Friday, 26 August 2016

Tracking and Trailing

I've covered this before. I think. Since spending a week in the woods last September, tracks and trails have been a bit of a hobby. Sometimes I tell myself that I don’t have the time to explore them fully. But what is time? It’s just nonsense, and to say I don’t have enough time...well, that’s a habit that I’m trying to get out of. And then I went on a course in July, where we studied tracks and trails in such depth that my brain started to hurt, and then to sing. What a course! Fantastic!

 Stuck in the forest it’s the track and the trails that help keep things interesting for me. I've been able to identify two kinds of deer that use this woodland, both from the footprints (checking for size, shape, presence of dew claws) and from the droppings.

Sika (deer – but sika means deer, so to call it a sika deer means that technically you’re calling it deer deer – oh dear, dearie me) have footprints with a bit of a pear shape. A bit angular (concave?) on the side, and about 5-6 cm long. Droppings – oval, with a small teat at the end, smaller than red, but bigger than roe’s...

Roe deer have tiny footprints, which look like wee hearts and can splay out quite easily in soft mud. Also in soft mud you can normally see the dew claw, making small indentations behind the actual hoof prints. The droppings also appear to be faceted (or to have faces, but not of the smiling variety as was mentioned on the course) and pretty dinky. Shiny and dark.

Through identifying these tracks and signs I was able to say that there are two kinds of deer in this forest, name them, and since then be on the lookout for any further signs. Thanks to that, I am building up a wee bit of a picture of what they do, where they go, and when new footprints appeared during one survey, when I might have disturbed them (it looked like two sika, moved from within the forest out to the open area, though they probably passed into a new, quieter bit of the forest to escape me. Both adult.)

The possibilities are endless. The other day while passing a lovely muddy puddle at the roadside (which has now been filled with stones, unfortunately) I saw the most perfect trail of toad footprints I've seen yet. Perfect. Well, the most perfect except for the ones that walked directly into a puddle that would have submerged the toad and then out the other side....zombie apocalypse, anyone?!

So much to explore: the difference between a corvid footprint and a pigeon’s. Or how about the gaits and what they mean for the animal and what action it was undertaking.... There are so many wonderful opportunities to investigate, discover, delve into.

Ah, isn't life just blooming inspiring sometimes?!


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Changing Opinions

I used to hate Sitka spruce forest. I hated it so much that contracted work within the forests of Ayrshire almost made me quit ecology altogether, and with that: conservation. I almost stepped away from something that has been my life work, because of Sitka spruce plantations.

Our most common forest in the UK, they are popular because of the wood. Sitka spruce grows fast, pretty straight and is pale: all things that the modern wood industry like, whether this be for paper pulp, construction, or fencing materials (or the myriad of other uses for wood in the UK today). It is planted in straight lines on marginal soils and still creates a crop worthy of harvesting. Sitka is planted in narrow lines, which are then periodically thinned to create better and better crops, and to remove the slightly less straight, or more branched (hence more knotty) specimens from the forest.

Sitka forest covers approximately 690 000 hectares within the UK, most of which is within Scotland. This is a vast area, which has a surprisingly low biodiversity when compared to native forests. I say that, but I’m just about to make the case for how my opinion has changed, and how I’ve developed a respect bordering on appreciation for our Sitka.

I disliked Sitka plantations for the way I was feeling at the time. It was a miserable summer (both in my mood and in the weather), and spending entire days, weeks, in Sitka plantations and never seeing the sun brought a whole new level of despair into my soul. This was several years ago now, and it’s about time I stopped associating these forests with the way I was then, and this year I’ve found a wee redemption.

A site I’m working on at the moment is stuck in the middle of a Sitka plantation. This needs to be monitored for ill-effects caused by the works the company are undertaking. As Ecologist, that role falls on me. This means that every day I am walking through the forest, along the rides and into the outer edges. At least once a week I have to delve further into the hidden reaches of the forest, follow the ditches and drains and check for pollution within the water.

This takes me into areas of the forest that if I did not have to, I would rather not go to. But through this, I have come to appreciate them more. They’re spiky, yes, and very unwelcoming. But that requirement for silence, for careful steps and of being made to feel inconsequential brings to mind a cathedral, but one that is more immediate and present than one made of stone and mortar.

I’m getting to know the creatures of the forest. There are sika within, and tiny roe deer. I’ve found fox scat, seen a red squirrel, observed two buzzards interacting and watched a weasel family. I caught a glimpse of something that I suspect was a goshawk, seen common lizards galore and I know that there are adders in here. I just need to find one to confirm. The birds are everywhere. My every step is echoed by a robin’s click. Wrens dart about, and several times I’ve seen mixed groups of tits flying. We’ve got crossbills, and once, I’m sure I saw a goldcrest.

These forests are not deserts. Better to have slightly suboptimal trees than no trees at all. The plantations also hold stories of what was here before. The other day I came across an old farm steading. The roots of ancient woodlands may be seen, or a small burn with rowan and alder in the middle of a plantation can hint at what was there before. I want to explore further. Seek more stories and hear more tales.


The silence can be oppressive, but it can also be welcome. It depends on your frame of mind. The air is heavy, but it’s humid and warm and breathing deeply can refresh your lungs. Stillness reigns, no breeze disturbs the heavy branches and needles. But sometimes stillness can be welcome and can help us to find that same space within ourselves. Eyes watch, but that no longer feels lonely for I no longer view these trees as an enemy. We’re maybe not friends yet, but the respect I have for the forest is helping the appreciation grow.   

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Lighting the Fire of the Future

Do you know how to light a fire? Set a fire? Get warmth to seep into your bones? How about if you don’t have newspaper or firelighters? Or logs, ready seasoned and cut? What if it’s windy or the skies have been soaking the world with rain for the past week and nothing seems dry any more. What if you don’t have matches? Or a lighter? What if you don’t have a steel, flint, or any other fire-lighting tool?

Do you still know how to light a fire?

I visited the Crannog Centre on Loch Tay recently (what a place: the best visitors attraction I have ever been to) and we tried to light fire using the bow method. In the woods last year we tried to light fire using the same method. Some succeeded; I did not. It came to me recently that actually, while I can light a fire without newspaper, seasoned logs, and in adverse weather (though Scotland hasn’t tested me that much yet), I still cannot light fire from nothing at all. I have managed with a steel, but the sparks were landing on Vaseline covered cotton wool – not exactly the stuff you’d have in an emergency situation....

This is a lacking skill.

Once, and maybe still, fire meant survival. Anyone would be able to get a fire started: know which wood burns when wet, where to find dry tinder, how to get that spark, how to keep that spark going, and now where is that skill? I read something recently – it may have been one of the information boards at the Crannog Centre – and it talked about primitive people. And yet, it came to me that actually it is us that are primitive. We cannot light fire, build shelters, hunt, forage, dress ourselves, protect ourselves and our families. Basically we are lacking the ability to actually survive in our natural environment.

We are evolving backwards – we are becoming more reliant on technology and less able to survive with each passing year. I want to change this. I want to take this back. I want to empower myself again and restart my evolution. I want to relearn these ancient skills of survival. Let’s all open our eyes again, shake off our presumptions of superiority, widen our arms, stand true on our feet and see what the world actually is.