Having a whale of a time

A version of this appeared in the July 2019 edition of The Scots Magazine

“The sea has inspired people for eons. It has been the source of myth and legend – sea monsters and kelpies – and has inspired song and music. Because whales and dolphins are from this seemingly mythical place, when you do see one it takes your breath away.”

Karl Stevens is trying to explain why whale-watching has become such a phenomenon in Scotland. Practically unknown 25 years ago, it’s now estimated to be worth around £7.8 million to the economy of the west of Scotland, drawing in around 240,000 visitors a year.

Dozens of boats operate around prime spotting sites in waters which are home to around a quarter of the world’s whale and dolphin species including bottlenose, Risso’s and common dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke whales and orca.  But this summer, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust has launched a new trail to give visitors a different way of looking out for these sea creatures – from the land.

Standing at Ardnamurchan Point, one of around 25 stopping places for the new land-based trail on the West Coast, Karl, the Hebridean Whale Trail manager, explains: “A lot of people think this is something you can’t do on land, you have to be on a boat. Yes, there are definite merits for being on a boat but from an accessibility perspective and getting more people involved, land-based is a lot easier. It also means you get to some spectacular locations.

“With heights you get more distance so if you are on top of a sea cliff, you are going to get a better view over a longer distance than if you were on a boat.”

All that makes the trail world class. Karl adds: “In terms of the combination of wildlife – whales, dolphins but also seals, seabirds, plants and so on – and then the landscapes and seascapes you could argue it could be one of the best places in the world.”

One of the key things about the whale trail is that it is as much about seeing whales and dolphins as the culture that surrounds them, and the Hebrides is rich with that culture. “Every place you go to there are thousands of years of stories and tales going back to Celtic and Norse legend.”

Karl also says more modern stories such as those of fishermen and lighthouse-keepers will be retold on the trail, as well as the “slightly darker” history of whaling from the 19th and early 20th century when boats would head as far as South Georgia to harpoon the mighty creatures.

The trail is aimed at “anybody who is in the area” with Karl pointing to research saying 40% of people come to Scotland for wildlife. A significant number come for culture and the landscapes, and the whale trail “ticks all those boxes”. He says: “Anybody who is even remotely interested in those three things will get something out of the whale trail. We are trying to add to what is already there and bring the whale and dolphin stories into that.”

Karl describes whales and dolphins, and the watching of them, as an “unknown attraction” which has really only been done (aboard boats) for about 25 years. Karl says: “People think of charismatic species in Scotland; red deer, salmon, seals and so on. Then there are the mythological species – you have the Loch Ness Monster. People still come knowing that the Loch Ness Monster is likely to be non-existent and go out in the vain chance that they might catch a glimpse of the beast.” Whales and dolphins, he points out, are actually there.

Visitors can hope to see “a breaching humpback jumping out of the water” because they have already looked at clips on TV or the internet. “You may see that and be incredibly lucky. But for the most part it is those special moments when you are looking out and catch a glimpse of a fin or something moving in the water. That might hold your attention a little longer and you realise that fin is attached to a porpoise, or a dolphin, or even a minke whale. It is to try to get more people to spend more time looking out to the sea to make the most of what is out there.”

Karl says awareness of the sea and what is in it has been rising in recent years, particularly after the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series. As a result, he hopes that a spin-off of the whale trail will be that people report incidents of pollution, whether that be a patch of oil, something floating on the surface, or even something entangled in an old net.

“The ethos of the whale trail is to tap into the connectivity between the sea and the land that has been there for thousands of years, and because of the Blue Planet effect we are starting to reconnect. People are more aware of the stuff that is floating and what to do about it and that is very important.”

The trust, and other organisations, already survey the seas to try to gauge numbers of whales and dolphins but the picture is currently unclear, according to Karl. And he hopes with more reports of sightings, already possible through the trust’s Whale Track app, there can be a greater understanding of any issues and problems.

He says: “It is a mixed picture, for example last year we got more common dolphins but other species seem to be doing less well. The past couple of summers have not been great for basking sharks but we don’t know if that’s because they are not there or that we have just not seen them.

“That is a key element of the whale trail – if we can get more people out there we will get a significantly better understanding of what is out there.”

Enchanted again

Enchanted Forest, the woodland light show at Faskally Wood near Pitlochry, was its usual fabulous self this year from the digital rain and the waterfall bridge to the toasted marshmallows.

It’s hard to believe this year is the sixth time I’ve visited with my family. Very glad to see they do a nature audit to check all that light and noise isn’t having an adverse effect on the wildlife – and even more glad to see that this year, as in the last few years, all the tickets sold out.

In fact, this year was the first time we’ve struggled to get tickets – and we buy them months in advance. That and the fact there are so many other outdoor light shows which have sprung up around Scotland is a testimony to the brilliance of the idea and Pitlochry is reaping the benefits with an extended tourist season bridging the gap between the end of the summer and Christmas.

umbrellas at Enchanted Forest

MULTI-COLOURED UMBRELLAS AT THIS YEAR’S ENCHANTED FOREST

The Enchanted Forest isn’t run by some giant multi-national with endless funds – the venture was a real gamble which paid off. It might not have done. But it’s the kind of entrepreneurship we need in tourism in Scotland.

It galls me travelling around Scotland at this time of year and finding so many tourist information centres closed – especially the ones which sell postcards of exquisite wintry scenes in summer. And yes, it’s hard when it’s public money to justify opening centres when the tourists aren’t there in numbers. But to misquote Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if you open them, they will come – the Enchanted Forest shows it’s possible.

VisitScotland also say that generally people look for their info online these days. And that is true. But another trend is the rising number of motorhomes on our roads. We have a lot more folk driving around, doing that kind of footloose, where shall we stay tonight kind of holiday – just look at the success of the North Coast 500. And while they’ll have certain must-sees such as Glencoe on their itinerary, there’ll be plenty of times when they’re just meandering from A to B.

And if you drive through a town with a tourist information centre, you might well stop even if you’ve never heard of the place because a centre means there must be touristy things to do.  So you might go up that walk by the waterfalls, then stop for some lunch, then tell your friends about it – all those pics on personal social media are the online bits that really work to spread the word.

Scotland is promoted brilliantly for whisky and golf. But now we know we don’t have to write-off the October to Easter period, we need our tourism experts to find ways of making Scotland a genuinely year-round destination to benefit the cafés, pubs, shops and campsites as much as the whisky companies and golf clubs.

Reds are on the up

Pic credit – © Peter Cairns www.scotlandbigpicture.com

Nick Drainey

The battle to save red squirrels from extinction is being won across Scotland with conservationists moving the well-loved creatures to new homes, creating strongholds for the threatened animal.

There is also an increase in sightings of the furry rodents in areas where woodlands have been improved but charities warn that more needs to be done to secure their future.

In the UK, red squirrels are now rare with only an estimated 138,000 individuals left. Their numbers have been decimated by the reduction of forests to isolated remnants, and by disease and competition from the introduced non-native grey squirrel.

Last month, (Nov) a project by Trees for Life relocating red squirrels to their old forest homes in northwest Scotland reported success in new populations of the animals.

The conservation charity has been reintroducing the squirrels to suitable native woodlands where the species has been lost in the Highlands. Because reds travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces, they can’t return to these isolated forest fragments on their own, meaning they were moved by hand. As well as helping red squirrels, increasing numbers benefit native forests, as the animals collect and bury thousands of tree seeds each autumn, which are often forgotten by them and can then take root.

Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s Wildlife Officer, said: “Early indications are that this could be a real wildlife success story. The new squirrel populations are not only flourishing and breeding in their new homes, they are also starting to spread out into new areas – with squirrels being sighted as far as 15 kilometres away.”

The project’s initial relocations took place between the springs of 2016 and 2017, with the first 33 squirrels from Inverness-shire and Moray released at Shieldaig in Wester Ross. This was followed by 22 more released at the Coulin Estate next to Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve near Kinlochewe, and 30 at Plockton, which is owned by landowners including The National Trust for Scotland.

Animal welfare is central to the project and squirrels are transported in special nest boxes, lined with hay and containing food and apple for hydration. Only small numbers are removed from any site, to leave donor populations unaffected. Health checks ensure that diseased animals are not introduced to new populations.

The boxes are fixed to trees at the reintroduction sites, with grass-filled exit holes allowing the squirrels to leave when ready. Food is provided for several months as the squirrels get used to their new habitat.

Annual monitoring involves observations of feeding signs, drey surveys and sightings records. Community groups are used to report sightings, monitor the squirrels, and carry out supplementary feeding.

Red squirrels occur throughout most of mainland Scotland, with the largest populations in the Highlands, and in Dumfries and Galloway. The Scottish population – estimated at 120,000 individuals – has increased slightly in recent years, but the animal’s range and population would have been far larger before the loss of most of the Caledonian Forest.

Trees for Life now has evidence of the relocated squirrels breeding two years in a row at Shieldaig, and also of breeding at Plockton.

Natural recolonisation of other areas appears to have begun from Shieldaig. During 2016, the squirrels spread throughout much of the habitat, with one sighting 13 kilometres away beyond Loch Torridon. There have been further sightings in the same area during 2017, and others two kilometres further away, at Inveralligin.

Trees for Life’s Red Squirrel Reintroduction Project aims to expand significantly the numbers and range of the red squirrels and this autumn further releases have taken place around Lochcarron, with squirrels going to the remote Reraig peninsular and to Attadale.

Meanwhile, feeder box monitoring and camera trapping carried out in Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, near Aberdeen, indicates a good future for red squirrels in that part of the country.

The work by Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) and Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) indicates that red squirrel numbers in the area are increasing – and that the woods are free from non-native grey squirrels.

As well as following best practice to manage the woodlands for red squirrels, other measures taken include minimising the amount of large clearfell sites and maximising the tree species favoured by red squirrels.

Matt Nuttall, SSRS Conservation Officer, said: “We are extremely pleased by the results of our monitoring work from Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, as it demonstrates that the hard work of all the project partners, our volunteers, and members of the public over several years has had a real positive impact on red squirrels.”

Earlier this year the Scottish Wildlife Trust was awarded a grant of £2.46 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels – Developing Community Action project.

Over the next five years Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels will enlist many more volunteers from communities to carry out practical work to protect and strengthen the strongholds of the animal.

Pic credit – Raymond Leinster

More than a view

Book festivals are a great place to escape to; immersing yourself in a favourite, or completely new, subject can be just the recharge your batteries need from time to time.

So I was completely hooked when the Wigtown Book Festival decided to mix words, which as a writer I am fascinated by, with that greatest of pursuits, walking.

At this year’s extravaganza of literature – running from September 22 to October 1 – a series of “Walking & Talking” events are taking place. These include James Canton recreating ancient Wigtownshire by taking festival goers on a walk from Torhouse Stone Circle.

Authors Robert Twigger and Jessica Fox will walk through the forest inspired by Casual Games for Casual Hikers by poet Harry Giles – a book and map of things to do on a gentle walk from telling stories to rules for kicking pebbles, ways to name mountains to maps to draw when you get home.

Meanwhile, Sara Maitland, who has used her life as a hermit in Galloway as the inspiration for much of her writing, will take folk on a silent walk – getting people to contemplate their surroundings.

Another outdoor experience comes from author and farmer Rosamund Young who will bring to life her cult book The Secret Life of Cows on a local dairy farm.

What all these events have in common is something walkers will appreciate but maybe take a while to realise. Certainly with myself the achievement of getting to the top of a summit, along a glen or around a loch was all I was thinking about when I first went walking.

But there is more to it than that. You nearly always feel better after a walk, even when you get soaked to the skin you can feel enlivened at the end of the day. There is also the side effects which come from being with others – one university in Scotland introduced a scheme where all meetings involving two people had to be conducted while walking around the campus, the reason being it made folk more productive.

So, there really are many reasons to get out walking other than the view. And one of them is to take in a book festival. Find out more about the Wigtown Book Festival at: www.wigtownbookfestival.com

 

Going down the pub

A pint in a cosy pub after a day on the hill, up the glen or along the coast is one of life’s great pleasures.

On a cold day a blazing fire is as welcome as the chance to ease off your boots while at this time of year a beer garden can be a peaceful retreat after a day of exertions.

The Campaign for Real Ale know a thing or two about good pubs and have compiled a list of some of the best walks and hostelries to enjoy across Britain.

Written by Daniel Neilson,  CAMRA’s Wild Pub Walks includes classics such as Ben Nevis with the inn of the same name at the bottom, as well as pubs in nearby Fort William.

If I had to pick a couple of favourites they would be the Moulin Inn below Ben Vrackie, one of the first mountains I went up after moving to Scotland nearly 20 years ago. Going back 40 years, I broke in my first pair of walking boots on the Langdale Pikes and proudly wore a button badge declaring I’d climbed them. That was the start of a love of hill walking although it was a few years before I started to appreciate the Old Dungeon Ghyll but it soon became a favourite of me and my mates.

One thing that does strike me about hillwalking and pubs is that, rightly, the pub is always enjoyed at the end of the day, when the strenuous exercise is over. But when it comes to ski-ing, especially in the Alps, the bar or restaurant is a lunchtime destination where a meal with a couple of glasses of wine is the norm. Without wishing to sound like a killjoy it does seem strange to have a drink of alcohol before setting off down a steep mountainside – I often ask myself what reaction you would get if you opened up a bottle of red by the summit cairn of a British mountain in the middle of June?

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.”