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Going forward together

The first time I ever visited South Uist two things above all else struck me. The first was the stunning natural beauty that surrounds us wherever we look. I couldn’t wait to return on holiday after that first visit before being lucky enough to move here to work for Stòras Uibhist, but this feeling of sheer joyous wonder at the landscape and the wildlife has never left me. Like everyone, daily life is busy, and things get in the way, but I always make a little time each day to stop and appreciate just how lucky I am. Samuel Johnson said: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Absolute nonsense of course but replace ‘London’ with ‘Uist’ and perhaps he might have been on to something.

The second thing that struck me on that first visit was that the whole island I was visiting is owned by the community. It’s difficult to put into words just what an incredible thing I found that to be. The community, not any one individual, owns the very land that they live and work on. Even now, having lived here for three years, I still find this remarkable. To an Englishman whose idea of ‘community ownership’ is a council-managed park with a duck pond and kiddies’ playground, I was absolutely blown away by the fact. And I still am.

But what does community ownership actually mean? What benefits does it bring, and what responsibilities does it mean for those of us who live here? As Chairperson of Community Land Outer Hebrides, I have spent a lot of time this year talking to other community land-owning groups in Lewis and Harris. Over 75% of all land in the Outer Hebrides is now community-owned, which is an amazing figure. One of the things that we all have in common is a desire to help our communities, whether they are in Ness or Eriskay. There are a huge variety of projects underway, from community-led housing developments to cafes and from community dancing lessons to large-scale economic regeneration plans.

I’m not a politician but it is obvious that government funding is going to reduce over the next few years. Whether we like it or not, this will most likely mean less money for the Comhairle and less for organisations like Highlands & Islands Enterprise, who play such an important role in supporting business development. So that, in turn, means Stòras Uibhist is going to have an even greater role in supporting the community, helping to develop businesses, creating jobs, helping our community to find affordable homes and more.

The Articles of Association that govern Stòras set out the purpose of the company and are clear that the purpose of the buyout was not simply to own the land, but to use that ownership to bring benefit to the community. To quote directly:‘The company is established to benefit the community by the promotion, for the public benefit, of rural regeneration’.

There are three major projects that we are currently developing at Stòras. Firstly, there is a real shortage of affordable housing across the estate. This is one of the reasons for declining population numbers and means it can be difficult, if not impossible, for employers to recruit staff. We are working with our partners at Rural Housing Scotland to develop our Smart Clachan project. The first development location will be on community-owned land at Rubha Bhuailt. These houses will be available to buy on a shared-equity basis, allowing young people and families to own their own home. It’s been a slow and sometimes torturous process, but we will continue to push, persuade and cajole the relevant funders and decision makers until we get the houses built.

Secondly, we are working on a project to build a community food production facility (what’s come to be known as a Food Hub). We have an abundance of great produce across Uist, but it’s not always easy for local producers to get their produce to market and it’s not always easy for those of us living here to buy it. The facility we’re planning will create units for producers to rent and space and opportunity for food producers to sell their produce. It will help with food resilience, cut down on food miles and make it much easier to put Uist produce on our plates.

The third major project is a major strategic visioning plan for Lochboisdale. In partnership with the Comhairle and HIE we are currently working on ideas that will focus on creating jobs and a better environment for those living, working and visiting Lochboisdale. Community engagement has been at the heart of the project and our Engagement Officer has spoken to many groups, businesses and individuals to get their feedback and ideas. You will be able to see further details of the plans on Sunday 4th December as part of the Lochboisdale Christmas market.

It might be a cliché that Rome wasn’t built in day but it’s also true. Stòras Uibhist has already achieved so much. Since the buyout, our community has transformed the economic landscape of where we live. The Loch Carnan windfarm has helped secure the financial future of the organisation and the causeway and development of Gasaigh has created not only a thriving marina but has opened up deep water access and the potential for large scale development alongside the new ferry terminal. Many other projects, large and small, have been delivered. So far, so good, but we must keep this momentum going, keep pushing ever more ambitiously. Everyone within the organisation, staff and directors alike, is ambitious and motivated and determined to continue to drive things forward. The work is never done and never will be.

A community-owned company cannot function without the support of the community it represents. That means every one of us has a responsibility to ‘do our bit’. The great privilege of land ownership also brings responsibilities. In addition to our development plans, Stòras has an obligation to manage the estate and its assets to the best of our ability. The income from the turbines and the other parts of the business can only do so much and budgets can only be spent once. Our directors must decide how this is done and decide on the priorities for the organisation. Not everyone will agree with those decisions but that’s the great thing about community ownership…everyone has the opportunity to get involved and to have their say.

Next year there will be four vacancies to join the board of Stòras and while it might seem a long way in the future, I really hope that some of you reading this will think about putting yourselves forward and bringing your skills and knowledge to help what is an important organisation and a key part of life in this beautiful place I fell in love with.

Cllr Mustapha Hocine – Elected member for Uibhist a Tuath, VC Education, Sport and Children’s Services Committee

This winter we need to reflect on the cost-of-living crisis and its impact on children’s lifestyles, wellbeing and ultimately, their human rights.

The huge increase in energy prices, rampant inflation and the subsequent general increase in the price of the most basic commodities will undoubtedly have very negative consequences on families’ budgets and living standards this winter. Without some sort of additional and urgent intervention from the government to protect the most vulnerable families, this looming crisis will have a damaging effect on children.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) enshrines the basic and universal human rights every child should have; the cost-of-living crisis we are currently experiencing threatens to infringe on these rights. The Convention states that all children have the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to an education and the right to have a happy life. If urgent action is not taken to support these families during this crisis, we will see more families falling well below the poverty line and more children having their education, standard of living and social lives affected.

In the recently published Living Without a Lifeline Report, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) carried out a survey of 260 single parents. The survey revealed that 97.9% of participants felt the impact of rising costs, while 61.1% were finding it either extremely difficult to afford or could no longer afford electricity, and 43.7% said they were struggling to always buy adequate food for their families. A single parent commented:

“I just feel that I’m totally on my own financially. We can’t claim free school meals or any grants because I’m not on benefits. Outgoings are increasing, I am as frugal as I can be, my pay was frozen for 3 years and now I have a 2% cost of living increase; better than nothing! Feel forgotten about. I cut my own hair, I skip meals, I scrimp on heating etc so I can pay the mortgage etc. There is no support for us from anyone.”

The most shocking thing about this survey is that 78% of the participants were in work.

A child’s standard of living is heavily tied not only to their education but to their social development. A survey conducted by the teachers’ union NASUWT shows that teachers in Scotland are regularly seeing how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting their pupils. 65% of NASUWT members stated that a rising number of children and young people were coming to school hungry, while 58% stated that more pupils did not have the equipment they needed for their lessons and 55% said that more of their pupils’ families were unable to afford school uniforms. While the UNCRC states that every child has the right to an education, it is my opinion that every child should also have the right to get the most of out of their education. If a child is hungry, their concentration is affected. Without extra packages of support, this cost-of-living crisis could see children from the most vulnerable families falling behind in their education as a direct result of the decline of living standards.

Mike Corbett, NASUWT National Official Scotland, said:

“There can be little doubt that the cost-of-living crisis is harming pupils’ education, learning and development. It is outrageous that we should be seeing more and more families who are struggling or unable to feed, clothe or keep a roof over their children’s heads. The financial worry and anxiety that many parents are already experiencing is also being felt by children and is likely to have a negative impact on their education. It’s vital that schools and wider children’s services are funded to provide more by way of support, advice and counselling for children, parents and carers who are struggling. An immediate step forward would be for the Scottish Government to commit to the introduction of universal free school meals for all pupils.”

The anxiety experienced by parents during this cost-of-living crisis will also very likely have a negative impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. Increased anxiety levels and poor mental health not only affect a child’s ability to concentrate in school but can also have a lasting effect on their social development.

Rising costs of food and energy are not the only financial headache families will face this winter. The difficulty in meeting the demands to pay for uniform, school trips, and the many other requirements that daily school life brings such as sponsored events, book fairs, Red Nose Day etc, can be an added anxiety for families who are already struggling. Children who are unable to participate in these social events are at risk of being socially excluded and bullied, which in turn could lead to low levels of self esteem and poor mental health. If children who are already struggling with anxiety are made to feel left out and different from their peers due to the not been able to afford a school trip for example, this could have devastating consequences.

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition has said that rising prices are replacing the Covid pandemic as the main cause of children and young people’s mental health problems, reporting that in the first three months of last year, 7,902 children and young people were referred to mental health services for treatment, compared to 9,672 this year – a 22.4% increase.

The current cost-of-living crisis affects almost everyone in Scotland. None more so than children already living in the grip of poverty. This is the time usually, when parents need to buy their children winter clothing and save for Christmas presents, however, the reality is that a lot of families will not be able to provide their children with many of the things they need.

A good and happy society is generally judged by the way it looks after its most vulnerable people, especially during difficult times. We have a collective responsibility to support and protect the children in our community from the long and lasting damage this crisis can inflict on them; we should do all we can to ensure they have a safe and happy childhood and help them develop and achieve their full potential, because the children are our future and the future of these Islands.

A guide to spaying and neutering cats and dogs

Spaying and neutering dogs and cats is the most common surgery we perform, and is something we discuss a lot with clients who have a new kitten or puppy.

There are many benefits to spaying and castrating and lots of scientific studies have found that neutered animals have a longer life expectancy than those who have not been neutered, with a recent study of American dogs finding that neutering increases a dog’s lifespan by around one and a half years!

As the owner of a now one and a half year old female labrador, this is a decision I recently had to make. I was considering having a litter from her, but after the horror of her first season, and the many pairs of old knickers I had to cut tail holes into to prevent getting blood all over my rented house (eek), I made the decision that there was no way I was going through that every six months for the next few years. But there were several other reasons I made this decision in the end for her too.

A lot of people, especially cat owners, will decide on the op to prevent unwanted straying and breeding. This is particularly important in cats that venture outside unsupervised and can get pregnant from a young age. Male cats that are uncastrated are much more likely to spray urine, roam and get into fights with other male cats (which can lead to some unwanted vets bills). Given the large population of stray cats in Uist, it’s great that so many cat owners do the responsible thing and neuter their cats.

In comparison, female dogs are much less likely to have a surprise pregnancy, but it certainly does happen! There are several other reasons why it is a good idea to have female dogs spayed. As a result of the unique way in which dogs’ heat cycles work, older dogs are prone to a condition called a pyometra, which is an infection of the uterus. This life threatening condition can require emergency surgery, which can be dangerous and is much more expensive than having your dog spayed when they are young and healthy. If you have an unspayed, older female dog, signs of this condition to watch out for are: unusual discharge from the vulva, increased drinking, vomiting and generally acting tired and unwell a couple of weeks after they have been in season. If you are worried about any of these signs, it is best to contact your vet.

Another advantage to having your female dog spayed is that it decreases the risks of mammary cancer later in life, although this benefit goes away after they have had two or more seasons, which is why we advise to have your dog spayed before her first season or three months after her first season.

Castrating male dogs reduces the risks of them roaming to find a mate and can reduce aggression against other male dogs as well as mounting behaviours. That being said, castration of male dogs should not be done to ‘fix’ behavioural problems, as there is little scientific evidence that it has a significant effect on most unwanted behaviours. Castration does reduce the likelihood of your dog experiencing prostate problems and developing certain types of cancers as they get older.

One of the main concerns people have with neutering is the idea that dogs will gain weight afterwards. There is some truth to this in male dogs, where it has been found that the changes in hormones after castration have an impact on their metabolism. This means that dogs need less calories per day after being castrated. If you are careful with your dog’s diet, cut back a bit after they have been castrated and ensure they are getting enough exercise, then there is no reason that they can’t continue to be a healthy weight after castration.

Having recently had my own dog spayed, I know it can be nerve-wracking. Thankfully, both for my dog – and my boss, who performed the surgery under the knowledge that if anything went wrong, his life would be forfeit – everything went smoothly, and a couple of days afterwards you wouldn’t know anything had happened to her.

All of the benefits of neutering aside, it is important to note that the procedure, especially spaying female dogs, is a major surgery and you should discuss with your vet before making your decision so that you fully understand the risks.

It is also important to plan for afterwards, as your pet will need to be on restricted exercise for around ten days until they can have their stitches removed.

If you have, or are going to, breed from your pet, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have them neutered later in life; this will remove the risk of a pyometra for female dogs and uncontrolled breeding in cats. It is also important to note that dogs and cats do not have a menopause like humans, so are able to become pregnant throughout their lives.

It is always a good idea to have your dog fully health checked before deciding to breed and, if you have a female dog or cat, talk with your vet about the risks and precautions to take during pregnancy and birth so that you are prepared.

All in all, there are many benefits to spaying and castrating your dogs and cats and it’s something to think carefully about when getting a new puppy or kitten. If you are ever unsure, or feel like you need more information to make this decision for your pet, it is always best to get in touch with your vet.

The Robin

The Robin we are told is associated with Christmas because in Victorian times, when Christmas cards first became popular, postmen wore red waistcoats and were nicknamed ‘Robins’. It is certainly the most commonly seen bird on our Christmas cards. Of course part of its popularity may well be that they can become quite tame and against a cold, grey, possibly white winter day, the Robin stands out as a bright splash of colour. Yet this cheerful looking bird, acting as emblem of peace and goodwill, can be very aggressive when protecting its territory.

Looking at the Scottish Wildlife Trust website I see that the Robin’s association with Christmas is strong: In one tale, it is said that when Mary was giving birth to baby Jesus in the stable, she noticed that the fire they had lit to stay warm and comfortable was in danger of going out. Suddenly, a small brown bird appeared and started flapping its wings in front of the fire, causing it to roar back to life. However, as the bird flew around tending to the fire, a stray ember made its way towards the bird, scorching its breast bright red. Seeing this, Mary declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s kind heart, which would pass on to its descendants to wear proudly forevermore.

The Robin has another claim to fame, as it was the first bird to have a book that’s entirely about itself. Written by David Lack, (The Life of the Robin H E & G Witherby 1943) he suggests its popularity is due to the fact that it sings almost all year round. At the end of summer when all else has stopped singing, male and female robins separate. Each then holds its own territory and sings in its defence. As spring arrives it is interesting to watch the change in behaviour as the male and female slowly learn to accept each other. The male bird will help to strengthen their bond by feeding her, which also provides extra resources for laying a good clutch of eggs.

Looking through my notebooks I see that Robins were rare in Uist forty years or so ago. I remember the Stonechat being thought of as kind of Robin substitute; the males having a fine orange red breast. At that time Stonechats were one of the few small birds that stayed with us throughout the winter. Robins were confined to places that had some trees and shrubbery. For me living in Daliburgh that meant searching for them near the Doctor’s gardens in Lochboisdale and Daliburgh along with parts of South Lochboisdale where gardens provided the required shelter.

How things have changed. Warmer, wetter winters and the important addition of more gardens with trees and shrubs, substantial forestry plantations and the now quite frequent provision of wild bird food have altered species numbers and distribution. Robins are now commonly seen in our gardens throughout the year along with other small birds such as Goldfinches and Greenfinches.

The Robin in the attached photo I call Spot Robin because of the pale patch above its left eye. It is heading into its sixth winter, which is about as long as a robin is expected to live. The Robin and the Stonechat both like to sit up on perches; a spade left out in the garden as in this Christmas card by the wildlife artist Peter Partington or a fence post like that in the Stonechat photo.

Bill Neill

Rev Dr Lindsay Schluter, parish minister for South Uist and Barra

Opinion is divided about one of the most popular children’s books ever published: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Its story follows the lives of a tree and a boy. In his childhood the boy enjoys climbing the tree’s trunk, swinging from her branches and eating her apples. As he grows older though, the boy visits the tree only when he wants something from her. On each occasion the tree gives him a part of herself – apples, branches, her trunk – which the boy is then able to make use of to enrich his life, and each time the tree is described as being happy to do so.

But when the boy returns one last time we discover that now all that is left of the tree is a mere stump. She has given all she had and is now unhappy because she is apparently no longer able to provide anything. Yet when the boy says that the only thing he is looking for is a place to rest, she becomes happy again, because, even though she is now only a stump, this she can still provide.

How should the relationship between the two characters be understood? Is the tree generously giving out of selfless love, or is the boy’s persistent taking from her in fact abusive behaviour? Not once does the boy thank the tree for her generosity or give anything back to her. There is also the issue of the tree being female. Are unhelpful gender roles being reinforced?

In some Christian circles the story has been used to reinforce a message of selfless giving. Surely, so the argument goes, we should dedicate ourselves to imitate the outpouring of love that God has shown to us in Christ. One of the great spiritual classics, Thomas à Kempis’ Imitatio Christi, encourages this very thing.

Giving and sharing lies at the heart of Christian ethics. It lies at the heart of the story of God in Christ which we celebrate at Christmas, yet from the very inception of the Church’s life there have been discussions about how giving and sharing should best be lived out, with different models being tried. In the Book of Acts we learn of a form of Christian communism in which everybody was expected to give everything they had to the community. Conversely,in Paul’s letters we find teaching about ongoing proportionate giving which would imply a steady personal income to support the flow of ongoing generosity.

Returning to the concept of our imitating Christ in our day-to-day living, we should remember two things. One is obvious: we are not Christ Jesus. Our earnest endeavour to lead lives that imitate his can only ever be approximations. And in that lies a challenge as well as reassurance.

The other is just as obvious, yet somehow many shy away from it. Jesus came to receive as well as to give. Whether it was receiving hospitality from close friends or distant strangers, whether letting himself be cared for through the touch of anointing oil or the financial support given by others – he set an example of how we are to learn to receive from others as much as to give to them. He demonstrates to us that he does not need to be the one in charge, the one who possesses the resources with which to provide for a needy other. Instead he becomes the one who lets go, to be at the passive receiving end of generosity which is a way of being and living which does not come easy to some of us.

In his own life Jesus demonstrates that giving and sharing should never leave anyone emotionally hollowed out or financially destitute. Giving to others, receiving from others are to be acts of freedom, not acts of obligation.

If giving is leading to stress, and even exhaustion, then it is no longer an imitation of the love of Christ. Giving to and receiving from others should be free acts of love, acts that enable both giver and receiver to become more, not less, their God-given selves.

At Christmas, God gave himself to us, doing so freely and generously. And we are invited to imitate such freedom. We are invited to choose freely to give and be generous, giving our all or only a part. We are free to choose not to be depleted. In short, we are free to enjoy our giving. We are free to enjoy being the receiver. If on the other hand we feel bound and restricted by either, then maybe a return to the story of Christmas could be a way of a deeper exploration on what it means to give and to receive. In that story the flow of giving and receiving is lived and demonstrated by many and varied characters. It may be that coming alongside them may assist us to come to our own place of greater freedom in the acts of giving and receiving.

Praying for a rich and fulfilling time of Advent and Christmas for each and everyone.

Rev Dr Lindsay Schluter, parish minister for South Uist and Barra

I wonder if anyone responded to the idea of a tunnel across to the mainland? I’m thinking that there wouldn’t be much support for that. As I write, I’m watching the south easterly wind driving the waves furiously towards my house. Imagine going underneath those waves! I don’t think that it would be very safe either to have our islands open to anyone at any time of the day or night. I think it would be better to support the ferry service, although it’s often broken or stranded due to bad weather; at least there are better ferries on the agenda.

On the radio the other day I heard that a number of frigates are going to get built on the Clyde for the Royal Navy. I think they said that it would be in two years time. Also Arnish in Stornoway is getting a contract to transfer food and equipment out to boats at sea to save the boats having to come into port. Of course I can’t understand anything about that kind of work but I do understand the importance of jobs in Scotland and especially in Stornoway.

I don’t know when Lyme disease started out here. When I was young, lots of deer were shot by crofters and they didn’t come into inbye land – I was 30 before I saw my first deer on this land. It wasn’t fear of humans that kept them out on the moor; they stayed there because they had enough green grass out there. The sheep and cows were summered out on the hill until October and the moors were burnt methodically; so with the sheep, lambs, cows, calves and the deer grazing there, the management of the moor was healthy.

I was born in 1940 and when the men got home on leave during the war, the deer were a Godsend. I think that I wrote before how my Uncle Hugh shot a deer when home during the war. I was too young to eat meat but the others did. I believe that the deer had been wounded before, which made its venison poisonous. The other children were all very sick and it was only the skill of old Doctor AJ MacLeod that saved them.

The sheep wouldn’t have so many ticks either in those days as the muirburning killed a lot of them. However burning was not done so methodically as time went on, so the heather had too much chance to grow. Then in 1961, reseeding became popular and the gearraidh areas became greener and the moor became rank through lack of grazing. The deer were attracted to the greener areas and as time went on they then came to the machair and into the gardens.

I think muirburn should be done in different areas ever year with plenty volunteers as this would be helpful. We have trees now so they would have to be very careful not to burn them. Of course I know that when we were children and we worked at peats, we came home with lots of ticks on our bodies but we were never sick. Maybe they are a different breed of tick now.

I believe that the number of deer should be very much reduced but a huge cull would be heartbreaking. I’d like to see hardy sheep grazing on the moors along with the deer but that could only happen if some crofters got Hebrideans and Blackface after muirburn got rid of the tall heather. Of course the government should finance that and those sheep would become “hefted” on the moors which means that they would settle in their areas and stay there. In the late 70s we burnt the ranch, as we called it, on Marrival and when the grass grew the following year we had lovely green grass and the cattle loved it and were able to summer there until 1997, when the fence stopped being stock proof.

On the 11th and 12th November the young ones were very busy in Vallay. This is the time all the cattle get their medicines and checked out before the winter. There’s a lot of planning especially when the days are so short and they are governed by the tide. On Friday 11th the tide was completely out at 4 p.m. so they took medicines over to Vallay and also the vehicles they would need to use the next day. They then gathered the cows and their calves and put them in the field around the old houses. Saturday was the big day; Carianne, Fraser, Alexander, John MacPhee (the Wee Man), Craig, Ryan, Alasdair Don and the scanner, another Ryan. Hector Shepherd took them over in a boat about 7 a.m. giving the team all the daylight hours to complete the job. The cows got scanned to tell us how many are pregnant and medicine for worms, pour on for lice and they also got mineral boluses. Boluses are so helpful; since we started giving them those we don’t get white scour in the calves. I think the day went very well. Two cows, Morag Skye and Sobhrach, with twins from springtime were brought back to Kyles to be looked after. It’s a big job as there are 139 cows. Carianne takes a note of all the eartags and pregnancy information; she is so often with them and knows each one’s name. She’s a real cowgirl!!

Our most exciting piece of news that day was that Big Boy’s son, Little Big Boy, had managed to impregnate all of the heifers that had been put with him! He had been privately sold but on inspection, before he was due to leave, it was seen that his long hair had been caught around the end of his most important tool, which meant that some of it had to be cut off. We couldn’t sell him but wanted to give him a chance to see if he would heal and perform. He was put with heifers and kept in Kyles. Well, he didn’t let us down and we look forward to seeing his calves next spring! Again, how exciting!!

We’re almost at the New Year and this is the last paper of 2022. I hope and pray that God will make 2023 a happier and peaceful year. We must be thankful for all the joy we’ve had whilst remembering those no longer with us.

My choice of readings are Matthew Chapter 1 and Psalm 118.

Seasons Greetings to you all!

Guest column by Rona MacKay & Kathleen MacDonald

It was recently announced that Ofgem had rejected plans to upgrade our subsea electricity cable linking us to Skye and the national grid.

I’ve worked for Community Energy Scotland in the Outer Hebrides for 16 years now and during that time the proposed interconnector between Lewis and Ullapool has regularly featured in the news, with barely a mention of the Uist subsea cable. So what has changed and why has it suddenly become important?

My colleague in Lewis, Kathleen MacDonald and I are grateful for the chance to explain the implications of this decision for Uist, as with all its unfamiliar acronyms, for example RIIO-ED2 (setting Revenues using Incentives to deliver Innovation and Outputs), it’s not a topic which is easy to engage in but it’s important we understand it and ensure the Uist community is represented in the final decision.

In December 2021 SSEN (Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks), who run our electricity networks in the North of Scotland, drafted a Business Plan setting out their proposals to replace the existing cable between South Uist (Lochcarnan) and Skye and to add an additional cable between North Uist and Skye. SSEN had engaged with the Comhairle, community generators and others and took account of our needs in their proposal. The plan was very welcome news for Uist and Barra as our current cable was installed 31 years ago and had an estimated lifespan of 20 years. Barra’s electricity supply is dependent on a cable connecting it to Uist so it is also dependent on the South Uist-Skye subsea cable.

In August this year Ofgem, the UK energy regulator who holds the purse strings for the projects in SSEN’s Business Plan, published its Draft Determinations in which it proposes to reject both the upgrade of the cable from South Uist to Skye, and the installation of the second cable from North Uist to Skye. All our larger turbines in Uist and Barra depend on the aging subsea cable from Lochcarnan to Skye to connect them to the national grid and allow them to generate and sell electricity. If the subsea cable to Skye fails, all the larger turbines are turned off until the cable is fixed. Ofgem’s decision is therefore deeply concerning for the Uist and Barra communities, and in particular for our community-owned wind turbines. Community Power Outer Hebrides (CPOH), a collective of the community generators in the Outer Hebrides including Stòras Uibhist and Barra & Vatersay Community Ltd, along with Uist Wind, wrote to Ofgem outlining their concerns about Ofgem’s proposal and the impact it could have on our communities.

In 2020 the Harris to Skye subsea cable that supplies Lewis and Harris failed and was down for a total of ten months. During this time four community generators claimed a combined £2million from their respective insurance companies and over and above that total was a shortfall/outright loss to the community generators of £1.3million. This had a drastic impact on communities with the charitable payments from the turbines out to the wider community being frozen.

Although the cable break to Harris was serious and had far reaching impacts, the Lewis community groups were able to rely on some insurance support to see them through the worst of the cable failure. Since this failure in 2020, no island-based generator has been able to source insurance cover for subsea cable failure, leaving the Uist and Barra generators without any cover should our Uist subsea cable break. The members of Community Power Outer Hebrides estimate that if the Uist cable were to fail now the loss to the projects on Uist and Barra would be in the region of £3million. Ofgem’s decision could cause job losses, project development delays and housing support delays amongst other issues.

Ofgem’s remit is to protect energy consumers, especially vulnerable people, by ensuring they are treated fairly and benefit from a cleaner, greener environment. Ofgem’s decision seems inconsistent with their remit as in the event of a cable failure it could leave Uist and Barra reliant on diesel generation for up to eighteen months while a replacement cable is installed. The cost to SSEN during the Skye-Harris cable break was estimated at £1m in diesel alone and Community Energy Scotland estimates that the use of diesel was releasing carbon dioxide emissions of 240 tonnes per day. Not only does Ofgem’s decision not make sense from an environmental position it is also the least effective solution from an economic perspective with the cost of diesel having increased dramatically, especially in more remote locations such as ours. Community groups in Uist and Barra are currently exploring decarbonisation projects, many of which are centered around Electric Vehicles, Heatpumps and other localised electricity dependent options. In order to progress these types of projects and support Government targets around a Just Transition we need comfort that the grid is resilient – comfort we currently do not have with the existing infrastructure well past its estimated lifespan.

The Third Sector is a significant employer in Uist and our community is heavily dependent on it to provide core services and facilities. With 57% of the Outer Hebrides estimated to be in fuel poverty and the number of householders seeking support and help increasing, we need to help our community groups to be more resilient to deal with the increasing demand for their services. Increasing energy costs for both buildings and transport are having a huge impact on the viability of the Third Sector and local businesses. We need Ofgem to back SSEN’s proposed subsea cable replacement from Skye to South Uist to give us the basic infrastructure we need to invest in sustainable energy projects locally and reduce energy costs locally.

In Uist and Barra we are having to fight to have equivalent access to a basic utility which people take for granted in towns and cities. Energy has been a key component to developing sustainable communities across Scotland, often supporting community land buyouts and other community development. Uist needs to have the basic infrastructure for a reliable electricity connection to be able to develop sustainable energy projects and future-proof our community.

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Uibhist A Tuath

At last, we have some good news on ferry services to Uist!

After being the community most affected by the debacle of the Ferguson Marine ferry contract scandal it is hard to find the words for the relief and delight at the news that Government has stepped up to the mark and recognised that the original decision – which was made in the central belt with no regard to people in Uist and Harris – to continue a shared vessel operation on our routes across the Little Minch to Uig was plain wrong. 

I do not criticise Government for seeking to secure valuable manufacturing jobs in Scotland or restoring pride in commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde.  This was a laudable ambition.  However, this should not have been the main motivation driving the specification of lifeline ferries to island communities. 

Had we been asked, the clear and unequivocal opinion of people in Uist and Harris was that what represented innovation in 1964 when the Triangle service was introduced was long past its use-by-date in 2014.  Comhairle nan Eilean and our partners such as HITRANS had presented a report in 2010 making clear the view that what was needed on the Little Minch was a dedicated vessel on each route.  We were clear that the MV Hebrides was an excellent servant to our communities, but she needed a sister ship to operate alongside her. What a shame our efforts were ignored.

I wanted to take the opportunity in this column to record my particular thanks to our current Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth MSP for listening to what islanders are telling her.  The decision announced in Parliament by Ms Gilruth on 19th October that two new ferries built to the design of the two new Islay ferries would be ordered this year for deployment to the Little Minch means that we can be optimistic for the future of our mainland connectivity.  Three daily return crossings will offer our seafood industry the opportunity to achieve same day connections for shipment to the south of England and the Continent, maximising the export value of our island produce while at the same time guaranteeing a daily middle of the day departure. Our service sector can look forward to tapping a day trip and short stay market from the many visitors who currently come to Skye but don’t make it to the Western Isles.

Another person I believe deserves much credit for recognising the opportunity offered by freeing the Little Minch of the constraint of a single vessel is Kevin Hobbs, Chief Executive of CMAL.  CMAL as an organisation has been the subject of criticism for the Ferguson contract award but this predated Kevin’s appointment.  I find Kevin is easy to reach, happy to engage – often forthright in his opinions. He is the first person that I think truly understood the opportunity missed by his colleagues and Transport Scotland when they ploughed ahead with the order for 802 rather than seek views from islanders.

I finished my last piece to Am Pàipear by saying “Things can only get better – surely!” I had no reason to think that would be the case so soon.  We will still have major issues as ferry reliability is clearly going to be a problem for the time being but at least there is a happy end in sight.

The Comhairle have recently met with Transport Scotland Aviation Division, Loganair Chief Executive Jonathan Hinkles and HIAL at separate meetings to discuss the future of air services to the Western Isles. High on the agenda was the impending sale of Loganair and the PSO contract between Benbecula and Stornoway, which is due to for renewal in April 2023. The Comhairle currently subsidise the five-rotation service by a sum of £600k. This has to be set in the context of increasing costs and a Comhairle Core Budget that has seen a reduction of Scottish Government funding over the last several years. Transport Scotland subsidise a few PSOs including the Barra service but maintain that they cannot support an internal service within a Local Authority Area. They also face having to look closely at their own budget to identify savings.

The discussion with Loganair in relation to the Benbecula/Stornoway service was positive and we outlined the pressure on Comhairle budgets and the need to look at ways that this service could be maintained. The service is particularly essential for the people who have to travel to the Western Isles Hospital for appointments. Currently NHS Eilean Siar refuse to contribute to the costs of running the service, which is disappointing.

In relation to the impending sale of Loganair, which has caused a lot of concern locally, the following points were made by their Chief Executive Jonathan Hinkles:
• Loganair has been serving the Western Isles since 1964 and over that time, the airline has undergone five changes of ownership – Logan Construction Company, the Royal Bank of Scotland, British Midland, Scott Grier and latterly the Bonds.   Throughout all of that, services to the islands have continued, ranging from delivering daily newspapers (its first venture to Stornoway in 1964) to being sole operator of the air service at Barra continually since taking over the route from British Airways on 1 September 1974. 
• Loganair’s recently-announced return to profit after the pandemic is very helpful ahead of any change of ownership – using the straightforward maxim that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  If the airline was heavily loss-making, it’s inevitable that any new owner would be seeking to make major changes to stem those losses – which could well have ramifications for island lifeline flights.  That isn’t the case as is apparent from Loganair’s performance through the pandemic.

• Equally, the airline needs to make a profit to survive and re-invest.   Setting aside the Barra
and the Stornoway-Benbecula routes which are operated as PSO subsidised air services, all of its other Western Isle’s routes – Glasgow to Benbecula and Stornoway, Inverness and Edinburgh to Stornoway – receive no direct public subsidy.    Loganair operates these at its own risk, so if it carries no passengers, it receives no income.   Of course, the Air Discount Scheme is in place to subsidise fares for non-business trips for island residents, but this is no guarantee of income for Loganair.  

• And where fuel prices have shot up, the Scottish Government pays the additional bill for Calmac’s ferries, but Loganair has to recover this through its own means.   It also has to invest in its fleet – again, unlike Calmac, there’s no cheque from the Scottish Government to cover new equipment (which many might see as a good thing) and Loganair’s profits are being reinvested into its fleet renewal.   The Saab 340 aircraft – the oldest of which G-LGNI is 33 years old, so right up there alongside a Calmac ferry – are being replaced over the next 12 months with next-generation ATR turboprops.    The Spiorad de Beinn na Faghla (which is now 32) will be making its last flight for Loganair before year-end.   
This replacement programme for equipment used on lifeline air services is being achieved without public subsidy, with minimal fuss (certainly compared to a similar programme on ferries!) and will future-proof the island air services for at least a decade and probably more.   Dedicated freighter variants of the new ATR aircraft are already in service delivering the Western Isles’ mail on six days a week into Stornoway and Benbecula, from where the mail is then taken on the inter-isles ferry to Barra too.

• The airline has assured that its fleet renewal programme will continue apace and will not be affected by any impending change of ownership.   Its policy of employing staff within the Highlands and Islands – where it supports over 180 full-time jobs – is also set to continue.

• Current shareholders have supported the airline through thick and thin, including the pandemic when they made additional investment into Loganair and strengthened its balance sheet. 

A new column from our local vet

This month we are discussing all things tupping!

Before putting tups out with ewes and gimmers it is well worth putting your tup through a full MOT. Ideally you want to carry out these checks 6 to 8 weeks before tupping. This is to allow for any management changes to be made or replacement tups to be bought but also allows for sperm to be replaced. If your tup was in poor condition, unwell (on antibiotics) or was presenting with a high temperature 6 to 8 weeks ago, it can have a detrimental impact on the quality of sperm produced, in turn that would have an impact on the quality of his sperm today. Proper ram management and a focus on nutrition will improve your chances of more ewes being impregnated.

It is important to body condition score your tup; ideally you want him to be between 3 and 4 out of 5 (changes according to breed) at the start of tupping season, this means he will have enough condition on him to maintain energy levels. Tups can come out of tupping season looking a little worse for wear – who knew it was such hard work only having to work for a few weeks each year! Ensure he has access to good grazing and supplementary feeding where necessary.

Check teeth, as any missing or broken teeth can impact his ability to graze and feed properly, which in turn might cause him to lose condition. His hooves should be in good condition as any lameness will greatly impair his ability to follow and mount ewes. Daily checks should be made to pick up any lameness or sores. Check his eyes for signs of cloudiness or weeping. At this time of year we see an increase in sheep suffering from blindness; examine his eyes carefully and give us a ring if you have any concerns. Testicles should be checked for any lumps, bumps and irregularities. They should be measured and ideally have a minimum scrotal circumference of 30cm. You can get your tups semen tested 6 to 8 weeks prior to tupping, where we look at the sample under a microscope to check a range of things including motility and morphology. From doing so we can detect if the tup is ‘firing blanks’.

Traditionally, many crofters put their tups out with ewes or gimmers during the first week of November. The typical gestation for sheep is between 142 and 152 days, or 5 months, which means lambs will be born during the month of April, normally when the spring grass is making an appearance and the weather is milder. This gives new-born lambs a good start in life. Although over the past few years we have seen a trend of crofters putting their tups out slightly later due to the poor spring weather we have had.

Ewes also need to be on a management plan pre, during and post tupping. It is well worth weaning lambs 6 to 8 weeks prior to tupping to allow ewes time to recover and gain condition after feeding one (or multiple!) hungry mouths over the past few months. A general rule of thumb is you want ewes to have a condition score of 3 to 3.5 out of 5 (again this varies between breeds). Good grazing, supplementary feeding and vitamin/mineral lick buckets are all essentials.

You can check ewes in a similar fashion you do tups, the main things to look out for are teeth, toes and teats! As with the tups, any ewes that are missing teeth, sometimes described as ‘broken mouth’, will struggle to gain and maintain any condition, so it is worth considering culling any sheep that are broken mouthed to ensure a healthy flock. Foot sore or lame ewes will struggle to stand for the tup and may not graze properly due to only being able to cover a small area. Udders and teats should be checked carefully for any lumps or bumps, heat or signs of previously having mastitis. Ewes with a partially functioning udder might struggle to raise twins but may just manage a single. It is worth considering if you want to breed from her as it could mean you end up with some pet lambs come springtime!

Abortion in ewes can be caused by several factors – stress (e.g being worried by dogs – keep them on leads around livestock!), poor condition and illness. We have seen several cases of Toxoplasmosis in flocks locally over the past few years. Toxo is one of the most common causes of infectious abortion in sheep and is caused by a protozoan parasite. The main source of infection is via cat faeces, so those with barn cats please be aware of this and don’t allow cats to toilet near feed sources, bales of hay or straw. Toxo is zoonotic, which means it can be passed to humans. It can cause serious illness and infection of a pregnant woman could seriously damage her unborn child so extreme caution must be taken. Pregnant women should avoid, if possible, all involvement with lambing ewes and should not come in to contact or handle clothing or equipment of those who work with sheep. There is a vaccine that can be given to ewes prior to tupping to avoid abortion via toxo however, due to disruption in supplies, production has stopped for now. We are waiting on updates from the manufacturer so please keep in touch if you are on a waiting list.

We stock dosing, spot on treatments, vitamin and mineral boluses, raddle and crayons – all your tupping needs are covered! Pop in, give us a ring or email us with your order. If you have anything specific you would like ordered in please let us know and we will get a price from our wholesalers.

If there are any particular topics readers would like us to cover, please email us at southernisles@hotmail.com.

The Hebridean Rock Dove

Most of us see a pigeon every day without really noticing it. Since the dawn of human civilization, these birds have followed us around the world.

We first domesticated them to eat, but they soon proved their worth as messengers and sources of entertainment. The crazy feathers of fancy pigeons at exhibitions and shows helped inspire Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the other hand, being so popular has had some unplanned outcomes. All over the world, for the past few hundred years, some of these domestic pigeons have been escaping their cozy lives in captivity and becoming wild. Uniquely adapted to living alongside us, these ‘feral pigeons’ bred and now number in their millions, and can be found in almost every city and town in the world. Feral pigeons are often condemned as pests, making a mess of pretty streets and statues in famous squares all over the world. More positively, for many people, they’re one of very few connections to nature amidst the urban sprawl.

Whilst this global takeover was happening, the original wild pigeon, more technically called the Rock Dove, was doing what it’s always done, nesting in caves and cliffs, and foraging for seeds in meadows. Rock Doves are much shier than feral pigeons and are only found in places like the Outer Hebrides which are far away from their relatives’ urban strongholds. Unlike feral pigeons, who can have black, grey, rusty brown or white plumage, all Rock Doves look identical, with a blue-grey colour, a white patch on their back, and black bars on their wings. Unfortunately for them, their feral cousin has done so well that it has begun to infiltrate the Rock Doves’ habitat. Rather than simply outcompeting their rarer relatives, feral pigeons begin to interbreed with them. Eventually, particularly when feral pigeons outnumber them, Rock Dove populations are replaced with populations of hybrids and feral pigeons.

Whilst Rock Doves used to be found across the entire Mediterranean and Western European coast, they now hang on only in small relict populations. The Outer Hebrides, with its unique agricultural traditions and machair meadows, holds one such population. The rocky coasts of the east and the open lands of the west provide an excellent refuge for Rock Doves. Recent studies of their DNA have proven that they are, for now, essentially free of any contact with domestic or feral pigeons. Of the locations which were included in the study, nowhere else in the UK or Ireland had such a status.

The wild Rock Doves of the Outer Hebrides are one of the least understood birds in the UK. They have usually fallen beneath notice of scientists and birdwatchers, meaning that even basic aspects of their behaviour are not recorded. As long as the Outer Hebrides, and particularly their strongholds in Uist, remain free of colonies of feral and free-flying domestic pigeons, the Rock Dove will survive. So next time you see a pigeon fly by, take a moment to remember this is one of the very few places left in Europe where it’s hasn’t originated from escaped captive birds, but is the original, truly wild, version.

Will Smith