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Archive for February, 2012

Ray Colliers – Changes to the countryside

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

With so many changes in the countryside it is now difficult to imagine some of the practices that at one time affected the traditional  ways of agriculture.  Even in the early part of the 20th century these traditions affected not only the landscape and its agriculture but also very many people either directly or indirectly.  Fortunately, for various reasons, there are still reminders  of the past despite the fact that the actual memories have gone with the passing of the generations of people.  For example there was one agricultural practice that was critical in the management  of livestock.    Until refrigeration became  the norm and farmers and crofters managed to grow crops in the winter there were problems over livestock, cattle in particular.  There was no choice but to move the vast majority of cattle away from the Highlands for the winter hence the establishment of the drove roads along  which drovers took cattle south, often as far as Smithfield Market in London.

Lack of refrigeration also affected the great salmon industry as there was no means of sending the fish to the southern markets.  So the fish were packed with ice from Icehouses that were scattered  over the  Highlands with the majority of them being along the east coast.  It is difficult to imagine just how many  salmon were handled in this way but then, of course, there were far more wild salmon in  the seas and river systems.     Another way of coping with the lack of fresh food in the winter months was to use buildings to keep pigeons in and purpose built  structures, called doocots,  were to be  found in various areas but many were where there were large estates that based their systems around agriculture such as growing crops.   Doocots enabled landowners, only the wealthy were allowed to keep them, to  have fresh meat and eggs all the year round.

This week I will look at the doocots and we are fortunate in that some landowners and local authorities have retained and maintained some of these  that are still to be seen in many areas.   Perhaps  the one that people see the most is the one in the photograph on the side of the road at Culloden on the east side of Inverness or the one on the old battlefield at Boath near Auldearn to the east of Inverness.  There are less well known ones, although equally impressive, such as the two that are quite close together in the grounds of Gordonstoun School.   Then there are some smaller ones that can go un-noticed such as the one in the photograph I took at Broadley near Nairn where it is on the top of a barn but still used by pigeons.   In the larger doocots the pigeons  nested inside in rows of specially designed nestboxes around the sides and some of them had hundreds of nests in each doocot.  Some are  still occupied by pigeons but naturalists are increasingly looking at these buildings as some have been colonised by other birds.  Jackdaws, starlings and even tawny owls are using them and also bats.   

There are two invaluable books on doocots,  both by Elizabeth Beaton namely “Doocots of Scotland – Highland Orkney and Shetland” 2008 and “The Doocots of Moray” 1978.

Ray Colliers – Milder weather and birds feeding habits

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

This is the critical time of the year for birds as the temperatures fall even further.   With the still relatively milder weather compared with the last two winters many bird are still resorting to the general countryside for food.  This  is particularly the  case with woodland birds and the lower numbers of these birds than usual in gardens  has been remarked on by many readers.   The only exceptions still seems to be the very large numbers of chaffinches coming to a variety of feeders and the blackbirds.  Numbers of blue, great and coal tits are still comparatively low despite having a good breeding season in some areas last year.   Only 2 or 3 greenfinches have been coming to the feeders each day which is very low compared with other years.      In my garden the feeders that seem to be largely ignored are the two filled with nyjer.  These tiny seeds seem  to attract  the goldfinches and siskins in  particular  and the numbers of both seem to be down.  Let us just hope that both these birds are still finding plenty of food in woodlands.

The relatively milder weather has also meant that there have been fewer of the more unusual  birds coming into gardens such as bramblings, fieldfares and redwings.  I am still putting out apples each day, slicing them into quarters, and sticking them in the fruit trees.  Normally  now there would be the occasional one or two  fieldfares coming for them but none so far this winter.  This may be reflections that there are fewer of these Scandinavian thrushes in the countryside this far north.  The very poor, almost non existent, crop of rowan berries  meant that many of the fieldfares, and for that matter the redwings, just had to move  on south or west to get food and so very few  of these attractive birds were left in the  north.  As for the bramblings their presence seems to depend on the crop of beech nuts, often called mast, and this has been, like the rowan berries,  poor in many areas this year.  The result has been only one male brambling coming into our garden and it did not stay long.  These  attractive finches breed in Scandinavia although a few pairs stay each year to breed in the Highlands.

Whilst an increasing numbers of people are now feeding birds, and for that matter other wildlife, in their  gardens there is another essential that birds need and that is often forgotten and that is a fresh supply of clean water.   Normally this is not a problem as a source of water can be filled up on a regular basis and emptied and clean water put in every few days.  However the lower temperatures  means that any container will freeze.   Birds need fresh water to keep their feathers in tip top condition mainly to keep them warm.  The problem is  that there are now so many designs of bird baths on the market it is difficult to choose.   Some hang by chains whilst others are on the ground and some are very expensive because  of their designs.  Whilst designs may be aesthetically pleasing to us for the bird there are  more practical issues.  Drinking is one thing whilst the ability to bathe and preen feathers is another.  The essential aspect is not the design but the fact that there are varying depths of water so the birds can fulfil  all the functions of drinking and washing thoroughly.   To see a bird washing and drinking is as satisfying as seeing one at  a feeder.   If ice is present keep changing the water.    A good reference  book is Chris Packham’s “Back Garden Nature Reserve” published by New Holland at £12.99

Ray Colliers – Spring in the Highlands

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Visiting the RSPB public hide at Udale Bay, near Cromarty on the Black Isle, is always good for birds at this time of the year.    However it  is always a good opportunity  to look and see whether the  creamy butterbur is showing.   This is one of the first signs of spring in the Highlands  and it grows, conveniently, on the side of the road to Newhallpoint at Udale Bay where it flourishes on the  woodland floor.  Normally it is the end of February  when, whatever the weather is, the first creamy buds thrust up through the soil and are a very welcome sign of spring being  just round the corner.  This year has been different as, although there is undoubtedly some real winter weather to come, so far it has been relatively mild.  The creamy butterbur seemed  to reflect this as on  the sides  of the road it was  well up last week  and many of  them were not only several inches high but also actually in flower.  In all  the many years  checking  this site this is the first time I have seen them flowering this early.    Growing with the creamy butterbur will be snowdrops but these still have to show as a search under the trees did not reveal  any coming up.   Elsewhere violets and primrose will grow early in more protected sites especially around  the coast or even in sheltered inland sites such as the sides of Loch Ness.

Birdwise there seems to have been very little movement as far as singing and displaying are concerned  despite the mild weather as if the birds know what weather there is to come.  There have been one or two exceptions such as  a pair of starlings that  were singing away on two early mornings last week.  They were sat in a  tall and old  sycamore not far from the doocot in which a few pairs  nest every year. The song of the starling is very strange, almost unique in the bird world, as they do not seem to have a clear pattern.  There are  lots of wheezy warbling and musical whistles but what is surprising is that they readily mimic other birds and even other sounds.    In one example it took me  some  time to realise it was a starling singing  and not the ring of the telephone.  Another amazing aspect is that they can remember calls of other birds.  For example in our garden they will imitate the call of a curlew quite often.  Yet they have not heard a curlew calling in the strath since  early last summer when a few pairs bred around the house.   So far there has been little evidence of birds breaking up into pairs as blue, coal and great tits have been coming to garden feeders as usual although the numbers seem to be down on last year.  I did hear a wood pigeon start its cooing display notes last week and they are now calling almost every  day.  There are still many weeks of winter  to go but the early signs are there and we can but anticipate  which will be the first migrant birds to come back from Africa.   Many people think the first will be the sand martin, swallow or wheatear but most years the very first is the osprey.