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 26 July 2019

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She clearly had not a care in the world. That was certainly the impression I got as I watched puss conduct her ablutions not fifteen yards away from my kitchen window. As she diligently washed her face using her front paws as any cat might do, she seemed utterly unconcerned that she was conducting her toiletry so close to human habitation. Ostensibly at least, she had no cause for concern and was a picture of relaxation. Puss, of course, is a colloquialism for a brown hare, a name by which it is known to country folk in many parts of Britain.

Nevertheless, relaxed though she seemed, it was evident throughout that her ears were constantly twitching and revolving so that she would instantly hear any alien sounds. Twitching continuously also, was her nose. Hares, used to being the hunted rather than hunters, have an in-built sensory system that is second to none. Furthermore, her eyes are set on the side of her head so that her vision must be close to 360 degrees round the compass. Indeed, the one chink in the hare’s armour apparently is that it does not see as well to the front as it does to the sides and to the rear. Therefore, my understanding is that if you want to approach a hare, you will be more successful if you approach it from the front.

Hares are special. Our ancient hunter gatherer ancestors revered the hare for its exceptional field-craft and they would know all about that, having to rely upon their own hunting skills in order to survive. Hares very quickly digest every detail of every square inch of the physical nature of the territory in which they live. In other words, they know every escape route, every gap in the hedges, every hole in the fences and exactly where to head when threatened or chased. They are the epitome of animals which survive entirely on their wits and accumulated knowledge.

Her toiletry completed, she moved on – unhurried and almost casually as she loped slowly down the paddock, squeezed under the wire and sauntered on into the next field. Her amble continued until at last she had disappeared over the brow of the hill. Throughout she progressed with an air of utter confidence and I could detect not an ounce of trepidation in her. I got the feeling that she knew, whatever she might encounter, fox or dog for instance, she could both outrun it and indeed outwit it! I share that admiration our ancestors had for hares!

Many years ago, I had a borzoi – a Russian wolf-hound - as a canine companion. Once she got wound-up, her speed was so electrifyingly fast it was enough to outrun even a fleet-footed hare. On several occasions, when out for a walk, we would disturb a hare resting in its form and thus resembling a mole-hill! It is surprising how close you can get to such an animal before it will eventually move. Inevitably, the borzoi would pick up the scent and make a bee-line for the resting hare. Almost always, the hare would finally move, not necessarily with the initial urgency you might expect, before, as the dog got nearer it would suddenly get properly into its stride.

Such was the speed of the dog however, that the distance between them would get shorter and shorter at which point the hare would suddenly veer in another direction, sometimes it seemed, at 90 degrees. The dog, totally unable to turn like the hare, would hurtle hopelessly onward, tail winding frantically as she vainly tried to apply the brakes. Meanwhile, the hare having changed direction and being well aware of the dog’s inability to stop or turn, would amble casually towards a weel kent gap in a hedge or fence and simply disappear. Meanwhile, the dog having eventually managed to halt her headlong charge, would return to the point where the hare had veered away, casting futilely around for its lost quarry - now fully a field away. The dog never had a chance!

Mankind has always had a special place in his heart for hares, not just in this country but across the globe. In far away countries such as China for instance, they do not refer to the ‘man in the moon’. Rather do they call it ‘the hare in the moon’! The moon is, of course, a symbol of immortality appearing as it does on a monthly basis, growing from the crescent into the full moon and then reducing until it disappears entirely. Of course, three days later there follows another new moon – a kind of resurrection. The same basic belief can be found in the myth and folklore of India, Egypt, Africa, Mexico, North America and indeed in Europe.

Furthermore, all of these cultures associate the hare with the moon. Granted the hare is, to a great extent, nocturnal in its habits. And because our ancient ancestors were much more conscious of their environment than us, they would have been very aware of the increased level of activity of hares in moonlight. Their observations of the erratic behaviour of hares, especially in the spring, when these apparently timid creatures throw off all caution and cavort so blatantly, would have further sealed the image of the hare and its association with moonlit nights. Their observations of hares leaping, standing up and boxing, simply running riot and appearing as if from nowhere, inexorably linked them with the constantly changing phases of the moon and its differing stations in the sky. To the ancients, mad March hares were simply moon-struck!

The activities of mad March hares are easy to observe in a landscape in which the growth of vegetation has hardly begun. Besides which, as previously said, they do seem to throw off their usual cloak of timidity. Yet brown hares do not restrict their re-productive activities to March for they will, as the year progresses, go on to produce further litters of young, even as many as four. This week, I have seen leverets, possibly the second family of the year. Unlike rabbit kits, leverets are born fully furred with their eyes open and are soon upwardly mobile. However, hares are dedicated mothers separating their leverets – usually around four in number - and depositing them in ‘forms’ –little depressions in the ground. She will visit each in turn to suckle them. I well remember watching one such Jill hare quite firmly box the nose of a cow that got too close to one of her hidden leverets. Indeed, I have also heard stories of Jill hares kicking and with their powerful rear legs, even killing stoats that were threatening her young.

Over the years, hare numbers hereabouts have fluctuated wildly. Years ago, they were so numerous that regular hare-shoots were held and I could not look out of my kitchen window and fail to see one. However, their numbers began to fall and indeed, for a time they were seldom seen. Happily, their numbers do now appear to be recovering although I do know that from time to time, there are those who still go hare-coursing with greyhounds despite it being illegal.

In his account of his life in Britain, Julius Caesar wrote that it was at that time a custom of the Ancient Brits to keep hares as pets in enclosures called leporaria. Caesar reported that the captive hares were looked after and fed by a keeper who could apparently call them to him by blowing a special horn! Of course, hares are ardent re-cyclers for they eat their more moist droppings in order to extract all the nutrients from their food. This is why their flesh is forbidden to Jews and Muslims who mistakenly believe they chew the cud and are therefore considered to be unclean. Doubtless, if they knew the truth, they would be doubly against the consumption of hares!

Weekly Nature Watch 19 July 2019

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It has certainly been a disastrous few weeks for raptors.  Over the course of less than a month there have been reports of a hen harrier being caught and killed in an illegal trap and two golden eagles going missing - all of these occuring in Perthshire.  Then came news of a peregrine falcon being found so badly injured after it had been shot that it had to be put down, this time in Cheshire.  The peregrine not only had a broken wing but shot in its body, morbidly illustrating that efidently there are people out there who nurse a particular hatred of raptors.  Furthermore, they are clearly people who are prepared to flout the law and indeed take the law into their own hands with disastrous consequences.

The disappearing eagles, both fitted with transmitters so that their movements could be tracked, disappeared into thin air on a grouse moor.  The hen harrier was also in a similar location.  Thus the finger of suspicion has once again been pointed in the direction of those who manage moorlands, specifically for the rearing and ultimately the shooting of red grouse.  Much effort goes into the nurturing of grouse in such areas, for once the 'glorious twelfth of August' has been reached, the bags are apparently key to the success of what have evidently become big businesses.

The rise of the sporting estate in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with its over emphasis upon the protection of game birds and animals, not to mention a determination to protect fish, showed a complete disregard for wildlife.  Hence, during that time, ospreys, sea eagles and polecats became extinct as Scottish breeding birds and animals.  I have read the account of the 'naturalist' who shot the last pair of breeding ospreys on Speyside.  It makes grisly reading and it was such activities that hastened the laws brought forward to protect such creatures.

I vividly remember the excitement that was generated back in the 1950s when of their own volition ospreys eventually began at last to return to Scotland and breed.  If ever there was a good news story that was it. And yet would you believe it, the first breeding pair had their eggs stolen!  Rarity is, of course.the key issue to egg collectors and as you will have guessed, with no other ospreys even present in the UK, that clutch of osprey eggs must accordingly have been exceedingly rare and thus extremely valuable.  Despite the illegality of possessing them!  Henceforth, groups of bird-watchers got together and formed watches on nesting sites to try and prevent further incursions, as slowly by surely ospreys began to re-colonise Scotland.  The slow build up of breeding ospreys in Scotland happened initially on Speyside but there was one eyrie here in West Perthshire which had also been robbed.  Thereafter, a number of us organised watches over that lone site.

Sea eagles also became extinct in Britain around the same time in about 1916.  Efforts were made to re-introduce these huge raptors to coastal Scotland many years ago by the late Pat Sandeman and George Waterston.  It seems that this first effort failed because the introduced eagles tangled with fulmars.  Fulmars, when threatened, release a pungent oil-rich fluid from their nostrils and it was thought that the eagles' plumage became badly soiled.  That re-introduction therefore failed.  However. a further re-introduction was launched in the 1970s by the RSPB, which has been successful. However, their return has not been achieved entirely without controversy!  But that's another story!

Meanwhile, another raptor, the hen harrier, once widespread but latterly found only in Orkney as a breeding bird, had begun to make a return to other parts of Scotland and England.  Indeed, when I first settled in this part of Scotland, the local range of hills supported no fewer than seven pairs of hen harriers.  However, as more and more forestry was planted, elimnating the open moorland habitat which is what harriers require, their numbers fell until there were none.  During the winter months, I also used to see hen harriers - they used the nearby mosses as a winter roost - coursing along local hedgerows in their search for small songbirds.  Alas, the pair I used to see on a regular basis came to a grisly end - they were shot!

And of course, hen harrier numbers have been in decline to such an extent that they ae now our rarest birds of prey.  Yet they are a joy to watch as they fly low, typically over heather moorland, ready to pounce on any small bird or mammal they spot.  The male with its grey, almost silver plumage and wings tipped with black and the brown female - the ringtail - are both recognised by the prominent white flash above the tail.  The one recently killed must have suffered agonies caught in the vicious teeth of an illegal trap, a salutary reminder that clearly some people are determined to exterminate them by any means whatsoever.  It is true that harriers will prey on red grouse.  However, predators of this nature do, in some respect, keep the grouse in good health by targeting the weaker, less desirable birds.

Eagles and pergrines hunt over grouse moors and so have also been targeted.  But, then hen harrier is a ground-nesting bird and thus is an easier target for those who wish to see them exterminated from all such moors.  The destruction of nests and the killing of young harriers is, I'm afraid, something that has happened all too frequently, despite the fact that such actions are strictly illegal.  In parts of England, especially in the north where there are grouse moors too, there have been regular reports referring to the destruction of hen harriers and their nests.

Pergrine falcons have over a long period of time, had a chequered history in their relationship with mankind.  Indeed, during the war years, many of them were killed quite legally as part of the war effort. They were eliminated, mainly along England's sount coast, in order to protect carrier pigeons bringing vital messages from the front in Europe.  Then, just as the pressure by the war was removed, they were to suffer further disastrous consequences due to the heavy use in post war days of pesticides such as DDT, which passed naturally through the food chain.

Pigeons, which are one of the peregrine's prime quarries, having eaten treated cereal crops were then caught and consumed by the falcons.  The buck stopped there at the top of the food chain!

Peregrines at that time began to lay infertile eggs, then began to die and were soon again in serious decline.  Thankfully, the consequential threat to human life was realised and such pesticides were banned.  However, it isn't just the managers of grouse moors who eye pergrines with suspicion, pigeon fanciers don't much care for them either!

So far no evidence seems to exist as to who was responsible for the two disappearing eagles but it would seem that someone has a major grudge against such raptors.  It is unlikely that both transmitters failed at the same time. However, the fact remains that the trap set for the hen harrier was clearly set intentionally and the peregrine too was shot just as deliberately.  There can be no doubt at all that someone very definitely wanted to kill those birds.

There are those who perfectly legitimately enjoy shooting and many of them are now up in arms knowing that as more such crimes come to light, the more likelihood there is that more and more legislation will be introduced to restrict their activities.  There has apparently been an increasing volume of letters sent to the shooting press, criticising the perpetrators of these crimes.  Some mud inevitably sticks!  It is surely about time these destroyers of our much-cherished wildlife, were brought to justice for they are as much criminals as any thieves and robbers!

 

Weekly Nature Watch 12 July 2019

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There can be no doubt at all that this is the time of the young ones.  As the avian breeding season finally draws towards its close, the evidence that this has been very productive is all around me.  Indeed, my garden seems to be awash with young birds all of which are daily gaining in confidence and making strides towards self-sufficiency.  I'm not sure how many families of starlings there are here but there is certainly more than one.  The other day I counted at least twelve young starlings on or around my bird-table.

The main attraction seems to be the fat blocks we string up for them.  Indeed, there are times when the squabbling over who gets prime position to peck away at the fat provides us with rich entertainment.  I am constantly reminded of the curious two dimensions of starling behaviour.  There have been times - and doubtless there will be again - when I am awe-struck by the amazing discipline starlings can exhibit when, mainly during the winter months, they come together in those amazing murmurations and proceed to baffle us with the fantastic patterns they proscribe in the air.  No human artwork can surely match the precision, the ever-changing shapes produced by the massed ranks of starlings.

Here, we don't see the massive murmurations filmed near Gretna Green that have been shown on television, which involves thousands if not hundreds of thousands of starlings painting the sky with their ever changing patterns.  But, more often than not, during the winter months we do find some forty or fifty starlings roosting in our leylandi hedge and conducting mini-murmurations.  The discipline required must be absolute.  They change direction at a whim, thus changing the shape of their formation as they fly first this way and then that in a dizzying sequence of movements that is indeed baffling.  I have watched closely as they hurtle forth and can definitely confirm that there is never a single leader conducting this amazing orchestration.  There may be one bird that leads for a short while, then another takes over, and another and another and so on.

There is never the merest hint of collision.  Every bird in the flock knows its place...absolutely.  The scientists tell us that each bird has a set amount of space between its neighbours, ahead, behind, above and below and to the sides.  What discipline that must take, especially as they conduct these movements at incredible speed.  The only similarity I can strike is between starlings and those remarkable flocks of waders, such as knot, that collect in the estuarine environment and perform similar feats of collective aerobatics.  Similar mass disciplines must also be at work there too.

So, why is my new generation of starlings so completely undisciplined?  They fight and argue with pernicious vigour all the time, vying with each other to secure a place on the fat.  Initially, it was the parent birds that pecked so vigorously so as to secure quite large beaks of fat, which they then rammed down the throats of pleading youngsters.  But gradually, the youngsters found they too were able to fly up, secure a hold on the wire and ram their long beaks into the fat.  I had just read about the problems afflicting human society - that obesity has now overtaken cancer as a problem.  The way these starlings are battering away at the fat, I found myself wondering whether they too are heading down the same road.  Why is it, that so much pure fat effects humans and not starlings?  However, I suppose that they burn up a good deal of energy zooming from place to place and in those whirling murmurations!

The starlings are not alone.  The fat is also a major attraction to great spotted woodpeckers.  It has been evident that two pairs of these colourful characters have been re-charging their batteries on those same slabs of fat.  One pair comes from one direction, the other from the opposite point of the compass and we have been watching the newly fledged redcaps - young woodpeckers - being fed by their parents.  But like the new broods of starlings, some of the redcaps too are now coming in and helping themselves.

It is evident that the young starlings are unaware of the threat woodpecker's can pose with their well-known antipathy to all other birds when food is the attraction.  The parent starlings certainly know for they soon make themselves scarce when the woodpeckers arrive, retreating to a safe distance.  The young starlings however, seemed unaware of the antagonism of the woodpeckers....until eventually one of the woodpecker parents had a real go at a couple of them, putting them to immediate flight with a couple of thrusts of that long and presumably sharp, rapier-like beak.  Maybe at last they will have learned the lesson!

Meanwhile a four-strong family of blackbirds has joined the melee, coming regularly to feed on the fallen sunflower seeds.  I also watched two song thrush youngsters following a parent and begging for food.  The parent bird, typical of the thrush family, moves in short sharp bursts before suddenly darting forward and seizing on some tiny fragment of invertebrate life which was eventually thrust down the throat of one of the following youngsters.  The begging also extends to two young crows which are now pursuing their parents everywhere they go, flapping their wings and fawning as they repeatedly ask for food.  All young birds are equipped with brightly coloured inner mouths, which stimulate the parent birds into stuffing more and more food into those colourful gapes!

There are times when mini battles break out.  Indeed, it is clear that there is no love lost between competing siblings.  One of the young crows in its eagerness to be first to receive a beak full of food from a parent, knocked its sibling for six.  Furthermore, hostility between them seems to break out from time to time.  One was so aggresive that it had its sibling on its back the other day.  There is another example of conflict that surprised me.  There has been a pair of collared doves around right through spring and summer.  However, there has been no sign of youngsters.  One of the said doves was wandering around the other day when a magpie landed close by.  The dove - aren't they supposed to be birds of peace? - immediately flew into a rage at the magpie which, to my surprise hurriedly departed in panic!  I speculated that maybe a magpie, perhaps this one, had robbed the dove's nest of either her eggs or young and this was appropriate retribution!  I'm afraid magpies are often the villains of the piece!

It is the redcaps however, that provide the most entertainment. They fly in explosively, clamp themselves to the wire containers for the fat and swing round and round as they pick vigorously away at the energy-giving treat.  Now they are also threatening any of the young starlings that dare to challenge them for a beak full of fat.  As George Orwell once wrote, 'I'm fat but I'm thin inside'!

 

 

Weekly Nature Watch 28 June 2019

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Although we've only just passed Midsummer' Eve, already there is a slight falling away in the volume of bird song, a gradual dampening down. 

For many, the frantic nature of their summer breeding season is coming to an end with new families now up and flying.  Many adult birds will, I'm sure, be relieved that they can at last see light at the end of this particular tunnel.  Once we reach the end of June and July begins to dawn, the frenetic nature of their lives in their drive to produce the next generation calms.  During these next few days and months, there will be a chance for them to draw a breath and prepare themselves for the next phase in their lives, at which time many will enter their main moult of the year.

The process of replacing plumage is an on-going process but now as we enter the second part of summer, a major moult and a renewal of feathers is undertaken by most birds.  Some birds become flightless during this process, whilst others, as they cast their flight feathers, are to some degree debilitated and are thus more vulnerable to attack by predators.  Hence singing, by and large, is off the agenda.  Birds that are handicapped by this major loss of plumage certainly don't want to advertise their presence and thus fall largely silent.  I don't know how many times I have heard visitors to our landscape during July and August, commenting that there seems to be a lack of birds.  However, the birds are there, albeit noticeably in reduced numbers these days, but we don't hear too many of them once they begin to shed their feathers.

There was, commonly, one notable exception to this rule in the colourful shape of yellowhammers.  Being prolific breeders, often nurturing a third brood during those late summer months, they were often the lone songsters during July and into August, their 'little bit of bread but no cheese' ditty echoing from many of our otherwise relatively silent hedgerows.  However, as I recently reported, their numbers are plummeting and I haven't heard them in this locality for at least a couple of years.  Instead of removing hedges, better management of these vital wildlife corridors could help to restore the balance.  Indeed, it can be argued that we need a landscape, which is less stringently manicured and managed and where some weeds are allowed to grow, before this sad decline in yellowhammers and other farmland birds is likely to be halted and reversed.

However, there are other birds which are still deeply embroiled in the business of nurturing young.  The ospreys will continue to feed their new generation at least until late July or early August and of course so too will the swallows and martins.  There has been a decrease in the number of both these wonderfully athletic summer migrants this year and especially so in the case of house martins.  I understand that the weather over the Continent was particularly stormy at the time these birds were heading north on their spring migration.  Thus, some may have perished whereas others might have been seriously delayed during their northerly passage.  My own observations suggest that many of the martins that are here were unusually late in arriving.

House martins, especially, do try to produce three broods of young during their summer sojourn with us.  However, I suspect that many of them this year will have to be satisfied with just two broods, as a late arrival reduces the time they have to raise and nurture multiple broods. It must be assumed that their vulnerability during migration is high if they need to produce three broods every year in order to maintain their numbers.  Swallows too, journeying some six thousand miles all the way from Soutn Africa, must also suffer losses and indeed we do know that the crossing of the massive Sahara Desert, accounts for a fair number of them.  The other negative factor may be connected with the serious downturn in insect populations recorded both here and across Europe.  Both swallows and martins depend entirely on insects and so this shortage is bound to affect them.

The speed at which different birds moult is very much related to how and where they spend their winter.  In other words, those that are migratory must moult at a faster rate than those that are sedentary because they have to be well prepared for their epic journeys.  For instance, blackcaps take around thirty-five days to complete their moult, although increasingly these wee warblers seem to be opting to spend winter in the southern reaches of Britain. Will this mean I wonder, that gradually blackcaps will take longer to moult than is the case now?  Short distance migrants like redpolls for example, take longer, something like fifty days to complete their moult.  Compared to this relatively rapid moult, resident songbirds such as thrushes and blackbirds, destined to remain here for the winter, do not need to hasten the process.  Having no migratory deadline to meet, they may take 80-90 days to fully complete their moult.

In contrast, some like garden warblers, swallows and perhaps surprisingly, cuckoos, will not moult until they have completed their migration to their wintering grounds in Africa and indeed the process can be prolonged in some cases, lasting most of the winter.  Unusually, willow warblers moult twice a year, possibly because their lifestyle and breeding habits mean they spend a great deal of time making their way through thick vegetation, which takes a toll on their feathers.

However, it is the water-based birds that really take their time moulting.  Ducks and grebes for instance, shed all their flight feather at once and so actually become totally incapable of flight for several weeks.  Therefore, you will see them skulking about in reed-beds and the like during this time when they are obviously more vulnerable.  And of course. many of them also have the option of diving to evade attack.  Many years ago I certainly remember watching a couple of goldeneye which were being pursued close to the loch by a sparrowhawk, descend quickly to the water's surface and immediately dive leaving their pursuer utterly baffled by their sudden disappearance.

Male ducks - the drakes - also go into an eclipse moult at this time, emerging in plumage which is as dull as that of the females, making them more inconspicuous.  Indeed it is easy to get the feeling that all the drakes have disappeared after midsummer as they don't regain their full colours until October.  Our commonest duck, the mallard, very clearly demonstrates the difference between the duck and drake.  The drake is attractively colourful with its bottle-green head, white collare and purplish brown breast, its back greying brown, whereas the duck is very much a plain Jane, with mottled brown plumage.  Her one concession to colour is her blue wing flashes.

The drake needs to be colourful to sucessfully compete with other drakes and attract a mate.  In other words, he is the 'waddling wonder-kid' but the duck, nesting as she does on the ground, needs therefore to be well camouflaged and discreet.  However, as in almost all species, it is that 'plain Jane' of a duck, who ultimately makes the choice of mate.  Therefore, when breeding time comes along, he has to be at his best, but when he moults he too needs to be camouflaged and discreet.

So its time for new sets of clothes, a matter of urgency for those destined to launch themselves on epic migratory journeys but perhaps a matter of personal pride for year-long residents like those familiar mallards!

Weekly Nature Watch 21 June 2019

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Against a backdrop of falling bird numbers and, perhaps more crucially, alarming declines in insect populations, the pollinators of course, we may assume that survival of the fittest and concentration on the production of the next generation, to be the main criteria which drives most creatures. You might think, therefore, that most birds and animals would not have much time to contemplate play and having fun. However, on examination, some creatures actually devote surprising amounts of time to enjoying themselves.

Indeed, there are time when some animals clearly go to considerable lengths to enjoy a romp.  Never is that observation more obvious than when badger clubs start to play.  In essence, play is a process whereby indulging in play fighting and rough and tumble, those cubs are actually learning the lessons that will stand them in good stead as they grow up.  And it really can be a real melee as each cub strives to become dominant.  They attack each other with gusto and roll around in mock combat, issuing plenty of noise in the process; the adults generally seem to let the cubs get on with it.

Fox cubs go through a similar routine, albeit that the vixen also plays a part in their rough and tumble, provoking play by sometimes flicking her tail to encourage them to pounce on it.  I have on one rare occasion, been privileged to watch badger and fox cubs play together.  Foxes had taken over a part of an ancient badger sett and once the cubs of both were confident enough to emerge in order to indulge in play, both fox and badger cubs joined the subsequent ruction with great glee.  I couldn't help but wonder if the parent badgers looked upon this combined play with some disdain for whilst badgers are by nature clean and tidy in their habits, foxes are the opposite, not so clean and pretty untidy!  For badgers, they are not the best of neighbours!

Play is also a natural instinct among some surprising animals.  I had always thought that roe deer kids lacked any impulse to play until many years ago I took responsibility for the rearing of a roe deer kid.  She was around three days old when she was 'found' by some children in a wood even though in reality she was not lost!  However, she had been so handled by the children that she must have fairly reeked of their scent, certainly enough for the doe to abandon her had she been returned to where she had been found.

Initially, she lived quite happily in a large cardboard box in our sitting room.  At the same time we had a collie pup and within days the two animals seemed to have established some sort of play routine. The roe kid soon discovered she could jump out of her box, which as the days passed, she frequently did. Then of course, she encountered the collie pup, which she would proceed to chase through the house.  Then the pup chased the kid back again.  This became a regular game between two animals, which apart from their youth had no other feature in common...except a desire to play!

There can however, be another, more practical aspect to play in animals.  I once watched a weasel perform a perfect square dance along a quiet country lane. It darted across the lane before running along the bottom of a hedge.  Then it crossed again and ran back along the opposite hedge bottom on the other side of the lane.  It repeated this little dance time and time again and as I watched I was aware that a considerable number of small birds were observing this strange behaviour and were becoming increasingly fascinated by it, moving closer and closer to action.  Then came the denouement as one bird got too close to the action and paid for its curiosity with its life.

In a similar incident, I watched a stoat in my own garden go through the most amazing routine of somersaults, chasing its own tail and a variety of amazing gyrations.  It also entranced a host of birds, almost hypnotising them, until one dunnock moved just too close to the action, again to pay for its fascination with its life.  The running weasel and the gyrating stoat were playing, but with a deadly purpose.

However, there are cases of birds for instance, quite deliberately indulging in bouts of what can only be described as play. On windy days, especially during the winter months, massed ranks of rooks and jackdaws can regularly be seen cavorting around the sky in mass displays of utter bedlam.  Often you will see members of the cavorting masses splitting off into pairs and chasing each other in furious games of tag.  At times, the sky seems to be full of birds flinging themselves around with absolute abandon, clearly having fun!

Such displays are by no means restricted to rooks and jackdaws for I have also seen ravens play with rare enthusiasm.  My first eye-opening experience of watching ravens express such a desire was off our west coast on the distant Treshnish Islands.  We had been invited to go for a week's sailing and we anchored off the islands overnight and then explored them during the following day.

Much to my astonishment,  a family party of ravens suddenly appeared.  Some were spiralling or corkscrewing through the air, some were even flying upside down.  Without any doubt, they were having fun.  The twentieth-century naturalist Frances Pitt wrote about her two tame ravens which, as far as I know, were free flying.  She described how the pair of them would collaborate in a game in which they would tease unmercifully one of Miss Pitt's cats, one of them distracting the cat whilst the other would sneak behind the animal and grab its tail.  Ravens clearly have an in-built instinct to play as well as a mischievous disposition.

The propensity to play may however, not be one of the essential attributes of wagtails, yet this can, most notably in the form of the pied wagtail, are to me naturally comedic birds in appearance, the 'Coco the Clowns' of the avian world.  That black eye on the white face of the bird paints a clownish picture whilst the very demeanour of the bird seems to me to spell comedy.  It struts, it runs until its legs are a blur, it springs into the air, where it pirouettes so brilliantly as it pursues insects.  And of course, it constantly flips its tail up and down, as opposed to wagging it.

This latter feature of wagtail life is the source of much speculation. Some conjecture that it is disturbing insects which it then catches.  However, as its tail is naturally at the rear of the bird and my observations reveal that it is always darting ahead on foot or on wing to snaffle them,  I hae ma doubts!  In my opinion, more is it a movement that mirrors the passage of water beside which we are most often likely to see the bird.  In other words it may be a means of obfuscation.  However, it may also be a constant signal that simply says 'I am here - this is my territory', a statement of integrity.  Whatever the reason for the constant tail movement, the one thing that is assured, is that wagtails somehow always bring a smile to one's lips, intentionally or otherwise!

The poet Montgomery wrote of the water wagtail:-

What art thou made of?  air or light or dew?

I have no time to tell you, if I knew.

My tail - ask that - perhaps may solve the matter;

I've missed three flies already by this clatter.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods