What justice for our raptors?

Male northern harrier dropping prey to a nest

This post began as three separate blogs, which I have been working on for nearly three weeks now. Eventually, as time went by, I saw a considerable amount of overlap between them, and decide that it made more sense to combine them all. So here goes.

Three weeks ago I had school leave-out (that’s the Glenalmond term for a two-day weekend). Dad and I, along with Dad’s friend Robin Prichard, decided we wanted a getaway on the West coast, but felt like a break from Arisaig.  We found accommodation in a bay with easy access to the Southern Hebrides, and went out to Mull in Dad’s boat the following day.

Mull is best known for its white-tailed eagles, and we had no trouble finding them, spotting seven within an hour. However, when we reached Loch Spelve, we were drawn to another raptor: a pair of hen harriers, gliding effortlessly over the shoreline. Beautiful and awe-inspiring.

 

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Loch Spelve, courtesy of Geograph.org.uk. It was much sunnier when we were there.

Unfortunately, seeing these hen harriers reminded me of an uncomfortable truth, one which regular readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with, and which Robin was quick to remind me of that day. I’m talking, of course, of persecution.

 

Earlier that same week, a case involving a hen harrier being shot on Carbach estate in 2013. Don’t take my word for it: there’s video footage of a hen harrier being shot at, and a man with a gun walking past the camera, then returning a few seconds later with a  bag mysteriously slung over his shoulder. But that week, four years after the incident occurred, the case was inexplicably dropped.

 

Less than a week later, news came out about a hen harrier who had been found dead on Leadhills Estate. This is the 49th wildlife crime incident that has occurred at the estate in 14 years, and still the owner, Lord Hopetoun, chairs the Scottish Moorland Group.

I could be mistaken. For all I know the bird could have had a firecracker stayed in its tail; or it could be the ghost of a long dead gamekeeper; or perhaps shooting estates have space-time distortion fields that cause hen harriers to fall out of the sky…no, that bird was definitely shot.

But the worse thing about this event is that it was the third event of its type in a week. Later that week, another video showed a keeper on Brewlands Estate setting illegal pole traps, only for that case to be inexplicably dropped. And before this, a prosecution case on Newlands Estate, where a keeper threw stone and stamped a buzzard to death, was dropped. No proper explanation given was given for any of them, and they were dropped from public view with scarcely a murmur. If they had been cases of elephants shot for their horns in Africa, do you think they would have been silently dropped like this?

But very cloud has a silver lining. Because soon after these appalling events, Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee met to discuss the possibility of introducing a licensing scheme for game shooting. I have spoken in favour of this before: it is standard practice in most European countries for hunters to be issued licenses, which can be revoked in the event of persecution. And the majority of MSPs present appeared to share my views: the option of exploring a licensing system was favoured by six of the ten committee members. The RSPB and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have since spoken up for this too.

So, what can we gain from this? Well, on the minus side, raptor persecution is, unfortunately, still rife within many high-brow shooting estates. On the plus side, conservation organisations are beginning to not only speak out about it, but provide effective solutions to halt it. We’re definitely making progress.

 

Extraordinary things from a stroll in the woods

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This wasn’t the blog post I expected to write, but I’ve decided to write it because of my brief walk in the woods yesterday. I hadn’t seen much in terms of wildlife, but I did see some of the fascinating processes involved in woodland.

Perthshire is typically overlooked as a tourist destination in Scotland, with most visitors heading east to Edinburgh or north to the Highlands. But those few that do pay the Central Belt more than a passing glance will no doubt head for the Hermitage.

The Hermitage is a patch of woodland fringing a stretch of the River Braan, only a few minutes from Dunkeld. It acquired a mythical status in the 1700s for supposedly being the site that the Gaelic poet Ossian composed his epic poetry (poetry which was actually written by James Macpherson in 1760, based on Scottish folk tales), and was later turned into an Arboretum by the Victorians, who planted an impressive selection of conifers from all around the world. These include Norway Spruce, Western Hemlock and the first Douglas Firs to be planted in Scotland. Add in some very nice areas of native broadleaves, such as oak and hazel, and what you get is, quite simply, mesmerising.

As I already said, yesterday’s trip wasn’t with wildlife in mind (it was actually Angus who suggested it), although a dipper and a red squirrel were unexpected and pleasant surprises. It was simply a case of getting of the farm during the Easter holidays. That said, as I made my way down the woodland path I began to see some extraordinary things that might easily have passed me by.

There was a lot of dead wood, for starters, which I hadn’t noticed until now. And as the photo below shows, mosses have been growing on them, and ferns on the mosses. These ferns are example of epiphytes-plants which grow on other plants. They also illustrate the importance of dead wood: it provides ample nutrients for mosses, lichens and fungi. However, the rotting wood is also a vital for beetles, hoverflies, sawflies and many other invertebrates, whose larvae are laid in the decaying wood pockets inside tree trunks.  Birds such as tits and woodpeckers also use the fissures and cracks of dead wood for their young.

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When I reached the River Braan, I saw that one of the Douglas firs had toppled. What caused this I can’t say, but the result of this was evident. The water behind the tree was covered in foam, indicating that the former rapids have been slowed to almost a standstill, allowing the dissolved oxygen bubbles in the water to escape. By slowing the flow of the river, the water becomes ideal habitat for larva of dragonflies and caddisflies, salmon and trout fry, frogs and toads, which in turn attracts dippers, kingfishers and grebes. And this can come from something as simple as a fallen tree.

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That Douglas fir wasn’t the only fallen tree I saw. Several others were in the same position, with their roots tilted skyward, such as in the photo below. And in among the roots we can see several types of grass growing. This is another remarkable process: when a large tree collapses, its roots and the soil that surrounds them is exposed, in what is known as a root ball. Naturally, wind-blown plant seeds will settle here, and the soil in between the roots provides ample nutrients for them to grow.

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Finally, I came to the  Black Linn Falls. They were as awe-inspiring and majestic as ever, but what caught me eye even more was the presence of moss on the rocks (what am I like?). I’ve already mentioned moss growing on trees, but here its presence means something else altogether. This is the second stage of a process that takes decades to complete, in which rock is completely broken down by natural processes.

It begins when lichens colonise the rock surface. They soon grow over it, being able to survive on very little nutrients, and start breaking down the minerals in the rock into soil. This allows moss to grow, further breaking down the rock and building up soil. This allows colonisation by grasses and flowers, and then by trees.

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All this goes to show that a woodland is not merely a collection of trees. It’s a complex web of organisms, and the processes in which they interact with each other.
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Shooting: time for change?

When it comes to shooting legislation, the UK is at the bottom of the league.

That’s according to SNH’s new report, which compares the UK’s shooting legislation to 14 of our neighbours on the continent. As you would expect, the report shows a lot of variation across these countries. But if we look at the report, there is one theme that stands out above all, and that is licensing.

All of the 14 countries issue shooting licenses for individual shooters. These licenses are granted to shooters following a two-part exam, and can be revoked in the event of a persecution incident, issuing a temporary ban on the perpetrator from shooting.

In the UK, the closest we have to this legislation is here in Scotland, where a vicarious liability means that the landowner is fined for any wildlife crimes perpetuated on their land. Of course, this assumes that the landowner is guilty, even if the crime was not committed by them, and doesn’t prevent the criminal committing a crime the next day. England, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t even have vicarious liability. Not exactly a strong deterrent for criminals. Yes, there have been successful cases where some form of prosecution has taken place, such as at Stody Estate, but these are sadly few and far between.

Of course, tighter shooting regulations are pointless unless proper policing is carried out. But even then, the UK appears to lag behind. According to the report, the worst of the 14 European countries studied in terms of raptor persecution was Spain (no prizes for guessing which country it came behind). But there is one crucial difference between Spain and the UK: Spanish Birdlife (Spain’s answer to the RSPB), working with the conservation branch of the Spanish Civil Guard (the national police), have the power to carry out investigations of land where wildlife crime has been reported. If this is the case, legal action is taken immediately.

The success of this approach is demonstrated by the 30 successful persecution prosecutions from 2010-2014 alone. Another incredible example was in October 2015, when a farmer convicted of poisoning six Imperial eagles and a fox was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, a three year disqualification of his license and a fine of 360,000 Euros. Compare this to the sixteen red kites and six buzzards found dead in the Black Isle (16 of which were poisoned), a case which has received no conviction nearly three years on, and you can see a problem here.

I am not opposed to shooting. Years of going on shoots in the local area have shown me the real benefits it has to conservation, not to mention the livelihoods of the people. And this report shows that licensing does not mean the death of the shooting industry, as some have claimed in light of recent calls for licensing in Scotland.

While it is apparent that better regulation is required for field sports to be sustainable, it is also apparent from continental Europe that licensed shooting  can actually bring great benefits for biodiversity there. These practices don’t need shutting down, they just need a little more order brought to them.

 

 

Treecreeper

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The bird was only a couple of metres from me. The branch of the Scots Pine swayed precariously as it tried to find its footing, but it managed to keep hold of it.

I recognised it instantly; there’s nothing else you could confuse it with. There’s no way you could mistake the striped-brown wings, sleek white plumage, upturned beak and quite literally pear-shaped body, any more than you could mistake its habit of walking upside down on the bottom of a branch, head always facing downwards.

By now, however, it had decided the pine was not for its liking; certainly something caused it to make a beeline for the nearest sycamore, passing within 2 feet of me in the process. Almost as memorable as that amazing moment- the sort which reminds you why nature is the best of life’s pleasures-was its flight pattern. Like the rest of the bird, it strikes you as decidedly un-birdlike: more of a drunken sway, veering up and down, side to side, back and forth. And on reaching the sycamore, it proceeded to enact its species most famous trademark: the jerky, back-turned-to-the-audience climb upwards, while rotating around the tree.

Certhia familiaris, the European treecreeper. An ornithological wallflower not much bigger than a wren. Not Britain’s largest bird, or the most colourful, or the one with the greatest vocal range. But without a doubt,in my opinion,  definitely the strangest.

What makes it so strange? Well, put simply, it’s a bird that doesn’t think it’s a bird. Shimmying up trees and clambering across thin branches, it does justice to its West Country name, the ‘tree mouse’. But this method of climbing has a purpose: it’s to extract insects from the bark of trees. The extra-long, curved bill has evolved for this purpose, and to balance itself while doing so, it has evolved an extra-long tail. The consequence of this is that, unlike its cousin the nuthatch, it cannot move back downwards. So, when it reaches the top of a tree, it simply flies to the bottom of the next tree in line and repeats the process, shimmying up whole avenues of trees in a highly systematic fashion.

Personality-wise, it is, as I said, very much a wallflower. It makes its way into many wildlife gardening and birdwatching books as a ‘garden bird’, but if anything its placement there serves to push boundaries. Treecreepers only occassionally venture into gardens, appear on feeders once in a blue moon, and mostly keep themselves to themselves.

But of course, there are several examples of birds altering their: siskins became garden birds after the creation of red mesh feeders in the 1960s, and blackcaps are evolving shorter wings to stay in British gardens during winter. Who knows? Perhaps these introverts may become more outgoing in the future, and will become frequent visitors to our birdfeeders.

I’ve seen that treecreeper several times since. Its presence couldn’t be more perfectly timed; it’s a new year, and that means starting anew and doing things differently. And this was something new: a treecreeper in the garden. I couldn’t ask for more.

Welcome back beavers!

Eurasian beaver dragging a poplar down to water

As usual, I’ve arrived late to the scene. This post is about a headline from over three weeks ago. Oh well. But I might as well crack on with it, because it is something I want to speak about.

Do you remember the New Year’s Resolution I suggested for Holyrood, at the start of the year? It concerned a certain semi-aquatic rodent- does that refresh your memory yet? If not, this rodent was a former British species, and could have been a certified British species once more- ring any bells? I’m talking about the beaver of course (to see the article in question, click here)!

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, the Knapdale Beaver Project, the official reintroduction testing carried out by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, drew to a close two years ago, and a final, peer-reviewed paper on the impacts of beavers on Knapdale Forest was submitted to Holyrood. While they looked over it, the Knapdale beavers, as well as the unofficially released Tay River beavers, were given a breathing space. And last month, Holyrood decided to give them the green light.

This was a landmark point in British conservation, as it marks the first reintroduction of a mammal to the UK. It was a long and agonising wait, with numerous delays (allegedly due to various elections), but the wait paid off. As Rewild Scotland point out, well researched change does, and should, take time.

I’ve argued the case for beavers several times before (here and here), so I’ll make the case here brief. By damming rivers, raising water tables and felling trees, beavers create new ecological niches such as standing dead wood, still water pools and marshland. This creates habitat for all manner of wildlife, from salmon to toads to great-spotted woodpeckers. This makes the beaver an ecosystem designer, and a much-needed creature to regenerate our wetlands.

Eurasian beaver den in typical wetland habitat
What land dammed by beavers looks like.

I understand that there are many farmers who would view this decision with concern. I know firsthand that many are concerned about beaver dams flooding productive farmland. However, flooding areas surrounding the river, odd as this may sound, is something I believe should be encouraged. Creating margins of floodplains provides habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, and is an important part of alleviating pressure from flooding. The plan for UK farm payments following the invoking of Article 50 has not been discussed (assuming that there is any plan- ditto for every other voting issue), so I’ll put out one suggestion: a floodplain subsidy, as part of an environment-oriented programme of farming subsidies. And one way this could be done would be by releasing beavers.

The Angling Trust’s Mark Lloyd has been similarly sceptical, commenting  “it would be irresponsible even to consider reintroducing this species into the wild without first restoring our rivers to good health” .  I understand his position, and I can certainly agree with him on the need to restore our deteriorating rivers. However, what I feel Mark Lloyd has overlooked is that beavers are a way of restoring our rivers, through all the processes described above. Their dams are also capable of trapping runoff and excess fertiliser, which can help avoid its spread downstream.

We live in exciting times. This is just one step down a road with great potential and exciting possibilities.

 

A job well done for the 123,076

Male red grouse displaying

123,076 signatures. That’s quite a lot. Indeed, this is one of the most successful Parliamentary petitions in memory. The third e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting, which hit the 100,000-signature mark neccesary for a Parliamentary discussion on August 13th, a day after the ‘Inglorious Twelfth’, sailed on to gather another 23,076 before closing on September 21st, and consequentially will be debated in Parliament tommorow.

I will not hide the fact that I proudly signed this e-petition. Why did I  sign it?  Because, like many others, I felt that the status quo was getting us nowhere. As someone who goes on pheasant shoots regularly during the shooting season, I have a foot in both camps, so this is a contentious subject for me. But in the end, I  simply do not want more of this practice. The people who signed this petition did so for all sorts of reasons: raptor persecution (see here and here for the most recent events,  and here for the last ten years-including 17 this year), carbon emissions, protection of deforested land as ‘internationally rare habitat’ or the millions in taxpayer’s money grouse moors receive. But my own reason for signing it was the fact that, at the heart of it, the management of our uplands , whether it’s culling mountain hares or giving grouse medicated grit, always goes back to creating artificially high numbers of grouse to shoot. I signed it because I wanted to see upland conservation focus on all species, not just one.

I do not want to put the many responsible, conscientious gamekeepers out of a job. That was not the aim of this petition- it was only aimed at banning one form of grouse shooting, the type which requires over-intensive management of our uplands.

There are many people that feel it would be better to negotiate with irresponsible estates, and I understand that. Nine times out of ten I would agree that we can have conversation with BASC, GWCT, the Moorland Association and the NGO and SGA, who are well-meaning and committed people with a genuine love of the natural world. But these have been going on for decades, and despite full protection, many of our raptors are still being killed. Only three pairs of hen harriers bred this year, and four have been found dead on grouse moors. Not to mention the fact that several notorious raptor ‘black holes’ are still within major shooting organisations- Edradynate Estate, described  as “one of the worst sites for wildlife crime”, is a major donor of the SGA. Indeed, Lord Hopetoun, owner the infamous Leadhills Estate (infamous for these reasons), is Chairman of the Scottish Moorland Group.

This petition represents collective frustration, but it also represents collective hope. We all signed this with the strong conviction that we can change the uplands for the better, and we can. Many of us are united not only in opposition to driven grouse shooting,but in support of rewilding the uplands, a holistic approach and an effective use of our least productive land. Much of Europe was much like ours- treeless,  diminished and in the hands of the few. But change happened, and it will happen in Britain, not least from our hugely successful campaign. The reforestation of the land and the system of tenanted farms hasn’t stopped Norway from maintaining a viable grouse shooting industry, after all.

It would be foolish for me to say moving away from driven grouse shooting will be plain-sailing.  But we can, and will, make it. It wasn’t until 2013, when two pairs of hen harriers both failed to breed in England, that people finally began to take notice of the struggles faced by hen harriers, not to mention goshawks, peregrines, golden eagles and many more besides. Think about that; In the space of 3 years, this issue has grown into demonstrations, captured the mainstream news and is now being discussed in Parliament.

We can all congratulate ourselves a job well done, and look forward to a brighter future. Even if we don’t win this time round, we have brought this subject  to the centre stage, meaning we can only grow stronger.

The story of the gall

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I’m fortunate enough to have two oak trees in my garden- specifically, long-stalked, deep-lobed pedunculate oaks. And at this time of year they are now producing acorns.

Acorns may have a length of only a few centimetres, but from them grows a true titan of trees, which can grow to 40m tall and live for over a thousand years. As long as something doesn’t get to it first.

What might that something be? It could be a jay, a wood mouse, a wild boar…or an insect a few millimetres long.

Yes, my oaks have had gall wasps frequenting them. Scanning one of the trees today, I found evidence of three different species. There were the tiny yellow discs of spangle galls on the leaves, and one one stem I discovered the brown globe of an oak apple.

But my favourites were by far the knopper galls. These are caused by a wasp called Andricus quercuscalcis, which deposits an egg inside an oak catkin in the Summer months. This speeds up the growth of the acorn, causing it to develop early and look like an abandoned ornament from an extraterrestrial spacecraft.

The wasps themselves hatch out in the following Spring, but then they face a new dilemma: they are all female. To complete the cycle, they require Turkey oaks- not naturally found in Britain, but introduced here, through ornamental parks and gardens, in the 1960s.  The females lay their eggs in Turkey oak catkins, and the cycle is repeated, with a second generation, this time being both female and male gall wasps, being the end product.

I can’t imagine it does the oak much good. But galls do have another importance- not to nature, but to culture. Several different types of galls, when crushed and mixed in water, produce a type of ink, which lasts far longer than the ink we use in today’s pens. It was this ink which was used for writing,  from Roman times until the 19th century. So if it wasn’t for a wasp laying its eggs in oaks, we might not have Chaucer, Shakespeare or the Bible.

And that’s a truly incredible thought.

 

State of Nature 2: Now is the time to act

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It doesn’t really need saying that Britain’s wildlife is in an awful mess. However, the State of Nature Report released last week has hammered this message even further home.

The revelations of this report are quite shocking. Nearly 8,000 species have been studied, and 56% of them have declined over the last 50 years, with 15% in danger of extinction in the UK (don’t believe me? Just see here).

This a call, now more than ever, to act.

Firstly, let’s do something about our farmlands, and when I say “do something” I mean a complete 360 degree turn around”. This is because there have been declines in 52% of our farmland species. At this rate, I think that farmers should be looking to Knepp Castle for inspiration. I’ve mentioned Knepp a few times before, because of what an inspiration it is: by recreating a natural grazing system with longhorn cattle, exmoor ponies and tamworth pigs on former wheat-growing land, a mosaic of grassland, wetland and woodland habitats have been restored. A staggering 27 new moth species were found on the estate since the project began, and there are now 11 pairs of turtle doves, as well as Bechstein’s bats, silver-washed fritillaries and sea trout.

Following Brexit, the UK will have to create a new system for farming subsidies to replace the Common Agricultural Policy. If we are to safeguard our farmland wildlife, then the British equivalent of the Single Farm Payment- the subsidy earned simply for farming- needs to be merged with a subsidy for environmental protection. Skylark subsidy anyone? Or maybe a purple emperor payment?

Even worse than our farmlands is our uplands- drops in 55% of the animals and plants that inhabit this habitat. This is largely due to the intense grazing of our hills and mountains by sheep and deer, and burning for red grouse. These practices can lead to erosion, cause carbon to escape and hinder vegetation from growing.

Glen Feshie, in the Cairngorms, led the way in restoring its natural tree cover,and now Dundreggan, Ennerdale and the Pumlumon, among others, are following suite. This is conservation on a landscape scale- a long-overdue move away from protecting tiny fragments of land for nature, without regarding what’s happening around them.

With landscape-scale ecological restoration, exciting possibilities arise. What about reintroducing beavers? They are already established in the Tay in Scotland and the River Otter in Devon, and could soon be reintroduced to Wales. In Scandinavia, beaver dams hae been found to increase numbers of both salmon fry and frogspawn by creating pools of still water. What’s more, their damming activities can help reduce flooding downstream.

And finally, there’s us. As in, each and every one of us and what we can do for the wildlife immediately around us. We can all leave a patch of our lawn unmowed, or buy garden flowers bees like, or put up a bird feeder. If we all did just one of these, collectively we could protect a huge amount of wildlife.

We must realise the need to act now, but we also have to realise the need to be optimistic- that we can reverse what’s been happening, and save the wildlife we love.

 

A few odd photos

Following up from my previous post, here’s a few miscellaneous photos of my trip to Arisaig.

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A few common seals-part of the colony found in the bay at Arisaig.
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Red admiral. These were frequent on the buddleia in our garden- at one point I saw 11 at once.

 

Minke whale and others

 

 

 

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If you look in the dead centre of the above photo, you’ll see a dark shape. This shape was a minke whale, which I saw while on our annual summer fortnight at Arisaig-the first minke I’ve seen in 4 years. As usual, the wildlife of the area was superb throughout- for example, the common lizard at Glenfinnan Viaduct on August 17th, or Arisaig’s first osprey on the 18th- but four days in particular stand out- four days leading up to the whale pictured above.

On August 22nd, Mum and I decided to take a boat out to Eigg. The weather on the way out was unpleasant to say the least, and the marine life few and far between. By this time of the year, the seabirds had fledged-there were a few Manx shearwaters still here, some newly-fledged guillemots and the ever-present gannets, but little else besides.

As we crossed Eigg from the pier to Laig Bay, on the other side of the island, it began to ease, and on arrival at Laig we were greeted by the resident greylags and a mixed flock of ringed ploverdunlin and rock pipit. Eventually, Mum and I decided to turn back, and as we did so Mum noticed a raptor. A buzzard? No, too big, and this raptor sported prominent wings like giant fingers. It was beyond a doubt a golden eagle!

As we made our way back to the pier, the weather cleared, and on the way back the sun was out. That evening we went out for dinner at Mallaig, and while eating I saw a peregrine and a sparrowhawk simultaneously attacking a starling murmuration. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

August 23rd began fairly ordinarily, though the dunlin and ringed plover on Traigh Beach provided a bit of deja vu for me as we walked the dogs. However, on our way to Mallaig-this time for lunch- we pulled over to see what the long line of vehicles was looking at. The answer- a pod of bottlenose dolphins.

That evening we went out in the RIB, out beyond the bay. On the way we passed a bonxie and 3 black guillemots (which, for some reason, are only seen late in the day), and even 2 harbour porpoise.

We then took the RIB to Loch na Uamh on the 24th, and here Dad and I did some scuba diving in the kelp forests. We caught some scallops and even a few crabs. Dad, having never taken his diving knife with him on the grounds he never needed it, rejected this decision after we encountered an incredibly tame plaice which we had no way of catching.

Which brings us to the 25th, on our way to Muck, when we came across this minke whale. When we saw it, it was feeding, by raising a swash with its tail, to form a bubble ring in which it trapped a shoal of fish- and we saw it lunging three times to swallow up fish. This behaviour, of raising water from deep water up to the surface, plays an important part in the marine ecosystem: it brings phytoplankton and other photosynthesising microorganisms back up to the surface, helping filter carbon dioxide from the air.

These four days at Arisaig were some of the most productive in years, in terms of wildlife. But I’m hoping for 2017 to be even better.