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

 

Fishing for litter

PIC: KAREN MURRAY

This article first appeared on February 5, 2017 in the Sunday Post

By Nick Drainey

It’s a load of rubbish but for the fishing industry and consumers the discarded waste being piled up at harbours across Scotland is good news.

Fishing boats once dumped the junk they hauled up in their nets back overboard, including waterproof clothes, oil drums, machinery and even sleeping bags. But now they bag the refuse and take it back to port to be disposed of.

And the “Fishing For Litter” scheme has just reached the milestone of pulling 1,000 tonnes of potentially dangerous refuse from the seabed.

Jimmy Buchan, who starred in the BBC TV series Trawlermen, documenting the perilous work of fishermen, said: “When we first started it, we would maybe lift a tonne of rubbish in a trip but I know it is working because now we hardly fill the bottom of a bag. The good we have done means that we are having an environmentally positive effect – we are doing a great service to the marine environment.”

It has been estimated that marine litter costs the Scottish fishing industry around £10 million a year, the equivalent of five per cent of the total revenue of the affected boats, which can suffer damaged nets or propellers snagged with rubbish.

Mr Buchan, who trawls from Peterhead, said: “When you go fishing anything that gets into the net – a dumped sleeping bag is a classic – immediately closes up the meshes. When you are trawling the net is skipping along the sandy seabed and the silt goes through the net but because of this blockage it starts to build up rapidly and that changes the geometry of the net. A few buckets of sand is an extremely heavy weight tugging on the net and it stops you fishing.”

The Fishing For Litter project was introduced to Scottish waters by KIMO UK, an Aberdeenshire-based organisation linking local authorities around the coast of the North Sea, in 2005.

Special bags are given to skippers to store the rubbish before returning it to port. Despite the 1,000 tonne landmark being reached by more than 200 Scottish boats, the plan is going to continue to make the seas healthier fish stocks.

The situation Scotland’s fishing fleet found itself in dates back decades, according to Mr Buchan, 57. He said: “When I was a boy in Peterhead the town’s rubbish was dumped at sea. There was any area at the back the port where all the council carts tipped the rubbish over a wall and into the sea and the tide washed it away. So as a boy my perception was that the sea was a dumping ground.”

Mr Buchan said the coming of plastics changed things as previously the bulk of what had been dumped, such as paper and cardboard, broke down in the sea, unlike more modern materials. He added: “That practice was phased out but if you grow up thinking if you want to dump something you dump it over the side, when you go to sea that is the practice. If you multiply that by a thousand boats all of sudden you have turned your fishing ground into a dumping ground.

“It was becoming a problem so when this scheme opened I immediately thought it was fantastic. I wasn’t looking at becoming an environmentalist or a green person, I could see commercial viability if it started to get rubbish out of the sea. It is going to affect my fishing opportunities and therefore make me better.”

Mr Buchan says the fish which now come out of the sea are healthier as well because they are not swimming in as much plastic and other pollutants. He said: “Chefs who I supply are over the moon because they see that they are always getting quality fish. If we have a disturbed haul, with silt and mud, the quality of the fish we do catch is affected as well.”

The scheme has funding until 2020, which Mr Buchan said was “great”. “We don’t get paid for it, it is purely for the love of the job and the commercial benefit.”

KIMO Chair Cllr Raymond Christie said the scheme was working well and reaching the milestone of 1,000 tonnes was a “great achievement”. He said: “I would like to thank all of the crews and harbour staff who took part for their fantastic efforts to help protect our precious marine environment and shoreline.”

Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, said the scheme supported the Scottish Government’s Marine Litter Strategy. She said: “Marine litter is a very serious issue both for Scottish seas and across the global oceans.  It is shown to harm wildlife and the natural environment whilst impacting on our marine industries through damage to subsea and coastal infrastructure, vessels and fishing gear.

“I would like to congratulate KIMO on their success in reaching this milestone. I would also like to take the opportunity to commend those fishermen who are participating and making a real difference in cleaning up Scotland’s seas.”

Stewart Stevenson, MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast, added: “Our north-east coastline provides a livelihood for thousands of people, as well as providing a habitat for countless species of marine lifestyle.  Therefore, it’s our duty to protect it and I applaud our local fishermen for going above and beyond to remove as much litter from our waters.”

Seen and herd

A version of this article first appeared in December 2016 in the Australian newspaper Scottish Banner

By Nick Drainey

Scotland’s only herd of reindeer are having a rest after Christmas and the Cairngorms is without a doubt the best place to spot them.

They are not seen in the sky pulling a sleigh but Britain’s only herd of the hoofed animal thrive on the 10,000 acres of sub-arctic tundra found high in the mountains.

A walk up the Cairn Gorm offers great views, especially the shattered rocks of Coire an t-Sneachda but the first thing often mentioned by visitors when they return to the Glenmore Forest below is the sight of reindeer.

They were introduced in 1952 by Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, 800 years after they had been hunted to extinction in Scotland.

The couple had visited the Cairngorms on their honeymoon and Mr Utsi said afterwards: “Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures in Lapland… species of ground, rock and tree lichens, which are elsewhere the chief food of reindeer, were plentiful and of little use to other animals.”

Mr Utsi, a reindeer herder from Sweden thought the animals would be a good source of food in the post-war years. However, the public did not share the same appetite to eat the hardy animals as their Scandinavian cousins.

Nevertheless, Mr Utsi grew the herd from a start with two bulls and five cows brought over from Sweden, and there are now 150 of them, visible on the mountainsides. Others can be seen in paddocks next to a visitor centre at a cottage which serves as the base for Cairngorm Reindeer, the operation founded by Mr Utsi.

Looking up to the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms, Imogen Taylor, a reindeer herder based at the centre, says they are “really easy to keep because they just run around on mountains and you don’t have to do anything with them”.

She adds: “They were native here and the only reason they are not any more is because we over hunted them so they obviously played a role in the ecology.

“Mr Utsi was going to use them as a meat source because it was just after World War Two. But people here didn’t want to eat them so he had to think of a different way – people wanted to come and see them, so it grew from there.

“We now run a guided tour every day and their whole purpose is tourism.”

But how do you keep track of these semi-wild animals? Ms Taylor says: “Technically they could go anywhere they want but the Cairngorms is the only place in the UK where we have sub arctic habitat left so they really need that habitat and wouldn’t want to go into the forest – they are not going to Glasgow because there is no grazing there. The habitat keeps them there because it is the right habitat, in the same way that you don’t get red deer wandering around town.”

That is why they are such a regular sight for walkers in the mountains. On a walk up Cairn Gorm from they can be seen in Coire Cas when the skiers aren’t around and don’t even seem bothered by the funicular railway trundling past.

The “Windy Ridge Path” leads you up to the top of the railway and the Ptarmigan Station. Here, you can take a breather from the exertions of walking up and enjoy a hot chocolate at 3,600ft. This may seem a little odd but perhaps even stranger is the sight of reindeer walking past.

The walk continues from here to the top of Cairn Gorm – the easiest of the 4,000ft mountains in Scotland to reach but with superb views. South-west is Cairn Lochan, beyond the cliffs of Coire an t-Sneachda. Slightly west of south is Ben Macdui – the second highest mountain in Scotland. To the north on a really clear day you can see as far as Morven in Caithness.

Below are the forests which surround Loch Morlich and in the foreground the habitat loved by the reindeer.

Don’t be fooled by all the signs of civilisation on the walk – the railway, ski slopes and cafe near the summit – it is dangerous terrain and claims human lives every year when Arctic conditions prevail. Walkers in winter have to make sure they are fully equipped for bad weather and can use a map and compass, as well as ice axe and crampons

But for reindeer these conditions are ideal. Even in winter they flourish thanks to their thick coats which provide such insulation that they don’t melt the snow when they lie down. At the same time, extra wide, splayed hooves enable reindeer to spread weight on soft snow to prevent them sinking.

The reindeer can, however, be seen away from the Cairngorms in the run up to Christmas when they are used to pull sleighs for Santa when he visits towns across Scotland.

Ms Taylor adds: “That is their job – each individual reindeer does about five or six events a year over the two months of November and December.”

Now, however, they are in a more natural habitat, enjoying a rest.