Tree Planting Plans

When we first saw the land, a number of pieces of life’s puzzle slipped neatly into place. The croft was steep and unsuitable for agriculture, but it would be perfect for trees.

Hugh and I both love trees and believe that there is a strong need to plant them, both to increase the biodiversity of the land but also to offset the effects of climate change with carbon capture in whatever way that we could.

We started to look into Woodland Croft creation. Despite the northern latitude, strong winds and exposed coastal location, many types of tree are naturalised and grow well on the island.

Sleat is the least exposed part of the island, a peninsula turning its face towards the mainland on the south side of Skye. As such, lying nestled between the Cuillins to the North West and the Knoydart hills to the South East, it’s at least partly sheltered from the full force of the Atlantic.

Although Skye is almost barren of trees, being famous for huge expanses of high moorland and mountain, Sleat has more trees than the rest of the island. We are lucky, and the more we looked into it, the more we felt that a diverse planting would be completely viable.

The Woodland Trust offer advice and help with tree planting, but due to the recent rise in interest in this area, they are completely overloaded. There are long lead times to even get to see them to discuss plans. They’ve handed over some of their work to the Scottish Forestry Commission, who have been in touch at last and who will be assessing the croft land for tree planting viability next week. We can’t wait for the report.

We expect the recommended species to be a mix of trees such as rowan, alder, blackthorn, grey willow, downy and silver birch, sessile oak, scots pine, hazel, wych elm, holly and aspen.

We want to supplement these plantings with wild, edible hedges filled with crab apple, blackberries and hawthorn, and an area of sheltered orchard with hazelnuts, apples, cherries and pears.

As soon as we have the Forestry Commission report we can discuss deer protection and build a planting plan for the land. Even though we know that the first trees probably won’t go in for at least another year, it still feels like a milestone in the journey!

The relative slowness of this process is frustrating, but in a way it’s also contemplative, allowing time for our initial thoughts to be challenged and supplemented with local wisdom. We’re watching other local crofts start this, and learning what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t get me going on the merits of spiral guards, staking, vole protection and windbreaks now…☺️

The taste of autumn

There are old crab apple trees lining the streets in this part of London. They’re well established, probably twenty metres tall, and planted closely enough that their crowns touch in the wind.

At this time of the year they drop their fruit – tiny, hard, sour crab apples that crunch underfoot in the leaves as you pass by. I walked through them at the weekend, smelling autumn in the air, and it made me crave the apple and blackberry pie that my mother used to make.

This was one of my mother’s specialities. She made it infrequently enough that it was a treat, which considering her busy life, it was. Her pastry was crumbly, sweet and slightly biscuity, with a hint of lemon zest.

The blackberries were never bought from a shop in those days. When the season was right, we kids were dispatched out with a bowl to collect them from the bushes, bribed with promises of pie, crumbles and turnovers. We’d return with purple juice-stained fingers and mouths, and enough pickings to fill the kitchen for a week.

Served with a spoonful of good cream for richness, this is the taste of autumn for me. I can’t wait until we’re picking our own in the hedgerows on the island next year. Bring on the pies, the jam and the blackberry wine!

The Big Blue

When the sun shines, everything changes. The storm front moved across the island and left a freshly washed world of brilliant blue behind it.

This is actually the first picture that we’ve managed to take from the croft whilst the sun is shining!

The big blue. No filters needed.

We spent a happy few more hours on the croft in the sun earlier last week measuring, planning and dreaming.

Perhaps because it’s the only building on the land, we find ourselves always gravitating to the barn.

It’s clear that we will have to build a modern metal shed/barn for our croft equipment and storage, as our very picturesque ruin will need mammoth effort and cost to restore. We won’t have the money or the energy to do anything with it for a good few years.

As things stand at the moment, other priorities such as the house build, deer fencing, the access road and tree planting will have to take immediate precedence.

But that doesn’t stop us sitting with our mugs of tea and cake planning for possibilities.

A coffee shop? A library for our spare books? A bread barn? Spare accommodation for visitors? A studio? In between building warrant discussions for the house we skittle between ideas that we know may never come to reality, but are fun nevertheless.

Endless possibilities.

Everything seems possible whilst the sun is shining.

Showers, wind and wild flowers

It’s been a week of squally showers, high winds and at times, torrential rain here on the island. The rivers are full and the waterfalls are torrents of white water tumbling down the hillsides.

We don’t mind the weather at all. It’s lovely to sit in front of the windows in the cabin and watch the weather fronts scud across the sky. There’s a change every half hour or so, and we dodge the showers as best we can.

In a break in the rain we made it up to the croft. Here it’s very much seize the moment!

The lower ground is waterlogged and boggy, although the higher reaches of the land are better drained. We hopped from clump to clump of rushes to avoid sinking too deeply into the mud.

The tiny burn that we saw trickling sedately through the croft in February is now a raging plume of water plummeting through the channel that it has cut for itself.

We headed for the copse of trees on the western boundary and scattered bluebell, wood anemone, pignut and wild garlic seeds as we’d planned. We’re hoping that at least some of them will take.

Although the wild flowers are more or less over here on Skye, we found more than we expected in the ditches and springy turf on the croft: and with our trusty plant identification app we think we’ve recognised black knapweed, common vetchling, broad leaved clover, buttercups, crowfoot, downy vetch and willow herb.

We were delighted to see that we had a hazel tree already established amongst the birch trees – bodes well for more nut tree plantings once we’re established!

Excuse the bad quality of the photos – these were hurried snaps taken with an iPhone.

Cobnuts or filberts

Whilst browsing for seeds to take with us to the island in a few weeks time, I noticed that one of the online smallholdings that I was shopping from had filberts, or cobnuts, for sale.

Husband loves nuts, and has reminisced often about eating fresh filberts as a boy in Istanbul. I recall picking them too as a child, where they grew in the woods adjacent to our house in Dorset.

As soon as I saw these I couldn’t resist.

The small box arrived at the house yesterday, hand-packed with a layer of hazel leaves on top of the nuts to keep the dampness in. Opening them released the scent of woodland.

They have a unique taste and texture quite unlike dried hazlenuts. Slightly sweet, nutty and milky. They are only semi-hard with a moist, almost chewy texture. If anything could taste of ‘green’, this is it.

It’s inspired us again to make sure that we plant plenty of hazel on the croft.

The hazelnuts that don’t get eaten in handfuls off the tree can be dried and stored, chopped or whole, for use in bread, cakes or puddings. Or preserved in jars of honey for spooning as luscious toppings over cooked apples, pears or ice-cream.

Dappled shade and wild garlic

Wild garlic (or ransoms as they’re sometimes known) grow in dappled shade in woodland, on the banks of streams and in hedgerows.

Brushing through undergrowth or overgrown hedgerows as you walk will often release their pungent scent and alert you to their presence underfoot.

For me, they’re reminiscent of old woodland and drowsy, warm days in summer.

They’re also handily tolerant of thin, acidic, damp soils – perfect for the croft.

I can’t wait to get them started – and to be able to harvest enough for wild garlic butter, or to add trimmings to salads or pasta. I’ve even seen a recipe for homemade wild garlic pesto that I’d love to try.

As such I have a bag of seed to take with us on our trip to the croft in a few weeks time, and will try scattering them on the banks of the little stream to the north of the croft as well as in the copse of trees on the western boundary.

That and the bluebells and pignuts will be our first seed sewing on the croft.

It may take some years for them to establish, but the sooner we start…

Managing Small Woodlands in the Highlands and Islands

The Scottish Crofting Federation has recently published this useful little tome, packed with goodies about planting and managing woodland on the croft.

Husband and I have just spent a happy hour or so debating the wisdom of tree shelters vs. spiral tree guards for the protection of newly planted whips and young trees. A lot will depend upon the strength of the wind on the slope, which we won’t really be able to assess until we’ve lived there through a year or so of seasons.

We are travelling up to the island next month and are hoping to be able to walk the land with a representative from the local Woodland Trust, who will be able to assess the site and recommend viable tree varieties. It would be good to start the tree planning even if the trees can’t go in for a further year. And of course, the whole croft will need to be deer fenced before anything much can be planted.

We’re thinking of planting willow to help drain the boggy bottom of the croft, which can apparently act as a pioneer tree and help preparation for other species, along with birch, alder, elm, rowan, hazel, sycamore, sessile oak, bird cherry and others elsewhere. But of course we’ll take advice.

Husband is a just wee bit excited to read that Walnut and Sweet Chestnut are now considered viable species in this part of the world. Being Nut Boy, anything nut-related is worth a try in his eyes!