Monday, 11 December 2017

The woods in winter......... tracking the Scottish wildcat Pt. 2




Invermallie (Spot the bothy)
Well of course I was being over optimistic. In the time available and the survey team of two in a area of at least 100 sq. miles there wasn't much chance of finding tracks or getting trail cam video. Of anything other than deer, foxes and pine marten. But it was spectacular, blue skies, hoar frost, snow covered mountains; the woods in winter.

The birds were a compensation; Goldcrest, Goosander and Woodcock .

Hamsa ( village photographer / wildlife cameraman) was so taken with Invermallie he decided that
The wildlife cameraman
he wants his wedding there. First he has to find a bride who is likely to agree but it is a stunning place on a day like yesterday. It's probably a better place to introduce your children to "affordable accommodation"  in remote areas. Then like mine they can dine out for ever on horror stories from their childhood holidays. I digress.

Next time we will have to roam wider, spend longer and use more trail cams but only in the likeliest places. In the meantime I have a had a memorable walk in the winter woods.








"The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And  miles to go before I sleep
And  miles to go before I sleep"
.
                                  Robert Frost
Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.




















Friday, 8 December 2017

Another mini expedition.........Tracking the Scottish wildcat Part 1



I've been waiting for  a wintry spell of weather, snow followed by deep frost and this is the forecast for the next few days.  Conditions should be near perfect for a wildcat tracking expedition in the vast tract of wild country between the Great Glen and the Knoydart peninsula. This has to be one of the largest stretches of wild country with the lowest density of humans in Scotland. It's where I'd hang out if I was a wildcat. There's shelter, food and minimal human activity.More about Scottish Wildcats

For shelter there is woodland, gorse thickets, rocky cairns and even abandoned buildings. There is woodland including a remnant of the Caledonian pine forest, streams, rough grazing and moorland for hunting voles and mice. Here in the west there are few rabbits, their favourite prey, in E. Scotland rabbits make up 70 % of the wildcat's diet. As they need to hunt for up to eight hours a day we might find tracks in the snow and the trail camera might find them at night.

Our plan is to walk in to the bothy at Invermallie on the south shore of Loch Arkaig then to scout around
Invermallie in wildcat country




for tracks and set up the trail cameras. As the temperature will be well below zero we will have to pack in some firewood (trees are protected) and arctic sleeping bags. You can find Invermallie and see the extent of this wild country on Google Earth. Mountain bothies

I have optimistically labelled this Part 1 in the hope that we will get some positive results.

My own wildcat (she, Mimi, is a hybrid) just walked in , jumped on the desk and walked across the keyboard. I just let her
Wild Mimi as a kitten
do it, I have too many scars from trying to move her.
Semi-domesticated Mimi



Tuesday, 28 November 2017

North Northumberland again........ nest boxes in trees for barn owls.


The Coquet Valley around Alwinton and Harbottle is a patch work of woodland, hedgerows and grassland much of it rough grazing, ideal for voles and barn owls. Drive two or three miles after dark and you are sure to see a white owl perched on a fence post or hunting silently over the grassland.

The ideal tree in the ideal site in the Coquet Valley
Food supply is probably as good as it gets for most of the year but nesting sites can be few and far between. Before barns, the owls used holes in large old trees they still do of course when available.. Modern farm buildings tend to be enclosed and bird proof. Many of the big old trees have gone with the ancient woodland and hedgerows so purpose made nest boxes can be a big help.

The nest boxes have to be big enough, weatherproof and in the right place. For a detailed plan of the best design take a look at the Barn Owl Trust website. bear in mind it took me three days in the workshop to build and paint this one. I'm obsessive about the carpenter's mantra,"measure twice, cut once"!Barn Owl Trust Nest box plans

Where to put it? For a start well away from fast roads ( not a problem up the Coquet), it doesn't have to be adjacent to rough grazing the owls will commute to work but I guess, the closer the better. The tree itself should be relatively free of branches low down so that the owl can actually see the entrance hole, a straight stem with few side branches around the box is ideal. The fledglings need to hop about near the box. Four metres above ground level provides security from most predators, until the Coquet has it's own population of pine martens.

This box is designed so that it doesn't have to be tied to the tree there is a secure integral hooking device, a wooden spar that hooks over another piece of timber screwed to the tree. I should add, barn owls don't build nests or carry nesting materials they use the regurgitated owl pellets as bedding. Most people don't have a ready supply of these (Hamsa does, he keeps them in his freezer with the dead mice) two buckets full of a dry horticultural compost and wood shavings is a good substitute to get them started.





Monday, 20 November 2017

It's time to plant trees and to learn how to do it!

November is the start of the traditional tree planting season for bare root trees that are two to three years old. Normally, planting of bare root trees ends in March when the plants wake up after winter and start to grow again..

A bare root transplant
But things are changing. Mechanisation and industrialisation of the tree nursery business means that a much smaller number of very large nurseries on the best agricultural land now produce many millions of trees each and they have been able to extend the winter and planting season by keeping "bare root" tree plants in cold stores up until June or even later

Then there are trees grown in germination / propagation modules under plastic tunnels These can be planted at any time as they are well rooted in a ball of growing medium but these are much more expensive and difficult to handle on the planting site. A tree planter can carry 100 or more bare root plants in a bag over her shoulder but plants in modules have to be palletised and are a bit of a logistical nightmare on large, remote planting sites.

For my tree scheme the seed of the ,"native broad leaved" species that I plant must have a known provenance; in short the seed is collected in Argyll and is certified as such. It can then be sent anywhere to be propagated for two or more years before I plant it.

Because I am not a forester I went on a tree planting training course last weekend to learn how to establish a wood and a few basic rules emerged; plant good quality trees with well developed roots, smaller transplants are better than long whippy ones, don't let anything (voles, deer, sheep etc.) eat them, control the weeds and finally the actual planting is a skilled job. Rachel in the picture plants between 1,000 and 2,000 trees a day depending on conditions, I'll get her to do mine.




Monday, 6 November 2017

Nutritional wisdom of poultry .......low cost and low carbon egg production.

The first limiting factor in animal production systems is dietary energy. You can feed all the protein, minerals and vitamins you want but unless animals have enough energy in their ration they will not thrive and produce,

In egg production systems we feed a balanced energy rich, protein rich pellet fortified with minerals and vitamins...... everything the hen needs for egg production. These "layers pellets" make up about 70 per cent of the cost and 70 per cent of the carbon footprint of egg production.

There is an alternative to proprietary rations for for free range hens A large poultry farmer in the Netherlands has 24,000 free range hens fed on biscuit and bakery waste ( high in energy). Because they are free range they can also eat insects, worms, frogs....even mice and plant material to balance their diet.Low carbon, low cost eggs Research shows that hens can select an optimum diet if presented with several different feeds, they learn to do this over time

Real "free range" they go everywhere
My own hens have access to layers pellets and mixed corn ( whole wheat, kibbled maize, oats high in energy). They eat more of the mixed corn than the pellets and still lay perfectly well so are they showing "nutritional wisdom" and balancing their own diets with the wide selection of proteins available out there?

Given the scientific evidence that hens can and do select an appropriate and balanced range of proteins in their free range environment so I am tempted to feed only mixed corn which is cheaper than pellets and has a lower carbon footprint than pellets.

References

Forbes,J.M. and Covasa,M. Application of diet selection by poultry with particular reference to whole cereals, World's Poultry Science Journal, vol 5, issue 2, 1955, pp. 149 - 165



Friday, 3 November 2017

Yoga for owls........ the ,"Half bound lotus" posture.... really!

If you go to a yoga class you will have seen the, " half bound lotus stretch" before ... but "chair pose with dump" is rarely seen in class.



Perhaps we can make a calendar with these clips.

Why do barn owls (Tyto alba) live, hunt and breed in barns?

Stealth hunting 
As I have said before the weather in the W. Highlands makes the place unfit for human habitation in winter, it's cold ,wet and windy. It's the same for barn owls. Because they evolved as stealth hunters with silent deadly flight in warmer , drier climes their feathers are not waterproof and their insulation is poor. Heavy rain, snow and strong winds make vole hunting difficult and energy expensive.

Field mouse about 15 % of owl dinners
It has been estimated from barn owl pellet analysis that voles make up about forty five per cent of the barn owl's diet ,the rest, mainly shrews and mice are found in the same grassland habitats.  These largely nocturnal hunters need to catch 3 to 4 voles each night which is difficult in autumn and winter when voles are  less active and harder to catch.All you ever wanted to know about owls

Historically the solution was to hunt in winter around and in farm buildings. This was an effective strategy for thousands of years when corn was stored in ricks and barns which in turn were heaving with rats and mice. If you have a bird table in the garden you could be feeding owls as well as tits and finches . Spilt seed attracts mice and mice attract barn owls. Barn owls in winter

Yesterday there were two barn owls using the barn from dusk at about 5.30 pm until 8.00 am this morning, we know this from the timing of the video clips. During the day the hens are fed in the barn, they spill feed, the feeders are there 24/7 and this attracts mice.

So my barn provides protection from severe weather and a regular supply of food. This is unusual as most modern barns are not accessible to owls. Mice and rats are controlled with poisons.

The owls also conserve energy by hunting from perches on fence posts in daylight but they are prone to mobbing by crows, rooks and gulls. During daylight they are prone to predation by goshawks and occasionally buzzards .

Last night's video shows an owl comfortably at home in the barn preening, defecating and doing yoga while keeping one eye on the floor for mice.