Ardtalla is today run as an integrated rural business combining an in hand farm, wild deer and woodland management. The farm occupies the bulk of the land, although much of the hill is grazed only lightly by sheep and cattle, with most of the pasture that is actively used (in bye) lying to either side of the road that runs like a spine along the east side of the estate. There are around 130 breeding cows and 550 ewes, which are kept for the purpose of breeding calves and lambs for sale. The calves and lambs produced here are sold to farmers in the East Coast of Scotland and elsewhere who fatten them for sale to the meat trade. It is not viable for a farm such as Ardtalla to fatten the calves and lambs itself, due to the cost of transporting the necessary quantity of feedstuffs to Islay. Cattle from the island have an excellent reputation for fattening well when taken to the fertile grasslands of the East.
The cattle are what are known as commercial suckler cows – as opposed to pedigree – and they are of no particular breed, their principal characteristics being hardiness and milkiness, so that they can survive outside all year, and reliably produce a strong calf each year when put to the bull. The capability of these hill cows to fare well living outside all year is not something that is shared by many of the highly bred continental types of cattle. They are fed silage and concentrates in winter, but fend for themselves on the natural vegetation and grass pastures during the summer months. The farm must ensure that enough silage is made each year to keep the cows in good condition.
There are no modern farm buildings at Ardtalla, and the cattle must be adapted to living outside all the year round. The cows are derived from native British breeds such as Aberdeen Angus, Highland and Shorthorn, which although smaller in frame and slower growing are well suited to the West Coast’s wetter climate and more limited grazing quality. They are mated with Aberdeen Angus and Charolais bulls to produce good size calves that will fatten well when transferred to finishers on the East side of the country. Ardtalla’s cattle and sheep must compete for grass with the numerous overwintering geese as well as red and fallow deer and hares. In summer the cows range widely over the estate, but during the winter must be concentrated at points where they can be fed the silage that has been made on the farm during the previous year. The concentration of cattle can lead to poaching of the sward, so during the wetter winter months they are quartered on elevated, more free-draining pastures.
The sheep are of two types – Blackfaces that can do well on the poorer ground, though produce fewer and smaller lambs, and crosses that are larger and more prolific, with better quality lambs.
The cattle and sheep are tended by John Tam, the farm manager, who is responsible for lambing and calving, feeding, movement, medication where necessary and the sale or retention of stock for breeding. With Stuart, the farm worker to help him, John Tam spends a great deal of his time out of doors in all weathers, usually astride a quad bike. In Spring and as lambing and calving permits, time must be found for the grass to be fertilized and some of the pastures ploughed and re-seeded. Weeds must be controlled, drains unblocked, ditches cleaned and fences repaired or renewed. In late summer some of the parks are mown and the cut grass ensiled in sealed bags, to be kept for winter feed.
Modern farming is about more than just the production of food – there is much to be done to safeguard the natural environment. Ardtalla has entered into an agri-environmental scheme intended to protect the habitat of the rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia). The favoured foodplant for this species is the Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), which thrives on the old, lightly grazed meadows, which are a typical feature around Kintour and Ardtalla. The key to maintaining a healthy population of the butterflies is to ensure that grazing continues at the right intensity, and that the land in question is not ploughed, planted with trees or abandoned.