The great outdoors

Tarring, hoeing, dyking... it's all in a day's work

In recent months I have spent far too much time sitting in front of my computer.

There are several problems with this situation. One is that there are many, many things I would rather be doing, and most of them involve being outside the house. Another is that it is far too easy to waste time on the computer and this time-wasting just exacerbates the whole situation.

I can’t do anything else until my work is done, and somehow I just can’t seem to get myself in the right gear to do it. So I am stranded with the laptop for yet longer. And because of the bright screen and my chronically bad posture, each day ends with sore eyes and an aching back.

I am aware, of course, that wasting time is just as easy while outside, but time wasted in the open air is never really wasted, and it certainly doesn’t leave you with that hollow feeling that computer-use inevitably produces.

Tarring is not my favourite job. In fact it ranks pretty low on an increasingly lengthy list of current and previous occupations. But it requires being outside (obviously), and interacting with people, which makes it 10 times better than numbing my brain in front of a screen. So I was delighted to be out on the roads at the beginning of the week, getting myself covered in the filthy sticky black stuff.

Filling in potholes is a fairly regular task. It involves, firstly, heating a barrel of tar over an open fire (probably not the textbook method), then rolling it a quarter of a mile down the road, to try and make it as smooth and lump-free as possible. This is often the most entertaining part of the day – chasing after the barrel as it sails merrily down the road towards... well, you never quite know until you get there.

Once that’s done it’s just a case of filling in all the holes in the road with chips (stone, rather than potato) and covering them in tar, poured from an old metal watering can. Simple. Only the intervention of wind, other traffic or lumps in the tar (“turds” is the technical name) can get in the way. Which they do. Often.

At the end of the day I usually have to scrub my hands and face with rough sandpaper and wash my hair in diesel just to return to a normal state of cleanliness.

Thursday was spent rather less messily, mending two large holes in the Hill Dyke – the tall, dry stone wall that separates the northern and southern parts of the isle.

There is an art to dry stone dyking, but, as this was my first attempt at the job, I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t have it. My skills were more on the level of say, doodling – acceptable in private, but hardly desirable for public display. I enjoyed myself immensely though, so all was well. Between four of us we filled both holes by the end of the afternoon. And with the warm sun beating down, I could hardly think of a better way to spend a day.

Yesterday, feeling guilty about ignoring our garden for so long, I went down to try and tackle some of the weeds that have been making themselves at home there. With a dogged enthusiasm that I have never before felt for the task, I hoed myself almost senseless, filling fishbox after fishbox with weeds. I returned home, six hours later, with my back aching and my eyes sore, and immediately switched on the computer.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.