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Crofting Agriculture
Chapter V. The Control of Weeds

26. What Weeds tell us

Following what I had to say a few pages back about weeds in meadow ground and the increase of yellow rattle therein, I took the advice of a crofter correspondent in the Outer Isles, who suggested I should describe the weeds that can be expected under different soil conditions and in different crops, and what measures can be taken to control them. For, let it be said, there are more ways of getting rid of weeds than the bald frontal attack of pulling them up.

The weeds we are most likely to be troubled with in the West Highlands are those of wet ground and sour ground, and those indicative of light, poverty-stricken, arable soils. Let us take first those indicative of bad drainage ; unfortunately, it does not need to be the weeds which must first tell us that ground is wet, but at least the appearance of horsetails, rushes and cuckooflower, and a sponge of moss may tell us of a stoppage in an otherwise well-drained pasture. The evidence given by such plants is worth following up, and if the drain is cleared it is probable that those weeds indicative of wetness will disappear without our positive action against them. But do not leave rushes to chance: when they appear first in an otherwise clean pasture, dig them out and be done with them.


This would be good early potato ground, and seaweed would not be hard to get. The crofts look trim and well kept. The oat crop also looks a good one. The bracken is evidently creeping in, from the appearance of the foreground. Many crofters in such a district as West Sutherland would think themselves fortunate with stretches of arable as good as this. Small mechanized agriculture is possible here, and vegetables for the Skye tourist trade would do well.

Moss appearing in either meadow or pasture indicates too damp conditions: it can be checked by constant spike harrowing, but it should be remembered that prevention is better than cure—in other words, drain the ground if possible. If horsetails appear commonly over the surface of the ground, it is essential to drain as soon as possible and plough the ground, because too much horsetail in hay or pasture is dangerous to stock. Creeping buttercup is another weed of damp pastures. It is not relished by stock and, in fact, it is detrimental in their food, and this weed has the habit of ousting a great deal of grass and clover. It is also a weed of sour land, and the only answer is drain, lime and plough.

The control of rushes will need a section to itself and will be treated overleaf, especially as this has been a subject of several letters from crofters.

Wet ground soon makes sour ground, especially if the water is stagnant, but all sour ground is not all wet: for example, a sand and peat mixture overlying glacier-borne gravel is common in the Highlands and is extremely dry, but still sour to the extent that it is very poor in lime. Such dry soils grow a fine plant of heather if they are in their undisturbed state and we cannot look upon such good stuff as a weed, but this land when ploughed and in regular arable use soon becomes extraordinarily weedy. Such ground when in grass shows but a thin plant of herbage, in which the little yellow flower, tormentil, seems to be the chief constituent. Some people find the tormentil a nuisance when milk cows are grazing on it, for it tends to produce stringiness in milk. I have plenty of tormentil in my ground but have never found it cause any trouble. In its favour, it may be said that an infusion of tormentil is a good cure for diarrhoea in man or beast.

Ordinary sour ground inclined to dampness is ideal for the growth of dockens, crowsfoot, sorrels and persicaria. Once more, it is better to go for the root cause by ploughing, and liming as heavily as possible, though dockens should be pulled by hand and burnt whenever they appear. The roots of the docken will sprout again if the plant breaks in pulling, and if it is pulled when early in flower and left on the field it is hardy enough to ripen the seeds before it really dies. The crofter farms on a small scale and should therefore have time to tackle his weeds in a more individual manner than the larger farmer. Gather them up and burn them. Some annual weeds will break down in a compost heap, but burning is the only safe thing with dockens.

It is not only these weeds which are discouraged by liming. Liming appears to be one of the most effectual means of controlling weeds that we have—not only quick or burnt lime, but those forms more readily available at present, such as ground limestone and shell-sand. Time and time again we come back in our agricultural problems to this basic necessity of liming.

27. Eradication of Rushes

Until the plough-up campaign of this war changed the face of England, I used to think the most prominent plant in the pastures was the creeping thistle. Happily this curse is not quite so troublesome in the West Highlands, but there is another plant which is even commoner in our pastures now than thistles were in England before the war. I am alluding to rushes.

This vigorous weed grows strongest in damp ground, but as many a man has pointed out, draining is not the whole answer in getting rid of rushes. They also grow on relatively dry land as well, though not so strongly. The main fact is that rushes grow on land which is short of lime, so that liming must accompany drainage if they are to be completely eradicated.

It is always worth while taking the trouble to observe how plants grow; a knowledge of their habits can help considerably in the control of weeds. Are they annuals or perennials? What like is the rooting system, and has the plant means of food storage? When does it seed? Does it develop better in pasture or in meadow ground?

Let us watch the common rush. It grows from seed and not from underground stems, but the plant which grows from one seed so enlarges its basal area that it can quite well occupy a square yard of ground. You will notice that the stems are packed together extremely closely and exclude most other kinds of growth. Now cattle will graze the tops of young rushes and make it a little harder for them to become strongly established, but sheep will not touch them, and instead graze most carefully all round the clump. This is exactly what the rushes want—the competitive growth of grass is being removed and the clump grows bigger, until it eventually comes against the outer edge of the next clump and the grass is excluded. If rushes are newly appearing in a grass park, eradication would be hastened by taking a hay crop off it instead of grazing it, and putting strong cattle on to clear the aftermath.

Cattle cannot be expected to get down a well-established stand of rushes. The answer is very hard work. A scythe snath should be fitted with a short wrought-iron blade of the old-fashioned kind we used to have before the type with the riveted spine became common. The grass-hook should also be strong and well secured. The blade needs keen and frequent sharpening. All that is now needed is a strong back and perseverance.

The rush clump should be cut absolutely flush with the ground, or as the clump often tends to form a mound of earth and old growth, the mound itself should be shorn off. Nothing but a stiff wrought-iron blade will stand up to that sort of treatment and the snatch it is necessary to put into the stroke to get through the clump at all. As soon as the rushes are cleared, I have found myself that the best deterrent to further growth is a thick layer of shell-sand over the exposed crown of the clump. [Mr Duncan Macaulay, Breascleit, Isle of Lewis, and of the Lewis W.A.E.C., tells me that he has had excellent results in eradicating rushes by covering the shorn crown of the rush clump with a good dollop of seaweed. The effect is one of smothering the plant, as in my own treatment of shell-sand.] The ground should be used for hay in the next year after an autumn grazing.

The rushes themselves should be dried and stacked for bedding so that they may ultimately be returned to the ground as manure.

There is no doubt, of course, that ploughing is the best means of getting rid of rushes, or disc harrowing a sufficient number of times to cut up the roots into fragments and leave them loose on the top. What is needed then is time and fine weather to rake the dried masses of roots into heaps for burning.

28. Corn Spurrey or Yarr

One of the most prevalent weeds of arable land in the Highlands is corn spurrey, or yarr as we more generally call it. It has ruined many a corn crop and beaten the hoe in root crops when labour has been short or the season unduly wet. And it has the added disadvantage of a most objectionable scent.

How are we to get rid of it?

First of all, let us always remember what weeds indicate in the way of soil conditions, and ask ourselves how we can alter those conditions so that extermination of weeds does not depend wholly on our banging away at them with the hoe. A field overrun by yarr means shortage of lime. The application of two tons of ground limestone or five tons of shell-sand to the acre would effect an immediate improvement, though, of course, lime does not do away with the necessity of applying elbow grease as well! Again, when I see the yarr running ahead of the corn crop in spring and the few shoots of corn themselves looking yellow, I know the soil is short of nitrogen. About 1 cwt. of nitro-chalk to the acre when the corn is very young would stimulate the growth of the corn more than of the yarr, so that the corn would get above the yarr and not be choked out. Once again, this indirect method of overcoming the weed is lazy-man's farming unless it is backed up by a direct attack on the weed at such times in the rotation as it is possible.

My advice to anyone with a field of young corn overrun by yarr is to cut the loss by letting the ewes and lambs on to it. Let them eat it hard down; then plough it in, apply lime if possible, and sow out the ground direct with grass seed late in June. The manuring and treading by the sheep will be a great help to the success of the grass seeds.

If, however, you know quite well in the early spring that the ground is foul with yarr, there is no point in sowing oats there and losing the crop. The best thing would be to get on the ground early, plough it and cultivate it; wait till the weeds germinate, and then cultivate it and harrow it again to kill that particular batch. Another lot will soon be growing and that should be treated the same way. Lime could be applied at any time during these cultivations. Keep the cultivator or harrows going all through the dry spring weather. It may be too late then to sow out in corn, and in any case, as the ground is probably very poor, you would do better to miss a year of the rotation and sow rape and Italian rye-grass instead. This will be fit to graze in July and should be kept grazed while ever there is a bite on it. The ground could then be ploughed in the following spring and either sown with corn or planted with potatoes. The yarr will have been drastically reduced and the condition of the soil much improved. Remember the lime and use as much shell-sand as you can afford to carry.

29. Ragwort

Self-respect is one of the great upholders of human life. It pervades all our activities and without it we sink into apathy and defeatism, which means the finish of us as a race of people. For an agricultural community, a countryside overgrown with weeds is a deep wound to self-respect. At least, if you doubt me, see what a kick the man with a really clean croft gets out of life. A garden or a crop of roots overgrown with annual weeds may be the result of bad luck, such as a wet spring which did not give hoeing time but grew the weeds, or the urgent presence of some other task. But when we look over a piece of permanent grassland in September and see it growing yellow heads of ragwort, red heads of dockens and snowy heads of seeding thistles, we know there is more to it than bad luck; there is bad management.

Ragwort is a horrible weed, of which I have read that it is eaten by sheep and can be kept in check by grazing them. I am not impressed by this oft-repeated half-truth. The West Highlands have quite twice as many sheep wandering about the low ground than there should be, yet there are several thousand times as much ragwort than there should be on that same ground. It is not only growing in the permanent grass of the crofts themselves in many townships, but it has invaded the common grazings and roadsides as well. The weed can be a definite poison to horses and is probably responsible for more trouble in cattle than we know. Where it occurs in grass cut for hay it does not dry as other weeds do, but continues green and soft, and may prevent the hay being carried when the grass itself is dry.

Happily, ragwort has a tough stem and no deep taproot. The sovereign remedy is to pull it up. The weed comes away good and clear, and I know that I feel a real pleasure in pulling them up. The plants so pulled are finished, and it is possible in a few years to rid the ground completely. Few weeds advertise themselves so well and few are easier pulled. The right hand should be held thumb down round the stem near the ground, and the left hand helping to pull higher up the stem. The weeds should be gathered in bundles and burnt, as they have the power of ripening and disseminating the seed for a good while after they have been pulled.

The ragwort on common grazings where the soil tends to be sandy presents a problem to be tackled co-operatively. When a thing is nobody's private responsibility it becomes everybody's public responsibility; at least, that is how it should be. I have recently read a book called The Gael Fares Forth, by N. R. Mackenzie, describing the success in New Zealand of a large group of Highlanders from the north-western districts. These men and women were the great-uncles and aunts of the crofters of to-day, and they did not hesitate to co-operate whenever the public good demanded it. When there was a big job of work to do they organized a "frolic" as they called it and made light of the labour in the fun they got out of the social occasion. War on the ragwort could best be waged by an annual frolic in July, with sports for the children to follow.

30. Dockens, Thistles, Onion Couch and Twitch

What a picture of decrepitude is conjured up by this sub-title! Dockens and thistles are often encouraged by using dirty grass seed—or to put it more bluntly, by not using a proper seeds mixture at all but using the sweepings of the byre loft or barn after the winter. There is no doubt that the first measure of control of these two weeds is to use clean seeds mixtures. Onion couch grass and the stringy-rooted twitch grass are weeds of arable ground which has not been fallowed enough or has not been cleaned well while it was under a root crop. But these two grasses do also reproduce from seed, so once more we can say it is wise to sow clean grass seeds.

When dockens appear so thick in a crop of young grass as to make it almost impossible to pull them up, roots and all, it is better to graze the ground continuously. Both cattle and sheep enjoy the young docken leaves, and after a few years the weed will disappear. Careful pulling and burning is desirable in ground which must be kept under the plough, and if the produce of docken-infested ground is fed to stock or used for bedding them, care should be taken with the manure heap to get it hot and so kill the seeds. Heating in the manure can be encouraged by turning the heap and mixing in seaweed and a certain amount of horse manure. Both dockens and thistles should be prevented from seeding.

Thistles are of several kinds. The spear thistle, so dear as a Scottish emblem, has nothing but handsome appearance to commend it. Fortunately, it lives only two years and does not increase in any other way than by seeding. The strict use of the spud on these thistles would soon clear the ground. But the creeping thistle is a much worse enemy. I once heard a farmer say he doubted whether the seeds of creeping thistle did germinate at all. It is quite possible they do not ripen sufficiently every year, but the farmer was emphasizing his respect for the creeping powers of this thistle. And this I echo. Though it is not as common a weed in the West Highlands generally as it is in the Lowlands, there are pockets of it on the better soils and we ought to tackle it conscientiously each year.

I am doubtful whether creeping thistles can be kept down in pasture by regular mowing before they seed. I have tried this on an experimental patch for five years and they are still as strong as ever. Ploughing out early in the year is probably the best cure, with plenty of fallowing cultivations in the dry weather of March and May. A well-cleaned root crop on such ground would finish off the thistles.

Couch grass is a truly dreadful weed, common at the edge of cultivated ground and in poor, thin grass. Do not knock it about with harrows or the little strings of "onions" will break up, and each of these little stores of food material will make a new plant of couch. The best way is to plough with two ploughs, the first taking off a thin layer and putting it upside down at the bottom of a deep furrow. The second plough turns over a deep furrow slice on top of the couch which will now be buried. Subsequent cultivations should not be deep enough to disturb the buried layer.

Of course, many of our crofting soils are not deep enough for this treatment. The only thing to do then is to grow a smother crop in spring like white mustard, eat it off with cattle and sheep as quickly as possible when it is ready, then plough again immediately and sow out with good grass and clover at the end of June. Rushes serve as a reservoir and hiding-place of onion couch grass. Though this weed likes dry conditions and dense rushes like damp, it will be found that the heart of a clump of rushes provides a good dry bed in which the couch can grow.

Twitch, or creeping bent, needs bare fallowing, because it cannot be hoed successfully from a root crop. Grass is exasperating stuff under a hoe because it does not cut clean, but every segment of this creeping twitch will produce a new root if it gets half a chance. The bare fallow is a form of husbandry we should do well to use a little oftener in the West Highlands, though I fully realize that at the moment we are short of men and the means of cultivation to work land for no crop until the end of June. As Highland economy is arranged at present, the period of dry weather in May when bare fallowing should be taking place is unfortunately fully occupied by cutting and drying the peats.

31. Bracken

There are quite half a million acres of bracken in Scotland. No other weed can equal this in extent, nor in damage to grazing. Yet it is not among the "scheduled" weeds, for the powers-that-be realize that this immense total of bracken, much of it growing on steep hillsides, could not be cut each year, however willing we might be to do it. All the same, I am not sure that we are quite willing enough to do what we can, because I see lots of bracken growing luxuriantly on ground which could be ploughed. Such a state of affairs as that is out-and-out bad farming.

There are many ways of getting rid of bracken, both mechanical and biological, but they are all expensive and grow even more so with the rise in agricultural wages. The value of hill grazing, where most of the bracken is, remains at between sixpence and two shillings an acre a year. One way of reducing bracken is to cut it twice a year in June and August for several years in succession. This is perhaps the surest way, but the cost is repaid only on land which is then fit to run as arable. You can also import herds of pigs and fold them on the patches of bracken: though you may agree with my personal feeling that the cure would be worse than the disease! These are examples of a mechanical and biological method of control. There are also chemical methods such as spraying with potassium chlorate, and it is possible that this may be the cheapest way in the future when we can have our bracken sprayed from out-of-work bombers. But I don't profess to know.

Some people have taken up a cry that cattle grazing will cure bracken, and such a statement has been actually attributed to me. I have said no such thing because I know it to be wrong. The truth is this: bracken has increased enormously in the last half century, and its increase has in some measure corresponded with a decrease in the number of cattle grazing the hills. There can be no doubt that bracken increases under sheep grazing and under sparse grazing of cattle. But this is a very different thing from saying that a heavier stocking of cattle will cure bracken. It won't. Where bracken has properly got hold of a hillside no grazing density of cattle will keep it down. Where there is little or no bracken, an increased cattle population may be expected to preserve such a happy state. That is all we can say at present.

Sheep farming calls for much more moor burning than when a large number of cattle is kept in addition to a moderate number of sheep. In my opinion, this far too constant burning is one of the main causes for the increase of bracken. I have particularly watched several pieces of heather burning in the West and have noticed the immediate increase of bracken on such patches. Indeed, the line of the burning can be seen years after by a total covering of bracken in some instances. This happens especially on very poor geological formations such as the Torridonian Sandstone.

There is at present a most unfortunate antagonism between forestry and sheep farming, the sheep men bitterly resenting what they consider to be the encroachment of forestry on to their best slopes. But what can the sheep farmers do about the immense acreage of bracken on hillsides which are inaccessible to machines? These areas provide grazing for only a very short period of the year and in ever-lessening quantity. I believe these hillsides should be afforested as soon as possible as the only means of eradicating the bracken during the life span of the trees, and without the expensive intervention of human labour. Concomitantly, the Forestry Commission might co-operate with the sheep farmer in being prepared to fence some rather odd shapes of ground. There is no doubt that forestry will be one of the main opportunities for part-time labour for crofters in the years ahead—and surely it is better than cutting bracken!

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