Tuesday, 1 September 2009


One of the neighbouring crofters keeps pigs. They are wild boar crossed with something more domestic and are free to roam a huge area of regenerating woodland, where they rootle around, turning over the ground, creating good seed beds for new trees. I like pigs. I like meeting them in the woods. I enjoy watching them down at the shore of the loch, munching on seaweed. Their sounds make me laugh.

A couple of days ago we heard that the pigs had broken through their fence and were loose. They're not quite so funny when they stick their snouts and trotters where they're not welcome: a pig can make its presence felt pretty quickly in a garden as those stubby noses are the closest animal equivalent there is to a plough. So we've been keeping our eyes peeled.

A couple of days ago, one big sow was spotted on the road, leaning on her snout, dazed and docile. We wondered if she was ill, but the verdict was that she was just tripping on mushrooms. It's that time of year; fly agarics are popping up all over the place.

The next day we were sitting eating at the picnic table when we heard that tell-tale snuffly grunt-grunt-grunt. The big sow and a piglet were heading towards us along the path, ears flapping, tails twirling, eyes twinkling. They had no doubt smelled lunch. We managed to stop her in her tracks, persuade her to turn round and return down the path. I sprinted ahead and opened the gate for her and she obligingly trotted through, joining two more piglets and another sow on the road. Presumably she promptly told them all about the munchies to be had on our croft. We left them where they were to go and phone their owners and finish our lunch. By the time we returned they had scarpered.

They showed themselves to the sound of a bucket of pigfood, and no, they didn't look at all sheepish. They were at the top of the croft, which has now been well and truly ploughed. It will be interesting to see if the tree regeneration benefits from their intervention. We discovered later where else on the croft the sow had been before she came for lunch: a lovely old aspen grove, which used to have a particularly beautiful understory of mosses and herbs, looks like someone has been in there with a rotovator. We have returfed where we could and it will recover in time. I am thankful they didn't make it to either of my garden plots, neither of which have pig-proof fences, at least not when it comes to pigs with determination, which these definitely have. (Something else with big feet has been in one patch, but it wasn't a pig).

We've often pondered whether we should deliberately bring some pigs onto the croft, to see if they could make some inroad into the huge areas of bracken that limit tree regeneration. They didn't touch that area in their brief visit, and it is interesting to observe how little impact they have made on the bracken on their home croft. As long as there is vegetation to plough into within the shelter of woods, they seem to prefer that to digging on open ground, and they seem to prefer turf to bracken. I would too, if I were a pig. Digging bracken must be hard on the snout. This all makes me understand that if we want pigs to tackle the bracken zone, they would need to be fenced in. Some other time, maybe.

The pigs have returned home and the hole in the fence is mended. For now.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Trimming trees

In 2001 we shifted our old caravan into its current position and since then it has become completely engulfed by trees. A hazel has grown up right in front of the big window and birches overhang it on all sides. It is marvellously sheltered from all winds but at this time of year the trees are weighed down with foliage and after heavy rain branches drape wetly across paths. With the arrival of visitors imminent, yesterday, we realised that they might not appreciate a soaking every time they stepped out of the door, so we asked politely if the trees would mind shedding a bit of greenery, then set about trimming them with secateurs and loppers. It grieves me to cut living vegetation from trees; dead branches or even dormant wood in winter is far easier to prune.

Around the croft spaces are appearing under trees that have now grown high enough to form a canopy above head height. At first regenerating birches, willows and hazels form thickets of leafy twigs that occupy all the space they can, presumably to try to shade out all competition, but once they achieve sufficient height the birches at least seem to give up on lower branches, letting them go leafless and then be blown off in storms, so chambers of unoccupied space begin to appear and it becomes possible to walk among the young trees. This space seems to be offered by the trees to undergrowth and fungi and it feels welcoming to animals like us. I wonder if something similar is happening beneath the ground. Has a thicket of roots deepened, and are underground spaces opening out, similarly inviting to subterranean life?

Monday, 29 June 2009

Midsummer gooseberries

It's steamy today - great growing weather. A windless deluge of rain this morning after 10 dry days and now the woods are awash with scent - valerian, fragrant orchids, honeysuckle, clover.

There seem to be more slow worms around than normal this year. I nearly trod on one in the garden while picking gooseberries. There is a bumper crop this year, despite almost complete defoliation by saw-fly larvae, and I have discovered that gooseberry pancakes are an excellent hangover cure. Just like the character in the Chekhov story called 'Gooseberries', I am obscenely proud of my gooseberry bushes. I strive to remember, every time I eat their fruit, that almost everyone is less fortunate than me. I wonder what it is about these tart, pale, stubbly spheres that imbues we gooseberry-growers with such disgusting smugness?