Roy's blog

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.

Happy New Year

New Year is a good opportunity to reflect on the last twelve months. Working in conservation inevitably involves highs and lows and 2022 was true to form in that regard. However, we think it is import to focus on the positives, and to consider what can be achieved with our proactive approach to the restoration of nature. 

It is very encouraging to report that two territorial pairs of White-tailed Eagles are now established. G274 and G324 were part of the first cohort of six young eagles released by us and Forestry England, our project partner, on the Isle of Wight in August 2019. They paired up very early, in autumn 2020, and have remained together since. They have become fiercely territorial of two coastal sites on the Isle of Wight and as they approach their fifth calendar year, the two birds look resplendent in near full adult plumage. Project Officer, Steve Egerton-Read, who is based on the Island, has been monitoring the two birds closely, particularly in relation to their diet. Steve’s important work has shown that the two birds readily catch both marine and freshwater fish throughout the year and are also proficient at predating any weak or injured Canada Geese, as well as a range of other bird species, particularly corvids and gulls.  They are also expert at stealing food from other species, including Grey Herons, and Marsh Harriers. We are hopeful that the two birds may show the first signs of breeding behaviour in the spring, and will be monitored closely. 

Elsewhere a second pair of eagles has also become established. G405 and G471, were both released in 2020 and, as we have come to expect, explored widely during their second calendar year. G471 summered in the Southern Uplands in the south of Scotland, while G405 spent time in Exmoor and, later, Bodmin Moor. Both returned to the Isle of Wight and surrounding areas last spring, and met each other in the Arun valley in West Sussex during March. They have been together since, and are a regular sight at Pulborough Brooks and Amberley Wildbrooks. During the cold spell before Christmas the two birds were photographed by Mike Jerome catching carp through a hole in the ice at Pulborough. Our diet studies have shown that fish becomes an increasingly important component of the diet as the eagles become older. 

G405 catching a carp through the ice at Pulborough Brooks (photo by Mike Jerome)
G471 coming in to land next to G405 (photo by Mike Jerome)
The two eagles caught four carp with seemingly very little effort, while Mike Jerome was watching (photo by Mike Jerome)

Although a year younger than the pair on the Isle of Wight, G405 and G471 have become territorial and are showing encouraging courtship behaviour. Indeed, on one occasion they were observed seeing off a compatriot from the 2020 release, female G466, who visited the Arun valley having been chased off from the Isle of Wight by G274 and G324.  Having recently returned from a summer in northern Scotland, the fact that this young female had encountered two eagle territories in southern England would have been a significant experience for her, and it is encouraging that she is now spending much of her time at Poole Harbour. She appears to have displaced a younger female G801, released in 2021, who had become a near permanent resident at Poole Harbour, and has recently been spending time with a 2021 male, G812. 

Poole Harbour has become something of an eagle hotspot over the course of the last year and it has been wonderful that so many people have been able to enjoy seeing the eagles from the fantastic Birds of Poole Harbour boat trips. If you haven’t been on one of these trips, then we thoroughly recommend booking onto one in 2023. You can find more details on the Birds of Poole Harbour website here. We are so encouraged by the enthusiastic responses we receive about the eagles. 

Male G812, photographed from a Birds of Poole Harbour boat trip (photo by Mark Wright)

It is not just White-tailed Eagles that Poole Harbour has become important for in recent years. This summer a pair of Ospreys bred successfully. Male 022, who we translocated to Poole Harbour from the famous B01 nest near Roy’s home in Moray, which has been occupied by successive generations of Ospreys since 1966, reared two chicks with female CJ7 who fledged from a nest near Rutland Water in 2015; the first breeding Ospreys on the South Coast of England for two centuries. It was tragic that one of the young was killed by a Goshawk a few days after fledging, but these are the hurdles in restoring nature – it’s not easy. The remaining juvenile 5H1 departed on her first migration in early September; a very significant milestone for the project we run in partnership with Birds of Poole Harbour. Hopefully, now wintering in West Africa, she will be the first of the new South Coast Osprey clan. The ancient local name ‘mullet hawks’ can be reclaimed.

A close-up view of 5H1 soon after fledging at Poole Harbour (from Birds of Poole Harbour webcam)

Projects to restore lost species like White-tailed Eagles and Ospreys are not a fast process, but events this year give us real optimism for the future. We are very grateful for all the support we have received from many people; from members of the public to farmers who have been excited to see White-tailed Eagles on their land. We have been extremely heartened by messages from people who have been thrilled to see these species back in southern England.

Recently Forestry England repeated the public questionnaire that we ran when we first proposed the project and this showed that the public’s attitude towards the reintroduction of White-tailed Eagles is overwhelmingly supportive, even more so than when our idea was first suggested five years ago (watch out for the full results soon). It was also valuable to know that people are really keen that more reintroductions of lost species are undertaken. In some ways it is clear that the conservation bodies, government and NGOs, are behind the curve and people want us to move ahead more quickly. This makes us even more determined than ever to continue and widen our work and to play our part in the restoration of nature at a time when it is urgently required. We are working on several other ideas for 2023.

A big thank you to everyone who has followed our projects during 2022, reported sightings, shared photos, made donations or sent messages of support. May we wish you all the very best for 2023.

 Roy, Tim, Steve and Zoe

Very many thanks to everyone who has made donations to the Foundation and the White-tailed Eagle project in the past few months. Your support is greatly appreciated. If you would like to donate to our work, then you can do so via the link below.

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)

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!

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.