Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 30th October 2020

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I was reminded by a friend recently of an occasion, many years ago, when along with around fifty other souls, I spent a day in one of our glens.

It was a pristine, cloudless October day on which everything sparkled under a relentless sun. Frost had whitened the high tops, the brackens fairly glowed red and the red deer serenaded us with their sonorous roaring. We had come to see and listen to the deer and we were not disappointed. They were in magnificent form and we watched entranced as the master stags did battle, almost flinching when two mighty opponents came together, their antlers clashing. It was indeed a memorable day.

In fact, for one lady in the party, it was so memorable that as we descended from the glen, she literally burst into tears. However, she was not upset but instead said that this had been a day she would remember for the rest of her life. It was a day so full of emotion in the midst of spectacular scenery on a superb autumn day. And to cap it all, the deer were in top form, the stags roaring and hinds being ushered into their harems, as if herded by huge, antlered sheepdogs.

I have enjoyed many a such day down the years but that occasion was especially memorable and I understood entirely why the lady had burst into tears for it truly was a very special day all round. I reckon we saw around five hundred deer during our trek and there was plenty of action to witness, plenty of drama and of course, lots of noise.

The same scene has been repeated time and time again down the years, for the red deer rut provides the most spectacular and fitting climax to a year at a time when winter is just beginning to hint at bringing the year to its conclusion and indeed, closing things down.  In short, it is nature’s grand finale, a splendid and decisive end to the activity of the year. The results of all that huffing and puffing and the expressions of angst that are released, will come to fruition in the middle of the following year with the birth of the next generation of red deer calves.

Of course for most of the year, stags and hinds exist in different herds. In other words, the sexes don’t mix until as September dawns, they begin to move to the old stamping grounds where for centuries past red deer have gathered for the annual rut. The real contests are between the master stags, those senior animals that are at the very top of red deer society. They alone will challenge for the right to sire that next generation. The young stags cannot enter the contest until they too are old and big enough to compete, albeit that occasionally those youngsters may seize an opportunity to purloin the odd hind from the harem of one of the master stags while he is engaged in battle. Perhaps they, in particular, will also go on and in time become masters themselves.

Those that are able to enter the lists however, do so with a ferocity that is sometimes quite surprising. Deer generally give the impression that they are relatively mild mannered, but when their hormones begin to react to the arrival of autumn, any suggestion that they are quickly disappears. Indeed, the whole exercise, as far as most master stags, are concerned is about just how ferocious an image they can project. The competing stags do not eat during this period but liberally daub themselves with muck and mire by rolling in bogs, all in an attempt to look even fiercer than they already do. With their mud-ridden coats and a mighty pair of antlers they become the very epitome of ferocity.

Every such master will take up a position that he thinks may give him the advantage if and when it comes to physical battle. This is called a ‘stance’ and it is from that position that the challenges are now issued. Each master’s aim is to collect as many hinds as possible and to defend that harem. Should another master stag intercede, challenging the holder of a stance and of course the owner of that harem, they size each other up and often march side by side waiting for any sign of weakness to expose a crack in the resolve of one or other. That weakness is quickly sensed by the rival stag and that is when battle will often commence, although on many occasions the nerve of the weaker stag cracks and he may decide this opponent is likely to give him a beating. At that point, the erstwhile challenger will turn and flee, often sent on his way by the triumphant stag which may dispatch him with a rake to the flanks with his mighty antlers.

However, two well-matched stags, each with plenty of resolve will eventually face each other. Heads will go down and the two meet head-on with a mighty clash of their antlers. Each then heaves and strains to gain the upper hand, pushing with all its strength in an attempt to gain even the most minuscule of advantages. But two really competitive stags may be locked in this head-down struggle for some considerable time, in fact in some extreme cases for hours, before in the end one buckles and battle is over. On very rare occasions, two well-matched stags have been known to become so entangled that they cannot separate and in such circumstances, both are clearly likely to die.

The roaring contests continue and if you have red deer near to you, that sound will continue right through the lengthening nights. I well remember once playing golf in deer country and throughout my round being accompanied by those sonorous roars which seem to come from deep in the animal’s being – from the very gut of the beast. Defeat may have its price to pay for those older stags which are no longer able to offer the level of competition required to maintain the status of a master stag. For old stags that are past their best, the rut therefore is a time for reflection rather than angst. The brutal fact is, that if they are no longer able to compete during the rut, their future is fairly bleak. There is no coming back, no renewal of master stag status. Those who manage our wild red deer herds effectively will know exactly which of the stags have come to the end of the competitive road and act accordingly.

As November arrives at last, tempers begin to cool and the rewards are for the victors to enjoy. Now they will mate with their harems of hinds, their future well and truly determined. It is a fitting end to the red deer year and soon the stags and hinds will once more go their own way. It will be next June before the fulfilment is fully welcomed. That new generation will be dropped away in the glens where for centuries, red deer hinds have long brought a new generation of red deer into the world.

But that day all those years ago, will of course also live long in my memory and hopefully in the memory of that tearful lady as well.

Weekly Nature Watch 23rd October 2020

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The distances some migrating birds fly are sometimes mind-blowing, Even the six-thousand-mile journey undertaken by our swallows, a journey that takes them right down to the southern tip of Africa, may pale into relative insignificance compared with the voyages of other travellers which journey quite amazing distances.

Indeed, I have recently been intrigued by reports of the record-breaking migratory flight of a bar-tailed godwit which flew from Alaska down to Auckland in New Zealand, a distance of some 7,500 miles or 12,000 km.  However, bear in mind that this was a journey which it completed in a mere 11 days and which took the bird non-stop right across the Pacific Ocean. This is apparently a record and my guess is that when it arrived in New Zealand, the bird would have been pretty tired! And come next March, it will re-trace its steps and go back the same way.

Among the birds that are regularly seen around Scotland’s coasts during the summer months, there are a number which, come the end of the summer, depart not so much to seek warmer climes but to cash in on food surpluses in the open sea. For example, once they leave us, those colourful comics, the puffins, head out across the Atlantic to feast in the fish-rich waters of St Lawrence Bay in Canada before dispersing elsewhere across that mighty ocean and remain at sea until next spring when they return to these shores.

Equally, those other plunderers of our seas, the mighty gannets, also leave these shores albeit that they seldom go further than 1800 kilometers from here, but again live their entire lives at sea when weather conditions must be at their most hostile. And those secretive summer residents of many of our off-shore islands, the shearwaters, also depart to fly across the same Atlantic Ocean to station themselves during our winter months off the coast of South America. The wild seas of winter clearly pose no threat whatsoever to these intrepid adventurers.

The distance undertaken by that bar-tailed godwit however, will take some beating for there are no halfway houses where it could have broken the journey that it made. This bird flew directly south on a route that saw it skirt Hawaii and Fiji as it swapped the Northern Hemisphere for the Southern. It must presumably have eaten itself silly prior to take-off, for although godwits are apparently highly aero-dynamic, they would need a fantastic reserve of energy to make such a trip in a single flight in which there would be no opportunities to top up en-route.

A month ago, I reported the arrival here of the first batch of pink-footed geese. These were the non-breeding birds, which arrive well ahead of the main flocks of these geese.  However, last week, the bulk of them - 84,000 - arrived at Montrose Basin on Scotland’s east coast after a 1,200km journey from Iceland. These birds, which were just six thousand short of last year’s record count of 90,000, have summered in Greenland and Iceland and once winter begins to close down these northern outposts, they migrate to our relatively temperate climate. Their annual arrival at Montrose presents a spectacular event as the noise made by 84,000 geese is absolutely amazing.

In due course, these mass ranks will begin to disperse and fly to other sites in both Scotland and England. Their journey may not match that epic trek of the bar-tailed godwit but they certainly present quite a spectacle when they arrive en-masse from Iceland.  This must be quite an adventure for the youngsters which, at a mere few months of age, are launched on that perilous journey across the often hostile north Atlantic. Of course, they are carefully piloted on this their first migratory flight by the attentive parents, the skeins always led by the senior, most experienced of birds. Goose society seems to be particularly well organized.

Across on Loch Lomond, the arrival of white fronted geese may also be anticipated. These birds also arrive from Greenland but the white fronted geese that arrive in the Solway come from Svalbord and are an entirely different population from those on Loch Lomond.

Meanwhile to the east, the Bewick’s swans are also winging their way south on an epic journey of some 7,000 km (4,500 miles) from northern Russia to the south of England. Many of them spend their winters at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre set up many years ago by Sir Peter Scott, where they are of course cosseted with a regular supply of food. Nevertheless, Bewick’s swan numbers are in serious decline for a variety of reasons that may include being shot and from the lead in shotgun pellets, which the swans may ingest when dabbling, the erection of pylons on their flight path not to mention the crop of windfarm turbines that are sprouting in the North Sea. Of course, these are the swans that the conservationist, Sacha Dench, piloting a para-glider so courageously followed two years ago crossing eleven different countries in the process.

We welcome the graceful whooper swans to Scotland. They fly to us from Iceland and so also, with their youngsters from this summer, make the dangerous crossing of the North Atlantic sometimes flying at remarkable altitudes – they have been spotted by airline pilots flying at heights of over 30,000ft - in order to fly over hostile weather systems.

A couple of hundred years ago, the record established by that bar-tailed godwit might have been open to challenge, for it was firmly believed that woodcock migrated to the moon for the summer months before returning to our woods during the autumn. That’s a distance of roughly a quarter of a million miles and were it true, would be the all-time record for a bird. 

Tradition has it that woodcock, returning from their summer on the moon, arrived overnight all together on a change of wind from the east some time close to Hallowe’en or All Hallows. However, because several other birds such as the tiny goldcrest and the short-eared-owl are also supposed by tradition to act as pilots for the woodcock, does one suppose that they too migrate to the moon for the summer? There are other traditions that suggest that the moon may also be the summer destination for some geese. Of course, the truth  is that these are birds which, when autumn arrives, vacate their territories in Scandinavia and northern Russia, cross the North Sea and seek winter solace on our shores. Indeed, there is a veritable flood of birds that follow this course.

The theory that woodcock spent their summers on the moon was still being promulgated well into the eighteenth century when the very concept of bird migration was first beginning to take root. Indeed, a sixteenth century writer, Olaus Magnus, even described how the birds took two whole months to get to the moon, the same to make the return trip, in between spending a further three months on the moon itself. Such was the strength of this belief that the poet Pope actually penned a verse which read:-

                        “A bird of passage, gone as soon as found

                          Now in the moon perhaps, now underground.”

The poet, Gay, also penned this verse in his poem ‘The Shepherd’s Week’ written in 1714:--

                        “He sung where woodcocks in the summer feed,

                          And in what climates they renew their breed:

                          Some think to northern coasts their flight they tend

                          Or, to the moon in midnight hours ascend.”

Those who thought that the woodcock … ‘flew to northern coasts’, were actually correct but the woodcock has always been a bird of mystery, especially because it is so perfectly camouflaged that it literally does melt into the woodland floor. How many times must I have walked past a woodcock without ever knowing it was there?

We may think of migratory birds as those that summer here and then fly south for the winter, yet the traffic traversing our skies during the autumn months is immense. Millions of birds seeking safety especially on these island shores …. but the exploits of that lone godwit will take some beating!

Weekly Nature Watch 16th October 2020

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We are entering that technicolour time of the year as autumn’s spell begins to coat the landscape in richer hews.

There are golden moments, red moments and rich brown ones, a fitting farewell to a year rapidly coming to its end with a flourish which this time around appears to me to be even more colourful than in previous years. Millions of birds have already departed these shores rather than face our winter when, for most of them, the insects upon which they rely for food have hibernated or become dormant. The birds that have left are already being replaced by others whose Arctic homes are fast becoming untenable as temperatures plummet and frost begins to bite harder by the day, persisting and locking up the ground upon which many of them feed. That our winter visitors have arrived is witnessed by the sounds of cackling geese which are beginning to pervade our landscape. This is the sound of winter.

In so many ways, it is changeover time as day by day the hours of daylight shorten and winter nears. This means that some creatures, unable to escape by transporting themselves those thousands of miles south, begin instead to prepare for the big sleep. They have developed a more unique way of fighting the winter - they simply sleep their way through it. Perhaps the most familiar of those that hibernate are our intrepid garden occupants, the hedgehogs. Yet the process is not as simple as once thought. It is not simply a case of finding a suitable place to bed down - a hibernaculum - falling resolutely asleep and expecting to re-awaken when rising temperatures signal a resumption of normal life as spring begins to make its influence felt. There is much preparation to undergo which entails cashing in big time on autumn’s bounty and eating as much as is possible.

There are several of our mammals which were thought to hibernate but which do not. Squirrels, for example, employ another interesting technique which involves the establishment of caches of food – again making the most of autumn’s bounty and saving and storing large reserves of food, carefully buried so that when winter really begins to bite and other food sources become scarce, they have enough to sustain themselves. Most squirrels are very wary of those colourful members of the crow family, jays, for they are eagle eyed in their ability to make a mental note of where for instance squirrels have hidden their reserves and are certainly not averse to a spot of thieving!

Nor do badgers hibernate. Brock also capitalises upon autumn’s bounty and will enter winter with a few surplus pounds to spare so that when the weather turns really hostile, he may decide to lie up for a few days and not venture beyond his snug underground sett, relying instead on the surplus fat that he has acquired in much the same way as hibernating animals store energy in their bodies.

A surprising number of small mammals establish similar stores to those of squirrels so that there are always plenty of candidates when it comes to raiding of other animals’ stores. But the key to successful hibernation depends upon the ability of creatures to build up stores of food and thus energy in the form of body fat in their bodies which will sustain them whilst they are asleep. The entire metabolism of a hibernating animal slows right down during the months of sleep, so much so that the heart and breathing rate will reduce to an almost imperceptible level. Thus, they are sustained by a constant drip, drip, of energy - just enough to ensure that the basic body functions can be kept functioning.

Therefore, from late summer onwards the hedgehog’s aim is to build up those body-fat reserves which can later be translated into vital energy when winter sets in. There are two types of fat built up in the hibernating hedgehog’s body, brown fat and white fat. The brown fat builds up around the shoulders, neck and chest and has a higher calorific value than the white fat. During exceptionally cold winter weather, a hibernating hedgehog’s blood can actually freeze, causing irreparable damage to the body’s organs.  In such conditions, the hedgehog is likely to wake and their immediate energy source is the brown fat. However, it may also be necessary for the waking animal to quickly find a better place to resume its sleeping mode because during the winter months, food is hard to find and it is important not to deplete the stores of fat unnecessarily.

The white fat is concentrated under the skin of the animal and around the vital organs. This fat is used during the early stages of hibernation and as said before, is marginally less nutritious. However, previous theories about hibernating animals bedding down in the autumn and sleeping solidly on until spring have been disproved. It is now thought that hibernating hedgehogs wake quite regularly. I certainly recall once coming across a young hedgehog scuttling along a roadside gutter on a January day. I rescued it, took it home and installed it in a hay filled box in the utility room together with a selection of tinned cat food. The hedgehog slept for most of the time but periodically woke to top up its food requirements.

Hedgehog numbers are these days much depleted and of course their normal defence of rolling up into a prickly ball is not effective against the modern motor vehicle. Hedgehogs are most active by night and they are not always easy to see when they cross roads.  The number of hedgehogs that perish on our busy roads is hard to ignore and I always feel especially sad in the springtime when hedgehogs emerge from their hibernation only to meet their fate under the wheels of a vehicle. It amounts to a winter spent sleeping in anticipation of forthcoming spring only for it to suddenly end.

In recent times, I have heard people blame the badger for the dearth of hedgehogs. Certainly, Brock is strong enough to easily overcome the hedgehog’s defences, however I have never yet found a dead hedgehog that I could definitely say had been killed by a badger. Hedgehogs and badgers have lived together for millennia so I think that it is highly unlikely that the badger could be having the effect of severely curtailing the lives of hedgehogs. The alternative suggestion I have heard is that wildcats too are able to penetrate the prickles of a hedgehog but as there are so few true wildcats remaining, I hardly think they would pose a problem.

The other creatures that enter a period of winter hibernation are of course bats and although I am no expert, I suspect that they also feast avidly on the insect life of autumn in order to build up energy reserves which will sustain them during their long sleep. Our reptiles too hibernate in order to avoid the winter and of course, further south in England, the dormouse is another creature that sleeps through the winter months.

These then are the various ways in which different species of animals, birds and reptiles survive our winters, either by leaving these shores altogether and seeking solace in warmer climes, by establishing stores of food to sustain themselves through the long months or by simply building up bodily reserves of fat which provides the energy that keeps them alive whilst they sleep. Winter is definitely a coming and so hopefully we won’t be seeing the likes of hedgehogs again until next spring.

Weekly Nature Watch 9th October 2020

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It started as a good news week with Stirling Council, while taking into account road safety and visibility, is contemplating a reduction in its roadside verge cutting regime which will in turn vastly improve the situation for pollinators throughout the area.

 In recent times, we seem to have become obsessed with the theme of neatness in our countryside as ‘short back and sides’ appears to have been the watchword of those who manage services such as grass cutting. So now, we seem destined to become much more eco-friendly in this area and our verges and hedgerows are set to benefit. The difference that altering the regularity of cutting those verges was illustrated to me during the summer when our neighbour, who usually cuts the verges of our single lane track, this year left them uncut. The difference was truly amazing with a remarkable variety of flowering plants springing up and providing bees and other pollinators with a rare bounty.

“On the Verge” is a Stirling based, voluntary, community project established back in 2010 that works with community groups to establish and develop areas of native wildflowers both annual and perennial. It helps these organisations to identify suitable areas, and after seeking the permission of landowners, will help organize the preparation of the site, supply the seed free of charge and offer guidance for the sowing process. The organisation will prepare an action plan for the long term management of the site and the community group will then be responsible for the guardianship of the site.

During the ten years since it was established, the Group has held no fewer than 97 different sowing events, worked with 100 organisations and sown 10,000 square metres of land with wildflowers. They have developed a special ‘On the Verge’ mix with Scotia Seeds from whom they purchase all their seed, which has an annual component of four species which will flower in the first year of any scheme and around twenty perennial species which will develop in subsequent years. All of which offer rich sources of nectar for pollinators.

So well done to the voluntary organisation for promoting this policy to Stirling Council and well done to the Council for responding in such a positive way, albeit that they have yet to officially confirm the go-ahead. Our landscape will accordingly become richer as a result and next year our verges should be buzzing with insect life and maybe much more.

During recent years, one of my regrets has been the decline in kestrel numbers. There was a time when kestrels were extremely commonplace, especially around the Carse but in recent years the presence of ‘windhovers’, as they are called by some, has declined quite seriously.  It may be presumed that their decline is due to a lack of suitable prey, especially voles. The manicuring of our countryside doesn’t help, nor does the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. Clearly vole and other small mammal numbers have declined and as a result so too have kestrels.

By the same token, barn owl numbers also seem to have plummeted. I always hold in my memory an incident that occurred several years ago. It was a summer’s evening and I went to visit some friends. On the way, I encountered the floating figure of a barn owl hunting over a roadside verge. There was little traffic so I was able to admire the buoyancy of the bird as it quartered to and fro along the verge. The visit to my friends complete, I later returned by the same route but where I had seen the owl before, its corpse now sadly lay. It had presumably ventured too close to the tarmac and had perhaps been virtually sucked into an impact with a vehicle. I stopped and recovered the body, took it home and could only admire its beauty.

Barn owls are variously described as being buff and white, but now that I was able to study one at close quarters, I discovered that its plumage seemed gold, and silver offset by that pure white front. It was absolutely gorgeous. Subsequently, I enjoyed many encounters with barn owls beside a particularly quiet road and always found myself fascinated by their flight and by the denouement when finally they plunge feet first into the vegetation to seize their prey. Barn owls are very special birds and the lack of voles in many parts of the landscape, means that we are entertained by these magnificent raptors all too seldom.

However, one other item of news rather alarmed me. Wildlife experts are voicing concern for the future of our adders, our one and only venomous snake. It is thought that pheasants regularly kill young adders which they swallow whole. Being protected by their plumage from snake bites, pheasants are believed to be regularly destroying adders at such a rate as to endanger them as a British species. And with an estimated 50 million pheasants released into the British countryside every single year, it is estimated that adders could be extinct in Britain within the next dozen years.

There are those who are concerned that with so many pheasants released into the British countryside, as well as being a constant threat to young adders, there is also bound be competition with native birds for food. This phenomenal release of these alien birds – they are, of course, not native to these shores – also encourages the likes of foxes which respond to the availability of a valuable food source but are then targeted by those responsible for the welfare of game birds, promoting a viscous circle of killing.

Prompted by the protests on the part of “Wild Justice”, an organisation co-founded by ‘Springwatch’ presenter Chris Packham, the UK Government is currently looking at the question of why so many game birds are being released into the British countryside. It is a release which is currently completely uncontrolled and entirely at the whim of land managers.  The whole question will be heard in the High Court in November but it certainly begs the question as to whether the sudden appearance of so many pheasants may be generally upsetting the balance of Nature.

The threat of extinction of any creature is surely always a matter for concern and I worry about the future of our adders. Once a species has gone, it has gone for good and adders surely are a vital part of the bio-diversity of this country whether you like them or not. We live at a time when human presence is a constant threat to the lives of millions of plants, insects and animals across the world. Every time we lose a species the world is inevitably the worse for it and in any case, surely we have a responsibility for all life on this planet which we should always take very seriously indeed.

Above all, a scheme that will help the vital pollinators is to be warmly welcomed. They are such key elements in the web of life and we should welcome the intervention of organisations such as “On the Verge” for it is in the business of trying to make this world a healthier environment.

Weekly Nature Watch 2nd October 2020

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There was a time – when old Tommy was still about – that magpies locally were a rarity but how times have changed.

Now that there is no Tommy to pursue them, magpies hereabouts have become ten-a-penny. In fact, this summer, we had a brood of them, reared in a neighbour’s garden, which remain something of a legacy. There were four youngsters in that brood and together with their parents, the youngsters are still around. Accordingly, the cackling laughter of magpies has now become commonplace here.

If my sister-in-law was around, she would be greeting them every day, for there is an old tradition that she holds to which suggests that an encounter with a magpie requires us to treat the bird with respect and enquire as to the bird’s health, the health of its spouse and its family. My sister-in-law is one that subscribes to that particular fashion. I don’t, although I do have a certain regard for these black and white members of the corvid clan and admire them as particularly handsome birds, not just black and white but tinted with marvellous flecks of iridescent green and blue. And, like all members of the corvid clan, magpies are uncommonly intelligent to boot.

Of course, the world in general is set against all corvids. Crows in general, especially the dreaded hoodie, get a pretty bad press and magpies in recent times have also been getting it in the neck from bird-watchers in particular, openly blamed for the universal reduction in songbird numbers. There are friends of mine who spend quite a bit of their time trapping and dispatching magpies from their urban garden and I know of others who treat them in much the same way. Yet the experts, in the shape of the British Trust for Ornithology, say that there is absolutely no evidence that increasing numbers of magpies have had any influence on the songbird population, which is good enough for me.

I’ve never known just how such stories start but in Scotland there is an old saying that suggests magpies have a drop of the devil’s blood beneath their tongues. Thus, magpies in this part of the world are regarded with deep suspicion. Yet, all over Britain there are those who, like my sister-in-law, when they see a lone magpie, will salute it because they believe that failure to address the magpie in this way is likely to bring bad luck!

There are also any number of versions of a rhyme which seems more often than not, to begin, “One for sorrow, two for joy …”  followed by a variety of alternative verses which can number up to twelve! Whilst in many parts of the world, magpies in general are said to be harbingers of bad luck, in some far eastern countries such as South Korea and China, they are instead well regarded as good luck talismans. In Yorkshire however, magpies are closely associated with witches and indeed are said sometimes to be witches which have transmogrified themselves into magpies and hence, the sighting of a magpie is a bad omen. The suggestion that to see a single bird will bring bad luck, probably accounts for the way in which the various verses have evolved and why it has the more superstitious looking frantically around the sky for a second bird in the hope it may bring them the element of joy.  

As said, there are countless variations on a theme. One old nineteenth century magpie hunter, Mr. Speedy, had the following version:- “One’s sorrow, Two’s mirth, Three’s marriage, Four’s death, Five’s heaven, Six is hell, Seven’s the Devil’s Ain sel”.  It is suggested that Mr. Speedy was the author of this verse and seems to have spent much of his life pursuing and shooting them to oblivion. Nevertheless, despite his wholesale slaughter of them, surprisingly he still expressed considerable respect for magpies. “The magpie is one of the most expert, genteel and well-dressed of thieves, Few British birds possess such a rich glow of colour, the brilliancy of the plumage of the tail and wings being of metallic splendour, the bird being gay alike in nature and plumage”, he declared.

As tor that suggestion of thieving, there are those who allege that magpies are fascinated by shiny things such as jewelry, which they are apt to steal. Yet some experiments have been carried out by deliberately presenting hand-reared, tame magpies with various sparkly items, although apparently without promoting any reaction or interest on the part of the birds. Just as old Tommy was a successful adversary of magpies in his day, Mr. Speedy too was an effective controller of them. Indeed, magpies were common and plentiful up to the middle of the nineteenth century when an increasing interest in game shooting saw the magpie more persistently targeted and consequently their numbers were considerably reduced. Their numbers only started to recover in the wake of the Second World War. In recent times however, these have rocketed and between 1970 and 1990 their numbers trebled!

Among other members of the corvid clan, ravens, the largest and most spectacular of all the crows and many say, the most intelligent, are absolutely hated in parts of northern Scotland where they cause a good deal of trouble to sheep farmers, predating newly born lambs by pecking out their eyes and taking the lamb’s tongues. Ravens, like magpies, suffered once game shooting became popular during the nineteenth century, and all over Britain their populations fell until they were largely confined to remoter parts of these islands such as mountainous and fairly isolated areas of coastline. Hence their presence in the far north of Scotland, where they are such a problem.

However, like magpies, ravens are currently marching back and indeed there are even increasing instances of ravens returning to the more populous towns and cities. Of course, once ravens, together with red kites, were a common sight in our towns and cities where they did a good job in keeping the streets clean by feasting on human detritus. Whilst these days, we generally keep our streets cleaner than used to be the case, their presence will doubtless increase as the amount of litter grows. I find it depressing that we certainly appear to becoming increasingly prone to depositing litter in our city streets and furthermore, in recent times there has been no shortage of litter in our beauty spots either. The carelessness of people in littering our countryside really does upset me.

Ravens were once regarded as the ‘battlefield birds’ for they certainly gathered where warfare occurred. Indeed, they appeared to be able to predict where human conflict was likely to arise, stationing themselves on battlefields even before the fighting began. Of course, their reputation was well earned because their presence at such places was so that they could pick the bones of those who fell in battle! A pretty gory reputation for these kings of the crow family to be given but I understand a reputation which they well and truly earned in days of yore.

As for magpies, they now enjoy an even darker, modern-day reputation which they undoubtedly share with the rapacious sparrowhawks as the terrorists of our gardens, That magpies sometimes kill young birds or take their eggs there can be little doubt albeit that, as said previously, the amount of overall damage they do to populations may be insignificant.  The oft-hated sparrowhawk is perhaps a ‘cleaner’ killer than the magpie, stealing in almost unseen before making off with its prey in flash to be consumed away from where it was taken. Nature is, of course, red in tooth and claw leaving little room for sentimentality and that therefore is the way of things. Nevertheless, if you are of a superstitious character, no matter what the crimes of the magpie, tradition demands that you always need to show that bird respect … for you just never know!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods