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 7.10.14

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Slowly but inexorably, autumn is advancing. It is a slow advance in the wake of a memorable summer. Mr Frost has been noticeable by his absence thus far, yet the end of the benign weather conditions we have enjoyed, as they always apparently say, is surely nigh with a change very evident during the past few days! Yet in that ending, so predictable in the general scheme of things, there are the seeds to be sown of an entirely new beginning. The farming community is already injecting the landscape with new energy as next year’s crops are sown to keep the momentum of the inevitable cycle of life on the move.

And, there are stirrings in the glens as the sap begins to rise in the breasts of the Monarchs of those glens. Their year is about to reach its dramatic climax as the more ambitious members of each community of stags prepare to do battle. Meanwhile, the hinds which, over the next few weeks, are destined to be the prizes competed for, await their inevitable fate and perhaps wonder at the heat that is so energetically generated by their male compatriots. There will also be around the periphery of all this frantic action, stags not experienced enough to be involved in the main events, yet ambitious enough to become bit players in this annual drama – on the under-card of the main contest so to speak.

These may be animals lacking the years and the stature of the master stags but not entirely lacking in ambition which, as opportunity arises, may be cute enough to carve out for themselves mini harems of hinds. They nip in like massive collie dogs to purloin a few choice damsels whilst the main protagonists are pre-occupied. Sometimes two such young stags, aware that they cannot yet be among the main players, may work in concert together to ‘beat the system’! 

The pre-occupation of the master stags is clearly focussed upon maintaining a strong and in the end, a dominating presence, usually in a carefully selected location, where advantage over any adversary is likely to be gained. And gaining advantage over rivals by any means possible, is very clearly manifested, for the red deer rut is often as much about mind over matter as it is an issue of physical prowess. Their deep, guttural roars bring vocal chords into use that will have been almost entirely dormant throughout the rest of the year. Red deer stags are generally pretty mute except for when they attend ‘the lists’!

The louder and deeper the roars issued by individual ‘master stags’, the more respect they command among both rivals and indeed the hinds. Rivals roar and posture. They even make themselves look more threatening and more imposing by rolling in bogs, coating themselves with peat and mud and adorning their famous ‘heads’ with vegetation and muck. Thus they look so much more imposing. Competing stags may run parallel with one another across a hillside, every sinew taut, eyes wild and wide, eyeing each other up before one may turn and face his opponent. Antlers clash and now it is literally a test of strength as each strains every muscle in an effort to push the other back. Sometimes as the strength of one begins to dominate, the nerve of the weaker stag frays and he breaks off to flee the arena, usually hotly pursued by the victor until he is sure that the day is decisively his.

This age-old ritual has always been a part of the aura of autumn. Yet red deer stags, live out their lives in relative harmony for the rest of the year in their single sex herds. They are apparently content in the companionship offered by fellow stags, without fear or favour; cool and calm with few hints of disharmony. And then, as the days dwindle down to a precious few and Jack Frost begins to cast his brittle spells, the bitter rivalry suddenly rises to the surface. Companionship is swapped for confrontation, as erstwhile colleagues suddenly become fire-breathing adversaries.

Such events are these days associated in particular with our Highland glens. Yet red deer must have once roamed widely throughout Britain, when much of the landscape was covered by natural woodland, for these are by origin, woodland dwelling creatures. However the demand for more and more acres for the burgeoning farming industry followed by a rapidly increasing demand for timber during the early years of the Industrial Revolution brought massive change. During the years in which the fast growing coal mining industry was producing a demand for pit props and the rapid development of the nation’s railway network necessitated an equally dramatic demand for millions of sleepers, much of the landscape was stripped of its natural woodland.

Thus our herds of red deer were forced to trans-locate, in Scotland, to the hills above what was left of the tree line. In addition, deer stalking, which became increasingly popular among the nouveaux riche as well as the aristocracy, saw the creation of deer forests across great swathes of the Highlands. Ironically these were ‘forests’ which were virtually bereft of trees! However in more modern times, the creation of new forests in the wake of the First World War, offered some of our red deer the opportunity to return to a forest environment. Much of the new forests are of course defended from such incursions by many miles of deer proof fencing. Nevertheless, many deer are making their way back into forests, many of them in Lowland Scotland.

The spectacle of the rut therefore is no longer confined to our Highland glens. Not that the rut is any less spectacular in those forests. It is perhaps more covert in nature, the voices of the stags more muffled. Out in the glens, the roaring literally does reverberate across the glens and may indeed therefore, create even more apparent rivalry. No matter where these events are taking place, the excitement generated is amazing to behold. If you are ever in a location close to where the action is, you may be quite taken aback by just how seething is the behaviour of the principal protagonists. They simply cannot contain their fervour, to the extent that they somehow seem to be almost out of control, urinating freely and without constraint, almost beside themselves with sheer passion.

This is their time; when fervour and passion are the daily driving forces; when the flame burns more brightly and fuses are apparently so short that there are sudden explosions of uncontrollable emotion. The stags are distinctly bellicose whether making their stances in Highland or Lowland. Meanwhile the hinds await their fate. Next summer, a new generation of red deer will be born. These are the moments of their creation.

Country View 1.10.14

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Pheasants beware! War has been declared and hostilities have begun. It will be a one-sided war with the winners declared well in advance of its start. Wednesday of course, saw the opening of the pheasant-shooting season, so the legions of still scraggy looking young pheasants currently scuttling along roadside verges and diving into hedgerows, are about to be targeted by tweed clad legions of trigger-happy gun-slingers. It will be a shock to the systems of birds, which thus far in their lives, have been so carefully nurtured, reared under heating lamps, fed vast quantities of grain and protected from predators. Cosseted only to be shot!
Some twenty odd million pheasants arrive in the British countryside each and every year. In other circumstance, the release into the countryside of so many birds, might be seen by predators such as foxes, as a massive bonanza, a vital life sustaining bonus of extra food, just when hard times – winter is creeping up on us – are about to set in. Thus war is also waged against such predators so that more pheasants can survive, later to be shot. It is an age-old dichotomy which unfortunately has a very big down-side for a number of predators such as buzzards and red kites, as witness the horrendous incidents which, from time to time, are reported in the pages of the press.

Somehow we do not seem to be very good at balanced approaches to such matters. Some of course, are prepared to take the law into their own hands and although the vast majority of those charged with responsibility for rearing game for the guns, do their job well and legally, there are those who firmly believe they know better than the law. Each year in the UK a depressingly high number of raptors are killed – 1200 or so, a dreadful commentary on the attitudes of a small minority of destructive zealots. Ironically, such incidents come at a time when interest in wildlife is becoming increasingly universal … and indeed, profitable. In recent years, a virtual forest of companies has sprung up all over Scotland, which offer to guide enthusiasts to locations where particular kinds of wildlife can be seen and enjoyed.

The income derived from wildlife tourism, despite the recession and so on, just keeps on rising. On the Island of Mull, as I’ve said on several occasions, the community benefits to the tune of several millions of pounds annually. Indeed, visit that lovely isle during the spring and summer especially, and you will find yourself mingling with countless groups of camera and telescope wielding enthusiasts, many of them escorted by local and very professional experts. They revel in the many opportunities to watch sea and golden eagles, otters and a wide variety of other birds and animals at relatively close quarters.

Among the really rare birds to be seen on Mull, is the now very elusive hen harrier. This is perhaps now our rarest raptor and one that I have found, is truly a delight to watch as it quarters methodically over heather moorland intent on flushing out prey such as small mammals or birds. Several decades ago, the hills in this airt supported an incredible seven pairs of these beautiful birds. Alas those same hills have, over the years, been largely submerged beneath acres and acres of dark, relatively lifeless banks of spruces and accordingly the harriers are long gone, albeit that in recent times rare sightings of one such bird means that hope does indeed spring eternal.

Such hopes are perhaps further raised during the winter months hereabouts when a handful of hen harriers roost on the mosses near here. There was a time, also sadly long gone, when it was a familiar sight to see a pair of hen harriers flying the local hedgerows on winter days – again in the hope of flushing out some of the birds sheltering among the branches. Alas, they too were long ago ‘dealt with’ and are therefore no longer to be seen. I have fond memories of watching harriers in Orkney too where they prosper largely because of the considerably more benign attitude of the folk of those delightful Northern Isles towards them.

It is therefore with some sadness that I hear that the only two young harriers to be successfully reared south of the Border during 2014, have mysteriously disappeared. These were birds that had been tagged with radio transmitters in order to record their movements. Such transmitters have a life expectancy of three years so it would seem that a destructive human hand has been at work. The two transmitters failed within three day of each other! A transmission failure is thought to be unlikely so the suggestion remains that these two young birds have been deliberately exterminated.

Even more depressing is the evidence of persecution directed towards both hen and the equally rare marsh harriers with one young hen harrier reared in 2013 in the north of England, known to have been shot. Horrifically, a young marsh harrier from East Anglia is also thought to have suffered the same fate whilst two others have successfully migrated south. And all this in the face of a recent estimate which, based on available habitat, asserted that England alone could support well over three hundred pairs of these moorland birds. Scotland clearly has vast potential and so there is no reason why the hen harrier should not be among the more commonplace of our raptors, given a fair wind and major changes in attitudes towards them.

Although hen harriers are perhaps not regarded as being among the most spectacular birds of prey, compared with say eagles, ospreys and peregrines, they are nevertheless wonderful to watch as they methodically quarter the moors and in the winter perhaps, coastal marshes. They hunt at very low altitudes, just a few feet above the ground, the male resplendent in his pale grey plumage, almost white beneath his wings, which are black-tipped. Both male and female show off that flashing white rump above the tail. The female, often known as ‘the ringtail’, because of the barring on its relatively long tail, is largely a mottled brown. Both have noticeable facial discs.

The blatant rush – the competition between estates - to boast larger and larger bags of grouse is perhaps at the root of the hen harrier’s problem for they are seen by those intent upon attaining the best returns of grouse, as direct competitors. Experiments, which provide alternative feeding in the form of carrion and so on, for resident harriers have been shown to work very effectively, diverting the harriers’ attention away from the ‘precious’ game. However, the basic fact that the presence of natural predators upon a moor can have the effect of improving the level and quality of game, is these days blatantly ignored. Harriers, because they are ground nesters, are clearly extremely vulnerable to persecution, their eggs and indeed their youngsters, clearly easy targets for those intent on their destruction.

Hen harriers are perhaps at their supreme best in the spring of the year when their courtship displays are indeed spectacular. The ‘food pass’ when the male bird offers his tokens of love in the form of food is a real spectacle, the offering sometimes dropped and ‘fielded’ adroitly by the female in mid-air, or passed from talon to talon in quite breathtaking fashion. Sadly it seems, there are those who would eliminate these magnificent raptors altogether. I for one believe that the law should pursue such felons with all the vigour at its command, for they apparently seem intent on robbing all of us of one of nature’s most glorious sights. As they show no mercy, so they too should receive none!

Country View 10.1.14

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Pounding waves, ferocious gales, exceptionally high tides and floods. It’s not the way most folk would want to greet the New Year but 2014 has certainly started with something of a bang with pictures on our screens of mountainous waves crashing on to shores and people being rescued from their houses by boat. I suppose that when one compares such events with recent disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis that have happened elsewhere in the world, the events of the last few weeks here are put into perspective. Our problems, according to the experts, stem from a jet stream high above us that is travelling at something like twice its normal speed, sucking up storms on its way and hurling them in our direction!

There were one or two remarkable moments that caught my eye during those telecasts, which featured gulls defying those precipitous waves and the raging gales as they flew with their wig-tips within inches it seemed of the boiling sea, in and out of the giant, ever moving troughs. They gave a very clear impression of deliberately flying in the very face of the worst of the storms with complete aplomb and even disdain. Indeed, they seemed to be scorning the vile conditions. There was as far as I could make out, no other explanation for this startling reaction to such violent conditions, than that they were accepting the challenges placed before them by nature and defiantly playing with them in response.

I could only liken their behaviour to that of those humans who also see such conditions as a challenge to be faced and conquered. In the same way I guess, the fearless band of surfers who ventured out into those fearful conditions to buck the trend, or those brave former soldiers who despite their injuries, garnered from conflict, walked to the South Pole. It is I guess, part of the human psyche to challenge; to triumph over that kind of adversity … just for the sake of doing it. That’s why people scale precipitous mountains I guess, or sail single-handedly round the world, or enjoy white water rafting and a whole range of other activities that pit them against the most dangerous of elements.

But the spectacle of gulls challenging those atrocious conditions puts an entirely different perspective upon why they should dedicate themselves to such outrageous and apparently dangerous antics. That such activities should inevitably fall under the heading of ‘play’ seems to contradict the notion that the main pastime of most creatures is sheer survival. It further follows that creatures taking time out from the mundane routine of surviving, to make time to play, must be so good at the former as to have time available for the latter!

Furthermore, these remarkable displays, which incidentally exhibit absolutely brilliant flying skills are, I believe, also a pointer to high intelligence. For many creatures, play is part of the growing up procedure and is, when analysed, clearly a vital part of the learning process. Fox and badger cubs play … endlessly. Much of their play is manifested in play fighting which even at a young age, firmly establishes a pecking order amongst siblings. I have even seen fox and badger cubs play together, an activity, which perhaps goes against the grain with badger parents which are fastidiously clean - a trait nothing like as evident among foxes!

Gulls are versatile birds. A century ago, the sight of gulls living inland, far from the sea, would have been a relatively rare sight. They are designed as marine creatures and that is where by and large, they lived … until they discovered easy living inland. Perhaps this ‘migration’ may be seen as a commentary on our modern day ‘throw away’ society, for it was undoubtedly our escalating mountains of waste, containing more and more edible material, that encouraged gulls to make that change in their lifestyle. Now gulls are truly universal!

Gulls by nature are scavengers – opportunistic feeders – and quite naturally they have prospered from our increasingly profligate way of life. Some of course contend that the gulls have gone too far with the increasing boldness of the birds in literally snatching food from the mouths of babes – and adults – stealing the likes of ice creams and take away meals out of our very hands. But then by their very nature gulls live by their aggression, with larceny – thieving - to many of them, a way of life, stealing food from a host of other birds at every available opportunity … and now, increasingly, from humans too it seems!

However gulls are clearly intelligent. Their methods of defeating the defences of shell fish are interesting, for often they will carry their victims high in the sky before dropping them on to rocks below in order to crack or break their shells and gain access to the succulent meat within. Their athletic flying displays – also so often, surely a form of play and self expression - are always on view and indeed, their skimming over the surface of our local freshwater loch provides a daily exhibition of their considerable skills. They have an unquenchable propensity to play, if not necessarily with each other, then instead, with the elements.
The more pragmatic and serious side of their nature and indeed, their eye for an opportunity, are clearly evident when a farmer begins to plough. Within minutes of starting to turn over the soil, his tractor has immediately gained a trail of accompanying hordes of gulls, eager to profit from the excavation of countless invertebrates upon which to feast. There may not have been a gull to be seen in the vicinity but the minute the work begins, there they are! The word apparently travels very quickly!

The seemingly death defying swooping of gulls – for fun - in stormy weather may provide us with a surprising spectacle but the most obvious display of fun loving behaviour I think I ever saw came from a family of otters some years ago. It had snowed and they had created a slide in the snow on the river-bank down which, much to my amazement, they repeatedly slid into the river, swimming quickly back to the bank, scrambling up and sliding back down into the water time and time again. There were two adults and two well-grown cubs and they kept their game going for at least half an hour. If the youngsters were clearly enjoying the game, so too were the adults, which suggests that otters, even in their dotage, never quite grow out of the spirit of play.

Maybe otters do it for fun whilst gulls do it for kicks!

The Tide of Autumn

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The tide of autumn has really begun to run as suddenly there is a deluge of leaves and almost as abruptly, overnight, the landscape now glows with greater intensity, as the autumn colours with each passing day, strengthen. Now we see a landscape enjoying its final, vibrant fling, blazing golden and red in a last joyous gesture, before winter closes in. And this final flutter surprisingly has its own musical accompaniment as redbreast continues his sweet soliloquy … except he is not after all a lone songster, for he has been joined by another, very appropriately, a solitary jenny wren.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods