Crofting: A difficult season

Marsali Taylor finds that this winter’s unusually cold weather has had a severe impact on the islands’ crofters and livestock.

The snow was bonny, but it wasn’t much fun for people with animals. Crofters had a lot of extra work over Christmas, and the effects will still be with them for a while to come.

For a start, crofters wouldn’t expect to be feeding sheep at this time of year, especially as the grass kept on growing into November. A short cold snap around Christmas, maybe, then back to green, not a whole four weeks of snow-cover, with ice underneath it that the most determined sheep would have difficulty breaking through. In-by sheep that normally wouldn’t get their first feed until February were needing to be fed before Christmas, and the cold made them hungrier, so crofters have had to use a good deal of the food-stock that they expected to last them through the winter. To make things worse, the dry summer meant that the grass didn’t grow in drier parks, so many crofters started with less winter feed, because they weren’t able to make as much silage as usual.

Dean K Gilfillan is one of Shetland’s main animal feed suppliers. When I called in to his stores along the Cott road, a crofter with a truck was just loading three round bales of hay, and another was waiting with an empty trailer. I asked him if a lot of crofters had had to come to him for extra feed.

“I’ve sold double the amount I usually would – no, more than that”, he said. “We’re not half-way through January, and I’ve sold as much as would normally keep me going till the end of February. More folk are coming for feed, and they’re buying more – it’s been a colossal quantity. I’ve sold over 100 tons of feed. I bought a thousand square bales of hay, expecting to have three or four hundred spare, and they were all gone by the first of the year.  As well as that, I’ve seen a few folk who would normally be self-sufficient, coming for concentrates to supplement their silage.

“My biggest problem has been getting the supplies in. For example, much of my hay comes from Aberdeenshire, but the roads there were blocked, so farmers couldn’t move it. There’s been problems with iced roads in the Borders. My horse feed comes from Perth, and for a while the trucks there weren’t moving either. Another supplier was able to get trucks in and out, but he had no palettes, they were snowed in somewhere else. On top of that, there was a fire in the feed-block factory! Luckily I’d ordered extra because of it being Christmas and New Year, but even then I’ve been struggling a bit. I had to ration what I’d got out. Most folk were very sensible, though, they’d say ‘I’m not needing ten bales right now, I’ll take three or four and come back when your get supplies in.

“I only got in my first new load of round bales on Monday [11th January], and nearly half the load went straight out – three days later I had only one bale left. I’ve another 140 ordered, and that should get me back to normal – if the gales don’t stop the boat.

“One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that folk used to stock up earlier, and now with the mild winters we’ve had, they’d stopped doing it, they’d just buy what they needed for a week or so. Quite a few have said to me, ‘We’re not doing this next year, we’ll be more prepared.’ We’ve not had it as bad as south, though; I heard about one man in Aberdeen, whose shed roof collapsed under the weight of snow. He dug a kind of corral in waist-deep snow as a temporary pen for his 400 lambs, then he had to send them to the first available market – he’d no other shelter for them. Right enough, the prices are high just now, so he’d have got a good deal, but he was likely planning to keep them and fatten them himself, so it’ll have been a significant loss.”

Dean’s had a very busy month; what about running his own croft too?

“I was fortunate there, because it was the school holidays, so I had my own two boys to lend me a hand. It was a lot of extra work, making sure all the animals were looked to.”

One person who knows all about that is crofter John Abernethy, who lives two miles down the single-track Twatt road, one of the roads that stayed white for three weeks over Christmas. Like most crofters, his land is spread over a distance, with a total of 314 hectares in Twatt, Clousta and West Burrafirth. He has five-hundred Texel ewes from first-cross Cheviots, and is expecting almost that number of lambs.

“The Texels are a bit bigger than is usual in Shetland, and fast-growing,” John told me. “If they’re well-fed they can lamb in their first year, so a hundred of these are ‘replacements’, having their first lamb at a year old. One thing I like about them is that they’re very good to work with at lambing time – they keep with the lamb.”

A good porportion of the flock is now in fields around the house, munching at silage. “I wouldn’t normally be feeding at this time of year, I’d just spread them out over the parks, and not feed until maybe four weeks before lambing time, unless it was one that was a bit poor. Then I’d pull her out and feed extra.”

This winter, he had to feed them every day, from Christmas. “I just went round every park in turn, feeding them nuts – I couldn’t get silage to them. It was lucky that my brother was home for Christmas, and he helped. The hardest bit was getting to them. I took the landrover, with the quad in the back, and got as far as I could with the landrover, then took the feed to the sheep with the quad. The West Burrafirth park was especially difficult – I got to the end of the road, then there was another mile and a half over the hill, through the snow. When Jamie was here, it took us three hours to do them all, and when I was on my own it took about five and a half hours each day.” John was also working full time, “But you just have to get up early and do it.”

John also has around a hundred Shetland sheep, but unlike many on the hills, they had a very good time during the snow.

“I had them home being tupped, so I just put them inside. Being smaller, they’re more likely to get snowed up, and they scatter on the hill, six here, another two there. The Texels are bigger, and all stay together in one place, and they’re used to being fed, so they rise and come to you.”

All the same, John got his sheep home as soon as he could. “That was a massive effort. I took the landrover and caa’d them to the road and put them in a pen, while I went back for the rest – that took two runs, to get the forty of them. The Twatt brae wasn’t passable, so I took them up the road a bit with the landrover, and penned them again, then brought them down. Normally that operation’d take forty minutes, but this time it took five hours.”

Running with the big Texels is a small tup. “I haven’t worked out whose he is yet,” John said. “With all the lochs being frozen over, the sheep were able to walk around the boundary fences, so they’re all mixed up.”

How has he coped with all this extra feeding?

“I used to grow more silage,” John said. “If you use a lot of fertiliser you can get two crops out of the ground, but I wasn’t using it all, and it was expensive, so now I focus on spreading the sheep out around the parks. I’ve probably had to spend £1,000, even £1,500 on extra feed.”

What about the future? How will the snow keep affecting crofters through the year?  There are the early financial costs, of course, but it may also hit their autumn income, in lost lambs; at this time of year, the hill sheep are in early pregnancy. I asked Jim Nicolson, of the Westside Veterinary Surgery, what effect this cold, hungry spell for the ewes might have.

“If the ewes get too thin,” he told me, “then nature’s way of dealing with that can be to re-absorb the lamb into the mother’s body, so there will be fewer lambs this year. We will also expect to see an increased incidence of pregnancy toxemia, or “twin-lamb” syndrome. This is when the mother is already undernourished, and the lambs keep growing, taking all her energy, to such an extent that she can’t even stand up. This occurs later in pregnancy.”

John Abernethy hopes it won’t have affected the lambs growing inside his ewes.

“I’ll be getting them scanned next week, and I’ll know then. In snow, sheep can lose condition so rapidly. Even a change of feed can affect them. These are much leaner that they were when they went to the ram, even with the extra feed. It could take the next twelve months to get them back into full condition, just gradually building them up again.

“The other thing that could be affected is the shearing – I may have to shear them a bit later. That’ll mean I’ll need to keep an eye on them, because Texels can be inclined to go on their backs, particularly when they’re heavy with wool.”
Jim Nicolson commented on another problem. “I’ve also noticed a number of sheep limping, or holding one foot up. Snow and ice are very hard underfoot, and sheep that are already prone to foot-rot will be more affected.”

Dean Gilfillan had noticed this too. “It’s the sort of snow we’ve had. We didn’t get the big drifts, like south, but the sheep were struggling to get the ice scraped away. I heard of a number of cases of sheep with bleeding feet, just from scraping.”

John’s aren’t that bad. “I do have a bit more foot-rot, though, just from them being gathered together – it means diseases like that spread more.”

“Something else that may cause problems very soon,” Jim Nicolson added, “is that a number of sheep have walked across the frozen lochs and onto normally inaccessible holms in their search for food. Now, of course, with the thaw, they’ll be trapped there, so crofters will have to get a rowing boat to bring them back across.”

More work for the crofters; and it may cause concerns for the Amenity Trust too, as many of these little holms, where sheep have never grazed, are the last habitat of indigenous Shetland plants which have been grazed out elsewhere.

What about feed availability and prices later in the year, with so much being used up now? Dean wasn’t very optimistic.

“There has been a shortage this year already, between our dry summer and everyone else’s wet one. Before Christmas, I heard a report that a firm from Ireland was buying in hay from Aberdeen. Costs vary across the country, but London’s paying £30 for a round bale, it’s £31 in Carlisle, £27 in Aberdeen. With us, half the cost is freight – my round bales were £41, and already they’ve gone up to £48. I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but I could see it going up to £60 by the end of the season.”

Hopefully, though, it won’t be that bad. The milder winters we’ve had recently included grass growing early, and the “lambie snaa” hasn’t been that severe for a year or too. Jim Nicolson saw a more positive future: “Things will dry up again in April, and with an early mild voar and the good demand for Shetland–bred lambs continuing, the hardships of the recent mid-winter will somehow seem worth the additional effort and expense.”

John Abernethy was philosophical about the extra work and costs. “It’s just part of being a crofter. Bad winters happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’ll be good winters, and it all evens out over time. I’m making food, not money, producing what I can with the land I have, and it’s what I enjoy too.”

Marsali Taylor


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.