Nothing prepares you for the sheer spectacle of 300 ft cliffs lined with thousands and thousands of seabirds perched precariously on the narrowest of ledges with their chick nestled underneath them. Well, that’s not quite true, the acrid smell of a seabird colony greets you a good hundred yards before you get to them. Now that the birds have been nesting for several weeks the cliffs are draped in swathes of guano (ok, bird poo). Then you hear the cries, screeches and grumbles of the birds as you walk along the grassy path and finally reach the cliff-tops where the air is alive with wheeling kittiwakes, fulmars gliding effortlessly and guillemots, razorbills and puffins darting purposefully from rock to sea and back.
Handa Island (managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust) is home to 56,000 guillemots, counted individually by volunteer researchers painstakingly scanning the cliffs on foot and by boat to note each nesting bird and their chicks. Puffins were also counted this year, 330 were found, showing that the population on Handa is remaining stable, despite concerns about decreasing food in some areas.
Nesting Arctic skua
We went to Handa Island to try out another of the Top UK Wildlife Experiences, which we are working our way through on our journey around the UK. It was absolutely amazing, the seabirds, of course, were mesmerising. The paths run close to the cliffs at some points, and Geoff, who is a much more patient photographer than me, took some great pictures. Our aim on this trip has been to travel light and take the minimum of equipment, so all the images and film in these posts are taken on an oldish digital camera with no extra lenses, or on an iPhone. (All today’s images are by Geoff Woolley, please credit him if you use any.)
The landscape is stunning, with a dramatic rugged coastline, flower studded grassland and views across the sea to the misty blue mountains of the Highlands.
From Handa towards Scourie
I love the way razorbills come in to land
Looking across Handa Island
Heath spotted orchid
Heathers, eye bright and tormentil
Cliffs and sea caves
Two guillemots and a razorbill
Guillemots on a ledge
Long horizontal ledges are packed with guillemots, the nesting birds pressed against the cliff with their chick tucked underneath them, kept warm by a warm spot (called a brood patch) on the parent’s tummy well supplied with blood vessels to pass on warmth to the growing chick.
Handa Island is the most magical and awe-inspiring place. We could have spent hours just watching the birds, admiring the rock formations or examining the flowers, but we had to catch a boat back or be stranded on the island overnight.
We think of the Scottish Highlands as being a wild, unspoilt, natural place, but in fact this is far from true. Most of the upland habitat has been changed by grazing, tree-planting and drainage, so that natural habitats are rare. More than half of the species found there are declining, some with a high risk of extinction.
Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander have a plan to turn this around. They are running one of the largest landscape restoration schemes in Europe, the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project. This long term project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, aims to restore wildlife over 60,000 hectares of the Scottish Highlands.
I joined them for lunch at the cafe next to their office at Lochinver, in the heart of the project area. Richard explained that the project involves seven major landowners and several local organisations. They have recently secured a Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership grant, and are just starting to build a team to deliver the work. Having fallen in love with Scotland, I daydreamed briefly about applying to join them, but no, for many reasons, it is not to be.
The project is an exciting mix of nature conservation, archeology, training and education. Woodland is an important element of the project; increasing the extent of native woodland will provide new habitat for many threatened species. The project also aims to work with schools to encourage them to use woodland as a classroom for outdoor learning. Working with landowners and local community groups, native woodland will be extended through changes in land management to allow natural regeneration, and by planting of native trees.
How do you get enough native Scottish tree saplings to plant woodland on such an ambitious scale? Boyd took me to meet Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery to find out. Nick collects native tree seeds from local woodlands. Some seed, like willow, needs to be planted straight away, whereas some needs a cold period before it can germinate. These are stored in layers of sand outside through the winter and then brought inside to be planted.
The trees are sold to landowners who want to create native woodland on their land. They can apply for grant funding to help with the cost of creating and managing new woodland, including putting up extensive deer fencing, needed to exclude deer while the young trees get established.
The Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape is such an exciting project, encompassing stunning habitats from mountain to coast, with fascinating wildlife and a rich cultural heritage. I can’t wait to come back and explore more of the area and see how the project is getting on.
We had hoped to see peregrines, but sadly the pair that have been breeding here were quite old and it is thought that they have not survived the winter. Scottish Wildlife Trust hopes that a new pair will soon colonise the reserve.
We happily watched the dippers instead, I love watching them bob up and down living up to their name, and casually plunging their heads into the cascading water to feed on invertebrates in the river. We took a bit of video, (click here) it works best on a small screen as it’s quite low resolution.
Ospreys are the obvious attraction when visiting Foulshaw Moss but I had heard a lot about the work that was happening to restore this site and hoped to find out more. We met Simon Thomas, the Reserves Officer and Grace who is on a placement from Cumbria University, on a wet Friday morning. I’m sure they could have retreated to a nice dry office but such is the generosity of Cumbria Wildlife Trust staff that they kindly showed us around the reserve despite the rain.
Rain is good news at Foulshaw Moss. A Moss is a raised bog in the lowlands. It develops when an area is constantly waterlogged and sphagnum moss grows there over many years, building up into a huge peat dome which rises up above the surrounding landscape.
Foulshaw Moss lies on an area that used to stretch over seven miles of continuous swamp, reedbed and bog. The peat is still up to 6 metres deep in some places. It was very treacherous to cross, and people used to take the guided path over the adjacent Morecambe Bay sands in preference. Much of the area was eventually drained and subject to extensive peat cutting (for fuel) before being used for farming and forestry.
When Cumbria Wildlife Trust bought the site in 1999 from the Forestry Commission a large part of it was covered with regimented rows of conifers. There was still a small patch of raised bog remaining, an increasingly rare habitat with plants like cotton grass, bilberry, cranberry and sundew, all growing through the wet sphagnum moss.
To restore the rest of the site, Cumbria Wildlife Trust had the trees removed and blocked up the drainage channels to keep as much water on the site as possible. That is why they like the rain – the bog is fed entirely by rainwater, and the wetter the better for sphagnum moss.
Cumbria Wildlife Trust are using other techniques to help the developing bog to hold more water: damming up large drainage channels to create pools, creating peat banks in the degraded peat bog to create water-tight cells, planting reedbeds and restoring wetter habitats on surrounding land to slow the water loss from the bog. All these things are helping to raise the water table and provide the right conditions for the bog specialist plants and animals to thrive. This has been so successful that they have been able to re-introduce the rare white-faced darter dragonfly (previously, in Cumbria, only found in one other site) to the reserve. In fact, if it hadn’t been raining so hard I would have been able to post lots of pictures of the dragonflies, damselflies and large heath butterflies we would have seen.
And what of the Ospreys? They are nesting on a specially built platform in a tree in the middle of the inaccessible and therefore safest part of the reserve. There are two chicks in the nest this year. The nest is too far away to photograph with our basic equipment, and the chicks were hunkered down against the wet much of the time, but we saw both parents as they took turns to guard the nest and the chicks did poke their heads up above the edge before we left, which was a magical sight. For amazing footage of the Foulshaw ospreys, click here.
Edited 14.7.16 to correct the date that CWT purchased the reserve.
Our wildlife tour of the U.K. took us to Patterdale, in the Lake District.
Although we didn’t get to a Cumbria Wildlife Trust reserve for a few days, there was plenty of wildlife to see, especially in the campsite. During the day, the air around the buildings was filled with house martins and swallows and flycatchers darted from the trees. At night, bats circled above our heads, and Geoff was surprised by a toad wandering toward him in the washroom. Unfortunately he declined my suggestion that he go back and take a photo. Probably wise.
My wildlife photography skills limit me to capturing things that are close and standing very still. Plants are generally quite obliging in that way. What I love about the plants that you see on the high fells of the Lake District is that they are so tiny and delicate looking, but actually have to be very tough to withstand the conditions on the mountainside.
On our climb up to Dove Crag, we were accompanied by wheatears, many of them this year’s young birds. Skylarks soared up from the grass, their song lifting our spirits as we toiled up the steep slopes in the drizzling rain.
The view from the top was worth the climb, with lakes in all directions and the coastline in the distance.