Gloom as winter approaches

Malachy reflects on the speedy passing of summer and reveals how foot and mouth in Surrey has affect

The year is advancing with impetuous haste and a blatant disregard for those of us who are willing it to slow down.

Summer seems hardly to have begun and yet already the calendar shows August is largely gone. The hills are glowing purple with heather, the days are growing noticeably shorter, and the vegetables from the garden are now beginning to fill our plates.

The passing of time is something I have come to notice more since moving to Fair Isle. Each season has its jobs, each month its many tasks, and everywhere you look there are reminders of the year’s progress. Most of the silage fields are now cut and cleared of grass, with the last few soon to be done; and the lambs, now fat and heavy, are almost knocking their mothers over as they dive beneath them for milk. There is undoubtedly an autumnal feel to the days.

Traditionally, this was the beginning of the most important and joyous part of the crofting year. Crops would be harvested, vegetables gathered and animals killed, all ready for the coming winter. All the year’s work leads towards this climax.

Somehow though there is sadness too with the approach of autumn, and the knowledge of winter just around the corner. Summers here can be so short, and the dark, cold months seem unbearably long when viewed from ahead.

In part this may be because autumn no longer means as much as it once did; it is no longer vital to survival in the way it once was. Few crops are now grown here, and though many people do grow vegetables, their success is not crucial. Everything you need can be bought in the shop, so the pressure to succeed is not so great, and the joy and relief in doing so is likewise lessened.

Or perhaps it is just me, blinded by post-holiday gloom. Perhaps things will seem brighter again in a day or two. Once the rain stops.

There is a gloomy uncertainty though amongst crofters and farmers this year for another reason. The situation regarding livestock movements, following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Surrey, is a potentially critical one for anyone involved in agriculture.

Although Shetland, along with the other Scottish islands, was given early exemption from the ban on moving livestock (though this came too late for the main agricultural shows, which were forced to go ahead without animals) export of lamb and cattle is still prohibited.

This is of particular worry right now to Fair Isle crofters. Because shipping lambs from the island to mainland Shetland requires calm weather, ours are always among the first to be sold, after which they are usually shipped to Scotland to be fattened up before slaughter. If the export ban is still in place in a few weeks’ time, when our lambs should be going out to the market, it could potentially prove very difficult to get rid of them. No one is entirely sure what the solution will be, but even if the ban is lifted (which fortunately seems increasingly likely as each day passes) it is almost certain that the foot and mouth outbreak will push down the price of lamb once again this year. Given how little crofters earn from lamb already, this is exactly what they do not need.

The obsession in this country with making food as cheap as possible has been entirely at the expense of the independent food producers. Most people have no concept of the hard work that goes into rearing the meat that they eat. A situation like this can only serve to make things even harder.