Friday, 2 October 2015


I am now living in Hook Norton, ("Hooky") one of those cosy English villages with thatched house and honey coloured stone cottages.   The complete antithesis to Skye.  I have started a blog on the wildlife there (no otters yet, though a few spraints a few miles away) see Hooky Natural History

Wednesday, 19 August 2015


It's just over a couple of weeks now since we left Skye.  Predictably this is my last blog.

I am not sentimental but I am glad it was a dreek day for our last view of the croft, making departure less regretful.

In amongst sorting out boxes of household stuff, I have been able to reflect on our 12 years there and ownership of the croft for almost 8 years.  The flippant answer to why we left Skye is to move south to be closer to Waitrose.  The metaphor works surprisingly well. The trigger for our departure was another speed camera (this time in Roy Bridge on a quiet Sunday morning) and the risk of  loss of my driving licence in consequence.   Fortunately I did not lose the licence  but the potential penalty of what one could do without being able to drive on Skye  brought into sharp focus our status.   Skye is remote and without being able to drive, Skye would be just about impossible.   Public transport is woeful, and just getting to Broadford, 6 miles away, there and back in a morning, is just about unachievable.   Getting further afield is even more challenging.   Health services are being transferred to Fort William 70 miles away whilst anything serious has to be dealt with in Glasgow, another world away (well, 6 hours by bus).  Not a place for the old and infirm.

Skye is not a wealthy area and the services available reflect that situation.   A small example is that a  car with a 15 or 64 year registration will be a rental, (and should be given a wide berth, because of unpredictable driving).    Most of the island is dependent on tourism, but this employment dominance  goes unrecognized because there are a myriad of micro businesses employing ones and twos, but no large employers and no lobbyists to get in the ear of government for help and investment.

Infrastructure development to bring in more, wealthier, tourists on short breaks, maybe in the winter has been ignored.   Despite a campaign led by the highly respected owner of the Three Chimneys, arguably the best restaurant on Skye, to get the government to fund upgrade of the airstrip at Lusa to allow commercial flights at a maximum cost of £12m, the response has been a flat 'no'.  Yet oddly Dundee can get support of at least this amount and more for a copy of the London V and A museum, (a white elephant in the making).   Access to the Highlands has not changed in the 12 years we have been there (except for the removal of tolls on the Skye Bridge).   The A82 from Glasgow past Loch Lomond is dangerous and slow, the A9 dual carriageway project was shelved in favour of average speed cameras.  There are no marina developments.  Broadband speeds are a joke, so no chance of attracting anything remotely high tech.   As for local services there is no butcher, no fishmonger, no clothes shop; not even a Pound shop.  Two Coop supermarkets and the Tesco vans from Inverness keep everyone going.  Yet the possibilities for developing a tourist infrastructure based on its stunning topography is immense, if only...

The Highlands and Islands are not a government priority unless it is a windfarm development or a fish farm but these have little or  no impact on local wealth.    Windfarms create environmental damage and impact adversely on tourism, with the benefit of only a few construction jobs.  Others elsewhere get a lot more benefit: power to the central belt, profits that flow overseas to the owners of power companies save a token for the community.  The same is true of fish farms - environmental damage to Skye, fish to China profits to Norway.

Without question though  I will miss the opportunities for enviable wildlife experiences and the distinctive culture:

  • Otters almost on demand

  • Dolphins, to give unexpected pleasure

  • Orchids and bluebells - reliable yet spectacular

  • Excellent events featuring local musicians in concert at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig or maybe Aros Portree

I have some regrets of things not achieved in the 12 years.  Here are a few examples:

  • Failing to get to the top of Glamaig, which I could see from the kitchen window (I was beaten back by a blizzard and fading light some years ago, and never got round to going back at a more sensible time)
  • Not even attempting the Cuillin ridge

  • Not making the most of the almost unique geology such as visiting the Spar cave near Elgol
  • Not finding some of the more interesting plants such as bog orchid despite several forays to likely places and not seeing the  narrow leaved helleborine near Storr Lochs.

However I shall not miss:

  • Winter storms with winds which can reach speeds beyond 70mph with the potential to lift the roof, take down trees, damage outbuildings and almost certainly cut off power.

  • Highland midges - the destroyers of hope.   I have still to understand what ecological remit they have and why legions of bats have not moved in.   Midges turn every pleasant summer evening into a disappointment, and make a midge jacket a fashion item.

  • And those other destroyers of hope, the Scot Gnats; more recently evolved than midges but another species whose ecological niche is difficult to fathom.   Where midges thrive in damp peaty heathland the Scot Gnats are to be found gathering abundantly around oil and gas unless it is fracked, with their screeching 'Yes' a constant background noise.  Blaming  others for the ills of Scotland, and taking a highly selective and prejudiced view of Scottish history they do virtually nothing with the tools they have already to make lives better, worrying more about how to distribute wealth rather than create it in the first place.

Friday, 24 July 2015


We are selling up and moving from Skye to North Oxfordshire, swapping remoteness, dramatic, sometimes austere, landscapes and unparalleled wildlife for the cosiness of a Cotswold village.

In between packing, I have been completing this year's orchid survey.   I have not had a chance to analyse the data yet and lack of time meant that I only counted the early marsh, northern marsh orchids and the butterfly orchids.   There are as many heath fragrant and heath spotted orchids as ever but I am not sure if I would have learnt much from counting the 400 or so spikes of each.   I have though taken lots of photographs of the heath spotted orchids to show the range in the patterning, colouration and shape of the heath spotted flowers, a few of which follow.

I have also been completing the croft flora, with a few garden weeds bringing the total up to 146.  There may be the odd grass that I have missed, or maybe a willowherb, but I think the job is done now, and is a record for comparison in the future.  There are no rarities, save for a few hybrid orchids.   Dactylorhiza x evansii, the hybrid between heath fragrant orchid and heath spotted orchid is uncommon, as is the hybrid between early marsh and heath spotted.  There are a few of each of these hybrids.   The photos below are of a very pale form of D. x evansii; it could be mistaken for a heath spotted orchid but the plant is scented and the spurs are too long - a very elegant plant!

The bird count stands at 76.  I thought I had an addition when I saw a tawny owl in the early evening down amongst some eared willow bushes, but it turns out that I had recorded it oreviously based on hearing the call one night.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Hybrid Orchids

All the orchids are now in flower except for the single plant of small white orchid which first appeared last year but this year is showing only 3 basal leaves.   Flowering is late this year because of cold and wet weather in May and June, the impact of which can be seen in a vegetable garden that is far from healthy; we should be eating broccoli by now but the plants have made no growth, and of the Maris Piper seed potatoes over half look to have rotted in the cold, wet earth.  All very frustrating and we will have to rely on the supermarket this year, but for those living here a century or so ago a crop failure of this type would have been devastating,   This week has been much warmer, but growing time has been lost.

The average flowering date of the early marsh orchids this year was June 17, 12 days later than last year, and the second latest in the 7 years I have been measuring it.  The latest date was in 2013, June 19.   Surprisingly though, the total number of flowering spikes is a record, at 118, 23 above the total for last year which was the previous highest.   When I have a moment I will try to find a correlation with the weather statistics because nothing else has changed, the croft management regime is just as it was.

Amongst the orchids are a few hybrids.  My copy of a new BSBI publication, 'The hybrid flora of the British Isles' by Stace, Preston and Pearman, should be with me this week and I am keen to see what it says about marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza) which are probably one of the most difficult plant groups because they hybridise freely with each other and with other closely related groups such as fragrant orchids.  Accurately naming marsh orchids and their hybrids is like a Sudoku puzzle where a printing error has missed a few key numbers and it becomes insoluble.

In flower now are crosses of northern marsh and heath spotted orchids, but I found today a cross between a heath fragrant and a heath spotted orchid.   Last year there were three, one of which would have reflowered had the bud not been nipped off by a roe deer a couple of weeks ago,  It looks very much like a heath spotted orchid except that the labellum has a slightly different shape, it is flushed pink (but then the parent often is) the spur is a little longer and the plant is strongly scented.

Heath fragrant orchid

Hybrid - heath fragrant x heath spotted

The hybrids on the croft are easy going compared to a complex site I visited yesterday near Strollamus.  Last year I found a probable cross between Heath spotted and the striking, narrow-leaved marsh orchid (which we used to know as Lapland marsh orchid until its status was reassessed).  In fact there was significant introgression there.   Narrow-leaved on Skye is a majestic purple, the colour of the trim on Real Madrid's football shirts) on a white background with heavily spotted leaves; the middle lobe of the labellum is longer than the side lobes. Another characteristic is that the flowers on the spike are all to one side. Heath spotted has spotted leaves but the three lobes of the labellum are almost equal and the side lobes billow out.  I found what I think was a clean hybrid between the two but lots of heath spotted had one-sided flowering spikes though with none of the other characteristics of narrow-leaved orchids.

Narrow-leaved marsh orchid
Narrow-leaved marsh orchid leaf

Heath spotted orchid leaf
Heath spotted orchid
Hybrid - narrow-leaved x heath spotted

Hybrid - narrow-leaved x heath spotted
To add further complexity I found a couple of plants of what I think are crosses between early marsh orchids and northern marsh orchids - the same  pale pink colour and unspotted leaves of early marsh, but the labellum is not reflexed.
Hybrid - narrow-leaved x early marsh

Hybrid - narrow-leaved x early marsh

As a final comment, the roe deer which chopped off the hybrid is virtually a permanent resident.   Once it gets in it seems unable to jump the fence to get out, even if it wanted to, with an excellent supply of grazing to hand.  There could be a venison roast in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A Croft Flora

Continuing the listing process I have been compiling a flora (vascular plants) of the croft, stretching the definition to include the garden, a bit of the road verge at the top of the garden which contains moonwort and field gentian, and the shore.  I have not included the common grazings which in any case have a limited flora, the dullest of acid grasslands.   The croft crosses a monad (1 square kilometre) boundary, NG5728 and NG5729.   I downloaded a list of records for both squares from the BSBI database, which although probably not as comprehensive as the records maintained by the BSBI vice-county recorder Stephen Bungard, gave me a starting point.   As expected NG5729 had few records, because it is only the north of the croft and a chunk of Loch Ainort.

So far I have noted around 140 plants, most found in both squares but some in only one.  I need to make some confirmations of the ferns, willows and add perhaps to the grasses but the list is just about complete.   The final step will be to add dates to each observation which means trawling through 7 years of photographs because at one time or another almost every plant has been photographed.  A few of the common plants in flower now:

Heath Milkwort

Curled Dock

While compiling the list I  looked back at some of the orchid hybrids.  Over the years we have had numerous marsh orchid (dactylorhiza) hybrids, the commonest being D. x formosa (heath spotted x northern marsh) with the occasional D. x carnea (heath spotted x early marsh).   The most exciting though because they are uncommon has been D. maculata x G. borealis (heath spotted x heath fragrant).   Stace (New Flora of the British Isles 3rd edition) does not give a binomial for this combination.   For the last two years there were three plants, and the first of these was well on the way to flowering again this year until a roe deer (the likely agent of destruction) nipped the bud off cleanly.

Roe Deer in the Kale Yard

Hybrids can be difficult to confidently attribute to the parent plants.   In the case of D. maculata x G. borealis I am fairly certain however;  the plant is scented, the labellum is spotted but otherwise looks like that of a fragrant orchid.   The leaves are keeled but not as narrow as those of fragrant orchids.   Two of last years plants had unspotted leaves but one had spotted leaves, which rules out D. incarnata (early marsh) as one of the parents, and there is no hint of early marsh in the flower shape.   The spur is intermediate - broader than a fragrant spur but longer than that of a heath spotted orchid.   And the plants are big and impressive!

Hybrid between Heath Spotted Orchid and Heath Fragrant Orchid:

For comparison, Heath fragrant orchid and Heath spotted orchid:

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Rubh an Dunain

 I went on the Skye Botany Group walk to Rubh an Dunain yesterday, covering about 10 miles.  It was led by Stephen Bungard, who has already commented on the number of new records that were made and of the more significant finds on his own blog. (Plants of Skye and Raasay)   I have been there before to see the Viking canal, the chambered cairn and the iron age fort, all very close together, but this was principally a botany trip, and in passing any other wildlife of interest.

Everyone looking down - definitely a botany group
Geologically Rubha and Dunain, close to the Cuillin ridge, is a basalt area, with  some significant dykes running through, making the scenery quite dramatic, and interesting refuges for plants away from grazing sheep.

Orchids were just coming into flower.  Many of the Heath Spotted orchids were pure white, with uncharacteristically narrow, unspotted leaves.   Indeed the only reliable characters were the shape of the flower and in particular the fan shaped labellum, and weakly keeled leaves.

We saw the first Northern marsh orchid that any of us had seen this season, while there were also the first cohort of Early marsh orchids.  On the croft 37 are in flower so far.

Certainly a highlight was Wood Bitter-vetch growing in an almost inaccessible place on the cliffs above the sea, facing south east.  There is an excellent species account (Species account - Vicia orobus) on the BSBI website, prepared by Kevin Walker and Pete Stroh.   This is a plant that is uncommon with few records on Skye.  It might be more widespread but because of its preferred cliff habitat it is far from easy to find, and the cliffs to the east of where we found it might contain more plants; another day maybe.

Nearby there was a  one very small Heath spotted orchid with the flowers upside down which is an unusual aberration in orchids, but not unknown.   In some species such as Bog orchid all the flowers look the 'wrong way' up.

We saw lots of birds, including Golden plover, Lapwing, the resident race of Wheatear
with their paler colouring (those we had on the croft were brighter and would be on passage to Iceland and Greenland), Cuckoos  and Common sandpipers.

 There were numerous day flying moths such as Common Heath but also this micromoth which one of the members of the Skye Moth Group on Facebook suggests is Clepsis senecionana. (Skye Moth Group) 

There are four or five places on Skye that are 'must see'.   Rubha an Dunain is one, with unrivalled archaeology allied to the chance of seeing some really interesting wildlife.   Oddly though, despite the seclusion and heavy sprainting here and there, we did not see any otters.

On the way there I stopped at the bottom of Loch Ainort where the pilot whales remain and have now been there for over a week.   Whilst there is probably plenty of fish there usually, because it is a good place to see seals, it is very shallow and slopes gradually.   I have no idea whether any moves are afoot to encourage the whales to a more convivial place.