Golden eagles of Bowglass


According to Robin Reid, RSPB officer for the Western Isles, Bowglass (Bogha Glas) on the Isle of Harris is the best place in the whole of Europe to see Golden Eagles (BBC Wildlife, Feb 2015).

The track that goes up from [the car park at] Bowglass runs through four different golden eagle territories. If you spent a day between February and June going up that track…. there’s a good chance you’d see five to ten  different eagles. I can’t think of anywhere else in Europe where you can walk up a glen and potentially see so many eagles in just three or four hours.

Photo from Geograph © Copyright Peter Moore and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary

Field Notes from a Hidden City

Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson looks at the “hidden city” of Aberdeen, meditating on our complex relationships with the natural world. She intimately portrays the wildlife of this northern city.

In the night a few times, I’ve been wakened by the stillness. Even the gulls are silent. Here, you’re often woken by the sounds of gulls. Even when it’s nearly morning, in winter darkness, it still feels like night, their cries arching lightly in the air over the silent city. I waken and then as I sleep again, think about the sounds they make which might be of warning or joy, or grief, but which are most probably an unfathomable Larus chorus of dialogue and exchange. For me, gulls’ voices are a welcome wakening, a kind of wild music, a reminder of where I am in that moment of renewed consciousness: a city on the edge of the sea, at the north-eastern rim of a northern island between the western coasts of Scandinavia and the eastern beginnings of North America, the southern reaches of circumpolar north.

Looking down from a plane window when you’re flying towards it from the south, for a long way below you see only rock and grass and fields and suddenly it’s there, a tight grey city with sea and water almost surrounding it. It’s a city perched on the edge of water, a city of two rivers, blown by every wind named and unnamed, by ban-gull and haugull, blinter and flist. There are days in the wind and rain when it feels as though the whole of it, every edifice and structure, every garden, streetlight and tree will detach and set out determinedly to sea. The grey granite from which Aberdeen is built can look only a semitone lighter or darker than the clouds and sky. We’re part of a thin string of cities, a chain of northern places, poised along this numbered scale, the circles of latitude; the last habitation before the real cold begins, on the fringes of subarctic ice and snow, at the northern reaches of an earth circling in an ellipsis around the sun.

The Guardian review ” “Just like the herring gull a century ago, contemporary nature writing is migrating into cities, albeit with publishing trends as much as evolution forcing the pace. Field Notes takes the form of a year’s worth of diary entries, starting in the depths of winter.”

Robert Macfarlane at Cape Wrath


Cape Wrath s the most north-westerly point in the mainland Britain. Robert Macfarlane described arriving at the cape in Wild Places.

I looked out to sea and watched the waves build as they approached the land, curling up out of the water along their length, like flicked ropes. The air above the sea was live with scores of birds: fulmars planing the wind in white curves, stubby guillemots like winged cigars, whirring along just above the waves, gulls making their weightless turns and angles, and giving their quick cries. So much life was at work in this place! I picked out one fulmar and followed its motion for a few minutes, watching the laterals of its gliding wings, wondering what sort of pattern its complex flight-path would make if it could be plotted. Out of sight to the east were the Clo Mor Cliffs, home to a far bigger seabird colony: tens of thousands of puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes.

George Orwell and wildlife

George Orwell had a surprising and deep interest in wildlife and nature, going back to his childhood. In letters from school he wrote about caterpillars and butterflies and he had a keen interest in ornithology. He wrote about wild flowers and birds in England, the wildlife of Morocco, even frogs in Spain. He recorded many interesting diary entries from his cottage at Wallington. Here for example is an entry to his diary from 16 April 1939. Many more entries on nature here at the Orwell Diaries

Rather chilly with sunny intervals, not much wind. A very light shower in the morning.
Cowslips in flower here & there. This I think is rather early. Bluebells also beginning, a few almost in full bloom. This undoubtedly is unusually early. Wild cherries in full bloom. Sycamore leaves opening. Apple blossom almost about to open. Another thrush sitting [on] eggs in the hedge. Found a blackbird’s nest with eggs. These are the only nests I have found hitherto.
The pond up by the church has become so stagnant that it no longer has duckweed, only the scummy green stuff. Nevertheless there are still a few newts in it.
Summer time began today, M’s morning yield consequently small, but picked up in the evening.
Ten eggs (price of eggs sold yesterday 1/9 a score).

And on 24 October

There are now 2 barn owls which live in the stumpy elm tree, & evidently it is they that make the sawing noise. I suppose these are the ones that used to be called screech-owls, & the ordinary brown owl is the one that makes the to-whoo noise.

And 5 November

Some wind in the morning, then nice sunny weather. Ground has dried up somewhat. In the evening violent wind & a few drops of rain. The wind actually blew the roof off the small henhouse. Enormous flocks of starlings, some tens of thousands at a time, going over with a noise that sounds like heavy rain. The leaves are mostly down now. Elder leaves just coming down. As I remember it the elms are being stripped much earlier this year than most.

Later after reading a newspaper article about the slaughter of barn owls and kestrels, supposedly to protect pheasants, Orwell countered in his own newspaper column in Tribune of 5 May 1944 entitled ‘We Are Destroying Birds that Save Us’,

 ‘beneficial birds suffer from human ignorance. There is senseless persecution of the kestrel and barn owl. No two species of birds do better work for us.’

Unfortunately it isn’t even from ignorance. Most of the birds of prey are killed off for the sake of that enemy of England, the pheasant. Unlike the partridge, the pheasant does not thrive in England, and apart from the neglected woodlands and the vicious game laws that it has been responsible for, all birds or animals that are suspected of eating its eggs or chicks are systematically wiped out. Before the war, near my village in Hertfordshire, I used to pass a stretch of fence where the gamekeeper kept his ‘larder’. Dangling from the wires were the corpses of stoats, weasels, rats, hedgehogs, jays, owls, kestrels and sparrow-hawks. Except for the rats and perhaps the jays, all of these creatures are beneficial to agriculture. The stoats keep down the rabbits, the weasels eat mice, and so do the kestrels and sparrow-hawks, while the owls eat rats as well. It has been calculated that a barn owl destroys between 1,000 and 2,000 rats and mice in a year. Yet it has to be killed off for the sake of this useless bird which Rudyard Kipling correctly described as ‘lord of many a shire’.

Darwin at Glen Roy

Parallel Roads

Darwin studied the unique geology of Glen Roy when he returned from the Beagle voyage. The valley is noted for the geological puzzle of the three roads (“Parallel Roads”) – lake terraces that formed along the shorelines of an ancient ice-dammed lake. The lake existed during a brief period (some 900-1,100 years in duration) of climatic deterioration, during a much longer period of deglaciation, subsequent to the last main ice age (The Devensian). From a distance they resemble man-made roads running along the side of the Glen, hence the name.

Darwin made his “Gigantic Blunder” on his visit in June 1838 by drawing on his recent findings in South America during the Beagle expedition and believing that the shorelines were of marine origin. This was contradicted by Louis Agassiz’s Glacial theory of 1840 which postulated that the shorelines had been cut by freeze-thaw processes of lake ice during the maximum extent of glacial ice in the climatic reversal known as the Younger Dryas / Greenland Stadial 1 or locally the Loch Lomond Readvance. Four decades after his 1839 paper and shortly before his death, Darwin conceded that he was incorrect. Wikipedia writing ‘I do believe every word in my Glen Roy paper is false’.

It is now known that the feature is the remains of ancient shorelines formed at the end of the last ice age when an advancing glacier pushed up the water level of a lake that filled the valley.

The Ardross wolf

ardross wolf

One of the most interesting artefacts portraying the existence of wolves in Britain was chanced upon in Ardross in the Scottish Highlands 1891 while repairing a drystone wall. One of the two carved stone slabs found depicts a wolf, while a second one shows a deer. They are considered two of the finest surviving Pictish animal symbols ever discovered, and are now displayed at Inverness Museum. Image from here

The BBC featured the stone in its series A History of the World in Objects which notes “Made in the 6th or 7th century, the craftmanship is superb, a narrow line, expertly carved with a cleanly cut v-shaped profile. It shows a magnificent wolf which looks like it’s about to leap off the stone at any moment.”

Roger Deakin in Tiger Wood

Wildwood deakin

Roger Deakin memorably described a spring evening in Tiger Wood in Suffolk in “Wildwood”. The wood’s name comes from the discovery of a curved canine of a sabre-tooth tiger unearthed here some years back.

Ronald and I had walked through Tiger Wood in the snow the winter before. The day was brilliant, the trees sparkling and frilled with frost. A white line of snow was pencilled up the north-east side of each tree. John Nash loved woods, particularly in winter, when their architecture is revealed. The lines of the nude trees are so much stronger.  The bones of the landscape stand out. He loved the ruins of woods : dead trees fallen over one another, fungi and brittle twigs. He hated woods to be tidied, and the fashion for management that rubbed out all evidence of past inhabitants, all natural continuity of living denizens.

Duddon’s natterjacks

BufoCalamita Sand
To the north of Morecambe Bay lies the little visited Duddon estuary with its spectacular views of the Lake District. Large numbers of waterbirds winter here and there is also an internationally important breeding population of Sandwich terns . Remarkably,  the estuary also supports 20-25% of all natterjack toads in Britain, whose national population has fallen by as much as 80 percent in the last 100 years. BBC Radio Four’s  Living World  visited the beach at Haverigg on the estuary’s northern shore  to meet the natters.

On the night of the recording, Lionel joins William Shaw, Cumbria Conservation Officer with the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, on the dunes at sunset. As the sun dips below the horizon, they catch the first calls on the breeze. The natterjacks are emerging from their burrows to sing their deafening lovesongs. Picking their way by torch-light, Lionel and Bill discover toads massing in the pools, on the sand and in the grass. Toad-on-the-sole is something to avoid; Bill confesses that this was his first mortifying experience with a Natterjack many years ago. The Natterjack toad is much smaller than the common toad with a bold yellow stripe down its back. They switch their torches off. Soon a ratchet sound starts up cranking up to the full-on mating call. Irresistible. [Listen]

The bee hill of Shotover

Hugh Warwick The Beauty in the Beast

The wooded hill of Shotover is a hotspot for bees, with 99 species recorded here between 2000 and 2004, out of a number of nearly 250 for Britain (24 species of bumblebees, around 225 species of solitary bee and just a single honeybee) . The number may be so high compared with elsewhere because the hill is close to Oxford and therefore has been subject to intense study since the early 20th century.

Hugh Warwick’s delightful The Beauty in the Beast portrays some of the Britain’s most iconic wildlife and above all the enthusiasts who fight for their cause. He visited Shotover with bee expert Ivan Wright:

Ivan has lived on the borders of Shotover for over 20 years. Shotover Hill is a remnant of the large medieval royal forest of Shotover that almost encircled medieval Oxford. There are steep slopes, ancient oaks and well-worn paths. It is pleasingly wild, big enough to lose oneself in but not so big as to get lost. The steepness of the hill has held development at bay for generations, but as the demand for land has increased, so has the potential threat to Shotover from developers and planners.

And later:

The data revealed Shotover as a ‘hotspot’ for bees in Oxfordshire, one of the best sites in the county, with ninety-nine bee species found in the area by Ivan between 2000 and 2004. So he was able to argue for improved protection for Shotover, and enhanced its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Solitary bees have helped to protect the hill, and now the reason why we were laying frisbees out in transects became clearer. The bees do not spend their entire lives up on the hill; it does not provide the diversity of plants they need to survive. So the bees need to commute to feed on nectar and pollen from a variety of flowers; the nectar provides sugar for energy and honey, while pollen provides protein. And if the land around Shotover is desertified by oil-seed rape and concrete, the bees will disappear, as they will have no chance to feed themselves or their subterranean grubs. So Ivan wants to expand the area that is safeguarded to include some of the agricultural land that, when managed sensitively, can generate rich sources of bee food.

Full extract here

Whitby’s whalebone arch

Whitby - Whalebone Arch and View - - 679544
The whalebone arch in Whitby commemorates the Yorkshire town’s historic link with the whaling industry. The bones are from a Bowhead whale which was killed under license by Alaskan Inuits, and unveiled by Miss Alaska in 2003. The presence of whales in Britain


In 1753 the first whaling ship set sail to Greenland and by 1795 Whitby had become a major whaling port. The most successful year was 1814 when eight ships caught 172 whales, and the whaler, the Resolution’s catch produced 230 tons of oil. The carcases yielded 42 tons of whale bone used for ‘stays’ which were used in the corsetry trade until changes in fashion made them redundant. Blubber was boiled to produce oil for use in lamps in four oil houses on the harbourside. Oil was used for street lighting until the spread of gas lighting reduced demand and the Whitby Whale Oil and Gas Company changed into the Whitby Coal and Gas Company. As the market for whale products fell, catches became too small to be economic and by 1831 only whaling ship, the Phoenix, remained.

Urban otters in Newcastle

Great short documentary (Springwatch) about the return of otters to the Tyne in Newcastle

“Otters were once on the brink of extinction because of polluted water. But these days otters are making a comeback and can now even sometimes be seen in the heart of cities. Springwatch sent cameraman Jamie McPherson to Newcastle to meet Kevin O’Hara of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and film urban otters. First to be seen was a large dog otter. Male otters can have a territory of over 12 miles so it is lucky to see one. City otters have been witnessed raiding bins and catching rats.”

Watching dolphins at Chanonry Point

Leaping dolphin, Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point on the Black Isle is famous as one of the best places in Europe for watching dolphins from the comfort of land. These bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) can often close to the shore, especially after low tide, when they come in to fish in the strong currents. In fact BBC wildlife presenter Simon King has described Scotland as “one of the best land-based dolphin watching hot spots in the world”. It is also a top spot for seal watching. Note the nearby Dolphin and Seal Centre in North Kessock is now closed as of 2015. 


While bottlenose dolphins can be seen off the point throughout the year, the chances of seeing them increase when their food supply increases, the peak times being when salmon are returning towards the two main rivers (the Ness and Beauly) which feed into the Moray Firth. The salmon come in with the tidal current which, once the tide starts to come in, can be extreme. If planning a trip, find tide details and pick days with midday low tides with the largest difference between low and high tide (spring tides, avoid the neap tides). An unofficial “jungle telegraph” system operates round the Rosemarkie campsite and point in June and on into August with details of the latest sightings only a brief conversation away. The University of Aberdeen operates a more formal range of surveys throughout the year from their field station based just along the coast at Cromarty, supported by funds from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. While the Point is regarded by many people as the best place to watch the dolphins from land, licenced boat trips do run from Cromarty and Avoch.

Photo from Geograph: © Copyright Craig Wallace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

England’s last wolf?

Windblown trees, Humphrey Head - - 48659

The limestone outcrop of Humphrey Head is according to legend the place where the last wolf in England was killed in the 14th century. The story goes the wolf  had come down from the fells near Coniston where it had feasted on the sheep flocks. After it attacked a child the locals chased it to the end of Humphrey Head where it was killed with pikes.

The Guga Hunters of Ness

The Guga Hunters of Ness

“A BBC feature documentary about a Gaelic island community in Scotland embarking on their epic annual seabird hunt in the treacherous North Atlantic.

Every August ten men from Ness set sail through the gales of the North Atlantic for Sula Sgeir, a desolate island 40 miles off the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Following in the footsteps of countless generations, they leave their normal lives behind to hunt for the guga, the meat of the young gannets.

The men spend two exhausting weeks on the uninhabited rock, sleeping in stone huts amongst ruins left by Celtic monks a thousand years ago. They work ceaselessly, catching, killing and salting 2000 birds using traditional methods before returning home with this rare meat so cherished by the people of Ness.

These are the last men allowed to hunt seabirds in the EU and the UK and for 50 years this ancient tradition has remained hidden from the cameras. In 2009 we sailed with the hunters and filmed their unique voyage.”

The Guga Hunters of Ness – Trailer from Intrepid Cinema on Vimeo.

The dead birds are then brought back to Lewis and boiled in milk and served as a delicacy. A delicacy for some for others their salty, oily flesh is an acquired taste: ‘ like salt-mackerel-flavoured chicken’, as Lewis writer Donald Murray put it.


Fraser Darling’s deer studies

herd of red deer fraser

Fraser Darling’s study of the red deer population of Dundonnell, in Wester Ross between 1935 and 1959, gave a detailed picture of the reproduction, social behaviour and habitat of deer. His book “A Herd of Red Deer” transformed modern ethology and revolutionised the way that British wildlife was studied.

Describing the role of barefoot walking in Darling’s deer research, Robert Macfarlane writes in “The Old Ways”:

Darling’s unconventional methods: instead of considering the deer as reflex creatures, displaying learnt but versatile reactions to their environment, he proposed a dynamic model of the herd in which each deer’s sensed experience of its landscape shiftingly informed their way of living. Darling’s contention, in short, was that deer ‘were capable of insight’, and his insight into their insight emerged from his decision to go sympathetically barefoot.

Wilds of the Upper Thames

A short extract from a wonderful documentary with Robert Macfarlane: The Other Side of Essex – Unexpected Wilderness, a  year-long exploration of Essex right on the county’s edge, on the north shore of the upper Thames.

“Essex illustrates perfectly how, across England, we misunderstand, overlook and underestimate the power of our own wild places. This film reveals our misconceptions, and brings reassuring and surprising news – and hopefully will encourage us to act fast to protect our last remaining native wildernesses.”

Nessie the Albatross

Nessie the Albatross

Nessie the Black-browed Albatross which took up residence on the gannet island colony of Sula Sgeir, 8,000 miles away from his natural breeding grounds. The bird is thought to have first arrived in Scotland after being blown off course in the South Atlantic in 1967. For many years it was the only known albatross in the northern hemisphere. BBC News

Photo by John Macfarlane and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Simon Prosser on reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks

Simon Prosser on reading Robert Macfarlane’s LandmarksPenguin publisher Simon Prosser on his experience reading Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane.

“When I finished reading the first draft of Robert Macfarlane’s new book on landscape and language, I found that my vocabulary had notably and delightfully expanded:

I now knew ‘rionnach maoim’ (a Hebridean Gaelic term for ‘the shadows cast by cumulus clouds on moorland on a sunny, windy day’); ‘smeuse’ (Sussex dialect for ‘the hole in the base of a hedgerow made by the repeated passage of a small animal’); ‘af’rug’ (a Shetland word for ‘the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore’); and ‘wind-fucker’ (the perfect East Anglian dialect nickname for a kestrel), along with ‘blonking’ (snowing), ‘babbing’ (fishing for eels) and ‘jirglin’ (playing about with water).”

All of these words, and thousands more, collected over a decade by Rob from the Shetlands to Cornwall, from Pembrokeshire to Suffolk, and from old Norse to Romani, appear in Landmarks, in the nine glossaries which interleave the ten chapters of the book. (Landmarks also describes Rob’s  journeys into the mines of Cumbria, the moors of the Hebrides and the corries of the Cairngorms, as well as his meetings with glossarians, poets and word-collectors up and down the country.)

Landmarks is a book about the power of language – ‘strong style, single words’ in Rob’s phrase – to shape our sense of place. It is both a  field-guide to the literature he loves (Nan Shepherd, Barry Lopez and Roger Deakin and more) and also a ‘Word-Hoard’, to borrow the title of the opening chapter. Over the course of the book we can chart a kind of love-affair between writer and language. The authors Rob is most drawn to tend to write with an exact and committed intensity about their chosen landscapes, in styles strong enough to revise our imaginary relations with places. They aim, in the words from Emerson which Rob quotes in the book, to ‘pierce…rotten diction and fasten words to visible things’, They are celebrants of the specific – and so too is Rob. More here