Like many of us here in the UK, I’ve really enjoyed the BBC Wild Isles series, and am full of admiration for the dedicated camera crews and production teams behind this series which raises such important questions about the future of our natural landscape. The sequences shot in Islay and around Shetland were particular highlights for me, as was the stunning fifth episode, whose spectacular narrative sequences and beautiful photography were the work of underwater cameraman, Doug Anderson. I’ve become really passionate about what’s going on to protect and restore Scotland’s marine environments as a result of the work I did for our Secret Coast project, exploring what happened to Argyll’s fishing industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As well as the subject I was ostensibly researching back then – the story of Loch Fyne’s lost herring – I read an awful lot about Scotland’s marine environment, and began to really think about the exploitative and extractive nature of certain kinds of salmon farming (whose huge commercial interests hold an awful lot of weight in Scotland) and learn more about great community-led habitat restoration projects, (such as this one at Loch Craignish). The Wild Isles series seems to have reignited a debate on the important subject of Scotland’s Higly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) and I thought I’d share the piece I ended up writing for our Argyll project, about what I learned about Loch Fyne. You can read this essay, together with a range of others by historians like Stephen Mullen and Gilbert Márkus, in our Argyll’s Secret Coast book.
On Loch Fyne’s Cowal shore, is Otter, whose name is an an anglicised variant of the Gaelic ‘oitir’, referring to the distinctive spit of land that extends westwards, at this point, from the shore across the loch. Formed by the continual tidal movement between Loch Fyne’s upper and lower reaches, Otter’s mobile ridge of sand and shingle emerges each day from the surface, and then sinks away from view.
The loch is often calm, but even when the water reflects the far shore like a looking glass, at Otter everything is in motion. Lifted from the loch bed, turned and re-turned by the tide, the jaggy edges of oysters are gradually ground down to a suede-like softness, and cockle ridges are smoothed away, like the worn faces of old stone saints. Whether rose or chestnut coloured, dull grey or streaked with quartz, pebbles lifted from the spit at Otter lie sleek and polished in the palm. This is a landscape of attrition, a place where you might put your hand to the ground to feel the sands of time.
Otter is a quiet place today, but two centuries ago, it was the focus of a strange and bloody conflict. The sandy spit, a boundary of sorts between the loch’s lower and upper reaches, began to mark the difference between two communities, and two different ways of life. These communities had once felt connected, but they now found themselves set against each other, in peculiar opposition. The spit was the frontier between two sides divided over a resource that was the property of neither, but which both nonetheless fiercely claimed. One side championed the virtues of tradition, continuity, and careful management. The other flew the flag for enterprise, profit, and innovation. Both acted entirely out of their own interest, yet within the context of a growing problem that was much larger than themselves. This is both an old story, and a very modern fable. It’s the story of how Loch Fyne lost its herring.
Herring are mysterious fish: their shoal migrations are difficult to fathom, their movements and behaviour notoriously uncertain. Yet, for centuries, the elusive silver darlings had provided an important boost to the incomes of the crofting communities along the upper reaches of Loch Fyne. Loch Fyne is the longest of Scotland’s sea lochs, extending inland for more than forty miles. By the early 1800s, around the shores of the east and west upper loch, were clustered many small communities, growing bere, kale and potatoes on small crofts, supporting their family with a cow or pig or two and, when the season was right, fishing for herring. Soft-mouthed herring cannot be caught with lines, and in upper Loch Fyne they were traditionally trapped with wide-meshed drift nets. Like gigantic curtains, these nets would be drawn out at night, before the herring rose to feed, hanging down into the depths of the water from cork buoys floating on the surface. Made of flax, and weighted down with ropes, these nets were huge, unwieldy, and difficult to maintain. Because the location of the herring shoals could rarely be accurately predicted, drift-net fishing could be somewhat hit and miss, owing more to chance than to design. Retrieving the herring from the laden nets was hard and heavy work, and the nets themselves required continual drying and repair to ensure their good condition. But one or two small vessels with well-maintained drift nets might serve a whole community: several local men could hold a share in a boat, and hence a share of its profits, and herring caught by the drift-net method could be quickly sold on to the curing merchants, who, in season, stationed their large processing “busses”, ready to salt each new catch, at the top of Loch Fyne.
By the early 1800s, herring was a lucrative and highly sought after catch, both for the domestic market, and increasingly for export, as herring preserved by the salt “Scotch cure” provided the empire with a cheap and easily transportable source of protein. In the decades that preceded emancipation, between 50,000 and 80,000 barrels of cured herring were exported annually from Scotland to the Caribbean, to feed the enslaved people whose labour generated huge profits for Scottish plantation owners, many of whom, of course, hailed from Argyll. Greenock fish merchants, Glasgow curers, West Indian exporters: everyone was cashing in on the herring boom, and the fishing communities of Argyll were no exception. Close to Cowal, on the neighbouring peninsula of Kintyre, was the coastal village of Tarbert, where, unlike the mixed, marginal, crofting communities of upper Loch Fyne, fishing provided a continuous livelihood for the area’s working men. So as well as catching herring around the mouth of Loch Fyne, Tarbert fishermen liked to work further out at sea, seeking different catches of different types around the inland waters of neighbouring peninsulas, down towards the Clyde and up towards the Minch. By the 1830s, Tarbert’s enterprising and highly mobile fishermen had begun to try out different methods of catching herring, actively seeking out the shoals rather than waiting for them to show up. They tested lighter nets with smaller meshes, in which many more (and younger) herring might be caught, and they experimented with a new way of trapping and catching the elusive fish. Rather than the hit-or-miss drift net curtain, their new method involved two boats working together, actively locating, pursuing, and encircling a shoal with a lightweight net of drawstring bag-like construction. Chasing and trapping the fish in this way was peculiarly skilled, exacting work: experienced crewmen could “read” the position of the herring from tiny signs in the dark water and calculate the position of their nets by feeling a shoal’s vibration against a wire.
But as well as adult fish, the efficient small-meshed ring nets caught herring fry, and other fish of different types: many more than could be taken or indeed were wanted. When boats were at capacity, any herring not landed by the ring-netters were simply left to die. But, for these enterprising fishermen, this waste was not regarded as a problem. Because from their perspective, they were simply onto a winner: their new equipment was lighter, cheaper and easier to manage than the cumbersome, labour-intensive drift nets; their skilled work of reading tides and shoals was efficiently accomplished; the volume of herring that they began to catch was far greater than that of their drift-netting neighbours; and, of course, the profits of their catch were greater too.
By the 1840s, the Tarbert ring-netters were capturing huge quantities of herring in the mouth of Loch Fyne, and around its lower reaches, toward Otter. Alarm bells began to ring for the drift-netters further up the loch when, alongside significant reductions in their seasonal catches, they noticed dead fish, decaying in the water and by the shore. They immediately recognised the problem as one of overfishing. The new ring-netting method was depleting the loch’s overall stocks of herring, as well as creating waste, whose putrefying presence itself deterred new shoals from moving around Loch Fyne.
The sandy spit at Otter rapidly became the focus of the emerging tensions between Loch Fyne’s drift-net and ring-net fishers. Not only did the spit mark a natural boundary between the loch’s upper and lower reaches, but it was a convenient and safe landing point for skiffs and crews who worked at night. Local landowner, Mungo Campbell (who had made a huge fortune from the profits of slavery in Guyana, and who had recently enlarged his Ballimore estate with the “compensation” money paid out after emancipation) wasn’t keen on the escalating herring conflict on his doorstep. He issued official complaints about the local presence of a new “class of boats not owned by the regular fishers of herrings” and their habit of “dragging [their catch] to shore on spots favourable for the operation, such as the sand reef of Otter . . . at all seasons and all hours of night.” These practices, Campbell argued, were “hurtful to the herring fishing in its proper season” and could not “be put an end to . . . unless made illegal by an act of parliament.” John Miller of Scotland’s recently-established Fisheries Board eventually agreed. Unless the Tarbert ring-netters were “entirely prevented,” from working around Otter, “the Loch Fyne fishing, which has for centuries been famed for its herrings, will be annihilated and its industrious fishermen ruined.” There were, Miller argued, clear grounds to suspect “that this new mode of catching leads to extermination.” Miller was right, of course, but he didn’t know that then. Still, with the support of influential local figures like Campbell, the “buss” curing lobby (whose profits had been affected by the new practices), and the Fisheries Board, in 1851, the British government introduced an act making the practice of ring-net fishing illegal in Loch Fyne.
To police the new act, an armed government survey vessel, HMS Porcupine, was stationed near Otter. But the commanding officer soon complained that he and his men were finding the law impossible to enforce, because of the “determination, cunning and ingenuity” of the ring-netters. In 1853, a Porcupine patrol shot and wounded Colin McKeich, a local ring-net fisherman, during a confrontation, and things became much more difficult for all involved. Well-supported parliamentary petitions were lodged by both sides—the ring-netters arguing for their superior efficiency and their right to fish where they chose, and the drift-netters protesting that, if overfishing continued at the rate of recent years, there would be no herring for anyone to harvest from Loch Fyne. Further clauses were added to the act—by law, ring-netted catches and equipment might be seized; by law, processors and merchants buying herrings that had been landed by illegal methods might be prosecuted—but still the men from Tarbert came to fish and sell their catch. In 1861, Loch Fyne’s herring conflict turned to crisis. In June of that year, after landing a catch at Otter, Peter McDougall, a young ring-netter from Ardrishaig, was shot and killed by a government patrol; Tarbert ring-netters were pushed over the Inveraray pier and chased out of town by hayfork-wielding drift-netters, and, the following month, “riots and bloodshed” were predicted on the shores of Loch Fyne if the Tarbert men continued to venture to Otter to land their catches. On August 5th, it very nearly came to that, when a group of 300 drift-netters sailed to Otter to confront the small group of smacks and skiffs from Tarbert that, in spite of repeated warnings, then lay at anchor off the sandy spit. There were angry words and an exchange of fire between the two sides, before the drift-netters eventually withdrew.
Attempting to regulate and police fishing in the 1850s and 60s must have been extremely tricky. The government simply could not hope to keep tabs on the activities of small groups of skilled, experienced, and determined men, working under cover of darkness, who could communicate with one another in Gaelic as well as English, and who were able to move rapidly, discarding nets and catches when alarmed. By 1867, the parliamentary act outlawing ring-netting was deemed to be essentially unenforceable and, bolstered by the evidence of record annual catches of Loch Fyne herring (which incorrectly convinced the Fisheries Board and government that the new methods did not affect overall stock levels), the methods of the Tarbert fishermen were legalised. And in any case, by this point, ring-netting had begun to be adopted by other fishing communities, spreading to the Hebrides, and then north to the fjord fisheries of Norway—a landscape dominated by long sea lochs, like Argyll.
The drift-netters had complained that the ring-netters mode of fishing was essentially unsustainable. They had pointed out the waste the new method generated, highlighted the problematic destruction of herring spawn and fry, and suggested that these practices heralded the inevitable depletion of Loch Fyne’s herring stocks. They had found themselves swimming against an extractivist tide—against the prevailing nineteenth-century doctrine of taking, exploiting, and profiting from whatever the natural world provided—and eventually, they had lost. Within a few short decades, the boom was over. Overfishing had its predictable effect. The debate between efficiency and sustainability, between quick profit and long-term management, was now immaterial. Because the herring had gone, and no longer supported the small communities of Loch Fyne.
From our twenty-first century perspective, the moral trajectory of this story seems straightforward. For who wouldn’t support the cause of sustainable stock management over that of overfishing? But, unlike the feuding communities of Loch Fyne who could not really know the future, we have the benefit of hindsight. And we must remember that for many years, for several generations of maritime historians, this story has been told with a very different emphasis: as a battle between conservative, backward-looking, luddite drift-netters and their creative, enterprising, forward-thinking ring-netting counterparts. We might also consider the questions raised by Loch Fyne’s herring crisis within the context of an advanced division of labour: as a conflict between those for whom herring fishing had become an increasingly specialised and highly skilled economic activity and those for whom it simply comprised one among many different seasonal crofting tasks. And all that is before we begin to think about the multiple, overlapping layers of poverty and profit, of grotesque greed and exploitation, that form this story’s global backdrop.
The drift-netters and the ring-netters fished in different ways, but close ties also bound them together. They shared a sense of coastal place, a language, a local culture, and the common identities of poor working people striving to support their families with the resources provided by the marginal landscapes in which they lived. Both communities were also clearly exploited by the processors, who bought their raw fish very cheaply, cured it, and sold it on to the merchants and exporters, who in turn profited from the product in an imperial marketplace, where it had become the key component of the diets of enslaved people, who had themselves been bought and sold as commodities, and put to work to grow the enormous wealth of Scottish plantation owners. The silver fish defined the conflict between two Loch Fyne communities, but also lay at the heart of a much bigger narrative, a story that continues to this day, a story that concerns the extractivist, imperialist exploitation of the global south.
Today, a very different fish—the carnivorous salmon—is carefully grown and harvested around the beautiful shores of Loch Fyne. The feed of Scottish farmed salmon is made up of smaller fish, like herring, or sardninella, such as yaboi. In Senegal, the yaboi has long been known as the “people’s fish” but local fishermen now sell what they catch to big, European feed processors rather than to the small, shore-side transformatrices (curers). Yaboi stocks are rapidly depleting, and the “people’s fish” sadly plays a much smaller part in Senagalese diets. Rather than feeding West African communities, the nutritious yaboi now fills the bellies of the hungry salmon farmed in Scottish coastal waters, which we, in our turn, consume.
Across the sandy spit at Otter, the waters wash back and forth, transforming rocks and shells to shingle, and shingle into sand. The past throws up many stones and many stories, and it does not always give us straightforward answers. But it is more important now than ever that we continue to tell and retell these stories, turn these questions over and over, in our own discursive tides.
On the yaboi, West African diets and Northern European farmed salmon, I recommend listening to both parts of Hazel Healy’s brilliant BBC World Service documentary, Tale of a Tiny Fish Part one and Part two
On the West Indian cured herring market pre- and post-emancipation, see David Alston, Slaves and Highlanders, Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean (2021)
This essay is indebted to Angus Martin’s thorough history of the Loch Fyne herring conflict, The Ring Net Fishermen (1981). Martin, a descendant of generations of ring-netters, concluded, after many years of researching and writing his book that his ancestors had been part of a much bigger problem. His final paragraph reads: “the most profound and influential personal lesson of these five years of questioning and gathering has been this: that Western society, by its criminal contempt for the fellow-creatures which share its corner of the planet, has brought itself to the edge of an ecological and moral crisis from which, without the exercise of immediate and unswerving restraint, there can be no withdrawal.”
The photography is by Tom, of course. You might also enjoy the short film he shot to accompany my essay.
Read more Argyll stories in our book, Argyll’s Secret Coast
Thanks for writing this – I especially appreciate your drawing attention to the connected patterns of unsustainable resource management and the exploitation of the Global South – and how deeply hard-coded this model of exploitation runs in the DNA of modern capitalism. Your recounting of how the unresolvable differences between the two factions involved in herring fishing ultimately led to the extinction of that species in the loch is perhaps the thing that troubles me most about this history, along with the galling fact that the last episode of Wild Isles – which laid out sustainable possibilities for climate restoration – was deemed “too political” to air on mainstream BBC and so could only be watched on iPlayer. As long as we continue to view climate crisis as a party-political/National/policy-based set of issues, we too run the risk of losing “all the herring”, so to speak. I agree that overfishing is part of the problem, but I don’t think we can reduce the complexity of how we care for our oceans down to a simple farmed fish/fisheries vs. overfishing wild populations equation. All these complex problems are deeply interconnected and we cannot ignore global inequalities when we are trying to iron out solutions – as your post so beautifully shows, a key factor in climate crises and the disasters facing our natural world is global inequality which must be tackled along with the myriad ecological disasters caused by extractive and exploitative approaches.
Thank you for the piece, Kate, which drew me into the harsh world once inhabited by families around the Otter. I discovered so much. My current concern is that much of history is now being wiped from the board and denied. Painful though it was, it offers lessons that can only be beneficial if recognising our part in historical events. Whether it’s environmental neglect or racism and extermination in conflict such as WW2. I believe, denying our past, rewriting a different tale for film, drama or text in the way we prefer to see it today is perilous for future generations.
I take issue with many of the comments i have read . Why hasn’t anyone mentioned the fact that wild catch fishing is unsustainable as it stands at the moment. The UK has a truly awful track record in managing its fisheries . Herring are just one of the species that was fished almost out of existence . And today it is no better . We only implemented licences in 1992 and then it was only for boats over 10m . We have a whole host of fishing regulations but a minimal effort to police them. The old fisheries in Loch Fyne are a lovely bit of history but thats all. It was an era when the idea of sustainability was non existent . It was a free for all . And it frustrates me to see the usual demonisation of fish farming . I’m sorry , but this is wrong also . You have to judge this industry alongside its livestock equivalents on terra firma , and if you do this properly you will see it is , in many ways, the way to go . And lastly you need to call out the elephant in the room ….overpopulation. All the problems highlighted above are directly caused by overpopulation and the need to feed more mouths than our environment can cope with. Tackle that and you have the beginnings of a solution.
I agree entirely regarding the regulatory issues you raise, Peter. The broader point I was trying to make with this “lovely bit of history” was the repeating pattern of Northern Europe exploiting the Global South – in the first instance by enslaving its populations (who were fed on Scottish herring) and today by extracting one of West Africa’s good, cheap sources of protein (which did and could support impoverished human populations) to feed to Scottish and Norwegian farmed fish – which, far from being a necessity in Northern Europe are a mere matter of aesthetics and taste. I agree that aquaculture offers good solutions, if practiced sustainably: sadly in many instances, it isn’t.
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Hi Kate , thanks for your reply . Some forms of aquaculture are more sustainable than others. So for example farming fish such as Tilapia or carp is more sustainable than fish that require fish protein in their diet. But when you judge salmon farming ( or any marine farming of fin fish)you have to compare it to all the other livestock alternatives( pigs, chickens , beef etc ). If you do this you will see that it’s the most efficient in terms of food conversion( i.e food fed to biomass produced and 4 times more efficient in this respect than catching wild fish) it uses less antibiotics than any of the alternatives, and it uses , increasingly less therapeutants of any kind . Also the salmon industry’s carbon footprint is good by comparison . It deposits fish waste in close proximity to the fish farm installation ( SEPA enforce the farmers to monitor this very closely and will close a farm if it goes beyond a pre calculated limit) and the nutrients deposited will degrade relatively quickly leaving the original seabed as it was. It is also a vital part of Argyll and Butes local economy providing many hundreds of jobs and keeping our fragile communities alive .
I don’t understand what you mean when you say that that the farmed fish are a “mere matter of aesthetics and taste ” ? …a vital part of a healthy diet i think you mean. And fish protein comes from all over the world not just west Africa ( i’m not sure what % comes from here ). Much of it also comes from the waste produced from fish processing . However i agree with you that the harvesting of “industrial fish” needs to be better controlled so that situations ,such as you have described, in West Africa , do not occur and also that it is carried out in a sustainable way. Our sandells have suffered the same overfishing and now this is affecting the wild bird populations. Lack of governance and it all boils down to money in the end .
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Again thank you for such an interesting insight it is such a tragedy that we as humans change things that affect many near and far for decades and centuries. We as humans really need to learn. There is so much that can be said and most here have already covered it as well as yourself. Thank you again.
It’s so sad, but not surprising, to read this history as we watch the depletion by over fishing of the herring on the coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. These are the herring that feed the salmon that feed the endangered resident orcas. Will it ever end while there are still fish in the sea?
The pictures are, as always, fabulous.
This post is very fascinating to me as I’m from the Boston MA area. Our story of the Boston fishing fleet is as as is America’s first fishing fleet in GloucesterMA . Because our ocean fishing areas have been badly overfished, all fishing is government controlled. Our prices for fish are very high, but hopefully the stocks of some of our common fish are being enlarged by this control. Thank you for this article👏👏👏😊
A fascinating article, leaving me frustrated yet again at man’s greed. Who speaks for the Senegalese? Same old story, all over the world.. our beautiful planet exploited for the largesse of a handful of very wealthy people, who appear to have no soul (or conscience).
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A fascinating article, rich in details, thank you. However, as a keen supporter of marine conservation and regular diver around the west coast of Scotland, I have to take issue with the notion that salmon are “carefully grown and harvested”. Mortality rates of salmon are huge – often more than 50%, the fish are covered in lice and other parasites, so huge quantities of chemicals are added to the water, their excrement wrecks the surrounding seabed by altering the balance for endemic species. Man’s greed and assumption that the seas are there to be plundered continues unchecked.
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you reiterate my point, Sarah! I’m in complete agreement with you about the unsustainable nature of salmon farming
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I live in Tasmania, the small island state south of the Australian mainland. Salmon farming has happened here for a long time, but it is only just recently being recognised as so environmentally destructive. The whole industry is under the microscope, as previously pristine harbours, some of which are important to both Indigenous people and our own convict history, have been turned into underwater deserts. I used to love eating Tasmanian salmon, but will no longer touch it. I won’t be part of such ecological destruction.
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This makes me think of the similar fascinating history we learned about at the Herring Museum in Siglufjördur in northern Iceland. Their herring depletion took longer and happened later, though it had a happier ending with a now tightly-managed program with catch limits on the much smaller current herring stocks. That museum was full of so many excellent exhibits. Like how the countries of the North Atlantic travelled on herring stocks for food, and used herring meal to feed their livestock, without which the outcome of WWII might have been different. The living quarters of the “herring girls” who salted the fish and packed the barrels and often earned more than the men who fished were especially poignant to me as they were the same age/era as my Mum and her sisters who grew up in a fishing community in Canada. It’s amazing how a little fish can have such an outsized impact. Thank you for this history.
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Even the second time round this makes uncomfortable reading. 200+ years on we are still deep in exploitation – of planetary resources, of other people (emphasis on ‘other’) and all at a greater distance. Far easier to concentrate on the beauties of the scenery, the knitwear and Tom’s amazing photography.
Until we’re reminded by the likes of David Attenborogh (Sp? Sorry, he’s only been The Naturalist for all my life!) and the amazing team of camera people and naturalists his name attracts in series like Wild Isles , that, actually, it’s what WE are doing too, and it’s up to US to do something about it, right in our own back yards, shopping baskets and fridges. Preferably before it’s all too late – as emphasised by Storm Noa rattling through yesterday afternoon.
Because the people of Coastal Senegal need to live too!
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Very interest resting post, it’s a tragedy that so much damage is done to the environment and to the people of other countries by our desire for cheap food and flowers. The market for out of season flowers does huge damage to parts of the world where flowers are grown rather than crops to feed the people. This article also reminded me of a about fishing for shellfish in Wales were the boats literally tear up the ocean floor to harvest the shellfish causing untold damage to precious marine environments.
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I need to sit down and re-read this. There is so much good and important information to absorb! Thank you for your research, your clarity and your insight!
What an interesting story thank you. I enjoy your posts enormously as they are so rich in ideas.
Love the story of fishing “battles” on Loch Fyne, and the lovely photography, but I am left with a question. Were these Argyll communities at all affected by the Clearances that were happening further north and in the Highlands?
(Asking because I know the history of Loch Morar, Mallaig, Lochaber, etc much better)
much less so, Laura, for various reasons – some Cowal communities were certainly cleared from their established settlements to planned villages and fermtouns to make way for sheep, but Cowal is one of the only areas of west-coast Scotland whose rural population actually *expanded* during this period – again for various, interconnected reasons (related to its relative proximity to Glasgow). The area is a really interesting anomaly!
Thanks! It really is an interesting difference and I agree that it might be because of proximity to Glasgow.
Hello I want to say how impressed I am with the KDD & Co emails I receive. As a scot living in England, you capture what I miss so much. The photograph are wonderful, your writing is always interesting and informative and your knitting patterns are an inspiration. What more can I say – thank you! Lizzie
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I agree with all that you said, Lizzie! I live in Colorado, but I feel the same way. I love these posts!
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