Coll The Coll Magazine

Article by Charlie Self (2000)

The RSPB Nature Reserve 1999
The RSPB Nature reserve 1999

Mid January on the Isle of Coll, and after the wettest windiest December of recent years we're now basking in warm spring-like sunshine. Snowdrops are flowering, daffodil leaves and even buds are well up. Some hopeful birds are looking forward, herons are crashing about in the woods where they nest, buzzards have been rollercoasting and mewing over crags, and raven pairs flick upside down, cronk, foghorn and tumble.

Winter is still firmly with us though. In sheltered bays great northern divers and long tailed ducks bob in the swell and dive. From cliff tops you can watch them slicing the turquoise waters, heading down after flounders and crabs. Now the wind has stopped (oh joy !) the sounds of the island come wonderfully to the fore. Always a background of geese. Greylags honking and braying like donkeys, white-fronts in their extended family groups are gently musical then suddenly clamorous and grating as disputes break out with opposing clans. Barnacle geese are a muted growl as the tight packed flock feeds, then, suddenly panicking as the Barra plane goes over, the sky becomes a maelstrom of black and white yapping. Whooper swan families trumpet their whoops in the coastal lochans and drift elegantly to the far side where teal preep preep from the reeds, reflected to twice their size.

Walking down over the machair where a whoosh and chatter in the still air heralds a flock of panicking fieldfares. A shining grey hen harrier quarters the ground silently. Cattle feeding areas by the sand dunes are worth a sit and look. Cows are always interesting with their runny noses and warm acetone breath. Calfies sleep in the middle of the hay bales and there is a warmth and passiveness that is deeply relaxing when surrounded by mellow cows cudding, all broadsides on to the sun and steaming. Less relaxed are the birds - flocks of skylark, twite, rock dove, starling and reed bunting are busy busy with poking and searching, chattering, talking, flying up to the wires and then back down again.

Finally to the beach and off go the curlew, fast around the point. Pebbles turn to plovers and scuttle off, redshank have a fit of hysterics and noisily hide amongst the seaweedy rocks, and oystercatchers hop up and down on one leg before burying their crimson bills in warm feathers with just a bright black eye checking you out. On the long swell of the waves sanderling are all legs; whirling down to the surf edge, probe probe probe, off back up the beach as the next lazy breaker bulges and nuzzles up the sand.

Beachcombing becomes most interesting about now. Two messages in bottles this month, from Norway and Denmark. Currents are still from the south west as volcanic fragments of pumice from Montserrat in the Caribbean continue to arrive amongst the glistening tangles of kelp. Sea beans from central America and whale skeletons from the deep, but still no glass fishing floats.

There's always some reason to go back down to the sea.

Sitting on the beach, it's the first month of the new millennium and with the ancient and timeless rocks and sea around this seems as good a place as any to reflect on the past year with the RSPB.

Corncrake numbers on Coll increased to 48 calling males well distributed around the island hay and silage fields. Fortunes were mixed elsewhere with decreases on Lewis and increases on South Uist. Overall in the UK numbers increased to a still paltry 600. Another grant scheme for farmers who want to look after the corncrakes on their own land was introduced on Coll and other islands. As the farming crisis deepens it is those lucky farmers who can access a range of grants and subsidies - particularly environmental ones - who will make ends meet and be able to continue farming. And rural areas need their farmers, not just for food production but for many social and environmental reasons. We should not forget that the oldest recorded human activity in Scotland, dating back 9000 years comes from these Argyll islands. For millennia people have thrived on these Inner Hebridean islands, developing a rich and diverse culture. Their remains abound in the Mesolithic shell middens of the early hunter gatherers, in the Neolithic pottery shards found in eroding sand dunes; lochs are dotted with crannogs, coastal promontories harbour fortified duns, standing stones rise as mute testament to cultural activities we can only guess at. From more recent centuries we find Viking place names, castles, crofts, field systems and lazy beds. The landscape the present generation inherits is one of great antiquity. Our forefathers have worked and altered the land and bequeathed to us a landscape of great cultural and natural importance where the wealth of wildlife living close to the people is unsurpassed. Let's hope that the continuing European reform and restructuring of agricultural policy and the World Trade Talks do not forget the peripheral areas like Coll where the social and environmental fabric continues to be held together by the people who farm and rear livestock.

The continuing decline of "common" birds that live on farmland is a worrying trend on the mainland. The agricultural landscape (80 % of the land) is becoming ever more simplified and intensively managed. Areas where wildlife can find food and a home are disappearing. On Coll the RSPB reserve is playing its part in a national campaign to try to halt these declines and put more diversity back into the landscape. Growing crops such as oats, barley and kale may sound like intensification of farming but where it is done sympathetically the benefits are obvious. Lapwing nest on the recently ploughed ground in spring, corncrakes call from the tall summer crop, and after harvest in autumn the stubbles are alive with wee birds like skylark, twite, reed bunting and rock dove feeding on the spilt grain and weed seeds. The crop itself is valuable winter fodder for cattle and the birds then get another chance to find food during the dark cold months.

The intensively farmed landscape has not only led to declines in birds. More than 95% of the flower-rich meadows have disappeared. The only places left in the UK where there are large areas of flower-rich habitat are Salisbury plain in Hampshire and the Hebrides. So on Coll our flowers become ever more important, and the largest colony in Europe of the Irish lady's tresses (our rarest orchid) is found here. Associated with flowers are bees, and Coll is home to several species including the great yellow bumblebee and the northern colletes that are now very rare and restricted in their distribution. These bees are found in the machair grasslands that are not grazed in summer where the flowers, particularly red clover, are abundant.

Managing a nature reserve that is so rich in different types of wildlife - from Corncrakes to sand lizards, rare orchids to bumblebees depends on having a farming system based on cattle rearing that is carried out at a low intensity so allowing space for wildlife. A big thank you to the farmers and crofters of the islands who have allowed the wildlife to stay. The future of that wildlife in the new millennium now rests with the farmers and the governments that determine where farming goes from here.

Charlie Self
Coll Magazine - Article by Charlie Self

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