Thursday, 30 July 2009

Home Thoughts from Abroad?

A short holiday in the south of Italy gives time for reflection, but I am glad to be able to see my email so that I don't have to wade through masses on return home.

The summer number of 'Beaversprite' is out and there is a scathing commentary in it on Daryl Guignon's report about salmon fisheries in Prince Edward Island: the one that has been taken up by the Tweed Foundation and other salmon fishing organizations in Scotland as evidence for their case that beavers' dams damage the prospects for the breeding success of Atlantic salmon.

I have asked Owen and Sharon Brown if they would put this piece on the BWW website as a stand alone file, so that it gets read by more than the membership of Beavers, Wetlands and Wildlife.

To the left is a spider I photographed on the table where we eat, read and draw. It rushes about and suddenly jumps across gaps. At the front of the spider are what look like arrays of sensors.

Who will tell me the name of this beast?

This ant was inspecting something that looks like the cast skin of some creature with a view to taking it away to its nest.

And these ants are trying to manoeuvre a breadcrumb to a more useful place from their pint of view.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The drive to this house was built around 1840 through a bog. Drainage ditches were dug and a lot of bottoming was put in to give the drive a good foundation. For many years estate workers carried out maintenance, cutting back the birch woodland on either side of the drive. At various times single conifers were planted: Douglas fir, Norway spruce. Beyond the open birch wood and meadow, there were (and are) plantations of Norway spruce, Scots pine and hybrid larch.

Beaver kits are weaned at around ten weeks old. According to Dietland Müller-Schwarze and Lixing Sun's book 'The Beaver: Natural History of a Wetlands Engineer' (Comstock Books 2003) the female often moves out of the main lodge at this point and goes to stay in a burrow on her own until her kits are weaned. It is not clear, from this book, that this applies to both species, so it would be interesting to hear from anyone with a good knowledge of beavers if females of both species do the same when weaning their young.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Swimming Beavers and a Dragonfly

The middle of July tends to be the time when beaver kits are first seen about much. Up to that time their parents seem to keep them safely within the lodge, or undercover, hidden by the protective vegetation in which lodges are so often concealed. Then, all of a sudden, one July evening, the careful watcher may find that he or she is looking at a young beaver.

The most obvious difference between adult beavers and kits when they are in the water, apart from their size, is how they lie in the water. Adult beavers lie low. Little can be seen of them but their heads and shoulders, whereas the kits appear to be much more buoyant. They ride high in the water, so that the whole length of their body is exposed and only the tail and limbs cannot be seen.

Here is an adult beaver swimming.

And here is a kit I saw a couple of days ago and who has already figured on this blog through You Tube.

The members of the Perth Natural Science Society, who came here recently reported that they had seen four different species of damselfly. I was lucky enough to see a dragonfly yesterday afternoon. The battery of my camera had run out, but I had enough time to go back to the house, recharge the battery and find the same species again. I looked for a photograph of the animal and think I found it in 'Dragonflies' by the late Philip Corbet and Stephen Brooks. I think that it is an immature male Black Darter (Sympetrum danae), or a female. The male is much blacker.

Here is a photograph of it.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Mid July

The thunder and lightning of yesterday morning's storms gave way to a showery afternoon with clear spells as the meteorological folk like to say. Time for a walk along the Dean Water, I thought, and prepared to head down there.

After looking at a map, I decided to start my walk at Harryhill, which looked like an old fashioned farm steading. When I reached the place, however, it turned out that whatever there had been of a steading and farm yard had been turned into a housing development. This one had a great pair of pillars with imposing concrete spheres on top to give the impression of a gated community. It seemed to me that this curious Urbs in rure, or Suburbs was an intriguing descendant in contemporary terms of the medieval settlement that may have been the original Harryhill.

Walking in a countryside of intensive agriculture is not always straightforward. The wanderer must stick to the edges of fields and these may be very uneven. On one side of the walker lie the forbidden crops, on the other hidden obstacles under the profusion of summer vegetation.

I left my truck and set off. Rounding the new settlement, I found myself looking north towards the hills above Strathmore. Cat Law dominated the background, while in the middleground I could see the farm of Simprim. A little to the west is the site of the Roman marching camp, built when Agricola's successor, Sallustius Lucullus, led an expeditionary force through this country around AD85.

Someone had cut a path through the grass, roughly in the direction I wished to take, so I followed that until I realised that I was heading too much to the East. Bumblebees and other insects caught my attention as they foraged among some ragwort (Senecio jacobaea).

Walking on, I came to a nearly overgrown metal gate, beyond which a large delapidated looking pipe crossed the Dean Water. I think this must have been an old aqueduct that took water from Lintrathen Loch to Dundee. My GPS reminded me that I had made a waymark at this point on the day, some weeks ago, when I canoed down the river.

A few hundred yards further on I came across my first sign of the presence of beavers: a couple of gnawed willow trees and a path that led down to the water.

The path led steeply down to the water: towards the end becoming sheer. I am used to the ability of beavers to climb up the trunks of fallen trees, but was struck by the steep lower bank that they must scramble up in order to reach the willow trees at the top.

This photograph looks towards the polytunnels that I have shown previously in this blog.

Some minutes later I reached the place where I intended to watch and wait in the evening. The banks of the Dean Water are very steep for the most part and in this section covered with willow herb (Epilobium angustifolium) and meadow sweet (Filipendula ulmaria), not to speak of nettles, thistles and various grasses. Willowherb and meadowsweet are great favourites of bumblebees, which puts me in mind of the association that Bernd Heinrich describes so well (in 'Bumblebee Economics') between bumblebees and places that beavers like to inhabit.

Having carried out my reconnaissance I made my way back to Harryhill and so home.

Later, in the evening, I returned, walked to my watching place and was rewarded.

I took the picture on the left with the camcorder in its still photograph mode.

Blogger won't let me upload video clips at the moment, so I must refer you to Youtube for a clip of a kit.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Here and there

Yesterday evening I visited the Dean Water at Cardean and found that a mysterious person is still putting apples and carrots out round the beavers' lodge there.

Frank Rosell, the well-known and respected Norwegian authority on the biology of the Eurasian beaver, tells me that although single beavers may build lodges, it is more usual for them to live in simple burrows and lairs, and that it is more normal for lodge building to be undertaken by pairs of beavers before breeding.

If Tony Mitchell-Jones is correct in his account of the legal status of the beaver in England, and this applies in Scotland as well, it is good to think that someone may be nurturing a family of beavers that has established itself in the wild.

The account of the legal status that I am referring to is to be found in the report by Natural England and the People's Trust for Endangered Species on the feasibility of returning the beaver to England.

This photograph shows a grazed area on the bank of the ditch at Bamff. In the distance you can make out a birch tree that was felled last winter and stripped of all its branches and bark. The topmost part of the tree fell over a fence, so this part was cut off and some of the bigger bits of timber removed for firewood. Otherwise everything was thrown back into the beavers' side of the fence and they tidied it all up.

The next photo shows a mudslide that I came across this morning. I call it a mudslide, but I must go and look at it again.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Thunder and Lightning

Thunder storms had been around for some days, but I was unprepared for the violence that broke upon us on Monday. The storm burst overhead, so close that the lightning strike and following clap of thunder happened at the same time. I was driving to collect potatoes for the wildboar when a huge bang sounded overhead. A few yards later and another crashed so close that I ducked involuntarily. Rain fell torrentially. Here is a photograph I took of the Norway spruce that was struck and caught fire (of which more below).

Peter Grewar's establishment at Ardler was itself a storm of activity. A vast new potato store was being erected and great articulated lorries were being loaded at speed by skilful fork-lift drivers.

On my return I found a message on my telephone. My neighbour, Cameron Murray, had rung to let me know something about a broken tree on the hill behind us. I couldn't make out exactly what he said, but clearly it was something abnormal. Abnormal, I thought but not urgent, so I continued with my work until the telephone rang and another neighbour, John Ferguson, told me that one of the old pine trees was on fire.

With that, Louise and I climbed into our truck and drove up to inspect this wonder.

Hardly had I stopped photographing the pine tree (Pinus sylvestris), when I noticed a plume of smoke rising from our house. A chimney fire, perhaps, or could it be that an electrical fault caused by the thunderstorm had ignited the timbers in the roof?

Pausing only to ring for the Fire Brigade and to photograph and shout greetings to Peter and Catherine Hall, neighbours who had walked over from Balwhyme to look at the burning tree, we drove as quickly as the ground allowed back down to our house.

Luckily, the Alyth Fire Brigade arrived very quickly, the chimney fire had subsided (it had started when someone was lighting a fire in one of the flats), and all was well. We felt intensely grateful to the Fire Brigade. In the past we used to recognise members of the crew, but this time I realised that it was the sons of our contemporaries who had become firemen. I am thinking of Scott Buick and Graham Davidson.

The Fire Brigade had only just left when the telephone rang and Peter Hall asked me if I had seen another burning tree, this time on the drive.

I drove down to look and found the Norway Spruce (Picea abies) in the first picture of this post smoldering. The long grass round the base of the tree was thoroughly wet, so it seemed safe enough to leave it to burn itself out.

Yesterday afternoon we returned to the Hill to look at the Burnt Tree. All thought that the tree might survive as a living shell were dispelled. The top of the tree had fallen off and the remainder is dead.

The second photograph shows the inside of the lower part of the bole of the pine.

Monday, 6 July 2009

A Visit to the Scottish Game Fair

On Sunday morning, after briefing Adam on the feeding of the wildboar, Louise and I set off for the Game Fair at Scone.

We parked among the splendid oaks in the parkland that surrounds Scone Palace and walked with the crowd of people who, like us, were going for a jaunt to the fair. A pipe band was playing as we arrived and the commentator was speaking about the great intelligence of the Border Collie. A moment later we came upon the main ring and there was a collie herding some indignant looking white geese.

Next we happened upon the main exhibition of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. It was called 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'. In one tent there was a display entitled 'Fox Midden'. A heap of bits of skull and skeleton and other animal remains was surrounded by four traps. This set up is an effective way of luring foxes into traps.

This exhibit seemed to me to set the scene for the Game and Wildlife Conservancy's approach to wildlife and ecology. Good is what you preserve until you and your friends want to kill it. Bad is anything that may compete with you for this pleasure. Wading birds are a useful decoy: by protecting them from their enemies you protect the Good birds that you plan to shoot in due course and demonstrate to the foolish birdy folk that you are a wise manager with the interests of biodiversity at heart (which, oddly enough, may sometimes be true). Ugly seems incidental, but I thought that the whole exhibition was Ugly.

The other display consisted of a backdrop of simulated moorland with a length of dry-stone wall. Perched and placed among this were stuffed representatives of the Good (Red and Black Grouse) and the Bad, which included a goshawk, sparrow-hawk, raven, buzzard and pine marten.

There were placards to explain the importance of keepering and to describe the Bad creatures. In the case of some of these it was noted that they were protected by law. Readers could draw their own conclusions as to the absurdity of protecting these Bad creatures from their just desserts at the hands of a worthy gamekeeper.

A stuffed pine marten (Martes martes). This species, which was driven to the edge of extinction in the British Isles by the first half of the twentieth century, has recovered remarkably and is now increasingly an object of the game preserver's ire. It is one of the Bad creatures that is protected by law.

On one placard it was noted that the intention of keepering was not to eliminate all predators, but just to keep their numbers down. I remember this idea well: NIMBY.

Nevertheless, I met several people whom I was glad to see (Dominic Wedderburn, John Bruce, Andrew Dingwall-Fordyce, Bob Macintosh, Karen Everett, John Ferguson and his family, Jill of the Woodland Trust and then, Harry Wilson from RTS) and so the time I passed at the Game Fair was well spent, not least because it encouraged me to google: morning , where I found this fascinating piece about the possible return of the beaver toEngland:

This, in turn, took me to the English Nature website, where I found the report that was referred to in the Game Conservancy's piece:

How interesting! I should be very grateful for any comments on the Natural England paper, particularly the review of the legal position 'Beaver reintroductions to England: the
legal position by Tony Mitchell-Jones, Natural England'.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Damselflies and Clegs

Here are some more photographs, taken with the macro lens that I borrowed from Maggie.

This horse fly or cleg (Haematopota pluvialis) landed on my trouser leg as I paddled my canoe quietly in the Big Pond on the hunt for damsel flies. There was something greenish about the eyes that aroused my curiosity, so I took a photograph. It wasn't until I cropped the original picture that I saw their brilliance.

These blue damselflies were busy copulating in sunny places round the pond. I think there were three different species. This blue kind, a red species, the object of the next photograph and another kind I saw as I paddled in towards my landing place.

Here is a pair of pink damselflies.

Not long after this shot, I heard distant sounds of thunder. The sky was darkening to the south. It was time to go in.

After the thunder storm, a downpour that lasted about twenty minutes, the evening was warm and calm. I walked over to the Big Pond with my visitors. Eventually a beaver slapped its tail at us and another one dived noisily. Yet another was chewing vegetation, but out of our sight. Clegs, midges and mosquitos made our wait unpleasant. Finally at about ten-o'clock a beaver swam speedily into a bed of sedge and disappeared. I think that the stillness of the evening made it easy for the beavers to scent us, hot and sweaty as we were, and lie about out of sight.

This photograph shows the stems of horsetail (Equisetum sp.) that have been grazed by beavers among others, though what others, I ask myself.

I nearly forgot to mention the thousands of tiny frogs making their way away from the ponds.

The speed with which they change their cryptic coloration is a constant wonder.