Hebridean Haven

It was with mixed feelings that I left home in early May for a week on the Western Isles. I’m always happy to be visiting these Atlantic outposts where the only thing to be relied upon is the unpredictability of the weather. I’m always happy for the opportunity to put money into the local economy and to further the economic case for nature-based tourism. In all likelihood however, this was my last visit – the last of many over the years – certainly leading a tour group.

Continue reading “Hebridean Haven”

Trees for Life

We all have value systems: the internal rules that govern our daily lives and ethical beliefs. My values have been shaped over five decades and are influenced by myriad factors including my upbringing, my friends and colleagues, my exposure to different belief systems around the world and in recent years, by a better understanding of our relationship with Nature. Continue reading “Trees for Life”

The very fickle finger of blame.

I’ve got to admit it. I have to write this down. I’ve got to get it off my chest. My tongue is bleeding I’ve been biting on it for so long. OK, here goes.

Here in the west of the Cairngorms, our local newspaper attracts regular correspondence on a whole range of wildlife issues from a variety of perspectives and agendas. No surprise there, but just recently something caught my eye and if I’m honest, raised my hackles. A doctor (not sure of what to be fair) had noticed a decline in local garden birds. Now given that science is likely to form the basis of much of the good doctor’s thinking, I’d have thought a bit of research might have been in order – you know, to see if ‘the problem’ was seasonal or localised perhaps? No research or detective work necessary apparently – his less-than-scientific conclusion (and I quote): ” I have no doubt that rooks are responsible.”

Before going further I need to tell you that I’m not a bobbledy-hat rook lover, but to jump to such an ill-informed conclusion with no scientific evidence to back up his assertion is to my mind, irresponsible at the very least. People listen to ‘doctors’ after all.

The following week it got worse. Another doctor (same village) was keen to add her tenpenneth to the verbal assassination of corvids. In her opinion it wasn’t rooks that had decimated garden birds, it was jackdaws. And her proof? “They are noisy, greedy things.”

So what to do? Well the original doctor had a well conceived scientific strategy: “I feel an organised cull is the only solution to restore finches, tits and sparrows.” So doctor(s), this cull – how many birds need to be killed to solve ‘the problem’? 10? 100? 1000? And is it rooks or is it jackdaws? Or doesn’t it really matter – they are after all just noisy, greedy, troublesome black birds – not the sort of things that a quiet Highland village should have to put up with.

I welcome most things that benefit biodiversity (and that may or may not involve controlling corvids) but surely such ill-informed, anecdotal outpourings are outdated, unhelpful and unwelcome. Assuming one or both of the correspondents are doctors of medicine, GPs even, I’d suggest you don’t go to see them – especially if you’re an overweight, talkative Afro-Carribean.

More than just a bog…a headache.

Working up in the Flow country of northern Scotland recently, I was reminded why celebrated landscape photographers in say, Estonia or The Netherlands, are pretty thin on the ground. Capturing the essence of very flat landscapes is damned difficult. And along with 2020VISION colleagues Lorne & Fergus Gill, Rob Jordan and Mark Hamblin, I was aiming to capture more of ‘the essence’ of this wild place; to tell the story of why this is ‘More than just a bog.’

Basic ingredients: flat, wet ground and big skies – none of the foreground lochs and boulder-strewn moorlands of the classic Highland landscape; no rushing burns or mountain backdrops. In fact stripped of most of the usual contributory components, my head was sore from the constant scratching.

But work hard – and in this case, work together – and the story starts to unfold. Reviewing my initial images, I was disappointed but having secured several timelapse sequences, and knowing what was coming from the rest of the team, it all started to take shape.

This massive area of blanket bog – the most expansive of its kind anywhere – has a story to tell but it’s a story hidden in the layers of carbon-locking peat that make up its very existence. Those layers of peat draw on centuries of accumulated decaying vegetation – it’s an historical story. Yet the significance of peat bog as a carbon store is only just coming to the fore and it’s the future more than the past, that this wild place will influence. Photographically it’s not easy but the reasons for protecting it are manifest.

When too much is not enough.

Oh god it’s going to be misty again. Here we go. Know what you want…know what you want…Ok, Ok, I’ve perhaps over-played this a wee bit, I’ll move on. But I can’t because it was misty again this morning – not in the place where I wanted it, but elsewhere. I say mist, it wasn’t really mist, more of a fog and there’s a thin line between the two. Mist dictates a high viewpoint overlooking a big landscape, fog beckons you towards a more intimate perspective. So what to do? Where to go? Too much mist basically means fog. And too much fog means no pictures.

For crying out loud Cairns, stop rattling on. An hour in, the sun is up and OK it’s not perfect(!!!) but Loch Garten is flat-calm, the rasping song of the goldeneye reverberates through the forest and the distant bubbling of black grouse makes it, well, bloody perfect actually. What am I getting so wound up about? Really?

The values of hooked bills.

Many of you will know of Roy Dennis, a man who has spent most of his life working with raptors. I saw him yesterday and he was telling me of his latest exploits satellite tracking peregrines, eagles and ospreys. He was also updating me on the hugely controversial problem of persistent raptor persecution in some parts of the Highlands. We agreed – and have done before – that the root of the issue is cultural rather than economic.

So is the glass half-full or half-empty? Over the years I’ve met lots of ‘half-empty’ types, claiming persecution will never stop, and I concede that it’s a societal problem that shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. That said, there was a time when drink-driving was acceptable; ditto racism; ditto most ‘isms’, and, if we go back far enough, ditto slavery. It’s all to do with values, and values change slowly, especially those that are as entrenched as killing birds of prey.

So in spite of Roy’s (and many others) concerns, my glass is definitely half-full. With one caveat: legislation might provide a framework for dealing with those that are caught committing wildlife crimes, but it’s a crude tool for changing cultural values.