Wildlife and History


by R. Willis, Fettercairn, Aberdeenshire

During a recent mid April weekend in Oronsay Cottage we were lucky to find perfect spring weather with the season some two weeks ahead of normal and the daffs at the road end just beginning to die back with the grass greening up underfoot. A sunny morning ramble up the hillside behind the cottages was particularly rewarding for me and my two companions.

With outstanding views out to sea and set against a backcloth of native woodland on the hillside the meandering paths behind the cottages, whilst steep in places, offer the perfect opportunity to work off a healthy Scottish breakfast, and enjoy a real treat for the wildlife enthusiast and botanist.

Wildlife and BirdsAs we climbed through the hazel woods, other tree species became noticeable, no sign of oak but birch, alder, blackthorn, holly and magnificent ash, some clad in ivy, provide cover and nesting for a diverse bird life. The sound of the greater spotted woodpecker was enough to prize one’s eyes away from the widening view of the loch below and the islands beyond. Other birds flitted in front, chaffinches, blue tits, goldfinches and song thrush were all in full song while taking care to keep out of sight of birds of prey above, and of course the ubiquitous grey crows and the gulls over the water below us. No sign however that day of a now well established west coast sea eagle.

There was as much of interest below as above; the underlying rock being largely of limestone, as the ancient ruins of two lime kilns bear witness, the ground is rich in flora and the clumps of primroses, celandines and wood anemones were eye catching. Also yet to flower marsh orchids and wild strawberry, and of course the cloak of bluebells for which the Springwell slopes are renowned. Fortunately the all enveloping bracken was barely in evidence, although the ferns were uncurling in the dappled shade under the once coppiced trees.

Roe DeerRoe deer had walked the paths earlier and whilst they were not to be seen, having moved uphill at dawn, their slots were evident in the muddy wet flushes. A cheeky stoat briefly showed its face and we saw signs of pine marten and indeed fox, but failed to catch a glimpse of a red squirrel of which apparently there are still a few.

High on the hill above and nearing the heather line further activity had occurred during the night. Fresh scrapings gave the show away and a hard worn track led to somewhere important. As we rounded a knoll we could see the earthworks below. A series of well worked badger setts came into sight. It was tempting to come back at dusk and watch the family emerge from their day time refuge.

We happily took our time on the ascent to absorb the diverse flora. We sat amongst primroses and violets watching the first showing of peacock butterflies, noticing also that come the summer there would be a plentiful harvest of brambles, wild raspberries and sloes to enjoy. What a viewpoint for painter, a rich floral foreground and breathtaking mountain and coastal panorama leading the eye in the far distance to the Isle of Mull. And not a midge in sight!

A memorable Spring morning ramble indeed which gave the lie to those who decry our spectacular Highland landscape as degraded. Springwell is a place rich in wildlife and at the centre of an area that must be a Mecca for the birdwatcher, botanist, artist, photographer or someone who just enjoys the Scottish landscape. I long to go back in the later seasons of the year.