Sunday, 27 December 2015

The re-wilding of Scotland

Should it be done?

The term re-wilding is has become the ecological ''in phrase'' of many wildlife conservation movements. It was first defined in the mid-1990s and has come to refer to the whole process of returning an ecosystem to a stable state of health not dependent upon human intervention.

In the context of Scotland this is understood by most people to mean the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves, lynx or bear. These are the creatures most ordinary Scots will have heard about when the subject of reintroducing a species which man - through the agencies of hunting and habitat destruction - was responsible for wiping out from an ecosystem arises.

Three wolves standing together
Photograph by Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0


Every so often sections of the popular press will run a story about plans to reintroduce one or other of the species mentioned above usually resulting in a flurry of ''letters to the editor'' on how such species would be inappropriate, unwanted or just plain too dangerous to bring back and let loose in Scotland.

Many objections come from sheep farmers who fear that wolves in particular will see their sheep are easy targets and concentrate on them as their prey in preference to that more natural and obvious prey of wolves, the deer. There is undoubtedly some basis to these objections - most predators won't pass up an easy meal if one is going.

Nevertheless, support for the re-introduction of wolves to Scotland is growing  and I have little doubt that one day it will happen. The inner Hebridean island of Jura (the wildest of Scotland's islands) has been mentioned more than once as a possible location for a wolf pack and an island would seem to be the ideal place for a trial introduction of a small number of wolves.

Jura, in particular has a large population of red deer to support a wolf pack and the island is sufficiently far from its nearest neighbour to make it unfeasible for wolves to migrate to the mainland thereby helping to allay any fear the public would about them being a danger to man (what the 200 or so inhabitants of Jura think about this apparently hasn't been considered!).

A fenced area in or near the Cairngorm National Park (where there is already a wildlife park) has also been considered as a site for an introduced wolf pack and this idea would have one big attraction - being on the mainland tourism would be easy to organise. That would bring big benefits to the local economy and a lot of positive publicity for the ecological movement. Provided the matter of security of the boundary fence(s) is guaranteed so that it is very unlikely any of the animals will escape this seems to be the best all-round proposal and would probably be acceptable to the Scottish public and the sheep farming community.

Successful introductions

There have already been successful re-introductions of previously extinct-in-Scotland species - the beaver and the white-tailed sea eagle being notable amongst them - but none of the species which have been brought back to Scotland are seen by the public as any particular threat either to humans or to livestock. Species such as the bear and the lynx are less likely to be re-introduced to Scotland. The public perception of these predators as being dangerous to humans is unlikely to allow their re-introduction any time soon - although plans are being made for a trial introduction of the lynx to an area on the Scottish border with England.

A beaver in its pond
Photograph by Marcin Klapczynski/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0
The re-introduction of the white-tailed sea eagle, the UK's biggest eagle is a particular success story. The last breeding pair was recorded on the Isle of Skye in 1916 but now, after their successful re-introduction in 1975, this magnificent raptor with its 2.5 metres wingspan can now be seen in many parts of Scotland (including a breeding pair in a coastal forest not 10 miles from my home in the Ancient Kingdom of Fife on Scotland's east coast which, sadly, I have not yet managed to observe).

The beaver has been introduced in two places in Scotland. One of them is the area of Knapdale, in Argyll and by all accounts this has been a roaring success with the beavers being shown to be both a benefit to the local ecology and a well-visited tourist attaction.

This ''Scottish Beaver Trial'' lasted five years and Scottish National Heritage, who were responsible for organising and monitoring the beaver trial, have published their final report which is now in the hands of the Scottish government who are considering the future of beavers in Scotland.

There are also a large group of beavers living in/on/near the River Tay in Perth and Kinross Region but no-one actually knows how they got there! Popular rumour has it that they are the result of illegal releases by parties unknown in an attempt to hurry up the process of the re-wilding of beavers in Scotland. This group of beavers have also been studied and are the subject of a report by SNH.

Should we do it?

We know that, given the will, the money and the right circumstances, we can reintroduce to Scotland those species which were lost to human activity but should we?

There is a strong case for the re-wilding of Scotland in that these lost species will help to re-establish a balance in the ecology of Scotland. Let's take just one example: the red deer. They are not an endangered species nor were they wiped out in Scotland but the loss of those predators which preyed on them (thereby keeping their numbers in check) has resulted in an increase in red deer numbers to the extent that the population of red deer in Scotland is about twice what the land can comfortably support.

This is why deer stalking is a big sport in Scotland. Leaving aside any feeling about killing animals for fun there are plenty of deer and plenty of people willing to pay large amounts of cash for the privilege of shooting a stag. Deer numbers are such that there are also regular culls of deer by the shooting estates in an effort to lighten the load on the landscape and the food supply and ensure that the deer herds don't have too hard a time surviving the winter - in fact, many estates actually feed their herds through the winter months.

Reintroducing predators like the wolf is one solution to the overpopulation of deer in Scotland. The last wolf in Scotland was reputedly shot about 300 years ago but the Scotland of today isn't the same country it was 300 years ago.

Red deer stag bellowing
CC0 image from Pixabay
Is it right for us to try to wind back the clock and bring back major predators to a Scotland which has changed in so many ways? Human population, livestock farming, land use and many other factors have resulted in a countryside far different from that known by the wolf, the bear and the lynx.

Scotland is a small country and, unlike the beaver and the sea eagle, any introduced large predators would have to be confined and restricted to certain areas and is that fair to them? These creatures are used to roaming free and hunting as they will, but in a modern Scotland that won't be possible for them. They would be confined to what is, in effect, a zoo. A bigger zoo than most, admittedly, but a zoo nevertheless for they would be subject to constant scrutiny from wildlife researchers and the inevitable tourists.

Do we have a moral obligation to the wolf, etc.? We wiped them out so do we have to put them back? Maybe we should think long and hard about that - and there is another aspect of the re-wilding of Scotland we need to consider:

What will we do about introduced species?

If we are going to re-wild Scotland back to the ecology of several hundreds of years ago what about all those species now present in Scotland which have been accidentally (or purposefully) introduced over the years?

Species like the mink, the grey squirrel and the sika deer and, almost unbelievably, the Australian wallaby, have been introduced to Scotland with dire results for some native species. Mink will take birds and their eggs, the grey squirrel carries the disease squirrel pox which is harmless to the grey squirrel but fatal to Scotland's native red squirrel and sika deer (native to eastern Asia) are known to interbreed with Scotland's red deer thus diluting the species.

According to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) more than 900 non-native species have been introduced to Scotland. Not all of these are harmful to Scotland's ecology (although none of them belong here) but certain species (Japanese knotweed and the signal crayfish to name but two) are having a devastating effect on Scotland's ecology.

Should the efforts of our environmental organisations not be directed towards eradicating these invasive non-native species instead of spending time and money on what are little more than ''vanity projects'' to introduce long-gone species into a landscape which bears little resemblance to the one from which they were made extinct?

Should those extinct species which used to live in Scotland but no longer do so not be consigned to the pages of history instead of being resurrected into a landscape no longer relevant to them? 

A special case

A Scottish wildcat
Photograph by Linda Stanley/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0
And now I plead ''special case''. This is the Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris grampia sometimes known as the ''Highland Tiger''. Slightly larger than a domestic cat it is the UK's largest land predator and is very rare. In my years of roaming the wilds of Scotland and climbing its hills I have never seen one. There are reckoned to be only about 400 left, scattered across the wilder and more remote areas of Scotland. Again, human activity and habitat loss have been the main cause of their decline but one other factor has had a major impact on this species - interbreeding with domestic cats which have gone feral.

This factor has caused some authorities to doubt if any pure bred Scottish wildcats still exist and, indeed, there is a real possibility that this is the case which would be a crying shame for, to me the Scottish wildcat epitomises the wilderness of Scotland.

I have never seen one but I have seen signs of their presence in the form of scat and the remains of their victims and just knowing that they exist and that one may be watching me as I walk through its territory is enough for me to declare that we should do all we can to save this symbol of wildness.

Losing this species would mean a lessening of the experience of wandering through a wild Scotland. Just look into the eyes of the one above and tell me you don't feel it too!


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Buchaille Etive Mor: a winter hillwalk

Come and climb the 'Big Herdsman' with us

My wife and I have recently returned from a visit to our favourite highland town, FORT WILLIAM (known as The Gateway to the Highlands ), the biggest town on the west coast of Scotland. On the trip there - about 4 hours from our home in the ancient Kingdom of Fife - we passed through a lot of spectacular scenery, most of which is familiar to us from long acquaintance over the years both from the road and from the tops of the many hills I have climbed with our son (my Wingman) over the years.
Buachaille Etive Mor covered in snow
One such hill is probably the most photographed hill in Scotland, appearing on many postcards and calendars. It is BUACHAILLE ETIVE MOR, one of Scotland's 282 Munros (mountains over 3000 feet). It lies at the eastern end of Glencoe and is a prominent landmark visible for many miles and is often called the ''Big Herdsman of Etive'' a reference to the herds of goats which highlanders kept before they were replaced by sheep.

We stopped (as we often do when we pass this way) to admire its rugged beauty and take a few photos. With my binoculars I spotted a faint black spot slowly crawling up the mountain - and then another, and another! As it often is the hill was busy, with several parties numbering from one to several members attempting its difficult 'hillwalker's route' up Coire na Tulaich .
The corrie (the English spelling of a Gaelic word for a narrow valley surrounded on three sides by steep hillsides) was wearing its habitual shroud of mist higher up, as were many of the surrounding hills and from experience I knew the struggle the climbers were engaged in for Coire na Tulaich is notorious for its steepness and the friable nature of the rock found within it.
The scene started me reminiscing about the last time Wingman and I had climbed the Buachaille - in winter conditions rather different to those the climbers I was watching were facing. I began to describe the finer points of the climb to my wife but she is not interested in such (and indeed thinks we are a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic for doing such a silly thing!) so I let her read her magazine in peace and followed the progress of the groups on the hill for a few more minutes until time demanded we continue our journey.
The author in the snow (photo by my wingman)
I have often been faced with well, almost hostility, when the subject comes up and I try to describe to friends and colleagues what it is I get out of roaming my native hills in all weathers. Comments such as ' That's a damned stupid thing to do, getting cold, wet and uncomfortable for no good reason ' or ' Don't see the point; you climb a hill and then all you can do is come back down again ' and in truth it is hard to describe to one who has no interest why we do it. They either instinctively understand or they never do at all!
Nowadays I usually fend off such criticism by mentioning things like 'exercise' and 'fresh air' and 'great views' but I can still see the doubt in their eyes. Like my wife they also think I'm a 'couple of sandwiches short of a picnic'!
So I thought 'Perhaps if I set it down in words. Perhaps if I take them through a personal experience of what it's like to get cold, wet and uncomfortable for 'no good reason', perhaps then some of the naysayers will understand'. I reckon it's worth a try, so here goes - come with us as Wingman and I climb Buachaille Etive Mor, the 'Big Herdsman of Etive' - in winter!
Man climbing a snow-covered hillside with an ice axe
CC0 image from Pixabay
Sunday morning and from Wingman's flat in Glasgow it's a 3½ hour drive to Glencoe so it's up at 5am (thank goodness we didn't overdo it the previous evening) to snatch a quick round of toast and a cup of tea. Stuff sandwiches, flasks of coffee and soup into our rucksacks and hit the road. It's early February and the weather forecast is mixed - bright spells with possible snow showers later in the afternoon. We need this early start. At this time of year it doesn't even start to get light until about 9am and starts to get dark again about 3.30pm.

This is the Buachaille we are climbing and it has a fearsome reputation. We need to be at the base of the mountain before daybreak or we run the risk of being caught out by darkness whilst still high up on the hill - not good, not good at all. People have died on this hill for the sake of an extra hour in bed.

Rushing through the deserted towns and lonely roads we mentally rehearse the day. Did we pack our ice axes and crampons? We will surely need them. It will be cold up there with water ice lower down and hard-frozen snow (névé) up high. Crampons and axes will be well used today. Map and compass? Although the route is obvious you can never be too careful and we always take both for all it would take is a sudden closing in of mist or (God forbid) a blizzard leading to whiteout conditions where you cannot tell the difference between the ground and the sky. With no point of reference people have walked over cliffs in such conditions after straying off the route.

Map showing the location of Glen Coe
Map by Eric Gabba (Sting)/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 4.0 International
We reach the glen and find a parking place. We are not the first. Several cars are already here but then it is almost 9am and the eastern sky is growing light. Got to get a move on. Sudden thought! Did I bring my winter gloves? Yes, they are in the pocket of my Keela winter jacket (sign of relief!). Ten minutes preparation putting on our winter boots ('proper' leather ones, not the lightweight boots we wear the rest of the year) and our waterproof overtrousers (it isn't raining but they help keep us warm).

What we are wearing today is far different from what we wear during summer. Winter in the Scottish hills is harsh and climbing a MUNRO (for such is the Buachaille) in winter is not to be taken lightly. We are both wearing a moisture-wicking base layer (conducts sweat away from our skin) and a fleece jacket as a mid-layer. I favour a heavy winter jacket as an outer layer but Wingman prefers a lighter one which he wears all year round but in winter he also carries a lightweight outer jacket of the type known as a smock which he can wear on top of his outer layer if need be. Winter trousers and waterproof overtrousers complete our outfits.

We are hillwalkers, not climbers but in the depths of a Scottish winter there is no such thing as 'winter hillwalking' - it is mountaineering pure and simple and must be treated a such. We do not use ropes but we do use crampons and ice axes for without them we would be mere 'summer walkers' and we are harder than that (at least we like to think so).
The climb
A quick banana for energy, an 'OK to go?' and we are off across the muir, following the path past the climber's hut at Lagangarbh, heading for the base of the hill. The predawn air is freezing and our hands, ears and noses begin to nip - a portent of what lies above - so it's on with the alpine hat (at £35 for a suitable hat winter walking is an expensive business) and gloves (£25) and keep plodding along the frozen path until we reach the base of Coire na Tulaich - the only feasible walking route up the Buachaille in winter.
Picture of mountain with red line showing the way up
We are at the bottom of the red line. When we reach the bealach (a mountain pass) at the top of the route we turn left and will still have about 500 metres to go to reach the peak of Stob Dearg, which is what the summit of the Buachaille is called.

We start climbing in earnest now. It is full daylight but the lower part of the corrie remains in shadow, cold and unwelcoming. We will not feel the warmth of the sun until we are about half way up. We reach the first significant snow and stop to affix our crampons to our boots, a process which requires that we remove our gloves. Although it takes only a few minutes our fingers are numb by the time we are ready to resume our climb. Numb fingers make it difficult to put our gloves back on but with the help of a few well-chosen expletives the job is done and we begin to climb again.

High above us we see a lonely figure. A solo climber is almost at the head of the corrie. He must have had an early start for he is a good hour ahead of us. Voices echo from somewhere and we pause to look around. A group of three emerge from the gloom below and quickly reach our position. They are all youngsters, fit and going well and will summit before we do (damnit!). Wingman is handicapped by his loyalty to his father and cannot give them chase!
A climber on a steep snow-covered mountainside
This is the steepest, most awkward part of the climb and we must be careful. Crampons are not perfect and one slip could see us slide all the way back down to the bottom - an experience we would not enjoy! This corrie is well-known for the presence of a cornice of snow at its top lip, forming an awkward barrier to progress, but none is present today and we top out at the bealach without incident.

We turn left, tramp up a windswept almost snow-free ridge and we are on the summit! The view is magnificent. To the east lies Rannoch Moor with its many lochans sparkling like diamonds in the bright sunlight. South-east is the Blackmount, a range of hills running south-east for several miles and a well-known high-level walking route all the way to Victoria Bridge. North-west is the Aonach Eagach ridge, that classic three-mile ridge walk which forms the north wall of Glencoe. It is easy enough in summer but is beyond the average walker in full winter conditions, as it is now. The glen lies below, stretching west to Loch Linnhe which runs northwards up to Fort William.

Mountaineers joined together by a rope
CC0 image from Pixabay
We find a spot out of the wind and stop for a much-needed break. Out comes the chicken soup and corned beef sandwiches and the coffee and chocolate biscuits. So far we have been very lucky with the weather. Cloud cover has been about 50% but there has been no snow and the wind isn't particularly strong despite our height (Stob Dearg is 3350 ft) but it is very cold. We stare at the views. All around us are hills, hills and more hills, all of them with a covering of snow on their top third. There are 282 Munros in Scotland and we reckon we can see fully half of them.

We reflect on the day so far. The climb up the corrie, although strenuous, was quite straightforward and we had no real trouble but there is an ominous darkening of the sky as the weather threatens to change. It was now just after noon and we debate what to do next. With the time available it would not be wise to complete the classic round of the Buachaille which involves another three miles of walking and two more Munros. We would be overtaken by darkness while we were still up high - a situation we would rather avoid. We decide to call it a day and descend by the same route we ascended. If we go now we should just about make it back to our car by last light and be home in time for a late tea.
The descent
This is probably the most dangerous part of any climb. After the euphoria of reaching the summit it is easy for an attitude of 'that's the mountain conquered - we can go home now' to set in. But no mountain is truly conquered. We can climb it, yes, but Mother Nature can still turn round and bite us in the backside and, in fact, most accidents happen during the descent when tired legs (and minds) can fail and a simple slip can lead to a slide down a snow-covered mountainside sometimes with fatal results.

No trip to the hills is truly over until we are sitting back in our warm, comfortable home, feet up in front of the fire and a beverage of our choice in one hand!
One last photo which will give you a better sense of the scale of the climb up Coire na Tulaich:

The mountain covered in snow
So why do we do this? For the views, the exercise and the fresh air, of course! Yes, I know, these are my excuses, those reasons I give those who don't understand. They are all true but there is more to it than that. There is the challenge, the sense of adventure, the knowledge that every time we go to the hills and wild places (of anywhere, not just Scotland) we take our lives in our own hands and go head-to-head with nature. I do it for the satisfaction of trying (and so far succeeding) to live entirely on my own wits, my own skills, my own resources. I do it for the sense of being in a wild place, for the experience of getting as close to the natural world as modern man can. I go to stretch myself.

And yet I realise that I am, to a certain extent, simply playing at it. I do not go naked, I do not go unprepared, I do not face the storm with nothing. I take full advantage of what the modern world can offer me in the way of equipment which will ease my time with nature. Nor do I go to those places I know I cannot survive but then again, I am only human and nature could (possibly one day will) squash me like a bug but until that day comes I will still go to the wild places.

All photos by the author unless otherwise stated

Saturday, 19 December 2015

What's killing Scotland's birds of prey?

People - that's what!

White-tailed eagle
CCO image from Pixabay
It has recently been revealed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that Scotland's raptor population, particularly the golden eagle, is being kept down by illegal killing.

Raptors in Scotland, such as the golden eagle, the hen harrier, the red kite and others, have legal protection against persecution (not just killing - it is also illegal to harass or disturb a nesting raptor) but this legal protection hasn't been very successful in preventing numerous raptors being illegally killed apparently by parties with a vested interest in the eradication (or near eradication) of these magnificent birds. According to the RSPB over the past 20 years 700 raptors, or birds of prey, have been shot, poisoned, trapped or otherwise killed.

So who is doing this? Well, the obvious suspects are those gamekeepers and landowners of the big grouse shooting estates in the highlands of Scotland who (allegedly) carry out these illegal killings in an attempt to negate the effect that raptors have on the grouse populations of their estates although just how many grouse raptors take each year is open to question.

Peregrine falcon with wings spread
Photograph by the author
What's the evidence for this? Actually, there isn't any - it's all largely circumstantial but it is curious that those raptors which live on or near grouse-shooting estates are the ones which are being killed whilst those who live further away and do not prey on grouse are largely left alone and are doing well.

The RSPB further state that only 15% of suspected cases of persecution of raptors were prosecuted (but most of those which were resulted in a conviction). This low prosecution rate probably reflects the fact that most raptor killings take place in isolated areas well away from prying eyes!

I can understand how shooting estates would object to raptors taking grouse and understand that they want to protect their investment (huntin'/shootin'/fishin' estates are big business in Scotland) but these birds have legal protection for a reason.

An eagle flying
CC0 image from Pixabay
They are all in decline and they can certainly do without trigger happy gamekeepers blasting them out of the sky (allegedly) or laying out poisoned bait for them (again, allegedly) - a practice which also puts in danger other animals and even man since the main poison used is carbofuran which is neurotoxic and is fatal to vertebrates (including humans) even in small doses.

There is an argument to say that the presence of raptors in Scotland is a big tourist attraction. Speaking personally, the sight of a golden eagle soaring over a remote hillside and disappearing into the mist quickens my pulse - it is one of the joys of Scotland's natural world.

Would it not be better for those grouse-shooting estates to accept the loss of a few birds in exchange for the greater opportunities offered by wildlife tourism? Is it not possible to combine grouse shooting (with guns if you must) with golden eagle shooting with cameras?

Possibly some sort of compensation scheme could be offered by the Scottish government - cash paid for every grouse lost to a raptor perhaps. Similar schemes operate elsewhere in the world where wildlife and human farming/herding clash. It would be a real shame if 'protecting our investment' was the reason raptors disappeared from the highlands.

Main story sources:
RSPB review: The illegal killing of birds of prey in Scotland
Scottish Raptor Study Group
BBC Scotland
The Guardian

Update sources:

Disappearance of Elwood
Disappearance of golden eagles

Friday, 18 December 2015

Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles

are the three best places to live in Scotland!

And that's official! In fact, Orkney (the second most northerly group of islands belonging to the UK) has come top of the 'Best Places to Live in Scotland' list for the third year running closely followed by Shetland (the most northerly group) with the Western Isles coming third.

Seaside village of Hamnavoe, Orkney
Photograph by Colin Smith/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0

'Quality of Life'

In the 2015 Bank of Scotland 'Quality of Life' survey Orkney retained it prime spot for, amongst other reasons, its low crime rate, its low unemployment rate and (surprisingly for Scotland) its good weather - Orkney's rainfall level is lower than the Scottish average.

The survey placed Shetland in second place for similar reasons coupled with the magnificent coastal scenery and the spectacular wildlife - especially birds.

The Western Isles have climbed up the rankings to third place which confirms what every islander already knows - island life is the best life!

Benbecula, Western Isles
Photograph by AlastairG/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
Having visited both Shetland and the Isle of Skye I can vouch for the laid-back lifestyle found there, in fact, Shetland is the only place I have ever flagged down a taxi and not had to pay the fare because he was 'going that way anyway'! That just doesn't happen on the mainland.

The 2015 Bank of Scotland 'Quality of Life' survey lists the top 10 most desirable places to live in Scotland (see the list here). Unfortunately, where I live in the Ancient Kingdom of Fife on Scotland's east coast doesn't feature anywhere in the list!

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Parking charges at beauty spots

Are they excessive?

All over Scotland you will find car parks at the many rural beauty spots and recreational areas visited by tourists, day trippers and locals. Many of these car parks are run by the relevant local authority and others (especially those in the more remote areas) are owned and run by the huntin'/shootin'/fishin' estate whose land they are on.

Depending on their location these car parks can be properly-surfaced tarmac parking areas with marked-out parking bays, information signs, rubbish bins and sometimes even public toilets, or they can be a mere patch of rough ground, sometimes with a gravel surface and sometimes with nothing other than bare earth which, of course, is often wet and muddy - and no facilities whatsoever.

A rough car parking area
A rough car park in a remote location (photo by the author)
Commonly, both these types of car park share one factor - a charge is made for the privilege of using them. Now I do understand that these parking areas need maintenance and that such upkeep has a monetary cost and that the owner has a right to levy a charge for their use but what could be considered a fair charge?

''Proper'' car parks at major beauty spots (almost all of which are probably owned by local authorities) can vary widely in the amount charged for their use but this type of parking area is generally quite well maintained with good facilities and, apart from the odd muttering under their breath, most users don't object to the amount charged - provided it isn't excessive, that is!

What may surprise some people is that those car parks situated in the more remote areas of Scotland and used by those who take part in the various outdoor activities commonly followed in Scotland (such as hillwalking) also vary widely in the charges levied for their use even though most of them are privately-owned and rarely have any kind of facilities at all.

There is one car park (not a local authority-owned one) I know of (I won't name it to spare the blushes of the private estate which owns it) in a remote area which is well-used by hillwalkers and climbers. Because of the single-track roads in the area this car park is the only possible parking place and the estate is well aware of this. Accordingly, parking charges at this car park have slowly but steadily increased over the years and now sit at almost four times what they were just five years ago!

A rural car park in a remote area
Photograph by Hugh Venables CC-BY-SA 2.0
Admittedly, inflation will account for some of the increase but this car park has NO facilities whatsoever - unless you count a gravel surface as a facility - yet the charges keep on increasing

I have absolutely no objection to paying what I consider a reasonable sum for the facilities provided. Granted, this is a subjective decision - what I consider reasonable another might think extortionate - but it seems that some car park owners, be they local authorities or private landowners, have realised that these parking areas are a bit of a ''cash cow'' and have decided to take advantage of what is in effect a ''captive audience'' - the outdoor enthusiasts of Scotland.

As someone who does much of his hillwalking alone and in remote areas a car is the only reasonable way for me to travel. Public transport in the remoter areas of Scotland is poor (and that's putting it politely). Some bus services in remote areas only run every second Tuesday in months with an 'R' in them - or to some other equally silly (and useless) timetable!

The best option is to bribe, plead with, cajole or otherwise coerce friends or family to provide transport but not too many are willing to drive 3-4 hours each way just so I can get my long weekend in the hills. Guess I'll just have to bit the bullet and dig ever deeper into my pocket and pay the parking charge!


Sunday, 6 December 2015

Edinburgh Zoo

. . . Is it worth visiting?

The answer to that question is a resounding Yes - it is!

As someone who has visited Edinburgh zoo on many occasions with (and without) children and latterly with grandchildren I can highly recommend it

Leaving aside for now the moral arguments on whether the concept of zoos is good or bad Edinburgh Zoo, in Scotland's capital city, is an excellent day out for families and wildlife enthusiasts of all ages.

Owned and run by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and situated in Corstorphine Road (see on map), one of Edinburgh's busiest roads, Scotland's biggest zoo is easy to find even for those who are not familiar with the city.

The entrance to Edinburgh Zoo
Photograph by Thomas Nugent/Geograph UK: CC-BY-SA 2.0
So let's take a look at some of the highlights of Scotland's most popular pay to visit attraction.

The pandas

The most famous residents of Edinburgh Zoo are, of course, the pair of giant pandas currently residing in luxury in a purpose-built enclosure. ''Borrowed'' (rented actually!) from China Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) are the UK's only giant pandas and came to Edinburgh at the beginning of December 2011 as part of an international breeding program organised by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Tian Tian the female panda at Edinburgh Zoo
Photograph by The Land/Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Unfortunately, Edinburgh Zoo hasn't had any success in breeding them so far.

There have been a couple of false alarms when the female (Tian Tian) showed signs of being pregnant (including two attempts at artificial insemination) but the results have been disappointing and the zoo still awaits the patter of tiny panda feet!

The pandas are so popular that a system of ''appointments'' has been introduced to view them! The waiting list can be quite long at times so advanced booking is highly recommended.

The penguins

Another long-time favourite at the zoo is the ''Penguin Parade'' when the zoo's collection of king, rockhopper and gentoo penguins leave their enclosure and take a stroll around the zoo grounds accompanied by their keepers.

This parade is entirely voluntary on the part of the penguins. They are not encouraged in any way and sometimes the parade just doesn't happen because the penguins aren't in the mood!

Again, this is a popular attraction and although booking isn't necessary it is best to claim your place early to ensure a good viewing position along the route of the parade - if it happens, that is!

The penguin parade
Photograph by Lisa Jarvis/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0 Unported

Highly recommended . . .

. . .  but only if you have no fear of creepy crawly things!
Giant African land snail
By Schneckenmama/Wikimedia CC-BY SA 2.0 Germany
This is a Giant African land snail and it is one of a host of slimy, creepy and crawly creatures you can have a close encounter with at Edinburgh Zoo.

Creepy Creatures like the hissing cockroach (yes, it really will hiss at you!) can be found at the Budongo Trail Lecture Theatre where short talks on all kinds of invertebrates take place each day.

Admission is included with the zoo entry fee but places are strictly limited so, once again, get there early. The Budongo Lecture Theatre is also the venue for several other talks on various residents of the zoo - you pays your money and you takes your choice!

Interesting bits

As well as the giant pandas the zoo has the UK's only group of koala bears and in 2013 the first and so far the only koala baby born in the UK was born there. Edinburgh Zoo is the largest zoo in Scotland and is world-renowned for its conservation and breeding programmes including those involving the African Wild Dog, the Budongo Chimpanzee, the Bali Starling and many others.

The zoo has a Full Day Keeper Experience available where you can shadow one of the animal keepers for a full day (or a half day) and find out first hand what the life of a zoo keeper is all about.

There is also a series of webcams in strategic enclosures enabling anyone anywhere in the world to see what selected species of animals are doing at any time of the day. If you're interested then go take a look:




Please note that these are LIVE daylight webcams and depending on where you are in the world and which time zone you are in you might not see anything when you tune in - if so then tune in again at a different time.

Except for this one: The webcam in the panda enclosure not only operates during daylight hours but it also has an infra-red mode so that the pandas are visible even in complete darkness. Ever wondered what giant pandas get up to at night? Well, now's your chance to find out by tuning in to the 24-hour panda camera:


For further information on Edinburgh Zoo visit the zoo's website

This might interest you

Right next door to Edinburgh Zoo is a Holiday Inn and if you want to combine a visit to Edinburgh with a trip to the zoo then this particular Holiday Inn may have the answer.

The Holiday Inn next to Edinburgh Zoo
Photograph by Thomas Nugeny/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0
It offers a ''Panda Package'' which includes both admission to the zoo and admission to the panda enclosure. If this would suit you then go take a look.

My conclusion

Despite all that's said about how zoos are ''prisons for wildlife'' I believe that the best zoos (such as Edinburgh Zoo) are doing wonderful work in the field of conservation of endangered species.with the various captive breeding programmes they are involved in.

Yes, I know that it could be argued that, in the past, zoos (and private collectors) were largely responsible for the decline in many species but those days are behind us and the best hope for endangered species like the snow leopard, the Scottish wildcat and the Siberian tiger and many others lies with the efforts of responsible zoos and wildlife parks around the world in breeding and maintaining wild populations.

Zoos also give many people the opportunity to see and interact with many creatures they would otherwise only get to read about in books and to get involved with conservation on a personal level. All things considered zoos do more good than they do harm.