Introducing our new monthly columnist

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, we've invited Roger to write a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you?ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – January 

I’m not sure we ever get an uneventful month on our croft in terms of weather, wildlife and other goings-on, but even by our standards December seemed to be pretty exceptional.

Starting with the weather, the north east coast of Scotland saw its most ferocious storm for more than 100 years, and our local seaside village of Golspie – which is just 10 miles away from our home in Rogart – suffered extensive damage to its sea defences. Being about 6 miles inland from the coast we did of course escape the effects of the sea, but still experienced the very high winds. Thankfully our property didn’t suffer any damage, but the storm did bring in an unexpected visitor to our garden: an exhausted cormorant. At first it was job to work out what the black domed-shape figure was sat at the bottom of the garden and close to the banks of the swollen River Fleet (which we have the pleasure of having flow through our land), but on closer inspection I could see it was a cormorant with its head tucked under its wing. As I tentatively walked towards it I inadvertently startled the bird which quickly dived into the river, only to emerge 25 metres or so downstream, took up position again on the bank and promptly went back to sleep.


But the real action has been provided by stoats, which, having exhausted the supply of rabbits in the meadow we keep our Shetland ponies in, decided that our three Marans chickens (a beautiful French breed with black plumage) were an easy target for an early Christmas dinner. So having twice scared off one of the stoats who was hanging onto the back of one of the chickens in an attempt to get at its throat, I decided a humane trap was in order and set it for that night and baited with some Brussels pate (as you do…). Well the stoat clearly had a liking for this continental delicacy, as just a few hours later he, or she, was in the cage and was none too happy about being so. In fact so grumpy about it, that as well as trying to get its teeth into my fingers as I lifted the cage from the ground and for the start of a long walk before setting it free, it excreted its shockingly smelly defence odour from its anal glands which, now I’ve researched the behaviour, contains ‘several sulphuric compounds’. It is NOT a nice smell!

But anyway, first stoat now with a new home more than a mile away from ours, and just one more to catch – which I achieved just a few days later with a bait of minced beef. However, this little chap had eaten all the beef in the trap and was actually fast asleep when I found it. So another long walk in the snow – which we had a deep covering of in mid-December – and the second stoat safely released without harm and this time with the courtesy of not treating me to the awful smell . And here is the second one before release and having just woken-up – note empty tray which was previously full of minced beef!

But enough about stoats, and let me tell you about the birds we’ve had on our feeders in the last month or so. The first thing I should say is that I set up a fairly serious bird feeding operation from October to April (what happens between April and October I’ll tell you about when we get there) and have feeders for sunflower hearts, niger, peanuts, suet pellets, suet balls and suet blocks.

The most numerous species of bird we attract to the feeders is the chaffinch, closely followed by coal tit and siskin. But during December, and in a prolonged cold spell which saw daytime temperatures at or below freezing for a week or more and with a good covering of snow on the ground, the numbers of chaffinch reached almost plague proportions with a hundred or more trying to get onto the feeders. And here’s an interesting thing about chaffinches on tube feeders compared to greenfinches and goldfinches: they don’t find it that easy to use the standard straight perches, with constant wing flapping needed for them to keep their balance – which of course wastes valuable energy for them. But it’s a completely different story


with circular perches, as you can see in the photo above with a male Chaffinch and male Siskin very comfortably feeding on an Onyx Seed Feeder which I’ve been testing out for Vine House Farm.

So my recommendation is to switch to feeders with this type of perch, or if you have a Droll Yankee or Bird Lovers feeder with straight perches add these Droll Yankee Perch Rings which Vine House Farm also sell.

As I type, I can see three buzzards circling above the forest behind our house, and with a recent view of a golden eagle over our land – rare in our part of East Sutherland – I’m planning to tell you more about the raptors we have locally in next month’s column.