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.

Lucky

#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.
xxx

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

Partners

We talk a lot about how our sheep are partners in the farm’s regeneration. This is what we’re talking about: when the sheep first arrived, this copse was impenetrable. They started pushing in through it, and bedding down at the edges at night. We thought, at first, that we should get in there and clear it out for them. But they did that themselves! Chewing away at the tangle, eating the saplings…there’s so much more air getting in through there now, room for the birds to fly among the branches. Eventually, the smallest trees will die off, as the sheep continue to chew them, and we’ll clear them out, giving the larger trees more room to grow. And the sheep will continue to have a nice sheltered spot to sleep.
And when we rest that area, grass will come up – though it won’t last long, once the sheep are back again (nom nom). And so it goes: our woodlands are looking so much better since the sheep moved in.
Trees and sheep, it doesn’t have to be either/or. Done right, they can both benefit from the other.

The wheel turns…

…and five years have passed.

We’ve been working this farm together five years this month. Although Donald and his family moved here when he was 11, he never saw himself as choosing a farming life, and it wasn’t until his mum needing someone to help care for her coincided with a transition in his own life, that he came back to the farm about seven years ago. He figured he might as well fix the drainage in a couple of fields while he was here…and became hooked. I joined him two years later, and since then, time has flown.

While posting on our Facebook page recently, about our upcoming Ram Sale, I discovered a collection of pictures suspiciously similar to those I was trying to add to the post. This year’s photos of our saucy boys are nearly identical to those I took almost exactly one year ago: a selection of solo shots showing off each of the animals up for sale, and a group shot or two, attempting to show them in their native element.

Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: farming is a repetitive business, with lambing, sowing, harvest, and tupping seasons all coming around annually, and with other tasks – like taming the thistles in the hay fields, and trying/failing to keep the snails from eating my lettuce – repeating themselves on a regular basis. This is the wheel of the farming calendar, and ready or not, it will turn.

It’s not for everyone, this farming gig. It’s dirty and smelly and often wet and cold, and sometimes heart- and backbreaking. But for those who live it and love it, it’s also invigorating, and peaceful, and a reminder of our place in the cycle of life on this planet. The repetitions are welcome, actually: once you go through a few cycles, there’s no need to ‘invent the wheel’ every time, and you can get on with other quandaries, such as whether to breed that trusty old ewe again, or to retire her. Or whether we can afford a new baler, or will have to nurse this one through one more (“the last one, I promise!”) harvest. And how in the world we can keep the piglets in their paddock, using 10 year old bits and pieces we’ve got lying around.

Not supposed to be there.

It’s nice to finally have our list of lambing supplies complete, and the design of the footrace figured out (for now). Lambing – and the resulting ram sales – come and go like summer following spring. Although this year, it’s almost as though Autumn got into the middle of July and decided to mess things up a bit.

There’s something reassuring about the wheel turning as it always does on this old farm…while the rest of the world seems to spin out of control all around us. Plagues, fires, floods, wars, and despotic rulers in countries that used to be considered havens for democracy…the sheep truly do not care. They will have their lambs, and no gloves or face masks will save you from having to go elbow deep to help them deliver a stuck lamb, with everyone ending up covered in birth fluids. The wheel will turn, we will laugh about (most of) it, and another constant is that, among all the repeating rituals of the year, there will also, always, be a new challenge coming at us next week, or next month. And that’s okay too. It’s just another way the wheel turns.

No, it’s not for everyone. But after five years together this month, working this land, and rejuvenating this old farm, we look with hope (again) at this year’s crop of handsome young rams high-stepping through the tall grass, nursing high hopes for their futures… and we know that it is definitely for us.

Turn wheel, turn. And we’ll be right here, steering a course into the next five (and more) years.

Still smiling, five years on.

Progress looks like this

So, this came today. Our ‘authority to start work’. Basically, the final step in our approval for the Agri-Enviroment Grant we submitted last year. And it changes so much for the farm – we are so excited!


It’s not just about the money either, it’s what that money will do, and what our success in receiving the grant means about our approach to farming.

You see, much of the work projects this grant requires of us were in our plans already – because they make good sense for the health of the flora and fauna (and people) that live at the Hirsel. We will be plowing and replanting a field: this grant instructs us in what to plant and when to graze or cut it, and neither instruction is far off from what we wanted to do anyway…but this grant gives us a budget that we’d have to otherwise scrape up somehow.
To do the work on that field requires more fencing work – but we had to do it eventually, and now we have a budget for that, too. Our little bit of wetlands will be grazed, and our pond brought back into life…again, work we meant to do some day, but now we have guidance and…yes, a budget.

All work we meant to do, as we continue our efforts to bring the farm back into production after 30 years of neglect. The fact that so many of the tasks tied to this grant are things we meant to do anyway, means our focus on regenerative, flora-and-fauna-friendly methods are bringing us support and vindication.

There are challenges that come with this grant, changes to the timelines of other projects… we were going to build a holiday hut for our guests, in the spare (ha!) hours in between lambs over the next couple of months, but fencing, grazing and planting deadlines now mean that the build won’t happen until later in the year. But it – and other postponed plans WILL still happen. So that’s all good.

This grant, and another we hope to submit for plumbing and electrical upgrades, will have huge implications for some of the dreams we have for the Hirsel’s future as a sustainable farm and community asset. We are indebted to SRUC/SAC for their assistance in submitting it – we can’t recommend them enough. We’ll be back in their office soon, working on next steps.

Stay tuned, and thank you for joining us on our amazing adventures at #thehirsel! We hope to see you in person sometime soon.

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.

The Tatties (just in time for the) Holidays

The tatties are here! The Hirsel’s first vegetable crop available for sale, these Cara’s are great all around tatties, and are available in sizes from small to ginormous. They were grown without pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers…but we’ve skipped the ‘certified organic’ paperwork, saving us the extra hassle, and saving you money: you get them at an affordable £1/kg, regardless of size. Mix it up!

December farm shopping hours are Thursdays – Saturdays, 10am-2pm, and other times by appointment. The postcode for your SatNav is IV24 3DJ, on Kincardine hill (east), in Ardgay. The sign at the gate reads Gillies. 

UPDATE: We won’t be holding ‘shop hours’ at the farm anymore (for now), because…. Swordale Farm Butchers, in Ardgay, is now carrying our tatties for us! This is a great local business, selling meat, dairy, and veg as locally sourced as possible – sometimes right off their own farm! We’re proud to become one of their local suppliers, and hope you’ll extend your support for #theHirsel to them, as well.

Of course, you can still come ’round the farm for tatties, too, if you wish. Just MESSAGE US via our Facebook page or via info@thehirsel.com to make an appointment – and to make sure we’re not out playing with the sheep when you come by.

Tatties grown the way Mother Nature intended, straight from our farm to your table…yum!