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.

Weekly Nature Watch 30 Aug 2019

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The signs of the passage of the seasons are undeniable. A horse chestnut in punk rocker-mode, its crown distinctively reddening tells us that summer is slowly on the retreat and that autumn is already peeping over the horizon. Town rooftops have fallen silent too with the sudden departure of the ‘devil birds’ – the swifts, which poet Ted Hughes described as, “… Jockeying across each other on their switchback wheel of death they swat past, hard fetched.” Swifts do not hide their lights beneath bushels, they scream and hurtle, and always, it appears, at ninety miles an hour. But now they are gone on their epic new race, all the way to Africa.

Swifts, therefore, do not stay with us for long. They announce their arrival vociferously and, as always, by hurtling among the town chimney pots in mid-May. They produce a single brood and by mid August are already re-tracing their aerial steps back towards the Dark Continent.

Yet cuckoos are even shorter-term visitors. They usually arrive in these northern parts of Britain in May. But by July, the parent birds are also already beginning their return to that same Dark Continent. Of course, they don’t rear even a single brood of their own but leave the job to unknowing foster parents. Furthermore, they depart without a care for the progeny to which those foster parents will be utterly dedicated. The hard working, long suffering foster parents are completely ignorant of the fact that the youngster they are energetically raising will have murdered their own natural young!

Meanwhile, other migratory birds are already preparing themselves for the hazardous journeys they must make during the next few weeks, also mainly to Africa. Preparation is largely about eating! Most will have acquired a new set of feathers so that they are prime condition to take on their mammoth journeys. But now they must stock up with body fat – the fuel they will rely upon to sustain them over their journeys of thousands of miles. The fuel comprises of subcutaneous fat just below the skin, a vital ingredient whether their travels are done in stages or not. For example, some warblers usually weighing in at 12 grams or 2/3 of an ounce, during late summer will add up to four grams as a means of sustaining them over long sea crossings such as the Bay of Biscay. And once they have completed that leg of their journey and made landfall in northern Spain, they will pause to add further fuel, sometimes as much as another ten grams, before tackling the daunting crossing of the Mediterranean and then the even more daunting, soulless Sahara Desert.

As you might imagine, they are required to prepare themselves as thoroughly as a Marathon runner, not only adding that vital fuel but getting their flight muscles in tip-top order. The miraculous fact of autumnal migration is, of course, that among the millions of birds that undertake it are young birds hatched during this summer. What a challenge that must represent to this new generation! There is preparation afoot also, not just for forthcoming winter but for next spring. The thistles, which just a few short weeks ago, were covered by bees and butterflies, collecting vital nectar, have gone to seed. Their heads are now a mass of white gossamer-like seeds, which are designed to take the progenitors of new life to fresh sites wherever the vagaries of the winds will take them.

Together, with dandelions and rosebay willow herb, a percentage of these floating masses of seeds, will find soil where they can begin a new cycle of life. Nature has many ways of promoting the creation and dispersal of life. She constantly seeks to colonise new ground albeit that this method of distribution is of course utterly random. Meanwhile, instead of butterflies and bees, those same thistles were the other day covered with goldfinches, both colourful adults and this summer’s crop of youngsters, yet to become red faced. But displaying as much agility as their parents, they extract the said seeds dextrously, like little trapeze artists, sometimes finding themselves upside down as they carefully prise out the nutritious seeds!

Goldfinches are always a delight whether feasting on thistle seeds or flitting in undulating flight from one patch of thistles to another, their whispering little contact calls a constant reminder of their presence. During the summer their vocal range becomes more ambitious. It is easy to understand why goldfinches were among the most prized birds when the keeping of birds in cages was fashionable. They are, of course, very colourful and attractive but they were also valued as fine songsters. Indeed, it was common during the second half of the nineteenth century, for regular competitions to be held with prizes on offer for the best singers as well as for the real good lookers. Really good-looking birds which could also sing sweetly were not only highly prized, they also changed hands for surprisingly large sums of money!

Such was the popularity of this cruel hobby that in 1860 it was reported that as many as 132,000 goldfinches were trapped in the south coast resort of Worthing alone. Indeed, so severely did goldfinch populations fall as a result of catching so many of them that the Government of the day brought forward legislation to protect them. The Protection of Birds Act of 1880, at least brought the force of law as a means of focussing attention on the plight of goldfinches in the hope of restricting this cruel trade. Although initially the law was largely ignored, eventually the notion that this was a cruel way to treat wild birds began to dawn.

Fast forward to the modern day and at a time when many birds are struggling to maintain their numbers, goldfinches happily seem to be prospering. Most of the migrant birds currently fuelling up for the journeys they will instinctively make in the coming weeks are, of course, insect eaters. They come here to feast on our insects and rear the next generations. But as autumn and then winter descend on these northerly locations, insect life rapidly diminishes so hence the mass migration back to insect ridden Africa.

However, there is one migrant, which in recent years has been bucking the trend. More and more blackcaps are choosing to winter in Britain. There have even been blackcaps spotted in gardens in Inverness in mid-winter. The secret of this strangely successful change in habit is that they have learned to feed on berries and on birdseed. In our eagerness to attract birds to our gardens during the winter months, we seem to have changed the blackcap’s diet as well as its migratory habits. This wee warbler, instead of undertaking that hazardous journey to Africa, may turn up on a bird-table near you! Perhaps it will join the charms of goldfinches - I like birds that defy the odds!

Weekly Nature Watch 23 Aug 2019

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It is perhaps part of human nature that we should always categorise things. For instance, there is a tendency to categorise wild animals and birds as either good or bad. An example may be the way in which we regard the birds we enjoy watching at our bird-tables, such as bluetits, great tits, goldfinches, chaffinches and the like, as birds to be held in good odour. On the other hand there is often a universal dislike expressed at the likes of magpies and crows, the latter particularly shunned perhaps because they are black and therefore bad!

That alone is enough to cast them in the villain’s role for many people for whom, as a throw-back to more superstitious times, black birds are inevitably seen as representative of evil and are all thus inevitably classed as bad! And yet curiously, for reasons I certainly cannot explain the blackest of them all, the male merle - he of the golden beak, does not fall into the ‘bad’ category. Perhaps he is forgiven for the fine, fluting music that he proffers, his voice sweet enough to persuade even the most anti-black bird person to give him the benefit of the doubt. Crows, whether they are carrion crows, ravens, jackdaws or rooks, all of them viewed as black, not to mention the dreaded hoodie, which is both grey and black, together with black and white magpies are all thus tarred with the same brush. Cormorants also which although perceived as black are, in reality, very dark but iridescent green, can readily be named amongst the most hated. Thus, when I saw a field extremely well covered with rooks and jackdaws the other day, I could not help but think, the farmer might not have enjoyed such a sight on his land and might instead, have reached for his gun.

Yet in truth those rooks and ‘daws would have been doing the said farmer a favour. Indeed, their presence and they were all very busy pecking away and feasting on a whole range of pests such as wireworms and leatherjackets, might have instead, been welcomed. These unseen, subterranean invertebrates do considerable damage to crops, so the presence of this mass of birds devouring them, black or not, was as much evidence of nature’s most efficient pest controllers at work, as of a bunch of alien black birds being pests themselves. However, I do acknowledge that crows and in particular hooded crows and in hill country, ravens, can go beyond the pail and commit some pretty dastardly deeds such as attacking the eyes and tongues of newly born lambs.

Nature works in, what may seem to many of us, to be mysterious ways. Indeed, the whole thread of existence represents a dependence culture in which each tier of the natural world relies upon other tiers, generally below their own station, in order to exist. Thus, eagles hunt and kill mountain hares. They do sometimes also take red grouse whereas kestrels hunt and kill small rodents and sparrowhawks exist upon smaller song-birds in order that they all may survive. Many of the song-birds we admire feed upon insects and so on. This is the food chain. To maintain life, other life must be sacrificed. As I’ve said many times before, nature is indeed, red in tooth and claw! Where this sequence sometimes appears to go wrong, is when the activity of birds or animals is deemed to interfere with either man’s livelihoods or indeed, his pleasures.

Hence, a new classification emerges whereby hen harriers for instance, are persecuted because they also like to feed on red grouse, amongst other things. In other words they are classed by some as bad, a bird against which war is waged! Indeed such has been the level of persecution that this is now the rarest raptor in the British landscape. The hen harrier’s problem, apart from its appetite for grouse, is that it is a ground-nesting bird and as such is consequently very vulnerable. Harriers seek out remote areas such as heather moorland on which to nest, which makes it easy for those who are familiar with these wild landscapes, to willingly wage war on them, to destroy their nests and young surreptitiously and out of sight. The recent discovery of traps set specifically to catch harriers at or near their nests, suggests an intensification of that war!

Of course technology, such as electronic tagging, makes the whereabouts of tagged birds more traceable. Therefore, in recent weeks we have read a succession of stories about raptors, among them harriers and eagles, being deliberately killed, allegedly as a means to certain grouse moors being assured of better bags. Conservationists have naturally been up in arms about such incidents and some now suggest that grouse moors should be licensed so that in the event of such incidents these licenses could be withdrawn.

The recent photographing of a golden eagle, apparently with a trap attached to its leg, emphasises a growing concern that there are those out there who are simply unwilling to tolerate the presence of raptors or indeed to abide by the law. The picture was taken close to a grouse moor! That picture, together with a glut of recent reports concerning the trapping of hen harriers and the unexplainable disappearance of radio tagged eagles, all located on grouse moors, suggests that there is a hard core of people intent on the destruction of these raptors. They are convicted of being ‘bad’ because they sometimes attack the all important grouse and must therefore be summarily despatched! The perpetrators of such acts seem intent on returning to the bad old days of the late nineteenth century when all raptors were regarded as legitimate targets for gun, trap or, on occasions, poisoned baits.

All such actions are, of course, strictly against the law of the land. Indeed, there are now wildlife protection police officers together with a veritable army of dedicated professional and amateur wildlife enthusiasts determined to put an end to this cruel behaviour. Despite the difficulties of remoteness, recent successes in protecting hen harriers and their progeny have been accomplished only with the dedication of folk who have committed weeks and even months of their lives to lonely vigils, protecting the likes of hen harrier nests from harm. More hen harrier youngsters have been reared this year than in previous years thanks to the dedication of these folk.

The polarisation of attitudes is becoming increasingly evident, albeit that in this day and age, those who wish to see these birds properly protected and the perpetrators of these crimes brought to justice, far outnumber the perpetrators themselves. The claim that grouse moors employ a lot of people where otherwise there are no jobs, ignores the fact that remuneration for beaters and the like is paltry. At the root of the problem is undoubtedly money, with estates competing for business, relying on the size of the grouse bags as a means of attracting their clientele. The bigger the bags, the more can be charged!

Ironically, the fastest growing sector in our vital tourism industry is wildlife tourism. If the grouse moors are as full of wildlife such as breeding curlew and the like, as is so often claimed, there is another profitable source of income potentially available albeit that it may not yet match up to the £75 per grouse which is apparently the going rate! Whether the much-publicised suggestion that grouse moors should be licensed would, by implication, stop the persecution of birds such as hen harriers and golden eagles, I am not sure. We are often told that these crimes are not committed by estate staff but so far, as they have not been attributed to anyone else, these alarming crimes remain an unsolved mystery. A real whodunit which needs solving! Maybe estates should instead be paid for the number of raptors they sustain.

Weekly Nature Watch 16-08-19

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For weeks they have languished hidden from view in the cavernous recesses of the eyrie built some years ago now, but gently tended to by their dutiful parents. I have watched their father come in with plump fish garnered from the waters of the nearby loch, but then torn into easily swallowed strips by the attentive mother. The care with which she proffered those strips to her off-spring belied her fearsome looks, that cruel, hooked beak, those belligerent yellow eyes and those killer talons.

The dedication of osprey parents is simply awesome. As the chicks grew, they sought to re-position themselves, eager to view the world around them but In order to follow the lives of this new generation of ospreys, the young birds are ringed by licensed specialists before they can fly. Soon they were clambering out of those dark, deep recesses and making their way to the edge of what is now a substantial eyrie that has been meticulously added to each spring with extra branches by the parent birds. It is now a large structure albeit, not the tidiest nest I’ve ever seen, newly added branches sticking out at erratic angles, bulky and almost a misshapen mass of dead vegetation offset by strands of meagre growth. In recent weeks, there has been much flapping in preparation for the day, a week or so ago when, for the first time in their brief lives, these young ospreys finally took to the air. The day of that first flight was momentous, a vital step into the unknown yet in its self, a fulfilment. So at last, they could fly! But now vitally, they had to learn to utilise this newly acquired skill as a means to a very important end … feeding themselves.

To learn that essential skill they had to observe their parents as they demonstrated the inherent ability that are endemic in ospreys. They would watch as those parent birds first rose high above the loch on those long powerful wings, and then quartered the silvery waters below scanning them for the slightest movement that would betray the presence of a fish close enough to the surface to make a suitable target. And they would watch and absorb the sudden check followed by a short hover, before suddenly that parent bird would start its deadly descent. Not every hover yields prey. Fish often spend little time at the surface before returning to hidden depths. In such circumstances, the dive is aborted and patrolling resumes. But ospreys are patient. Another fish will present itself and the headlong dive will eventually continue unchecked until, its feet now lowered, it hits the water with a mighty splash its talons grappling for a firm grip of the slippery prey. The youngsters will have observed that their parent seems to stay in the water for what may seem an interminable time – in truth it is only a matter of seconds - before with a mighty swishing of those voluminous wings, it rises at last in triumph.


They will have also observed that as the parent bird rose, it paused at a height of about ten feet to shake surplus water from its plumage and strengthen its grip on its prey. Then, securing its victim with both talons, it rises again to take its prize to a favourite feeding perch, rather than to the now empty eyrie. All this is the most vital part of the young ospreys’ learning process and soon they are attempting to copy their elders, at first with little success. The learning curve is steep but if they are going to survive, the lessons must be learned and they must be learned quickly! If those first flights and the first initial attempts at catching fish are seminal, a greater hurdle lies ahead. After those weeks of devoted nurturing, the young ospreys have a surprisingly short period of learning and practice to absorb the necessary skills upon which depends their ultimate survival. Before the end of August, they will suddenly find themselves seemingly abandoned by their previously dutiful parents. One day, without warning, their parents will lift off and not return. The youngsters will find themselves utterly on their own. Now their practice runs become a stark reality. Furthermore, driven partly by shortening days and approaching autumn and winter but essentially by a driving force from within, they too will find themselves embarking on a journey into the unknown.

They will be impelled by that natural instinct to turn their heads to the south and begin an epic journey of some three thousand miles to their wintering destination on the west coast of Africa. Not only will they be driven to follow whatever their instinct drives them towards but also to keep honing those fishing skills in order to sustain themselves throughout this challenging voyage. The one consolation for them is that they do not necessarily have to keep to any kind of timetable. As they travel ever south through England, there will be places like Rutland Water, where some of their distant cousins have been translocated to, where they can re-fuel before resuming their journey. Not only lochs and lakes but rivers and in-shore waters will provide further re-fuelling places before their first sea crossing, the English Channel. Through France and perhaps Spain, before the next sea crossing, the Mediterranean and then down Africa’s west-coast before finally reaching places such as Senegal and The Gambia, journey’s end at last. In a sense, not only are these youngsters flying blind, but they may also encounter fierce storms, battering rains and winds, rapidly moving weather systems.

The phenomenon of global warming with its resultant increasingly erratic and ever changing patterns of severe weather, adds further hazards to what is by any measure, a remarkably hazardous start to their young lives. Significantly, they will scorn a return to the land of their birth for a year or two, concentrating instead on improving their fishing skills in the fish-rich waters of West Africa. Young ospreys are literally thrown in at the deep end. After being so carefully nurtured, they abruptly find themselves facing the reality of having to learn the art of catching fish and just as they are beginning to get the hang of it, they are cast adrift. They will have absolutely no help or guidance. When they embark upon that marathon migratory trip they have no option but to face, entirely on their own, whatever the weather throws at them on a treacherous journey of three thousand miles. Quite simply, the more we can learn about the lives of our growing population of ospreys, the better can we protect them. Bon voyage

Weekly Nature Watch 09 Aug 2019

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Within a few weeks of taking their very first flights, many young birds are thrust into harsh reality, facing what can often be a very hostile world. Therefore, they must quickly learn to become entirely independent of the parents that have so dutifully nurtured them. Even now, a whole new generation of relatively newly fledged birds is already well on the way to staring the danger filled avian life full in the face. Having to become self-sufficient in a matter of days or at best weeks poses many challenges so as a result they naturally find that they are on a very steep learning curve. Finding their own way in the world and learning the real art of survival will challenge them to their limits. There is no escape from the fact that nature is indeed, red in tooth and claw. The freedom these new generations are now beginning to enjoy clearly comes at a price for there are also new generations of newly fledged raptors, which pose a real threat to the survival of many of those juvenile songbirds.

The lack of experience on the part of many young birds plays very much into the hands of young raptors, which, of course, are also facing serious survival challenges albeit, of a rather different nature. Although they have yet to fully assimilate the hunting skills that will guarantee their long-term survival, they must become dependent initially on the vulnerability of young songbirds as they make their way towards self -sufficiency. They are fortunate that so many young, inexperienced quarries are available, which luckily makes their task ostensibly easier. Thus, all new generations, whether the hunted or indeed the hunters, are on that steep learning curve. For one group to survive, some of the others will inevitably have to fall by the wayside.

Young raptors have to be phenomenally fast learners. Failure is not an option, for those unable to take on board the necessary skills of stalking prey, using their natural speed to run fleeing birds down or in some cases, laying ambushes to ensnare their victims, will literally starve. Mortality among young raptors can be surprisingly high, especially during the first winter of their lives. Even during the mildest of winters, many will fail to make it to the following spring. Sparrowhawks and goshawks rely upon all those skills together with a natural athleticism that enables them to navigate their way through woodland where the ability to turn sharply at speed as they pursue prey is so important. These are the vital skills young sparrowhawks and goshawks are currently in the process of honing.

However, this summer does seem to have been especially productive with a plethora of young birds very evident. This will ensure that young sparrowhawks and goshawks get off to a good start in life. However, for kestrels and especially for owls it is small rodents that form the basis of their diet and all the evidence points towards something of a dearth of this kind of prey. This has certainly been manifested in the reduction in numbers of these once extremely familiar raptors. For example, not so many years ago local skies more often than not yielded sightings of hovering kestrels. Now I so rarely see kestrels and how I miss them!

Kestrels and owls and perhaps to a lesser degree, buzzards and the new generation of red kites, generally rely upon good populations of small mammals such as mice and voles as their main sources of food. Whilst numbers of voles regularly fluctuate resulting in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vole years, there does seem to have been an overall reduction in vole numbers in general over recent years. It may be that a wider use of rodenticides, commonly deployed to control mice and rats, has made an unusually significant impact on all rodents but it would also seems likely that other factors have combined to depress vole numbers in particular. Buzzards and kites of course, supplement their diets by feeding extensively on carrion.

Water voles were once familiar residents of many riverbanks. However, their numbers were decimated many years ago by the arrival of alien mink in the landscape - escapees from mink farms or worse, animals deliberately released by people who protested against the very notion of fur farming. I don’t much like the notion of fur farming either but setting hundreds if not thousands of mink free to decimate local wildlife was frankly an act of crass stupidity. Actions may sometimes speak louder than words but such actions can have a devastating effect on native wildlife. I remember only too well the consequences of one such protest. It was desperately injurious to a wide range of wildlife. Ground nesting birds were slaughtered wholesale and virtually no wildfowl on our local loch produced any young for a year or two. In recent years, much effort has been made to eradicate mink from local rivers and lochs and new populations of water voles have been re-introduced. Let’s hope they prosper!

Field and bank voles, fundamentally prey for the widest possible variety of avian, reptilian and mammal predators, also seem to be in quite serious decline. Hence, a parallel decline over recent years of kestrels. But they are not the only birds to suffer. Owls also rely upon small mammals for their survival. Barn owls have been in serious decline for many years and this is not just a British state of affairs. Right across Europe, Barn owl numbers have reduced alarmingly over many years. The conclusion made by experts suggests that barn owls and modern farming methods do not go well together! Furthermore the more widely distributed tawny owls and those more diurnal moorland predators, the short-eared owls, seem also to be in decline.

There was a time when short-eared owls were a very familiar sight on local moorlands. The spread of more forestry has undoubtedly legislated against them. They used to be a familiar sight, their long wings beating slowly as they coursed low over moorland habitats during daylight hours. New plantations, fenced in order to exclude grazing animals, were soon populated by field voles and so were quickly colonised by short-eared owls. Now I seldom see short-eared owls, even where there are apparently suitable new plantings. Again, this points to an absence of suitable prey, those disappearing voles!

Although nature is generally robust, these declines are worrying. They deplete the amazing diversity we used to enjoy. Instead of robustness, there is suddenly a detectable fragility in the fabric of nature, which seems likely to be connected to the increasingly pervading influence of mankind on the natural world. When you remove some of those vital building blocks, inevitably the whole structure is weakened!

Weekly Nature Watch 2 August 2019

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Notwithstanding recent record high temperatures, there is a sense that we have arrived at the beginning of the end of summer August being the last full summer month of the year.

Inevitably, the intense heat gave way to rain and ‘normal service’ was quickly resumed. And, as the birds continue to dumb down, becoming increasingly silent, purple has arrived in our landscape in many forms. Tall standing foxgloves wave at us fromroadside verges, together with the inevitable rosebay willowherb, the famous fireweed that engulfed much of London’s blitzed landscape after Hitler’s bombs had raineddown on the capital city. Rosebay is one of those plants which seem destined to colonise areas previously devastated by fire or worse. It is, therefore, widely regarded as an invasive weed species however, once it was extensively used as a decoration in Victorian gardens because of its striking colour.

Of course, foxgloves are extremely familiar roadside flowers. Delightful though it may seem to conjure up images of foxes donning the bell-like flowers as gloves for their dainty little feet, it appears more likely that the name ‘foxglove’ was derived from old Anglo Saxon. The word ‘gliew’ meant a musical instrument with many bells, whilst the ‘fox’ may be a corruption of ‘folk’. In some parts of England, foxgloves are known as ‘fairy bells’ but fairy bells or not, foxgloves are of course poisonous. Yet from them is extracted the drug digitalis, used to treat heart complaints, its magical qualities discovered by one William Withering back in 1785.

Adding further purple to the landscape’s palette of colours are the thistles, whichdespite their presence as a symbol of this proud nation, are also widely regarded as pernicious weeds. Yet at present, the crop of thistles in my paddock is ablaze with all sorts of bright colours, oranges and yellows predominating as a plethora of small tortoiseshell butterflies swarm all over them. There is also an abundance of painted lady butterflies immigrants from Africa. The last time we had such an influx was in 2008. Despite the doom and gloom we are hearing about global warming and climate change, at least here this year, a wide variety of pollinators seems to be prospering. Sharing the thistles are countless bees and indeed the amazing presence of a whole mass of bees on our cotoneaster earlier this summer was indeed encouraging, as has been similar activity on a flowering privet in recent days. The trend, however, is definitely not encouraging. Pollinators are reducing severely in number and that is a warning to us all.

The element of Global Warming, manifested in the high temperatures of last week canclearly have some benefits. Nevertheless, the warnings are clear. Our world is constantly going through change. Across the centuries, there have been wild fluctuations in temperatures as witness successive Ice Ages, the last one a mere ten thousand or so years ago. And then by contrast, came the heat of last week. The climate changes naturally all the time but now man’s fatal hand seems to be having increasing influence.

It is clear that we are only now beginning to understand the effects of the vast amounts of pollution produced during the Industrial era, when coal was the driving force behind the emergence of heavy industry. Furthermore, we are still pouring these pollutants into the earth’s atmosphere, as some persist in ignoring the warnings and the long-term consequences of continuing to burn yet more vast quantities of coal. Our world and its wildlife are amazingly resilient and have a remarkable ability to adapt and evolve but there has to be a red line beyond which our very survival may well be threatened!

There are further examples of purple coming to the fore up on the hills with cross-leaved heaths and bell heather also beginning to flower. Soon the main heather crop, ling, will be also be blooming transforming our upland landscapes into those purple hills and moors, for which Scotland is so famous. It is as if the landscape wasgoing through a curious requiem for the summer now slowly approaching its final throws.

Yet, there is other colour to admire as numerous birds continue to take advantage of the food we provide. The two most colourful visitors at present are the goldfinches, which seem to have an insatiable appetite for sunflower hearts and the great spotted woodpeckers, which along with a noisy group of starlings, have a passion for the slabs of fat we offer. The whispering conversations of the goldfinches have been described as resembling the muffled sound of Chinese bells. Others have likened their whispered conversations to the chatter of the very fairies themselves. And, as we enter August, fairy rings will begin to appear in many of our woodlands.

These are circular markings on the ground, where courtship rituals have been conducted between a roebuck and a doe. August sees the culmination of a period beginning in May when this year’s kids were born and August, when the next roe deer mating occurs. During this period, the buck’s temper becomes increasingly frayed as he attempts to re-establish and then defend a territory in which he is totally dominant. Itis, therefore, a time punctuated by confrontations and sometimes physical conflict between competing bucks which is often manifested by the coarse barking that emanates from the woodlands they inhabit and thus fight for. Often people refer to the roe deer as the ‘gentle roe’, yet there is very little that is gentle in the breast of a rampant buck when he is establishing or defending his territory. Meanwhile, amidst all this angst, the does, by contrast, seem always to be the picture of peace and serenity, the image of that ‘gentle roe’!

But in August, now comes the denouement. Territorial integrity has been decided andby and large, the period of conflict is over and the ultimate aim of all this aggrofollows! Therefore, the final act is the coming together of the triumphant buck andhis doe. The courtship is relatively brief as the buck and doe perform a kind of dance, sometimes around a single tree or sapling, before at last the doe consents to his desires. This is how those ‘fairy rings’ are formed. The pregnancy, however, isnot straightforward. Indeed, along with badgers, pine marten, fallow deer, stoats and our grey and common seals, roe deer employ a method known as ‘delayed implantation’, in a way, a form of suspended animation.

Thus, the development of the fertilised egg is put on hold until, in the case of the roe, the beginning of the New Year. Therefore, all these animals can mate in late summer or autumn but bear their young only when conditions are most favourable. Consequently, roe deer kids are not dropped until ideal conditions prevail in the following spring by which time there has been enough growth of succulent vegetation for the doe to be able to make much milk for her kids. It’s a very different approach compared with normal pregnancies, an idiosyncrasy for which, of course, nature is famous. The vicissitudes of nature are curious and sometimes mysterious, although there was a time not so long ago when many folk believed that those fairy rings really were made by the little residents who dwelt at the bottom of gardens!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods