Keith Broomfield

A passion for nature

Tag: Scottish nature

Plastic peril in our seas

It had been an enjoyable snorkel, having taken to the water by this remote rocky cove on Waternish in Skye, with the distant hills of South Uist twinkling on the far horizon.

Marine life abounded at every turn; shoals of young saithe flashed over flat-fronded kelp beds and the saucer-shaped form of a crystal jellyfish pulsed past me like a beating heart. The water was remarkably clear, but it was well into October, and with the lateness of the season, I knew this would probably be my last snorkel of the year. As such, I stayed in the water for as long as the cold would permit, totally absorbed by nature’s undersea tapestry of life and colour.

On emerging from the sea, shivering and dripping, my exhilaration turned swiftly into despair, for on the strandline an atrocity lay before me. Plastic, and it was everywhere. It was an abomination that struck at the very heart of the respect we should have for our planet; a proliferation of plastic bottles, cartons, fishing net fragments and the like.

I walked slowly along the shore and started examining this plastic perversion, depressed and shocked in equal measure.

Typically, several thousand items of marine plastic pollution are found per mile of beach in the UK, and it is thought that more than eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world oceans each year.

The end-result is horrifying with recent studies showing that every single seal, whale, and dolphin washed-up on British shores had traces of plastic in their stomachs, as did every fulmar. Plastic is ingested by fish and shellfish and has even been discovered in our deepest living marine organisms. It is everywhere, an omnipresent threat that is choking the lifeblood out of our precious marine environment, and with that, threatening humanity, too.

Our addiction to single use plastic is largely to blame – over half of plastics come under that category, and one just to has to think of a typical supermarket basket shop and the amount of plastic packaging involved. In 2018 alone, UK supermarkets and their suppliers produced one million tonnes of plastic. Does that cucumber really need to be shrink-wrapped? I think not.

So, what can be done? Well, Governments, of course, must act with urgency to legislate, and set and enforce targets to reduce our reliance on plastics. Manufacturers need to innovate and develop alternatives, and, of course, every individual has a responsibility, too.

Four simple steps can make a real difference: where possible, refuse to buy inappropriately packaged products, consider non-plastic alternatives, reuse plastic, and, of course, recycle it.

Who knows, if such action is taken by us all, maybe in the not too distant future, the only objects found in among the seaweed on this remote strandline on Skye will be crab shells, gull feathers and other natural debris. Now, there’s a wonderful thought.

Roar of the stags

By Keith Broomfield

Swirling rain swept across the flanks of this remote Deeside glen, and along the banks of a nearby gushing burn, newly arrived fieldfares cackled and bickered as they gorged upon the ripened scarlet clusters of rowan berries.

Then, the air was broken by a strange echoing noise; a deep roar in the distance that carried far into the wind. The more you listened the more the sound became apparent.

Fumbling for my binoculars, a quick scan of the far side of the glen revealed one of Scotland’s greatest natural spectacles – rutting red deer. A proud stag with many prongs to his antlers bowed his head and let rip his deep-throated bellow. He then rushed towards another stag that was beginning to edge upon his small harem of hinds. The message was unequivocal – keep off, these females are mine!

It was a tiresome task, and as soon as the stag engaged with one male, then another would suddenly encroach into the other side of the harem, causing the stag to charge back again in anger and snort his defiance. It was apparent that this Monarch of the Glen would only be able to cope with such pressure for so long and he will soon have to mate with the hinds to ensure that his genes are carried through to the next generation.

For a stag, the aim of the rut is simple, to try and mate with as many hinds as possible. To do so, the older more mature stags round up a harem of hinds, and the bigger and stronger he is the more he can get and protect for himself. But it is impossible to keep an eye on all of them all of the time.

This has resulted in different mating strategies with some of the younger and less dominant males waiting for the opportunity to quickly rush in and mate with a hind when the attention of the harem master is otherwise diverted. One of my zoology lecturers at Aberdeen University dubbed these hit-and-run stags as ‘sneaky copulators’.

A successful stag may be able to protect a harem of up to 20 hinds, and because so much time and energy is spent on the rut, they are often lean and in poor condition towards the end.

Red deer management is a controversial and complex issue. Where the populations are too high, their presence can be damaging to the environment, most notably through the prevention of the natural regeneration of trees. However, deer are a vital and iconic part of our landscape and deer carrion is an important source of food for a variety of upland wildlife, especially golden eagles. 

Indeed, a red deer carcass has the potential to support a pair of eagles for a significant period in the depths of a Highland winter, especially in western areas, where other prey such as mountain hares are scarce.

Mountain hares are the soul of our uplands

I trod carefully across the boulder field on this high plateau in the southern Cairngorms, scanning the ground for life.

To the north, the high Cairngorm massif was etched against the horizon and I reeled off the names of their summits in my head; such familiar tops and each one the source of happy memories from the past in search of eagles, dotterel, ptarmigan, and snow buntings.

Then, a long-eared head popped up before me, followed by another – mountain hares!  They watched me warily, and I was unsure whether they would permit me to approach close or would instead lollop away under the power of their incredibly long hind legs. Individual mountain hares have different personalities, some are confiding and sit tight, others are skittish and flee at the slightest hint of danger.

I unslung my camera from my shoulder and managed a quick couple of shots, before the hares decided that caution was the better part of valour and took flight. Mountain hares are such special animals and these ones looked magnificent in their smoky-blue coats. When winter takes hold, their fur will moult to white, providing seamless camouflage in the snowy expanses of the Cairngorms.

As they bounded away, I pondered how such beautiful animals could be the source of so much controversy. Until this year, up to 25,000 hares were thought to have been shot annually by grouse moor managers on the grounds they carry ticks and  diseases which harm red grouse, and because they may damage tree saplings.

But to me this was no more than mindless mass-slaughter of one Scotland’s iconic animals, for they are part of the very soul of the mountain environment. Recent research has indicated that hare numbers have plummeted  since the 1950s due to this large-scale unregulated culling, and as such, recent legislation to ban the unlicensed killing of mountain hares and make them a protected species is to be welcomed. A healthy landscape needs a natural balance between predators and prey, not an unnatural one controlled solely by the hand of humankind.

 

Hoverfly marvels

Relaxing in the garden and enjoying the sun is a great way of getting close to nature, as I so discovered when lying on our lawn on a sun mat. Ahead of me the grass stretched like an expansive green sea but it was the abundance of tiny invertebrates that really caught the eye.

The daisies in particular were attracting a number of pollinating insects but the stars were undoubtedly the multitude of small dark hoverflies. Less than a centimetre long, these wee hoverflies were like mini-helicopters, moving forwards in a surge, before hovering for a second or two by a daisy, and then suddenly zipping off sideways to inspect another flower.

Their manner of flight was almost robotic and always in a straight line, with angular changes in direction rather than being executed in a smooth turn.  Soon, I saw a different type of hoverfly advance towards me, but still in this strange and controlled linear flying pattern. This hoverfly was slightly larger than the other ones I had been watching and had paler markings on its abdomen.

There are more than 250 species of hoverfly in the British Isles and many types can be mighty tricky to identify because they are so similar to each other. Using a specialist insect reference book, I tried to identify the small dark hoverflies that abounded in our garden, but in the end could only narrow it down to several different possibilities.

As an amateur naturalist, I find this most frustrating because knowing what things are is a keystone of my being. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end, for hoverflies are such a joy to watch and so very important to our environment. They are also little marvels of natural engineering being able to beat their wings several hundred times per second when hovering by flowers on the search for pollen and nectar.

Hoverflies are sun-loving insects and play an incredibly important role in pollination. The larvae of many species feast upon aphids, making them the gardener’s friend. Larvae of other types may eat plant matter, rotting wood and fungi, or are scavengers. Some are even aquatic.

One species that is relatively easy to identify is the marmalade hoverfly, which sports an orange body with thick and thin black bands across it. These hoverflies just love dandelions but will feed upon the nectar and pollen of a wide range of other plants too. Hoverflies are harmless, but many are patterned to mimic a stinging wasp or bee – a most useful ploy for deterring would be predators.

Another hoverfly worth seeking out is the Heineken fly, often found along hedgerows, in our gardens and by woodland edges. It has a distinctive long orangey-brown snout that enables it to probe deeply into long flower-heads.

And why called the Heineken fly?  Well, for those who can remember the old beer adverts, it is because they can reach the nectar which other hoverflies can’t reach!

Just a puddle – but so full of life

It was a puddle, no more than that; a water-filled wheel rut on an upland forestry track in Perthshire, yet this little pool surged with life.

It was the palmate newts that first drew my eye, five of them lying on the muddy bottom.  One of the creatures was an unusual limey-green in colour.  I’ve never seen a palmate newt of such hue before and perhaps the shallowness of the water had caused the skin to match the shades of the surrounding algae.

As I watched the newts, it suddenly dawned on me that there was a real photographic opportunity here. So I returned the next day with my underwater camera, knelt by the puddle and with the lens submerged, snapped away to my heart’s content.

Unfortunately, the results weren’t great, the water being a bit murky and it was difficult to get the right focus. But I was pleased enough with one or two of the photographs. I also found a lone newt hiding in the surrounding vegetation and the pictures I took of it turned out reasonably sharp.

These newts had gathered to mate and the males inhabiting the puddle were resplendent in their breeding finery of heavily spotted tails.  I’m not sure why they had chosen this watery wheel rut to breed, as it will almost certainly dry-out in the months to come, thus spelling trouble for their tadpoles.

Newts are certainly most intriguing creatures. Indeed, for many of us, their mysterious nature is best remembered in the famous incantation of the three witches stirring the boiling cauldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where along with “wool of bat” and “tongue of dog”, the ingredients included “eye of newt”.

I suspect newts hold such bewitching qualities because of their ability to regrow toes, or even complete legs that have become lost or damaged.

Having finished photographing the newts, I sat by the puddle for a while longer. A tiny dervish of a creature whizzed across the surface in a haphazard manner. It was a whirligig beetle, the crazy dog of the insect world, which likes nothing better than to gyrate about in the most bizarre fashion. Where does it get all that energy from?

But there is reason for such frenzied activity as these wee water beasties are scouring the water for tiny invertebrates to feast upon. I don’t think there is any considered pattern in their foraging, it more being a case of sweeping the water surface randomly in the hope of finding food by chance.

Two other small creatures scooted across the water, sporting little orangey marks down their centres. They were pirate wolf spiders, which actively seek out small prey by hunting them down.  If I hadn’t stopped by the puddle to look at the newts, I could so easily have missed seeing these energetic water spiders. But as ever with nature, the more you look, the more you see.

In tribute to the blackbird

It is late afternoon and I’m sitting on a garden chair soaking up the August sun; its bright warmth a soothing tonic that relaxes the very soul.

I sit so still that a male blackbird alights on the lawn only a few feet away and looks at me quizzically with a cocked head. He is unsure whether I pose a threat or not and flickers his wings nervously, uttering a couple of “tchook, tchooks”, the precursor to his full-blown alarm call.

But he soon settles and begins to forage on the mown grass, moving in a series quick hops, before pausing to examine the ground. Through such methodical searching, he begins to snap up an impressive number of worms and other small creatures; the eye so keen that the slightest hint of movement is detected, no matter how miniscule.

The rich pickings clearly make my garden lawn a good place for this blackbird to be. Indeed, the blackbird is one of those birds that thrive best in the presence of humankind and among our dwellings. If one was to create the blackbird version of utopia, then the final outcome would not be too far away from the patchwork of lawns, parks, bushes and trees found in suburbia.

Lawns are great places to find invertebrates because blackbirds are not hampered by long grass when foraging. Ornamental and native garden bushes offer safe nesting sites and provide berries in autumn to feast upon. In deep winter when the soil is frosted hard, blackbirds take advantage of windfall apples on the ground and food on garden bird tables.

It is a two-way benefit and it would be almost unthinkable to imagine our gardens without blackbirds because they bring so much, especially in spring and early summer when at dawn and dusk the melodic song of the handsome cock bird rings out all around.

The poet William Henley was certainly full of praise for the musical elegance of the blackbird’s song when he wrote: “The nightingale has a lyre of gold/The lark’s is a clarion call/And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute/But I love him best of all”.

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