This heron was flying high over the Sound one early morning recently, making the grating screech that is their call, when we noticed....
....it wasn't alone but with a second heron. The two flew round and round each other for some minutes, calling, before disappearing from view. If this was part of a mating display, they're early - grey herons pair up in early spring - but perhaps the unusually warm and sunny November has confused them.
When watching herons one can quite believe that the birds are descendants of the dinosaurs. It's not difficult to imagine that these weren't two herons but two pterodactyls flying over the sea.
We see the Ormsaigbeg buzzards every day. They're part of the wildlife furniture, either perched on prominent points such as the fir tree opposite the house, or wheeling over the croft land with their plaintive cry, or hovering, scanning the ground for mice and voles. This pair nest in the woodland at the back of Bill Green's house, and seem to raise at least one chick to maturity each year.
However, for all their hunting efforts, we rarely see them actually catch anything. This was an exception, when the buzzard almost crashed onto the ground to secure its prey.
If the buzzard population has stayed fairly stable, even though this has been an exceptional year for mice, the number of hoodies (hooded crows) and ravens has gone through the roof. There's frequent conflict between the hoodies and the resident buzzards.
A few years ago the number of crows was controlled by trapping and shooting, but this seems to have stopped.
It's the time of year when the curlews are to be found probing the grasslands in the croft fields. This individual, pictured today in rather grey weather, was unusual in that it was alone. Usually, they move around in groups of six or more, and are very shy, hurrying away as soon as they see us, while this one was far too intent on feeding to bother with us.
While waiting for the hunt to start yesterday, Hughie spotted something running across the fields below us - but it wasn't the fox we were expecting. As it approached we realised it was an otter. It was probably coming up from the sea, following a stone wall which is the boundary between the crofts....
....pausing every now and then to peer around.
This otter has been seen frequently by the people who live along this section of the Ormsaigbeg road, crossing the fields.
It finally disappeared into thick tangle of bracken and brambles within ten meters of where we were standing. Somewhere near here, perhaps in the woodland beyond, it may have its holt.
The sun rose over Morvern this morning at 8.40am at the start of what has been an almost perfect day. With the midday temperature at 13C, a red admiral decided it must be spring so took a flight along the Ormsaigbeg road. Butterflies in November? Surely this must be a record.
In response the need to remove the fox that has been doing so much damage to poultry in Ormsaigbeg, Roy Newton brought some of his hounds to the township this morning. Fox hunting using dogs is legal in Scotland as long as the fox isn't caught by the hounds but shot.
These hounds are very similar to the English hounds but the best are lighter and slimmer - in the Highlands they need to be nimble and able to work a long day.
The Ormsaigbeg croft land runs along the coast and extends about half a kilometre inland, ending against the common grazings boundary fence; beyond is open moorland. The plan was to take the hounds to the far end of the township and then drive the fox eastwards, with the guns strung out along the boundary fence. Picture shows Alastair MacLachlan walking along the fence to take up position at the top of the woodland above Bill Green's house.
Once the guns were in position it was a matter of waiting for the hounds to start moving along the croft land. The Diary had the pleasure of being with Hughie for the morning.
Picture shows the next gun in line from us, Tom Bryson, enjoying the early morning sun just along from the Ormsaigbeg fank.
Once everyone was in position, the hounds were released and began to work their way towards us.
What followed was textbook stuff. The hounds never saw the fox but he heard them and made a dash for the common grazings. As he jumped across a wall he was shot at 15 metres range and died instantly.
He was recognisably the right fox because, as had been noticed on the trail cam footage, he had a problem with his left eye, which was partly clouded over.
Living in a world today in which all wildlife is precious, it's difficult to watch a fine animal like this dog fox being killed. There are, however, limits, and when farmers start losing their stock in broad daylight, and the attacker becomes more and more bold, a line has to be drawn. What was so good about this hunt was that it was so clinical: from the time the vehicles were parked along Ormsaigbeg until the fox died was less than half an hour, and the fox was despatched with a single shot. What the crofters don't know is whether this is the fox which recently killed the Kilchoan hogg. Picture shows some of the guns, Hughie, left, Alastair and Archie.
Choire Mhuilinn was one of about twenty-five clachans, small, self-sufficient settlements, into which, for hundreds of years, the western end of Ardnamurchan was divided. Each had its area of rough grazing, its arable inbye land, and its compact community of low, stone-walled houses. While a some of these clachans remain as croft townships, others were cleared in the mid-nineteenth century to make way for sheep farms. One of these was Choire Mhuilinn, cleared on the orders of Sir James Miles Riddell in 1828.
To visit it today, we walked across Ardnamurchan Estate land to the east of Kilchoan, leaving the car about a mile out of the village and striking out across the hills.
We walked in beautiful weather, sunny with a slight southeasterly breeze. Just above the site of the clachan, we came across six red deer stags, of which two stopped to watch us as we passed before....
....moving off and following their fellows across a wire fence. We stood to watch the easy grace with which they jumped the obstacle.
Of all the West Ardnamurchan clachans, Choire Mhuilinn has the most spectacular site but, looking at it today, you would be forgiven for not noticing it. So thoroughly were the stone walls of the settlement destroyed that, today, hardly one of them stands above a couple of feet high, and most of the remains, visible in the foreground of this photo, are obscured by bracken and brambles. Yet early in the 18th century seven families lived here, some 30 people in all.
The best preserved of the houses stands on a slight rise with an uninterrupted view of the Ardnamurchan coastline and Mingary Castle and, across the Sound of Mull, of Mull itself. All the land in front of it, now grazed by the Estate's animals, was worked as arable land, and the clachan had a fine beach, just visible in this picture, onto which its fishing boats would have been drawn up.
Bald's map of 1806 - this is a very good copy, made in 1856 - shows the clachan, with its arable fields in blue, the small burn which ran close by its houses, and a much bigger burn to the west, the Allt Choire Mhuilinn, beside which are two buildings, one of which was a mill for grinding the clachan's corn.
After wandering across the site we dropped down to the beach and wandered along it for some distance. The point seen at right is Maclean's Nose, while the summit of Ben Hiant is at top left.
Ormsaigbeg isn't the only crofting township that's having problems with a fox at the moment. This picture shows a field in Kilchoan township and a 'hog', a one-year old ewe, lying dead at the top of a slope. She'd been found jammed into a thicket where she'd fled, and then been killed.
The hog has lost her head, almost certainly taken by a fox, but perhaps not the small fox which has been raiding poultry runs in Ormsaigbeg. Talking to some of the crofters, this removal of a grown sheep's head by a fox is unusual but not unknown.
Crofters can't just stand around and accept this sort of attack - sheep are an important income. Sitting up all night with a gun over a dead animal is an option but not a good one. The next is to get the hounds in. Scottish law allows foxes to be flushed out by hounds but they have to be shot rather than left for the hounds to kill.
On one of last week's fine days I walked in the land to the west of the abandoned township of Glendrian - its roofless houses can be seen in the picture at the top of the crofts' grassy inbye land. The settlement is a scheduled monument because, to quote Historic Scotland, it has "potential to contribute to our understanding of post-medieval settlement and economy". The object of the walk, beyond just a pleasant wander, was to see if there were any archaeological remains away from the settlement, between it and the neighbouring township of Achnaha.
Much of the walking was hard work, through boggy land, thick heather and tufted grass, but at the northern end of the area the land rose into a low hill and the vegetation changed to well-cropped grasses. On this rise lay what are almost certainly the remains of a small building - visible in front of the blue rucksack - some 5m x 4m, which could have been a byre, sheep pen or small dwelling. It is badly degraded, the rocks of its walls scattered.
On the other side of the low hill some 50m distant, is this rectangular depression. Measuring about 2m long by 1m wide (the stick is marked in 10cm divisions) and cut into the side of the hill, the rock on the left is in situ while the other three sides have been built up using local stone. To the top right of this picture the land falls away to the flat land of Glendrian Moss.
This picture was taken looking straight down into it. The middle of the hole seems to have been part-filled with rocks, now largely covered by turf, and the stone-walled sides have to some extent fallen in.
I have no idea what it is, but it has the perfect dimensions for a grave.
After leaving the hillock and heading towards Glendrian, I took this picture looking back towards it. While they were visible while walking on the hill, the characteristic stripes of lazy beds are clearly visible in the low sunshine, covering almost all the raised, better-drained land. These fields could have been part of the Glendrian clachan, worked by people living in the township, but they could also have been the land worked by the occupants of the building.
This clip from Bing Maps shows the site superbly. The ellipse encloses the area of higher land, 'a' is the approximate position of the building, 'b' is the depression. To the west lie the lands of Glendrian Moss, drained early in the 18th century, while the worked lands to the east, to the north of the burn, are those of Glendrian.
In Thursday's post - here - we found a fungus growing near Grigadale which we thought was a giant, but an even bigger one has appeared closer to home, just along the Ormsaigbeg road. Half a dozen of these fungi are growing under an oak tree close beside the road.
The Swiss army knife is 9cm long, so the bigger of these two is getting on for 25cm, 10" across.
Being anything but experts on fungi, we resorted to the internet where we identified it as probably belonging to the funnels, the largest of which is the giant funnel Leucopaxillus giganteus - described here. It's said to be edible, although some people can get upset stomachs from it.
While the giant funnel is described as being ivory white on top but turning buff with age, the ones we found were darker underneath than in most photographs. Never mind, giant funnel describes it perfectly.
I thoroughly enjoyed last night's talk, at the Kilchoan Learning Centre, by West Highland Hunting's head stalker Niall Rowantree, ably assisted by stalker Stevie Grant. In just under two hours, they gave us an overview of the activities of West Highland Hunting, the branch of Ardnamurchan Estate's business which deals with its hunting, shooting and fishing interests; an insight into the deer they keep - which include red, roe, fallow, Père David and muntjac, with particular emphasis on the Estate's large herds of red deer; and the environmental considerations of keeping deer.
It was a fascinating talk, too much to take in at a single sitting, but what interested me most was Niall's emphasis on the importance of working with the local community. This didn't refer to the Estate's ongoing concern over poaching, though it must be heartbreaking for the stalkers when beasts which they are anxious to keep as part of the bloodstock of their herds are slaughtered - Niall appealed once again to both residents and visitors to contact the Estate on 01972 510 208 or himself on 07920 858 263 if anyone sees anything suspicious. It was more that at one point he mentioned a local crofter/farmer who has realised the potential of deer farming and had begun to put areas of his land aside for a herd of deer as well as exploiting some of the crofting townships' common grazings for the red deer they hold.
Deer have huge advantages to any farmer. They require no veterinary services. The only supplementary feeding required is over the winter - venison is a wonderfully lean meat but it leaves deer with little in the way of fat reserves for the cold - and the Estate here has the advantage that they are now using draff, a byproduct of the Ardnamurchan Distillery which they supplement with further ingredients. They can be slaughtered on site: the Estate has its own butchery and cold store, and packages meat for the local shop as well as for sale elsewhere. And finally, there is a huge and still rising demand for venison, to the extent that red deer meat is now being imported into the UK from New Zealand.
I returned home to TV programme which featured Ben Fogle on a farm in the Namibian desert. The couple he visited were almost subsistence farmers, but they fed well, their main meat supply coming from these beautiful animals, gemsbok (oryx) - probably the Namibian equivalent of red deer in size and in their superb adaptation to living in a their particular wilderness. Which set me thinking. Looking at the Highland landscape and seeing large sheep breeds, an infamous import from England at the time of the Clearances, and heavy cattle, which churn up the soil, and comparing them as an agricultural product to red deer, it is very surprising that more local crofting communities haven't given careful consideration to the alternative of farming deer - particularly if the Estate's extensive expertise is available to help them.