours, otherwise just check it when you get up in the morning. It’ll be falling off the bone delicious! Chuck it in the fridge for the day, and when you’re ready to eat, add some quick potatoes and veg to the menu, and voila! A low energy, high-taste meal for the family.

Speaking of meals… We’re planning the summer garden, and putting in some more perennials, but also trying some new things. Have you ever tried growing sweetcorn in the Highlands? Don’t be put off by the long growing period: find a corner in your poly-tunnel, or a suntrap in the garden and go for it! We loved eating our own last year, and though we only managed a few cobs, we’re going to try it again this year, now that we think we know what we’re doing. Do you have something you’re determined to grow? We’d love to hear about your experiments and stubborn attempts to grow a favorite fruit or veg. Meanwhile, with the young trees we put in last year, our orchard has expanded to 20+ trees. And the maturing trees gave us a good little harvest of apples last year, so we went out and bought a press. I froze some of the juice, so we’re still drinking last year’s apple juice in February – it’s pretty yummy! Look out for an Apple Day event here at the farm in October. You’ll be able to bring your apples, and get them pressed into juice. More info to come, later in the year – our Facebook followers will probably be the first to hear more details, so if you don’t follow us there yet, find us here.

Flock reduction time. Believe it or not, we’re still recovering from when one of the only two abattoirs in the HIghlands shut down during the covid pandemic in 2021. This shutdown meant our boys were on the farm longer than usual, and this was followed by lambing season the next spring delivering more ram lambs than any year prior. At a time when we’re trying to be gentle on our land, our ram fields are under heavy grazing pressure. So… we’re clearing some space in the male herd. Visit our live sales page if you’re looking to beef up your flock with some breeding stock, or for some animals to fatten for your freezer. This is another reminder that our local farm to fork processing infrastructure needs some serious rethinking if we’re going to be able to support a environmentally and financially sustainable local food supply, something we feel very strongly about!

Wool is Wonderful! You may have noticed that we’ve been developing a ‘wool project’ here on the farm. We’ve been thinking about it, and mulling it over, and discussing it for some time, but now it’s ALL SYSTEMS GO. Highland Wool CIC was formed last summer to support a sustainable wool industry in Scotland, and the first BIG project will be renovating our 200-year old stone barn and … building a micro-mill! But in the meantime, you can read more about it AND the upcoming PILOT PROJECT here.

…and now you know why I don’t write more often: once I start, I can’t stop! But I will, for now, with just this last thought: so many of us came out of the worst of the pandemic saying to ourselves ‘okay, time to get back to normal’. We didn’t give ourselves time to heal, just jumped back in, then wondered why we’re still feeling overwhelmed! If that sounds like you, please don’t be hard on yourself – it’s been a crazy difficult few years for all of us, and it’s not looking to get any easier any time soon. Reach out, talk to someone, there’s NO shame in asking for help. Here’s just one resource, which may help. And once we get a bit further into the year, maybe we can open our gates for visitors, so you can come here, meet the sheep, our old Toddy dog – and the humongous pigs! – sit in the woods, and detox a bit. Remember, we’re all in this together, and together is how we’ll get through it! Love to you all from all of us. XXX

Harvest time

It’s an abundant time of year… though our veggie field started offering additions to our menu many weeks ago, all of our meat items have been taken out of the freezer. But in another week, we’ll be able to feed our family – and yours – with fresh 2022 Hebridean Mutton. Another two weeks after that, we’ll have Hebridean Hogget on offer. The Hirsel is now taking orders for our 2022 batch of Hebridean Hogget and Mutton boxes.

Homegrown and locally processed at Macbeth’s in Forres.

There are many reasons to choose Hebridean hogget (less than two years old) or mutton (over 2 years old): slow grown on grass and native brush, supplemented with hay and tree fodder in the winter, the breed itself is leaner, healthier, and more flavourful than many commercial breeds. Additionally, with the increasing awareness of how our food choices affect our planet, you can be sure that, by choosing to purchase Hebridean meat raised on a Nature-Friendly farm such as The Hirsel, and having it processed locally in the Highlands, you are doing your part to shop ethically and sustainably.

Hebrideans are smaller than commercial sheep, but punch above their weight in the flavour department: A half box is approximately 7+kg (20 servings), and costs £75.00; a whole box is approximately 14kg (40 servings), and costs £145.00. A general selection will include: Shoulder(s) (boned and rolled), Leg(s) (whole on the bone), Loin chops, and Racks. (A la carte orders will be available once box orders have been filled.)

With the cost-of-living crisis affecting all of us, from growers through processers to customers, The Hirsel has decided to keep our prices at 2021 levels. It’s important to us that our community continues to be able to afford to serve locally produced, healthy food to their families.

Please specify whether you’re ordering Hogget or Mutton when you reserve your box.

Other products, such as burgers, sausages and mince, are sometimes available at additional cost, but must be requested as part of the ordering process for your half or whole box.

Fresh (unfrozen) delivery is available direct from the butcher, at cost (£14.50 per box), if arranged in time. Other fresh orders can be picked up from the farm gate within a day of arrival here from the butcher. The meat will then go into the freezer, and once frozen, will be available for farmgate sales. Talk to us about your preferred option – we can always work something out!

For more information, or to order your delicious and healthy Hebridean mutton or hogget, contact Donna: info@thehirsel.com

Lost Lamb

Normally, walking through our eastern woodland calms me, brings up almost uncontainable waves of gratitude. The woodlands surrounding and weaving through our farm are ancient, noted down on the earliest maps we can find of the area, and walking through them feels like connecting to something deep and rich. The patch I’m walking through is mostly deciduous, and at this time of year the shades of green are like a painter’s pallet. It’s a little more civilized here, too, than in our other, pine dominant patches – our early efforts to stack some of the deadfall, and the lack of old abandoned fencing makes it easier to wander through with only a passing amount of attention to where I’m placing my feet. We know now, seven years after taking over the farm, that leaving deadfall to rot into the ground is a good thing, so we don’t stack as much anymore, except for the wood meant to age for the stove. In any case, we have too many other tasks these days to spare the time for much stacking, so I always have to be alert when walking in the other woods. The stacks in this patch are six and seven years old now; they’ve become wildlife habitat – or so we call them and every other pile of ‘we’ll get to this later’ that lies for more than two years. I love this patch of woodland, and know how lucky we are that it still exists while so much around us has been turned into timber plantations. We both know how lucky we are to be caretakers for it.

Today though, worry replaces the calm as I peer into every shadow, under every prickly gorse bush. And while I normally enjoy the wind singing through the tree tops, today I beg it to die down a little, so I can listen for the bleating of a lost or stuck lamb.

It’s that time of year. The ewes and their lambs have left the lambing fields, and come out into the part of the farm we call the Gallimaufry – a jumbled mix of woodland, meadow, the bracken covered ‘mesa’, and a section of the farm’s main ditch, which we’re allowing to spread into mini ponds along some of its length. These sheep left the lambing fields two days ago, and the first days are the most worrisome, with the young lambs unused to the ditches, rocks, and gorse patches that weave through this part of the farm. There are lots of places for a young lamb to get hurt or lost – and we’ve experience with a number of them. So, Donald counts them every morning in these early days, while they’re still sticking close to their mothers’ sides. He continues feeding the mums a bit in the morning, and counts them while everyone has their head in the trough… Yesterday, day one, he had all 44 lambs accounted for. Today, he counted 43.

We don’t usually worry (as much) if there are multiple animals missing at the count. Small groups will often split off from the main, to go exploring or napping on their own. But if just one is missing, it seldom ends well. The lost lamb, the weakened mother, the old ewe looking for a quiet spot to take one last nap.

On our farm, Donald does the morning rounds, feeding, watering, checking up on our two flocks of sheep (male and female) and our pigs. Feeding has stopped for the non-breeding ewes and the males, now that the grass has started growing. But he’ll feed the mums for a few more days, so the move doesn’t turn them wild right away, and they keep coming to him. It makes the count easier, and lets him hand feed a few of the older girls, or the mums who had difficult lambings, feeling their backs to check their condition, just watching for a while. Like shepherds of hold, we both spend lots of time watching them, to make sure they’re all acting normal and healthy. He generally handles the morning feeding for the animals, while I handle the evening feeding for the humans. We trade off on the afternoon feeding for the pigs, depending on our other work commitments, we share responsibility for the new arrivals, our Scots Dumpy chickens, and it’s ‘all hands on deck’ for the big events like harvest or foot checks.  A division of labour that works for us and our farm.

I’ll often catch glimpses of him from one of the farmhouse windows, as I go about my morning tasks indoors, and he goes about his rounds outdoors. Walking or in his tractor, always in that big yellow jacket. I have his routine ingrained in my bones as much as either of us have the sheep’s habits stored there. And today, he was spending a little too much time checking the ditches. More time than he usually takes when he adds a drainage pipe check onto his routine. So I called him. Watching in the distance through the window, as he pulled his phone out, connected his hearing device, and answered it. Yes, he was short a lamb.

So on went my loved/hated all-weather, all-terrain flexothane overalls – which aren’t so all-weather anymore, thanks to climbing over the old barbed wire fencing we both hate – and I joined him in the Gallimaufry. We’ve spent the past two hours searching every shadowy nook, peering into old fox  holes – every hole looks like a fox hole, when you’re looking for a lamb – sloshing through the bog, crawling as far as we could into the stabbing gorse. This is the downside to farming the way we do, eschewing neat fields for ancient wood- and wetlands: there are so many, many ways a lamb can get lost or dead. Now I’m walking through our beloved woods, checking the last bits of the Gallimaufry, shushing the wind.

Next we’ll try to count the sheep again. Multiple times: 44, 44, 43, 44, and a couple of failed counts while the lambs dash around. There is no bleating, no desperate mum, and no sounds of weak little lamb bleats. We’re soaked through with sweat and the rain showers that are flying through the glen. It’s time to trust the count that said ‘44’, and go home. Time to assume that all are here, that one had been sleeping in the sun somewhere, when the rest were greedily nosing in the troughs and being counted. We need to care for our animals, yes, but also for ourselves. And we need a hot drink.

These are the moments I wonder if it would be better to push the farm’s wilderness areas back just a little more. But these moments are brief. Because even this morning, worry stealing my calm as I walk through the woods, I still notice the pallet of greens, I still wondered at the life filling the bog as I splashed through its puddles, still felt a bit of wonder as I peered into an old, spiderweb covered cubbyhole, or saw how the old, downed pine is becoming covered in mosses. These are precious things, and do not lose their value because we’ve lost a lamb. My worry will go, hopefully at tomorrow’s morning count, certainly as the lambs grow larger and become competent at navigating their new surroundings. There will be another day, when I walk through these woods again, while the gratitude wells and the calm settles. Those days, those stretches of calm, are worth these two hours of seeking and crawling through the brush. They are worth just about everything. Even a lost lamb.

Photo by Jane Firth

[note: This post is about yesterday. This morning, there were 44.]

Time Flies

For most of my working life, my days have been ruled by the clock and calendar. It was natural to always know what time of day, or day of the week, it was. But time moves differently on the farm, is controlled by seasons, daylight hours, and breeding and growing events, rather than a clock or what day of the week it is – and we suddenly find ourselves in mid-May without quite knowing how it happened.

Perhaps it’s the all-consuming bubble of lambing. After the short days and daily drill of the winter feeding routine, there were the surprisingly warm days of early spring, each day longer than the one before, when we could spread compost in the garden field… get the final round of weigh-ins and treatments for the ewes done before lambing… get the vegetable seeds going on the sun drenched front porch, which serves as our untidy, jacket-draped greenhouse…then hurry to get the lambing field set up, the supplies in, the bonding pens constructed-

They don’t normally lamb in a crowd, usually going off to a corner of the field. But it was nice of her to do it so close to the field shelter!

-and then lambing arrived, and everything stopped but that. The world outside the farm got on with regular life, while we disengaged with everything but our ewes and lambs, and became singularly focused on the home fields, and the life cycle of the farm. The endless watching, the lack of sleep, the hours of worry followed by relief when the lambs arrive in the right position and very much alive – and hungry – seems to put us into a bubble where time is measured by short sleeps and the minutes between the first appearance of a water-bag and the arrival of a lamb. By how long it takes a lamb to find the teat before it loses the will to live, and must be helped to do so. Time also spent upside down, under the belly of a ewe, checking teats and helping the clueless lambs onto them. And then there’s that one ewe who waits two weeks after everyone else, before finally delivering her own lamb. We start to get to other chores, sowing and harrowing, bookkeeping and planning, always keeping one eye on the lambing field, waiting, waiting. There is very little that can pull our attention off the farm at the best of times – we seem to be as married to this land and its needs as we are to each other – and at lambing time, that commitment takes full control of our lives and our time.

And then it’s done. The last ewe is in the nursery with her lamb scampering by her side, the rest are waiting for her in the ‘post-natal’ field, lambs leaping about, and the pens are being broken down for another year. The pen area will be reset as the sheep run, ready for the foot checks and vaccinations of early summer. The new rhythm of monitoring weights and body conditions in the leadup to the next breeding season. And already, we’ve started assessing which animals from the male flock have a hope of a breeding career on other farms, and which ones will go directly to the freezer. The tomato seedlings are ready to move from the porch to the polytunnel, the heavy jackets are making way for the light… and it’s the middle of May already. Time flies when you’re having fun!

That’s what we like: one on each side!

And this year, it really was more fun than usual: after seven years, we seem to have found our rhythm – and the proper sharing of responsibilities for a successful lambing. Having clear agreements about roles helped keep priorities straight and tensions down – who could’ve guessed? Maybe we’re finally learning how to do this. We chose the right ewes for breeding, and Donald got the 3rd trimester feeding just right – as proven by the weights and health of ewes and lambs at birth. Keeping the breeding ewes in the shelter of the old woodland until the final week before lambing seemed to have helped, too, a tip I picked up from another farmer, a trick which also saved the lambing fields’ grazing until the post lambing period. (The woodlands are resting now, greening and blooming.) The lambs cooperated by all coming out in the right direction – no tails first this year, thank goodness – with only a couple needing a little help getting both legs out in front. Only one ewe decided to surprise us: she shot out an unexpected second lamb, just as I was underneath her, trying to get a stubborn, blocked teat open – you haven’t lived until you’ve had a sodden wriggly lamb (and all her birth fluids) land on your head at 2am! Maybe she thought we’d been having it all too easy? But most of the girls gave us plenty of signs that a second lamb was on the way, and we could wait patiently and at a safe distance while she delivered it.

Polly and her spotted 4-horned twins. They are going to be stunning rams – good girl!

In fact, as I sit here, looking back at lambing time, our only complaint is not really a complaint at all: 20 out of the 24 breeding ewes had twins, and all lambs made it to the post-natal field, and are zooming about as I write this. What in the world are we going to do with 44 Hebridean lambs?!? My Dutch friends would call that a ‘lux probleem’: too much of a good thing. Well, that’s a question for August…and it’s only May after all. 😉

The Highland Wool Project


2022 will be a very exciting year for the Project: the year we will start walking the talk! We now have a draft mission statement – it’s a very ambitious document, as suits a very ambitious project – which has benefitted from input and critique by a lovely bunch of people (more about some of them later).

Lot’s of news to come in the months ahead, but for now, have a look at our Mission Statement, and don’t hesitate to get in touch, if you’d like to get involved. Thanks for being on this incredible journey with us, we couldn’t do this without you!

Link here: The Highland Wool Project Mission Statement

PS: apologies if you received an unintroduced Mission Statement as a blog from us – we are still working out the kinks in our social media work!

Harvest time

It’s that time of year, again. We spend a lot of time talking about, and telling the story of, our farm…and that story includes offering grass fed, seasonal native Hebridean meat to our friends and community. Though it’s never easy to send our animals off to the abattoir, we’re proud of the lives they’ve lived here, and the part we’re playing to build a more sustainable Scottish food chain. So this is an exciting time of year for us, too.
We were really happy to be able to work with long-time favourite butchers, Macbeth’s, located in Forres, for this batch of meat, and are really pleased to work with Ardgay Game – right here in our neighbourhood – this year, too. Head on over to our farm shop page to see what’s on offer. We’re sure you’ll find something delicious and wholesome for your family dinner.


#silvopasture #sheepintrees

We were lucky: when we took over the management of the family farm in 2015, one of us had never farmed before, and one hadn’t since he was a boy. We were, for the most part, starting from zero, or from dim memories. We had to learn a lot, and fast, as the first sheep on the farm for 30-odd years arrived less than six months after we became a team…and there was only one field (barely) able to hold them. We knew so little, really, that we were able to start from a nearly blank slate, and become the kind of farmers we need to be, rather than what we’d been told we had to be.

Most of our time and money, in those first five years, were spent on repairing, and putting in new, fencing. Now, the entire farm is subdivided into a network of fields, some very active, and some mostly wild. We have one big repair job left to do, and then we hope for only minor tweaks and repairs for the next few years. Our Hebridean sheep and GOS pigs rotate through the fields, tame and wild, in what is called ‘rotational grazing’ – a term, like so many others, we learned some time after we were already doing it.

What kind of farmers we are started with the sheep.

We chose Hebridean sheep for many reasons: they’re a native Scottish breed (which speaks to our ‘made in Scotland’ vibe), with a history of near extinction and survival that touches something deep and personal in both of us. They can exist – even thrive – on poor and rough grazing, which was most of the farm when they arrived. They’re small, something I needed so I could function on my own, should Donald have had to travel for his ‘other’ job. Now that he doesn’t travel, we’re both old enough to appreciate their small size and weights on sheep treatment days. But we had no idea how intelligent, personable, and trainable they were – or how much we’d fall in love with this amazing breed of animal. But mostly, we had no idea of how right they’d be for us and this Highland farm, or how much they’d teach us about the kind of farmers we would be.

For a large part of the year, Hebs don’t need much care.  We bring the breeding ewes into the fields closest to the house (the ‘home’ fields, or ‘in-bys’) for their last trimester, so we can monitor them, and give them a little extra care and feeding if they need it. They stay close through lambing and the month or so after, while we treat and tag their lambs, and treat any ewe that has a hard time of it. Many people don’t even do this much – their Hebs lamb out on the hills, in the traditional manner, in all kinds of weather, and will only bring in the hard cases. I think bringing them in is more for our benefit than theirs – we’re just not that into climbing through the gorse, looking for a new or lost lamb, or having to help them deliver in the midst of the kind of sideways blowing snowstorm we had during this year’s lambing season. We also bring them in for regular care routines, like vaccinations or shearing. But for the rest of the year, they pretty much take care of themselves, and we only need to make sure they have food and water. And because they’re Hebs, and they’re resident on a farm that had been unworked for 30 years…and because we were starting from scratch (mostly) in our farming ways… we became Regenerative Farmers in our effort to feed and water them – though as with so many labels attached to what we do here, we didn’t know what that was at the time. It was just what we naturally did, what our breed allowed us to do. Since then, Silvopasture, rotational grazing, permaculture, perennials, native-species meadows, overseeding, underseeding, no- and low-till, companion planting, tree fodder… so many words and phrases have become part of our vocabulary.

I used to think our first step into this was our argument (which we’re both glad I won) about Green Manure. But as with so much, it really began with the sheep.

We don’t use dogs to help us gather the sheep. We have a dog, a fierce, spoiled, and loveable little Jack Russell who thinks he can take down a full grown deer (and he nearly could, in his younger days). He’s useless around the sheep – wavering between wanting to hang out with them, and running from them. So our sheep are ‘bucket trained’. But when they first arrived, they were nothing but feral wild things – and terrified of us. And we had asked the vet to visit, to give them a look over, and us a Health Plan. So we had to find a way to gather them. I did some reading…and took a chair and some sheep cobs into their field.

The first task was to just be there, to get them used to my presence, without feeling I was a threat. Next, I tossed some cobs in their direction. They ran from them at first, of course. But then they came back, sniffed around, ate them…and wanted more. I lured them in… One day, I was able to feed a ewe her cob from one hand, and slowly reach down between her front legs and scratch her chest…her ‘sweet spot’ with the other… and watch her go still. Then, she moved in closer. And that’s still how we test which animals are going to be tame, and which ones only love us for the cobs. And not pushing, but letting them decide which they’ll be, is a basic skill that now extends to the entire farm. Is the northeast corner of Westfield too wet to grow tractor-dependant crops like hay or tatties? Then we’ll put in a pond, and grow wet-loving perennials there, keeping the large equipment on the dry side of the field. Do the bog or woodlands need lighter grazing and a light human touch to be able to support our sheep as well as the myriad of wild things that depend on them? Well, a light touch and lighter grazing it is. Are we too fond of sitting on a rotting lump of tree in the woods to want to move it – or too busy with other tasks to clear the piles of trimmings? Then the lumpy seat and piles stay, and both become habitats. We pay attention to what the land tells us, like we pay attention to what the critters – tame and wild – who live here tell us. The wilder Hebs still follow the bucket when they need to. They all love their cobs. But we’re actually grateful that most of them are no tamer than that, as we can’t spend all day scratching chests… can we? (We have just learned, six years on, that some call this kind of watching, listening, and waiting, ‘Permaculture design’. We just call it part of a day’s work.)

Donald laughed at me, at first, as I sat out in that field with the sheep, arm shaking from fatigue as I held a cob out for what seemed like forever. It was everything he’d been taught not to do as a young yin on this farm: ‘don’t name them, don’t treat them like pets’ (though he even broke that rule, occasionally, as a boy). But he doesn’t laugh now, and spoils them worse than I do. In return, they’ll follow him anywhere, which is super handy.

He certainly didn’t laugh, when I first suggested Green Manure. He thought I was nuts. He’d finally fixed or replaced enough of the ancient, buried drainage pipes to dry Westfield out enough to begin working it. We wanted to plant kale the next spring. It was nearing the time to order in the supplies needed to prep the field before winter set in, so it would be ready for a crop the following year.

I’d read about Green Manure in one of my ‘granola girl’ articles, those hippy-dippy mags that talked about living close to nature and hugging trees. He thought it would be more time consuming and expensive than traditional fertilizers, with less return. But he hates fighting about stuff worse than I do, so finally gave in and agreed to try it. It was a marvellous success, of course. Now we question the entire idea of what is ‘traditional’ about methods farmers were pushed to start using only 70 or so years ago. We think what we (and more and more like us, especially among the young starters) are doing, are really the ‘traditional’ ways – the ways that allowed humankind to farm the land for the preceding millennia without doing the kind of harm we’ve done in the past few generations.

Now, all those terms and techniques included in Regenerative Agriculture are part of our vocabulary, sure. But we just call what we do farming. And we wouldn’t want to do anything else, or do it any way else. We’re so grateful that the sheep made us stop, sit in that field, and take a different path to the one we had been told we were on. Even Donald’s mum, who thought we were crazy to bring sheep and their money-sucking habit of trying to die for no good reason back to the farm, got it before she left us. I’ll never forget the day – and her reaction – when I put a little black lamb in her lap.

We were lucky to have been so ignorant, when we took over management of The Hirsel in 2015. We were also lucky that one of us was a tree-hugger, and the other was already leaning in that direction, despite his early years’ training. We were lucky to choose – for reasons having nothing to do with regenerative agriculture at the time – the breed of sheep we did. We now realize how lucky we were that the farm was in such a state of disrepair, with wild places, encroaching woodland, and fields that demanded adaptation from us. That we weren’t as young and energetic as we’d once been, able to tame the entire place at once, and forced to take it slowly. That his mother had held onto it for 50 years, through all the challenges that threw at her, though she’d aged out of working it so long ago, leaving it to its own devices…but leaving it intact, for us to take over so many years later. Lucky that there was so much fencing to repair, while other tasks waited and were given time to be reconsidered, while we developed our style and approach to the fields and woodlands they encompassed. And we were lucky to have taken the farm over at a time when the style that came naturally to us as a team was coming back in vogue. All around us, the farming community is waking up (again) to regenerative farming, to listening to the land, to the need to live in better harmony with it…for all our sakes.

We’re lucky, alright. And we know it.

Food Poverty…

…and why we’ve gone political.

The following was inspired by yet another politician lecturing the poor on the dietary choices…and some fellow farmers jumping on that bandwagon. As farmers ourselves, we understand the desire for folk to choose our food. But they have to be able to, don’t they?

This is one of the things people who have never been poor don’t understand about food choices. When I was poor, and often transient, I couldn’t afford to have a collection like this (and this is my second tier collection, the spices I regularly use are near the stove), and I very often didn’t have a place to store it.

I remember one summer in NYC. I was homeless, and staying in a friend’s place while he was off on a summer gig. A last few cents in my pocket, and determined to eat healthy. Collard greens were cheap, and I loved collard greens. So that’s what I spent my money on – it was ALL I had money for. I went home, boiled them up ..and forced myself to eat them. Because it was the only food I’d see all day, unless I said yes to a dinner invitation by a guy who made clear what he expected for desert.

I could also tell you about working my way through college, with an early morning shift at a bakery, and no money left for food after paying rent, but with a ready supply of donuts to stop the hunger pains. So poor I had to walk 45 minutes to the job, as I didn’t have money for the bus.

Don’t EVER lecture a poor person about their food choices, if you’ve never choked down a dinner of boiled greens, with no seasoning or other ingredients added. Or been forced to take a job simply because payment included the only food you might see all day.

These days, Donald and I can grow a good amount of our food – in the ground and on the hoof – and what we can’t grow, we can afford to buy. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be hungry or homeless again. I can stretch the same bit of lamb across two dinners and a couple of lunches, with a bit of tweaking, thanks to a full spice cupboard. But not everyone lives on a farm, or has a garden, or lives in a country with the social safety net Scotland has. Or is in a relationship where both people are invested in taking care of each other.

When politicians wax on about poor people needing to make better choices? Don’t jump on that bandwagon. It’s gross. Instead, elect politicians who will help tackle poverty with real programs and opportunities.

And for those of you who say you don’t do politics? Poverty is a political choice, being made by those we’re electing. Politics is an empty cupboard, and being three months behind in your rent. Not doing politics? That’s privilege on display.

And that’s why we’ve gone political at The Hirsel.

Farming & politics. Do they mix?

For years as a freelance artist and arts manager, I told myself that I needed to keep politics out of my business. But it was a lie I told myself: as a young actor, I had a hard time auditioning for jobs that included selling the new brand of toothpaste to people who hoped it would make them popular with the opposite sex… yet went all out for roles in shows that ‘raged at the machine’. Later, as an arts manager, I’d host discussion groups between Israeli and Palestinian groups, Iraqis and Americans, Republicans and Democrats; organize art exhibitions and produce theatre that asked questions of ourselves and our viewers… I’d work for voting rights, and promote artists who had something to say imbedded their work. But then I’d turn around and try to create an online presence that appeared ‘neutral’. Even as a young artist, no matter my talent or skill – or what was truly in my heart – I was a deliberately bland product, something that anyone could feel comfortable casting: medium height, medium colour, no tattoos, not too much makeup. Willing to change anything about myself to get the job: “I can play blond!” No wonder I struggled to succeed in those early years: who wants bland?

But that’s fading away with age… and a growing comfort with my own crankiness… with the realities of life as a Scottish farmer and EU citizen… with a partner who agrees with and supports me, and who is letting go of his own veneer of neutrality, too. Who is learning to be comfortable rocking his boat. Although to be honest, nobody who has ever talked with Donald about his pet political focus – Scottish independence – could accuse him of being neutral. 😉

The Hirsel is our home. This website is our online home, a reflection of who we are and what the farm is. Until now, we’ve kept politics ‘out of it’. But we’ve realized that this farm is fundamentally a political project: we believe that small farms – and other small businesses – are as much a necessary part of a future independent Scotland, as any amount of Inward Investment – indeed, that they are a crucial piece of the mosaic of solutions we need to tackle independence and the world’s biggest challenge right now: climate change. Food security, regenerative agriculture, community resilience… all topics on the tip of everyone’s tongues…and how are these tackled without getting political?

So you’re likely to see us post more political posts. About things we feel passionate about. About things we think matter, things we feel we need to be fighting for. No worries: a lot of that passion is for our animals, this farm, and the simple joy of living and working here. There won’t be any lessening of those posts where we simply share our beautiful home and wooly stories with you. We hope you’ll stick with us for the ride.

First up tomorrow: a very personal take on Food Poverty.

Regenerative Farming

First published in the Kyle Chronicle, Winter 2020/2021 edition

Farmers who use regenerative agriculture techniques accept that wildlife will share some of our harvest with us

The ewes helping us clear overgrown willow at the edge of the woods. © The Hirsel

UK farming has been in the news a lot lately. The combination of Brexit, Covid-19 and climate change has made many people rethink their food choices and sources. During the ongoing pandemic, sourcing our food locally and feeding our communities has become not just a necessity for many of us, but a passion. All around the UK, farmers, retail food outlets, and activists are joining forces to serve their communities. In the Highlands, efforts like Moo Foods, Planet Sutherland, Transition Black Isle, and more, are leading the way to sustainable practices and food growing/delivery. One phrase keeps appearing in many of the conversations with these groups and fellow farmers, in the Highlands and around the world: regenerative agriculture.

While headlines and politicians scream various predictions about how many years we have left before the earth’s soil will be degraded beyond the point of sustaining life, those engaged in regenerative agriculture are working to pull us back from the brink, however near or far that brink may really be.

According to Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture “describes farming and grazing practices that (…) reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”

Farmers who use regenerative techniques eschew the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, in favour of encouraging ‘good’ bugs, organic fertilizers (straight from the grazers), mob grazing (hard grazing for short amounts of time), or the less intensive rotational grazing (a lower stocking density for longer periods), rotational and companion cropping, and a general acceptance that wildlife –whether bug, bird, or four legged– will share some of our harvest with us. We make sure the soil is covered with greenery all year round to avoid soil run-off and nutrient depletion, and we choose this year’s grass mix for what it will do for next year’s vegetable harvest. In return, we watch as poor soils turn rich again, birds return to nest, and our plant and animal crops help each other thrive.

Regenerative practices will look different on every farm –the field margins built into some farm systems wouldn’t fit onto our wee bit of land, for instance, and we can’t let our animals roam freely, like some large estates can– but we all share some basic practices, as highlighted in Farmers Weekly:

  1. Minimising soil disturbance
  2. Keeping the soil covered
  3. Maximising plant or crop diversity
  4. Integrating livestock
Our 2020 batch of piglets, clearing the land of dockens, reeds and thistles. They also turn up a LOT of rocks for us, and contribute amazing amounts of fertilizer!

Choosing crops

When we took over the management of the farm five years ago, it hadn’t been a working farm for more than 30 years. In working to bring the farm back into production we inadvertently discovered this concept of regenerative agriculture. It started with our choice of sheep.

Hebrideans are native to Scotland, built to survive in its challenging environment. They thrive on forage other breeds won’t or can’t eat. They’re flowing grazers, spreading their fertilizing manure far and wide. Their way of living helps the land thrive: clearing saplings gives the stronger trees room to grow, pawing up the mosses and chewing off the tops of the reeds, to let the grass come through. They’re thinning the bracken, nettles and gorse, giving the birds room to nest. But thanks to their grazing methods, they seldom overgraze an area. Hebrideans and this land are perfectly suited to each other… and that’s the key to regenerative farming: choosing the crops, grass mixes, fruit and veg, and livestock that not only thrive on this farm but help each other do so, as well. It’s a trial and error technique, sometimes, but well worth the long term benefits.

Clearing thistles and ragwort from Drovers Field, now planted as a mixed species meadow. No chemicals allowed – which was very much appreciated by the Oystercatchers who nested there in 2020! We hope they come back again.

Choosing Hebrideans triggered the rest: the first year we had to fertilize a field, we discovered ‘green manure’, crops you plant with the express intention of ploughing them back in to enrich the soil, instead of bringing in fertilizers; a lack of manpower forced me to let the tall grasses around the vegetable patch grow tall this year… and I saw them flower for the first time. My garden looks messy, but it’s full of life. And yes, it’s more work keeping the birds and bugs off the veg, than it would be if I used pesticides but I don’t mind the extra time spent working in the luscious black crumbly soil the old dirt is becoming. Because this way of farming is regenerative to us as well, because we know we’re building something that will only get better with time.

Living and working with love for everyone and everything that shares the land with us – that’s at the core of regenerative farming