Category Archives: Things to see

My ‘seal’ of approval…

The news at the beginning of this week reporting the introduction of new laws to protect Scottish seals brought to mind an old Scottish legend told me as a child by my dear old, if not a little superstitious, grandmother.

The story went like this:

A seal hunter is woken one night by a stranger who states that his master requests the presence of the seal hunter and asks the hunter to go with him to his master’s abode. The seal hunter agrees and is taken, on the back a large black horse, many miles through the Scottish countryside to the edge of a cliff. On arrival at the cliff’s edge the seal hunter questions his escort as to where his master’s home is, at which point the stranger grabs the hunter and they both plummet downwards into the sea. The hunter wakes in a beautiful underwater kingdom, surrounded by the same animals that he has dedicated his life to killing and is approached by a large boar seal.

The boar seal leads him through the kingdom to a room where another seal lies dying with a huge knife wound to its belly. It turns out that this injured seal is the father of the large boar seal who invited the hunter to his realm, and the hunter recalls how earlier in the day, while hunting, he had stabbed a seal but not having killed it, only wounded it, the seal had managed to swim away with his knife blade still buried within it.

The hunter is told by the boar seal that he, as the one who inflicted the wound, is the only one who can save his father and requests that the hunter does so. The hunter removes the knife blade and magically the wound heals. The boar then tells the hunter that they will allow him to leave the underwater kingdom and return home only if he promises to surrender his job and vow never to harm a seal again. The hunter, feeling rather overwhelmed and more than a little homesick, agrees – worrying all the way home (on the back of that black horse again) how he will make ends meet now he cannot do what he has always done to make a living for himself. But when he returns home, before the stranger bids him farewell, he is handed a purse full of gold coins, enough to ensure that he will be comfortable for the rest of his life.

I’m sure the moral to this story is meant to be something along the lines of – if you do the right thing, and don’t harm others, you will be richly rewarded, but as a child the message I took from it was don’t hurt a seal or you might end up being taken to the bottom of the sea!

It would seem that seals now have more than just bedtime stories to discourage people from killing or harming them without good reason, as the new law makes it an offence to kill or injure a seal except under licence, with a potential penalty of a hefty fine or even 6 months in prison. Although seals can and do cause problems for the fishing industry, they are long standing residents of our seas and shores and I personally believe that more regulation of the way in which they are culled has to be a good thing – so the new law gets my seal of approval (excuse the pun, I couldn’t help myself!)

Seals in the Sound of Jura

Fortunately it still remains legal to shoot seals as much as your heart desires – as long as it’s with a camera! So, for those who fancy spending some time admiring these intriguing animals below is a list of my favourite places to spot them around Scotland:

The Moray Firth Coastline

The shores of Loch Linnhe

The Orkney Islands

The Sound of Jura

The shoreline at Fast Castle, near Coldingham

Fast Castle Seals

And just a wee bit of advice -please remember that even the cutest of seals with the biggest, most appealing eyes are still wild animals and if you do get too close and make them feel threatened they may bite in defence. Keeping a safe distance ensures seal watching is an enjoyable experience for both you and the seal!

Not a dicky bird?

This weekend I decided to take part in the RSPB Big Garden Bird watch.  I have to say, purposeful bird watching is not something I’ve done before or really wanted to do before – don’t get me wrong, if I’m out and about and I happen to see some rare or unusual bird life I’m as delighted as the next person, but sitting still (and being quiet) for long periods of time has never been one of my talents!

However having watched something about the event on the telly last week I thought it would do no harm to lend a hand!  The BBC programme had explained that this year’s ‘watch’ had even greater importance than normal because of the need to consider the impact of the extremely snowy and cold weather this winter on the garden bird population.  Knowing the impact it had on me, I thought it might be interesting to see how our feathered friends had been affected without advantages such as an open fire and plenty of jumpers.

So, having downloaded the bird counting sheet from the website, I began my hour of bird watching poised in anticipation, pen ready in hand, at my sitting room window looking out at the bird table in my small front garden.  But as the minutes ticked by, expectation gradually turned to disappointment and my initial eagerness slowly became despondency at the lack of winged characters willing to take advantage of the array of nuts my well stocked bird feeder had on offer!  You’d not see me turn down free food!

In fact, in the whole hour I only saw 3 rather dishevelled female Pheasants sneaking along, carefully sticking close to the side of a dyke on the hill beyond my garden (probably wisely avoiding the danger of the open hillside on a shoot day).

And yeah, you guessed it- Pheasants weren’t even included on my bird watching sheet!!

Feeling rather defeated at the end of my vigilant watch, my thoughts turned to why I hadn’t seen any of the garden birds I had hoped to?  Perhaps they knew what I was up to and were sat, just out of my range of sight, having a wee chuckle together about how frustrated I would be if they avoided my garden for this particular hour!  Or more worryingly, could the harsh winter weather, and the resulting lack of available food, be the cause for their unfortunate absence?  Or maybe my nearest neighbour, half a mile down the valley, had a better selection of bird goodies on offer and I was simply being snubbed!

The following morning, after a hearty breakfast, I think I got my answer.

As I stood at the kitchen window doing the washing up, a shadow fell over the back garden and a greyish blue-brown coloured feathered creature, with yellow legs and piercing eyes, promptly swooped down and elegantly landed on the fence.  This rather magnificent bird is not a stranger to the area around my cottage; I have often seen this mighty bird of prey expertly riding the up-drafts when I’m out walking nearby – but never in the garden before!  And then it dawned on me, this fine animal was probably the reason my well planned observation had been so unsuccessful and the key is in its name – Sparrowhawk!  Known to prey on smaller birds, as well as small mammals and insects, adult Sparrowhawks are thought to, on average, consume about 2 small birds a day.

I know I should have felt privileged to have this beautiful bird grace me with its presence so close to my home, especially considering its secretive nature; but the timing of its visit, just after my first attempt at bird watching, did seem a little ironic!  And as it sat proudly on the fence, no doubt pausing mid hunt, I could have sworn it was grinning at me!

Get your wildlife fix on a day trip to Staffa

If you’re planning on holidaying to the West coast this Summer, then you might want to consider a day trip to Staffa and Lunga. Turus Mara are now running day trips throughout the Summer until October with an all-in-ticket that includes ferry passage from Oban to Craignure, on the Isle of Mull where you are then taken by minibus directly to Ulva Ferry. For those worried about sea-sickness, it’s only the last 10 minutes of a 50 minute journey as the boat enters more exposed waters that might be cause for concern and that’s only if you are below deck. But don’t worry, there is a toilet on board! Better still if you can, try and bag one of the sixteen seats on top deck even if it means elbowing some school children out of the way.

The awesome hexagonal ballast columns on Staffa greet you as you come into port (although the Captain of the Hoy Lass ferry assures us that there are in fact at most only seven sides to the columns). You are given an hour on Staffa which is just enough time to climb the steps to the top and eat your packed lunch with views of Iona Abbey and the Treshnish Isles, free of the worry of tick bites as Staffa has no deer or bracken for them to hide. This lack of bracken is sure to be a hit with Scottish wild flower enthusiasts or in fact any Highland inhabitant as they will tell you that the amount of bracken has grown significantly in recent years with the steady decline of grazing and crop planting. So don’t mention the ‘B’ word to any locals you might meet. After lunch, there is still have enough time to walk back down and precariously edge your way to hear your echo in Fingal’s Cave before taking the boat onwards to Lunga.

Lunga will tick your bird-watching boxes with a large population of puffins, guillemots and shags. However, for birds that have colonised an uninhabited island, the puffins seem rather sociable as you’re able to get within a few feet of their cliff-top nests. We were also lucky enough on the day to spot the fin of a basking shark in the bay and a couple of seals on the rocks on the way back to Ulva Ferry. Day-trippers to Mull are bussed back to Craignure just in time to catch the 7pm ferry back to Oban.

Highland cows first thing in the morning

I thought life in the countryside would consist of being woken up by cockerels not cows. Our neighbouring farmer has moved them to the field next to our house and the closest thing I could describe their mooing sound to is like a foghorn. Or at least it seems that loud at 6 o’clock in the morning.

Around here they are allowed to roam across the roads so if the scenery isn’t enough to make you want to go at a slower pace, then let the Highland cows be reason enough to drive more cautiously. Our local farmer told us that some of the more romantic bulls have been known to trample down fences during mating season so we can see why they have chosen to give up on fencing them in.

The fact that their are two large, spiked horns coming out of their heads may seem intimidating yet they are generally timid animals so you needn’t worry if you want to get out of your car to take a passing photo. In fact they are more likely to be nervous of you and may gallop off if you get too close. One word of caution though, if you are out walking and approach a group of them, do go around them not through but around as some new mothers can be protective of their calves!

Sea eagle chicks

A cargo of 19 sea eagle chicks arrived at Edinburgh airport from Norway this weekend as part of a 30 year project to re-introduce them to Scotland.

The sea eagle plays a large part in bringing tourists to our part of Scotland, the West coast where there is now a healthy population, even though all sea eagles in the UK were raised in Fife on the East coast. Just remember if you spot one whilst driving and want to stop to get a better look, to pull into a parking area and not a passing place.

When we first moved here we had no knowledge of birds and would often look up at common buzzards assuming they were eagles. It was not until we actually saw an eagle that we realised the difference in size between the birds and what idiots we had been. You will definitely know when you see an eagle because quite simply, they are huge. No wonder then that the chicks are the size of your average Christmas turkey.

A number of operators are now running wildlife tours although sightings of the eagles can never be guaranteed. In fact, any sighting of the sea eagle can be reported to the RSPB on 01463 715000. In the mean time the RSPB website has an osprey ‘nest cam‘ complete with sound which has now made it to our ‘favourites’ links just for relaxing purposes!