Four Seasons in One Year *

Being outside most of the year gives us the personal validation that the Trossachs is a great place to live in or visit all-year-round. We have opened up our booking window for The Old Farmhouse for others to enjoy too. There is even a Christmas slot available for a last-minute escape to the country.

Winter Ben Venue from the Farm Gate

The end of this month (November 2018), marks our second anniversary at Achray Farm. When you live and breath a place, change can be hard to see on a daily basis. It’s only when friends pass by after a couple of weeks away and comment, or an image on the phone or Facebook pops up as a memory that brings it home.

As a more curated record, one of the things that we do for visitors walking or cycling through Achray Farm is to post a newsletter on the gate explaining what we have been up to recently and what our plans are. Whilst currently writing Issue #5, Autumn 2018, I thought that the previous issues should be available in other than a fading laminated printout, so here they are:

* With apologies to Crowded House.

Transformation of The Old Farmhouse

We never really own a property, especially an old one. We are just the latest custodians in a long line of influencers and makers able put our mark on a house, flat or farm.

Availability for Farm Stay Accommodation

The Old Farmhouse is now listed on AirBnB, please get in touch with us if any dates are not listed.

History

In the UK we have a lot of valuable history archives available including photography, old mapping and census details. From these we know the buildings here have undergone continual evolution as the needs of the land and community have changed.  Our oldest photographic record doesn’t even show the current “Old Farmhouse” dated late 1800s.

Of course the most immediate story is that of the past residents and locals. In living memory the farm was managed without a running water supply. Electricity came in the 1970s and mains water only in the late 1990s. We still don’t have hardwired broadband of course!

Images below show the layout before the farmhouse was established (taken from South at Creag Dubh) and from the North West field (before the late C20 extension).

Best Laid Plans

With planning consent granted in February 2018 work began on the Farmhouse, starting with biomass heating (inadvertently cutting our remaining LPG gas supply in the process) and then reconfiguring the southern extensions. 20 years ago these were corrugated lean-tos and latterly a western porch, utility space and bathroom to the east.  In order to make the Old Farmhouse entrance distinct it all had to move. First the “pork shed” and store were demolished to expose the Eastern gable again and then new lintols, floor and insulation went in to meet modern building standards. Discovering a brick wall enabled a feature to be made in the kitchen and where possible the existing fittings were retained throughout.

The Old Farmhouse

The slideshows and image comparisons below show where most of the work was targeted in the Southern reconfiguration.

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Squeezing in the upstairs bathroom was a challenge, but with some ingenuity and a skilled workforce at hand we moved doors, electrics and radiators, routed drainage and water and brought in new light.

Other rooms mostly just required a lot of paint.

The Team

Finally, a mention to all who have helped us; Jim on overall build, T on additional woodwork, Gus on electrics, Jamie on stone and slateworks, Stephen on lintols and stone, JTM (Jon, Nick, Welsh and many more) on plumbing, Kevin on tiling, Energy Source Dave and Mike for renewables and Charlie for manual labour.

Architecture was master-planned by Alasdair at Studio Baird with building control through Claire at T Square with Jamie at J O Design for structural engineering.

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The Farmhouse will evolve again in the future, we hope this record of our short influence will provide interest and help to those who come after us.

Energy Sources

One of our aims for Achray Farm was to create a regenerative environment.  This tenet is not only in what we produce (see Blog from April 2018), but also in how we operate on our triple-bottom line of Financial, Social and Environmental impact.

One of the biggest environmental aspects outwith our direct control is the power and heat used to supply the domestic residential, guest accommodation and operations on the farm.  Although we currently utilise a “green” tariff with our energy supplier we knew there was more potential and opportunity with the space and environment to do more.

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In late 2017 we began investigation into integrating a local district heating system for the buildings under current (and future) development and solar to use our own power on-demand and supply a little back to the grid.  Although we considered geothermal, the risks of shallow arrays in our stony glacial till and the costs of deep bores brought us to more conventional solar and biomass combination.

Solar

Solar power in Scotland? That sounds like growing grapes and sweetcorn here but there are now large-scale subsidy-free commercial developments and panels that work well under a range of conditions, including direct sunlight (and there are even sweetcorn and grapes growing in Scotland now as well!).

Even with these, typically East coast, developments The Trossachs is not seen as a primary or high solar gain area.  However, being able to optimise a ground-mounted  array with unrestricted orientation and alignment, when the sums were presented the long-term financial balance along with the improved environmental impact of the farm as a whole allowed us to progress.

As it turns out, 2018 has been a phenomenally sunny year since May, making up for the long cold winter.  We passed our first tree saved, have hit a couple of 30KWh days and even reached 1MWh in less than 2 months.  Some modern offshore wind turbines can generate a MWh in around 10 minutes under good conditions, but I am very pleased by our performance from late April to June.

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immersun2_controller_make_greenWe have also installed an ImmerSun immersion control to maintain our hot water tank temperatures by scheduling hot water during the day to use our own power first before the biomass system needs to fire up.

 

Biomass

Our biggest investment, and biggest capacity to control our impact and energy security is the biomass infrastructure.  There is a lot of discussion in relation to biomass as an environmental level, but living in Scotland, surrounded by commercial forestry that creates local by-products and sourcing local suppliers.

Now, after construction of a new building, built to fit into the listed building environment, hand digging deep trenches, the installation of  a new boiler and accumulator with enough pipework to make an almost sculptural engineering work of art contorted into the space.  All this is supplied by a 9-ton pellet store and automated auger feeder. When filled up in the autumn (no seasonal price differences in pellet supply) this should be able to readily last us through the winter and icy/snowy forest roads that can prevent heavy deliveries for months at a time.

Pellet supply from BD Supplies was efficient with advice and a clean delivery, weighed to the Kg.

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Our main energy contract suppliers, Mike and Dave from Energy Source (UK) have throughout been professional, friendly and flexible in designing, installing and commissioning our solution.

Heavy Plant and Little Plants

This winter we have been working through our online Making Small Farms Work course run by Richard Perkins at Ridgedale in Sweeden.  One of the critical tasks that came out of our early design work was to assess the farm according to Scales of Permanence.

PA Yeomans‘ work both helps us to understand what can be changed and what can be done.  The Scale shows that at the top overall climate cannot be adapted, but at the other end soil is highly adaptable to change over a short time period.  This is great news for the damaged and disadvantaged land that we now curate.

Knowing that soil health can be changed then leads to how?  Again Yeomans work in Keyline design provided the backbone for our development.  Although founded in more arid areas, the principles of spreading water across the land applied to our wetter environment well.  Following topographic surveys and landform pattern identification we set-out a series of “keylines” to be subsoiled.  Heavy and intensive machinery usage is not part of our regenerative plan, but as a one-off catalyst is a good investment.  The Tayforth Machinery Ring provided the tractor, driver, subsoiler and we took the opportunity to follow-up with a power harrow to define the tree lanes for the silvopasture planting pattern to follow.

Coincidentally it was the same day that the Machinery Ring also supplied the heavy lifter to allow us to relocate the portacabin.  Previously a bakery and latterly a store the building is a great size for some of our future plans and so reusing the block by recycling the location was ideal.  A stable block, aptly blocking the way was removed prior to the JCB arrival and despite being at the very edge of lifting capacity the modular building (which may or may not be a Portakabin, but sure looks like one to the layperson) was lifted and dragged nestling into it’s new home creating new space and light.

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Now we are another couple of steps closer to our vision and future blogs will introduce the planting patterns and development of energy sources on the farm…

Edit 8/June/2018 – clarification that our “portacabin” referred to in the original text is a modular building, courtesy of the Intellectual Property Manager at Portakabin®.

Fencin’ & Hedgin’

Achray Farm is pretty small as smallholdings go, so we want to maximise our use of the land as well as the location and buildings. This means creating a planting plan that will return high-quality, low-input produce that is suitable for our soil and climate.  More on that detail in a future post.

Firstly though, the local environment has plenty of challenges to new planting and in particular deer.  So this March, before planting could begin and risk being chomped, was to deer-proof fence the farm perimeter.

The existing stock-fence had become so rotten in places that the pigs had taken to simply pushing under and heaving the old posts straight out of the ground.  So once they were grounded in the “naughty field” we could begin several hundred meters of dismantling wire and wood.

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We had considered the line of the new fence at length, as with the public path through the farm track we didn’t want to create “Fortress Achray” with 2m high boundaries encroaching on the public experience.  Fortunately the buildings create a natural division that we could use to secure the Northern proportion of our land and keep a natural feel to the landscape.

Integral to this approach was not just to have a boundary deer fence in isolation, but to use the fenceline as protection for native hedging along the boundary.  To do this we applied for a Loch Lomond & The Trossachs grant under their Natural Environment scheme and were successful in our application.  The program’s support meant the arrival in early April of 1000 bare root hedging plants of hazel, hawthorn, blackthorn, guelder rose, dog rose and crab apple.  In addition, 60 native trees have added to the riparian (river boundary) edge to enrich the character and environmental value of this area.

1000 plants is a daunting task and so we enlisted the help of the 30th Glasgow Scout Group.  On a cold and damp 10 March they arrived in force and set to (after a cuppa and a roll) in a veritable planting frenzy.  Sue from the Forestry Commission gave an introduction to the value of trees in the environment and taught us how to dig a T-Cut with a planting spade.

After lunch and warmed hands the team were at it again before a farm tour with egg collecting, goat milking and a walk/run with the goats down to Loch Achray. Everyone appeared to have a great day and all in good causes.

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Thank you again to the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park for their grant assistance and to the Glasgow 30th for literally digging in and getting the job done.  New shoots are showing already as we all take root for the spring.#

UPDATE:

Link to National Park Press Coverage.

Pork List – February 2018

We will have free range pork available again in a few weeks time from our Oxford Sandy & Black pigs here at Achray Farm.

As before, everything will be delivered fresh (vacuum packed and ready to eat or freeze) on the day we collect from the butcher so it is necessary to pre-order.  Bacon/gammon are cured so available a couple of weeks later.

This time around their diet has been supplemented with daily goats milk from our own goats to help them through the winter, this should make for some fantastic pork.

Please see the PDF below and contact nicola@achrayfarm.co.uk with questions or orders.

AchrayFarm-PorkList-1802.pdf

Phenology

It’s been snowing overnight again and we have wintry showers and low temperatures forecast all week.  But at the same time, we are now almost four weeks after the shortest day and the change in light and routine times have started to move as well.

As a schoolchild and student (for quite a long time) I always walked or cycled every morning and evening. When you are part of the environment you understand the difference between a cold day and a mild one and the changing of the seasons are tangible on a daily basis.

Then for a long time I would, as many do, traverse from a heated home to a car or public transport, to office and then reverse again, possibly via a convenient and climatically controlled store for food.

 

Now we live in an environment that requires a pre-dawn outing to feed and water animals. The difference in a few degrees between frost and thaw can make a big difference in delivering fresh water from frozen pipes and it is easy to feel how a damp wind chills so much more than a much colder dry clear night.  We know where to look for beautiful hair ice and have found scarlet elf’s cap fungi in the fallen deadwood.

 

But apart from the temperature, we are also experiencing the light.  The hen’s automated door-timer has already been moved on 10 minutes as on a clear evening the birds were still mooching around at 5pm.  And although I can see that sunrise is at around 8:40, an hour beforehand I can just about find my way to the pig feed without a head torch now. In a week or so the sun will no longer catch the top of the trees as it passes over Creagh Dbuh in the early afternoon and more warmth and life will reach the fields, their plants and animals and those working in them.

 

In the coming months we will see spring closer than ever before, with first hand engagement in our new hedgerows, trees and perennials – looking for the first unfurling and re-greening of the land.

A few years ago on the radio I heard one of my favourite words that I now get the chance to write down.  Phenology is “the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate“.  I look forwards to understanding the seasons here by experience and interaction, but for now I need to dig some chickens out of a snow drift.

Animal Farm

DSC01005We never intended to be quite so populous at Achray.  But one thing leads to another and we now have a small and mostly growing menagerie of producers and produce.

We have just had the first proper frost of the season, first-year autumn squash and veg are collected and tidy-up for winter continues, interrupted by a variety of beasts; the most recent arrivals have been the goats.

Goats

Pan and Ria – both dairy milkers and with the calmest of temperaments.  They arrived from Linlithgow last month and are consistently delivering 3+ liters a day each.

Milking started slowly, and at ground level, but with the collection of a milking stand from a handy Sheffield visit backs are less sore and goats more content. There is still some shenanigans but Nicola is becoming a champion milker. The white stuff is creating a small lake (or iceberg) in the freezer prior to new skills development (more later), medicinal use and feed.

Delightfully they are also fans of the rushes when out in the field, so after debilitating the apple trees we are getting some land strip grazed finally.

Pigs

Three new troublemakers arrived at the end of last month as 8-week old weaners.  Way more boisterous than our first two Oxford Sandy & Black they have also been rather thrown in at the deep end.  No cosy barn or dry sunny days for these hardy types, and hence goats milk supplement to feed is very, very popular.  I think they have learned to suck it up without breathing to ensure competitive consumption.

After several days of finding the wee guys trotting round the farm, we have also managed to block small holes and reinforce electric fencing, though it’s only a matter of time before they are big enough to create the next problem.

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Ducks

The tiny runner-duckling we hatched and highland friends imported from Ardersier have all grown into beautiful birds.  Autumn has brought a close to open season on the pond and Bianca has been seriously ill – probably with Gape Worm (don’t Google Image search if you are squeamish!).  Panacur (for rabbits) along with 1:1 overnight vigils, warm baths and a fortnight in the house in front of the woodburning stove has brought her back from the brink a couple of times (image below from earlier in the summer).

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Hens

Our new point-of-lay hens have taken an age to actually lay but in the last couple of weeks our egg ratio has increased from 8-a-day to almost a full-house from 26.  We lost one to the awful Gape Worm before diagnosis and treatment could be effective and so have now invested in treated feed.DSC00995

Vulpes Vulpes has been spotted trotting across the track and we have found two piles of tail feathers in the grass – amazingly the hen count is complete, but we know it’s a dangerous time of year.

Pork Life

Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur of what is known as (Pork Life)
(apologies to Blur)

We haven’t spent much time on the blog talking about pigs, but we should.  They were the first animals to arrive on Achray Farm (apart from the cats that we brought with us) and have helped to set the scene for what we have thought about and planned since.

These are ‘Brave’ and ‘Red’ (or sometime ‘Napoleon’ and ‘Dynamite’, names that never really stuck).  They are Oxford Sandy and Black, or OSB for short.  An ancient line of British “rare breed” in all but official capacity (it’s complicated!).  They were recommended for their temperament and hardiness and have fitted in perfectly and been a pleasure to keep.

The boys arrived in the middle of April, when a keen wind could still blow up from the Loch and spent their first week heading out to the fields in the morning after overnights bedding  down in the straw in a stable.  After a week their “ark” a heavy-duty recycled home arrived from Solway Recycling and they moved permanently outdoors where they have remained.  It’s hard to imaging them now, the pair arriving together in one dog crate in the car — we’ve just invested in a small livestock trailer to move them next!

Running Achray Farm on permaculture principles means that everything has more than one purpose and each element works together.  Pigs are enormously powerful diggers and rooters and their job was to clear, and overturn rush-infested fields and fertilise at the same time – ready for planting.  That worked amazingly well in one paddock and we leaned that scaling the size of run to the animals is important to see results.  In their three fields the pigs have made dens, wallows and can run at some speed when an errant crow bugs them.  Below is Red enjoying a wallow they created whilst Scotland enjoyed a long dry, sunny May.

Wallow

Pigs are also renowned escape artists and one evening, 24 hours before leaving the farm with sitters for a break, we came home at dusk to see a mislocated shape munching in the duck pen.  All gates appeared secure and a frantic coaxing with the feed bucket in the dark brought Red back into his field. The next morning, a stockfence post was discovered loose from scratching and we worked out he had trotted through the polytunnel and veg garden without destroying anything on the long way round to snack on the duck feed.  Very lucky!

We’ve loved our boys and leaned a lot – including how to weigh a pig who really won’t stay still!  Now, in September, the story comes to another chapter.  It is time for the beasts to go to market before they become too big for the abattoir.  This is a difficult time, our first and we are feeling pretty conflicted. We know they have had a great outdoor life and we have shown that we can produce high quality welfare food for the local community visitors alike.

If you are local and are interested in our food supplies, you can find Achray Farm produce in fantastic local food establishments such as Nature’s Corner, Callander, or contact us directly via this website or the Facebook page.

Duck Buddies

Life and death in the Big Brooder House.

Our Indian Runner Duck eggs hatched last week and we had two chicks survive the difficult and traumatic hatching process. Of the other four eggs in the batch, two did not survive hatching and two appeared infertile.  Sadly, after the enormous effort of emerging to a living & breathing world one of the living chicks also passed away after 24 hours so we needed to get a pal for our wee survivor.

Smallholding isn’t all blue skies and fluffy ducklings, it’s an emotional coaster too. Here is the first few days of Sharoo:

So this week, thanks to Google we identified another solo Indian Runner duck of the same age and headed off to glorious Ardersier to bring the buddy back.

The new duck on the block is nicknamed ‘Duckzilla’ as she is a monster compared to Saroo, but they get on amazingly well and are fun to watch racing around their room together.

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We also came home with two slightly older birds – more on them in another post.  I will end with the sad news that a few of our beautiful hens from the last blog were snatched by foxes this week, literally from under our noses outside the study window before being chased away.