Sunday 7th found us braving the very autumnal weather for the second year running on Mull. We were one of 12 national events across the country, all aiming to raise awareness of the ongoing illegal bird of prey persecution – particularly impacting the Hen Harrier. We’re lucky that at the moment, hen harriers do well on Mull.
Craignure Bunkhouse were kind enough to host Hen Harrier Day for the second year running and we were there from 10am in the morning to chat to people, explain the situation and of course offer everyone hot drinks and home baking. We ran a raffle with some amazing nature books as prizes, with many thanks to Langford Press, Alan Stewart, Bloomsbury and Mark Avery among others. We also ran a silent auction, a hen harrier drawing competition and more.
Despite the rain and very strong winds the day was a success. Nature Scotland provided two short trips to search for harriers and both were successful – probably one of the only HH Day events which can say that! We managed to raise around £325 on the day, which will be added to last years money. We hope to use these funds to satellite tag a Mull bred hen harrier. This will highlight how important the islands are for these birds, but also make people aware that they don’t stay here all year round and aren’t fully protected from illegal persecution elsewhere on the mainland. It’ll also be a brilliant chance to educate the local children about hen harriers – a bird that isn’t that well known here in comparison to eagles!
Thanks to anyone who supported us and hen harriers by coming along, donating or even just liking a facebook post – much appreciated. We have plans for next year already, with bigger and even better ideas.
If you haven’t already, please take a look at the petition to “Ban Driven Grouse Shooting” and read a little more about the issues surrounding this. This petition is supported by the likes of Chris Packham, Mark Avery, Bill Oddie and more.
On Thursday the Ulva Primary School children vacated the premises for the polling station and visited Lochdonhead Primary School for the day. These primary schools are under a joint head teacher and have great links, giving the children chances to make friends outside of their own small number.
At Lochdon school, the children have access to a brilliant patch of woodland within easy walking distance which gives amazing outdoor learning opportunities (at Ulva Primary we use a local beach as an outdoor learning area). We made the most of the schools being together and spent the morning working on teamwork skills in the woodland school.
The walk into the forest area is great for wildlife too, with flower-filled road verges boasting orchids, daisies, dandelions and birds-foot trefoil. The kids also spotted a slow-worm on the track and knowing it posed no threat they were excited to see the reptile. We talked about why it was a lizard and not a snake, nor even a worm and chatted about the differences between male and female before leaving it in peace to find cover.
The children were split into mixed school teams and were tasked to build a den. Outdoor education like this really gives the kids a chance to develop life skills and highlights areas that need more support. Confidence, communication, risk management and compromising were all required and some fared better than others, but on reflection all the children could discuss areas to improve and what worked well. This outdoor activity also encourages creativity and free thinking – brilliant skills which lead to creative futures in the real world. Plus, being out in nature has numerous health benefits!
Today at school we spent the afternoon completing another Wildlife Action Award activity. We went out in the rain to snap photos of the wildflowers in the school garden to later ID. We found lots around the edges of the garden (the areas the council aren’t so against) and checked some flowers out up close with hand lenses. We found foxgloves, self-heal, red campion, tutsan, cuckoo flower, stickyjacks, daisies, bramble, flag iris and more. The children looked up information and the gaelic names for the species before drawing and labelling some of their favourites. We chatted about Charles Darwin and ensured our curiosity was up to his standards whilst enjoying the sound of lapwing and skylark overhead. It’s important that children appreciate our native wildflowers and learn some of their names, after many common species names were removed from the English dictionary!
Yesterday at school I worked with the children on their Wildlife Action Awards through the RSPB. We’re now aiming for our gold level award, having already received our bronze and silver for completing a 12 different wildlife related activities including making bird boxes, beach cleaning, creating a bug hotel and pond dipping. One of our chosen activities for the gold level was writing to our local MP about an issue in our local area.
We brainstormed and the children came up with some brilliant, insightful ideas with regard to improving things for local wildlife on the island. They were angry that people drove so fast, killing lots of our wildlife and were unhappy about the levels of litter on and around the island. On a national scale, they also mentioned the continued persecution of beavers in Perthshire, they couldn’t understand why we’d bring them back to allow them to be shot on a regular basis. Despite not having any squirrel species native on Mull, the children are well aware of the threat grey squirrels pose to our British reds and mentioned this too. This level of awareness, despite living on an isolated island is amazing.
We finally decided to write about the litter in our local seas and suggest ways to improve the situation. The children did an amazing beach clean in May this year, collecting well over 50 bags of litter, but this doesn’t fix the real problem. The children want to install signage advising people to “Bag it, bin it and keep our oceans clean”. These would be in busy areas around pontoons and ferry terminals, or busy beaches. They also suggest more recycling bins onsite and they’d love reverse vending machines, to encourage people to recycle plastic bottles and pick up other people’s litter. They have sent the letter to Mr Brendan O’Hara (SNP) and Mr John Finnie (Green party).
Plus, yesterday for my birthday I received some lovely wild gifts including ammonite fossil earrings and a book on ravens which I’m very excited to read – “Mind of the Raven, investigations and adventures with wolf birds” by Bernd Heinrich. This year I was privilege to watch a raven nest site, situated on a secluded sea cliff. The pair raised four youngsters and they all fledged successfully. They are incredibly interesting birds and I’m sure this book will make them all the more interesting.
At Ulva Primary we spent the afternoon in out in the school grounds, preparing some planters for our vegetables and flowers. The children have grown tomatoes, courgettes, leeks and some flowers from seed this year and they’re all ready to be relocated in the garden. Whilst clearing the planters the kids found plenty of wildlife and aren’t afraid to touch and feel, often bringing me the creature to identify, before safely returning it to the wild.
One planter is no longer accessible to us – ants have moved in. What look to be yellow meadow ants have created their colony in the pot. We happily left them in peace and moved on. The children also found butterfly caterpillars and enjoyed watching a race between two garden snails. All the while our blue tit parents whizzed in and out of their nest box and the swallows overhead chattered.
We also found a moth pupa and are keeping a close eye on it to see which species emerges. The pupa itself had us all engrossed as it wriggled in defence. Hopefully, the moth emerges in the next few weeks before the schools are on holiday, so soon for Scottish children!
WildChild Scotland will be joining in the fun with 30 Days Wild. Starting tomorrow I’ll be making extra time to spend outside, connecting to nature along with thousands of others across the country. 30 Days Wild is a Wildlife Trusts project and is a brilliant way to bring people and wildlife together every day.
Over the weekend I had plenty of wild encounters with nature, but one of the great moments was marvelling at a Large Red Damselfly. Experiences with nature like this really remind us how amazing it is – just look at the detail and colours. We’re extremely privileged to have stunning wildlife like this on our doorstep. Head outside to enjoy it, especially at this time of year when things are bursting into life and action.
I could have been under the water, amongst the slime of green algae and the carnivorous creatures hanging motionless in the water, I was living the life of a pond, nose pressed up to the cold glass.
We were inside the living building of the Ardnamurchan Natural History Visitor Centre exploring the information boards and collections of natural objects. The building had a soundscape of the long gone wolf howl, it made my skin tingle and raised the excitement. The rafters play host to the pine marten and they’re often seen from the “one way window”. No pine marten whilst we looked, by a grey wagtail bobbed on the burn. Stuffed animal specimens demonstrate the size of the species, red deer, hedgehog, fox, badger and golden eagle.
Best of all though was the pond! My excitement really bubbled over when I realised you could see the hidden depths of the pond through glass. I’ve always loved pond life and spent hours by the pond I badgered my Dad to create. What a different world beneath the surface of the water. This was brilliant. Tiny snails dotted the glass wall of the pond outside and I could see their foot if I looked closely, it was like a little snail nursery. Caddis fly larvae laboriously pulled themselves along the pond bottom, top heavy with camouflage materials and tadpoles bumped their noses against the glass. Small beetles whizzed up and down with their air bubble beaming like a light in the murk. A newt hung in the weed almost motionless – how incredible to be able to watch this secretive creature at home under the surface. When I peeked above the surface pond skaters slid effortlessly, waiting to feel the vibrations of drowning, dying, creatures.
The beast that stole the show was menacing and decidedly carnivorous. They hung in the water, unmoving yet dangerous. I watched with my nose squeezed up against the glass as one gnawed on a lifeless tadpole. These creatures were master predators of the pond. Immersing myself into the life the freshwater habitat I could really understand the dynamics and marvel at the species living in it. These monster tadpole eaters would become great-diving beetles – the beetle I had stared into my pond for hours hoping to spot as an enthralled child. The larvae were just as brilliant, despite now only being an enthralled adult. I was a child again for a wee while, with a cold nose and straining eyes, peering into the life of a humble garden pond.
WildChild hands on: quick, fun ways to get our children doing and making!
An easy way to connect to wildlife and get our hands a little dirty is to make bird feeders! Leading up to the Big Schools Birdwatch, a nationwide citizen science project ran by the RSPB we got our mits grimy by making lardy pine cone feeders and lardy cupcakes. This was also one of our tasks for the Wildlife Action Awards, we’re working towards our bronze level and we will have completed six wildlife supporting tasks soon.
Pine cones are brilliant, natural method of creating a bird feeder – involving no plastic or expensive bought equipment. It also allows the kids to hunt for them in a local park or woodland, giving them some fresh air and breathing space. So why not head out and see if you can collect some from the woodland floor before it springs back to life? Much of our country is still experiencing some cold and stormy weather with snow hitting some areas, so putting out small amounts of bird food now can be a great help.
Allow your pine cones to dry out – place them by a radiator or in a warm space to speed the process and then you can get started. You can alter the ingredients and try different bird food recipes, but stick to unsalted peanuts and other unprocessed, natural products! Here is what we used:
Unsalted lard (you can also use suet)
Mixed fruit i.e. raisins/sultanas etc
Desiccated coconut (soak in water before using)
Leave the lard in a warm spot to soften and then get mixing! Make sure the kids get hands on and mix all the ingredients up really well. Once the lard and the tasty extras are mixed you can add it to the cones (attach some natural fibre string or wool first, so that you can hang them outside easily). The mixture needs to fill in all the nooks and crannies on the cones and make them a brilliant bird treat. Pop them in the fridge to harden and then they’re ready to go!
If you have any leftover mixture you can get creative and come up with ideas to re-use regular items. We used some non-recyclable yoghurt pots and cupcake cases to make some lardy bird cupcakes! There are never ending possibilities! Get the children to develop their own recipes and try them out – whose is the most popular with the garden birds and do they attract different species?
Garden birds are a brilliant way to connect to wildlife. They can be relied upon to be at your table most days and can give hours of enjoyment. Take it a step further and pop up a nest box to replace the many natural sites humans have removed and enjoy a family soap opera at home or in the school grounds!
No matter how much we plan our outdoor experiences and encounters with wildlife it still falls to chance.
In many circumstances, naturalists are now species focused, twitcher like and not just with regard to birds! We’ve all done it and do so regularly – we head out into the wilds with a species in mind, an imaginary checklist and a success rating. How many of us have travelled to Scotland and stayed in a cottage that boasts the good likelihood of seeing pine marten? Just pop out some sweet snacks and await their arrival. Mull each year is flooded with tourists with white-tailed eagle, golden eagle and otter on the brain. Our favourite seasonal shows, Springwatch and Autumnwatch encourage us to visit reserves and locations across the country to spot particular species.
This is partly due to human influence on habitat and distributions of species, gone are the days you could wander out to chance upon pine marten, red squirrel, white-tailed eagle, adder or osprey, along with many more. We’ve shrunken and fragmented their suitable habitat, or persecuted them so heavily that we now need to travel to find them and the success of our journey hinges on seeing them.
This is fine, we all do it and often to see some species we have to head out with them in mind. But it’s still all down to chance, fate or luck. We can try extremely hard to be in the right place at the right time but nature does its own thing, no guarantees! As adults we can just about handle the disappointment of not encountering the desired species, but we should be careful when our younger generations are involved. Aiming high can be a real excitement, but if the species isn’t seen we’re disheartening kids and swaying their feelings towards natural history.
Instead head out with an open mind and a positive attitude and let chance take the lead. Without that imaginary checklist every encounter becomes exciting because it’s the unexpected. Enjoy the common and regular species, become more acquainted with their behaviours and be ready to be surprised. Just two days ago I spent a few hours searching hard for reptiles in what appeared to be a great spot and left for home with a little tinge of disappointment. But by chance I pulled into a passing place and from the windscreen I spotted a lizard basking right by the road. After taking a couple of photos I took a few more steps and spotted an adder, slow-worm and another lizard, all within inches of each other – mere feet from the road! This was a chance connection to nature in a very unexpected location. I was elated and drove home with a big smile on my face.
That was a great chance connection with reptiles and we had another yesterday when wandering in one of Mull’s wilder parts, away from footpaths and tracks. First we encountered a colony of yellow meadow ants, making their busy home under a very small scrap of corrugated sheeting. We watched a pair of grey wagtails bobbing about a burn and found the perfectly preserved breast bone and wings of a kestrel – a great natural keepsake. Then, just when we weren’t expecting it, an adder was curled up among grasses in a tiny pocket of bracken. What a thrill to bump into our only venomous snake! We continued on and shortly encountered another adder, again in the tiniest pockets of bracken habitat amid boggy surroundings. We also delighted in the speed of common lizards, taking to cover at the vibrations our footsteps create – how amazing that raptors like kestrel and buzzard are agile and acute enough to catch them as prey.
We should make time for chance connections with nature, let the wildlife surprise you and minimise any chance of disappointment. Children relish all connections with the natural world when allowed to do so. Don’t make their childhood about the top species and tick boxes, let nature do its thing and inspire them. If you visit the Isle of Mull don’t make it all about the eagles and otters, if you chance upon them brilliant, if you don’t that’s okay. With young people so disconnected from nature in this modern world, we need those happenstance connections more than ever, especially the local ones, the ones on your doorstep – children need to know nature is out there and easily accessible and so do adults. We can get disheartened with the current state of nature but finding chance connections close to home can cheer our thoughts. It doesn’t always have to be a far flung adventure with drawcard species as the make or break.