The Empty Hills

Beautiful but empty.
The view North East from Tarfessock to Macaterick – Beautiful but barren.

It was interesting to read SNH’s recent report (press release) on golden eagles in the South of Scotland which predictably identified the potential for several more pairs in the South than are currently extant. Of course the issue has been hijacked by time-wasters who blame the entire eagle shortage on raptor persecution, but it made me think about the extensive areas of Galloway which are essentially eagle-less. Should we really be bursting our gussets with indignant disbelief that, in their current state, the Galloway Hills support so few eagles?

The eagles have gone from Clatteringshaws, Meikle Millyea and Cairnsmore of Fleet (managed by SNH and saved from the foresters a generation ago on account of its eagles). There are no eagles on the Awful Hand or up into Carrick, and this has nothing to do with raptor persecution; it is because there is simply not enough food to support these huge predators. Walking with the dog in February, I covered ten miles of hill from Kirriereoch to Loch Bradan and then over to Loch Doon and saw three red grouse in the entire day.

And where are the mountain hares which provide eagles with the foundation of their diet? There are one or two below Shalloch on Minnoch and the odd one on the Rhinns of Kells, but these are paltry remnants of a population which once supported several pairs of eagles. Aside from the odd chance at an ailing blackie lamb, a goat kid or a red deer calf, the hills are a deafeningly hungry place for a meat eater that is accustomed to dining on more than mice and linties.

Cairnsmore of Fleet no longer has enough grouse to support the peregrines which are its emblem. The reeking black rocks of Cairnbaber look perfect for an eyrie, but the forestry commission’s high water mark has drowned so much habitat for prey species that this too is empty.

Reading Jack Orchel’s extremely useful book on forest merlins, I was taken by the abundance of breeding raptors in Galloway during the 1980s. This has nose-dived during my lifetime, so much so that in order to see my first bog owl nest, I was forced to leave the county and head over to the Borders.

Of course it is fashionable to blame grouse moor management for a lack of eagles, but an area as large and as distanced from any serious sporting interest as Galloway has to provide more than this slack-jawed explanation for its failure to produce birds. SNH and the Forestry Commission feed a pair of eagles near Slogarie to keep them in the area, topping up a station with the bodies of the goats culled at Cairnsmore, but these birds are apparently unable to expand their range and establish a foothold because beyond that artificial platform, Galloway is a tough, hungry place to be for an eagle. Indeed, if these birds need to be fed artificially, perhaps nature is trying to tell us something. It is as ecologically significant to have eagles in Galloway as it is to have them in Glasgow if they are being fed by the hand of man, and it raises questions over what we really expect from “wildlife”. The same is true for red kites, of which more anon.

In the East of Galloway, we have allowed sheep to eat the best of the hills and planted the rest with conifers. In the West, we have let the hills go “wild”, which translates as allowing them to revert to molinia grass and rank, mangy heather, poached by sheep. If we are serious about getting eagles back in the south west, we need to stop complaining about raptor persecution (which is an irrelevance here) and start looking after the habitat, which has been horrendously disfigured by forty years of short-termism and neglect. SNH’s report goes some way to recognising this, but cynics will persist in saying that grouse shooting kills so many eagles that they are unable to colonise the South West. This is certainly not the case in the Highlands and there is no reason why it should be so in the South.

When bushy-tailed ecology students sit down for the first lecture of their course, they are surely told that an animal can’t live where there is insufficient food to support it – this is rudimentary stuff, but the sentiment appears to have eluded many of the foamy-mouthed fanatics who seem to believe that the only thing an eagle has to do in order to prosper is avoid gamekeepers. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that if we fix the hills, the eagles (and everything else, including the blackgame) will come of their own accord. Gamekeepers (or “pest control and heather management officers” if you prefer) have a significant role to play in the future of these hills if we are ever to see a good range of upland birds return to Galloway.

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