The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 23.8.17

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There is an inevitability about the way in which the summer season is beginning to decline ... at times it seems, with indecent haste, especially when fronts born of the remnants of a distant hurricane named Gerty came speeding in from the Atlantic at the beginning of this week to cast something of a wet blanket over the waning summer! Nights too are perceptibly drawing in and some leaves are even now beginning to lose their green hue and are slowly taking on a distinctly bronze tinge. Autumn it seems is clearly waiting eagerly in the wings, ready to burnish our landscape sooner rather than later and produce that blazingly colourful finale before many trees and bushes are stripped bare of their leaves as they shut down for their winter break!

And, a few days ago, I became aware of one of the pre-eminent sounds of autumn, when late on a fast darkening evening a solitary voice broke the silence. It was of course, the voice of robin redbreast. Most birds have turned off the music, the principal goal of the year, the production and nurturing of the next generation, now a rapidly receding memory for most. Some, like my warbling redbreast, must by now have completed their annual moult - robins complete it in around three short weeks. Others, especially some of our waterfowl, are only part way through it and indeed may have weeks to go before they are equipped with a completely new set of feathers.

So redbreast is clearly now sporting his pristine new suit, a smart brown back tinted with a hint of olive and of course, resplendent in that bright new red waistcoat. Furthermore, already he is clearly intent on establishing his winter territory. Hence, that lone, sweet voice piercing the gathering gloom. Robins and perhaps to a slightly lesser degree wrens, unlike most other birds, are almost as keen to establish and defend such a territory now and for the forthcoming winter months, as they are in the spring. However, the desire now is to establish a feeding territory and therefore, this sudden renewal of song has nothing to do with the spring inspired desire to find a mate and breed. Hence the bursts of song in an otherwise pretty silent landscape.

Poets down the ages have revered the redbreast. Several such scribes even describe him as a pious bird, said to cover the dead with leaves and moss, a tale which apparently features in many an old ballad and a theme carried through in the legendary story, "Babes in the Wood." And to add to that vision of piety, folklore down the ages contains mythical stories that offer explanations for the robin's red breast. One such tale tells us that the robin's red breast was acquired when he flew to deposit two drops of water on the fires of Hell in a futile effort to put them out. Tradition insists that he performed this duty on a daily basis until one day he flew too close and thus scorched his breast!

A better known story perhaps, tells us that at the crucifixion, redbreast, in a kindly attempt to remove a thorn from the brow of Jesus, stained his breast red with the blood of Christ. Thus, was the robin thereafter regarded as pious and sacred, a very special bird, well deserving the attention of equally pious poets!

And of course, there is a well-known verse - "Harm a robin or a wren, Ye'll never thrive again." Another tells us - "A robin in a cage, Sends all heaven in a rage". I'm sure the latter verse must have been written in the nineteenth century when the capture and caging of wild birds was endemic in Britain, especially in the south. The attractive and sweet singing robin would seem a likely candidate to be thus imprisoned, yet such was the strength of superstition connected with this revered bird, that it was seldom a victim of that cruel pastime. Indeed such is the confidence of redbreast that he is exceptionally bold and confiding when in the presence of people, even on occasions taking scraps of food from human hand.

One of the poetic gems, written by none other than Lakeland's William Wordsworth, tells us that when the poet's sister Dorothy was in her sick bed, robins entered her bedroom and fanned her fevered brow with their wings, in order to cool her. Could there have been in that verse I wonder, a trace of poetic licence?

Yet despite such adulation, in reality, the redbreast is not quite the angel it is otherwise made out to be. Indeed during a morning of sunshine and showers last weekend, I witnessed the other side of the robin's character. My evening songster is clearly in the process of establishing that winter territory so it came as no surprise when the following little scene was played out. Enter stage right another jaunty cock robin. Instantly, enter stage left, my very belligerent, resident cock robin, not now singing but instead laying down his kingdom's law ... in no uncertain terms. Robins, I should say have been known to literally fight to the death. Place a toy cloth robin in a robin's territory and you may well find it torn to pieces by your resident cock robin!

At the belligerent approach of the resident cock robin, the trespassing cock robin instantly lost his nerve and rapidly exited stage right, hotly pursued by reigning cock robin. The territorial boundary he has established - not I must confess, so clearly visible to me - is to robins however, as clearly marked as if it had a picket fence or indeed, a stone wall around it! As soon as invading robin had left that boundary behind him as he fled, the chase was over and the king returned in triumph to his realm to resume his rather erratic if very sweet 'national anthem'!

And then, during a brief spell of warm sunshine a couple of mornings later, more voices joined the chorus, loudest among them, jenny wren who seemed equally intent upon pronouncing his quick-fire claim to winter territory. This seemed to set off a small murmuration of starlings, which had been eagerly helping themselves to the rapidly dwindling crop of rowan berries here and now rested to digest their plunder.

From these berry raiders emanated some exceptionally sweet and mellow notes, together with some ridiculous scratchings and prattlings. I couldn't help but think of that famous television sketch featuring Eric Morecambe and Andre Previn, in which the comedian claimed to be playing the right notes on the piano but not necessarily in the right order! That somehow epitomises the music of starlings!

Meanwhile redbreast continued his soliloquy, the sweet notes tripping off his tongue as if he too was making it up as he went along! Like drops of liquid gold they simply tumble from his throat, again, in no particular order. It is like making music on the hoof, or in the case of the robin, on his spindly little legs. Yet his music, even though it may perhaps be a stark reminder of the ever shortening days and in due course, of falling temperatures that are to come, nevertheless offers a tuneful shattering of the otherwise relative silence.

And he, together with his 'other half' jenny wren, will I expect, fill the sonic void during the next two or three weeks, before the landscape hereabouts will begin to resound to the louder and even more autumnal voices of the vanguard skeins of pink-footed geese. This summer's not by any means yet, a memory, but these are, I'm afraid the sounds of the forthcoming autumn and winter! But hope springs eternal that as the world continues to warm, an Indian summer may yet be just around the corner. Meanwhile robin redbreast is on guard!

"They little thought that saw him come

That robbins were so quarrelsome." King.

Country View 16.8.17

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That sound of silence continues except for the twittering swallows and the melodic martins ... and one rather surprising voice in mid-August - that of a lone willow warbler. And there was no question, that sweet and gentle cadence down the scale, is unmistakable. On this occasion it was muted, a whispered, discreet little reminder of a song that had been so dominant in this and just about every other airt I visited, during this year's spring and early summer.

With the year's task of producing a new generation of willow warblers now fulfilled and a mute period called for whilst feather renewal is the order of the day, perhaps he has jumped the vocal gun prior to beginning preparations for his departure to his African winter home. Unlike other migrants, over the course of his sojourn there he will go through another much more prolonged moult over the winter months.

Whether this lone vocalist has come through the moult earlier than most and was thus letting the world know that he now has a pristine new coat of feathers I don't know. Perhaps it was just a 'feel good' moment? But I haven't heard him again. Perhaps that single, murmured phase was hinting at an earlier than usual departure, for instinct may already be influencing him to prepare for the mammoth journey he must inevitably take quite soon anyway.

Some birds have already departed these shores of course. Adult cuckoos abandoned their offspring to the care of their unwitting foster parents a week or two ago, to begin their southward migration before August was even on the calendar. I reckon town streets may fall silent during the next few days as the screaming swifts up sticks and follow the cuckoos to fly south ... rapidly!

Yet this year's crop of young ospreys is only just discovering the joys of flight, utterly unaware that they too will soon be drawn as if by magnets, to join the exodus. What they probably don't yet understand, is that their parents, thus far utterly devoted to their welfare, will, before the month is out, suddenly desert them and take off for Africa too, leaving their offspring to fend entirely for themselves.

It must be a very rude awakening for young ospreys. They will eventually and instinctively follow their parents but first they must properly hone the fishing skills by which they must survive during a forthcoming journey of some three thousand miles. It is only a few short weeks since they found themselves unceremoniously taken from their treetop eyries by tree-scaling humans, plunged into sacks, lowered to the ground, weighed, ringed and tagged, before being returned aloft. This procedure is routinely employed these days as a means of learning more about the lives of ospreys and their travels.

In recent years, many young ospreys have also been fitted with GPS tags so that they can be monitored throughout their journeys south. As anyone who has travelled to America will know, ospreys are endemic there. Indeed, in some parts of that vast country, they are extremely common and I well remember seeing eyries built upon man-made structures such as bridges, in Florida.

North American birds, as you might imagine, migrate each autumn to South America and a few years ago, a family of three youngsters was electronically tracked as they flew south. The biggest hazard these American birds encounter is the vast Gulf of Mexico. Two of the birds being tracked literally disappeared during that part of their epic flight, with only one of them surviving to pitch up in its South American wintering ground. Survival on such a hazardous journey is clearly a major challenge.

Whilst our ospreys do not have to cross such immense spans of ocean, they nevertheless also clearly face considerable challenges, especially as they receive absolutely no parental guidance and so have to rely entirely upon in-built instinct to navigate their journey successfully. I recall hearing a few years ago, of one young bird from this part of Scotland, which got its navigation wrong and ended up somewhere deep in the South Atlantic, rather than in West Africa.

Meanwhile, those newly fledged birds must in these next, crucial few weeks, watch and learn from their parents whilst they can. It is essential that initially, they watch their parents as they hunt and then try to emulate them. They must quickly sharpen their fishing skills in order to ensure that they are as practised in that art as possible before they eventually take the plunge and head for Africa themselves. Remember they will travel strictly as individual birds. It is indeed a daunting start in life for these birds but a challenge they cannot of course, resist.

The strong instinct to fly south, an instinct inherited by all our summer migratory birds, poses an interesting question. I have often been puzzled at reports I have read about James V1, when he became James 1 of England, which tell us that he deployed cormorants to fish on the Thames ... and surprisingly ospreys too. As ospreys, probably pretty common in those days, are such migratory birds, the drive to obey instinct and head southwards as the summer wanes must surely have been insurmountable. Did the king therefore, have to have ospreys re-trained each summer or did those birds perhaps simply perish in captivity?

Cormorants, sedentary birds of course, are still employed in this way, not of course, on the Thames but in the Far East, as many of you will know via the medium of television advertising. But I have found no information that suggests that ospreys are used as a means of catching fish for human consumption, anywhere in the world. I am sure that migratory instinct would always prevail if such a scheme were to be attempted with the likely demise of birds forced to remain in captivity.

Right now, this year's youngsters are cautiously finding their wings and making their first, probably most futile attempts at catching fish. Adult ospreys often have to make several attempts before successfully rising from the water with fish firmly clasped in talons, which are specifically adapted to configure in such a way so that two claws are back and two forward as opposed to three forward and one back as is the norm. This ensures a firmer grip on slippery prey. However, these young birds will inevitably be hard pressed to sustain themselves.

They must first learn to quarter the waters they are fishing, spot their scaly quarries near the surface, hover and then diver to hopefully grab their slippery prey before rising in triumph, pausing briefly to shake surplus water from their plumage. Thus, at first the youngsters are likely to find themselves very frustrated, failure more often than not being the norm. These August 'learning' weeks are therefore vital to their future survival.

While instinct will eventually kick in, the August training is nevertheless, for these newly fledged youngsters, literally, make or break! Should they complete their journey successfully, they will remain in the fish rich waters of West Africa for the first two or three years of their lives, honing those vital skills before returning here to the land of their birth.

Country View 8.8.17

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As I remember, September always used to be regarded as the harvest month. After all that is when the harvest moon shines down upon us and when traditionally, harvest home happened. These days however, a combination of faster ripening crops and global warming has perhaps been at the root of earlier and earlier harvests. Science, combined with engineering has changed farming almost beyond recognition in my lifetime.

Harvest time during my youth, was a time when country folk came together to bring in the year's crops. Of course, then the harvest was extremely labour intensive with all hands required to complete this vital task! Now instead, it is machine intensive! In these next few weeks, dinosaur-like combines will be unleashed to invade the golden fields and chomp their way through newly ripened crops, disgorging the bi-product of straw behind them. It will all seem very Jurassic!

In this highly mechanised age, when drones and even GPS satellites can help pinpoint exactly where fertilisers or pesticides are needed in a field, whilst farming is perhaps physically less taxing, it is still very dependent upon elements that we can't control, like the weather. Thus, a summer, which at one time had seemed full of promise, has rather fizzled out. So as harvest time becomes more imminent, the reluctance of the jet stream to move critically further north in order to allow high pressure to establish itself, has resulted in a succession of rain-inducing fronts careering in from the Atlantic.

Most of our migratory birds were happily able, as it were, to make hay whilst the sun shone and get on with the main purpose of their epic journeys from Africa to produce and nurture new generations. Soon, both parents and offspring will answer to impelling instinct and inevitably turn their heads to the south and begin their epic journeys to the Dark Continent. For the parent birds, this will be this year's return leg whilst the youngsters take on this massive challenge for the first time in their short lives. Now, vitally therefore all these long distance travellers must reap their own harvests, mostly of insects. Crucially, during these next few weeks, as soon as they have completed the acquisition of a new set of clothes, they must eat and eat and eat!

Whilst our cereal harvest is coming in earlier, so, too, it seems, is the natural harvest. I have been watching the rowan berries here during the past few weeks. They have progressed rapidly from green to orange and now, in early August, they are red. And, I am not alone in observing this natural harvest ripen. As I write, increasing numbers of starlings, blackbirds and song thrushes are arriving among the clusters of ripening berries. This is their harvest and increasingly they will feast on the berries as they seek to give themselves a racing start for shortening days, which even now are causing our evenings to 'draw in'.

In neighbouring hedgerows, other harvests are also ripening. This looks likely to be a bumper year for brambles although the berries as yet remain stubbornly green, it will be a few weeks before eager bramble pickers will be seen patrolling hedges in search of these highly desirable, rich, bulbous fruits. And they will not be alone either. Foxes, with an undeserved reputation for killing and eating lambs, poultry and game birds by the thousand, are also eager consumers of brambles. So, too, are the new generations of pine marten.

The spread of pine marten across this area and indeed across Scotland as a whole, not to mention their advance in England and Wales over the past number of years which has been a remarkable story. Hereabouts, their re-establishment has seen an amazing transition in squirrel populations. Where once grey squirrels abounded, now there are none. Instead, the void has been filled by native red squirrels. The alien greys, introduced to Scotland from America in the early years of the twentieth century, had found conditions here very much to their liking. Consequently, during the last century, they had very successfully colonised many parts of lowland Scotland, very much to the exclusion of those native reds.

It is not thought that grey squirrels attacked and killed the smaller reds. Rather that they were more avaricious competitors for food sources. Furthermore, they carry a disease known as 'squirrel pox' to which they are resistant but which red squirrels are not. But, grey squirrels are on average, almost twice the weight of reds. Thus, they are nowhere near as agile, nor, because of their greater weight, are they able to evade predators such as martens by retreating to outer branches, which cannot bear the marten's weight. Red squirrels, although from time to time inevitably falling victim to martens, are nevertheless able to escape their clutches through their lighter weight and their greater agility.

When, in previous times, for example in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, martens were present in this airt, there would of course, have been no grey squirrels present. So, imagine the delight of the new generation of pine marten, when they found their way back into this landscape after a long absence, to discover grey squirrels in such abundance. Lots of food that was, compared with red squirrels, much easier to catch and which when hunted down, also provided much better eating!

Hence, pine marten have prospered and now turn up in some quite unexpected places. And as a bonus, where those grey squirrels once held sway, instead red squirrels have made a real come back. I find it mildly amusing that many wildlife books tell us that pine marten are extremely shy creatures and so very difficult to see. Perhaps that appeared to be the case when they were so scarce but it should be remembered that when man's hand was firmly set against predators of any kind, pine marten were enthusiastically pursued, prodded from the shelter of trees with long poles and fallen upon by dogs. Therefore, pine marten had every reason to avoid the presence of human kind.

However, the new generations seem to have developed a different relationship with us for I know of many instances where martens have set up home in the roof space of houses. One such 'squat' happened in the house of a friend. Over the period of that summer, we learned that a pine marten harvest also includes strawberry jam sandwiches, peanut butter and the odd domestic egg or three as well as small mammals, the young of nesting birds and when the time comes, the fruits of our hedgerows!

Furthermore, they will be on the lookout for those red squirrels, which during the next few weeks will be so focussed on bringing in their own harvests of nuts, beech-mast and seeds, that their guards may just be down. Harvest time is coming for all sorts of creatures great and small!

Country View 2.8.17

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Immigration is these days, a sensitive subject. For instance, it may have been a major factor during the referendum and indeed possibly one of the reasons for the resulting Brexit vote. Yet increasingly we are being reminded of how vital immigrant labour is to fruit and vegetable farmers up and down the land. Furthermore, our vital National Health Service would grind to a halt were it not for the large numbers of immigrants currently employed by it. Many of our industries, including what is for Scotland one of our most important sectors, tourism, is also heavily reliant upon migrant labour.

However, there is another aspect of immigration that may be marginally less controversial and which does not in fact relate to human beings. Nevertheless, it is an immigration of choice which has seen the re-introductions in recent years of red kites and the white tailed or sea eagles. Apart from a rump of red kites, which managed somehow to hang on in mid-Wales, both of these birds, previously endemic to these shores had disappeared a hundred years or more ago. Both I'm afraid, were shot and poisoned unmercifully and with the exception of that core of kites in Wales, otherwise became extinct as British breeding birds.

The last British sea eagle is reputed to have disappeared in 1916. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, their numbers although falling, nevertheless persisted despite wide-scale persecution. But the introduction of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin and the use by industry of PCBs, both of which began to enter the food chain during the second half of the twentieth century, quickly led to a further depletion in numbers, especially in the Baltic region.

Only in northern Norway, where levels of industry and the resultant pollution had remained low, had breeding populations of these magnificent raptors bucked the trend and shown increases rather than decreases. Attempts had been made to re-introduce sea eagles to Scotland between 1959 and 1968, without success. The Isle of Rum was, in the nineteen eighties, chosen as the most suitable place to try again. Rum had become a National Nature Reserve under the auspices of the then Nature Conservancy Council, subsequently coming under the control of the newly created Scottish Natural Heritage.

The first of the new immigrant eaglets arrived in 1975. By 1985, a total of 82 youngsters, taken from nests in northern Norway, had been released. Sea Eagles frequently rear twin chicks and so where that had been the case among selected nests in Norway, one of those two chicks had been removed to contribute to their restitution in Scotland. Sea eagles take a few years to mature and it was 1985, nearly eighty years after the last recorded breeding success that Scotland's first new generation sea eagle chick emerged on the Island of Mull.

Red kites had been absent for rather longer. Condemned to extinction in England since 1871, a similar fate had befallen the kite in Scotland by 1879. Their disappearance was again, largely due to persecution. Yet for centuries, kites had been virtually the 'skaffies' of many a town and city up and down Britain long before the concept of Environmental Health Departments had materialised! Until their inception, most conurbations were pretty smelly places, for rubbish and more potently sewage, were literally dumped in the streets. And kites did a pretty good job in cleaning up those streets by picking away at what scraps of half eaten and rotten food could be found in that rubbish!

Curiously enough tales of kites swooping to snatch the likes of fancy handkerchiefs from the breast pockets of passing gentlemen were rife. Today's new generation of red kites retain a curious fascination for scraps of material, for they frequently decorate their nests with bits of old clothing they have purloined! However, the efficiency of red kites as they scoured the streets for scraps and therefore kept them cleaner than would have otherwise been the case, even earned them the protection of royal decrees! Kites therefore, presumably became less fearful of mankind, which perhaps contributed to their demise for they were probably very easy targets for the guns!

The level of persecution, not just here but across Europe too, was at its most intense in the second half of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century. In Britain, these were the 'killing years' as gamekeepers employed by sporting estates literally waged war on all raptors. Only in the remoteness of central Wales did kites persist. In recent times there have been successive re-introductions of red kites to many parts of Britain, mostly brought in from Eastern Europe where they are plentiful.

Now most of us can enjoy the languid, floating light of these highly attractive birds as they proscribe wide circles in the sky. A day or so ago I had the pleasure of watching one such bird pirouetting right above me, showing off to perfection its magnificent aerobatic skills, its widespread wings - with a wingspan as much as six feet - and its hallmark, that characteristic forked tail. Essentially, kites are scavengers. Although they may sometimes feed on small mammals such as voles and may also prey on rabbits where they still exist, like buzzards they are great opportunists, always eager to exploit carrion.

These re-introductions have not of course, been void of controversy. Sea eagles, now breeding successfully in many, mostly coastal parts of Scotland, are accused of taking lambs. It can be argued that in crofting country, lamb mortality is naturally high and dead lambs represent easy pickings for all kinds of predators. However, any loss seems doubly significant on crofts, which inevitably find the going financially tough. Still, I can't help feeling that the scale of losses claimed, is often wildly exaggerated.

Similarly, although kites are sometimes accused of taking young game birds, any such activity may soon pale into insignificance if the hopes of the Lynx UK Trust are realised. Application has just been made to Natural England by the Trust for permission to introduce six lynx to the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. That extensive forest may be in England but it is of course, very close to the Scottish Borders. Not surprisingly the sheep farming community, for which the Borderlands are rightly famous, do not want lynx on their doorsteps.

Whilst the Lynx Trust maintains that these 'Labrador-sized cats' seldom take sheep, farmers and shepherds remain sceptical. The Trust quotes lynx predation on sheep in Europe at a notional figure of 0.4 adult sheep per lynx per year. But as I've said before, the landscapes of England and Scotland have changed immeasurably since the last lynx roamed these parts some thirteen hundred years or so ago.

The Scottish uplands, especially the Borders, have become renowned for their extensive sheep farming over the past four hundred years, where previously they were dominated by woodland and scrub. Whilst the Lynx Trust assures critics that these new immigrants will bring a much needed element of control over the large number of roe deer present in Kielder, farmers remain dubious, fearful of attacks on their breeding ewes.

The Trust claims that the presence of lynx will hugely increase the level of tourism in that area. However, lynx are exceptionally covert creatures, mostly active at night and thus almost impossible to spot. Thus, the assertion by the Trust that these new immigrants will simply 'blow sea eagles out of the water' in terms of their value as a tourist attraction seems somewhat wide of the mark. Go to Mull and you are pretty certain of seeing sea eagles. I doubt if lynx would ever be anything like as visible as those flying barn doors and may thus not be quite the tourist attractions predicted!

Country View 26.7.17

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As the Good Book says, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." I must confess there was a time in my life - admittedly a long time ago - when I thought that prophecy had come true! Back in the early fifties, our countryside literally swarmed with rabbits, seen by many as 'the meek' among our wild creatures and a much favoured prey of many of the hunting classes among our native fauna. Yet they did indeed seem to be about to inherit our landscape!

And of course, there were those folk who dedicated themselves to the 'sport' of catching rabbits, using ferrets. With rabbits abounding, inevitably the skies were well filled with mewing buzzards. Wherever I went there were stoats ... dashing perilously across country roads with almost monotonous regularity, or sinuously exploring the warrens that pockmarked many a field in those far off days. Those were profitable days indeed for a whole range of predators, not to mention the owners of ferrets!

So numerous were rabbits at that time, that it was thought they were costing the farming industry millions of pounds in lost revenue annually. Rabbits were simply decimating crops. They weren't very popular with gardeners either, for they also destroyed many a vegetable patch too. During the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rabbit population literally exploded. Yet rabbits had been present in Britain by then for several hundred years, their presence almost unnoticed. As most people know, rabbits are not true natives of these shores, nor indeed are brown hares. The only truly British member of this clan is the 'blue' or mountain hare. In truth, Rabbits are only truly native to southern Europe, although they have been introduced to many different parts of the world.

The Romans are believe to have introduced the brown hare to these shores perhaps the best part of two thousand years ago, principally as a source of food. The rabbit's arrival came many hundreds of years later, sometime it is thought, in the twelfth century. The introduction of this innocent looking creature is often laid at the door of the Norman conquerors. But William and his merry men and their successors had probably been resident here for at least a hundred years before the first rabbits were brought, it is thought, from the Isles of Scilly. Nevertheless, they probably arrived in those islands courtesy of those same Normans.

The apparent innocence of rabbits has been well and truly exploited by numerous writers, not least by one Beatrix Potter. Her Peter Rabbit became bedtime reading for literally generations of tiny tots. Every Easter-time brings forth portraits of fluffy little chickens and of course, large eyed 'bunny' rabbits. Apart from the Easter theme of new life - the resurrection - I guess that young rabbits do look cuddly and because of those large round eyes and chubby cheeks, portray a 'baby-like' image.

Thus, they are the very epitome of 'meek and mild' creatures which may have been why there was wide-scale outrage when, in the mid-fifties, myxomatosis, was deliberately introduced as a means of containing out-of-control rabbit numbers. Now a horror struck public was confronted with the sight of dying rabbits in their thousands. Blind, pathetic and emaciated creatures were to be seen crawling about helplessly, just waiting for death to come.

The dreaded 'mixi' certainly put people off eating rabbit which, during the war years, had been a much sought after source of protein when butcher's meat was severely rationed. Some enterprising folk had gone into intensive rabbit farming to meet the demand and probably found things becoming increasingly difficult when the disease struck as more and more people removed rabbit from their menus. But Peter Rabbit's reputation remained unaffected and he continued to be bedtime reading for millions of children! As I recall, Mr McGregor, did not subscribe to the view that rabbits were the meek and mild creatures of his garden! They were the enemy!

However, rabbits had existed in the British countryside for hundreds of years without apparently causing any problems. Of course, during those centuries the British landscape had been a much wilder place than anyone today would imagine. Dominated by woodland and heath and farmed on a much smaller scale compared with the modern day, the progress initiated by the Agricultural Revolution began to transform it. Woodlands were felled, heathlands 'tamed' and vast acreages of land improved and turned over to the growing of crops. The object of course, was to feed the fast growing human population.

Suddenly there was a huge spin-off for Britain's then quite meagre population of rabbits, or as they were widely known, coneys! Rabbits suddenly found themselves plunged into a world of plenty, with a glut of succulent food. And boy, did they exploit it. Now extremely well fed, they went forth with a vengeance and multiplied ... at a remarkable rate, fast becoming a costly problem for the new, more prosperous age of farmers. However their fecundity became a veritable bonanza for an array of predators. I well remember observing an eagle, which had come down from the mountains of Arran, feating upon the rabbits dispersing from a lowland field during hay-making. But it was buzzards that were among the main beneficiaries although stoats too profited from this abundance of food as did several other hunters.

When 'myxi' struck, there was a further bonanza to be exploited but thereafter there ensued a rapid decline in prey and a responsive downturn in predator numbers. In this airt, rabbit numbers seem hardly to have recovered at all but elsewhere, there does seem to be evidence of resistance to 'myxi' building up in some rabbit populations. Rabbits are gregarious animals and they are not as meek and mild as you may think. As with most animals, there is inevitably a struggle for dominance among male rabbits - bucks - as the breeding season approaches. Rabbits famously, have a well-deserved reputation for ambitious breeding with the first stirrings affecting them as early as January.

As said, they live in pretty close communities, which are very much dominated by the most aggressive bucks. The social structure is established, known as a dominance hierarchy, in which other bucks are consequently extremely subservient to the 'master' buck. Indeed, when young, up and coming bucks aggressively displace older animals and those ousted are sent packing to live comparatively lonely 'bachelor' lives on their own. So, in terms of lifestyle, they are not quite so meek and mild as they might seem. Although there is usually a dominant doe too, her role seems to be that of a tolerant matriarch.

The slow recovery of rabbits and perhaps the degree of resistance to myxomatosis, is definitely patchy. Locally, where I used to watch rabbits on a regular basis, now there are none. Hence, I seldom catch a glimpse of a stoat whereas a good thirty years ago, I recall typically seeing several in the course of a day. However, during a recent stay on the west coast, members of my family reported an abundance of rabbits. I also know that some of the islands off that coast to which perhaps rabbits were long ago introduced as an alternative to the monotony of a fishy diet, are still 'hoaching' with them!

And then a day of rwo ago, the sighting of that famous skut, so much a recognisable feature of this animal, was to be seen disappearing into a nearby wood. I'm sure the eyes of the local buzzards and kites will accordingly light up. The farmers hereabouts however, with memories of those teeming hordes, will perhaps be hoping that they may not again see coneys 'inheriting their bit of the earth'!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods