Eigg on my face.

I take a lot of pictures, but only a few will be worth keeping. Some obvious duds I delete with the dustbin button on the camera. Mostly they stay on the memory card which, back at base, I remove from the camera and place in a card reader which is connected to my computer. I then look through them and delete a few more before copying or moving them to my hard-drive. I then load them into the editing software Lightroom, which copies the pictures to a different location in the computer. You still with me?

Yesterday I walked as far as the path would take me along the Southern part of Eigg, with the An Scurr ridge towering 300 metres above me, the sea to my left, with the Isle of Muck in the foreground and the mainland behind it.

I’m fascinated by how people live here:

Wildlife was far from plentiful, but I watched a Golden Eagle chasing doves, caught a glimpse of a Peregrine in a low stoop down from An Scurr to the sea, and several times saw a kestrel. None of these were close enough or slow enough to get in focus, but I did get three shots of a Short Eared Owl flying, and a few good landscapes.

The little black house had signs of use – perhaps a walker’s bothy. I saw the end of a polythene pipe close to a spring further up the hill so guessed it would be shoved into the water when water was needed in the bothy. Below it were the ruins of the village of Gruilin. Hugh MacPherson owned the island in 1847  and decided he would rather have sheep there than people and evicted the inhabitants- a common fate of crofters during the Highland Clearances.Sheep were then more profitable than people. On the mainland, the peak sport of the upper classes – deer stalking – also took precedence over people. How ironic that people are now being encouraged to return to the Highlands and  sheep and deer are being cleared in favour of grazing animals such as cattle, ponies and feral goats which better preserve the environment.

I had checked one of the owl shots on the camera and blown up the bit in the middle where the owl was. It looked good – nice and sharp even when heavily cropped.  When I got back to the hostel I put the card in the card reader and went through the pictures. There were several of a boring looking landscape. They all looked the same so I only kept one. The remaining pictures I moved to the hard drive, and since there was now nothing on the card, I formatted it – ie deleted all the information and re-set it.

I was some way into editing the landscapes, when I remembered the owl. Where was it? I looked carefully through them all and the only candidate was the boring looking landscape. Sure enough, when I magnified the central bit there was a pale blur which could have been an owl.

Howling and grinding of teeth!  I had deleted the only two pictures which would have made carrying the camera really worth it on that long walk.

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Knepp Castle – the temple of Rewilding

The forecast promised bright periods between the showers, but there were no gaps in the dark grey sky when I un-latched the first of the tall gates in the high fence surrounding this part of the “Knepp Wildlands” in Sussex. However, the steady rain offered me a chance to test out the combination of garments I will be taking to Scotland in a few days time: new leather boots, fairly new waterproof trousers, Paramo waterproof coat, new lightweight rucksack cover and new camera rain cover for my Sony RX10iv. Paramo is one of the top names in outdoor clothing so I was pretty confident about the jacket, and may main concern about the double layer trousers was their comfort. I would soon find out.

The gate clicked shut and ahead of me was a familiar sight – the unmistakeable blade antlers of Fallow deer. They were near floor level in an open barn – at least ten pairs: a stash of dead antlers or were they attached to deer? I stopped. The camera was still packed in the bag and the rain too heavy to risk getting it out, but I had my phone to hand. Slowly I reached for it. The antlers began to move and their owners stood up. Wow, they were big – a good 10cm taller than my familiar Dinefwr herd, and fabulous antlers to match. Uneasy with me they began to move.  I froze and went into observation mode. There were about 20 of them including a few immatures and prickets. (Prickets are teenagers – young bucks with just a single spike for antlers.) Apologies for the quality – this is a phone picture in the rain!In stages they moved away and I looked round at the landscape I had come all this way to experience. It felt strange and exhilarating. As far as the eye could see were a succession of scruffy fields and the remains of old hedges, bits of scrub and patches of woodland, but no fences! I had a paper map of the route I was trying to follow but it was in an inside pocket, and within minutes I was lost. Fortunately I had the 1:25000 OS maps on my phone and the  GPS cross to show me where I was. (Note to Knepp Estate: better signposting needed.)I walked on past some woodland and a small herd of one of the other grazing animals which have been introduced here: Exmoor ponies. These, the Longhorn cattle, Red and Roe deer and Tamworth pigs are the essential ingredients in this hugely successful Re-wilding experiment. Between them they can re-create the now better understood “wildwood” of pre-human times – a vibrantly dynamic mixture of trees, scrub, marsh and grassland. The animals are free to roam and breed naturally and are not fed. However, British law and the absence of  predators mean they have to be monitored and culled.

I walked on past two more groups of Fallow bucks, taking the total – if it was the total – up to 30. I will need to find out how many does these fine fellows service to be able to make a comparison with our Welsh herd. Then past the old Castle Mound, still topped by the remains of the keep, until after 90 minutes of continuous rain I reached my first destination: the bird hide overlooking “Hammer Pond” so called because its waters used to drive iron-ore crushing hammers. The pond has recently been dredged and is just re-filling, so the bird life is not exciting, but it’s a good chance to set up the camera properly, get out the flask and the energy bar and take stock.

The coat is leaking! How is this possible? What seems to be happening is that water is following the edge of the rucksack straps underneath my arms where it is getting through the fabric and wetting my sides. The rest of me seems dry. This could be a big problem in Scotland. I resolve to contact Paramo as soon as I get back.

A lull in the rain is followed by an renewed onslaught so I wait, watching the behaviour of a single mature Fallow buck. He has the air of an outcast – probably like me, far too mature.When it does ease off I stride out past the more recent castle where I encounter the first of the longhorns. I’m very keen to see one of the bulls, but this one is too junior to be very impressive.Some of the cows are though.
The path leaves the enclosure and enters a village with a shelter where I can consult the map: not much help, the path is closed. My phone shows me an alternative route and I stomp off, beginning to feel uncomfortable with the damp below my arms. The camera too is mis-behaving and  using far too much battery. I realise that the rain cover is interfering with the zoom mechanism so I pack it away before all my 3 batteries are exhausted.

It is still raining when I cross another road and enter a long track through quite dense scrubland. I didn’t know it then but I have crossed from the central section of the estate to the Southern Block which is much wilder with more woodland and scrub.

Suddenly there is movement ahead. I freeze in delight: a Tamworth sow with piglets in tow is trotting rapidly towards me.

This was to be the defining moment of my day: a magical encounter with a family of animals living absolutely naturally. The fact that they had little fear of humans also felt natural.

After that the  prospect of lunch in the rain and the long trudge back to the car seemed no problem, but there was one more delight in store. Just as I began to look seriously for somewhere to sit and eat my sandwich, my prayers were answered:It had been a day with few birds, so I was pleased to see a small flock of siskins and goldfinches feeding on teasels by the car park:

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A Frost, a Fox and some deer

I’m in Sussex on a family visit. My 87 year old cousin has lived happily alone for many years in an old cottage, where the garden is making serious attempts to get inside the house.

The windows are now so covered in creeper scarcely any light can penetrate. I hacked back a rose bush which was infiltrating the walls and roof of a stone outbuilding full of ancient garden tools so brown with time as to blend with the dusty walls.

Branch after branch of overgrown shrubs is dragged across the mole-tunnelled lawn into the huge trees where old benches decay in the gloom and a shed full of tools and a bicycle sinks slowly into the vegetation. Here branches and compost pile up, creating what Gill calls “habitat”. (The house and garden pictures were taken in May. It’s MUCH more overgrown now!)

Inside there may be little daylight, but it’s warm and cosy and we sit round a big table in the kitchen watching a little TV nestled among piles of books.

Just as the sun was rising I took camera and big lens to the place I recorded nightingales back in May. I knew they would be long gone, but there might be some early migrants. It was a classic golden September morning, but I wasn’t prepared for frost – a real touch of autumn. Alas the dry summer had taken its toll of the wetlands. Most of the ponds were dry, but a group of Fallow Deer were picked out in gold as the sun began to penetrate the mist.

Unlike my park deer, these are wild and all dark variant. It’s a group of bucks so I watch with interest. Two young prickets (one of them shown on the right here) are clearly anxious to join the big boys but seem to be tolerated rather than accepted. There is a certain amount of playful skirmishing among them, but no sign of rutting behaviour yet.

Suddenly a fox is right there in front of me!
It’s one of those ultra-special moments which makes everything else worthwhile. After that it is a pleasant wind down walking along the paths and spending time watching not very much from the hides. There was a Muntjac though – odd looking creatures. It’s gait reminds me of the slouch of a Hyena.


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The Boundary Patrol – Dinefwr Park


I have written before about my volunteer job at Dinefwr Park, just outside Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, and half an hour’s drive from my home in Cilycwm. This piece marks the beginning of a regular series of posts about the wildlife and ecology of the park and the records I keep, and I will start in mid-August. 

Monday the 12th of August was cool with a mixture of cloud and sun. I have a routine, and I’m a little embarrassed by this, but birds and animals have routines too. They tell the time by the sun and for most of my adult life I never wore a watch to encourage that natural ability we all have to know what time of day it is. Now both my internal clock and my external watch tell me when it is time for coffee (10:00), lunch (12:00) and if I am still here tea (15:00).  

That Monday I began early, before the park was open, because I wanted to take some early records from the big ox-bow lake in the Towy flood plain which is overlooked by the Castle Woods bird hide. There was an exciting new development. (Look, don’t get carried away. I’m talking bird here, not world events.) For the best part of two years there has been a single great white egret present almost every time I have recorded the birds. In mid July for the first time there were two! The GWE is one of the most recent immigrants. They are spectacular and beautiful and a very welcome edition to our resident fauna.

 They were still there and I also recorded:

8:45 1 Little Egret, 1 Grey Heron, 2 Mute Swans, 1 Kingfisher, 19 Coots, and 3 Moorhens. I took some video of the egrets and found when viewing the clips that there was a single Ringed Plover amongst them – more excitement. This is the first time I have recorded a wader here!  

The deer park opens at 10, and for the next two hours I will be moving slowly through the park watching and recording the deer and checking the condition of the boundary fence. The geography of the park is spectacular, owing largely to the landscape design of the celebrated Capability Brown in the 18th Century. From the lawns of Newton House, a  long grassy valley sweeps away to the south, separated only by an invisible ha-ha ditch. To the left the ground rises to a wooded knoll known as Caelan, and the grassy valley meanders eastwards below the knoll where it merges with a steep grassy bank covered with thousands of ant-hills. To the right the ground right rises again to the long steep ridge known as Rookery Ridge, also clothed with huge mature trees.  A beautiful path known as the Brown Walk in honour of the great man, winds its way along the east side of the ridge, but the crest and the land to the west is part of the sanctuary area and closed to the public.  

At this point I should say that for large parts of the year, there is plenty of opportunity to watch the deer from this path. I am able to move beyond it only because I work as a volunteer.  

The north-western and western boundaries of this are formed by an ancient wall, covered in mosses, lichens, ferns and even bushes, and I normally start my boundary patrol at the northern end of this wall. The wall takes an obtuse angle turn half way along its length and then plunges down into two very steep little valleys clothed with widely spaced ancient trees – mostly oaks. In winter this is an open landscape, brown and khaki, but now in high summer it is smothered in head-high bracken, interspersed with nettles,  and very difficult to negotiate.  I walk slowly because I have been learning how to avoid frightening the deer. These are not domesticated animals and have a well-founded fear of humans based on centuries of hunting and culling. I’m getting pretty good at it. At first I would try to follow the stalkers’ advice to keep always to always to windward – to have the wind in my face. They have a keen sense of smell and this is certainly good advice, but I have found that their eye for the slightest movement is even more acute. Sound too is important. Any one of these three stimuli can cause all the heads to shoot up, the huge ears to scan the sound spectrum and the great round eyes to fix on the point of movement. Stay stock still and the chances are that after a few minutes the heads will go down again and you can move very carefully into cover.

What I am recording is their distribution and social life. June is when the fawns are born and for most of June and July the does are spread out through the bracken, keeping their babies well hidden. As is evident from their colouring, Fallow Deer did not evolve in temperate forests, and the pale dappled colours of the fawns do not camouflage them in our green undergrowth, so the does need the sort of dense cover which the bracken provides to keep them hidden from predators – foxes, badgers and above all humans.  

The bucks meanwhile form a boys-only gang, preoccupied in getting enough calories and calcium to fuel the astonishing growth of their antlers. This began in April when they shed the previous year’s growth and the growing points called “pedicles” appeared.  Within weeks the first tines appear, covered in the blood-rich “velvet” which feeds the growing bone. Now the antlers are fully formed, but the bucks have an even more pressing concern in August – staying alive. This is when the bucks are culled, and some of the mature males will not make it.  

Most of the youngest bucks, distinguished from their sisters only by two short spikes, and thus known as “prickets”, will stay in the undergrowth with their mothers, but the second and third year bucks can join the gang and are also subject to the cull.  

This week I begin my rounds by walking up the Brown Path and over the ridge near the northern boundary to the Badger Hide. This is set in a very craggy area of old quarry workings overlooking a smooth grassy area bounded by mature trees. The week before I had spent half an hour here and seen barely a living thing. This week I expected the same and was getting to the point of severe boredom when I spotted movement. What followed was an enchanting 30 minutes in the company of a group of does and fawns behaving in a completely relaxed and natural manner. I captured it all on video, but am still learning not only how to edit the clips but how to make the resulting 500 megabite file into something small enough to show here! 

That was the high point of the day. As usual I slowly patrolled the boundary fence and found no problems. At lunch time I spent an hour in the Kingfisher Hide overlooking a small, lily covered ox-bow lake, watched the usual resident moorhen, and saw a kingfisher flying rapidly across the lake, but otherwise only a few common dragon and damsel flies.  

The big-boys gang were all together tightly bunched in the long field below Newton House. I counted 21 of them, mostly mature.  (Picture from July)

Some days at this time of year I battle through the often very wet bracken, get stung by the nettles, alternate between overdressed and sweaty or underdressed and cold, and get depressed by the absence of birds and the seclusion of the deer. 

This week made it all more than worthwhile. It was sublime.





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Am I crazy?

In two weeks time I embark on what is looking like being my most challenging trip yet. On the face of it going to Iceland by sea (my 2018 trip) seems like a bigger challenge than 3 weeks in Scotland, but I had my refuge with me all the time. With the camper I could always get warm and have access to the “essential” comforts. I could also avoid people, which turned out to be the biggest downside.

On this trip I will  be using the camper to get from place to place and as an occasional refuge, but for 10 days I will be on the islands of Eigg and Canna with only what I can carry. A few days later I will be away from all civilisation in a bothy in Glen Affric with ten other volunteers, all strangers. (see picture above.)

I’ve always been an early riser, but lately it’s got stupid – 4 am, 5 at best. On Eigg and in the bothy I will be in shared dormitories. What if I can’t find somewhere warm to sit, or tea to make? What if the weather is terrible and I can’t get outside when it gets light? On Canna I will  be in a Camping Pod with, it seems, no cooking or heating facilities.

When I’m determined not to let deafness prevent me from meeting and talking to people I can do it, and I love making those connections. On Rum last year I had a great few days staying in the hostel and meeting the locals in the evening at their shop/pub. Yet there is always the fear that I won’t understand what people are saying to me and look like a stupid old git.

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