Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Can a Scottish wildcat hybrid go missing? or is she just a "free spirit"?

My cat, Mimi , went missing at the weekend. She habitually turns up every morning, as I am shaving, to demand food, proprietary cat food, none of that wild stuff. Then..... on Sunday she didn't arrive for breakfast. Had she met up with a fox ? a speeding car? or was she caught in a fox trapper's snare?

She is trained to come to the sound of a goat bell. She didn't come.

Mimi at home in the woods
You might think that a wildcat hybrid could look after herself out there in the fields and woods, she has ferocity genes after all. But cats learn survival skills from their mothers in the first two to three months of life. If that period was spent in a domestic environment they wouldn't necessarily get a skill set suited to life in the wild.

Then there is traffic on this narrow single track road where the national speed limit 60 mph applies and some drivers lack basic common sense, There are cat thieves, fox traps, foxes, eagles and weird people with guns who shoot anything that moves.

Cat owners also have a vivid imagination and often imagine the worst case.

At home in the kitchen
Last night at about ten o clock, after I rang the goat bell and she sauntered up to the house to demand food.

We have had two hot sunny days with a cooling north wind, blue sky and blue placid sea. It's been perfect summer weather. So my guess is that she went on holiday. She spent the time sleeping in the sun having found a nest of field mice.

Cats and particularly wild cats are free spirits., This free spirit is recognised in UK law and hybrid scottish wildcats are not included in the "Dangerous wild animals act". They and their owners cannot be held liable for any damage that they might do to your dog for example..

Friday, 21 July 2017

Small farms, small food businesses and sustainable food and nutrition security (SALSA)

This week I was interviewed by Carole  Doyle a researcher from the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen.James Hutton Institute find out more Carole was interviewing Crofters as part of a large EU / UN project assessing the role of small farms  in food production and sustainability in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Here she was looking at the role crofting has in local food production and consumption of locally produced food. find out more about SALSA

Kitchen table interview
With global population estimated to become 9.7 billion by 2050 this is important. It's clear that we need a shift to a sustainable system that produces more food of higher nutritional value while maintaining ecosystem functions.

We small farmers are important. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2014 estimated that about 1% of farms were of 50 hectares or more and they occupy 67% of the farmland. The majority of farmers (72%) have less than 1 hectare and occupy only 19% of the land. they have a vital role in household and local food supply. In the EU there are 5.8 million semi-subsistence farms.

During the last 40 years in the UK agricultural economists have advised government not to concern themselves about food security. Houses, roads, and factories could be built on grade 1 land because we could import food from Europe and elsewhere.  As for farm subsidies to support food production we only have those in the UK because of the political clout of EU farmers. After we leave the EU subsidies will be toast!

61% of Romanian farms are semi-subsistence
It has often been said that we are, "only nine meals away from food riots and revolution". Politicians would do well to heed this. Small farms producing food for local consumption will have a vital role when the post- Brexit economy collapses and there are food shortages. We will be as poor as Greece but without the sunshine.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

"Fly strike" and "dagging" ........ it's the peak of the season for blow flies in sheep

John Alec cleaning up the ewes
Here in the W. Highlands heat and humidity peak in mid July, some sheep have dirty wool contaminated by dung and urine. Conditions are perfect for fly strike. Blow flies lay their eggs in dirty humid wool, soon the maggots emerge and burrow into the sheep's flesh. It's a painful and distressing condition for the sheep.Fly strike in Scotland

"Pour on" systemic insecticides are a routine preventative treatment but despite this in July there always seem to be one or two cases of infection that have to be identified quickly. This week we had one.

Each day when out on the hill "looking" the ewes and lambs this i one of the things that the shepherd is looking for. Infected sheep tend to wag their tails continuously, rub up against the fence or even bite at their wool.

Yesterday we had to bring in six ewes with dirty backsides for "dagging" to remove the wool around the rear end as this attracts the flies. There was only one infected sheep with just a small patch of maggots that was quickly dealt with and treated. Soon the ewes will be clipped and the threat will be over for them. The lambs however still have their wool and are at risk up until November.
Mid-July warm and humid....... the blowfly season

Monday, 10 July 2017

A keystone species in the Arkaig Community Forest - Wild Boar are back

I thought that after days of rain we might see a hunting osprey yesterday, we didn't. But we did see evidence that a long lost ( since medieval times) keystone species is back. We saw real, fresh evidence of wild boar in the woodland. they had been digging, snuffling rootling and tootling in the grass surrounding the fishing lodge at the west end of the oak wood.

There is corroborating evidence from Glen Loy, an adjacent glen where trail camera video verified their presence. Wild boar in Glen Loy

Keystone species stirring things up
In the UK wild boar come under the "Dangerous Wild Animal Act and if you want to keep them you are required to pen them behind chain link and electrified fences. However, these are highly intelligent and great escapers. Wild populations were established in the south of England  during the great storm of 1987 crashing trees brought down the fences. It's thought that these Scottish boar were originally escapees from the Glen Dessary estate to the north and west of Loch Arkaig.

It was estimated in 2010 that England has 1,300 wild boar in captivity and many thriving populations of boar living free in woods outside of the fences. In Scotland there were thought to be three wild populations. Distribution of wild boar in Scotland 2010

A delicate footprint at 11 o clock from the key
This is great news, a large mammal extinct in Scotland for over 600 years is back and doing its job of literally stirring up the place where it lives, playing a critical role in the ecological community. This is what a "keystone species" is. Like the keystone in a brick arch it holds everything together, remove it and the arch collapses.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Midsummer day..... A walk in the Black Wood of Rannoch

Caledonia pinewood ecosystem
After the last ice age 7 - 8,000 years ago a great woodland  extended across northern Scotland, from the rain forest oak woods of the western shores to the pinewoods of central and eastern Scotland.

Yesterday,  Midsummer day, we walked through one of the 35 remnants of the great pinewood ecosystem, the Black Wood of Rannoch. The wood, over 1000 ha, has survived because of it's isolation and an enlightened forest management policy during the last 50 years.

During the 1st and 2nd world wars much of our ancient forest was felled and with the felling we lost both natural and cultural value.  You can read more about this in an excellent Forestry Commission website describing the history and conservation of the wood.  Black Wood of Rannoch, Forestry Commission, Scotland

The Black Wood is still isolated. From Kilchoan it is  a 300 mile round trip by road. The greener and easier alternative is to take the train from Fort William to Rannoch Station then a taxi. Rannoch and Kinloch Rannoch are among Scotland's most isolated communities but they have an excellent alternative  bus service.

Reliable, fast and friendly
When I was last at Rannoch the communities were served by a daily bus service from Pitlochry,  Now we have, "Demand Responsive Transport" . If you want to travel by bus between Rannoch and Kinloch Rannoch (15 miles) you phone one of the taxi operators in the scheme to arrange your journey. It costs £3.00 for visitors, £1.50 for locals and of course it's free if you have an over 60s bus pass. An excellent service. Kinloch Rannoch, Demand Responsive Transport (DRT2) . It's  efficient, reliable and friendly.

Back to the wood! It's an easy walk, 5 miles and 3 hrs, excellent for families. The Scots Pines themselves have 300 year old life cycle
and you can see the whole age range within this semi-natural pinewood ecosystem. It's "semi-natural" because of human use and influence over tha last 7,000 years.

Wood ant nest.
Semi-natural implies that humans and their influence is non-natural, reinforcing the notion that humans are not really part of the natural world and apart from it. But that's another argument and perhaps another blog post.

Using a wood ant nest to find South - the thatched nest of pine needles usually has a longer, gentler slope on the southern side to maximise the interception of sunlight for solar heating of the nest
Red wood ant, biology, behaviour and ecology

The walk could be improved by provision of an interpretive guide, Aspects of the first 50 years of conservation management are there to see but you need to have read the forest management plan (above) in order to see and understand what is going on. For example plantations of non-indigenous species such as Sitka Spruce and Lodge pole Pine are being replaced by indigenous broad leaved species to restore and expand parts of the wood.Future Forest 2015

Rannoch Station Tearoom

Yesterdays winner of the"British Carrot Cake Society  Award" for the biggest and best slices of carrot cake, 2017.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Photographing Red Throated Divers at the nest........ you need a licence!, cunning and patience.

Wildlife programmes on TV and relatively cheap high quality digital cameras might  encourage you  to take up wildlife photography but beware. You need a licence to photograph certain species in the breeding season, on or around the nest in the case of birds in the UK. The full list of these Schedule 1 bird species is on the British Trust for Ornithology website; Protected bird species in Britain

Red throated "loon" in N. America
I had to tell you that because today Hamsa and I were moving his hide so that he could film breeding red throated divers. He has a licence. I was there to help and under his supervision so "legal".

To get one of these licences you have to show to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) that you are an experienced photographer by submitting examples of your work and two references  to support your application. Licences are not easy to get.

You can't just walk up to a nest site and set up your hide. On day 1 the hide might be 150 m from the nest. Then gradually it is moved closer , so that the parent birds are not spooked into abandoning the nest.  After ten days or so you might be in a position to start filming. An assistant is still needed.

Divers are not good at arithmetic so; two people walk up to the hide, the cameraman gets inside and his gofer walks away.  The divers are fooled into thinking there is nobody there. In evolutionary terms they are the neanderthals of the bird world, crows are the intellectuals.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Are farmers themselves spreading bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in the UK?

The UK farm census figures for June 2015 showed that the average yield of a dairy cow was 7,912 litres.  If a cow produces 7.9 tonnes of milk a year it also produces roughly 7.9 tonnes of excrement, urine and dirty water each year. This is usually stored in a slurry lagoon until it is convenient to spread it on grass land or maize stubble.

Heifers - not cows but a nice pic
Dairy farms are usually stocked at about one cow to each acre, each acre provides grazing and silage for a year. So we have 16 million tonnes of really nasty stuff ( slurry) being spread on 2 million acres of farmland or 8 tonnes to each acre devoted to milk production. This doesn't include the slurry from beef cows .

In the UK as a whole there are approximately 200 packs of fox hounds recognised by the Masters of Foxhounds Association, 150 of them are in England and most hunt on horse back.

From early September until Spring there are 200 packs of hounds running around on the 4 m acres of farmland treated with slurry and also on the adjacent land. There are also wild animals, badgers, foxes, deer etc.running about on this land.

It seems reasonable to ask, could the slurry spread by livestock farmers be contributing to the spread of bovine tuberculosis? I did a search of the literature and the answer is, yes.

There is a risk. TB pathogens in slurry could be transmitted to other livestock and wildlife. See -
The potential risks of slurry spreading

The Canary....... the unspeakable......the uneatable...... and bovine tuberculosis.(bTB)

You may be wondering what canaries have to do with bovine tuberculosis, bear with me.

The Canary is an online site devoted to investigative journalism and today it ran a story about an outbreak of bTB in southern England www.thecanary.co.uk .

Badgers are being shot in parts of England to control bTB
(Against much scientific advice)
The UK Government,  Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has an ongoing campaign to eradicate bTB, this cost £100m  and the slaughter of 28,000 cattle in 2015. Part of the campaign involves the shooting of wild badgers, thought to be vectors of the disease.

Oscar Wilde once described people who hunt foxes, on horses with dogs as, " the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable". Fox hunting with dogs was banned in England in 2004 but there is still an influential lobby trying to get the legislation overturned, The whole thing is "political" because Wilde's "unspeakables" are part of the Conservative Party cohort of loyal supporters.

Fox hunts still exist and are claimed to do non-lethal trail hunting and recreational rides with their hounds, these hounds are expensive to maintain and are often fed on carcasses of "fallen stock", dead animals from nearby farms

That's the back story.

In April this year 25 hounds belonging to the Kimblewick Hunt in southern England had to be euthanized because they were infected with bTB and 100 others hounds were placed under a monitoring regime. These infected hounds had spent the previous Autumn and Winter chasing across over 2,000 square miles of farm land. See the Kimblewick Hunt website, www.kimblewickhunt.co.uk .

The DEFRA map of TB outbreaks in the UK ( www.ibtb.co.uk) shows that there have been 336 breakdowns in TB control in the Kimblewick area this year, the highest in the UK. A Vet quoted by The Canary has said that there is, " a bTB epidemic locally".

Before our recent General Election Mrs. May announced that if she had a majority government she would have a free vote on the reinstatement of fox hunting with dogs. It is strange that it took investigatory journalists to release this story and that DEFRA were silent. Obviously an oversight!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Death in the nest... blow flies and buzzards

Our bird population is probably at it's peak about now. Hamsa is out from dawn to dusk looking for nests, filming and photographing.  

Buzzard five weeks old ?
Yesterday he was filming a buzzard nestling at the nest with it's parents. It looked normal and healthy. This morning when he went back the nestling was dead and heaving with blow fly maggots. At this time of year we have to keep a close watch on the sheep for blow flies. The lay their eggs under the tail. When the maggots hatch they burrow under the skin to suck the animal's blood.

I wasn't aware that birds were plagued by blow flies , until today. A well adapted parasite doesn't kill it's host, that is not in the parasite's long term interest but in this case there must have been a massive infestation.

Raptor nests are pretty unhygienic places, the parents bring in dead animals and bits of carrion in various stages of decomposition with their associated flies and beetles, then their are the mites and lice also present on birds. Presumably blow flies just "blow in".

Probably a meadow pipit
Walking down from the hill we then picked up a dead but perfectly formed meadow pipit nestling probably dropped by a nest raider.

Monday, 5 June 2017

UN World Environment Day - June 5th 2017 - We are addicted to stuff

'The theme this year is "re-connect with nature" by sharing photos, creating activities and exploring our everyday world using inature. You are being encouraged to get out and have a nice time in the natural world, share the experience and perhaps do some citizen science. It's awareness raising at a time when awareness of the World's environment and its problems have never been higher unless you have spent the last 50 years in a windowless basement without access to TV, newspapers and the outdoors.

John Muir's Birthplace, Dunbar, the white house on the left.
The reality of climate change, pollution, species extinction and habitat destruction is not nice. It's our everyday activities including getting out and having a good time in the outdoors that are the problem. We are the problem. It's our insatiable desire for stuff fueled by consumerism.

So here is an alternative activity for World environment Day....... think about it.... try to come up with one environment problem that is NOT an unintended consequence of new technology. If you think that you have the answer please send it as a comment because I can't.

So why is this basic truth largely ignored?  Here are some  reasons, because new technology drives the capitalist and former communist systems. If you run a business you have to adopt new technology quickly to maintain your competitive edge otherwise you fail. There may be costs to the environment but you don't pay for these...... carbon dioxide and climate change are an example.

Our basic needs ( food, shelter, security ) are quickly met leaving little room for growth so we must be persuaded to buy more stuff that we don't need but are persuaded to want, this is consumerism,it drives economic growth and GDP the main yardstick of economic success.

The problem isn't lack of awareness it's addiction to stuff; fossil fuels, fashion, plastic, novelty, travel you name it.To quote Bill Clinton...."it's the economy stupid!"

John Muir's birthplace is to remind you that he climbed the mountains of California on a diet of bread and water, in an old suit, a battered hat and hob nailed boots. He didn't need Goretex or a razor.


Friday, 2 June 2017

Knoydart - A model of community led sustainable land use and development

The Knoydart peninsula is usually and lazily described as the UK's last wilderness". It lies between Loch Hourn to the North and Loch Nevis to the South . It's only accessible by sea or on foot through the mountains. It's isolated, rugged and wild but it's not "wilderness". The hand of man is evident everywhere in the plantation forestry, sheep farms, fencing and dirt roads.

The weather is always like this

In the 19th Century seriously wealthy people bought highland estates to underpin their status and ritually kill the wildlife ( deer stalking) usually while wearing fancy dress, Harris tweed suits with knee breeches. The fancy dress carries on but they now get to the hill on all terrain vehicles , not ponies.

A long string of owners came and went, including a Nazi sympathising Tory MP  from Hertfordshire, until 1998 when the Knoydart Foundation raised sufficient funds to buy the estate on behalf of the community.

This week we visited Knoydart for the Kilchoan old guys annual excursion ( you need white hair and a bus pass to join). In 2016 we walked the perimeter of the Isle of Rum National Nature Reserve ( see blog June 2016). This year we had two walking wounded so back packing and bothies were exchanged for Roger Trussell's luxurious bunk house and comfortable beds.

Forestry and Tourism are the main drivers of the Knoydart economy. The Knoydart Forest Trust is a community led charity that manages the Foundation's woodland and that of it's neighbours. Tree length timber is exported by sea, building lumber is milled here for house building, bridge building and firewood is sawn, split and delivered.

The paddle steamer "Waverley" came into the pier on Wednesday with about 200 passengers if they each spent £5 on a coffee and scone it would be a boost for the tea shop, There is also a community run bunk house and campsite above the long beach,

The Old Forge pub was famous once,  for food, good beer and hospitality. Check out TripAdvisor before you pay a visit. Try the "Road End" cafe at Airor where Veronica's fish and chips rival Rick Stein's place in Padstow.

As a group with a combined age approaching 400 years we are not
Affordable housing
easily pleased or impressed. We were this week. What the Knoydart Foundation is doing looks like a model of community led sustainability. Go and see for yourself

Old guys annual excursion - Knoydart

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Mull Eagle Watch .... sea eagles on the nest

It is  40 years since white tailed eagles (Sea eagles) were re-introduced to Scotland with an importation of 80 bird from Norway. Noe we have over 100 breeding pa1rs with one of the highest populations on the Isle of Mull. I can see a nest from my garden here on the peninsula, with a telescope of course. Every year hundreds of visitors to Mull see them too.
Mull eagle watch

Mull Eagle Watch does Ranger led visits to viewing points and hides where these great birds, they have a ten foot wing span, nest. You need binoculars or better still a telescope; the nest we watched on this week near Dervaig is 300 yards from the viewing point to avoid disturbance.

We watched the female on the nest, then got up stretched her wings and flew into an adjacent tree to sunbathe while her mate took over the nest. for a while. One watcher I met had travelled from Liverpool that day just for this experience.

Each visitor contributes  ten pounds for the visit, so five months of say 30 visitors a day might generate up to 30,000 stg in a season for local good causes. Then there is the income to the island from food, fuel, accommodation etc. On the down side farmers do lose lambs to the eagles but there is a compensation scheme.

It is an example of how the re-introduction of top predators could benefit the local economy and wildlife diversity in our remote rural areas. However when we leave the EU and there are no more farm subsidies sheep numbers will inevitably decline resulting in less carrion and perhaps fewer eagles. An unintended side effect of Brexit?

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Dawn chorus in the Glenborrowdale, "Atlantic rain forest" and world wide.

Next Sunday, 7th May,  is "International Dawn Chorus Day" so where ever you are you can take part just Google IDCD and you will find an event near you.

This morning I was out in the wood (Glenborrowdale RSPB Reserve) by 4.30 am; the birds start up at least an hour before sunrise.

Sunrise, Glenborrowdale
On a bright, windless morning like this birdsong has been estimated to carry 20 times as far at dawn as at mid-day. It was our resident breeding species that kicked off first, the wrens, robins, great tits, blackbirds and a greater spotted woodpecker drumming.

Then the migrant warblers usually start up, the chiffchaffs, wood and willow warblers. But this morning there were no warblers. Perhaps it's been the cold arctic winds in the last week that has slowed them down getting here.

The chorus has male birds proclaiming their territories and females selecting the fittest males, the strongest singers, for mating. You don't even need a wood just step outside at dawn with a coffee to enjoy a free natural concert. In urban areas the chorus tends to start earlier to avoid the background noise of traffic and aircraft. This is a good example of evolution in real time!

Monday, 17 April 2017

I am part of the problem......Burning wood to heat my home isn't as green as I thought

For almost ten years I have been heating my house plus hot water and cooking with wood. I thought that I was doing the right thing and that all that work chainsawing, splitting  logs and stacking gave me a  carbon neutral fuel.

Wrong!... it has gradually dawned on me ( I'm a slow thinker) that I am part of the climate change problem. For a given heat output, burning coal would emit fewer particulates and less carbon dioxide.

Fuel miles!
Wood fuel returns carbon to the atmosphere that was absorbed when the trees were growing but the carbon released by the trees that I am burning today will not be totally reabsorbed for fifty to a hundred years so the atmosphere is taking a big hit now. It wouldn't be so bad if I was planting more trees to capture that carbon when the trees grow.

Then there are the fuel miles used to deliver the wood probably a 300 km round trip with a huge truck burning 100 litres of diesel to bring it's 25 tonne load. Then there's the chainsaw fuel at about 1.5 litres per tonne and the log splitter at 0.5 litres / tonne fuel miles add up quickly.

The greenest way to burn wood would require me to have about 4 ha (10 acres) of my own sustainably managed woodland. If I plant it now there may be thinnings to harvest in 30 - 40 years. I don't have a mature sustainably managed woodland. So what is the green alternative?

I have to make a choice between an oil or LPG fueled boiler or air source heat pump plus  a dual fuel (LPG and Electric) range cooker, with a wood burning stove as back up for power cuts.

Monday, 3 April 2017

New lambs an old shepherd and the last lambing.

Shepherding is hard manual work, the ewes weigh 70 kg., the lambs are fast of their feet and the Shepherd at 74 is decrepit; lame, shortsighted and increasingly deaf, he isn't strong enough or fast enough. This is the last lambing. He doesn't cope too well with the sleep deprivation either. After inspection of the lambing ewes in the small hours it's difficult to get back to sleep.

A better looking more stylish old shepherd, he must be French
In the autumn the breeding ewes, the tup and the lambs will be sold.

It will be a sad day when they all go but here's an upside; more time to sit and think, more time to just sit perhaps and more blogging indoors on wet days at the table in my overheated kitchen.

You may have noticed a not very subtle change in the content of these pages, there has been less crofting and more ranting about politics and environment. Having a rant is one of the few nice things about being old. You don't have to give a damn about what anyone thinks of you (except your partner) and you are sure that you have useful stuff to pass on;  all backed up by facts of course.

It's the job of the media, particularly the Press to hold politicians to account but with the internet and blogs we can all have a go . I don't "tweet".  You can't say anything sensible with 140 keyboard characters it's for celebrity seekers, self-publicists and professional charlatans, you know who I mean.. Even teenagers have moved on from "Facebook" it's just not cool in 2017.

The aim of our work with the sheep this week and next is to deliver them into the world alive with minimum human interference and then to keep them alive because the first two minutes of their life are the most precarious. So are the last two as you know.

President Trump has a plan - "Make China Great Again"

The American journalist H.L. Mencken had an apt one liner for any given situation, my favourite  - "there's a simple solution to every human problem; it's neat, plausible and wrong!

No simple solutions...... no denying it
Luckily the US judiciary and even Republican politicians know this and the administration's ill thought through proposals so far have been stalled or rejected.

Trump has reversed the Obama  "Climate Protection Plan" which he denounced as "bullshit" taking US climate change policy back to industrial revolution levels....  when there wasn't any of course.

At their root our environmental problems are unintended side effects of new technology. I challenge you to come up with one that isn't!

Trump's new environmental policy ( or lack of it ) could have the ironic unintended consequence of, " making China great again."

China is the biggest global CO2 emitter, the USA is second. While the USA is trying to revive  an uneconomic coal industry with coal  in free fall. China  is forging ahead with emission control , low carbon renewable technologies and policies. China could dominate the global clean energy market.

The US by rejecting renewables in favour of dirty fuel could find it's exports penalised by border carbon taxes and lagging way behind the rest of the world in the development of low carbon tech.

Climate change denial is a childish temper tantrum, rage at the inconvenience of  truth and reality.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Brexit - Political folly, economic catastrophe and bleak prospects for large predator re-introduction to Britain

Three days ago I posted a blog about the re-introduction of white tailed sea eagles to Scotland, since then there have been over 100 views ( it's not exactly gone viral! but does show a  level of interest).

Across Europe rare and endangered species are being successfully re-introduced and revived. Only Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Britain have no breeding population of at least one large carnivore species. (Chapron et.al. ).

These rising populations of bear, wolf and lynx in W. Europe are due largely to the EU Habitats Directive which compels member states to protect and revive rare species. When the UK leaves the EU we will lose this compulsion and the possibility of more re-introductions.

On average throughout Europe wolves live on land with a population density of 37 people per km sq., lynx 21 per km sq and bears 19 per km. sq. Population density in the Scottish Highlands is 9 people per km. sq. So you don't need a landscape without people to have recovery of large carnivores in the modern European, human dominated landscape.

The future for re-introduction looks bleak. Last year  a public consultation meeting about the re-introduction of lynx to Kielder Forest in the Scottish Borders resulted in an angry slanging match between those for and those against. The local Tory MP claimed that 90% of locals did not want it, the Lynx Trust claimed that 90% did want it. (Hexhan Courant Mar 2016). Without EU support and with a right wing Tory government which panders to farmers wildest unscientific claims  lynx re-introduction is a long way off.

In June 2016 I voted to remain in the EU, leaving, I believed it would be political folly and bring economic catastrophe, I can now add weaker environmental protection and species conservation.

Chapron et.al. Recovery of large carnivores in Europe's modern human dominated landscapes, Science,346, pp.1517-1519, 2014.

Monday, 27 March 2017

White tailed eagle eating a roadkill badger carcass : trail camera image

By 1918 landowners and gamekeepers in Scotland had exterminated this magnificent bird that feeds mainly on carrion, In your bird guide you will find that they are listed with the European vultures not the eagles. Forty years ago a project began to re-introduce the white tailed eagle to Scotland by importing young birds from Norway where they are relatively common.

From small beginnings on the Isle of Rhum National Nature Reserve the birds now hold an estimated 65 territories on the east and west coasts. On a warm windless day like yesterday visitors to Ardnamurchan can be almost guaranteed to see whitetails soaring over the coast on their three metre wings. Mull is one of their strongholds but they do seem to like a day out here on the peninsula.

March is a tough time for hill sheep and red deer, they are at their weakest after the winter, quality food is scarce and the weather can be horrendous so there is lots of carrion. Hamsa captured the white tail in the picture  feeding on a badger carcass with a trail camera one day last week.

These birds are smart as well as strong. During the stalking season from September until February they turn up in response to a rifle shot because they have learned that there will soon be fresh "gralloch" to eat.  (Gralloch is the deer's internal organs that are left behind on the hill by the stalkers. )

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The,"Caledonian Sleeper" - slow train to the Highlands.

Pinewoods and snow from my bunk
Every night except Saturday a long sleeper train leaves London Euston station for the North. In the middle of the night the train is quietly reconfigured at Edinburgh; one section leaves for Inverness, one for Aberdeen and mine for Fort William.

This morning  I had my breakfast, porridge with honey, as the sun rose over Loch Lomond and the train snaked through pine woods below snow covered mountains to Crianlarich.

Then coffee on Rannoch Moor where the winter landscape compares with the "Trans-Siberian" where it pulls out of the Urals into the west Siberian steppe in the early morning. At Corrour it only needed  Babushkas selling piroshki and beer to make it Siberian.

For comfort, convenience and affordability this is the best route to Scotland. It beats flying as ,"walk on cargo", it saves the cost of an hotel, saves a day and you get a romantic adventure, what's not to like about it? For climbers and  winter hill walkers it gives access to some of Scotland's most isolated high mountains, bothies and the wildlife.

Just before ten o clock we slid beneath the north face of Ben Nevis into Fort William station; on time, well fed and refreshed.

If you have a smart phone (I only have a dumb one)  Scottish Natural Heritage have produced an app for you; see "The View From The Train" to accompany your West Highland train journey, at -  http://snh.gov.uk/enjoying-the-outdoors/viewfromthe train/

Monday, 6 March 2017

Navigating very roughly by the moon.

When we were walking through the forest to the black cock lekking site
Hamza asked me where East was so that he could site his hide appropriately for the dawn light.

I don't have a smart phone with GPS and the compass was in my back pack.  so where was East?

It was three days after the new moon, so a crescent moon was visible. It's a little blurred in the photograph because the camera was hand held.

You can use the moon to find South and if you can do that you can fnd East very roughly but well enough for the direction of sunrise.

After the new moon the sun and moon are not together and the moon must be East or West of the sun. In Northern latitudes,if you draw an imaginary line between the two horns of the moon and extend it to the horizon, the point where your line meets the horizon is South of your position.

Give it a try some night and check it with your compass, it might save your life if you are lost in the bush. Of course you have to be able to see the moon, it won't work with an overcast sky or in a woodland of tall trees. Always carry a compass!

If you disagree with my reasoning add a comment.

Black grouse country..... a mini expedition

Black grouse country

Black grouse are widespread in Europe from the Alpes Maritime to N. Russia. Here in Scotland they are reasonably common throughout the highlands on the edges of woodland where the trees meet the moorland. In Spring they have a spectacular mating ritual, the "lek".

Hamza in his hide , 4.00 am at - 5 C.
Before dawn the male birds fly in to lekking sites where they strut around and have mock flights to try to impress females (grey hens) , they watch from the sidelines. Like human females the grey hens like a man who can dance!

Because they are widely dispersed in the landscape they need to meet up like this to select mates and to mate, think of it as "speed dating" out doors.

The birds are very loyal to their lek sites and the one we visited last week for Hamza to get some video images I have known for the last 15 years, every year they come back to the same close cropped upland lawn on the forest edge in the early morning.

Black grouse,the only one we saw
This year both we and the birds were too early for filming, they arrived in the dark and departed in the dark. It was too early in the season.

Next month when it's light at 5.00 am Hamza should be more successful and in case you are wondering he does have a licence to film schedule 1 protected species.

Happy hens..... outside for the first time in three months.

After an outbreak of the H5N8 strain of avian flu in England in November the hens have been indoors until the end of February. Last week they were let out but we have to take a whole range of bio-security measures.

Feed and water have to be in the hen houses or protected or wire cages tom prevent access by wild birds.

We also have to minimise visitors from other poultry keeping premises, control vermin and provide facilities for boot washing and dipping and disinfectant.

Although they were very happy to get out they were a bit disorientated and tried to nget back inside to the nest boxes they have been using. Hens have a very powerful drive to get to their chosen nesting places and will navigate complex mazes to do so.

I am keeping them in their field houses until mid morning, that way they are forced to use the laying boxes provided for them and will soon get used to the change.

There is a down side, the eggs are dirty because the hens now have dirty feet so eggs need to be washed.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Otter family at breakfast time on the trail camera


There was a new moon last night and a four metre high tide this morning at ten minutes to seven. High water would have driven the otters out of the sea some time before. They appeared on the trail camera at ten to eight running along the bank of a small freshwater pond on Trevor's campsite (Ardnamurchan Campsite).

You know yourself what happens when you've been in the sea, you need a freshwater shower to get rid of the salt, it's the same for otters and they use this pond regularly even though it's only ten metres from the nearest tent site.

I've been trying to get a video clip of them for over a month, All I have had has been grass blowing in the wind or stray sheep, until this morning, when I had 18 clips of grass blowing followed by one of the otter family.

You have to be patient and persistent even with a trail cam. If you are here on holiday and want to see otters here are a few tips:-

  • Get out before dawn or dusk
  • Move slowly scanning the shore in front of you
  • Spend more time sitting still than moving
  • Otters will be out of the water at low tide and high tide
  • Look for footprints in wet sand and spraint on green topped rocks or mounds above the high tide mark
  • You are most likely to see otters swimming when the sea when the water is flat calm the bow wave gives them away.
Good luck!

The barn owl is back with impressionist photography

Is this a new genre in wildlife photography? ...... impressionist?.......modernist?.........surreal? or..... too much partying?  You can just make out the gates, the car headlights and the owl, it's  in the top right corner as it's leaving. It won't be in the next BBC Countryfile calendar.

Hamza was returning home  at 3.00 am and again saw the white owl in the sheep house, he stopped, reversed  and took this photograph. It was another wet and stormy night so the owl is obviously sheltering up on the rafters.

Judging by the white streaks on the rafters it's been there a few times recently and there is a good chance that it will decide to use our hi-tech nest box.

Watch this space!

Friday, 24 February 2017

Sheep stells in the Upper Coquet Valley

Sheep stell  
The Scottish Borders are not quite, "arctic - alpine" in their climate and vegetation but winters can be severe with deep drifts and freezing temperatures, often for days on end.

A hill ewe's reaction to cold wind and snow is to seek shelter in  the lee of a wall, a rock or tree. snow then drifts over her.  Because they are sheep they do things together and many can be lost after a few days of burial.

For hundreds of years shepherds have driven their ewes into drystone walled "stells" for shelter.

The stell like this one at Windyhaugh  in the upper Coquet Valley can be up to 20 m in diameter and are capable of holding several hundred sheep safely until the storm is over. Stells are usually located at low level and near a burn (stream) and emergency food supplies.. The walls are about 1.5 m high and provide shelter all around the whole inner circumference.

At lambing time some ewes may need attention at
 the birth of the lambs or for a lamb adoption  the stell is then a useful holding pen.
Windyhaugh Farm with snow on the way
* Haugh is a Northumbrian word for the flood plain of a stream or river.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Trap door for swallows

Spring and summer
It will be two months before our swallows return from Africa to nest in the rafters of the sheep barn which has year round open access to birds.

Last week I saw a novel way to provide access to less open buildings for nesting swallows.

It's a small hinged door about 6" by 4" in the top corner of Bob Burston's hemmel (stable in Northumberland) door,  left open from Spring through to Autumn then closed after the swallows leave.

I haven't actually seen this but Bob assures me that the birds fly in and out through the opening at top speed.
Autumn and winter

Tomorrow there'll be one in the top of the door of the old byre.

Controlling invasive american aliens in UK and Europe

North Northumberland -big skies and big landscpes
In north Northumberland last week I went looking for red squirrels. I spent an afternoon sitting in a woodland glade didn't get any photographs . However there were signs of their presence; warnings to motorists to slow down for them and spruce cones stripped of seeds. I didn't see any greys either, hopefully because of the control measures.

About 150 years ago grey squirrels were imported into the UK from America as a fashion item to grace the estates of the landed gentry.
They have been very successful and now we have an estimated 2.5 million of these "tree rats" The native red squirrels with an estimated UK population of 10 - 15000 can't compete.

The greys store four times as much fat reserve for winter because they evolved to survive much tougher winters in the Eastern USA, they are more prolific and are adapted to living at hgher densities than the reds.So greys have displaced  reds throughout much of England and Wales and in recent years have moved north into Northumberland and the Scottish borders..

Bigger, stronger faster breeding greys also carry "squirrel pox" or  Parapoxvirus to which they are immune but it is fatal to reds.

The "European Squirrel Initiative" began in 2002 to remove the american aliens from the whole of Europe to protect biodiversity and prevent economic damage to woodland. "Northern Red Squirrels" grew out of this, it coordinates population mapping of both species and control of the greys.   www.northernredsquirrels.co.uk

There used to be a bounty on the greys in the 1950s because they strip the bark from trees sometimes killing the tree directly or indirectly by opening up the tree to fungal infections. I think the bounty was 2/- ( two shillings in old money) per tail, an attractive payment for boys with air rifles. Now they are caught in baited cage traps and humanely disposed of.

More recently as pine martens have moved south into grey squirrel country it seems that they may be effective and selective predators on greys which feed more on the ground than reds. The reds can move fast high up in the tree canopy on flimsy branches where the pine martens can't follow.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Scots Pine - Scotland's national tree and black grouse.

Me on the left Trevor (Polar explorer on the right) we're a bit over qualified for this expedition but that's what happens when you become a "wrinkly",
In 2013 we had a national vote to decide on a national tree for Scotland, 52% of respondents voted for the Scots Pine. It's not exclusive to Scotland, I've seen the species from Spain to eastern Siberia. Until about 6,000 years ago it was predominant in the Caledonian Forest on drier mineral soils but clearance started by the neolithic farmers and continued up to WW2. Climate change also had a hand in it.

We still have remnants of the pine forest from Argyll to Wester Ross and the Cairngorms. It wasn't a closed canopy forest of tall straight trees there was a range of age classes other tree species and open spaces of high biodiversity. Yesterday we had a walk through one of the remnants, in the Cairngorms, to find a black cock leking site that I last visited ten years ago.

They spend the day around the forest edge grazing on blaeberry ( blueberries) and perching up in the pines. The " lek" is a spectacular mating display that starts before dawn and carries on into the morning. First, the males birds fly in do there macho displaying then the females arrive (the grey hens) to watch, participate and eventually mate with the best dancers Hamsa wants some video  of this display.

He has a licence to film  protected species and will be back towards the end of the month, to set up his hide and then freeze through the night until the birds arrive. No footage or pics yet as I can't find mine they are somewhere in the loft on a memory stick. I'll add them when I find it. In the mean time you can find black grouse in your field guide, between the falcons and the partridges.