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Gorse – Ray Colliers – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

After the last few weeks of mentioning signs of spring flowers a few readers have asked me to give more information about gorse which is one of the most fascinating shrubs  in the Highlands.   In the past it has had widespread uses and has had a  role in myths and legends and a widespread use by man for food,  medicine and numerous other uses.    There are two old country sayings about the flowering of gorse ” While  the gorse is in flower Britain will never be conquered” and the other is “When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion.”   Patriots and lovers need not worry however because some blossoms of gorse can be found throughout the year.   For example  in January this year there were messes of gorse shrubs in flower at Fort George and, afterwards, as I drove inland  the amount of gorse in flower dropped.    This  decline in overall flowering of gorse is because the overall temperatures decrease as you go inland.

These days we get use to the idea of hay, straw and artificial feed being readily available for domestic stock and many other uses but it  has not always been the case and people have had  ingenious ways of coping.   Many people will know that, for example, heather has been used  as bedding, thatch and making ropes but perhaps fewer people will be aware that in the past gorse has had an important role for a variety of reasons.   However,  of all the uses the one the always intrigues me is that in the past gorse has been planted near  croft houses and other houses so that washing could be laid on it to dry.   With the very thorny branches of the gorse there was very little chance of the washing blowing away.     But gorse, sometimes  called whin of furze, can also cause  problems as it burns fiercely so that heathland fires can spread rapidly making them difficult to get under control.  However, there is another  side to this as this ability  to burn made it valuable as fuel when peat and wood was in short supply  before the development of the coal trade.  As it leaves very little ash it was also used in firing bricks, tile and lime kilns and also for fuelling bakers’ ovens.    In  contrast it has always been very useful as hedges or windbreaks for stock.

brown hareAnother economic use of gorse was as fodder for stock although only the young, tender and nutritious leaves could be used direct.   Thus tender greener leaves are much used by wild animals such as deer, rabbits and wild goats to the extent it looks like hand cut topiary.  Brown hares, pictured here, really go for gorse when there is snow on the ground  like last week.  Otherwise the gorse had to be cut and then pounded to crush the hard prickles and in Scotland special machines were developed called  whin bruisers and the more advanced whin mills.  These mills either used a roller or wheel to crush the chopped gorse as it was fed into a channel.   Gorse has also had a widespread use for ourselves such as a medicine made from the flowers that was supposed to cure jaundice and stones in the kidney.  In contrast, gorse wine made from the flowers is still very popular and the flowers have long been used for  flavouring whisky.    If you look at some of the large expanses of gorse, such as on the Drummossie Moor just south of Inverness, you will get an idea how important such areas of gorse is to a range of wildlife.    A wide range of birds breed here and a  notable one is the stonechat.

Pine Martin Conservation – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

pine martenOf the trilogy of major wildlife conservation programmes in the Highlands we have now covered wildcat and  red squirrel so now we turn  to the enigmatic pine marten.  The pine marten has had mixed fortunes, as with the other two mammals, in that for  a very long time persecution was the order of the day.  In the famous, or should it be infamous, list of killed predators between 1837 and 1840 from the estate of Glengarry, south-west of Inverness the pine marten is put into perspective.   Foxes 11, wildcats 198, house cats 78, pine martens 246, polecats 106, weasels and stoats 301 and badgers 67.    These “gibbet” numbers were not exceptional  and could be repeated on most  other estates  throughout the Highlands.   Indeed it is a wonder that the pine martens ever survived such a continuous slaughter.

Much more recently than this the pine martens have been persecuted for raiding young pheasant rearing pens, invading loft spaces of houses to rear  their kits and raiding domestic birds such as chickens, ducks and even rabbits in their hutches.    In many instances  it is the owners fault for not securing their livestock at night but remember that a pine marten can chew through new rabbit netting so precautions have to be sound.  One aspect about the pine  marten, and other predators can be the same, is what some people mistakenly call “blood killing”.  This is where a pine marten will kill far more prey than it apparently needs.   This is not killing  for the sake of killing but leaving food either so it can brings its kits back to feed or come back itself.  However, this does not help the owner, for example of chickens, reacting to the  slaughter when it takes place.

However, changing times and attitudes have been helping the pine marten for some years and one move was the total protection under the legislation in 1988.  Pine martens have also been able to take advantage  of the suitable habitats that widescale planting of conifers created.  Nevertheless the immediate and long term moves remain  essential for the pine marten’s future.  One recent major step forward has been the current work of  the Vincent Wildlife  Trust to translocate them from Scotland to Wales.  A major step forward by the Trust was its development of special nestboxes that only the pine martens would use.   This stops the animals taking over nestboxes erected for goldeneye ducks, barn owls and other species.  Needless to say such programme are costly and initial  figures estimate it at £1.2 million .  According  to the first reports the moving of pine martens form Scotland to Wales  has been successful and the first kits have been born.

Some people are lucky enough to have pine martens visit their gardens and some people even put out food for them.  For those who are not so lucky seeing one is a matter of chance.   Some hotels and Bed and Breakfasts even advertise their presence as part of the attraction.  Elsewhere there are a few hides from which  they can be seen such as the Speyside Wildlife Hide.  There is one at Aigas Field Centre, near Inverness, and at the Kindrogan Field Centre in Perthshire.    As for identification  the pine marten is about the size of a domestic cat with shorter legs and a long, bushy tail.  The ears are large and rounded and at close quarters the creamy inside fur in them may make them visible.   They are essentially nocturnal  animals so if you see one during the day it could well be hungry for some reason, such as the weather, or have hungry  kits.

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.