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Blog: Self-sufficiency and the joys of a Highland summer

harry schnitker self-sufficiency blog aug 17_45647

NFU Countryside blogger Harry Schnitker writes...

Whenever I hear about self-sufficiency, I cannot help a wry smile. Undoubtedly in the far corners of Devon or Cornwall, or in the lush fields of Wales or in East Anglia, there is such a thing. To be self-sufficient (in food, of course) here on the Highland Line is another thing altogether.

We have a large vegetable garden. It is well cultivated, the beds deep with our self-made compost. These are frequently dug over the winter and early spring. Seeds are sown in pots in greenhouses, and soon run riot, as the daylight from early May onwards is almost unlimited.

And then comes the ‘however’. This is Highland Scotland: one day it rains enough to keep London in water for a week, the next three weeks there is no rain at all. One day the sun scorches, the next there is a cloud low enough to touch the tips of the trees.

Then there is the unpredictable. This year, the garden was dug, most plants planted, and then we all fell ill. Not just a little flu, but proper, knock-out stuff. Three weeks, and a lot of changeable weather later, and we were miles behind where we should be. If this garden was truly meant to feed us without recourse to other food sources, we’d be starving.

harry schnitker blog aug 17 canva quote_45649

That said, the joy of the garden is undiminished. True, the beetroot still needs planting out, but over the past month or so we have done a good deal of catching up. Fringed by ash and maple, our garden looks like a garden: rows of cabbages under their protective cover, raspberry plants with canes bending to earth under the weight of their fruit, potato plants in flower, and beans of all shapes and sizes climbing frames.

The rest of the garden, too, is jubilant this year. Our mini-meadow is a riot of wild flowers, as is the cottage garden. The new wooden gate, back in place after years of absence, neatly frames the cultivated from the wild outside: the track that was once a road on the other side now firmly locked away. Behind the house, the close is almost free from weeds, after weeks of brutal, back-breaking, shoulder-wrenching, hand-blistering work. As July fades, the place is presentable, even beautiful – time for a break.

hay bales, scotland_18521Picture perfect: late afternoon sunshine on hay bales

This came on one of those July evenings from mythology: sky all hazy whitish-blue, slight breeze making trees whisper secrets, hay baled on the now pale-green fields, cattle dreaming dreams in meadows. It just does not get any better than this.

So we walked the fields and meadows to the woods, children, dog and I. When you escape the daily grind, you escape west, into the woods and onto the hills. They are extensive, the woods, and stretch for miles, leaving only the bracken and heather-clad tops of the highest hills exposed to the skies.

An old logger’s path took us up the hill, winding and twisting, a path from an age before the large harvesters. It was all mossy, with a few wood anemone peaking through. These are not supposed to flower at this time, but are. The Scots Pines reflect the sun off their red boughs as it filters through the canopy, casting golden glints of dust through the woods. The sun is too sharp to look at as the path turns straight west.

Glancing backwards through the trees, the fields of our farm and the loch lie basking in the setting sun, no longer places of work but of rest. Looking south, we can see the woods mutate from pine to oak-and-ash, finally enveloping the castle before petering out into the farmlands.

We had noticed some flies and there were, of course, the ubiquitous Scottish midge, but in the woods the insects were, well, normal. Once we reached the tree line, however, this changed, and changed for the worse. We were soon enveloped in swarms of biting flies, which were kept at bay only by three lunatics frantically waving bracken fronds over their heads.

It was a relief to be back in the fields, and a disappointment. It had been one of those rare clear days, and the view from on top of the hill would have been stupendous. It was not to be. Soon, however, the disappointment turned to contentment. The dog and the children drank from one of the springs, gold still poured over the hills to the west, and overhead the house martins that nest under our eaves were chasing flies.

Under the sycamores of our path, the cattle lay chewing the cud, and one of our cats was perched on a gate. The house was already in the shadows of the hills, the fields taking leave of the sun. It was an evening from a tale. As the song says, you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.

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