Agriculture Chapter III. The Management of Grass
A fact which strikes one moving the length and breadth of
Scotland—even in 1945—is the amount of bad grassland there is. Much of this
can be seen from a train by the pale greenness of the parks and meadows
where there should be a rich dark greenness, and if one is able to stop by
the way and examine the grass fields closely, it is obvious that little
clover is present, there is no bottom in the crop and the top is nothing but
the flower stalks of rye-grasses.
The West Highlands should be able to grow grass as good
as or better than most parts of the country because grass likes plenty of
rain and a mild climate. Farmers in Moray or East Anglia could open our eyes
in the West to the difficulties of getting a good "take" of grass seeds.
They lose many a sowing through dry weather and weeds.
What we have to realize over here is that grass does not
mean any green covering the ground may acquire through the years after an
original ploughing. It is well worth while learning the different common
kinds of grasses and getting an eye for the quality of grassland just as you
would be able to judge a beast. I have no hesitation in saying that if we in
the West Highlands were to concentrate for five years on improving the
quality of our grass alone, we should be carrying at least double the cattle
stock and raising the general standard of content with the crofting life.
The fallacy in this last sentence is that we could not improve our grass
alone—for our work on the grass would have good results all round the croft.
The soil would be enriched, the cattle would be better fed, there would be
more farmyard manure and therefore better corn and roots. One of the
greatest advantages of good grass leys is their power to grow early and late
in the season and by that fact alone ease the problem of winter feed.
Given plenty of rain and a mild climate, the first
requirements in getting good grassland are a sufficiency of lime and
phosphates in the soil. Lime and phosphates have been discussed earlier in
the book, and it is now good to record that sources of lime in the Highlands
are being opened up by the Government; and if only to save expensive
transport, the intention is that the lime should be used on Highland acres
before any of it is exported elsewhere. Some will be sold as shell-sand, and
where the deposit is rock, it will be crushed to a fine powder. It should be
widely understood that crushing limestone is fast superseding burning. The
phosphate position is also improving, and larger allocations of slag and
rock phosphate could be made to the West if crofters were to co-operate and
place sizable orders.
With the lime and phosphates on the spot we can begin to
think about a temporary ley and the conditions with which we may have to
contend in getting it down.
16. The Temporary Ley
The first thing to keep in mind about a temporary ley is
that it is temporary. This truism is the counterpart of the one I made one
page back—that grass in the farming sense is not just grass. The one-year
ley is a wonderful producer of cow feed, but one of its main
attractions for us should be the power of the well-managed temporary ley to
improve the ground and get the croft into a rising spiral of fertility.
A one-year ley for West Highland purposes might well
consist of, say, 20 lb. Italian rye-grass, 8 lb. late-flowering red clover
and 2 lb. Alsike clover, i.e. 30 lb. weight of seed to the acre. This
mixture is sown one season, grazed in the autumn, mown and grazed in the
following season, and then—in the West Highlands— ploughed under in the
spring a little less than two years after it was originally sown.
It has been a most upsetting thing to me to find that
many people in the West do not understand that a one-year mixture of grass
and clover does not last as an efficient fodder-producer for a longer time
than that. How often have I heard the remark made when looking at a thin,
weedy sward devoid of clover—"We got a big crop the first year, but since
then it's done very badly"! To go on expecting a crop of grass from a
one-year ley is just about as sensible as expecting another crop of oats
from a stubble; the only new growth in the next season would be from seed
which had been shed from the crop in its yielding year.
The usual practice in British farming is to sow grass
seeds in a nurse crop of oats or barley, and this procedure is taken for
granted in the West Highlands. It is my belief, however, that we should do
much better to sow direct and not in a nurse crop. My reasons for suggesting
such an upset in the rotation are these:—
(a) We often suffer a very dry spring which means
droughty conditions in the light or thin soils of this countryside, and the
grass seeds do not take.
(b) If there is a good "take" the growth in the first
season between June and September is considerable, resulting in this good
grass and clover having to be
shaken out of the sheaves of corn in order that they may
dry. There is a great waste of good feed.
(c) The distressingly usual wet autumn means the
stooks are standing on the ground so long that the grass below them is
killed, and the crop the following year is marred by empty, weedy patches.
(d) August gales and rain have a habit of laying our
corn crops, which in itself means more waste and a great deal of trouble. If
this happens much before the corn is cut, large patches of grass and clover
THE MACHAIR, VATERSAY
The cattle trade of the Uists is founded on the
machair. Life without the machair would be poorer. The good short grass
is there because of the shell sand thrown up and blown up from the
ocean. Shell sand is rich in lime without which good grass cannot be
grown nor good stock raised. We cannot create new machair, but in many
places in the West we can carry shell sand to our arable ground and make
it more fruitful.
There is one quite considerable disadvantage in the
practice of sowing a ley direct on to a prepared tilth in June, in that you
lose part of a growing season in a countryside where the arable land is
strictly limited. The advantages, in my opinion, greatly exceed this loss of
part of a growing season, for let it be well understood that you do not lose
a whole year by omitting the corn crop.
First, as the Italian rye-grass, late-flowering red and
Alsike clovers are sown towards the end of June, when there is a fairly
certain expectation of rain in the near future to ensure the germination of
the seeds, you have the drier months of the year in which to prepare the
ground thoroughly without any feeling of rush. The dry, sunny weather of May
and June allows of a second ploughing, of a series of cultivatings and
harrow-ings, and a raking off of twitch and gathering of stones. There is
even time for the ground to be left a week or two to allow such weeds as
charlock and orach to germinate, whereafter you can cultivate and harrow
again to kill them. The West Highland year and the inadvisability of autumn
and winter ploughing do not give us much time to clean ground other than by
this practice of sowing the temporary ley by itself.
Second, the grass and clover comes away quickly after
sowing and a fair quantity of feed is present in six weeks' time. Here is a
grand piece of grass on which to wean the lambs; it is just right for calves
too, and the cows which are now finding the natural herbage going off in
quality will revive in milk yield and continue longer into the autumn. Quite
apart from the cleaning the ground gets before the seeds are sown, these six
weeks of splendid grazing between mid-August and the end of September are
something to offset against the loss of a corn crop. Grazing may be
continued till November, when the park should be closed and either
chain-harrowed or the droppings carefully spread by hand with a graip.
It is essential that the ley should be grazed in the year
it is sown, and not mown. The treading of the animals and their dung and
urine are a necessary part of the improvement of the ground and of the
establishment of the ley to give its maximum yield the following year, when
it comes very early and may be made into June hay. As a further gain to
offset against the loss of the corn crop there is the very heavy yield which
may be expected of the ley treated as I have suggested. After mowing, the
ley may be grazed or it may be left to provide a second crop in September,
which can be made into silage if the good weather has gone. We may be fairly
certain that making silage of grass from temporary leys will be one of our
solutions of the winter fodder problem.
Our ley may now be grazed in its second autumn and winter
as long as there is anything to be grazed. Ploughing should take place as
early in the spring as possible, great care being taken to turn the furrow
flat and cover the grass. This ground will be rich in organic matter or
humus from the decaying roots of the turf, and the clover will have enriched
the soil with nitrogen.
Potatoes would be an excellent crop to follow the ley; or
a corn crop may be expected to be heavy, and for this reason a fairly stiff-strawed
variety should be chosen.
17. The Two-year Ley
The one-year ley which we have discussed is not only a
fodder provider but a first-class land improver, if the ground has been
adequately dressed with lime and phosphates. Sowing a one-year mixture is a
definite method of intensifying crofting agriculture. It involves outlay,
care and hard work if it is to give of its best. If labour is desperately
short, a two-year ley will save a certain amount of cultivation and the
manurial residue when the grass is turned under will be somewhat greater
than from a one-year ley.
One of the arts of agriculture as well as of life in
general is to avoid complication. Make for simplicity every time—and nothing
could be simpler than that one-year mixture of Italian rye-grass,
late-flowering red clover and a dash of Alsike clover. The two-year ley is
not so simple, because you are aiming at a big crop in two consecutive
years, but you need not indulge in the wild (and often expensive) mixtures
which used to appear in the seeds merchants' catalogues. Ask yourself the
reason for the inclusion of any particular grass or clover and cut down the
Personally, because I am thinking always in terms of
raising the level of fertility of our ground, I should prefer my two-year
ley to be grazed in the first year and mown for hay or silage in the second;
our ground is hungry for the dung and urine of cattle. That first year's
grazing, i.e. the year after the mixture is sown, demands Italian
rye-grass and broad red clover. We shall need some heavy-yielding grasses
and clover for the second year of production, and for this perennial
rye-grass and late-flowering red clover will be most important. Cocksfoot is
another strong-growing grass which will provide bulk in the second year and
occupy the space left by the Italian rye-grass which has by then almost died
A good cover or close sward in that second year is most
essential, or weeds like docken and sheep sorrel will creep in and make
trouble for the future. The red clovers already mentioned are not
persistent, and as the grasses we are using are " top " grasses, i.e.
making little bottom growth as the permanent meadow grasses do, we must use
a white clover with some lasting power. Dutch white clover will provide both
bulk and bottom growth in the second year, and a bit of New Zealand wild
white clover will creep well among the grasses and provide excellent grazing
in the aftermath. The weed-choking power of this latter clover is
Here, then, is a complete mixture for a two-year ley,
sown direct without a nurse crop as previously suggested, grazed the year of
sowing and the year after, and mown in its second fully productive year:—16
lb. perennial rye-grass, 4 lb. Italian rye-grass, 6 lb. cocksfoot, 1 lb.
broad red clover, 3 lb. late-flowering red clover, 1 lb. Alsike clover, 1
lb. Dutch white clover, 1 lb. New Zealand wild white clover; 33 lb. in all,
18. Cultivations for Leys
I have advised in the foregoing pages that the grass
seeds of temporary ley should be sown direct on to well-prepared ground
during the month of June. If the season is still dry, the young seedlings
will have a much better chance of survival if there is no cereal crop above
them. Such a crop of oats or barley is usually called a "nurse" crop, but it
should be remembered this nurse will drink the water in the soil which the
young grass seedlings so urgently need.
This matter of water supply is not so important when the
seeds are sown direct in June, for a dry July is almost a contradiction in
terms in the West Highlands!
Fineness of tilth should be the great aim, together with
cleanliness of the ground. A grass or clover seed is a very small thing and
the germinating plant much tenderer than the shoot of those perennial
grasses which may spring forth from an underground stem.
Fortunately, most of our soil in the West Highlands is
easily worked, and a few runs of the cultivator followed by a couple of
harrowings will produce a fine tilth during the dry time of late April, May
and early June. When the land is dirty, a fortnight's resting time should be
allowed between each series of cultivations, because this allows weed seeds
time to germinate, and the following disturbance of the soil can kill them.
Crofters' leys are usually of small acreage, so in that preliminary spring
cleaning period there should be no hesitation about getting down to the job
of hand raking and forking to remove couch grass and other root stocks of
perennial weeds from the seed bed.
Grass and clover grow best on land in good heart. Any
lime, or phosphate such as basic slag, that can be spared should be sown for
this crop during the time the ground is being prepared. Neither ground
limestone nor slag are likely to burn the seeds if the fertilizers are given
a good harrowing-in. Quicklime might quite well be dangerous if sown too
near seeding time if the weather were very dry, for the lime would not slake
The grass seed should be broadcast, preferably using the
thumb and first two fingers of both hands. Dividing the seed into two
portions and making two runs over the ground at right angles to one another
help to ensure even sowing. The seeds should be well mixed again after they
are received from the seedsman, as the shiny clover seeds are apt to slip to
the bottom of the sack.
Two light harrowings should be enough to cover the seeds
after broadcasting, and one or two good rollings will complete the
cultivations. Keep an eye open for the appearance of thistles or any unusual
weeds and spud them out while it is yet easy to do so.
One final word about sowing a temporary ley. Good grass
comes from good seeds and not from the floor sweepings of the hay barn. It
is always worth while to get your seed from a reliable firm and not to be
attracted by undue cheapness. Grass is one of the most important crops we
grow in the West Highlands.
19. Meadow Hay
A friend from the South and myself were sitting on one
side of a sea loch looking across to the patchwork of growing crops of a
crofting township two miles away.
"How is it," he asked, "that in July there are those
large pieces of uncropped ground in course of cultivation?"
I looked across to the brown stretches which at this
distance looked much like the early potato lands of Ayrshire just before the
ridges are drawn in March.
"The point is," I said, "that you are not looking at bare
earth at all, but at parks of meadow hay, uncut as yet."
"But meadow hay isn't dark reddish brown in colour?"
"You mean it shouldn't be. What we are seeing over there
is the massed flower heads of Yorkshire Fog."
CROFTING AT ARDVASAR, SKYE
It appears to be haytime in a fenced township. Some
of the hay is in large quoils, some in small quoils, some lying in the
swathe and some uncut. Tripods in the middle distance indicate that the
big quoils are being made with air space inside them. They would dry
even better if they were lifted clear of the ground.
This township has obviously shrunk since the days
when much of the ground behind the crofts was cultivated. The lazy-beds
evidently supported a large population, for all those acres of
feannagan in the photograph represent hand labour.
And I pulled a stalk from near me and showed what this
poor grass looked like at close quarters. The leaves are soft and downy ;
the stalk is downy too, and the flower head is soft and fluffy and goes a
browny purple colour as it ripens. The grass does not stand firm to the
scythe and is apt to form a light mat on the herbage floor.
Yorkshire Fog is considered a weed grass on all good
land, where it is known to increase in old meadows. On upland grazings it is
not to be despised as an alternative to bents and sedges. But in a
countryside like the West Highlands which could grow grass as well as any
other part of Britain, and where the amount of enclosed and arable ground is
so small, it is sheer waste of space and cultivation to put up with meadow
land which contains little else but Yorkshire Fog and gives a hay crop of
indifferent quality, weighing only a ton or thereabouts to the acre.
If we closely examine these patches of old meadow ground
we find often enough that there are other plants growing, but many of them
are weeds. Sorrel is one, a member of the docken family, and is a sure sign
of lack of lime. Then there is yellow rattle, a stiff-stalked weed with
saw-edged pointed leaves, and with a yellow flower carrying a sort of green
bladder immediately below it. When this weed is ripe the bladder becomes
hard and papery and you can hear the seeds rattling inside. Look carefully
where the yellow rattle is thickest, and you will see the total crop of
grass in that place is lower in quantity than elsewhere. Why should this be?
Pull up a plant of yellow rattle by taking hold of it
well down the stem. You will find it comes away quite easily and that the
root is a very small affair unlike ordinary roots. The reason is that yellow
rattle does not work for its living as hard as other plants do; it is a
parasite, fastening its short roots on to those of the grass and living on
the sustenance the grass has gathered from the soil. Obviously the grass
cannot make the growth if it has to carry the yellow rattle as well.
The easiest remedy to check this annual parasitic weed is
to graze the ground for a year or two, but the cure is only partial and does
not improve the ground much. The best cure is ploughing—-but more about that
later on. Other plants of the same family as the yellow rattle which are
common in poor grassland are red rattle, a plant with a smaller red flower
and branched from near the foot instead of having one single stalk like
yellow rattle, and eyebright, a small white flower which grows freely among
heather and sedge. All are parasitical plants and not to be encouraged.
If meadow land is in good order, that is, not only
yielding well but free from bad grasses and such weeds as dockens, thistles,
rattles, ragworts and sorrel, it is better to keep it as meadow ground and
not pasture it in alternate years. It is possible by careful manuring to
develop leafy top grasses which give a good bulk of hay of kinder type than
seeds hay. Also, permanent grass usually contains a good variety of plants
which seeds hay does not, and some of these non-grassy plants, like burnet
and rib-grass, are much relished by the cattle in winter and make a definite
contribution to the diet.
It stands to reason that meadow land will not stand up to
a hay crop being taken off each year and having the aftermath grazed by cows
and young stock without having a considerable amount put back into it.
Meadow ground needs a good dressing of farmyard manure every season, say 10
tons to the acre, to keep it going, but the unfortunate fact is that we
never have enough dung to do this. The next best thing is to dung the meadow
as heavily as can be spared every three years, give a dressing of 10 cwt. of
basic slag every three to five years, 2 tons of ground limestone every five
years, and 1 cwt. of some nitrogenous fertilizer, such as nitro-chalk,
sulphate of ammonia or nitrate of soda in spring every year the ground is
not dunged. Where meadow land is on the machair, liming can be cut
out for the most part, but let no one make the mistake of thinking that if
grass is growing from soil on a base of limestone or shell-sand it must
necessarily contain plenty of lime. Lime tends to sink in the soil, and I
know from my own experience that a lime requirement of 2 tons to the acre is
quite common for soil lying on solid limestone rock. Seaweed is an excellent
manure for meadow land. The potash of seaweed is particularly valuable if
the soil is light. But remember that the constant use of seaweed demands the
application of lime and phosphates to keep the balance of the soil right.
Meadow land in good order should be cut early so that
weeds of the kind mentioned above do not have a chance to seed. The
aftermath should be closely grazed, but the land should not be heavily
grazed in early spring, for not only will the immediate hay crop be much
lessened but the better grasses will tend to die out. Where chain or spike
harrows are available they should be freely used on the meadow ground. Chain
harrows keep the manure spread during the time the land is being grazed and
prevent tufty unequal growth. Both chain and spike harrows help to pull out
the moss which tends to grow in winter. Finally, a good rolling will do
meadow ground a lot of good, especially on light soil. If the ground has
been heavily grazed the rolling flattens out the hoof marks and makes mowing
easier, and if it has not been grazed, the rolling is necessary for
20. Permanent Pasture
Permanent pasture is a term covering a multitude of
conditions, varying from an enclosed ploughable park of the best grasses and
clovers to a bare hill grazing of heather, sedges and white grass in which
clover is absent. Grazing paddocks of the first kind are practically unknown
in the Highlands, but there are, nevertheless, many parks of indifferent
grass into which the plough could be taken. Such grass is losing money at
the present time, for it is late to come in spring, early to collapse in
autumn, and during its flush season the weight and character of the herbage
are poor. It is such parks which have come in most largely for the plough-up
campaign and many are the troubles which have been encountered.
Much of this sort of land will go down again almost
immediately to permanent pasture, but it should greatly benefit from this
wartime ploughing. Turn it over as flat as possible, do not work it except
by light harrows if there is a rubbery mat, sow lime and basic slag
generously ; harrow in, sow the oat crop and sit back and think for a while.
Your thoughts might be on these lines.
That ground was hard on man and beast, getting it turned
under, and it seems a pretty tough turf to get rotted down—interspersed as
it was with a bit of heather at the top end under the hill, some bracken on
the dry spots and rushes in the hollows. We are all right just now with the
young corn showing well and the wire-worms still busy with the original
turf, but what happens next year?
From personal experience I can say you are in for a
gruelling time. That old rubbery mat of turf does not rot down in one year,
and though you will probably take off an excellent corn crop, the ground in
autumn and winter appears dirty and very rough. When you come to plough in
the spring you find yourself either precisely turning back last year's
unrotted furrow slices or getting bogged trying to split them or go deeper
or plough crossways. If both the man and the horses manage to stay the
course, another corn crop may be tried, but it comes up weedy in the extreme
and the wireworms now turn their attention to it. In fact, it is a failure.
My advice in these particular instances would be to sow
down a one-year grass mixture in that first corn crop after ploughing. This
procedure, you may say, is contrary to that which I have been advising
heretofore in sowing down a temporary ley. The point is that this one-year
ley is not an end in itself, but a stop-gap to save having empty ground the
year after ploughing this marginal type of land. This mixture can be grazed
after the corn crop is off, for the treading and the dung and urine will
help a great deal towards rotting down the mat. The surface may be too rough
for the mixture to be mown for hay the following summer, in which case it
should be grazed heavily and the dung kept spread with harrows or graip.
Ploughing should take place as early as possible in the
second spring : the rubbery mat will have rotted and it should be possible
to give the ground a thorough working through the drier spring months so
that it may present a clean seed bed and fine tilth for the reception of a
permanent grass mixture. After-treatment would be the same as that given
already for temporary leys, but the mixture itself will need special
There are two ways of putting land down to permanent
grass or long ley; one is to let it fall down by natural seeding and
spreading the sweepings of the byre loft; the other is to lay it down by
choosing the mixture of grasses and clovers to be sown with the utmost care.
Many a man intends to follow the latter course, but lack of knowledge of
different kinds and strains of grasses prevents him reaching the goal of a
fine close sward which comes early in spring and holds out far into autumn.
And it can scarcely be over-emphasized that poor ground will not produce
good grass, nor will poor management maintain good grass. Let us get that
notion firmly in our heads that grass should be our principal crop in the
One of the outstanding developments of recent years in
grassland research has been the selection of particular strains of certain
grasses and clovers for particular jobs. Leafy strains of grasses from good
old pastures have shown much greater sureness and productivity than their
commercial counterparts, and their value is so pronounced that it is now
realized that the strain of a grass may be more important than the kind or
species. Much of the work of selecting these strains was done at Sir George
Stapledon's agricultural research centre at Aberystwyth, and on a Welsh hill
farm outside the town. These strains are now coming into the market for
commercial mixtures, but a buyer would need to specify their inclusion and
the cost of the mixture would be fairly high.
I said on an earlier page that simplicity in a seeds
mixture was a great virtue, but that the longer the ley the more complicated
the mixture would be. All the same, simplicity is the keynote and it is
remarkable nowadays how few kinds really need to be included, because some
less important species will come in anyway by natural seeding.
Perennial rye-grass, cocksfoot and wild white clover are
the main constituents we should like to see in our finished pasture. If 1
lb. of wild white clover seed appears but a small proportion in a mixture of
over 30 lb. to the acre, remember that the seeds are very small and that the
spreading habit of this plant is extraordinary if the lime and phosphate
balance of the soil is right. These three constituents will not make their
full growth until the second or third year, so a proportion of temporary
grasses and clovers to fill the ground soon after sowing is necessary. Some
timothy would be a useful addition on ground which does not dry out, for it
bulks up the crop, and some rough-stalked meadow-grass would help the bottom
growth, for it does well in districts of high rainfall. Here, then, is a
sound mixture for a permanent ley: 14 lb. perennial rye-grass, 10 lb.
cocksfoot, 4 lb. timothy, 1 lb. rough-stalked meadow-grass, 4 lb.
late-flowering red clover, 1 lb. Alsike clover, and 1 lb wild white
clover—total, 35 lb. per acre.
The best strain of perennial rye-grass for pastures is
that known as S. 23, and the S. 143 cocksfoot is excellent. The S. 48
timothy is more leafy than the usual commercial seed. It should be
remembered that white clover and wild white clover are two different plants.
Only wild white will be persistent in the pasture and increase by creeping.
White clover is often called Dutch white and does not last more than two or
three years. It is much better left out of mixtures for the West.
There is that type of ground which overlies shingle, such
as you might get at the junction of a river coming at right angles into a
sea loch. Such ground, if ploughed, would drain so quickly that crops would
dry out easily and it would be a hard job to keep sufficient humus in it.
The skin of turf is its salvation and you cannot afford to lose that skin.
Yet you wish to improve it: the best thing is to go over the ground several
times in early spring with the disc harrows and cut the turf about
thoroughly. Then sow the seeds mixture, but you will not be able to go over
the ground with light seeds harrows afterwards. It could be disced again,
however, with the discs set parallel to the draft, and then well rolled.
21. Hill Pasture
There is no doubt that some hill ground in the West
Highlands and Islands is capable of being improved by a process of burning
and reseeding after the surface of the ground has been torn about by some
such implement as a disc harrow or pitch-pole harrow drawn by a track-laying
tractor. But the plain facts are that in the first place we have not got
those implements and tractors—nor could we get them now—and secondly, there
is a good deal more hill grazing which would defeat any known mechanical
device. When all this is admitted, we must not sit back and say, "There you
are—that's the position; there's nothing to be done about it." Our aim
should be to develop ingenuity to reach goals by other means than the
mechanical. The man who puts some strong rough bullocks on to an enclosure
bearing a mat of poor grass and, not thinking first of their condition,
leaves them on it long enough to tear off the mat and tread the ground, is
using those animals as implements. They are not mechanical, but biological
It would be a grand thing if grazing committees of
townships could begin on the common grazing immediately outside the crofts.
An improved stock-carrying capacity on those few hundred acres would greatly
ease the pressure on winter keep, and improved pasture means better health
of stock and greater persistence of milk production into the winter months.
This, I think, is the only depressing photograph in
this book. It is a picture of a failure. The human population of
Mingulay left the island in 1910. After the immense labour of creating
these acres of cultivable ground, clearing the stones to demarcate the
crofts, and tilling it all by-hand labour, life became too difficult in
a changing time. A shepherd's cottage of modern type looks an
incongruity here; but throughout the West we find that the sheep and
their owners of to-day are gathering benefit from the toil of patient
cultivators of a past age. It is on these old crofting lands that we
should pay some tribute to the men and women of the past by carrying out
reseeding with good grass mixture and putting down more cattle on the
We should make a mental survey of what constitutes our
own common grazings. If there is dry moor of good heather, it is worth
keeping as such, for both cattle and sheep are the better for some heather
in the winter months. Unfortunately, good heather is not plentiful enough in
the West ; the peat is too wet and grows a sour sedge. Areas of draw-moss or
sheathed cotton grass are also best left alone, because this plant comes
earlier than any grass and is much liked by the sheep in February and March.
What of the stretches of white grass and flying bent ?
The present system is to burn these frequently and be satisfied with the
bite of new growth each early summer before the grass runs ahead of the
stock and forms the mat which is burnt in spring. It is these areas upon
which we should concentrate for preliminary improvement. Liming should take
place immediately after burning : ground limestone at the rate of 2 tons to
the acre, or shell-sand in as heavy dressings as possible up to 10 tons to
the acre. Shell-sand would be the preferable form of lime to be applied if
it can be obtained near at hand by a squad of men from the township. Its
cost would be a small fraction of that of ground limestone which is a
processed material coming from afar. A certain quantity of ground limestone
in bags is being allocated for use in West Highland townships at a cost of
£4, 10s. a ton, which means £2, 5s. after the subsidy has been
paid. I reckon that in places where shell-sand is to be got, it can be put
down on a shore from which carts could take it at a cost of from 7s. 6d. to
15s. a ton, a squad of crofters paying themselves 1s. 6d. an hour for the
work. If the sand is analysed first and leave given by the Land Fertility
Committee, all shell-sand so applied would be eligible for the 50 per cent.
subsidy. Thus the men of a township could give themselves part-time work and
greatly improve the grazing conditions. A net cost of 5s. or 7s. 6d. a ton
as compared with £2, 5s. is worth consideration. [Since
writing the above, more crushing plants have come into operation to make
available the local limestone of the Highlands. The price at the quarry
varies from 29s. to 37s. 6d. a ton, subject to the 50 per cent. subsidy.]
If it is possible to plough or disc-harrow portions of
rough grazing it is well worth doing so. The liming should follow the
ploughing, and because the land is ploughed, it would be legal at present to
apply basic slag or ground mineral phosphate to the ground at the rate of 15
cwt. per acre. It is unfortunate that the present phosphate position does
not allow of basic slag being applied to permanent grassland or rough
pasture, though it is possible that if township committees actively put
forward a scheme of improvement of common grazings, an allocation of slag
might be made, because of the special deficiency of phosphates in the West.
One thing is certain, it is for the committees to act first in showing a
positive will and intention to improve their grazings.
Assuming that some bits of the grazing are ploughable and
have been disc-harrowed, surface drained, limed and slagged, the next task
is to sow what is called a regenerating mixture containing wild white
clover. Much of the value of applying phosphates would be lost unless wild
white clover was sown afterwards. Our western grazings are so poor that we
should not attempt to make up an expensive regenerating mixture, but rely on
seed cleanings from the threshings of wild white clover and permanent grass
seeds, applied at the rate of about 84 lb. an acre. These cleanings cost
about 5s. a cwt. before the war, but would be two or three times that price
now. Even so, they are cheap.
The seeds would be best sown at the end of June or early
July when fairly constant rainfall could be expected.
The ground should be rolled and dressed with 1¼
cwt. of nitro-chalk to help the seeds to come away after they have
germinated. A few patches of such regenerated rough grazing—say a total of
10 acres per 1000 to begin with—would be a great help to the cow stock and
the ewes and lambs. We can scarcely hope to improve a whole hill grazing,
but the establishment of good patches has been found highly successful ; an
upward tendency in fertility is begun and by subsequent attention to
slagging and liming, and controlling the grazing by skilful shepherding, the
patches of improved ground tend to grow larger.
It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that regeneration
in hill grazing should not be of one large patch. When I said 10 acres per
1000, I had in mind ten patches of an acre each rather than one of 10 acres.
The more that can be done, the better, of course; but experience shows that
one large patch tends to get punished by the sheep, which will almost starve
themselves before they will go on to other ground. It is also found that by
concentrating the sheep on such a patch there
arises a large increase in intestinal worms in the sheep stock. Hill sheep
are always the better of being well spread about.
I know all too well the tribulations of improving hill
ground where no implement can go. The process here is to burn hard in March,
then apply the lime and slag or mineral phosphate. The first plant to grow
will be tormentil, a tiny yellow creeping flower with five petals, but it
will not cover the ground in the first season. The seed cleanings should be
sown in July and left to take their chance. No text book or bulletin on
grassland improvement will recommend such a course as sowing the seed
without any cultivation; I should not have the courage to do so myself had I
not undertaken the experiment on my own ground and found it not only
possible but successful. Some wild white clover came in naturally, but the
strains from the seed cleanings are recognizable and have produced more top
growth. The grasses in the mixture came too. My whole experiment was helped
by the natural incoming of yellow horseshoe vetch which makes an excellent
forerunner to the clover. Some attempt should be made to graze the
regenerated ground only lightly in the first season.
When we get higher up the hill where there is little
chance ever of carrying lime and slag, we should not neglect the benefit
which can come from flushing—that is, making use of the water which gushes
up from rock far below ground. These flush waters contain lime and other
mineral salts which can be spread over the ground by leading the water over
the surface along a small open drain. The drain can be lengthened every
fortnight or so to allow a bit of new ground to be treated. This practice
was common in the nineteenth century, but increases in the cost of labour
have prevented its continuation with the regularity it deserves. Crofters,
however, are largely their own masters, and flushing could be done
co-operatively on a high common grazing.
22. Moor Burning
In March and April we expect a dry spell sometime, and
many a man's hand will be feeling for his matchbox as he goes about the
hill, setting light to patches of white grass or burning a moor of old
heather. The good shepherd rarely burns on his own, it is far too dangerous
a practice, and most certainly there is no need for crofters with a common
grazing to burn any part of it without a sufficiency of men and proper
organization. If there is one thing above another which upsets me in the
management of West Highland rough grazings, it is the irresponsibility with
which moor burning is conducted. Let us hope we shall never see repeated
some of the disastrous burning which took place in the springs of 1941 and
1942, when Scotland burnt from coast to coast and many a stretch of young
timber with it.
A controlled system of rotational burning is a valuable
means of increasing the carrying capacity or productivity of a heather moor.
Sheep farming, as it is understood in the Borders, Lanarkshire and the
eastern Highlands, would be impossible without this means of getting young
heather. The high density of grouse on a moor is also dependent on burning.
But, let me repeat, owners of such moors, whose money is got from rents for
sheep farming and grouse shooting, would never allow the burning to be a
haphazard affair. A proprietor was always present himself in the old days
when burning was to be done, or he sent his factor, and even now many leases
of sheep farms stipulate that a representative of the proprietor shall be
present at that time.
Now we in the West have not got heather moors such as we
see in the Borders or east of the Spey. We have a much weaker plant of
heather striving to keep going in a mass of sedges and bents. The reason for
this is that our peat does not drain anything like so easily as that of the
East and South, and we get a much higher rainfall. Heather does not like wet
ground at all, and grows best on a relatively thin layer of peat overlying a
stratum of sand or glacial silt, or on deep peat where there are good
channels draining the upper foot or two. Where the plant is strong, it
regenerates quickly and effectually crowds out other growth. Here in the
West, heather comes back slowly after severe burning, and at the present
time we can say that burning is one of the surest ways to spread bracken. I
often see stretches of hillside where the area of bracken follows precisely
the lines of an earlier burning.
It is necessary to maintain a burning rotation if a
grazing is to be kept in order, and in the West that rotation should be one
of from fifteen to twenty years. The areas burnt should not be too small or
the sheep will punish the young heather too hard in the early years of
regeneration. After all, even with a twenty-year rotation, the actual
burning could take place every two years, so that the strips were of
A sufficient squad of men should be mustered for this job
; it is not good enough for a man to set light to a bit of white grass and
trust that the fire will not run. Burning should proceed upwind so that old
heather is completely burnt and does not leave birns to pull the wool off
the sheep. And it should be done early in the season, not at the end of
April and into May when new growth has already started and birds are
nesting. Our western common grazings do not suffer from being under snow in
March as many inland moors are, and as the first three weeks of March are
usually one of our driest times, there is little excuse for not getting on
the job early.
Care should be taken to save from burning the occasional
clumps of birches, willows or rowans which occur about a grazing, for these
provide valuable cover and shelter of which our western moors are often
deficient. "Better a wee bush than nae bield." Even whin bushes would be
better kept low with a billhook than just burnt when they get straggly, for
the low young growth is good feed for both cattle and sheep. The successful
management of a grazing is essentially a co-operative affair.
HAYMAKING, LOCH TORRIDON
Here is soft meadow hay being made into foot quoils
on ground which I can see bears signs of old cas-ckrom
cultivation. The work of generations has piled the stones which must
have littered the ground as badly as we see them in the garden piece. My
inclination would be to use those piles of stones as bottoms for quoils
of hay. The grass would dry quicker for being well off the ground. This
is country, also, where fence drying for hay would be useful, because
the wind is not bad here but the rainfall is high. From the look of the
weather over the loch we must hinder our friend no longer from her
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