One of the big UK environmental controversies of 2013 was the badger cull in parts of England. But there was no fuss here in Orkney – we do not have badgers.
Orcadian wildlife is very different to what we experienced when we lived in England and many of our visitors, while delighted with what they see, are surprised to discover what is not here.
For new readers to this blog, Orkney is made up of about 70 islands situated off the north coast of Scotland – beyond Land’s End but before you get to the UK’s last outpost, Shetland. We are not in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland as some imagine.
I should also say that I am passionate about the natural world, and I work for the RSPB as a volunteer and occasional part-timer, but I am not an expert. So if you are an expert you might want to read a different blog to this one. And, for clarity, I do not write on behalf of the RSPB.
Orkney is rightly celebrated for its wildlife and visitors come here to see, amongst others, grey seals, harbour (or common) seals, puffins, great skuas, hen harriers and wide open scenery with no trees.
But what do we not have? As I said, no badgers. And no deer, or foxes. We don’t even have squirrels, grey or red.
Our biggest wild mammals on land are hedgehogs (a fairly recent introduction), rats (sorry), and various mice and voles. We also have some stoats, a very recent introduction, and because of the danger to Orkney’s ground-nesting birds they are trapped where possible.
Of these land mammals the most celebrated is the Orkney vole which, we are now told, originated in Belgium – though long before the land there was known as Belgium. These lovely little critters, found nowhere else in the UK, probably arrived with early farmers or traders more than 5,000 years ago.
If you move into the seas around Orkney there are some bigger, in fact, much bigger, mammals. As well as seals you might be lucky enough to see dolphins, porpoises, or, for the really lucky, whales – of which perhaps the most regularly seen are orcas, or killer whales.
When we lived in London we, of course, did not see whales. They were not common in Ealing.
But we regularly saw foxes, sometimes quite close by in the street as we staggered back from an evening in the pub and the Indian restaurant. Once I was woken in the early hours by a commotion outside – it was a group of fox cubs chasing a large empty plastic bottle down the street and under the parked cars.
One of the most familiar birds in England is the magpie. Despite the 21st century gloss that we wear, many people are still very superstitious of these birds. Folk also wrongly blame them for a decline in song birds. I always thought magpies stunning in appearance and very clever. I love them. But magpies are so rare in Orkney that if one is seen it is worthy of note. Now when we visit England it is exciting to see these sharp-suited black-and-white characters.
Another regular bird in Ealing, and gradually spreading out from south-east England, is the ring-necked parakeet. These Indian migrants have colonised large areas of London. My wife Kathie Touin and I loved to see them. In fact, when we were watching the Antiques Roadshow from Richmond Park on TV recently, Kathie realised the noises in the background were ring-necked parakeets.
Instead here in Orkney we regularly see, depending on the time of year, great skuas, hen harriers, lapwings, short-eared owls, hooded crows, curlew, eider ducks and fulmars, to name just a few. And there are many other beautiful, exciting species to be found if you have a little time and patience.
We have large numbers of greylag geese – in fact, Orkney now has so large a resident population of these birds that in the past two summers there has been a cull to reduce numbers because of the damage they can cause.
Our visitors are also surprised to discover there are trees in Orkney. We do not have large numbers of trees, certainly no forests, but there are some significant if small woods. I understand Orkney was once covered in trees but, once man had largely removed them, it was not easy for them to grow back.
In the small field we own next to our house we have a number of trees planted by the previous owners to which we have added more. Many are very small, the wind stops them growing quickly, and some varieties do better than others, but I guess we have perhaps 40 or 50 trees. I must count them.
Given good health I hope to see these trees grow to a reasonable size in my life-time but planting trees is very much a commitment to other people’s futures. I wonder if we can phrase our will in a way that will stop the field becoming a housing site, placed as it is between our house and a new one being built on the other side?
To find out more
RSPB Orkney Facebook –
RSPB: Birds by name –
BBC Radio 4 Tweet Of The Day: podcasts –
BBC Radio 4 Tweet Of The Day: Ring-necked parakeet –
Orkney vole ‘came from Belgium with farmers 5,000 years ago’ –
Kathie Touin blog on seal spotting –
Gloucestershire badger cull pilot fails to hit 70% target –