Future forests of the past

It’s not often that a headline will make me want to buy a newspaper immediately – but this one from the Western Daily Press did so: “Forest hope for pine martens”. The article described a new study, by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which is directed towards the future release of pine martens in the Forest of Dean. A few years ago, I went to a wildlife hide in the Cairngorms specifically to see the pine martens (see photo); so I’d be delighted to see them much closer in the next-door county!

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore: they’re very engaging animals, which would boost ecotourism in the Forest of Dean.

Re-introducing formerly native species back into the UK is something that I’m very interested in. Thus, in 2010 I went to Knapdale Forest in Argyll to see the beavers that had been released there, and have been following the progress of the beaver re-introductions ever since.

So why should we be releasing species back into the wild? Here are a few reasons.

  • Hunting by humans led to the extinction of beavers four hundred years ago, and the restriction of pine martens to the remoter parts of Scotland. Now, in a much more conservation-minded era, I think we have a moral obligation to release these species back into the wild.
  • As these species used to be part of the British ecosystem, there is little doubt that they would again thrive in the UK. Furthermore, they’d return to an ecosystem that co-evolved with them – and would have none of the problems associated with alien species like coypus and American mink (about which, more in a moment).
  • They would bring beneficial effects to other species. For example, writing about the alien grey squirrels and their detrimental effect on our native reds, George Monbiot wrote, “…there is another way of dealing with grey squirrels, which requires hardly any expense, indeed hardly any human intervention at all. Unlike trapping, shooting or poisoning, it works. It is happening with extreme prejudice in Ireland at the moment. There is a scientific term for this method. Pine martens.” Monbiot went on to describe how the introduction of pine martens into Ireland had a dramatic effect: the reds – which are too fast and agile to be easy prey – have been bouncing back, at the expense of their slower and fatter grey cousins.
  • Beaver in Knapdale Forest: it was well worth a midge-infested dawn walk to see them!

    Beavers are regarded as natural ecosystem engineers, because their dams create new habitat, such as ponds. They are likely to have a strongly positive effect on biodiversity. A detailed analysis in Mammal Review showed that otters, water voles and great crested newts, which are all nationally endangered, should all be beneficiaries.

  • Ecotourism is profitable. I’m an example of the potential market for this, as someone who has made efforts to see pine martens, beavers and otters. As I chat with people in the bird hides here, I’m conscious of how many people travel large distances in order to see the wildlife in the Somerset Levels, which suggests that the ecotourism market is quite large.

The process to re-introduce a species does, however, seem slow and expensive. One of the intriguing aspects to the re-introduction of beavers is that there has been a highly successful unofficial release program in the Tay valley at the same time as the rather expensive formal scheme run by Scottish National Heritage in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Jim Crumley describes this in his engaging and enthusiastic book, “Nature’s architects: the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes”. There is much more romance to the unofficial scheme than to the rather plodding official one – but history reveals a less rosy record regarding other unplanned releases.

  • When I was a kid and my parents took me to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve, I was excited to see a coypu from one of the less well frequented hides. This would no longer be possible because they have now been exterminated, as their effect on the landscape is destructive (for example, in severely damaging reedbeds), without the redeeming features of beaver engineering. For a species that is a resident of South America, there was an understandable lack of sympathy. They are regarded as a pest species in France and other parts of Europe. [ref]

Coypu in western France near Cenon-sur-Vienne

  • Like coypus, American mink were brought into the UK for fur farming, but regular escapes led to a growing British poulation which had a devastating effect on our own water voles. This is because mink are small enough to be able to pursue water voles into their own burrows, and their daily need for meat is particularly high when they are feeding their young. While strenuous efforts are being made to eradicate them, this is proving very difficult. As it happens, some of the best allies in this are otters, for whom mink are a nice meal, and for whom water vole burrows are too small.

These two ecological disasters illustrate why official release schemes, for all their slowness and bureaucracy, are actually needed.

Other ideas that are being circulated include the desire to release a top predator into the wild. The likeliest, at least in the near future, is the lynx. As a secretive, solitary cat it is likely to spend most of its time hiding in forests, dining on deer, avoiding human contact and ignoring sheep. The Lynx UK Trust is currently leading the campaign for their re-introduction, and would like to release them into the Kielder Forest area of Northumberland (where Jen and I went recently) and the Borders.

Another species is the wolf. Their re-introduction to Yellowstone has had a dramatic effect on the entire ecosystem: the elk moved from grazing out in the open to frequenting denser woodland; aspen and willow trees therefore recovered, providing better habitat for beavers, which grew from one colony to eight [ref]. As it happens there’s a video clip on Facebook about this which is doing the rounds as I write, which argues that the arrival of the wolves there ultimately led even to the rivers becoming more stable: the clip appears to be derived from a talk given by George Monbiot, to which video was added here.

Although I would love to see wolves re-introduced to, say, the Scottish Highlands, I recognise that a predator which lives and hunts in packs is much more contentious than a solitary, elusive, forest cat. While they would undoubtedly help to control the red deer population, they might also find the local sheep a tasty alternative. It would probably be better to re-introduce the lynx first and assess its impact on the environment before beginning to seriously contemplate releasing wolves.

I’d be delighted if pine martens were released into the Forest of Dean – even more so if this was followed by lynxes. There’s a colony of beavers which has mysteriously appeared on the aptly-named River Otter – and I’d certainly be excited if they happened to make their way up to the Somerset Levels! I strongly believe that continuing to re-introduce these species into the wild is the right course of action: we will have a more biodiverse countryside, which will lead to our own lives being enriched by them.

The mysteries of Ardnamurchan

What’s the most westerly place on the British mainland? No – it’s not Land’s End; it’s Ardnamurchan Point, half a degree further over at 6.2°W. This small fact is like the area itself: it ought to be well known, but isn’t.

It’s the most prominent part of the peninsula south-west of Fort William. The easiest way to get there is to take the short ferry ride across Loch Linnhe, just north of Glencoe. Although the journey is less than half a mile, it takes one to a land that feels more like the Outer Hebrides than mainland Scotland.

The area is remote – and spectacularly beautiful. It was only mildly surprising to discover that the reclusive wildlife writer, Mike Tomkies, lived here, on the shore of Loch Shiel, a long lake with limited access by road. The area is a stronghold for the Scottish wildcat – with which Tomkies was intimately involved (here).

Loch Doile

Loch Doile

The main village, Strontian, houses about 350 people (similar to Wichenford). This might make it seem like any other small and inconspicuous village – but it is one of only two sites in the world to have a naturally occurring element named after it (strontium). This is another fact about the area that one feels should be better known.

My main motivation for the trip was to see the local wildlife, and it was good to be joined by Dave Doughty for it. One of the highlights was a dawn trip around Loch Sunart. Driving on the road west of Strontian at 5.30, we chanced upon an animal trying to cross the road… it wasn’t an otter, as we’d first thought, but with a white bib and bounding gait it could only be a pine marten. It took a while for it to find a way through, but it entertained us for a couple of minutes before doing so. (I was so excited to see it I completely forgot to take any photographs! Duh!)

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Cloudy morning at Loch Sunart

Shortly after we arrived at the Garbh Eilean wildlife hide, Dave spotted an otter swimming along, nose just above the water line, diving a couple of times as well. We hoped  it would land on one of the islands in front of the hide – instead of which it swam behind and we lost sight of it.

Towards the end of the week we went on a widlife safari, guided by the irrepressible Hamza Yassin of West Highland Tours. He’s a professional wildlife photographer who is partly employed as a tour guide by the local laird. We soon regretted not doing the safari earlier in the week, such was his detailed knowledge of the local area.

I enthused about seeing the pine marten. Hamza was unsurprised by the sighting. He explained that here they are as common as the fox would be down south – and are doing so well that they threaten the survival of the wildcat. Wildlife conservation isn’t always straightforward…

My own attempts at photography were much more limited than I had expected – partly due to the weather, partly because the birdlife was much less obliging than I’d hoped. There was an abundance of herons, which is not exactly an unusual species further south! However, they are usually quite difficult to photograph as they are very alert to human presence, so when I saw one on the lakeside from the car I stopped to take a snap. But the heron had other things in mind than standing and posing…

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Dolphins, red deer and a pine marten

Badger and pine marten at the Speyside Wildlife hide

Badger and pine marten at the Speyside Wildlife hide

My week in Scotland was unusually good for seeing interesting mammals. This time last year, I’d had a futile time in Argyll hoping to see a pine marten – not having realised how elusive they actually are. Thus, when I realised that there was a wildlife hide near Aviemore run by Speyside Wildlife, I decided that I had to go.

They put out food each evening, but can’t guarantee what will turn up. I joined about 8 others around sunset, and we walked to the hide while it was still light enough to see the way, and then waited. Just as the light faded, a large herd of red deer went past in search of lower pastures for the night.

Some time after it was fully dark, a badger appeared and snuffled along the ground for peanuts. As it did so, a pine marten bounded up and sprang onto the table, and then sat down to consume the meal put out for it.

Unusually, there’s a female kit that has remained from last year’s litter. So far this spring she has been a frequent visitor. Her dad also occasionally visits. They have very different tastes: she likes peanuts and honey, he prefers raisins and peanut butter. It’s curious that such a notoriously elusive species will eat so readily from food put out for it – but that’s part of the mystique of pine martens.

One of the stars of the night wasn’t rare at all and weighed about an ounce – a characterful wood mouse, which hid among the tree roots and would occasionally dash across the grass for a peanut when the badger wasn’t looking!

This wood mouse ended up getting the most attention!

This wood mouse ended up getting the most attention!

The following day I visited Chanonry Point, a sliver of land that sticks into the Moray Firth. It’s the best mainland site for seeing dolphins – especially at this time of year, when they assemble for the salmon run.

Bottlenose dolphin from Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth

Bottlenose dolphin from Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth

Dolphin pursuing salmon at Chanonry Point

Dolphin pursuing salmon at Chanonry Point

It’s quite extraordinary to be on land so close to the dolphins: I watched for about an hour, and they were still pursuing lunch just as avidly. (I did feel a tad sorry for the salmon though: if they survived the dolphins, they had the seals to contend with next!)

On the Thursday I visited the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows site. It’s a magnificently bleak landscape of windswept peat bogs, but I chose the wrong time of day for the bird life! After I finished a late packed lunch, I had a careful look round before continuing – to see a herd of red deer that thought it could slip along the fence line of a forest without being disturbed.

Red deer near Forsinard in Sutherland

Red deer near Forsinard in Sutherland

After they saw I’d spotted them, they slunk behind a hillock, and disappeared for so long that I thought they’d all hurdled the fence. I went a bit closer and found the herd sat in the grass, clearly content to wait until the human departed, with only some rather fine antlers giving them away!

That evening I went back to the Speyside wildlife site. This time there were three badgers that showed exceptionally well – and the pine marten returned and hogged the limelight while it was there!

Two of the badgers showed very well

Two of the badgers showed very well

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore