This method gives a basic evaluation of the potential for agricultural use of an overgrown blackland field or area; these are usually less than one-half acre. Such fields have often been out of use for more than 50 years, and have usually been damaged by blocked drains, rank vegetation and unmanaged grazing by sheep. Through 6 simple tests, the Index produces a score which will help compare fields, and indicate those most likely to be productive.
Some aspects of determining how to use the land have not been included, either because they are obvious, or vary according to the crofter’s particular situation:
1. Climate Many land use classification systems rely on climate data. It is well known that the west of Scotland is rainy and windy; this method assumes it will be so, as it was in the past. The solution lies in getting rid of the water.
2. Workability Rockiness, extreme slope, access, and area obviously affect possible uses, as does the equipment available – from spade to tractor. Weight and manoeuvrability of equipment are important considerations, and a 45Hp tractor (category 1) is about the maximum useable size on most blackland; it is still plenty strong to plough. The Swiss Rapid two-wheeled tractor plus attachments has proven excellent on blackland.
3. Bracken / Rush The presence of bracken or nettles is not included as an indicator – they are actually marks of fertility. Rush indicates wetness, but will grow anywhere in this climate. Getting rid of these is thus a management issue, not an underlying condition.
Begin by forming a general impression of the land you are evaluating. Standing outside it, note what is striking. How much slope, rocks are there? Are there many changes in the vegetation, or is it quite uniform? Is there water running through it or standing on it? How green or brown is it? Then on walking through it, notice how wet, how solid the ground feels. These impressions will help you begin to read the land.
The hardest part may be to determine what is a field? This is better thought of as a distinct management area, as older fields may never have been fenced. Once you begin to notice areas of similarity, you will find it very helpful to map and name them!
Depressions marking old drains that have filled in are very important to note, as the first step should be to clear them. Old drains are in useful, even essential, places; they should be cleaned first before trying new routes. Another interesting feature to note is cultivated beds or ‘lazybeds’. A classic lazybed for potatoes is usually about 1 meter wide. You may often come across much wider strips up to 4 or 5 metres; these may have resulted from combining several beds. Such areas continue to improve a cropping or grass area through shedding water. These are all very important indicators of past use and water managment, and should be understood before obliterating.
Ideally, an evaluation of your land should take place over a year, so that you have noted conditions in all seasons. Familiarity with the land is needed to make good judgements; it takes time to learn to ‘read the land’. This investment in observation will pay off in the long run.
© M.N.Scherbatskoy 2012