Archive for ‘Birds and animals’

Nov 7, 2021

Conservation or slaughter? Shot, gutted and stuffed

I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

In 2015 a conservationist, I feel I should put that term in apostrophes, finally discovered a very rare bird he had been searching for for two decades. And killed it.

The moustached kingfisher

Conservationist Chrisopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History was quoted as saying, “there is nothing like the thrill of finding a mysterious species.” He referred to rarely seen wildlife that he yearned to find as“ghosts before revealing themselves” – an interesting description for that is the exact same word used about a hundred years before by the English conservationist and hunter, Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, on witnessing a succession of beasts making their way to a watering hole in a Congo forest one night before he shot one or two of them. Then they really were ghosts.

When, in 2015, Filardi spied the beautiful and elusive moustached kingfisher in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he and his team of accomplices spread mist nets across that area of the forest and succeeded in trapping a ‘magnificent all-blue back’ male moustached kingfisher with its bright orange face. He gushed –

 “Oh my god, the kingfisher . . . a creature of myth come to life

Then he killed it. Another triumph for western avian conservation.

In 2015, Filardi’s conservation efforts caused a great deal of anger around the globe from people who could not understand the reasoning behind hunting down a near-extinct species and possibly ensuring it becomes extinct. There was no such outcry over the behaviour of Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton. Back at the beginning of the 20th century westerners thirsted for information about exotic beasts in lands far from home. Powell-Cotton was the man to hunt them down with his rifle so that science might be informed and people entertained.

An idea they were preserving wildlife, albeit dead, curiosity and entertainment were surely behind the opening of a museum on Powell-Cotton’s family grounds, Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent in England; a museum that exists to this day. It is stuffed, literally, with an enormous number of beasts shot by the man himself or members of his entourage, caravan as it was known in the day comprising of up to 70 hunters and porters. Powell-Cotton was a man-exterminating-machine whose claim to fame (notoriety) is he shot the largest number of wild animals ever destroyed by a single man.  Once upon a time this was thought to be heroic and admirable.

A member of Powell-Cotton’s caravan with animal carcasses. The white rhino Powell-Cotton had permission to shoot from the Congo Free State government. He had its permission to hunt a number of rare animals on its reserves. He was there, primarily, to search for white rhinoceros which at that time was “well-nigh exterminated” and “he was fortunate enough to secure a splendid specimen.” Above right is a honey badger “discovered” and killed by Powell-Cotton and named after him – mellivora cottoni.

Today, Powell-Cotton’s voracious appetite for hunting and ‘collecting’ would make him persona non grata, although to be fair there are many in the UK who, like him, describe themselves as animal lovers and conservationists who get their kicks from blasting wildlife to smithereens, or out of the sky and off their hooves. You know the sort of people – the royal family and lesser mortals who pay to destroy our Scottish wildlife on what’s erroneously described as sporting estates. Nothing sporting about a human armed with a large rifle targeting an unarmed animal.

This is the paradox – can you be a conservationist and animal lover if you slaughter beasts and birds?  For the tweedy/camouflage types who call animals ‘game’, a bit like Blade Runner it is the excitement of the chase and anticipation of the kill they relish. For scientific types it is to enhance human knowledge and understanding of the natural world and place beasts into a context of changing environments and time – the study of avian taxonomy, systemics, zoogeography, geographic variation, anatomy and morphology, sexual dimorphism, age/gender characters, moult, plumage sequences, ecomorphology, ontogeny … STOP! The science argument runs along the lines that taking animals for experiment and research has little impact on their survival compared with major pressures on habitats such as those from deforestation, agriculture, roads and building.

Powell-Cotton doesn’t really come into that camp. His expeditions found him cutting swathes through animal populations, driven by sheer greed. He came up with a cunning plan to assemble a collection of Kashmir and Tibetan ‘game’ all shot by one man – with a nod to science in that each specimen was measured and notes made on where, when, and how the animal was shot.

Perhaps if Powell-Cotton had a proper job wildlife would have faced fewer threats – unless you regard animal massacre as regular work. It sort of was in his case. An itinerant slaughterer of beasts – work that took him to Abyssinia, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, French Equitorial Africa, Cameroon, Switzerland, Chad, Algeria, Angola, Central African Republic, Guinea, India, Kashmir, Morocco, Nigeria, Ogaden, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tibet, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and more, lots more places.  

It didn’t all go Powell-Cotton’s way. One time an animal retaliated. In 1907 he shot a lion, as one does, and as he approached the poor thing it leapt up and mauled the brute. Powell-Cotton wasn’t badly hurt, saved by a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine that protruded from the breast pocked of his jacket. Oh, the lion was put down. This was his thirteenth lion. One can just imagine the mirth that story created, repeated over many a dinner table. His museum has a display of the suit he was wearing, the copy of Punch and the slaughtered lion, stuffed. You can’t beat the English upper classes for taste. I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

To add insult to injury some of the Major’s species trophies were named after him, such as monkey colbus (Piliocolobus) powelli and the white rhino, ceratotherium simum cottoni, the very last male of that species was shot dead in 2018. He was 45 years old

Powell-Cotton’s museum boasts over 6,400 specimens and 230 species including

“Families: Anomaluridae, Bathyergidae, Bovidae, Canidae, Cercopithecidae, Cervidae, Cricetidae, Cryeteropodidae, Ctenodactylidae, Elephantidae, Equidae, Felidae, Galagonidae, Giraffidae, Gliridae, Hippopotamidae, Hipposideridae, Hyaenidae, Hystricidae, Leporidae, Lorisidae, Macroscelididae, Manidae, Muridae, Mustelidae, Nycteridae, Ochotonidae, Pedetidae,  Pongidae, Potamogalidae, Procaviidae, Pteropodiae, Rhinocerotidae, Sciuridae, Soricidae, Suidae, Thryonomyidae, Tragulidae, Trichechidae, Ursidae, Vespertilionidae and Viverridae.

Genera: Acinonyx, Addax, Aepyceros, Alcelaphus, Allenopithecus, Ammodorcas, Ammotragus, Anomalurus, Antidorcas, Antilope, Aonyx, Atherurus, Atilax, Bdeogale, Bos, Boselaphas, Bubalus, Canis, Capra, Capricornis, Cephalophus, Ceratotherium, Cercocebus, Cercopithecus, Cervus, Colobus, Connochaetes, Cricetomys, Crocidura, Crocuta, Crossarchus, Cryptomys, Ctenodactylus, Cynictis, Damaliscus, Dendrohyrax, Dicerus, Dorcatragus, Equus, Erythrocebus, Euoticus, Felis, Fennecus, Funisciurus, Galago, Galagoides, Gazella, Genetta, Gerbillus, Giraffa, Gorilla, Graphiurus, Heliosciurus, Helogale, Hemitragus, Herpestes, Heterohyrax, Hippopotamus, Hipposideros, Hippotragus, Hyaena, Hybomys, Hyemoschus, Hylochoerus, Hypsignathus, Hystrix, Ichneumia, Ictonyx, Kobus, Lemniscomys, Lepus, Litocranius, Loxodonta, Lutra, Lycaon, Macaca, Macroscelides, Madoqua, Malacomys, Mandrillus, Manis, Marmota, Mellivora, Melursus, Miopithecus, Moschus, Mungos, Mustela, Myonycteris, Myosciurus, Nandinia, Nemorhaedus, Neotragus, Nycteris, Ochotona, Octocyon, Oenomys, Okapia, Oreotragus, Orycteropus, Oryx, Otolemur, Ourebia, Ovis, Paguma, Pan, Panthera, Pantholops, Papio, Paraxerus, Pedetes, Pelea, Perodiciticus, Petaurista, Phacochoerus, Phacohoerus, Poecilogale, Poiana, Potamogale, Potomocherus, Praomys, Presbytis, Procapra, Procavia, Proteles, Protoxeros, Psammomys, Pseudois, Raphiceros, Redunca, Rupicapra, Scotoecus, Scotophilus, Selenarctos, Sus, Sylvicapra, Syncerus, Tatera, Tetracerus, Thamnomys, Theropithecus, Thryonomys, Tragelaphus, Trichechus, Ursus, Viverrra, Vulpes, Xerus and Zenkerella.

The museum displays some of its animal specimens as dioramas – you know an imaginary landscape populated with stuffed animals shot in their own environments then shipped to England, stuffed and arranged as pretty pictures for people to gawp at.  

If this is your bag you can link to the museum’s FB page here

https://fb.watch/94_Wb-8a1-/

It was written of Powell-Cotton that

“It has remained for Mr. Powell-Cotton to clear up the history of Capra walie by the fine series he has collected of this fast-vanishing form.”

(A Sporting Trip Through Abyssinia, R. Ward, 1902, p 478.)

The Capra walie is an ibex, an endangered ibex. It’s only known wild predator is the hyena (not guilty as charged, m’lud) and humans.

A year or two later Powell-Cotton recalled seeing his ‘ghost’ animals at the watering hole in a  Congo forest – forest elephants, buffalo, antelope, pigs and antelopes and his elation at succeeding in shooting dead two bull elephants and “a fine male buffalo.” On the same expedition, he collected, killed and collected, a large collection of snakes and his wife ‘collected’ about ten thousand butterflies.  

A large elephant prior to being killed by Powell-Cotton – a record elephant taken by a white man – a 198lb tusker

The man revered during his lifetime, whose activities were welcomed by the Natural History Museum in London, boasted of being the first European to kill the Abyssinian ibex, one of which was accepted into the collection of the Natural History Museum.  

At his death tributes were paid to Powell-Cotton: The keeper of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum praised his contribution to zoological science and for being one of the most generous benefactors of the museum’s ethnographical department,

‘Whenever possible he collected duplicate specimens. These, as well as many unique objects, were freely offered to the national collections.”

One of those notable specimens was the heaviest pair of elephant tusks (372lbs) shot by a white man and the tallest elephant to be taken out of Africa. Conservationist or prolific wildlife vandal? You decide.

‘Conserving’ the white rhino

Ref: Bird Conservation International (1995) 5:145-180 The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation J. V. REMSEN, JR.+

Dec 18, 2020

The birdcatcher – Fowlsheugh’s heughman and the queets, the nories and kittyweaks (and brawny women)

The long, unbroken waves with thundering sound

Strike on this mighty cliff incessantly,

Breaking in sprays of snowy foam around,

Flung back by rocks that stand defiantly… *1

Those defiant rocks form the cliffs at Fowlsheugh, a stones throw from Stonehaven in northeast Scotland.

Now an RSPB Scotland nature reserve and site of Special Scientific Interest, Fowlsheugh is home to countless thousands of seabirds arriving annually to breed on its 200 foot cliffs.

Queets, nories and kittyweaks, their names now more familiarly anglicised to guillemots, puffins and kittywakes are an attraction in their own right with people looking for that perfect photograph or just to gaze at the fabulous sight of them all in the breeding season. Changed times. Their popularity used to be as food or ‘sport’ and were regularly ‘catched’ and traded until seabird fowling was banned in 1954.

Seabirds (all wildbirds) had monetary value until protection was brought in. This monetary value either benefitted local communities (mainly on Scotland’s remote islands) or the proprietor of the land where the birds were caught and killed. Popular for their eggs more than their flesh, birds also supplied feathers for pillows and quills but mainly in the Victorian era, hat decorations, as well as oil for lamps and tanning leather.

Fowlsheugh

Fowlsheugh’s laird rented out ‘his’ bird colonies to a local tenant, the heughman for about £2 a season and the heughman (known as craigsman in other areas and in Walter Scott’s Old Mortality – see below) was also obliged to present the laird with a prize specimen of a young hawk. To gather birds the heughman or bird catcher had to descend the cliff face from the top since the heaving waters of the German Ocean beneath the cliffs prevented any sort of ladder being used to climb up. Rather like a modern-day mountaineer abseiling he was lowered by rope – in his case by five or six of his fellow villagers. These weren’t usually brawny blokes but brawny women. A wooden pulley was also used at times to hold the rope clear so prevent it rubbing and wearing through against the sharp rock. With the rope secured about his person, the heughman was slowly lowered – steadying himself by bouncing his feet against the side of the cliff, signalling to those up top to tighten the rope from time to time so he could empty nests of their eggs.

“Are ye mad?” said the mendicant: “Francie o’ Fowlsheugh, and he was the best craigsman that ever speel’d heugh, (mair by token, he brake his neck upon the Dunbuy of Slaines,) wodna hae ventured upon the Halket-head…” *2

The heughsman’s equipment included a large sack or bag, its mouth kept open by an iron ring, attached to a pole of some twenty feet in length. Using the pole to gather eggs into the sack meant he didn’t have to get too close to nests protected by distressed birds and reach into nests deeper into hollows in the cliff. With his sack filled he would be pulled back onto the cliff top to empty his load before descending again. And so his harvesting of the eggs would continue until huge quantities were taken.  

Eggs were often hard boiled straight away, to preserve them. There was a brisk local trade in them so it was rare that they had to be taken any great distance to sell. Sundays, peoples’ only day off, would find many folk from Stonehaven cover the short distance to Fowlsheugh to buy the heughman’s eggs.

Queets (guillemots) tend to lay a single egg but often will lay a replacement if the first is lost. The kitteweak (kittywake) lays two eggs per season. The eggs of the queets and marats (razorbills) were most sought after because their hard shells meant there was less chance of them being damaged while being collected and selling on. The queets sparse nests sit exposed on open rock while nories (puffins) along with marats nest in niches which offer more protection to the egg and young, though not from a 20-foot pole.

A few weeks after that season’s eggs had been collected the heughman would descend once more, this time to gather young chicks hatched from those eggs left on the rocks. Kittyweaks being the most popular for eating. Demand for these little chicks usually outstripped supply and they were often eaten fresh, sold in local markets, with few being preserved by salting and drying in the open air.  

With the coming of autumn came still more harvesting of the cliff’s bird population. This time Fowlsheugh’s heughman was armed with a net to trap birds before they flew off for winter. These older birds were wanted mainly for their feathers, as explained above to decorate women’s hats or stuff cushions.  

This was, still is, the time known as the shooting season. Crowds came by boat, foot and horseback from Aberdeen, Stonehaven and all around to take pot shots at those birds that had escaped the raid on eggs, chicks and adults. Here was another source of income for the heughman who charged a shilling for each gun. All in all he was provided with a fairly decent living by the wild birds of Fowlsheugh. The birds were easy targets, seldom straying far from the rocks and it was reported as many as six birds could be killed by a single shot. Needless to say the raucous cries of the birds during these attacks was tremendous.

The air was dirkit with the fowlis

That cam’ wi yammeris and with youlis,

With shrieking, skreeking, skrymming scowlis,

And meikle noyis and showtees.    *3

Fishing rights to the sea below Fowlsheugh belonged to the crown and there was a huge row in 1897 when leasing rights were leased to private interests for salmon fishing by stake netting because this resulted in wholesale slaughter of seabirds, drowned in the nets. An outcry among the public at the carnage led to an end of the practice.

Many of the seabirds took their food from the sea by diving into it and these birds were scooped up in nets; some were hanged in the mesh and some trapped so they slowly drowned. Thousands of queets were destroyed in this manner, to the horror of those who witnessed it, for it proved impossible for the birds to be freed from the mesh without breaking their wings and legs. There were descriptions of the birds’ eyes – wild and staring from fear as they thrashed about in a desperate struggle to escape the mesh which cut deep into their flesh. This horror was repeated daily during the egg hatching season, meaning the young were left without an adult to protect them and provide them with food and it was feared that within a couple of years Fowlsheugh’s bird population might be wiped out. And all this horror so the crown could profit along this four-mile stretch of water to the tune of £70 per annum. On the back of popular local opinion the crown ceased netting under Fowlsheugh’s cliffs early in the season but the slaughter was just delayed for the start of August brought the shooting season and the coastal birds were again targeted.

Around me and above is noise and strife

Of rocks and waters, birds in upper air,

Turmoil and unrest, grandeur, power, and life

Displayed, commingled, and exerted there. …*1

Life was tough for the coastal folk of Fowlsheugh but so was it a sair fecht for the birds breeding on the cliffs there – and wildlife everywhere in Scotland. In 1850 is was reported that ‘Scotland’s largest and most prized hawks (prized in terms of trophies) were virtually exterminated. The kite, the gyrfalcon (the largest of the falcons often used in falconry) and goshawk had vanished, persecuted to extinction. The only sighting for ten years of a goshawk in Scotland, was in April 1850, and that bird was trapped two weeks later by a gamekeeper at Doune of Rothiemurchus. The protection of birds is more tokenistic than real, even today.

On the coast the heughman’s trade was not only driven by his local country people’s need for food but Victorian museums’ near insatiable demand for egg specimens to display and stuffed birds to exhibit, such was public curiosity and fascination with nature – mainly of the dead kind (not so long ago natural scientists insisted on killing living species as means of properly identifying them, even in the case of the rarest of specimens.)

The fowls of Fowlsheugh and elsewhere or rather the occupation of bird catcher, craigsman and heughman gave rise to the name Fowler or more commonly in these parts, Fowlie. Scotland had a makar (official poet) called Fowler. William Fowler who was a fixer for James VI and in the pay of the English court of Elizabeth for whom he spied, hired by her spymaster, Walsingham, the man who plotted against James VI’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots and the one responsible for her execution. Fowler was rewarded for his services to the crown with a 2,000 acre estate in Ulster. Talk of feathering nests. When he had a minute to himself he wrote poetry.

Covenanter’s stone at Dunnottar cemetery

And to finish on the subject of writers, Walter Scott met the man who would become Old Mortality in the book of that name, Peter Paterson, when he was cleaning the gravestones of Covenanters who died in Dunnottar castle, at the local graveyard so preserving their names and contributions to this religious struggle in Scotland’s past. The two got into conversation and Peter became Robert Paterson in Scott’s tale of political and religious turmoil during that period.

Think we better leave things there.   

*1 At Fowlsheugh near Stonehaven by George Colburn

*2  Old Mortality, Walter Scott

*The Goldyn Targe,William Dunbar

Dec 7, 2020

The Land Beastie Record set in Scotland – but wait…

The pretty coastal town of Stonehaven on Scotland’s northeast coast is home to the oldest known creature to live on land. Or is it?

At only a centimetre in length the beastie, a millipede, created a real rumpus in the world of palaeontology when she or he came to light in 2003. Cocooned within layers of sandstone for about 428 million years the millipede earned fame at long last when amateur palaeologist Mike Newman from Kemnay, not a million miles away from Stonehaven, cracked open a piece of crumbling cliff rock at Stonehaven’s Cowie beach.  

A series of spiracles or air holes along the creature’s body showed that this tiny beast had breathed air and so could live entirely on land and was not partly dependent for survival on water. Up until 2003 land creatures were thought 20 million years younger than the millipede.

We can give the millipede a name – pneumodesmus newman; pneumo meaning breath or air in Greek, desmus meaning millipede and newman meaning the bus driver from Kemnay.

The creature not only had breathing holes for the exchange of gases but long slender legs to run along the land and so was documented as the earliest arthropod with a tracheal (breathing) system.

Skatie shore at Stonehaven

Now rocks are old in Scotland. At Stonehaven, or rather the place that would be appropriately known as Stonehaven, can be found an impressive mixture of rock types because the town lies on the edge of the Highland Fault Line that separates Highland from Lowland Scotland and the conjunction of igneous rocks such as granites produced by molten rock during the earlier years of a volatile earth and eras from where we get sedimentary stone, such as Old Red Sandstone and the mudstone at Skatie shore, which are built up layer by layer. The result is an area enriched by diversity of rock types with stone from one age emerging through breaches in another.  

In young newman the millipede’s day tropical Scotland lay much farther south of where it is now, close to the Equator, part of an area known as Laurentia. Laurentia went on to tear apart  -a fragment incorporated into North America, another travelled north to form Greenland’s land mass and another south east of this to create Scotland. Scotland on the equator was prone to flooding, an attribute Stonehaven carried into the new independent Scottish land mass, and the moist conditions were perfect for the development of life forms – bacteria and possibly viruses, which we are all too familiar with today.

Whatever age newman the millipede is she/he is a youngster in comparison with the age of earth, thought to be in the region of 4.5 billion years old. Much more recently, a mere 2.4 billion years ago,  a series of chemical processes resulted in increased quantities of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere which eventually led to life emerging from the swamps and onto terra firma.  Modern day versions of some of earth’s early wet life such as jellyfish and sea anemones are very visible on Stonehaven’s beaches. Wind the geological clock forward to 540 million years ago when the first animals with backbones emerged – eel-like creatures – and in time critters slipped out of the water and onto the land. Newman’s millipede pretty much had the beach at Stonehaven to her/himself for hundreds of millions of years before humans sauntered onto these shores.

And there the story ends. But wait –

In 2017 a palaeontologist in Texas had the audacity to dispute newman the millipede’s age claiming it to be younger by a whopping 10 million years. The American insisted the oldest found oxygen breathing animal dates from 437 million years ago and is a scorpion from – take a guess — the USA. This rubbishing of newman the millipede’s position in the world has been disputed by other palaeontologists who have poured scorn on the Texan’s claims and say there is no evidence her scorpion ever lived on land. It also emerges that the rock professor from Texas previously raised professionals’ eyebrows with her assertion that earlier generations of palaeontologists all got it wrong over how the Himalayas were formed 55 million years ago.

So, is newman the millipede’s position as the oldest found land living beastie still tenable? I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions folks.

Aug 28, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 23

Boris Johnson was on holiday this week. Don’t know why he thought that was appropriate. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since he comes across as a guy who does virtually no work anyway – getting others to do it for him. He was in Scotland – allegedly, although some people thought he might have posed beside a tent in Scotland then flew off to Greece or vice versa. Who cares. He shouldn’t have been on holiday in the first place during this terrible pandemic. The British prime minister is a man whose moral compass, if he ever possessed one, broke a very long time ago.

See that badger! Domestic crisis last week meant we forgot to take in the bird feeders one night and, of course, by morning the stand inside its very heavy plant pot lay on their sides. The peanut feeder was later found empty and abandoned elsewhere in the garden – a virtually full container of nuts having gone down the badger’s or badgers’ gullet(s.) Both stand and pot were tumbled again the following night by Brutus the Badger but as no feeders had been left on it there would have been disappointment at Tubby Badger Set that night. Angry words have been targeted at the badger.

Last time I was wondering if the house martins, swallows and swifts flew south as early as August because ours seemed to have scarpered. Someone got in touch to confirm they did.  Days later we spotted about 30 – 40 swallows, swifts, martins strung out along power lines near us. A fine sight. As for our own martins they do seem to have abandoned their Scottish homes until next year but we still see a number take to the skies in the evenings.

We’ve missed out pheasants. Not so long ago lots were coming across to the garden to feed but then they all disappeared apart from an odd sighting. One day this week a scruffy young male with a bad leg turned up. He fairly hirples, poor thing. At least there’s plenty for him to eat once he makes it here from wherever he’s from.   

The woodpeckers have also returned. They are such handsome birds we get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing them. And there’s been a magpie. At one time magpies were breeding close-by and were frequently stopping off in the garden. We’ve even had on occasions a brown and white one but all vanished until I noticed a single one under the bark-peeling acer earlier this week.

Weather has taken a turn for the worse. We in northeast Scotland have enjoyed a lovely summer with lots of bright sunny and warm days and the recent cloudy skies and cool temperatures are disappointing but at least we haven’t experienced the torrential rain that is constant in many parts of the west of Scotland. Don’t go off with the impression it hasn’t rained for we’ve had some downpours but not joined together like western areas get them. With the onset of cooler conditions comes the impression of autumn’s approach – aided and abetted by summer flowers fading and dropping off. Gardening has altered with the weather and back-end of summer so that lots and lots of industrial levels of pruning are happening – in most cases not carried out by me but my trusty husband.

Still going strong is the chard crop. One of the most reliable, tasty and easy vegetables to grow it’s used just about every day by us, one way or another. Until recently ours escaped the unwanted attentions of snails and slugs but our mollusc fellow-gardeners are now chomping their way through our crop. They’ve been warned so they know the consequences of their actions. Broad beans are a welcome addition to home-grown produce as well. We don’t have many plants this year so the freezer won’t be packed with them but we do appreciate those that we have.  Broad beans are one of the most undervalued of vegetables.

The last of the gooseberries have been picked but there are still blackcurrants unbelievably. They are bigger than ever now, presumably having had longer to mature. We must have collected around 3 tons so far.

Last year was a poor one for apples with us – the previous year having produced big crops. This year is another bumper one but several branches on our trees are collapsing under the weight of fruit. What we need are clothes line stretchers to hoist them back up and keep them from breaking entirely. Husband heavily pruned a cooker, Lane’s Prince Albert, which produces muckle-sized delicious apples. The tree grows at a fearful rate and so he topped it but several young apples came off during the operation. Made an apple tart with one or two which has lasted us four days. A slice with a side helping of coconut yogurt or Swedish glace vanilla ice cream is just what the doctor ordered (my husband being a doctor – of the philosophy kind.)

It was my turn for chairing the family virtual quiz so I selected questions for their quirkiness and stuff Scottish. Most were difficult, I admit. Far too difficult for me were it not for having benefit of the answers. All that said our grandson won by a huge margin so he is officially hailed as a genius in addition to being extremely handsome and charming.

Dark – what can I say?  It is extraordinary how it demands total concentration so that it is virtually impossible to divert eyes from the screen while watching it. Characters come and go, the same characters over different periods of time, with most managing to pick up scratches and smudges on their faces as they travel between the 2050s and the 1880s. If you have access to Netflix watch it.

Bedtime reading is currently Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It is a fascinating look at how our brains respond to events, questions etc through initial responses to slower more in-depth consideration. It’s written with humour and is crammed with examples for readers to try for themselves – raising a smile and some head scratching. Here’s an example of some of the exercises:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Scroll to the end for the answer. Oh, this is the end. Most people immediately answer 10c.  Before thinking about it more closely. The answer is 5c. Another nice one consists of two words –

banana     –      vomit.

But I’ll leave that one there.

Stay safe.

Aug 20, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 22

During week 22 of Covid isolation not a lot happened – other than chaos erupting over exam grades across each of the four nations of the UK.

Ruth Davidson in place as the Scottish (sic) Tories interim leader because their last one, some car dealer bloke, was so peeing bad at the job even the Tories couldn’t stomach him. Talking of stomachs they seem to think Ms Davidson would be somewhat better. She sure can pull a sulky face better than the guy unceremoniously shoved aside in a move Stalin would have been proud to pull off. This week the queen of stunts regal procession shuddered to an inglorious halt when confronting the queen of put-downs. She was given her erse to play with, as we say in Scotland, following an attack on the Education Minister,

“They deserved new leadership in education and John Swinney cannot deliver it, why won’t the First Minister see that?” said Ms Davidson.

To which Nicola Sturgeon retorted, “I’m not sure loyalty to colleagues is a strong suit for Ruth Davidson.”

Davidson who has an unfortunate habit of opening and shutting her mouth throughout replies to her questions giving a misleading impression she is saying anything of consequence while impersonating a drowning fish continued to goad the FM who responded that on the day everyone’s thoughts were on a terrible and tragic train accident (everyone’s except the queen of stunts) she was on her own in pushing constitutional differences.

And Sturgeon continued,

“Just in a few months I will submit myself and my government to the verdict of the Scottish people in an election. That is the ultimate accountability for our record and our leadership. And as we do that, Ruth Davidson will be pulling on her ermine and going to the unelected House of Lords. Can I gently suggest to Ruth Davidson that if it comes to holding to account and scrutinising politicians, she’s really not coming at this from a position of strength. It is not me that is running away from democratic responsibility.”

As put-downs go it was brutal although oddly, that organ of honest journalism, the Daily Express interpreted the gutting and barbecuing of Davidson as her ridiculing the FM.

Badger battles continue with one stand of nuts and seeds having to be taken inside overnight because the badger makes off with the lot. One evening we put on the outside light at the back of the house and were able to watch a huge, and I mean huge, badger attempt to scale the heights of a wooden pole with its bounty of fat balls. The pole was too narrow for Brock and she/he returned to the stand that normally contains nuts and seeds, ignored the tray that sits below to catch seeds dropped by birds during the day and scuttled off to try out other feeding stations in the garden. The sheer bulk of the badger is what you get when you guzzle whole containers of peanuts. Mind you, watching the beastie search in vain for the peanuts tugged at our heart-strings and next evening when taking in the feeders we left some peanuts for her or him. And they were gone by morning. Nice compromise.

New kettle bought this week. We have an unfortunate history with kettles in this house. For some reason they break down far too frequently. A few years back we bought a whistling kettle for the top of the stove. It is a work of art but takes 6- 7 minutes to boil which is fine except when there are visitors and coffee and tea need topping up fast. Anyway, when our last electric kettle left this mortal coil – a pity as it was the exact colour of our painted cupboards – we reverted to smart stove kettle. There’s hardly been a soul crossing the threshold since March so what difference did it make? Not much. The whistle was rarely attached because if I thought the nagging sound of the tumble drier having completed its cycle was annoying (it is) it is nothing on the shrill whistle of a steaming kettle. So the whistle tends to get set aside. All well and good until forgetful me went off on my daily jaunt one day and straight into the garden for a spot of weeding and pruning, eventually wandering into the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of tea to discover there was just enough water left in it to stop it melting all over the stove. Straight online and a spanking new electric kettle arrived within days. It isn’t as bonny as the whistling kettle but it’s a helluva lot quieter and does that remarkable thing of switching itself off – safer for forgetful dopes like moi. Oh, it takes 2 minutes to boil. Not that that’s here nor there but maybe one day.

House martins and swallows and swifts appeared in their vast numbers this week like flying dervishes across our evening skies. Usually they pop in and out whenever we walk past the side of the house where their nest is but over the last few days they’ve been visibly absent. What did those great numbers – between 30 and 50 I’d say but it’s impossible to count martins and their cousins while flying – signify? They couldn’t all be ours despite their semi-detached houses and obviously having had a very successful breeding season but then to be no sign of them at all. Had they flown south already? Didn’t seem likely but where had they gone? Nowhere it turns out. Unless some have flown off and left a late brood there are martins still in residence it transpires. And for all you folk stopping martins from sharing your home – there still is no mess after months living with us. And that is always our experience despite having neighbours insisting they make a real mess – neighbours who don’t have any birds. Isn’t it always the way with folk who are so certain in their opinions who have no experience of what they’re talking about?

A powerful thunder storm one morning resulted in a tragic rail accident that has shocked the majority of folk in the northeast. Also shocking has been the irresponsible and hugely offensive sensationalising of it and disgraceful treatment of affected families by The Sun newspaper. It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to work for such a disreputable and offensive organ. But it takes all sorts and they must think it’s perfectly alright or else they would go off and take up alternative jobs.

Aberdeen experienced very dramatic flooding but oddly our son who stays in one of the worst affected areas was oblivious to the drama unfolding outside his window.

The young buzzard has been back out practising her/his call and showing off his/her flying abilities again. A small bird compared with fully grown buzzards and the voice hasn’t yet broken. Unless it’s a soprano.

Another week another virtual quiz controversy. Which pasta means little worms? Well, of course, it’s vermicelli and I had that smug feeling of being assured of one point, at last. Then our beautiful quizzer announced the answer to be linguine. Linguine? What alternative universe do our young people inhabit? Always best to create a fuss in such circumstances and vermicelli was accepted as correct. Didn’t make any difference to the final score. I still lost. Oh, and how many times must I be asked the collective noun for giraffes before remembering it is a tower? Quite a number, I suspect.

My snail banishment scheme appears to be paying off. Numbers definitely down in the garden but too late for the variegated hosta at the front. A poor specimen now riddled with holes and only the energy to send up one pathetic flower head. The angel’s fishing rods in a pot are looking splendid. Love the way they grow into the shape of a 1970s fiber optic lamp. The little pot acer is also looking healthy. The label says it grows about 8 feet by 13 feet. And that, folks, is why we are growing it in a pot.

For years we filled our medium-sized garden with BIG dramatic-looking plants. Off to the plant nursery. Oh look, a big and dramatic looking plant. And so it (they) would come home with us and now we live inside a forest. I once counted our trees and the total came to a staggering forty plus and that excludes tall rhododendrons, azaleas and other large shrubs. This year the gunnera has decided to take off like a rocket. That’ll be down to the mild winters we’ve been having. On the veg front gherkins have been brilliant. Eating them fresh and not pickling so struggling to keep up with their output. They tend to weigh down the fragile plants if not picked early hence supporting them against the greenhouse where we can. Remember the snails ate most of our runner bean flowers? Well today I’m harvesting the single bean from one of the plants! To be shared between two. There are a few more plants but I’m not raising my hopes too high – as this year’s school pupils have been saying. Our fig was really hacked back a few months ago so removing most of the summer crop. Today I picked a little ripe one that escaped the purge. A few more have outwitted the secateurs and wood saw and there’s time for them to ripen.

Finished watching Ozark on Netflix. Brats will be brats. Criminals will be criminals and lawyers will get their just deserts. Or do they? I’d have written it differently.

What to watch now? We checked newspaper and website suggestions. A German Netflix series Dark was thrown up. It requires total concentration. No time to check out twitter with having to read super-quick subtitles and try to keep up with generations of characters. Science fiction is not really my thing and the first episode bored me. By the end of episode two I thought I’d stay with it for one more. By episode 4 I was hooked.

What’s the first thing you do when returning to your house after dark? You open the door and switch on a light. It’s not difficult. So why oh why do authors and film directors present us with that trope of about-to-be victim walking into her house and wandering through it in the dark? Not since the 1930s, folks. Not since the 1930s. Or earlier has it been a thing to enter your house in the dark. The same applies to scary forests. If you lived in a village with a reputation for young residents going missing in the local forest the last thing you’d think of doing is walking in the said forest – alone – in the dark. It’s a relatively simple to equate being alone in a spooky dark forest where folk disappear with it being perilous. But wait! Not only walking the forest, alone, in the dark but entering the caves in the forest.  Oh no! Not the caves! You’d think it but there they go time and time again. Winden ought to have a signpost signalling WINDEN – SLOW – LEARNERS.

Didn’t have a novel I could decide on for bedtime reading so pored over a couple of thin volumes of poetry by Apollinaire and Hans Enzenberger. I don’t know. Some of the arrangements of words by Apollinaire were novel but my sensitivity to some poetry has been irreversibly damaged by reading too many crime novels. Got a flea in my ear from husband for my flippancy over Enzenberger especially – and to be honest I didn’t give his poetry more than a passing glance so I looked him up and he’s still alive – in his nineties. And he comes from my favourite part of Germany, Bavaria, and was born in little town also the birthplace of Hans Liebherr. Hans was a mason who invented the mobile tower crane. That’s impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they can be seen tootling about the country all the time. But even more exciting for me is that Liebherr make fridges and we have one – it’s huge and fabulous.

A verse from Enzenberger’s poem, Portrait of a House Detective

He’s twenty-nine,
Idealistic,
Sleeps badly and alone
with pamphlets and blackheads,
hates the boss and the supermarket,
communists, women,
landlords, himself
and his bitten fingernails
full of margarine (because
it’s so delicious), under
his arty hairstyle mutters
to himself like a pensioner.

Decided to try an e-book from the local library via the internet. Didn’t like the library’s website which tends to throw up a lot of rubbish and abandoned the first one I borrowed but this one which I won’t name because although I began liking it, have gone off it. It’s a first novel and a bit over-written, too lush with the adjectives. Ordered something recommended to me on how we think from Amazon, It’s an actual book. Hopefully that’ll be more engaging.

Stay safe.

Aug 6, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 20

I’m writing this account of week 20 on Wednesday, the first day of week 21 hours after news that Aberdeen will go back into lockdown because of growing cases of Covid-19. Thank you, whoever you are. 

Easing lockdown, an inevitable part of moving on, before a vaccine becomes available was always going to be risky. Just how risky was/is dependent on people being sensible and considerate. Those are two qualities not usually associated with boozing.

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It’s not a blame game, our government insists. Oh really? Why not? The majority of folk are not playing Russian roulette with the lives of people they know and don’t know. But some just wanna have fun. So, I know who I blame for this present state of affairs and it isn’t the mask-wearing keeping social-distance thoughtful folk it’s the me, me, me I’m entitled to play around like there’s no risk type of heid banger.

We were in Aberdeen yesterday meeting up with our son who lives very close to the Hawthorn Bar the origin, apparently, of this spike in cases. Across the other side of town our daughter has just returned to work from furlough. Her employer has spent time and money organising things to make it as safe as possible for everyone. Then Covid walks in the door, apparently linked to the bar outbreak, and everything and everyone are thrown into confusion, some into a 14-day quarantine and others hoping they aren’t carrying Covid back into their homes, endangering family members.

This is a reminder that danger lurks and we should be vigilant and responsible in protecting ourselves and others. Of course, not everyone agrees. Twitter is full of crazies and weirdos ranting on about dictators and folk choking on their masks. Okay, many are spammers from goodness knows where but many, far too many, are the mad, bad and sad who spread nonsense because of the thrill it provides them with and satisfies their craving for attention.

Back in week 20 I eventually made contact with an old friend – very old friend – we were fifteen when we met so it wasn’t yesterday. I was concerned because he’s usually active on social media then wasn’t. Eventually we spoke to one another and it transpired he had been ill and in hospital. It is not a good time to be ill, especially when you’re no longer fifteen, so wishing a man who was a hugely talented writer in his time, well.

The pair of lovely yellowhammers still entertain us on our regular walk. Can’t say we’ve missed the raucous call of our pheasants lately but their disappearance is troubling since there are folk who prefer their pheasants served on a plate. We’ve had a number of bird casualties in recent week with them flying against windows. Some survive but others quickly expire. We have things dangling inside several windows in an attempt to deter them but with so many birds in the garden I suppose it’s inevitable that some will fall victim to seeing reflections in glass windows as part of the great outdoors. To try to limit our aves deaths my husband purchased an owl. Not an actual owl but a larger than life version with a head that moves with the wind, allegedly, and eyes that gleam in the dark, allegedly. It perches on a table on the balcony in front of a very large window and so far since it’s been on the job we haven’t picked up any dead birds from there.

Blackcurrants are still coming and, yikes, so are the gooseberries. We have different ones – why do we grow so many? Seemed a good idea years ago. Yellow-green ones, really big yellowy-green ones and red ones. They are all best eaten straight off the bush along with handfuls of plump blackcurrants and deliciously sweet raspberries. On the subject of raspberries I’ve noticed how heavy this year’s crops of wild rasps along the verges are and as usual few seem to attract birds. Could it be they don’t relish chewing through all that flesh to get to the tiny seeds? We, on the other hand, love the flesh but aren’t too fond of raspberry seeds.

Our cat’s been fine this week aside from his dodgy eye. I’ve been applying those expensive eye drops for weeks but suspecting they weren’t doing him much good and wondering it they were actually exacerbating the problem I stopped them for a week. The eye then looked a little better until it didn’t once more and so back to the drops. He wanders around doing an impression of Nelson. Without the telescope.

The blue salvias still haven’t fully opened. Is there a lazier plant in the whole of the world? Beginning to think it’s down to the variety. The blue that’s showing is vibrant only there’s not much of it. Will keep you informed.

Watched the film Knives Out. Boring. Daniel Craig is miscast as an American. On the other hand started watching season 2 of Ozark. It’s just okay and not a patch on Bordertown but I have to say that the excellent Peter Mullan’s American drawl is way better than Daniel Craig’s insipid-nothing-like-any-American-I’ve-ever-heard accent. W-a-a-y better.

Some of you will remember we passed hundreds of our books to charity shops before  lockdown so I’m struggling for reading because so much of what’s left is fairly heavyweight or I’ve read them. This week I picked up one of the slimmest volumes I could find, as good a ways of selecting a book as any. Death Pays a Dividend (would make a good thriller title) is a book about government cronies and arms dealers making a mint out of wars. It was published in 1944 and written by Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally. Brockway was a prominent voice in socialist politics through the twentieth century – a member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and vehemently anti-war and the fraud that always accompanies wars. Mullally was a journalist and novelist.

In essence the book can be summed up as – politicians lie. World War I was going to be the war to end all wars – one helluva big lie. At the end of the war a new era of permanent peace was promised. Absolute lie. Politicians promised troops would come home (the lucky ones) to find homes for heroes; not the slums they were forced to live in before being marched off to the trenches. Of course, that was also largely a lie.  No sooner was the armistice signed that the promised and pledges were quietly shelved (exactly comparable to all those empty promises made to Scots if they rejected independence in the 2014 referendum- a pack of lies.)

Wind back a century and when it was asked if the horrific level of deaths among those drafted in to fight the imperialist Great War were sacrificed in vain – the answer came back from government and their arms dealer cronies “No, we won the war.” “No, we won the war” and onto the next one.  Pass the port and cigars.

They did not have to wait long for the next world war – a mere twenty years. In between were lots of lucrative wars. War is good for business. Much too good for business ever to stop them. At my last count there were around 60 major manufacturers linked to weaponry and arms in the UK and that does not include parts manufacturers. That’s about half the number of a few years ago and worldwide the numbers are immense. What is not great news for the majority of the world’s citizens is very much what the doctor ordered for Directors and Boards of all of these businesses which are defended by trade unions on grounds of the jobs they create. If that’s the sole argument for being involved in producing weapons that kill mainly civilians across the world then it’s corrupt and union leaders as well as the management of such businesses should be thoroughly ashamed. Not that they ever will be.

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Brockway and Mullally feature a certain Harry McGowan to the extent I became intrigued and wanted to find out more about Lord McGowan. He sounded a charmer. Not. I wikied him. He was a British industrialist (one name for it) and Knight of the British Empire. Don’t know where he was born, suspect Scotland for his name is half Scottish and he went to school and university in Scotland. The man who went on to become Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was proud to sell his company’s weapons to anyone and everyone; ally or foe. His focus was purely financial. Interesting isn’t it that such a man who some would and did accuse of being anti-patriotic for supplying the very arms that killed British and allied soldiers received a knighthood. How immoral is that?

A Royal Commission on the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms of 1935 quotes McGowan, then Chairman of ICI  –

“I have no objection to selling to both sides. I am not a purist in these things.”

Rapacious, unscrupulous, despicable. Such is the morality, immorality, of people who typically pack the red benches in the House of Lords. Business types who judge success solely on extent of wealth. During WW2 British companies were selling arms manufactured by British workers to Japan to be used against British and allied troops, a detail which inspired this question –

 “The British Government has recently re-opened the Burma Road so that war material can reach the Chinese armies. What is the use of doing this if British industry is producing war material for the Japanese army?”

I don’t have the response but I suppose there’s a nice symmetry to such practice. And presumably the trade unions didn’t raise objections to British and Allied men and women becoming victims of British arms on the usual grounds that you can’t turn your nose up at jobs. It’s how they justify Trident being retained in Scotland.

 “Between 1931 and 1936 the value of Vickers (arms manufacturer) stock rose by £19,704,000.”

Lord McGowan was instrumental in establishing the German chemical industry after WWI through company amalgamations including ICI. There’s a fair amount of detail on the wheeling and dealing in the book.

Finally, back to Scotland where we are used to being denigrated and treated with not a little contempt within the union. The authors explain that in 1939 a question was asked in the House of Commons about anti-aircraft provision in Scotland (on the verge of WW2) and the reply ran along the lines of – it’s all hunky dory. When pushed for detail it transpired there were two anti-aircraft units for the whole of Scotland… that Glasgow was eventually issued with one barrage balloon (lent by London) but when London MPs demanded they get their balloon back it was admitted the Glasgow balloon was a dud.

A scandal. Yes, “there is a tremendous amount of fraud and swindling… the government is either impotent or quiescent…”  Sounds all too familiar.

Stay safe 

Jul 30, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 19.

Nineteen weeks in chokey and it doesn’t seem a day too long. I get the feeling I’ve said something like this before. I realise it’s been easy for us. We’re used to being self-sufficient and let’s face it we’re both happy with our own company – or as some might express it – we’re anti-social. As that well-known Aberdeen salutation/godspeed goes – “Happy to meet, sorry to part but not too sorry – Bon Accord.” Well, that’s the version popular in our hoose.

19 mix 2

We did break lockdown to visit ‘the young folk’ in Stonehaven as the wee one was having a birthday. He’s the nearest human contact we’ve had in 19 weeks – and very pleasant it was too. Of course this visit required a run over the bypass – a good outing for the car which is also in relative lockdown and it was a pleasure for us seeing parts of Aberdeenshire and Kincardine we haven’t seen for a bit. Still bonny.

I nearly forgot. On our way to the bypass, round about Mason Lodge I think, we drove past a field with a tall stone dyke and looking over the dyke was a coo (cow.) As the dyke was pretty high only the coo’s heid (head) could be seen; a bonny cream beastie. There were folk walking by and the coo’s heid followed them, watched them come, pass and move away. It turned to follow their movement and eyed them up and down. It reminded me of my late Aunty Isabel who we used to take for treatment to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. During the inevitable waits for and between treatment, Isabel (in her nineties) would inspect fellow patients walking by – eyeing them and the often weird clobber they wore or their hair styles and colours and half turn to me with a knowing nod and trace of a smile. I should add at this point that Isabel was complimented on her own appearance by a man at the hospital – totally out of the blue he remarked, maybe a bit uncalled for and personal but, along the lines of that’s a beautiful outfit you’re wearing. She did have an eye for quality – and mutton dressed up as lamb, as she might have thought but never said. I miss that shared look and smile that wasn’t meant unkindly but spoke volumes, none-the-less.  

This week I phoned my optician to place on record I’d phoned early in March to report my two new pairs of varifocals made the world spin so much I relegated them to the top of the desk in anticipation of returning them once the lurgy passed. Back in March it looked like that was a real possibility. Oh the innocence of early lockdown. The opticians isn’t back to full operation but said they would be happy to see me given that I’ve been using the old prescription specs. It was very good of them but apart from being willing to hand over the useless pair I wasn’t keen on submitting myself to face-to-face interaction in a closed space and said I’d get back in touch in a couple of months. A couple of months! Where will we be in a couple of months apart from bowling downhill towards winter?

More blackcurrants have gone into the freezer. And still they come. They are handy and most mornings a handful of blackcurrants or other fruit but mainly blackcurrants because we have tons of them is added to our breakfast porridge or cereal. Unfortunately, one morning this week husband announced there weren’t any in the fridge. Not possible. With an exasperated sigh I found the plastic container with its dark red contents in the fridge but when I opened it instead of blackcurrants found cooked aduki beans! I had somehow managed the night before to pick up the blackcurrants and put them into the freezer instead of the beans. I love aduki beans but am holding fire on trying them as a breakfast topping. You never know. Nah, I think we do.

19 mix

Our sweet old cat was ill this week. As he’s getting on, about 112 in human equivalent years, we were preparing ourselves for the worst. Not that you ever are prepared. Next day he was as right as rain and our daughter suggested he might have been suffering from heatstroke. It has been hot and as soon as the sun’s up he’s out to laze under an apple tree or baking in his straw-packed kennel beside the greenhouse. I think I mentioned before that he loves a picnic so doesn’t even come in for grub until evening on the nicest of days.  

 We have a linnet in the garden. Fairly certain that’s what it is. Are they simple? This bird brain can’t find its way to the many sources of bird food we have scattered and dangling. Hope it hangs around. Lovely wee thing. Our house martins are still in residence high up on the gable. See them when we’re round that part of the house and every evening out of the sittingroom window we admire them darting through the air grazing on airborne insects. 

Yesterday I crossed paths with a tiny brown frog yesterday while walking. Thought it was a leaf blowing across the road but then the leaf began hopping and stopped for a moment for me to admire it before hopping off into the grass. A speckled brown butterfly occupied the same spot on my way back. Do frogs turn into butterflies? No? Are you certain of that?

Our blue salvias flowers are taking geological time to open. First saw the plant in a park somewhere in Germany. Can’t recall where but they were massed together and looked fabulous. We have only one or two plants and I suspect winter will be upon us before they fully open. Talking of blue – the wild chicory has been blooming for a good while now in the verges. It’s very pretty and one year I made the mistake of introducing seed into our garden. We are still trying to get rid of plants that spread like wildfire. Every year more spring up. Bloody stuff.

And on the subject of garden pests, although ones we are quite fond of – the badgers are still at it. The heavy pot and bird feeder stand goes over night after night. Now along with the peanuts having to be brought in overnight so, too, is the seed feeder for they pull it to pieces searching for seed. Not that there’s any left by the end of the day. 

The latest trend in lost jobs continues to pick up pace. Three out of five of one arm of our family have recently been made redundant. As they are anything but alone finding work is going to be a nightmare for them. And the knock-on consequences very serious.

It’s a while since I finished reading Ethel Mannin’s series of essays Brief Voices. It covers very many topics; far too many to comment on here so one or two points only. Mannin flirted with Buddhism but was hugely critical of Buddhists in Burma where her writings were banned as a result. She criticised their cruelty and claims of being against killing animals while happily consuming them on grounds they didn’t personally kill them – e.g. fishermen don’t kill fish only take them out of water – where they die, it was the servant who bought meat at market so nothing to do with them eating what was prepared while butchers who definitely did kill animals were, at this time, despised – yet not the meat they produced.

She was very much a woman of her time and class. Despite her radical political views – she was a member of the Communist Party for a time – Mannin was, nonetheless, a bit of a snob and was intolerant of things she didn’t understand or care to understand. She didn’t have much sympathy for aspects of working class lives and positively railed against Teddy Boys and the rock and roll generation (slack-jawed and joyless she described young people), beats and Angry Young Men literature. She thought the ‘atomic generation’ brought up on violent films would become inured to death. How wrong. The protests of the 1960s were just around the corner. Interesting and complex woman, nonetheless. I will look for more of her works in future.

 Stay safe.

 

Apr 27, 2019

Oh look there’s a creepy guy in camouflage breeks with a mighty big weapon picking on a little unarmed roe deer

Good mixed shooting was once the boast of Aberdeenshire – perhaps it still is – bagging pheasant, partridge, woodcock, snipe, mallard, golden eye, pochard, tufted duck, ring-dove, brown hare, rabbit, curlew, golden plover, green plover, dunlin, little stint, purple sandpiper, turnstone, redshank, moorhen, water rail and coot were given as examples of the sheer variety of species taken on a typical shoot in an article in the Aberdeen and District British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1934. Several of those birds mentioned are now struggling for survival.

Over millennia changing climate patterns in association with human interference have led to the disappearance of Scotland’s elk, the extinction of the auroch, an ox (Bos primigenius) which looked similar to our Highland cattle, lynx, arctic fox, bear and wolf as human habitation encroached on habitats and animals regarded as dangerous or simply fair game were hunted to extinction.  Wolves, greatly feared by folk in the countryside and probably with good reason, found a source of meat fairly easy to access were human corpses which drove some communities to bury their dead offshore if an island was handy. Obviously eating already dead people was preferable to attacking the living and not unlike human practices of picking up bits of animal corpses from butchers and supermarkets though without producing payment, of course. In 1427 a law was introduced in Scotland for three annual wolf hunts during spring and summer to help control/wipe out the creatures at a time that would be most effective – when they were producing and nursing young.

Several claims exist over when and where Scotland’s last wolf was slain. One killed at Kirkmichael in Banffshire in 1644 was certainly not it. Another last wolf turned up in Moray in the middle of the 18th century and that might have been the sole survivor till then but it’s likely the odd one hung on after this.

Capercaillie

There were herds of little wild horses roaming Aberdeenshire’s forests into the 16th century. Evidence found at Birse suggested they were likely crosses with domestic horse – similar to the state of our wildcats. How many true wildcats remain is open to speculation but surely scant few. As with practically every other species these lovely creatures have suffered vicious persecution by farmers, gamekeepers, estate workers and the usual suspects that take potshots at anything that moves. It is said the last wildcat on Donside was killed at Alford in 1862 and on Deeside at Glentanar in 1875 but it’s possible they weren’t all wiped out or that some migrated to the area, perhaps from Speyside, for there have been sightings of what may be the wildcat in more recent years.

Gamekeepers have earned a bad reputation as exterminators of wildlife – with good cause. We are all familiar with the curious coincidences of our raptors meeting their deaths over shooting estates while the courts continue to treat such crimes as minor, failing to impose deterrent sentences on those found guilty of illegal killings.

While about the worst that happens to an estate employee convicted of illegal killings is exposure in the press for a day or two life was once far more comfortable for them. Dealing with vermin aka wildlife was part of the job. In 1863-4 a single Donside estate keeper killed 30 polecats. Thirty years later it was extinct in the area. Pine martens were likewise persecuted and are now protected because of their scarcity. There are pine martens around today, including in Ross-shire but they aren’t common.

Outrage over the vast numbers of mountain hares being shot on sporting estates has been met with insistence from estate interests that there are plenty stocks of hares. That they cannot come up with reliable figures for their claims is worrying but not surprising. That Scottish government ministers consort with sporting interests is also worrying but not surprising.

The encroachment of human habitation and agriculture, the drainage of muirs and removal of large tracts of ancient forests force out birds and animals dependent on those habitats.  Vestiges of the old Caledonian forests can be found at Glentanar, Ballochbuie, Deeside and Speyside but what remains is a mere trace of the woodlands that once provided areas of safety and food for our wildlife pushing them upland to less suitable territory which lack food and reduce the chance of survival.  

The red squirrel has become a great focus for protection to the extent that its grey cousins are eradicated by local authorities around the country – the same local authorities who removed trees used by red squirrels so reducing their chances of survival. However, it isn’t so long ago the red squirrel had the same reputation as the grey and was regarded as a pest – rats with long bushy tails and a popular target for the pot-shotter. On the subject of rats the black rat notorious for spreading the plague in the early middle ages having arrived on ships from the East was in time ousted by the common brown rat another immigrant, this time from Asia in the 18th century.

Rats have proven themselves pretty damn indestructible although many people wish they weren’t. It’s interesting that there aren’t tweedy types who go on rat shoots on a Sunday afternoon but choose something a whole lot prettier and a whole lot less capable of escaping their shotguns.

The capercaillie is/was fairly spectacular with its dramatic plumage provided welcome variety in rural parts of Scotland but they have all but gone. The menace of an armed idiot has all but wiped them out.  Indeed they succeeded in the 18th century for the capercaillie vanished around 1760 and was reintroduced from Sweden in 1837. By the 1960s these large birds were numerous again and said to be common. I saw one once – in the 1970s near the Cairn o’ Mount. It might have been one of the last ones in the area for they sure aren’t common now. Their future here is on a very shoogly peg.

The extension of farming, grazing sheep and cattle and the prevalence of mono-culture grouse estates that treated every other animal and bird as vermin have been instrumental in stripping away so much of Scotland’s native wild species. We are all too well aware of the targeting of birds of prey over these areas with lots of tall tales circulating about the extent of lamb predation and insistence that high numbers of disappearing raptors over sporting estates is purely coincidental. Rambling types around Alford are only too familiar with aggressive heavies employed on Aberdeenshire estates, other similarly run estates are available, – same gun-toting, shooting jacketed gamies. Ordinary folk out to enjoy the freedom to roam in their own country are most definitely dissuaded from doing just that by these bullies and heaven help any wildlife straying over their property.

I’ve written before about the insatiable desire of types who crave to destroy life. My mother used to tell of fox cubs being bred near Dingwall which were transported down to England and released for fox hunting there – putting to bed the myth that the hunt was to eliminate local vermin. Another myth is that hobby shooters eat or sell to butchers and hotels what they kill. Regulations have all but stopped the hotel trade and huge numbers of birds and animals killed for the sheer hell of it are either dumped or buried.

Rabbits – they are everywhere, mostly dead on our roads, were imported from southeast Europe. In Aberdeen they were first released at the links near Donmouth. Another import this time from Asia is the exotic-looking pheasant. It proved so popular they were shot out of existence and had to be reintroduced

Some creatures turned up accidentally on these shores such as the tropical loggerhead turtle that was picked up in salmon nets at Pennan in 1861. It never made it home, somewhere equally dangerous but farther south, and numbers are now dwindling.  The purple heron that flew to Donmouth in 1872 never made it home either to southern Europe, Africa or Asia but was inevitably shot. A glossy ibis discovered at Fraserburgh was so strikingly beautiful it was also shot. It along with an American killdeer plover, which doesn’t kill deer but got its name from its call, ended their days as curiosities in Aberdeen University’s Natural History Museum – post execution.

Nowadays our Scottish golden eagles are pretty rare and exotic. In the ten years between 1776 and 1786 seventy of them were killed in five Deeside parishes alone, severely affecting their numbers. As for the white-tailed eagle, Scotland’s largest bird of prey, it was once numerous but determined persecution of the bird resulted in its extinction in the 20th century. It is being reintroduced, to the chagrin of some farmers.   Another recently reintroduced species is the red kite which has become a  fairly familiar sight over Donside and once more around Conon Bridge following a disgraceful episode in 2015 when a large number of raptors including kites were killed, many poisoned, around there. A couple of weeks ago I was thrilled to watch six of them soar over Strathpeffer. Meanwhile those criminals responsible for targeting them are keeping a low profile. The species once so common around Scotland were all killed off by the end of the 19th century. Peregrine falcons and ravens were all once very common and hen harriers, too, eventually succumbing to shooting and trapping.

It is not only large birds of prey which have fallen victim to the determined farmer, gamekeeper and the odd brainless wonder. Smaller birds have suffered from being labelled as farm pests. In 1930, Aberdeen County Council was responsible for the deaths of vast numbers of them including: 65,000 rooks, 3,563 eggs and 601 nests; 7,442 wood pigeons, plus eggs and nests; 1,992 house sparrows and 704 eggs; 1,108 starlings; 897 gulls and eggs along with 1,500 brown hares and everyone’s favourite – although not Aberdeen County Council’s evidently – 175 red squirrels.

Britain’s biggest rookery was at Hatton Castle near Turriff where some 6,000 nests were counted in old beech trees and coniferous plantations during the 1960s. Each year around 10,000 of them were shot by local farmers. In the 1960s the curlew, lapwings, skylarks were very common and winter visitor, the snow bunting. I still see the odd one but not flocks. I spotted a curlew recently near Kemnay but those I used to see near Alford have disappeared. There’s a skylark hereabouts. Singular.

 Before 1850 the starling was a non-breeding migrant in Aberdeenshire, one of our rare visitors. It liked what it saw in beautiful Aberdeenshire and stayed – actually because the spread of land cultivation inadvertently provided food for starlings such as daddy long legs and grass beetles which meant they did well and so their numbers increased to the extent that within a decade it was classified as a pest. Their numbers have since declined greatly with modern methods of farming. Our farmers plough right up to fences and dykes leaving virtually no green areas to provide habitat and food for birds and small animals. With the disappearance of the starling goes their spectacular mesmeric murmurations.

Whether it was on land, in trees, in the rivers or seas animals and birds have been hunted down and systematically killed for profit, for food, for fun and for fats. Think fat think whales and seals. Northeast Scotland dominated the 19th century whaling industry in the Greenland Sea and Davis Straits – a dangerous business for all involved. On October 13, 1830 the Aberdeen Journal lamented the decline of whaling and loss of whaling vessels from Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Aberdeen and Aberdeen’s final whaling ship sailed in 1865. Of course that wasn’t the end of whaling, as we know.

A century later there was talk about the disappearance of mountain hares from our higher hills. This was a blow for the sportsman and woman who made do with blasting at the less prestigious brown hare, still numerous on the muirs. Despite being not much valued they were shot in their thousands. Social media has provided reminders that wildlife are not taken in penny numbers with pictures of trucks loaded up with mountain hare carcasses being taken off hillsides for disposal by sporting estate workers who say numbers of the mountain hare are high but have produced no credible evidence to back up their claims.

Our native red deer have consistently been popular with those who take to the hills for a spot of blood sport. In the 1960s around 10% of the red deer population was shot annually i.e. c.2000. There have been conflicting estimates of their numbers and the best means of controlling what are thriving numbers of them.

Roe deer are tiny animals; very timid. They are popular with creepy men in camouflage breeks, wax jackets and flat caps armed with huge guns that look like they’ve done a heap of damage in Iraq or Afghanistan.  In case you were wondering the little roe deer are unarmed.

The encroachment of humans, the adaption of the countryside to provide economic value will always put pressure on our wildlife. Add to this blend hobby hunters and climate change and the mix becomes toxic. Survival for so many species has been easy/tricky/impossible depending on so many circumstances but human interference arguably poses the most deadly threat to nature and that will only increase.

Aug 13, 2016

Reindeer are not just for Christmas

reindeer sled

Reindeer are not just for Christmas although they are intrinsically associated with Christmas celebrations. This relatively recent tradition appears to have come from a poem written in 1822 by an American, Clement Moore, called A Visit from St Nicholas in which he appears to draw on Scandinavian and German legends to create the now iconic image of Santa Claus riding across the sky on a sledge drawn by reindeer.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds

… 

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer

 Most deer sightings in Scotland are of roe, red or sika deer. The reindeer that once roamed our mountain sides disappeared a long time ago – estimates run between 800 and 8000 years. We do have small numbers of them now; semi-domesticated and the results of reintroduction programmes.

reindeer and dogs

According to some sources it was in the tenth century when the threat to our reindeer population materialised and within a couple of hundred years they had disappeared entirely from our forests and mountains. The reasons for this are uncertain but there were attacks on their habitats – pine, birch and oak forests which once grew up to levels of 2,500 feet – were being burned or cut down to create land for crops and grazing animals as well as harvesting of timber for building and boats. Deer were also predated by bears and wolves in addition to the most ruthless killer of all, man driven to kill every one of them until none remained – wiping out the last of Scotland’s native reindeer population.  

In intervening centuries some attempts were made to reintroduce them – in the late 18th century by the Duke of Atholl and in early 19th century a handful of animals were released into Orkney and Aberdeenshire but none of these survived. In 1916 Robert Traill collected three reindeer from the Russian area around Archangel and released them in Orkney but he was no more successful.

Mikel-Utsi-and-Nuolja-1955-300x304

Mikel Utsi and his reindeer

A more scientific approach was taken when in the 1950s reindeer were reintroduced into Scotland following a suggestion by a Saami herdsman from Sweden, Mikel Utsi, and his wife Ethel John Lindgren Utsi, who also supervised the project. They thought conditions in Scotland were similar to parts of Scandinavia, Russia and Canada in that they could provide reindeer with the foods they grazed – lichens and reindeer-moss, a kind of boggy carpet.

An area of forest in the Cairngorms at Rothiemurchus estate was fenced-off for a small number of beasts, no more than 25 plus a herder, for it was understood that rather than releasing the animals to roam wild they would benefit from being semi-domesticated.

Eight deer were shipped in from Sweden and quarantined for six weeks at Edinburgh Zoo then shipped out by train and lorry to their Highland home. One of the eight, a calf died immediately but the rest were then transferred to Rothiemurchus. Soon there were two more deaths, then another. A bull deer then disappeared and it was assumed had been shot by a poacher. By the end of the first winter only three animals remained alive. A major problem was their vulnerability to insect infestation in a climate that was warmer and damper than they were used to.

group reindeer

The small herd of Scandinavian reindeer was given freer rein over tracts of the Cairngorms to try to prevent the problem with insect pests but the weather the following summer was wet and warm, not at all suitable for reindeer and led to an increase in the numbers of black flies, midgies, cleggs and mosquitoes attacking the herd and leading to yet more deaths.

The Forestry Commission offered higher land that was drier and freer of insect pests and when more reindeer arrived in Scotland and were put to this new habitat and sure enough it was more suitable with fewer beasts dying.

last reindeer

Post-mortem examinations of stomach contents of deceased animals indicated that Scottish reindeer had been living on less varied diets than their counterparts in sub-Arctic Russia which had access to birds eggs, voles and bones of carrion (providing them with phosphorus) while Scottish reindeer fed mainly on grasses, sedges, pine needles, dead heather tops and very little lichen and moss. Despite setbacks and early failures the Utsi reindeer did survive in the Cairngorms, albeit in small numbers. Reindeer are built for extreme cold; their coats are very dense and well-insulated and their hooves act like snowshoes so one wonders what the future holds for this Arctic species of deer with global warming heating up the environment.

Whenever plans emerge to reintroduce lost species into Scotland there are voices raised in opposition. In the 1950s opponents to the reintroduction of reindeer described them as ‘vicious beasts’ which had no place in modern Scotland and I suppose if you are a clump of lichen they are but humans have nothing to fear from them. There are also those who deny reindeer were ever native to Scotland or if they were it was too long ago to matter and claim what was thought to be evidence of reindeer was, in fact, red deer – for example bones discovered in Pictish middens. It’s a fair debate for a thesis.

coloured reindeer

Our landscapes, rural and urban, are products of actions taken in the past – the Highlands emptied of people and communities for sheep, then red deer with the rise of the myth of good land management by sporting estates whose gamekeepers act like demi-gods deciding what can live on the land and what must be controlled destroyed. It is all about economics not biodiversity. Scotland would not have the landscape it does today were it not for them they claim. No, it would not. We would lose much of the barren muirs that have wrecked the Highland economy and limited its prospects. We would have a greater variety of wild species living naturally and not persecuted for being rubbish or vermin because they are seen as a threat to artificially introduced species, or product in the lingo of the estates, that can be offered up for slaughter on a Saturday afternoon.

imgres

Slaughter of mountain hares

The Scottish wildcat and several of our owls have suffered from this attitude and recently we’ve seen thousands of discarded carcasses of mountain – heaps of rubbish in the view of gamekeepers. Almost daily we learn of protected species, our golden eagles and other raptors that have mysteriously disappeared – poisoned, shot or trapped on the sly in hunting estates. Of all the many species of birds and animals hunted to extinction in this country a few have been reintroduced and others are in the pipeline: beavers, lynx, wolves, wild boar, red squirrel, polecats, goshawks, sea eagles, ospreys, red kites and pine martins.

Keep your eyes open when you are out and about and report illegal activity you come across that threatens our wildlife. You are unlikely to see a reindeer – or indeed any in the above list – and you may well wonder why though I suspect we all know the answer.

 

Jun 3, 2016

Polly Parrot and the Easter Rising

Polly Walker parrot 1929 at Cragievar

The feathered genius Polly Parrot on an outing into Aberdeenshire

This is a tale of two parrots, well three but one is only of passing interest.

The first account is of Polly, a male parrot, who shared a home with two women at 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen in the 1920s.

Polly was no bird-brain but an exceptionally bright bird who recognised and welcomed regular visitors to the house by calling out their names when they appeared. When he heard the postman coming he’d shout “Annie, that’s the postman, hurry up, hurry up!” It seems he didn’t just pick up words and phrases with ease but could produce conversation that related to his circumstances…I’ll give you an example.

One time when the women went off to Ballater for a short holiday Polly was taken along as well, in his cage.  When they arrived to catch the Deeside train at the Joint Station Polly shrieked out, “Hire a cab! Hire a cab!” All went well and the women settled in but somehow or other Polly escaped. This was on a Thursday and the following Sunday morning a local crofter opened his door to discover the poor wee bird cowering on his doorstep, cawing in distress. The man called out to his wife, as reported later, “There’s something at oor door. I ken na gin’t be beast, body, speerit, or deevil, but I wish ye wad come oot an’ see’t.”

The parrot sensing the woman was a body with a bit more sense spoke to the wife, “Take me in, I’m very cold, I’m very hungry, very thirsty. I’m Polly Walker, 32 Witehehall Road, Aberdeen. Take me home!”

And so they did take him in and fed him before heading out to the kirk service. There they heard of a missing bird and a reward of £5 for its return but thought little of it since the description didn’t seem to fit their visitor; the lost bird was said to have a crimson tail and the bird at the croft had no tail at all. Despite this a message was sent to the women in Ballater who quickly arrived at the croft in a phaeton and when they saw the bird they agreed it wasn’t theirs before Polly piped up, “I’m Polly Walker, 32 Whitehall Road, Aberdeen.” The poor thing had been so desperate and hungry when lost it had pulled out all its tail feathers, and now I’m reporting what was said, sucked the sugar from their roots.

Off it went with its owners who nursed it back to health but the trauma of its adventure was such that Polly complained, “Polly, far, far away; lost, tired, cold, hungry, such a disgrace.”

Oh, and during its sojourn in Ballater the bird had picked up the phrase “You’re a devil!” from some of the local rascals but that sentiment was excised from Polly’s vocabulary once back in Aberdeen.  

 ***

Three years later, in 1932, another Aberdeen parrot raised the alarm and saved lives when his owner’s house at 10 King Street went on fire and it called out, “Come here! I’m feart!”

***

My final parrot story is of a visitor to Aberdeen, this parrot was perched on the right shoulder of its elderly lady owner as she made her way  along Union Street. The year was 1924 and the parrot was called Monsieur Coco who bowed to a Press and Journal reporter, or so he imagined, who had been sent out to get an exclusive on the two strange birds gadding about the town. 

mrs pearce and parrot 1924

The reporter learnt the woman dressed in fur was a Mrs Pearse and her companion was “an intelligent Amazonian parrot.” Mrs Pearse was rather better known than her parrot. Formerly Mabel Cosgrove from London, her family were friends of Oscar Wilde’s and she was once married to a Mr Chan Toon, a Burmese barrister of the Middle Temple. She was something of a novelist, in her head at least, which may account for the following. On the other hand she was getting on in years and may have been suffering from senility but wherever the truth lay she claimed she was the widow of Pearse the Irish poet and nationalist executed for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and that the parrot had been with her husband in the moments before he was shot at Kilmainham jail but apparently sensing the approach of death it flew off into a hedge. 

In fact the Pearse she had married was an Armine Wodehouse Pearse who died in the Great War days before the Armistice.  She, herself, lived partly in Ireland but travelled extensively and appears to have maintained herself through robbery, blackmail and forgery, even claiming to have written or co-written plays with Oscar Wilde.

The parrot, she said, had been thrown from its nest by its mother when six hours old and quite featherless because its wings were paralysed. This was is Guadalajara and Mrs Pearse took care of him, feeding him on bread and milk and so he grew. From Mexico they travelled to New Orleans where she claimed the two witnessed the execution of two prisoners found guilty of murdering an Irish policeman.

She returned to Ireland and overcame reluctance to admit the parrot on grounds he was poultry and the Irish Free State was afraid of the spread of foot and mouth – though I don’t think birds get foot and mouth but then I’m no vet. The Irish customs officer let the bird in in exchange for a photograph of King George – which I find even more far-fetched than a bird with foot and mouth.

Once home in Ireland her parrot attracted suspicion, that it was “a new dodge on the part of the British Government for recruiting” and so Mrs Pearse and the parrot were given police protection. She countered these accusations by saying if anything the bird’s green and orange feathers were Sinn Fein’s colours and that, apparently, ended suspicion of it and her.

The parrot was a fluent French speaker, from their time in Paris and it was claimed had his portrait painted by the artist Dorin, as Monsieur Coco (the bird not the painter) and while in France he enjoyed a dejeuner of omelette and black coffee outside. In addition the parrot spoke excellent Spanish and English as well and was said to have had an extraordinary memory which is more than can be said for his mistress who appears to have confused memory with imagination.