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Lockdown on a wee nature reserve in the Scottish Highlands with red squirrels

I’d be lying if I said the current virus crisis had massively affected the way my wife and I live. Sure we don’t go out for lunch or a coffee once a week like we usually do, and yes I’m a bit short of paid work right now (business consultancy and copywriting), plus of course there’s the daily anxiety we all have, in varying degrees, to deal with in these extraordinary times. Oh and we also have the loo roll shortage nonsense up here too. But other than all that, we’re getting on with things in much the same way as we did most days in the past.

For me that ‘most days’ is working in my office in the morning, then working outdoors in the afternoon – the only real difference right now is that the time in the office in the morning is much reduced, so I’m getting outside rather earlier (‘every cloud’ as they say).

Our land is a mix of semi-natural scots pine woodland, wild flower meadow and paddocks for my wife’s three native ponies. We also have a dear-fenced area for growing veg which has a poly tunnel located in it. I manage the woodland and meadow areas very much as a nature reserve, and although not that large I also have an agreement with two adjoining landowners to extend that management onto their land (perhaps another 10 acres in total).

Me with the largest scots pine we have on our land

My outdoors work all revolves around the 7 acres of land we’re lucky enough to own around our house, which is set in the hills near Muir of Ord (about 15 miles west of Inverness overlooking the Beauly Firth). I’ve always felt very fortunate about what we have here, but in the current situation that level of appreciation has taken on a dimension I could hardly describe.

Much of the work in recent years has been to increase tree cover, and I’ve planted about 300 native trees including scots pine, oak, silver birch, downy birch, rowan, aspen, wild cherry, holly, crab apple and hawthorn. Some of this planting has been on land which was previously grazed, though much of it also into areas of sparse woodland where row deer have prevented any meaningful level of natural regeneration. I don’t dear-fence whole areas as it just moves and intensifies the browsing problem elsewhere – and I anyway like seeing the deer in the woodland – but instead protect each individual tree with a circle of stock fencing about a metre across. I’ve also created three wildlife ponds, put up around 30 nest boxes and including two for tawny owls – both of which were quickly occupied.

As you might expect, bird life is relatively rich here – though more the sheer number of birds rather than having any rare and unusual species (though we do get the odd crested tit in the winter on the peanut feeder). However and although I’ve been a lifelong ornithologist, it’s a species of mammal which commands much of my daily attention: the red squirrel. When we first moved here nearly three years ago, I would occasionally see the odd squirrel leaping between branches of the scots pines or manically racing up and down the trunks chasing each other. So I put up a few feeder boxes containing monkey nuts and hazel nuts, and within days they’d found them. And it was amazing to see how they knew how to lift up the lid to the box to get the food out. I also, perhaps once per week, now put in a few pieces of chopped carrot dusted in calcium powder. The reason for this is that an over-reliance on nuts can cause a calcium deficiency which results in a degenerative bone disease, which sadly can lead to death. Females in the breeding season can be particularly vulnerable.

One of our daily visitors right outside the kitchen window

Related to the last point, there is an argument to say that you don’t need to feed red squirrels given suitable habitat and therefore natural food, but I do so for a number of reasons. Firstly, a new house build next to our land resulted in a significant loss of habitat for an access track (it’s beyond me why Highland Council Planning allowed a 250 metre long, 15 metre wide swathe of pine and birch woodland to be completely destroyed just for one single property, but anyway), so I’ve been trying to do everything possible to compensate. Secondly and based on a survey I carried out, the population was anyway small and fragile relative to the amount of available habitat. And thirdly I love watching them out of my kitchen window!  

Part of my longer term aims for our land and that which adjoin it, is to significantly increase the suitable habitat for red squirrels and other wildlife. This not only requires a lot of planning and physical work, but also trying to inform, educate and positively influence the owners of the adjoining land – including those who thought it fine to destroy the long strip of woodland for their new house. So I’m working on that, albeit discussions might have to resume once we're out the woods on social distancing.

And finally and to hopefully put a smile on your face, here’s a photo of one my wife’s Shetland ponies, Victor, in the last snow we had.