Tuesday 12 October 2010

Autumn in Argyll

We have enjoyed a very fine Autumn here on the West Coast. Temperatures have been higher than usual, apart from two nights of frost at the end of September and the occasional rainy mornings gave way to glorious afternoons and evenings. Swimming on Loch Sween has extended into October. The wet suit has been hung up for the last time on several occasions, only to be taken out again for 'one last swim until next year'.

After a spring and summer of hobbling around with an injured knee, James finally managed to get up to his favourite fishing spot. The Wolf Loch above Achnamara sounds impressive and dramatic but the one time I made it up to the top of the Cruach which involves sprachling over rough terrain and climbing over a deer fence, I was surprised to see this much lauded loch was a small and weedy body of water. However, it's modest size and difficulty of access is compensated for by the fantastic trout that it holds.

The four chicks raised earlier in the year all turned out to be cockerels, or dinner as I like to call them. The new hen house was finally finished and all the hens, with their new cockerel are now installed in a very substantial and hopefully, predator proof, house. It has an automatically opening and closing pophole so next summer, we hope to be able to enjoy nights away while the chickens put themselves to bed.

The Moine Mhor north of the Crinan Canal, is the remnant of an ancient raised bog which is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. It is a fantastic place for wildlife and you can spot hen harriers and short eared owls. Earlier in the year we had a close encounter with five short eared owl chicks which chose to sit in the middle of the road. Take a turn to Crinan Ferry which has a good beach and on the way enjoy views to Duntrune Castle, home to the Malcolms of Poltalloch.

The garden has been very productive this summer with great crops from most plantings. The only disappointments have been the onions and the celeriac – unless they are supposed to be golf ball size?

We haven't managed to get away for a holiday this autumn but the great weather has made up for it. A favourite outing is to take the camper van down to the point of Knap, have a walk and then enjoy a cup of tea and some cake while enjoying the views across to Jura. Simple pleasures! The landscape opens up as you drive down the peninsula, the hills are kept bare by sheep and deer so it is a totally different experience from being here at the head of the loch, surrounded by trees. A notable landmark is Castle Sween which is one of the oldest Castles in Scotland.

The Autumn Stag Rut has been in full swing with deer bellowing all around Achnamara. I don't remember them being so noisy in the past and it has been unusual for them to be in the fields around the house and village rather than further up in the hills.

Yet more beavers have been added to the Beaver Trial. At the last count there were twelve beavers in the trial area which is one more than the trial started with eighteen months ago. The Dubh Loch family produced one kit this year, as did the family on Loch Linne. A new pair were imported from Norway and released onto Creag Mhor Loch but then moved to an adjacent, less accessible unnamed loch. Another male beaver was released to join the lone female on Seafield Loch in an attempt to make a fourth potential breeding pair. We don't know yet if this has been successful. The Dubh Loch beavers have been extending their dam and increasing the area of flooding. Unfortunately this has now extended beyond the entrance to the new path installed to bypass the flooded 'Beaver Detective Trail'. A very impressive looking pontoon on Coille Bharr will take walkers onto the loch, just below the beaver dam. It is not yet accessible but will hopefully be completed before too long.

Monday 23 August 2010

July and August

July was a fairly dreary month but things improved in August with sunnier if shorter days. We escaped in July for a week's holiday in Norfolk which unlike Argyll was parched and golden. When the temperature threatened to rise to 29C, we headed west to visit son John and his girlfriend Zoe in their lovely new home.

On our first day home, we were booked on an evening boat trip to Eilean Mor organised by the Dalriada Project and led by Dr Sharon Webb of Kilmartin House Museum. We travelled from Tayvallich, down Loch Sween, past Castle Sween with Venture West (venture-west.co.uk) on an astonishingly beautiful evening. The island has a ruined chapel and a tiny visitor centre with information about the island. The Dalriada Project is now coming to an end and there were events to celebrate the achievements of the project.

August is the time of abundance in the garden and the wild. The garden has produced far more than we need but we have been helped by slugs eating the cauliflowers caterpillars munching the cabbage and mice harvesting the peas. Such are the joys of organic-ish gardening. We have been gathering wild chanterelles and ceps and our shiitake logs have produced well. The tomatoes have been fantastic and look like cropping for some time to come. Four very nice trout were caught on the Leipeg Loch but the mackerel fishing on Loch Sween has been a little disappointing - probably because we haven't taken the boat out and only fished from the shore.

An interesting looking moth caterpillar, a Vapourer, appeared on a dogwood leaf and the butterflies have been amazing. There were about 30 peacock butterflies on one buddleia bush and they were also sunning themselves on the summerhouse verandah. A silver washed fritillary was seen one morning and there were many speckled woods, red admiral, small coppers, scotch argus, orange tips and tortoishells.

Artmap Argyll, (artmapargyll.com) the open studios event happened in August and my workshop was open to the public for four days. Many of the artists can be visited by appointment outside the open studio event so it is worth picking up a brochure or visiting the website and exploring the wealth of creative activity in the area. An associated exhibition at Kilmartin House Museum, 'Mixing up the Media' continues until the end of September.

The beavers continue to munch their way through Knapdale. The two families on Dubh Loch and Loch Linne have each produced one kit so the current count stands at 11 - the same number as were released in May 2009 and four less than the total beavers released. The two beavers released on Creag Mhor Loch at the end of June have relocated to an unnamed lochan between Creag Mhor and Loch Linne. Creag Mhor Loch was the release site of one of the original families which dispersed in the first weeks of the trial. Perhaps we can now assume that there is something about the loch which is inherently unsuitable for beavers rather than any suggestion that they were shot at? The single female which relocated to Seafield Loch after its partner died is still there. The project now has permission to replace dead or dispersed adult beavers up until May 2011 and having dispensed with the need for quarantine can continue to bolster the project rather than letting it run its course.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Summer Holidays Begin, Drought Ends

Good news for private water supplies, gardeners and hydro generators but not so good for visitors coming to Argyll to enjoy the great outdoors. For six months we had very little rain but as soon as the school term ended and the summer holidays began, the skies darkened and the heavens opened. Hopefully there will be a return to more summery weather in the coming weeks.

The Artmap Open Studios Event will be taking place across Argyll from 13 - 16 August. The brochure has been launched and the website (www.artmapargyll.com) updated. Many of the artists welcome visits outwith the event dates. Some of the Art Map Artists are also exhibiting in ‘Mixing Up the Media’ at Kilmartin House Museum from July 15 until October. There is a also brand new exhibition space, Studio Barn at Leac na Bhan Farm on the road to Tayvallich.

The Gannets and the Osprey are having more success fishing for mackerel than we are but we did manage to catch two last week while fishing from the shore. Mackerel fresh from the sea are a very different fish from those in fishmongers and supermarkets which have been around for a few days. The flavour is light and delicious compared with the oily, heavy taste of an older fish.

There have been scores of sand martins feeding on insects in the shelter of the trees at the edge of the glen. They take a rest from time to time, up to 50 at a time lining up on the hen run fence. There are four swallow’s nests on the house which have been very noisy in the early mornings.

The lovely yellow flag iris have given way to foxgloves which are one of the first plants to colonise harvested sites in the forest. The field beyond the hen run is dotted with orchids ranging in colour from almost white to purple.

The garden is at last producing vegetables and fruit. As usual we go from dearth to abundance overnight and harvesting becomes another job to add to the list. Cabbage white caterpillars attempted to munch their way through calabrese, cauliflower and cabbage but were easily picked off and disposed of. I tried feeding them to the chickens but they were not impressed. They must have a bitter taste but I am not going to try one to find out. We haven’t seen our strawberry eating badger for a while so hope to gather enough for puddings and jam.

Following the death of the adult male beaver introduced to the Lily Loch in May, the female moved to Seafield Loch where it has been observed during June. The post mortem report was inconclusive and suggests that the beaver starved to death after failing to adapt to the Knapdale diet. A further two beavers have been released on Creag Mhor Loch which was vacated by the beavers originally released there in May 2009. One of the original beavers died in captivity in Edinburgh Zoo on 26 May and the other two are missing, presumed dead.

Current resident beavers are:- 3 on the Dubh Loch (originally released onto Loch Coille Bharr), 3 beavers on Loch Linne, 2 beavers on Creag Mhor Loch and 1 beaver last seen on Seafield Loch. The project has been given permission to release further beavers to replace adult beavers which die or disperse from the trial site. The minimum requirements for a viable trial are four breeding pairs of beavers and 13 months into the trial, there are still only three pairs in Knapdale, two of which may produce kits this year.

The Dubh Loch beavers continue to maintain and enlarge their dam and signs of their activity in the area are very apparent. The path remains flooded and visitors have formed a well trodden path to the dam. So far, no start has been made on the alternative boardwalk which will allow walkers to safely circumnavigate Loch Coille Bharr. On Loch Linne, the beaver dam was repeatedly removed by the project and the beavers appear to have given up trying to rebuild it. There are signs of tree felling all around the loch and there is a lodge on the east side of the loch. On recent visits, we have only spotted one beaver out and about on the loch. The adult female may be in the lodge with kits and will not emerge until they are ready to be weaned.

Monday 14 June 2010

Flaming June

Flaming June

After a cold, dry, sunny May, we are having a warmer, dry, sunny June. There has been no significant rainfall since last Autumn and watering the garden has been added to the list of chores. There haven’t been many years in the twenty that I have lived here, that a tractor has been able to go onto the fields without the wheels sinking into the bog.

Because of the dryness and the cold air, we had a temporary reprieve from the midges but they are now making their presence felt on still evenings. There has been plenty of less annoying wildlife to enjoy, some of it close at hand in the conservatory. A swallow hitched a ride on the model osprey, hanging from the ceiling and a willow warbler investigated the windowsill. A roe deer enjoyed the fresh grass at the back of the workshop and a dragonfly was seen having just emerged from it’s nymph state. The cast nymphal skin is left hanging on the tree. The air has been full of mating damsel flies. While out fishing, they were landing on us and all over the boat. On the domestic front, the chicks hatched in April are getting bigger every day but the jury is still out on the gender.

The wild flowers are fabulous at this time of year. My favourite is the yellow flag iris which flowers profusely in June. Water liliies are flowering on the lochs and the bright blue swathes of bluebells along the woodland margins are being replaced with fields showing bright yellow with buttercups.

A particular feature this year has been the volcanic ash which has shown up in thick yellow bands where the water levels of the lochs have dropped. The bands look as if they have been painted onto the rocks and posts. The lack of rain allowed it to settle rather than washing it away.

The garden has been demanding a lot of time this month and things are starting to grow well but so far we only have rhubarb, salad leaves and turnips to eat. The garlic is almost ready to harvest and there are tiny embryonic courgettes appearing which will magically transform overnight into monster marrows. All too soon there will be the two months of abundance and all the work of dealing with the surplus.

We managed to get away for a short break this month, taking the campervan up to Applecross. It was an exciting journey over the Bealach na Ba, probably the steepest road in Britain, complete with hair pin bends and vertigo inducing drops. I was glad to be the one driving with the steering wheel to hang on to rather than sitting in the passenger seat next to the edge of the mountain. I was so concerned that the elderly VW wouldn’t make it, that I didn’t have too much time to worry. The scenery was stunning with high, vegetation free mountains, quite a contrast to the tree clad, gentle hills of Knapdale. Two fine trout provided a good dinner one evening, camped high above the Sound of Raasay.

It is now a year since Norwegian beavers were introduced to Knapdale and we have six beavers remaining in the trial area. An additional pair were put onto the Lily Loch, close to Seafield at the beginning of May. Early reports suggested the beavers were ‘settling in brilliantly’. Two weeks later, project workers failed to observe the male beaver but were still getting a signal from the radio tag. It was another 9 or 10 days before the adult male was discovered dead in the artificial lodge on 27 May. Coincidentally, this was the time when the media were very interested in doing anniversary broadcasts and articles but no word of the death was released by the Project and the anniversary press release was upbeat and very positive about the whole enterprise. News of the death was not released for a further two weeks. Another beaver, removed from the trial last December has also died in Edinburgh Zoo. That brings the confirmed death toll to 12 and there are another 3 missing, presumed dead. That makes 15 beavers dead or missing out of a total importation of 25. And the effects so far? A small addition to the body of water in an area renowned for it’s wetland habitat, the felling and flooding of many hundreds of trees with the consequent loss of habitat and the removal of a popular walk due to beaver flooding. Is that really worth £2.5 million (so far) and all the stress to animals and humans alike?

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Ne'er cast a clout til May is Out

Whether the saying refers to the hawthorn blossom or the month, I don’t think I will be casting any clouts for a while yet. May so far has been beautifully clear and sunny but the cold air which gives us the clarity means warm woolly jumpers and sunburned noses.

The ground has been remarkably dry, making gardening a pleasure but with sub zero nightime temperatures and hot sunny afternoons, the new growth is being frosted and burnt at the same time. The tomatoes have long outgrown their pots but will have to wait on the windowsill a little longer before transfer to the polytunnel. The wild spring flowers are a delight, with violets, primroses, bluebells and blackthorn blossom all making wonderful displays - unlike their tender cultivated counterparts, the varying temperatures seem to have little effect on them.

A blackbird built a nest in the rock face behind my workshop so I was distracted from basketmaking by the much more absorbing task of trying to capture a photo of the adult feeding the chicks. We also have swallows and wagtails nesting in the eaves. Our resident pair of mute swans managed to raise a cygnet last year after a few years of choosing remarkably poor nesting sites which were always washed away by a high tide. After success last year, they have returned to the better site and are sitting on eggs.

A fishing trip to Loch Linne gave James his first catch of the year - one pan sized brown trout. Many more were caught but were far too small to keep. The loch is quite low because there has been so little rain over the last months. It is a beautiful spot, no distance from the road but surrounded by forest and utterly peaceful.

On a clear day, the views from above Crinan are wonderful and we could see porpoises breaking the surface far below us. You can look out to the islands of Islay, Jura, Scarba, Luing and Mull. Cruachan still had patches of snow showing up in the sunshine. The west coast of Scotland has some of the best sailing you can find and there were a few boats out in the Sound of Jura.

Along the forest road towards Carsaig we came across an art installation which was part of the NVA Environmental Art Project which took place in the area in 2007. We had visited some of the installations but hadn’t been to this one so it came as a surprise to find a timber walkway in an avenue of standing spruce columns leading to a woven archway which frames a rock outcrop with ancient rock carvings.

We incubated four chicks from some Maran eggs given to me by a friend. We don’t know yet which are cockerels and which will be hens but they are currently looking fairly macho and slightly scruffy with new feathers coming in to replace the down. I fear they may all end up in the pot rather than joining our team of egg layers.

No Seafield blog post is complete without mention of the beavers and a slightly blurry photo of the new arrivals. Two more beavers were released this month bringing the total population up to 8, three breeding pairs and two juveniles. They can be seen quite easily as the Lily Loch is small and having been in the Highland Wildlife Park for a year, they will be used to a degree of human contact. According to an article in the Herald Magazine, the budget is now £2.5 million which seems an astonishing amount of money for a project to give Argyll more wetland. It may have been dry this year but one thing Argyll is not short of is wetland. £2.5 million would build a fantastic visitor centre to celebrate and interpret Argyll’s amazing native wildlife and beautiful historic landscape and be far more beneficial for visitors to the area than a few large rodents which have flooded a popular forest walk.