Green travel to green places

In search of climate and wildlife stories…by bike

A rant about having to leave my bike in Oban — August 29, 2012

A rant about having to leave my bike in Oban

In my blog post Bikes Trains and Automatons on the 18th I explained the trials and tribulations of booking a bike onto a train. Remember I said that I would take the chance of getting my bike on the train from Oban that they said had no bike space reservations left? Well it did come true, there were 6 bikes booked onto the train and, no I wasn’t allowed to take it apart and put it on as luggage and ‘if something went wrong I would be in for it’, said the conductor. So I had to leave my bike locked up in Oban till Monday when I could go back to pick it up. Poor thing – left alone in the rain.

I accept my own stupidity and complacency but what is annoying is 1) that the bike spaces were the only full thing on that train. There were plenty of empty seats and spare luggage space – why couldn’t I have slotted it in somewhere, even if I had to stand guard over it;  2) On my return journey with my bike on Monday there were 12 bike spaces on the train (so 6 on the last rain on a Fri evening in summer but 12 on a mid afternoon train on a Monday!);  3) I asked if I could book my bike onto the train in Dumfries yesterday and the ticket guy said, ‘No, it’s first come first served’! How’s someone to know what to do?

If we are to get people out of their cars and onto trains we must have a better system for bikes and more bike spaces – especially on busy routes in summer. Otherwise it will just put people off. Train companies only seem to organise their businesses around commuters and getting them to work, rather than holidaymakers or leisure users. Rant over!

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A day trip along the Solway Firth — August 28, 2012

A day trip along the Solway Firth

Fancy a day trip to the Solway Firth to see some birds? Why not go to the RSPB’s Mersehead reserve… but not at the end of August. I went today and didn’t see much, save for, what could have been, a female wheatear, being battered by the wind. I was well and truly battered by the wind as I wandered along the beach and on my cycle to the reserve. So spotting birds and cycling were both hard work. There were lovely views though, across the sand flats and the grassland and saltmarsh. Views were great along the ride too, especially across the Solway on the way back and a following wind.

The best times to visit are either in the spring when there are loads of bums on nests, especially waders or in winter. Both Mersehead and Kirkconnell Merse RSPB reserve on the River Nith, are important sites for barnacle geese from Svalbard which spend the winter there as well as good numbers of other swans, geese and ducks.

 I got there by train from Glasgow to Dumfries and then it’s a gently undulating ride along the A710 Solway coast road. The ride is about 17 miles each way to Mersehead but you could make a shorter ride to Kirkconnell Flow National Nature Reserve and Kirkconnell Merse, or just stop off there on route to Mersehead. Definitely a good day out no matter how far down the road you get.

Problems, problems — August 26, 2012

Problems, problems

My modem at home has died so – haven’t been able to update my blog. I need to see if an old one will still work but till then his is a short post written on the tiny keyboard of a Blackberry.

Also, my plans for next week have to change . I had to leave my bike locked up in Oban as te train was full of bikes. Actually there was loads of space but not in the official bike spaces. Arrggghhh. So tomorrow I have to go back for it and will delay my trip to Wood of Cree. 

 

Learning to slow down and enjoy nature — August 25, 2012

Learning to slow down and enjoy nature

Someone accused me of not being very low carbon because I was planing to get the train and ferry to Coll. I laughed. True, I could cycle all the way to the sea and then follow the example of some people from Coll who on the 8th August swam from the Ardnamurchan peninsula to Coll (I heard later that they did the swim in relays so no-one actually swam all the way). Finally I could walk to the RSPB reserve, so technically it is possible but it would be one hell of a mixed up crazy triathlon. It’s true that the ferry is not exactly low carbon. You would have to do the sums, but if you were on a half-full ferry in winter it might be better for your carbon footprint to fly in a full plane. But if you did fly you would miss the sight of porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks, gannets diving into the sea, and more. I prefer the slow route and with Calmac ferries investing in some electric powered ferries this year, all the better.

Both Coll and Tiree are amazing for watching wildlife but Coll is wilder, quieter and with less people and houses – more romantic perhaps. There is more moorland and even a few trees. Tiree seems busier, flatter and greener, with sandy beaches all around the island. Getting to the reserve on Coll was fine by bike. I stayed in Arinagour the village on the island close to where the ferry offloads. It’s about 10 miles from there to the reserve, a bit up and down but not too arduous. Anyway the views are worth it and being on a bike you feel in the countryside and closer to nature. I had my own bike but you can hire them or even stick your thumb out and hope for a kind passer by – quite likely on Coll.

Also on a bike you can pootle along and stop when and where you like along the single-track roads. I’ll admit I’m not very good at this slow cycling philosophy – I like the ride too much. But I’m learning to slow down. I was inspired by two people I met who took most of the day to cycle their hired bikes around Coll, they saw so much wildlife. A family I met on their bikes said they loved Tiree because they could spend the days, slowly cycling from beach to beach. So on Tiree I put my mind to a slow ride to where I was staying for the night and was rewarded with a view of a rare female hen harrier hunting over the heather. With so much nature all around why not take some time to just enjoy it.

Machair under threat — August 24, 2012

Machair under threat

On the ferry crossing from Coll to Tiree I saw basking sharks and a pod of dolphins – amazing. Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the ocean, second only to the whale shark. They are slow moving filter feeders, opening their huge mouths to take in gallons of water and filter out the nutritious tiny plankton. I saw them some way off so just the dark dorsal fin above the water – but it was my first ever sighting. John Bowler, my RSPB colleague on Tiree, said he counted 250 off the west cost of the island on one occasion this year and that it has been a good year for them because the sea has stayed relatively cool through the summer and this has been good for plankton.

John showed me ‘The Reef’, a large flat Machair plain to the east and south of the airport, almost bisecting the island, land that he looks after and manages. It’s a sensitive spot so not a reserve that the RSPB advertises. In April and May there are large numbers of lapwing nesting and in the winter rain flood the lowest point before draining to the sea. Whooper swans, geese and other water birds use this area. Whooper swans migrate to Tiree from Greenland and stay for the winter but in the past 10-15 years their arrival date has got later and later. They used to arrive in September or October but nowadays they delay until November because Greenland is getting warmer.

Between The Reef and the sea is a stretch of sand dunes. John showed me that these are eroding and I could easily see the steep seaward edge in many places. This might be due to the storms which seem to come in a more southerly direction these days. This winter was the wettest ever winter and very windy, often force 8, 9 and 10. The storms have battered the beachhead in places on the island and roads have to be repaired after each. At The Reef the sand isn’t blowing inland to create new dunes but rather washing away at a rate of approximately half a metre per year and in some places the dunes are now very low and narrow. If the sea did wash through the dunes it is hard to say how long any inundation might last or how nature would respond and adapt. Some Machair would be lost as the saltwater wouldn’t be favourable to it, instead saltmarsh might take hold permanently.

Machair is under threat throughout the Hebrides because of climate change causing sea level rise and extreme weather. Machair is unique, delicate and vulnerable, and we can’t create lots more in other places in Scotland. All we can do is manage the Machair that we have so that it is in the best condition possible for the wildlife that depends on it and for us to enjoy. The best thing to avoistop the erosion of Machair is to cut our carbon emissions and put a halt to climate change as soon as we can.

Watching for signs of climate change on Coll — August 22, 2012

Watching for signs of climate change on Coll

Imagine that Coll is shaped like a fish (stay with me on this), a fish swimming north east. The RSPB reserve is at the end of the body and the thin part before the tail starts. Got the picture? The land owned by the RSPB includes a variety of habitats; moorland, farmed fields, wet grassland, sand dunes and Machair. Some of it is managed by the RSPB staff and some is under tenancy agreements with farmers.

Today was my first ever experience of Machair, a habitat unique to Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland you find it on the Uists, Islay, Colonsay, Tiree and Coll, but as I found out it is different on each island, is farmed in different ways and the habitat has never been properly defined. Its character comes from the influence of shell sand which builds up into huge dunes and also gets blown onto other land making the unique flower-rich grassland which is Machair. In some places, like the Uists, the low lying Machair is at risk from erosion because of sea-level rise but seemingly not yet on Coll. This year, RSPB staff started taking photos of the Machair and dunes from fixed points and will retake photos from exacly the smae point in a few years time to see if the Machair and dunes are eroding.

The changing climate may be having other impacts, or it might just be the weather. April was the driest April ever experienced on Coll and thanks to the jet stream which temporarily sank southwards this year they have had a fantastic summer – sorry if you are reading this in England. The Machair plain 2 years ago had no flowers because the light sandy soils were too dry – it was nearly too dry again this year. Conversely, in the past 3-4 years increased rainfall in winter has meant that the land stays wet and means that the reserve staff can’t use machinery on it in March like they used to. Wetter winters, drier summers and unpredictable extremes of weather are all likely to be the way the climate changes in Scotland.

On Coll it’s impossible to say if climate change is having an impact now on the natural environment because there are no clear signs and no patterns emerging, but we are watching and waiting.

Sorry no pictures – I forgot to bring the lead which links the camera to the computer. Doh! I’ll post some on the blog at the weekend.

Outward to Coll — August 21, 2012

Outward to Coll

When I was 11 my family went on a holiday to Mull. I remember we took the short ferry journey across from the Morven peninsula to Fishnish Bay. The thing I remember most clearly was looking down into the inky black water and seeing thousands of huge bulbous jellyfish, the ferry cutting it’s way cutting through them.   My ferry to Coll today passed through the same waters of the Sound of Mull, but no jellyfish this time. A solitary porpoise was the highlight, and I nearly missed that save for a friendly passenger nudging me in the back to show me. No white tailed eagles circling over Mull, no exciting seabirds (none that I could identify). It was windy up on the observation deck and not sunbathing weather so I did retreat to the lower decks before we reached Tobermory. So I didn’t see much wildlife today but I’m sure I will not be short of wonderful things to see this week on Coll and Tiree.

Corncrake
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

I’m looking forward to visiting the RSPB reserve tomorrow and finding out what impacts climate change is having out here on the islands. And perhaps, if I am very lucky, I might see a secretive corncrake.

 

Bikes, trains and automatons — August 18, 2012

Bikes, trains and automatons

The dictionary defines an automaton as ‘a person acting in a mechanical way’. I’ve experienced a couple of automatons when trying to book my bike onto the train this week – a couple of odd experiences.

I don’t usually book my bike on the train but as it is holiday season I thought it best to do so for my journeys next week. At Glasgow Central I went up to the window and asked if I could book my bike onto the train to Oban and back. I got mechanical monosyllables and long silences while the guy looked constantly at his screen and shook his head. I wondered if he had actually forgotten about me. After a few minutes and a verbal nudge from me, it seemed he couldn’t find any availability from Oban to Glasgow. I tried the Scotrail website. Some information but nothing on how to make a bike space reservation. I tried by phone. The automated voice didn’t give an option for booking a bike onto the train so I chose a random number. A helpful woman helped me. Very helpful – probably because I had dialled the number for booking ‘assisted travel’. Her approach was to constantly talk and mechanically describe her every action to me as she looked up availability, more for her benefit than mine.

The good news is that my bike booked onto the train to Oban next week for my trip to Coll and Tiree. The bad news is zero availability on the train back from Oban. So I’ll just have to take the risk and a full set of spanners so in the event that there is a whole cycling club booked on I can take my bike to bits and get it on the train as luggage. Wish me luck.

Scotrail could do better and make cycle space reservation available on line at the same time as booking a ticket. It could also create more spaces for bikes on trains – that might inspire more people to get out and enjoy nature and leave the car at home.

My bike, on the train – unreserved
Back to the future — August 13, 2012

Back to the future

If only I could strap a ‘flux capacitor’ to my bike I could get to the future and see what climate change will look like. Alas, Marty McFly’s time travel in ‘Back to the Future’ is just fiction and anyway, I could never reach 88mph to make it work! I will have to be content with my human powered bike and visits to RSPB reserves to see what climate impacts we are already experiencing or that we predict will be with us in the future.

So next week I am pedalling back to the future – on my sabbatical, in search of climate and wildlife stories…by bike. I’m off to Coll and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides to experience island life and nature. To get there its Oban by train and then the ferry that links the islands with the mainland. The bike will get me around the islands for the 2 days.

Image
Snipe – on the Isle of Tiree                                         Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)

Depending on internet connections and mobile connection I will be blogging and tweeting as I go along. Keep an eye on the blog and twitter @JimDensham