Eagles, Otters and Harriers, Oh My!
Off the western coast of Scotland, lies an Island. An Island that covers an area of 875 square kilometres, has a coastline that stretches 300 miles and is home to a mere 2,800 people. Spectacular and dramatic views, rolling hills that have been carved by ancient volcanoes and a plethora of habitats, this beautiful piece of land is nothing short of absolutely stunning. So! Diverse habitats, secluded, a small population of humans, what does that mean? Quite simply, that the range of wildlife to be seen is astounding! So, what is this mysterious Island? Holding the title of the second largest of the Inner Hebrides, it is of course, the Isle of Mull.
Last week I returned from my first encounter with Mull. An encounter that lasted an entire week. Now, you may think me a liar when I say this, but as the ferry sailed toward the port and I watched the coastline go by, I said “I love it already.” And I did. Arriving on Mull, my expectations concerning the wildlife that I would see here were admittedly, fairly high. And being a raptor lover, my first concern were two particular species of eagle. The white-tailed eagle and the golden eagle to be precise. Two species that I had never laid eyes on in the wild before and Mull did not disappoint. On our second day, we took our dogs on a 7 mile coastal walk that began at the beautiful Calgary Bay, where we were staying. Within an hour of the walk, and after the sightings of the odd gannet and shag, I spotted something else in the sky. And there they were, two white-tailed eagles, circling high above the cliffs, their spectacular wingspan spread out, almost endlessly, across the skies. Unfortunately for us, they did not grace us with their presence for long and after 10 minutes, they had disappeared over the hills. Disappointed, I slung my binoculars over my shoulder and trudged on, muttering and cursing myself about my poor attempt to capture them on film. Minutes later however, I was thrilled once again when the next target on my checklist arrived. A single golden eagle. A golden eagle who granted us more time and for the next quarter of an hour, I watched, fascinated, as this spectacular bird swooped down over the hills and hunted amongst the heather. Our walk had been a roaring success.
The next day I felt fat. Not from seeing the eagles of course, but because it was a holiday and, in true holiday spirit, we had drank wine and eaten far too much chocolate the night before. So, come 6am and we were up and ready for a 6 mile run along the coast. In answer to your question, yes, we are mad and as my best friend informed me, exercise on holiday is, in fact, illegal. Nevertheless, we set off (without the dogs) and an hour later, I was so glad that exercise on holiday is not illegal. From the moment we set off, the shores and the roads were deserted, and as I ran, I glanced down at the crashing waters of the ocean. Next came uncertainty, excitement and then a desperate attempt to stop immediately, half way through my stride as I called ‘Otter, otter, otter!’ We were extremely lucky. Not just one otter, but two. It was 6.40 am and we were blessed with watching two otters playing and barking in the waters just below us. Perching (rather precariously) on the end of the cliff, we watched them play, bark and squeal, crawl onto the rocks and slip into the water, until they eventually headed back out into the sea. My first wild otters. Once again, Mull delivered an entirely new and fantastic experience.
The next few days were littered with wildlife. Harbour seals, oystercatchers, ringed plovers, curlews, sandpipers, gannets, shags, red deer, buzzards, kestrels and of course, more white-tailed and golden eagles, were a mere taster of the wildlife we spotted. But, never satisfied and never one to settle, I had one more thing on my list. A bird who we all know. A bird who is the subject of controversy in the UK. A bird who is constantly struggling for survival and battling the odds, particularly in England. You guessed it! The hen harrier. So, eyes peeled, binoculars and camera ready, I waited. Days passed. Days that included many periods of time of me either sitting on moorland, or driving over it, watching and waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Nothing. Nadda. Eventually, the day came when we had to leave this fantastic Island and I was decidedly hen harrierless (aren’t we all?) Safe to say, I was more than disappointed. Disappointed that I was leaving and disappointed that there had not been a single hen harrier in sight. However, thanks to a flat car battery the morning of our departure, disappointment turned to slightly stressed and slightly short of time as we rushed for our ferry. The route there however, took us over the moorlands and it was then, in a rush and constantly checking the clock, that I saw her. A female hen harrier flying low over the moorland. I let out a slightly odd, excited squeak as I motioned to the bird, just managing to say the words ‘Hen harrier!’ Unfortunately, we couldn’t, and didn’t, wait for long. My exclamation of ‘who cares about the ferry?!’ was answered with a stern look and a raise of the eyebrows. But I saw her! And I was, and am, ecstatic and I count myself very lucky indeed. White-tailed eagle, check. Golden eagle, check. Otter, check. Red deer, check. Hen harrier, one great big fat check.
But why am I harping on about the wonders of Mull? What inspired me to write this rather strange article? Have I been given some kind of pay off by the Mull tourism industry? Unfortunately not. It is simply because, aside from the celebration of being able to see such fabulous species in the wild, something else struck me. That such species are so marvellous to see, because they are native species to our shores and, because there are so few of them, so we just do not see them very often. Why? Because many of them, particularly the raptors, face heavy and persistent persecution in the UK. In England especially. Even the otter. Hen harriers, white-tailed eagles and golden eagles are all at a constant threat from illegal persecution in the UK. However, on the Islands such as Mull, there is no persecution. Or at least, very little, so the wildlife thrives. And although we can say that yes, places such as Mull, Skye and other areas of the Highlands and Islands play host to these wonderful species, it does serve as something of a stark reminder of how much of the UK countryside is missing its native, and some of its most marvellous species.
However, the stories of these species even on the more remote Islands is a bit rocky. There has been opposition to some of them, especially the white-tailed eagle on Mull and Skye, with hill sheep farmers worrying that our largest raptor would be a threat to their lambs. Despite this, the eagles have taken hold in these areas and in 2013, there were 79 breeding pairs of white-tailed eagle in Scotland, with 20 pairs on Mull this year. Numbers of golden eagle breeding pairs are over 4oo in Scotland, with 25 on Mull this year. As for the hen harrier, there are thought to be around 600 pairs in Scotland, with numbers fluctuating on Mull throughout the year.
My time spent on the Isle of Mull was quite simply breathtaking. The wildlife, the habitats, the landscapes and the places were all spectacular, but the more I thought about it, the more it left me considering some things. I come from a rather wild upland area of Northumberland. I am surrounded by forests, rivers and endless moorlands. I am surrounded by perfect habitats for many species. So, I have one question. Why do I have to travel so far to see our native wildlife? Why do I have to cross the sea to see these species, when many of them should be perfectly at home in England? I think we all know the answer to that, and our biodiversity, countryside and natural heritage is all the poorer for it.
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