With a big book deadline approaching on the horizon, I’ll be cutting down my freelancing in an attempt to focus the mind. But I still maintain a trickle of regular publications which you might be interested in.
As well as my Prospect columns (entries passim), I continue to conduct literary interviews and edit for Five Books, a fast-growing book recommendation site that I’ve contributed to on and off since its launch in 2009. We have around 300,000 readers a month, from both sides of the Atlantic. Last year I became a director of the company. I love this work – it’s consistently fascinating, and has come to form a very useful resource for autodidacts. Recent highlights include a discussion of forensic psychology with the criminal profiling expert Prof David Canter, a snappy chat with marketing guru Seth Godin about the best books on his industry – and how marketers deeply impact our way of thinking about and talking about the world around us, plus a vivifying discussion of the Booker International Prize shortlist with chair of the judging panel Bettany Hughes. There’s more: have a browse of my interview feed here.
I also still write my monthly column on wildlife for the glossy lifestyle magazine Scottish Field. Recently I’ve covered subjects including the regeneration of oyster beds in east coast firths and west coast glens; the annual descent of gannets upon the Bass Rock, the largest colony in the world; the wacky racers dashing across the island in search of orcas in Shetland; and conservationists’ attempts to return golden eagles to the soaring updrafts of the Southern Uplands in the borderland between Scotland and England. These are not available online, so find the text of some of my latest articles after the fold.
THE MARCH OF THE TOADS
Published in the Scottish Field, March 2019
I do love winter – that sharp clean air, and the frosted grass, and the puddles barred over with shards of ice – but by March I usually find it’s beginning to wear thin. Muddy tracks have become quagmires, the fields are faded and sickly; rosehips and rowan berries and haws, those bright pixels of colour that light up the early winter, are long gone soft and fallen away.
So it is with some relief that our eyes alight upon harbingers of spring: delicate snowdrops poking through the leaf litter in the woods, hazel and alder letting down their catkins. And in the water, another sure sign of spring’s approach: frogspawn.
In Scotland we can expect to see frogspawn during March, during a short flurry of activity that starts in the south of the country and sweeps northwards. “Frogs tend to go for smaller, sometimes temporary, bodies of standing water,” explains Dr Laurence Jarvis of the amphibian conservation charity Froglife. “So look out for it in ditches, garden ponds, sometimes even large puddles.”
If you do see a frog (or its spawn), it is almost certainly a common frog – which can grow up to 13cm long, and vary a great deal in colouring: though normally a shade of olive or brown, they can also appear in any tone from lime green to pink, or lemon yellow to black. They can be spotted in and around small ponds, preferring them to be shallow, semi-shaded and well-vegetated with reeds and weeds. But they are more easily heard than spotted: a soft, purring croak that sounds a little like an engine in the far-off distance.
The females will lay their spawn in clusters which rise to the surface as they mature, sometimes in such quantity that they will merge to form a large jelly raft that covers the pond completely. If this happens, don’t worry: there’s no such thing as ‘too much frogspawn.’ The tadpoles will not be too crowded, nor will your garden be overrun with frogs come summer. Perhaps only one in twenty, or even one in fifty, of these eggs will survive to maturity, as the others are picked off by fish, dragonfly larvae, water boatmen, birds and sometimes even tadpoles themselves.
It then takes around three weeks before tadpoles emerge, and then a further 2-3 weeks before those tadpoles begin to transform into tiny froglets. These incredible transformations are remarkable to observe – and many of us have fond memories of watching this metamorphosis in a jam jar or tank as a child; just remember that if you do remove any spawn from a pond or ditch, then please return the hatched tadpoles to the same body of water (or as close as possible). Frogs select their spawning grounds carefully and will return to the same place year after year, for generations.
Moving spawn will disrupt breeding behaviour, and can also inadvertently spread diseases like Chytridiomycosis, which can wipe out hundreds of frogs at a time, or the viral infection Ranavirus. (If you do come across any diseased frogs, make sure you report them to the Garden Wildlife Health project, gardenwildlifehealth.org.)
And it’s not only frogs that spawn this time of year, notes Dr Jarvis. “In Scotland, toads spawn around early April, and choose quite different places. Common toads prefer larger ponds or even fishing lakes. Natterjack toads, which are found only in the Solway Firth area, spawn in shallow water bodies in the coastal sand dunes. And there are newts too, which have a more prolonged breeding season between March and June.” Toadspawn looks quite different, being laid in long ticker tape-like ribbons of clear jelly punched with dark eggs, whereas newts lay their eggs singly, and parcel them up carefully in wet leaves.
Depending upon the conditions, tadpoles can control their rate of transformation – occasionally speeding through the process if they find themselves in a pond full of fishy predators, or even postponing their development altogether if the weather is extremely cold. They can stay in the pond for up to a year, overwintering quite happily and finally emerging as froglets the following spring. So don’t panic if the tadpoles in your garden have put the brakes on – and don’t try to speed up their development with supplementary feeding, or by moving them indoors.
“Frog numbers are thought to be stable in Scotland,” adds Dr Jarvis, “although it’s difficult to know for certain. But nationally, across the United Kingdom, they are in decline. Toads however are not faring as well as we like, unfortunately.”
Froglife recently secured funding for a major new project in the Forth Valley (Falkirk, Stirling and Clackmannanshire), Come Forth for Wildlife, which will focus on large scale habitat creation and restoration. Those based in the area will have plenty of opportunities to get involved, through gardening workshops, training courses and in volunteering to help in the creation of neighbourhood wildlife corridors. A ‘pond doctor’ will also tour a number of events in the area. For more information on upcoming events, keep an eye on froglife.org.
Otherwise, anyone keen to help can do so by recording their frog, toad and newt encounters. Froglife’s Dragon Finder app (free, Apple and Android) helps you identify species, and allows you to log sightings with the researchers directly. “More practically, people can dig new garden ponds,” says Dr Jarvis. “Generally people are filling ponds in and even tarmacking over gardens. New ponds really help – especially in urban areas.”
Frogs keep insects down, and fill the air with their lovely, calming croaks. So why not create a frog-, toad- and newt-friendly pond this spring?
HOW TO CREATE A FROG-FRIENDLY POND
- Choose a spot in your garden that has some shade in summer, but is not made too dark by overhanging trees.
- The edges of the pond should be shallow, allowing amphibians to climb in and out easily: use a flexible pond liner and dig a gentle slope, or use rocks and stones to create a ramp inside a preformed plastic liner.
- Add plants in and around the water: water lilies and other aquatic plants provide cover and shade for tadpoles, while reeds, ferns, hostas, grasses and other low-level plants can grow happily along the water’s edge. These will attract insects (for frogs to feed on) and provide shelter for adult frogs during the breeding season.
- Avoid fountains, filters and aerators – frogs like still water, with a bit of algae for tadpoles to eat.
- Avoid fish too; they eat frogspawn and tadpoles. (Although toads will happily coexist with fish, in larger ponds or lakes.)
- Add hiding places for tadpoles – like larger rocks, aquatic plants or old plant pots. This will help them survive the spring.
- Have patience! It will be tempting to hurry the process along by moving a bucket of frogspawn in from elsewhere, or catching tadpoles. This is not illegal, but doing so can spread diseases or invasive species. It may take a few years before the pond is settled enough for frogs to arrive.
- Try not to interfere. Some people supplement tadpole diets with lettuce or flakes for cold-water fish. However, if done heavy-handedly this can cause an algal bloom, deoxygenating the water and suffocating its inhabitants. If you do feed them, do so in small quantities.
Published in the Scottish Field, April 2019
This past winter has been a busy time for orca spotters, especially those in the northern isles. A sighting of one of these sleek, monochrome sea creatures is a true thrill, no matter how many times you’ve seen them in the past. It’s even better if, like the naturalist and author Hugh Harrop, you have come to recognise and know the history of each individual you come across.
“We have two semi-resident pods that roam between the north coast, Orkney and Shetland,” he says. “They’re very close to my heart: to me, they’re almost like extended family.” Named after the matriarch whale’s identification number, these two pods are known as the 27s and the 64s, or collectively as the ‘North Isles Community.’ There are seven animals in the 27s group, including two large males; whereas the nine whales of the 64s include “an absolute brute of a bull, Busta,” and a yearling calf.
Hugh’s first known encounter with the 27s pod was back in 2006; while wildlife spotting from a boat with his wife and newborn daughter, he was snapped with dorsal fins in the background. Knowing what he does now, Hugh can now look back at that photo and recognise the whales as the 27s group, whom he has now been following for at least 13 years.
Dorsal fins (and the pale ‘saddle patches’ behind them) are a key component of orca identification. Another pod, resident year-round in Scottish waters and known as the ‘West Coast Community,’ includes the accurately-named Floppy Fin, whose dorsal folds down over the left side of his body, and the instantly recognisable John Coe—who made the news in early January when he was spotted far from his normal range in the Moray Firth—who has an obvious notch in the base of his following a shark attack in 2015.
The West Coast Community has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years. Currently numbering eight orcas, the pod is thought to be in terminal decline. There have been no new members or newborn calves in more than 25 years. When a ninth whale, ‘Lulu,’ was washed up dead on a Tiree beach in 2016 – following entanglement with a fishing line – a possible explanation for their failure to breed was discovered: quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Lulu’s body were found to be 20 times safe levels.
PCBs are highly toxic pollutants which have been banned worldwide since the 1970s but take a long time to break down. Because killer whales are at the top of the food chain, and live for many decades, harmful chemicals like PCBs can accumulate in their bodies in high quantities. If other members of the West Coast Community are suffering from the same levels of contamination, they may have been rendered infertile.
Further worries for their health arose in October of last year after “unprecedented” numbers of beaked whales, a deep-water species, washed up on the west coast of Ireland and the Outer Hebrides – at least 80, more than ten times the number that might usually be expected. Marine mammal scientists warned of a ‘unique mortality event’ likely linked to military sonar. Because orcas use sonar to communicate, they are also at risk—noise from ships and submarines can interfere with their ability to navigate and coordinate hunts.
But while the future of the ageing West Coast orca pod looks bleak indeed, there is hope for those further north. “Many news outlets and TV programmes have reported – rightly – that the resident orca population is dying out,” says Hugh. “But we’d counter that her in the north, sightings have increased. We are seeing more animals year on year and frequently encountering the same pods, day in and day out.”
In December, for example, the 64s group were seen off Sumburgh Head in Shetland; ten days later, fins were spotted off Yell. Then on the 29th of that month, four were spotted off Sanday in Orkney, and later again off South Ronaldsay. In January, five whales were reported off the Caithness coast on the 10th; four days later, the 27s were seen in Orkney’s Scapa Flow; and on the 22nd, a group were seen off South Ronaldsay. All of which suggests that these animals are well at home in Scottish waters.
As part of his efforts to track the movements and numbers of orcas in the North Isles Community, Hugh runs a popular Facebook group, ‘Shetland Orca Sightings’, which now numbers more than 14,000 members. “The page is for people who weren’t in the loop as guides or researchers—nobody owns the orcas, so everyone should get to enjoy them. There’s been huge interest from fishermen and the public more generally.”
Shetland has been gripped by orca fever ever since. “It’s like Wacky Races!” he says. “I set it up at the start of school holidays in 2016, and when a sighting was reported I jumped in the car and drove to Sumburgh Head. I found 200 people already there. I couldn’t believe it. Orcas were hunting right by the main road, and people were abandoning their cars to watch. I went into the local police station to apologise, but they said, ‘don’t worry about it, it’s great, that’s what being in Shetland is about!’”
A large part of the uptick in sightings must be due to mobile communication and increased public awareness, so it’s difficult to say definitively there’s been a rise in the population of orcas. “We can’t really prove that,” Hugh warns. But at the very least, the spike in reports has proven a valuable injection of knowledge into the behaviour of the whales. A link-up with the Icelandic organisation Orca Guardians has also helped Scottish researchers identify whales that travel regularly between both country’s waters.
“Last year we had a minimum of three encounters with Icelandic whales: the 12s pod, the 19s pod and two other individuals which joined our regular 27s pod for a few days. None of this would be known without the Facebook group, which has revealed significant numbers of sightings of new animals in Shetland waters.” A similar group, Orkney Cetacean Sightings, also compiles sightings from 3,400 Orcadians and visiting whalewatchers, while those living elsewhere can report sightings to the Sea Watch Foundation.
Later this year, Sea Watch will be running their annual ‘Orca Watch’ recording event in collaboration with Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Over ten days (17th-26th May), hundreds of whalewatching enthusiasts – many of them volunteers – will be scanning the Pentland Firth in the hope of catching a glimpse of orcas as they make their annual migration south from the northernmost reaches of the North Sea, where they have spent the winter feeding on herring and mackerel. If you will be in Caithness, Orkney or Shetland and would like to take part, visit seawatchfoundation.org.uk.
Europe’s Sea Mammals, by Robert Still, Hugh Harrop, Tim Stenton, and Luis Dias will be published in July. (Princeton University Press; £12.99)
HILLS OF GOLD: THE RETURN OF THE EAGLES
Published in the Scottish Field, June 2019
Golden eagles are considered an iconic Highland species, but not so very long ago they were common across the entire country, their territories even extending across the border into England and Wales.
Centuries of persecution led to a population crash in the 19th century – and the extraordinary species has never properly bounced back. Exterminated from the rest of the UK since 1850, the Golden Eagle clung on in the far north and west. And though numbers have stabilised there – currently sitting at least 400 breeding pairs – huge areas of Scotland remain sadly golden eagle free.
In the Southern Uplands, however, an ambitious project is working hard to assist the tiny local remnant eagle population, which until recently numbered fewer than five breeding pairs. As part of a £1.37m programme, last summer the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project translocated three golden eagle chicks from the Highlands to the Southern Uplands, the first phase in a five-year project that aims to re-establish a healthy population of eagles in this peaceful and picturesque area.
Project manager Dr Cat Barlow explains: “You’d think that if there was enough food, and enough habitat, birds would naturally be moving back in to fill the area. But we’ve found that they’re just not moving down over the central belt naturally. There are a lot of suggestions for that. It may be they just don’t like flying over that highly populated area – they are very shy birds – or they may be coming down and just not finding enough other eagles to breed.”
What is known is that the few eagles that remained in the south of the country were doing pretty well, albeit in small enough numbers to be of concern: “Some pairs were having quite good breeding success. So the idea is just to give them a little bit of a boost, and try to get a few young birds back into the population before we risk losing the few eagles that we do have.”
After years in the planning, last June three eagle eyries on sympathetic Highland estates were identified as containing twins. In such cases, one of the chicks will often die due to sibling rivalry – so conservationists sometimes remove a ‘surplus’ chick and rehome it elsewhere. Single chicks are not disturbed.
“We headed up when the chicks were each about seven weeks old. We wanted them to be big enough to be able to pick at food themselves, so we don’t have to hand feed them or even go near them much,” says Cat. “And they have to be big enough to thermoregulate, or keep themselves warm, so they don’t have to be kept inside.”
The first two chicks, a male and a female, came from Jahama Estates in Lochaber, “from the same estate but two separate nests.” With help from the gamekeepers there, the eaglets were located, removed from the eyries and transported as quickly as possible to purpose-built aviaries in a secret location in the Moffat Hills. A third chick, from another estate, followed shortly after.
“We had a qualified vet with us who did a health chick on all the chicks, to make sure those we left behind are healthy and likely to fledge too. Then we a chick, and put it into a kind of falconry travel box – it’s dark and well ventilated, and keeps the bird nice and quiet.” Once they’re in the aviaries we leave them be with some food.” It’s a difficult experience for a young chick, but cameras positioned inside the aviaries showed the birds beginning to relax and eat within 15 minutes of arrival. “Being handled is stressful, and we try to keep that to a minimum. After that, they’re fed once a day through a hidden hatch.”
Pupils at Moffat Primary, St Peters Primary in Galashiels and Priorsford Primary in Peebles selected names for the chicks – ‘Edward,’ ‘Beaky’ and ‘Emily’ – who enjoyed a brief period as internet stars as members of the public tuned in to watch the aviary live feed online. But after six weeks, the hatches were opened and the birds were free to fly.
“In a natural setting, adults would bring them food right through the winter until they can start breeding that next year. So we’ve did the that same, providing supplementary food at the release site.” Initially, the fledgling chicks were bullied by local buzzards and ravens, but as they grew the tables quickly turned. By already, the chicks were already venturing out into the countryside beyond the release site.
“Young eagles can leave as early as October, or stay right into March, so we weren’t sure what to expect,” adds Cat. After a couple of dummy runs, Edward and Emily soon flew the coop – “they cover large distances, the male has been seen as far away afield Galloway” – but Becky has proven more tentative. “She’s made some local journeys, and explored a little bit. But she’s still hanging around at the moment. There’s plenty of time yet. As the temperature warms up, and there’s more daylight, I think she’ll head out.”
The three eagles’ success has been a major boon for the project, which intends to repeat the translocation process again this June, and for three further years after that. The pioneer birds Edward, Emily and Beaky are satellite tagged, to help the project team build up a picture of their ranging behaviour and health, and may wander for five years before settling down to breed.
So keep an eye out if you live in the Borders or Dumfries and Galloway. Sketches of the three young eagles can be found on the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project website to help volunteers identify the birds by way of their distinctive plumage. And reported sightings are very welcome: “We love to hear from anyone who thinks they’ve seen one.”
If you’d like to learn more about spotting golden eagles (“It’s not as easy as it might sound,” warns Cat. “We get a lot of mistaken sightings of buzzards and ravens.”) the project team will be running ‘Eagle 101’ identification courses. Further information can be found at goldeneaglessouthofscotland.co.uk.
Further afield, keen birders may be interested in joining the Scottish Raptor Study Group, which has regional branches across Scotland, and whose research papers are an invaluable resource for conservation agencies and government authorities alike.
See scottishraptorstudygroup.org for more details.
EXPLOSION OF LIFE: THE RACE TO SAVE THE ARDEER PENINSULA
Published in the Scottish Field, July 2019
Sometimes wilderness can be found in the most unlikely of places. The Ardeer peninsula, on the Ayrshire coast, is one of them.
Once an enormous complex of sand dunes and salt marsh, it first became a hub of industry in the 19th century, when coal pits and an ironworks were established there, before finally the headland was purchased by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist and businessman, in 1871.
Nobel, who had discovered dynamite six years earlier, set about building what would become the largest explosives factory in the world. At its height, the factory extended to 2,000 acres, supported 13,000 jobs, and had its own bank, train station and dentist on site; two trains and ten buses a day were put on to transport its enormous workforce.
A series of labs, workshops, test sites and thousand-gallon nitroglycerine tanks were built, well-spaced throughout the enormous site for safety reasons: the natural sand hills and the embankments that were built around the buildings, served as shock absorbers in case of accident – and there were a lot of accidents.
In one instance, in 1884, ten local girls employed filling dynamite cartridges were killed in a massive blast. “Not a vestige of the hut remains,” noted the local paper, “… parts of the body of one of the girls was found over the boundary palisade towards the shore and probably not less than 150 yards from the scene of the explosion.”
In 1913, 1914 and 1937 there were lethal explosions of such force that the windows of the neighbouring towns of Stevenson and Irvine were shattered. (For more information, see the excellent local website threetowners.com, which offers an overview of industrial history in the area.)
Given the site’s volatile history, perhaps it is surprising to find that the former Nobel ICI Explosives Works is now a haven for wildlife. Now largely disused and left undisturbed, the site has been reclaimed by nature; its rich mosaic of habitats – dunes, heath, woodland, wetland and derelict buildings – hosts an amazing variety of species, particularly invertebrates and birds.
Bruce Philp, a local entomologist, has identified more than 260 species of beetle on the site, including some very rarely recorded in Scotland, like the Minotaur beetle – a glossy, tri-horned beast which feeds on rabbit droppings, rolling them into the tunnels drills in the sandy soil. “It’s a very special site,” he told me
“There are more than 40 nationally rare or nationally scarce species to be found there, and Buglife has said it could be the best site in Scotland for solitary bees and wasps.” Seldom-seen species found in Ardeer include the northern colletes, a rare solitary mining bee more commonly associated with the Hebridean machair, recently named by the Scottish Wildlife Trust as one of its conservation priorities.
So far, so good: but the Ardeer site is facing an uncertain future. Now owned by NPL Estates, the brownfield regeneration specialists, it has been earmarked for major redevelopment under North Ayrshire Council’s ‘growth deal’ proposals. Documents released in 2016 showed plans for a new marina, golf course, leisure centre plus thousands of new houses.
Nature lovers have sounded their disapproval – but may not be able to halt the development thanks to a legal agreement dating from the 1950s, which grants the owners of the property the right to exploit the land as they see fit – without planning permission. Intended to cut bureaucracy associated with expansion of the explosives works, this ‘special development order’ remains in place today, and blocks it from being listed and protected as a site of special scientific interest.
But local activists will not let it go ahead without a fight. In April, I visited Ardeer with Roger Hissett and Ian Hamlin, who showed me around this brownfield beauty and explained the work they were doing to prove its national significance.
Hamlin, who grew up in a neighbouring village, led the way. He’s been wandering the abandoned site since 2011, building up an extensive census of all species found there, and perhaps knows it better than anyone. I followed him through the abandoned carpark, now grown over with moss and heather; goat willow, tasselled with catkins, and sea buckthorn had broken through the tarmac in places, and songbirds hid between their branches.
We shimmied through a gap in the fence, and found ourselves on the abandoned train platform. The grass and scrub here had come in thickets, and peacock butterflies flittered through the air. Not far beyond came what must have been cooling ponds, strewn with heavy rusted pipes, but busy with ducks and moorhen. We passed through woodland where jays were nesting, their branches well dressed in lichen, and just beyond came across a series of small buildings hidden behind blast walls 10ft high.
I ventured inside, disregarding the signs: “DANGER: explosive atmosphere,” read one, pinned to a collapsed door. Old paintwork fell as petals from the walls, and drifted like fallen leaves in the corners. Light came dappled through the misty panes. I listened to a willow warbler in the trees outside.
The environmental value of despoiled sites like these has only recently been fully recognised. Back in 2003, an abandoned oil depot in Essex made headlines when the conservation group Buglife led a campaign to save it from redevelopment, describing it as ‘a brownfield rainforest’ after identifying 2000 invertebrate species on site.
Parts of both the Essex site and the ICI Nobel site (such as the abandoned car park) are now recognised as valuable ‘open mosaic’ habitat, where old concrete or tarmac surfaces play an important role in inhibiting succession and keeping the ground clear of forest and open to sunlight. The combination of many miniature sub-habitats as is often found in ‘open mosaic’ helps insect species that have different requirements at different stages of their life cycles.
The derelict buildings too – strangely beautiful in their slow decay – offer safe hiding places for hibernating butterflies and moths, including Herald moths whose cocoons have been spotted in their hundreds hanging on dank, dark walls.
But, noted Hissett, development or no, the site is already suffering significant damage from the sand extractors that are at liberty to carve away at the dunes with their enormous diggers, thanks to the 1953 order. We climb a dune and peer over the lip to find a vast quarry beyond. A brisk wind whips the sand into our faces, our eyes.
“There are three or four sand extraction companies working away with no oversight,” he warned. “Another decade and the whole dune system will be gone. It’s a matter of trying to save what’s left.” They stand a good chance, having secured the backing of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and the RSPB – among others. The hope is to revoke the special development order, and limit future construction to the least valuable habitats.
As we wandered back through the woods on our way home, we passed under an archway formed by a loop of aging pipework, its insulation frayed and threadbare. An old concrete street light stood incongruously in a clearing not far beyond: some ravaged Narnia. From beyond the trees, a siren wailed. A few seconds later came the blast. A local company still uses part of the site to test its pyrotechnics.
We all jumped, but the birds didn’t stray from their branches. It’s no pristine landscape – but the wildlife seems to like it. Let’s hope that Ardeer and all that lives in her can be saved.
RETURN TO THE BASS
Published in the Scottish Field, August 2019
Heading to the seaside with your family this summer? You’re not alone. Two kilometres off the coast of East Lothian, the Bass Rock rises vertiginously from the waves: a volcanic plug of rugged dark rock, with sheer cliff faces 100 metres high, the Bass is the largest gannet colony in the world.
Every spring, 150,000 birds return to their summer residences there, where they settle down to nest and bring up their young – known as guga – over the warmer months. This year they began to trickle back into the area in February but spent some week circling the rock before finally landing in early March, according to the local guide and gannet expert Maggie Sheddan.
The Bass, usually an imposing dark presence on the horizon, then appears thickly stippled in white as the creamy-chested birds build their nests tightly-packed upon the rock, taking up every level surface. Gannets, who can live to the ripe old age of 35 and weigh up to 3.5kg apiece, are highly territorial and have been known to fight to the death over the best appointed nesting spots. Any ledges left unclaimed are quickly colonised by the penguin-suited guillemots who carry their eggs on their feet, or the kittiwakes who need only a toehold of an inch or two.
The result is a cacophonous, coiling mass of bird life will stay in place until autumn. But right now is the perfect time to see it. The Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick offer boat trips that leave from the harbour by the visitors’ centre, and start from £24 per person (£9 concessions) for a journey by catamaran around the Bass and its neighbouring island Craigleith, a lower, grassier outcrop which is better known for puffins.
In early June, I opted instead for the high-adrenaline option: the 12-seater rib, which skiffed over the waves and slewed excitingly around the Lamb, a tiny islet of columnar basalt bristling with birds. It too was crammed with those formally-attired guillemots and the hunched and reptilian cormorants, who cat-called and squabbled amongst themselves. A silver seal pup lay quietly on a low ledge, well-behaved and awaiting the return of its mother.
We slowed to a crawl to take it all in: at the island’s crown is a small grassy flat where the island’s owner – somewhat incongruously, the illusionist Uri Geller – camped overnight in 2010. Geller purchased the island for £30,000 in 2008, under the belief that an exiled Egyptian princess had once buried treasure there. It, along with the two rock outcrops at either end, “mirror the layout of the Pyramids of Giza,” he noted at the time. I can’t say the likeness was at all obvious from the sea, but the birds seem to like it.
We accelerated away – hearts in mouths, sea spray on our faces – to Craigleith, where the puffins were as charming as ever: pocket sized and prettily adorned in stripes, popping up from underwater with a humorous look, before taking laboriously off with their webbed red feet trailing inelegantly behind. Impossible not to love them. And razorbills too: coming in to land, as chesty as cargo planes, their Roman noses and sleek back wings picked out in delicate silver.
Once home to 28,000 puffin pairs, numbers crashed around the turn of the century due to the invasion of tree mallow, a plant common to lighthouse gardens and thought to have blown onto Craigleith from the nearby Bass Rock, which grows high and blocks access to the puffin’s underground burrows. The Scottish Seabird Centre’s award-winning ‘Puffin SOS’ programme sends volunteers out regularly to cut the tree mallow back, and the colony has been rebounding. (For more information on the project, visit seabird.org/conservation.)
But the Bass Rock was the true highlight of the trip. There’s no experience like it: the guano-streaked crags rising steeply ahead; the harsh bleating cries of the gannets coming together in crescendo upon the approach; the birds rising like smoke and swirling high above.
Robert Louis Stevenson – who knew it well, his cousin having designed the lighthouse there – wrote of just such an approach in Catriona: “With the growing of the dawn I could see it clearer and clearer, the straight crags painted white with the seabird droppings like a morning frost. The sloping top of it green with grass, the clan of white geese [solan geese, another name for gannets] that cried about the sides and the black broken buildings of the prison sitting close on the seas edge… It was an unco place by night, unco by day; and there were unco sounds; of the calling of the solans, and the plash of the sea, and the rock echoes that hung continually in our ears.”
In Catriona, the hero David Balfour is confined to the prison there: in real life, the Bass was the site of a notorious fortress-jail where many political and religious outlaws were imprisoned – including 39 Covenanter ‘martyrs’ during the 17th century – in a kind of guano-streaked Alcatraz. During the first Jacobite Rising, four capture Jacobite officers were imprisoned there but staged a minor uprising of their own, taking control of the island for three years and surviving on eggs and supplies sneaked past a government blockade by local sympathisers in fishing boats.
The prison is now long demolished, but a lighthouse keeper inhabited the island until 1988. The ornithologists Bryan and June Nelson also spent three field seasons there in a 12ft by 8ft metal hut in the 1960s; it is thanks to their efforts that we know so much about gannet behaviours, including the significance of their “beak-fencing” – in which mated-pairs tap their beaks together in a bonding ritual equivalent to kissing in humans – and “skypointing” – in which a gannet signals its intention to leave the nest, and for its partner to remain there in its absence.
From the water’s edge I saw plenty of both behaviours: the gannets were little bothered by our approach and continued on as if we weren’t dawdling by with the rib’s engine ticking over. Close up they were impressive and strange: their soft bodies clean-white atop their filthy seaweed towers, heads yellowing; their serrated beaks outlined in black and their eyes the spooky ice-blue of a husky’s.
After lifting off, those sky-pointers form a vortex: en masse, their swirling creates a spiral staircase effect, allowing them to gain height with ease. It is quite hypnotising to watch. In person, the volume and the scale is quite overwhelming: it is dream-like and nightmarish all at once. Twenty minutes from the sea may not be enough; photographers and those who prefer to soak things up may prefer to opt for a 3-hour ‘landing experience’ (£135, for ages 16+) – but be sure to book in advance, for these are very popular and limited in number to avoid disturbing the birds.
If you can’t make it to North Berwick, never fear. There are a 13 other gannet colonies around Scotland, including the island of Ailsa Craig off the Ayrshire coast (ailsacraig.org.uk); at Hermaness on Unst, Shetland; and at RSPB Troup Head near Banff in Aberdeenshire.
THE WORLD IN AN OYSTER
Published in the Scottish Field, September 2019
What do you think of when you think of oysters? Lemon slices and tabasco sauce? Cocktail dresses and champagne? Oysters are a luxury item these days, and priced accordingly, but not so very long ago they were cheap as chips – and just as plentiful.
In 1868, the author Robert Chambers described an oyster cellar scene not unlike the late night kebab shops of today: parties of fashionable types “would adjourn in carriages to one of those abysses of darkness and comfort, called in Edinburgh laigh shops,” he wrote, “where they proceeded to regale themselves with raw oysters and porter, arranged in huge dishes upon a coarse table, in a dingy room, lighted by tallow candles… The rudeness of the feast, and the vulgarity of the circumstances under which it took place, seem to have given a zest to its enjoyment.”
Once very widespread, overfishing during the 19th century saw the populations of Scotland’s vast stocks of native oysters plummet. At its peak, one of the biggest fisheries in the Firth of Forth produced 30 million oysters a year, but by 1920 numbers had collapsed enough that fishing ceased. By 1957 oysters were locally extinct, and the same pattern unfolded along much of Scotland’s coastline.
The common oyster is now, unfortunately, rare. Indeed, oyster reefs are amongst the most endangered marine habitats on Earth. Today they are most likely to be found along the more remote parts of Scotland: Shetland and the Hebrides, plus in Galloway’s Loch Ryan, the site of Scotland’s last remaining wild oyster fishery.
Native or common oysters live densely in vast ‘beds’ or reefs in shallow seawater, anywhere from the low tide line to 80m in depth, where their shells provide a solid surface for lots of other ocean life like seaweeds, sea slugs and sea squirts to live on. And though they may seem like simple creatures—two shells, a muscle clamping them shut—you may be surprised by how fascinating the lives that they lead really are.
For one thing, they are all born male, but after 18 months to two years become female. Over the course of their six- to 15-year lifespan they may alternate back and forth between the sexes. They too show complex biological rhythms: not only attuned to the circadian clock (day versus night), and the tidal clock (high versus low) but to the lunar cycle. Scientists at the University of Bordeaux showed recently that the molluscs’ degree of opening was linked to the phases of the moon—not only the levels of moonlight, but whether the moon was waxing or waning—and posited that they have evolved an internal lunar clock much like our own internal 24-hour clock.
They too serve a key ecological role. As filter feeders, they strain plankton and other particulates from the seawater—processing up to 30 gallons a day—and it is this function that has inspired a cutting-edge environmental project in the Dornoch Firth.
In 2017, a team from Heriot-Watt University, in partnership with the whisky company Glenmorangie and the Marine Conservation Society, embarked upon an ambitious plan to reintroduce the common oyster to the waters off Tain, restoring its lost oyster beds. After a successful pilot project involving 300 oysters—the “canaries in the cage,” according to Dr Bill Sanderson, an associate professor of marine biodiversity at the university—the team began the enormous task of installing 20,000 more on two artificial reefs last autumn.
At the moment, if one was to dive down you would see “mounds of consolidated shell with oysters amongst it,” Bill explains. “Over the summer this will become colonised with other invertebrates, seaweeds and fish. We are expecting to see a biodiversity ‘hotspot’ by the end of the year.”
As Hamish Torrie, director of corporate social responsibility at Glenmorangie, explained at the project’s launch: “This restoration of oyster reefs will help us realise our long term vision of a distillery in complete harmony with its natural surroundings.” The company’s new anaerobic digestion plant in Tain purifies around 95% of the organic waste from the effluent produced by the distillation process, before it is released into the Dornoch Firth. The final 5% is then expected to be naturally filtered out by the oysters.
Long term, the aim is to install a self-sustaining population of four million oysters, Bill adds: roughly equal to the original oyster population of the firth 250 years ago, and representing a full restoration of the long lost reefs. “The Dornoch Firth is a marine protected area with conservation legislation that prevents extraction of oysters from the site. The oysters are therefore not for eating. We are hopeful, however, that once the population gets established, larvae will spill out into the wider Moray Firth and we will start to see fishable populations out there.”
It’s not the only initiative of its kind. Over on the west coast a community group called Cromach (Craignish Restoration of Marine and Coastal Habitats) has been taking matters into its own hands. “The people who live here had been sidelined when it came to the use of their shoreline and inshore coastal waters,” explains Cromach’s Rory Day. “Over the last few decades this has often meant watching helplessly as wild fish numbers dwindle, local waters are polluted, and the seabed and the species that live there are damaged or destroyed.”
Set up to promote effective marine management, the group now has 100 local members and in May this year it acted to reintroduce a thousand juvenile oysters, each roughly the size of a two pence piece, into the waters of Loch Craignish. Day continues: “We put them in cages with shelves—a bit like a wire chest of drawers—giving them protection from predators but enough room to move with the tide. We weighted down the cages and dropped them very gently onto an intertidal rock and shell bed by the edge of a seagrass meadow in the loch. There were about a dozen of us, children included. It was very exciting.”
Pupils from nearby Ardfern Primary will assist in monitoring the oysters’ development, and should they do well, there are plans to expand the scheme. “Maybe they’ll spawn soon if all the conditions are right. We don’t know if or how they’ll spread, but apparently the larvae free-swim for over two weeks—in a best case scenario they might end up as far south as Crinan, across the other side of the loch or even round the other side of the peninsula in Craobh Haven and into the Sound of Jura
A thousand settled oysters could spawn hundreds of thousands more, he adds. “But equally, we may have to start all over again in just a few months! If it all goes well, the bigger oysters will get released every three years or so.” The costs of reintroducing this first batch was supported through grant funding from the conservation charity Sea-Changers and donations in kind from Barcaraldine’s Lochnell Oysters. (For more information, or to volunteer your time or expertise, visit cromach.org.)
With luck, plus some muscular efforts from conservationists, we can hope that Scotland’s oyster population will rebound—and with it, the health of our marine ecosystems.