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 29.12.17

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A lone voice echoed across an otherwise silent, frosted landscape - the quick-fire voice of jenny wren, surely producing a decibel level unmatched by any of the wee bird's avian compatriots. Ounce for ounce, gram for gram, the wren is probably the loudest songster of all. That the song is brief in the extreme can be judged by the fact that it is over in just over five seconds ... 5.2 seconds to be precise. Yet within those few seconds, no fewer than fifty-six different notes blurt forth! Not that anyone's ear is sufficiently tuned to count the notes. This remarkable statistic emerges only after tape recordings were made and slowed down!

The wren has a curious history in folklore across both Britain and Europe. The Irish believed the wren to be a magician or sorcerer, whilst the Druids believed the bird was a prophet. It was also frequently referred to as 'Our Lady's hen' or indeed 'God's bird'. Indeed, there was an old Scots verse, which promises dire consequences to anyone who should harm a wren. "Malaisons, malaisons mair than ten, that harry the Lady of Heaven's wren."

And yet, despite such warnings, the period between Christmas and Epiphany, might have at one juncture in our ancient history have been deemed the most dangerous in the life of any wren. Indeed, rather than singing to the world, there was a time when, at this time of the year, wrens would have been well advised to remain silent. This was a period during which everything was turned on its head - a complete reversal of the normal order of things when a Lord of Misrule would be appointed king for the time being and the most insignificant child in the community was accorded all the dignities of king!

Yet, revered though the wren was, again as the normal rules of life were overturned, the poor wren was unmercifully hunted and in many cases sacrificed. In Pembroke the wrens were luckier. Once captured, the wee bird would be paraded around the community in a cage carried by a boy dressed in ribbons proclaiming "Come and make your offering to the smallest yet the king." Happily for the Pembrokeshire wrens, the bird would then be released.

Elsewhere, the poor little wren was killed, yet here again, there were curious ceremonies, which like those days of Misrule, turned everything on its head. From distant Marseilles comes a tradition that the slaughtered wren was carried between two poles by four strong men, who pretended to labour under the weight of the dead wren. A similar scene was enacted in Devon where this time two men apparently struggled under the weight of the dead wren, singing a song about the immense weight of the bird as they went!

Of course, the best known story about the little wren comes from Greek mythology and tells the story of the wren becoming the king of birds when it concealed itself in the plumage of the eagle. The eagle soared the highest of all in order to claim the crown. However, when the eagle had reached its zenith, the wren revealed itself, flew those few feet higher and usurped the crown!

The wren hunts, once a common feature in the post Christmas period, appear to have reached Britain during the Bronze Age and have their origins in the Mediterranean region. Some experts believe that the wren hunts represented the death of the dark earth powers and the beginning of a new season of light and life. Curiously enough those ancestors of ours were probably more familiar with us with the rhythms of the earth. The solstices for instance, were probably automatically registered with them, whereas very few folk nowadays are even aware of such things.

The suggestion of course is that the wren hunts and all those traditions that went with them probably began, not after Christmas but at the winter solstice itself, which of course happens on December 21. That said there are still those, among them the druids, who gather to celebrate these events in the natural calendar. Such traditions persist and Stonehenge is a place noted for such gatherings.

For most of us, in our very artificial world, such events pass us by without as much as a glance, yet that winter solstice has its very own significance. For instance, I would suggest that New Year's Eve should actually take place on the night of December 20. After all, that is when the New Year really begins ,when at last, imperceptibly, instead of days shortening, at last they begin to lengthen. The birds and animals of our landscape are probably more aware of the subtle change that occurs, than are we.

However, I have seen one false dawn - a gorse bush in flower, a yellow oasis in an otherwise pretty grey landscape. However, gorse is a peculiar shrub for it is possible to see it in bloom somewhere literally in every month of the year. The Irish regard gorse as very special. They used it extensively as a hedge, its prickly nature helping to keep stock in and intruders out. Yet such were thought to be its powers that it was also seen to protect livestock from evil. It was also, curiously enough thought to be a good flea repellent!

Who but our friends from across the Irish Sea would add gorse flowers to both wine and whiskey, to improve its flavour but then according to another ancient myth, gorse actually belongs to the fairies who some believe invented whiskey in the first place! Along with hawthorn, blackthorn and blackberry, gorse was also believed by some to guard entrances to the other world!

As far as I can tell, my blazing gorse bush is not guarding the entrance to that other world. But it could well provide good shelter and when the time comes, nesting opportunities for the local wrens which like the gorse itself, seem somehow to be at the heart of so much myth and legend. I write this on Boxing Day - St Stephen's Day on the old calendar. Tradition has it that it was a wren that alerted guards to the escape of Saint Stephen. Perhaps that counts against it?

And of course, many of those wren hunts of yore were also held upon St Stephen's Day. The wren though is surely one of our resident birds that even on the bleakest of winter days, cheers us with that wonderful volley of music:

"The little woodland dwarf, the tiny wren

That from the root-springs trills her ditty clear,

Of stature most diminutive herself" ......Grahame

There they go again. 'Poor old 'Jenny' wren emasculated once more! It's him not her that sings!

Country View 22.12.17

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It was always the same! Every Christmas morning as soon as my eyes were open, I would leap to the foot of the bed and plunge into the pillowcase my parents (or was it really Santa?) used as the main container for my much awaited presents. Always, the first thing I sought would be a square parcel in which was concealed the latest edition of the Rupert Bear annual. Not especially exciting you might think, yet because it was there every year, it gave me great re-assurance. Soon I could be found enveloped in the fictional world of Nutwood and in particular to the activities of Rupert's bosom friend, Bill Badger.

I don't know what particularly sparked off an interest in Bill Badger but he was always my great hero. I also remember listening avidly to a radio serialisation of Kenneth Grahame's immortal "Wind in the Willows," put out on the BBC's splendid "Children's Hour" as I recall. My hero in that too was the avuncular badger, a kind of father figure, respected by all if perhaps sometimes known for his slightly truculent approach to life. Perhaps there was something in him, vaguely reminiscent of my own father?

Grahame, I always thought, was the master of anthromorphism, simply because he had clearly got to know the real characters of the creatures he would transmogrify into human characters. He didn't just stick human names on his animal characters and expect us to assume they were now human. It was all done with a subtlety, which somehow made the stories he told all the more believable.

Therefore, in my mind, the badger remained a friendly, benign character, rumbustious at times, yet wise, and when it seemed necessary, serious, always with the community's interests at heart. The only unsociable anthromorphism in terms of badgers, I can recall, was Tommy Brock, Beatrix Potter's creation and one, which of course, came from the pen of a farming landowner. Potter was always suspicious of natural predators anyway!

Long after Rupert Bear annuals had been swapped for meatier material, my enthusiasm for badgers remained high. Yet I had, throughout those early years of my life, never been in a position to see a live badger. Indeed, that was a treat I had to wait many years for in order to enjoy. Furthermore, that first encounter of a furred kind was in itself quite bizarre. It was a bright summer's day and remembering that by reputation, badgers are by nature, creatures of the night, seldom to be seen out and about in broad daylight, that first encounter initially at least, seemed possibly to be of a dead badger!

There he lay, in the middle of this field, utterly inert. Carefully approaching, I duly investigated its prone body, to realise that the badger, a substantial boar, was in fact having a very deep siesta, its sides heaving gently as he slept! I cautiously leaned down and touched the wiry fur on the animal's flank at which point, with a very loud grunt, he woke, sprung to his feet, looked around and then trundled off, presumably in high dudgeon at having his beauty sleep so rudely interrupted. He was probably gobsmacked. I certainly was! I must say that I later made up for the time lost to enjoy many a badger-watching evening, an experience which was both fulfilling and richly rewarding.

Indeed, I'm quite sure that to this day, badgers, remain fervently close to people's hearts, for it wasn't until 1971 when the dark clouds associated with one of the most virulent diseases around was first associated with badgers. Since then badger/bovine TB and the controversial question of badger culling have unfortunately made headlines on a regular basis. Until then it is likely that the attitude on the part of the farming community to most badgers was indeed entirely benign. However, 1971 proved to be a massive turning point - a watershed - which has seen the badger's popularity in the farming community wane rapidly and change from being a perfectly acceptable character to an absolute pariah ... now hated by most farmers, to some, the devil incarnate!

It was a situation which in my view, was grossly mishandled from the very beginning, the process of deadly, cross-fertilisation accelerated when some farmers chose the bizarre action of tipping slurry into badger setts. Since then, the authorities have fiffed and faffed with the result that now a cull is being carried out in various parts of the country, which, very predictably, so far has not produced a reduction of the incidence of the disease. All the evidence points towards the likelihood that the continuation of culling will instead probably stimulate extra badger movement - empty territories and other badgers will immediately begin the process of re-colonisation. No solution whatsoever!

A far better, more frequent testing regime and vaccination, as is being practised in Wales, would seem to be a much better proposition. All the scientific evidence suggests that this approach is working. I doubt if any single issue has ripped a much wider, bitter division in the rural community than the issue of badgers and bovine TB, especially when the topic of culling is introduced. There are many very active badger groups up and down the country, whose members are dedicated to the welfare of badgers clearly now bringing them into conflict with those who advocate culling.

I do not in any way downplay the enormous pressures bovine TB place upon the farming industry. It devastates; it bankrupts; it ruins lifetime's work. That is why I believe Government has let both farming and our badgers down; why there is such an animated divide between different parts of the rural community. Much more needs to be done. Much more must be done. At least, here in Scotland, we can, whilst remaining ever vigilant, be comforted by the fact that we are officially bovine TB free. There is thankfully no culling here.

That situation should remain providing the checking and movement of cattle remains really efficient. A recent outbreak of TB in Cumbria (a bit too close for comfort) caused some concern but the fact is that unless some infected badgers decide to take their holidays in Scotland, we are for the time being at least, safe from the scourge of this dreadful disease. More importantly, so too are our badgers. Badgers and farmers here at least, can live in harmony without the threats of culling or herd destruction hanging over them.

Thus does it seem entirely appropriate for me to kindly remember those favourite badgers from my childhood, Bill and of course, Badger himself, who set up all my early Christmases for me. So many of my Christmas mornings were shared with badgers and this despite the fact that in reality I had never had real contact with these characterful creatures. In more recent years I have shared many, many magic moments with badgers. In short, they have fulfilled those early Christmas promises. You may not be surprised, when I think back to my badger-ridden early Christmases, that I therefore long for rather more in the way of 'Goodwill to All' and sometime soon, a halt to all such culling. That would make a very happy Christmas! ... just as I wish all readers a very special Christmas!

Country View 13.12.17

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November, now of course consigned to history, I've always considered to be a grey month. Of course, it is a progressively darker month as hours of daylight continue to shrink, as indeed they do in December, perhaps another grey month? Yet, with temperatures also spiralling downwards, we have at least been able to enjoy quite lengthy spells of sunshine during those shorter days. I suppose however, we have the consolation that in just another week, we will have reached the moment when the shortening hours of daylight reach their nadir before at last, ever so slowly, days begin to lengthen. The winter solstice offers a vital turning point, although in all conscience there is plenty of winter yet to come!

Despite that all-pervading greyness, nevertheless there have been flashes of colour to enjoy. Goldfinches are thronging to the feeders now, their little red faces fairly blazing in the winter sunshine, their golden wing-bars, which give the bird its name, absolutely glowing. I love the little array of spots on the tail, which, in some parts of the country, give rise to the unusual pseudonym for goldfinches, of 'spotted dick'! Hereabouts, 'thistle finch' remains in common usage.

The sight of a couple of jays, crossing a woodland clearing in single file, with a fair distance between them, reminded me that these colourful members of the crow clan are very wary travellers. They always fly well apart, never in a gaggle, which suggests these canny birds are aware that for years some country folk have been wont to take pot shots at them. The crow connection is not easily forgotten I'm afraid and jays carry with them a reputation for raiding other birds' nests of their chicks in the spring. However, they do provide flashes of colour on the greyest of days, the white rump always visible, the pink body and those brilliant flashes of blue on each wing, very much the jay's hallmarks.

But there have been other flashes of blue, considerably more luminous than those jay wing flashes - more 'electric'! Normally kingfishers seldom give you much of a chance to study them. Most sightings are along riversides, many of mine indeed, from bridges, when the kingfishes have literally streaked under.

The poet, William Faber caught such a moment perfectly when he wrote:-

"There came

Swift as a meteor's shining flame

A kingfisher from out the brake

And almost seemed to leave a wake

Of brilliant hues behind."

This is of course, the 'Halcyon bird' of many a myth, perhaps the most famous telling us that the kingfisher broods her eggs on a raft of fish bones on a calm sea, more specifically in the middle of the Mediterranean! Indeed, the bird was even credited with a remarkable ability to calm the waters. Such stories emanate from Greek mythology yet from them come the 'Halcyon days' of Shakespeare and other writers.

Parts of the myth are just that ... myth, for in truth kingfishers nest not on the surface of the sea but in the banks of rivers and lochs, excavating a quite lengthy tunnel. However, with a kingfisher's diet entirely comprising of fish, the eggs may indeed be laid upon a mattress of fish-bones. There were other legends from the Greeks including one, which suggested that by hanging up the body of a dead kingfisher, lightning bolts sent by Zeus would be repelled! Once upon a time, kingfisher feathers might have been thought to be particularly useful in luring fish to the colourful artificial flies wielded by those seeking such piscatorial pleasures, except that when the bird is dead, so too almost immediately, is its plumage. Those brilliant colours, that electric blue and the bright orange of the breast, sadly fade fast when the bird is dead.

Those brief encounters, though in themselves memorable, are what one normally sees when encountering kingfishes, yet there are wonderful moments to enjoy if you manage to track down a kingfisher's beat and its nest. Then you may see the bird in its full glory. Usually kingfishers prefer to conduct their fishing plans from a branch overhanging the water of river or lake. From that perch it will study the water below intently, before launching itself in a fast dive, when a target is identified. Where there are no convenient branches, a kingfisher will often seek its prey during a brief hover over the water.

Everything a kingfisher does, it seems to do at breakneck speed. As quickly as it dives headlong into the water, it returns to the branch with a fish squirming in its dagger-like beak, before slamming its victim against the branch either to stun or kill it. Sticklebacks - a favourite prey - have a spiny back-fin, which is raised to prevent predators swallowing them. Stunning the fish thus, prevents it from raising the spines.

Incidentally, the male kingfisher in the breeding season has an all black bill whilst the female has a flash of red at the base. The plumage colours are enhanced by sunlight, an iridescent bright blue, sometimes going on greenish depending on how the light falls on the crown and wings, the breast a luminous reddish orange. The back and tail, also depending upon the way the sun is shining, can range from cobalt blue to azure. Strikingly, the kingfisher's head and indeed its beak are disproportionately large, compared with the rest of its body. Its tail on the other hand, is unusually short and stubby.

Although I have on occasions watched kingfishers a good few miles north of here, we are nevertheless quite close to the northern frontier of the bird's range. However, the phenomenon of global warming is having the effect of extending the territorial limits of a variety of birds ever northwards. In recent years we have seen several species extending their ranges with egrets for instance, now becoming increasingly common. It may well be therefore that kingfishers will extend their range into the northern half of Scotland.

Therefore, it is certainly a matter of some personal exceitement that they are now making their mark around our local loch. They will add those unique flashes of brilliant colour to become another very special bird to add to an already fascinating list! Thus the scaly occupants of those waters have little respite, no matter how small they may be. If the ospreys are currently plundering the waters of Africa, there are herons, cormorants, otters, goosanders and now kingfishers to ensure that fish of any and every size are pursued. At least there is relief for them just now from the tweed-clad fisher-flok who are currently taking a seasonal break! But it won't be for long!

Country View 5.12.17

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Perhaps corruption is part of the human psyche but every time I read of funds being collected for worthy causes, which somehow are filtered into the pockets of corrupt officials, I feel greatly saddened. Yet I suppose it is true that mankind has survived in this world by his opportunism. The gravy trains are approaching the station ... and there are plenty of people waiting to board them!

Mind you, we are not the only ones looking for that train. Take urban foxes. They survive by exploiting our profligacy. They live off the remains of take-aways, our cast-offs and whatever else they can find in their urban environment. Leave doors or even windows open on those sultry summer days and you cannot blame a fox for sneaking in and taking whatever it can find, from tables, work surfaces and so on. It makes no difference to the fox. And I've seen for myself, just how forward urban foxes can be ... scratching at French windows in their pleas to be fed!

I was amused a few weeks ago to read of the old Brock badger that barged its way through a cat flap, consumed a dog bowl full of food and then decided to have a nap in the absent pooch's bed. It took a very patient SSPCA Inspector some time to persuade it to wake up and return quietly to the great outdoors whence it had come.

I conclude that animals too therefore all have a sharp eye open for that gravy train, in whatever form it comes. As some readers will know to their cost, roe deer have an appetite for roses and can thus be very destructive of the green fingered labours of many a gardener. I remember years ago, searching an urban woodland in vain for roe deer kids, after their mother had been shot by an irate gardener, because she had entered his garden and consumed his roses. I expect the kids duly perished!

It is sometimes surprising how bold animals, whose nature may be described as timid, can sometimes be. Otters are quite hard to spot in any circumstances but some years ago I was made aware of a gentleman who had exploited a burn running through his garden, which lay on the edge of a village, to dig a large pond. He duly stocked his new pond with trout and liked nothing better than to saunter out into his garden and cast a line or two in order to enjoy trout for breakfast!

It was the perfect answer to the man's desire - until out of the blue, his hopes were suddenly dashed, his private fishery was discovered by a pair of otters! Soon, there were no fish left! Inland trout fisheries up and down the country are of course, familiar with the exploitation of their trout stocks by otters and indeed by herons too. Indeed, many a garden fish-pond has been emptied of its scaly occupants, by herons and there are a number of devices available to defend against such predation. In contrast a few days ago, I watched one of the world's greatest exploiters of stocked fish, arrive on the waters of our loch and immediately arc below the surface to begin its instant search for fish. It was of course, a cormorant, not the favourite bird of most fisher folk of my acquaintance!

However, an animal with which we are becoming increasingly familiar in these parts is the pine marten. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine went to live in such isolation that he was only able to reach 'civilisation' by either walking through several miles of forest or by taking his boat some distance down the sea-loch beside which he dwelt. His isolation enabled him to pen several books about the wildlife of his wild, west highland existence.

What intrigued many of his readers were his tales of the pine marten he regularly entertained in his kitchen, inducing them to throw off their normal shyness by proffering them strawberry jam and peanut butter sandwiches. It was all the more intriguing then because at that stage pine marten had not yet reached these parts. They remained quite rare animals of the western and northern highlands but had not yet spread their wings.

Pine marten are of course, extremely arboreal animals and during that period running up to the First World War, in an era in which the growth of the sporting estate really flourished, pine marten were cruelly pursued and persecuted. Parties of hunters would take up the chase, try and isolate the animals in patches of trees and then literally burn them out with blazing lumps of straw until the marten were forced to vacate the trees. And of course, waiting for them below, were packs of ravening dogs! Unsurprisingly at that time populations of pine marten consequently declined rapidly, with only a few surviving in remote glens. However the Wildlife Act of 1982 at last gave them the protection they badly needed.

Slowly but surely pine marten populations began to grown and as they grew, they expanded their territory southwards. Ardnamurchan was one of their strongholds and I well remember seeing them there. I also enjoyed good sightings of them in the Gairloch area. Then, to my amazement, I began seeing them in this airt. It is perhaps twenty years ago since I first started seeing them in this part of the world.

I heard that a pair had tried to set up home in the roof of a toilet block on a nearby caravan park. Then I was informed of a pine marten, which regularly made its way through a cat flap in the door of a fairly remote cottage, in order to steal the food put down for the household moggie. Thankfully the householder was reasonably tolerant to the marten invasion. And then a year or two ago, a pair of pine marten discovered a tiny gap through which they could climb in order to gain access to the roof space of an isolated house belonging to friends. Significantly, adjacent to the house was a lovely patch of forest with lots of Scots Pine.

Thereafter, we enjoyed some wonderful pine marten watching hours. The regular trek of the female marten was from the hole in the roof on to the roof of the conservatory, a trot along the said roof until the edge was reached, then down the support pole, up on to the picnic table. This was where our friend loaded the gravy train with ... peanut butter sandwiches, jam sandwiches and raw eggs in the shell.

If ever a pine marten had jumped upon a gravy train, this was it. And as her kits grew, so they too followed the same route and the same routine. Of course, all this benefaction gave them the very best start in life. They were well fed and doubtless at night tucked up nice and warm in that roof space. Eventually, as is their wont, mother pine marten took off with her kits, probably into the rather more natural environment of that nearby wood. Friends wisely had the hole sealed but that was for many of us, 'the pine marten summer'.

Incidentally, over the years, since I saw that first marten here, the grey squirrels that were once so dominant here, have gone - completely! Now our native reds reign supreme. That, I'm sure, too, is absolutely down to predation by those gravy train exploiting pine marten!

Country View 29.11.17

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Maybe I'm just an old grump but I'm sure that many readers will share my concern at the number of people, young and not so young, who seem utterly 'hooked' to the screens of their mobile phones or tablets. It is now commonplace to see folk, in increasing numbers, with their eyes glued to that little screen utterly ambivalent to the world and indeed the people around them, their eyes glued to that little screen. Equally puzzling to me are the legions of runners who take their exercise in the countryside, where the sights and sounds are so much part of where they are, yet who are oblivious to such things because of the latest tracks being relayed to them via headphones. They surely have the same disorientating effect!

Evolution may be an exceptionally slow process, yet I can't help but think that in aeons to come, our basic senses will become increasingly depressed. But as far as I can tell, by and large most wildlife, happily utterly divorced from technological devices, remains confidently much more dependent on the basic senses than we ourselves. Ever since we began to evolve from hunter-gatherers, when our senses played an essential role in our very survival, I guess many of our senses have gradually deteriorated. The trouble is that we may now, almost unknowingly, be accelerating the process.

Yet we certainly know plenty about the disastrous effects of war, the dreadful mental stress it causes and of course the deafness for instance, that came to those who fired the guns. Perhaps those young folk who drive around with their cars filled with the din of heavy metal or beat music will suffer the same fate. Nevertheless, man's ability to overcome some of these problems perhaps make us feel somewhat immune! Does that I wonder, mean that hearing aids for instance, will become utterly standard?

Of course, much is made of our technical progress. It can't be denied that what we can now do on a day-to-day basis with technology in our hands, is remarkable. And yet, how much of it is actually copied from nature? The development of sonar and radar went a long way towards bringing us victory in the Second World War. Yet the bats taking their winter hibernation break and now largely inactive, have been using such techniques since Adam was a wee bit boy! Nature too, has been a technocrat since time began!

Thus, whilst technology in its many forms, might be seen as accelerating the decline of our senses, generally, wild creatures are not so afflicted. Except of course, it is thought that our sonar and other marine devices may be having an effect upon the world's great sea mammals - the whales, dolphins and porpoises. Indeed, perhaps underwater signals of various kinds could be confusing those sea mammals and causing the strandings. We just don't know.

Perhaps therefore, it is because our own senses have become shrunk, that we are so fascinated by the senses exhibited by birds and animals. Even my own twa dugs show how much more attuned to their senses of smell and hearing they are, compared with us mere mortals who hear so little and barely smell anything. I often see them sitting out in the garden, their noses raised vertically and twitching as they receive masses of information merely by scent, which they can instantly interpret into mental pictures. Equally, how many times do they know when visitors are approaching? Up go their heads and they look in the direction of our track along which visitors are bound to come. We of course, are oblivious to such a presence!

I have been watching quite a few buzzards of late, their languid flight always I think, something to be admired. Buzzards, like bats, are hunters. They sail forth on those broad wings, ready to seize upon any opportunity - a rabbit, a rodent, an injured pheasant - anything that will make a meal. Whilst their talons do the killing it is their eyes that do the work. As they glide about the landscape their eyes are constantly scanning the ground below. Buzzards are equipped with what we might regard as telephoto vision, enabling them to see the tiniest mouse from on high.

I suppose comparisons are invidious but I hark back to those childhood days when I watched kestrels dancing on the breeze as they hovered, meticulously scanning the ground below for the slightest movement that might betray the presence of a mouse or vole. As much as I peered in my search for such animals, I looked in vain, yet the bird, like the proverbial 'Mountie', always got its prey. Again, the vital elements were the fantastic eyes, albeit that all the kestrels of this world are so perfectly designed that whilst every sinew of the body, wings and tail would be moving in order to maintain equilibrium, the head remained absolutely still. This is to enable the bird to focus its eyes intently. Watch a kestrel hovering even in a strong breeze and you will see that its head does indeed remain utterly still.

There are plenty of examples of creatures relying on their hearing in order to survive. For instance, I have often watched foxes using their large ears to locate voles in their grass-covered runs. Foxes have endless patience when it is needed. An active vole-run will initially, however, be identified by scent. But once fresh scent has been picked up, the fox turns to its ears. Now it plonks its bottom down and sits ... and listens. Its large ears are cocked forward and they constantly twitch and flex in response to the little rustling sounds they hear. Finally, as a vole approaches, the fox prepares for action, remaining seated but then arching its back before launching itself in a cat-like pounce, front feed and jaws combining to trap the hapless vole. Game, set and match!

However, the arch purveyor of what sometimes seems to be extra-sensory perception, is surely the common or garden, tawny owel, widespread resident of both town and country across Britain. As anyone who has seen portraits representing owls, which are common enough, the first element that is very obvious, is the eyes, dark, round and large. Eyesight is clearly a very important factor in the success of tawny owls and indeed if our eyes were as proportionally large in relation to size of skull, they would be as large as tennis balls! Clearly such large eyes have great light gathering powers enabling a tawny owl to see in light we would be unable to penetrate.

Yet, incredibly, in some circumstances a tawny owl does not need any light at all in order to home in on its prey. Because a tawny's ears are offset, so that one is situated slightly higher on the head than the other. By tilting and turning its head, the bird can thus precisely pin point prey in absolute darkness and launch itself at the creature thus identified utterly confident of a successful kill. Sufficiently equipped as a predator you might think, yet in addition, the tawny owl flies so silently that its prey does not even hear its killer coming. This silence is achieved by a fringe of fine feathers on the wing edge, which obliterates the sound of air through or past the bird's wings.

Across nature, there are many fascinating variations on a sensory theme. Our sight, hearing and sense of smell may be deteriorating due to many factors in modern life. Thankfully, nature remains so dependent on th ose senses that they remain the strengths of so much of our wildlife - their means of survival.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods