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Yew Trees – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

December 6th, 2016

yews at boleskineWith many of the leaves gone from the trees the yew  trees are now conspicuous and take on a grandeur of their own.  There are few trees in the Highlands that  are so mysterious and with a rich history of folk lore and myths.  They have attracted writers, artists and poets for centuries and so much so that a number of monographs have been written about them.  By far my favourite is “Yew – A History” by Fred Hageneder  as it covers so much of this ancient tree’s uses from the making of longbows to the poetry and the dating of old yews to a potential poison.  Another fine monograph is “The Eternal Yew” – how apt a title, by Trevor Baxter.    The age of yew trees has always been part of its mystery particularly as one yew – the Fortingale Yew in the grounds of the Kirk at Fortingale, a Perthshire village at the entrance to the romantic Glen Lyon, is reputed to be the oldest tree in Europe.  The estimates for the age of this famous yew are between 1500 and 3000 years and they are based on the girth of between  52 and 56 feet, but, unfortunately,  only fragments of the girth survived.

However, the Fortingale yew now has a rival as there is a yew in Wales, at Defynnog, that is reputed to be 5,000 years old.  However, you do not have to travel that far to see an old yew as in the  Highlands there  is one at  Dundonnel  south west of Ullapool although  compared  with others it is a mere, estimated, 2,000 years old.   The gardens are open for some days during the year and I well remember the last time I went there.  After paying the modest entrance fee I asked “where is the tree” and they  knew straight away which one I wanted to see.  It is a very impressive tree so why not visit it next summer when the garden is open again?   Closer to Inverness  is where I took the photograph of the superb looking yew trees in Bolingbroke Burial Ground near Foyers.  The shape of yew trees varies depending on their age as it is broadly conical when they are younger.  Then the older it gets the more columnar it becomes as the branches grow outward as quickly as the height grows.  That is why the Boleskine ones are that delightful columnar profile.    The added advantage of these yews is that the churchyard is on the side of Loch Ness so there is always  the chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster!

You cannot think about yew trees without thinking  about the famous longbows.   The best wood for the bows is, by far, the yew followed by wych elm. In the north, Including  the Highlands,  the alternatives that were used were the ash, hazel, fir or oak.   The advantage of the yew was that it could be cut so that it contained both sapwood, to give springiness, and heartwood, for the sheer strength.   The problem was that there were just not enough yew trees to meet the demand for archers in the UK.  So the problem  was overcome by importing very large quantities of timber from the continent , mainly from Spain.  There was an added bonus with using yew that is often overlooked but it was very important.  The seeds of yew yielded a deadly poison and it was use to tip  the arrowheads.

Golden Eagles – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

November 22nd, 2016

golden eaglesThere are not many success stories in wildlife these days but there is one that may come as a surprise to many people as there has been a rise in the number of breeding golden eagles.  The latest press release from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds indicates a rise in the number of breeding pairs  to a very encouraging 508 pairs in Scotland.  This is a result  of a survey co-funded by the RSPB and the Scottish Natural Heritage and the groundwork by  a large number of people from organisations such as  the Raptor Study Group.   To my mind these numbers golden eagle pairs   are significant as they indicate a rise in numbers that are thought to be present in the country from an historical point of view.  It is also significant that, unfortunately, the new numbers of 508 pairs is the population for the entire UK.  This is because there have been reports that the only resident golden eagle in England is thought to have died.

However, we in Scotland should not be complacent with the new figures as  there are still a number of golden eagles being  illegally killed in various areas.    For example there are still parts of the eastern Highlands where there are no golden eagles breeding or present.  By sheer co-incidence many of these vacant territories are on ground that is managed as red grouse moors primarily for shooting.  In recent years a number of  golden eagles fitted with satellite tags have mysteriously  disappeared in eastern and western Highlands and all of them on grouse moors.

Many years ago I was active in the golden eagle surveys as I was responsible  for eyries on  a hill range near  Inverness and another just south of Ullapool.  I well remember one year’s visit to the hill range near Inverness as the nest was very intriguing.    I had looked at this pair of golden eagle’s range for a number of years so I knew there were three nests of which the pair  chose one each year.  I had climbed up to the pairs favourite site and was disappointed  to find  that although the nest had been topped up with fresh twigs and fully lined there were no eggs.  I presumed the clutch of eggs, two to three normally, had been taken by the notorious egg collectors.  Just in case I climbed up to the other two eyries but they had not been touched which,  I thought, just  confirmed my egg collecting theory.

It was with a feeling of dismay that I climbed up to the top of the hill to admire the view and have a rest and I sank down into the deep heather.  Then, after some time, I heard  a call, not too far away, that sounded like a golden eagle chick but it was coming from the ground, in the heather!  I had a good search and eventually found the nest with two golden eagle chicks but the nest was not on the usual cliff face but on the ground which  I had never come across before.   The two chicks  were of  a different size,  as normal,  as the incubation starts as soon as the first egg is laid.  This means that one chick is smaller than the other and so gets the most food.  This is alright if the food supply is good but in a poor year for food the larger, more demanding chick survives whilst the other, weaker,  chick dies.  It has been recorded that the larger chicks will often eat its  sibling.    A mysterious and intriguing nest indeed.

Starlings – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

November 15th, 2016

starlingsRoosts of starlings may involve many thousands  of birds and their flight just before they go to roost  can be spectacular especially if a bird of prey, such as a sparrowhawk  is harassing them.  Such large numbers of starlings even have their own name of “murmurations”. In contrast starling roosts can be very small and such is the case with the roost in our garden as it is in a doocot.   Interestingly although there is a wide variety of food put out daily from suet balls to peanuts and mixed seed to niger the starlings ignore these  and it is unusual to see a starling in the garden during the day.  The only exception is when they take a liking to suet balls, as in the photograph.   They come into the doocot at dusk and fly straight onto the ledge of the doocot before going into the holes to roost.     Around fifteen starlings are involved so some holes have more than one bird as there are only eight holes.    In the morning the birds behaviour is different as for along time they will sit on an old television aerial at the end of the house  and are often calling.

They will also mimic other birds and sounds which can be confusing.  I recall running into the house one morning as I heard the telephone ringing.  It turned out to be a starling mimicking the call.  The same happened with a bird that exactly  mimicked a lorry reversing.  Perhaps  my favourite one was earlier this year in early March when I went out early  only to hear a curlew calling,  I thought for a few moments the curlews had come back into the strath to their breeding  grounds but no it was far too early in the year and it was, of course, a starling imitating the curlew.  The interesting point is when the starling must have heard the call as it must have  been from the previous year.   The latest case of  the starlings imitating another bird was yesterday  when I went out and started looking  up in the sky as I thought geese were going over.  No, it was not geese but a lone starling sat on the TV aerial and exactly mimicking the geese that have been so much of a feature  of the last two weeks as they head south, calling as a contact call to each other.

At this time of the year many of the starlings  we see may be residents that have bred in Scotland earlier this year.  There are around 200,000 breeding pairs but in the winter the numbers are swelled to around  3 million birds as migrants come in from northern and central Europe.    However  despite  these large  numbers there has been an overall decline in the UK in recent years and this common species is now on the  red list of conservation concern.  This is because the numbers of starlings have fallen so rapidly.   What has been interesting this year has been the numbers of starlings, adults and juveniles, that have plundered the very large bumper crop of rowan berries.  They had the advantage of getting to this food before the large numbers of thrushes, redwings and fieldfares, arrived from Scandinavia.  Fortunately for these migrant thrushes  the rowan berries were so numerous that the packs of invading starlings seemed to make no difference.   However it did mean that the thrushes  have now had to move on because nearly all the rowan berries have now gone.   Meanwhile readers should listen for the mimicking calls of the starlings  when the bird often ruffles its throat feathers and its wings  waved energetically.