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.”

Bluebell bonanza

Now is a great time to get out in Scotland and see bluebells. A number of places come to mind but number one for me has to be Inchcailloch island on Loch Lomond. Once off the little boat from Balmaha you are met with carpets of the little flowers, covering the ground below woodland mixed with birdsong.

A walk there with the family lasted for hours – far longer than the couple of miles would take if there weren’t birds to spot, shorelines to explore and picnics to be eaten. Yes, there are other places to find large swathes of bluebells but this little island takes the crown for me.

Around half of the world’s bluebells grow in the UK and the Woodland Trust is on a on a mission to find them all.

Fears of Spanish invaders out-growing their British counterparts have been around for a few years, although research by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has found the native variety is three times more likely to successfully reproduce than its Iberian counterpart.

The Woodland Trust’s aim is to monitor the status of British bluebells from woodlands to back gardens which will help them to secure their future.

But wherever you see them, they are a brilliant sign that the seasons are moving forward and summer is just around the corner.

Ben Nevis – a different vibe

I spent yesterday helping a couple of novice hillwalkers negotiate the Mountain Track up Ben Nevis in the name of charity.

They were nervous at first and exhilarated at the end when the snowy top of Britain’s highest mountain was reached and thousands of pounds had been raised for the fight against cystic fibrosis.

Some purists turn their noses up at what was once known as the Tourist Route; from what I can gather their main objection is that it is too easy! But yesterday the vibe of this 19th century pony track became apparent – it is one of excitement and genuine anticipation.

People always nod a greeting as they pass each other but on the popular trail up the Ben there are also words of encouragement – no bravado is on show, this is about people getting to the top.

At the summit there were “well dones” all round, rather than people keeping themselves to themselves. An Edinburgh University student from New Jersey was passing round his large bar of chocolate to celebrate while my companions were chuffed to have overcome their fears and enthused to try more mountains in the future – one person was making a pan of soup.

Altogether, this enthusiasm meant I had as much fun on a mountain walk as I can remember. Yes, there are more dangerous routes but none that allow you to see such a sense of enjoyment in achieving a summit.

Allyson, Morag and Garry at the top of Ben Nevis

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

Snow Fest, whatever the weather

Credit: Bruce Wilkinson for Ski-Scotland

Ski-Scotland is ploughing on regardless despite a lack of the white stuff this winter and holding its annual Snow Fest this Saturday, with activities guaranteed, whatever the snow conditions are.

The Snow Fest fun include Zibob racing, igloo building and a snowman competition at Glencoe Mountain, a Burton Riglet taster session for the youngest snowboarders at CairnGorm mountain, who are also offering shop discounts on some ski accessories and prizes for the best photos and posts on Facebook and Instagram. Meanwhile at Glenshee, there’s live music all day (10am till 4pm) from three bands. At Nevis Range there is a snow sculpture competition and the chance to watch the SARDA Rescue Dogs in action. Where snow allows, there will also be the traditional mass descent at 1pm.

Chair of Ski-Scotland Heather Negus said: “No one can deny that it’s been a challenging winter for Scotland’s snowsports areas. However, it’s not really been a mild winter. We have had good snow and some brilliant overhead weather for T-shirt skiing, but the fluctuating temperatures have meant that it’s been a bit of a stop-start season so far. Remember that we usually expect to ski well into May and that in previous years which had this sort of weather pattern there have often been large dumps of snow well into the spring.”

Skills for the hills

Good to see my Scots Magazine colleague Cameron McNeish involved on a great event aimed at getting folk up into Scotland’s wonderful hills and mountains.

Skills for the Hills, organised by Mountain Aid, working with Mountaineering Scotland, will take place on Saturday at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Halls.

There will be 40 leading outdoor organisations taking part, with a mix of exhibitions, talks and demonstrations aimed at helping and encouraging people of all levels of experience, from newcomer to experienced mountaineers.

The event will be opened by Mountain Aid patron and outdoor writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish, who will also be one of the main speakers, along with fellow outdoor writer Chris Townsend, Mountaineering Scotland safety expert Heather Morning, and speakers from mountain rescue, John Muir Trust and other organisations.

Jim Kinnell, of Mountain Aid, said: “This will be a great event whether you’re an experienced mountaineer or whether you’re just thinking about starting to go hill walking. With the days getting longer and spring just around the corner, this is the time when people really start to think about getting out into the hills and we’re expecting over 2000 people on the day.”

Skills for the Hills will run from 10am to 4.30pm, with tickets costing £2 per adult and £1 per child on the door, including a free Event Programme.

For a complete timetable of talks and other information visit the website at www.mountainaid.org.uk

Danny MacAskill – falling off is inspiring

My six-year-old son was recreating stunt cyclist Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge last night using the back and the arms of the sofa – I should swiftly add here that he didn’t have a bike, although, admittedly, even in his bare feet it’s probably not the best thing for our furniture.

But it’s great to see him inspired by the Skye-born YouTube star – and key, I think, is the fact that MacAskill often includes outtakes in his films, showing just how many failed attempts go into getting that one great shot leaping off a cliff, balancing along a rooftop or, in the case of The Ridge, along the top of a mountain. They’re certainly our children’s favourite bits and it’s brilliant for them to see even stars like MacAskill – 100 million social media views – mess up and have to try, try again.

My other half said as much to him when she met him the other week at Lindores Cross Country in Fife where he was helping to launch a horse jump built in his honour. It was at Lindores that he filmed the hay bale stunt for Wee Day Out, one of his most successful films – so successful that the luxury horse and people retreat decided to recreate him and his bale for the entertainment of their riding guests. And he agreed it was great to shatter the illusion – he fell off that hay bale 400 times over three days for the 20 second shot in the film.

He also said one of his biggest thrills was getting fan mail from schools and finding out they’d shown his films to pupils to help teach them about geography or physics. Nice guy, great role model – look out for his new film from Lindores, “racing” against top Scottish eventer Louisa Milne Home over a series of jumps including the new MacAskill one.

Doune Castle (Castle Leoch) and the River Teith

DOUNE CASTLE (CASTLE LEOCH) AND THE RIVER TEITH

I’m a bit late to the party but Outlander excitement has finally reached my living room.

The great story is complimented by the Scottish scenery which means much use of the pause button as locations are spotted and identified – I will never see Falkland in the same light again.

In real life, the 13th century Doune Castle, between Stirling and Callander, has long been popular with visitors and filmamkers alike. Before Outlander used it as Castle Leoch, the fictional seat of Clan MacKenzie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was partly filmed here.

It sits high above the River Teith and is a good place to start a walk before exploring the ruins.

DISTANCE: 2 miles.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: Negligible – some short banks.

TIME: 1 to 1½ hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 57.

PARK: Brown signs direct you to Doune Castle from the centre of the town.

WALK: Walk towards the castle from the car park but instead of making for the main entrance follow a brick path going to the left of the fortress.
After passing the side of the castle, a wide track bears left and leads down to some metal gates at a water treatment plant. Go left just before these and follow a path by the Ardoch Burn.
Keep left on reaching a little field and follow the burn to the point where it merges with the River Teith.
Go right here and follow a grass path along the side of the river, past the other side of the water works. Ignore paths going off to the right and follow the river upstream as a narrower path takes you back past the castle.
Go through a kissing gate and pass some small fields before entering woodland, still following the river. The path then rises up above the river before going right, between two garden fences, to reach the main A84 road.
Go right and follow the pavement until you reach Muir Hall, on the right. Go right here, past the Woodside Hotel on your left and St Modoc’s Church on your right, to follow a road over a small burn and up to Doune’s Mercat Cross. Go right here, down Main Street.
Opposite the large Church of Scotland parish church go right at an information centre, down Castle Hill. After about 150 yards go left at a crossroads. Another 100 yards further on go right and a short way further (at the end of the road) go through a wooden gate.
On the other side of the gate keep left to follow a field edge down to another gate – on the left. Go through it and turn right.
A path leads up through woodland – go left at a stone wall to pass through a metal kissing gate. Turn right after this and follow a narrow road down to the car park.