Am Bratach No. 303
It was dark, the dogs limbo-danced under the croft gate. The broken landscape was still devoid of colour. The smell of pre-dawn hung in the unnaturally warm air. The Hebridean sheep heard the rattle of the sugar beet pellets in my bucket and had started moving forward long before I could see their black fleeces in the murky gloom.
I was not fully awake and was only vaguely aware of the lights of the trawlers in the Minch, the squelch of mud under my wellies and the quiet tssp, tssp of a lone Redwing flying far overhead, searching for any remaining rowan berries. Head down in a dream-like trance, I nearly missed it. Out of nowhere it rose from the long grass as soft as cotton grass it was the whitest thing you could ever imagine. It beat a mysterious and erratic path, only metres above the earth, passed the rusty broken tractor next door, across the croft ditches and the flooded marsh, passed ancient twisting walls left over from the iron-age, over lazy beds long abandoned and finally disappeared beyond the rubble of stones that was once the magnificent Clachtoll broch. The ghostly, delicate beauty of a Barn Owl in the pre-dawn blackness is enough to make anyones heart miss a beat. And there was not a sound as if someone had pressed the mute button on the television in my head. Barn Owls fly silently. The soft wing feathers make no sound as they beat. The bird flies three metres above the ground, all the while listening to hear the slightest sound of a rodent prey hidden in the deep tangle of grass and rushes. Their amazing heart-shaped face collects the faintest sound in the same way as a human ear.
And it seems the burnished golden wings of this stunning bird has been making their way northwards into the North West Highlands. Climate change and in particular the milder winters have allowed the Barn Owl, in the last ten years or so, to expand its breeding range and colonise new parts of Caithness and Sutherland. Barn Owls feed exclusively on small rodents. A single bird will need to eat over 5,000 mice, voles and shrews over the year. On a frozen landscape or one covered in thick snow this can be virtually impossible, but things are changing.
This winter so far has been incredibly mild. Common Pipistrelle Bats for example, which should be safely hibernating in a cold cave, derelict building or ice-house, have been seen flying around the street Christmas decorations in Lochinver looking for non-existent midges. When a bat wakes up during hibernation it uses a lot of energy and it has been worked out that if a bat is woken up (perhaps by a sudden rise in the ambient temperature) more than three times during its hibernation it will not have sufficient reserves of body fat to last the whole winter. Similarly a Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly was flittering around our bedroom last night when it should be fast asleep in a clump of ivy or under the eaves of the old byre. And spare a thought for the Ptarmigan, one of a handful of true alpinist amongst Scottish birds that is restricted to tallest mountain peaks including Fionavon, Arkle, and Ben More Assynt. These hardy grouse are the only British birds to turn white in winter, remaining faithful to their mountain habitats, nibbling fibre-rich crowberry and heather shoots. Normally supremely confident in their white camouflage, hidden from view from Golden Eagles overhead, they can look a bit foolish and vulnerable to predators when the tops have no snow.
But while climate change can be bad for some it has benefits for others. My neighbour told me about a Blackcap that had been hanging around her garden bird table all winter. You might think a bird as musical and graceful as this magnificent warbler would be a mild-mannered table guest but by all reports it bosses all the other local birds and completely dominates the show. Even the typically bolshie Great Tits keep out of its way. Normally by now, of course, our Scottish Blackcaps should be the flitting in the bushes with the tourists around the Alhambra in Spain or resting in the warmth around the Luxor Temple in Egypt. But the increasingly mild winters of the British Isles have been attracting some Blackcaps from Germany and Central Europe to winter in the gardens of west coast crofters instead of the traditional Mediterranean vineyards and why not? Barn owls also seem to be benefiting from climate change. I have found several barn owls nests in Assynt this summer and where they can avoid being poisoned by rat poison and being flattened by cars they seem to be doing well. So if you are out and about this January and see a white ghost, meandering as if drunk, across the hills, it may well be a barn owl or maybe you have just had one too many!
Andy is a senior Highland Council ranger, based at Lochinver.