The Many Days of Wild Christmas

It's not easy keeping track of things during the extended Christmas/New Year holiday season.

Common wisdom would have us believe that there are 12 Days of Christmas (starting with Partridges and Pear Trees and rattling through to 12 drumming drummers) - but that does clash with the retail model where Christmas starts somewhere around 10th October and the Christmas party season that kicks in at the start of December. (Disclosure: my office Christmas lunch was on the 6th December this time round).

And even if you do try stick to the idea that there are only 12 Days of Christmas, who knows when they start - some folks insist that 25th December is the first day, others that they start on the 26th - meaning that the 12th day is either the 5th or 6th of January

This year it got even more confusing (in my house at least) by the introduction by the Wildlife Trusts of the 7 Days of Wild Christmas.  At least the Wildlife Trusts were clear when the 7 Days of Wild Christmas started and finished.  Day 1 was 25th December, Day 7 was 31st December.

However, I can now officially reveal that there were (this winter, at least) 16 Days of Christmas (mostly wild) starting with sunrise on the morning after the winter solstice and finishing on 6th January.

Day 1: 22nd December - Solstice Sunrise at Sydlings Copse
Day 2: 23rd December - C S Lewis Nature Reserve
Day 3: 24th December - Headington Hill Park
Day 4: 25th December - Rowan Berries, Headington
Day 5: 26th December - Sydlings Copse
Day 6: 27th December - Feeding the Birds, Headington
Day 7: 28th December - Warburg Nature Reserve
Day 8: 29th December - Mesopotamia
Day 9: 30th December - Shotover Drive
Day 10: 31st December - Magdalen Quarry Nature Reserve
Day 11: 1st January - Pyrford Woods, Surrey
Day 12: 2nd January - Mesopotamia
Day 13: 3rd January - Snow Berries, Oxford Brookes University 
Day 14: 4th January - South Park
Day 15: 5th January - C S Lewis Nature Reserve
Day 16: 6th January - Milham Ford Nature Park
Happy New Year.

And roll on 30DaysWild in June.

2018 - in numbers and pictures.

2018 ticks by - another 365 pictures of the day (and another 12 pictures of the month - see below).

A year in which I clocked up over a hundred days in Scotland, including almost 70 on Shetland.  I've taken another 25000 pictures and walked over 1900 miles.  I've also traded my 57 mile commute up the M40 for a 15 minute walk along the London Road in Headington.

For the first time in about 15 years I've not been outside the UK over the last 12 months; a consequence of wanting to progress my 'Scottish Landranger' project (still a work in progress) and wanting to spend more time on Shetland.  A good outcome of that is I've 'only' clocked up 3300 flying miles.

I've made the time to do more hands-on volunteering work with BBOWT, with Trees for Life and with the John Muir Trust. And I've finally clocked up my 25th blood donation.

This is my 28th blogpost of the year - and my most heavily read post (by a big margin) was my celebration of my many visits over the years to Sumburgh Head (and, in recent years, to its cafe).

It doesn't feel like a good time to be making predictions about what the New Year has to hold.  I keep hoping I'm going to find that the whole saga turns out to be a bad - if somewhat protracted - dream.

I suspect my personal coping strategy for the next year is going to involve getting my hands dirty doing more conservation-related volunteering and spending quite a lot of timing hanging out around the cliffs and headlands of the south end of Shetland, mostly with a camera in hand.

12 Pictures of the Month

January - snow on Fitful Head
February - St Ninian's Isle
March - Walking the Thames Path
April - Just Arrived - Puffin at Sumburgh Head
May - Ullswater Reflections
June - Fishing Season, Sumburgh Head
July - Edinburgh
August - Shetland's Crowded Beaches - St Ninian's
September - Autumn Storms - Scat Ness
October - Gannets - West Voe of Sumburgh
November - Glen Affric
December - Calm Winter Morning on Scat Ness

Early Winter on Shetland, November 2018

Storms can, and do, roll through the Shetland Islands at pretty much any time of the year.  Sometimes they get graced with Met Office names, at other times they just anonymously batter the islands for a day or two before rumbling on past. 

During the summer there can be quite long gaps between the storms, in the winter they are often rather closer together.  This makes fitting in a winter visit between the storms a wee bit challenging.

When I was packing to head up to Shetland the islands were being battered by one of these un-named storms.  The ferries to and from Shetland were being disrupted, the local inter-island ferries had stopped running and even Loganair were offering to let people re-schedule their flights.

As I travelled north just after the worst of the storm, the flights got bumpier and bumpier - it was fine around London, a bit rough around Aberdeen and positively entertaining on the approach into Sumburgh at the south end of Shetland.  Fair Isle (usually covered by clouds) was clear, but had a very pretty necklace of white surf around it.

As usual, when I’m on Shetland just after a storm I headed to Scat Ness - this low headland almost always acts as a wave magnet, waves from anywhere south will make for good photographs.

A quick glimpse at the weather forecast as I arrived suggested that there was going to be a pretty steady procession of rain clouds blowing through throughout my stay.

It didn’t really work like this. Although the first 24 hours were a bit wild, after this the weather just got calmer and calmer, until it got to almost shirt-sleeves conditions (and much less wind than one could reasonably expect even in summer).

Post storm waves on Scat Ness ...
... in the West Voe of Sumburgh ...
... and in Quendale Bay.
Sunday morning calm on Scat Ness

One bonus that you can never rely at anytime of year is the appearance of orca around the Shetland coastline.  A few years ago orca reports where real novelties - but at the moment they almost expected.  However, I was delighted to get a social media alert that orca had been spotted heading down the east side of Shetland towards the southern end.  This turned out to be some of the regular visitors - including the big bull orca (Busta) and a few of his family.  They slowly tracked their way round the south end of Shetland across Quendale Bay and eventually (just before sunset) popped up at St Ninian’s on the west side of Shetland, still checking out the voes and beaches for seals.  

I don’t think anyone is clear why orca sightings are so much more common now than they were a few years ago.  It might be that the food sources have changed either around Shetland or somewhere else.  It’s also entirely possible that the increased reports of sightings are down to better communications - over the last few years there are better social media networks where sightings can be reported and, in the Shetland context even more importantly, the mobile phone coverage has really improved recently!

Busta passing Sumburgh Head
Razor and her calf (born last winter)
All calm on Quendale Beach
Quendale Bay from the garden - calm and clear across Lady's Holm and out to Fair Isle on the horizon.

But true to form - by the time I was checking at the airport to fly south I could see warnings that a new (as yet unnamed) storm was winding up in the Atlantic ready to blow in - and both the ferry and boat companies were starting to post disruption messages.   Not quite soon enough - I wouldn’t have minded getting stuck on Shetland for a few more days.  Maybe next time.

There are more pictures from this trip on Flickr - and the sequence of daily pictures started over on Blipfoto on 30th November.                                                                                                                                                               

Rebuilding a Forest, November 2018

I always enjoy spending time in the Scottish mountains - but some visits are special and are likely stick in the memory for a long time.

Last week was one of the special visits.

I spent last week with a group of fabulous people helping replant the Caledonian Forest in the north of Scotland.  We were all there to support the work that the charity Trees for Life does.

Trees for Life was set up about 30 years ago - and over the years has planted c. 1.5 million trees in various glens mostly in Glen Moriston and Glen Affric to the west of Loch Ness. Over recent years their efforts have concentrated on Dundreggan, the estate that the charity was able to buy in 2008.

Glen Affric

I (and my eleven fellow volunteers) signed up to spend a week planting trees around Dundreggan fully aware that the weather in November in the north of Scotland comes with a certain degree of uncertainty.  Our week was also the final week scheduled for the autumn season and we soon realised that there were lots of trees that needed to be planted ‘this week’.

Young Scots Pine in the Dundreggan Nursery

However, in addition to the big stack of trees (covering a wide range of the native species that should be in the Caledonian Forest) we also had one or two incentives provided.  

The biggest incentive was that we got to put the finishing touches to the Allt Ruadh New Forest.  Allt Ruadh was a fairly bare 440 acre hillside a couple of years ago. About two years ago it was enclosed by substantial deer fence and since then (once the deer inside were culled) over 300,000 trees have been planted.  We got to plant the last few hundred scots pine and downy birch before toasting the final tree and closing the gate behind us.  There’s not yet much to see on the hillside (unless you look very closely) but in ten or fifteen years time it just might look very special.

New Forest of Allt Ruadh
Scots Pine at Allt Ruadh
Planting the last tree in Allt Ruadh

The other incentive was that having completed Allt Ruadh we got to work planting some of the estate land along the River Moriston, and that meant we were close enough to Dundreggan Lodge to be able to come back at lunchtime for homemade bread and soup.

River Moriston

Over the course of 5 working days, I and my fellow volunteers planted 4184 trees (and two big buckets of acorns).  And we’re told that was a record number for a one week session.

Thank you to Abbey, Andy, Callum, Douglas, Iszi, Lawrence, Lorraine, Sheila and Tom for their company and good conversation, and particularly to Kate and Stephen who kept us organised and told us where to plant the trees.

If you want to help with restoring the Caledonian Forest there is still lots to do.  We might have finished the New Forest of Allt Ruadh but in spring 2019 volunteers will be starting, in another part of Dundreggan, to plant the New Beinn Bhan Forest.

In addition to pictures in this post there are more pictures in a Flickr album, and if you want to see what I got up to on a day by bay basis, the photo diary started on blipfoto on 2nd November

And finally, thank you to Oxford Brookes University - who gave me a little bit of additional time off to spend planting trees!

The View from the Crowd, October 2018

As most folks who know me know, I’m generally not very keen on big crowds or on political marches.

The last political march I went on was something to do with Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the last really big crowd I was in was probably a Bruce Springsteen concert even longer ago than that.


There are occasions when I need to set aside my reservations and opt for a rather busier Saturday walk than might be my preference.

My preferred Saturday morning walk, Scat Ness, Shetland

The Peoples Vote March felt like a sufficiently important occasion to opt join in with the crowds.  Speculation ahead of the event was that there were going to be a lot of people, but I don’t think many of the estimates got up to the 700,000 that seems to now be the accepted number of people involved.

People Vote March, Hyde Park, London

So why did I feel that this deserved my attention.  

In reality I think I’ve been describing myself as European since the early 70s.  

In Northern Ireland (where I grew up) I always felt more comfortable calling myself European rather than as being associated with any of the other factions. On the rare occasions when I was called out to describe myself as “one of us or one of them” I’m pretty sure that calling myself “European” caused enough confusion to let me step away from the confrontation.

Like many people of my vintage I’ve been used to simply being able to travel around Europe without the threat of someone saying “No, you can’t do that”.  

I was able to join in with a charity hitch-hike from Bristol to Paris (in my student days) without asking permission.  I was able to look for jobs pretty much anywhere in Europe without needing to jump through bureaucratic hoops - in contrast to the paperwork and questioning associated with jobs in other parts of the world.  When I wanted a mountain fix, I was able to choose between the Cairngorms and the Alps without needing to ask in advance.  I still can. At the moment. 

When I’ve been living and working in the UK I’ve had the stimulation and variety of having friends from all over Europe.  They’ve not needed to jump through hoops either, they (like me) are Europeans, and they get to wander at will across (most) of the continent without bureaucratic  impediment.  I’ve worked in partnership with researchers across Europe, they were able to invite me to join in with collaborative projects without getting buried in paperwork.  They still can. At the moment.

I know people running and working in local businesses that rely on being able to move people and stuff across Europe in the way that works most effectively for their business.  They need to know that stuff isn’t going to get held up in customs or in a lorry park in Pas-de-Calais or Kent.  They still can. At the moment.  

I know people working and volunteering alongside me in the conservation sector, both locally and nationally.  Wildlife migrates across borders on a regular basis, climate change is affecting both these movements and other more systemic changes.  We need to be able to rely on a Europe-wide vision (and agreements) to help protect and promote the changes that are badly needed. We still can. At the moment. 

There are so many aspects of our lives that are made better by being part of a bigger structure. I felt it was important to be get out amongst the crowds while there is still a chance to reverse the ‘decision’ that was made a couple of years ago. We still can. At the moment. 

The march yesterday (more of a shuffle at times) was a wonderful optimistic experience - I wasn’t aware of any tensions at any point, and for the most part I got the impression that they’d given the police the day off.   

There were people, banners and placards from all over the country - I was walking behind or beside an “Oxford for Europe” banner for most of the day.  I’m sure that we were something of an irritant to some of the locals attempting to go about their daily business, but almost without exception we seemed to be welcomed and supported.

Beret Central 
Better Cabinets
More Flags
Heading to Parliament 
Euro Generation
I really hope that the strength of the message might get through to some of our exceptionally stubborn (that’s not a compliment) politicians and that they’ll realise that changing (or rechanging) their minds isn’t a character flaw but is how we should respond to changing circumstances.

I really hope that I don’t need to take to the streets again, but if I need to…sign me up.

Shetland Autumn V2 - September 2018

When I spent time on Shetland in August I wrote about the gentle transition from Summer into Autumn.  To all intents and purposes the weather felt distinctly summer-like, the only real giveaway that the year had moved on was the departure of the breeding birds (like the puffins and guillemots) from the cliffs.

Fast forward a few weeks, and we’re into Autumn proper.  Northlink are issuing weather advisories, and the Met Office have already used up two of the 21 storm names allocated for this winter (Storm #17 this winter will be Storm Ross).

The autumn migrants are starting to arrive, this means that every quarry and bit of sheltered shrubbery seems to have a group of heavily-optically-equipped blokes (almost always blokes) lurking in the hope of encountering a wind-swept migrant bird or two.

The autumn also means that the weather is very changeable - there can be storms (usually un-named) blowing through all the time, the waves get their first serious outing of the season, and even when there aren't big winds there are likely to be rainy squalls passing through too.  At this time of year the traditional Shetland description for a good day is one that is 'between the weathers' - if the weather is fine today, it'll almost certainly be wild again tomorrow.

Every trip to Shetland has it's highlights, this time, there were three.  

Spending time watching waves battering the west side of Scat Ness,  getting my final fixes (for the season) of scones and Linzertorte at my favourite pop-up cafe and, particularly, getting to spend time photographing gannets diving within a few metres of the shoreline in West Voe. 

Autumn Waves on the west-side of Scat Ness
Sunshine and passing showers bring rainbows, West Voe of Sumburgh
En route to Sumburgh Head - a fantastic walk in any weather
Sumburgh Head Cafe
West Voe rolling waves
Gannet scouting over West Voe
Incoming - gannet in West Voe

If you feel the need for more pictures - try my latest Flickr album.