Raven threat to lambs

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Post on April 30, 2017

By Nick Drainey

Lambing season for farmer Selena Swanson has become a time of fear as the growing number of ravens prove a deadly foe for newborn lambs.

At the family farm near Halkirk in Caithness, Selena said: “I have just taken in a lamb who was still alive but its eye had been pecked out and we didn’t manage to save it.”

Selena, and her husband John, have lost dozens of lambs to ravens, forcing them to move pregnant ewes into sheds, rather than the natural environment of the fields outside.

Selena said they would prefer to be outside but after losing 50 newborn lambs last year they had no choice but to go indoors.

Even then, the lambs are still at risk when they go outside. Selena said as well as the dead lamb she found one injured nearby. She said: “I have another one which I managed to save – it has part of its tongue missing.

“We have to leave them inside longer now – we keep them in for four to five days if we can and we have built some pens outside so they can get that bit stronger before they go into the field.”

Selena is unsure why the birds attack as the carcasses are often left untouched once the lamb is dead. She said: “They don’t always peck them to death – their eyes and the tongues are the main bit, but they will go for the back end as well.

“It is just an enjoyment, there is a little bit of hunger but it is not all for hunger. If they were hungry they would just be eating the weak ones which you expect and is part of farming.”

Selena, whose 350 breeding ewes produce more than 500 lambs a year, has a joint Scottish Natural Heritage licence with five neighbouring farms to cull 50 ravens, up from a single licence to kill 5 last year.

But she said more needs to be done and is hoping SNH will come up with a better solution. She said: “It certainly helps but it is not going to make a big enough impact. They are going to need to come up with some ideas; we don’t want them killed outright but we want them controlled because they are getting out of control.

“SNH have been helpful, they have stepped up this year. They have said they will come up with other ideas depending on feedback – it is not a problem that is going to be fixed straight away but if we can start do something then that has got to be a bonus.”

Selena, who has also tried scarecrows, bags on the ends of poles, kites and even motorbikes to scare the birds away, said: “We are trying to preserve a life and the ravens are taking away the life – we want our animals to live and survive, we don’t want them to be lying, suffering.”

Raven numbers have increased by more than 40% in the last 20 years and there are thought to be up to 3,000 breeding pairs in Scotland. While some would see this as a success story it has led to flocks of the birds being seen in areas where previously there would only have been a handful.

The birds peck out the eyes and tongues of young lambs, often working in pairs with one distracting the ewe while the other attacks her offspring.

There has been a huge increase in the number of licences issued to control them but farmers say more needs to be done to stop the carnage in the fields which the National Farmers’ Union say is increasing.

NFU Scotland’s Deputy Director of Policy, Andrew Bauer said: “Raven predation has serious animal welfare implications, causes huge emotional distress to the livestock keepers as well as a financial impact on the business.

“In recent times there have been some graphic demonstrations of the dreadful impact that ravens can have on young lambs and, in some cases, calves. Sadly, raven predation isn’t a new problem but around the country some farmers and crofters are seeing the raven population increasing in size and range.”

Raven numbers have risen in recent years after many decades of persecution by farmers and gamekeepers came to an end.

However, the numbers are causing problems and there were 162 licenses to shoot ravens issued by SNH in 2016, twice as many as in 2014. They led to the shooting of 690 birds.

But Mr Bauer said more work was needed to understand how may ravens there were “because our members believe there are a lot more than the official figures”. He added: “There is also an issue about people being able to shoot as many ravens as they are authorised to because ravens are a difficult bird to shoot and there are not as many farmers with the right type of rifles anymore, and it is time consuming.

“We need to get a balance between conservation and the protection of lambs.”

The intelligence of ravens is well known among farmers and landowners and research has found they are among a group of animals second in brain power only to humans. In experiments which involved animals finding food, carried out at Lund University in Sweden, scientists found that despite having tiny brains ravens were as clever as chimpanzees, the smartest primate.

A spokesman for The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said licences were necessary “to protect livestock under the Wildlife and Countryside Act”. He added: “A flexible licensing system is the answer to the problem, and many other problems of predation in the countryside. The ability to control a set number of ravens at lambing time is not going to affect in any way the conservation status of the raven but it could make a huge difference to the economics of the farm operation. It is a win, win situation.”

Robbie Kernahan, SNH’s wildlife operations manager, said research was being carried out “to get a better understanding of what is happening with raven populations in Scotland and how we can strike the right balance between conserving the wider populations of ravens and minimising the impact that they can have on other interests”.

He added: “We acknowledge the damage that ravens can cause to livestock and the impact this has on farmers. We issue licences to control ravens to those who are suffering or likely to suffer serious damage to their livestock where there is no other satisfactory solution. These licences permit shooting of birds that are causing the damage, with the aim of removing problem birds and deterring other ravens. It’s important to note that preventing serious damage caused by ravens isn’t just about licensing, but also about ensuring that there is good animal husbandry, and employing other scaring techniques to deter birds. If someone is experiencing damage to livestock from ravens then they should contact SNH licensing team.

“We’re working with farmers to look at different approaches in areas where there are particularly serious problems to better help them to address issues.”

Cademuir Hill, Peebles

A version of this walk description appeared in Scotland on Sunday on May 07, 2017

CADEMUIR HILL, PEEBLES

The Forestry Commission has been doing quite a bit of work at Cademuir, just to the south of Peebles. What was once a nice stroll now includes the top of the hill and although the cleared forestry is not the prettiest, more trees are promised and the lack of branches mean excellent views are to be had of the Tweed Valley and Southern Uplands.

All of this made me head off to try the new route – named the Pilot’s Trail like its predecessor, after two German pilots who hid in the woods here in after their plane came down nearby. They were caught when smoke from their campfire was spotted.

But, as good as the trail was, it was something completely different which I most enjoyed, and it happened right next to the car park – a group of four young roe deer were feeding on the edge of the woods. Maybe it was their juvenile age but they seemed rather less afraid than deer would usually be. I enjoyed a joyous five minutes watching them before they decided that the fellow with a rucksack was becoming annoying and sauntered deep into the forest.

DISTANCE: 3½ miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 730ft.

TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 73.

PARK: Head over the Tweed on the B7062 from Peebles’ High Street then take the second right, up Springhill Road. After about 400 yards turn right into Springwood Road and just before the High School go left, down Bonnington Road. There is a Forestry Commission car park about a mile and half down the road, on the right.

IN SUMMARY: Take a path on the right at the top of the car park to walk up through woodland. (You are following marker posts with red flashes on them throughout the walk.)

This is a steep-ish start but it means you reach views more quickly. The path turns sharp right and continues to a picnic bench at a junction, where you go left.

A path leads downhill slightly before becoming a track and crossing an area of felled forestry. When the track has turned right go right, up a stony path which takes you round to the right and up to the top of Cademuir Hill, with another picnic bench.

Enjoy the views then follow the path over the top of the hill and drop down before bearing right, away from a wall with a field beyond. The path continues all the way down to the picnic bench passed earlier (at a junction). Go left here and drop down further through the trees to a junction almost on the edge of Peebles. Turn right and follow a wider path which becomes a track, back to the start.

 

Safari on Loch Tay

Pic credit – Phil Wilkinson

A version of this article first appeared on April 5, 2017 in The Times and The Herald

By Nick Drainey

Tourist boats are to return to Loch Tay nearly 70 years after steamers last took day trippers across the waters, amid the mountains of HighlandPerthshire.

The Earl of Breadalbane created the Loch Tay Steam Boat Company which sailed between Killin and Kenmore via Ardeonaig, Lawers, Ardtalnaig and Fearnan in 1882.  But the last steamer, the Queen of the Lake, stopped sailing in 1949 because it was losing money when the Royal Mail stopped using the boats and improved roads were built on the back of a growth in car ownership. The branch lines to Aberfeldy and Killin which brought day-trippers from Edinburgh and Glasgow to the steamer then closed in 1965.

Now, the tradition of pleasure trips is now restarting with Loch Tay Safaris’ Iolaire, a purpose-built 12-seater rib based at Kenmore. It is the latest in a list of activities including trips across moorland and mountain to watch wildlife, gold panning, and a red deer park run by Donald and Julie Riddell of Highland Safaris. The couple are marking 25 years in business this year, tapping into the trend for widlife tourism.

Both have roots in the Kenmore and Glen Lyon area stretching back over a century and have tapped into their knowledge of the history and wildlife to build their business.

The Loch Tay Safaris boat was named Iolaire – Gaelic for eagle – because it is the same name as a steam powered yacht belonging to Donald’s great-grandfather. Sir Donald Currie founded the Union Castle Shipping Line and was a well-known philanthropist and naturalist who owned estates in and around Glen Lyon.

The original Iolaire was commissioned to detect and destroy mines off the west of Scotland as the horrors and misery of the First World War reached their peak.

The new boat will take in sights such as an Iron Age Crannog and the Sybilla’s Island, where the 12th century queen, wife of Alexander King of Scots, is said by some to be buried.

It will also cross the deepest part of the loch, below the Munro of Ben Lawers. In these 150m waters there is said to lie an ancient Kelpie, who historically was fed boats to provide boats safe passage.

Donald, 58, was born in Glasgow but his family owned an estate in Glen Lyon which he visited every summer as a boy. He moved to the area in the late 1970s and took up farming before moving into tourism. Julie, 52, was born and bred in the area and her family farmed Mains of Taymouth, just down the road from her current home, before diversifying it into a holiday park, self-catering and a golf course.

Julie says their local knowledge means tourists get both wildlife and heritage information. She said: “This whole area is our lives and for generations it is very much in our blood. All the characters that we both grew up with were able to tell us stories of what it was like from the turn of the century onwards – I wish I had had a microphone.

“My father is 86 and is the oldest indigenous Kenmore resident. He can remember sitting in the steamer in the late 1930s with his mum having tea and he was looking over the side.

“Now, Dad goes off on his disabled scooter and he looks out for people to tell them about Taymouth Castle and how it was a Polish hospital during World War Two.  He feels really privileged but I feel really privileged because it is a beautiful area and it is a wonderful thing sharing your passion with visitors.”

Highland Safaris began in 1992 from simple evening walks organised by Donald after a day farming.

He says: “I have always had a deep love for the outdoors and we met on a badger watching safari. We got married and the idea had been formulating but it was very much a hobby.”

Donald and Julie realised it could be a full time business which has been growing ever since, including the new boat.

Donald adds: “TV programmes have brought the outdoors into people’s living rooms and they want to get an experience of that but they want to do it in a safe way.”

Bothy bible is the word

Camban bothy, Kintail. Pic credit – Geoff Allan

A version of this article first appeared on April 3, 2017 in The Times

By Nick Drainey

Geoff Allan does not do hotels, B&Bs or even campsites if he can help it, never mind vehicles.

For five years, he has been using pedal and foot power to visit nearly 100 bothies, from Cape Wrath to Galloway.

For the first time, the often hidden network of abandoned croft buildings and shepherd’s huts which provide little more than a roof to shelter under has been chronicled by Geoff. Far away from the usual tourist accommodation and without electricity or running water, he had to carry in his own food, as well as wood for fire to cook it on, battling the Scottish weather as he did so.

But the solo adventure was a labour of love which culminated in The Scottish Bothy Bible, which has just been published.

Geoff says: “It was a long process, I rediscovered Scotland at a slower pace on the bike.”

But it was a bit more than a long bike ride in the sun. Geoff says: “The hardest day was on Skye.

“I woke up at 7am and knew from the forecast there was a weather window of about six hours and then a big storm. It was 25 miles to Dunvegan, raining constantly, I was soaking wet. Then, there was a 10 mile hike to Ollisdal bothy.”

But when the weather lifted he was rewarded with a great view of Macleod’s Maidens, sea stacks just off the coast.

Geoff says: “Then, I got back to the bike and there was a 25 mile bike ride with a storm coming, all against the wind. That was a long day.”

Each bothy is different, according to Geoff. They can be small or multi-roomed, often in old buildings not used since shepherd’s were regular faces in glens. Some have a good source of wood nearby while for others it needs to be carried in along with your food.

But one of the most important things is to get on with others when you arrive.

Geoff, who lives in Edinburgh and trained as a surveyor but now devotes his time to photography and bothies, says: “I like to be on my own and I like to chat to people, I don’t mind either. Your bothy experience is what you make it in terms of the food and fuel you bring and your social experiences.

“I cycled down to Over Phawhope in the Borders and it was a Sunday night and I thought I would have it to myself.

“But there was a group from Edinburgh in there, and they were already drinking. There was one of two ways to go – a cold room to sleep in or go with it. They gave me a seat by the fire, a glass of wine and away we went. I had the best sing song I have ever had.

“They left in the morning and I had an extra night on my own, so it is a kind of balance.”

Since he began the book, Geoff says he has noticed changes in the Scottish countryside, not least that “bike-packing (rather than backpacking) has become a thing”.

He adds: “The key thing for me is that the bothies are getting more comfortable. There are more sleeping platforms and more stoves instead of sleeping on the floor with a badly drawing fireplace. The Mountain Bothy Association are spending a lot of money making them better. This is the best ever time to go bothying and it is only going to get better.”

Geoff, who first went bothying to Camban in Kintail as a student at Edinburgh University nearly 30 years ago, says the challenges are there when bothying, but not enough to make it dangerous for the well prepared.

He says: “There is a real frisson of being out in winter on your own, knowing there is no-one around for 10 or 15 miles if you get into trouble. Your eyes are wide open because you know you can’t make a mistake.

“But even if you do it is generally only annoying and uncomfortable. All these components make bothying a challenging but not too hard and then your reward is a being set up for the evening with a fire and a glass of wine.”

*The Scottish Bothy Bible is published by Wild Things Publishing and costs £16.99

Pic credit – Geoff Allan

Wolf calls grow louder

A version of this article first appeared on February 21, 2017 in the Daily Telegraph

By Nick Drainey

High in the Cairngorms, the old gnarled Scots pines we see now were once saplings, growing while shepherds stood guarding their lambs from packs of wolves.

For award-winning TV presenter and cameraman Simon King that scene, dating back more than three centuries, should once again become a feature of the Scottish countryside –one he claims will benefit the communities who live in the Highlands.

“If we are talking about reintroducing apex predators such as wolves and lnyx, yes, good plan because we killed them in the first place and it wasn’t that long ago,” says King, who is a well-known face on the BBC’s Springwatch and Big Cat Diary and Planet Earth.

It is widely thought Sir Ewen Cameron shot the last wold in Scotland at Killiecrankie in 1680 although some reports suggest the animal was still surviving a century later.

While predatory animals need to be respected, fears over damage to farm animals are overblown, King says.

“What we did was upset the apple cart monstrously by eradicating wild boar and beaver, which have started to make a comeback, and by eradicating all apex predators – they haven’t made a comeback because we are so phobic about losing a single lamb.

“Shepherds are so-called because they used to sit on the hill protecting sheep against just such predations. But we have lost the idea of living in harmony with everything about us – I am not being romantic about this, I have spent plenty of time in communities which do have depredations from lions and tigers and leopards.”

King says the tourism benefits would also help rural economies. He says: “You would have the most magnificent experience as a visitor … If there is the opportunity to walk in a landscape where you stand a chance of seeing a wolf on the hillside, albeit a kilometre away chasing a herd of deer, yes you are going to go and see it, the best show on earth.

“There are Scots pines that had wolves brushing along their flanks when they were saplings still standing now and when you realise that and touch the trees you realise how wrong it was to take this balancing of the natural world out of the equation.”

In 2003, Paul Lister, bought the 23,000 acre Alladale estate near Bonar Bridge in Sutherland with aim of turning it into a wilderness reserve. Although he has introduced boars and elk, his idea of wolves has stalled amid strong opposition to the requirement for a fence to be built around the land.

But calls for re-wilding, or returning land to its natural state, have become louder in Scotland in recent years, but King says that as well as allowing wild animals to thrive, we also need to change our own habits to help the environment.

That can be something as simple as questioning where our food comes from and working out the “true cost” of what we eat.

King says food and growth are the biggest challenges to the planet. “As we consume, not just food but resources in other ways, it affects the face of the land very dramatically.

“We have lost the connection with what it takes to create something that gives us energy. A simple example is if you go in a roadside café and buy a bacon sarnie, it is very tempting, they smell good. But where did the bread come from, how was the wheat grown and how much grain did it take to feed the pig and indeed how did that pig live – would you eat it if you saw how much antibiotic had been put into it?”

King says while governments could be tougher on industrial practices in farming or manufacturing there needs to be a “paradigm shift” in our own everyday habits where “stuff” can dominate people’s lives. But he admits it is hard. “We are where we are today … it is too easy to make bad decisions. There is not a single industry or farm that doesn’t depend on a customer, so relinquish responsibility and point at politicians and systems and say ‘get it right’? No, get it right with what you buy.”

King has travelled the world filming wildlife for major TV series but Scotland is somewhere he loves above all and he will be appearing at the Wild Film Festival Scotland which takes place in Dumfries in March. The first event of its kind in the UK, it will celebrate the natural world through film, photography and discussion, and bring together internationally renowned photographers and film makers.

King says: “When I am asked, I say my favourite place on earth is Scotland by quite a margin. My mother was born in Glasgow so the sound of Scotland rings true to me in terms of the human language and the sense that there can be wilderness in such a small isle. There are tracts of Scotland which still have an edge of wilderness about them – I am not saying there are places where no man has ever trod but in most of the rest of the British Isles there is a constant suppression and sense of dominion. Wherever you turn it has been tweaked or cut, or sprayed or trimmed and I find that obscene, an abuse of the most precious resource we have which is the earth beneath our feet. In Scotland, I can feel as though there is a balance and a harmony and that makes me feel good.”

*The Wild Film Festival Scotland takes place in Dumfries Between March 24 and 26. For more information go to www.wildfilmfestivalscotland.co.uk.

 

Snap happy

© Mick Durham www.wildlife-photographer.net

A version of this article first appeared on February 9, 2017 in the Daily Record and The Herald

By Nick Drainey

We think nothing of taking hundreds of snaps on our iPhones or digital cameras in the hope that at least a few will be worthy of use on social media, as a lap top wallpaper or even in the old fashioned picture frame on the wall.

But does that mean photography is getting easier? Not according to Rod Wheelans who at 70 is about to become president of one of the leading camera clubs in Britain which will take part in a prestigious festival of nature film and photography.

Good reflexes, a certain amount of patience and a quality camera are what’s needed to take a really good nature photograph, says Mr Wheelans, a former fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

Dumfries Camera Club will be showing off its work at the Wild Film Festival Scotland which takes place in Dumfries in March. The first event of its kind in the UK, it will celebrate the natural world through film, photography and discussion, and bring together internationally renowned photographers and film makers.

Mr Wheelans, who is about to become president of the club, which is itself 70 years old this year, says the members are rightly proud of what they do: “There are over a 1,000 camera clubs in Great Britain and we are definitely in the top ten.”

He adds that nature photography is more popular than ever, helped by the proliferation of nature reserves and hides which make animals easier to see.

“We have a lot of variety of work but in the past four or five years nature work has become almost dominant. Ten years ago we maybe only had a couple of nature people and they were more nature lovers rather than photographers – one of our members said they were ‘more interested in the birds, the photographs are the trophies of the hunt’. These people were building their own hides and sitting in them for hours on end, days on end but there is less need for that now.”

One of the recent highlights of the club’s work has been a photograph of a sparrowhawk catching a bird in flight, taken by outgoing president Mick Durham. It was highly commended in The British Wildlife Photographer Awards 2016 and will be included in the BWPA exhibition at Gracefield Arts Centre as part of the festival.

Mr Wheelans says the way the picture was taken sounds like a piece of good fortune but it was actually a tricky shot.

He says: “He took it in his back garden which makes it sound like he walked down his garden and took the shot but that is not quite how it happened. He has a hide in the garden – his wife says she was having his mail redirected there because he was never in the house. He saw this sparrowhawk passing his garden when it grabbed a bird out of the air right in front of him and he got two or three shots.

“Yes, it is luck but as a lot of famous people have said, the more you practise, the luckier you get.”

The club’s exhibition – Creatures of the Nith – focuses on the wildlife on the river which flows through Dumfries.

Mr Wheelans says that good equipment is vital to capture good wildlife shots but that “considerable investment” still doesn’t guarantee a superb picture.

He says: “You also need to understand how the creatures behave and you also need very good reflexes to catch the shot, and there is a lot of patience involved. It is not as easy as it looks, you still need a fair bit of skill to get the shots – a hundred people can go to a site but a hundred people don’t come away with prize winning shots.”

Mr Wheelans had his first camera at the age of seven when his father won it at a fair near Edinburgh. But he jokes: “I didn’t become a serious photographer until I was 11 – I went up through the normal things like Brownie 127 and I had an SLR by the time I was 13. I just went around snapping all the pictures and then taking the film to the chemist.”

In those days of film he says he had to be careful when pressing the shutter button: “I took pictures of everything really – the family, the house, the place we were, the dog, I didn’t care what it was. You made a film last then. It is a discipline that you don’t think of now – you thought ‘I can’t take two shots of this because I can’t afford another film’.”

But he says the changes have not necessarily made it easier to take a good shot.

He says: “People, particularly in some subjects like nature, machine gun (the shutter). A bird is flying in and you put it on 10 or 20 frames a second and just rattle away. You take maybe a thousand pictures where you would once have taken two. It is what the cameras are capable of now, something we never dreamed of.

“I am hesitant to say it is easier. It is just you can do things now that you couldn’t do (in the past). You still have to make the thing sharp and you still have to catch it.”

When it comes to other club members, Mr Wheelans’ wife, Anne Greiner, provides his sternest competition. They are both Masters of the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain and Mr Wheelans, who is retired but worked for BT before becoming a studio and wedding photographer in his 50s, says: “I think she has the edge on me, she has an eye for the quirky. She beats me in the club competitions fairly regularly.”

Ed Forrest, Project Manager for the Southern Upland Partnership which has led the partnership of local wildlife groups which set up the Wild Film Festival Scotland, said: “There are so many people out there who love wildlife films and photography, so it’s high time they had chance to revel in some of the best around. We are very much looking forward to welcoming them to join us for this great new festival in Dumfries.”

*The Wild Film Festival Scotland takes place in Dumfries Between March 24 and 26. For more information go to www.wildfilmfestivalscotland.co.uk.

© Tom Langlands www.tomlanglandsphotography.com

© Tom Langlands www.tomlanglandsphotography.com