Tag Archives: Wildlife

Safeguarding the Sparling!

It is easy to write about the cute, cuddly, cretins and beautiful, bodacious, birds that make up Scotland’s abundant wildlife.  However this week I feel I should give mention to a rather unusual fish that has been in the news this week.  The Sparling, a fish indigenous to Scotland, was once very common in Scottish rivers but now its numbers have seriously declined and it has to be said not many people even know about its existence, let alone the challanges it faces.

If you put the word ‘Sparling’ in Google, you will find that the top listings have absolutely nothing to do with this small silver fish – but perhaps that is because they are better known as European Smelt (Sparling being the Scottish name for this uncommon aquatic vertebrate).  They spend their most of their lives in the coastal waters around Western Europe, but in March (infact right about now) they take advantage of the high spring tides and these courageous little fish make their way upstream to spawn.

The River Cree

Despite their ability to withstand the changes from salt water to fresh water, Sparling are actually pretty poor swimmers (not something I ever thought I’d find myself saying about a type of fish) and this has played a part in its elusiveness in British rivers.  As the water quality in our inland waters has decreased, so the number of rivers in which Sparling can be found has reduced vastly, and now they are only found in three rivers in Scotland – the Forth, the Tay and the Cree.

Newton Stewart

It was the fight to save the future of these fish in the river Cree that caught my attention this week as volunteers braved the river during the night to carry out important conservation work – I have to say, rather them than me!  The river Cree, in the west of the country, flows from Loch Moan in the heights of the Glentrool Forest to exit into the North Channel not far from the bustling market town of Newton Stewart.  It is the only river on the West Coast that still attracts Sparling to its waters, although the conservation work that is being undertaken includes an attempt to establish the nearby river Fleet as another place that they will spawn.  This is great news, as Sparling were, for so long, an important part of the eco-system for many Scottish rivers and their visits support the survival of many other animals such as seals, goosanders and otters in the waters that they manage to continue to journey through.

It seems odd, even to me, that the plight of this wee fish has caught my imagination, especially as I was not aware of it until this week – but I will definitely hold out hope for the survival of Sparling in the Cree and the success of its re-introduction to other rivers in Scotland!

A Scottish Safari

A trip out of the office this week taught me that you don’t need to go to Africa to embark on an expedition which surrounds you with fascinatingly diverse habitats and puts you in to close proximity with an assortment of rare and fascinating wildlife!

Just as the game reserves of Kenya and the Serengeti aim to protect and conserve the area’s indigenous species in their natural habitats, increasingly Scottish farmers are endeavouring to ensure that the land they tend promotes the prosperity of our native ecosystems. One particular estate in the heart of the Scottish Borders has demonstrated its commitment to the conservation of local wildlife by ensuring all its land is used with the benefit of nature as a primary concern.

Whitmuir Estate, not far from the town of Selkirk, illustrates definitively that modern farming methods need not infringe on the resident plants and animals with which it shares it soil. In fact, over 170 different species of animal have been found on Whitmuir Estate in the last 10 years! Large areas of the lands are now scattered with wild flowers where numerous varieties of butterflies, moths and ladybirds are clearly in seventh heaven!

Among the exceptional provisions which have been made are special ‘beetle banks’ created in the estate’s arable fields, ensuring that when the ground is ploughed insects have a safe and undisturbed sanctuary close by in to which they can scuttle. There are quite a few ponds, wooded areas, hedges and fields which have been specifically set aside for native fauna and flora to thrive. And although the word ‘safari’ is actually Swahili, it literally means ‘journey’ –

Whitmuir Estate offers you the opportunity for a journey which takes you through a hidden wonderland of Scottish natural treasures, one that even most locals are unaware exists! Because of the need to preserve the delicate plant life that makes up the rare habitats as well as protect its inhabitants from too much human interference, Whitmuir Estate is not open to the public, but Unique Cottages clients who choose to book one of the 3 properties on the estate will find themselves right in the middle of this wildlife haven.

Place to stay on the Whitmuir Estate:

Small Cat, Big Attitude.

When I was at school (not so long ago – honest!) there was a period of time when sightings of unidentified big cats in places such as Cornwall and Dartmoor were common place in the tabloid newspapers.  As a teenager I found these stories rather intriguing.  Perhaps it was the allure of the unknown that fed my imagination, or the idea that these predators were surviving against all odds out with their preferred environment and eluding humans in the process.

Rarer animals that avoid human contact and lurk far from civilisation often do have that bit more appeal than the common, every-day species of animals that share our lives and lands.  I think it’s the air of mystery which they create, through the privacy they crave and their almost secretive nature, which sparks our imagination.  One such example, which has quickly become a favourite of mine, is the Scottish Wildcat.

Wildcat at the Highland Wildlife Park, Inverness-shire

I share my home with two gorgeous (although I recognise that I am slightly biased) Siamese cats and I am incredibly fond of them.  They’re cuddly, affectionate, comical, cute and amazingly human-like, but the thought of them surviving without the comforts with which I provide them is almost not worth considering.   Their breeding and the way I have raised them has resulted on them being almost entirely dependent on me.  A good example of this was provided during the period of heavy snow at the end of last year.  As I trudged in and out of the house collecting wood from the shed for the fire I left the back door of the cottage open.  Isis, the more inquisitive of my two cats, decided to venture out on to the door step, putting her front paws into the snow that had gathered.  Next thing I heard was an almighty cry (more like that of a baby than a cat) and a flash of black fur as she shot past me back into the warmth of the house – she hasn’t attempted to venture out since!

Pampered Pets!

As much as I love my cats (I even got rid of my husband because my cats were allergic), I found myself even more greatly charmed by their native cousins when I visited the Highland Wildlife Park this weekend.  Just as beautiful as my domestic felines, these cats are truly enthralling creatures – in their natural environment they are extraordinarily illusive and extremely wary of humans, keeping well away from populated areas.  It is thought that there are as few as 400 of them left in the wild, hiding out in the remotest, most isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands – so seeing them in their natural habitat is a very special treat for those lucky enough to do so.

Seeing these untamed, independent and self-sufficient wild animals, with their perfectly honed instincts, determined nature and resilient attitude it was difficult to believe that the delicate, indulged, wimpy wee ‘scaredy’ cats that I live with are related to them at all!  In my eyes Scottish Wildcats resemble larger cats such as tigers, lions and pumas, more than they do our domesticated pet moggys and I think it is the inherent unpredictability and enigmatic attitude that they share with larger predators which makes them so enchanting and fascinating.  If you have the opportunity to visit one of the centres which is supporting the survival of this scarce, and often underappreciated, native prowler I wholeheartedly recommend you do so.

If you want to get £2 off per person, per ticket, to visit the Highland Wildlife Park , Scottish Holiday company ‘Unique Cottages’ are running a discount promotion, just sign up to their free E-magazine or join them on Facebook to gain access to the offer.

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!