Ballachly Farm: Small but mighty in diversity and history

Ballachly is a unique place of amazing complexity and diversity and what will follow is a series of articles about some of these stories. Hope they are of some interest.

I admit I love this place, it fascinates me, and I have devoted my life as its custodian to its care. It might be unclear from the outside whether I own the farm or it owns me, but does it matter? Farming is a way of life and a life of great happiness. I have two goals as a farmer: Firstly to continue the long history of tending for this place, farming in such a way as to pass the farm on in better condition than I received it. Secondly to use everything I know and can find out to raise the health and well-being of my sheep to bring you the very best yarns I can. 

The raw details about my farm are simple and are a place to start. Ballachly is a farm/croft in the valley of the Dunbeath Water. The farm is south facing starting at the river and rises steeply to the Houstry Road. It shares boundaries with Clashvally to the east and Rhemullin to the west. The place is currently around 50 acres “in by”, that is to say beside the house, with a bit share of the common Grazing up the road. Within that relatively small space there are an amazing number of different environments and sites of national historical importance. Over the coming months and years I will write about some of these, sharing the specialness of the place our wool comes from.

I shall start this series with some of the farming environments, telling you what they are, how I manage to maintain and improve them and finally demonstrate the link between environmentally responsible farming with high ethical and welfare standards and better sheep health better wool and thus yarn. I shall also irregularly write about the other aspects of Ballachly, its long and surprising history, its place in the writings of the great Modernist novelist Neil Gunn and its place in the wider landscape of Dunbeath and Caithness. 

I hope you will all enjoy these writings, they have no order of importance and will appear in fits and starts as the mood and muse strikes me. I hope you find them of interest in and of themselves but the purpose is the give you a greater sense of the origins and greater meaning of the yarns I offer. 

The Caithness Yarns products are rooted in this landscape and story, I hope to show you this linkage and raise your confidence and pleasure in the very best yarns I can make.

Field Surveys 2020

The special places of Ballachly Croft

The “flower meadow”

A hidden gem of a spot, the “flower meadow” is tucked away in an obscure corner of the croft not directly accessible from the outside and without big glaring attractions. Instead what makes this place fascinating and special is the small treasures to be found down in the grass, there is an amazing diversity of plants in its sward. And so the story of the field is one of small pleasures. The looking for, and the finding of lots of different plants in amongst the grass.

This little field has been an inspiration to me, managing this special environment has influenced how I think about sheep health and the role the land has in that. As a family we have been managing this field for wildlife for 25 years, just for its own sake, the lessons I have learnt have tied into my response to farm management innovations that are being discussed in various forums today. The combination of the need and desire for changes in farming techniques to help responsibly feed and cloth people has joined with the experiences I have taken from managing a more natural pasture to spark a complete change in farming style. “happier healthier sheep makes for greater yarn”.

Why does this matter? Well the wide range of plants in the “flower meadow” makes for a superior diet for my lovely sheepies to eat. A better diet is very important for how I try to focus on producing the best wool for the best yarns we can. I cannot stress how important I believe this to be true. pastures like the “flower meadow” are key to the improvement of the health and well-being of Ballachly’s sheep. 

They say you are what you eat, true for me (so I am equal parts ketchup, sausages and eggs) and its also true for the sheep. The better the diet the healthier the sheep, the healthier the sheep the better their wool and the better quality yarn I can offer you here at Caithness Yarns. Sadly most sheep these days eat a diet of high sugar grass with some clover added. This diet is designed to make them grow fat as quick as possible for the meat trade, its not their natural diet which is why farmers need to give them mineral and vitamin supplements. A wider and more natural diet is one which allows where the sheep to choose tasty little treats from a plethora of species, responding to their natural instincts for say more iron, or a certain vitamin which they instinctively graze selecting by taste and small from the number of choices in a natural meadow. 

The sheep are maybe slightly slower to their full growth, but the growing they do is healthier. Fast growth rates are not of importance to me, the main crop of Ballachly is wool and in service to the quality of this slower is better. High sugar grasses might lump on weight, but if sugar is bad for me(and it is, making fat Graeme and fat sheep), then it is to be avoided. A lower sugar and broader diet is healthier and I think with a better foundation for a long healthy life for the sheeps. There has been a lot of research on the importance of early diet in another mammal, people, this clearly shows better neonatal and early life nutrition has lifelong benefits, I content this must be also true for sheep, why would it be different.

Field Survey 10th July 2020

Field Survey 10th July 2020 It seems the flower part of the season is almost over, nearly everything is going to seed. It has been another mixed week weather-wise the night before the survey it was almost frost, i looked at the met office website and it was down to 5C here overnight, this has to have

Field Survey 30th June 2020

Field Survey 30th June 2020 What a difference! 10 days between surveys due to severe weather and the field has totally changed. GONE the Pig Nuts, without a trace the tall white canopy flowers have vanished, flowers have seeded and gone away, amazing. GONE the Speedwell, that blue carpet of multitudes of little icle flowers

Field Survey 16th June 2020

Field Survey 16th June 2020 After a change in the weather we have had a week of rain and then sky high humidity and fog, very strange weather. I waited an extra day to survey because the weather was foul and visibility very poor, but 1 day extra no biggie, and the Tuesday was much

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