Mark writes: Ian Carter is a frequent contributor to this blog as a writer of book reviews, a series of Guest Blogs on Wild Food (but some others on other subjects) and as a commenter. The work below appeared as a series of 13 separate blog posts (as indicated in the text) between December 2018 and February 2019.
Ian writes: This story describes an idea and charts a period of my life that I would characterise as a mini mid-life crisis, having left long-term employment in conservation. I hope to pursue the idea in due course but the series covers the background and the way that my thinking has developed so far. It is, inevitably, rather personal and perhaps a little self-indulgent but I hope the underlying theme will resonate with enough of Mark’s readers to justify the space over the next few weeks.
The idea of living apart from the rest of humanity for a spell diffused its way into my system, uninvited and almost unnoticed. It was coming up to two years since I’d taken voluntary redundancy, having worked for twenty-five years as an ornithologist with Natural England. I’d done a bit of freelance natural history writing since then and some voluntary work but nothing more. When I met up with relatives they would ask if I was enjoying my retirement. Is that what I’d done? At fifty, I didn’t think I could possibly have retired from full-time work. And yet the idea of returning to a career in conservation was unappealing.
In truth, I was disillusioned with the nature conservation industry, as it had become. This was only fully apparent with the benefit of hindsight. Leaving a job I’d done all my working life was a big step and one I was unsure about taking. But once I was free of it, the futility of the daily grind in an organisation enfeebled by financial austerity seemed all too obvious. I was proud of my involvement in a few conservation projects and felt that some had made a real difference, but there was nothing much to be proud of in the last few years. Pared back relentlessly, and overseen by a government for whom nature conservation was an inconvenience rather than an opportunity, Natural England had become a dispiriting place to work. Attending office meetings had increasingly felt like being in a sketch show; a parody of nature conservation with the actors resorting to ever more ludicrous jargon and business speak in order to get their laughs. Sometimes I would imagine one of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries filming it all. They could have stayed for days at a time without getting many clues that nature conservation was the subject at hand. At times it was hard not to laugh out loud, if only as a way to deal with the despair of it all.
If it could seem funny it became less so when I caught myself using the jargon. It inveigled its way into my soul and my vocabulary, by osmosis. People became ‘individuals’ or ‘customers’ and projects were set up to achieve ‘quick wins’ or ‘win-wins’. In my final year one manager suggested that her new idea would result in a ‘win-win-win’ situation; a mere two wins, it seemed, were no longer enough. The final straw came when trying to explain what I’d been up to at work recently to an uncle at a family wedding. I heard myself use the words ‘going forward’, out loud, in front of people I knew. It suddenly felt like I was going anything but forward. It felt like it was time to get out and when the opportunity arose I decided to take it.
Once we knew I was leaving Natural England my wife, Hazel, and I started to think about moving away from Cambridgeshire. It is often pointed out that the United Kingdom is one of the most densely-populated countries on the planet; a place where the natural world is more effectively constrained and shackled by humanity than almost anywhere else. Within the UK, England supports the highest density of people and the most intensive land management. And within England, the fenland country of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire represents perhaps our greatest achievement in subverting the natural world to our own ends. A huge area of once impenetrable floodplain and marshland, teeming with wildlife, now serves as some of the most productive and intensively-managed arable farmland in Europe. Despite a life-long passion for wildlife and remote places, somehow I’d spent twenty-five years of my life living here, through a combination of circumstances and apathy. When I started work in 1992, I needed to live close to the head office in Peterborough. To the west of Peterborough was the pleasant rolling countryside of Northamptonshire with its patchwork fields and woodlands, honey-stoned villages, the upmarket public school at Oundle and impossibly high house prices. For a realistic first rung on the housing ladder it was necessary to look east and into the flatland fenland prairies.
We tried hard to make the best of what the fens had to offer. We lived close to the vast Ouse Washes nature reserve for several years and delighted in the fact that the reserve’s wild Whooper and Bewick’s Swans would overfly the garden most days in winter, on route between feeding sites out in the sugar beet fields and their overnight roost on the washes. The collective noun for wild swans is ‘herd’ which works perfectly when they are out in the fields in their hundreds, picking their way slowly through the beet tops. Yet it fails the moment they take flight, conjuring unhelpful images of airborne livestock. Birdwatchers resort to ‘flock’ or even ‘flight’ to get around the problem. And every flight of wild swans comes with an unbroken soundtrack of soft trumpeting contact calls – the Whoopers slightly louder and more exuberant than their smaller relative. Whenever I heard this music from inside the house I would rush to the back door. If I was outside already I would pause from whatever I was doing to watch them pass low overhead. They had a knack for using the very last drop of daylight for their flight back to roost, calling down to announce the transition between afternoon and evening. If I was digging over the vegetable plot on a cold day it was like being told to go inside and light the fire.
A few years later we moved into an old, isolated red-brick farmhouse outside the village of Gorefield, near Wisbech. It had two things going for it. It was on the banks of one of the main fenland drains; a linear oasis of wetland habitat carved into a bleak desert of farmland. Sedge and Reed Warblers chattered their way through the long summers hidden in its reed-fringed margins. In winter the water attracted visitors from northern and eastern Europe: waterbirds including Great Crested Grebes, Tufted Duck, a few saw-beaked Goosanders, and, if you could find them, an occasional skulking Water Rail or Jack Snipe. The drain also attracted an eastern European or two from nearby Wisbech, casting hopeful lines into the water and furtive looks towards the house if they were successful; all too aware of the peculiar British tradition of wrenching fish from their environment only to put them straight back in again. They had other ideas.
Otters, too, fished the drain though we were aware of them only through finding the strangely sweet-smelling spraints, glinting with fish scales, along the bank and under the road bridges. Like an addict, I felt compelled to pick them up and smell them each time I found a new sprainting site, more by way of celebration than the need to confirm the identification. Even Badgers used the drain, constructing a sett in the bank about three hundred yards away from the house, no doubt constrained by the lack of any other significant landscape features in the area. With a judiciously positioned telescope (and no little patience) we could watch them from an upstairs window in the early summer evenings, until the surrounding crops and bankside vegetation grew too high and screened them from view for another season.
The other great attribute of Riverside Lodge – as it was called, rather grandiosely – was the garden with its dozen or so mature Sycamore and Horse Chestnut trees. In most of England the trees would have blended into the background and been of little significance. In the fens they stood out for miles around; a tiny refuge of woodland canopy rising above an ocean of cereals, potatoes and oil-seed rape. It looked like an island and it acted like an island of habitat for the local bird life. Birds requiring the seclusion of tree holes or leafy branches to site their nest, or to find food, gravitated towards one of the only local opportunities. Little Owls bred in an old Sycamore opposite my study several years running. The owlets would bob up and down on the lip of the hole, in a line of sight just above my computer screen, checking to make sure I was still working. When Little Owls didn’t use the hole one summer, Kestrels took their place, shredding the air with their calls and bringing in a conveyer-belt of small birds and mammals from the surrounding countryside. One year, Barn Owls nested in a pole-mounted nestbox just the other side of the garden fence and they too could be seen from the study, the adults surprisingly active bringing in prey during daylight hours. Regularly, I would bore my colleagues with a running commentary of interesting behaviour when it interrupted a phone call.
The ’island-effect’ of the garden trees was especially apparent during migration periods in the spring and autumn. Small birds looking for a place to shelter and a chance to refuel had limited opportunities if they were flying over our part of the fens. Much as real islands attract migrants flying over the sea, our trees lured in waifs and strays traversing the surrounding arable wastelands. Usually it was common birds – Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and the occasional Brambling or Goldcrest. But there were red-letter days too: an impeccably-dressed male Redstart by the small fish pond on the first morning of May, and two weeks later a Black Redstart, its rarer cousin, flicking its tail nonchalantly from the low roof of an outbuilding – as if it had lived there for years.
We grew to love the house and its island refuge of wildlife during the five years we spent there, but it could never fully compensate for the dearth of wildlife in the surrounding countryside and the relentlessly flat landscape. Talk to old time fenlanders and, in desperation, they eulogise about wide open skies and dramatic cloudscapes. When a landscape is reduced to a thin smear of annually sown vegetation, it seems the only way to love it is to look up and away from it.
The decision to move down to the south-west offered the prospect of living in a less heavily-developed part of the country with a more varied countryside – a prospect enhanced by the free time I would have following redundancy. We rented Blagrove Farm, a house on a dairy farm in sparsely-populated mid-Devon, halfway between Exmoor and Dartmoor. To some extent we swapped intensive arable farming for intensively farmed dairy cows, sheep and chickens. The farmer we rented the house from had four hundred cows that spent their lives inside a huge shed, fitted-out with the latest high-tech equipment. The cows milked themselves using robots, and their tags sent a message to his mobile phone to alert him to any problems. From the upstairs windows of the house we could make out the low, brooding sheds of an intensive chicken farm across the valley. A mass of tiny white dots would spill out from its flanks each morning, littering the surrounding field to such an extent that you wondered how they could possibly all fit back inside.
But amid the intensification were pockets of interesting wildlife habitat. Within a few hundred metres of the house were overgrown hedgerows, small deciduous woods, old meadows and boggy, rush-infested, flower-rich fields. In contrast to the fens, forgotten corners rich in wildlife were part of the normal landscape, rather than restricted solely to nature reserves.
The landscape was big enough and sparsely populated enough to support wild animals that required space and seclusion. In fact, it supported our largest land mammal in numbers that came as a revelation. I was used to seeing Muntjac in ones and twos, and Roe Deer in small groups. But the local Red Deer could appear in their dozens, dominating the scene as effectively as a field full of cows. They were unpredictable, going missing from the local fields for weeks at a time. Then, suddenly, they were there again, thirty or more, filling a field that, one glance ago, had been empty. So effective were they in utilising the undulating landscape, the small pockets of woodland and the dense, over-grown hedge-lines, they seemed able to materialise out of the ether – an effect all the more powerful on days with a low mist to blur the sightlines.
During the protracted autumn rut we often heard the stags roaring overnight, through a window that came to be left open for that purpose. Once, at the peak of the rut, I almost stumbled into a mature stag as I was about to step out from the edge of a wood. There he was, no more than thirty yards away in the adjacent field, breath steaming up into the cool October air. For a moment he stood his ground, glaring with an intensity that pushed me backwards a few steps and had me checking the nearest trees for foot-holds. Then he stomped slowly away, throwing a face-saving snort in my direction as he turned – a snort of derision if ever there was one.
A few months later, on New Year’s Day, I came across a dead stag in the middle of a woodland stream, already starting to show signs of decomposition. I edged closer to the stream, trying to ignore the stench, and did a double take. There were four antlers not two. Although one body was partly hidden in the water I was looking at two dead stags. More slowly than I’m keen to admit, it dawned on me what must have happened. These were rutting stags whose antlers had become locked together in combat. Unable to separate themselves and weakened by the fight they ended up at the base of the slope in the stream. Here they succumbed, over who knows how many days, with death the only possible outcome.I went back the next day with a handsaw and removed the antlers, a cloud of hot bone dust from the saw mixing with the smell of putrefying flesh. We now have a deer-antler coat rack in the hall and I think back to that day every time I take my jacket down.
The Red Deer added a wild element to the local area because of their size and numbers, but also because of their behaviour. They were able to utilise the whole landscape because it was still sufficiently well-connected and subject to minimal human disturbance. I could spend hours walking through the woods and fields and see no-one. If I saw the occasional farmer out in the fields he would invariably be ensconced within the cab of a tractor, which meant less chance of a telling off for wandering across private farmland and, more importantly, less perceived danger for the deer. Whenever I encountered deer herds I would try to avoid disturbing them by watching from a distance and altering my route to move around them. But occasionally I would blunder too close by mistake and their response would reaffirm their wildness. Their eyes would bulge with fear and then, if not reassured that all was well, thundering hooves would replace the silence.
I made a conscious effort during my time away from work to try to reconnect with nature. I had promised myself this. Having worked for so long at Natural England, there was a generous payoff on leaving – enough to cover at least two years of not working. I wanted to use that time to get over the feelings of disillusionment that had come to dominate my thoughts about nature conservation. I wanted to renew the bond with nature that, until recently, had always been such a big part of my life but I felt had been slipping away. For the first time in years I spent long hours out in the countryside almost every day. Sometimes I had the company of Teazel, our errant, wildlife-unfriendly cocker spaniel, but more often I was alone. I would either walk from the house or drive a few miles, park up, and walk out to explore somewhere a little less familiar. It wouldn’t have worked very well in the Cambridgeshire fens but in mid-Devon it was time well spent.
To some extent, it had the effect I was hoping for. I felt the benefits of welcoming nature back into my life. I gradually became tuned into the daily and seasonal rhythms of the area in a way that is only possible if you have the time to visit the same places day after day. The Red Deer were regular companions but there was plenty of other wildlife. I caught up with a few creatures that had eluded me my whole life, satisfying my latent twitcher’s instinct for ‘ticks’. There were Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries along Bracken-covered slopes and Marsh Fritillaries in the damper hollows where its food-plant, Devilsbit Scabious, grew. In the autumn I found the highly esteemed edible Chanterelle and Cep fungi for the first time, bringing a few home for lunch. I even persuaded Hazel to eat them, though only after I’d survived for a few days after the first meal.
I finally saw my first (and second) Harvest Mouse. I noticed their nests of tightly woven grass-stems – barely bigger than a squashball – tucked away in tussocks of Purple Moor Grass in the local fields. Knowing they were in the area I started to set live-catch small mammals traps in the garden, hoping my laid-back mowing regime would pay dividends. After several nights with no more than a few hyperactive Wood Mice and the occasional Field Vole, I lifted a trap that felt unpromisingly weightless. Expecting nothing I emptied the contents and amongst the straw bedding and seeds I was amazed to see not one but two Harvest Mice spill out into the bucket; so nimble and insignificant, the first had failed to spring the trap and the second had followed it in, trapping them both. Perhaps they were foraging as a team? A hand offered into the bucket instantly revealed the strong climbing instinct that allows them to live out their lives amongst the grass stems. One scaled my arm before I could think to stop it. Most animals are programmed to run away or dive for cover when they feel threatened. The Wood Mice I caught bounded off at lightning speed, often leaping clear of the bucket for their first trick. The Field Voles tried to nose their way into the bucket’s hard-plastic bottom and when placed back into the grass I understood why. They dived down into the thatch of dead grass, dissolving into the vegetation away from threatening eyes, and claws. In contrast, the response of a Harvest Mouse to a novel situation is to run ‘up’. No doubt they feel safe from predators at the tops of grass stems. Anything heavier than a Harvest Mouse would cause the vegetation to fold down to the ground and end any pursuit of prey.
Another animal I was delighted to see regularly was the majestic and ferocious Goshawk. This wasn’t an entirely new species but Goshawks are notoriously elusive and my previous encounters had been of distant specks in the sky or fleeting glimpses of a blurred shape flashing past. In the local countryside they were sufficiently common that I saw them every few days in well-wooded areas. I would hear their sharp, scolding calls in the spring if I inadvertently walked too close to a nest site. That’s how I came across a pair nesting in the wood closest to our house. They could be watched from the windows when they were above the canopy, spiralling in circles over the trees, diving malevolently at passing Buzzards, or heading out across the fields to hunt, often leaving a trail of irate corvids in their wake.
Measuring out a straight line on the Ordnance Survey map revealed the nest to be just four-hundred yards from the edge of our garden. Raised voices around the patio chairs would surely have been audible to the adults and I would visualise the bird on its nest, turning one of its piercing orange eyes accusingly in our direction. For much of the year, unless you were keeping a careful eye out for them they would have been easy to overlook, even though they were breeding so close by. But in late summer when the young had left the nest, their distinctive whistling cries rang out across the valley as they tried to elicit food from their overworked parents.
After eighteen months away from work I began to reflect on my time spent wandering around the wilder corners of mid-Devon. I was increasingly aware of a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. I’d seen plenty of interesting things, including species I’d been trying to track down for years without success, and I’d enjoyed getting to know an unfamiliar part of the country. But the deeper connection with the natural world I’d been hoping for was eluding me. If it was there to some extent it felt fragmentary and incomplete.
Part of the problem, I thought, was the lack of active engagement with the environment. I was dipping in and out of the natural world– spending a few hours here and there as a passive observer each day before returning home. I wasn’t involved in farming or interacting with wildlife in any other meaningful way in order to make a living. I was making short-term visits to the natural world in the same way that one might go to a football match or visit a theme park. I wanted more than that but each time I returned home I quickly re-engaged with normal modern life; a quick check of the latest news on my mobile, perhaps catch up with some live sport on TV, or switch the computer on and see what the rest of the world had to offer that day. There was time spent chatting to Hazel, or to others on the phone, but that also tended to be linked to wider world events – the things that other people had engaged with on their mobiles or seen on TV.
Henry David Thoreau in his famous book Walden cautioned that ‘staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always’. If that was true in the 1800s then it’s easy to see why mental well being is so often in the headlines now. Rather than being connected to the natural world in the local woods and fields, we are all connected, through technology, to the rest of humanity. The average person apparently checks their smart phone every twelve minutes on average and spends three to four hours in front of the TV every day. We track world events in close to real time and can’t help but dwell on things that are entirely beyond our control. It’s a far cry from how we used to live and the way of life our brains have evolved to deal with.
Just a few centuries ago most people would spend their whole lives within a few miles of home, becoming intimately familiar with the local environment and dependent on that knowledge for their survival. News of significant events in the nearest settlements might gradually filter through, but what was happening further afield was unknowable and largely irrelevant to day-to-day life. It was local news that held the attention. Did the nearby woods have enough firewood to keep the home warm? Were the crops growing well and were the livestock healthy and well fed? Would there be sufficient produce to survive the coming winter and, if not, what food was available in the local countryside to help improve the odds? Changes in the seasons, particularly as winter approached, would be watched with a keenness of interest, verging on fear, that is hard to imagine now. Cold weather would have been a potential killer rather than an inconvenience, and knowledge of conditions to come had to be gleaned from direct observations rather than a glance at a smart phone app.
The trend of becoming increasingly detached from the natural world has continued at a relentless pace over the last few decades. If, like me, you are in your fifties, you may have fond childhood memories of roaming the countryside. Perhaps you collected birds’ eggs, or butterflies, or pressed wildflowers. You probably learnt the names of the most common and familiar species, and you probably still know them now. It may not have been the life and death of the past but it was a real and meaningful connection nonetheless. If you are in your twenties or thirties it is less likely you will have these memories. Adults have become more fearful of allowing children to explore on their own. And, in any case, there are simply too many distractions to allow for time outside in the woods and fields these days.
I often thought of Richard Louv’s book on our diminishing engagement with the natural world when out and about in the Devon countryside. Last Child in the Woods was published in 2005 and, fifteen years later, his words certainly rang true in mid-Devon. I can’t remember the last time I came across a child playing alone, or with others of similar age, in the countryside, well away from houses. I spent much of my childhood doing just that but it would seem odd now, almost as if it were something to worry about. I encountered adults more often but it was usually on the well-used footpaths close to villages, and almost always with a dog in tow. As I passed by I would see that they were looking for my dog, and sometimes appeared mildly suspicious as it dawned on them that I didn’t have one. Further away from houses and away from the path I was almost always alone. I was glad to have the woods and fields to myself but, at the same time, fearful for what it meant for their future. If there was no-one enjoying them who would care if they were lost?
The Oxford Junior Dictionary is regularly updated to reflect the changing times in which we live. The latest version will help our children cope with modern life, with recent additions such as ‘blog’, ‘broadband’, ‘cut-and-paste’ and ‘celebrity’. But the loss of words relating to the natural world has been widely lamented. Basic words such as ‘acorn’, ‘blackberry’, ‘buttercup’, ‘chestnut’, ‘magpie’ and a host of others, all describing familiar sights in the countryside, are now missing – they are no longer deemed to be words that every seven-year-old should know. You can hardly blame the editors. For at least 40% of our children these words are at once wholly irrelevant because they never play outdoors. They are denied what world-renowned American biologist E. O. Wilson referred to as ‘biophilia’, something he defines as the ‘rich natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms’. It has been with us, and taken for granted, for perhaps 99.9% of our genetic history, but for how much longer? If children don’t interact with wildlife as they are growing up then it’s unlikely they will do so as adults, or encourage their own children to explore outdoors.
Increasingly, studies suggest that the more time we spend shackled to modern technology, digitally connecting ourselves to other people’s lives, the unhappier we become. Studies also show that interacting with the natural world is good, perhaps essential, for our well-being and health; it is what are brains were designed to do. Yet we seem to be swapping one for the other and increasingly losing our way.
It was my growing interest in wild food that, indirectly, helped me to crystallise my thoughts on my relationship with the natural world. I had been reading The Wild Life by John Lewis-Stempel in which he describes a year living on his small-holding in rural Herefordshire, feeding himself only on the wild plants and animals he found on the farm. What he wrote towards the end of the book struck a chord. He noticed that it took him several months to start to feel truly immersed in his chosen lifestyle. At first, he found life a struggle as he battled against foul weather, uncooperative game animals, a shortage of edible plants, and the changes from the lifestyle he had been used to. Only when he had settled into the project for a few months did things start to change. He was interacting with wildlife in a meaningful way because he depended on it for food and gradually he became committed to the challenge and immersed in the lifestyle. As he puts it he surrendered to nature, finding that ‘the rhythm of the wild life is a propulsive force, moving me from one day to the next, from one season to the next’.
As I pondered these things an idea started to develop. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to escape the connections with the rest of the world entirely and spend sometime trying to engage with wildlife on a more meaningful level. Perhaps four or five months, in a remote cottage, with no car, mobile phone, TV or internet connection; with no means of keeping up with the events of the world and no choice but to become more involved with the local environment. I could write about the experience to help make the connection more meaningful and provide that all-important sense of purpose. It would be challenging, certainly; a stark contrast from my previous fifty years on the planet. There were things I would miss desperately: regular contact with close family; following the daily politics of the country and the world; watching live sport on TV (Liverpool might finally win the Premier League and I wouldn’t be around to see it).
Of course, there would be positive aspects too, at least in theory. I was genuinely interested in finding out whether the human brain could reintegrate with a lifestyle closer to what it was built for, despite decades of conditioning. Would a slower pace of life, free from endless distractions, come to be more enjoyable and fulfilling given sufficient time to adapt to it? Or would it feel empty and dull, the brain constantly tugged back to thoughts of what it was missing? As I started to contemplate the logistics and the ground rules of how it could work, the idea gradually became more and more real in my mind.
The idea was one thing but getting to the point where it might actually happen proved far from simple. It showed just how firmly enmeshed we are in the complex web of technology and human interconnections that underpin modern living. As I thought more about how it might work I kept tripping myself up with things that should have been obvious but I had managed to overlook. It was like being hit by a power cut and putting the kettle on to help overcome the frustration of not being able to watch TV. The first problem was the mental exercise of establishing what, precisely, I was trying to achieve.
I knew what I wasn’t trying to do. This was not going to be an exercise in self-sufficiency or an attempt to live entirely off-grid. I had neither the inclination nor the practical skills to make that happen. I wanted to invest the time in reconnecting with the natural world rather than having to spend it struggling to scrape by. And I wasn’t interested in a hermit’s existence, wholly removed from any contact with other people, especially my close family. I’m not the most social of animals but several months entirely devoid of human contact would have felt like a prison sentence.
It was my relationship with the non-human world that I wanted to explore. Watching wildlife has been my primary interest as far back as I can remember. Even in an office meeting room, on a train or washing up at the kitchen sink I’ll be staring out of the windows for long periods and my mood will be noticeably improved by a glimpse of something interesting of the non-human world outside.
I had cause to reflect on my relationship with the natural world during a recent visit to hospital. I was there, in early September, for nothing more onerous than a routine scan. Being claustrophobic, the thought of being slid into a full-body MRI scanner was not an appealing one and the stark concrete buildings did nothing to ease the sense of foreboding. Are hospitals built specifically to be as cheerless and unwelcoming as possible? If so, the designers had slipped up this time. Not far from the main entrance I saw something that almost instantly improved my state of mind. High up, under the eaves of the fourth floor was a large House Martin colony, pulsing with frenetic, end of season activity. There were dozens of the domed mud nests, crammed together beneath an overhang that might as well have been purpose-built for them. The owners were swarming back and forth, brightening the uninspiring backdrop of glass, concrete and grey sky, despite their monochrome plumage. Even with my poor hearing, I could make out their soft contact calls, rippling gently but persistently above the drone of hospital traffic. They were a vivid reminder of the increasing number of studies into the health benefits of contact with wildlife and, at once, made the results feel believable. I could easily imagine just how much difference these birds might have made, had I required a longer stay in this drab, utilitarian building. I found myself wondering if, in such circumstances, I’d be brave enough to request a bed with a view of the birds. I suspected probably not.
My interest in wildlife is all-pervading. It’s something I’m aware of, or at least alert to, all the time. I’d describe it as a mindset or a way of life rather than a hobby. And yet I felt it was gradually being eroded, despite a concerted effort over the past two years to try to reconnect to it. Increasingly, I felt as if my life was being hijacked, and it was the result of being more and more tightly-bound to a wider world over which I had no control and that had little to do with the natural world that I saw every day around my home.
No doubt my increasing years and the situation I found myself in contributed to the way I was feeling. Working full-time in conservation may have been frustrating but it also acted as a distraction from deeper feelings. With my new-found freedom came a release of frustration but also high expectations. And when they were not realised, I had the free-time to ponder what was happening; to search for reasons and meaning. Now I wanted to escape, at least temporarily, from the intrusions of wider humanity, in order to more fully understand their impact. I wanted to experience a lifestyle that humans have been living for all but a tiny fraction of their history in relation to their engagement with the local environment – to see if it would help re-establish the connection and provide the mindfulness I was craving. Perhaps I was going through a mild mid-life crisis, albeit with symptoms inverted from the usual. I didn’t want a motorbike or a new sports car to help keep pace with the rest of the world. I didn’t want yet more of the trappings of modernity. Rather, I wanted to leave the modern world behind for a taste of a simpler, but hopefully more fulfilling, existence.
As I thought more about it, I started to consider how it might work in practice. Because this was not about self-sufficiency I would be able to utilise modern technology provided it did not connect me, in the moment of use, to wider humanity. I was relieved to realise that I’d be able to keep my binoculars and telescope, and that I could live in a house with electricity and central heating. What I would sacrifice was any technology that provided a direct connection with the wider world, and the endless bombardment of news, opinions and ideas from around the globe. Effectively, I would cut myself off from the wider world that is normally such a significant, all-encompassing, aspect of our lives. That would mean no TV or radio, no smartphone and, of course, no internet connection. I thought for a while about whether I could have a car. It would not provide a direct connection with the rest of the world, as long as it was used discerningly, and it might allow me to explore a larger and more diverse area. But I quickly decided against it. It would have been too great a temptation to be able, so easily, to venture back towards the globally connected world. I thought, too, that the time should be about exploring an area within walking distance of the house. This limitation has, after all, been with us for all but the last handful of human generations and surely has a substantial impact on how we perceive and appreciate the local environment around us.
Essential supplies were a potential sticking point. I could hardly nip down to the local shop every week without the risk of reconnecting with world events to some degree. And with no car that would not be realistic anyway. I settled on a compromise. I would arrange with the nearest supplier to have food delivered on a weekly basis.
tThere was the not unimportant matter of where to base myself for the year. I had a few loose criteria swirling round in my head. Firstly, the location needed to be sufficiently remote to make it easy to stay away from current affairs; free from the risk of routinely bumping into people and having to make excuses about conversations that were off limits. Equally, it should not be so remote that sourcing supplies would be difficult or help would be unavailable if some kind of emergency were to arise. I wanted it to be a place with which I was not already familiar so there would be a sense of exploration and discovery. And if I was going to set aside a significant period of my life, it would need to be somewhere with an interesting diversity of wildlife habitats within walking distance; somewhere responsive to day-to-day and seasonal changes that would fully repay my daily visits.
I’ve always loved the Highlands and Islands of Scotland but it’s not a region I know particularly well. I’ve made plenty of visits over the years but they have all been fleeting – a snatched week or two here and there, limited by the arduous journey from southern England and thirty years of adult life with only four or five weeks available for annual holidays. It seemed the obvious area of search for a more prolonged stay now I had the chance. Somewhere close to the coast would help provide variety and the patterns of changing tides would add welcome variation and interest. Islands have a special, almost magical, quality about them. There is something about the remoteness; the disconnection from ‘normal’ life on the mainland, reinforced by the need to travel over water to get there. I love, too, the way that some aspects of wildlife watching are simplified on islands, especially small ones. They are places with clearly defined boundaries, where you feel you can properly get to know and understand the local wildlife. Thinking back to my time at Riverside Lodge in the fens and its island of trees, they are also places that pull in unexpected visitors from time to time. I would, then, look to one of the many islands off the Scottish coast.
Somewhere in Orkney or Shetland in the far north might have fitted the bill, but the short hours of daylight during the long winter months concerned me. On previous visits to Shetland, in high summer, I’d been amazed at the number of empty spirit bottles I’d found when walking along the roads and suspected the long winter nights might have been a contributory factor. Even in southern England, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can drive people to drink, or to annual escapes to brighter, warmer countries to the south. The effect must be magnified greatly at the northern extreme of our islands. Instead I was drawn to the straggling chain of islands that make up the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland and I looked towards the southern end of the group to maximise winter light levels. I wanted an island that was small, but not too small. Something with wild and remote corners, yet not so remote that travel and sourcing supplies would be difficult. Something with a diversity of different habitats within a manageable, walkable scale. Several possibilities emerged but one stood out clearly above all the others.
My potential destination for a spell of immersion in nature was, inevitably, chosen from the comfort of an armchair, aided by implausible online images of sun-drenched, white-sand beaches, and idyllic descriptions. The obvious next step, before launching headlong into the unknown, was a dose of realism. I needed to go there in order to get a feel for the place first-hand. An autumn ‘recce’ was suggested and (with the help of the sun-drenched beaches) Hazel gladly agreed. We organised two-weeks in the remotest of the cottages rented out by the island’s main estate and headed north on a not-so-sun-drenched late September day.
It’s often said that a leisurely overland journey leads to a better appreciation of the final destination than when dropping out of the sky after a much shorter trip, but one involving a complete disconnection from the landscape below. I think there’s something in that. Despite the rigors of an all-day drive ahead, my mood lifted perceptibly as we left Devon behind and progressed through increasingly unfamiliar territory. Once past the busy sections of the M6 in the urban north-west of England, the landscape opened out and the traffic died away. The distant sharp peaks of the Lake District slid by on one side and the low, heather-clad hills of the Yorkshire Dales offered a contrast on the other. There was one final battle to come but once Glasgow had been safely negotiated, the traffic thinned again, this time for good. The narrow main road winding its way north along the shores of Loch Lomond was littered with sodden leaves and debris from Storm Ali that had blown through earlier in the day. My daughter was delighted to hear that a storm had been named after her and appropriately contrite when told it had slowed our progress a little as we headed north.
Then came the ‘Cal-mac’ ferry from Oban, the main urban centre and port on the west coast of the Highlands. Without fail, I spend my time on a boat up on deck looking out over the seascape. Perhaps it’s partly down to a susceptibility to sea-sickness when confined inside a moving ship, but mainly it’s a hangover from the two years I spent working for the old Nature Conservancy Council’s ‘Seabirds at Sea’ team. It was my first proper job in conservation after university. I’d spend days, sometimes weeks, at a time on ferries, fisheries research boats, and even the Royal Navy’s Fisheries Patrol Vessels, surveying offshore seabirds.
On one occasion the navy ship I was working from was diverted from its normal task of checking to see if fishing boats were operating legally, to something rather more out of the ordinary. A team of heavily-armed uniforms emerged from a helicopter that landed on deck, before I was obliged to take their place and head back to dry land – it would not have been appropriate for a civilian to witness whatever may have been coming next. To help derive estimates of seabird numbers we learned to visualise a transect, two hundred metres wide, on one side of the ship. By recording all birds using that transect the figures could be multiplied up to work out the overall numbers of birds using each sea area. All these years later, my brain is still drawn towards the same approach, projecting an imaginary line across the ocean and trying not to miss anything on my side of it.
The seabirds on this journey were all routine fare for the time of year but welcome none-the-less. Despite my days recording seabirds I’ve spent most of my life well inland in the southern half of England. Whole years can slip by without seeing common seabirds like Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes. There were small groups of all three as we headed west away from the mainland. The auks sitting on the sea closest to the boat performed their usual trick as we approached them, wings becoming flippers as they threw themselves underwater and disappeared – desperately trying to evade detection in my imaginary transect.
I was delighted to see a few juvenile Kittiwakes with their distinctive black zig-zag lines on the upper wings. This, to my mind, is our most subtly graceful and elegant seabird, the adults with their delicate grey and white wings and contrasting ‘dipped in ink’ tips. It’s a bird that has struggled badly in recent years due to declining stocks of sandeels, its staple food in the breeding season, most likely due to a combination of overfishing and warming seas. At least a few pairs this year had managed to find enough food to rear their young. A brief, if unexpected, reminder of Devon came in the form of some distant dull-brown dots on the remote southern shores of Mull a few miles to the north as we passed by. They could only have been Red Deer and they helped to highlight the vast scale of the landscape around them – our largest land mammal reduced to tiny specks, dwarfed by the rocks and moorland all around them. On the other side of the ship were the islands of Jura and Scarba and the menacing waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan between them. The tidal races and whirlpools here are notorious and almost accounted for George Orwell in 1947 during a family boating trip, potentially depriving the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four which had still to be finished.
After two and a half hours the ferry slowed and performed a series of unlikely, juddering contortions; easing alongside a pier that, to the untrained eye, seemed inadequate for its job. Most people stayed in their seats, awaiting the onward journey to Islay, but we made our way down to the vehicle deck and joined a handful of other people heading onto one of the smaller and more sparsely-populated islands of the Inner Hebrides.
If you read anything about the island of Colonsay you probably won’t get far without a reference to ‘the Scottish Highlands and Islands in miniature’. A cursory assessment from the deck of the ferry, followed by a twenty-minute drive around the island’s only single-track loop road showed why it had earned the epithet. Colonsay is about eight miles long and three wide, on average, and yet it has a little of almost every broad habitat the Highlands has to offer. Inland, it is dominated by low, rocky hills and open moorland – an intimate patchwork of dry heathland and treacherous waterlogged bogs as I later discovered when venturing out on foot.
The highest point is 143m, very much a mini-mountain in Scottish terms, yet more than enough to get the blood pumping and provide a spectacular view over the island and its surroundings. Much of the coastline is made up of low, wild rocky shore but there are also sections of sheer cliffs, swarming with seabirds in the breeding season, as well as contrasting long, wide sandy beaches. There are extensive dunes, salt-marshes and on the strand between Colonsay and its smaller neighbour Oransay, to the south, an expanse of wader-friendly sand flats. There is also an area of planted woodland around the estate’s main house – a mix of conifers and broadleaves, including some impressively large trees.
Natural deciduous woodland is a habitat that would once have dominated the Highlands. Swathes of impenetrable woods and scrub would have greeted early human visitors to the region. After centuries of felling, burning, and grazing by livestock and deer, it has largely disappeared, but even here, Colonsay comes good. There is a sizeable wood of mixed native trees above the eastern shoreline that has somehow survived, offering a magical contrast with the more typical, but less natural, open landscape across the rest of the island.
For a small island, Colonsay presents huge contrasts over relatively small distances in other aspects as well as habitats. The west-facing coast is exposed to the vastness of the open Atlantic ocean and the prevailing westerly wind. Even on a calm day the swell rolls in relentlessly, each wave sending up white plumes of spray as it meets immovable rock, or plunging down onto the beach as it finally expires. The eastern side is more protected and sheltered. Here the sea may be almost completely calm and flat. Point a telescope out to sea on the east coast, even on a breezy day, and you may notice groups of Eider bobbing offshore and perhaps pick out mergansers, or divers of any of our three common species. Try the same thing, on the same day, on the west coast and even if you can hold the telescope steady on its tripod, the birds will be all but impossible to see. No doubt they are there but they are hidden away amongst the troughs and peaks of the waves, and the wind-thrown white-caps.
There is another contrast too. While nowhere on Colonsay could be described as busy with people, if you visit the largest of the sandy beaches at Kiloran or the strand between Colonsay and Oransay, which is walkable at low tide, you are likely to have at least some company as you head off for your stroll. But walk away from the road inland, or set out across the moorland to the coastline away from roads and paths, and you will soon be walking in a remote, wild landscape with few signs of humanity and almost no chance of seeing another soul. That sort of experience is increasingly hard to find in Britain, particularly in areas rich in wildlife and it’s something that has always been important to me in my wildlife watching.
We found our cottage, tucked away in a fold of land at the end of a long track across rough, sheep-grazed moorland. It was in the south-east of the island, looking out over the sea and across the sound to the remote, uninhabited, western coastline of Jura. A welcoming ‘ring-tail’ Hen Harrier cruised past a few hundred yards away not long after we arrived, hugging the contours; constantly adjusting and readjusting its flight path as it investigated potential prey. There were no other houses visible from any of the windows – just moorland, a low rocky coastline, perhaps three quarters of a mile away, and the sea beyond. I could see myself spending time in a place like this and started to talk to Hazel about the timing of a future, longer trip. I had the sense that, for the first time, she started to think that this ‘project’, as she insisted on calling it, might actually happen. She was all too used to my vague ideas and knew that most of the time she didn’t have to take them too seriously.
Walking out from the cottage one morning we came across a freshly dead sheep not far from the house, interrupting the feeding aspirations of a young Great Black-backed Gull and two Hooded Crows as we approached. It was so fresh, I half-expected it to struggle to its feet, but the eyes were already bloodied and hollowed out, and I guessed it had been dead for a few hours at least. We talked about whether I might be able to track the progress of a dead sheep over several months when I returned, to find out just how valuable a food source it was. How long would it take before the whole animal disappeared into the food-chain and how many different species would it support through the lean winter months? I could watch from a distance for perhaps an hour every other day, hoping that two species in particular might pay a visit.
If it was increasingly dawning on Hazel that she was going to be left to her own devices for a while, she didn’t seem unduly perturbed by the idea, which was reassuring, if a little deflating. But she did start to ask lots of challenging questions about how it would all work. It seemed she had at least one new question for each new day. I had experienced much the same when I’d mentioned my idea to friends or family. There was some interest in what I was proposing, and a fair amount of bewilderment. But mostly there were questions, often rather tricky questions, about what I was trying to achieve. I realised that I needed to come up with a clear and firm set of rules, so that I could properly prepare myself for what was to come, and so that I could explain the concept more clearly to other people. I thought about this more over the next two weeks on Colonsay and what I came up with is summarised here.
A Break from Humanity – The rules
- Living for a period of at least four months in a remote cottage, in an area rich in wildlife but away from roads and other development and where few people will be encountered casually.
- No access to any technology that provides a connection with the rest of humanity at the point of use – so no TV, radio, mobile phone or wi-fi connection.
- No car, so all travel on foot. A rental vehicle will be used initially to transport supplies to the house but will then be returned.
- Communication with other people is not entirely forbidden but will be limited by the location of the house and the lack of transport. Any conversations that do take place must not be used as a way of seeking information about the wider world. Stopping to chat about the scenery and the wildlife is fine, and might help to maintain sanity, but asking someone about the recent news, or even the weather forecast for the next few days, is not allowed.
- Communication with close family by land-line will be allowed but they will be aware that conversation must be limited to day-to-day happenings and personal well-being rather than wider events or world news. In a sense this mimics a situation that humans have been living with for thousands of years up until very recently – a family unit (though normally living in the same house of course) with little or no information available about the wider world.
- Non-connected technology is allowed including optical equipment, a computer for writing (but no connectivity), modern appliances and heating etc. This is about seeking a more meaningful and mindful connection with the natural world in the local area, it is not about self-sufficiency or shunning all technology.
- Food supplies to be delivered weekly by prior arrangement with the local shop
After a few days of getting to know the Colonsay, with lots of short drives and walks to the most accessible places, I thought it was time to venture out into one of the more remote and wilder parts of the island. A look at the Ordnance Survey map drew me to the far north-eastern corner, away from roads and tracks, and lacking even footpaths. It included a remote area of native woodland I’d seen from the ferry, flanked by several square miles of uninhabited, empty moorland on three sides, and miles of low rocky coastline on the other. I parked in the dunes above Kiloran Bay early in the day and headed east, across the moor, towards the opposite coast.
It was tough going in places. The wetter areas of bog threatened to overwhelm my walking boots and I started to scan further ahead, looking out for vegetation that thrives in waterlogged ground. It was too late in the season for the normally reliable cotton grasses, so the fiery, orange flower-spikes of Bog Asphodel were the most helpful indicators. I avoided these, despite their aesthetic appeal, and headed instead for areas covered with Bracken or purple-flowering heathers, both plants that favour drier ground. From a high vantage point I could use binoculars to plot a likely route ahead for a few hundred yards at a time. I kept my feet dry but the Bracken and heather came with their own problems. In the absence of heavy grazing by livestock, both plants were sometimes well above head height – perhaps the tallest heather I had ever seen. At times I was walking under the vegetation rather than through it – pushing between the stiff stems and, on several occasions, finding that my rucksack had become ensnared in a tangled mesh of branches.
After about an hour I reached the edge of the woodland, sloping away to the shore below me, and descended into an enchanted world beneath the canopy. The trees were not tall but the thick lower branches were twisted and contorted in all directions away from their trunks, some no more than a foot or two above the ground. The trees were all familiar species – oaks and birches dominated, but there were also scattered Rowan, Ash and Hazel. The shapes and the colours gave the wood an unfamiliar feel. Mosses and ferns grew profusely from the branches, and lichens of varying shades and textures patterned the bark.
Beneath the trees was more head-high Bracken, the leaves blending greens, browns and yellows depending on their variable progress of decay towards winter. The wood felt slightly surreal; almost wrong for the place. And yet if anything was wrong, or at least less natural, it was the vast open areas beyond the woodland edge. Adding to the surreal experience were the calls of Curlew and Oystercatcher, filtering up through the trees from the shoreline below. There was also a mournful, almost human, wailing that I simply couldn’t place and had me turning in all directions to try to pinpoint. It was another two hours before I worked out where it was coming from.
The Hazel trees were covered with ripe nuts, something that the introduced American Grey Squirrel rarely allows to happen in the woods I’m familiar with. I was searching for a stone to crack open a few of them, rather than risk my teeth, when it slowly dawned on me that I was being watched. I was about to experience something that has happened to me only a handful of times in Britain. A lone Great Tit started things off, landing in the nearest birch and firing a gentle burst of staccato, machine-gun chattering in my direction. It was a call to arms, quickly answered by four more Great Tits and then other species too, including Chaffinches, Goldcrests, Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits, all edging closer to me, intently focussed on my presence. Boldest of all was a tiny Coal Tit. It moved gradually further out towards me in the branches of the birch tree, ending up so close that I thought about reaching out a hand to see if it would hop on.
It’s a strange, almost overpowering, feeling to be the subject of such intense curiosity from a whole community of wild birds, and when it has happened to me before it has been in the wildest and remotest of places. These birds were genuinely bemused to see a creature that was unfamiliar to them and had suddenly, unexpectedly, appeared in their wood. The location made it easy to believe that many of them, especially those reared this summer, had never seen a person before and were interested to watch one for a while to see what it would do next. No doubt birds across the land reacted in much the same way to the first humans to enter their world many thousands of years ago, little suspecting the huge changes they would bring with them. About half an hour later I encountered what I took to be the same flock higher up the slope, and this time I was rudely ignored. They were not going to waste valuable feeding time again having already made their assessment.
Away from the mixed bird flock the woods were largely silent. There were a few rushed snatches of song from unseen Wrens, almost apologetic in their brevity and lack of spring vigour. The only other bird noise was made by Robins, perhaps our most underappreciated songster. Its voice has a melancholy beauty that no other bird can match. In spring it is often drowned out by the louder, brasher songs that demand our attention. But in autumn, its soft outpourings can be savoured, each one trailing gently away into the silence that follows, leaving you waiting in anticipation for the next instalment.
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.
A few days later I went back to the north-east of the island, this time with my fishing rod, threading it through the tall stems of Bracken as I walked, or even hoisting it over my head, above the dense canopy of fronds. I’d not managed to find anywhere else on Colonsay with deep water within easy reach of the rocks but here conditions seemed perfect. I find sea fishing to be one of the most complete and fulfilling ways of spending time in nature. There is the solitude (at least on this occasion) with no-one else for miles around. There is the need to read the landscape and the tides in order to find the best spot. And there is the mix of both terrestrial and marine wildlife depending on which way you turn your head as you stand at the interface between the two. More than that, you are getting your hands dirty and directly interacting with wildlife rather than simply watching it go by. There is, hopefully, the handling of the fish, its rapid despatch and the knowledge that, later, you will eat what you have just caught. That, in itself, plays to one of our most basic and long-established instincts. In a rare departure from the norm, it is a pastime unencumbered by the restrictions of officialdom. No permissions, permits or licences are required. It is free and open to everyone. It’s not much fun for the fish, of course, but there is the consolation that it was caught in the most sustainable way possible, harming nothing else in the process, and treated with respect throughout.
I fished using a spinner – a heavy, shiny piece of metal, repeatedly cast out and reeled back in to mimic a small bait fish. It requires less patience than casting out a stationary bait and waiting, and it burns more calories. Offshore there were a few Shags, a distant Great Northern Diver, a scattering of Eiders and a Black Guillemot, or Tystie, that had already lost its dapper black-and-white plumage from the summer, sporting an untidier, almost dishevelled, mottled-all-over effect. A Shag came closer in to the rocks as it fished, each dive launched with a refined leap forward into the water. The larger Cormorant lacks this graceful prelude, flopping inelegantly underwater without the jump. In areas where both species occur, as here around Colonsay, the difference can be a helpful way to distinguish between the two. As a soundtrack there was silence, or lapping water on rock, or the mournful, haunting duet between Curlews and a seal pup missing its mother.
I paused from fishing as the Shag came close to my casting range, wary of an experience the previous summer in Sutherland. On that occasion a lone Guillemot was fishing in the water I was casting into. I didn’t think anything of it and when I felt a hard rattle and tug on the rod I assumed I’d hooked another Mackerel. Then the line went slack and up to the surface bobbed the Guillemot, looking somewhat shaken as it ruffled its feathers back into place. It had been fooled in the same way as the Mackerel I’d already caught and was lucky to have avoided the hooks. With the benefit of hindsight, I suppose the incident was unsurprising. If a fish thinks a piece of metal is another fish then why wouldn’t a fish-eating bird make the same mistake?
There were no Mackerel here after an hour of fishing and I wondered if, in early October, it was already a little late in the season, and they had retreated further offshore for the winter. I’d reached the stage where every new cast was to be the last one and, forty minutes later, it finally paid off.
The Mackerel is a fish sent from heaven. Everything about it brings joy. I find it reassuring that despite all the damage caused by overfishing, if you cast your line into deep water anywhere along the west coast of Britain, in summer, you will likely catch them. They roam the seas restlessly in packs, like miniature tuna, constantly on the move, snapping at anything that resembles food. Even a bare hook can sometimes catch them if the glint of thin, polished metal draws their eye. Strings of feathers take advantage of the pack mentality. The first fish snaps at its ‘prey’, and the others see this and move in, looking to take advantage of a feeding opportunity. They cannot afford a more considered approach – they would lose their meal to the next fish.
They are also stunningly beautiful fish, with a streamlined, torpedo-like shape and a series of short, triangular ‘go-faster’ finlets towards the tail. They are delicately patterned with dark wavy stripes that cut across an iridescent green-blue background on the upper surface, onto the silvery flanks below. These stripes, apparently, are used as visual markers by the fish to help keep the school together. On a bright day you know you’ve caught a Mackerel when it is still several feet underwater as the sun lights up the gaps between the stripes, and the whole fish flickers. It is a fish that you must catch for yourself if you want to enjoy it to the full. As an oily fish it spoils quickly. If it has been hauled out of the sea in a vast net, left to thrash around on deck and then had a journey of several days to the supermarket, packed in ice, it will provide an ordinary meal. Line-caught and grilled within a few hours, the taste is unrivalled.
We saw plenty more wildlife during the rest of our stay but after those two days in the north of the island, the recce had served its purpose. I already knew I’d be coming back. I spent the rest of the time getting to know the place as thoroughly as I could, taking advantage of the car while I had it. The cottage had no wi-fi, TV or mobile reception and although we went to the island’s only hotel every few days to check emails and catch up with the news, we settled into a slower pace of life. I was surprised by just how quickly my mindset adjusted to the lack of connectivity to the rest of the world.
One afternoon, when we were forced inside by sheeting rain and wind, I read through the cottage’s visitor book. It was obvious that the slower pace of life appealed to others too. The same words and phrases reappeared throughout. People from all parts of Britain, and further afield, were refreshed and relaxed by the end of their stay; batteries were recharged. Contrasts were repeatedly drawn between normal, everyday life with its noise, pollution, stresses and strains, and the lifestyle here with peace, tranquillity, calm, and sightings of interesting plants and animals. Families wrote about activities with their children that provided a meaningful connection with the natural world and would have been part of a routine, normal upbringing far more widely a few decades ago. Wild flowers were picked, dunes were run down, long walks in the fresh air were taken, shells were collected, wild fruits or wild fish were gathered and eaten. Are these things that many people now do mainly on holiday?
Perhaps it’s not the sort of thing you write in a visitor book but no-one seemed to miss the TV or their smartphone. In fact, whenever these two things were mentioned, it was to point out how refreshing it was to be without them. I was struck especially by comments from people who loved the feeling of being without these things, but acknowledged that this was only possible because temptation had been removed. If wi-fi is ever installed here, there will be fewer walks on the beach, fewer wild flowers picked, and more time spent checking in with the rest of humanity. I was reminded of an old quote by the American psychologist Rollo May from his book The Cry for Myth: ‘technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.’ Although it was a comment on the way things were at the time (in 1991), it could also be seen as a prophecy for how much worse the levels of detachment from the real would become. It was exactly the trap I’d found myself falling into back home in Devon.
I’ve taken what I hope is not too great a liberty in reproducing here just a few of the comments from that visitor book:
‘…the magic remains – the peace, the silence, the stunning views, the wildlife, the ever-changing light.’ John and Valerie Selden.
‘We have visited few places that rival this wild and wonderful island in its beauty. The remoteness brought our family closer together.’ Jacqueline Posada, Galveston, Texas.
‘…days of walking, bird-spotting, shell-collecting…just how relaxing can a place be? Going home relaxed and recharged.’ Emma, Graham and Harriet, Cumbria.
‘Arrived. Mind emptied. Sun shone. Then set. Sea sparkled. Wind blew. Now we are leaving.’ Anon.
‘Our cameras are filled with pictures of children under giant skies in sublime landscapes. Everyday, every hour, we have been amazed by the unending, spectacular, crazy beauty of the island.’ Asta (7), Bo (5), Nick, Rebekah and small dog Albie, Crouch End, London.
‘What a delight it is to bring our two “children” back to Colonsay where they each took their first steps 20 and 18 years ago. They still run on the beach, they still do headstands and cartwheels, and manic frog-leaps from the dunes, and they still feel, as I do, at home here.’ Alison Hendry.
After a couple of glasses of wine, looking out at the view and thinking of my own ‘children’ just a year or two younger, I found the last comment rather moving. The words, as with the other comments, were describing such simple and easy pleasures and yet they carried an unexpected power. If an alien race were trying to make sense of this visitor book, they might think that the people writing in it had stumbled upon an easy, inexpensive way of making their otherwise difficult and wearisome lives more enjoyable, richer and fulfilling. They might reasonably wonder why families would come here for two weeks and undertake these activities, only to head back to their normal lives, ready to charge up their mobiles at the expense of their own freshly-recharged batteries.
The End – or at least the end of this series of guest blogs – maybe to be continued somewhere, some time.