Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The best time to plant trees was 20 years ago....... the next best time is now.

On Friday my Charolais cross bred ewes will be sold at Torlundy mart near Fort William. They are going for two reasons one economic and one personal.

This year it cost approximately £50 to breed and rear a lamb for sale. It then cost £2 to take each animal to the mart and the auctioneer charged another £3 to sell each one. The sale price was down 14 %  to £43 per head. I made a loss of £12 on each lamb.

Unprofitable and too heavy
The "Single Farm Payment" and the "Less Favoured Area Payment" subsidies that we get from Europe add up to just under £600 for this croft. This leaves a surplus of roughly £400 for a year's work. The subsidy comes from the  European Union. In 2019 when we have left the EU it is unlikely to be paid by the UK government despite it being a vital social subsidy for rural Scotland. This is the economic reason for selling the breeding ewes.

Each year these ewes seem to be heavier, stronger and less cooperative or could it be me getting older?

Keeping poultry is easier at my age and it is one of the two farming enterprises in Scotland that produced a profit before the SFP  last year the other was pigs.

As Crofters we have a sort of quasi legal obligation to carry on an agricultural or business activity on the croft. If this isn't a farming enterprise it can be equestrian, a camp site, a golf course, nature conservation or forestry. I intend to plant trees....... as shelter belts, as a source of native tree seed for re-wilding, as a landscape feature and for timber in 50 to 100 years.

Shelter from the prevailing wind will also increase the productivity of the remaining grassland and hens do like to rake about among the trees, it's close to their native jungle habitat in India.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Pine marten on the roof......................... a musical wildlife video

This is our first attempt at a full length ( 1 minute) wildlife film with a musical backing.

A condensed version of a day in the life of Peanut the one eyed pine marten in the Campbell's roof space. She works the night shift then comes home at about 6.30 am,  squeezes between the roof tiles and the rain gutter to get in  above the sitting room where  it's warm, dry and safe.

She stays indoors until 8.30 pm when she leaves for work. this  involves hunting small furry creatures, small feathered creatures in season and killing my hens if she gets a chance.

We think she has lost an eye as only one is reflecting light.

This is what we do on wet afternoons in the W. Highlands.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

A conservation success story........Europe now has twice as many wolves as the 50 contiguous United States

In Britain we exterminated our large predators long before other Europeans. The wolverine is estimated to have gone 8,000 years ago, bears 1000 years ago and lynx in 400 AD. The last wolf is reputed to have been shot in Scotland in 1680.

European brown bear
In continental Europe large predators survived and in recent years have begun to recover in even the most densely human populated landscapes. Europe (4.3m km2) has  more wolves, about 12,000, than the 50 contiguous United States ( 8m km sq.) with 5,500 individuals.The recovery of European brown bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine populations in Europe is a little known and unappreciated story.Recovery of large carnivores in Europe

Conserving populations of large predators is complex not least because they live at low densities and need large land areas often crossing national boundaries.  In N.America black bears and mountain lions still live among low density human populations but brown bears and wolves have largely been confined within protected areas, people and predators are kept apart, the "separation" model.

Here in Europe in the last seventy years changing values, culture and legislation to protect large predatory species have resulted in a successful "co-existence" model.  Co-existence has led to increased and stable populations of bears, wolves lynx and wolverine. Twenty two countries have brown bears, 23 lynx, 28 wolves and 3 wolverine. The wolverine is limited to Scandinavia by climate and habitat requirements. Wolves have been seen and videoed in the Netherlands, the most densely populated country in Europe.Wolf in Netherlands video

Lynx habitat
Here in the UK our only large predators are eagles but there is a proposal to re-introduce lynx to the W. Highlands where this relatively small large predator could help to control deer numbers which are currently out of control. There is opposition of course from the usual suspects but at least one large estate owner is keen on the idea.Lynx Trust UK

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Tracking pine martens in north Northumberland

A couple of weeks ago I had a phone call from a friend in Northumberland, he'd just seen a pine marten at the side of the road as he was driving home. That happens all the time here in Ardnamurchan but Bob lives in England in the Coquet valley about fifteen miles south of the border. Pine martens were wiped out in England in the 19 th century.

The lambs were sold last week, the weather forecast for Northumberland was good and my neighbour was happy to look after the livestock. So a short scatological expedition to Northumberland looked good. Scatological because if I was looking for pine martens the only evidence I'd be likely to find would be pine marten scat.

Rowan berries
Rowan trees are heavy with berries in September and pine martens love them, their scat is full of undigested skins and easily identifiable. Starting where Bob saw his pine marten I have been walking the logging roads and footpaths of the nearby woods for the past two days.

Wild mammals tend to take the line of least resistance to get from A to B, footpaths and forest roads or well used game trails. I'd be unlikely to see one in daylight and despite the rain the ground isn't soft enough for distinct tracks scat would be the only possibility.

Line of least resistance
There's plenty of evidence of foxes and deer but none of martens. I'll just have to keep trying if I find a trail they they are using I'll then setup the trail camera for a night or two. For more on tracking pine martens by someone more experienced than me have a look at the Vincent Wildlife Trust blog.Tracking pine martens

As I have been often told by archaeologists, " absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!".

Update on Monday 11th September

I just found a Northumberland Wildlife Trust press release date 1st July 2010,"Found at last! Pine marten rediscovered in Northumberland." They have unequivocal evidence based on DNA analysis of scat found at Kidland. Pine marten in Northumberland  Not a very effective press release if I only found it seven years later. Or perhaps I'm just not a very effective researcher!

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Pine martens like central heating , insulated lofts and permanent residence.

Pine martens are still an endangered and protected species in the UK. Here in Kilchoan they are more common than domesticated cats. Most residents have experienced living with a pine marten. You may be sitting reading one evening then you hear something like a body being dragged across your ceiling........it's a pine marten.

They don't actually live in pine trees they prefer old buildings and centrally heated houses for the winter. Access is easy most houses over 30 years old provide entrances to the roof space.

Pine marten in the roof space

If you want to remove your visitor you must remember that it has the highest category of protection, higher than the Queen. There must be some bureaucratic process that will enable you to trap and then release it somewhere suitable. If there is I've never heard of it. So what ever you do you mustn't set a wire cage trap baited with jam or peanut butter on toast then release your captive in the woods.

You will just have to live with it like everyone else. As for the smell..... the pine martens don't seem to mind.

Foraging, finding, cooking and eating chanterelles... it's that time of year

I've been complaining daily about the wet summer. But there is a plus side, heavy rain encourages the growth of chanterelle mushrooms.Yesterday I was shown, by someone who knows about these things..... where to find them.Within about five minutes I had filled a large brown paper bag with perhaps one kilo.A slight depression in the woodland floor was lit up with their golden trumpets.... as golden as the yolks of free range eggs.

Beware! there are some highly toxic lookalikes. As well as knowing where to find them you need to be able to identify them. Again you need someone who knows and a guide to edible mushrooms to supplement this. I am not going to help you there it's your  responsibility.

You can store them fresh in a paper bag in the fridge for about 10 days, otherwise dry them in the oven, slowly at 150 C.There are lots of recipes online.

La cuisinere

The simplest recipe is to saute them with onions. I gave mine to Mrs.Campbell who turned out a magnificent quiche with hedgehog mushrooms and chants. I was invited to help eat it of course.

The eating is the best bit...... it would be ill mannered to take photographs. Bon appetit!

If you do go foraging and find them please don't trample on them, please leave some and don't tell anyone where you found them.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Barn owl feeding station

It's pretty obvious why they are called barn owls, they nest and roost in barns, first documented by Ray 1678 (The ornithology of Francis Willugby). Pennant 1768 ( Pennant, T, 1768, British Zoology ii.) calls it the, "white owl" but barn owl is the common usage and barn owl was officially adopted by the BOU (British Ornithologists Union) in 1883.

This is why we have just put up a feeding station in the sheep barn. We know that a barn owl comes in here to roost especially in wet and windy weather and Hamsa wants eventually to set up a hide in the barn.

The offerings on the feeding table are dead mice (humanely killed in a trap in his caravan).

When Hamsa lived in a barn himself at Swordle he used this technique to get some excellent images of the owls who also lived there.

There is also the possibility that owls will find and use the nesting box that's up in rafters.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Consolations of the forest - a Book review

When I read a book from end to end without a break that's a good indication that I enjoyed it and want to share it. If it's my book I give it to someone who will appreciate it, but this one was a library book. It's philosophy and adventure for the dedicated outdoors person,

Lake Baikal
The subtitle is...... "Alone in a cabin in the Middle Taiga". Sylvaine Tesson, French travel writer, adventurer, philosopher and environmentalist spent six months in a 3 m x 3 m cabin alone on the shore of Lake Baikal during the winter and Spring of 2010.

He wasn't entirely alone he was visited by birds, bears and hardy Russian fishermen, during the latter half of his sojourn he had two dogs for company and as an anti-bear patrol.

The hermit was delivered to his cabin in a truck on the ice of the frozen lake from Irkutsk along with basic food, a library of literary and philosophical classics, vodka, Cuban cigars and a satellite phone. That's  a long list of stuff but he wasn't trying to prove he could survive in the Taiga his objective was a meditation on solitude.

There is a catalogue of understated adventure on mountains, in the forest, kayaking, fishing and prodigious vodka drinking with his Russian visitors. His liver must be in one hell of a state. The sat phone played a role too, he was "dumped" in a text message by the love of his life during the longest darkest days of his personal winter.  It's a meditation on that too.

You might ask," if this book is set in an overheated cabin, with seemingly endless supplies of vodka and cigars, where's the outdoor adventure? Read it!

Winner of the Medici Prize for travel writing in 2011 track it down in library or book shop.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Environmental values and the, "new barbarism" - Review of National Monuments in the USA

Giant Sequoia
 33 groves of the world's largest trees under threat in California
Tomorrow (25th August) the review of National Monuments by the US Secretary of the Interior will decide which if any National Monuments are "too big" (over 100,000 acres).I just tried to insert a link here to the National Geographic news site where there are maps and brief descriptions of the sites under review. Mysteriously, this is not possible., but you can get there by googling," national monuments review maps".

This could be the prelude to a nationwide programme of mindless environmental vandalism by the Trump administration, national parks, public lands, marine sanctuaries and of course national monuments could all be under threat.

Potentially there is danger in this for the UK. Our right wing conservative politicians get their ideas and some finance (dark money), second hand from the US like the good poodles that they are. Our own protected areas, rewilding proposals and environmental protection could all be under threat. We could be entering an era of environmenttal barbarism.

There was a time when the US led the world in environmental thinking, ethics and policy. It was an environmentalism underpinned by the values and ideas of "thinkers", remember them? ; Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, Leopold, Abbey..... the list is long and the ideas were good.

The response to Trump's executive order and the review has been enormous 450 organisations on behalf of millions of Americans sent an open letter to the White House saying that a majority of citizens wanted more protection for public lands and wild places, not less! So there is some hope.

Public reaction stopped the sell off of national woodland assets

The UK government tried to sell off 637,00 acres our own public lands and forests owned by the Forestry Commission five years ago.   Public reaction was overwhelmingly against and the plans were abandoned.

Monday, 21 August 2017

The climate of the West Highlands was unsuitable for human habitation before we started to change it

Wet day in Lochaber
It's on wet, windy days in Summer more than in the winter that I sit with a mug of tea in the kitchen and wonder if the climate of the West Highlands is unfit for human habitation.

We humans started out in sub-tropical Africa then as population increased we moved north and west into the Mediterranean basin, so far so good still a nice year round climate. More people then meant further northward and westward expansion into Britain and Norway..........a step too far.

These places are cold, wet and windy year round we migrated too quickly and just haven't adjusted to horrors of the Scottish climate. It's no accident that rates of alcoholism increase the closer you get to the N. Pole..

Climate change has only made things worse. According to the Meteorological Office, in the last 100 years Scotland's climate has become warmer with drier summers but heavier winter rainfall due to the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.Scotland's changing climate

Here on the west coast not only is it wetter and windier but there is significantly less sunshine since I was a boy in the 1940's. Average hours of bright sunshine between 1941-1970 and 1964-1993 decreased by 16%.

Train de Provence
Predictions for the future are more of the same,...... wetter and....... windier but I have a solution for the near future... next month!

Eurostar from London to Nice, you leave after breakfast and arrive at tea time. A few nights Airbnb and daily excursions up into the Alpes Maritimes on the Train de Pignes.

You get off at a delightful Provencal village, have a walk in the sun, a nice lunch then back to Nice for dinner. Chemins de fer de Provence

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Ardnamurchan's Golden eagles have bred successfully this year

A survey of Scotland's golden eagle population carried out in 2015 showed that in 12 years the population had increased from 442 breeding pairs to 508 pairs an increase of 15 per cent. Now that breeding pairs exceed 500 the species is re-classified as  being of "favourable conservation status.Key facts about Golden eagles
 Ardnamurchan Golden eagle

The greatest recovery was in the Northern highlands but west of Inverness to the Atlantic coast the population was more or less static due to a number of factors; overgrazing by red deer reduced the quality of the habitat for eagle prey species, persecution, increased recreational activity, forestry and high Spring / Summer rainfall could have contributed. Hamza's facebook site

In 2015 and 2016 our local pair did not breed successfully. Hamsa, who has been monitoring these birds thinks that their lack of success in the past has been due to poor nutrition and that the provision of carrion as carcasses in Winter / Spring this year was a factor in their success. This has perhaps the added advantage of diverting the birds from killing live lambs during lambing.

There has been some speculation about the possible effect of inter-specific competition between Golden eagles and Sea eagles and the effect that this might have on Golden eagle populations and breeding success. Research in Norway has shown that despite the Golden eagles being smaller, they dominate Sea eagles when in direct competition for carcasses.

In Scotland however, inter-specific competition may play a role the numbers of both species in future when territories overlap and food is scarce.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The problem solving pig and the hens who learned by watching TV

Leaving the European Union will be an economic and political catastrophe for the people of the United Kingdom. It will also be a catastrophe for animal welfare in the UK if the legal status of animals is not safeguarded.

For the last 20 years in European Union law animals have been recognised as sentient beings. This law underpins animal welfare in the EU defining animals as......." having the faculty of sensation, and the power to perceive, reason and think." Legal dictionary definition of animal sentience

I have just signed a petition, along with 34,000 other concerned people, calling on the UK government to safeguard the status of animals as sentient beings. You can do the same.......Compassion in World Farming

Happy high welfare pigs
Everyday I work with animals as I have done for over 60 years. during this time I gradually came to the conclusion that farm animals are much more sensitive, intelligent and perceptive than I or anyone else thought and that industrial farming practices are inherently cruel and unethical.

The problem solving pig
Thirty years ago pregnant sows were mostly kept in steel crates on concrete floors for most of the 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days of their pregnancy. This reduced labour costs, enabled the precise feeding of concentrated rations and was unbelievably cruel. The practice is now banned thanks to EU wide legislation.

Sometime in the 1990 s I came across a video of a very intelligent pig solving a problem. The video showed pregnant sows in a yard littered with straw and fed by a computer controlled dispenser. The dispenser was activated by a transponder around each sow's neck. It doled out a prescribed amont of feed in every 24 hr period. Labour costs were low, feeding was precise and it was high welfare.

One sow however found a transponder which had fallen off another pig. She picked it up and carried it to the computer to get second helpings. How reasoning, intelligent and sentient is that?

Hens can learn by watching TV

Another video shows a pen of hens feeding from red plastic bowls, these birds feeding were being displayed on a TV screen visible to another group of hens. The researchers then placed different coloured bowls  of food including a red one, in the pen of the TV watching hens. The TV audience went straight for the red bowls. They had learned something to their advantage by watching TV, this is highly intelligent  learning behaviour.

Please support the petition Sign the petition

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Perseid meteor shower is back with celestial fireworks

Shooting star over Ardnamurchan

I first became aware of the Perseid meteors while lying on my back on a rock in Death Valley. It was August and we were on a family holiday when sensible people avoid the place. There was one stand pipe for water, it was marked "hot", we didn't. pitch the tent we just spread our sleeping bags on the flat rock and lay there under a magnificent firework display.

The Perseids are debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet , pea sized bits of rock and ice that hurtle through the atmosphere at a rate or 60 to 100 an hour. It's advisable to find a dark place and to be out there in the hours before dawn.

This weekend 12th / 13th august the shooting star display will be at it's height. The forecast looks good with partial cloud so it's worth a try. This time I'll be lying on my back on a rock above high tide at Sanna Bay sometime after 10.30 pm.

No Death Valley temperatures at Sanna, I'll have an arctic sleeping bad, a balaclava hat and a flask of hot chocolate.
Video of Perseid shower 2016

After the show I will add the images, if any.

Where do we get our environmental values?

In the Pacific N.W.there is ongoing debate about the protection of "old growth" natural forest systems and the economic and cultural vitality of local communities. There is a similar but different debate in Scotland about the proposed re-introduction of the lynx to Kielder forest. and more recently Argyll.
Re-introduction of lynx to UK

The debate is often crudely characterised as being , local red neck loggers or agricultural fundamentalists v urban based tree huggers. The lynx debate is polarised between local sheep farmers and urban based wildlife enthusiasts. At the heart of these debates are different values about forests and wildlife and our human relationships to forests and wildlife.

On the one hand there is a set of materialist utilitarian attitudes and on the other values rooted in ecology and a notion of the intrinsic value of nature. This research in the US has shown that these traditionalist utilitarian values are inversely related to income,urbanisation and education but positively related to residential stability. Manning, R 1999

In other words if you have a low income, a low level of education and you are a long time local resident you are likely to value wildlife and trees for their use value. Those valuing trees and wildlife for their own sake, attributing intrinsic value, generally have higher income, higher educational attainment and are not rooted in the local community.

The authors of the article suggest that if current social trends continue then the "traditionalist / utilitarian" value systems will decline and of course as academics always do, they suggest that more research is needed.

We, especially as grandparents ,can do a lot to influence environmental values, the kind of values that would support re-introduction of large predators and rewilding in Scotland.

It's my belief that environmental values tend to be function of age, gender, geographic location, income and education. Many years ago I did a quick and dirty bit of research with a group of environmental studies students to try to determine what influenced their values and choice of degree course.

Formation of their environmental values was largely down to the influence of their grandparents. and primary education. It's one of the reasons I took my grandchildren for a woodland walk this morning.

Manning,R. et al, Values, Ethics,and Attitudes Toward National Forest Management:An empirical study, Society and Natural Resources,12 1999 pp.421-436

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The UK Government Renewable Heat Initiative - Socialism for the wealthy - diddly squat for the environment

If you have £1,000 in a deposit account getting 1% return it will take roughly 70 years to double your money it's the "rule of 70",  divide 70 by the annual rate of return and you get the years to double your money.

Clear felling for firewood
But if you were a mega-rich UK landowner with  trees, and cash in the bank you could do much better out of the "Renewable Heat Initiative" (RHI). This will more than double your investment in 3.5 years, it has a rate of return of 20% and of course these people don't pay taxes, if they pay VAT they get it all back.Fantastic returns on boiler investment

This scheme is based on the Tory (Republicans too in the US) principle that wealth should always flow upwards to those who already have it. We the tax payers are once again subsidising the wealthy and helping the Government to achieve it's targets, there is nothing in it for us.

A woodlot or forest produces an annual increment of wood throughout it's life, the yield varies according to the species, the site and age of the trees. If you selectively remove this annual increment for firewood then that is sustainable and is making a contribution to carbon sequestration. This can be done by selectively felling smaller trees or "thinning" and thereby increasing the growth rate of those that remain by reducing competition when the last trees are felled they are replaced.

However, if you clear fell a wood for burning within say 12 months you will be releasing  50 - 60 years worth of stored carbon in one event.  You have  fuel miles and pellet processing energy to add to the total.

A least one owner of a wood fueled centrally heated castle is Scotland has discovered that he can earn more cash  by leaving his windows open and burning more wood. Of course we are also paying for his central heating. This is,"socialism for the wealthy" and diddly squat for the environment, what the post-Brexit hard right future will look like in spades. But at least the UK government meets it's targets for renewables so that's OK!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Natural poultry keeping...... hatching and rearing

I have been keeping poultry for over sixty years, hatching, rearing, producing eggs and table birds. It has taken a long time but experience has taught me that for the small scale poultry keeper natural hatching and rearing is superior to the use of even the most sophisticated modern incubators.

First invented in ancient Egypt incubators were to supplement natural hatching not to replace it. Of course if you are producing tens of thousands of chicks for sale the use of hens is out of the question. New incubators are expensive, used ones can be dodgy. constant attention to the temperature, humidity and turning routine is called for. Then you need heat lamps, a cage of some description and a draught proof vermin proof shed for 5 to 6 weeks of rearing.

You can safely ignore the advice in textbooks. Eggs can be set at any time of day either by placing them under the broody hen or putting them in a nest at floor level and letting her find them herself. Once she has settled down don't interfere. She doesn't need dusting with insecticide for example and doesn't need the disturbance of a daily inspection. She knows what to do.

She knows exactly what to do
During the first week the hen will rarely leave the eggs to eat or drink, she begins to eat again in week two, by day nineteen she has a voracious appetite for grain.

I put my broodies in a small coop with access to food and water, the coop is then used to provide protection from hoodie crows, sun, wind and rain during the first week of life.. After that the hen and chicks can rake about outside reasonably  safely and supplement their diet with seeds, insects and worms.

After 5 or 6 weeks the hen begins to lose interest in the chicks as they become bigger and more independent, the chicks are also integrated into the social hierarchy of the flock..... simple!

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Under regulated capitalism, competition and consumerism are destroying global ecosystems, driving climate change and wiping out species

All of our environmental problems are a result of the unintended consequences of the application of new technology.

Fossil fuels
For example; the greenhouse gases  that drive climate change are the unforeseen effects of the energy use that arrived with the industrial revolution 200 years ago, the massively increased use of fossil fuels.Video-A century of climate change in 35 seconds

A recent example is the use of novel neo-neonicotinoid insecticides that harm honey bees.Recent research- Neonicotinoids harm bees

If you doubt my claim try this; think of an environmental problem that is not a direct or indirect consequence of the application of new technology. You cannot do it. If you think you can......please post it in the comments section.

Neonics kill bees
An individual capitalist or corporation must apply appropriate new technology as quickly as possible in order to gain a competitive advantage. Business does not want to be held back by testing for side effects on the environment. They usually get their way and this results in more environmental degradation.

The market for our basic needs; food, shelter and security depends largely on the size of the human population. Demands of the market can be sated relatively easily. So you have to be sold stuff that you don't really need in order for businesses and the economy to grow. This is consumerism.

Shop till you drop....destroy the planet
ergo Capitalism, competition and consumerism are destroying the planet.

He owns the White House, the Kremlin and Westminster
The, Trump White House is wholly owned by corporate America. In Russia the Kremlin is owned by a kleptocratic oligarch mafia. China practices "State Capitalism" and elsewhere corporate lobbyists call the shots and pull the strings.

The global capitalist system is out of control and  incapable of change.

Effective change would require fewer people with fewer perceived needs and more government regulation of business, that might just save  the planet but how to we get from here to there....Greed rules OK.

Oh... and the people who voted for Trump are still being screwed by his corporate supporters.

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.

UPDATE 05/08/2017

UK could face food shortages after Brexit

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.