Scotland and the Klan

Neil Oliver, with his gentle Scottish accent, has done some good programmes for BBC4, but none better than ‘Scotland and the Klan’, repeated last night. He follows the links between Scottish settlers in the Deep South of the USA and first slavery then the aftermath of the American Civil War – endemic racial prejudice and periodic resurgence of extreme groups, notably the Ku Klux Klan.Read More »

The Last Seabird Summer?

I awoke thinking about birds again. The BBC makes some excellent programmes on the natural world and the 2-episode BBC4 series The Last Seabird Summer? , finished last night, was no exception.

Presenter Adam Nicolson has spent much of his life on the Shiant Islands in the Minch between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland, one of the most important bird places of Europe. First, Adam traced our long history of dependence on seabirds – puffins, guillemots and razorbills – thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers. More recently the emphasis has moved to conservation.

puffins
Puffins

But now there’s a crisis – in the last fifteen years, 40 per cent of Scotland’s sea birds have gone, graphically illustrated by relatively recent photographs of cliffs full of birds, but now empty. The Shiants are currently an exception, and the birds appear to have plenty of food. The excellent RSPB is helping for the future by exterminating rats from the islands (they arrived from shipwrecks) – rats eat eggs and young birds.

Adam travels to Iceland, home to over half the world’s puffins, to try and gain insight into what is going on. This is a story of two halves – to the north of Iceland, sea birds still prosper, puffins are still hunted and eaten – to the south, in the Westman islands, formerly prolific seabird colonies appear to be in terminal decline with no young birds. Crazily, some are still hunted and eaten for a few days a year, in the name of tradition.

After talking to ornithologists and marine scientists, Adam suggests that the root of the problem lies in the lack of suitable food for the birds. Kittiwakes are particularly vulnerable because they are essentially surface feeders. Puffins rely on sand eels, and where these are not present populations cannot survive.

Cyclic changes in the gulf stream and related water circulations in the atlantic appears to cause warmer then cooler water to appear around southern Iceland. With the warmer waters come huge populations of mackerel – good for fishermen, but these fish out-compete the birds for their food, so bird populations decline and then recover on a timescale of decades. This has happened since records began. However, global warming is increasing the baseline sea temperature. The result appears to be more severe decline in bird populations. The worry is that they may be driven beyond the point of no return. The Icelandic hunters are not helping.

It seems that, as global warming progresses, we must live with the spectre raised by these programmes of The Last Seabird Summer, in southern Iceland and a lot of Scotland at least – and notably for the iconic puffin.

But, as ever, there will be winners as well as losers. As Adam points out, some seabird populations, such as the gannet, which is very flexible in its food needs, are thriving – for example the huge colony on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth – and may well continue to do so.

Do watch these programmes, available for another three weeks if you have access to BBC catchup. But you’ll have to not be squeamish about watching puffins caught, cooked and eaten.

Puffin picture courtesy of Hanno and Wikimedia Commons

John Muir

yosemite_half_dome
Half dome in Yosemite NP

“So extraordinary is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert. And so the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees….”

John Muir

After our son and daughter-in-law moved to work in the USA, they kept telling us how great the US national parks were, and eventually got to lead us on a few road trips taking in some of the most spectacular: Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arches, Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Big Bend, Zion,… We were blown away by the magical scenery and the wildness of it all.

John_Muir_Cane
John Muir

It was only then that I became aware of the name John Muir, a Scotsman who was apparently prime mover in the establishment of the US National Parks. It was to people like him that we were indebted for the continued unsullied nature of these landscapes in an over-exploited world. You can read all about him in the Wikipedia entry.

During this time we also came across the John Muir Way – a long-distance trail along by the south side of the Firth of Forth in Scotland, near where he was born in Dunbar. He was also mentioned in books I was reading. The magic of synchronicity had struck and I was impelled to add him to my reading list.

my_first_summer_in_the_sierraI recently began with ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’, first published in 1911 and now available as a free ‘public domain’ ebook. Once I had stopped trying to speed read and slowed to a pace consonant with the material, I found myself drawn into his wonderful descriptions of the summer he spent notionally herding sheep up to the high pastures around Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. He was truly at one with the magic of the landscape, yet at the same time had the scientific knowledge and understanding to correctly describe the various plant and animal species he encountered at the varying heights they traversed. Readers with a greater knowledge of botany than I would probably gain even more from reading this.

This is nature writing of the highest order, able to get over the wonder of being at one with such an enticing environment. I will read more of his work.

Muir was obviously an inspiring individual, in that he was instrumental in establishment of the early national parks, including Yosemite and was founder of the influential  Sierra Club

John Muir has been described as “one of the patron saints of twentieth-century American environmental activity” – truly one of the towering figures of his age. And a great writer.

Photos of Yosemite and John Muir courtesy of Heiko von Raußendorff, Francis M. Fritz and Wikimedia Commons