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Wildcat Conservation – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

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.

Garden food – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

January 5th, 2017

There is now such a wide variety of food to put out in gardens for  wide range of wildlife from birds to mammals that it is often difficult to choose.   In  the run up to  the festive season it seems that many people were  giving bags of food as presents which was a  very good idea.  A quick look around the Garden Centres and Stores that  stock such food revealed that the most popular food this year has been peanuts.  Indeed when I went to buy a  large bag last week I could only find one  garden centre that had any left and that was one bag under bags of other feed.    Peanuts are an obvious choice because so many birds, and mammals for that matter,  will take them but there are others to bear in mind.  In our garden, for example, there are also mixed seed, suet balls, nyger and  sunflower seeds.

0ne type of food that goes out fresh every day are the apples and these are ripe eating apples and they are taken in a variety of ways.  We came across the fact that roe deer eat apples by chance as some apples were left out overnight for the early rising blackbirds.  One of the impressive sights in garden feeding is to see  a blackbird tackling  apples.  They do it with such vigour and intensity and it is  a joy to watch.  One night the usual apples were put out for them, sliced in half so that they are easier to tackle.  Then the overnight camera recorded the usual badgers coming in when, in the middle of the night, there was something different.  There were four badgers at the peanuts, especially put out for them, and they were tucking in as usual when a roe  deer doe  suddenly walked around  from behind of the sheds.   The badgers just looked up and then carried on eating.   The roe just ate all the apples and walked off.  She became a regular  visitor recognised by the odd shaped white patch of fur on her throat,  and still comes in  these days.

The other mammal that will take them is the red squirrel although they mainly take them off the  trees.  We first saw this when the apples were still growing on the trees although it was some time until the squirrels  found them ripe enough to tackle.  One day a squirrel had been at the peanut feeders, ones with lids on the top that they raise with their heads.  Then suddenly, without  warning the squirrel ran along a branch and seized a small apple and ran off with it.   Presumably  it was going to cache the apple somewhere as it was soon back.  A few days later a squirrel sat on a branch and ate part of an apple and from then on it was often seen.   Various birds take apples from various situation whether the fruit is still growing on the trees, tied there after the  fruiting season has finished or just on the ground.  Other mammals will also take apples such as hedgehogs and pine martens let alone mice and rats but so far we have not recorded badgers taking them in our garden  although my books suggest they will.  Most birds will take them wherever the apples are from the various titmice to great spotted woodpeckers and redwings to   chaffinches.   Why not try some slice apples over the New Year?

Enjoy Wildlife in 2017 – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

January 3rd, 2017

With the New Year upon us why not think about  setting yourself some wildlife targets for 2017?   Whether you are interested in wildflowers, mammals, insects or birds there is always something different to see.     As far as mammals are concerned one target could be to see all the different species of deer in the Highlands which is not too difficult as there are only five  species  if you exclude muntjac.  There were several records, almost certainly correct, for muntjac some years ago when a pair were deliberately released near Beauly but there have been none since.   Fallow deer is, perhaps, a doubtful one as the only current records seems to be of two herds in deer parks.  One of these is just north of Inverness and the other long established one at Berriedale way up on the east coast.  The one at Berriedale is unusual as they are all white deer.   Fortunately  they can be seen from the road so there is no question about permission for access.   As for three of the other ones, red, sika and roe deer, they are virtually common in all part of the Highlands.   The other deer is the very impressive reindeer that can be seen on the open hill in the Cairngorms east of Aviemore and close to at the Reindeer Centre nearby.

If it is mammals you are interested  in the one target and a real challenge would be to see an otter.  These are quite widespread in the Highlands although  commoner on the west coast.  The photograph was taken on the west coast near Little Loch Broom  and the otter is hunting and is just about to dive into the sea.  In contrast they have been seen on the River Ness actually in Inverness, along the coast at Ethie on the Black Isle, and many of the rivers and lochans.  These are often brief and fleeting glances at the most and another good example is the reporter on this newspaper who was glancing out of his office window at the firth below when as otter swam past.   However, to see an otter for any length of time is another matter as they can be secretive and are  disturbed very easily.  Some books say that they are nocturnal but this is just not the case as I have seen them very active on the River Nairn and nearby lochs in the middle of the day.  The best thing to do is to first establish that otters are in the areas and the best way to do this if to look for the droppings.   These are left on prominent rocks in or on the side of a river or large burn.  This will tell a male – called a dog – or female  – called  a bitch – that the territory is occupied so  clear off.  If the fresh  droppings indicate otters then choose a viewpoint looking along a stretch of river or burn and just sit there as long as you can. If you  are lucky you will see an otter behaving naturally.

There are other possible wildlife targets such as butterflies and one that would be worth looking  for is the painted lady as its presence is so unpredictable as it is a migrant from Africa.  The numbers vary each year but a good  place to see them is in your garden providing  you have been  planning to have nectar sources such as Buddleias and Sedums.     Now is the time to start planning for such nectar sources, and many others, so that when the summer comes  butterflies will be faced with an  abundance of food.   However when butterflies are around do not do as I do  which is to have an occasional glance at the garden  and the plants.    Take a chair out there and just sit for a long while and watch for the various butterflies and those elusive painted ladies.    In contrast why not find  sites to look for ten species  of dragonflies over the summer.   One  good place is Loch Bran near Foyers and others include  Glen Affric and the west end of Loch Maree.    Then  again another good target would be to see all the wild orchids growing in the Highlands as some of these are rare whilst  others, such as the small white  orchid, are difficult to find as they vary in number each year and are very inconspicuous.    One aspect about such challenges  is that they are so enjoyable and make you learn more about wildlife around you.  The more you know about wildlife the more you enjoy it.