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

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 27.9.17

on .

The pink-feet have called my bluff, or rather Tommy's bluff. At the time of writing and despite my prediction of their arrival, there has been absolutely neither sight nor sound of them. Mind you, I have heard geese but it has been the sonorous honking of Canada geese, not the shrill calls of pink-feet, emanating mainly from the waters of the loch. There, these alien geese are so numerous now that when they gather in one great squadron, as they are wont to do at this time of the year, they resemble a veritable armada, their long necks, when seen swimming together, somehow resembling the masts of an invading fleet of galleons.

Although these imported black and white geese may be handsome birds, somehow they do seem to me to be utterly alien, even though there have been 'wild' or rather feral Canada geese here for several centuries, if mainly south of the Border. It may have seemed a good idea to introduce all manner of wildfowl including the Canadas, when pioneering landscape architects were beginning to make their plans for the decoration of newly enriched estates several centuries ago. The centre-pieces of many of their lavish plans were often the sparkling new lakes which they went on to further decorate with an array of exotic wildfowl! Perhaps now, it does not seem to have been such a good idea at all, especially in relation to those Canada geese!

Whilst many of the introductions of plants and animals to these shores were perpetrated by enthusiastic collectors from the Victorian age, for several long centuries, many plants from all over the world have been transplanted into the British landscape. Several of them have taken so well to our climate and environment that they are the subject of strenuous efforts on the part of the authorities, to exterminate what are now regarded as undesirable and invasive plants. Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam and giant hogweed spring immediately to mind, although rhododendrons have also long been favourites for 'bashing' as far as conservationists are concerned.

If the introduction of alien animals and birds was not practised with quite as much zeal as in the case of plants, there are, nonetheless, several well-known examples of animals and birds, which have been introduced, later to become undesirables! Some, you may actually be surprised to learn of as 'non-native' species! For instance, in recent times the ruddy duck, introduced by Sir Peter Scott to his Slimbridge Wildfowl centre in 1948, which like the Canada goose is a North American bird, has enjoyed extremely mixed fortunes. Previously and perhaps following in the footsteps of those landscape architects of yore, attempts had been made to introduce ruddy ducks to Britain in the nineteen thirties and forties.

Inevitably, birds escaped from the likes of Slimbridge and in 1952 they were first recorded breeding successfully in the wild. Clearly the environment here suited them for by the turn of the millennium, it was estimated there were some six thousand or so of them living out their lives across Britain. I well remember seeing one at a Scottish Nature Reserve, back in the 1990s. I also recall that such a sighting was at that time regarded as quite a rarity. Ironically, whilst their numbers here were on the increase, in their natural habitat of North America, by the 1970s the ruddy duck population had plummeted from an estimated 100,000 to a mere 10,000, largely due to the activities of trigger-happy hunters.

Meanwhile the expansion of populations here had resulted in ruddy ducks spreading into Europe. There, lo and behold, it was discovered that a similarly 'stiff-tailed' duck, the white-headed duck had gone into serious decline through cross breeding with the newly arrived and extremely invasive ruddy ducks, its future apparently therefore endangered. Suddenly, the ruddy duck had gone from being a rare sighting enthusiastically recorded by twitchers, to an unwanted alien, which now even had a price placed on its head! I can almost envision the poster: "Wanted - Ruddy Duck - dead, not alive - REWARD!"

In 2003, a Europe-wide eradication programme began. In Britain, that cull has been uniquely successful with now only a handful of ruddy ducks remaining at large. Some might say that it is a pity that such a similar approach to the problem of other introduced species could not have been enacted years ago. However, others suggest that such culling opens up a very large can of worms! However, you may be surprised at just how long we have been 'welcoming' such introductions.

The brown hare, for instance, is not really a British native. It is thought the Romans were responsible for their introduction here ... nearly two thousand years ago! And those other invading forces, the Normans, are credited with the introduction here of the rabbit around a thousand years ago! However, much later in the 1950s, the deliberate importation of the disease myxomatosis to counter the twentieth century population explosion of rabbits was the cause of a universal sense of disgust at the sight of diseased rabbits, emaciated and blind, helplessly crawling around. Thereafter, the deliberate introduction of the disease was banned.

And perhaps most famously, there was the introduction of grey squirrels, another North American import, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If at first grey squirrels were greeted with excitement - cute little creatures endangering people in public parks and the like - there was initially little understanding of the damage these American squirrels could inflict on our native reds. In fact, the larger, more aggressive grey squirrel soon had our native 'squirrel nutkin' in rapid retreat. And as we now know, the alien grey carries a virus to which it is immune but which is deadly to the red. There have, therefore, been concerted efforts to cull these grey squirrels and indeed, perhaps due to the welcome intervention of growing numbers of pine marten, red squirrels are now, we are told, very much on the advance at the expense of the greys in many parts of the country.

Also from across the Atlantic, in the 1930s came mink. Although farmed and therefore caged, inevitably some escaped and became established as breeding animals in the British countryside. Worse followed when in more recent years, in protest against the very ethos of fur farming, over-zealous and unthinking enthusiasts deliberately released thousands of them into the landscape. What followed was mayhem. We quickly became aware of the catastrophic effects of these releases in this airt as hundreds of mink released from a nearby fur farm decimated ground nesting birds over the next few years, especially around the loch. Culling remains an on-going task.

The latest invader, however, comes from a very different direction. Ring necked parakeets are on the march in the south-east of England. These, too, are escapees but are now congregating in growing numbers all over that part of the UK. Inevitably they are beginning to turn up in other parts of England and are spreading north. These are birds, which although originating in Africa and India, have become increasingly well established here, the only members of the parrot family to take up residence in Britain!

I'm sure there are those who might cite wild boar as another accidentally introduced animal, again perhaps, because they too have escaped into many parts of the British countryside from captivity. Ironically of course, they were once native here. Have we, therefore, come full circle? What next?

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods