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 20.1.15

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Winter thus far has been largely wet and windy as opposed to cold and frosty but during the past few days it has more boldly asserted itself as winds moved round the compass into the north and the landscape accordingly turned white! Proper winter had arrived! Nevertheless, despite these tumbling temperatures and the nightly, looming presence of Mr Frost, the first indications of new life have already begun to manifest themselves. There, in a hedge bottom, trembling in the icy blast, were to be seen the year’s first new signs of life in the delicate form of snowdrops. For all their pristine delicacy, snowdrops, with their fragile white petals and fine-spun greenery must indeed in essence be extremely hardy. Furthermore they surely induce a ‘smile’ factor, just when we need it!

These first blooms declare a new beginning of the eternal cycle of life, the first heralds of another season of re-birth. Yet, these are inevitably very slow and even cautious beginnings, for true winter may perhaps have only just begun! And, hitherto, there have been precious few hints from our feathered friends that they are awakening to that new dawn. Thus far I had heard little more than a few whispered avian conversations, most of them barely audible.

Only one songster to speak of has thus far, made any kind of impression. Inevitably, that lone voice belongs to redbreast, his sweet little phrases briefly permeating an otherwise silent sylvan setting. I always get the impression at this time of the year that robins have little or no structure to their song. Instead, they seem to blurt out little collections of random notes, almost involuntarily, as if they open their little beaks before letting their brains slip into gear! Yet those erratic bursts of sugar sweet notes are welcome, for they brighten up even the dullest of days … and nights. Indeed, robin’s voice is even more penetrating when he sings us an evening lullaby as darkness descends.

Robins are in truth, enigmatic and perverse little creatures. They may seem all sweetness and light; bright, dewy eyed, alluring with their glowing red breasts, often surprisingly happy to enjoy our close company and of course, to entertain us with their solo music during the short days of the winter months. But they are not quite so endearing when it comes to relationships with their own kindred. Only one robin comes to my bird-table albeit that another came the other day, clearly brandishing a gauntlet!

He perhaps harbours ambitions of sharing the daily provender but the resident redbreast is decidedly singular in every respect. ‘This is my sole territory; trespassers will not be tolerated’ is his message to all other redbreasts. Thus far he reigns supreme, the one and only robin allowed here! Any incursions by such rivals are rebuffed with a ferocity, which is hardly equalled in other avian circles. Thus, there was a brief flurry as the well-entrenched bird flew purposefully but swiftly towards the interloper. Within seconds, only one bird was to be seen. Discretion had, once more, become the better part of valour!

Cock robins simply do not tolerate other cock robins and conflict between rivals is often resolved with remarkable brutality with one of the contenders, should he resist, likely to end up more dead than alive! The little shenanigans between other birds at the feeders are nothing compared with the malice that enters cock robin’s breast should another robin invade his territory. Rivalry between birds of the same species, most noticeably among the male birds, is endemic and clearly evident at the feeders, yet such fall outs are usually brief with basic survival the main consideration. In cock robins, no such restraining feature exists!

Robins therefore are arguably, the most openly belligerent of our more familiar birds. Yet others too have short fuses. My growing flock of house sparrows is constantly living up to that collective description of their kind, for ‘quarrels’ seem to break out constantly. In utter contrast, dunnocks give the distinct impression of being the antithesis of such conflict, always quietly remaining on the periphery, content to feast upon the crumbs whilst others scrap over the scraps! And yet, the humble little dunnock is not quite as genteel as you may think for of all the more familiar garden birds, this is the one that is firmest in its belief that monogamy is not for him!

I have often felt that among the titmice, the great tit above all, exhibits the greatest degree of physical dominance and competitiveness. So, I was not at all surprised that a day or two after seeing my first snowdrops, I was at last to hear a pronouncement that further confirmed the slow revolution, which over the next few weeks and months will inevitably, alter and quicken the rhythms of natural life. The oft-repeated two-tone proclamation of a cock great tit rang out as distinctively as the lone voice of the robin had earlier echoed through the wood. ‘Tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’, he trumpeted. The message rang out loud and clear – the first real, audible sign of a rising of the sap. Cock great tits are nearly always the first out of the blocks in proclaiming their availability to any hen great tits that care to listen, and the message they promote is that they are of course, ‘the most desirable of mates’!

If there was a lack of real conviction, of stridency, in that first proclamation, it did at least, provide another benchmark in the New Year’s progression. The message was clear - the march towards spring has begun. With the emerging snowdrops, it represented the first chapter in what may well be a saga of great length … or indeed shortness. Who knows? Some say this is destined to be a hard winter but the computers don’t really know, they can only predict. And what that solitary great tit had to say for himself will surely soon I’m sure, be echoed by others. Inevitably rival cocks will respond and in the weeks to come, the air will resonate ever louder with that two-tone statement of intent … from all the airts!

There will be much ritual to undertake in the meantime. And, ambitions will not always be fulfilled. The hen birds, which are of course, the decision-makers, will eventually make their choices of mates, choices which will depend on a variety of factors. The assertive nature for instance, of that ‘tea-cher, tea-cher,’ territorial claim; the nature of the territory a male has claimed; the quality of nesting sites within that territory, even the length and breadth of the black band that dominates his front. But above all, the food resources available for the raising of a family within his chosen territory when that eventuality has to be met, will be regarded as crucial.

That latter assessment, dependent mainly upon the availability of caterpillars, she may not be able to make at this early stage but as their relationship develops, that will become for her a prime requisite. And should his chosen territory prove to be below par in that respect, just when fulfilment seems at hand, she may well abscond to find a better provider elsewhere! Fickle that may seem but it is in essence pragmatic!
So the first signs are there; can spring break free from winter’s grip? Well, there may indeed, be many a slip ‘tween cup and lip!

Country View 13.1.15

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Wild, wild weather provided anything but a warm welcome to the New Year as strengthening, gale-force winds uprooted trees, battered large boughs from them and scattered debris all over the place, to which might be added the threat also of the white stuff always present.

Yet, even after such storms, the birds were still here in number seeking their early morning treats the next day. I could only imagine how difficult it must have been overnight for the assembly of birds including the growing ‘quarrels’ of house sparrows which seemed to have survived the lashing wind, semi-blizzards and driving rain. They must be very determined little characters to cling on so manfully in such hostile conditions with their night time roosts no doubt tossed wildly around like small craft tossed around by enormous waves out at sea. But they survived!

And of course, survival is currently the name of the game. Meanwhile, the local congregation of rooks seems to regard gale force winds as less of a threat and instead, more of a challenge to be met head on, for when the wind gets up, they clearly delight in cocking a snook at conditions in displays which blatantly defy the wind. They race down it and soar up against it, demonstrating flying skills, which are perhaps far in excess of our expectations of such ‘humble’ and commonplace birds.

In stark contrast I watched a heron tenuously making its way towards a local fishing beat, being tossed this way and that by the tearing gusts and therefore charting an extremely erratic course as it courageously battled with the wild conditions. Herons are in fact strong flyers with a very large wing area relative to their extremely light body weight, which of course, makes passage difficult in wild conditions. Indeed, during the reign of England’s infamous King Henry V111, well renowned as a keen hawker, such was the reputation of herons as doughty quarries for the King’s falcons, that they were given the protection of the law. That was probably one of the first pieces of legislation to protect wild birds, albeit that such protection was designed to ensure they could be hunted!

Yet, survival remains the priority for all of us, with successive storms hurtling in from the Atlantic and making life ever more difficult. Out wintering farm livestock is by and large, inured to such winter hazards, protected in part by thick coats, woolly coats in the case of sheep, yet they too have recourse to seek shelter behind walls or trees when the weather pounds in horizontally. Among the hardiest of folk of course are the shepherds who tend the sheep, especially those roaming our wilder moors and glens. And, whilst the survival of their livestock may be the priority in the face of such hostile conditions, some may also feel threatened by the suggestion, now apparently gaining some momentum, that the lynx should be re-introduced to Scotland.

Re-introductions are inevitably, extremely controversial. Indeed, the re-introduction of sea eagles, has raised the temperatures of shepherds, crofters and farmers alike, with claims that this new generation of raptors is responsible for the wide-scale loss of lambs in several parts of Highland Scotland. However, the losses, all too often wildly exaggerated, claimed by some, must be set against the extreme conditions faced by many of our hill sheep, which by the very nature of things, means that lamb mortality can in any case, be abnormally high. 

Some even say that the presence of sea eagles has merely served to provide another excuse for a bad lambing! There can be little doubt that lambs do sometimes fall victim to this mighty predator but it is virtually impossible to discern whether such victims were dead or alive when taken. I have always believed that predators of any kind will always take the easiest option and obviously dead lambs are ‘easy meat’!

With regard to suggestions that the lynx should be restored as part of our natural fauna, this must be set against the historic fact that it has probably been absent from these shores for around fifteen hundred years. Furthermore, its extermination was almost certainly due to its predation upon domestic livestock and the resulting persecution it suffered. Interestingly, the wolf, considerably more universally feared than the lynx, has a much more recent history here. Tradition says that the last wolf in Scotland was famously killed in 1743, although there are those who believe that they may have existed here in small numbers until the 1780s.

Brown bears too once roamed Scotland and probably died out around a thousand years ago. And, the wild boar, another creature once part of Britain’s fauna, whilst exterminated as long ago as the early part of the seventeenth century, is now back with us with a vengeance. Increasing numbers of them are apparently living in the wild all over Britain, having escaped from farms and estates. Only last week we read of the sad death of a motorist in the south when he collided with a wild boar on a motorway, as a consequence of which he went on fatally, to collide with a lorry. And of course, beavers are also back with us, officially in Argyll and unofficially in parts of Perthshire.

Lynx have been recently re-introduced to Switzerland and we are told some small amount of compensation has been paid out to farmers there for losses of sheep attributed to the new generation of lynx. Opinion among experts however, maintains that lynx are essentially creatures of forest where they will prey mainly upon birds, small mammals and deer, which, since the elimination of the wolf have gone forth and multiplied in ever increasing numbers because they have no natural predators now. It is suggested that sheep therefore, are not seriously at risk from forest-based lynx but that instead these ‘big cats’ (around the size of roe deer) would bring a badly needed element of control to the deer population.

Whilst the presence of lynx would certainly enhance the variety of wildlife in Scotland and would as you might expect, naturally excite me, I nevertheless feel bound to add a note of caution. Scotland in the twenty-first century is a very different place compared with the country once inhabited by the likes of wolves, bears and lynx many hundreds of year ago. People and people’s livelihoods have of course, to be considered too and such a re-introduction could be another cause of serious conflict!

The scientists and enthusiasts behind this idea apparently recognise the dangers lynx might pose to farm livestock. They have therefore come up with an ingenious idea of fitting released animals with collars tuned in to GPS. This would flag up any case of such an animal straying on to farmland, or indeed on to such sensitive turf as grouse moors. Then a simple signal could be activated in such a way as to inject the offending animal with a dose of sedative! Theoretically, the sleeping beast could then be apprehended and safely re-located! What’s new, pussy cat? 

Country View 6.1.15

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Yuletide festivities are over for another year. Already, the tinsel of the Christmas festival has faded as now we look forward rather than backwards. As we enter a New Year it is easy to appreciate that whilst in a sense, we are at an ending, at the same time, we are witnessing a beginning. Just before celebrating the birth of the Christ child, we turned a corner as the winter solstice brought us to that major turning point when at last the days ceased to shorten and instead, imperceptibly, began to lengthen. There is plenty of winter to come but at least now we can genuinely begin to look for those signs that a new cycle of renewal will e’er long begin.

However, Mother Nature is understandably cautious and as yet, I have seen little or no sign of real ambition. However, just a day or two into the New Year and already there is talk of conflict with the Government (the one in Westminster) announcing a declaration of war. In this case, the war thank goodness, is not destined to feature human conflict. Rather is the grey squirrel the object of the Government’s displeasure with a declaration that landowners are to be paid hard cash to cull these alien squirrels in order to protect the remaining populations of reds, which in England are now extremely sparse.

Unsurprisingly there are those who are opposed to such a scheme albeit that either the director of Animal Aid has been misquoted or he has got his facts badly wrong in claiming that the grey squirrel is indigenous to these islands. This squirrel is native not to Britain but America from whence it was introduced in 1876, an act I believe in retrospect, of extreme folly on the part of a certain Mr Brocklehurst who brought two pairs of them from America and released them on his estate in Cheshire. Mr Brocklehurst may have been the first to release grey squirrels into Britain but he wasn’t the last … by any means. Such was the ignorance of the likely impact of introducing an alien squirrel to these shores that others followed his lead repeatedly with introductions continuing incredibly into the nineteen thirties. These cute little creatures they thought, would embellish our parks and woodlands. Oh dear!

The first greys to arrive in Scotland were released in 1896 on the shores of Loch Long, their point of origin being Canada. Meanwhile wholesale releases were happening elsewhere in England, mostly in the south with as many as a hundred of them launched upon Richmond in Surrey in 1902. Indeed, it was from the successful breeding among these new residents of southern England that encouraged folk to take youngsters from the south and transplant them in other parts of Britain. This new generation of alien animals included, just after the end of the Great War in 1919, animals released in Dunfermline and then Edinburgh, introductions perhaps instigated by the Local Authorities there.

Clearly conditions here suited grey squirrels admirably and as the evidence above underlines only too clearly, they certainly went forth and multiplied with a vengeance. Indeed, they have continued to multiply at an alarming rate and have become very much the dominant squirrels in this land, forcing the red squirrel into retreat. There are I understand five million grey squirrels at large in the UK compared with a rump of about 120,000 of our native reds. Grey squirrels, considerably larger than their red cousins, are stronger and more aggressive competitors for food sources, forcing red squirrels to retreat before their presence. Furthermore, grey squirrels carry a pox to which they seem immune but which is deadly to red squirrels.

Happily, the northwards march of grey squirrels did not significantly penetrate the Highlands of Scotland, thanks perhaps to vigilance on the part of gamekeepers and foresters and partially to the more difficult weather conditions prevailing in the northern glens. The red squirrel still remains the dominant and in most Highland environments thankfully, the only squirrel present.

Furthermore there has in recent times been present another more natural controlling force, which has in many places in recent years, sent the grey squirrel packing. The increasing population of pine marten now making rapid inroads in many parts of Scotland including this airt, once incidentally, an animal thought to be close to extinction, has been enjoying a new lease of life. Indeed such is the impact made by this arboreal member of the weasel clan that it has virtually transformed the populations of red and grey squirrels. There was a time when populations of grey squirrels were utterly dominant in this part of the world. However, the appearance perhaps a dozen years or so ago, of martens in this neck of the woods, proved to be as big a turning point as that day in late December when days at last begin to lengthen.

I suppose in their previous incarnation, the pine martens once resident in these parts would not have known the grey squirrel at all. The fact is that long before the grey squirrel became established here, the pine marten was literally long gone. Nineteenth century guardians of sporting estates were ruthless in exterminating anything that threatened the game they were so eager to propagate. But the new generation of martens arrived in a world in which not only were they given the protection of the law but in a landscape where there were few reds but vibrant populations of grey squirrels. And, being heavier and less agile, the grey squirrel was a much easier prey for martens to catch and when caught clearly made a more sumptuous meal into the bargain. Accordingly, this new manifestation of martens has decimated the grey squirrel population and in response, the red squirrels have gradually filled the vacuum.

Of course pine marten also pursue red squirrels but the extra agility and lightness of reds gives them a good chance of escaping the jaws of martens and all the evidence is now pointing to a rising population of this, our native squirrel. One of the reasons given for the Government’s decision to promote the cull of grey squirrels is to protect the forestry industry from the damage grey squirrels cause to young trees, on the face of it, a commercial reason. The director of Animal Aid however, suggests that the damage attributed to grey squirrels in this respect, is exaggerated.

He might be well advised to examine our rural history, which tells of the creation of ‘squirrel clubs’ in many parts of the country, long before the arrival of grey squirrels. These were organisations created to control red squirrels … because of the damage they were doing to young trees! However, the Government’s record on such issues does not necessarily stand up too well to examination. They continue to pursue a policy of culling badgers … which clearly neither works nor serves to reduce the incidence of bovine TB.

But, if we want to keep our red squirrels and eliminate the alien grey as an interloper then it may indeed be a case of good riddance!

Country View 2.1.15

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Proper winter at last arrived shortly after Christmas, with days of blue skies and sunshine, albeit that there was not much heat in evidence despite the brightness emanating from our life-giving star. Overnight, Jack Frost’s labours were there for all to see, with a thick rime of hoarfrost whitening the landscape and belatedly hinting therefore of that elusive and rare white Christmas. Underfoot the ground was rock hard and not surprisingly traffic around the bird-table has noticeably heightened. On the in-shore waters of the loch, thin skins of ice floated among the otherwise still waters, here and there breaking the glassy surface into irregular stripes and disrupting the otherwise upside down mirror-like reflections of the surrounding snow-capped hills and mountains. Pristine!

A solitary goldeneye paddled by, skirting past an apology for an ice flow before with a gentle plop, it arced under the waters in its search for morsels of invertebrate food. I mused on the likelihood that somewhere distant to the north or east of here, its homeland would inevitably be considerably less hospitable. In Arctic regions for instance, rather than thin skins of ice there are now probably thick slabs and no opportunity whatsoever to dive in search of food. That is why they come here in the first place of course, to escape the perma-frost that literally locks up all food sources for them.

The scattered wintering population of goldeneye are the relative few amongst the many, for in numbers at least, we are quietly inundated by considerable populations of winter migrating birds, seeking here in our Gulf Stream warmed islands, relief from the rigours of a winter they could not survive at home. In many ways, these winter visitors are relatively anonymous although the more obvious among them, such as the very vocal skeins of geese and the chattering classes of fieldfares and redwings, are always easy to identify. These Scandinavian thrushes seem unusually scarce this year. Have some of their wandering hordes by-passed us to travel beyond here to the south-western parts of the Continent I wonder? 

Among these temporary winter residents are woodcock, which depend on an ability to recover invertebrate food from deep underground which they probe for with their exceptionally long beaks. With the kind of below zero temperatures that are to be found in their more northerly homelands, the ground is clearly utterly unyielding and their only means of survival, like the goldeneye, is to up sticks and translocate. They say that ‘falls of woodcock’ occur along our eastern seaboard, often at All Hallows, when tradition tells us they all arrive as one. Other traditions claim that other migrating birds such as short-eared owls and goldcrests ‘pilot’ the woodcock here whilst even more unlikely is the old belief that woodcock migrate here from the moon!

The certainty is that once they get here, they disperse and indeed become even more anonymous than most of the other winter migrating birds. Few birds are quite as well camouflaged and so few are able to disappear before your very eyes in the manner of a woodcock when it settles among the fallen leaves of a woodland floor. And whilst native woodcock are well known for the ‘roding’ flight they perform at dusk on summer evenings, during which they croak and squeak, the immigrant winter birds remain demurely silent.

However on days such as these, when the frost effectively applies a kind of cement to the ground, life here suddenly becomes almost as difficult for them as it would in their native land. It is therefore in these conditions that we are more likely to see them and in particular, I frequently find them lurking beside roads, which have been treated with salt and grit. Happily for the woodcock, the roadside verges are also softened by the salt and provide a rare opportunity for the woodcock to explore them for invertebrate life when all other sources are sealed and impenetrable. However, such roadside sorties can put the birds at considerable risk from passing traffic. 

It was not passing traffic however that brought me into very close contact with a woodcock a day or two ago. A young neighbour turned up at my door with a bundle of feathers. It was a woodcock he had found, not near the road but instead in one of our local woods. Close examination revealed apparent problems with its beak, which implied that it had sustained some sort of impact. The upshot was that the bird seemed unable to eat. Whilst our concern was clearly for the welfare of the bird, its arrival provided a rare opportunity to examine the plumage which gives it such magnificent powers of obfuscation and at the same time better understand the physiology of the bird.

To those who enjoy field sports, woodcock are of course, among the most challenging of game birds with their fast and erratic flight pattern. This clearly is a bird that is very definitely hunted as opposed to a hunter, it eyes set literally on the side of its head to give it all round the compass vision, a feature which in tradition was taken to mean the bird to be unintelligent. Indeed in the past, the term woodcock was freely used as a description of someone thought to be a bit thick, the theory being there was little or no room for a brain between those wide set eyes! Sadly the woodcock, on close inspection, had sustained injuries to either its long beak or the tissues supporting it, which quickly proved fatal and. in the event, it really had no chance of survival.

The plumage of the woodcock is of course, especially delicately patterned, hence the remarkable ability to merge with its background. Significantly, the plumage of male and female is indistinguishable, whereas the male and female, drake and duck, of the goldeneye seen on the loch differs markedly. Indeed, the difference between the drake and its potential mate is considerable. The male is striking with its apparent black and white plumage, which on closer inspection is not quite as monochrome as it may appear. In fact, although his white body plumage at the bird’s waterline is indeed unmistakable, his head is really a dark, bottle green. Notably prominent is the white cheek spot, set on the side of what is a particularly blocky head and again closer inspection reveals the feature that gives the bird its name, the golden eyes. The female shares this feature as well as the blocky profile but otherwise she is very different with her russet head and wing-tips and grey body.

Already, preliminary courtship is being practised by the scattering of goldeneye which have chosen the local loch as their winter playground, with the drakes throwing their heads back and scrabbling away at the water with their feet. Such activity may seem somewhat premature at this moment in time, as it will be some months before these birds return to their northern breeding grounds. Yet with the slowly increasing hours of daylight, the day will eventually come when these wintering visitors are impelled by an urge to return to their native heaths, the goldeneye to its lonely northern forests and the unseen woodcock … to the moon?

Country View 18.12.14

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It is of course, that time of the year again, with vast amounts of energy being directed towards brightening up, homes, streets and shops with a variety of lighting shows only previously imaginable in a resort like Blackpool but now very much a part of the digital Christmas! And yet, at the heart of the festivities still, are the legions of greeting cards. They come tumbling through our letter-boxes and enable us to stay in contact with friends and relatives from whom we are perhaps distanced, in a way that somehow, electronic e-mails and other forms of ‘social media’ fail to fully achieve.

Times inevitably change, to which end I heard an interminable discussion on radio a few days ago about Christmas presents for children and was horrified to hear one contributor say that she did not intend to buy her little girl dolls as they were ‘a thing of the past’. ‘On line games that bring out the creative side of my child’, she continued, ‘are far more suitable and, of course, ‘up to date’!!’ What a shame!

I am perhaps, old fashioned but I remain convinced that our fast moving society scarcely gives children a chance to be children; more are they encouraged to become young adults … long before their time! I do recognise that the overwhelming advance of electronic and digital technology has changed not just the adult world but the world of children too. Frighteningly, most children of a remarkably young age take to the mastering of such technology as to the manner born, leaving me utterly bewildered – and not just by their grasp of such things but by my own frailties! Today’s children have I suppose, come into a world in which these are now the day to day accoutrements of modern life!

And thank goodness, there is still Santa! The image of a remarkable philanthropist, sometimes referred to as St Nicholas, dishing out gifts to the poor, is thankfully still with us. Traditions vaguely tell us he dwelt sometime in the past and, clad in his fur trimmed, red suit, charged across the world in a magical sleigh drawn by that galloping herd of reindeer – Dasher, Dancer et al, not forgetting the recent addition of Rudolph! Thankfully he still remains one of the key images in our Christmas.

However, apparently some of the reindeer brought here from Scandinavia to add that touch of ‘reality’ to the Christmas-tide image, do not necessarily enjoy their stay here! Conditions are apparently not really right for them. Whilst it is thought that reindeer were once native to these shores, their last recorded appearance, excepting the small herd introduced to the Cairngorms back in the 1950s, may have been as long ago as the twelfth century. Indeed it may well have been even further back in our history!

Reindeer are in reality, creatures of northerly latitudes, their consumption of lichens being of particular importance to them and made possible by the presence in their ruminant digestive system of an enzyme which converts the lichens into glucose. Whilst they also consume the leaves of birch and willow and some sedges and grasses, I was interested to hear that the owners of the herd in the Cairngorms are presently planting trees to encourage the presence of more lichens. 

There are from that time long ago in the twelfth century, legends, which tell us that herds of reindeer were enthusiastically pursued and hunted by the Earl of Orkney in the wilds of Caithness. However, there is real uncertainty as to whether the quarries of the galloping earl, were in fact reindeer. Some suggest they instead pursued red deer, for there is little evidence of reindeer even being resident in these islands at that time. Furthermore, having personally encountered the reindeer herd in the Cairngorms and having gained some knowledge of the activities of the Laplanders, it seems to me that reindeer, docile creatures very easily domesticated, would not really offer sufficient or appropriate challenges to proper, red blooded huntsmen!

However, down in deepest Staffordshire, there is I believe, an ancient custom enacted every September. A ‘horn dance’, performed by members of a group brandishing reindeer horns in mock battle, accompanied by two musicians is at the heart of this apparently ancient rite. Indeed, it is said to commemorate reindeer hunting in that part of England. Legends of course, can have a tendency to become slightly distorted as the years pass, yet I like to believe that at the heart of such traditions, is at least a grain of truth.

Even in our technological world, there are still folks who follow travelling herds of reindeer across the frozen northlands of Russia and Scandinavia and indeed eke out something of a living from them. Such herds are to be found in Greenland, in Russia and in Norway. Strict regulations in those countries give the deer some protection against wide-scale slaughter but famously Laplanders fashion some sort of living by selling skins and meat. Historically, threads made from the tough sinews of these animals, were used to sew boots together and were even used in the construction of ancient canoes. The fact that this tendon material apparently swells when immersed in water would make them especially useful in the making of watertight canoes.

North America is famous for its wandering herds of caribou, which are of course the self-same animals. Those far travelling deer are inextricably linked with wolves, packs of which follow the herds and of course, feed well off them. Some of course, advocate the return of the wolf to these shores. I do not believe the re-introduction of some animals formerly resident here, such as reindeer or indeed beavers is in any way counter productive. However, I’m not at all sure that the involuntary re-introduction of wild boar, which is happening on a surprisingly large scale and pretty universally across the UK, including locally, is necessarily a good idea. I certainly don’t believe that there is a legitimate argument for bringing the wolf back to islands, which it is increasingly being said by some, to be currently becoming overcrowded, especially by human migrants!

More universally welcome, will be very different immigrants, arriving a few nights hence. Santa and his merry band of sleigh pulling reindeer will next week, come charging about our chimney tops, bringing gifts and smiles to all, especially the children. Of course, ironically, it is a spectacle we’ll all fail to see! Meanwhile, much more visible, there may be other intriguing sights for us to see should we be visited by some of our more exotic avian migrants. Like Santa and the reindeer, waxwings too come from the far north. Let’s hope between them, they bring us all a Happy Christmas!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods