Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Amazingness of Life

Spring time again! And it comes in a hurry and a rush in a commotion of colour, sound and magnificance. There's one thing that sums it up for me this year - lambing.

I'm lambing on my dad's farm at the moment, I have sole responsibility during the day and during this time I am experiencing the raw wonder of nature - birth of a mammal, and it is so utterly wonderful, that I seriously wish everyone could see this just once. Before the birth we become aware that a ewe is getting ready as she starts to show a tendency to nest. She finds  a quieter area away from the main body of the flock, and starts to circle. The lamb comes out with both forefeet first, pointing the way, then the head, and the rest of the body follows in a swift and slick mess. The second the lamb is out, and it does take seconds, the ewe twists round and starts licking it clean. She bleats to it, but it's not an everyday bleat - it comes from her belly and is warming to the very soul. I can only think that it has the same effect on the lamb. It's a connecting call, an "I'm your mother, know me" call, and it's also a call of deep rooted satisfaction, for she has succeeded once again.

The lamb quickly shakes its head and reacts to the mother's tongue and sound. As it dries off it gets more and more active, and once it is almost standing, the second lamb will come (if she's having twins). A quick birth, the second tends to be smaller and so is less likely to cause problems, and then she has two to dry off, but the first is standing and it's not long before it's seeking a teat, and the warm collostrum that comes out first.

It is a miracle, and one of the best kind, one which any one of us can observe with our own eyes. We can see this birth, and we can see how adapted these mammals are to it. How quickly the lambs stand to get out of the way of their ancient enemies - the wolf and other predators. The first milk, the collostrum, is a thicker concoction of goodness for the newborns' first drink and if it misses that it does suffer. Diseases, especially of the stomach, are not uncommon in lambs, and more common in those individuals that, for whatever reason, have missed out on that first nutritious drink.

Undertaking a lambing gives access to another world which we are alien to. We find it hard to commune with animals, and to leave our 'human-ness' behind, but in this way I find that I can get closer. At that time, acting as midwife, I can see this other world, and it's heaven. I cannot see wild sheep birthing, but these domesticated copies, are so well adapted to their job that I cannot see it as anything other than the best of the natural world.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Trees for Life - Corrimony

Dear all,

I think you will all have heard (seen) me mention my favourite charity, Trees for Life, before now. If I haven't spoken about them, then I should have as I have been involved with them for a long time. I first became a member in about 2010, I think, and then I carried out the research for my MSc thesis on the effects of boar and deer on the regenerating Caledonian Forest. After seeing Alan Watson-Featherstone speak on his 'Millionth Tree' lecture tour I was also inspired to take part in their 'Treelay' - a huge walk around the extent of their land and raised funds in the doing so that went directly to TfL.

One thing that I had never done and which is a huge part of what TfL are about is I had never taken part in a work week. Until now.

I booked my work week in about January or February of this year, and although I knew it was going to be good, I didn't know how good until I got there. And in that it exceeded all expectations. It was a week of heaven, no exaggeration. I don't think any single thing has helped me more during this job hunt than the tree week has, so much so that I've booked on to another one which is based in Glen Affric at the beginning of May. Can. Not. Wait.

But first, good people, let me tell you about the week I've just attended:


We met at Inverness train station at 12pm on the first saturday. There was a group of rucksacked and interesting looking people assembled in the middle of the forecourt, and I approached them, although they weren't actually my group - most of whom were yet to arrive. This group were also TfL volunteers but heading to a different planting area and they quickly got onto their minibus and disappeared.

Slowly our group grew. Due to the terrible weather that had hit some parts of Scotland a few of the people were delayed and so we waited in Inverness for a wee while until most people were there. Out of the two that were still missing, we picked one up in Drumnadrochit and the other arrived by car at the caravan park we were staying in.

At first it was weird, being with a group of strangers, but it didn't take long before we were chatting as though we had known each other for years. The strange thing is that I come away from it not knowing really anything about my companion's personal lives, ie. marriage, children etc., but know exactly what everyone thinks of the lynx reintroduction! We were a great group though. Such a mix, and out of eight of us only three hadn't been on a week before, but all left saying that they'd be back again. We stayed in two chalets in Glen Affric Holiday Park, and these were very comfy. We used one for cooking in (cooking is communal and you take turns - all meals are vegetarian and all were absolutely fantastic!) and one for eating in which worked very well indeed. Half of us slept in one chalet, and the other half in the other one.

The work we carried out was on a RSPB reserve which is managed for Black Grouse and we met with the manager, Simon, to discuss the management of the reserve and the challenges that lay ahead. He also introduced us to one of the reserves old Granny pines, which was absolutely beautiful. About 200 years old and a habitat all in itself. There are not many of these pines left, and that is what we are hoping to do - plant granny pines of the future. The reserve is a relatively new purchase of RSPB, and was previously owned by the Forestry Commission. Because of this all the Scots Pine plantations are planted in straight lines, and have little structural interest for birds and bats and beasties. Simon is leading a regeneration project which includes ring-barking some living trees to slowly kill them, break up the canopy and create some dead wood environments (beloved of many, many different things). Nothing happens too quickly in the world of forestry, and it may be that it will be thirty years or so before the reserve looks more like it should. It will be hundreds of years before it is perfection. But that is the nature of conservation - we work not for ourselves, but for our children and their children's children as well.

Due to the removal of old non- native plantations the ground we were planting on was rough, wet in some places, and generally slightly uninspiring. The trees we were planting were alder, downy birch and hazel. They were tiny, about 20cm high, and seemed so lost in the landscape. It was important, I found, to keep visualising how the habitat would look when the trees are grown, and although they were planted quite close together they will rearrange themselves to make themselves more comfortable as they grow. May I quote William S. Wilson here? I am afraid that I  know not who he is, but his words are printed on my Trees for Life calendar on the wall next to me, and they are particularly appropriate here:

"The infinitesimal seedlings became a forest of trees that grew courteously, correcting the distances between themselves as they shaped themselves to the promptings of available light and moisture..."
 And that is what my seedlings shall do. Some shall perish, but that is the nature of forests, and some shall succeed. I planted 327 overall (I was the only one that counted, but it's nice to have a record!), which included 76 alder, 84 hazel and 167 birch. As a group we planted 2775 saplings, a lovely number that will hopefully grow into a forest one day.

Overall the week was filled with laughter and fun. The tree planting during the day was brilliant, and I think we all took satisfaction from a job well done. Lunches and tea breaks were taken sitting outside in the beautiful, though very cold, weather - sometimes in the snow! - and much food was eaten to keep us going. The evenings consisted of whisky (non-obligatory!) and good food, and serious as well as silly discussions. When we were deposited back in Inverness on the Saturday no one was keen to leave, we all stood about, prolonging the week as much as we could before we had to head in our separate directions. And that evening we were back in touch again via email, and we've all taken fantastic memories of the week home with us. New friends and new memories. Is any holiday made of better things than that?

If I can recommend one thing to any of you, I would recommend booking on to a Tree Week RIGHT NOW!! Here's the website again: Click here, and if you get onto the week from the 4th to the 11th of May I shall see you then!! It's one of those things that once you've attended it you wish you'd made it to one years ago so that you could have already got several under your belt. But, I'm still young, and there's the rest of my life to keep planting trees and keep developing the Caledonian Forest and that is a comforting thought indeed.

Batty for Bats

Not so long ago I met through LinkedIn a bat ecologist in my local area. And last week he asked if I wanted to go on a bat box check with him in Kielder Forest in Northumberland.

Bat box checks are carried out (by a registered bat worker) every spring and autumn, and unfortunately for us, due to the unseasonably cold temperatures our spring has so far been made up of, there were few bats in residence. Autumn checks tend to have more results as the Pipistrelles (Common and Soprano) use them as breeding boxes, but many bats will still be hibernating until the world warms up a bit more.

It was absolutely fabulous, however, because we did find some bats. And the bats that we did find, I have been reliably informed, are one of the best species to find on your first survey - Noctules (Nyctalus noctula).

And there she is, in all her glory! It was the first time I had ever held a bat, and under the watchful gaze of the bat ecologist, I was able to. So small, but somehow so solid as well. Very different from the Hummingbirds of South America, which is what I was comparing them to in my head, and so warm. She was a bit unhappy with having been woken up, and when given the chance, sleepily climbed back up into her roost. It was a wonderful experience though, and I hope she's managing to find some food in this chill weather.

Noctules are our largest bat, and they are instantly recognisable. They have really luscious golden fur, and a bigger, bulky look than some of our other species. Taking high flying insects such as hawkmoths and beetles their teeth are vicious! April is at the end of their hibernation, and so the bats that we found had probably only recently moved into the boxes from their winter roosts. Due to the cold weather we were lucky to see the few that we did, although every box that I climbed up the ladder to check I was sure was going to contain a bat. No such luck for me, but maybe next time!