Posts tagged ‘raptors’

April 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.

August 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.