The difference made by one man

Not far from my home in Moray is a beautiful loch called Lochindorb, lying in a big hollow among the heather moors north of Strathspey. It is a recognised beauty spot because of the ancient castle in the loch.  Historically it is famous because the island castle was the lair of Alexander Stewart, named the Wolf of Badenoch. He was a troublesome neighbour and his bloody raids including the burning down Elgin Cathedral in 1390. In retribution the castle lost its fortification and it’s been deserted since.

I often drive that way and always love cresting the last little rise before the loch is laid out in front of me. Early-morning visits with the water surface like a mirror reflecting the blue skies on a May morning; or the steely grey churning waves of a November day. In cold winters it can be frozen, sometimes strong enough for skating;  not  unlike the January day when my wife and I were married among the ancient pine trees by the loch shore. 

For much of the last century, the loch was favoured by brown trout fisherman; just a couple of rowing boats idling across the surface.  Small brown trout were plentiful in the peaty waters; hunted by ospreys overhead and large ‘ferox’ trout in the depths. The 1930’s Irish author, Maurice Walsh, captures the magic so well in his famous novel ‘The Key above the Door.

A pair of black-throated divers at Lochindorb by Mike Crutch. Mike holds a Schedule 1 licence from NatureScot to monitor and photograph the divers.

It wasn’t ospreys that drew to me to the loch, but the breeding pair of black-throated divers. These rare breeders are more usually found in the north and west Highlands; with this pair being real outliers to the south and east of the nesting range and thus of conservation importance. The pair was special as well because they were so easily seen by birdwatchers, without disturbance, from the small local road running along the shore.

At the end of last century, times started to change for the divers. The new access legislation in Scotland resulted in the loch being subject to so many more human activities – canoes, windsurfers and paddle borders – one day  I even saw a floatplane land on the loch. And of course many people camping overnight beside the water.

Another dramatic change at the same time was that irresponsible anglers released live pike into the waters to create future fishing opportunities. Well, the pike prospered on the scores of small brown trout. Trout fishing collapsed but coarse fishing for pike boomed. It became common to see anglers with  two or three rods each, often camping and fishing during the night beside the loch. 

With the two threats, there was no doubt the pair of divers looked as though they were doomed, but Mike Crutch, a local birder, who is a regular at the loch decided he would do something about it.  He loved photographing the divers from his car window and like many of us he was horrified, in 2015, when the juvenile diver, nearly ready to fly, tried to swallow a live-fish-bait on a three hooked lure.  A horrible method of trying to catch large pike. The poor bird had to be euthanised by a vet – another sad failure for this special pair of rare birds.

There are no, in-the-field, wildlife guards in the wider countryside to protect rare and sensitive species in Britain so Mike decided to do something about it. He spoke with the landowners, the estate keeper and the police about the problem and explained that he wanted to protect the divers. In 2016, he designed special waterproof posters about the need for black-throated diver protection and clipped them on to the layby signs, along the loch side.  During his regular visits to monitor the divers he talked with regular birding visitors as well as anglers and campers, about the problems for the special birds.

One of the adult black-throated divers feeding its chick (photo by Mike Crutch)

Last evening he sent me a beautiful photograph (below) of one of the latest young divers; the pair has two young this summer and they are just about ready to leave. Since that appalling death in 2015, they have bred every year, four times successfully and have raised a total of seven young; which is excellent for this species. 

It’s a brilliant example of where one man decides that if the big conservation bodies cannot protect this pair of rare birds he will do it himself.  Sincere thanks from all of us for your efforts to make sure these beautiful birds continue to live on the dark waters of Lochindorb.  Their incredible wailing duets on calm spring evenings are an aural tribute to your successful efforts.

Roy Dennis   25 August 2022

Juvenile black-throated diver (photo by Mike Crutch)