Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Barrisdale bothy under new management

Over the years the Barrisdale bothy had a bad press.....

" The worst bothy I've experienced....infested with mice....garbage..... unclean.... blocked up fireplace".

On our walk in to Knoydart last week we took a look inside.

For £3.00 a night it seems to be good value there's an honesty box for payments. New owners took over a couple of years ago and things have changed. There's a well furnished ( by bothy standards) kitchen with table and chairs, it's clean, there are sleeping platforms, a flushing loo and no rubbish lying about. I've stayed in worse.

As for the lack of fireplace;  bothies have burned down in the past due to drunken behaviour, vandalism and sheer stupidity so you can hardly blame the estate for blocking it up.

We walked in from Barrisdale because the reports of the bothy were so bad otherwise we would have walked from Kinlochourn and stayed overnight.

 Peter Fletcher ( the Arnisdale boatman) picked us up at Kinlochourn for the half hour trip to Barrisdale. To book this excellent ferry service phone Peter on 01599 235007. Barrisdale ferry

Mam Barrisdale descent to Knoydart


Friday, 27 April 2018

Not many people know this Part 2.........bees are safer but our drinking water may be next

A little safer now
Today, Friday 27th April 2018 the European Union banned the outdoor use of three neonicotinoid insecticicides. But this still leaves some of them in widespread use including acetamiprid the active ingredient in Gazelle which is used widely in our forests to contol large bark beetle.

It's not just used in fields and forests, if you have a dog or cat you probably use it regularly to control fleas, you can also buy it in supermarkets and garden centres to control greenhouse insect pests. It's everywhere. Acetamiprid is also used to control bed bugs but people who reasd this blog don't have bed bugs.

Acetamiprid has been found "moderately toxic" to bees, so that's OK!  but it's still toxic and has been licenced by the EU until 2033. Moderate toxicity doesn't justify reigning in it's very widespread use and affecting corporate profits, supermarket income to protect water quality because even when used indoors it gets into the drains and water supply..

This could be our next concern
On the posiitve side, politicians seem to be listening to the scientists and responding to widespread public concern. But acetamiprid is highly toxic to birds, kills non-target species, is soluble in water ( think drinking supplies ) and toxic to humans , have a look at the safety notes on your systemic cat flea killer. EU ban on neonics

Friday, 13 April 2018

Not many people know this..............Neonicotinoids in Scotland's woodlands Part 1

Forest industries in Scotland make a huge annual contribution to our economy through; timber growing, timber processing, employment in forestry, recreation and tourism. The forest industries support 26,000 FTE (Full-time equivalent) jobs and create an estimated Gross Value Added (GVA) in our economy of £1bn each year. It's important and it's big business but like all industrial activity it has the potential for vast environmental damage.Economics of forest industries in Scotland

Our national forest estate looks pristine, natural and healthy but there is something unseen and potentially damaging going on...... the deployment of neonicotinoid pesticides to control the large pine weevil (Hylobius abietis).

This beetle eats the bark of all tree species but is particularly damaging in commercial industrial forestry. Sitka spruce the most numerous and widespread commercial tree species are especially vulnerable to beetle attack and are being treated with a neonicotinoid, (Gazelle) in forest nurseries and commercial woodlands.

Bark weevil reproduces rapidly in the stumps of recently felled trees and it is necessary for then to die out before replanting or the new  plants will be ring barked and killed.
Neonicotinoids have been found to directly affect honey bees and indirectly song bird species in the UK and throughout Europe. Is widespread use of neonics in forestry going to have disastrous unintended consequences on wild life and the environment as they have in industrialized agriculture? , not least by killing non-harmful and beneficial insects. Insect pests of trees in Scotland

There are people who work in forestry who think that neonics are potentially damaging to human and ecosystem  health and that non-chemical physical barriers to the beetle, nets and wax treatment should be standard practice as in Scandinavia.

Last week I was working with Rachel Watt planting trees on my croft. Rachel is a forestry contractor with 35 years experience, she told me about this problem, it was the first that I knew of it. Most of what goes on in the Forest Industries is completely unknown to the majority of us so I have asked Rachel to write an insider's story of neonics in our woodlands. See the next post.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

A long walk in the Pyrenees

Back in the depths of winter ( 13th January) I perhaps rashly, posted a blog proposing that I walk from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean through the Pyrenees along the route of the GR 10, Le Sentier de Pyrenees. From Hendaye-Plage to Banyuls-sur-Mer it's a journey of 995 km in 55 daily stages and 53,000 m of climbing. I can see what you're thinking..... "He now knows what it involves and wants to back out".Do you remember an inn Miranda, January 2018

No, I still want to do it, but more slowly than in 55 days; perhaps 60 or 65 days in June, July and August. I do have," form " as a GRdiste, the Tour of the Glaciers of Vanoise, the Route Stevenson through the Cevennes, hut to hut in the Alpes Maritimes and the toughest, the GR 20 across the mountains of Corsica. But the last was twelve years ago. So I do need your help; and perhaps Mac Hoskins would like to join me for one of the stages?

At my age there is no way that I want to carry a tent and all of the gear for that distance over so many mountain passes. The solution is to use Mountain huts, gites d'etapes, hotels and where necessary cabanes ( bothies).  According to the guide there are only two nights when a cabane is necessary. However; since the last trip when mountain huts in Corsica cost slightly less than £20 a night, huts and gites in the Pyrenees cost £40 a night, add travel, insurance and a modest per diem allowance of  £10 a day and you have a total expedition cost of £3,500. Too much for a Crofter on a pension alone.


Is there anyone out there who wants to spend a month or two months of the coming summer renting and living in my house and being a Crofter? This would help to finance the expedition, you could take over the blog for two months, look after the hens, do shepherding, fishing, walk the hills and take care of Miss Mimi my hybrid wild cat. Craigard Croft on Google Earth

From the kitchen window

When Hamsa gets back I'll ask him to make a short video of the croft, inside and out and then I'll post a link so that you can have a close look at it. In the meantime, Jacqui Chapple who runs Steading Holidays is going to look after inquiries and handle any  Steading Holidays

Friday, 23 March 2018

Where to find and see red squirrels in Scotland..... "squirrel hot spots".

If you have been paying attention to some of the recent posts on this site you will be well informed about squirrels and might now want to see some

It's the school Easter holidays soon and if you are in Scotland you can visit a number of Forestry Commission sites where you can see them close up. Scotland is home to 75% of the UK's surviving red squirrels and our forests are being managed to help them flourish. It's in these red squirrel, "strong hold forests" that you can see them close up.

For an interactive map of Scottish red squirrel distribution have a look at this site; it will help you find them. Where to see red squirrels in Scotland

I visited one of these sites at Inchree just south of the Corran Ferry, off the A82 earlier this week. As usual I didn't have high expectations but I was wrong. At one point there were five squirrels only a few metres away from the wooden screen with viewing holes in the Forestry Commission car park.

The best time is probably around mid-day when it's warmer. And!...... if you have a dog please don't let it loose, if you do you certainly will not see squirrels.

I only had my phone camera with me so You have to look very carefully at the feeder in the second tree, there is a squirrel peering out from behind it. How to find the Inchree squirrels

View from the screen

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Silent Spring 21st March 2018............ neonicotinoids again.

I first read Rachel Carson's classic, "Silent Spring" nearly 60 years ago in 1963. It's an account of the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the USA and their devastating effect on wildlife, pets and  people. Today is the first day of Spring 2018 and according to French researchers, Spring in France will be much quieter than 25 years ago. Birds are disappearing from the French countryside at a phenomenal rate.

One third decline in 25 years
Research by the, Centre national de recherches scientifiques(CNRS)  shows a catastrophic decline of at least one third in song birds due to agricultural intensification, particularly the use of neonicotinoids on wheat mono cultures. Bees and other insects in general have declined by 75 - 80 per cent. As a result there are one third fewer partridge, thrush, chaffinch and turtle doves compared with 25 years ago.

Although the adults of the species above eat grains the young nestlings all need insect  protein to grow and survive. We have known this about the grey partridge in the UK for fifty years. The researchers say that the partridge in France is virtually extinct.

These results are based two methods; a long term study over 25 years on 10 ha sites throughout France and citizen science using amateur ornithologists to carry out surveys together with the professionals.

Virtually extinct in France
In order to bring you this piece of bad news I had to translate from the CNRS ( Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques ) press release with my big Hachette dictionary, any mistakes are mine.  My own observations on declining insect numbers are anecdotal and  based on car windscreens. Fifty years ago when cars were slower  we had to stop regularly in summer to clean the windscreen of , "fly squash". Now we don't! ......there are far fewer insects about.

A final thought.........loss of biodiversity on this scale is as catastrophic as climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, global freshwater use, interference with the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles and changes in land use. ......... we are standing by watching while our house burns down.

Click here for original press release

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

An alien invasive species.......... the grey squirrel's days are numbered.

National treasue
Red squirrels are a national treasure, we are brought up on stories of Squirrel Nutkin, in the wild they are pretty,charismatic individuals, we love them and we want them to thrive but their future is threatened by the alien, invasive grey squirrel.

Greys cost the UK forest industries round £14m a year by damaging timber. They strip bark exposing the phloem cells causing damage that isn't often apparent until the trees are felled.

I spent yesterday at a conference where the latest research on interactions between.  pine martens, grey squirrels and red squirrels was presented and discussed. The message was; where European pine marten populations have recovered from near extinction grey squirrel numbers decline dramatically towards extinction, while the native red squirrel population in the same areas increases.Pine marten recovery reverses decline of red squirrel

National enemy
The grey squirrel was introduced to Britain in the nineteenth century and it carries squirrel pox virus, this doesn't harm the grey but it's lethal to the reds when the two populations meet and mix. A whole range of grey squirrel control methods have been used with varying success; shooting and trapping are the commonest. Birth control is on  the brink of widespread use.

A specially designed protein that causes infertility is incorporated in a bait for the greys. The baited traps can only be sprung by the greys because they are heavier than the reds. The active ingredient in the bait works once ingested and is then broken down quickly in the body of the grey squirrel, this should avoid, "unintended consequences" such as passing on the birth control effect to other species such as scavenging mammals and birds.

Even choice of tree species by foresters can help to control  the greys, in areas likely to be colonised by greys, not planting large seeded broad leaved tree species,such as hazel and oak, removes the grey's food supply but can favour the red.

National hero
In the Sottish Highlands the recovered pine marten population is likely to stop the invasion of greys. In the Borders, Wales and Northern England it may take 30 - 40 years for pine marten numbers to recover sufficiently to  provide effective grey squirrel control. In the meantime birth control looks as if it might be quick and effective.

The red squirrel and the pine marten co-evolved over millions of years. Reds tend to know how to avoid martens most of the time. The greys evolved in N. America and are not really acquainted ( co-evolved) with the pine marten and are less aware. this seems to account for the martens killing many more greys than reds.

Meanwhile, today we have the first video recording of a pine marten in Northumberland.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Tripylos (1,407m) and a wild mountain sheep

Valey of the cedars from Tripylos
The Valley of the Cedars has two species endemic to Cyprus, the Cyprus cedar ( Cedrus brevifolia ) and the Cyprus mouflon (Ovis gmelini ophion). On a  walk up to the fire lookout on Tripylos summit I would certainly see the cedars in their complex ecosystem  and there would also be the chance, however remote, to see  mouflon.

Cyprus cedars have high ecological and economic value but by 1879 it had been recognised that it was in danger of extinction after fires, grazing and over felling. Since then it has been protected by the Forestry Department in a nature reserve between 900 - 1,400 m.

Mouflon lookout
The very fact that large, rare,wild mammals live in woodland add a great deal to any woodland walking experience even if I don't' see  them it's important to know and feel that they are there. So I set off with little hope of seeing wild mountain sheep but packed my binoculars anyway.

What better place could there be than fire lookout for a 360 degree view of the surrounding forested ridges.  Here the woodland is quite open with glades and scree slopes where mouflon might travel or graze. It is lambing time so the herds tend to be split up with the males travelling and living alone.

A close cousin, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep

After 30 minutes or so at the limit of my eyesight and binoculars I found the rounded golden brown form of a reclining mouflon ram in the sun on the opposite ridge about a kilometre away.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Winter hill walking for crumblies............

A "Crumbly" is over seventy years of age, if you are 60 - 69 you are a "Wrinkly". I have noticed that the little green international footpath direction sign features two Crumblies with walking sticks, bad posture and dodgy knees. See below.

For Crumbly hill walkers in Scotland  winter isn't really over until June and by then the last warm, dry day you can remember was nine months ago. So I have been researching an escape for Crumblies with and without dodgy knees. I think I have found it; don't do it in Scotland do it in  the Troodos mountains of Cyprus. It's like California; aquamarine skies, brilliant silvery light and draughts of warm fragrant air welling up from the valleys.

It must have been Napoleon who said, "time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted" it's the second rule of warfare. The first rule is, " don't invade Russia", that was General Montgomery in 1945, but I digress. I have spent a week doing some reconnaissance  for you.

The best time to go is now, perhaps a little later if you want migratory birds or May for flowers, the weather is perfect, shirt sleeves all day,  no heavy waterproofs needed, just a light windproof jacket at the bottom of your pack with factor 50 sunscreen to hand, it's the one your grandchildren use.

The roads are amazing, almost traffic free and no potholes so hire a small car. Even remote villages have excellent roads slightly wider than our single track roads in the highlands this is necessary as Cypriot drivers don't take prisoners when cornering. Drive on the left.

Troodos is probably the best base for a few days, two hours from Paphos airport and a hub for walks. When Cyprus was part of the British Empire the entire colonial administration moved up here in summer to avoid the heat down in Nicosia. The Jubilee Hotel is one of the last remnants of British rule and residence.

The trails are well engineered, they tend to contour around the mountains, are well surfaced so trainers will do and they are well way marked with a combination of sunshine and shade as they weave in and out of the pinewoods

Thursday, 8 March 2018

A short walk around Mt Olympus and some serpentinophilus grassland.

Serpentinophilus grassland
It's still winter on the shores of the N. Atlantic but here in Cyprus  there's sun, almond blossom and blue skies. On Mt. Olympus the ski lifts are abandoned, the last of the snow is rotting on the forest trails and the woods are slowly filling with flowers,  birdsong and  walkers.

The Cyprus Forestry Department has laid out a series of, "natural trails" on old forest tracks and newly engineered paths that are attracting walkers from all over Europe. In the car park at the start of the "Artemis trail" this morning nine out of ten vehicles were hire cars ( they have red number plates) the walkers were French, German, Italian and British.

600 year old black pine
I am a week or two early for birds, next month the bird watchers will be here along with millions of birds on passage to Europe. Swallows, wheatears and hoopoes should be here already.

As for serpentinophilus grassland, it's not grassland full of snakes; it's an endangered habitat type that grows on serpentine rocks and soils derived from them in the Troodos. I didn't see any grass in it only; rocks, spiky, thorny shrubs and some celandine perhaps the grass comes later with the summer.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Bullshit baffles brains!.........UK government policy for Bovine TB control

Since 2014 it has been UK government policy to control bovine TB by killing badgers in the areas of highest TB incidence.

Here is what happened......

                                    Badgers shot                          Cases of Bovine TB in dairy cows 

            2014                          615                                                      27,474

           2017                     19,272                                                        42,010

The policy has been an unmitigated failure despite the killing of tens of thousands of badgers, against the advice of scientists who know about these things...... bullshit baffles brains! as our politicians know only too well.

UK Government review of badger culling

In 2014 the Northern Ireland  Department of Agriculture, Environment,  and Rural Affairs published a review paper entitled, A review of the potential role of cattle slurry in the spread of bovine TB.
Cattle slurry and Bovine TB

Transmission of Bovine TB can be either direct, cows touching each other, or indirect by exposure to viable bacteria in the environment, the air, pasture, silage and buildings. The pathogen could enter the respiratory system of cows after the airborne spreading of contaminated cow slurry.  So........

The UK has about 2 million dairy cows that each produce 7,500 litres of milk a year. For every litre of milk a cow produces it also generates a litre of slurry, a toxic mix of shit, piss and dirty water. This is then spread on fields usually before and after the silage crop has been taken.

Our two million cows are therefore giving rise to 15 billion litres of toxic and potentially TB contaminated slurry countrywide. Could this be a more likely transmission route than via badgers?  and where would the 15 billion litres be dumped otherwise? a difficult question for politicians and farmers.

Definition of bullshit:
 A lie knowingly told without remorse.

Friday, 2 March 2018

A kittiwake's story ...... plastic, climate change and industrial over fishing

They usually nest on cliffs.
I got home this week to find that Hamza (Wildlife photographer and cameraman) had rescued an exhausted black-legged kittiwake. It was living in his bathroom eating fish, projectile dumping and swimming in the bath.   For more detail on kittiwakes see:-  Kittiwakes - Scottish Seabird Centre

An oceanic species kittiwakes were once the most numerous gull species in the world but are now on the list of breeding British birds facing extinction for three main reasons; plastic pollution, climate change and industrial over fishing.

Plastic waste has been found in large quantities at nest sites and as micro-plastic in the gut; all of these kill chicks.

Warming seas as a result of climate change have resulted in fluctuating sand eel populations ( the bird's main source of dietary energy) during the breeding season. Warmer seas in Spring mean earlier planton growth which results in earlier peak sand eel populations when the kittiwake's food demand is greatest. Peak sand eel numbers no longer seem to be synchronised with peak kittiwake demand.

Then there is the farmed salmon  and bacon in your diet. Industrial fishing of sand eels for animal feed ( they are high in protein and energy) has lead to starvation and breeding failure in seabird colonies around Scotland.

For a detailed and thoroughly scientific summary of kittiwake population change see:

"Storm" -  Hamza's kittiwake 

Alisdair Maclachlan a Kilchoan creel fisherman picked up an exhausted immature kittiwake on the deck of his boat and passed it to Hamza for resuscitation and recovery. The bird was emaciated and unable to flap it's wings when it was picked up.

 However, after two weeks in the bathroom with copious supplies of fish, warmth and a bath to swim in it recovered and has been subsequently released.

It is just possible that this bird could have wintered on the Eastern seaboard of the United States where populations of British bred immature kittiwakes have been observed. The three thousand mile journey in February back to Scotland would have been exhausting.

The video: Hamza has put together a 2 minute video covering the two week recovery period you can see it on his Facebook pages at:-

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Kilchoan Bakery.... fresh bread with natural ingredients

We've been making bread for thousand's of years from some simple ingredients; flour, yeast,water, salt a small amount of sugar to help te yeast get going and oil or butter for a better crumb; nothing else.

The Dutch bread oven bakes 100 loaves
Shop bought bread on the other hand does contain all of the above ingredients plus a cocktail of chemicals to speed up fermentation, preserve shelf life and affect the colour. Even the flour is different, it's super refined.

Dough conditioners are added to speed up fermentation, there's one called azodicarbonamide that is also used to make yoga mats apparently. Chemical preservatives prolong shelf life and keep your loaf fresh while some of the colourings start life as petro-chemical products.,

Hand crafted bread

Now we don't have to eat the shop bought, steam proved, tasteless stuff, we can place a weekly order with Kilchoan Bakery for a range of hand baked breads containing only natural ingredients.

Kirstie's  back yard bakery is taking orders for wholemeal, white, sourdough and focaccio loaves baked freshly every Thursday throughout the year.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The precautionary principle...... Brexit........ and swivel eyed free trade economic illiterates in the UK government. .....I feel a rant coming on...

Back in the 1950s the near extinction of many raptor species was due to the widespread and indiscriminate use of DDT in farming. It worked it's way up the food chain from earthworms through song birds to peregrine falcons. no one had thought through the ecological implications of DDT use, it hadn't been adequately tested;  poisoning of peregrines was an unforeseen side effect of the introduction of DDT.

The precautionary principle
I have said it and written it before and I am unapologetic about saying it again, you cannot show me an environmental problem that isn't an unforeseen side effect of new technology. The link between new tech and environmental damage has long been recognised by the European Union and the , " precautionary principle" underpins environmental legislation just as it does for the testing of new drugs for human health.

Today it has been revealed how ultra right wing free trade think tanks here in the UK together with their US counterparts are lobbying for the end to the precautionary principle when the UK leaves the EU so that the lower food quality standards in the USA will be part of any new bi-lateral trade agreements. Campaign to water down food quality and environmental protection

Brexit isn't just an act of idiotic economic self-harm it is potentially a direct  danger to human health and environmental protection. Then of course there is poultry meat washed in chlorine because the processing plants are so unclean and beef packed with growth hormones. .........

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Lunch with a roman god and some other stone work

The Cheviot hills with their wide horizons and old roads from holloways, through Roman military roads to more recent droving routes are wonderful walking country, these landscapes are also littered with stone artefacts from 2,000 years ago to more recent times.

Holloways pre-date the romans they are sunken paths  that tend to follow lines of least resistance between ancient settlements their surfaces worn down by centuries of travel on foot, by wheeled carts, the hooves of livestock and throughout their time by the erosive force of water. Some are so deep you can't see over the edges. They are still footpaths and rights of way in 2018.

Yesterday after a holloway and above a secondary Roman road branching off from Dere Street ( A highway from York into Scotland for the Romans) we had lunch in a rocky depression on the edge of moorland beside a stone image of Cocidius a roman warrior deity.

On the lower slopes of the moor there was a broken water trough hewn more recently from a huge block of sandstone. The rectangular block had to be quarried, dressed to about 1.5 m  x 60 cm x 60 cm then excavated and transported without power tools or a fork lift truck.

A "hogg hole " is more stonework. A hogg is a young female sheep and smaller than it's parent  Hogg holes were deliberately built into dry stone walls to allow sheep to shift themselves from one field to another. They are easily closed with a slab of stone or a hurdle.

Normally they are fairly simple structures with a flat lintel but this one is arched, a work of art really.

The Old Tracks through the Cheviots : Discovering the Archaeology of the Border Roads, David Jones with Coquetdale Community Archaeology, 2017, is available from £14.99p. There is also a walking guide in preparation.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Sea eagles, golden eagles, buzzards and a hen harrier in a twenty minute walk

Last week in a twenty minute walk to the top of the road above my house, "Raptor" the village's other wildlife photographer watched a pair of sea eagles, a pair of golden eagles ,two buzzards and a female hen harrier. It seems that Ormsaigbeg is rapidly becoming Lochaber's top eagle  watching site.

Sea eagles probably from Mull (Raptor)
The sea eagles ( cousins of the American bald eagle) are hard to miss as they are Europe's biggest eagle and fourth largest in the world. They were soaring and diving but not yet doing their aerial mating display, diving to earth with locked talons.

Golden eagles do spectacular aerial display too, diving, dropping sticks and then catching them but it's a bit early for that as egg laying for both species starts around the end of March. This pair bred here in 2017, their wing tags were clearly visible.

Golden eagle harassed by a buzzard (Raptor)
There has been a female hen harrier and a male around for some time and as we don't have grouse moors here our population is free from persecution and hopefully they will breed in 2018.

I didn't see any of this as I am in Northumberland house sitting for friends but I was once told that Northumberland has the greatest bird diversity of any county in England because of it's diverse landscapes, the coast and the Farne Islands. In one day this week I listed 21 species in, around or flying over the garden.

To verify this claim that Northumberland has the greatest diversity of breeding bird species I would have to trawl through the list for every county. I will leave it to you and then you can add a comment!

Friday, 26 January 2018

Do you know the difference between your dacha and your croft?

I have been asked to give a talk to the "Acharacle Winter Group" and have been given the title, Do you know the difference between your croft and your dacha?  

If you want to give it a more serious title it might be, The social, cultural and economic role of the Russian dacha, sounds a bit pompous, but never mind.

So,..... how to do this? well I have some really nice images of dachas and I have some personal experience of them after nearly four years living in Russia but I decided to get an authentic Russian voice to comment.I asked my friend and one time colleague Tatiana Petrovna, "what does your dacha mean to you Tanya? "this was her response;

My dacha is important to me as it feeds us nearly the whole year
It pleases my eye as I have beautiful flowers and dwarf conifers
It keeps me in good physical shape with digging which is sometimes very hard
I like to sunbathe on a bright summer day.

The dacha is a place to meet friends, to relax, talk, listen to music, drink tea and wine.
When it is raining it is a pleasure to sit by the fire among people dear to you.
Or just to sit in silence with my own thoughts.
Much depends on my mood

Tanya on her dacha

The dacha as you can see is close to the heart of Russians as it has been since Tsarist times when they were largely the prerogative of the upper middle classes. During the Soviet era people were allowed small plots for recreation and  food production. Since then, after the middle of May each year there is a mass exodus from the towns and cities on Friday to the dacha in the countryside.

You can see from the figures above what an important contribution dachas make to Russian food production. The gardening is largely organic, highly sustainable and provides food security, something we no longer have in the UK.,

Thursday, 25 January 2018

"Magic" eggs go on sale the days lengthen, the temperature rises and visitors arrive.

Inspecting the new sign
My poultry always look their best in January, they renewed their plumage before the turn of the year and short days together with  low temperatures have minimised egg laying.  The number of eggs laid peaks as the days lengthen and get warmer around April / May hopefully coinciding with the influx of visitors at Easter.

Regular visitors make straight for the farm gate retail park, they can't get as good eggs at home or anywhere else. They've been "magic" eggs for years, since my daughter first painted the sign, "Magic eggs from happy French hens". It's a regular feature of holiday photos as are the hens as most people never see a live hen. These have always been dual purpose , laying eggs and calming traffic.

Apart from the layers I have three Silkie x Light Sussex hens , their main job is to incubate the fertile french eggs and rear the chicks to about 6 or 7 weeks of age.I used to have a high-tec all singing, all dancing electrically heated incubator but the broody hen is much more reliable and so much easier.

 The red hens are modern, scientifically bred hybrids, they produce large numbers of big brown eggs, over 300 a year, until they die of exhaustion or go off to ,"Mrs Cheadle's Twilight Home for Chickens" at Sanna to end their days.

Happy French hens

If you select a population of hens for large numbers of eggs, generation after generation they lose the ability to go broody, hence the Silkies which have lots of feathers and have not been subject to selection for egg production.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Red kites above the M40 and a speed trap

In medieval England red kites scavenged in towns for waste food and on battlefields human cadavers they were even reputed to steal clothing from washing lines to decorate their nests and steal bones from dogs.

Wheeling, diving and gliding
Then in the nineteenth century landowners exterminated them. The birds were thought to kill lambs ( they didn't they are scavengers) and they were easy to shoot, poison or trap. By the 1980s there was a small breeding population in a remote valley in Wales. Then the 1990s saw the start of one of Britain's most successful conservation projects.

Breeding red kites were re-introduced from Spain to the Chiltern hills in southern England between 1989 and 94. As I was driving north on the M40 motorway this week through Buckinghamshire I counted 17 kites on a twenty mile stretch of road. They were wheeling, diving, gliding above the six lanes of commuter traffic looking for the previous night's roadkill, foxes, badgers, pheasants the usual victims.more on red kites in the Chilterns

They seemed to be spaced out fairly evenly along the road and this led me to wonder if they have their own territories. Or a they are performing  the role that vultures do in other places, perhaps one spots a carcass and then signals this in some way to the others who then fly in to join the feast.

Since the first re-introductions twenty years ago we now have healthy breeding populations throughout Scotland, Wales and England. Red kites are even repopulating the towns and cities having been seen in N. London and Reading. Are people in the suburbs feeding them on tinned dog food I wonder.

Bird watching while driving isn't a great idea, as I rolled into Fort William yesterday afternoon I was caught in a police speed trap for the momentary lapse in concentration, 3 points on my licence and £100 fine I guess.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Do you remember an inn Miranda .........And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees

One hundred and fifty years ago Robert Louis Stevenson (according to me) started the adventure / travel  writing business with.... Travels with a donkey in the CĂ©vennes. When, fifteen years ago we followed his route from Le Puy to Florac, I carried a copy with me that could still be used as a trail guide.

In the early 20 th century the Anglo-French writer, historian and traveller Hilaire Belloc set the pattern for future trail guides with his publication of, The Pyrenees, in 1909. Last night I sat down to read it.

I couldn't help but compare it with, Trekking the GR 10 Trail, Le Sentier des Pyrenees published 100 years later in 2009. Both volumes include; how to get there, when to go, the weather, accommodation and walking routes with maps. But perhaps most interesting is Belloc's advice on what to take.

Belloc is an advocate of lightweight trekking and the bivouac rather than a tent where a bothy ( cabane) is not available. His kit list includes; a well designed backpack that hoists the weight high on your shoulders, a  gourd for wine, a blanket, matches wrapped in a waterproof pouch, a spirit stove and billy can. Enough food should be carried for at least three days, one and a half pounds of bread per person per day (French army rations at the time) and saucisson, two litres of wine in the gourd and that's it!

Pyrenean inn, Andorra
Clothing should be of wool, all of it! Walking on mule tracks in the mountains is much more comfortable according to Belloc when wearing rope soled sandals rather than leather boots, carry a stick, map and compass. We've gone back to wool, at least for a base layer now just about every corner of the world is mapped if only by Google.

Despite being an advocate of lightweight trekking Belloc includes a chapter on inns in the Pyrenees, one of which is also the subject of his best known poem.....Tarantella. The story of a wild night dancing and drinking at an inn during a festival at Canfranc in northern Spain. On the Tarantella Trail, Oli Foster, Times Literary Supplement

Do you remember an inn
Do you remember an inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding
And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees
And the wine that tasted like tar?
And the cheers and jeers of the young muleteers....


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Carrion crow a long way from home

This morning after I fed the hens I noticed two crows among the hens, a carrion crow and a hooded crow. We just don't get carrion crows here as a rule. Because they tend to be south of a line drawn from Glasgow to Bettyhill on the North coast of Scotland.

Hooded crow
The distribution of both of these species wasn't always like this. A hundred years ago the two populations were separated by a line running from Dumfries to Dundee on the East coast. Along that line the two species interbred to produce hybrids which are fairly easily identified by their plumage.Changes in the carrion crow/ hooded crow hybrid zone in Scotland . Cook 1974

Over the last hundred years a number of population studies have documented the change in distribution of the two species in Scotland, Italy and Denmark. In the Ligurian Alps the hoodies have moved further up the mountains and along the Danish / German border here has been a similar shift.

Carrion crow
Why has this happened. Immediately one thinks...... must be climate change!...... but hooded crows can cope with much higher temperatures and seasonal range of temperatures  than we experience here in Scotland from Central Russia to Spain. There mus be some other agency at work.

Modern intensive agriculture could to be the most likely factor. Carrion crows thrive in lowland Britain's industrialised agriculture and perhaps the hooded crow can't compete so readily in this environment. Similar changes in the intensity of farm production at lower levels in the Italian Alps and Germany could have driven the change there.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The GR 10 from the Atlantic to the Pyrenees......... can I do it?

Part of the GR 10
I woke up one morning two weeks ago thinking, " I need a challenge" my children are grown up, the sheep have gone I've no responsibilities. Then I read Ranulph Fiennes biography, "Mad, bad and dangerous to know" he's the same age as me (75 this year) and still trying hard to top himself in Antarctica or the Arctic. I'm not in the same class fitness wise but it set me thinking.

Then today I had an email from Mac Hoskins, a friend from the early 60 s. Re: Your blog 16th Dec.

Regarding a walking trip, I recommend the Pyrenees.
There are three waymarked routes, two have accommodation at the end of each day
( some rather hard days). I have always taken lightweight equipment as it's normally warm from July to mid- September and wandered at will not following any particular route.
My last trip was in 2015 at 75.

The GR 10 trail is something I have wanted to do since my teens, but lack of time and responsibilities precluded a six to eight week trail walk of 1,000 km from the Atlantic to the Med. Past experience tells me that one's pack for this sort of walk should not exceed 6 kg so overnights in refuges would be a necessity especially as you have to set out on some stages with at least 2 L of water. 

A way round the pack weight would be to take a donkey (See, "Travels with a Donkey" R.L Stevenson) but when I put this to a French farmer friend a few years ago he said it would be more trouble than it was worth and it would be difficult to feed and pasture.

Then there are my knees...... but I could build in rest days, time is not important. I doubt if any of my contemporaries will join me so it would be a solo trip.

And... to quote La Passionara" heroine of the Spanish Civil War, "it's better to die on your feet than then to live on your knees".

This is obviously going to occupy some of
Mac Hoskins on the GR 10
January's wet afternoons in coming up with a feasibility study and then perhaps a plan.  Note..... this is day dreaming, not a firm commitment but it could this space.