After all that turkey, we’re back to normal fare. Once more, fish and chips reigns supreme! Down the ages, fish has always been a very important part of the human diet. The chips perhaps, came later! I well remember from my schooldays, the taught tales of the ubiquitous herring; how for generations, fleets of trawlers followed the great shoals of herring round the British Isles and how whole communities were built upon the annual circumnavigation of these islands by those silver darlings.
There are many Scottish ports where it used to be said you could walk from one side of a harbour or even a bay to the other, across the decks of the fishing boats, when herring were ‘in season’. There were even stations built specifically to process the tons and tons of herrings landed. Even the uninhabited Summer Isles up there in the north-west, had at one time, a thriving population entirely dependent upon the annual presence of the legendary shoals o’ herring.
But then, the herring had gone. It is a tale which I’m afraid can be told too many times in the modern day – of chronic over-fishing which inevitably concludes with the demise or near demise of certain species. That is what happened to the herring. In that respect there is currently concern about the sharp decline of many of our seabirds. The fish, upon which they depend, have without doubt, diminished because of continuing over-fishing and also because of climate change. Warming seas due to this recent phenomena mean the fish seem to have translocated to other waters further to the north and thus beyond the range of most birds nesting on British shores.
Of course, for those perhaps rather less marine orientated birds which, rather than following the tides to battle with the sea in all its moods in order to feed, instead, elect to seek their scaly prey in calmer inland waters, such problems do not present themselves. Yet, those birds also all too often and almost inadvertently find themselves competing with mankind, at times thereforefinding that they are also threatened as a result!
I am not a fisherman and thus at times find myself slightly detached from that truly classless society which does pursue with utter dedication and of course, with rod and line, the creatures of the deep. There are surely, few more dedicated groups of people than those who are so utterly committed to that sport. Yet the motives for such enthusiasm are not necessarily always the same. Some seem just to be driven by the desire to catch as many fish as possible, whilst others tell me that the attraction to them is simply the fact of being out in the wide open spaces … far away from the madding crowds, where whilst attempting to lure their victims to the hook, they can also enjoy all the other aspects of such locations, including the observation of other forms of wildlife.
I’m sure for instance, that most of those who dedicate themselves to luring rainbow trout from the depths of our local loch during the more benign months of the year, do not feel anything other than admiration for the ospreys which in the summer months, plunge so dramatically into those waters to seize the prized trout, perhaps more effectively than their tweed clad rivals! And yet, a hundred years ago, a so-called naturalist, shot what was apparently, the very last pair of these spectacular fishers to breed in Scotland.
Around that time of course, all predators were labelled as ‘the enemy’ and despatched at every available opportunity …. including ospreys! The stocking of lochs and rivers with fish, quite naturally attracts those creatures for which such delights are a real means to an end – to survival – rather than something they enjoy doing! That is of course, the real difference behind their presence in such circumstances, in much the same way as other predators respond to the annual introduction of millions of pheasants to the British countryside.
This is for them not sport but instead a bonanza of life sustaining food. Do not be diverted from this certain truth by the tales you might hear, of animals killing ‘for the sake of killing’! In the wild there is no such waste of time and energy! We alone, it seems to me, derive pleasure from such slaughter!
So, while the recent sightings of goosanders on our loch, although delighting me (for they are very attractive birds) they may well have raised the blood pressure of any passing fishermen. Goosanders are very efficient fishers and frequently take in particular, young trout and salmon. Their efficiency is enhanced by a curious and almost unique physical characteristic which classifies them as sawbills – curiously enough, the local pseudonym for these quite large, feathered fishers.
Observation of a goosander, reveals the male at a distance to be a striking black and white bird albeit that the head is in reality a delicious bottle green, whilst the female is perhaps more nondescript, grey of the body with a tan coloured head and upper neck. This may give the impression of a large duck without the typically flattened bill. Indeed the red beak is instead, narrow and un-duck-like which on closer inspection is decorated with what appear to be teeth! In fact the edges of the bill are serrated, thus giving a mistaken appearance of teeth, an accoutrement which enables the bird to more securely retain a grip on its slippery prey. This almost unique provision provides another example of Nature’s ingenuity when it comes to design!
The sheer efficiency of the goosander and its predilection for young trout and salmon has automatically alienated it with fishermen and by the middle of the nineteenth century when field sports were rapidly growing in popularity, the goosander seems to have disappeared from Scottish waters altogether. However, in 1871, a first record of breeding goosanders appeared in Argyll and Perthshire, doubtless attracted by the increasing practice of the stocking of lochs and rivers. Despite continuing persecution, the number of goosanders present in Scotland slowly rose until by 1992 nearly three thousands of them were recorded, augmented by an increasing presence south of the border.
They have always been persecuted and at one time bounties were paid on their destruction. They were however, in theory given protection under the provisions of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. Whilst they do certainly prey upon young trout and salmon such predation should be set against the fact that salmon may lay as many as 15,000 eggs which I would have thought would guarantee quite comfortably, the survival of the species!
Goosanders therefore inevitably arouse the antagonism of fisher folk although not perhaps with the vitriol the arrival of a cormorant on inland fishing waters might inspire. These apparently marine birds have shown their ability to suss out the presence of good feeding far away from the rolling waves of the ocean and they may be seen, almost like haggard scarecrows, drying out their wings on the shores of many of our local lochs and rivers. There is much to admire in both these birds, both of them renowned divers and underwater hunters. The goosander may often be seen with its head under water in its efforts to locate the fish upon which it hopes to dine.
They are and have to be, far more efficient at catching fish than are we. Their very existence depends upon such skills, whilst we only need to catch fish to satisfy a long held but now not strictly necessary emotion.