Thursday, 20 November 2014

Otter Cubs

Today was another fantastic day; though not very warm we had sunshine all day bringing the best out of the autumn colours.    I would never have advised anyone to visit Skye in November, but after yesterday and today, I have changed my mind.  There are two things predictable about the weather on Skye, firstly its unpredictability, and secondly the worthlessness of Met Office forecasts.
Loch Ainort and the Red Hills
Not wanting to waste a brilliant day, we spent it on the croft looking for wildlife, particularly the otter family we saw yesterday.   Around 10am I saw them in the little sandy bay west of the croft (coarse sand / fine shingle would be a more accurate description)   I went out in the canoe and saw one of the cubs camouflaged in the kelp but there was no sign of the mother or the other cub.

After a picnic lunch I went out again and this time found the two cubs and watched them for thirty minutes or more.   I took the canoe in fairly close but not too close to scare them.   In and out of the water, up and under the kelp, coming close to the canoe in an innocent, inquisitive way. And almost fearless.


All the while I was wondering where the mother was; yesterday she had never been more than 5 metres from the cubs; today it looked as though they had been abandoned.   At about 15.30, back on land, I saw the cubs still where they had been, but still no mother.  Concerned for their welfare, because they cannot fend for themselves, I had a discussion with Grace Yoxon at the International Otter Survival Fund ( in Broadford.   I thought they were younger than they were - Grace estimated that they are three months old (I had not had time to work out their size and hence age from the measurements I made of one of the rocks they perched on) so we concluded that they would probably be fine, but I went back again just as it was getting dark and the tide was coming in.   They had gone, so fingers crossed, just a case of a home-alone cubs.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Carpe Diem - Otters!

A bright sunny day, I had planned to shred wood from a number of garden shrubs that I had cut back. That plan was scrapped because we had another otter day.

A family of otters appeared in Loch Ainort and my wife and I watched them for over an hour.   A mother and two cubs, they fished in the kale close to the rocks.   Occasionally the mother would fish in slightly deeper water, leaving the cubs on a rock, bringing back food (young cod?) for the cubs which they tore into avidly.   From time to time the mother would catch something for herself and eat it in the water.

This year reinforces the pattern established over several years;  few if any sightings in the summer but then an appearance of an otter family in November / December.   There have been a few signs for several weeks that there was a breeding otter about - heavy spraints by the slipway for example.   I also found a spraint at the top of the croft at least 100 metres from the shore and I think the breeding holt is on Am Meall across the road.   (Incidentally the record book that accompanied the first edition Ordnance Survey in 1876 translate this hill as 'The lump', not as I thought 'The hill').

Monday, 10 November 2014

Yet more fungi, deer stalking, and a little local history

It is late autumn but I am still finding fungi; I collected another 10 this month.   Here are some of those finds.

Herald of Winter

Earthy Powder Cap
Scurfy Twiglet (Probably)
Blackening Waxcap
(Hygrocybe conica)
Mealy Funnel (Probably)

Saffron Milk Cap

Saffron Milk Cap Spores x  1000
I found the conical waxcap on the roadside, so I had to kneel, and bend over, a few feet from the traffic to get  a close-up.  I hadn't thought it through and seeing this apparently slumped body, a concerned motorist stopped to see if I was okay, fearing that I was either drunk or a road casualty or both. Scotland, mid afternoon, definitely a possibility!  She was relieved when she saw the camera, and fortunately because she too had a general interest in wildlife - and for example, gets frequent sightings where she lives of white-tailed eagles - fully understood why someone might be hunched over a small yellow fungus.   Few would, and I appreciated her concern which led her to stop, delaying a cup of tea waiting for her at Sconser.

A deer has been a regular visitor to the croft.   There are prints everywhere in the grass and droppings on most parts of the croft.  Having enjoyed the free grazing I have provided  my generosity was rewarded with damage to a few hazel bushes planted as a wind break.   I am not a fan of deer.

Nevertheless it is elusive and I had not seen it until two nights ago.   I went lamping at 10.30pm, and although there was nothing on the croft I heard something scrambling over the road and up the banking above the croft and onto the grazings. It was a modestly sized red deer stag.   I tracked it for a while, which in truth was not difficult, getting within 50 yards or so, probably close enough to recognise it on an identity parade.  It also ponged and there was a strong musky odour where it had been standing.  

Wednesday and yesterday were bright and sunny.   I saw a couple of Slavonian Grebes out on Loch na Cairidh, which though uncommon, are regular winter visitors.   There were also a few Great Northern Divers.  

On one of the intervening really wet days my wife and I went to the Council's archive centre in Portree to get some basic information on the history of Ard Dorch.   I have been reading Tom Devine's 'Clanship to Crofter's War' which describes a general pattern through the Highlands of a change to tenanted smallholdings - crofts - at the same time as larger sheep farms were established beginning in the late 18th century.  There followed a dependence on kelp for income in the early 19th century, which declined after the Napoleonic wars, so that communities were then reliant on subsistence agriculture. Potato blight in the 1840's  caused destitution with charity, clearances and emigration the mainstay of the response.   Fishing communities were not as badly impacted.  Ard Dorch, together with the nearby villages of Luib and Dunan, fits into that category, for in any case the agricultural land was not of high value.  The census data shows that the population actually grew between 1841 and 1891:

Households     Popn.
    Total  Adults Children
1841 4 21 9 12
1851 5 28 13 15
1861 8 37 19 18
1871 7 30 21 9
1881 11 42 27 15
1891 10 50 26 24
1901 7 43 21 22
      Now 11 22 18 4

Only one family moved into Ard Dorch during the famine years, and the rise in numbers later probably reflects a burgeoning fishing industry.    Almost all the menfolk were fishermen, so that the small tenanted holdings were there to provide subsistence - oats, potatoes and maybe cattle (sheep were not permitted by the landlord).     None of the villagers described themselves as a crofter until the 1880's but by 1901 it had become the principle occupation.  Then as now,  there were four crofts, ours being one half of a divided croft that was shared by two families who appear to have been related  The two halves were treated as a single unit by the landlord.   There was also a grocer's shop in the village.

The 1886 Crofting Act gave security of tenure, and heritability.  Another aspect is that it introduced a formal process of rent reviews.   The result in Ard Dorch was remarkable; in 1881 the rent payable on each 7-acre croft in the village was £4-2-0d but this had fallen by almost a half to £2-10-0d  in 1891.   It sounds a lot yet the landlord seems to have made most of his money from red deer shooting rights.   As an example the shooting rights for Strollamus (I am unsure of the boundaries, but probably it included Ard Dorch), brought in £100 per annum, and the shooting rights on Scalpay opposite brought in over £300 per annum.   Despite deer all around, crofters got no protection from the damage they caused to crops.    Responding to the same problem 120 years later, I had to build a 6 foot fence round my vegetable garden to keep deer out, having lost most of a winter crop of vegetables. 

I shall be spending a few more  hours  in the Archive Centre, when it rains, particularly to get to know more about the fishing business if there are any records.

As a final note, the Grazings landlord tells me that rather than cast them back, I should be eating the velvet swimming crabs that I caught in the creel last month.  In Spain they are commonly sold in fish markets, and his advice is to simply boil them then take the body from the shell and crunch! So a starter of crab, followed by venison and wild mushrooms might be on the cards.