Green travel to green places

In search of climate and wildlife stories…by bike

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.