Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

Salmon

The miracle of salmon

By Keith Broomfield

The salmon launched itself from the churn at the bottom of the falls like a guided missile, tail flapping, and flanks glinting under the late autumnal sun. It was a powerful leap, but the angle was terribly askew, and the hen salmon landed awkwardly half-way up on a rock ledge by the margin of the powerful torrent.

She lay stranded for a moment, and then, with powerful undulations of the body, managed to wriggle her way down the ledge so as to drop back down into the foaming pool below. A surge of emotion swept my inner being after witnessing the trauma and effort this salmon had just endured.

Over the last few months, she had migrated from her feeding grounds in the cold northern seas off the Faroes, Iceland or Greenland, and by some miracle of nature had navigated back to her place of birth – the River Almond in Perthshire. Over the period, she had survived the gauntlet of seals and other predators, but now the ultimate challenge lay ahead – the tumbling falls and rapids at Buchanty Spout, several miles north-east of Crieff.

Spout is a most apt name for this narrow fissure in the rocks, where a torrent of water spumes down a drop of several feet into a cauldron pool. Above and below lie tumbling rapids, making this a truly formidable obstacle. Yet despite this, over the course of an hour I witnessed several salmon succeed this most impressive of athletic feats. The key to success was a faultless launch, with a trajectory that was true and perfect right up the middle of the spout.

From my observations, it was the larger salmon that were most likely to ascend the falls, using their powerful muscles to propel themselves upwards and over the rocky top lip. The pool they launch from has minimal underwater visibility due to the swirling churn, thus, achieving the perfect launch often relies upon luck, and inevitably many fish get their angle of attack wrong. One salmon flew straight into the rockface by the edge of the spout with an audible slap that made me wince in sympathy.

The damage these salmon suffer from – both in terms of physical injury and loss of energy – is immense, and with each passing second that I spent by Buchanty Spout, my respect for these miraculous fish grew ever stronger. Once the spout has been ascended, the salmon will seek out gravel beds further upstream, where the hen fish will dig a furrow with her tail and body to lay her eggs, which are then fertilised by the male. The eggs are covered with gravel and the following spring tiny fry (alevins) will emerge.

Of course, natural river obstacles are not the only difficulties facing salmon, and in recent decades climate change has materialised as a new foe, affecting the ocean ecosystem on their north Atlantic feeding grounds. For the salmon, life is an eternal struggle, but now it could be facing the ultimate challenge, and one from which there is potentially no return.

Spiny squat lobster

Marine heaven in Fife

With mounting anticipation, I kicked my flippers and glided towards a cluster of rocks by the low tide mark. The excitement was fuelled by the knowledge that this section of the shore by Elie in the East Neuk of Fife had previously delivered wondrous marine life encounters – but would it do so this time?

The rocks came into view, the water was thick with soup-like plankton, which impaired visibility, but it was good enough to enable a thorough investigation of the area. A mysid shrimp flickered into view, a small crustacean about a centimetre long, with a distinctive hump-back profile. These shrimps are the bread and butter for many of the larger creatures here, a vital part of the food chain.

I tried to photograph the shrimp, but the camera auto-focus had difficulty in honing onto such a small beast, so I gave up and resumed my scrabbling around by the rocks. A movement – and then a pair of long claws materialised by a rock cleft – a spiny squat lobster! I’ve snorkelled this section of coast many times previously, yet this was a creature I had never seen before. The sea is an Aladdin’s Cave of natural treasures and now it was revealing another one of its magical secrets.

With rhythmic movements of my hands, I steadied my body against the gentle surge of the sea and watched spellbound as this fascinating crustacean crawled onto a patch of sand, where it began to feed. Using its long pincers, it scooped sand into its mouth where it gleaned algae, detritus, and other food items before spitting-out the remaining sand grains.

The spiny squat lobster is a most attractive creature, with a flattened body about 3cm long, and claws that are the same length again. The abdomen was intricately patterned with kingfisher-blue stripes, whilst the tips of the legs and claws were tinged with red. Despite the vibrant colouration, the creature blended superbly with the environment, and it seemed that the blue stripes mimicked the patterns of light that rippled across the seabed.

Another similar animal appeared, which was greener in colour, and which I identified as a common squat lobster, a different species.  Witnessing two types of squat lobster over a short period was a real nature jackpot, and I watched enthralled as the animals went about their business.

I moved on towards another group of rocks where I glimpsed a pair of red antennae poking out from a shallow crevice. It was a lobster, a much larger creature altogether, and which is such an important quarry for creel fishermen.  It was spooked by my approach, so it emerged from its shelter and scuttled over the seabed to find a deeper hole to seek refuge.

In this marine heaven, pearly coloured sea squirts adorned rocks and hermit crabs side-stepped comically over the seabed. My mind buzzed with happiness at the vibrancy of life that unfurled before me, and which acted as a telling reminder of the importance of protecting our precious oceans.

Five-star review for ‘A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey’

I was thrilled when my new book – A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey – recently gained a five-star review from Scottish Field magazine.

The review said: “I dare you to open this book up to any page, read the text with fresh new eyes and not fall in love with the way Keith Broomfield has painted the Scottish landscape with words.

“He has thoughtfully captured his rambles across Scotland, from the bottom all the way to the very top in Shetland, recounting the diverse and exciting wildlife he spotted along the way. From the urban fox to the minke whale, Keith Broomfield tells all their stories with equal enthusiasm.

“A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey is among my most cherished styles of book; filled with bewitching ecological descriptions, supplemented with knowledge and facts about local wildlife that is shown rather than told and complemented by sketches of the flora and fauna. This is one of my favourite non-fiction books of the year.”

New life arises from storm damage

Whilst it has been an unusually mild winter, it was also an extremely windy one, and the full impact of the havoc wreaked by a succession of storms was brought home to me the other week when driving through the Howe o’ the Mearns.

It was in the aftermath of Storm Corrie, which itself had been preceded by Storms Malik and Arwen, and as I drove from Cairn o’ Mount, past Fettercairn and down towards Luthermuir, there were tumbled trees everywhere, some of them mighty oaks and beeches. Huge branches had been torn asunder and trunks split, leaving gaping wounds and cavernous cracks, while woody debris lay scattered across fields and hedgerows like tidal flotsam.

On passing the forestry plantation at Inglismaldie woods, the damage was particularly severe. It was both shocking and humbling, a stark reminder of the power of nature.

Colin Gibson, The Courier’s renowned nature diarist, recounted the turmoil caused by a storm in January 1953. He wrote: “The north wind came down like a wolf on the fold, and was at its most ferocious at noon, raging through Tayside and the whole north-east of Scotland.

“In Perth it ‘yowled up frae the vennel’d toun’, in Dundee it roared over Balgay and the Law, and hurtled debris from the rooftops into the city streets.”

For commercial foresters the damage cause by such storms is devastating, but for nature it is often a different story, for storm-felled trees bring new opportunity.

Wild storms have been felling trees since the dawn of time and it is all part of the natural cycle of regeneration. The clearings created deliver dappled sunlight to the woodland floor that encourages wildflowers, which in turn attracts butterflies and numerous other invertebrates that themselves are preyed-upon by shrews, insect-eating birds, and bats. The fallen seeds of trees can now germinate and grow in these sunny open places, completing the continuous circle of natural regeneration and delivering new vitality to the woodland.

Inside a decaying tree trunk there is a wonderful diversity of life. Peel apart the soft and crumbling bark, and a myriad of tunnels are revealed, which have been created by thriving populations of specialised invertebrates.  On the surface of the trunk are intricate tiny cup-shaped lichens, fungi and many mosses, along with the bullet-mark indentations caused by foraging woodpeckers.

It is not all positive, and severe storms in early spring and summer cause immense problems to tree-nesting birds, such as ospreys. And, of course, there are wildlife communities that depend upon living trees, such as caterpillars and the songbirds that feed upon them. However, seldom is a whole woodland felled by a storm, and it is this mosaic of tumbled and living trees, which creates such wonderful diversity.

Near my home lies a long-tumbled, wood-rotted oak, which in autumn becomes adorned with colourful fungi, including lemon disco and velvet shank. Exploring every nook and cranny is a special experience, for the death of this oak has created a plethora of new life that is a sheer joy to behold.

 

TheTay reveals its natural riches

I adore rivers – serene slivers of tranquillity that wind their way across the landscape, and which are always brimming with natural wonders. And when it comes to magnificent rivers, the Tay is right there at the top, with a majesty and power that excites me on each visit.

I hadn’t explored the stretch between Stanley and Dunkeld before, thus it was with great anticipation that a couple of weeks ago I struck upriver from Stanley Mills. This former textile mill is a reminder of the power of our rivers and how they helped drive the industrial revolution. It also highlights how humanity has long depended upon rivers, whether for drinking water or energy, or as providers of fish as food, or as is the case in some parts of the world, as conduits for transport. The fact that we depend upon rivers means we are more likely to look after them – a concept I find appealing.

Rivers are also places for relaxation and as I made my way up the west bank, a group of canoeists whizzed past on fast-beating paddles. My eyes were soon drawn back to the riverbank, where at the foot of a hazel tree, a cluster of snowdrops glowed like early heralds to the approach of spring. Not to be outdone, the hazel was adorned with dangly lime-green catkins, which are so appropriately known as lambs’ tails.

Out on the river, a dipper swam on the surface like a little duck, twirling around and frequently diving under in its quest for invertebrates and tiny fish. Dippers are songbirds that have embarked upon a remarkable evolutionary twist, which enables them to forage underwater. It is an adaptation that underlines the genius of Mother Nature. In deepest winter when the ground is frosted hard, songbirds such as blackbirds and thrushes struggle to find worms and other invertebrates. Such cold periods are a breeze for dippers because fast-flowing rivers never ice-over, providing round-the-clock access to rich feeding areas.

And believe me, riverbeds abound with life. Only the week before, I was invertebrate sampling on my home river, the Devon, as part of an initiative to monitor the health of our waterways. On emptying the sweep net into an examination tray, a plethora of invertebrate larvae, or nymphs as they are known, materialised. They are the ‘engine room’ of the river, the powerhouse that supports so much other life such as trout and ultimately top predators like herons and otters.

Further on up the Tay, a beaver-gnawed willow stump shone out at me. The small willow had tumbled into the river, enabling the beaver to feed on its twigs and bark from the safety of the water. The willow had been coppiced and will regrow, while the trunk and branches lying in the river will provide shelter for invertebrates and fish, just as how a rocky reef might do at sea. By felling this willow, beavers had created a new habitat for river creatures to thrive and prosper.

Shellfish Firth of Forth

The fabulous marine riches of the Firth of Forth

By Keith Broomfield

There was a perceptible crackling noise as the pressure of my footfall crunched into storm-scattered seashells on the strandline at Largo Bay in the East Neuk. This was a graveyard of marine life – cockles, surf clams and razor shells, scoured from their homes beneath the sand by the tumultuous power of the ocean.

I wondered whether these shellfish were victims of Storm Arwen, which had hit the east coast at the end of November. I hunkered down and scooped-up a handful of these half-shells, and then let them gently slip through my fingers. Each shell was intricately crafted, the elongated razor shells still gleaming with iridescence, and the surf clams exhibiting intricate concentric patterning.

This abundance of molluscs underlined the vast reservoir of marine life held within the sediment of the Firth of Forth. Although inshore mud and sand can appear barren at first glance, it is often hugely productive and an environmental powerhouse that supports so much else.

Coastal sand and mud habitats may lack the diversity of species found on rocky shores, but this is more than compensated by the sheer abundance of those that live within this hidden, secret environment. These sand creatures, such as cockles, abound in one of the toughest places imaginable, continually pounded by wild storms and surging tidal currents. They are true survivors and a testimony to the endurance of nature.

As well as the razor shells, surf clams and prickly cockles, there were also the empty shells of whelks, limpets, otter shells and queen scallops on the strandline. It was a wonderful cornucopia of the sea’s riches.

I wandered further along the beach, inadvertently putting to flight a mixed flock of ringed plovers and dunlins. Out on the sea, eider and scoter ducks bobbed in the undulating surf, frequently diving in search of crabs, mussels and other food.

I scanned the water further offshore with my binoculars, hopeful I might spot the humpback whale that has been residing in the Forth in recent weeks. A fortnight previously, I was thrilled to spot this humpback from a vantage point by Kinghorn as it cruised offshore in the shadow of Inchkeith island.

It was a truly magnificent creature, and although some distance away, I could clearly discern the spouting sprays of water being emitted from its blowhole after exhaling from each dive. The humpback population is slowly recovering in the north-east Atlantic following the decimation wreaked by whaling. In recent years, individuals have been regularly turning up in the Forth for short periods.

The presence of this whale was an encouraging sign because humpbacks feed on sprats, sand eels and small herring, and its prolonged presence in the Forth presumably meant it was finding an abundance of these nutritious fish.  The Forth is an important nursery ground for young herring, which along with sprats, thrive within the estuary’s protective embrace.  Hopefully, in the years to come, humpbacks will become an even more regular sight in the Forth, acting like leviathan flag bearers of the crucial need to protect our precious seas.

 

 

My book is shortlisted for award

My book on a wildlife year on the River Devon has been shortlisted for a prestigious award in the Scotland’s National Book Awards 2021, the premier literary prize for writing in Scotland.

‘If Rivers Could be Sing’ has been selected as a finalist in the ‘First Book’ category of the awards.

Published by Tippermuir Books, ‘If Rivers Could Sing’ is a personal Scottish river journey, where I delve deeper into my own local river to explore its abundant wildlife and to get closer to its wild beating heart. Among the creatures featured are beavers, otters, kingfishers, and salmon.

‘If Rivers Could Sing’ also focuses on the Devon’s historical past, where its tributary burns helped to power the mills along the Hillfoots villages. This, along with coal mining and other industrialisation put huge pollution pressure on the river and its wildlife in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If Rivers Could Sing is all about getting close to nature and connecting with our precious environment. I am thrilled it has been shortlisted for such a prestigious award, which I hope will provide encouragement to other first-time book writers to pick-up a pen and get writing.

Paul Philippou from publisher Tippermuir Books said: “We were delighted when Scotland’s National Book Awards returned after a year’s absence. They are a vital part of Scotland’s literary fabric. To have If Rivers Could Sing shortlisted for one of the awards is wonderful – we are delighted for Keith. It is also great for Tippermuir to be in this position – it is an achievement upon which we will build.”

My latest book, ‘A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey’, which is a travel journey in search of Scotland’s wild secrets, will be published in February 2022.

The Scotland’s National Book Awards 2021 is organised by the Saltire Society of Scotland and the winners of the awards will be announced on 27 November.

  • ‘If Rivers Could Sing’ can be purchased at tippermuirbooks.co.uk and other online sellers and good book shops (£9.99).

The plight of Scotland’s guillemots

Something didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was on an early morning visit to Peterhead harbour and the inner basin was full of guillemots, their black and white forms bobbing out on the water.

I had never seen so many guillemots in the harbour before and their occurrence in such numbers seemed strange, especially since there had been no recent storms, which might have been one reason for these auks to seek shelter within the protective embrace of the port.

Then, I noticed something even more worrying – the bodies of several dead guillemots floating in the water. What on earth was going on? I wasn’t sure, but perhaps these birds were starving and had sought the harbour as a calm place where to seek out fish. Two days later, I was down on the foreshore at Elie in Fife, where I found more dead guillemots on the strandline – these engaging little seabirds were experiencing calamitous turmoil that was causing mass mortality.

This is a phenomenon that has been noted up and down the North Sea coast this autumn, with hundreds of dead guillemots having been recorded. The issue is currently being investigated by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), who have found the birds to be emaciated. The guillemots are certainly behaving strangely, and some birds have even been spotted up rivers, which is most unusual.

CEH has ruled out bird flu but is investigating other possible causes, which include a lack of suitable fish in the sea for the guillemots to feed upon or poisoning by toxins from marine algal blooms, which is affecting their behaviour.

Whatever the cause, the phenomenon does illustrate the fragility of our marine ecosystem and the dangers presented by pollution and climate change. In my new book, A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey, which will be published by Tippermuir Books later this year, I highlight the plight of Shetland’s kittiwakes, which are experiencing tumultuous population decline.

I write: “The underlying problem is related to our warming seas, which has led to planktonic ecosystem shifts resulting in a decline in the abundance and size of sandeels. Kittiwakes are especially vulnerable to food shortages as they can only take prey such as sandeels, sprats and juvenile herring when they occur at or near the surface of the sea, unlike deeper diving species such as gannets.”

A few years ago, I attended a science conference in Aberdeen, which explored the marine impacts caused by climate change. The evidence from the speakers, all of them experts in their field, was compelling; our warming seas are having a real and discernible impact on the distribution of many marine species. With the COP26 conference to discuss global action on climate change due to convene in Glasgow soon, it is more imperative than ever that it delivers a strategic plan for addressing this ticking timebomb that is already beginning to wreak havoc upon our precious marine life.

Scotland’s amazing cetaceans

By Keith Broomfield

I adore travelling on ferries between the Scottish mainland and the Hebrides, and on embarking upon a CalMac ferry for a recent voyage from Uig in Skye to Tarbert in Harris, I immediately hurried to an outside viewing deck – for I knew I was in store for a spectacular wildlife treat.

I was especially excited because the sea was unusually calm, a flat reflective mirror, which dramatically increased the chances of detecting whales, porpoises, and dolphins. The Minch abounds with these marvellous animals, but when the sea is wave-crested, their rolling backs and fins are hard to discern.

My anticipation soon bore fruit, and before the ferry had even passed Waternish Point in Skye, several porpoises had materialised, their shallow arch-backed rolls only gently breaking the water’s surface. Porpoises are the commonest whale and dolphin species (collectively known as cetaceans) found off our shores, as well as the smallest, being less than two metres long.

Although reasonably common, it is thought that porpoise numbers are in decline, a sad testimony to the many threats facing our precious marine environment, including pollution and climate change. Porpoises are not as sociable as many other cetaceans, tending to hang around in small loose groups, individually, or in mother and calf pairs, hunting for shoaling fish such as sandeels, sprats and herring.  

Porpoises are undeniably attractive creatures, and I recall once finding a dead porpoise on Balmedie beach, north of Aberdeen, and being blown away by the sleek beauty of the creature. The skin was like polished ebony, the rounded face benign and attractive. It was a silken torpedo, perfectly designed for its oceanic life in search of fish. 

As the ferry – the MV Hebrides – left the Skye shore in its wake and began its traverse of the Minch, a much larger rolling back suddenly broke the water off the port bow – a minke whale. As quick as it had surfaced, the animal disappeared. ‘Please reappear’, I intoned silently.  Thankfully, it did so once more, this time astern of the vessel. Minkes are smaller in length than most other whales.

Minkes are the most frequently encountered whale off the Scottish west coast, and on calm days can even be spotted from the shore – rocky headlands offering the best vantage points.

My return journey a week later was on the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry. The sea was rougher and for most of the way I was unable to spot any cetaceans due to the conditions. Then, as the vessel approached the Summer Isles at the mouth of Loch Broom, the water quickly calmed.

The signs were looking good – and so it proved, for a short while later, the ferry swept past a large pod of common dolphins, their pale flanks catching the sunshine each time they breached the water, sending my mind spinning with enthralled excitement.  Whales and dolphins are an oft-forgotten part of Scottish nature and I felt truly privileged to have had a glimpse into their secret lives.

Snorkelling with jellyfish in Harris

There is something strangely hypnotic about gliding over a kelp forest, the large brown-green fronds swaying in gentle unison with the tidal current in such a beguiling manner that one is drawn deep within its alluring embrace.

I had only been snorkelling for a short while in this sea loch near Cluer in Harris, but already I had glimpsed several types of fish, including shoals of saithe, as well as corkwing and rock cook wrasse using their pectoral or side fins to scull through the kelp with ease and agility. This kelp bed was as rich in life as any tropical rainforest, and within its realm lay hordes of creatures, including anemones, sea urchins, sea squirts, sponges, lobsters, and a vast array of different molluscs.

Kelp forests provide a three-dimensional habitat, providing shelter and places for creatures and plants to gain tenure. In many ways, Scottish kelp forests are our very own equivalent to coral reefs, providing the same kind of essential ecosystem benefits to the inshore marine environment.

I flicked my flippers a few more times and drifted into a deep fissure that cut into a rockface by the sea edge. It was a dark and eerie place and a wave of apprehension swept over me; probably for no other reason than I had entered the unknown, which made me feel uncomfortable.

I slowed my breathing and relaxed the mind; that was better, I must be getting soft, for I had never felt angst before when snorkelling. I began to look about me, marvelling at the colorful sponges on the sides of the rock cleft. Below me, a pair of brown crabs scuttled across the seabed. Then, a movement near where the crabs had scurried – a stunning blue jellyfish, which began to move slowly to the surface, its umbrella-shaped bell pulsing like a slow beating heart.

The purple-blue of its cap contrasted starkly with the white trailing stinging tentacles, which shone and luminesced like a glowing beam.  The jellyfish hung near the surface for a short while before slowly descending again. I have noticed this behaviour before with blue jellyfish, rising up and down the water column, which is possibly a feeding strategy to glean plentiful plankton.

On manoeuvring out of the rock gully to continue my snorkel, several other blue jellyfish appeared, along with an impressive lion’s mane jellyfish, with a massive red-hued umbrella top and long hanging stingers.

On the final approach to my exit point on a nearby sloping rock shelf, a swarm of moon jellyfish appeared before my facemask, so distinctive with their shallow saucer-shaped bodies, with four rings in the centre of their bells. There had been strong winds the previous day, and this was a raft of dead and dying animals that had been consumed by the surge.

Moon jellyfish are fringed with tiny tentacles that are harmless, so I slowly glided in among the creatures, wallowing in what was effectively a thick jellyfish soup, a marine graveyard and a stark reminder of the deadly power of the sea.

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