A passion for nature

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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.

 

 

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.

Dawn’s sweet music

A sweet note, and then one more; a musical couplet, followed immediately by another, hesitant at first but gaining in confidence as the music from this song thrush drifted across the cold dawn air of the strath.

It was wonderful sound and a herald of spring, sparking thoughts of warm days and yellow-dazzled primroses bringing sparkle to our hedge banks. It will be several more weeks before this cock song thrush even thinks about mating, but for now, he is content to mark out his territory and advertise his presence to nearby females.

Besides, singing so early in the year will give him an advantage over other nearby males who have yet to tune-up. But on hearing his music, they will soon be galvanised into action, and in no time at all, the air will ring to the melody of several song thrushes each dawn. Even when it is cold and frosty, the throaty thrushes will sing, such is their zest for life and hunger to attract a partner.

Blackbirds linger behind in this early season chorus, with most not starting to sing until the end of February or the beginning of March. Both birds are superb songsters, but for me, the diverse repertoire of the song thrush just about edges it. But perhaps I’m being unfair, for the blackbird’s song is more liquid and smoother in quality; the ultimate in natural chill-out music.

The poet William Henley was certainly a blackbird fan: “The nightingale has a lyre of gold/The lark’s is a clarion call/And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute/But I love him best of all”.

Other creatures, too, are thinking about breeding. In my local wood, the vixen’s traditional cubbing den has been freshly dug-out in preparation for giving birth in March, and outside a nearby badger sett I found discarded bedding from the animals’ spring cleaning in anticipation of their new arrivals.

This clan of badgers had a traumatic time last year because much of their home forest was felled. One can only imagine the stress the noise of power-saws and heavy vehicles must have caused. The foresters deliberately left the trees around the sett untouched, for which I am truly grateful.

This felled woodland now has the appearance of a desert wasteland; grey tree stumps and twisted branches. But nature’s powerful embrace will soon take hold, and by the summer the first green sprouts of pioneering plants such as foxgloves and rosebay willowherb will miraculously take hold. Invertebrates and fungi will busy themselves on recycling the tumbled wood and new life will spring forth.

I like that; the power of nature to bounce back. For the badgers, their home territory will once again become a tranquil place, where they can safely forage in search of earthworms and other small creatures. And in time, new trees will take root and the woodland will be on its way to returning to its former glory.

On the cusp of change

The lime-tinted glimmer of catkins adorning the bare branches of this hazel by Rumbling Bridge in Kinross-shire. By my feet, more green verdant freshness: the emerging spears of snowdrops heralding the approach of a new season.

I heaved a sigh of contentment, for the countryside is on the cusp of remarkable change; a time of renewal and anticipation. It might only be January, but winter’s grip is yielding, albeit reluctantly. Frosts, snow and bitter winds might still lie ahead, but in an imposing battle of wills, the lengthening days and stronger sun will eventually gain the upper hand.

I examined the catkins and brushed my fingers across a cluster. They were hard and smooth to the touch, but over the coming weeks will lengthen and become fluffy, by which time they are so appropriately known as ‘lamb’s tails’. These dangly green catkins are the male flowers but look closer at the branches and the tiny bud-like red female flowers can be seen too.

There were other signs of spring, a soft warbling breaking above the noise of the tumbling water: a dipper, his white-breasted body bobbing on a rock as he spilled forth his gentle notes to proclaim this stretch of river as his breeding territory.

The cycle of life revolves so quickly. It only seemed like yesterday when the autumnal leaves turned copper and the first arrivals of Arctic geese etched their v-shaped formations across the heavens.

I was in a melancholy mood and reflected upon the winter so far.  It has been unusually mild and very wet. Is this all part and parcel of climate change? Yes, I think it probably is. Of course, Scotland’s geographical position on the edge of the north-east Atlantic makes our country prone to climatic flux dependent upon the pattern of the weather systems sweeping-in from the west.

But there is so much more to it than that, and the last few months are just but one piece in a highly complex jig-saw puzzle. Human-induced climate change is happening; it is real and cannot be denied. In my garden last spring there were tree bumblebees and comma butterflies – two species that have moved-in from the south in recent years.

When a youngster, I was addicted to frogs; a boy thing, I suppose. Back then, in my local patch, the first spawn occurred in the middle of March. Now, it is the end of February. That shift in days might not seem much, but in nature terms it is gargantuan.

As the river gurgled over the rocks here at Rumbling Bridge, I wondered about the future and the implications that climate change will wreak upon our varied and diverse wildlife. Nature is adaptable, often incredibly so, but there will always be losers. In our small world, every species diminished or lost is an unforgivable tragedy, and a damming indictment of humankind and where our skewed priorities lie.

Plastic peril in our seas

It had been an enjoyable snorkel, having taken to the water by this remote rocky cove on Waternish in Skye, with the distant hills of South Uist twinkling on the far horizon.

Marine life abounded at every turn; shoals of young saithe flashed over flat-fronded kelp beds and the saucer-shaped form of a crystal jellyfish pulsed past me like a beating heart. The water was remarkably clear, but it was well into October, and with the lateness of the season, I knew this would probably be my last snorkel of the year. As such, I stayed in the water for as long as the cold would permit, totally absorbed by nature’s undersea tapestry of life and colour.

On emerging from the sea, shivering and dripping, my exhilaration turned swiftly into despair, for on the strandline an atrocity lay before me. Plastic, and it was everywhere. It was an abomination that struck at the very heart of the respect we should have for our planet; a proliferation of plastic bottles, cartons, fishing net fragments and the like.

I walked slowly along the shore and started examining this plastic perversion, depressed and shocked in equal measure.

Typically, several thousand items of marine plastic pollution are found per mile of beach in the UK, and it is thought that more than eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world oceans each year.

The end-result is horrifying with recent studies showing that every single seal, whale, and dolphin washed-up on British shores had traces of plastic in their stomachs, as did every fulmar. Plastic is ingested by fish and shellfish and has even been discovered in our deepest living marine organisms. It is everywhere, an omnipresent threat that is choking the lifeblood out of our precious marine environment, and with that, threatening humanity, too.

Our addiction to single use plastic is largely to blame – over half of plastics come under that category, and one just to has to think of a typical supermarket basket shop and the amount of plastic packaging involved. In 2018 alone, UK supermarkets and their suppliers produced one million tonnes of plastic. Does that cucumber really need to be shrink-wrapped? I think not.

So, what can be done? Well, Governments, of course, must act with urgency to legislate, and set and enforce targets to reduce our reliance on plastics. Manufacturers need to innovate and develop alternatives, and, of course, every individual has a responsibility, too.

Four simple steps can make a real difference: where possible, refuse to buy inappropriately packaged products, consider non-plastic alternatives, reuse plastic, and, of course, recycle it.

Who knows, if such action is taken by us all, maybe in the not too distant future, the only objects found in among the seaweed on this remote strandline on Skye will be crab shells, gull feathers and other natural debris. Now, there’s a wonderful thought.

Roar of the stags

By Keith Broomfield

Swirling rain swept across the flanks of this remote Deeside glen, and along the banks of a nearby gushing burn, newly arrived fieldfares cackled and bickered as they gorged upon the ripened scarlet clusters of rowan berries.

Then, the air was broken by a strange echoing noise; a deep roar in the distance that carried far into the wind. The more you listened the more the sound became apparent.

Fumbling for my binoculars, a quick scan of the far side of the glen revealed one of Scotland’s greatest natural spectacles – rutting red deer. A proud stag with many prongs to his antlers bowed his head and let rip his deep-throated bellow. He then rushed towards another stag that was beginning to edge upon his small harem of hinds. The message was unequivocal – keep off, these females are mine!

It was a tiresome task, and as soon as the stag engaged with one male, then another would suddenly encroach into the other side of the harem, causing the stag to charge back again in anger and snort his defiance. It was apparent that this Monarch of the Glen would only be able to cope with such pressure for so long and he will soon have to mate with the hinds to ensure that his genes are carried through to the next generation.

For a stag, the aim of the rut is simple, to try and mate with as many hinds as possible. To do so, the older more mature stags round up a harem of hinds, and the bigger and stronger he is the more he can get and protect for himself. But it is impossible to keep an eye on all of them all of the time.

This has resulted in different mating strategies with some of the younger and less dominant males waiting for the opportunity to quickly rush in and mate with a hind when the attention of the harem master is otherwise diverted. One of my zoology lecturers at Aberdeen University dubbed these hit-and-run stags as ‘sneaky copulators’.

A successful stag may be able to protect a harem of up to 20 hinds, and because so much time and energy is spent on the rut, they are often lean and in poor condition towards the end.

Red deer management is a controversial and complex issue. Where the populations are too high, their presence can be damaging to the environment, most notably through the prevention of the natural regeneration of trees. However, deer are a vital and iconic part of our landscape and deer carrion is an important source of food for a variety of upland wildlife, especially golden eagles. 

Indeed, a red deer carcass has the potential to support a pair of eagles for a significant period in the depths of a Highland winter, especially in western areas, where other prey such as mountain hares are scarce.

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