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Alasdair Wyllie

A career in agricultural engineering could be the key to open a rewarding and interesting career  

One IAgrE member, Alasdair Wyllie MIAgrE, CEnv, IEng has done just that.  Alasdair is the agricultural adviser to the Government of Tristan da Cunha, a job he has done since 2016.  He lives on the island with his wife Bee and overseas the farming enterprises on the island.

Alasdair gained an NDA at the Royal Agricultural College in 1966.  After spending 7 years managing farming projects in Scotland, he worked overseas on farm management and development projects in Oman, UAE, North Yemen, Jamaica, Georgia and Saudi Arabia.

In 1988 to 2002 he ran his own company Water-Tech, a rural engineering company in Scotland specialising in rural water supplies and the construction of forest road bridges until 2002.  He has also had roles as an estate manager in Jersey, Belgium and France and owned and piloted a 30-metre hotel barge in south west France for almost 9 years before taking up the post in Tristan da Cunha.

Alasdair, who is in the final year of his post says:  “Tristan da Cunha is an extraordinary place.

The island is entirely dependent on shipping and the main revenue-earning product is crayfish.  Agriculture on the island is cattle, sheep and potatoes plus some vegetables and a little fruit. My initial brief included a few fanciful ideas but I concentrated on going ‘back to basics’ in the interests of food security and sustainability.”

The main challenges faced can be categorised as logistical, technical, climatic and cultural.  Cultural issues have developed as the island has little contact with the outside world and because of its isolation the adoption of new ideas can be restricted.

“Part of my work on Tristan da Cunha involves keeping the islanders up-to-date about what we are doing, and why. It is important that I try to develop a general understanding of the steps that we are taking, the advances that we are making, and our overall objectives.”

The climate is temperate maritime, but this does not convey the day to day reality of the weather which plays a pivotal part in limiting farming.  For example, rains in the last 12 months have resulted in serious flood damage, a combination of erosion and alluvial deposits being washed down from the high ground accounting for the loss of some 10% of available pasture land, which previously amounted to around 400 hectares.  Most crops need shelter from the wind to survive.

The limited land area is poor, boulder strewn ground which is not ploughable.  This has become ‘pasture’ by the colonisation of kikuyu grass and other low performing weed grasses, all of which are low in production and low in digestibility.  Soil pH is very low, around 4.8.

“For the first time in 40 years we have started re-seeding some of the pasture land.  During the winter months the livestock have it tough as they are dependent on minimal grazing. We have a total herd of 420 single-suckled cows and followers, and around 800 sheep.  There is no grass conservation, and it is illegal to bring in hay because of the high risk of bringing in in hitch-hikers, which leads to a risk of alien plants and insects arriving on the island.

In small enclosed garden areas there is some production of vegetables and there are two home-made greenhouses that are used for the propagation of seedlings and production of tomatoes and cucumbers.  The climate is such that some crops, notably kale and cabbage will grow throughout the year.

Potatoes have been grown on the island since the first settlers.  They are grown in small wall-enclosed areas called ‘potato patches’ and it would surprise all potato-growing farmers around the world to know that the potatoes are grown on the same ground year after year with no rotation.

The evolution of transport on the island went from donkeys and ox carts to small tractors and trailers.  There is no evidence of any ‘little grey Fergie’s’ but its successors the MF 35 and MF 135 were used as work horses for transport on the island.

“Living in Tristan da Cunha means you need to be flexible and have a practical approach to life,” he concluded.

When ask why Alasdair chose this career path he said, “I was brought up on a large mixed farming estate, and it seemed a natural move to go and do a NDA at Cirencester.  I soon found that I had natural talents in all aspects of applied engineering.  It was almost by chance that I applied for my first overseas job in Oman. 

I found that I enjoyed the challenge and excitement of overseas work.  On my return to Scotland after 15 years overseas, I found that there were few job opportunities in farm management and a whole new generation of people who were lined up for the few positions available.  It was a small sideways step for me to start up in rural engineering, and useful in that it helped to develop a very broad range of practical skills and the ability to think outside the box when presented with problems.

Being a member of IAgrE gives me professional recognition which sends an important message to potential employers that I have the proven ability and interest in rural engineering that is recognised by a proper professional body.

It has also provided me with a number of key benefits including giving me a CPD structure to follow and the opportunity to attend conferences where I have found it extremely valuable meeting fellow practitioners and specialists.”

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