I recently retired after 40 years working with SNH and one of its predecessors, the Nature Conservancy Council. The first half of that mostly involved managing different nature reserves across Scotland and I have always been interested in the stories that lie behind what you can see or hear. Muir of Dinnet is a great place for doing that and the visitor centre will explain that the reserve looks the way it does because of the enormous forces that shaped the land during and after the last Ice Age.
But there are lots of other smaller scale signs that tell a story too. I’m sure you’ve all seen things like these deer footprints below.
Their toes are pointed at the front, so you can tell which direction they were going. You can also tell that they were running. I think we’ll give you a chance to figure out how we know that – answer next week. OK we’ll give you a wee clue – the soil in the picture is firm not soft.
A classic sign to watch out for here at Dinnet is what’s left behind after different animals have been eating the seeds out of pine cones. This is often all that’s left after red squirrels have been having a feed – and sometimes these remains are scattered around if the squirrel has been up in a tree or in a neat pile it they have been sitting on the ground.
Other “eaters” are much tidier and I have always liked the way that wood mice feed. These wild cherry stones all have a neat round hole chewed out of them to get to the soft, nutritious centre.
One of my favourite wildlife signs has always been poo – I guess you can tell I’m a boy who has never really grown up! Not only can poo tell you who left it behind, but a careful examination can also tell you what it was eating. So like most detective work it can help to confirm what often misunderstood animals pine martens and foxes have really been eating. Yes they will sometimes eat red squirrels, but they will eat lots more other things too – rabbits, berries, insects, roadkill. And poo can vary throughout the year – in the autumn, some become almost black with the blueberries.
Of course, to be able to see these things you have to keep your eyes open. And if you keep the chatter down and the dog on a lead, you have a much better chance of seeing the wildlife too. This toad was sitting at the edge of the path and I was almost on top of it before I noticed it.
If you have your ears open too then you will hear the different calls of birds around you and perhaps the distant bark of a deer or fox, the honking of geese. Your nose will pick up the smell of rowan trees in flower and your whole body the cool, clammy sensation of being in the Vat. Nature reserves can be a joy (and a challenge) for all our senses. But the outdoors is not like modern media where everything is thrust under your nose with a voiceover to tell you what everything is. In the outdoors you have to do at least some of the work yourself – but you will enjoy it, so what are you waiting for?
Ewen Cameron, guest blogger.
All images by Ewen Cameron.