The rams are out to mark the start of the crofting year

Cattle – a natural improver
Photo: Willie Urquhart/WHFP


The crofting calendar spins on a slightly different axis to most of the rest of the modern world, dictated as it is by nature and the weather.

With most now looking ahead to the year-end celebrations and festive reflections, the shortened daylight hours of late autumn and winter actually mark the start of the crofting year, certainly for those whose main interest is livestock, which is the vast majority.

This is the time when the rams go out with the ewes, everything bar breeding stock has more or less been sold and it’s time to hunker down for the long winter ahead.

Photo: Willie Urquhart/WHFP

Sheep have a natural production cycle which fits the seasonal patterns. As the days shorten, they naturally come on “season” ready for the ram, so that their lambs hit the ground with the new flush of spring grass. Mother Nature never ceases to amaze.

Cows, on the other hand, can breed all-year, with the same gestation period as humans, though most calve in or around the spring, for much the same reason as sheep.

But late autumn is when you start with a blank canvas. The next few weeks and months are all about ensuring everything has enough feed and reserves to carry it through the cold and wet – but especially the wet.

I’ve heard many an old-timer say that the cold and wind rarely bother the animals. It’s the wet that really has an impact, as the lack of a dry lying area just saps their reserves.

Some are fortunate enough to winter their animals indoors, but while definitely easier on man and beast, it is not, in the main, practical.
The financial returns from a few animals are just too low to justify expenditure on large sheds and then there’s the cost of bedding. In conversation with a mainland farmer, I happened to remark that it cost us in Lewis north of £30 for a big bale of bedding straw, sometimes £40. He was getting it at £10. He was in no doubt that at these prices it was completely unsustainable to have cattle inside for any length of time.

If it’s a crisp, frosty winter, the cattle aren’t much of a problem. But the incessant rain can become a depressing drudge as you constantly battle the mud and dampness. With most crofters having a full-time job, you can see why so many just concentrate on keeping a few sheep – they don’t poach the ground nearly as much and, for quite obvious reasons, require much less feeding.

For my own part, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in the grazing and ground since introducing cattle and they’re also vital for accessing environmental funding streams aimed at increasing biodiversity.

When the better weather finally does come, they’re much less selective in their grazing, meaning they will consume a lot of the harsher grasses, leading to greater rejuvenation of sward. Their dung is an extremely proficient fertiliser that attracts a myriad of insects which, in turn, brings more birdlife – a very important consideration in today’s environmentally-conscious times.

So even if economically and practically cows are not much of a better option, they definitely have their place and are worth their weight in gold as nature’s natural improvers. Plus, you really can’t beat a bit of local beef.
It’s all pros and cons and weighing up what’s right for your own personal circumstances, time and available infrastructure.

But, whatever, it’s crucial to get the winter maintenance regime right so the animals can get off to the best of possible starts and, with a bit of luck, we can settle down to the festivities in a relatively rested frame of mind, however muted the celebrations might all be this year.

WHILE we look back on what has been the most tumultuous of years, I hope we don’t forget the massive extra volunteer effort that was needed to carry us through. It was rather gratifying to see the best of selfless human endeavour coming through in the worst of crises.

At one stage it looked like there would be no livestock sales in the islands. In the greater scheme of things it would hardly have been the worst of outcomes, but it would nevertheless have created huge logistical problems. Fortunately, it did not materialise.

The commercial aspect on sale day is overseen by Dingwall and Highland Marts, in the case of Stornoway, Portree and Lochmaddy, and United Auctions in Lochboisdale and the Argyll islands. But it still requires a huge amount of volunteer effort at local level. Even in normal times it is a thankless task to ensure all the animals are in their correct pens and the sale keeps moving along efficiently.

Considering social distancing rules and that livestock owners were not allowed to be present on sale day, it must have been all the more challenging this year. So a huge debt of gratitude is owed to all those who ensured the sales went ahead – and relatively smoothly into the bargain. The fact that the prices were so good was a bit of an extra boost, just when we all needed it most.

Murray MacLeod is a journalist and crofter who lives in Lewis