Even by Yours Truly’s intermittent blogging standards, it’s been rather a long time since my last rural bulletin, so buckle up and hold on tight for a whistle-stop tour of spring in Scotland, as viewed from here at The Sparrowholding.
In my defence, one of the reasons for the paucity of posts to date this year has been that work has been pleasingly manic for both HunterGatherer (with spreaders to calibrate, soil to sample and fences to build) and Yours Truly (with spurts of prolific proofreading activity punctuating my planting of the finer points of poetry and prose in the fertile minds of myriad pupils).
At risk of descending into oxymoron, I did say ‘pleasingly’ intentionally above, because when you are both self-employed, work tends to appear on a feast or famine basis and thus the feast periods are to be celebrated. Fortunately, our only real famine of this year so far was caused when March roared in like a lion – or, to be more precise, like a ‘Beast from the East’. The ensuing solid mile of snowdrifts between us and Kinross, saw The Sparrowholding cut off from civilisation for a couple of days. If by chance you didn’t see the photographic evidence at the time and are interested, scroll back to March on the Square Sparrow YouTube, Instagram and Facebook accounts for photos/micro-videos.
Our lovely little flock of nine Shetland ewes have been equally busy these past few months, first growing and then producing a veritable posse of 17 leaping lambs (as evidenced by various videos and photos here and on the Youtube , Facebook and Instagram accounts). This year’s gang of woolly warriors are particularly beguiling – though, of course, we say that every year.
Talking of things sheepish, we’re hoping that this year’s wool harvest will be good, as it transpired last year that some of our lovely girlies’ wool is exceptionally ‘fine’ – in the literal sense of the word! As I reported in the March update, late last summer a 'friend of a friend' of mine asked if she could have a fleece to spin for the 2018 Royal Highland Show (if you’re interested in country life but have never been before, and you live within travelling distance of Edinburgh, get it on your bucket list now!).
Anyway, we duly sent ‘the spinning lady’ away with Tufty’s gorgeous brown/grey fleece, and you can see the photomontage of the subsequent process that the fleece underwent and the shawl that it eventually became in a previous blog post if you missed it first time round. It is so exciting to see our girls’ wool transformed in this way, and if I didn’t have arthritis in my hands that makes dexterity a thing of the past, I would love to have tried spinning – and perhaps felting – for myself.
Given that the lady who did spin Tufty’s fleece was incredibly complimentary about the resultant wool, we’re hoping either to sell the fleeces individually to spinners this year or to group together with a couple of other local producers to get all our fleeces made into balls of wool by one of the UK companies who offer this service. Sadly, this is a very expensive business – hundreds and hundreds of pounds! – so we’ll need to weigh up carefully what is the best way to proceed. It just seems a real shame that a gorgeous natural material such as wool is no longer valued whereas eco-unfriendly, micro-fibre-shedding ‘fleeces’ have become the norm instead…
The thing I love best about spring in Scotland is that any foray outside – such as a leisurely stroll along the track just above us – is akin to walking along the green paint aisle in B&Q, thanks to the countless shades of green in every possible nuance to be seen in the hedgerows on either side. HunterGatherer and I amused ourselves the other day trying to think of names for all the shades. The track has also been a source of inspiration for some of my tutees at The Learning Cauldron for students who find it difficult/ unappealing to sit inside and concentrate.
Meanwhile here at The Sparrowholding itself, HunterGatherer has only recently begun his spring planting activities in the garden. The winter went on for soooooo long that we are at least a couple of weeks behind last year, so the “tub meister” has had to make up for lost time this past couple of weekends! Currently, there are giant red tubs containing all manner of veggies adorning our vegetable patch, and some of the seeds are just poking through the earth. We've been asked on several occasions where he sources his tubs, and the answer is that they are empty sheep mineral lick tubs (which also make great sleeping places for lambs, it transpires!).
Better still, the micro-orchard which we planted in the autumn at the bottom of our two-acre paddock is bursting into bloom, which means that our courageous little fruit trees (four apple, one cherry, one plum, one pear plus a couple of hazel bushes) survived their first winter against all the odds.
It's reassuring that the garden is back in action again with the advent (finally!) of spring in Scotland, but I have to confess that it’s sometimes a tad demoralising when we see all our fellow gardening and smallholding Instagram friends from 'doon sooth' posting photos of full-grown plants. However, such are the joys of living in these precarious Scottish climes – and there, are of course, compensations...
Some of you may remember that last June I posted a short video of HunterGatherer, using old-fashioned hand clippers to shear Tufty’s gorgeous Shetland fleece. Well, the stunning fleece which appeared in that self-same video has been on a rather exciting journey since the day it left The Sparrowholding later that summer in the car boot of a friend of a friend, who just so happens to be a keen spinner and knitter.
As you’ll see from the (many!) photos in this blog post charting the fleece’s progress after leaving us, it was first washed to remove any grubbiness (not that our lovely sheep are particularly unhygienic, you understand, but paddock life isn’t immaculate either!).
Tufty looks a gorgeous milk chocolatey brown colour if you see her in the field, but while being washed and spun, her wool seemed to change hue slightly and in some of the photos K. kindly took, it looks almost grey.
After Tufty’s coat of many colours had been washed and allowed to dry, K. (the ‘spinning lady’) discovered that the fleece was so beautifully fine that she didn’t actually need to card (or ‘comb it out’ to you and me) it and she was able to start spinning it into yarn straight away.
Once K. had spun sufficient yarn for her intended purpose – a shawl – she got out her trusty knitting needles and began to create the gorgeous Shetland shawl which you’ll see in the photos below. HunterGatherer and I were so excited to see the end result. Doesn’t it look fab? Now who wouldn’t want to cosy up in that soft sumptuous woolliness on a chilly evening?
The 'spinning lady' spun the yarn and created the shawl with the intention of exhibiting it at the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston near Edinburgh in the summer of 2018. I’ve certainly got the date writ large in my diary and the plan is for HunterGatherer and me to go along and admire it if it is indeed one of the exhibits in the WRI tent. I might even take a photo of it home with me to show the lovely Tufty and her cheeky twins! The process that transforms it from a fluffy fleece to a finely spun yarn is slow and labour-intensive.
However, the end result is absolutely amazing, and perhaps one day either HunterGatherer or I will have to try our hand at spinning so we could create a home-spun yarn here at The Sparrowholding. Time alone will tell...
It's that time of year again, which means that last week saw the big annual haircut (aka sheep shearing) taking place here at the Sparrowholding, with HunterGatherer wielding a pair of old-fashioned hand sheep shears – no fancy electric clippers for him, as we don’t have enough sheep to justify them.
In the olden days, all the wool collected annually during sheep shearing formed a small, but significant, part of the sheep farmer's "harvest", with the fleeces being rolled up after shearing (there is a technique, of course!) and piled into large wool sacks before being collected by the ‘Wool Marketing Board’.
Eventually a cheque, which varied in amount according to the weight of wool, would wing its way to the grateful farmer. However, in the 21st century, the advent of myriad modern synthetic materials such as Lycra, Acrylic and Polyester has gradually depressed the price paid to farmers for fleeces, and in most cases the wool cheque amount no longer forms a significant part of a farm's income.
Nowadays, the cost of sheep shearing in time, money and effort can almost outweigh the value of the wool on some sheep farms, but the job still has to be done for welfare reasons. If the fleeces are not removed, bothersome blowflies can lay their eggs in the wool and the maggots hatch out in these cosy climes and start tucking into the sheep’s flesh. Not a sight you’d ever want to see, I can assure you. So off come the fleeces around the middle of June every year!
With just 15 adult Shetland sheep here on The Sparrowholding, we wouldn’t have enough wool to fill even one of Wool Marketing’s giant wool bags, so we keep our fleeces and use them during the rest of the year for various tasks around the garden, e.g. lining the base of planters to keep moisture in or acting as ‘blanket’ of weed protection between (rows of) plants in the summer, plus keeping plants snug and warm in their pots in the wintertime.
Wool is also very handy for various crafting activities, such as rug or card-making and spinning, so we tend to set the best fleeces aside in our trusty little ‘wool’ shed and sell whole or part fleeces to keen crafters, who love Shetland fleeces because of the 30+ different official 'colourways' they come in (ranging from white through to dark chocolate).
Talking of sheds (please note seamless link here!), you may remember that the Square Sparrow blog was one of the finalists in the Waltons’ smallholder blog competition some months ago. Now Waltons have asked us to be involved in their current competition to win a 5x3 ft mower (or any other garden stuff!) store. The details of their competition appear below, and the closing date is 28th June, so get your entries in soon to be in with a chance of winning yourself a handy garden store. Good luck!