By Andy Williams.
Our original plan for a campsite was abandoned as my understanding of land use deepened. We do intend to have a diversified income stream, planned for early next year, which I’m not going to go into just yet. What do we have planned for this year? Good question, I’m glad you asked. What’s that you say? I said that in the last blog? Yes. Yes I did. I do that a lot as you’ll see, but I’m glad you’re paying attention. Back to the plan. In sort of, but not exact, order of priority….
- Shelter. Caithness is windy. That does have its benefits. For example sheep farming is easier here because there is less of an issue with fly strike, but you know it’s windy when even flies don’t like it. It also tends to keep midges down, and midges absolutely love me. The downside is that too much wind adversely affects the growth of plants and livestock, and there’s no denying it’s that windy here. To that end we’ve designed and partially planted a shelterbelt of trees and large shrubs around the top field. The first phase of that is already in the ground and consists of over 600 trees and shrubs. It’s been complicated by being on a north facing slope, but we’re happy with the result. I’m going to do a video on the design just as soon as the video camera arrives. My phone makes terrible videos.
- A shed/workshop. A big one. Our spare room is currently rammed with my workshop tools, gardening tools, hosepipes, my bike… and so on. One end of the lounge has a scythe, the lawnmower, buckets, bags of compost, 150 bamboo canes and a stonking great saw. We had the wheelbarrows in here with us too until they just got too dirty. It feels strangely liberating to push your wheelbarrow down your field, through your garden and straight through your front door, but it had to stop. Clearly, we really need a shed. No farm, even on this scale, ever decided they needed less storage space. It’ll also form a solid windbreak behind the veg garden and protect it from those north winds.
- Swales. I love swales. They excite me in ways I have difficulty admitting even to myself. A swale is a ditch very much like a drainage ditch, but dug on contour. It’s typically just dug into the topsoil, and on any kind of slope the removed soil is put on the downslope side to form a bank. Water does not flow along a swale, its purpose isn’t to move water. A swale captures overland water flow and holds it until it infiltrates the ground. On a large scale they can be used to recharge ground water, and when they’re dug on this scale, typically old dried up springs start to flow again. A lot of the literature claims that in our maritime, temperate climate, swales are completely unnecessary and can even cause landslips. Other sources claim that they’re excellent even in our climate. Here I’ll be using them not so much for water capture as to create raised banks, to get our grafted fruit and nut trees up out of the wet. Most known cultivars need “a moist but well drained loam” soil. A lot will do ok under more challenging conditions, but I’d rather give them a better chance to thrive. The water table here is very high, typically only a foot to 18 inches down. It means we’re not likely to need to water trees at any point, but can cause problems and any rain tends to make the pasture boggy because it has nowhere to go. The swale system I’ve designed will hopefully partially dry the pastures, give the trees dry feet, fill integrated small ponds to increase diversity and also give us a degree of resilience to climate change. Weather events are becoming more extreme. We’re predicted to experience even larger extremes of wind, wet and dry weather over coming decades, and the swales can be adjusted easily with a couple of sandbags to increase or decrease water infiltration. We’ll no doubt post about the design and implementation of the swales as we get to it.
- Veg garden. A large part of this huge change of lifestyle is producing our own food, with the eventual aim of being virtually self sufficient for veg. We’re going to be putting in a large organic veg system, using minimal tillage techniques, and a significant percentage of perennial veg varieties. We’ll blog about this when we get to it. Tell you what, let’s just take that as a given eh? If I think it’s interesting enough to list here it’s a safe bet I’ll think it’s interesting enough to post about in detail later. Establishing a veg garden is a lot easier with access to plenty of organic matter and luckily (?) we have a garage knee deep in aged goat manure that needs to be dug out anyway. We’ve already started this. It would be a lot quicker if the manure wasn’t mixed in with rubbish.
- Chickens. We already have experience of chickens so we’re comfortable with them. We’d have made them higher on the list except there is a lot of fox pressure here, necessitating pretty secure housing for them. Because we want to free range them, that means very secure runs also. Chickens in dense enough concentrations can clear any weeds and crucially for our fields they can apparently take out creeping buttercup. They can make up to 20% of their diet from green forage, so you can turn grass into good quality egg protein with minimal hassle. They also make excellent pest control. Fresh eggs from your own land illustrate the difference between supermarket food and fresh produce better than anything else I can think of. I love boiled eggs. I can eat them by the dozen. Peeling a hard boiled egg is a doddle from the supermarket, but for one of your own eggs to be as easy to peel you have to leave it at room temperature before cooking for at least two weeks or the membrane sticks to the white. It’s not impossible to do, but it’s very fiddly and time consuming. That’s how stale shop bought eggs are typically. That’s how stale all “fresh” food from the supermarket often is. Meat and eggs from pastured chickens is loaded with omegas 3 and 6 and in the right proportions. Meat and eggs from industrially farmed birds barely has any. You just can’t compare them. They’re nutritionally different products.
- Fences. Our fences have had it. They’re patched with old pallets, bits of salvaged fishing net and allsorts. They desperately need replacing on three sides. Luckily, the one along the south boundary is in decent condition and that’s the only one with livestock the other side of it. The boundary to our west is just onto a track, that needs something fairly minimal. Once we have bigger animals they’ll be moved daily onto fresh pasture using rotational grazing techniques so it’s the portable electric fencing that will be keeping them in rather than the boundary fence, it doesn’t have to be stock proof. The fences to the north and east are bad but the farmer who owns it is putting in spring oats first this year which buys us a little time there. Fencing just isn’t exciting, but does need doing.
- Worm farm. Actually this one could go near the top because I’ve already ordered the bits I need for it and it’s a relatively small job. Worm farms are commercially available of course but can cost in the region of £90. Ours has cost us less than £35. Let’s see how it works before I get too smug though shall we? Kitchen scraps can of course be composted, but if you want to make the best of any organic waste it’s better to put it through an animal. It’s currently illegal in the UK to feed kitchen wastes from non vegan households to chickens or pigs so the best we can do is to pass those scraps through worms. This will give us beautiful worm castings and worm juice. Worm juice is amazing for plants.
Other miscellaneous bits and pieces we’ll get to eventually include demolishing the old garage, painting the outside of the cottage, putting in a kitchen, boarding the loft and maybe even starting to clear the 4 feet of compacted goat manure from the barn. I really need to dig out the cast iron bath full of water and rubble in the middle of the veg garden too.
Jobs we’ve already started on include clearing the site of all the junk. We’ve already filled two skips with scrap including five washing machines and three ovens.
The south side of the garage had been used as a tip. It’s still an ongoing job. It’s impossible to sink a spade into the ground without hitting buried plastic inside the house plot and gardens, I’ve found it a foot underground in places. We’ve planted three large rows of Jerusalem artichoke to the north of the veg garden to act as a windbreak before the shed gets built. Amazing plants, they can grow to 7 feet tall and are a perennial edible.
Let’s see how much of it we can get done, shall we?
I’ll finish this post on a positive note. It’s not often you get a pleasant surprise from a septic system but that’s what happened today. Our septic tank doesn’t drain to a soakaway, it runs through a pipe under the access road and discharges into a drainage ditch. When we moved in I repeatedly tried to find exactly where on the ditch the pipe emptied, but all that remained of the ditch was little more than a slight depression with no signs of any pipe whatsoever. A couple of weeks ago, after drainage problems, I went prospecting with my spade. I found the pipe about 2 feet below the surface, blocked by soil. After a couple of hours, I’d managed to dig enough of a trench to give us a little downhill flow and another hour with drain rods unblocked the pipe. Marvelous. That, I sincerely hoped, was that. I’ve kept half an eye on it since because old septic systems are notoriously unreliable. Today I glanced into it as I usually do when I pass it and saw water flowing. I knew no water was running from the house, so I looked closer. At the head of the drainage ditch, just below the septic outfall, a spring has started running. OK, so you’d not want to use that water for anything directly but it’s running water. We are going to make use of it indirectly instead. We’re going to plant comfrey on the sides of the trench to take up some of the nutrient in the water, which we can cut a couple of times a year to fertilise food crops. It’s another small step towards the croft functioning like a balanced ecosystem, and it’s pleased me no end. *Insert Jean de Florette theme here*