The majestic scenery of Wester Ross evokes images of soaring eagles and beautiful stags silhouetted on the skyline, but there`s much more to it than that.
No matter when you come there`s always an amazing diversity of wildlife. In winter you can find anything from the beautiful Ptarmigan on the mountains, to Great Northern Divers sheltering in the sea-lochs. Spring sees the arrival of migratory birds, mainly from Africa, including Warblers, Cuckoos and even the occasional vagrant Osprey.
Summer is a time of colour in the hills, with our small, beautiful wildflowers coming into bloom. Orchids can be found in a number of places – common species like Eyebright and Milkwort help to soften this harsh terrain. Autumn is the time of the rut for Red Deer and the Stags are in prime condition, roaring for supremacy of the glens.
One thing that is required, though, is patience. Much of our wildlife is elusive, but with luck you may catch sight of otters playing amongst the seaweed, or seals bobbing in the water. Pine Martens are making a come-back after years of persecution as are our birds of prey: Golden Eagles and White-tailed Sea Eagles can be found, as can Buzzards, Kestrels and the occasional Peregrine Falcon.
Peatlands, or bogs, form across large tracts of land in Wester Ross and are nationally and globally important. They are home to many specialised plants, such as the insect-eating Sundew, and provide nesting grounds for rare birds like Greenshank, Dunlin and Golden Plover.
So whenever you come, be sure to come with open eyes, and go with a sense of natural beauty that Wester Ross has to offer.
Article written by
Chris York, Inverewe Ranger/Naturalist
Loch Maree photo (top of page) reproduced by kind permission of Jim Buchanan
Seal photo taken by Ike Gibson of Woodlands B&B in Ullapool.
The following articles are by Wester Ross Ranger Meryl Carr
who leads guided walks in the Gairloch area – see events page for dates.
LAPWING: Vanellus vanellus
The Lapwing, with its many endearing characteristics, ranks highly in the popularity stakes amongst British bird watchers.
This bird is a member of the Plover family. To the uninterested eye It looks like any other black and white bird. But train your binoculars on it and a magical transformation takes place. These birds sport a fine black crest. The back and upper wings have a wonderful iridescent green sheen to them, which change constantly with changes in the light. Rich orange can be seen on the undertail coverts when the bird dips it`s head.
There is a saying that nicknames are a sign of endearment. Well this little bird has a multitude of names. Its scientific name Vanellus vanellus is Latin for wafting fan and this name perfectly describes the floppy flight of the displaying male. During nesting the male performs amazing acrobatic displays of rolling and tumbling over the nesting field while calling its peculiar wheezing, bubbling territorial song. One of its nicknames is Peewit which describes its general contact call. This call is used throughout the year as a call to keep in contact with its mate or other birds. In Gaelic they are known as Curracag.
Other names are:
Tieve`s Nacket … Tcheuchat … Peesweep … Teuchit … Chewit … and Green Plover.
But despite being many folks` favourite bird all is not well for the future of the Lapwing. During the last ten years the population of these birds has declined by 47% in England and Wales (a loss of over 60,000 individuals). In Scotland they have declined by 10%. Although that is a lot more promising than the last figures it still means that there has been a loss of 9,000 birds!) So what is going wrong for them? Well it is the steady change in farming practice.
What do the birds need? Their preferred habitat is damp pastures or marginal (poor) land or areas of spring-sown cereals in fertile, cultivated areas. The common thing in all these different habitats is that the soil needs to be rich with insects, which will provide food for the adults and young.
Lapwings are ground nesters and it is important for them to have nesting sites with an all round view so that they can see predators approaching. So short vegetation is important and if possible they like to nest close to several other pairs. This allows for joint action if danger should arise.
Four eggs are laid from early to mid April. It takes 28 days for the chicks to hatch. The parents then lead them to areas with rich food supplies. This is normally in damp grassland, edges of pools or churned up, damp stock fields.
What is their favourite dinner? A menu of earthworms, beetles, flies and insect larvae are just the thing for a growing Lapwing chick.
In winter they seek milder climates in Britain and gather in flocks in fields rich in insect life or on coasts. They tend to share their winter feeding with Golden Plovers.
So what is causing the demise of the Lapwing? Changes in farming practices are the biggest cause. A switch from spring to autumn sown cereals, decline in cattle/stock numbers, increased drainage being carried out and increased use of pesticides and herbicides.
The most important area for Lapwings in Scotland is Badenoch and Strathspey. We do have many pairs nesting here on the West Coast but these are declining with changes in land management techniques.
RED DEER: Cervus elaphus
During the winter months Red Deer herds come down from the higher elevations on the mountain sides to seek shelter and food at lower levels, so it is always a time when they can be seen most easily. To reduce the mortality rate amongst the Deer populations many Estates feed the deer, especially when winter conditions are severe. It is mainly stags that take advantage to this source of food. During the autumn rut stags expend a great deal of energy challenging one another, keeping the harems that the fittest few have managed to win away from their competitors and serving the hinds. The result is that they lose tremendous amounts of weight and condition so if a winter is particularly severe it takes it`s toll on the male populations.
Hinds tend to stay away from feeding areas provided by humans in winter. This is largely because they are culled right through to February. This makes them very nervous, favouring low level areas where they are less likely to come into contact with humans.
The down side to their migration to the glen floors is that they often cross roads or even browse along the road sides, particularly at night, making them vulnerable to becoming victims of collisions with cars. There have been a number of pilot projects which have tested various gadgets that were designed to keep deer away from roads. The gadget that appears to work better than most is the roadside reflector. This has been installed in many black spots, generally routes favoured by deer historically.
The general public can help by reporting any incidents, collisions or near misses. To do this you would need to be able to identify where the incident took place. This sort of information will be useful in helping to identify other black spots which would benefit from the installation of reflectors. Your local Countryside Ranger would be happy to take details and pass them on to the Red Deer Commission.
The beautiful red summer coat changes in about September to a thicker, grey-brown coat more suited to the harsh winter conditions. They shed the thicker hair in May and often, when walking the hills, you may come across great lumps of deer hair lying on the ground. A sure sign that a deer stopped to have a good scratch!
The Red Deer was a forest animal but in modern times it has been forced to survive out on the open moor. However if given the opportunity, especially in winter, it will seek shelter in woodland and commercial forests. Although it`s diet consists mainly of grasses, heather and lichens it does enjoy a good munch of various tree barks, pine needles and the tender buds of trees as they start to open out to meet the spring warmth. For this reason they are seen as a nuisance to Gardeners and Foresters.
At this time of the year many Hinds will be carrying young. The normal gestation period is about 34 weeks. This means that most fawns are dropped in June.
Stags will be getting ready to drop their antlers and re-grow new ones in preparation for the autumn rut. From mid-march you can start looking around the moors for cast antlers. The number of points that a Stag carries on his antlers is a good indication of his nutritional condition. The healthier the Stag, the more points he sports.
Deer roam freely through the Highlands, if the Foot and Mouth virus got in amongst them it would have devastating consequences. Please follow the guidelines of the Countryside Comeback Code when visiting the area to prevent any inadvertent spread of the disease to wild animals.
Article by Wester Ross Ranger Meryl Carr
Tel: 01854 633350
Gairloch Marine Life Centre
Visit the Gairloch Marine Life Centre to see their exhibition and/or go on one of their `Sail Gairloch` Cruises where you may see porpoises, whales, dolphins and seals.