Articles - wildlife
From the back door of the hotel where I was staying on the Isle of Mull, a narrow path leads down to the sea and follows the shoreline through a stretch of silver birch trees towards Craignure where the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban berths.
When I stopped on the path one bright morning, it was so quiet I could almost hear the new fern fronds unfurling. Pale yellow primroses, glistening with raindrops after an early morning shower, were slowly opening and turning to face the sun. This would be a good day, I thought, for meeting some of Mull’s wilder residents.
Minutes later, at the bus parking bay beside the ferry terminal, I was ushered aboard a minibus belonging to knowledgeable wildlife guide David Woodhouse. I was in good hands.
David knows Mull’s wildlife and has been taking people out to observe the island’s animals and birds in their natural habitats for more than 30 years.
Some of my fellow passengers were carrying impressively long telescopes or binoculars but you don’t need to have your own as our guide for the day brings spare sets on all his expeditions.
‘What would you particularly like to see?’ he asked, as we headed east in the direction of Tobermory.
At our first stop we got out of the bus to look for porpoises. The sea appeared to be flat calm, shining like well-polished silver. Then within seconds as we focused through binoculars, a number of black streaks split the surface. This was our first sighting. Porpoise were showing a slip of black fin before diving then reappearing yards away.
Back in the minibus, on a tree-lined road, we looked out for cross bills, small birds that feed on seeds picked from pine cones, while David commented on any other creature that came within view.
Our next sighting was possibly more impressive. Mull is home to at least 14 pairs of white- tailed eagles, sometimes known as sea eagles, or more poetically in Gaelic, iolaire suil na greine – eagle with the sunlit eye.
Each pair has a huge territory, perhaps 25 miles in any direction from their nest. They are very large birds and it seems that, just like us, they are quite happy to take it easy and laze when the sunshine is warming.
We had pulled off the road into a small car park where other wildlife watchers peered through telescopes on tripods. A sea eagle was spotted perched on a nest of untidy branches near the top of a tree in woodland high up a hillside. But it was only when the bird left the nest to soar, circling ever higher on up draughts of warm air, that we could really appreciate its size.
Throughout the rest of the day we were to see red deer, common seals, a sleeping otter that woke to stare at us, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, hen harriers, various types of ducks and numerous species of smaller birds both on land and on the water. Our guide was able to tell us about all of them.
As we travelled along the single track road bordering the seashore, sheep would move slowly out of our way. In some places, cliffs of ragged rock scraped the clouds. On the other side of the road, looking out to distant islands, I was reminded of the song written by D.MacPhail.
‘The Isle of Mull is of isles the fairest,
Of Ocean’s gems ‘tis the first and rarest;
Green grassy island of sparkling fountains,
Of waving woods and high tow’ring mountains.’
It was a relaxed day with time available for soup and sandwiches, tea and biscuits all supplied from the back of the minibus, though some of the group were so involved watching wildlife they could hardly put down their binoculars to stop for a bite.
My next day was equally captivating. The distance from Craignure to Fionnport in the far west of Mull is around 32 miles. Much of the way is through Glen More (big valley) on a single track road.
In the green valley, wooded areas offer shelter to red deer. Small lochs sparkle blue in the sunshine and, where the land begins to rise, lush grass meets heather and the hills lead ever upwards to much higher, rock-strewn mountains.
The service bus can’t go too fast through Glen More since any oncoming traffic can only be passed at designated places. At one point, our bus had to stop and wait to let a wide-horned hairy highland cow get off the road.
To the north, Ben More, the highest mountain on Mull at 3,169 feet attracts hill walkers who usually leave this peak until last to complete their round of climbs of all the Munros – mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet.
Further west, the road runs close by the south shore of fiord-like Loch Scridain. Lines of large black floats indicate where ropes of farmed mussels dangle in the clean waters. The land is flatter here, dotted with lonely farms with fields of sheep, an occasional pig, a few horses and small herds of cattle.
The bus trundles on, over a hump backed bridge, rounds bends at the village of Bunessan and eventually reaches the village of Fionnport.
It is from here that thousands of visitors each year board a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for the short crossing to the Isle of Iona.
Visitors usually say that this low lying island with its beaches of white sand and rock seems especially peaceful. Most people stroll at least as far as the church, passing a stone Celtic cross on the roadside. It’s a kind of marker that has been blasted by west coast weather since the 1500s.
Pilgrims wander further. They come to learn and follow the ways of Columba who sailed here from Donegal, Ireland, with a band of 12 evangelists in 563AD. Columba was of the O’Neil clan, a descendent of kings and an elder of the Celtic Church. It was said he was ‘graceful in speech and holy in work and could not let a day pass without prayer.’
Columba founded a monastery on Iona which became a sacred centre, the heart of an ecclesiastical dominion. Scots, Pictish and Viking kings chose to visit and be buried here. Their graves were covered with elaborately carved stones. Some of these stones are on display, placed against the walls of the church and the cloisters.
The early monks would have worked in the gardens close to the monastery. Gardeners still work this land and wooden markers on a dry stone wall let us know the produce grown for use in the nearby hotel kitchen is fresh, local and organic. The primary school pupils also have a garden. Their plantings are guarded by a line of scarecrows that were crafted in school.
Someone once described the island as a ‘thin place’, suggesting there’s not much separating the material world here from the spiritual. But to cater for the diverse expectations of its many visitors, Iona has a craft shop and two art galleries, a heritage centre, book shop, café and post office as well as a shrine to Columba.
Back in the hotel on Mull, having enjoyed a splendid meal, we were sitting back, watching the sea and sky change colours as the sun set.
Exactly on cue, as if to complete a film set, a stag strolled along the seashore path….
First published in The People’s Friend
Further Information: David Woodhouseinfo@scotlandwildlife.com
'There were a few porpoises here just days ago but a pod of seven or eight killer whales chased them away,” said Tom Jamieson, the ferryman. “However, you never know what might appear.”
Hearing this, a number of passengers aboard the Solan 1V readied their cameras and binoculars as the boat eased away from the pier and headed into the Sound of Mousa.
The ferry crossing to the Island of Mousa, an RSPB Nature Reserve off the east coast of the south mainland of Shetland, takes about 15 minutes from the township of Leebitton.
From Mousa pier, a roughly circular trail around an area in the middle of the island has been marked out with short posts. Using these as a guide and a brochure map we began an easy walk on springy turf.
It’s no distance across the narrow neck of land to the opposite rocky shore of an inlet that reaches far in from Mousa’s east coast. Here our first sighting of the abundant bird life was a chorus-line of shiny black shags (scarfs in Shetland dialect). Seemingly unperturbed, they stood on sun warmed rocks, wings spread akimbo, catching a drying breeze.
The path follows the shoreline of the inlet then turns southwards to wind through long grass covering the hillside. The
downward slope ends in a craggy coastline battered constantly by the North Sea.
Further along, the path reaches a flatter area of shore that is protected by a dry stane dyke. Peer over this wall to the inlet known as the East Pool and there’s a very good chance of spotting Grey seals and Harbour seals. Grey seals are more horse-like in profile with a flatter head and longer snout. Harbour seals have a shorter muzzle.
The nearby West pool is a much larger lagoon with a more open aspect. On the day our party were exploring Mousa, the West Pool had an impressive number of seals (selkies) visible in the water while more were hauled up on the surrounding sand. When a few of the beached seals did shuffle awkwardly back into the sea, they only retreated to the comparative safety of the pool yet were still within good viewing distance.
With so much wildlife present, this is obviously a sensitive area and the ground-nesting artic terns (tirricks) and great skuas (bonxies) soon let you know that you are getting too near their territory. In at least one instance, blood was drawn as a member of our party strayed too close and was pecked on the head for his trouble.
It’s strange to see people walking with their arms in the air, shaking their hands and fingers all the while, but this is the advised method of protection against these aerial attacks. It’s best, of course, if you can leave the wildlife in peace, undisturbed.
From the beach, the trail now leads back up the hill. Big, brown, great skuas still make their presence felt here, swooping low, squeaking then soaring skywards.
Dainty, white flags of bog cotton grow in the wettest areas while broken walls and the stones of an old water mill are smothered in tufts of silver grey algae known in Shetland as Old Man’s Beard. This growth is said to signal the absence of pollution and the purity of the air.
When the way ahead flattens out, Mousa Broch dominates the view. This is the best preserved broch in the world (there are none outside Scotland). Built around 2000 years ago of local sandstone, it still stands over 13 metres high. Possibly, there was at least 1 metre more of stone, now long gone, on the top of the building which was probably roofed with timber and turf, or thatch.
Brochs are thought to have been symbols of power as well as fortified farmhouses for the leading families of the area. Safe inside, the inhabitants could hold out against attacks by enemies who might be using the best weapon technology of the day.
There may have been three wooden floors inside giving living spaces that could be reached from a stone stairway winding clock wise between the inner and outer walls. It’s thought that symbolically and perhaps spiritually, there was some significance in this clockwise design of stair construction.
When you follow in the footsteps of the Iron Age broch dwellers and climb up the stairs, the views from the top are vast. From up here, the siting of Mousa Broch and another broch that once stood on a headland across Mousa Sound at Burraland would suggest these structures were also used as watchtowers.
The Broch has given refuge to at least two famous runaway couples. In 900 AD, a couple from Norway were on their way to Iceland when they were shipwrecked on Mousa. They married and spent a winter in the broch.
In the 12th century, Harald, Earl of Orkney laid siege to the broch where his mother and her lover were taking refuge, but eventually matters were settled amicably and they left the island.
In 1774, eleven families lived on the isle, but by 1861 all were gone.
From the Broch, the marked trail leads back to the ferry pier. It’s worth walking on a little way to see a part of the coastal geology where the rock appears to have been formed like a sandwich cake, from layers of a near-similar thickness. Slices of this sandstone were used to make flagstones for the streets of Lerwick, the capital of Shetland.
Having taken our seats aboard the Solan 1V for the return journey and now moving at a good rate of knots across the Sound of Mousa, we were surprised when the ferryman cut the engine. In the ensuing silence, 3 or 4 porpoises could be seen, dorsal fins arcing out of the water only a few metres from the boat - an added bonus to a splendid day.
Back on the pier at Sandsayre it’s worth taking time to explore the old boathouse which has been converted into a small waiting room/ heritage centre with wall panels giving information on the history and natural history of the area.
Further Information: The smallest British seabird, the storm petrel (aalamootie) breeds on Mousa and there are special evening trips to the island to watch these tiny birds returning to their breeding sites. Bat-like, they flutter in from the sea, disappearing into crevices in the walls of the Broch with cropfuls of food for their single chicks.
Daily trips between early April and September
Tel: 01950 431367
First published in Scottish Islands Explorer Magazine
Occasionally there are days of shimmering heat across Scotland’s West Highlands when the sunlight seems to be brilliantly luminous. On such days the countryside appears to radiate colour.
There are countless shades of green, of grass and leaves. The blue of the sky is mirrored in sparkling lochs while the gold of gorse and yellow on the broom looks to be lit from within.
Gleaming white patches of snow still linger in distant mountain corries.
For some wild creatures, this may be the perfect time to relax, to doze in the warmth, out of sight of potential predators.
For wild life spotters, the chances of spotting this same wild life may be thought to be less. However, should they join knowledgeable guide Ian MacLeod on one of his Wild West Safaris, they are guaranteed, whatever the weather, to catch sight of the Big Five – Scotland’s iconic wild life species - and all in the one day!
Ian’s safari tours start from Fort William. After collecting participants from various points he drives his smart mini-bus out of town along the A830, the road to Mallaig, to the jetty on Loch Shiel.
On the way, we learn a little about the geology of the area, of the unimaginably powerful forces within the earth’s crust which formed the surrounding mountains. Millions of years of weathering and the weight of enormous glaciers reduced the height of these mountains and scraped out Scotland’s lochs and glens.
At the jetty on Loch Shiel we leave the mini-bus and board the cruise boat the MV Sileas and are now in the capable hands of Jim Michie. Some passengers opt to sit in a covered area while others choose to sit in the open, at the prow or along the sides of the boat. After a last look back to the head of Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous in the Harry Potter film, ‘The Chamber of Secrets’, we are sailing, awed by the surrounding beauty.
Loch Shiel is relatively narrow and hemmed in at the north end by high mountains. As the boat chugs along, Jim uses a microphone to tell us about people who had lived along this loch.
Small parties of hunter gatherers arrived here some 8000 years ago. The hillsides were heavily wooded then with oak, Scots pine and birch trees. There are still fragments of the ancient Caledonian forest but large coverings of Forestry Commission conifers dominate the lower hillsides. Higher up, sheep and deer have left the slopes bare.
Our first wild life sightings are not too exciting. Common gulls, though they’re not so common nowadays despite the name, crowd on to a small island of rock.
But then, all eyes and binoculars are trained on a black speck in the blue sky above a mountain ridge. A golden eagle it’s agreed! All aboard are wishing this dot in the sky would come much closer, be more convincing, show its impressive wingspan and curved beak – but it doesn’t happen.
However, further along the loch, there is a definite sighting – this pair of birds are arguably even more magnificent. Jim stops the boat. There are two White Tailed Eagles in a nest near the top of a tree. The male flies off, doesn’t reappear but is probably still close by, perched on another tree. The female looks to be hunched over. Is she sheltering chicks?
The birds are relatively safe here as the loch sides are almost empty of people. There’s only one full time resident now. One other cottage belongs to author Mike Tomkies who left a very different life behind to come here to study the wildlife, particularly wildcats.
We leave the boat at the southern end of the loch at Acharacle, a small village that manages to support a bakery and a general store.
When we are seated in the mini-bus again we are driven the few miles to Loch Sunart, a fiord - like sea loch with numerous bays which otters are known to inhabit.
We look for signs of these elusive creatures - but here on this beautiful day, for us, there’s no show!
Our next stop is the Forestry Commission Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide. It’s a well - appointed wooden building with an approach ramp suitable for wheelchair users, wall mounted benches, information boards and windows overlooking an island in Loch Sunart . Here the wild life watchers talk in whispers.
Some way below us seals are easily spotted. There’s much splashing in the water as pairs rise and cavort before disappearing into the depths.
As we continue motoring along Loch Sunart, passing trees that may be three hundred years old, our guide draws our attention to the striking rock falls and formations, the birdlife and two small herds of red deer.
One grouping is moving slowly, mere specks of dark brown on the hillside. Another group of stags and hinds is closer to the single track road. They appear unperturbed by the sight of humans. They watch us watching them – then carry on grazing.
At each stop, as well as pointing out the wildlife including dragonflies, Ian tells us about the importance of some of the flowers at our feet. These plants may now be dismissed as weeds, but were important to local people who could make use of them.
Silverweed is a hairy, silvery creeping perennial with yellow flowers which is plentiful, common and was cultivated from late prehistoric times. The roots were boiled, baked or even eaten raw. During the famine in these parts, Silverweed was used as a substitute for potatoes.
Our last stop is at another wildlife hide. It’s really a high, sturdy wooden fence with holes cut out to accommodate viewers’ different eye levels. We look through into the forest. On a tree not far away, a red squirrel is safely ensconced in a little wooden shelter attached to a feeder with a plentiful supply of food.
Here’s another definite sighting.
Ian leaves us with details of where we might still spot otters on the shore in Fort William.
On this safari we’ve not managed to see all of Scotland’s Big Five. But the searching has been splendid on a glorious day and there’s still time.