Staff blog: aluminium skies

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett takes stock of her year as the evenings draw in

Fran lockhart quinag detail

For days and weeks we have had rain. We have had drizzle and sheets of rain, hail that has turned wet and torrential downpours. The burns are gushing full and the white froth of waterfalls is tumbling down but the land is waterlogged. The hinds and calves become easily chilled with less body mass to keep them warm. The stags, being larger bulk feeders, are able to retain their condition and keep better insulated from the worse weather. 

The tits and robins tend to stay tucked away sheltering from the rain. They ruffle their feathers out to form air pockets that provide insulation and some birds are able to grow extra feathers for the cold weather. Cold wet weather is a challenge for small birds and their energy levels rely on good food sources. Some birds have an oil gland specially designed for waterproofing that is spread while preening.

As more water tumbles down out of the hills I hope that the essential nutrients in the soil are not all leached out by the heavy rain. Extremes of weather are probably what is to be expected from the effects of climate change. This change has been put down to human activities since the industrial revolution with a 40 per cent increase in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. We have a choice and the unprecedented challenge for us all is to combat the rise of CO2 emissions before it is too late. The importance of planting trees and looking after our soils for carbon sequestration is more vital than ever in halting the global rise in temperature.

Helping trees to grow on at the CALL Little Assynt tree nursery feels like a good step towards combating climate change. Local volunteers arrive fortnightly to help Nick the nursery manager with general nursery tasks like weeding and grading trees. This is part of a Trust-led session aimed at helping vulnerable adults to get involved in conservation work. If it is raining then we find tasks to do in the shelter of the polytunnel. All the trees here are locally sourced and most will be planted out in the area.

As the evenings draw in we took the local wildlife watch group on an owl hunt. Once in the woods we made owl calls hoping this would encourage them to call back. Overhead we saw grey herons coming home to roost but unfortunately no owls. Perhaps they did not think much of our calls, or perhaps we missed their soft silent wing beat. As dusk approached we sipped from steaming cups of hot chocolate made on a Kelly Kettle and sat in the growing darkness.

The children aren’t familiar with being in the woods at night, but with encouragement we kept off their torches to let their eyes adjust. In the dimming light it was lovely to see the children settle and quieten as they became used to their surroundings. As we walked back it seemed like a torch would be an intrusion to the other senses that had grown to fill the lack of sight.

As winter advances the woodcock numbers have increased with the arrival of migrant birds from over the North Sea. They tuck themselves away during the day, but if disturbed fly vertically upwards in rapid panicked flight. They have a rich russet plumage, striped head and raised eyes above their long beak that allow them to keep a look out while feeding.

Snow has arrived and walking the ground on the north side of Quinag sounds are muffled by the thick white blanket. Many animals are hibernating like the frogs and toads. They have started their self-induced torpor that allows body temperatures to become very low.

In the shortened days of winter new shapes are formed as branches stretch out leafless twigs against the aluminium skies. It has been another enjoyable year being out and about on Quinag whether monitoring, stalking, on guided walks or taking out groups school children for various activities.

Find out more about the Trust's work at Quinag.

Photo of Quinag by Fran Lockhart