Currently on the slowest internet connection in the world so check back on this post later for cute animal pictures! A drive eastwards through beautiful country, past Loch Tay and Ben Lawers, which is 1214 metres above sea level; ‘ben’ meaning hill. There is evidence of logging and black-faced sheep are plentiful. We arrive at the nature reserve at Loch of Lowes advertised as ‘Osprey Haven’. A peaceful haven yes but sadly lacking in Ospreys. ‘Nest cam’ depicts an empty nest and it is thought that the female ‘Lady’, who has returned to this area for twenty-six years, has already migrated as nothing has been seen of her for three days. Sadly, this year one of her three eggs was taken by a crow and the other two were infertile. The chap on the cash desk seems embarrassed by the absence of their star attraction and lets me in as a concession. We look across the loch from the hide but there is little activity. There are plenty of woodland birds to observe from the viewing window and I get a glimpse of the back view of a red squirrel.
Back past the van for refreshment then a short drive in the opposite direction to Glen Falloch Falls. People are tombstoning from the top of the waterfall. This is not just irresponsible teenagers but a chap and his young sons. Unlike other jumpers this family are not kitted out in crash helmets, wetsuits and life jackets but are leaping in to cold, rocky pools with fast flowing currents in their ordinary clothes. I know I am risk adverse but this seems ridiculously foolhardy and I wonder how pressurised the twelvish year old feels to ‘perform’ in front of dad.
The next day is the one day of the holiday that we really need to be dry. Inevitably the weather forecast warns us that we are in the tail of Hurricane Bertha and there will be heavy rain. We set out in good time for the hamlet of Dull where we are off on a ‘Highland Safari’. Hilariously, Dull is twinned with Boring in Oregon. In fact Dull just means ‘meadow’ in Gaelic. Our guide, clad in highland dress, is Steve, who does a superb job and our travelling companions are a family of eight from Hong Kong, celebrating the doctorate of one of their number with a Scottish holiday. Steve is wearing a Black Watch kilt; nearby Aberfoyle is the home of the Black Watch regiment. A traditional plaid is eighteen to twenty foot long but Steve has settled for a shorter version.
We are travelling in a Pinzgauer, a 6 wheel drive, Austrian military vehicle that makes light work of the off road terrain. We learn of the economy of the area, now farming, forestry and tourism but previously weaving and milling for the barley, vital for the distilleries. We pass through a North Atlantic hazel wood. Apparently this preponderance of hazel and ash is unusual and Steve, who is a forester when he isn’t being a ranger, is hoping to get it protected. Currently it is being coppiced on an eight year rotation, using handsaws to minimise the environmental impact. We see black Aberdeen Angus cattle and sheep that are a cross-breed of Texels, Herdwicks and Scottish Blackfaces. We climb above the tree line and Steve bemoans the difficulties of getting in and out of a military vehicle, to cope with farm gates, whilst wearing a skirt. We are told there should be grouse; we see none. There may be curlew; we see none. Meadow pipits are darting back and forth but true to form, the deer are also conspicuous by their absence. I seem to have this effect on wildlife. Allegedly there are 150 red deer on the hillside but we can see not a one. This does not detract from the occasion and we are having a great time. We do find and sample, whinberries, also known as whortleberries but here called blaeberries, a little like a sour blackberry. The heather here is ling, rather than the bell heather that we are used to further south. There are also harebells. It seems there is a debate going on as to whether harebells should be recognised as the third European bluebell, creating a Scottish bluebell alongside the English and Spanish varieties.
The land has been and is used for shooting. The glorious 12th August, heralding as it does the start of the grouse shooting season, is almost upon us. We view the rock built, circular structures known as grouse butts, designed to shelter those wealthy enough to participate. In theory, the expression ‘head and shoulders above the rest’, comes from the marksmen putting their heads above the wall to take aim. We are give a ‘wee dram’ of local whisky and finally we sight a dozen or so red deer in the distance. Then on to Schiehallion Bothy for the picnic supplied by Highland Safaris. Bothys are small huts that can be freely used by passers by in need of shelter. We have encountered something similar in Australia but can’t believe that they wouldn’t be abused nearer to home.
Steve explains the difficulty of maintaining a balanced ecosystem and the relative merits and demerits of letting nature take its course and intervention by man. There are believed to be 350,000 red deer in Scotland. With the extinction of their predators (bear, lynx and wolf) in this country, there is a necessity to cull 5-10% of deer each winter. A large landowner in the north of Scotland had plans to reintroduce these predators but was told that they had to be enclosed. A 500 mile fence was duly constructed but then the landowner was informed that he had now created a zoo, which required a licence that he didn’t have! We have wonderful views of the Tay Valley. The Tay is the third largest river in Britain but carries more water than the two largest (the Thames and the Severn) put together. The Munro Schiehallion overlooks us. It is 3445 feet high and the area’s only ‘freestanding’ mountain, i.e. one that is not part of a range.
Much of the coniferous woodland consists of introduced species, planted for commercial purposes. Amongst these are the Douglas Fir, discovered by Mr. Douglas. Douglas was searching for more species on Hawaii when he fell into a pit dug to trap wild cattle. Sadly a cow also landed in the pit with disastrous results for Douglas. One area of woodland has oil barrels in the trees to provide nesting sites for owls, as the trees there are too small.
Back at the centre we are now to have a ‘Red Deer and Barn Owl Experience’. Andy, another friendly ranger, is in charge. He explains that antlers, of what ever size, take 110 days to grow before being shed. They differ from horns, which are permanent. Pregnant hinds might eat antlers for extra calcium. When rutting stags fight the dominant animal will always be higher up the hill. We have the opportunity to feed Rua, Zoom and their hinds, who are being looked after by the centre. These have come from captive settings elsewhere or been bred at the centre. There are problems with Sika deer, introduced by the Victorians, interbreeding with the native Red deer, creating hybrids. Next we meet Ossian the Barn Owl and are able to stroke her.
Apart from a few drops of rain as our safari set off, the forecast bad weather does us a favour and waits until we are headed home before it puts in an appearance. It has been a brilliant day and I purchase a horn cup as a souvenir, thinking it will do duty in my seventeenth century world. On the way back we encounter seven Italian camper vans in convoy trying to get in a very small car park, which had an entertainment value. Then as we near the site a pine marten crosses the road, so perhaps my jinx on native wildlife is wearing off.