Thursday 28 September 2017

Hunting the Skipinnish oak...... one of Scotland's oldest trees

There's a rule of thumb that says you can measure (roughly) the age of an oak tree by measuring the diameter of the trunk at chest height with the span of your arms. I think you have to be of average height (me). Your arm span equals your height, in my case 5' 8" or 172.5 cm., and each span is worth 100 years of growth.

Soaring above the surrounding thicket of birches
Today I set out to find the "Skipinnish oak" a very old tree in what were once the policies of Achnacarry Castle. There is no signage to tell you where it is, no footpath and no interpretive display board. But the kind attendants at the Clan Cameron museum pointed me in right direction, told me that it was completely hidden by other lesser trees and that I would have to climb the deer fence.

A very old oak is going to be a very big oak I thought. So I scanned the forest canopy. There were three large venerable oaks in roughly the right place but their trunks and lower branches were completely obscured by a thicket of much younger trees.

Taking a bearing on the tallest I set off in a straight line over ditches, rocks, tree stumps and bog to the deer fence. Deer fences are at least 7'  high and if they are in good shape they aren't easy to climb. You have to find a strainer post that doesn't sway and wobble so I set off along the fence. I was in luck a ladder had been built up and over the wire.

Because the deer have been excluded there has been spectacular regeneration of birches, a thicket so dense I had to shoulder my way between them up the knoll to the old giant. My photo doesn't do it justice, you have nothing to compare the diameter of the trunk.

Measured around the huge boss about five feet above ground level
I measured approximately 5 spans..... about 28 feet. or 7 metres in circumference. So it's 500 years old, maybe more.

When Achnacarry Castle was destroyed by the Duke of Cumberland's troops after Culloden in 1745 the great tree could already have been 200 years old and it looks as if its still growing.

NB. The vegetation inside the fence is different from that outside. Inside there is quite spectacular natural regeneration of birch, oak and hazel. Outside the regeneration is much less due to deer browsing there are some oak seedlings and hazel but it is really sparse compared with inside.

If you want to know why it's called the "Skipinnish Oak" have a look at this link...Skipinnish oak

Monday 25 September 2017

Autumn mist and spider's webs

10.00 am , mainland Britain cut off from Mull....ferry cancelled
It's warm and windless with a sea haar (mist) enveloping the coast. Mainland Britain is cut off from Mull. The ferry has been cancelled. Fence rails, bushes and branches are festooned with spider's webs shiny with drops of dew. It's a perfect W. Highland day.

Garden spider web

Garden spiders are fully grown and hungry for flying insects. They rarely live beyond the first frosts. Overwintering eggs are tougher hatching in the Spring to start the life cycle over again.

Amorbious species have evolved these tangled untidy webs to catch crawling species as they move over trees and bushes.

12 noon mainland still cut off

The sky is a lot bluer than this, it really is a perfect day unless you want to get to Tobermory.

Sunday 24 September 2017

Hooded crow takes an egg away for breakfast

Crows, ravens, rooks and jays (Corvids) are thought by some authorities to be as intelligent as apes. They can solve problems, use tools and think ahead.

Earlier this year Trevor at the Ardnamurchan campsite found his windows splashed with blood one morning.A hoodie crow had been attacking it's own reflection thinking it was another crow. Not all that intelligent you might think it should have been able to recognise itself well some crows been shown to recognise themselves in mirrors.

Hamsa left the trail camera outside his back door one morning last week with an egg to attract the crows. See the video for what happened next and the intelligent way in which the crow made the egg portable.

Before the crow got there my cat "Mimi" a wildcat hybrid also got in on the act. Even serious minded wildcats can be playful

Peanut the pine marten is voluntarily relocated and patient she does come out of the box eventually

Just over a week ago I posted a piece about "Peanut" the pine marten living in the Campbell's roof. Since then things have moved on. I made a pine marten den box. Hamsa put it up on the roof above the valley gutter near where she was entering the loft and now she has moved in.See video clip.

From the top; two side entrances and central nesting chamber
Peanuts and peanut butter were used to entice her to investigate, she must have liked what she found because we now have video of her entering and leaving.

Den boxes have been successfully used to help conserve pine martens and to monitor their population by  the Forestry Commission and the Vincent Wildlife Trust.

In commercial forestry plantations the trees are close together and relatively young there are few trees with natural den sites ( deep holes in the trunk). A scarcity of den sites in tree cavities  is a major constraint on population growth. Den boxes have been very successful in Scotland and Ireland. The martens can safely shelter from the weather and predators (foxes).

In the workshop nearly finished, it needs two more coats of paint
Den boxes have been designed to be weather proof, a similar size to natural sites, well insulated and with two entrances, they like to have a choice of escape exits.

Now that we know she is using the box we can block off the hole in the roof, the pine marten will be safe and the Campbells will be free of an unwanted guest.
For all you want to know about pine martens and making den boxes click here

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'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.