Changing the pace of my life

The storm from the north-west has blown in overnight and as I sit at the upstairs window having a second coffee, the tall birch and alder trees in my close view are bending to the wind. Everywhere the loose leaves of autumn are being rearranged – see there was no need to sweep them up after all. This morning, I’m reading a book about darkness, dark nights and starry skies and I’ve learnt a new word at my age. Solastalgia – and I know exactly what it means. It’s when I walk up the road and find no lapwings breeding in the ‘lapwing field’, which lost that icon of spring beauty some years ago. It’s why I never want to return to the high tops of the Cairngorms, for I remember my first visits in the early 1960s when on a weekday I never saw a single person just the joy of watching dotterel, ptarmigan and snow buntings. Now I’m told there are dozens of people, many with free ranging dogs or even electric mountain bikes. I think I’ll start using the word – solastalgia – my family and friends will think I’ve become erudite.

I can never read too long in the morning, for Millie lying at my feet soon reminds me that it’s time for a morning walk. I grab my fleece, this morning a woolly hat, and my boots and we’re ready. Nowadays I’m never sure how far I can walk – sometimes it’s really easy, like when I was younger, and I’ll decide that we will walk the longer route up the hill and through the forest, and then back down. But other days I just don’t have the puff – and I have to stop and turn round well before the hill. My doc tells me I have atrial flutter. But today I’m feeling great, and because of the wind, I decide, and Millie follows, to go down the river side because the bracken has died and blown over by the storm, and one of our favourite walks is once again possible.

Millie is a black flatcoat retriever who thinks her duty in life is to give the local pheasants extra flying lessons to strengthen their wings. Then she’s back beside me when we walk on under the magnificent great gnarled beech trees, scuffling through the leaves and the fallen twigs. I always give thanks to those Victorian foresters who planted tiny trees many decades ago. But this morning I wanted to look at a big spruce tree which I think might provide a lofty top for building an osprey nest, a replacement for a nest that was blown out last winter. We stand at the base and look up; it’s like a stepladder of horizontal branches and I know that when younger I could be at the very top in minutes but now at my age, close to 84, I know that it’s not possible. And as I watch Millie looking up and thinking that I’m also looking for squirrels, for it irks her when she hears them scrabbling round the bark completely out of range. The tree is now out of my range as well and I’ve calmly accepted that I’m no longer a tree climber, but then I enjoy having several friends who are great tree climbers. They now build the nests, ring the eagles and ospreys, and I know my place watching, and sometimes giving advice or encouragement, at the bottom of tree.

We walk on and surprisingly I find a holly tree which has a good display of red berries, in a year when berries are scarce. I collect three sprays for the Christmas table and start to head home. I’ve taken a slightly different route and come to a slippery wet ditch, I hover and hold the holly carefully and then decide to jump across, for ‘goodness’ sake you’re not that old’. Yet when I climb the bank and gather Millie, my back gives me a twinge and I think maybe I should not be jumping ditches at my age. But it’s hard to give up, it’s difficult for me but I am managing to change pace. To change my expectations and adopt a different role; and remember to take my mobile with me if I will keep walking new routes and jumping ditches.

During my life, I always wanted to be out in the field doing things, I thought it would be hard to accept the change but fortunately I have a small team of great ornithologists who can carry on our projects every bit as well as me. Technological advances have made that change of pace for me so much easier; this summer when the team were ringing and satellite tagging the first young white-tailed eagle in England for at least 240 years, they were able to Facetime me and show in real time what they were doing as they were doing it. Wow – we could never have done that when I was young, so although solastalgia worries me, I value the ability to embrace the new.

The other great pace change for me, is that despite some days when I look out and see bright blue skies, I can nowadays sit peacefully in my study to write. I have several books on the stocks at the moment and when I turn to my left and look at the shelves, I see my page-a-day diaries full of stories and information since my teens; and below them field notebook after field notebook full of data to encourage me to write. My wife, Moira, is a much better writer than me and she’s a wonderful editor, though sometimes quite tough, but it’s great to know that my written work will be checked properly before it sees the light of day. It will always be difficult getting older, but I have reached the age when I see, and accept, the value of changing pace so that I can aim for realistic targets for 2024.

Christmas greetings and good wishes for the New Year.

The Art of the Impossible – White-tailed Eagle and Lynx

I’m sitting in one of my favourite places in our home; a large upstairs window that looks out over the woods and fields. Below me is a small burn running from the hills on its way to the Moray Firth. It’s twisty and there’s a flooded pool where a clear freshwater spring comes out from under the bank, green with watercress planted long ago by the children of my next-door neighbours. It’s a place where the frogs spawn in the spring, and I’ve noticed over the last few days a grey heron has come to stab away. Earlier this evening it was nice to see three pairs of mallard sail in and start dabbling; a sure sign of approaching spring.

The burn takes a turn on the right under the big bank below a grazing field. Along the bank is a big thicket of bird cherry trees, for when bird cherries are crashed down by heavy snowfall they root and spring upwards in a tangled mass. Today’s fresh fall of snow – although only two inches in depth – has whitened the ground below a solitary beech tree growing in the flat area where I know that soon the daffodils will flower.

A local blackbird flies across the clearing to its night time roost in the dense Douglas firs on the other bank, and the dense thicket, the snowy slope and the eeriness of the evening light suddenly makes me think of lynx. I can imagine one slinking out of the thicket to start its night patrol, placing its paws carefully as it descends the bank before jumping the burn into the Douglas firs. She would already know that sometimes there’s a roe deer hiding there or maybe a couple of brown hares from a grazing field behind the wood. From there she can track up through the fields, into the big larch forest and into a wild country of woods, burns and moorland, with no sign of habitation for six or seven miles. Ideal lynx country despite being so close to the town of Forres in Moray.

Thanks to Stephane Regazzoni – trail camera shot French Jura

Maybe a thousand years ago lynx would have travelled the same road at night before they were all exterminated by man. Now when we talk about having them back people say ‘You’re mad’, ‘There’s no room for them now’, ‘They don’t belong’ and ‘We don’t want you messing about with nature’.

Yet as I watch dusk take over the scene my mind is whizzing south to the Isle of Wight where four years ago my Foundation and the government agency Forestry England started a project to restore the white-tailed eagle to the Isle of Wight, where the species last bred in 1780. People said we were mad, that they would chase away all the wildfowl and waders in the Solent, they would kill the red squirrels, that there’s just no room for them now and then anyway they would kill lambs, in fact they’d be a menace.  And, to top it all large eagles will be unable to thrive among the large numbers of people now living in southern England, close to the big cities of Portsmouth and Southampton

How wrong they were. Those eagles which we first released on the Isle of Wight in 2019 followed by more in 2020 and 21 have settled into England as though they had never been away. Most of the time, about 90%, they sit in trees watching what’s going on, and at other times sail on their great wings.  I’ll never forget during the Covid lockdowns the number of times that we received a message from someone imprisoned in their garden, unable to go birdwatching in their local gravel pits or along the shore, who had suddenly looked up and seen a huge eagle flying over on its eight-foot wingspan. They had been so excited and staggered, and they said how marvelous to know, despite living in highly populated areas in England, that they could see such wildness return.

It’s now four years since we started the project. In the early years the young ones explored much of England, some going back to Scotland and one even venturing into mainland Europe, as far north as Sweden. As they matured, they came back home. There are now three pairs of the oldest birds setting up home ranges and thinking of breeding.  They have seen carrying out their spring display of tandem flying, the two huge birds flying a few metres apart, round and round over their favourite place. Some people have been even luckier to hear them duetting in the early morning with their shrill calls. Will the first pair breed this year? We’ll have to wait and see.

It seems only the other day that people said it was impossible. And yet it’s happened, and there’s great enthusiasm for the return of the sea eagle. People say it encourages optimism for the future and hope that we can keep planet Earth inhabitable.

How easily the same could happen to the lynx. In fact, even more easy because they cannot fly away. The view from my window reminds me of places I’ve been in Norway and Slovakia, in Romania and Switzerland where lynx live in similar places hunting roe deer, just as close to farms and rural houses. They are not seen nor heard by people; the only evidence is in winter when their pad marks show up in the snow. They simply fit in with local communities and their ways of life. My local town, Forres, is twinned with a town in Germany called Viennenberg, in the Harz Mountains where lynx have been successfully reintroduced. We should emulate our twin town.  

Once they are back – and I hope that happens in my lifetime – people will ask what was all the fuss about and will, again, appreciate that it is possible to restore wild nature.  Although, unlike the eagles, the lynx will be difficult to see in Britain, people will just find their footprints in the snow and know that the ecosystem has become more whole.

Failing to see the wood for the trees

Last weekend I was watching Costa Rica accept the Earthshot Prize for restoring their forest to 75% cover – and that’s impressive. And then I saw a news program about the loss of rainforest in the Amazon and its impact on the planet

But how often do people, here at home, recognise that our ancestors did exactly the same to the original forest cover of the United Kingdom. Here in Scotland, woodland cover is 19% with a government target of 21% by 2032. In the present crises this is an extremely disappointing vision.  Even somewhere special like the Cairngorms National Park has only 14%.

In Scotland we have a massive potential for ecological restoration. Degraded grazing lands, bare hills, over-used poor quality farmland, treeless river catchments and offshore islands all need restoring with woodland – no longer just commercial non-native conifers but mixed native woodland and shrub reaching onto the higher slopes.  

Now that it is recognised that woods are not just for timber, but are more essential for ecosystem health and life on Earth, then restoration is job creation on a massive scale. To get to 50% or 60% of Scotland will require hundreds of millions of trees, bushes and shrubs. Many nursery grown but may be more from natural regeneration, or a mix of the two. 

As the world puts pressure on the rain forest countries to change direction, surely our governments must show greater vision and determination to restore the original woodland ecosystems. If not why should they listen to us!

Wilding rewilding

On the 7th March I set off this morning to walk my usual circuit of the local forest for I find that a long lone walk is the very best for me to wrestle with thoughts and assemble my ideas about nature; to tussle at them and think of where we should be going with the restoration of nature in a big way.  I enjoyed hearing the newly returned robins and chaffinches singing in the thickets when I passed through the gate at the Gruffalo tree. Further on, in the more mature Scots pines I heard siskins and crossbills. But it was a dreich morning with clouds so low that they wet me without raining. 

I was thinking about where we need to go as more and more rewilded land is given to nature recovery. We will have to think of what else is required not just rewilding but thinking about the next stages of ecological restoration.  What we accepted as normal in the past may become one of our big obstacles to taking the vision further. I know this forest well and nowadays there are no apex predators, because wolf, lynx and brown bear are all long gone. So the middle guild predators, badger, fox, pine marten and otter are now top of the pile and are often in high numbers because they have no pressure from above. This cascades down as extra predation on the remaining species; for example hole nesting birds like tits find it increasingly difficult to successfully fledge their young in dead trees when plentiful martens examine every potential nest cavity. Badgers replicate that with ground nesting birds and otters with nesting waterfowl. 

We have to try to replicate the impact of the trophic chains of old. Until the apex predators are restored we have to be the apex predator, not in the ways of the past when the human aim was often extermination but in a holistic wildlife management way that mimics and replicates natural processes. That will require reductions in the middle guild predators to try to balance ecological restoration. This will be a difficult concept for many to accept. Easier to accept may be a reappraisal of controlling deer populations, where in future on nature reserves, scientific sites and rewilding areas we should not be removing the carcasses of animals shot always with copper, not lead, ammunition. We should also replicate apex predators killing deer – we can take away the saddle and the haunches to eat but all the remainder should be left for scavenging meat-eating birds, mammals and invertebrates. Additionally, shooting should be random throughout the whole range and the annual cycle, again mirroring natural predation. 

We also need in the long term to think about redundancy of some present wildlife management activities. I’ve always thought of nest boxes for birds, bats and insects being a bit like sticking plaster; we have to have them because we’ve drastically reduced woodland for centuries, cut down all the dead trees for firewood and tidied up the woods so that natural holes are really scarce. But when 50% of the land has been rewilded for decades there will be enough natural nesting holes and nest boxes become a thing of the past. The same thinking should be applied to feeding birds with non-native food such as peanuts and fat balls. I think that such feeding skews the avian fauna, selecting certain species that are capable of making that switch from natural foods in the forest to relying on bird feeders. Once we rewild the habitats in a big way we need to rewild the species.

This worry often comes to the surface of my mind when I see whooper swans – that beautiful large waterfowl which comes south from Iceland to winter with us. They also bring those beautiful trumpeting calls as they sail by. During winters in the 1960s and 1970s I’d see families and small groups scattered on lochs and marshes throughout the Scottish Highlands with a larger wintering flock on the Insh Marshes. They were all eating natural plant material and seeds. Then large scale feeding with maize and cereals started at nature reserves – it was spectacular for people to see large herds close up. Those that scraped a reasonable living in natural places were at a disadvantage compared to the ‘fed ones’ and soon joined the queues. Now I no longer see families at my favourite lochs, of yesteryear, where I could watch them upending to eat water plants on the sandy bottom. To me that’s a loss of naturalness but also in an era of a human pandemic, it is pertinent to remind ourselves that artificially feeding large numbers of wild birds in concentrated areas is risky when the next avian disease comes along. They also need rewilding.

So as we win the argument about having much larger areas of the Earth’s surface for nature and ecological functions, we also have to learn how we encourage nature to go back into nature and not rely on us putting out food on bird tables or building nest boxes.  I think that will be a difficult concept for many but necessary and not impossible. Along my track this morning I saw recent work by the Forestry Commission; a big stand of lodgepole pine and larch had been harvested and all the dead trees left standing. What a gain for nature. This would never have happened in state forests thirty years ago when tidiness was sacrosanct. Now when trees are replanted or regenerated there, raptors can perch on the tall stumps by day and owls by night to hunt rodents that may damage young trees. Even the mechanically flailed edges of the forest track need assessing in a rewilding way, it may look a mess but no different from the actions of long lost large herbivores.  Ecological restoration or rewilding requires a recognition of multiple processes over time, many of which require changes within our minds and prejudices.  

Bringing hope in troubled times

2020 will of course be remembered as a very unusual year, full of sad memories for many people.  Even the worst of times have high points, though, and for us 2020 brought the chance to observe the fascinating lives of the two-year-old sea eagles on the Isle of Wight. When we started the project in 2019, we had done our homework and hoped that the young white-tailed eagles brought down from the north of Scotland would prosper there, and in southern England, thanks to plentiful sources of wild food.

This past year has justified those early hopes of ours. In the first year, the birds relied on carrion or food put out at the release site. How exciting it was, then, when Steve Egerton-Read, the project officer on the island, saw the first two birds start to catch grey mullet in the estuary.  This was a really important first step, because mullet – ideal food for eagles – are very plentiful around the coasts of the English Channel, and are easy to catch when they shoal in shallow waters. The eagles then added cuttlefish to their diet, catching them as they spawned in the shallows.  That had not been in our plan but showed that the future looked good.

In the meantime, two of the eagles headed north and summered in rabbit-rich valleys in the North York Moors. The female ‘mullet hunter’ also left the island and summered in the Moorfoot Hills in southern Scotland. By September she had returned to the Isle of Wight, to a big sigh of relief from us: her return was excellent evidence that the sea eagles were hefted to the translocation site.  On mainland England, the eagles were extremely good at finding areas full of rabbits.  The satellite transmitters proved to be extremely accurate, allowing Tim Mackrill and Steve Egerton-Read to work out easily the location of the birds and make really important contacts with people living on the ground.  

During these travels, we were delighted to receive enthusiastic reports from members of the public who had seen a sea eagle flying over their homes during lockdown. Analysis of the satellite data by Tim showed why the birds were rarely seen: well over 90% of their daily routine involved sitting quietly in big trees, just watching the world go by. 

This winter, too, has been very exciting. The two older birds on the Isle of Wight have followed flocks of gulls way out into the English Channel to catch sea fish, probably mainly bass on the hunt for sprats. As a boy I used to birdwatch at St Catherine’s Point, and would never have considered the possibility of looking out to sea to watch eagles catching fish and even eat the small ones in the air. 

Another seven young were translocated in the summer so the restoration of white-tailed eagles to England is progressing well.

Both G324 (pictured) and G274 have continued to catch fish in the sea off the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight during the winter. They sometimes eat their catch on the wing (photo by Andy Butler)

Sadly, the osprey recovery project to Poole Harbour was quite different.  The pandemic prevented us from monitoring the Scottish nests effectively and, unable to be sure of collecting enough healthy young to translocate, we had to miss a year. To make matters worse, the first translocated male to return from Africa in 2019 failed to reappear to join his mate, CJ7, who originates from Rutland Water, waiting at their Poole Harbour eyrie. This was almost certainly due to the impacts of high pressure, which sat for a long period over the British Isles; it meant beautiful April weather for us, but dangerous conditions for migrants such as ospreys and swallows. The strong easterly winds and often poor weather over Iberia meant they risked getting swept out to sea to die.  In Scotland, where the annual survival of adult breeding ospreys is typically around 90%, larger numbers than usual failed to return to their nests and the same was reported in other Western populations. Our swallows, too, were scarce. 

We are looking now with enthusiasm towards the new season. Will the eagles currently wintering in Norfolk and Lincolnshire return to the Isle of Wight, and will the young ones entering their second year become proficient fishers, like the first cohort?  There is no doubt that they will already be watching and learning from the older eagles. The Poole Harbour osprey team will be expectantly scanning the skies for the return of blue CJ7, and will then face an anxious wait for a male to join her and start breeding.  Later in the summer, we plan to translocate another twelve young as part of that project, and hopefully a similar number of young white-tailed eagles will be flown from the north of Scotland to start new lives on the Isle of Wight.

CJ7 waiting for a male at Poole Harbour

These projects have taken place this year in an atmosphere of rewilding, a groundswell of feeling that we have to restore nature in a big way to help prevent the terrible consequences of biodiversity collapse and climate breakdown. We know that people find it inspiring that we can restore such a huge eagle to the skies of southern England, with a recognition that wild things don’t always have to live in wild places. We can only help to do these things with our excellent partners, working on ospreys with Birds of Poole Harbour and on white-tailed eagles with Forestry England, as well as with tree climbers and fieldworkers. And, of course, with the marvellous support of donors, large and small, who fund the fieldwork; we thank you all most sincerely for your donations and welcome encouragement. 

There is a still lot to do, so Tim Mackrill and I are always exploring new opportunities with new species. We would love to help restore the golden eagle to English skies and are looking at the next stages of projects we have already started. We are working, with partners, on a project idea to try to rejuvenate remnant populations of mountain hares, translocating them from a Scottish estate with large numbers, where they used to be shot, to two large mountains where hares have become isolated and probably inbred. It’s a small trial but could be important, just like our successful red squirrel translocations in the Highlands over a decade ago, which were the precursor to further projects in subsequent years. 

It’s encouraging to see the number of beaver projects underway in England but we are extremely disappointed with the situation in Scotland. The overriding evidence is that beavers are integral to the restoration of all nature in wetlands and have wider benefits in terms of the prevention of flooding downstream. At present, the Scottish Government sanctions either the killing of beavers or their live export to England. Both of these are unacceptable: we desperately need them here and should use any natural surplus to recolonise freshwaters throughout Scotland.  We see 2021 also as the year when we move forward with the reintroduction of lynx – the discussions on this iconic mammal have gone on long enough (25 years or more) and, in times of a dramatic recognition of the need for us to live better with nature, the return of the lynx to the Scottish Highlands would be as emblematic as that of the sea eagle to the Isle of Wight. We are here, ready to help make it a reality.

All best wishes for 2021 to all our friends and supporters.

Roy Dennis and Tim Mackrill

G274 has become adept at catching fish around the coasts of the Isle of Wight (photo by Ainsley Bennett)

My new book Cottongrass Summer is published 16th July

This spring and summer has seen the most spectacular display of cottongrass sedge in the Scottish Highlands – whole vistas of snowy cottongrass heads blowing in the wind. Here near my home the moors, which suffered a severe fire and were blackened last spring were respledent in white, as though a late snowfall had covered the ground. In the forest bogs the scene was equally beautiful and one day in July I stopped to photograph acres and acres of white on the hill road from Altnaharra. Locals have all been talking about it and trying to recall early years of such beauty. My new book starts with a chapter about the importance of cottiongrass in northern Scotland and explains how the plant can be an indicator of ecological renewal or the opposite of over-grazed land. I am delighted with the production of the book by Sara Hunt of Saraband Books and also by the first reviews.

Specially signed copies can be purchased here and may be paid for by bank transfer, cheque or paypal. 

I hope you enjoy it and if you do please buy one for a friend.

Settled on Cape Wrath Peninsula

During 2019 Loyal spent more and more time on the Cape Wrath peninsula, and stopped the previous behaviour of visiting the Kinbrace area. It looks as though a new nesting area has been occupied and breeding may be confirmed in 2020. The satellite transmitter stopped sending data in December 2019, probably from falling off after a long period of transmissions.

Still ranging widely

Globe continued to range widely in the north-west Highlands. In February 2020 the pattern was similar with a range of 860 km2 from Kinlochbervie south to Elphin. There has been no concentration on a future nesting area it date.

Settled in North Angus

Mackay has been settled in an area of North Angus glens for well over a year, sometimes crossing into Aberdeenshire. In February 2020 the satellite tracking data was all ranging on Milden estate near Mount Keen


In 2017, Canisp settled in the Foinaven SPA in North Sutherland, and the following summer bred, unsuccessfully at her first attempt. The transmitter fell off, as they should do after 5 years, and was found and collected by Derek Spencer. We guess she is now the resident eagle at that home range.