Red Grouse: Cairngorms

We had to get our ‘eye in’ before we could spot these beautiful birds. The most that you are likely to see is a head that appears briefly above the heather and then is gone. Unlike the pheasant, the Red Grouse is a truly wild bird. They can’t be farmed because they only eat the new tips of the heather plants and so far, fortunately, a human idiot has not come up with a more ‘economically viable’ solution to that.

Every year thousands of these beautiful birds are driven onto massed guns and shot by wealthy people with nothing more useful to do at the weekend. This wholesale, pointless, slaughter they call sport. I find it difficult to view blasting away with shotguns as the birds are made to fly over them as sport, as a re-inactment of the First World War perhaps, but not sport.

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The argument goes that without the income generated by these shoots the heather moors would not survive and the grouse would diminish in numbers and men would loose their jobs, families would be made homeless and the lands cleared of people – hang on, were the lands not cleared of people so that the landowners could farm sheep and when the bottom fell out of that market, farm pheasant for shooting. The mass trespass onto Kinder Scout in 1932 was a reaction by ordinary people to the theft of common land.

In the 1930s even walking was a political issue. Rambling was an increasingly popular working-class activity, but much of the countryside was private land, energetically defended by landowners and their gamekeepers. In the Peak District, the growing numbers of walkers were forced to keep to a few specified paths; in frustration, in 1932 the British Workers’ Sports Federation (some of whose members were also members of the Communist party) organised a mass tresspass on the slopes of Kinder Scout. When five of them were imprisoned it kindled national outrage; a few weeks later 10,000 ramblers gathered for a support rally. That mass trespass eventually led to today’s “right to roam”.
http://www.kindertrespass.com

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Tricky birds to photograph but a hugely enjoyable experience crawling through heather on a sunny afternoon! 300mm lens at f2.8 with fingers crossed.

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I was sad to see this little family go. I wish them well and hope they get to live a full life and not end up in the back of a Land Rover having paid the ultimate price just to make a bankers weekend perfect.

The Findhorn Valley: European Hare

There are hares in Somerset apparently, but I have yet to see one. Stephen Moss in his book Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: the natural history of an English village, reckons that you need to go very slowly to see a hare – he happened to be on a bicycle when he saw his first March hare. I have read Stephen’s book, plotted the location on a map (we live a few miles away) and walked very slowly through the fields for months, but despite all this effort I have not seen a hare in Somerset.

It has taken a trip to the Cairngorm National Park and the local knowledge of Steve Reddick who runs Highland Wildlife Safari to fulfil my hare ambition. Going out with a wildlife guide was a new experience for us as we normally just grab a map and go walkabout. But on this occasion it was obvious, even to us, that if we were going to find anything interesting in a very large and mountainous national park we were going to need some local knowledge.

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Steve has been an enthusiastic wildlife watcher for decades and has been guiding visitors in and around the Cairngorm National Park for the last eight years, so rather than give him an unrealistic list of wants we deferred to his considerable local knowledge and asked him to show us ‘his’ Cairngorms. The plan was to visit several spots that he thought might be interesting and just see what, if anything, showed.

It never really gets dark in the highlands of Scotland during the summer so we took the opportunity that early light brings by starting out at 4.30am, much to the evident disbelief of the dogs who would only be tempted out of their beds by the prospect of an early breakfast. With the dogs very comfortably installed on Willow’s big matt in the back of the 4×4 and the cabin full of waterproofs, thermos flasks, sandwiches and what seemed like a disturbingly large amount of camera equipment (How did we end up with all this kit?) we headed up into the mountains and the high moorland in search of Black Grouse.

With spring and summer so late starting this year the courtship ‘lek’, which normally occurs through April and May had extended into June so we thought that there was a very slim chance of seeing a few males still at it. They ‘Lek’ all year, but the crucial time is the spring and probably the only time you will see them doing it. For the rest of the year they disappear and are rarely sighted until the following spring lek. Despite sightings a few days before and with three pairs of binoculars on the job we couldn’t even find a single Blackgame just practising. Despite the initial no-show, by lunch time we had watched and photographed Crested Tits, Red Squirrels, a Slovenian Grebe and a pair of Osprey. Encouraged by our mornings efforts and surprisingly chipper considering the early start we decided to head up into the Findhorn Valley, eat our sandwiches, and spend the afternoon looking for Golden Eagles.

The Findhorn Valley is a massive glacially formed river valley that starts where the river rises in the Monadhliath Mountains above Strathdearn. The River Findhorn is fed by numerous tributaries as it tumbles over rock and gravel towards the Moray Firth at Findhorn Bay. The valley is stunning, unfolding from wild and mountainous moorland to rocky tree-clad gorges ending, finally, in a few miles that would once have been tidal salt marsh and are now flat farming land before the sea. The guide books say that in the summer it is renowned among salmon anglers for … ‘its pools and streams’ that ‘produce exhilarating salmon fishing from the first springers through heavy runs of grilse in May and June to a steady supply of summer and early autumn fish’. I can’t help thinking that if much of the fishing was done by wolves, rather than wealthy business men who take the fish out and leave nothing, the entire ecosystem of the valley would benefit? The chances of any kind of reintroduction anywhere in Scotland looks, for the foreseeable future, unlikely. All attempts so far have been blocked by vested interests and ignorance.

So, hares, the reason for this post and not Golden Eagles, as promised earlier, I am already five paragraphs in and the hares have had barely a mention. I have always had a huge respect for the wildness of these creatures without really understanding why – and I still don’t. Throughout history the hare has been written about, hunted, sacrificed and revered in effigy as an embodiment of our relationship to the wild. Sadly in the last hundred years or so our relationship with the hare has been emblematic of our fracture with nature – very few remaining in too few places.

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The photographs are of European Hares, not Mountain Hares as we first thought. European Hares have a black stripe along the top of the tail and are slightly bigger than their mountain cousins.

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Ardkinglas: Kinglas Water

Ardkinglas sits in a deep valley on the western coastline of Scotland. It is home to the tallest and the widest conifers in Britain. At the foot of the valley is a broad deep body of water, Kinglas Water, that cascades down through a gorge before joining Loch Fyne. Standing in the middle of the narrow wooden bridge that spans the water at the end of its cascade and leaning out over the hand rail to take the photographs I was mesmerised by the constantly changing patterns and wild energy in the movements of the water.

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Forgot to mention the camera details: Nikkor 85mm f1.4G at 160 ISO, f11 and 1/80 sec. The point of the images was that from one single photographic view point the water continually changed forcefully, generating a continually changing pattern of shapes and tones. When you got close in to the images much of the movement becomes quite painterly with deep black and painterly mid tones.

Young Herons: Mull

The head of Loch na Keal, on the western seaboard of Mull, cuts deeply into the island leaving a narrow saddle of land connecting the North and South parts. Along the loch’s northern shore we found a group of adolescent Grey Herons feeding. There was such a concentration of birds along the rocky beach that it wasn’t long before disputes over feeding rights began, with the slightly older birds attacking the younger ones.

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This was a very heavily overcast and stormy day with brief interludes of strong sunshine. The birds behaviour was erratic and fast moving, making their movements difficult to predict. Keeping low and in amongst the rocks I was able to get close enough to use a 300mm telephoto without disturbing them. I can use this lens handheld which with the lack of space for a tripod and the unpredictability of the birds movements seemed the best choice at the time. The images were shot at f2.8 and 1/2500 to freeze the movement, produce a shallow depth of field and keep the ISO as low as possible.