Thursday, 24 November 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: Otter Diary.

Another little post from the Arran Voice series I am writing.  This one appeared in September's issue.

I’m walking alone at sunset close to my house, binoculars hanging heavy on my neck. The track behind the beach is pitted with the frost encrusted prints of animals and people. Paws, hooves and boots have been strutting back and forth along the lonely shore. I’m looking for evidence of otters, and pause to hunt among the rocks next to a drainage culvert. I find what I’m after, pungent spraint daubed on to a smooth lump of granite. There is evidence of several visits to this messaging post, and I follow the ditch upstream to a thicket of brambles. I look for prints in the muddy bank but find nothing. If an otter came this way, it did not exit the burn at this point, but must have continued to the farmland beyond. I don’t follow. An otter’s holt is a sacred space, protected through secrecy and by law. 
Winter is a great time for watching otters on Arran, as the short days bring their most active hours within reach of a normal human day. There are fewer dogs and people about too. The otter I am tracking today is a female with a young cub in tow. She is naturally shy, but I have seen them in the water from Clauchlands to Corriegills. The cub is only a few months old but already an efficient hunter of crabs and shrimps. I don’t spot them often, but the traces of their presence are left in piles of fishy spraint along the back of the beach above the high tide mark.

Not all otters insist on secrecy.  In Kildonan, a pair of cubs curl up in full view of villagers on a flat rock marooned by the rising tide. It is early spring now, and the sun is warming the volcanic dykes that jut out to sea. This rock is a favourite sleeping place and the young otters, disguised as piles of brown seaweed, doze in peace while their mother forages amongst the surf. Their tidal alarm clock is set- the rising waves lap around them until they wake to foamy splashes. Mother appears, and the family begins a daily ritual of play that must end every siesta. I call this time “Otter O’clock”. I have no idea why this family is so predictable, or why they are less secretive than other otters, but they regularly delight visitors and locals with their bold play in broad daylight.

Feeding Time.
As the Kildonan cubs develop, their presence begins to dominate the coast around the village. Locals tell me they have never seen more otter activity in the area than now. The hungry family spends hours in the water, fishing almost constantly for crabs, blennies and other small morsels. They patrol every sheltered bay methodically, diving again and again with relentless appetite. Lying on their backs in the water, each catch is quickly crunched up before they porpoise down to the sea bed for the next course.

Otters have a rapid metabolism, perhaps to keep warm in cold water.  Like teenagers, they live fast, going through episodes of intense activity, interspersed with vital periods of rest. They must eat well, and prefer small and easily caught meals, tending not to waste energy chasing the bigger prey. Their strong jaws and heavy molars are powerful tools for crushing the hard shells of crustaceans.  Their spraint is packed with the tiny bones of fishes and broken shells of crabs and shrimps. The Kildonan family hunt for several hours a day.

End of an era.
It is midsummer, and all good things must come to an end. The Kildonan cubs are now indistinguishable from their mother. I calculate that they are well over a year old. Recently while the family has been at play I have noticed a fourth otter, loitering a few hundred metres away. Days pass and the intruder is still there, a curious presence in the background. It is a powerful male, and his increasing interest in the family shows that there is a change in the air.  Reluctantly I go away for a week and when I return the favourite rock is deserted.

Now there is a different regime in the village.  A solitary otter fishes the sheltered bays, but it is not always alone. When the large male appears, the two embrace playfully. There is a tumble of shiny brown bodies in the water and a boisterous game of chase begins amongst the rocks and pools. Then, they fish alongside each other for an hour or so, before smaller of the two slips away.

I do not know what has happened to the Kildonan family.  Did the mother drive the cubs away? Did she leave and am I watching one of the cubs playing with the male? Otters are hard to tell apart unless heavily scarred, or as in the case of the male, distinctive by their size. He has a powerful bullish head and neck, his back humped and broad. I wonder if the smaller otter is a female in season.  Only time will tell.

Male otters live a rough life often shortened by violence. Upon leaving the safety of their family they travel long distances, sometimes for years, searching for their own territory. Many die before they find it: in road traffic accidents, in fights with dogs, or at the hands of other male otters. A male may inhabit the territories of several females, the limiting factor on territory size being what he can defend.

Late this summer I witnessed a fight. The violence was undeniable. Canines flashed in the sunlight, and the two screamed their aggression as they tore at each others throats. Even as the loser turned and fled, he was pursued relentlessly through the water at an incredible speed. I wondered if he would get away, and what would happen if he didn’t.  Two years ago a woman from Kildonan found a young male otter with terrible wounds. He was handed to Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Centre, but did not survive his injuries.

New life.
Autumn has closed in around us and the brutal weather has made finding otters hard, but I’m seeing evidence that the circle of life continues. Otter cubs are born throughout the year. The gestation period for otters is short- cubs are born helpless and blind, and are tucked up securely in the den for months. They are too weak at first to play in the currents, and even when they are six months old they will avoid rough weather.  A female with a wild rocky territory in the Southend has a growing cub. They have been very shy through the summer, but as the tourists depart they are becoming easier to find. The cub is increasingly brave in the surf, strong enough now to hunt amongst the rougher breaks. These two still have several months together and I’m looking forward to watching them.

Meanwhile the solitary otter at Kildonan no longer receives the attentions of the male. Fishing expeditions are hurried and businesslike. It works only the best bays and ignores the less fruitful locations. I fantasize that somewhere in the tangle of wooded cliffs there is a waiting family, squeaking and blind, dependent on mothers milk.

Otter Facts:

  • All wild otters in Britain are the species Lutra lutra, although they inhabit diverse habitats, from the coast to lochs and inland river systems.
  • Otter numbers declined drastically during the 20th century due to pollution and persecution. Numbers are now on the increase thanks to legal protection and cleaner coasts and waterways.
  • The greatest threat that otters face in the 21st century is still pollution.  Roads also claim a number of casualties each year, including on Arran.
  • Otters are protected by law.  It is illegal to disturb or harass an otter or damage its holt. For more information see the SNH Website:
  • Arran is one of the best places in the country to watch otters, as it is thought that every stretch of coastline has a resident otter. You will need a good pair of binoculars and patience. Dawn/sunset or a rising tide are the best times of day to see them.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Death on the road

On Sunday morning I was recovering from a wild(ish) night at a fundraiser at the mountain rescue base and contemplating wandering along to the base help with the cleanup when I took a phone call about an injured otter spotted by the side of the road on the west coast. A few hurried telephone conversations later and I was on may way to Blackwaterfoot to pick up the animal for transfer to Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Trust on the mainland.  

As I drove over the hill I wondered how I might effect a rescue of an animal known for its ferocious bite. Hessilhead's advice had been to "fling it gently" in to a wheelie bin. I was relieved to discover on arrival that Angus, a kindly local farmer, and Jim of Arran Birding fame had already managed to catch the otter.  My relief ended when I lifted the lid of the blue recycling bin to see a distressed animal whose back legs and tail hung limp and useless. It didn't look good. 

The otter was transferred to the Calmac guys at Brodick, who ensured he was safely delivered to the mainland for collection by the Hessilhead staff. Sadly the otter succumbed to his injuries that night, despite having quite a bit of fight in him.  The staff at the rescue centre were surprised and sad that he didn't make it. 

I have shed quite a few tears over this little guy.  It seemed like a senseless death for an animal in its prime. This time of year is especially dangerous for wildlife on the roads as the nights draw in and animals have to run the gauntlet of drivers going to and from work in the dark. Slowing down and keeping a lookout for glowing eyes in the hedgerows and verges could save an animal's life, and maybe even that of the driver, as animals as large as red deer can become road casualties and pose a real hazard to vehicles travelling at speed. 

I can't get this death out of my head, and am looking forward to next time I see a happy healthy otter doing its thing- like this one in the very shaky video clip below that I took down at Kildonan a few weeks ago. 

Monday, 7 November 2011

Arran MRT Cir Mhor Exercise

November signals the start of the Arran Mountain Rescue training season and as a probationary member I'm hoping to get out to all the training exercises to get my essential skills sorted. Yesterday we kicked things off with an exercise on Cir Mhor, practicing rope work, lowering cragfast climbers and searching for casualties on steep ground. The conditions were fantastic, with glorious sunshine and at times a cloud inversion.  Where else would you want to be on a Sunday afternoon?
Arran Mountain Rescue are volunteers, and if you would like to support their work you can donate online on their Just Giving Page.

 Our subteam approached via North Glen Sannox.  This is looking north from the ridge towards Lochranza. 

 Some of the team- including Ruby, a Sarda dog based on the island who trains with the team and her handler Darryl. 

 Approaching Cir Mhor from the Castles.

 Looking down in to Glen Sannox

 The team awaiting information about the "casualties" from the summit of Cir Mhor.

 A cheeky raven hoping we will drop some butties. (if we did, he was out of luck as Ruby had them...)

View from high on Cir Mhor, as we approach the cragfast "casualties".

Preparing to lower a "cragfast scrambler" to safety.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Black Cave

If you've ever read up on the Arran Coastal Way you are probably familiar with the traverse of the Black Cave between the villages of Kilomory and Kildonan.  Its the only bit of the Way that is truly tidal, and although in my view not the most challenging section, care and planning are required to avoid problems on the route.  The cave itself is in the rocky cliffs of Bennan Head, a boulder strewn beach lies before it, which is partly covered except at low tide.  In rough weather (common here) it may not be possible to pass at all.

Low tide fell today at about half past twelve, and the opportunity for a leisurely meander over the rocks between the two villages was too good to miss. This stretch of coastline is a real hotspot for wildlife, including otters.  I've been watching otters in Kildonan all summer, but I'm keen to learn more about their territories and so it was with a view to finding signs of otters that I set out.

 A moody sky greeted me in Kildonan, but I knew the forecast was for a bright day.

 It wasn't long before I found clear signs of otters- these prints were on a beach just outside the village. 

 The area is also an important haul-out site for common (harbour) seals, who love the rocky shoreline. 

 Looking towards Bennan Head. 

 I often find badger prints on the beach here, and today I located a badger latrine near the path. 

 Massive tree trunk left well above the normal high tide mark.  Must have been some storm!

 Even in death, the markings on this immature gannet are beautiful. 

 At the black cave.  I couldn't linger here as I disturbed a young otter cub amongst the rocks who ran squeaking in to the sea.  Fortunately I saw it reunited with its mother seconds later. 

 Looking back towards the cave- you can just see the opening on the left.  There is a better picture of this stunning feature here.

The beach opens out again and the going gets easier as you come round the coast to Kilmory.

The final stretch of sandy beach before the track up to Kilmory.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Sgor Gaoith: Mountain of the Winds

Sgor Gaoith (Peak of the Wind) is an aptly named Munro at the western end of the Northern Cairngorms.  It forms a great whaleback that looms above Glen Feshie to the West, with a spectacularly craggy eastern rim that towers above Loch Einich.
Finding ourselves in that neck of the woods last week, on Friday last we picked this windy hill for a quick jaunt before heading south again. The forecast was for gales, and the Gaelic name for the mountain told us what to expect, so we wrapped up warm, and headed up through the forest from Glen Feshie to the ridge. Regular readers will know that I'm a big fan of the ancient scots pine forests that persist on the fringes of the Cairngorms. The woodland on the approaches to Sgor Gaoith was particularly special.

A forest of scots pines.

Heading up on to the open hill, the rich autumn colours of the grasses and heather helped to warm what was a cold and bleak landscape. A golden eagle soared overhead until it began to rain. 

 It was a steady climb above the forest on to the open moor. 

We lost the visibility for a while, and navigated from the bealach of Carn Ban Mor across the plateau to the summit. We soon became aware of a precipice on our right, and in the strong winds did not venture near the edge. The clouds began to lift as the gale increased, and as we began our descent, the views came back. 

 Looking down the descent ridge towards Geal Charn

We descended the long ridge of Geal Charn in a blustering gale before tottering down screes to a pass above the forest.  From here a muddy track lead back in to the forest with ease. Once back in the relative shelter of the woods it was possible to linger and enjoy the autumn colours once more. The birches in particular were just at that golden stage in their leaf that sends tree freaks like me in to ecstasies. 

Amongst the trees again.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Magic Forest

My life is full of big wet misty cold Scottish Mountans, and I like it that way.... but every now and then a gal needs a holiday- you know, the kind where you sit around and eat and drink with your friends, play in the sand, and relax....

Don't worry, I didn't spend a week sweating on a beach thankfully, but a week sweating my way round the Foret de Fontainebleau, a wonderful freak of nature south of Paris designed to entertain climbers and children in equal measure.  Being a particularly childish type of climber, the place was made for me. If you have never tried bouldering or have tried it and don't get the point, come here, and discover how climbing smallish rocks really can be great training for bigger stuff, without getting more than a few metres (sometimes quite a few) above the ground, and have a massive laugh. Some people come here and take their climbing incredibly seriously, but set against my usual holiday experiences of discomfort, fear and bad food, it seems impossible not to have a complete hoot in Fontainebleau.

 Wally searching for crimps at 95.2

 More crimps at J.A Martin

Told you I was a childish sort of climber.... Roche aux Sabots

The Magic Forest: At Gorges d'Apremont.

In the olden days when we were really good at suffering, we used to stay in a campsite at La Musardiere, but the last couple of years we have squished as many friends as possible, and increasingly their children too, into a nice big cosy gite, where we can eat, drink and be merry in comfort.  Climbing in "Font" is a brilliant activity for families and groups of people climbing at all different levels, as harder problems lie next to friendly children's circuits and nobody is stuck on the end of a rope 50 metres from a decent conversation. A proper holiday, no misery, and lots of fun.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: The Good, the Bad and the Squidgy

This article appeared in the Voice for Arran in Sept 2011 as part of a series of features on wildlife and walking on Arran.

I recently discovered that I am afraid of snakes. This sudden self knowledge is surprising in itself, but more astonishing to me is that I have suppressed this all my life until now. 

 A snake in the grass....

I remember finding my first adder- I am walking on a Norfolk beach with my father. A small scaly creature lies inert in the sand and my Dad yells at me to keep the dog away. I recognise danger, but blank my mind to fear. Dad tells me that only foolish people are bitten by snakes. I’m a little girl but I am brave.
Other encounters- a pair of dark sequins hissing at me from the heather, a flat head tensioned to strike, a black and olive pattern darting away. I respond with the same stillness I use to ignore wasps at a picnic, I don’t notice my heart bouncing in my ribcage or the adrenaline flooding my veins.

This summer, survey work has taken me more than ever in to the adder’s domain and I have come to expect these exciting meetings. Now I quiver at a twisted branch of heather, or jump back at the zigzag silhouette of a dead bracken frond.   When I see a real snake, I tremble with relief as my foot hovers above the angry coils. The statistics are in my favour- adder bites are rare and as my Dad said, usually inflicted on the hands of the foolish and the curious, but the odds are against me, as I must have tripped over 20 or so adders this summer alone.

My relationship with nature has been coloured by what I have read, watched and been taught. In order to understand the world around me I swallow facts and try to view the natural world through the objective lens of science. And yet it is virtually impossible not to respond emotionally to the wildness when I meet it face to face. Who cannot be delighted by the big innocent eyes of a red squirrel, peeking out of a tree, or the quicksilver energy of a pair of otters playing together in the surf? And we make value judgements about nature all the time. Sparrowhawks, magpies and black backed gulls are often reviled as thieves and murderers, but we easily forget that red squirrels sometimes eat birds’ eggs too.

My objectivity was recently tested to its limit as I stood on a stretch of rocky coastline watching a pair of otters fishing in a sheltered bay.  At first they seemed to ignore each other, but as they drifted ever closer together I waited for the expected game of rough and tumble. Instead, as they pulled up nose to nose, an eerie caterwauling began, and within seconds they were trying to tear each other apart. The speed, violence and complete lack of mercy that the larger otter showed the other were shocking. Eventually the loser escaped the frenzied grappling and was pursued at speed through the waves and out to sea. Finally getting away, it was clear that this otter was badly injured, its tail held stiffly out in the water as it swam. Unable to intervene, I was shaken and upset with myself for being so- fighting with lethal ferocity between rival male otters is the natural order of things.

We humans are unsurprisingly drawn to the parts of wild nature that are easiest for us to identify with.  We are afraid of, or ignore the unsettling and the unpleasant.  This is a huge challenge for conservationists who seek to protect entire ecosystems, not just cute and fluffy brand ambassadors. One wonders how much simpler the COAST campaign for a marine reserve in Lamlash Bay would be if it were dolphins or otters under threat from scallop dredging, rather than the strange and squidgy life of the sea bed.

We prize the rare over the commonplace. One species whose fortunes have seen a dramatic turnaround is the common buzzard. Growing up as a young birding geek in East Anglia in the eighties, I had never seen a buzzard. Their numbers plummeted during the 20th century due to persecution, pesticides and myxomatosis in rabbits (an important prey animal for buzzards). On a family holiday in the Black Mountains, I searched empty skies every day until at last I saw that heavy outline now so familiar in every British county. The buzzard has made a fantastic comeback, but has been relegated from magnificent and rare raptor to “just a buzzard” by bird watchers. Some people have asked me if buzzards are now considered vermin- we assume that if something is common, it is a problem that must be controlled. In contrast, the muddy brown fields of my youth were filled with giant flocks of boring lapwings.  Today they are in catastrophic decline and my heart bursts with joy when I see a just small troop tumbling overhead.

Is it possible to value all of nature equally?  Should we even try? What about biting insects? Some species are no doubt troublesome and even dangerous to human health. But each has a unique place and we are only beginning to understand the complex interspecies relationships in a healthy ecosystem. I have to hold my hands up to being genuinely afraid of the fierce little adder, but I count myself lucky, (especially while I remain unbitten), to live in a place where these animals still thrive. I’ll take the infested bog over the concrete jungle any day.
To put it simply, even midges have a value to bats and swallows, moorland birds eat ticks, and if you look deeply in to rainbow eyes of a cleg, you will see beauty reflected there.

And then it bites you.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Arran's Best Kept Secret (until now)

Yesterday Wally and I headed up for a round of the Pirnmill Hills via the Northwest Ridge of Beinn Bharrain, that juts out from the top of Mullach Buidhe like a prow. Curiously, this ridge is hidden from the road and is invisible from many other directions. If this was not the case it would certainly be ranked as highly as Arran's more famous ridges. It is a wonderful secret place, with a fine crest, excellent scrambling that is in places very serious, and amazing views. I'm almost reluctant to reveal it in the blog, as currently the chances of meeting another party on route are nil. I've actually blogged about this route before, but been deliberately reticent about its quality... Enjoy.

 The route takes a path through the fantastic woods above the village of Pirnmill following the rim of a dramatic gorge.

The gorge continues upwards on to the open moor below Beinn Bharrain. Beyond the gorge, it is possible to cross the river.

The crest looms in to view as an incongruous knife edge that protudes from the whaleback of the Pirnmill Hills. 

Established on the lower slopes of the ridge, the scrambling here is easy and it is possible to pick your line. 

The ridge begins to narrow near the top.  Below the final tower there is the crux- a rotten and greasy slab before a deep notch- which can be (and on this occasion was!) avoided by a long descent to the right and up steep grassy slopes.

Gobsmacking views from the top of the Goatfell Range to the East!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Tracking School

I returned to the woods this week and enrolled on a tracking course with Woodsmoke, a highly respected bushcraft school based in the Lake District. I've done a teensy bit of tracking with them before on their Woodlander Course, and lots of my own amateurish attempts, but this was to be three days of structured and in depth training that I hoped would open my eyes to the world around me. I was not disappointed. 

Sniffing out a scent trail.

We were in at the deep end from the very beginning, with exercises designed to enhance our memory and senses, culminating in following a pre-laid scent trail through the woods. Of course the human nose is not good enough to follow a natural trail, but smells are useful when identifying signs and scat, so it was wonderful to discover the human senses are not as dull as we assume.

Rainstorm so heavy night fell in the middle of the day.

The weekend was full of tests and challenges that gradually opened our eyes and helped us to tune in to the subtle signs around us. Alongside the rigours of the course, nature also had a curveball for us - epic rain fall that began on the first day, and continued in prolonged bursts for the next two days.  It wasn't long before little floods were pooling around camp and rivers running through tents and shelters.  I was impressed with the way the lessons were adapted and continued within an increasingly difficult environment. We even managed to watch a wonderful film on the first night about the bushmen who track in the Kalahari, thanks to some generator engineering and a cosy boathouse (providing welcome respite from the rain).

Dissecting a fox scat.

As the course progressed, I became increasingly confident not only in my own senses, but was able to understand where the limits of a really experienced tracker lie.  Abilities that had once seemed supernatural to me were shown to be based in science, while other tracking myths were quickly debunked. By the end of the course  I was scrutinsing broken blades of grass and running my fingers inside tracks to feel their form. Although many times I was unsure of what I was reading there, often enough I was rewarded with good evidence that allowed me to progress faster along a trail.

Course Director Steven Hanton demonstrating gait analysis- very Pythonesque.

Another comedy moment. Blindfolded piggy backs- can you walk in a straight line?

Looking for animal sign amongst dune systems at Ravenglass. 

By the end of the course, I was completely hooked, and keen to get straight on to my next trail. The skills taught at Woodsmoke are only the foundation stones of what is a huge area of study.  I think the next step for me is to try and understand better what happens to tracks and trails over time, as there is something reassuring about fresh signs, but these are rarely found in nature. I can't wait to get out again, only this time with my eyes wide open. 

The ending of the rain. A misty final morning in the woods.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Classic Day on the Three Beinns

Its been a while since I posted something fresh on here, and I'm sorry for getting so behind myself! It has been a busy summer with work both on and off the island and not much chance to log on and upload.  This week the schedule finally eased, and not only that, but last Thursday Wally and I grabbed a nice day to head out in to the hills to enjoy one of Arran's classic ridge walks, the three Beinns. 

 The Garbh Allt Burn as it flows in to Glen Rosa

There had been a lot of heavy rain overnight, and the Garbh Allt Burn that flows from Coire a Bhradain was in spate. To avoid a tricky river crossing we headed up open hillside on the left side of the burn, and followed the main stream until a smaller tributary flowing from the slopes of Beinn Nuis blocked our way. From here it was possible to cut up the side of Beinn Nuis to join the main path not far from the summit.

Sunlight on the ridge above Coire a Bhradain

As we climbed a cold rain shower whipped across the mountains, but by the time we had reached the first summit, the sun was breaking through the clouds and patches of blue were appearing in the skies above. The light was incredible, and we enjoyed crystal clear views of the rest of the Goatfell Range. 

Looking towards Beinn Tarsuinn with Achir and Cir Mhor beyond.

North Goatfell and Goatfell.

Glen Iorsa, a wet place at the best of times.

The Three Beinns is a real treat of a ridge to walk because once you have slogged up the first of these three peaks, you maintain your height for much of the day.  There is a gentle stroll on to the twin humps of Beinn Tarsuinn, and then a steep descent to the bealach between Tarsuinn and Beinn a Chliabhain.  There is a little height to be regained before the final summit but not much. Finally, there is a gentle descent off the southern end of Beinn a Chliabhain, and a stomp over the bog towards the gate at the top of the Garbh Allt path down to Glen Rosa.

The Descent from Beinn a Chliabhain. Views to Brodick Bay and Holy Isle in Lamlash Bay.