Roy's blog

Spring in uncertain times

It’s very strange not to be going out birding when the signs of the coming spring are beckoning, but at least I have more time these days to watch the going-ons in the garden. The stoat that lives in our roof has turned from white to brown during these first two weeks of our isolation, while Phoebe’s nest box, built at Scouts and finally fixed yesterday to the end of the Wendy house, has attracted a pair of great tits, this early morning taking ownership. As I type, though, I’m thinking of larger birds.

The young white-tailed eagles we released last August on the Isle of Wight have had a busy few weeks.  Despite occasional short wanderings, the four eagles had settled into a winter routine, three staying on the island and one having gone to live with red kites and buzzards in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Most of their time was spent just sitting in big trees watching the world go by and learning the life of the countryside, watching in particular other carrion eaters, for they lived off dead birds and small mammals, as well as dead deer and a fox. They may also have caught rabbits and a mallard and one may have hunted grey mullet in an estuary on the Solent. Four living successfully through their first autumn and winter, and on into April, is a success at the start of the reintroduction project.

Way back in 1968, on Fair Isle, three out of four young sea eagles which we released there survived the winter on the island, before, in spring, the two females departed. In those days they left and we had no idea where they had gone. They were, in fact, never seen again, but I always hoped that, when soaring several thousand feet above that remote Shetland island, they may have seen Norway and headed home. Much later, during the releases of the 1990s in Wester Ross, one young sea eagle, individually identified by its coloured wing-tags, flew north to Shetland and, years later, was proved to be breeding in Norway, so we know that at least one did make the long flight over the North Sea.

Now, of course, it’s all so different. Without leaving my desk I can check each eagle’s tiny satellite transmitter on my laptop. Within an hour, the data on each bird’s travels will appear on my screen in digital and map form. Despite my being restricted to home I can have a daily catch up on wild creatures, whose lives continue despite the tragedies affecting the world’s human population.  Until a month ago, we would generally find each eagle sticking closely to its usual routines, sometimes living for days within a few square kilometres of wooded countryside.

This past month, though, it’s started to be very different. My colleagues Tim and Steve are likely to phone me with the latest news before I’ve got online. One eagle made a big circular flight to Kent and back to the Isle of Wight; the Oxfordshire wintering bird headed west to the Forest of Dean and north to Stoke, and then to Rutland Water. One settled in Wiltshire and later did a day trip to the Somerset levels and back. Each day brought something new – see Tim’s summary of recent happenings here.

And then we got a report of the first immature sea eagle not from the reintroduction, sighted in Wiltshire and Hampshire. It had a metal ring and, with the help of Swedish colleagues, we established that it was probably from there. Other birds were then reported, from Buckinghamshire to Kent to East Anglia – there was a small influx of mainland European wanderers. We were very grateful to people who sent in photos, as we can use them to identify individuals, looking for nicks in their big flight feathers or other distinguishing features.

We always hope that one or more might be attracted to join the Isle of Wight birds, but we also have to accept that these ‘new’ ones might encourage the island birds to wander. We’d like to hear of sightings, without encouraging anyone to leave home base, for these are eagles that fly over towns and villages on their journeys. Great photos have been already been taken from suburban gardens. Please report sightings here.

Eagle behaviour such as this, and that of the bird which returned to Norway, raises a fascinating question: from what distance can one large eagle see another, soaring on a clear day?  It looks as if they do go and look for – and maybe follow – each other. I remember how one golden eagle, which I was satellite tracking in Scotland, flew 40 km from Angus to Tentsmuir in Fife to check out a pair of white-tailed eagles, before tracking west to Perthshire.  On Saturday, we saw similar behaviour from young sea eagles. One flew from Rutland Water to the south Humber and, yesterday, on to the North York moors, while another flew from Berkshire to roost overnight just 5 miles from the Humber bird, then also flying north to the North York moors.  Were they alone? Or were they following a wanderer from over the sea? It’s a shame that people cannot see them but checking their progress on GoogleEarth is far more than I could do with those first errant Fair Isle eagles.  We are staying home, but they are free to fly, and we can follow them as they go.

All of the young White-tailed Eagles have wandered widely since late March. Check out their recent movements here.


Catching-up before Christmas

I’m sorry I haven’t written a blog for three months, but this past autumn saw me very busy at my desk and I’m delighted to say that I’ve finished writing two books. Collins is publishing the first next summer and it’s a big, exciting book about all the reintroductions, translocations and species recovery projects that I’ve been involved in over the last six decades: sea eagles, red kites, ospreys, red squirrels and a range of other birds and mammals. It’s been fun to rake through my diaries, field notebooks, papers and photos to tell an intriguing story of successes and, sometimes, failures. The shorter book is called Cottongrass Summer and is being published by Saraband. It’s fifty-two essays about nature conservation seen from the inside in an uncertain world. Much of the time, as I wrote, I also watched the antics of the local red squirrels collecting nuts in the hazel trees below me, often burying some in the garden. From the same window, I now see a beautiful ermine (white stoat) nosing around the woodpile. More often she raids the bird table for scraps, in fact she’s surprisingly vegetarian for a stoat. We also hear her footsteps, for she lives in the roof space of our front room.

Looking back on the summer it was really exciting that we could start the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to the Isle of Wight and also have a really successful third-year with the osprey translocation to Poole Harbour. Of course it’s the birds themselves which are markers of success. I’ve just looked at the satellite data and seen that three of the sea eagles are living on the Isle of Wight and one is in Oxfordshire. Two of the eagles on the island, a male and female from different locations, are always together and acting like a young pair. If they survive they could easily stay together to breed, but it’ll be a four-year wait – fingers crossed. It’s been great to watch people in southern England learn about sea eagles in their midst; despite their massive size, they are so unobtrusive. Perching in trees after a meal is what they do most of the day, but sometimes they soar and fly in view. It’s been great to see the beautiful photographs that some photographers have sent in – especially the pair flying over the Solent with the female carrying a small branch. They’ve also been making life more interesting for the local buzzards, crows and jackdaws, and in Oxfordshire the sight of a sea eagle followed by a gang of red kites is something special. Let’s hope the eagles are as successful as the kites we reintroduced.

Two of the Isle of Wight eagles earlier this autumn – male G2-74, and female G3-24, have spent much of the past three months together (photo by Nick Edwards)

With the Dorset ospreys, I was thrilled to bits when the guys from Birds of Poole Harbour reported the return of one of the young males translocated in 2017. At just two years old he was an early returner and he was in luck, because a young female osprey was summering at Poole Harbour and had been visiting osprey nests built in the area by the team. They stayed together for the rest of the summer and also took a great interest in the eleven young ospreys, translocated from the Scottish Highlands, once they had been released. This female had behaved in the same way with the previous years’ young and I’m sure these interactions are important for establishing new populations. The 2019 cohort were released in great condition, which should have helped them migrate all the way to West Africa. It was sad that a fox killed one a few days before it was due to leave, but that’s nature. Unlike the sea eagles, the ospreys disappear for the winter, and it’ll be very exciting to see if the pair survive their migrations and return next spring. That would be a landmark, and we should see other translocated young return to Dorset.

LS7 and CJ7 on an artificial nest at Poole Harbour this summer. We hope they will return to breed in 2020.

Both projects are aimed at restoring iconic species to the lands where they once lived but, as ever, I love the way these projects bring together great teams of people. The yearly sea eagle project starts with those who monitor nests in Scotland and let me know of suitable young. Then it’s collecting time, with Tim, Ian and Fraser climbing trees and cliffs, followed by the safe transport of the eaglets to the Isle of Wight, where our colleagues in Forestry England, Steve and Leanne, take over, helped by a group of enthusiastic volunteers. With the ospreys the southern part of the project is carried out by Paul and Brittany of Birds of Poole Harbour, again helped by a local dedicated team of helpers. This year my wife, Moira, has produced twelve podcasts of our fieldwork – it’s great listening. You can listen on our website here, or subscribe/download on all major podcast platforms.

Our Foundation receives some very superb support from donors to carry out these exciting projects but to maintain our vision we need donations – large and small. As a starter in 2020 we aim to translocate 12 young sea eagles to the Isle of Wight and 12 young ospreys to Dorset. Please help if you can, either by writing to us direct or by donating on our website.

This week we can help you if you are still thinking what to buy a friend for Christmas. Why not send us a charitable donation in their name? We’ll do the rest. Click here to make a gift donation and order your card.

Wishing you a Happy Christmas and an excellent New Year


So far, so good…

Last week, I visited the white-tailed eagle release area where Forestry England and the Foundation are embarking on a project to restore the sea eagle as a breeding bird to the Isle of Wight and the English Channel coast. The first six young have thrived since they were brought south from Mull, Skye and Wester Ross. Of course I had received frequent CCTV footage and photos of them growing up since they arrived there on 25th June; but I was delighted to see them in outstanding condition and ready for release. The hacking cages built by Pete Campbell, his metal work team and Dick Milner, the joiner, were the best I’ve seen. Daily supplies of plentiful fish and dead rabbit carefully threaded through a hatch in the back of the cage by Steve Egerton-Read, the project officer, meant that they young had grown and their plumage was perfect. And they had not seen a single person, important for keeping them truly wild birds.

Continuous monitoring was achieved through a superb CCTV system in each cage and on the roof, which allowed Steve and the team of volunteers to monitor progress. On Tuesday 20th we gathered at the site, with a contingent from Scotland, – Ian Perks, Dave Sexton and me, – joining Tim Mackrill, Steve and the team for the important step to catch up each bird so that our highly skilled raptor vet, John Chitty, could examine each bird before release. He passed all of them fit and ready for release, and also collected tiny blood samples to confirm sexes and for future DNA studies. Then we fitted small satellite transmitters to each one so that their movements post-release could be tracked. At this age these are now powerful birds, with very sharp bills and talons, and require careful but firm handling. By afternoon all was completed and they were back in their temporary homes.

Each of the birds were given a health check by vet John Chitty (right) prior to release.

It was a 4.45am start next day so that the team could lower the cage front door in darkness, which allows the young to come out in their own time when first light starts to illuminate the release area. Finally the big Mull female came out and perched on the front door, bouncing along the branch from side to side. She looked around but was slow to fly, so the male came out in a hurry and beat her to the first flight, which was into the nearby wood. Next morning and another pre-dawn start to release the other four young eagles. It’s a time of change for those who have looked after and watched over them for two months, and a time to wonder about the massive leap of releasing young sea eagles back to the Isle of Wight after an absence of 240 years.

The successful release was covered by a BBC crew and will feature soon on the ‘The One Show’. There has been tremendous interest and support for the project, and we have started to produce podcasts of our fieldwork that are now available on many of the podcast platforms. Our latest podcast covers the release of the eagles last week. To listen, click the link below.

Before release, we were not sure what they would do – would they stay nearby or would they just fly off in all directions and distances? In fact, they all stayed close by, within a few kilometres and three remained in the immediate vicinity. Those ones started to return to the feeding platform and the top of the cages where Steve placed fresh fish each day after dark, so as not to disturb them. Most of the time they perched in trees at the edge of woods, spending their time watching what was happening in their new world. For such a huge bird they can be surprisingly unobtrusive, and despite many reports of people seeing them, we were able to confirm from their satellite tracks that only a couple of people would have seen them in the first days. We are keeping the release location confidential for the welfare of the birds, but as they start to disperse, we’ll be posting regular updates on their movements. We also hope it will be possible to set-up a public eagle viewpoint once the settlement patterns of the birds are understood.

We are very grateful to two generous donors, who have allowed us to get the project underway and to employ a full-time project officer. We are very careful with funds for these projects do cost money and as well as general support donations which come in through our website or mail, we would welcome help with paying for certain equipment. For example someone to sponsor the top-class CCTV equipment (£11,000) or the satellite transmitters at £1200 each and with the white-tailed eagles being so good at hiding in woods a thermal imager for the project would be extremely useful. You can make a donation or get in touch via the support us page if you would like to help this ground breaking project.

Two of the eagles perched together after release last week. Both of these birds are females (photo by Tim Mackrill)

The released eagles are now growing in confidence on the wing (photo by Steve Egerton-Read)

Poole Harbour Osprey Translocation 2019

Really great news that 11 young Scottish ospreys, the class of 2019, are now flying free at Poole Harbour, in this the third year of the translocation project we are running in partnership with Birds of Poole Harbour and local Poole-based business, Wildlife Windows. It was a difficult year in Scotland to collect young because the weather was very changeable; we also found that there was tremendous variation in the ages of the chicks. For example, one nest contained three big young of over five weeks old while at the nearest nest, there was a single chick that was less than two weeks of age. This was of course due to the difficult weather on migration in April for the birds coming back through southern Europe from West Africa, reflected by many summer migrants ,including the house martins that nest on my neighbour’s house.

My monitoring in the first days of July showed which pairs had young suitable for us to collect under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage. We also made a decision to delay it for a couple of days so that we knew the young would be larger. Tim Mackrill came up to help me finish off the holding pens where the young live on nice soft beds of moss and hay, just like nests. It’s where we keep the birds for the few days between collection and translocation to Poole. Each day, new chicks are placed together in ‘sibling’ units of three, which very quickly learn to eat the cut-up trout. During this time they cannot see people.

The chicks are translocated to Poole at approximately 6 weeks of age

Ian Perks climbing to one of the Osprey nests

The tree climbing team was again our friends, Ian Perks and Fraser Cormack, who are not only brilliant climbers but are also very careful and competent with the young. During our three days of osprey ringing, we collected nine young ospreys and on the last day Tim had a long drive north to Caithness and back, to collect two young male ospreys from a nest on farm, where a week earlier with our farmer friend we had ringed three excellent osprey chicks, one female and two males.  That night Tim and Ian drove south and the next day the eleven young were safely in the hacking cages at Poole.

In the spring, I had visited the new location for the osprey release, which had been set up on private land by Paul Morton of Birds of Poole Harbour and Jason Fathers of Wildlife Windows. I regarded it as an excellent release site with much better places for the ospreys to perch once released, and with greater security. On 30th July, Tim and I revisited and met up with the full team including Paul, Brittany and Jason, and the two new assistants Lucy and Olivia. I was immediately struck, when viewing with the CCTV in each cage, that the young ospreys were all in excellent condition, with all of them feeding well on trout and looking very ready to be released. During the morning all of them were caught so that we could re-measure and weigh them, and, importantly, to carefully attach a tiny 2 gm transmitter to a central tail feather for monitoring purposes during the first few weeks.  I was immediately impressed that all were in perfect condition. Like many migratory birds they lay down fat on the sides of their breasts as a store of energy for the long flight south. That evening I departed for Scotland very satisfied that the third year of the project was looking great.

Roy with one of the young Ospreys after fitting it with a tail-mounted radio transmitter. This helps the team to monitor the young birds after release.

Four days later, just after dawn, Tim joined Paul and the team at Poole and started to remotely release birds in sequence from the hacking pens. The ospreys quickly found safe perching places in large trees near the hacking site and within a day, the first of them were coming back to the cages or the special feeding platform nests for trout. It was fascinating that within a day of being released the two ‘resident’ ospreys now living in Poole Harbour found the new arrivals.

Adult female, CJ7, on one of the feeding nests with a translocated juvenile

Paul and Brittany had told us about the return in Spring of the Rutland Water female CJ7, which has decided that she wants to breed in Poole Harbour. She regularly visited nests that had been built by us around the harbour and, finally in late June, she was joined by the two-year-old male LS7, which was translocated to Poole Harbour in 2017 and was seen in Senegal that winter. Once they found each other they were regularly at nests, carrying sticks and the male taking fish back to the nest for the female. Of course it was too late this year for them to breed, but we hope that both survive the next migrations and their winters in Africa and that they meet again next spring at Poole. That would be magnificent: the first ’mullet hawks’ to reclaim the ancestral breeding grounds.  And of course others might return and join them, while migrants, especially females, passing over the harbour might decide to stay for it is absolutely top-class osprey habitat, with plentiful supplies of grey mullet.

The Foundation has made a series of podcasts about our projects; the first about the collection of young ospreys for Poole is now out. Click the link below to listen.

The exciting return of Morven’s son – carrying on from his illustrious mother

Some ospreys remain in my mind for many years. There are old favourites like Logie, the first that I tracked with a new and highly accurate GPS satellite transmitter in 2007. Another was her neighbour, Morven. She tried to take over Logie’s nest in April 2008 but was quickly kicked out when Logie got back from Guinea Bissau. As a five-year-old local bird Morven spent the summer visiting osprey nesting places in the North of Scotland. On 9thJuly I live-caught her and fitted a transmitter when she was near the nest belonging to Beatrice – another of the Forres clan. Soon we learnt about her life. Instead of going south in late August she flew north to the Caithness trout lochs, not far north of the distinctive mountain named Morven. It’s a landmark across the Moray Firth from where I live near Forres. She was observed there by my old friend Stan Laybourne before migrating south. Winter quarters proved to be on the coast of Mauritania.

We satellite-tagged Morven as an adult in Moray in 2008.

Morven migrated to Mauritania after we tagged her in 2008. He transmitter to continued to provide data for a further five years.

Perseverance paid off because the following spring she bred with Logie’s old mate Talisman and reared one young. Logie had disappeared in September 2008 on autumn migration.  Morven’s annual migration pattern was then established; after breeding she flew north each year to Caithness for a few weeks trout fishing and then migrated south to the Mauritanian coast.  On the spring migration north she stopped off for a short break on the Villiviciosa estuary in North Spain, before the last leg to Moray. In 2011 she bred again at the same nest but with a new male, yellow HA, and reared 3 young, they reared one young in 2012 and three in 2013. But in 2014 her mate was killed by a new male, and they were also kicked out by a younger pair and moved to unused nest some miles away.  Morven was too late to breed in 2014 but she and her new mate reared two young in 2015 and one in 2016.  In March 2017 she was live-trapped at an artificial osprey nest on the Villiviciosa estuary by osprey biologist, Doriana Pando, and the defunct transmitter was removed.

Morven and her mate, Talisman.

Some ospreys were very delayed by bad weather in 2017 but not Morven, who gave up waiting for her mate and moved to join an old male at another nest in the Forres area, and there she reared three young. In 2018, she was at the Spanish estuary on 20thMarch and returned to incubate eggs, but the nesting attempt failed, possibly due to pine martens. She has not been seen since.  15 years of age she contributed much to osprey conservation. She nested in three different eyries with four different mates which is unusual for ospreys. Some of her young were translocated to the Basque reintroduction project and one in 2015 to start the Swiss project. We also satellite tagged her single young in 2012 and named him Stan, in memory of my Caithness birding friend, who had died. Sadly, we lost contact with Stan off the Cape Verde islands after an incredible nine day, 5000 kilometres migration over the Atlantic Ocean via the Canary Islands.

Importantly in 2017, one of her young, blue colour ring LS7, was translocated to Poole Harbour. LS7 was a young male, the first to fly from the hacking cages at Poole Harbour when we started the latest reintroduction project in partnership with Birds of Poole Harbour and Wildlife Windows. He was a winner, attacked by a peregrine on his first flight at 05.45am on 31stJuly 2017, he soon settled down to feed up from fresh fish supplied by the project team.

LS7 was the first of the birds to fly after release on 31st July (photo by Tim Mackrill)

He was the first to leave on migration  on 25thAugust and his post-fledging period of 25 days was equal shortest of the eight young that year.  On 22ndJanuary 2018 he was seen and identified on the  Ile des Oiseaux by Adam Lene a ranger in the Sine Saloum National Park in Senegal. Both Tim and I have visited this fantastic sandy island off the mangrove swamps, it’s an osprey Mecca.

LS7 was seen at Ile des Oiseaux in Senegal on 22nd January 2018. Wintering birds – both adults and juveniles – often perch together at this osprey Mecca (photo by John Wright).

It’s a long two-year’s wait to see which ospreys have survived their migrations and extended stays in West Africa and then return to the UK. LS7 was our first return as a two-year old when he was seen and identified by Paul Morton on 12thJune. Almost immediately he met the well-known female, blue CJ7, which fledged from a nest at Rutland Water in 2015. She has been a regular at Poole Harbour and this spring was building up nests around the harbour and keeping an eye out for a mate.  Too late to breed in 2019, their activity together bodes well for the future. These recovery projects rely so often on small numbers of winners, which have survived their first years learning the migration routes and wintering sites, and the associated dangers of bad weather and predators.

In a few week’s time the next group of young Scottish ospreys will be in the Poole Harbour hacking-cages ready for release from the end of July. I guess both LS7 and CJ7 will take an interest in the new cohort of ospreys and hopefully they will survive to start a breeding population in the south coast estuaries. Then we can say the mullet-hawk is truly back. If LS7 is the pioneer of that exciting future then he will be following in his mother’s illustrious life.

LS7 returned to Poole Harbour on 12th June (photo by Alison Copland)

Four minutes to get under a table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Area of Ecological Importance

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

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

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


Three cheers for beavers

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

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

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

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

Photo by Laurie Campbell


Red Kites

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

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

Altruism and profligacy

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

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

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

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

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