Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spring Flowers

The snow is finally shrinking from view and the spring flowers are keen to out and about.

The bees and insects are equally anxious for fresh nectar.

The yellow heads of the naturalised daffodils way cheerfully in the breeze.
The trees are starting into growth with various pollen bearing catkins emerging.

The Broom and Gorse bushes start into flower.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sunshine, Volcanic Ash, Rainbows and snow

As always the Scottish weather was undecided as to how it would best display itself to the returning visitor and general populus.

This year was slightly different, in so far as we had the unexpected introduction of Iclandic Volcanic Ash clouds passing over on their way to circumnavigate the globe.

Another reminder of how the Earth is still in charge no matter how big humanity gets.

Check out this Volcanic Ash Sunset.

We enjoyed seeing the remnants of the snow and heard our host's stories as to how it had been and that was enough for us. We were thankful to have missed the rigours of an unusually difficult Scottish winter.

There were the remains of a snowman in the back garden but that was gone in a couple of days. There was also snow to be seen on the more distant hills and mountains. From the cloud formations, one could imagine snow falling above 500m.

There was rain about but these were very localised and had a blustry feel to them. They also produced the most stunning rainbows, which made for some good snaps.

For most of the vacation we enjoyed the best of weather and on all the occasions that we had family staying over, the weather was at it's best. The sun was shining, the patio was in good use, cool drinks proffered and an early start was made on the summer suntan.

Where else would you be?

The red wine shown is an excellent 1995 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG from the Italian vintners, Castello Banfi and produced from the marvellous Sangiovese grape.

The Sangiovese grape is also used as a component of the popular Chianti Classico Reserva: Sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero, Cabernet Sauvignon.

NB: Never settle for a mediocre Chianti, always seek out a good Chianti Classico Reserva with some age to it.

The Crystal Decanter
The decanter shown is an early 20th century plain crystal glass decanter with ER enscribed on it and a crown symbol above it. NB: the ER symbols are translated as Elizabeth Regina; signifying the item is the property of the present UK Queen or a department of her government.

The Decanter was not allocated to lowly staff members but was possibly used by local UK government or diplomatic officials at board room or executive level. This was back in the days when your bank manager or tax accountant would offer you a cheering glass of sherry or port when you popped in to see him.

We bought it in the local charity shop for £2 + a donation to the UK Help the Aged Charity. Slainte!

Picture of a Lamb new born

Coming out of the difficulties of a severe and harsh winter, the sheep were focussed on producing new lambs for the farmer.

Being a bit of a 'townie' I wanted to take back a charming picture of a new born lamb. This is contra to the lambs' and ewes' instincts to avoid spooky looking humans that don't bring food.

For a brief period of time I was a self-confessed sheep 'stalker' or 'paparazzi'. Sneeking about behind stone dykes and peering around trees to try and catch them off guard, with little success.

I did eventually manage to get a nice shot of a lamb but in the meantime I took a 'backup' shot of a stuffed lamb in the Kelvingrove Museum & Art Galleries, which was housing a very good exhibition of the artists known as the Glasgow Boys.

As I explored the terrain around the cottage, I noticed that on one side of the road were the lowland cheviots with their delicate looking lambs. All white and new, except for a small patch of red on their underbellies. The remnants of the umbilical cord that attached them to the ewe. Carried safe in their womb, throughout the winter months.

On the other side of the road and also on the higher hills, were the traditional hardy Black Faced sheep of the Scottish uplands. Too often now they are replaced by the Dutch Texel sheep, not as hardy as the Black Faced sheep but with their own particular strength. They are raised by the more intensive Dutch way of farming using chemicals and are more tolerant to high levels of artificial fertilisers.

Holland is built on sand and other impoverished soils. This has little nutritional value to sustain grass and animal fodder, so it is intensely fertilised and becomes chemically dependent for growth. No fertiliser, no grass. No grass, no sheep. No sheep, no money. No money, no farm. No farm, no food.

So fertiliser is sprayed on the soils regularly to maintain the growth of the grass and animal fodder. Consequently, the Dutch Texel sheep are better able to tolerate the higher levels of phosphate fertilisers sprayed on the grass. The same phosphates that poison and sicken the Black Faced sheep.

It's sad but true that the Texel is replacing the Scottish hill sheep everywhere in Scotland, so the farmers can increase their yields, or sustain the weight of their produce, by artificially feeding the land. This does raise the question of increased phosphate levels in butchered meat produce but that's another story.

The Duke's Course - St Andrews

For those of you who enjoy a good round of golf I can thoroughly recommend the Duke's course at St Andrews. It is a relatively new course but it is of championship standard, as you would expect from the home of the Royal & Ancient home of golf.

If, like myself, you enjoy an early tee-off time, I can thoroughly recommend a hearty breakfast from the clubhouse before you start. A pot of excellent coffee and a two-handed bannock filled with good Scottish bacon will set you up for a great first drive up the fairway.

Stirling; The Heartland of Scotland
The great joy of being based in and around Stirling is that you are within striking distance of all of Scotland's uniquely, wonderful activities, with only a few exceptions.

This year we enjoyed a number of sporting activities that we do not normally include in our itinerary. Our normal active agenda includes walking, hiking and a welcome piece of horse riding in the mountains but this year we included the golf, archery and clay pigeon shooting. All of which were made even more enjoyable by the care and attention shown to us by our hosts.

In mainland Europe and sometimes in the US, some of these leisure activities are not as relaxing as they could be because of the crowds or the pressure of competition or just the stressful atmosphere in which they are conducted but here in Scotland the emphasis is still on the relaxing, leisure side of sporting activities.

The weather can be variable but the sheer pleasure of the surroundings and the welcoming greetings from other players is delightful and not to be underestimated as a major component to a relaxing vacation in Scotland.

Archery and Clay Pigeon Shooting

My hard-working brother had invited me to accompany him on the archery and the clay pigeon shooting and as a first-timer it was a real thrill and joy to be spending time together again and on a lesser scale, competing against him.

I enjoyed the target archery and was relatively succesful at it. This makes me think that I may continue to pursue this activity back in Europe.

Unfortunately, as for clay pigeon shooting and, despite the valiant efforts of the instructor, the only trophy to be won that day was a large bruise on my shoulder from a badly placed gun stock. You live and learn but it's a great adventure to be enjoyed.

Frogs, Toads and Smooth Newts

The first rule of hunting for frogs, toads and the more rare, newts, is to go where you know they will be comfortable. Come to think of it, that probably applies to everything and everyone.

Frogs, Toads and newts are simple souls. They like cool, damp conditions with easy access to a small pool, pond or slow moving river and feed on bugs, slugs and snails.

In addition, they love to sit idly in the sun on a warm rock, tree stump or pipe and regulate their body temperature by hopping into and out of the shade, or water.

Frogs and Toads are not into extreme water sports and this year the rivers were running too fast for them to be comfortable. So, they had opted for the more sedate ponds and pools that are found dotted around the forest.

Enter the Cattle Grid
One other location that the smooth newts certainly favoured, was the bottom of a well drained cattle grid. The overhead bars of the grid provides dappled shade for the creatures and allow them to move around unmolested and unseen by passing pedestrians and motor traffic alike.

They are small enough to live in nooks and crannies around the edges of the cattle grid and as long as the grid does not fill with water when it rains, it stays nice, cool and damp.

The most I saw at any one time was 6, promenading around the edge of the grid. Clearly on a mission to somewhere but often in opposing directions. They looked as if they were warming up for some athletic event. Maybe they were.

Unfortunately, cattle grids that don't have an escape ramp, do have a bad reputation for trapping mammals and this one contained the skeleton of a hedgehog that had become trapped and, as a result, had probably starved to death.

However, the local newts, frogs and toads were able to move in and out at their leisure and found it to be a very suitable arena for their simple needs.

NB: There is a simple solution to making a cattle grid safe for hedgehogs. Put in a stack of stones or bricks for them to use as steps to climb on OR build a simple ramp by using a piece of wood with chicken wire wrapped around it for better grip. Prop the stick up at a gentle slope. such that the hedgehogs can easy climb out but not so it sticks out of the grid and is a danger to traffic or pedestrians.

An Essential Safety Note for Humans
The cattle grid, once you discover it, is an excellent location for the keen amateur to observe small creatures but you should be careful of a number of things; passing cars, slipping on the metal grids, falling into the grid and the strange quizical looks from bemused locals.

The sight of a wellie-clad eco-tourist lying sprawled out and face down across a cattle grid, can confuse and disturb the sensitivities of the local population, especially around closing time at the local pub.

Their first instinct will be to run to your aid, roll you over and try to resuscitate you by pummelling hard on your chest or worse, attempting to give you the dreaded 'kiss of life'.

Here is a tip to avoid some of these embarassing misunderstandings. Before they get too close. try to anticipate the intentions of would-be Good Samaritans and spring quickly to your feet. Try to do this without falling through the cattle grid.

Be aware that if you do inadvertantly fall through the cattle grid at this juncture, you will very quickly be stopped from falling by the metal structures.

Have no fear about damaging the cattle grid, it was made to withstand sudden impact with heavy objects. Unfortunately, your lower anatomy was not and therein lies the problem.

NB: A sudden shift of position on a cattle grid, needed to convince a passerby that you are uninjured, may lead to a dramatic and painful outcome, that will seriously undermine your argument.

To prevent such accidents, you could practice lying down and jumping up on the cattle grid in anticipation but again if this is observed by passers-by, it may lead to further complications and compulsory psychological assessments.

So, best just keep a weather eye out for other humans, whilst at the same time as observing the animals and, if anyone does happen to ask you what you're doing, tell them you dropped your keys.

Frogs and Toads spawn

We arrived at the Garrique a little later this year and this concided with the breeding activities of the local reptiles and amphibians; the frogs, toads and newts of river, pond and wetlands.

The Frog and Toad pond was bubbling with activity and the croaking and squeeking of the males was audible from some distance away.

We had to be very careful where we walked because the grass and edges of the pond was a favourite place for the frogs and toads to 'meet' and 'get to know' each other. The warmth of the sun on their backs provided them with extra energy for this, the annual spawning event.

It was easy and educational, to see the different stages of the lifecycle in the pond. The frogs and toads ranged in age from teenagers and small adults to full grown matriachs, standing guard over a large collection of frog spawn, some of which was already shimmering and bubbling as the embryonic tadpoles start to emerge.

If the weather and the local heron permits, these tadpoles will soon become a mass of 'hoppers' that will escape into the grass and shrub growth around the pond. They feed voraciously on bugs, slugs and snails, which is why they are the gardeners' friend.

Apart from basking lazily on a warm rock beside a refreshing pool, soaking up the sun's rays and thinking of not-very-much-at-all, it's not a life I envy. I would still rather be a cat and have people dance attendance on me or an eagle that soars high on the wind and wants of no man.

Bird Feeding Stations

As always when we arrive at the Garrique we receive the warmest of welcomes from Fiona, a freshly picked bunch of flowers from the garden and bowl full of fresh, free range eggs from the farm. A proper highland welcome.

We exchange information about the farm, the wildlife and the birds. Fiona is very fond of the bird life around the farm and encourages and feeds it throughout the arduous winter. Thus, ensuring a chorus of birdsong not only to greet you each morning and evening, but also to accompany you on your daily walks around the forest.

Unfortunately, in return we bring the modern trappings of an everyday European couple and their high tech gadgets, which we very quickly and willingly, learn to do without.

Having established ourselves in the cottage and over a warm tea or coffee we take stock of the birds coming and going. Lots of familiar friends from last year but maybe not in as many numbers as before.

The winter has taken it's toll, over and above the natural predators; the kestrels, sparrowhawks and buzzards.

Nothing for it but to set up the bird feeding stations, to fatten the little rascals up as quickly as possible, so we can get them into good breeding condition for the Spring and the task of caring for their young.

The birds are naturally nervous of the feeding stations but are soon encouraged by the constant attention and cheeky nature of the local Chaffinches. Always first to arrive and willing to take a chance where food is on offer.

New sightings of Red Squirrel

There is an abundance of wildlife and fauna in the hills, forests and fileds that surround the Garrique. Every year when we are visiting, we discover something new or some new activity that we have not seen before.

This year my wife had the great pleasure of a brief encounter with the local Red Squirrel.

Sadly a species that is struggling to survive alongside the more invasive grey squirrel, one of which was a regular visitor to our bird feeding station at the back of the cottage.

I know I should discourage the greys as a pest species but I still enjoy watching their antics and even managed to get a couple of fuzzy snaps of them.

Our generous host spends many hours per day walking in the forests and fields with her her lovely spaniels and she had alerted us to the recent sightings of the red squirrels in the area.

I suspect they are enjoying the magnificent and ancient Scot's Pine trees that tower above the smaller Birch and the more recent conifers.

The mighty Scot's pine stand like sentinels in the forest and serve as host and protection to a large number of woodland species, including the Pied Woodpeckers.

We spent a pleasant time on our walks in the forest listening to the Pied Woodpecker drumming on the exposed trunk of a sturdy Scot's Pine, without ever seeing it clearly. A good pair of binoculars would have helped.

We saw the occasional flash of wings as it moved from tree to tree or branch to branch and heard it's rather harsh and rakish cry. A song that only the local crows and ravens would envy.

Because Spring decided to emerge just after we arrived, the forest and fields were full of thrilling activities.

The number of lambs in the fields were increasing daily, the hares were dancing and boxing, the trees and bushes were starting to open their buds (despite the efforts of the Bullfinches) and the Woodpeckers were establishing and declaring their territory by drumming on the Scot's pine.

Each drumming sound we heard nearby was quickly answered by a more distant response, from a potential rival. An ancient dialogue between breeding males to dominate their chosen patch of the forest. It was ever thus.

Easter Weekend in the Garrique

It was wondeful to be back in the Garrique cottage again, to watch Spring emerging from a punishing winter. It was even more uplifting to be there over the Easter weekend.

There were still traces of snow in the hills and mountains surrounding the cottage and even the remnants of a snowman in the back garden.

The forests around the cottage showed clear signs of damge. The result of a number of fierce and relentless storms. We were concerned for the local flora and fauna.

The sheep farmers were concerned that the lambing season had been delayed and, because the sheep had struggled to feed consistently through the winter, they were in poor condition. This was likely to lead to smaller lambs and a higher morbidity level in the ewes. A tense time for all.

Sadly, we were informed that some of the charming little roe deer that populate the forest had died off in the harsh winter.

On the positive side, we did see a couple of roe deer skipping across the fields, between the sheep and even more, lower down on the Carse.

I think the animals who could, decided to move to the lower slopes for food and away from the isolation of the snow covered hills and frosty winds.