Excerpts from Blacklander newsletter 2010-2011


Blackland Project

The Blackland Project began in 2009, organised by Talamh (a new land-based charity in North Uist) in cooperation with the crofting group CEIA, scientists from Scottish research institutes, and other crofting groups in the west of Scotland.  Its purpose is to gather information – both theoretical and practical – about the blackland typical of the east side of the Uists (and many other crofting areas),  and find ways to bring it back into productive use.

But how?  We felt there was a need to look at blackland in an organised way, rather than just as individuals trying to find resources on our own.  The problems are too complex to overcome easily.

The Blackland Project is collecting information and cooperating with crofters and scientists, surveying, testing, organising workshops and conferences, writing reports, and experimenting with growing food and fodder on blackland.  We are trying to find ways to share useful information and encourage anyone wanting to make blackland productive again.   Activities in 2010 will include:

– Spring, summer and autumn croft visits by members of CEIA and friends

– Mid-summer soil and compost workshops in North Uist

– Blackland sites for food and fodder growing in N. Uist

– Reprint of Frank Fraser Darling’s Crofting Agriculture: Its Practice in the West Highlands and Islands

Michaelmas Open Day (25 September):  Land-based Activities and Talks


Crofting Agriculture – Its Practice in the West Highlands and Islands

The Blackland Project is pleased to be able to reprint Frank Fraser Darling’s classic handbook with support from the Climate Challenge Fund.  As is well-known, Dr. Fraser Darling was a naturalist and Director of the West Highland Survey.  In the 1940s, he took on a derelict croft on Tanera in the Summer Isles, and wrote about it in the light of his scientific training and correspondence with many crofters through a column in the Highland newspapers of the day.  Crofting Agriculture is the result.   His concern was with the future of crofting and crofting communities, and he believed that the key was to keep the land “in good heart” – maintaining fertile, productive soils to raise crops and livestock.  This book has value today, precisely because it was written in a time before feed and fertiliser came out of a bag – with attendant costs both financial and environmental – and people made best use of what was available.  If a few points are dated – drying hay by cheap hydro-electric power never became a reality, while silage certainly took off – his understanding of the strengths and limits of crofting on the poor black soils of the west of Scotland still serves as an excellent guide.   The historic Robert Adam photographs are not included, as the text stands by itself as an inspiration and a practical handbook useful for anyone working on blackland today.

(Book available from Blackland Centre or Uist shops)

A Practical Demonstration

For the past 10 years, Phil Jubb has been developing a way of feeding his shorthorns with a ‘no-graze’ method on his croft in Lochboisdale.  Like many east-side crofts, the soil is black and wet, and poaching was severe.   After trying many approaches, he found a ‘walking tractor’ system from a Swiss company called Rekord.   The machinery is light and manoeuvrable on small wet fields, and has many attachments from mower to aerator to bailer, operated through a power take-off.  It is powered by a 13Hp Briggs and Straton petrol engine mounted on a heavy gearbox/drive casting;  Phil has used his unit for over 1000 hours in the past 5 years. 

Caption goes hereCEIA’s mini-baler on two-wheel tractor – making grass silage at Scotvein


Summer Visits by Scientists

Scottish soil scientists, ecologists and botanists have been very generous with their time, and contributed a lot of thought and information to the Blackland Project:

This is a caption, the image is used at medium size and aligned to the left of the content.
Bob Rees, Roddy MacLeod, and Bruce Ball evaluating Roddy’s blackland croft at Lochportain

Senior SAC soil researchers Drs. Bruce Ball and Bob Rees came to visit and stayed for two days.  They looked at the soils on four of the CEIA crofts in North Uist, plus Phil Jubb’s in Lochboisdale, concluding that peaty soils have not been well-studied and present many interesting features.  At present, soils on the CEIA crofts range from excellent to unworkable in terms of structure, even in areas which obviously had been previously cultivated.  Bruce and Bob are beginning to develop a classification system for blackland, and to think about the mechanisms whereby these soils change over time.  Blackland soils are often “built” by crofters, through adding muck, seaweed, and sand over decades;  this appears to be true not only in the thinner areas over rock,  but also over deep peat.  It appears that the thinner areas may maintain their structure better over years of neglect.  It seems that the deeper ones rapidly develop a layer of compacted but not decomposed sphagnum moss (4” or more thick) which can render them unusable, and host only cotton grass, sedges and a few very low-value grasses.

How fast does this happen?  how can it be reversed? are subjects for the future.

Ecologist Dr. Robin Pakeman returned for a visit during the Macaulay’s summer monitoring programme on the machair.  The plan was to investigate different parts of the croft to see how the vegetation changes from place to place, and to learn the feed value of the grazing plants, using the Macaulay Tables of Grazing Value of various common grasses.  We found a much wider range of grasses than expected, (some possibly from hay bought years ago) but then the rain came on.  Robin is reviewing our List of Grasses, which will include common name, Latin name, and Gaelic name (mainly from literary sources) together with their feed value.   We plan to make a laminated set of grass specimens for those of us who can’t tell one from the other!

Eminent botanist Dr. R.J.Pankhust, accompanied by members of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, visited the Blackland Project as part of a field trip to continue recording species in the Western Isles.  They have identified a set of study areas or ‘tetrads’ where they aim to make a complete record of the plants present.  Fortunately,  the hill and wetland portion of 5 Scotvein is part of one of their areas; after an hour, they had recorded over 60 species of plants.  We hope in the future to complete the list of flora of the rest of the croft, to see what kinds of changes occur with more drainage and active management.  We very much appreciate the help provided by Dr. Pankhurst and the visiting botanists.


This issue reports on the Conference Blackland: from the Ground Up which was held on 25 September on the croft at 5 Scotvein, Grimsay, and was possibly the first event in Scotland about the unique nature and possibilities of blackland.  Speakers/discussion leaders were:  Dr. Ken Davies (SAC Vegetation and Weed specialist), Dr. Bob Rees (SAC Soils and Emissions researcher), Dr. Tony Edwards (Phosphorus specialist formerly with the Macaulay), and Iain Cairns (former SAC Advisor in Lewis).  The conference was very well attended, with 30 participants: 15 crofters and others from the Uists, and 15 from Harris, Skye and the mainland.  The morning was given to formal sessions, including presentations and question-and-answer,  and the afternoon for informal discussion and a croft walk with the scientists.  Some initial research was displayed through panels of photographs and maps documenting former cultivation on Grimsay, on Lewis, and on current cultivation in Lochboisdale.

Questions put to the Conference were:  What was blackland like in the past?  What is its state today?  Where do we want to go, and how do we get there?  This gathering of scientists and crofters was an excellent way to start looking for ways of recreating responsible productivity on blackland, through a combination of science, tradition and agriculture.

Overheard at the Conference – from the Talks

Ken Davies on the development and changes in blackland:

“… After humans appeared, probably about 5,400 years ago, the land deteriorated quite quickly after that – they weren’t managing it properly quite clearly!  It wasn’t until about the Bronze Age that people started to drain the land, which was the key, because in this environment, the key is the amount of wetness….pH or acidity is the second big problem.  Soil acidity means that the available nutrients – which determine what vegetation can grow – are less available…  So early farmers improved the drainage, and raised the pH with shell sand, and of course the seaweed and manure added nutrients, and they got very good crops of grass and of cereals, potatoes.  But once the management stops, with this climate, what happens?  Sphagnum moss occupies those drains – sphagnum, it’s a wonderful material, botanists love it! But sphagnum holds many times its own weight in water;  it also grabs every molecule of nitrogen and phosphorus around and takes it away from anything else.  It mounds up in the ditches quite quickly and raises the water table in the soil. ”

Tony Edwards on nutrient research in Scotland:

“The Scottish government has just paid for a resampling of the soils across Scotland, and we’re now looking at putting this information on soil and land use into a national context…. I have been looking specifically at soil phosphorus and soil acidity which are two of the main things that underlie soil fertility…looking at the historical context, how things have changed over the last 70 years.  There are something like 350,000 samples from the 1930s from the Farm Advisory Service for the north of Scotland.  We can look at these to see how the soil fertility has changed over the last 50, 60 years.  As you can imagine, there are massive shifts in acidity, pH, phosphorus, potash… This tells us how the (management) systems have changed…. Knowing the route we have come from will help us to get back to where we want to be in terms of soil fertility.”

Iain Cairns on croft management and equipment:

“No one can go to a croft and say this is a typical croft, because every single croft is different.  So I think two things are important – one is the objectives of the person managing the croft, and the second is the particular parts, the resources of the croft itself, since it may be different even from other crofts within the same township.  I am interested in the interaction between the land as a resource and its management with livestock,cropping, cultivation, but also in the interaction with environmental objectives… cultivation and grassland use can be an environmental asset in its own right…. Another side of my experience would be the use of agricultural machinery, appropriate machinery for the crofting scale.  We did a fair amount of work on things like mini-bailer trials, to see if a scaled-down system of silage production could replace the fodder requirements of livestock which wasn’t being sourced from the islands anymore – most of the hay was being bought in, because it’s so difficult to make here”

Bob Rees on carbon storage and emissions in agriculture

“My background is in nutrient management, and fertiliser recommendations for cropping systems, but recently I’ve been looking at environmental impacts of farming systems, particularly climate change and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture….Things were very much self-sustaining in crofting in the past, their ability to sustain themselves from their local environment was really an achievement.  But since those days, we’ve become more dependent on external inputs of fossil fuels, of pesticides and fertilisers, and in many ways we’ve developed an agricultural system in European and so-called developed countries which is really rather unsustainable.  I wonder if in 100 years time, writers will look back at the systems we have today and describe our systems as being rather backwards and primitive?….In Scotland now for example about 12% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture; the two most important agricultural greenhouse gases are nitrous oxide and methane.  Nitrous oxide is released from soils and fertilisers which are applied to soils.  It’s an extemely potent greenhouse gas – if we compare the unit by unit ability of nitrous oxide to warm the atmosphere, it has a 300 times greater ability to warm than carbon dioxide….The use for example of fertiliser nitrogen in wet conditions is the sort of thing that tends to generate a lot of greenhouse gases, it’s something we want to avoid….There’s a real contradiction between trying to produce food, and avoid carbon dioxide release – in a certain sense the easiest thing to do would be not to touch the soils, the landscape, and then we’d accumulate all this carbon – but of course we really can’t do that, that choice isn’t open to us!….On an international level, peat soils are very unusual, they cover only 3% of the earth’s land area,  a tiny area; and yet, those 3% of soils contain about a third of the soil carbon globally, and that’s about twice as much carbon as is contained in the atmosphere.  So the soils that we’re sitting on around here are goldmines in terms of carbon storage.”

Overheard at the Conference – from Q&A and discussions

What are the words for growing things in raised strips, most peple refer to them as lazybeds or feannagan?  Lazybeds were sometimes enlarged and reused to grow grain.  (Rigs may not be the best word because it refers to a way of sharing land among the township rather than a means of growing things. ) Lachie Morrison uses the word ‘atharnach‘ which Dwelly defines as ‘second crop’:   “You would take probably about 3 lazybeds, you would take the soil and scatter it over from the side halfways to the other side,  and you sowed that with oats or barley because it had been fertilised with the seaweed for the potatoes, and they grew well because of the drainage…”

Traces of these wider beds are very common in Lewis, and possibly also here at Scotvein.

What about rushes? …there may be a million seeds per square yard, rush is the commonest seed in the soil in Scotland wherever you are, all you need is the right conditions and they will come up.  If you keep things drier, those seeds will eventually die.  It will take a good few years, and it’s always worthwhile to cut to prevent seeding for the future.  But cutting them doesn’t kill them, what it actually does is encourage the crown to expand.  Cattle will eat the young ones, but sheep won’t touch them. (except for Hebrideans) and cattle treading disrupts them.

Is bracken dangerous to cattle?  yes, if they live 50 years, it’s like us.  Bracken has got dangerous carcinogens, for example in parts of Japan where it was used as part of the diet, there’s a very high incidence of stomach cancer, or in Wales where bracken surrounded reservoirs, and the leachate got into the reservoirs, there’s a higher incidence of stomach cancer than you would expect in N.Wales.

Sheep can eat the ragwort,  so it’s good to have sheep grazing with the cattle? I’d be careful about sheep, yes, there is this idea that sheep are great for ragwort,  but they can lose condition so I wouldn’t put your best ewes or your pregnant ewes in the ragwort.  Even if from a distance it looks all yellow the cattle will still graze, around it,  but the danger is that once you cut it, it loses that bitter taste and they can’t distinguish it.  And in fact in the silage clamp or bag, the poisons leach out and spread through the whole bale so even one plant in a bale is dangerous ….

A good way of managing grassland is to have a few cattle, a few more sheep and one goat per hectare.  Some traditional breeds would be more likely to range over a bigger area and select out a range of grass and plants on the croft… Texels or continentals breeds of cattle, the danger is that these larger animals haven’t got that foraging instinct, and will just stand by the fence and wait for the next bale of hay.  So by carefully selecting the breeds, in cattle particularly, you’ll get a much bigger impact on control of some problems in crops….Cattle make a difference, they keep breaking up the turf, poaching, but sheep compact it and once you get that compaction, you get a start for the moss, and water is held at surface just long enough for moss to establish.

On Reseeds: …frustration with quick reseed, the ground is full of seeds, unless conditions are right for the plants you hope will dominate – ryegrass, white clover – they won’t flourish and weeds will come back.  It takes a long time to get a re-seed right, you need to start improving the conditions first, get it right and then start to introduce vegetation that will be more sustainable…Roddy MacLeod’s re-seed is 20-30 years old, but clover is gone now; it was started by burning heather, then putting sand. …. Burning is one of the things that increases soil pH;  it releases calcium and nutrients, so in addition to adding lime, it gives a good start and holds back the rushes.  Reseeds were best, longest-lasting on free-draining, shallow soil.

Is sand good for structure of peat soils, so is it good to put it regularly? Well, that’s what the old crofters did …There’s sand and there’s sand: some has much more shell, a much higher liming value than others, you have to have it tested…. (The N.Uist pit has a liming value or NV of 40% which is very high, one in S. Uist is 29%.)  But remember that the lime in sand is held a bit, so it takes a while to act…. An interesting thing is that as you drain a soil it will become more acidic because a freely drained soil generates acidity through nutrient transformations, so when you start to drain a soil you need to think about liming it as well,  in order to improve its fertility. …It’s very hard to raise a soil from pH4 or so; pH is a logarithmic scale so a single unit increase is a ten-fold change.  It’s like the earthquake scale, not linear in steps, but pH 4 is ten times more acidic than pH 5, so to raise the pH from 4 to 6,  is to become 100 times less acidic,  so that’s why making those changes is very hard work.  Generally you would tend to apply quite large amounts of lime or sand occasionally just because its so much work to apply small amounts very frequently….The rotation is important, since some crops like potatoes have a tolerance for acidity, they grow better, but when you get through to barley in the rotation, you want the pH as high as possible, and oats are more tolerant than barley, so it’s related to the rotation when you add lime.

Some Ideas to take away

Local breeds and seeds are beneficial…In the past 50 years, the big push was for productivity, rather than quality.  The older seed varities have a completely different way of tackling what’s in the soil.  One of the things that breeders have done is to breed plants that respond well to high levels of nutrients…. Plants get their nutrients from different sources – they get some nutrients from fertilisers that are applied in soluble form, another part comes from soil organic matter and the decomposition of plant materials that are in the soil.  Those two things occur at different times and different places in the soil, so these new varieties are bred to take more advantage of the fertilisers, and to ignore to some extent the natural resources and natural fertility of the soil….Quality not quantity depends on the rate at which things grow.  If you stick N onto them, they grow so fast that they don’t have time to absorb the nutrients.  Without it, they may grow slower, but if they are more concentrated, even though you’ve got less crop,  there’s more in it.

Perhaps we knew this and then forgot it and now we’re coming back to it?

(the above based on quotes from many participants)

Music to the Organisers’ ears:

“It was great, you could just ask questions and get answers”

(The shed didn’t have electricity, so we were spared PowerPoint)

“It was a good way of organising, more informal, more chance to discuss…”


The Elephant in the Room

Like the blind men trying to understand the elephant “It’s like a piece of rope!” “No, it’s like a tree!” “No, it’s a wrinkly wall!”, information about blackland has to be put together bit by bit from many sources.  It’s soil, it’s botany, it’s chemistry, it’s machinery, it’s history, and there isn’t one size to fit all.  Perhaps in the old days when there were people who had used blackland for their entire working lives (and their fathers before them), all the knowledge would have been in one place.  But today, the old crofters have passed away, and science has become very specialised.   Little attention has been paid to blackland in the last 50 years, still less in a holistic way that takes account of all the different kinds of information and how they interact to make a diverse, productive piece of land.  However, the Blackland Project is expanding our inquiry; founder Mary Norton has begun an MSc. by Research with the SAC scientists as advisors (Bruce Ball, Bob Rees, and ecologist Barbra Harvie at the University of Edinburgh) to research the factors that make blackland tick.  The scientists are agreed that little is known about it, that many of the standard analysis systems such as for pH, NPK and soil structure were developed on and for mineral soils, meaning that standard tests may not give accurate results.  Mary’s work includes not only studying soils but most important, learning from crofters and other specialists.  For example, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) studies field systems – the marks that previous cultivation leaves on the ground, which help us to understand how the land was used, even after memory has disappeared.  RCAHMS also holds the national aerial photo collection, through which you can locate and order aerial photos since 1946 – there is so much information about old ditches, fields, dykes that are visible from the air but very hard to notice on the ground.  And then there’s Gaelic:  Lachie Morrison previously described the technique of combining feannagan (lazybeds) into broader strips to grow corn;  he and others on Grimsay refer to these as atharnaich.   There would have been a lot of very specialised words that could tell us a lot about how the land was used – please try to remember and collect any that you may come across.  They may provide important clues!  And of course the real elephants in the room are the decades of agricultural policy that not only allowed thousands of acres of perfectly useable blackland to fall into ruin. but made it inevitable.

Cultivation in Scotvein, 1956
Cultivation in Scotvein, 1956

The Carbon Question

As everyone must know by now,  greenhouse gases (CO2, nitrous oxide, and methane) from many sources are driving climate change.  Agriculture – including cultivation, animals and fertilisers – is responsible for 12% of emissions in Scotland.  Anytime you disturb the land, you get emissions of some sort; since food production involves cultivation, an extreme solution would be to give up eating!!  But pastures and boggy bits may also emit methane, so the question is extremely complicated.  Carsten Malisch (a student at the SAC with Bruce Ball and Bob Rees) is doing some basic research on greenhouse gas emissions from blackland on the croft at Kenary.  At 5 locations representing 5 different past uses and blackland types, he collects gas emissions from the soil which will be analysed on a gas chromatograph, and then takes this soil to try several growing treatments (such as with seaweed, with lime, with tillage etc).  He will come back in June to repeat the gas collections when the soil is warmer (see Reference:Abstracts).  This is the kind of work that researchers are doing to better understand the processes driving climate change.  The Blackland Project is pleased to be part of it, and to contribute to an understanding of crofting agriculture as a low-input, small-scale, mixed-use system which can enable more food and fodder to be grown locally, and help reduce the problem.


CONNECTING: Soil, Crops, Nutrition

The theme of the second Blackland Conference on 24 September, with support from the Scottish Crofting Federation, nwas “What do Livestock need, and how can we grow it?”.  Three research scientists from the SAC explored the connections between soil, plants and animals:

Dr. Bruce Ball’s interest is in the structure and behaviour of soils under cultivation.

Dr. Ken Davies was a Vegetation and Weed Specialist with the SAC for many years.

Dr. Tony Waterhouse manages several of the SAC farms, researching livestock and grazing.

It is very encouraging to have the support of scientists such as these in helping us figure out how to bring back blackland.

Bruce Ball said the most important thing is to ‘restore our linkage to the land’ and his talk illustrated this in many ways.  He quoted ecologists Lal “…Restoring soils to improve food security – what other human right deserves higher priority?” and Howard, “The birthright of all living things is health.  This law is true for soil, plants animals and man.  The health of these four is one connected chain.”  Bruce asked us to remember that soil is a living thing; only through handling it do you get to know it.  Blackland has a lot of variability – we need to embrace this variability, learn to understand it, and move forward from there.  Bruce divides blackland into 3 Restoration Groups:

Group 1:  our best soils are quite good.  They are dark, have good structure, and already grow reasonable grass; could be ploughed with minor preparation for cereals or other crops, and easily improved by sanding, adding nutrients such as seaweed, and sowing better grasses.

Group II:  there is a build-up of thatch and moss, with soil below it; it is usually quite wet.  The remedies are removing thatch, sanding and improving aeration.  Trials are ongoing at Kenary.

Group III:  has a thick layer of brown undecomposed peat, the soil is a long way down.

for Bruce

An important current concern is greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.  All tillage creates some CO2 emissions; Bruce reported on the preliminary research done on blackland here at Kenary during the summer by his student Carsten Mallisch.  The results were quite reasonable: there were no substantial emissions of N2O (300 times as warming as CO2) or Methane (25 times) under any of the treatments that he measured.

Ken Davies has been looking at grasses in the Uists, Lewis and Harris.  The crofts produce quite a lot of grass, but some of the native grasses are lower in nutrition: for example, Yorkshire Fog (which can grow in more acid conditions, about pH 5.3) is only about 75% as nutritious as ryegrass, and only for a short time.  The main way to improve is to raise the pH, as the better grasses such as rye (if soil is not too wet), meadow fescue, various bents, timothy and the clovers need a pH of 6, or maybe 5.5 – 5.6 in a pinch.  He strongly recommends Alsike clover, a Swedish variety which can manage on our wetter, more acidic soils at a lower P level.  Clovers also concentrate calcium and copper.  Sanding and more sanding with shell sand will raise the pH over time; this is how it was done in the past, and it worked.

Ken then discussed where our basic nutrients (N, P, K) can come from.  As we all know, bought fertiliser is getting more and more expensive.  Nitrogen (N) can be fixed from the air by clovers, and it is present in seaweed, so the islands probably have enough N.   Potassium (K) is probably not a problem either, as it is found in both seaweed and manure.  However, scientists believe that there is barely enough P (phosphate) in the world to support the present population, and certainly in the islands it is the limiting factor.  Our rocks (gneiss) do not contain phosphorus and only small amounts are available in the soil.  Although P is also found in manure and animal by-products, Ken looks to plants to concentrate nutrients from the soil.  There are no easy answers but the problem of running out of P is real and serious.

Ken then talked about the trace elements which animals need; unfortunately,  grasses are bad at concentrating these. He said the Uists are in a pretty good situation, except that copper and iron are limited, and selenium tends to be low all over Britain  Our rocks contain zinc and magnesium; shell sand also contains calcium, sodium and sulphur, and seaweed adds iodine, manganese, copper.   Blackland and moor also have cobalt which is deficient on the machair.  The rest of Ken’s talk discussed the plants that are good at accumulating these minerals; these are often the ones we call ‘weeds’.  We need to pay more attention to them as sources of nutrients.
(see Nutritious “Weeds” below)

Tony Waterhouse has spent his life with animals, beginning with dairy farming in the Pennines.  He is interested in the whole system of animals on the land.  How do land and animals achieve their potential?  The resources are pasture, soil, animals and people.  There are two things to consider in managing cattle and sheep, the rumen system and the fat resources.   You can tell a lot just by handling animals, what is their condition, their fitness.  If animals are in poor condition, then other problems follow.  There are three components in nutrition – energy, protein and minerals:

Energy is pretty simple: the rumen harvests energy by breaking down fodder and creating the ‘bugs’ that get digested lower down in the gut.  It’s a fermentation vat, like making beer.  The rumen can’t adapt quickly to changes in feed…  There is nothing better than good growing grass and clover,  it’s the best energy source.  When you have to use conserved fodder, you are always losing something.  Anyone that tries to sell you something in a bag that is better than grass – is wrong!  if we could have grass growing 12 months of the year, we’d be living in clover!

Protein is more complicated to get right.  Straw doesn’t contain enough protein; but just more of a poor feed doesn’t work.  The best source of protein is nice deep dark green grass.

Minerals and vitamins are very complicated, you can spend a lifetime on them and still not understand.  And when they go wrong, they’re very hard to figure out. Blood sampling doesn’t really give an answer.  A Blackface may show copper deficiency, but if you gave an equal supplement to a Texel on the same pasture, you would kill it.

Managing Grass The main thing is to maintain quality, avoid the grass turning brown.  Grassland needs rest, you can hammer it to death.  High quality of any species is more nutritious than poor quality of a ‘better’ grass.  How do we make sure that the net intake is right?  There is no recipe, but a few Golden Rules:

– You can’t take out more than you put in – and here, lime is very important.

– Ask the cow: handle, handle, handle.  This will tell you her condition.

– Maintain quality: make sure the grass doesn’t get away, or get hammered, it’s a fine line.

– Improve quality, this will improve quantity of energy, almost exponentially.

– Get the protein and minerals right, but don’t buy stuff you don’t need.

– Timing is crucial.

– Nutrition = health.  A strong lamb can resist worms and disease.

– Select the right animal for the right croft, in the right situation.

Nutritious “Weeds”

by Ken Davies

A mixed sward including some ‘weeds’ will have positive effects on animal nutrition, especially for the trace elements sometimes supplied by a lick.

all trace elements + vitamins, protein
concentrate iron, copper
cut before flowering and wilt then ensile
not quite as good as above
not very palatable
cut before flowering
burn and use ash as fertiliser
buttercupconcentrates minerals;wilt, ensile, then no longer toxic
dandelionalso excellent
chicory (not the veg)
stock love it
contains all trace elements; concentrates iron, phosphates, cobalt
also worming effect
graze or ensile
plantainnot as good as chicory but contains many trace elements
yarrowvery good, everything except cobaltneeds drier conditions

Blackland Improvement

Some of the theory presented by scientists at the first two Blackland Conferences is now being put into practice by CEIA on the croft at Kenary.  So far in 2012, two small fields have been mowed and baled for silage, reclamation to remove rush/moss/bracken has begun on five fields, and one has been reseeded – for a total of nearly two acres now being managed.

These are all formerly arable fields showing distinct traces of past cultivation, confirmed by aerial and ground photography from the 1950s.  Big changes came to the croft at Kenary as to many others on the east-side from the 1960s onwards.  Headage payments meant increased need of grazing for sheep; completion of the causeways made fresh milk available and reduced the need to keep a cow.  Such external factors changed how the land was managed; Kenary was last ploughed about 1963.  So these formerly useful fields have had 50 years to deteriorate, losing fertility and gaining plenty of unproductive vegetation.

Based on advice from Blackland Mentors Bruce Ball and Ken Davies, and help from a wide range of SAC and Macaulay scientists, we have begun to understand what to do and to figure out how to do it.  As previously mentioned, drains were cleared and re-dug to ensure that the water flooding off the moor, as well as landing as rainfall, was sent into proper channels. (Kenary actually has a sophisticated water diversion system in the placement of the ancient stone field dykes.)  However, one of the learnings of the past few years is that, generally, workable fields have pretty good natural drainage  i.e. they are not flat.  Fields now being improved are mainly convex  or with a 5º – 10 º slope.  This is desirable – flat is not, concave is worse, as blackland does not drain downwards through the soil.  Several areas are starting to show better vegetation from opening the drains (see Blackland Index).

In the first year of breaking in an abandoned field we flail-mow – this helps to understand the lay of the land, discover lurking rocks, old cables etc.  The Rapid two-wheel tractor has been invaluable for this.  But then the next problem is to pick up the mess – unlike the machair or other mineral soils, we do not need the organic matter.  It is more useful as compost or even better as ashes (burn before mowing if possible).  We haven’t yet found a good method of raking the fields – the tine grass harrow is OK but lets the small stuff through.  Then fork it into the trailer and to the compost.  At this point you will grow much better grass, but also better rushes.

This is a caption - this image is used at medium size, aligned to the right of the page content.
CEIA’s Landini Mistral with duals and Triple K harrow

However, if on flail-mowing you discover moss up to a foot deep – and you have reason to believe that the field is worth the effort –  Plan B is called for.  We use a Triple K (spring tine harrow) which brilliantly rips into the moss and tears it apart, leaving heaps and lumps to (hopefully) wind dry.  Sphagnum moss can be viewed as the cockroach of the plant kingdom – ancient, primitive, and indestructible – but it has a weak point.  The growing part of the moss (called the ‘acrotelm’) is only a few inches deep.  The main thickness of the moss is the dead brown part (called the ‘catotelm’) but it is fragile – the acrotelm protects the catotelm from destruction by wind etc.  So by murdering the top part, the bottom part might even dry up and blow away.  But we believe in helping it on its way, since you can’t count on the weather.  And you really want to get rid of sphagnum:  it sucks up any nutrients going, and forms a thick wet blanket preventing the land from drying or warming in the spring; it helps create conditions that encourage poor vegetation and prevent better ones such as forage grasses from establishing.  We are still working on sphagnum removal as above, but confirm that, except for the Triple K, we haven’t found the right tools.  All the various modern and old-style harrows don’t work as they clog up.  The best tool is on hands and knees with garden claw or fingers, not practical.  But remember, this is a once-in-a-lifetime operation, so almost any amount of work is justified.  Once the moss is gone, you have a chance of establishing better grasses, even making silage, and keeping the land healthy.