I recently moved to Orkney with my partner Richard, where he has been posted as a probationary teacher. At times like this I am reminded what a wonderful privilege it is to be self-employed – and able to up sticks easily, and work from such a beautiful and remote location. (Although it doesn’t feel at all remote, once one is actually here.)
I wrote about moving house – and how the task of packing up my belongings made me think rather wistfully of our six weeks living the ultralight lifestyle on the Colorado Trail – for Prospect, in my latest ‘Wild Frontier’ column. (Text can be found online here, or after the fold.)
I also had a nice surprise when my first Country Diary entry for The Guardian from Orkney was an unexpected hit, racking up more than 30,000 readers in its first few hours online (quite unusual for this section, which features gentle snippets of nature writing). It dealt with the arrival of stoats on the archipelago, and why conservationists believe that might be disastrous for the ground-nesting birds that live here. (Full text can be found here, or after the fold.)
Eradication and ‘population management’ of wildlife prompts important ethical questions in environmental circles – ones I have touched on in more length in the context of red deer culls (for Granta and The Guardian’s long-read section) and in a discussion of our instinctive dislike of ‘invasive’ non-native species (for the New Humanist). So, why not read more?
We moved to Orkney in August, and the first wildlife I saw – not including the ubiquitous gulls and shags – was a stoat. It dashed across the road ahead of us: a sleek little slip of a thing. He wore chestnut, a neat cream bib, and a tail dipped in chocolate.
I love to see them. They are so daintily proportioned, so narrow at the waist. So bendy in the back – lifting in the middle like a caterpillar, or a cat. Quick as a whip, he had bounded by and vanished into the shaggy undergrowth at the verge. They make me smile.
But quickly I learned that my enthusiasm for Mustela erminea is not shared. First recorded here in 2010, they spread and bred prodigiously, and can already be spotted all over the main island and those connected to it by causeways. Local conservationists have reacted in horror.
Stoats may be small but they are excellent hunters (sharp-toothed stalkers, brazen nest-raiders) and this spells disaster for an island teeming with unsuspecting ground-nesting birdlife such as curlews, terns and hen harriers. The Orkney vole, a subspecies found nowhere else, is also thought to be facing Armageddon.
In response, Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland have begun an eradication project: over five years, they will set 20,000 traps baited with fish, cat food and eggs. The first went down last summer, another 400 were laid on South Ronaldsay and Burray last month. Wanted posters hang in shops, libraries and ferry waiting rooms, with mugshots and an appeal for information: “Have you spotted a stoat?” They offer an email address to contact if you have.
A few days ago, I walked on the beach at twilight. The sky was soaked in violet; the sea washed and withdrew, washed and withdrew. Fulmars slid by overhead, spy planes making smooth and soundless observations. I clambered over rocks, slipped on seaweed, and as I lifted my head above a parapet I saw a movement. A tiny, dashing thing. I smiled.
Then I remembered. For a long moment I paused. And, like a traitor, I picked up my phone and I turned him in.