Monday, 30 January 2012


A friend sent me an e-mail yesterday. He said:
'Your blog about the river level a while back got me thinking about all the 'real-time' or 'near-real-time' data/information that's available now.... It struck me that we humans have got very good and well-equipped at measuring/monitoring things, but didn't stop a global economic crisis, climate change and natural disasters.'

It's true. On so many levels the process of amassing information has replaced taking action. Governments do it to delay making decisions, businesses do it to avoid taking the blame, I do it to make me feel like I'm achieving something.

Access to information on such a huge scale has ironically made us more passive, and more tense. We know about the threats to our environment - climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty - many of us spends hours a day reading, and worrying, about it  - hours that in the past would have been spent doing things, making things, experiencing things, that might have helped solve the problem.

Of course information is power - but it's only worth having that power if you are prepared to use it to change things. That doesn't seem to be happening at the moment in any meaningful way.

Just a small example. The RSPB and BTO have been monitoring farmland birds for decades. We know numbers are plummeting, here and now. Reading the figures in the papers, or online, makes my heart sink. Imagine a summer without skylarks. But the Scottish Government is planning to slash agri-environment budgets by a third. I'm not suggesting for a minute that those excellent charities have been wasting their time gathering the data - quite the opposite. We really need that information. But we need a next step - an action. Here's my suggestion. Turn off your computer (you can wait until you've finished reading this), go out for a walk, see a bird and enjoy it, then come back and send a letter to John Swinney via the RSPB's website telling him why birds are important to you, and why he should stop the agri-environment scheme cuts (there's a draft letter you can use). Then make sure you go out at least once every day and appreciate something natural. At least then you can move from passive-tense to active-tense.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Welcoming the incomers

At last our snowdrops are out properly in the garden. I've watched them every day since they pushed the first green spears through the earth at the end of December. Spear isn't too strong a term - the points of their leaves are specially hardened to pierce the frozen ground should they need to.Then the slivers of white appeared tucked deep within the leaves, and slowly swelled and stretched each day, finally curving down today to form perfect, green-tipped bells. Those spears have made another little rip in winter's straitjacket.

Despite the fact that so many of us see them as one of the first signs of spring in the UK they're probably not native - and certainly not this far north. There aren't enough invertebrates around at this time of year (unless we have an unusually mild winter) to pollinate the snowdrops, so they can't produce viable seed. Most of the time they can only spread vegetatively - and that's a sure sign they didn't evolve to live here.

That doesn't stop me celebrating their arrival. And it does mean that if we do get a few calm, dry, warmer days there will be something for another not-really-native (but loved as one anyway) to eat. The queen honeybees, like the snowdrops, wake up in response to the lengthening days, not warmer weather. They, like the snowdrops probably, were introduced, in the bees' case by the Romans. And they also plan ahead. They store up food in the form of pollen in the autumn to get them through the first few weeks of egg-laying if the weather's bad. But if it's good, yippee! They'll be out of that nest as quick as you can say Apis mellifera to find some fresh food. That's where the snowdrops come in.

Ironically gardens are now more and more important for honey bees as our so-called 'countryside' is becoming more monocultural. There's almost always something flowering in a garden, whereas fields are likely to offer bees a feast for a few weeks in early summer, followed by a famine of many months. Just to add insult to injury some of the relatively new systemic insecticides, called neonicotinoids (derived from nicotine) that are in use seem to be reducing the bees' ability to breed and feed. Funnily enough this seems to be yet another example of cutting off the nose to spite the face - as farming relies on bees to pollinate a large proportion of its food crops. No bees, no fruit, no seed, no food, no us. I believe the commonly bandied figure is four years for the human race if we lose the bees. I will be looking out very keenly for my first bee -  so there's hope for the world this year at least.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Cutting off the nose to spite the face?

I nearly touched a red kite on Saturday morning. At least that's how it felt. I was sitting in the armchair with my first coffee of the day, gazing blankly out into the still dawn-gloomy garden, when a large, golden brown shape dipped and weaved across my view - not 20 feet from the window. It was pursued by an angry mob of hecklers - jackdaws yelling 'get orf moy land!!!' at the obvious interloper. The kite seemed unperturbed. It languidly flapped those impossibly flexible wings it has - curved air with feathers - and disappeared from view above the roof, heading back across the hills to the north.

Not three miles north of here, as the kite flies, is Argaty, near Doune, where the second batch of red kites were released in Scotland between 1989 and 1996. Now nearly 30 pairs breed in the area each year. Despite this they are not a common sight in the village, preferring to head north and east, where they can stay closer to the open woodlands that they favour for shelter. We sometimes spot the odd one quartering the big sheep field across the railway track. They're presumably on the lookout for an easy meal - red kites are notorious scavengers, but we never see the big winter flocks of 40 or more that congregate above the Argaty woods at dusk before bedding down for the night.

Still, we are luckier than the people living south and east of the first release site, on the Black Isle. Despite the birds' success in colonising to the north, red kites have made no progress in Moray and South Invernesshire, according to the most recent edition of the Scottish Ornithological Club's The Birds of Scotland. It seems illegal poisoning is to blame. Some have pointed out the proximity of grouse moors to the places where red kites are struggling.

Red kites have been reintroduced because they are a natural part of our ecosystem in this country. Not only do they play their part in clearing away carrion, but popular prey species in Scotland, points out the SOC, are rabbit, brown rat, hooded and carrion crow, rook and wood pigeon - mostly species that have been labelled as 'pests', and are also persecuted by the very people who may be to blame for the failure of red kites to thrive in parts of the north-east of Scotland. Could it be that the sport of the few is not only denying the many the pleasure of seeing this magnificent flying machine, but also cutting off its nose to spite its face?

Friday, 20 January 2012

Fire crow

It's been one of those days where circumstances have conspired to fill my brain with anything but ideas for a blog. So I hope you'll forgive me for taking the easy way out and offering up one I made earlier, about a winter trip I took last year. It's called Fire Crow.

Travellers’ tales ought to start with a long, tortuous journey to somewhere remote. That’s what makes them travels, isn’t it? Ours started at dawn, of course. We had a boat to catch and we didn’t want to miss it – we’d sat out a very long, very cold winter waiting for this trip. The roads were narrow, potholed, winding through mountain passes. The sombre, snow-spattered hills looming up around us were tangled in mist. We snaked round long, rocky inlets, where thin, steely-grey beaks of sea probe the land like the curlews we passed feeding on the muddy shoreline. We had less than 60 miles to cross – as the crow flies – but it took over three hours to reach the ferry to Islay.

Now we are here, at the northern tip of the island – and after our journey it does feel like the edge of the world. It’s thin-pelted, crumbling. The turf covers the dark, peaty ground like a threadbare carpet. There are dunes, where sand breaks through anywhere that hooves, feet or tyres have scuffed the surface. Gullies and cliffs of it lead down to the shore.

We – my husband, daughter and I – have come to find a rare bird. We’re prepared for disappointment. Rare birds are hard to find. But I contacted some local experts before we arrived. They said here would be a good place to look. ‘They are beautiful, charismatic birds’, one said; ‘exotic and full of character’, said another, ‘but they’ve been doing very badly here in the last few years’.

We have come to the very north of Islay to see Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax – fire crows - perhaps before it is too late. We want to see their flaming red, scimitar beaks; their shocking scarlet legs; their glossy black plumage; their bouncing, aerobatic flight. One book describes them as flying ‘like World War One biplanes at an air show’. We want to see that.

But fire crows – choughs – are living at the limits here. This is their northwest frontier. The last place in Scotland where they can eke out a living. Now even here their numbers are tumbling – less than 150 birds, at the last count. Over three-quarters of the young birds are dying before they reach a year old. Crucially, before they can breed. The reasons are as complex and inscrutable as the birds themselves, though frantic efforts are being made to find solutions.

We follow a tyre-rutted track towards the coast. A keen north wind stiffens our faces when we top the dunes. The breeze carries the sharp, citrus tang of fresh seaweed thrown up on the shore by last night’s storm. The sea here comes into the loch as a broad tongue, calm and shallow. But at its northern mouth we can see breakers roiling and sliding in from east and west, colliding in cold-white explosions of spray. By the shore oystercatchers speckle the rocks like splashes of black and white paint, lifting and piping as the waves hit.

But on the leeward side of the dunes the air is still, and heavy with the earthy reek of the cattle that have been grazing on the short, stubbly grass. They have left behind patches of sludgy, peaty soil where their hooves have poached and scumbled the turf. And of course, cowpats. This is perfect chough country. Our heads jerk up to every black streak at the edge of our vision – but they’re jackdaws. Then we see the choughs – just standing by the side of the track like they’re nothing special. Two charcoal-black birds with bright, talon-like beaks. They are facing each other, heads bobbing and bowing like a pair of black-robed Chinese mandarins meeting in the street. Feeding really, of course. Their sharp, curved bills are perfectly evolved to find juicy invertebrates in dung and short, grazed turf. So different from the jackdaws, which peck and walk, peck and walk. These choughs seem to be dining together, stopping after every few mouthfuls for polite conversation.

Still, they are jumpy, restless birds, and they jink away as we approach, uttering irritable, ‘chow-chow’ calls. No Red Baron impersonations today. They are young birds, and their legs and beaks have the pale, rusty-orange tinge of juveniles: ember, rather than fire crows. No matter. They are beautiful, they are rare, and they are still here.

We grin at each other. Who would have thought finding a rare bird would be so easy? People tend to forget that ‘rare’, and ‘remote’ for that matter, are relative concepts. Our fire crows may be easy to find here – for now – but over the last 100 years they have deserted every haunt they ever had in Scotland. And for the choughs this restless, wind-lashed coast on the very rim of Europe really is remote. It’s quite literally the end of their world.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Reasons to be glum Part One

I've just finished reading Michael McCarthy's fascinating, beautifully written, and profoundly depressing book, Say Goodbye the the Cuckoo. His main message seems to be: ' Over the centuries the annual return of spring migrants like nightingales, swallows, warblers and cuckoos has brought joy to millions of people. They were so ubiquitous that in the past these birds became an integral part of our lives. But over the last 50 years or so the numbers of birds heralding the arrival of spring has plummeted. The reasons for their decline are as complex as they seem to be insoluble, and are mostly to do with climate change, intensive farming and urbanisation. Worst of all, the chances are that there will come a time in the not too distant future when they may not come at all.'

Imagine that. A spring when you wait in vain for the screaming swifts zooming between the houses like fighter patrols; no house martins zipping to and from their under-eaves nests with beakfuls of insects for their chicks; no cuckoos' calls to tell you summer is definitely here - whatever the weather says.

You could argue that so many people now live in cities that the loss of these iconic summer birds would scarcely be noticed - but I suspect that's not true. I think that even if we don't consciously notice them, many of us are aware of their presence at some subliminal level, and that if they did disappear people would feel their absence keenly.

But it's the Joni Mitchell conundrum: 'You don't know what you've got till it's gone'. How do you get people to want to take action to save something that they don't realise they value?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Nowhere to hide?

I put up a spring of teal on the river today. Nine of them lived up to their collective name and lifted straight out of the water like avian Zebedees. They jinked off over the fields in a tight bundle of synchronised flight, heading upstream and out of sight.

A tenth - a male - unaccountably stayed put, nonchalantly paddling across the river ahead of me, until a lone female goosander also took flight and spurred him into action. He still looked reluctant. Maybe he was injured, or ill, or perhaps just braver than the rest? Maybe the decline in wildfowling in the UK is fuelling an evolutionary change, where ducks and geese loose their fear of humans, saving their precious energy for more dangerous predators, and he's the vanguard? It's amazing how the mind wanders when you're out walking.

The teal have moved back to the river for shelter because after nearly two dry(ish) weeks the flooded pools in the horse field where they had played hide and seek with me last month are now drying out. The pools leave behind a shadow of silty grasses rimmed with mats of flood-borne straw and twigs. For the last three days the temperatures have been sub-zero, and where the water was shallow thin layers of ice hide their disappearance. Only if you cross the brittle surface do you discover that beneath the crazed film of ice is dark, muddy ground, not water.

Further round my circuit of the village is a more permanent pool in the Big Field over the railway line. Usually, much of the surface of this tiny lochan is hidden by blankets of pondweed, under which the moorhens play at being SAS divers (qv). But the post-Christmas gales have blown the weed into a series of pale green, curving lines. If you see them from the top of the small rise beside the pond it looks for all the world as if someone has drawn OS-style contour lines on the pool - as if there were valleys and ridges to be found under the surface if we could only see through the murky water. But there was no sign of the moorhens - perhaps the change in the weed has blown their cover, and they've moved to a new hideout? Mind-wandering again...

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Reasons to be cheerful part two ...

Today it's hanging out the washing on a clear winter morning. The sheets tugging and snapping in the breeze; damp, clean laundry smells; warm hands but cold fingers fumbling with wooden pegs. Best of all, the sound of pink-footed geese passing overhead. Looking up to see hundreds (sometimes thousands) of them moving in constantly changing waves and curves across the sky.

They are mostly heading west in the mornings. That's because Ashfield sits in the middle of Strathallan. Just a few miles east of the village are the Carsebreck and Rhynd Lochs, part of the South Tayside Goose Roosts Special Protection Area (SPA). The strath is an avian motorway for the birds, heading west to feed on the stubble fields of the Carse of Stirling, or east to the wet pastures by the estuaries of the Tay and Forth.

Scotland holds over 50% of the world population of these dainty geese in the winter. Our geese are mostly from Iceland, though others breed in Greenland and Spitsbergen.There are now also significant numbers in England - especially in Lancashire and Norfolk. Though we call them pink-footed geese their scientific name, Anser brachyrynchus, actually means 'small-billed goose'. Since the very similar greylag goose (unhelpfully called Anser anser - goose goose) also has pink feet it's worth remembering that if you're trying to tell them apart. Greylags have big orange-pink conks, pink-foots dainty black and pink ones. If you listen carefully you can tell them apart from their flight calls too - pinkies have a vaguely two-syllable call 'wink-wink', greylags are more raucous and barky. I can tell you this with confidence because my other half, who's a far better birder than I am, says so - but I'm still never quite so sure which is which!

The geese are here from October to April. Numbers have increased eight-fold in the last sixty years thanks both to changes in the law in the 1970s banning the sale of wild geese, and their own adaptability. The birds have widened their diet, particularly in Norfolk, to make the most of new winter crops like sugar beet. So now there are many more places in the UK where hanging out the washing in winter can give you a reason to be cheerful!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Whatever gets you through the day

'The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more'
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Apologies for using a quote to start the blog two days in a row - I promise I won't make a habit of it. I'll explain why I've used it.

I started the day feeling very glum. A deep grey scum of cloud had seeped over the star-clear sky I'd gone to bed by. It was so dark that the street lights were still on at 9.30am. In defiance I dug the last of the parsnips out of our veg patch in the half-light, determined not to be cowed into staying indoors by the gloom, but it was dour work.

By dog-walking time the murk had lifted slightly, but the great tits that were singing so optimistically in yesterday's sun were still taking a rain check. I needed another prop to get me through the day - and give me something to write about. That's when I remembered reading the Emerson quote, and I went out to look at trees. Here's what I saw:

Tiny lavender-purple catkins on the birches - tight, smooth-scaled like reptile skin;

Pale, dove-grey, frondy lichens on the bare branches of the willows by the river;

Sooty-black buds on the ash tree above the old quarry, whose gnarled root looks like an elephant's trunk.

There was a lot of other stuff I usually take for granted that I noticed too -  crimson bramble shoots twining across the rotting bracken; wood sedge, water avens, and violet leaves still green and alive; new growth on the wild honeysuckle. Desperation definitely concentrates the mind! By the time I got home both the cloud, and my mood, had lifted significantly. So thanks, Ralph, for helping me get through the day.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Looking for Spring

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass
What we below could not - Winter pass.

Thaw, by Edward Thomas

Spring is coming. From now on I will be searching for it every time I step outside. Every morsel of spring I find helps to get me through what can sometimes be a slightly grim time up here in Scotland. At its darkest, the sun doesn't rise here until nearly 9am, and sets again soon after 3.30pm.Yes I know I ought to be able to appreciate every season, every weather - but short, dark days and long, cold nights can be hard to bear if you're desperate to get out and grow things.

When I was thinking about writing this I decided to look up the actual definition of Spring, only to find that there isn't one - or to be more precise, there are many,  and most are extremely vague. Meteorologically it's the three months between the three coldest and the three hottest months of the year. In the dictionary it's the time when plants start to grow again after their winter dormancy. But I'm with Edward Thomas - it's the time when at least some of our birds' fancies turn to thoughts of love.

Now we are past the winter solstice we gain a precious minute or two of light every day, more if it's sunny. As if to celebrate, great tits start establishing their breeding territories almost as soon as the days start to lengthen - although they won't begin egg laying until well into April. So now when I go out I listen for their clear, bright 'teacher-teacher' songs piping above me. The sound seems to carry much further than it does later in the year, through the bare branches of the birches and willows, or maybe it's just seems clearer because there aren't many other birds joining in yet.

Rooks, as Thomas observed, are even further ahead. Having paired up during the autumn they are already nest building, so that their young will be born in early spring, before the ground gets too dry for the parents to get at the soil invertebrates that form the chicks' staple diet. Every time I go into Dunblane now I'll be looking out for the first builders flying across the road to the rookery by the A9, beaks grasping impossibly large twigs and branches like overambitious weightlifters.

So I too will be watching winter pass. So far we have had a very mild time of it - though I can still see snow freckling the hills behind the village. But whatever the weather throws at us now there are some signs of spring that won't go away.