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 .

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, .

The DEFRA map of TB outbreaks in the 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