Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.


North Highland wildlife diary – February 

In last month’s column I promised I’ll tell you more about the birds of prey that we have in our corner of the Scottish Highlands, so I’ll be coming back to that in a bit. Ahead of that though, a brief summary of what’s been happening on and around our croft in the last month or so.

Well the weather has been relatively kind, and other than some high winds early on in February – and we’re used to those! – there’s little to report. As for wildlife, I’ve been seeing a few roe and red deer come down from the hills to feed close by and that’s always a welcome sight on a grey and damp day here in East Sutherland. I’ve also regularly been scouring our quarter of a mile of river bank – the River Fleet – for a view of an otter but it’s been many months since I’ve seen one. So no otters to be seen on the river just now, but spending time looking for them always reveals something else and I’ve had some great views of solitary goosanders hunting for small fish. But goosanders are a shy bird – and probably rightly so as they’ve been persecuted in the past on game fish rivers such as ours – and they’re soon into flight when they catch a glimpse of me approaching.

On the bird feeding station there’s been the usual high numbers of chaffinches (we normally have 100 plus throughout the winter months), coal tits and siskins – the three most numerous species of birds we have on the feeders. But joining the siskins we also have redpolls, though they often feed on the niger seed on the ground which the siskins drop. One tip I often give people about feeding niger seed is to do so from the largest feeder possible, or use a number of smaller feeders. The main reason for this is that, because of the tiny physical size of the seed, siskins, and indeed goldfinches, often spend much longer sat on the perches than, say, a greenfinch will if feeding on black sunflower seed. So in other words the tiny seed means it takes longer to shuck and get the same volume of food than it would a sunflower seed, and that being the case the competition for perch positions is greater. My favourite feeder for the job is the Droll Yankee 20 port feeder which you can see here and note the price – it’s not even double what a 4 port feeder is! So great value for money, and the sight of all those perches being taken with goldfinches, siskins and the odd redpoll really is something very special indeed.

So, onto the birds of prey we have living in the area. The first one to mention is the buzzard, though I doubt its presence will surprise anyone now as it’s the most common bird of prey in the UK and you can see them pretty much anywhere – even the relatively treeless and flat fens around Vine House Farm. But if I’d been writing this column even 10 years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case; such has been the rapid increase in buzzard numbers. Buzzard numbers are reasonably good here, but not actually at the levels I would expect and I suspect illegal persecution is the main reason for that – but I’ll come back to that point in a bit.

Next up for mention is the sparrowhawk, and this species does seem to have very healthy numbers, and certainly I see them pretty much daily – both male and female – as they make manic flight paths towards the feeding station at the bottom of the garden. And their main prey here? I would say chaffinches. There are kestrels around, but actually rather few and to a point which surprises me because a) the habitat is reasonably good for them, and b) they shouldn’t suffer from illegal persecution in the way other species of raptor do.

And illegal persecution brings me onto the next species, which is the hen harrier. They are apparently present in our area but in the three and half years I’ve lived here I’ve yet to see one. Much of the habitat on the hills around us is perfect for them, but I think it will take many more generations of landowners and the gamekeepers they employ before we see this beautiful bird in the numbers they should be. (For the record, I know our very local gamekeeper quite well and I fully believe he abides by the law.)

On a more positive note, a real success story in our area is the osprey, and I know of at least two nests which are used each year within around 10 miles of our home. And I occasionally see them in the summer months passing close to our land, as they hunt on both the River Fleet and the lochs in the hills above us. I’ve also had two sightings of red kite in the last 18 months and these will be from the introduced population on the Black Isle some 40 miles south of us - I hope they're spreading out for the long term!

And golden eagles? Well the habitat in our immediate area isn’t really right for them – more rocky hills that mountains – but, by an astonishing coincidence, I did see one fly write over our house, and relatively low to the ground, about 6 weeks back and just as I was finishing off my January column for Vine House Farm!

Well in the month ahead I expect to see huge skeins of geese flying over as they head north west to both Iceland and Greenland, so look out for news on that and other wildlife from the Northern Highlands.