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RSPB Islay News April 2017

Hiya! I had been hoping to post again sooner as the 2017 ‘season’ started, but, better late than never, I have been able to put a little something together for you now! My 2017 season as RSPB Community Information & Tourism Officer is well under way, and I now have an opportunity to let you know what I’ve been up to, and what is coming up in the season.

Since my last post, my new boss, Mark, the new warden for RSPB Loch Gruinart, has arrived and we have also welcomed Joan, in the role of Visitor Experience volunteer. At the beginning of April, the RSPB hosted various walks on both its reserves, Loch Gruinart and The Oa, for Walk Islay week. It was good to see some familiar faces from last year, all the way from USA, and the walks were well attended. I also enjoyed meeting Steve (and his wife, Sue) from Islay Heritage, discussing ways in which both organisations could benefit from the wealth of history, heritage and archaeology found on the RSPB reserves. Another exciting development is coming to fruition, with RSPB Loch Gruinart becoming a ‘Scout friendly’ reserve, working with the First Islay Scout Group as part of the larger partnership between RSPB Scotland and Scouting Scotland. Together with The Botanist Foundation and Bruichladdich Distillery, responsible for The Botanist gin RSPB Islay will be introducing some evening walks later this year which will focus on sustainable foraging, and the opportunity to meet Mark (www.gallowaywildfoods.com), the man who puts the ‘Islay’ into The Botanist gin! Continue reading....

The weather hasn’t been at its best over the last few weeks of April, although this last weekend made up for that with some decent hours of sunshine, ideal for walking and seeing the seasonal changes to the wildlife around the reserves. The barnacle geese and white-fronted geese have all but gone, and I’m sure in a few days time, the remaining few hundred will have left for their Greenland breeding grounds. I was going to say that the island will be quieter without them - I have got used to hearing them when they fly overhead - but as is so often the case in nature, there is always a new sound on the ‘block’. Yesterday, as I walked down to the South Hide at RSPB Loch Gruinart, I heard a corncrake. Unmistakable. I’ve been getting reports for the last 3 weeks of folk hearing corncrake and I’m now getting reports of sightings as well (last year I was able to get multiple sightings myself, often late in the season, of mum corncrake with offspring in tow)

Confirming the arrival of these summer visitors so early is good news for me. In May, every Monday evening, I do evening walks from the Visitors Centre at RSPB Loch Gruinart, focussing on corncrake. Last year, the first bird arrived on the reserve the night prior to my first walk.... I was going blue from holding my breath! This year, I can breathe a sigh of relief as I’m not under the same pressure. In the entertainment world there is a saying you shouldn’t work with animals or children......Getting back to the point I was making about the island being quieter, it simply isn’t the case. Wherever I go, the sound of the island has changed. The yapping and honking of the geese has given way to the trills of skylark and meadow pipits displaying above the heather, woodlands are alive with the multitude of chirps, whistles and buzzes from woodland birds including willow warblers, and the wetlands are resonating with the ‘peewit’ cry of displaying lapwing and the noisy alarm of redshank, the ‘guardians of the marsh’. Wherever I walk, I make a point of stopping and just listening....... Another distinctive sound around Loch Gruinart is on the farm, Aoradh (pronounced “Oo-rig” and is Gaelic for ‘The place of sun worship’). Calving and lambing is well underway at the moment, keeping my farming colleagues busy all day, every day. The cows in the calving shed can be pretty noisy at times, and this sets off one of the bulls we have in the paddock below the car park. He’s a 2 year old Aberdeen Angus, goes by the name Ettrick Bellman, a recent addition to the farm who quickly and head-buttingly (an Aberdeen Angus kiss?!) established himself as the head of the ‘young bulls posse’.

The soft rumbling bellow that originates deep within that huge bovine body is reminiscent of the precursory grunting of a male lion before it lets rip into a spine- tingling full-bodied roar in the African night. Well, almost – maybe I’ve been away too long. And whilst I’m on the subject of visceral reactions, my introduction to roe deer also brought memories of Africa rushing back to mind... my first experience of startling a roe deer buck on the woodland trail and hearing its distinctive bark as it bounded away reminded me of other African encounters I’ve had. And not always pleasant ones at that. Baboons are one of my least favourite animals and many a time when camping in the hills in Botswana, I have warily listened to the barking of baboons – coming closer or going away, I would always try to determine.... and I was intrigued that the bark of the roe deer resulted in the hairs on the back of my neck standing erect.... It’s true what they say about Africa – once she’s under your skin, there’s no escape. Maybe I have been away too long!

Back to the farm.... and a reminder that the Visitor Centre at RSPB Loch Gruinart will host a Farm Open Day at Aoradh on Sunday, 7th May from 10.00am onwards (and it’s free!). It’s a great opportunity to find out more about their ‘Farming for Wildlife’ methods, something in which I am particularly fascinated.

Here’s a bit more detail:
The farmed area of the 1700ha reserve includes intensive and semi – intensive grassland of which 100ha is permanent pasture, 100ha is rotational grass/barley grassland and 283ha of wetland areas; moorland (a small proportion of which is used as cattle grazing), as well as areas set aside for corncrake corridors and late summer flowering seed crops, make up the balance.

The favoured feeding area of the geese after their autumn arrival on the reserve is a 100ha area we call ‘The Flats’ (incidentally, it is the site of one of the last Scottish clan battles – the Battle of Traigh Ghruinneart – in 1598). I refer to ‘The Flats’ as Farming for Wildlife ‘Ground Zero’ and it consists of reseeded grassland dissected by a system of drainage ditches and 120 sluice gates. The diversity of species habitat and the seasonal changes in land management across a 12 month period is quite astonishing.

In spring, after the winter rainfall has abated, the water levels on ‘The Flats’ (which provide an ideal wintering habitat for waterfowl,), subside, the geese depart, and the area is occupied by breeding lapwing, snipe and redshank (this a very important feature of the reserve, which is now counted as one of the top 5 reserves in the country for breeding waders). Being mindful of corncrake conservation (numbers of calling males on Islay have increased regularly to over 85 calling males - 25 years ago we had only 6), silage (grass cut and preserved as winter feed for our overwintered cows and calves) is only cut and harvested late in summer (August/ September) after the young corncrakes have fledged.

The harvest of whole crop barley and the targeted wild bird cover areas provide winter stubble full of seeds for farmland birds (including large flocks of linnet and twite) and serves as an introduction for the grass that the geese depend upon on their arrival in October.

And so the cycle continues....

So, if you feel like having a day out, experiencing the sights and sounds of both the farm and the reserve at Loch Gruinart, you are more than welcome to join myself and the RSPB team on our walks. If we’re in the right place at the right time we maybe hear a corncrake as well! Hope to see you there!

For an overview of all the RSPB walks please visit our Islay Events Calendar

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