Continued from last Saturday
Down on a remote stretch of rocky coastline, away from the woodland I had walked through, the feel of the place was very different. The magic of the woodland on the slopes above was closed off from view by a shielding canopy of leaves, and the wood itself was dwarfed by the open moorland surrounding it. I walked out towards the end of a narrow peninsular and noticed two Feral Goats, moving ahead of me through the dense heather. I’d read about Colonsay’s famous wild goats, including the unlikely rumour that they first arrived when a ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked on the island’s rocks. They had certainly been here for a long time and their presence was not good news for the long-term future of the woodland. Goats are a notoriously destructive, non-native species and have devastated the natural vegetation of many islands all around the world.
As I reached the edge of the rocks I realised that the two animals had become separated as they tried to avoid me. An adult was further along the shore about fifty yards away looking anxiously back towards a small, sandy-coloured kid just a few yards ahead of me. Inadvertently, I’d been blocking its escape route, leaving it staring out to sea wondering what to do next. I moved as far to one side as was possible on the narrow spit of rocks but it was too late. The kid launched itself into the air, landing on a low rocky island on the far side of a narrow channel of water. I worried that as the tide came in it might be cut off as the channel widened. Destructive alien or not, I felt compelled to do something and the only real option was to follow it onto the island and try to persuade it to make the leap back to land.
I’m glad there was no-one around to watch my ungainly rescue attempt, though, at the same time, I was conscious that if I twisted an ankle, or worse, there was no help nearby, and no mobile phone signal. I crash-landed onto the island and then picked my way carefully around it, placing my boots onto barnacle-encrusted rocks where the footing was secure, and avoiding the layers of wet, slippery kelp and wrack in-between. I edged, clockwise around the island pushing the frightened kid ahead of me in the same direction. Once back facing the mainland it needed no second invitation, leaping across and somehow sticking like glue to the rocks on the far side, despite the slope and the uneven surface. I mirrored its jump, if not its dexterity and sure-footedness, and managed to make it back to shore unscathed. There were more goats as I walked north along the coast, up to a dozen at a time, with almost the same number of variations of coat colour and pattern. I found one of the handsome back-curving horns washed up on the beach and was impressed by its strength for something so light in the hand. It was reinforced with raised rings, rough to the touch, all along its length, as well as a thickened leading edge. Attached to a goat there was no doubting it would make a formidable weapon.
I had regular company from another mammal over the next few hours and the mystery of the unearthly wailing was finally resolved. Away from the woods and having heard the cries again, I’d already guessed the identity and a bright white dot on the rocks ahead provided confirmation. Grey Seals breed in the autumn, often choosing rocky coastlines and sea caves to give birth, in places where disturbance is minimal. The pup almost glowed against the black rocks and dark brown seaweed. I wondered why evolution hadn’t equipped it to blend into the background. Perhaps the risk of a mother losing track of its offspring on the rocks is greater than any threat of predation, or perhaps it’s a hangover from colder times when pups would have been born on ice and snow. I was keen not to disturb it but, without retracing my steps, I had no choice but to pass by only about ten yards away – the low cliffs above the beach were too treacherous to climb. I needn’t have worried. The pup was well-grown, perhaps four feet long, with its head half-hidden behind a boulder and its body heaving rhythmically up and down. It lacked the good grace to acknowledge my presence as I walked by, remaining unconscious to the outside world.
There were more pups further on and I found a place where I could watch from a safe distance. Each pup was attended by a female, either hauled out on the edge of the rocks or swimming in the sea just offshore. There were also male seals along the shoreline, their huge bulk and long roman noses clearly setting them apart from the more refined females. The males regularly visited the females looking for mating opportunities, resulting in bouts of frenzied interactions that involved much twisting, rolling and splashing in the water. It was difficult to work out whether the females were willing participants in these coupling rituals or were trying to repel unwanted advances. The pups, in contrast, were unambiguous in their response, their wailing cries coinciding with the activity just offshore. They must have been aware of the commotion in the water and wanted their mother’s attention all to themselves. At one point two large males came together in the water and started to fight. They disappeared beneath the surface only to reappear, the mouth of one gaping open, teeth bearing down onto the neck of the other as, once more, they slid beneath the waves.
On the long walk back I found a huge brown and white feather that I couldn’t place. It was larger than any gull feather – perhaps it was from a goose of some kind? I instinctively picked it up and when almost back at the car, it was identified for me. An immature Sea Eagle drifted across the bay before turning inland and then hanging into the strong wind, holding station. Its tail fanned out momentarily, revealing the dirty-brown and white undersides of the feathers. These reintroduced eagles are now doing well in Scotland but they are still only infrequent, transient visitors to Colonsay. Quite possibly, I was holding one of the moulted tail feathers of the very bird that was hanging in the air above me. To be continued at 12:45 on Saturday…