Jonathan: A few weeks back, at Eight Askernish, Denise and I were packing up having completed our winter programme of redecorating (including, this year, new carpets throughout). My final task before leaving was to set up the wildlife camera. On each of our visits to the house, I’d noticed ‘calling cards’ left by deer visiting the garden in search of food, so on this last visit I attached the wildlife camera to a rainwater down-pipe, and directed it at the area where the deer paw the ground in search of the naturalized crocosmia/mombretia bulbs (which are rich in carbohydrates and minerals). Today – with Alex and Frazer Fotheringham from Wester Ross about to arrive for a Hogmanay holiday, I removed the camera and checked the contents.
Disappointment, yet again! About 300 each of stills and videos, but no deer – no wildlife of any kind. In fact the only movement of living things caught was of the grasses and shrubs rocking about in the wind! The sensitivity of the infra-red detector is adjustable, and I’d set it to react only to movement within about 50m, but it appears that the camera was far more interested in passing traffic, on the Askernish road, which is about 150m away!
Passing Traffic – Tractor
Passing Traffic – Wind & Moonlight
What’s really interesting from the hundreds of images, capturing passing traffic – day and night, is that almost half of the traffic on the Askernish road is agricultural – and almost all of that tractors. In Askernish, at least, crofting is very much alive and well!
Jonathan: Yesterday evening I was rummaging in a drawer of techy stuff, searching for an assortment of small connectors. It suddenly occurred to me that of the ‘big fish’ items swirling around the drawer as I pursued my prey beneath and between them, one ‘big fish’ was missing. The wildlife camera. There was the remote controller – and there the USB cable … but no, no camera. So where could it be? The only places I wouId ever leave it would be in the drawer (nope!), on my desk (nope!), on the floor (aka desk overflow – nope!) or ‘in the field’.
It was 11pm, D was already in bed with the light out, and I’d already taken the dog out and the drawer-rummaging was only a minor diversion from my direct route to the land of nod. I couldn’t help suspect that the reason I couldn’t find the wildlife camera anywhere in the house was because it wasn’t there. To be specific, because I’d set it up somewhere – ‘in the field’, as they say – and forgotten about it.
Now, although my memory – whether long term, medium, or … now what was it I was going to write …. oh yes, indeed – short. Memory. Yes, whether or not my memory is what it was in former years, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that I probably didn’t set the camera up somewhere or other this morning. No, if I had, Denise would have reminded me that I’d done so. (By now I’d woken her up to discuss the urgent matter of the absent wildlife camera: as is so often the case with those roused from sleep, she really didn’t care much where it was, how dear it was to me, or even how dear it was to buy.) Quite. Hmmm.
Now I’m sure I can rely on your sympathy and understanding when I tell you that I have a number of behaviour traits normally associated with autism. (Very 21stC, I understand, though I suspect not for persons of my age. Presumably people think it’s something you grow out of, or autistic people die young and tragically?) One of these traits concerns things being in their proper place (and for that matter, there being a proper place for everything to be properly in – I think that’s the essence of what I’ve been working at here in Uist over 14 years!). A discovery like this upsets my equilibrium – and I really cannot easily go to sleep. So, nothing for it but to pull back on shoes, winter coat and hat – all still warm from having taken Tilly for her bedtime walk – and search the walled garden.
No moon last night, but a sky full of stars! Tilly and I had walked out and back by star-light alone, the torch needed only to flash a warning to a solitary passing car. But within the walls, around the outbuildings and under the trees – all the places where there might be wildlife to catch on camera (and somewhere to fix the thing!) – the torch was essential. Nope! Nothing.
Well, I’d done all I could for now, and reluctantly accepted that I probably could settle enough to go to sleep – but tomorrow I’d certainly have to search the croft.
Oh, another time-gobbling unplanned and unwanted task! Grrr!
So, this morning, I set about my usual crofting duties, eyes scanning for any likely spots, hoping I wouldn’t end up trudging around the boundaries of the entire croft and still return home empty-handed. I stopped still a moment, taking in the glorious view, the wonder of the minutae – individual stones, the curl of sheep’s horn, the gentle wheesh …. whaash of the sea on the shingle at low tide. Mode-switching: from autistic to artistic, from driven to delighted, and from worry … back to work. As this medicine took effect, my thoughts re-focussed and took an interest in what my eyes just happened to be pointing at. I was standing by the gaping doorway of the old stone house – the Seann Taigh, with views framed by the ruinous tumble of stone and timbers. There, strapped to one of the last two joists still propping up the walls, and watching over the ruined south gable – a favourite vantage point for gulls, ravens – and eagles, was the very thing I’d been tossing and turning in bed over. The wildlife camera!
Armed with coffee, quince jelly on toast, and the memory card, I set about discovering what the camera had been up to – and since when. The batteries had run flat, and the memory card was full – having stored more than 500 still pictures and the same number of 10-second videos: the first in early August, the last in early October. Intriguing!
And mysterious, too! It’s certainly a mystery to me what the camera was responding to, because none of the 1000-plus images showed anything of interest whatsoever – no living being or moving object of any kind, just an ever-changing sky. Except for one night-time infra-red picture, all were taken between 10am and 2pm, on certain days. Why … ? No idea! Nope – none at all!
Above: A study in stillness – A day in ruins – 31st August 2016
We’ve still not caught anything with this camera: it apparently functions correctly. Perhaps it’s just more interested in flora (with a special fasination with grasses waving in the wind and scudding clouds), rather than mere fauna!
Jonathan: Recently I’ve been spending the occasional half-days at Eight Askernish installing the new whole-house ventilation and heat recovery system. But I’ve not been alone. and that’s not all that’s been going on there. Most of the willow trees now look as though they’ve been through a shredding machine – and a malfunctioning one at that. The blanket of orange-brown leaves fallen and decaying over the banks of mombretia have been scuffed away and there tubers are scattered over the ground. And were there any room for doubt as to the nature of our nocturnal visitors, there are little piles of dark brown nuggets – like sheep poo, but bigger and more pointy. Red Deer! At this time of year they are very hungry, and come down from the wild hills that line the east side of Uist to maraud our gardens. They’re stripping the bark off the younger willow branches, and the mombretia tubers are full of starch and vitamins.
Many islanders insist there are too many deer, and they need to be heavily culled to reduce numbers. Disturbing the mombretia is not really much of a problem – the tubers they leave will soon multiply, fertilized by the deer poo ; but the willow trees – and indeed trees of any description – are extremely difficult to grow and short-lived, and after the deer have finished with them they don’t exactly enhance the garden – and anyway will die off very soon. We’ve decided to respond by expanding our planting of rosa rugosa, the thorny stems of which protect it from deer, but which provide numerous benefits to all concerned: they grow well even at this extremely exposed site ; they provide excellent low-level privacy, shelter – for humans and for birds and insects ; they produce lovely flowers over a long season that scent the air, and then colourful hips which feed birds through late autumn and early winter ; and in early spring the green tips are tolerant of browsing by deer, as the taller shoots need pruning back anyway – it stimulates stronger growth nearer the ground.