Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

It's poured down here ever since I wrote yesterday's blog, welcoming the rain. I went out first thing this morning to see how the Allan Water was looking. I found it had morphed from Mr Hyde to Gargantua, consuming the fields on either side of its banks to become a vast, writhing body of water at least a quarter of a mile wide.

In the submerged field opposite there were a group of black-faced sheep marooned on two small hummocks of higher ground, but still up to their bellies in mud-thick water. They were so densely huddled together that at a distance I had thought they were a couple of large straw bales that had been washed down the river. It took the binoculars to pick out their bedraggled bodies and anxious fidgetting. The river must have risen pretty swiftly to trap them like that.

When I got back to the house I phoned a friend who knows the farmer, and caught him just as he was driving off to let him know. So later this morning I went back to see if the sheep had been rescued. It was still raining. A small digger and quad bike were down by the edge of the water. Most of the sheep were safely back on higher ground, still clinging together as if traumatised by their ordeal.

But I arrived just in time to see a small drama unfold. Black-faced sheep are, apparently, very flighty, and one sheep had obviously taken fright when the farmer and his helpers had tried to coax it off the rapidly disappearing island. It was heading towards me, struggling along the submerged fenceline on the opposite bank. It seemed to be pushed along by the flow, getting deeper into the water as it went, until it was actually swimming, its heavy fleece dragging it down. Someone - I guessed the farmer - was following it at the lapping edge of the water, trying to turn it back, until eventually he was forced to wade across to it, thigh deep in the roiling water. The pair disappeared behind trees for a few heartstopping moments, before the farmer reappeared gripping the sheep by the horn with one hand, while picking his way along the fence line with a stout stick in the other. It looked a dangerous place to be. I was glad when he managed to lift the sheep over the fence before climbing over himself and wading back to the 'shore'. I heard later that one of the sheep had been drowned, and I felt guilty for wishing for the rain.

Of course flooding is a natural part of the seasonal cycle. It's vital for wetland birds and plants. It has been used for centuries by farmers for water meadows. What's not natural is the speed with which water courses like the Allan Water now change from gentle lowland river to destructive tide. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) can explain why better than I:

'Alterations to the course and morphology of the River Allan and its tributaries have changed its character. These have changed the natural dynamics of the watercourse, in many cases affecting the ecological processes important for sustaining biodiversity. In places, alterations to the catchment and watercourses have increased the rate at which rainfall reaches the river by increasing the speed of overland flow. This is a common aim of land drainage practices. However this results in higher river levels. Additionally straightening and dredging of channels associated with improvements to agricultural production on floodplains and the construction and upgrade of transport links. Combined, these changes result in fast accumulation of water in low gradient areas or where flow is constricted including both rural and urban areas such as Greenloaning, Dunblane and Bridge of Allan.'

Basically, we've been mucking around with the land surrounding the river for agricultural and commercial gain, and the river has bitten back, affecting farmers further down the line, and making flooding much more likely in properties in towns and villages built before the 'improvements' were made.

SEPA has been working with the Centre for River EcoSysyems Science (CRESS) at Stirling University on a scoping exercise to establish the best way to rectify the chaos this has caused. Unsurprisingly solutions include putting back the trees, damming up the drains, restoring the channel meanders and allowing the river to flood again where it won't damage properties. It's great that they are looking at ways to redress the problem - let's hope they can translate the planning into action.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Dancing in the rain

Last Friday was the first anniversary of the day the Big Snow came to Ashfield. The start of over two months of sub-zero temperatures, record-deep snowfalls, blocked roads, buried pavements, school closures, life chaos. It was the winter that put me off snow.

This year's anniversary passed without incident. It's been one of the warmest autumns on record, despite dire warnings of an even earlier start to the freeze. Now I feel every snow-free day is a bonus - I never thought I would welcome the gales and the rain with open arms. It's been wet, and windy, as well as warm, and I skid and slide gratefully through inches of mud, slick and slippery as butter. The ground is saturated, and every fresh downpour flushes straight into the Allan Water, which bellows and rips through the River Field like a riparian Mr Hyde.

I took a walk along the bank today hoping for a glimpse of the goldeneye I spotted the other day in the river, but it was far too turbulent for anything but a torrent duck to survive. In the field opposite I caught sight of a flock of starlings in an oak tree, perched at odd angles, like children's drawings of leaves, on its bare branches. There were several hundred of them, and as I passed they lifted and danced a miniature murmuration above me, ignoring the rain and the wind. The amoebic shapes they made reminded me of the pin and thread pictures that were all the rage in the 1970s - twisting and flexing, condensing and stretching. A natural wonder - something else to make me smile.

It's hard to believe that these ubiquitous birds are on the UK's Red List of threatened species. Scotland now holds 22% of the UK's breeding population, despite starlings almost disappearing from mainland Scotland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Now its the South's turn to lose them. The British population crashed by 71% between 1970 and 1999, most of them from south of the border. Changing farming practices have been blamed, just like in the case of the brown hare, and the arable weeds, and the farmland birds. Is it me, or is there a pattern there?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A glimpse of wildness

I put a hare up in the Big Field this morning. As usual it took me a few seconds to focus in and decide it was a hare, not a rabbit. Big rabbit? Black tail tip? Keeps going? Must be a hare. Of course by this time it had nearly disappeared over the hill. I tried to jog after it, wellies slipping clumsily on the wet grass, but inevitably it had gone by the time I reached the brow. It was still a thrill - hares are pretty thin on the ground around here.

I like hares. They have a sense of wildness and danger about them. Just like their lagomorphic cousins the rabbits they were first recorded in this country when the Romans arrived - another tasty addition to the menu perhaps? But unlike the rabbits they have never submitted to the indignities of being 'farmed' - their solitary habits and spartan taste in housing have seen to that. While the rabbits settled down to their cosy-but-tame warren lives, the outlaw hares have toughed it out in their forms - simple hollows in the long grass where they can hole up during the day before making night-time raids on our fields and pastures.

Centuries of hunting - outlaws are always hunted - hit their numbers, but what's really proved their downfall has been the loss of their hiding places. Intensive farming over the last 40-odd years has seriously reduced the number of places hares can hole up. Numbers have plummeted by 80% compared to a century ago.

Luckily, I discovered, over a decade ago the brown hare was put on on the list of species which have a government-backed Biodiversity Action Plan, to help restore its population, with a target of doubling its numbers by 2010. Checking out the Biodiversity Action Plan website (which has now been archived) it's heartening to read that the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Natural England (NE), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC) were all tasked to communicate the declines in brown hare populations and:

'Use the popularity of brown hares to highlight the impact on biodiversity of modern agricultural practices and loss of mixed farms.'

Though strangely I couldn't find any up-to-date communications from them on the subject, or for that matter, information on the success of meeting the 2010 target. This may be because I'm not that great at searching for this kind of thing. If anyone out there has better information I'd be pleased to hear it. We all need a bit of wildness in our lives.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A tale of two gateways...

Just a couple of miles up the road from the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Gateway Centre that I described in the last blog (build budget £3m, I believe) is the gateway to the mainland section of Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve (NNR). In case you're not familiar with the term NNR, let me quote Scottish Natural Heritage, which designates and manages them: 'the key purpose of National Nature Reserves is to showcase some of the best wildlife in Scotland for everyone to see and appreciate. This purpose is unique and distinguishes National Nature Reserves from other protected areas.'

I saw no signage to Loch Lomond NNR from the road here. Nor could I see any in the local village hall car park that serves the NNR. There is a small wooden fingerpost at the gate to a muddy field next to the village hall that says 'Aber Path' - which, if you are initiated, is the route you need to take to get to the Reserve. And to be fair there is a small leaflet dispenser with brochures describing the route by the gate.

We walked down the sloping pasture, past a few inquisitive bullocks, sometimes sinking ankle deep in cattle-poached mud. Someone - the farmer or perhaps a Park ranger - had thoughtfully laid some railway sleepers over a particularly glutinous patch, though one now lurched at an angle, requiring some tricky footwork to cross dryshod. We were fine as we came prepared with wellies and waterproofs - it's not a route for trainers. There's very little waymarking - without the leaflet and some local knowledge we'd easily have lost the way. But we eventually came to the Reserve entrance - where there was, at last, an NNR monolith and a small interpretation board.

It's a glorious place. The narrow path winds its way through the woodland fringes of the loch. Oak at first, grading to alder, birch, holly and ash as you move east. The light followed suit, paling from a warm, golden glow under the autumn-yellowed oaks to a cool green haze below the hollies and birches. A jay shot out of the trees ahead of us, a vulgar cackle belying the tasteful pastels of its blue and pink plumage. Not a bird you see that often in Scotland, thanks to the shortage of oak woodland - acorns are its food of choice - but common enough around Loch Lomond. We saw three during the morning.

We could also see a lone great crested grebe floating some way off in the loch - another Scottish scarcity - especially in inland waters. At the last count just 1500 overwintered in Scotland, with most keeping to the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde. I took them for granted when I lived down south. Now I see them for the exotic, elegant birds they really are, with their long, sinuous necks and subtle, mocha headdresses.

As the path emerges from the woods the full drama of the view unfolds as you look north along the length of Loch Lomond over its wooded islands to the mountains of the Highland Boundary Fault. To the east there are the broad, ochre wetlands at the mouth of the Endrick Water, home to rare species like Greenland white-fronted geese, brook lampreys and Scottish dock (none of which we saw, sadly). The route on the map ends at the Endrick Viewpoint, but we continued on a rougher path along a bund at the edge of the wetland.

It was hard to square this watery, tawny, wide-open sky landscape with the woodlands and mountains with which Loch Lomond is synonymous. Much of the path was a few inches underwater, increasing the feeling that we were in, rather than on, the Reserve. Waist-high (what I took to be) reeds (but was told were actually grasses) on either side hissed and whistled in the slight breeze, reminding me of walks through East Anglian reedbeds. No marsh harriers here, but we found snipe and woodcock, reed bunting and mallard, long-tailed tits and wrens.

At the end of the bund we had to pick our way, pathless, though wet woodland, over barbed wire fences and through more muddy fields before we found our way back to the village. We saw no-one else during our walk around this beautiful NNR, which indeed boasts some of the best wildlife in Scotland.

I wonder what the budget for this gateway is?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Scotland's shame?

What would the words ‘Loch Lomond and the Trossachs  National Park Gateway Centre’ conjure up for you? A place to find out about the stunning wildlife and habitats of the park? A starting point for daily guided walks and activities? A scene-framing, mood-setting haven?

How about, as I now find the website boasts: ‘Cafe on the loch, a childrens’ play area, and a superb gift shop.’ The strapline for the site, which also includes the adjacent, vast shopping centre which is Loch Lomond Shores, and a Sea Life Centre, is actually: ‘Shop, Eat, Play (with picture of an exotic fish attached).

My other half and I headed to Balloch, at the south end of Loch Lomond, early last Friday to get an outboard motor fixed. As we found the marina was closed until 10am I suggested checking out the Centre, which I’d never visited. Misgivings began as we turned off the main road into the car park – a vast labyrinth of tarmac, dividing into bays with neatly trimmed, suburban hedging and street lights. I didn’t feel as if I was being led to the entrance to one of the most spectacular and wildlife-rich national parks in the country. I felt like I was arriving at an out-of-town shopping mall – which I was.

Compare that with the vision of the architects who designed it:

‘… the Centre acts as a symbolic gateway to the woodlands along the shore beyond the development and, hence, to the National Park itself. In contrast to many other visitor centres, the transparency of its construction suggests that the main exhibit is the world outside’. So said Bennetts Associates. They must be turning in their zero-carbon office spaces.

To be fair, the Gateway Centre was actually also closed, so I couldn't go inside. It was ironic indeed that it was those transparent walls that allowed me to see the large multi-coloured ball pit of the children’s play area rammed up to the glass, the café, and the extensive gift shop packed with geegaws and trinkets – which were all obscuring any view I might have had of the woodlands, the loch, and the world outside.

There is an unfinished temple on the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, built to honour the dead of the Napoleonic Wars, which is known as ‘Scotland’s Shame’ because they couldn’t raise enough money to finish it.  I think it now has a competitor for the name.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Preferential treatment?

Hypocrite that I am, I was excited to see an unusual bird on the river today. I was doing my daily mooch round the field with Jake, who as usual bounded ahead along the river bank, following an intricate trail of aromas - probably dead fish and dog poos mainly - that only he appreciates. I heard a clatter from the water, and looked over in time to see a dumpy grey and white duck fly past, wings beating like football rattles, and land behind me, hidden under the bank.

I retraced my steps, keen to get a look before Jake lumbered back into view and put the bird up again. It was a male goldeneye, partly in eclipse plumage. Its bold black and white summer plumage seemed to be blurred together into shades of grey, though it still wore that distinctive white beauty spot beneath its eye. I'd love to let you think I knew this as soon as I saw it, but actually I had to wait until I got home to check in the Collins Bird Guide and see what it was - though to be fair to my birding skills I suspected goldeneye was a top contender.

They have a great scientific name - Bucephala clangula - resounding bull-head!  With their oversized heads, black wings and white chest, these curious little ducks have an almost puffin-like look to them in summer, while the resounding bit, I'm guessing, has something to do with the incredibly loud whistle they make during their courtship display. It's meant to carry for over a kilometre.
This one was almost certainly a visitor from further north, one of over 30,000 that winter here. The Forth estuary, a favourite wintering ground, is just a few miles away from here. Forty years ago I'd have been absolutely sure of that, but since 1970 a few goldeneye have stayed on to breed in the Highlands - 200 pairs at the last count.

They usually breed in tree holes in the northern forests of Scandinavia. Conservationists here started putting up nest boxes for them in the Abernethy Forest in the late 60s, and by 1970 the first pair had taken up residence. This troubles me slightly. Isn't this tantamount to introducing an alien species? I can't find any reference to their breeding here in the past. Don't get me wrong - I think they're beautiful birds and it's wonderful that they're now here all year round, but I'd be intrigued to know the rationale behind their introduction - is this a case of preferential treatment?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Gather ye rosebuds...

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same bird that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
(With apologies to) Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674)

I realise that I saw two red-listed birds of conservation concern, and one amber-listed, this morning. They were starling, house sparrow and dunnock. All seen from my living room window while I sat sipping my second coffee of the morning.

The starlings were perched on the telegraph wires that cross our garden, impersonating curlew, tawny owl , dog whistlers. Not rough approximations, but perfect copies. I should have been amazed. They were silhouetted against the sky, so I couldn't pick out their smart, purply-black speckled plumage, just their slim, almond-shaped outlines and their thorn-sharp beaks.

The house sparrows came in twos and threes, their grey and dun plumage reflecting the colours of the morning. They arrived in the hedge at the bottom of the garden and gradually worked their way up to the bird table, calling encouragement to each other. After a quick snack they moved on to see what the next gaden had to offer. I should have gazed in wonder.

The dunnock comes regularly to feed on the seeds we put out (I assume it's the same bird). Usually ground feeders, this one seems to have learnt to avoid the easy pickings that fall from the plastic seed hopper - we have two young cats. Instead it perches on the wide plastic skirt we have installed below the table to discourage our nimble grey tabby from jumping onto the platform. The bird teeters over the edge, leaning out as far as it can reach to grab a single seed. It scuttles round the rim with its prize, scanning the garden for danger before returning for another titbit. I should have been awestruck.

Now I know their status I will of course look at the dunnock, the house sparrow and the starling with new appreciation - they're threatened, they might be on their way out. But what about the other 'common or garden' birds - the tits, finches, robins, blackbirds et al that I also see most days. Of course I enjoy seeing them, of course they're beautiful and fascinating, but if asked if by a birdy type if I'd 'seen anything interesting today' I'd probably have said 'just a blue tit, only a chaffinch...' Do they really have to be on the list before we stop taking them for granted?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Short rant - long story

A blog of two halves. I have something I need to get off my chest. As a thank-you to any of you who read it I've included a longer piece than usual to follow.

Short rant

Over 80% of people in Scotland love wildlife, according to a Scottish Natural Heritage survey I read a couple of weeks ago. They cherish birds in their garden, otters and salmon in the rivers, rare grassland birds, woodlands, butterflies.

And yet ..... Seabird numbers are declining in parts of Scotland at an alarming rate, according to an RSPB report I read the day after the SNH survey; hedgehog populations have tumbled from 30 million in the 1950s to 1.5 million now; farmland birds figures have halved since the 70s.

Why have we not heard four million voices raised in protest? Where are student marches, the letters to the editor, the questions asked in parliament?

Bring on the Recession I say. If people have less money to spend on filling their lives with stuff they might start to look out of the window more often and appreciate the value of the real world that's disappearing before their eyes - and DO something about it.

Long story

Until my daughter went up to High School this August, and started getting the school bus, I used to walk her to primary school most days. I really miss those walks, the talks we used to have, and the amazing things we saw so often. I've written a piece about them to help me remember how good they were:

Most weekdays I walked with my daughter Holly from our village to the local primary school in the town - about a mile and a half each way. From our small, stone, terraced cottage it’s a short distance to the wooden bridge that spans a deep railway cutting – the main line from Stirling to Inverness. The steep banks are thick with scrubby trees and tall grasses – purple with rosebay willowherb in July. From April the spring-sharp songs of willow warblers and whitethroats drift up to us as we cross, though they are master ventriloquists and we can hardly ever spot their hiding places. Our marmalade cat, Guillie, sometimes follows us for this first part of the journey, trotting in line behind us, stripy tail straight in the air like a ginger ring-tailed lemur. But his courage is easily thwarted, and he quickly slides under the Network Rail fence into the thick undergrowth if anyone else is coming along.

Once over the bridge we enter a field of rough sheep pasture. The landscape here was once buried under many hundreds of feet of ice – the whole valley ground out by a glacier in the last ice age. Its legacy is a field of drumlins – huge heaps of gravel and sand deposited by the retreating ice, long since grassed over. The heaps now form dips and hillocks only fit for sheep grazing in a farmer’s eyes.

Near the gate into the pasture is a series of small, shallow, reedy pools. In summer a nesting colony of black-headed gulls takes up residence around the ponds. The birds lift in bad-tempered flurries when we walk past, making mock dive-bombing raids if we move into their space.

Winter rains swell the pools and offer refuge for ducks - mallard and teal mostly. A mute swan occasionally sits incongruously in the middle of the largest pond like an oversized water lily. When the freeze comes we detour from the path on our return journey from school to ‘skate’ in our wellies on the larger expanses of ice. (This is not irresponsible – the deepest pools that we glide across are only a foot deep at most). Come the thaw and we can still have fun. The meltwater drains away beneath a crust of remaining ice and it’s like walking over the top of a giant crème brulee – though the explosively-loud crackling of the breaking ice would certainly cause a stir at a dinner party. Sometimes Holly lifts the big shards of ice to create Goldworthy-esque sculptures that glint and glow in the low afternoon sun.

Spring comes and the hunt is on for frogspawn at the margins of the pools. Leaving spawn here is a high-risk strategy for the frogs. In dry springs the ponds can easily disappear before the tadpoles have time to develop into tiny copies of their parents to escape from their shrinking nurseries. Walking round the edges of the ponds as we search we sometimes surprise a jack snipe – in fact it surprises us - exploding from the tussocky grass and zigzagging away like an escaping Spitfire.

Once past the pools the path rises over the line of drumlins and down into a dip where a tiny winterbourne crosses the field. From early spring we nearly always hear a skylark high above us here – the challenge is to pinpoint its position – a needle in the haystack of sky and cloud. Easier to spot are the rowdy oystercatchers making their ungainly flights to and from the wet meadows on the other side of the village to the secret tussocks where they are preparing to breed.

Tunnels in the rough grass and burrows in the sandy hillsides explain why we often see kestrels and buzzards quartering the field, hunting for the mice, voles and rabbits that make them. Meanwhile the ubiquitous corvids – rooks, crows and jackdaws, often accompanied by groupie starlings – strut around, poking about for juicy titbits in the ground.

Come autumn and skeins of greylag and pink-footed geese pass up and down the strath of which our field is a tiny part. Very occasionally we hear a sound like pumping bellows that makes us look up. A phalanx of whooper swans going over – they are bigger and lower than we ever expect. More often it’s the streamlined shapes of a pair of goosander, or a rush of teal, that draw our eyes. Once in a while a red kite strays from its usual haunt on the other side of the hill from our village onto our side, its lazy, floppy wingbeats making it easy to distinguish from the purposeful flight of the commoner buzzards.

Once out of the field gate we are faced with a half-mile stomp alongside a minor but still busy road, which crosses the dual carriageway on a wide metal bridge before coming to the edge of town. Much of the animal life we see on this part of the walk is of the flat variety: hedgehogs, rabbits, pheasants and the occasional crow, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time under somebody’s wheels. But the road is fringed with woodland – young birch and rowan on one side, conifers and mature beech and ash on the other. Parties of rooks often fly to and fro above our heads. They have established a rookery in some of the older, taller trees set in an odd triangle of land bounded by the dual carriageway, our road and the slip roads. The same triangle can sometimes harbour roe deer, which graze in the sheltered meadow at its centre. A pair of buzzards has also found a place for a nest here. Strange that the same roads that snuff out so many have created a refuge for others.

We pass a mini-roundabout then turn into a narrow footpath and wriggle our way through alleys and past back gardens. On humid summer afternoons, sheltered by the tall fences from any breeze, the smells of creosote and rose, barbeque and honeysuckle, mingle with the drone of bees and lawnmowers in a heady mix. The alleyway emerges onto a leafy suburban street that leads to the school. Big, modern houses with perfect, barren lawns and exotic shrubs line the pavement. But, as David Attenborough has said – ‘even here there is life’. Behind the houses mature woodland remains. We hear snatches of chiffchaff and blackcap, rook and pigeon between the engines of the passing cars dropping children off at school.

For the final few hundred metres of our journey we take a path across a swathe of green – a wide expanse of grass behind the houses, which surrounds a children’s playpark. Some is mown but much is left to grow wild during the summer months – a deliberate council policy to attract wildlife into the heart of these tidy suburbs. Meadow browns and orange tips, peacocks and small tortoiseshells – butterflies arrive and scatter most untidily among the tall grasses on warm, still days.

After rain the ground turns marshy. Small muddy pools collect on both sides of the tarmac path. Here too misguided frogs leave jellied masses of spawn in spring. Noisy muddles of schoolchildren fresh out of class gather round the puddles, at once repulsed and fascinated by the spawn. Sometimes an unruly child throws handfuls of dripping jelly at his – or her – shrieking companions. It would have dried out anyway, I suppose, but it always seems a shame to throw life away and I have to bite my lip. Perhaps it’s a new take on natural selection.

I leave my daughter at the school gate, or wait in the playground at the end of the day for her to emerge blinking into the light after her hours of incarceration in the classroom. On the walk home we sometimes feel like divers slowly rising up from the deep sea into the freedom and light of the open air. Yes, there is still much to wonder at and appreciate in the streets and alleys. There is still colour, movement, sounds, smells - wildlife. But it is all somehow muffled by the enclosing houses, the ubiquitous tidiness. Once over the dual carriageway and back in the field again we can feel the full force of the wind, hear the birds uninterrupted by the rumble of traffic, breathe again – and enjoy the messiness.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Welcome invasion

It's been a stonking, sunny day today - autumn at it's best. I celebrated by putting the washing out on the line this morning for the first time in weeks (you have to get your pleasures where you can when you live in a small village). My daughter's dandelion-yellow bedding is now flapping and twitching in the breeze like a hen in a dust-bath, soaking up the warmth.

The sky has been full of birds that also seem to be making up for lost time. The ubiquitous jackdaws have been joined by skeins and skeins of pink-footed geese gossiping loudly as they fly overhead. The village sits under the Strathallan flyway, an aerial motorway for birds heading to and from their roost sites along the valley.

Flocks of fieldfares have been passing through for weeks. But today, as they move between the hawthorns and rowans on the railway embankment opposite our cottage, they look like gangs of rowdy football fans on a pub crawl after a big win. Perhaps I'm not investing them with the dignity they deserve. The spaniards call them Zorzal real, the royal thrush, and with their steely-grey heads, dark eye-stripes and russet-brown backs they do have a certain dramatic presence about them. But their raucous 'chock-chock' calls give them away for the Viking marauders they really are. Over half a million of them come over to the UK from Scandinavia every year to pillage our autumn crop of berries and rifle our pastures for invertebrates. They stay until the worst of the Northern winter is past and then head back again to breed in the woodlands of Norway and Sweden.

Here in the village they are welcome invaders as far as I'm concerned - bright, sparky birds to ward off the long, dark winter that's bound to come. With the clocks going back it already gets dark here by 4.30pm - and counting.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Hello for wildlife?

While I was on the loo yesterday morning I watched an otter lying on its back in the sea gnawing at a fish. And it wasn't on the tv.

My family and I spent the last few days at our time-share -  a tiny stone bothy on the west coast of Scotland. It sits on a grassy raised beach 100 metres from the shores of Loch Linnhe, facing north to the grizzled, lumpy, starkly beautiful hills of Morvern. It's 40 minutes rough walk in from the nearest road. There's no electricity, no sanitation, and the water is piped from a stream on the hill behind us.

It's not quite as basic as it sounds. We have a wood-burning stove, a gas cooker, matresses to sleep on. And it's not totally remote. A road runs along the opposite shore of the loch, a couple of miles distant. At night we see headlights prowling along the base of the hills. And there are a few houses too - only visible in the darkness, picking out the shoreline like cat's eyes. We feel immensely privileged to stay there - but I suspect few people envy us. They literally don't know what they're missing.

I read the other day that 90% of people in the UK now live in an urban environment. It made me feel like giving up writing about the natural world as I see it - as I value it. Living in a small, rural village, relishing opportunities to get even further from the 'modern world', can what I experience have any relevance for most people? But then again, how relevant to most people are the lives of the celebrities whose stories plaster the newspapers and magazines? Magazines like Hello encourage readers to aspire to be like the celebrities - 'buy the handbag, wear the make-up, you too can get a slice of their lives' - even though most people will never live like them.

You could say celebrities appear almost daily at our bothy: the otter I saw dining at our exclusive restaurant; whopper swans flying south to their winter holiday homes; porpoises partying 'til the small hours. Perhaps we need a Hello magazine for them?

Friday, 4 November 2011

What's in a name?

You may have noticed that I like to find out the scientific names of the species I come across. Let me explain why.

Last spring I watched two beautiful, tiny, lemon-breasted birds being ringed. Cradled in the ringer’s hand in turn, their necks held gently between giant’s fingers, they looked almost identical. Both had custard-yellow eye stripes, olive-grey backs, sharp, slender beaks for catching summer insects. They each weighed about the same as a good teaspoon of sugar. Had they sung, I would have been able to tell immediately that they were in fact different species. One would have sung a sad melody of soft, descending notes, lifted at the very end by a hopeful trill; the other a syncopated two-tone repetition of its name. As it was I had to rely on the expert birders I was with to point out that one was a willow warbler, the other a chiffchaff.

Those names were the keys that opened a store of other information about these birds that I have learnt over the years. One of these scant teaspoons of trembling life and feathers – the willow warbler – had flown thousands of miles to be here on that cool spring day. It had crossed deserts, mountains, and seas from its winter home in sub-Saharan Africa to breed here in Scotland. The other tiny scrap, the chiffchaff, had made a shorter crossing from southern Europe – still many hundreds of miles. Put into this kind of context these birds’ survival seemed almost unbelievable – I felt as if I were looking at a miracle.

Yet there are people who claim that knowing species’ names is not important. ‘What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, they quote. Romeo’s desperate words in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet have been called on many times by those who argue that expecting people to learn the common names of animals and plants, or heaven forbid their scientific names, gets in the way of their appreciation of the natural world, even puts them off exploring it at all. I disagree.

It was Juliet’s surname that Romeo wanted to ignore – the name of his family’s arch rivals – because with it came all the baggage of her family history, where she lived, to whom she was related. Her name brought tragedy to the lovers. Species’ names also come with this baggage, and much more. But their names bring with them drama, intrigue, romance and history – elements that only add to the experience of seeing.

Yes, they can be complex, at first unfamiliar words to get your head round – but so are Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane. Familiarity with them will breed not contempt, but acceptance, understanding. We don’t find it surprising that six-year-olds can reel off the scientific names of a group of animals that went extinct many thousands of years ago. We don’t think it’s being over-demanding when a football commentator mentions the exotic names of its heroes – we know the fans will recognise the names, make the connections, understand the story.

Now remember the willow warbler and chiffchaff? Their scientific names are Phylloscopus trochilus and Pylloscopus colybita, respectively – I don’t know that by heart but with the wonders of the Web or a field guide it takes two minutes to look it up. The names tell us that both birds are leaf-watchers – phyllo is Greek for leaf, scopus Latin for a watcher. That explains where they look for their insect food. Trochilus is the Greek for a small, wren-like bird. A perfect description. Whoever chose the scientific name for the chiffchaff thought the jangling notes of its identity tag sounded like coins rattling together – colybita is Greek for ‘money-changer’. From now on I will hear that quintessential summer-woodland music with new ears.

Of course not everyone will want to spend the time to discover so much about a species. But if you introduce someone to a new acquaintance the first thing you offer is their name, in the hope that they will want to get to know each other better. Surely we owe it to our wildlife to give them the chance of making new friends.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

How to be an abysmal bird watcher

I put up three snipe today when I was walking through the Big Field. I know they were snipe, as opposed to jack snipe - because I looked them up when I got home.

Three dumpy, streaky-brown birds (I couldn't see their beaks because they moved too quickly) jinked away from me, swearing as they went. They kept low over the tussocky margins of the pond, then lifted high into the for-once blue sky, and disappeared into the distance.

Jack snipe don't do that - apparently. They lift off at the last possible moment, just as you're about to step on them, and silently skim a short distance just above the reeds before diving for cover again. A good birdwatcher would have known that. But I'm not even one of Simon Barnes' bad birdwatchers (though I've read his book on how to be one). I'm abysmal at picking up jizz, recognising calls, identifying little brown jobs.

There are lots of other differences between snipe and jack snipe. Jack snipe are only here in the winter; they're smaller, and shorter beaked, for instance. But the point is it doesn't matter. Even if I hadn't known they were snipe they were beautiful birds, they added drama to my day,  and finding out about them later got me one step nearer to being a slightly less abysmal birdwatcher.