Rockside farm is situated on the west coast of Islay. We are on the Gulf Stream which keeps our weather relatively mild and usually wet. In the winter we have strong winds and sometimes severe gales that whip in straight off the Atlantic.
We farm 2,322 acres of which only some 160 acres are suitable for growing barley and 1,738 is hill ground.
Islay is an important wintering ground for the Greenland barnacle goose and the Greenland white-fronted goose. In October/ November annually around 45,000 geese flock to the island and remain until mid April. The geese graze on grass and cause a large amount of damage as they tend to pull the root of the grass out and they “puddle” in any wet areas which can create a lot of muddy areas within fields that take time to recover. This results in several problems. The grass that should be there for the for sheep lambing in March and April is not a good as it could be due to the pressure caused by grazing geese. At Rockside we do not start lambing until c. 17th April to ensure that the geese have gone and the sheep get all the available grass which they need to produce milk for the lamb and to put condition back on after lambing. The presence of the geese also stops us from planting barley much before mid April as the geese will eat the shoots that emerge and will also eat the barley seed out of the ground. This delay in planting usually results in a later harvest than we would like, typically around late August and early September. Days at this time of year are starting to draw in and the weather windows for harvest are short so when an opportunity presents itself it needs to be taken.
This year we are planting c. 100 acres. Due to the very wet winter and the current ground conditions we have not started ploughing yet. We hope to start within the next week and would expect to have the planting completed within the next 5 – 10 days. This will tie in with when we hope the geese will leave. The colder weather at present is also not great for seed germination and with the rain we have had the ground conditions are far from perfect.
The financial risks for doing barley are considerable as all costs are paid at the time of planting and we totally rely on the weather for the crop. Why do we bother – just taste a dram of 100% Islay – makes all the worry and risk worthwhile!