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'You can’t just nip to the vet as there isn’t one' - Life on a croft in Shetland

Rachel Challoner moved to Fair Isle, Shetland, in 2015 and runs a croft with Shetland and Shetland/Texel crosses.


Emily Ashworth finds out what life is like on the most remote inhabited island in the UK.

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What is life like on a croft?

It is perhaps not somewhere you would immediately think of relocating to considering Fair Isle, a small island between Orkney and Shetland, has about fifty residents and only got 24-hour electricity in October 2018.


But for Rachel Challoner, the island presented her with an opportunity she could not refuse.


In 2014, Rachel worked at the Bird Observatory on the island for a season as an assistant cook, then decided to take on the croft and move to the island permanently in 2015.


With no farming or crofting background, the move allowed her to lead a life she probably could not have afforded otherwise. And with so little resources and people, to survive on the isle means to live resourcefully and sometimes innovatively.


Rachel says: “I love the fact that coming to Fair Isle has enabled me to lead the life I now do - there’s simply no way I could afford a house with the amount of land I have, plus my sheep, anywhere else.

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“I also love the fact that people are so creative here - not only artistically and musically but also working with wood and textiles, and that there is such a creative approach to fixing things.


"You can’t just nip to the vet’s as there isn’t one, or go to the local hardware store, so you learn to use what you have to hand. For example, I had a lamb who had spinal nerve damage and lost the use of her front legs. Steroids and injections helped, but her legs were too weak to then work properly, so a neighbour rigged her up some splints from pipe lagging, wooden dowel rods and duct tape, and she was soon whizzing around on them.


"Now that her muscles have developed, she no longer needs the splints and you’d struggle to tell her apart from the other sheep her age. I’ve gained new skills since moving here too. I’ve learned how to look after my sheep and croft, and to knit and finish, which I do as one of my main jobs.


"I have also joined the coastguard, done a radio course so I can assist with flights at the airstrip and I’m learning to be more self-sufficient and do jobs myself that anywhere else I’d probably ring up a handyman to do.”


About two-thirds of Rachel’s ewes are ones she inherited when taking on the croft, and the rest are ones that have come from her share on the hill or bought from other crofters, run across 10 hectares (25 acres).


Currently, she runs 65 sheep made up of Texels, Texel/Shetland crosses, Suffolks and Suffolk/Texel crosses and Shetlands, lambing from mid-April to mid-May.


She says: “There are around 18 crofts on Fair Isle, and we all have a share in the pure native Shetlands that run free on the common grazing on the north of the isle. I prefer the Shetlands, they tend to be more characterful, smaller and less heavy for me to handle. But, sadly, there seems to be no real commercial value to them, so all the in-bye ewes which produce the lambs we send to mart are put to either Texel, Suffolk or Cheviot rams.


“Those that graze on the hill sometimes come down to graze on seaweed, and those in-bye get barley blend for three weeks prior to tupping, which they continue to get over winter, and their grazing is supplemented by silage. The ram gets tup mix for the same period, then eight weeks prior to lambing the ewes go on to ewe nuts. They also get free access to mineral lick tubs.”


Wool gets sent out to Jamieson’s of Shetland, the last remaining spinning mill in Shetland, in August and it is spun into wool along with other fleeces from all over Shetland, which those on the island then buy back as cones of wool for knitting Fair Isle garments and accessories for sale.


Stock gets sent to Shetland Livestock Marketing Group marts at Lerwick in September and October, where they are mostly sold as store lambs.

On arriving, Rachel says it can appear barren, but it has a ‘wealth of wild flowers, grasses and plants, some of which you do not find anywhere else in the UK.’


She says: “In summer the fields are carpeted with wild flowers, which look stunning. As a very small island, 24 miles from the nearest land and where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, we’re really at the mercy of the weather, and to say we’re windswept is very appropriate. The west of the isle is dominated by hills, with remains of the old coastguard look-out station and the remnants of the World War Two radar station.”


But there are certain challenges Rachel faces, as her croft is situated on some of the ‘worst land on the island.’


“I could probably add 20 ewes to my flock, but the quality of land just won’t support them, so I do have to keep my numbers down to an extent,” she says.


“This coming year, however, I am hoping to add a few more pure Shetlands and look into getting my own Shetland wool spun.


“I’m also limited by the fact that I run the croft alone - everything such as clipping is done by hand, and with just one person, it takes time.


“We are also governed by the weather. We have a small island ferry which sails once a week in winter, although there have been years where it hasn’t been able to sail for six weeks or more.


“That brings in all our provisions such as milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, but it is the only method of getting feed and straw onto the island, not to mention getting livestock off.


“Last year we only got one boatload of lambs off to mart in the whole of September as the weather was so bad, and there was a real worry that we would not be able to get the rest of the lambs off in time for the last mart.”


In October 2018, Fair Isle gained access to 24-hour electricity. Before, power would go off at half past eleven at night and come back on at half past seven the following morning.


Rachel says: “You got used to it easily enough, but it would certainly be a challenge during lambing, using the light of a head torch and a couple of site lamps.”


Considering the amount of people living on the island, Rachel says she has never felt isolated and it is a place which still celebrates some of the more traditional ways of life, hosting a Harvest festival and Hogmanay.


“You are part of a small community, your neighbours and friends are always just a phone call away, and with the new 4G internet it means I can video-call my mother in Australia and my sister in America, so in that respect it's almost like geographical isolation doesn't matter,” she says.


“At Hogmanay, people go guising – this is where they get into small groups and devise a short, humorous skit usually based on things that have happened in the community over the last year, which they perform around people's houses. Everyone wears a mask and conceals their identity and you have to guess who is who. We still celebrate things like Harvest Festival, when we have a big sale of baked goods, vegetables and home-grown produce, and a raffle and games, with the money going to charitable causes. The first couple of years I was here there was a big bonfire and fireworks display for Bonfire Night, but they're not allowed to transport fireworks on the ferry nowadays, so we don't have that any more.


“Another way of looking at traditions would be to say activities like the knitting, fishing and crofting are still being practised, much the same way as they were 50 years or more ago.”


And carrying on some of those traditions is on the cards for Rachel, who has plans to use her own wool and make unique products in the future.


“Carrying on a tradition that has been practised by generations of Fair Isle residents before me makes me very proud, even though I am not originally from Fair Isle myself. Next year I’m hoping to get my Shetland fleeces spun into my own wool, which I can then hopefully sell to try and add an extra source of income.


“My croft and sheep are the most important things to me though. Everything else I could do no matter where I lived, so improving my flock and trying to improve things like the land and drainage are also ongoing priorities for me.”

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