This is our home for three months. (For those, like me, who aren’t good at car taxonomy, it’s a Mazda Bongo.)
The Bongo is 20 years old, and needs a bit of TLC. We have had three garage visits so far, one overnight. I think of it as Bongo B & B.
We did have an awning, but pegging it down on granite in the rain each time we moved sites was less than fun, so we posted it to Ellie (thanks Ellie, hope it’s not in the way) and now we are footloose and awning free.
Rain has accompanied us around the UK, but on the plus side, we have seen some fantastic rainbows.
Rainbow over the Fleet, Dorset
A Shropshire rainbow
Rainbow over the west coast of Scotland at dawn
The living space in the campervan measures 2 x 1.5 metres, some of which is taken up by the cupboards, fridge, cooker and sink. The rest of it is multipurpose.
Ten tips for sharing a living space of 2 x 1.5 metres for three months.
1. Take turns to move, carefully.
2. Even though there is nowhere for them to go, you will lose things constantly. Don’t worry, you are camping, almost everything is optional. Except the keys. They are here somewhere.
3. Herd any stray wildlife off your pitch before parking.
4. Always check how much water is left before you start cleaning your teeth.
5. You think you know all your travelling companion’s little habits. Believe me, you don’t! You will discover some new ones that you never noticed before. Breathe, pretend you are still blissfully unaware.
6. You will laugh ’til your sides hurt more times than you can remember doing in the past year. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate your life.
7. Be restrained with the souvenir shopping.
8. If you’re blogging in the Highlands, you’ll need to visit a lot of cafes. It would be rude not to eat cake.
9. Take your phone to the loo, even in the middle of the night, in case there is some interesting wildlife.
10. Relax, pour yourself something cold, and watch the sunset.
The dunes of the Northumberland coast are like no others, driven by the strong sea winds into tall, narrow mounds of sand and constantly changing. “This could look different tomorrow” Steve Lowe, from Northumberland Wildlife Trust told me as we stood beside the dune system along the seven mile stretch of sand that forms Druridge Bay.
Druridge Bay has been shaped by change – the elements, nature and human activity all play a part in creating this fascinating area. Humans have been driving that change for more than 5,000 years. Human footprints found in post-glacial deposits and other evidence, much of it uncovered in a recent archaeological project in which the Trust were partners, date human occupation from the Mesolithic period.
Over time, people changed the landscape from wilderness to farmland. Then the increasing need for coal led to the creation of an industrial landscape with underground and open cast mining. Ironically, this has eventually led to the creation of new wildlife habitat, formed by the subsidence of old mining areas, and restoration of open cast mines.
Steve was showing us round some of the five Northumberland Wildlife Trust reserves that form the core area of the Dynamic Druridge project, which aims to continue the theme of change, restoring, recreating and reconnecting habitats and improving people’s access to the wildlife of the area.
East Chevington nature reserve was restored to create wetland habitats after opencast mining and passed to the Trust in 2003. In their care it has become one of the best birdwatching sites in Northumberland, with huge numbers of birds using the lakes and especially in autumn and winter. A newly planted woodland area provides an ideal place to run Forest Schools, where children can develop confidence through outdoor activities.
Steve took us to the Hauxley reserve next, which is temporarily closed while Northumberland Wildlife Trust constructs the greenest building in the North East. As well as being very environmentally friendly, the amazing thing about this building is that it is being built by volunteers.
The Trust secured a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to replace the previous visitor centre, which had been burnt down, with an iconic sustainable building. The project employs a site manager and the Trust staff manage the project but most of the work is done by volunteers. There was a huge sense of camaraderie among the volunteers and the work that has already been achieved was inspiring.
I donned a hard hat and high-vis so that I could go on site, and Ducan Hutt, Head of Estates management at the Trust, showed me around the building. It is designed to minimise its impact on the environment. No concrete is used in the construction, the walls are straw bales rendered with a lime based plaster, timber is obtained locally, much of it from Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s own reserves.
I’m immensely grateful to Steve and Duncan for taking the time to show me what the Dynamic Druridge project is achieving and am already looking forward to coming back to see the completed visitor centre and the rest of the reserves in this beautiful area.
A huge window looks across the surrounding landscape
Steve Lowe and Duncan Hutt
Bloody cranesbill, Northumberland’s county flower
The Lake at East Chevington Reserve
Seven miles of sandy beach
Edited 25.8.16 to correct an embarrassing mis-spelling of Druridge.
Clouds of gannets rise up from Bass Rock and fill the air with raucous cries, slicing effortlessly through the air on snow-white, black-dipped wings.
We bounced on top of the water beneath them, heads tipped back to gaze in awe at the graceful circus of gannets above our heads, holding on tight as the RIB (Rigid Inflateable Boat) met the waves with rather less grace.
Although they nest in dense colonies, gannets are highly territorial, each making it loudly clear to its neighbour that this is my patch. Gannets return to the same patch each year form long-term pairs, often for life. Bill fencing is a form of greeting behaviour that strengthens the bond between pairs.
The dagger-like bill of the northern gannet is used to catch fish. The gannet folds back its wings and plunges vertically from a height of up to 40 metres, disappearing under the water to capture its target.
The gannet colony has increased hugely since the lighthouse has been unmanned so that the island is now uninhabited.
Shags breed on the nearby rocks. In the breeding season they develop an iridescent green sheen to their feathers and a spiky quiff, giving them a somewhat surprised look.
Gannets breed in tightly packed colonies, despite being highly territorial.
Swirling clouds of gannets
Cormorants on a nearby island. They don’t have as much oil on their feathers as other seabirds, and have to stretch them out to dry off from time to time.
This is the closest we’ve got to guillemot. They breed on a nearby island.
The snowy white plumage and creamy yellow head of the gannet is unmistakeable.
As a wildlife experience, this was one of the best, plus being fun going out in the boat. Can’t wait to do it again next time I’m in Scotland.
When I was growing up, I thought that orchids were exotic flowers, beloved of Victorian ladies in glasshouses and native only to tropical rainforests. It was a revelation to discover that they are found worldwide and that my home county of Kent held more varieties than anywhere else in the UK.
You have to look more closely to appreciate the flowers of our native orchids, but once you do, you will find that they are every bit as enchanting as the showy specimens you might buy from a florist.
The complexity of orchid flowers is due to their intricate relationships with insects, the structures having evolved to tempt insect visitors, sometimes even luring them with the false promise of a mate, in order to achieve pollination.
Darwin was fascinated by the evolutionary relationship between orchids and insects and it is thought that Kent Wildlife Trust’s Downe Bank nature reserve is the Orchis Bank he used to visit to study this phenomenon and that he immortalised in the conclusion of the Origin of the Species.
Although I didn’t need to leave Kent to try out the next of The Wildlife Trusts’ Top UK Wildlife Experiences, traveling in the north of the U.K. gave me the chance to see some species I’d not come across before, and practice my budding botanical skills.
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.