Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 13.1.15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods