Wilderness Cottages Self Catering Holiday Cottages in Scotland

Wildlife in the North

Viewing Eider Ducks – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

eider ducksAt this time of the year eider ducks  can be found all along the east coast with good viewing points being at Chanonry Point near Fortrose, Loch Fleet near  Golspie and various points to the east from Inverness.  Many of these viewing points can be from the car in comfort, using the car as  a hide, and this has the added advantage  of leaving the eiders undisturbed.   Eiders are seaducks so you may be lucky to also see other seaducks such as long-tailed ducks and scoters plus the chance of  a rarity such as the king eider.   However, for me the favourite of these ducks is the eider for a wide variety of reasons with the outstanding one being their eiderdown.   Eiderdown is the feather down that the females plucks from  their breasts  to line their nests.  Its function is to insulate the clutch of eggs from the cold and to camouflaged them  while the parent is away.   Intriguingly the usual feather down is white which could make the nest and eggs conspicuous from predators so the final lining of the nest is by special brown feathers down for camouflage.    The majority of eiderdown on the world market comes from Iceland.  It is the only down on the market that comes from a wild bird and is the only  down that comes solely from female birds, whilst domestic down is from male and female alike.  The male eider gives no down and do not sit on nests.

Many of the eider colonies that are “farmed” are traditional and man has taken them over to only a certain degree.  The eider are still wild birds  but man makes the conditions easier for them in protecting  the habitats to make it more attractive and expand.  The eider colonies are also protected from fox, mink, dogs and gulls that might disturb or kill the sitting females or take the eggs.   The first collection of eiderdown is removed soon after incubation has begun; this the duck replaces over the next few days.  The second collection  of eiderdown takes place after the eggs have hatched and the ducklings depart with the female.   The down left behind after this departure is often soiled and mixed with pieces of vegetation, and requires very careful cleaning before it can be used in quilts.     Eiderdown is unrivalled in lightness, insulation properties and elasticity which is why it is so desirable and so expensive.

With such a common birds, about 20,000 pairs breed in Scotland  and the winter population is about 65,000 individuals, there have been many myths and folklore about them.   One of its old names is St. Cuthbert’s duck because it breeds in the Farne islands where St. Cuthbert lived part of his life in a cell, and it figures in legends surrounding the Saint.   It has over ten Scots names such as Coo-doos, Dusky Duck, Crattick and Dunter.   In contrast it seems to have only one Gaelic name “Lach-Lochlainneach” which means “wigeon-like”.    At this time of the year most of the eiders you see will be feeding by diving underwater after a variety of food such as mussels, clams, sea urchins, starfish and crabs. They swallow their prey whole and the  crush them with their gizzard.   They often feed in groups for up to 30 minutes at a time.  After feeding, they rest, preen and then feed again throughout the day.  This means they spend most of their time on the sea but they can often be seen by the fact that  gulls  circle above them waiting for any scraps the eider  leave on the surface.  The photograph shows an adult male flapping its wings and an immature male in front.

Red Squirrels – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Monday, January 16th, 2017

People who feed red squirrels in their gardens in and around Inverness and beyond may be surprised to know that at one time these delightful animals were persecuted.  Of all the animals in the Highlands, the red squirrel has had very mixed fortunes from re-introductions to severe culling and then back to re-introductions.   If we go back to the 18th century in the Highlands, the red squirrel may well have been extinct largely to do with deforestation.    Re-introductions were made in various areas in Scotland to ten estates in the 18th and 19th century but not until 1844 in the northern  Highlands.  Then Lady Lovat re-introduced introduced them to the Beaufort Castle Estate  west of Inverness  by Beauly.  They then spread rapidly to the widespread new plantations of conifers and so much so that by 1903 they were doing considerable  damage to young trees.

It seems incredible with our current  programme of “saving” the red squirrel that it was necessary to form the Highland Squirrel Club in 1903 to 1946 with the sole purpose of killing  them.  Between those years the Club killed at least 102,900 red squirrels and that number is low because it is based on payments made for the bounty on the tails.  Undoubtedly some estates did not bother to send in all the tails for the bounty.   Most of the estates in the Highlands were active members including all those around Inverness, including the Beaufort Estate  where the re-introduction  had started in 1844.    Fortunately the papers for the Club were deposited with Duncan and Duncan, a Dingwall firm of lawyers.  After  extensive  searches I found these papers in the Highland Regional Council Archive and I have a copy of all the annual reports and correspondence.  The originals are, hopefully, still with the Archive Office.

In contrast the conservation of the red squirrels in the Highlands is being tackled in two major ways with one of them being the unlikely role that many readers play in feeding them in gardens.   Over the last few decades feeding wildlife in the  garden has been transformed into a huge commercial business although most of its effort is towards birds.  Animals have not lost out and the red squirrel is a  good example.   If the old fashioned wire bird feeder  is now  a standard feeder for a wide range of  small birds then so is the new type feeder for red squirrels.  It consists of a box similar in size for a nest box for small birds such as titmice   etc.  However, the squirrel box has a clear plastic  front and a hinged lid.  The squirrel  sits on a ledge on the base of the box of the box  and they have learnt to push up the lid with their  noses and help themselves to the peanuts.  The photograph was taken of a squirrel at a feeder that is on a fruit tree about six feet from one end of the house and taken through a window.  This individual is easy to identify  by the light and dark banding on the tail.

Whilst the feeding of red squirrels in our gardens is important so is the latest round of re-locations that has been ongoing for a few years.  The one a few years ago at Dundonnell south west of Ullappol was successful but  highlighted the need for monitoring  after the movement of reds squirrels had  taken place.  The expense of moving the animals is large enough but the follow up is equally important – and expensive.  Others are now in the  pipeline and will help to ensure the future of these enigmatic animals that are  a joy to watch whether in woodland or at a garden feeder.

Wildcat Conservation – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

There are now three major wildlife conservation programmes under way that involve mammals  that affect the Highlands.   One involves the wildcat that is by far the rarest mammal in the UK, if you exclude the black rat on the Shiants, with some estimates indicating that there may only be 30 or 40 pure wildcats left in the wild.  So serious is the situation over the wildcat that some people would go further and even say they are on the point of extinction.   Another programme is with the  red squirrel and the programme involves  re-introductions in this mammal’s former range with some of them already having taken place and others either underway or planned for the future.  One recent such re-introduction was with red squirrels being captured on the Black Isle and being released in an area on the west coast.    The third programme, bearing in mind there are others such as the beaver, is the pine marten.  There is an ongoing programme by the Vincent Wildlife Trust to capture pine martens in the  Highlands and re-introduce them to suitable sites in Wales.

The problem over the wildcat, after so much intense persecution in the past, is the hybridisation with feral and/or domestic cats.    This leads to all sorts of problems but one main one is that it means pure wildcats are very difficult to identify  and what may look like a pure wildcat may, I fact, be a hybrid.   Such was the  case with a possible wildcat that turned up in our garden some time ago.    Over the years we had a small number of domestic or feral cats in in the garden of various colours, probable from the village a mile or so away.  Then one day, at dusk,  what looked like a true wildcat was there under the fruit trees.   It only stayed a couple of days and we never saw it again but I did manage to get some photographs and one  of them is reproduced here.   I sent it off to the experts who said it was unlikely to be a true wildcat as the markings were not quite right.  To my mind it was a true wildcat and as far as I am concerned it meant we had a true wildcat in the garden!

The current programme with wildcats has over 20 organisations involved in varying degrees. Six initial study areas have been set up and these are Morvern, Strathpeffer, Angus Glens, Northern Strathspey, Strathavon and Strathbogie.  The main problem to start with  was to find out just what was there such as true wildcats, feral cats and hybrids between the two.  What appealed to me was the use  of trail cameras that will record what is happening over long periods, day and night.  No less than 300 of these cameras have been involved. Having run just one of these cameras in my garden for well over a year now I know how time consuming these can be, although very rewarding.   In the national scheme they have now analysed, for 2016, 200,000 images and found 19 possible wildcats.   Another important part of the programme is to trap, neuter, vaccinate and return feral cats or hybrids to the wild and around 30 of these were returned. As a background to this field recording genetic research at Edinburgh Zoo has indicated that there are now 80 wildcats in zoos and wildlife parks across the UK that may be suitable for conservation breeding.  Coupled  with this the Royal Zoological Society built their first off-show breeding enclosures ready to breed wildcats for later release.   Exciting times for wildcats so next week we will look at what is happening in the  world of red squirrels.