No change

This winter Roxy has continued her life in the Borders – in February 2020 she lived in a range of 30 km2 centred on her nesting wood. On 6th/7th February she roosted overnight near Broad Law, but most hunting trips have been within 6 kms.

Four minutes to get under a table

Four minutes to get under a table – the fears of a 15 year old boy

In the 1950s there was much talk of nuclear war, the awesome terror of hydrogen bombs seemed very real to me and my pals at school . We worried about being annihilated. We were told there would be a 4 minute warning if the Russians attacked. We must rush indoors and hide under a table – would that really have helped! Many children went to sleep with bad dreams.

Now times are even more worrying – climate breakdown, chemical contamination of life on Earth, loss of insects, plastic pollution and over-use of the planet’s ecosystem. Nowadays, news reporting is never ending, unlike those naïve days of my youth, and more and more young people are getting alarmed. They want something done now not tomorrow.

Yesterday morning, I drove home from the Cairngorms and saw three smoke clouds from the burning of grouse moors. To me, that’s now like sticking a knife into a wound. In Scotland, we must ban large scale heather and grassland burning and immediately start a massive regeneration of woodland and scrub over all our barren spaces. Turning a ‘wet desert’ as Fraser Darling said in that nuclear era, into a thriving restored land to capture carbon, influence weather and water, and restore damaged ecosystems. Rewilding on a massive scale – our long-delayed contribution to planet renewal. It should become anti-social to own and maintain degraded land.

Too few, in authority, recognise a threat that is greater than the worries of my youth or are they purposely burying their heads in the sand. Thank goodness young people are protesting for the future of our planet – they need to and they must demand urgent action while there is time. It’s important they do not give up for they are the future and they are unlikely to get much support from many of their elders. I say to them – keep going – insist on change.

The young need to have hope and they must be in charge of their destinies. I support lowering the voting age to 16 years, I would go even younger for it’s their future. I asked my ten year old daughter – she thought to vote at 10 or 12 was too young – ‘they wouldn’t understand’ – come on let’s make it 14 or 15. Because of dangerous times I would also remove the vote at 60 years of age. We had our chance and we failed. Tough measures for tough times.

Area of Ecological Importance

I visited Sutherland today – a chance to look for a pair of sea eagles and to check the spread of the red squirrels we translocated in 2013. But I mainly I drove north to pay a short visit to the Public Inquiry about a golf development proposed on the Coul Links Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) near Dornoch. It is being held in the Carnegie Hall, not the famous one on 7th Avenue New York, but the small one built in Clashmore by the same Andrew Carnegie. I quietly slipped into a seat at the back of the village hall and listened to the proceedings. I wanted to be there to show support for those who are opposed to damaging Coul Links. It brought back memories, from the 1970s onwards, of other inquiries where my RSPB colleagues and I were being questioned by lawyers as we fought to protect a nature site. We won some and lost some, but why are they still being won or lost?

Then our focus was on the protection of birds so there were many people who weren’t impressed by that, for the cry then was ‘do you want birds or jobs’. But now it is a much more important matter – we desperately need these special areas of nature to ensure the future of our earth. Outside the hall, it was like a spring day, rather than the 27th February. My car radio told me these were the hottest days on record in a decade of some of the hottest years on record. Flick the channel and a reporter is talking about the massive declines of insects. On another the Green MP is talking about tomorrow’s debate at Westminster on ‘climate change’ or better stated ‘climate breakdown’.

Coul Links with Loch Fleet is a SSSI as well as being a Ramsar Site and a Special Protection Area. There are just over 1400 SSSIs in Scotland covering just under 13% of our country, so why are we putting any of them at risk at a time of great risk to the future of our grandchildren. Some world visionaries believe that to ensure long-term survival of the earth’s ecosystems we will need to have 50% of the earth’s land and seas dedicated to nature and natural processes. I am a firm believer of that target. We cannot lose any more nature sites and the huge areas of land degraded by fire and livestock require to be ecologically restored. Ecological restoration on a large enough scale to attempt to ameliorate the increasing levels of carbon and to restore earth’s ecological processes will be job creation on a truly massive scale. It will require bold far-seeing political leaders and the diversion of major funding from other budgets. It is no longer a choice. As I listened to this morning’s evidence, expert against QC, I also thought that the term SSSI is now antiquated and does not command public respect. They need rebranding in today’s perilous times – may be something like – Areas of Ecological Importance.


Three cheers for beavers

I’ve just heard that the beaver is to be protected in our country. That’s welcome news from the Minister, but oh dear how long that took. And that’s only a first step, the next is to return the species to all suitable wetlands, to aid the future of our planet. A week ago young people were reminding us adults that the future of a living earth is in serious danger, yet how quickly that goes off the headlines. The young will need to be more demanding to secure their future. It is an unrelenting struggle to effect meaningful change. Many ecologists have tried over the last century but after an initial breakthrough the old ways of politics and power continue. So this time, young people, keep pushing! The beaver should encourage you to note that yesterday’s total opposition can change to a recognition of its value.

Last summer, I wrote that I visited an osprey nest in Strathspey and ringed the single chick, the first young there after a gap of eight years. The eyrie is atop an ancient Scots pine growing in a bog. I remembered on earlier visits having to jump ditches and wade through swampy areas to reach the tree, but now everywhere is dry and the patches of open water I remembered have all vegetated over. This was such a special forest bog where the ospreys had as neighbours nesting teal and very rare green sandpipers. This forest has every sort of conservation designation possible but it has lost a lot of its value through the uncontrolled growth of excess vegetation, due to lack of big herbivores, originally auroch, moose and beaver. It was clear to me that the immediate remedy for such a special area would be the return of beavers. In a few years their activities would bring those forest bogs and pools back to life, as well as opening up and rewetting the other low-lying parts of the forest. They would slow down the small river and create even more wetlands. I firmly believe that the Scottish government’s refusal to allow beavers back in all these wet woodlands is seriously detrimental to wildlife conservation and our international obligations.

Earlier in the year I was asked to address the annual conference of Forestry Commission England at the University of Exeter and give my views on where they should be heading ecologically after their centenary year of 2019. One of the delegates was Dr Richard Brazier, of the university, whose team had carried out detailed scientific studies on beavers which had been placed in a wet woodland reserve in north Devon. Their results were very impressive and showed how the beavers had changed the ecosystem by building a chain of dams that slowed down the small river coming from the adjacent farmland. Water flows had been ameliorated as water was held in the dams, sediments and chemicals had been deposited within the site. The water coming out of the wood was much purified and the wildlife benefits for other species outstanding. In fact, the 14 dams held 1,000 cubic metres of water and had captured 100 tons of silt. I remember walking there nearly ten years before with Derek Gow, who is the pioneer and champion of the return of the beaver to the UK as a water engineer and ecological improver. Just about everything we talked about then has been proved by these studies and others.

Similar results have been obtained by PhD researchers on beavers and their impacts in the River Tay catchment in Scotland, yet we are still experiencing resistance to the return of the species to the UK. It saddens me greatly that board members and staff of the then newly created Scottish Natural Heritage discussed the need to reintroduce the beaver in the early 1990s and here we are, 25 years later, still dithering about full-scale recovery. Then, our interest was very much about the ecological and wildlife benefits they would bring. Now, though, with an ever-increasing recognition that we must restore natural processes for the benefit of people as well as wildlife, we have the evidence that beavers can help alleviate downstream flooding, maintain water in streams in times of drought, slow down the run-off loss of soils and help prevent agricultural chemicals from pouring down rivers and into lochs, estuaries and the sea. You would think it’s a no-brainer. Sadly, that’s not how it works at present, but it has to change. That’s another area where our young people  can encourage adults to see sense before it’s too late.

Photo by Laurie Campbell


Red Kites

In a few weeks the red kites will be soaring above their nesting sites, nowadays throughout Scotland and England, yet 30 years go before reintroduction the only ones were in Wales.

Today I came across this link to a specially commissioned engraving by Alison Kinnaird in 2003 for the National Gallery of Scotland of the kite story.

Roxy roosting away from home some nights

Roxy is ranging more widely in her home range in November – just over 40 square kilometres. On 4 nights in November she roosted in pine plantations inland from the Crook Inn in Tweedsmuir. She was also to the east of Broad Law at 2pm on 17th November

Mackay has settled in North Angus

Mackay has stopped ranging so widely and seems to be settled on moorland in Angus  SE of Mount Keen; ranging in an area of just 5 square kilometres

Ranging in NW Sutherland

Globe was ranging in November in a large area of 930 square kilometres between Lochinver and Scourie

Loyal settled in very NW of Sutherland

Loyal is now living along the north-west coast of Sutherland between Sandwood Bay north to Cape Wrath Lighthouse and east to Kearvaig Bay. At 8am on 31st October she was flying at 50 metres above Kearvaig river mouth. Otherwise she moves down to moorland just north of Kinlochbervie

Altruism and profligacy

The jays are flying high again and that’s because it’s October. For the rest of the year they rather skulk around the woods yet you know they are there from their raucous calls. But now the oak trees are full of ripe acorns and that’s what the jays are harvesting. For some reason after they have stuffed four or five acorns into their gullets and they’ve got the last one gripped in their bills they leave the trees and fly high across the countryside instead of low into woods. I saw them yesterday morning when I was out for a walk and they were taking the acorns about three quarters of a mile to a scraggy area of small trees and grassland. This is where they must have been burying the future food supplies. But why do they fly so high, it cannot be that they want to know where they’re going, but I wonder if it’s to avoid predators. Jays feature regularly in the diet of goshawks living in the forests.

What that flight does do is to announce that the acorn harvest is underway. Jays collect prodigious amounts of acorns and spread them over such large areas of the countryside. Several thousands per individual and up to a mile or more away from the harvested tree. Of course most of the acorns are eaten, not necessarily all by jays but also by small rodents, but sufficient remain to allow new oak trees to grow in new places. The jays often hide them in bramble patches and  places with cover and that’s exactly where young oak trees prefer to grow because they get an early break from being browsed down. Jays only reached the North of Scotland thirty years or so ago and evidence of them moving oaks, and in a few places sweet chestnut, is really noticeable. As they fly day by day through the acorn season, the jays work hard in what is really a true act of altruism. Of course for their species planting acorns ensures that there are more oak trees in the future, but they, as individuals, are not going to benefit. But future jays will and so will an incredible number of species that benefit from the growth of oak trees. Even we do in many ways including the photosynthesis ability of oak trees to take in carbon and release oxygen.

As the jays start their autumn harvest, the red squirrels are finishing theirs. They have been so busy through September gathering hazelnuts from the grooves of hazel trees that grow along the bank below my house. They come from the pinewood about 100 yards across the road but there must be others as well from further afield that know that September is the month to gather nuts. Some days as I sit at my desk I watch them scurry back and for. They come round house, run across the lawn, climb up over my woodpile, through the lilac hedge and into the first hazel tree. I can see them clambering around in the upper branches and then in no time they return over the woodpile and across the lawn with a mouthful of hazelnuts. Usually they head off for the pinewood to store their haul of nuts in secret places.

But other days they just potter around on the lawn, choose places that seem to have no merit, then a quick little dig, a nut is pushed into the hole and the grass quickly patted down. Then onto the next. Some days they bury dozens. I never know how they find them again, but they certainly don’t find them all because young hazel trees are always popping up in unexpected places in the garden. And in many places in the surrounding land. The red squirrel is just such a great creator of new hazel trees, and another example in my view of altruism towards future squirrels, but how wildlife and we appreciate hazel thickets. When I was young I remember us, boys, searching for really good hazel sticks to make bows or catapults; while older people in the farming districts did an annual harvest of hazel wands to season for walking sticks and handles for various farm implements.

Last week while I was watching the first of the jays and the last of the squirrels carrying out their annual harvests, I listened with incredulity to a news report on the radio that a bottle of whisky had been sold at auction in Edinburgh for £840,750! I suppose my first question was why – the purchaser is not even going to drink it. My second thought was what a weird world we live in. Such a huge amount of money for an item of no true worth at a time when our planet needs every effort to prevent climate breakdown. That will require massive funds being redirected to conserve and restore planet Earth rather than profligate spending on luxury non-essentials of all kinds. I gather the whisky, which was specially bottled in 1986, had been made in Speyside in 1926. Then, at least, it would have been truly organic, the barley would most likely been grown on a mixed farm, with cattle, sheep and poultry, and horses to draw the plough and do the work on the farm. The rotational crops would have included barley, oats, turnips, potatoes and grass fields for making hay and for grazing. Annually, the fertile soils would have received farm manure and lime. Now those same fields that supply barley, for ever-increasing whisky production, are deep ploughed and instead of organic dung the crops grow due to copious supplies of artificial fertiliser and chemicals. Surely it’s essential we think more seriously about the future for most of present farming systems do not have long-term sustainability unlike the altruistic activities of the red squirrel and the jay.