Tag Archives: crofting

May 2018
Providing For Pollinators

With so many local holdings left as bare-croft, the windy conditions giving rise to windburn, and windblown salt spray causing saltburn to unprotected crops, it is easy to dismiss pollinators and their habitats as being too delicate for the harsher hebridean climes.

However, pollinators are vital to creating and maintaining the habitats and ecosystems that many animals rely on for food and shelter, and they facilitate the reproduction in up to 90% of the world’s flowering plants.

Approximately 1,000 of the plants grown for food, beverages, fibers and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we rely. In fact, one out of every three bites of food, from vegetables to fruits to edible oils, are a direct result of pollination services. In the U.S. alone, bees and other insects produce $40 billion worth of products annually through the process of pollination, and across Europe, the figure is estimated to be upwards of £75 billion.

Locally, a variety of bees and flies are a vital part of the wider ecological system, including fruit and vegetable production, and there are specific crops that can provide food to pollinators on crofts all of sizes.

One of the most important steps it to set aside areas for habitation. This could include rough grass, scrub, and the banks of drainage ditches and burns. By providing a diversity of flowering plants in these areas, so you can help support a wider range of pollinating insects with year-round food. Additionally, by planting willow, hawthorn, and other flowering shrubs, so you will boost the wind protection to your croft, and create natural shelter belts for livestock.

Existing areas that contain wildflowers, hedges and clover provide both food and shelter, as well as vital nesting and overwintering sites. Bare ground and moss covered areas will also provide an important habitat for bees and their nests. These areas can be managed with late season grazing to avoid disturbing active nesting site,   and to allow plants like wild mint, knapweed, and meadowsweet to flower. This diversity of plant is a great benefit to pollinating insects and ensures continuous food source that provides both essential sugars for energy and pollen which assists in breeding.

Croft holders can go even further by sowing clovers, wildflowers, and other nectar-rich species, such as birds-foot trefoil, vetches, and flax to promote insect habitation. It is worth noting that the number one reason for the decline in the bee population is habitat loss. Changes in our land use, including insensitive urban development and intensive farming, have caused significant losses and fragmentation of pollinator-friendly habitats. This results in bees losing the diverse food sources they need for a healthy diet.

It’s vital that bees have enough flowers to forage – and safe places to use for nesting, among vegetation, the soil and hedges. But since the Second World War, we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, leaving our bees with little natural habitat.

The loss of key habitats on farmland in particular has meant that wildlife, including bees, have become more dependent on protected wildlife sites. Yet government figures  show that in the UK, only 6% of habitats protected by EU laws are in ‘”favourable condition”.

Even when applied correctly, pesticides can have adverse impacts on bees by reducing their breeding success and resistance to disease. Scientists have found that exposure to pesticides can impair honeybees’ ability to navigate, bumblebees’ ability to reproduce and solitary bees’ ability to reproduce any young at all.

Pesticides are designed to kill unwanted pests, but their toxic properties and widespread use are also harming beneficial insects such as bees.

Neonicotinoids are a particularly harmful group of bee-harming pesticides. When a bee feeds on pollen or nectar containing them, their central nervous system can be affected. This affects tasks that bees depend on to survive such as feeding, homing, foraging and reproducing.

New research has also begun to show an increase in pesticides being found beyond the farms where the seeds are sown. As well as pesticides, the use of herbicides in parks, streets and on roadside verges reduces the availability of forage plants that bees and other pollinating insects seek out for food at different times of the year.

In summary, the situation for bees and other pollinating insects in precarious, but by setting aside an area for wildflower growth which is sheltered with the likes of willow or hawthorn, we can ensure that we all enjoy the fruits of our labours for many years to come.

Until next month, go green – go crofting.

March 2018
Trees, Trees, Trees!

Staves mark out the density of saplings

Many years ago, I was fortunate to live and work for an extended period in Japan and lucky enough to be invited to join a traditional jujitsu dojo. There, the old master told me a proverb that has remained with me to this day:

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

March has been an eventful month for Heb Veg with works continuing apace on the croft as we gear up for our first round of seeding at the end of April. The big news is that we have had some thousand trees arrive, courtesy of The Woodland Trust, and we are giving over nearly a third of the croft to planting them up. Given that our main focus is going to be the production of organic fruit and vegetables, it may seem strange to be giving up so much of our land. There are a number of reasons behind this decision and hopefully, they will help you consider the benefits of planting trees on your own plot.

The first reason is essentially a global one; trees help create a diverse ecosystem that helps provide habitat and food for birds and other animals. At school, we are often taught that our environment is a pyramid, with Man at the top. In truth, it is more of a circle with many animals and plants interdependent on each other and their surroundings.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gasses, such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, from the air and release oxygen. It is estimated that approximately fifteen billion trees are cut down every year, and we should be doing everything we can to replace this number, if not more. Our thousand trees may not seem like much compared to fifteen billion, but it is a start, and it estimated that a single large tree can provide a day’s worth of oxygen for up to four people.

Forests are among the most important repositories of biological diversity. Together, tropical, temperate and boreal forests offer very diverse habitats for plants, animals and micro-organisms. Biological diversity is the basis for a wide array of goods and services provided by forests. The variety of forest trees and shrubs play a vital role in the daily life of rural communities in many areas, as sources of wood and non-wood products, as contributors to soil and water conservation, and as repositories of aesthetic, ethical, cultural and religious values. Forest-based wildlife is a vital source of nutrition and has vital roles in ecology, such as pollination, seed dispersal and germination, and predation on potential pest species.

The Outer Hebrides used to be covered in the Ancient Hebridean Forest as late as some three hundred years ago, and this would have provided a habitat for a myriad of creatures, including insects that are crucial to pollinating fruit and vegetables. The Hebridean Ark project is being pioneered by the Horshader Community Development scheme in Shawbost and involves taking cuttings and seeds from surviving trees and growing 100,000 saplings to plant across Lewis and Harris in a bid to rewild a number of areas.

For all of the sound ecological and environmental reasons, there are good personal reasons to plant trees for those who wish to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Like many, our croft is both narrow and long, suffering from a prevailing south-westerly wind and zero shelterbelts. Windburn is a constant factor, and unprotected horticulture quickly withers because of this, with only couch-grass thriving.

Construction of the polycrubs continue

To address these issues, Danda Gillies helped us by taking a two-inch top scrape and form earthen bunds from the spoil. The bunds are up to 2m in height and have been formed so as to protect the saplings from the majority of the wind. This has had the added benefit of taking care of the couch grass, and all of the trees have come with staves and guards to protect against rabbits.

The trees have then been divided into two categories. The first category is those that form the outer perimeter. These trees are a mix of Alder and Grey and Eared Willow and are intended to break up the wind and protect the trees within their protective boundary.

The second category forms an inner section, and these are fruiting varieties. They include Blackthorn, Bird Cherry, Crab Apple, Dog Rose, and Elder. Although it will be many years before these year-old saplings bear fruit when they do they will provide a useful addition to the range of chutneys that we hope to produce.

However, the uses of trees do not end there. For many, there is a profound positive effect on reducing stress levels and a boost to mental wellbeing. In January 2018 researchers at King’s College London, assessed the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing. They found that being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing and that the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

Similarly, The Guardian newspaper reported in March 2017 that Middle-aged Scottish men with homes in deprived but verdant areas were found to have a death rate 16% lower than their more urban counterparts. Pregnant women also received a health boost from a greener environment, recording lower blood pressures and giving birth to larger babies.

In summary, planting trees on your croft have a myriad of benefits, from global pollution reduction, to promoting local biodiversity, and on to better mental wellbeing. And their fruit tastes good too.

Until next month, go green – go crofting.

Trees as far as the eye can see… or it will be in 10yrs time