Watch the birdie



We’re running low on song thrushes according to the RSPB which is holding its Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.

The survey makes us “citizen scientists” says chief executive Mike Clarke, which is a snazzy PR idea but maybe a little denigrating to those who have been through years and years of study and research.

For our children, and their friends, it doesn’t matter what you call them, they just want to spot as many birds as possible. And that is a good thing if it means the next generation are being enthused about wildlife.

The lack of song thrushes is bad news, especially in our garden where they are needed to take care of the ‘eat yer greens’ brigade of slugs and snails. But it is good that long tailed tits are on the up – a group of them in the hawthorn hedge next to my office can often make a wonderful cacophony.

As with all statistics to do with wildlife, however, remember that in localised areas the picture can be different – just ask a gamekeeper who has to put up with a large number of buzzards or a farmer whose land lies beneath growing numbers of sea eagles.

That is not to say a rise in numbers is bad but it surely should be the case that just as we manage a reintroduction we should also, sometimes, need to manage numbers when they rise. More on this in the coming weeks…

Seeing the wood in the trees

Forestry is an issue which can often divide opinion and it was interesting to hear about the Save the Gretas campaign against a proposed plantation near Largs.
Those opposed say the trees will ruin what is a wonderful local resource but with the developers having to run a rural business, a balance has to be found.
Whether this means changing the proposal or moving it somewhere else is in the hands of many interested parties. But we should aim to have balance in decisions about the future of forestry, as well as many other aspects of Scotland’s countryside. It is an issue I wrote about when describing Loch an Eilein in the Cairngorms in the latest edition of The Scots Magazine:
“The land reform agenda is a great opportunity to discuss how rural Scotland is shaped and used, but when it comes to forestry there is no sign anything on the ground will actually change.
“There is no doubt that planting trees is good for the environment and their use in buildings is relatively carbon friendly, but at what cost to the landscape of Scotland? More sympathetic planting is underway but you only have to look at areas where felling has taken place to see how they can leave scars for several years.
“We must balance the need for trees with the need for pleasant surroundings for tourists to visit, nature to thrive and Scotland to retain its natural character – maybe somewhere like Loch an Eilein.”
Go to the Save the Gretas Facebook page to find out more about the campaign.

No longer disenchanted

Despite having strong views, particularly about rural Scotland, I am no politician. This came home to me on a walk through Faskally Wood earlier this month when discussing the annual sound and light extravaganza which is the Enchanted Forest.

Fifteen years ago, when the show started, I had a rather curmudgeonly attitude to the attraction which to me was a sad state of affairs because ‘you shouldn’t need to light up nature to make people appreciate it’.

But a couple of weeks ago, when walking round Loch Dunmore, which is illuminated every autumn, I recalled how much my opinion has changed (this u-turn is the bit which proves I’m no politician). Now, it is a highlight of the year in our house and not just because of the tradition of having fish and chips before the show starts.

One of the best memories is when my youngest saw an actor standing below a tree bathed in yellow light dressed in robes like a monk. In a loud stage whisper the then four year old announced “There’s God!”

Away from the ethereal experiences of the Enchanted Forest production the area is still a great place to wander, at any time of year. It is far more peaceful and there is the chance of seeing a resident kingfisher but that does not necessarily mean it is better, just different.

Ten reasons to brave the cold in January

There are always reasons to avoid going outdoors when it is chilly, but very often the benefits of putting on your boots can outweigh them.

  1. The wind lashing in your face, maybe with a bit of hail in it just for that added extra sting, the clouds are grey and low, the outlook is unremittingly bleak  – but it’s great to be alive. There’s nothing like having your senses stimulated and tested by the Scottish winter weather to remind you you’re still on the planet.
  2. A walk will put you and yours in a better mood. Dark days, no cash, post-Christmas slump – little wonder divorce proceedings peak in January. Now I can’t promise a walk will save any marriages but I do know that getting out for a walk will iron out any grumps from both children and adults and I can say that from experience.
  3. A lack of leaves on the trees means views that are sometimes completely hidden can open up. Think of the Birks of Aberfeldy and the Hermitage and autumn comes to mind but in winter when the leaves have gone the raging torrents of water can be seen far more easily.
  4. It’s a great time to see winter visitors to our shores, such as the pink-footed geese at the Loch of Strathbeg in Buchan.
  5. A brisk walk means you’re justified in polishing off the rest of the Christmas Quality Street. It’s not gluttony, it’s refuelling.
  6. It’s not just good for the soul, it’s good for the body – scientists say that moving from warm house to warm car to warm office isn’t doing us any good. Our bodies need to cope with some changes in temperature to stay healthy.
  7. Even in the depths of winter, there are new signs of life – the purple blur on the birch trees, the snowdrops poking through the soil.
  8. New year, new place. Perfect time to seek out somewhere different while you’re all full of good resolutions and feelings of a new start. For me it is all about finding new walks for my columns in the Scots Magazine and Scotland on Sunday.
  9. This may sound terribly curmudgeonly and unsociable but a beach walk in winter is brilliant because of the lack of crowds. Yellowcraig beach in East Lothian is a good example – a sunny Saturday in the summer hols and it’s packed – still a lovely beach but it’s a whole different experience walking in the (relative) solitude of a January day.
  10. It’s a cheap way to get cracking on those New Year’s resolutions to stay fit – so long as you’ve got a good pair of walking shoes, you’re good to go and Scotland is your oyster

Winter Walking

It is the time of year when hillwalkers, mountaineers and climbers need to batten down the hatches as the “ban this sort of thing” brigade take to the airwaves and newspapers.

As snow descends on the mountains and rescues are highlighted it unfortunately leads some (often in offices in towns and cities far removed from the outdoors) to call for a reduction in access to the hills at a time when conditions are potentially dangerous.

This is wrong for many reasons, not least because it falls against the now widely accepted principle of land access and also that mountains are always risky for the unaware or ill-prepared. Equally, we don’t ban Sunday morning football because players sometimes break their legs.

One claim often made is that rescuers’ lives are put at risk helping people trapped in precarious positions. What should be remembered is that most of these rescuers are volunteers who go out because of a love of the outdoors and a desire to help fellow enthusiasts.

However, that does not mean we should ignore the tragedies and near-misses because accidents do happen and it is the responsibility of everyone who enjoys being out in the wild places of Scotland to make sure they are as safe as possible.

Shaun Roberts, the principal of the National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, recently said that if you have a doubt about going out somewhere in the hills you should treat it as a “red flag” and consider your actions.

Planning and preparation is key and courses run by places such as Glenmore Lodge can be invaluable. For example taking an ice axe and crampons is not enough if you don’t know how to use them and a map and compass are useless in a storm if your navigation skills are not up to scratch.

Common sense also means weather and avalanche forecasts should always be taken account of and turning back if the conditions deteriorate must be an option at the forefront of your mind.
So, rather than talking of bans we should all be doing everything to reduce the risk of going out in the hills and mountains and then get on with the serious business of enjoying it.

Linlithgow – Cockleroy

Walking on your own is a great way to immerse yourself in the countryside, no chitter chattering to disturb wildlife or interrupt the enjoyment of distant views.

However, on my birthday I wanted to take the offspring with me, as well as the other half, so a solitary ramble was out, as was anything resembling a high mountain.

Sometimes picking a route can be bewildering such is the wonderful choice on offer across Scotland. But on a day of beautiful winter sunshine, I decided that home is best and the objective of the great little hill above Linlithgow – Cockleroy – was set.

As we explored potential homes for bears and owls, and moderated arguments about who would be first to reach the top, the woodland gave way to open hillside and what is known in our family as “the dangerous bit”. It is actually the tiniest of rocky outcrops beside the path but when the children were not much more than toddlers it presented a formidable obstacle.

It was with a tinge of sadness that I realised now they had reached the grand old ages of six and nine, they could scamper over it with ease, even when dragging a fallen branch.

Maybe I should have picked a more strenuous hill? Not a bit of it. The top was soon reached and with brilliant clear weather the views extended from Arran in the west, across the Forth to the Trossachs and Ochils and then east to Bass Rock.

More highlights were to come when the remnants of a Christmas selection box were produced and the task of spotting out house far below began.

On the way down thoughts quickly turned to birthday meals and being close to home meant a roast beef and a glass of red were not far away – always a good thing.