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Crofting Agriculture
Chapter VIII. The Problem of Shelter

40. Shelter from Wind

The biggest enemy in the climate of the West Highlands and Islands is wind. Many people think rain is the worst, but those of us who live on islands, in places open to the Atlantic or on some treeless stretch of the coast, know that wind is more exasperating and wearing on the nerves than rain, and certainly more devastating to plant life. We can adapt our husbandry to take advantage of rain; for example, only rainy parts of the country can grow the best of grass leys, and the practice of ensilage overcomes the difficulty of haymaking. It has always struck me as interesting how soon the hill ground looks parched and needing rain when we get fine weather in May and June. There is no doubt at all that rain suits this countryside, and the smell of a wet south-west wind after a spell from the east is sheer physical delight.

But wind! A breeze of wind is one thing, and many a time have I heard folk living at the head of a glen complaining of the windlessness of July and August weather, whereas their neighbours on the coast are getting breeze enough to dry their hay. Certainly on the promontories and islands we get some real snorters of gales in those months. Sometimes our hay is blown out to sea; our turnips have much of their tops broken off, which means their power of making big globes is affected; such few apple trees as we have suffer loss of fruit, and a flower garden can be ruined in a night. The windward side of whin bushes are scorched by salt even half a mile from the sea, such is the penetrating and pervading power of the great winds from the western airts. And then in spring there is the killing quality of east wind to contend with, just as unpleasant and cold as if we lived on the east coast.

To beat the wind we have to use all our resource. The thatched black houses of the Hebrides and the semi-subterranean houses of North Rona were a very good answer to it. The small netted and stone-weighted round stacks also beat the wind, but the growing crops and living animals are sorely tried. What can we do about it? Long years ago we had a certain amount of shelter near the sea. Dean Munro's description of the western islands of Scotland in 1549 mentioned places being covered in birch scrub which are to-day quite bare. Still earlier, there were the pine trees, remains of which we find as bogwood. These trees were numerous here on Tanera within a few yards of the open Minch, yet to-day even a rowan or birch finds it difficult to get established. We have lost all this valuable cover by burning, cutting and grazing. Co-operative action is needed now to help grow and build up a body of cover about our crofts and townships, and where it presently exists we should exercise all care in conserving it. It is not a one-man job. Here on this island I have been fiddling about for five years with limited resources of money and labour and I have not had much success in growing cover. Nevertheless, I have at least learned something about the problem, and I propose to pass on some of this information.

41. Fences as Cover

Barbed wire is at once a boon and a curse. It gives us a moderately cheap and quickly erected fence, proof against cattle and sheep, so that we can begin to think of growing arable crops. But we should not stop at the barbed-wire fence stage, because I never saw a beast yet that expressed any thanks for the shelter such a fence provided against the wind. The dry-stone dykes of earlier days and of more settled districts are worth a good deal now, though I am sorry to see so many slaps being left unrepaired year by year. A good dyke is a good fence and good shelter. Being built in dry stone, it does not absolutely check the wind like a mortared wall, but sieves it and breaks its power. The mortared wall is apt to create devastating eddies and down-draughts. It is well to remember that you cannot stop wind, you can only break it up or sieve it.

Unfortunately we cannot hope nowadays to build any long stretches of dry-stone dykes. The cost would be prohibitive, and it never fails to impress me what a lot of stone is needed. Many people, looking about our great pile of ruins of the herring factory on Tanera have said, "Well, you'll never be short of stone." But the fact is, if I built a high dyke all round the garden and one or two more windbreaks I have in mind, I know I should soon be having to do some quarrying. The best we can hope for now is to keep up the dykes we have in the Highlands and to confine new work to giving us a walled garden of perhaps a quarter of an acre or so.

Turf or fail dykes are useful things where they exist, but I should never try to build one again because they use too much turf, the very stuff which could be rotted down to make good soil. The short length of turf dyke I made on Tanera to shelter a soft fruit bed has become cover for rats and a reservoir of couch grass and bents. My view now, is that within a garden, the best form of windbreak is small-mesh wire netting—standard rabbit netting 42 by 1 inches does very well. I had just reached this conclusion and begun to put it into practice when a correspondent who had tackled the problem in the Channel Islands wrote to me and explained his use of wire netting for the purpose there. He is now resident in the West Highlands and will doubtless be using it again when the supply of wire becomes unrestricted. My own idea was to run lengths of it up and down the garden at 10-yards intervals, north and south, so that the most common winds from west and east are broken. One great advantage of such windbreaks is that they do not take up much space, and no pests are harboured.

Now that so many plantations are being felled, we might take the chance of using the slabs which are growing into mountainous heaps about the country. If these were used as a fence allowing a space between each slab, they would make a fine windbreak for a few years until cover could be grown behind them.

42. Growing Cover and Shelter

In a section devoted to the heartbreaking job of growing cover or shelter belts in a windswept district close to the sea, let me voice a plea for the care of whatever patches of scrub growth we happen to have about the township. It always surprises me how different places are in this respect. Here in Coigach there is no growth of birches, rowans or willows near the crofts in any of the townships, yet a few miles north of here there is abundant birch scrub exercising a most beneficial effect on the crofts. It is so easy to overlook the good things we have and to take them for granted. Once natural cover has gone it is difficult to replace, and with the best of good luck it takes several years to grow.

As far as the larger aspect of cover is concerned, it would be a grand thing if the establishment of shelter belts could become one of the jobs after the war in the reconstruction of Highland economy. Such a step would provide work in fencing, draining and planting, and when the timber had grown less than half its span the belts would be providing fencing posts and rails for the crofts. I am doubtful whether such plantings primarily set out for shelter belts would give an economic return as timber, but their value as an amenity would be incalculable. Obviously, such shelter belts would not be the task of any individual to establish; they would be first of all mapped by a committee consisting of representatives of the township and of the proprietor, and then the expert opinion of the Forestry Commission might be asked in connection with the types of trees and shrubs to be used.

The formation of shelter belts round the townships will take up some of the present common grazing, but it would be well worth it. The acreage lost could be easily replaced in grazing value by a co-operative slagging and liming of the common grazing outside the new belts. When the Border sheep farms were being improved 150 years ago, it was advised that a twentieth of the whole available grazing should be given up to shelter belts. We should not need as much as this in the West Highlands for a considerable acreage of the grazing is at high altitudes where trees would not grow anyway. Personally, I think a fiftieth of the ground given up to shelter would be enough. There would be little point here in suggesting how deep the belts should be, for all such dimensions would need to be reckoned individually for the places to be planted.


Crofters in some of the townships I know in the Islands and on the outer coasts would think life on such a croft as this to be a favoured one. Ploughing a good stretch of ground with two horses (not ponies) and a full-size plough, the natural oak wood providing good shelter, and a market for all there is to sell only nine miles away. I have heard crofters say, "I would cut down all that wood and get more grazing: it's poor timber anyway." Such men have not studied Highland history and the consequences of removing the timber and scrub from too much of the ground. Shelter is one of the amenities of life and a fair proportion of timber means conservation of soil and of beneficial wild life.

Probably the best tree we have for shelter planting near the sea is the sitka spruce. It is no good using Norway spruce or Scots pine because these species scorch badly with spray. Sitkas do well, and it seems to me now that there is little point in having three rows of mountain pines on the seaward side because, good as they are at the spray line, sitkas are equally good. Mountain pines are poor trees and do not live long.

Normally, you do not plant as close as 2 feet apart. Such closeness would make a forester's hair stand on end, but I believe that is what we must do when we are planting in the teeth of gales from the Atlantic. Thinning can be done later, but your shelter must have shelter in its early stages. The trees to be planted should be young, say two-year-olds, and short stocky ones at that.

If the stand of sitkas gets going it will be almost impenetrable at ten or fifteen years old, and of course, there should be no trimming of the stems to get clean sticks of timber as one would in forestry practice. It might even be good to cut the crowns off when the trees reach 20 feet in height, for sitkas stand a lot of rough treatment.

In situations where plantations could get started rather easier, a shelter belt could consist of a greater variety of coniferous trees, with room left among them for elders and cotoneasters which would provide bottom growth. However, keep clear of Douglas fir in a very windy situation; and larch also if there is danger of spray. A shelter belt with a scrubby bottom growth would hold a lot of summer migrant birds which are a help to agriculture.

When it comes to growing cover for the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, I admit myself beaten at present. We should have to start with a toe of growth such as whin, and build up slightly taller things behind that. It is indeed a field for research and experiment. Nevertheless, when one sees some of the trees, hedges of Escallonia and banks of rhododendrons which occur in some places in the west of Lewis, there is no reason for despair.

43. Growing Shelter for a Garden

Some day, I hope the problem of growing a shelter hedge for a garden on the Atlantic seaboard will be tackled on a demonstration croft run by some institution or the Department of Agriculture, for making mistakes is an expensive hobby for the individual crofter. I am quite sure many mistakes will be made before we have reduced the problem to merely fulfilling a given procedure. As far as I can see, we have no native shrub that can endure the worst the Atlantic can do and grow to a reasonable height within a few years. Also, I am quite sure we have not scoured the world carefully enough to collect all the wind resisters which there must be.

Here on Tanera our garden is set at the eastern end of a funnel-like glen and the wind seems to be magnified. I intended to have a hedge of Cupressus macrocarpa which, I am told, does well near the sea, but I was advised to use Lawson's cypress instead, as C. macrocarpa was apt to die back. Well, I lost the lot in the first winter through the action of a spray-laden east wind, and I am now told that C. macrocarpa does not die back as long as you do not cut the top off when it reaches the required height of the hedge. Anyway, my next try was with hawthorn, and after three years this hedge is certainly growing, but does not yet provide any shelter. I put some little beeches in with the thorns but nearly all have died. Both beech and hawthorn require lime, and I trenched the whole length of my hedge with mortar rubble before planting it. The thorn hedge would be very unlikely to grow on a peaty soil.

There is another shrub called Escallonia which makes good hedges in the south-west of Ireland, and it grows on our west coast too, but my experience has been that it could not withstand March gales from the east in a really open situation. In any case, the young plants are expensive.

My greatest hope at present is the large oval-leaved, blue-flowered Veronica which grows in many gardens on the West Highland coast as far north as Lochinver. It is a wonderful shrub originating in New Zealand or Chile, I am not quite sure which, because I think this West Coast Veronica is a hybrid. It is bright green in colour all the year round and has smooth fleshy leaves. The flowers seem to appear at all times, for my own shrubs are hardly ever without blossom. The shrub grows very close and forms a mass like a half sphere of foliage after two or three years, when it is 2 feet to 2 feet 6 inches in height. Another good thing about it is the ease with which cuttings can be struck. We keep one bush as a kind of stock bush from which we have taken dozens of slips. These we stick into the ground in autumn, and by spring they are neat little three-sprigged plants suitable for planting out as a hedge. I reckon that a really good hedge can be grown in five years in some of our windiest situations. I have still to determine its range of soil between the two extremes of peat and shell-sand.

When planting a hedge, prepare the land well beforehand. Trench it 3 feet wide in autumn, leave it all winter and plant out your young hedge in late April, thereafter watching that the plants get water during the dry weather of May and June. Seaweed would be an excellent mulch. If you can bank up a turf or two along the windward side, such shelter would help the young plants in their first year. As the hedge grows it should be pruned back to keep it growing thick. Thorns should be planted 6 inches apart but Veronica can be a foot apart, and even at that distance alternate bushes could be removed after two or three years and used elsewhere. Plant close, however, at first, for the shrubs shelter each other.

44. Further Thoughts on Shelter

When these sections on growing shelter were appearing as weekly articles I had many letters on the subject, several asking for further information and others giving me valuable knowledge based on experience. It seemed to me the right course was to pass on this knowledge, for I could have no doubt of the wide interest among crofters in growing shelter for a garden. And from this very fact I would go the further logical step and say that if crofters show interest in growing shelter for a garden they must have a desire to make a garden, and a garden is by definition a place where you grow things, food plants and flowers; it is not made to provide a playground for hens—even if these troublesome creatures think so.

Some of these letters asking for further advice on hedges finished with the entirely practical question, "Where can I get the necessary plants?" Quite candidly, this was a bit of a poser and emphasized the lack of attention which has been given to the subject by educational and official institutions. Several parts of the West Highland coast are admirable for growing shrubs quickly, yet how many nurseries are there over here which could set about supplying a demand for shelter species? It is no good being offered specimen bushes of Escallonia or Veronica at half a crown or four shillings each; we want quantities of young stuff, newly rooted cuttings and the like, at a pound or thirty shillings a hundred. I nearly suggested" in the section on shelter

for a garden that some business-minded crofter with the right sort of place would do well to start a nursery of Veronica bushes. Well, I say it in all seriousness now, and if those lairds with plenty of well-grown hedges or bushes of Escallonia and Veronica about their policies would be so kind as to take some hundreds or thousands of cuttings and strike them in some corner of their ground, they would be doing their fellow-men a good turn and within a year or two make a reasonable profit.

The cypress originating from a windswept spray-ridden peninsula in California, known here as Cupressus macrocarpa, is a very popular hedging plant which I mentioned in my earlier remarks on shelter. I remarked on its tendency to suddenly die back, especially if topped too soon. A reader in Argyll who is a keen amateur forester, wrote to say that this was not his experience, but that the trees do tend to die eighteen to twenty years after planting if they have been placed too close to each other. The individual trees must have room enough to develop a crown. He suggested planting 3 feet apart, the trees being one-year-old or one-year transplants. C. macrocarpa is a difficult transplanter and very susceptible to drought when first planted, says my correspondent, so if possible the young plants should be transferred from pots to avoid root exposure. Many of the queries I have received have been from the Outer Isles, and as all plants of this species if used would have to be imported from the mainland, it would be advisable to take heed of my correspondent's expert knowledge and buy only C. macrocarpa in pots. The young plants will be expensive, but at least there will be some expectation of success. Once again, let me emphasise the necessity of preparing the ground first where the hedge is to be—digging it deeply first, but my correspondent says manure should not be dug in for any of the coniferous trees, of which C. macrocarpa is one. When the plants are in, the surface of the ground may be mulched with seaweed to conserve the moisture.

My correspondent further said that after the first-year's growth of the C. macrocarpa hedge, a level top should be aimed at by nipping off the leaders which grow above the average height. The right shape of a hedge is one thick at the base and coming more or less to a point at the top. This shape of a hedge sheds the rain, does not get broken down by snow, and allows a maximum of light to reach the lower growth.

The same correspondent held out little hope of the so-called Antarctic beech being any good, an opinion confirmed by another writer who knew the plant in the Falkland Islands. I understand the plants are expensive, difficult to obtain and liable to succumb to the variability of our climate. Cold may not kill a plant, but sudden alternations of mildness and cold will.

It seems perhaps that I did less than justice to Escallonia macrantha as a hedging plant for the Islands. Certainly it does well where exposed to winds from western airts, but from my own experience and from what I learn from one or two other letters, a gale of east wind can make it look sick. This shrub grows splendidly from cuttings.

Another correspondent asked me not to forget the humble willow, and mentions the practice in Strathclyde of planting the quick-growing withy as a hedge and plaiting the stems as they grow, to form a sort of living wattle hurdle. This should help to provide the first cover for a garden. Another plant suitable for exposed situations is the familiar whin or gorse bush. This does not transplant easily, so should be sown where it is wished to have the hedge, and in its young stages protected from stock, which are very fond of the new tender shoots. Nip back the first leaders to make the plants sprout into a thick, compact, bushy hedge. In very exposed positions it is a good plan to sow the seed in a shallow trench so that the young plants get some protection, as is done in the windswept Falkland Islands.

I forgot to mention earlier the hardy and thorny qualities of the Worcesterberry, a plant which is a cross between a gooseberry and black currant. It grows quickly, its thorns will pierce the hide of the most inquisitive gate-crashing cow, and it produces a good fruit. To use the words Neil Munro put in the mouth of the fox who ate the bagpipes, "There's both meat and music in it."

There is also the myroballum plum, a sort of thorny wild plum which grows very close and becomes impenetrable. Nurserymen usually have a supply of young plants for hedging. The ground should be dug well first and lime worked in.

The point I originally made still stands: we need experimentation in the most windswept Atlantic areas by some educational or official body which can afford to make mistakes and have some losses in the search for the right plant or sequence of plants.

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