Thursday, 18 January 2018

Red kites above the M40 and a speed trap

In medieval England red kites scavenged in towns for waste food and on battlefields human cadavers they were even reputed to steal clothing from washing lines to decorate their nests and steal bones from dogs.

Wheeling, diving and gliding
Then in the nineteenth century landowners exterminated them. The birds were thought to kill lambs ( they didn't they are scavengers) and they were easy to shoot, poison or trap. By the 1980s there was a small breeding population in a remote valley in Wales. Then the 1990s saw the start of one of Britain's most successful conservation projects.

Breeding red kites were re-introduced from Spain to the Chiltern hills in southern England between 1989 and 94. As I was driving north on the M40 motorway this week through Buckinghamshire I counted 17 kites on a twenty mile stretch of road. They were wheeling, diving, gliding above the six lanes of commuter traffic looking for the previous night's roadkill, foxes, badgers, pheasants the usual victims.more on red kites in the Chilterns

They seemed to be spaced out fairly evenly along the road and this led me to wonder if they have their own territories. Or a they are performing  the role that vultures do other places, perhaps one spots a carcass and then signals this in some way to the others who then fly in to join the feast.

Since the first re-introductions twenty years ago we now have healthy breeding populations throughout Scotland, Wales and England. Red kites are even repopulating the towns and cities having been seen in N. London and Reading. Are people in the suburbs feeding them on tinned dog food I wonder.

Bird watching while driving isn't a great idea, as I rolled into Fort William yesterday afternoon I was caught in a police speed trap for the momentary lapse in concentration, 3 points on my licence and £100 fine I guess.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Do you remember an inn Miranda .........And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees

One hundred and fifty years ago Robert Louis Stevenson (according to me) started the adventure / travel  writing business with.... Travels with a donkey in the CĂ©vennes. When, fifteen years ago we followed his route from Le Puy to Florac, I carried a copy with me that could still be used as a trail guide.

In the early 20 th century the Anglo-French writer, historian and traveller Hilaire Belloc set the pattern for future trail guides with his publication of, The Pyrenees, in 1909. Last night I sat down to read it.

I couldn't help but compare it with, Trekking the GR 10 Trail, Le Sentier des Pyrenees published 100 years later in 2009. Both volumes include; how to get there, when to go, the weather, accommodation and walking routes with maps. But perhaps most interesting is Belloc's advice on what to take.

Belloc is an advocate of lightweight trekking and the bivouac rather than a tent where a bothy ( cabane) is not available. His kit list includes; a well designed backpack that hoists the weight high on your shoulders, a  gourd for wine, a blanket, matches wrapped in a waterproof pouch, a spirit stove and billy can. Enough food should be carried for at least three days, one and a half pounds of bread per person per day (French army rations at the time) and saucisson, two litres of wine in the gourd and that's it!

Pyrenean inn, Andorra
Clothing should be of wool, all of it! Walking on mule tracks in the mountains is much more comfortable according to Belloc when wearing rope soled sandals rather than leather boots, carry a stick, map and compass. We've gone back to wool, at least for a base layer now just about every corner of the world is mapped if only by Google.

Despite being an advocate of lightweight trekking Belloc includes a chapter on inns in the Pyrenees, one of which is also the subject of his best known poem.....Tarantella. The story of a wild night in an inn during a festival at Canfranc in northern Spain. On the Tarantella Trail, Oli Foster, Times Literary Supplement

Do you remember an inn
Do you remember an inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding
And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees
And the wine that tasted like tar?
And the cheers and jeers of the young muleteers....


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Carrion crow a long way from home

This morning after I fed the hens I noticed two crows among the hens, a carrion crow and a hooded crow. We just don't get carrion crows here as a rule. Because they tend to be south of a line drawn from Glasgow to Bettyhill on the North coast of Scotland.

Hooded crow
The distribution of both of these species wasn't always like this. A hundred years ago the two populations were separated by a line running from Dumfries to Dundee on the East coast. Along that line the two species interbred to produce hybrids which are fairly easily identified by their plumage.Changes in the carrion crow/ hooded crow hybrid zone in Scotland . Cook 1974

Over the last hundred years a number of population studies have documented the change in distribution of the two species in Scotland, Italy and Denmark. In the Ligurian Alps the hoodies have moved further up the mountains and along the Danish / German border here has been a similar shift.

Carrion crow
Why has this happened. Immediately one thinks...... must be climate change!...... but hooded crows can cope with much higher temperatures and seasonal range of temperatures  than we experience here in Scotland from Central Russia to Spain. There mus be some other agency at work.

Modern intensive agriculture could to be the most likely factor. Carrion crows thrive in lowland Britain's industrialised agriculture and perhaps the hooded crow can't compete so readily in this environment. Similar changes in the intensity of farm production at lower levels in the Italian Alps and Germany could have driven the change there.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The GR 10 from the Atlantic to the Pyrenees......... can I do it?

Part of the GR 10
I woke up one morning two weeks ago thinking, " I need a challenge" my children are grown up, the sheep have gone I've no responsibilities. Then I read Ranulph Fiennes biography, "Mad, bad and dangerous to know" he's the same age as me (75 this year) and still trying hard to top himself in Antarctica or the Arctic. I'm not in the same class fitness wise but it set me thinking.

Then today I had an email from Mac Hoskins, a friend from the early 60 s. Re: Your blog 16th Dec.

Regarding a walking trip, I recommend the Pyrenees.
There are three waymarked routes, two have accommodation at the end of each day
( some rather hard days). I have always taken lightweight equipment as it's normally warm from July to mid- September and wandered at will not following any particular route.
My last trip was in 2015 at 75.

The GR 10 trail is something I have wanted to do since my teens, but lack of time and responsibilities precluded a six to eight week trail walk of 1,000 km from the Atlantic to the Med. Past experience tells me that one's pack for this sort of walk should not exceed 6 kg so overnights in refuges would be a necessity especially as you have to set out on some stages with at least 2 L of water. 

A way round the pack weight would be to take a donkey (See, "Travels with a Donkey" R.L Stevenson) but when I put this to a French farmer friend a few years ago he said it would be more trouble than it was worth and it would be difficult to feed and pasture.

Then there are my knees...... but I could build in rest days, time is not important. I doubt if any of my contemporaries will join me so it would be a solo trip.

And... to quote La Passionara" heroine of the Spanish Civil War, "it's better to die on your feet than then to live on your knees".

This is obviously going to occupy some of
Mac Hoskins on the GR 10
January's wet afternoons in coming up with a feasibility study and then perhaps a plan.  Note..... this is day dreaming, not a firm commitment but it could this space.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Pine marten at a red deer carcass last night

We tend to think of pine martens as living on voles, mice, rabbits, birds ( including my hens) but they are opportunists too. Here we have a female pine marten at a red deer carcass yesterday, the deer died from natural causes.

The pine marten clambers up on to the carcass, squats and then urinates. Is she scent marking the carcass to tell others that it's hers?

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Orphan otter cub rescue on Boxing Day.

On Boxing Day one of my neighbours, Julie, was exercising her dog down on the beach. She came across a young otter on it's own by the tide line. It began to follow her and then she noticed it was dragging a hind leg.

Julie picked it up, took it home and called Hamsa. Hamsa called the Otter Refuge on Skye to arrange a pick up. He put it in a deep, dark cardboard box with a blanket for the night. Yesterday he handed it over to Ben Yoxon from IOSF (International Otter Survival Fund). What to do if you find an otter cub

Julie and Hamsa did all of the right things. Young otters are totally dependent on parental care not just feeding but for protection from predators such as foxes and eagles. We did show the otter to my grand children but they didn't handle them, they are best left alone to recover , they do have very sharp teeth and of course we don't want them to become habituated to humans...... that could be  dangerous for them. But  if you hand someone a baby otter they can't help cuddling it. Luckily this one is friendly and doesn't bite.

I spoke to Ben Yoxon at the IOSF refuge this morning and he told that the cub is well, eating salmon and has an appointment with the Vet for an inspection of the leg infection.

Video: Hamsa delivering the otter and totally ignoring the advice about cuddling small furry creatures.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Wild geese grazing............. 9 geese eat as much as 1 ewe (roughly!)

Non-migratory feral greylags

An average dairy cow weighs about 450 kg, I know, I had one stand on my foot and crush my big toe many years ago. So one 450 kg cow is equal to one LSU or grazing livestock unit based on the assumption that farm animals eat 2.5 to 3 % of their body weight each day. Why am I telling you this?

Well at lunchtime as I stood at the kitchen window I watched a flock of 38 greylag geese grazing it's way across the hay park in front of the house. I wonder how many sheep were the equivalent of 38 geese?

I worked out that 45 to 50 geese weighing 3.3 kg are roughly the equivalent of one 450 kg cow or nine 50 kg ewes. So the wild geese were equivalent to 4.2 ewes weighing 50 kg. In the past I would have gone out there and moved them on to graze somewhere else but now I don't have any sheep and I need to keep the grass short.

Goose grazing is a double edged sword, they produce a huge amount of goose shit and of course this fertilises the grass encouraging it to grow again if not now in the Spring.

Not many kitchens have a close up view of grazing wild geese so I should encourage them.