Roy's blog

Wild Swans and COP 26

Here in Moray, the overnight rain had gone and the clear blue skies and northwest winds were perfect for swan migration from Iceland. This morning I was down at Findhorn Bay, my local birding patch, and when I looked out across the mudflats I could see that the whooper swans had arrived. Beautiful musical whooping calls made me look up to see a family party gliding in from a great height after the overnight migration from Iceland. They spiraled earthwards, spreading their wings to slow their descent, at the last moment their big webbed feet pushing forward to skid onto the water, like tiny seaplanes. It was a family party: a pair of adults with four young. 

For these young swans it was their first big flight after being reared in the wetlands of Iceland. Their parents decided yesterday that it was time, mid-October, to migrate to their winter quarters in the UK. They had led their young high into the skies and then flown, with a tail wind, purposefully to the southeast for the youngsters’ first ever visit to Scotland. Their very first landfall on the Moray Coast. Maybe later today or tomorrow they will fly on south or east to their parents’ favourite wintering place.

 As I stood watching them, I thought how long could one of those young ones live? How old were their parents? Wild swans can live for thirty years or more, although most will die before then. To live that long, one would need to be a winner in life, become very experienced in finding food, judging migrations and avoiding problems as well as having some luck. Thirty years would take us to 2051 – it’s quite a thought! What changes will it see during its lifetime and, more importantly to me, what will my younger daughter have witnessed by the time she reaches 42 years of age.

Much of it will depend on the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow at the end of the month. Every day I hear on radio and television and on social media what may happen, what must be decided and which countries will do what, how many people are coming, how many police are needed to protect and control them. It sounds like a massive jamboree but it has to be much more important than that. They have to actually deal with the problems of our fractured world.

Hopefully, there will be clear messages and even firmer decisions made, otherwise our planet will continue to be in serious trouble. What worries me is that too many people in authority claim that they are already doing plenty. But that’s not what’s on the ground. In Scotland we have an extremely degraded landscape, the result of long-term destruction of woodland by our ancestors which has continued, or even accelerated, through woodland exploitation and poor land husbandry – too many sheep, too many deer and too many land uses that fail to recognise the importance of ecology. 

When I look at the Cairngorms National Park, where you would hope that things would be at their very best, more than half of its area is what many of us regard as degraded land – bare hillsides, rivers running from the mountains without woodland cover. Despite knowing, for decades, that much of upland Scotland is a ‘wet desert’: its ecological wholeness is mostly unrestored. We know its possible – there are good examples throughout our land – enhancing biodiversity, securing carbon, giving out oxygen, holding water in times of flood and drought, changing local climate – it’s all win win.

Scotland has made great progress with renewable energy, waste reduction and other necessary changes, but the big work on ecological restoration of degraded lands is not taking place to any great extent or urgency. It reminds me that after the First World War Britain was short of timber and the government established the Forestry Commission with a clear goal – to plant more trees and create more timber. During the Second World War the Ministry of Agriculture was charged with growing more food in our own country for our own people. With clear goals they got it done. Now we’ve reached a third age when it is essential to restore the ecological health of our land and seas. 

To do that we need a powerful new Government Department for natural resources and ecological restoration. It must level peg all key government departments, have a dedicated Minister of Cabinet rank, be headed by a person with international credentials in restoration ecology, and have a budget necessary for a massive task. Government then requires to urgently identify clear goals to redress biodiversity collapse, while it also continues to address and reverse climate breakdown.

Ecological restoration and natural resource management must be far higher in all governments’ thinking and funding. The days of the UK spending £45 billion annually on military defence and so little on defending our planet have to be numbered. To save the earth will require many changes in society including prestige and worth. Why should a graduate in ecological restoration earn so much less than a lawyer, a doctor or a dentist? 

Some measures may seem draconian but they will be necessary. There are so many long held activities that no longer sit easily with restoring our planet. The days of bottom trawling must be numbered, non-native conifer plantations need higher inputs of native broadleaved trees for soil health, barley grown for whisky production should all be organic, all farming should include land for flowers to restore and maintain pollinators, rivers need restoring, inshore waters must be protected from chemical run off. The list is long but it will be job creation on a massive scale, and essential work at that.    

COP 26 has got to solve some serious problems but the most important thing is that we stop hearing claims that we’re already doing enough: we certainly aren’t. The young have rumbled that and the young want change and we have to do it for them and our descendants.  I wonder what sort of Scotland that wild swan, and my children and grandchildren, will find in 2051. 

I’ve watched whooper swans in Hokkaido in the icy winter wastes of northern Japan, because there is no warm northerly ocean current in the Pacific. To me it’s a reminder that if rising temperatures cause even greater melting of the Greenland icecap, the warming North Atlantic current could flip. Then the Moray coast would be ice bound and icebreakers would be needed to get to Inverness and Invergordon harbours.  How planet Earth looks in 2051, and how we and nature will be managing then, does depend on what is decided in Glasgow. It is that epic.

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.  

Footprints in the Snow

Last evening there was a fall of fresh snow on top of old, and this morning I was sure it would be worth a walk up into the woods to look for mammal tracks. When I’d pulled back the bedroom curtains at dawn, I’d seen that the stoat that lives in our roof had already crossed the snowy deck, within five metres of where we had still been sleeping. She’d returned, in her beautiful white ermine coat, in mid-December and remembered from last year the small hole allowing her to scramble up behind the cladding and sleep in the roof space above our dining table. 

After breakfast I set off for my local walk. There were red squirrel tracks across the lawn, for they are regular visitors to the bird feeders in the garden. At the bottom of the brae I turned right up the farm road and noted the first of many distinctive tracks of brown hares, interspersed with the local traffic of pheasants. The farm tractor had been as far as the junction and then turned back to feed the bull, while last week’s ruts from a forestry vehicle were still visible but covered in snow.

After going through the forest gate, our normal route takes us up a short hill beside a small river tributary, which finally makes its way to Findhorn Bay. I followed a fox up this track, his footprints telling me that last night he had been down in the fields and then headed back up into the forest. The snow lay three or four inches deep: it was very frosty and the snow that had fallen last night was soft and powdery, not the best for tracking mammals because the prints are sometimes indistinct.  I had no difficulty in identifying the next animal, though: an otter had come over the bank, travelled a short distance along the road and then dropped back down into the burn. I wasn’t expecting to find one of those this morning, and only a quarter mile from my house.

There’s a choice of roads at the top of this slope and I decided to take the one straight ahead, the middle forest road that heads upwards into a mature larch wood. There were more hare tracks, as well as the neat slots of roe deer criss-crossing my route. The local red squirrels had been doing the same, bounding across the track from the woods on one side to the trees on the other. It was already pretty clear that the three most common mammals were roe deer, red squirrels and brown hares. 

When my wife, Moira, and I walk this way in normal times, as we often do, we are very lucky to see any of these animals. They, of course, may see us. That’s why I have always loved to see virgin snow ahead of me when walking or skiing; it’s like opening the pages of a book, each creature telling you, ‘I’ve been here, but where I came from and where am I going is not yours to know’. 

Next up was a pine marten, meaning a double back for me to see where it had come from; I followed the tracks down through the first bit of wood. My hunch was that it may have come from a den box which a forest ranger and I erected in a tree nearly ten years ago in the hope of providing a safe home for the last of the wildcats in this area.  Alas, we were too late and no cat ever used it.  I couldn’t find the box during a quick search in the thick bit of the woods but it would not surprise me if the marten had found it. In those years in which I’d put up trail cameras at these boxes along with dead pheasant bait, it would be found immediately by martens, and there would often be an image of a badger trying to climb the tree to get at the food.

Climbing back up onto the forest road, I followed the marten’s footprints for about 100 yards, and for the last bit of that stretch they were landing on top of fox tracks The fox had moved from side to side of the road, clearly not in a hurry, while brown hares and squirrels crossed from side to side.  When I got to the top of the hill I turned down through the big larches, where three or four red deer had been scraping the snow from the vegetation. I followed their path, for I knew that they would know the best place to scramble over the big ditch on the top side of the lower forest road. It was an easy climb out of the hollow onto my return route and I was still less than a mile from my home.

By now the sun was shining strongly, so splotches of snow were falling out of the larch trees and creating their own tracks in the snow. On this lower and sunny side of the woods there were new tracks to be seen, very small, in short runs and disappearing under the snow. These were wood mice dashing across the dangerous open space that always left them vulnerable to owl attack. I counted about twenty tracks of mice, interspersed with both red and roe deer, in the next couple of hundred yards before I entered the darker wood.

Here were the prints of a much larger pine marten. I tracked him down the road, before he peeled off into a thicket, his trail almost immediately replaced by a fox. And then came a brown hare, emphasing how many animals had been padding through these woods during the few previous hours of darkness.

As I walked, I thought of the history of tracking animals in the snows of this bit of forest. If I had walked here 20 years ago I would almost certainly have seen the prints of a wildcat or the tracks of a capercaillie; both species are now extinct near my home. Forty years ago I would not have found the tracks of pine marten, for then they were only just starting to spread out from the Western Highlands.  Red deer would also have been absent then, before the big new conifer plantations allowed them to colonise this lower ground.  Living on such fertile land, they are much larger than those in the mountains, and more fertile, with nearly every hind followed by a calf; and it’s a joy now to hear the stags roaring in the autumn.

A wet patch on the side of the track gave rise to a short trail of woodcock tracks and then the hares and squirrels again became more frequent as I reached the junction where I had started. And then I saw new human tracks beside mine: someone else had walked up the hill behind me. I would say it was a man, the size of his boot probably eight, smaller then my size tens. I had a sudden flash of history: what if I had been walking here 5,000 years ago and had found an unknown human following my track?  I would have wondered who he was. Which tribe did he come from? Should I be frightened?  Should I try to find him, with or without my spear raised?  For then, early humans’ lives were much closer to the mammals which I had tracked this morning. They would have been more worried by the track of an unknown human than they would have been by the original big fauna in these woods – brown bear, wolf, lynx and aurochs. 

Before going home, I cut below the back of our garden to a place where the badgers live, but I couldn’t find a badger pad to add to my list. With my binoculars I looked across the river to the badger sett on its sandy bank, but it looked very much as though none had come out last evening, for it was really frosty.  I squeezed through the fence and into the field near my house where the snow had been scuffed by brown hares and roe deer, the dark soil of a fresh molehill standing stark in the white field. Beside the fence were the signs of a single rabbit. They used to be so common that the previous owners of our house had had to rabbit fence the garden, but disease decimated them in 2009 and they are struggling to return.

My walk this morning, from my home, was just less than two miles, yet I had found evidence of ten mammals and two birds. I felt, turning on the kettle for a cup of tea, that I had been reading an absorbing detective tale, one to which I can return again and again when the snow is right.  

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)

Fishy business – in an uncertain world

For someone old enough to remember the Icelandic Cod Wars, yesterday’s suggestion that we require four Royal Navy gunboats to protect our fishing boats and fisheries seemed to be from yester years’ diplomacy. Equally it’s incredible to me that fishermen could scupper a satisfactory deal with the European Union. Hopefully something will be resolved, at the last moment, but whatever transpires it’s important to separate, for the future ecological health of our seas and oceans, the requirements of the fish and marine ecosystems and the economic futures of fishermen and coastal communities.

Too often the debate seems to suggest that the fish in British waters belong to the fishermen. But in taking from nature, whether you harvest brambles, hunt red deer or trawl for haddock and cod, they are not your property until you’ve taken them.  In the first instance they are all part of the natural resources of our planet, yet at the present time there is a marked difference between the conservation management of wild species on land and those which live in the sea. Why, for instance, is the conservation of turtle doves so very different to the conservation of turbot? Not really surprising because the latter live in a habitats that are not in view to the general public. 

When a deal is thrashed out, for it’s too important to fail for both sides, it must be time to have a radical appraisal of the future of fisheries.  The British people have invested heavily in the costs of negotiations for a sector, which accounts for 0.1% of our economic activity.  Surely, when we regain ‘full control’ of our waters, it would be time to really look at the future of the fish and the marine environment. I’ve loved eating fresh fish from my boyhood catching bass and pout in the Solent, and I’ve admired the rugged individuality of the trawler men I’ve met in harbours and on remote islands, knowing that I could never have worked in such a hostile environment. Yet I do have reservations.  

 Anyone working in an extractive industry loves talk of sustainability but now with climate crisis and biodiversity collapse the urgent message is that it has to be more about the sustainability of the planet and not the sustainability of the fishing industry. Only if the first is attained can the second have a long-term future.  It has to be about how can we fish in a way that does not threaten the fish populations themselves but also does not damage the sea bed habitats, harm non-commercial species, from dolphins to flame shells, or leave a legacy of lost non-degradable nets.  

Clearly at least half the sea and oceans require to be protected areas with no fishing allowed, while inshore waters should be for local fishermen using methods that do not damage either local fish stocks nor their living marine environment. A start would be to have no bottom trawling inside a twelve-mile limit, with bays and sea lochs specially zoned for locals. The whole issue of fishing quotas requires taking back into national ownership and redistributed to local fishing communities based in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland. 

A few summers ago one of my Mediterranean friends was with me at a local harbour and asked me why there were no small fishing boats and why the fish served in the café was more likely to be deep frozen than caught overnight by artisanal means. He was even more horrified to learn that if we had a small fishing boat and we went to sea and caught three boxes of mackerel using hooks and lines, it would be illegal for us to sell them. As a Yorkshire fisherman once said ‘all the mackerel which swim past our coast belong to twelve Scotchmen!’  A quota system beyond belief.

When the Navy gunboats have returned to harbour, and the politicians have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, the future of fishing in our waters must be completely reorganised. Winning a clash with the Dutch and French, does not solve the territorial animosity between our own fishermen, nor the threats to our marine biosphere.

Taking ownership

The Isle of Wight Sea Eagles featured in two things that arrived on my laptop today. The first was a video that Steve, the sea eagle project officer, had been given by a fisherman fishing from his boat south of the Isle of Wight.  Looking towards Blackgang cliffs from the Channel it showed a big cloud of gulls milling around after fish over the glassy sea and then one of the eagles flying through them and diving down to snatch fish from the water. This wasn’t a case of perching on a cliff or tree and patiently waiting for a fish to swim in range. This was a conscious decision to fly out over the open sea to hunt fish, encouraged by the swarming gulls.

G274 regularly catches fish around the coast of the Isle of Wight (photo by Ainsley Bennett)

The tracks from the eagles’ satellite transmitters are also showing us their flights out to catch salt-water fish, especially in calmer weather. When they were younger they started to catch grey mullet in estuaries around the Island, but now the older ones, enjoying their second winter, are much bolder and capable of fishing in the open sea.  Even eating small ones while in flight. Last week one of them, G274, flew two-thirds the way across the Solent to fish and then returned to the Island. This behaviour is very important for the future because fresh fish is excellent food to feed any future ‘islander’ eaglets in their nests. 

The second was details of how to buy packs of a lovely Christmas card featuring one of the sea eagles in flight over the Isle of Wight with the distinctive Needles Lighthouse in the distance. It is the result of a competition for young artists organised by the Ventnor Exchange’s Brave Island programme. The winner is Charlotte Parr-Burman and her card design is beautiful as well as very evocative of one of eagles looking out into the Channel for fishing opportunities. And the proceeds from the Christmas cards raise money for the Ventnor Foodbank. Packs of cards can be purchased at their shop in Ventnor or online here.

Charlotte’s winning Christmas card design

For the reintroduction team it’s really great to see how the sea eagles are becoming part of the Island’s life and times. We have also been amazed at the enjoyment expressed by many on the Isle of Wight and across England who have seen one of the huge birds fly over them during lockdown. I love it that communities are taking such interest and ownership in having the sea eagles back home after two centuries of absence.

Happy Christmas and wishing all a better 2021

The Bearded Vulture in the Peak District – a doomed wanderer or an icon of the urgency for rewilding

I’ve just read my latest copy of British Birds where it is reported that the bearded vulture in the Peak District might be repatriated. It says that any intervention would be a last resort but the bird will be returned safely to its ‘home reintroduction area’. It’s not ringed, radio-tagged or marked so is not a freshly released bird from one of the reintroduction projects in the Alps, the Massif Central or Andalusia, so where in fact is its home? So the main question seemed to be about the authenticity of it being a wild bird, just like the one that visited the UK in May 2016. It’s matter of whether you can count it on your British life list, but that hasn’t discouraged the hundreds of birders that have ventured into the hills and enjoyed seeing it.

The bearded vulture has captivated birders in the Peak District (photo by Indy Kiemel Greene)

But why should it be repatriated if it’s a wild bird?  For such a long-distance wanderer it could find its own way back to wherever it came from if it is in good condition, has found enough food and decided it did not wish to stay.  So why is there not enough food, even though it follows other scavengers, such as buzzards and ravens, to the remains of a few dead sheep?  And if there were enough food, why not leave it in case another bearded vulture might turn up next May, and vultures might (again) breed in Britain? In fact, instead of repatriation why not bring in some others from mainland Europe to join it? For at some stage the very successful bearded vulture projects will mean the present range becomes full and young ones will have to find new breeding places. What a marvellous prospect.

Worldwide, vultures have had hard times. In India and Pakistan the common three vulture species crashed from millions to 20,000. The cause was poisoning through ingesting the veterinary drug, diclofenac, commonly used there to treat cattle. Research and conservation has stemmed the decline. Nearer home in southern Europe vultures suffered from the 1970s EU regulations requiring the removal of dead farm animals from open land, but fortunately sense prevailed and derogations allowed for ‘vulture feeding places’ or ‘restaurants’ to be established. The vultures bounced back but in Britain we don’t even see that there’s a problem here. The countryside is too tidy!

The problem is that modern humans have broken the ancient food chains whereby large scavengers cleaned up the dead in nature. Nowadays by law, except in exceptional circumstances, farmed livestock have to be collected and removed, while the large predators which killed wild deer, and left as much as they ate, are long gone. And life for carrion eaters, from vultures to burying beetles, is nearly made impossible. In my new book, Cottongrass Summer, I’ve written of the appalling impacts of removing biomass and bones from the environment. 

As a start, no carcasses should be removed from nature reserves or designated sites. Deer hunters must use copper bullets to prevent lead poisoning. And the establishment of ‘raptor feeding places’ should be extended from the successful red kite locations that have been so appreciated by birders. I’ve recommended that several ‘carrion restaurants’ should be set up on the south coast to attract white-tailed eagles, both the newly reintroduced ones and the increasing wintering birds from the mainland. Specially fenced enclosures of a couple of acres, to exclude dogs and foxes, where local farmers could leave dead livestock would be a boon for nature. It would start another process in essential rewilding.

In fact, a few enterprising farmers could set up eco-businesses where birders and photographers, in hides, could enjoy the close up spectacles of sea eagles, buzzards, ravens and even white storks. It works in Spain and Portugal. And then vultures cruising the coasts of France might see the thermalling carrion-eaters and cross the English Channel to investigate.  It’s not too far either, for vultures regularly cross the Strait of Gibraltar, while in November 2008 over a hundred griffon vultures flew a much greater over-sea journey from the Spanish mainland to the Balearic Islands, and some stayed to breed on Majorca. The Peak District bearded vulture is an icon of that rewilding future, so for goodness sake start a vulture feeding station immediately. It is a National Park and this should be a priority. To allow it to starve would be irresponsible.

The Peak District bearded vulture is the second to be recorded in the UK (photo by Indy Kiemel Greene)

Encouraging golden eagles to return to ancient haunts

Trees for Life put out a press release today about golden eagles successfully breeding at their Dundreggan reserve for the first time in living memory. The news item went worldwide and I was interviewed on Sky News this morning and talked with the Radio Canada this evening. It a long interesting story, which I partly covered in my blog of 5th October 2015 but it’s worth re-telling. 

On 30th June 2010, I left home at 10.30am and collected David Clark and Ryan Munro, from Alladale Wilderness, on my drive north to the RSPB Forsinard Reserve in the Flow Country

The manager, Norrie Russell, took us by argocat some of the way and then we walked across the hills to an eagle nest with two big young. The reason for the trip was to fit satellite transmitters, as part of our eagle studies. We ringed both young before returning them to their eyrie. Transmitter 57107 was fitted to the young male, the female’s was 57106. We had a great walk back in the evening sun and finally I reached home at midnight after a wonderful day’s fieldwork.

One of the juvenile eagles tagged by Roy in 2010

The male eaglet left his parents in October and ranged widely but the female stayed with her parents until after the New Year. During his wanderings he arrived at Dundreggan on the 17th November 2010 and roosted there overnight in a cliff, before departing north the following day. This is part of Glen Moriston, which runs north and west of Loch Ness. It was an area I knew well in the late 1970s and 1980s when I monitored golden eagles in the Highlands. In those days this glen though was a black spot for illegal persecution so the ancient breeding sites were unoccupied. By 2008 Dundreggan estate had been purchased by Trees for Life during the time I was one of their volunteer board members.

During the collection of satellite data from over twenty eagles I noted that many chose to visit long abandoned nesting areas, and this led to me suggesting the idea of building a nest on the new reserve with the Alan Featherstone Watson, the founder of Trees for Life. On 5th October 2015 I went to Dundreggan and explained to the staff how to build an eagle nest before we headed for the location. Alan had asked a local climber Ewan to come with his climbing gear and after fixing ropes, he and I abseiled into the best ledge. To my amazement the overgrown ledge contained the ancient stick remains of an eagle eyrie, probably from the middle of the last century. I cleared the ledge of vegetation, including a small conifer that was blocking access, and then we hauled up bundles of sticks tied to our rope by the group of helpers below. Arranging the sticks and adding moss and grass resulted in a good starter eyrie for prospecting eagles. 

Roy and Ewan building the eagle nest on 5th October 2015
The completed nest

Doug Gilbert, manager of the reserve, reported an eagle over the cliff that winter but it was not until last month that I heard the exciting news that a pair was rearing a single eaglet in our nest. He reported that they had built a big structure on top of our original nest and it’s very likely they had started taking an interest in the ancient breeding site last year. 

This is an exciting development and demonstrates that eagles will successfully return to ancient nesting places when illegal persecution is ceased. Sometimes by their own actions and sometimes with help. Five years may seem a long time to wait for successful breeding but we have built nests in other good places and are still waiting for them to be occupied. For Trees for Life it’s an accolade to their management of their rewilding reserve and there’s every likelihood that this pair will decide to stay and become regular successful breeders. The interest today has been very encouraging and it’s given us a chance to point out that it’s part of the ecological restoration of degraded lands: an icon of restoring nature. And for fun it’s created amusing headlines – my son-in-law Whatsapped me to say he liked the quote “an octogenarian conservationist dangling from a rope”.   

Can you help us?

We will be building more Golden Eagle, White-tailed Eagle and Osprey nests this winter. If you would like to help us with this important conservation work, then please consider making a donation to the Foundation by clicking on the donate button below. All support is very gratefully received.

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.

My 60th Anniversary of Ospreys

Today, 8th April 2020, is the 60th anniversary of my first ever sighting of an osprey. I was a week into my new work as warden at the RSPB’s Operation Osprey at Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands. Each day we waited for the pair’s arrival after their previous year’s successful rearing of three young. It was a very exciting time, but also an anxious one, for this was the only nesting pair.   8th April was cold and grey, and it was raining on my early visit to the still-empty nest. I returned to the forward hide in the early afternoon and checked the eyrie with my binoculars, then scanned the old trees dotted across the peat mosses. And there he was, perched on a branch of an ancient pine, preening his wet feathers. To me he was fantastic – he had just winged in from a 3,500-mile migration flight from Africa. I’ve just checked my diary – ‘after an hour of preening, he carried a dead stick to the nest at 3.35pm, and in quick succession five more, snapped in flight from nearby trees. He rearranged his old nest before leaving to fish at 3.50pm’. I hurried back to our camp to phone the news to George Waterston at the RSPB in Edinburgh.

The nest at Loch Garten

The female arrived ten days later and they went on to rear two more young for the fledgling osprey population in Scotland. They were seen that year by thousands of visitors to Loch Garten – one of the world’s first public viewing sites of a rare breeding bird. It was also the start of my life’s involvement with these beautiful fish-eating raptors, which have contributed so greatly to my enjoyment and involvement in nature. This afternoon I had planned to visit Loch Garten and walk up that long familiar track to view the ancient nest tree – now long-dead but standing, with the present osprey eyrie in the tree next door. But Loch Garten is out-of-bounds in these worrying days of the pandemic. I’m fortunate that I will likely see an osprey passing our house today from one of the local eyries. Early this morning, on my laptop, courtesy of a webcam, I watched the female on a nest at Poole Harbour. Reminding me of the male at the Loch Garten nest in April 1960, she was staring up into the skies looking for her mate, hopefully the male which she met last summer, coming in en route from West Africa. He’s a bird we translocated from the Scottish population to Poole Harbour in 2017; she, in turn, is descended from ospreys moved to Rutland Water from nests in northern Scotland.

Once we get an all clear and are free again to travel, I’ll make a pilgrimage to that special Scots pine at Loch Garten.

Meanwhile, watch out for more osprey news on our first podcast of 2020 – coming soon! You can listen to all our previous podcasts here.