Fall in Scottish seabird numbers

Kittiwakes [Pic: RSPB]

Seabird numbers in Scotland fell by 19% between 2000 and 2008, according to a new report. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) said the major cause was almost certainly a shortage of food due to a drop in the number of small fish, such as sandeels. If the declines continue, many of Scotland’s famous “seabird cities” could be virtually empty within ten years. Kittiwake numbers have fallen by 40 per cent since 2000 and the shag population that has dropped by 25 per cent. The Arctic skua population has dropped by 57 per cent and the herring gull population has dropped by one third.
BBC

Walruses in Britain

The walrus occasionally turns up as a vagrant to the northern shores of Britain and Ireland, though in no way can be considered a British mammal. It was perhaps, though, the first British zoological species as one was said to have been presented to Alfred the Great. No doubt with climate change the few sightings are going to become even more infrequent. If you know of any more please let me know.

  • There have been at least 13 records in the Shetlands in recent history, the last a male in 2002. Here
  • And then there is the famous Wally the Walrus who in 1981, as he visited the east coast of England, became a media celebrity, before being flown back north.
  • Walrus sightings in IrelandA Walrus was seen hauled out on rocks in County Mayo, Ireland for six hours. Lying within 100 metres of the busy coastal road and spotted as a “rock that moved”, the resting walrus finally disappeared at dusk. There have been several walrus sightings at sea off County Donegal in recent winters, and a couple of walruses were reported to have been seen by surfers in Killala Bay in December. A dead walrus was found in County Kerry in January 1995″. From here
  • North Uist: local fishermen saw a walrus – tusks an’ all on a small island off the east side of North Uist a couple of years ago. Here
  • A large walrus was regularly seen in Aberdeenshire in 1954.

Above Image: John Tenniel’s illustration for Lewis Carroll’s poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. (wikipedia). – which also notes:

The origin of the word walrus itself has variously been attributed to combinations of the Dutch words walvis (“whale”) and ros (“horse”) or wal (“shore”) and reus (“giant”). However, the most likely origin of the word is the Old Norse hrossvalr, meaning “horse-whale”, which was passed in a juxtaposed form to Dutch and the North-German dialects as walros and Walross. The now archaic English word for walrus—morse—is widely supposed to have come from the Slavic. Thus ???? (morž) in Russian, mors in Polish, also mursu in Finnish, moršâ in Saami, later morse in French, morsa in Spanish, mors? in Romanian etc.

Geograph British Isles

Geograph British Isles is a remarkable site which aims to collect geographically representative photographs and information for every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland through the help of people sending in their photos. The picture above is of Geodha Glas by © Bob Jones who notes “View eastwards whilst descending from the signal station at Cape Wrath towards the jetty at Clais Chàrnach.” (Creative Commons L).

Visit

The Stronsay Beast

While reading about basking sharks, I came across the story of the Stronsay beast, a large, dead sea-creature that washed ashore on the island of Stronsay in the Orkney Islands, after a storm in 1808. The decomposed carcass was said to measure 55 feet in length, without the tail. The terrible beast was reported in the local press athe time:

“Its flesh was described as being like ‘coarse, ill-coloured beef, entirely covered with fat and tallow and without the least resemblance or affinity to fish’. The skin, which was grey coloured and had an elastic texture was said to be about two inches thick in parts.”
Account of the Stronsay Beast as reported in The Orcadian newspaper. From The Stronsay Beast

The Natural History Society of Edinburgh was unable to identify the carcass and decided it was a new species, probably a sea serpent. Later the anatomist Sir Everard Home dismissed the measurement, declaring it must have been around 36 feet, and deemed it to be a decayed basking shark as basking sharks can take on a ‘pseudo plesiosaur’ appearance when they decompose. “First the shark’s jaws – which are attached only by a small piece of flesh – drop off leaving what looks like the remains of a long neck and a small skull.” More here

References

George Orwell on Jura

Between 1946 and 1948, George Orwell spent two spells of six months on the Isle of Jura with the aim of giving himself  ‘six months’ quiet’ in which to complete 1984.  A rich friend had let him use a small, remote stone farmhouse called Barnhill seven miles from Ardlussa, the nearest village, on the bleak northern tip of the island. After “a quite unendurable winter”,  he grew to love the isolation and wild beauty of Jura, while writing his most famous novel. He spent a lot of time with his young son fishing the loch and sea, shooting rabbits, laying lobster pots, and lending his hand at farming: he kept a small vegetable garden and orchard and had sheep, a cow and pig. One day on a fishing trip with friends he was nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Sadly, the island’s damp weather weakened his already fragile lungs and after finishing 1984, he finally left the island for a tuberculosis sanatorium in January 1949. Twelve months later, he  died.

Orwell disliked cruelty towards animals though according to a friend of his this clearly did not extend itself to this adder, rather common on the Isle of Jura, he came upon. I wonder if this attitude came from his days in Burma where he may well have seen people die of snake bites.

“‘We landed in a sort of shingly bay and the first thing we saw was a dirty great adder, an enormous thing and Eric quickly planted his boot right on top of its neck and anchored it to the ground and I fully expected that with the other foot he would grind its head into the ground too – he was obviously intent on destroying it – but he got out his penknife and quite deliberately opened and proceeded more or less to fillet this wretched creature, he just ripped it right open with the thing – quite deliberately. I must say, it surprised me terribly because he always really struck me as being very gentle to animals, in fact I think he was a very gently, kindly sort of man.’…”

From here Orwell’s Life on Jura

See also

From The Guardian on writing 1984 on Jura…Now Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura,. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides. Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, that Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

Around the web

Birdwatching on the Western Front

The Times has this interesting compendium on the first cuckoo calls of the year from its extensive archive. This extract is from an article from 1917 sent from the Western Front during the Battle of Arras (above picture).

I heard the cuckoo first on April 22, calling amid bare woodlands in the occasional gleams of thin winter sunshine. A single chiffchaff – plucky little thruster that he is! – was singing impatiently not far behind the battle-line as long ago as on Easter Day, even while our guns thundered the overture of the Battle of Arra. Complete diary here: Spring at the front: nature amid desolation

Folklore about shearwaters

Shearwaters are associated in folklore with death. This undoubtedly comes from their eeirie cooing nocturnal cry like a cackling witch from the underworld.

This Isle of Man web on the Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) notes:

“A description of their voice on The Isle of Man, in 1731 says this: “The spirit which haunted the coasts have originated in this noise. , described as infernal. The disturbed spirit of a person shipwrecked on a rock adjacent to this coast wanders about it still, and sometimes makes so terrible a yelling that it is heard at an incredible distance. They tell you that houses even shake with it; and that, not only mankind, but all the brute creation within hearing, tremble at the sound. But what serves very much to increase the shock is that, whenever it makes this extraordinary noise, it is a sure prediction of an approaching storm. . . . At other times the spirit cries out only, ” Hoa, hoa, hoa !” with a voice little, if anything, louder than a human one.”

Richard Dawkins cites the Manx Shearwater on page 87 of his book The God Delusion.

One of the cleverer and more mature of my undergraduate contemporaries, who was deeply religious, went camping in the Scottish isles. In the middle of the night he and his girlfriend were woken in their tent by the voice of the devil, Satan himself; there could be no possible doubt: the voice was in every sense diabolical. My friend would never forget this horrifying experience, and it was one of the factors that later drove him to be ordained. My youthful self was impressed by this story, and recounted it to a gathering of zoologists relaxing in the Rose and Crown Inn, Oxford. Two of them happened to be experienced ornithologists, and they roared with laughter. ‘Manx Shearwater!’ they shouted in delighted chorus. One of them added that the diabolical shrieks and cackles of this species have earned it, in various parts of the world and various languages, the local nickname ‘Devil Bird’.

Around the web

Folklore about shearwaters elsewhere in the world

  • In Turkey it was believed that the Dusky Shearwaters which daily travel in mysterious flocks up and down the Bosphorus were animated by condemned human souls. Read here
  • Aboard French ships in the nineteenth century both storm petrels and shearwaters were known as âmes damnées (“souls of the damned”), the subtext being that, like some ghosts, part of their punishment after death was to continue to haunt the earth. Muslim seafarers in the nineteenth century similarly said that the Manx and Mediterranean shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus and Puffinus yelkouan) of the eastern Mediterranean were inhabited by damned souls, a belief possibly suggested by their dark plumage. Read here

Landscapes of Yorkshire by David Hockney

Is it possible to do anything new in the twenty-first century in landscape painting? Although most of the art world has given up painting hills, fields and trees, David Hockney doesn’t agree and returned to his native Yorkshire to paint a series of works of the countryside he knew as a child and teenager.

In Europe, the idea grew that painting was finished, not needed. This is because it had been replaced by something – the photograph – the pencil of nature, the truth itself. This assumes photography is modern; at least it’s only 180 years old. If one rejects the “immaculate conception” theory of photography – it came from nowhere, about 1839 – one begins to see another history. David Hockney

  • See all the paintings here: David Hockney – The East Yorkshire Landscape
  • Tate | Press Releases | David Hockney: The East Yorkshire “East Yorkshire first engaged Hockney’s imagination as a teenager when he worked on the land during summer holidays, stooking corn. As an adult, Hockney has intermittently returned to this part of England when visiting his mother and sister at their home in the coastal town of Bridlington. However, he only became fully absorbed by the landscape over the past four years, making it the primary source of inspiration for his art.”
  • Pagel, David. “The view from the woods. David Hockney’s East Yorkshire landscapes make Cézanne look Pop” Los Angeles Times, Around the Galleries, 16 February, 2007.
    click to read the full article
  • Muchnic, Suzanne. “Landscape perspectives. David Hockney rediscovers the landscape of his youth and his celebrated countryman, John Constable.” Los Angeles Times, 11 February, 2007.
    click to read the full article

Loch Coruisk

Loch Coruisk in the Isle of Skye is one of the most spectacular and isolated places in the British Isles.  The head of this freshwater loch is surrounded on three sides by the imposing volcanic Black Cuillin while the southern end runs into a small rivulet, which then discharges into a sea loch, Loch Scavaig. Coruisk is an Anglicisation  of the Scottish Gaelic, Coire Uisg meaning “Cauldron of Waters”. As with much of the Highlands, once it would have been thickly wooded. Deforestation has left it all the bleaker.

Robert Macfarlane visited Loch Coruisk  in his tour of Britain’s remotest parts, The Wild Places. He describes it as the greatest example in Britain of what he calls “sanctuaries”: hidden valleys with all the lure of lost worlds.

Sir Walter Scott visited the loch in 1814 and described it vividly:

“Rarely human eye has known
A scene so stern as that dread lake,
With its dark ledge of barren stone…”

Lord Tennyson was somewhat more descriptive:

“Loch Coruisk, said to be the wildest scene in the Highlands, I failed in seeing. After a fatiguing expedition over the roughest ground on a wet day we arrived at the banks of the loch, and made acquaintance with the extremest tiptoes of the hills, all else being thick wool-white fog

The loch has been painted by many painters including Sidney Richard Percy (1821-1886) who painted the above picture, William Daniell (1769-1837), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), and Alexander Francis Lydon (1836-1917). Turner almost fell to his death while painting this view of the Black Cuillin from a crag high up the valley.

The foreground figures help establish the scale of this awe inspiring view over the remote Loch Coruisk. The Cuillin Mountains soar above the loch like gigantic waves. Read National Galleries of Scotland

The loch is accessible by boat from Elgol, or, most usually, a 7-8 mile hike from Sligachan.

See also

  • Loch Coruisk – Wikipedia
  • Misty Isle Boat Trips. We are a family-run business running boat trips from Elgol on the Isle of Skye to the famous Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Cuillin Hills.
  • Skye – Loch Coruisk Cruises
  • Review of The Wild Places in the Guardian “In certain predictable ways, his early travels provide him with “the real” that he wants. On the island of Ynys Enlli, off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, he identifies with the contemplative and austere connectedness of the original peregrini – the monks and other devout solitaries who settled there. In Coruisk, the loch-filled valley on the southwest coast of the Isle of Skye, he encounters “a silence that reached backwards to the Ice Age” (similar sorts of time-travel occur in later chapters as well). Making “an ice-bound traverse” of Rannoch Moor, trekking through the Black Wood east of Rannoch, teetering on cliffs that define the north coast of Scotland and contemplating the peatbogs (the “Flows”) nearby, he is at once taken out of himself and connected with the original need for his journeys. They are all places that put human achievement in the perspective of eternity and generate a sense of the primitive that is salutary and bracing.”

Books about the Isle of Skye

Collins Rambler’s Guide – Isle of Skye

Produced in association with the Ramblers, this walking guide covers the beautiful Isle of Skye and combines detailed route descriptions with information on the local history and wildlife.

This famous corner of the Scottish Highlands and Islands is home to a spectacular variety of mountain landscapes and dramatic coastlines. There is also a wealth of fascinating places to explore: caves and sea stacks, headlands and arches, waterfalls and castles.

The introduction gives information about the topography, geology and history of the area, and describes the flora and fauna inhabiting it.

Isle of Skye: 40 Coast and Country Walks (Pocket Mountains)

An excellent little walking guide, especially for those – like me – wanting to explore as many parts of the Isle of Skye as possible in a visit. Arranged roughly by ‘peninsular’, there are walks ranging from 45 minutes to a few hours, even a day. We did at least one from each section and they were all straightforward and, of course, beautiful!

Zoological and natural hazards in Britain

Volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes, lizard bites and hornet stings caused some of the more unusual injuries listed by the Department of Health (DoH).

From the Guardian here :
Accidents cost the NHS about £1bn a year. The most common cause of injury was falling, which led to 119,203 admissions to casualty.

Thousands suffered attacks from a wide variety of animals. These included 451 people stung by hornets, 46 bitten by venomous snakes and lizards, 24 bitten by rats, 15 injured in contact with a marine mammal, two people bitten by centipedes and one attacked by an alligator. But dogs accounted for most injuries with 3,508 people suffering bites.

Hundreds more fell victims to natural hazards, with 54 people struck by lightning, 37 victims of “volcanic eruption” (sic), 25 injured in “cataclysmic storms”, 12 suffered from avalanches and seven were victims of earthquakes. A further 107 were exposed to “unspecified forces of nature”.

Adder bites in the UK

From the NHS (Plus lots of information on symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of adder bites)

  • Each year, approximately 100 cases of adder bites are reported in the UK. Most bites occur between February and October, with the number of bites peaking during the summer months. Note: I was bitten by an adder in Norfolk in 1972 when I was seven, though it did not inject much venom).
  • Since records began in 1876 there have only been 14 reported deaths caused by adder bites, with the last death  a 5-year-old child in 1975.
  • In addition to the adder, it is estimated that there are 75 species of exotic venomous snakes held in the UK, both legally and illegally, by private snake collectors and enthusiasts. These snakes are thought to be responsible for between five to six cases of snake bites in the UK each year. Most cases involve the snake’s owner

Statistically you have more chance of being killed by a wasp than dying at the teeth of Britain’s only venomous snake. The Independent

Worst natural disaster in British history

According to experts a tsunami in the Bristol Channel could have caused the deaths of as many as 2,000 people in one of Britain’s greatest natural disasters.

Map

Shading shows area affected by the 1607 disaster

For centuries, it has been thought that the great flood of January 1607 was caused by high tides and severe storms. It is estimated that 200 square miles of land in south Wales and south west England were covered by water. Eyewitness accounts of the disaster, published in six different pamphlets of the time, told of “huge and mighty hills of water” advancing at a speed “faster than a greyhound can run” and only receding 10 days later. Professor Simon Haslett, from Bath Spa University College, said: “There is an overall theme running through the pamphlets of a destructive event, very violent, disastrous, on a scale that is unprecedented.” Australian geologist Ted Bryant, from the University of Wollongong, agreed: “The waves are described as mountainous – that’s a description of a tsunami.” Read all (BBC)

Bristol Channel floods, 1607 (Wikipedia)

On 30 January 1607 the Bristol Channel floods resulted in the drowning of an estimated 2,000 or more people, with houses and villages swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (518 km2) of farmland inundated and livestock destroyed, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel. The devastation was particularly bad on the Welsh side from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow on the English border. Cardiff was the most badly affected town. The coasts of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles (23 km) from the coast, were also affected.

There remain plaques up to 8 feet (2 m) above sea level to show how high the waters rose on the sides of the surviving churches. It was commemorated in a contemporary pamphlet God’s warning to the people of England by the great overflowing of the waters or floods.

“Gods Warning to his people of England.”. The British Library. Fascinating contemporary account

“Many there were which fled into the tops of high trees, and there were inforced to abide some three daies, some more, and some lesse, without any victuals at all, there suffring much colde besides many other calamities, and some of them in such sort, that through overmuch hunger and cold, some of them fell down againe out of the Trees, and so were like to perish for want of succour. Othersome, safe in the tops of high Trees as aforesaid, beholding their wives, children and servants, swimming (remediles of all succour) in the Waters. “

Other UK tsunamis include a 70ft high wave that hit Scotland 7,000 years ago, following a massive landslip in Norway.

Nature and wildlife of Britain