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Remember that old showbiz saying about never working with children or animals?
The crofters’ version would be ‘never work with plants or animals’. If you have crops you inevitably at some point will have failed crops. If you have livestock by definition you also have dead stock too.
The joys of seeds germinating and crops ripening is often balanced by a whole row of bolted lettuces thanks to a hot dry spell or the morning after the night before exposing a decimated bed of brassicas following an all night all you can eat slug party.
Similarly, those fluffy little chicks, frisky lambs and cute little piglets can fall prey to disease or predators leaving you heartbroken and out of pocket.
A life alongside nature means taking the hits and accepting the lows along with celebrating the highs. For most of us who grow or rear our own we accept the down sides and know the positives outweigh the negatives most of the time.
But what about the combination of crops AND animals together though – what are the highs and lows of that as a combination? Again, a setup not without its challenges as you may well have to protect crops from the animals, but on Rum, and even now in our small garden plot, we aim to have the two work together for us as much as we can.
Our pigs turned over the rough ground for us on our croft, moving from one fenced off area to another on a grid system, gradually working around most of our eight acres.
They rooted up the weeds and reeds, nosed up stones (useful for building projects), aerated the ground with their heavy weight on small trotters and trod in their own manure as they went.
Along behind them came the chickens, keen to munch on any tiny bugs they exposed. Then once the pigs had moved to the next area and the grass had grown back in the sheep kept the area grazed until we were ready to plant crops.
In our fenced off areas to keep deer and sheep away from orchard trees and soft fruit bushes we kept our ducks – masters at hoovering up slugs, bugs and caterpillars. All the while we were also getting a steady supply of eggs from the birds, fleece from the sheep and meat from the animals offspring.
Here we are working on a much smaller scale and only have chickens of our own. They did a fine job of sifting through the compost in our raised beds when we first built them, although we kept them netted while they had crops to prevent the chickens scratching up the young seedlings. They are now uncovered again to allow the chickens to get back in and turn the soil over behind the spent crops – their scratching dislodges any weeds at an early stage and while they are not super keen on slugs to eat (and who could blame them?!) they do feast on the little grubs and larvae in the soil.
We have rather too many interesting looking things to let our neighbours sheep roam in our garden these days, but when we first moved here we would regularly leave our gate open so they could come in and ‘mow the lawn’ for us.
Our little wild patches left in the garden have started to encourage wild creatures to make the space their home too; we have found slow worms and toads in the garden and released some tadpoles into our little wildlife pond. These friendly reptiles and amphibians will hopefully help keep the slug population down a bit.
Now if I could just train the cat and the dog to take on the crop watering I’d have this whole thing fully under control…