Trefoiled Again

Many of us visit Mull to enjoy its magnificent wildlife. When we’re frantically scanning the horizon with binoculars, or peering owlishly at the kelp from our car window, it’s easy to overlook the quiet beauty of plants.

Plants play it cool. They wouldn’t be seen dead talon-locking and tumbling out of the sky to win your admiration; as for bow riding and turning somersaults – well, that’s just not cricket.

To really get to know plants, you’ve got to make the first move. It’s a bit like going on a date: express an interest in what they are and how they live, and you stand to gain much more from the encounter.

The first step is learning their name (!) After this, you’ll start to “see them around” and notice where they hang out. Once you can pick a plant out from the crowd, you’ll find out who its friends are – so, which invertebrates pollinate it for example.

Mull’s most lovely plants are not necessarily the biggest; Common century, Germander speedwell and Eyebright are some of my own favourites.

If you can scrape your eyes off the sky, have a look for these jewels in our species-rich grasslands!

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

Species Rich: Thrift [pink] and Birds-Foot Trefoil [yellow] blooming on Laorin Point, Glengorm.

Thrift & Trefoil


Owl Get You…

I do not habitually wind-up Owls.

But late last night, I succumbed to a black and sinful temptation.

I often walk George at dusk, taking him out for a final chance to “commune with nature” before we all go to bed.

The light has been failing noticeably earlier: creatures of the night now find themselves sharing the forest paths with us, and this has largely been met with their disapproval.

I have never known darkness like it. Walking from our house to the white gates is like wading through treacle. The Rhododendrons menace the path, blocking out the sky’s faint bluish afterlight. Without a torch, it is physically impossible to see – to the extent where George is liable to run into me if I turn it off.

There is something quite exhilarating in this. The earthy smell of rank vegetation seems more complex and enticing. You can almost pick out the different layers and textures of the undergrowth by their scent.

With a breeze, tall conifers sway hypnotically, making eerie murmurs like distant whales in the forest.

It is not uncommon to feel a kiss of air on your cheek as bats flicker minutely through the darkness. Their stuttering echolocation patters lightly over your skin – more like a touch than a sound. They have no fear of man, and will dive lustily into a torch beam as insects are drawn to the light.

Those of you who follow Glengorm on Facebook will know that I recently rescued a Pipistrelle Bat from a puddle. This tiny creature was face down and hopelessly tangled in spider webs when I lifted it out. I thought it was already dead, but the warmth of my hands brought it round.

Bats are a protected species: unless it is an emergency [such as this instance, where it obviously would have died if left unassisted] you need a special licence to handle them. It is also worth noting that a very small number of British bats – Daubenton’s in particular – have been found carrying a virus similar to rabies. People who work professionally with bats are required to have a vaccination against the disease, and gloves should always be worn regardless.

The Bat Helpline is: 0845 1300228 – If you find a stricken animal, it is best to seek professional advice and let somebody know what you are doing.

Fortunately for this one, I used to work for a consultant bat ecologist  in Edinburgh [though I do not hold my own licence]. The bat was warmed and dried gently on a half filled, covered hot water bottle. That done, it was offered dog food from the end of an artists paintbrush. It was ravenously hungry, and snapped like a bulldog after the brush when I took it away to re-load. It showed absolutely no fear.

Once it felt a little stronger, it removed the spider webs that had been wrapped around its body. Its ears were stuck flat to its head with the strands of silk, and each pinged back up as the delicate claws brushed it away. It yawned, stretched and groomed contentedly. Following each feed, it stuffed itself back between the folds of its towel and the hot water bottle, until just its head and the tip of its wings were visible.

After a couple of hours [and an unsolicited guest appearance in front of Masterchef – they are fabulous at escaping] I took it back outside and popped it under a roof tile close to where I found it.

Pipistrelles are on average only around 4cm in body length, and weigh about 5.5 grams. Their wingspan is larger at about 20cm. I think it is absolutely incredible that a creature this size has been known to live to 16-years of age! Glengorm has an active maternity roost in the slate tiles above the Coffee Shop. If you listen closely, you can hear the bats chattering throughout the daytime.

I was musing over the bat rescue as I walked along the top road. Deep in thought, I first dismissed the faint tremulous bleating as that of a sheep. It was only as it started to move closer that I realised it was the call of a Tawny Owl.

File:Strix aluco 1 (Martin Mecnarowski).jpg

A Tawny Owl coming in to land. Picture Credit: Martin Mecnarowski 

Grinning like a school girl, I raised my cupped hands and blew.

A weak “phuuurrrrrrting” noise was the only result. Clearly, I had lost my touch. George stopped and looked at me with the air of one who has much to put up with.

Not deterred, I raised my hands again and blew with all the force I could muster.

A hoot of mighty proportions blasted out into the night, reverberating between the tree trunks like a sonic boom.

The forest sunk into shocked silence.

[It’s worth pointing out here that, given the time of day, I was in fact wearing my pijamas, dressing gown and wellies. One of my more “eccentric” looks.]

Softly, and closer now, “Ho-hoo-ro-ro-rooo”

Only the male Tawny Owl produces this eerie sound. Females have a sharper “ke-week” call, and this forms the first part of the infamous “Tu-whit Tu-woo” duet.

Delighted, I hooted again. How any bird could have been fooled by this I shall never know. I waited eagerly for my reply.

A brilliant photo of an owl in Lincolnshire. Picture Credit: Joe Pell 

In 1870, a Mr Charles Waterton found that 94% of male Tawny Owls reacted territorially within 30minutes of hearing a human hoot. The study was carried out in rural Cambridgeshire, so I can only imagine what kind of a reputation this man got for his trouble.

Owls do seem to attract intriguing characters, and another example that springs to mind is the Rev. Henry White – brother to the universally celebrated Selbourne Naturalist, Gilbert White.

There is a charming poem by Douglas Stewart, detailing the discovery by Henry that Tawny Owls hoot exclusively in the key of B-Flat. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, I will include it at the end of this post for your enjoyment. The thought of this gentleman stalking around the village of Fyfield at night with a set of pan pipes makes me feel slightly more secure about my own nocturnal wanderings…

I could see the slight black shape shifting between the upper branches of the larch trees. Its hooting became both more frequent and more pointed. Striking the occasional bum note, I responded in kind.

What the poor bird must have been thinking I can scarcely suppose: an enormous asthmatic-dyslexic owl was at large in his territory, and he felt compelled to run it down.

George, unable to amuse himself as effectively as his master, slumped miserably on the moss.

He becomes bored as soon as I stop walking, and no matter where we are, begins the irritating process of huffing, puffing and throwing himself around in protest.

Tawny Owls could never be accused of being fussy eaters. Prey items ranging from medium sized birds such as Mallard ducks [they are only about the size of a pigeon themselves, so this is impressive!] through to small mammals [including bats], reptiles, invertebrates and – most bizarrely- fish have been recorded.

They are pugnacious and highly territorial. Often, they will out muscle competing species and displace them – particularly in urban areas. They have been known to kill both Little Owls and Long-eared Owls during such interactions.

Further, they are extremely aggressive in defense of their young, and will relentlessly attack anything that approaches the nest cavity [so, if you were planning sneaking a look – don’t even think about it!]


A very sweet looking juvenile Tawny Owl. Many young birds die after being ejected from the parental territory; finding a territory of their own brings them into conflict with adults, and learning to hunt must be tough. Picture Credit: Bart Blom 

If anyone remembers the photographer Erik Hosking, he lost an eye to a Tawny Owl quite early in his rise to fame. Ironically, this accident served to boost his career rather than impact negatively on it. Licensed bird ringers follow specific safety protocols when working with Tawnies, including hard hats and visors for protection.

This chick is being ringed by Richard Barns of the BTO, with the Gibside National Trust conservation team. The pliers are used to fit an open or “split” metal ring to the bird’s leg. The circular slots in the pliers close the edges of this ring together around the leg, without risking injury by crushing. The ring is completely circular when fitted this way [not tear-drop shaped, as it would be if pinched together]. This helps to prevent it rubbing, and allows the ring free movement around the limb. Picture Credit: Phil Younger

As we exited the forest, the castle loomed ahead of us. The dark lends it a completely different character, and lit windows burn like eyes out of the night. A young stag grazed watchfully on the lawn – he has been hanging around for a few weeks, and is sometimes seen during the day. The rut begins soon, so the lush grass will do him good.

Behind us, the owl was still calling stridently in the forest. I gave a few halfhearted hoots to let it know that we were moving away.

Upon arriving home, I enthusiastically told Alex about the owl. Cupping my hands together, I blew with both vigour and pride.

There was noise like a mouse breaking wind, and a fair quantity of spit.

“That’s really good” he said.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward


Sing softly, Muse, the Reverend Henry White
Who floats through time as lightly as a feather
Yet left one solitary gleam of light
Because he was the Selbourne naturalists’s brother

And told him once how on warm summer eaves
When moonlight filled all Fyfield to the brim
And yearning owls were hooting to their loves
On church and barn and oak-trees leafy limb

He took a common half-a-crown pitch pipe
Such as the masters use for harpsichord
And through the village trod with silent step
Measuring the notes of those melodious birds

And found that each one sang, or rather hooted,
Precisely in the measure of B-Flat
And that is all that history has noted;
We know no more of Henry White but that.

So, softly, Muse in harmony and conformity
Pipe up for him and all such gentle souls
Thus in the world’s enormousness, enormity,
So interested in music and in owls;

For though we cannot claim his crumb of knowledge
Was worth much more than virtually nil
Nor hail him for vast enterprise or courage,
Yet in my mind I see him walking still

With eager ear beneath his clerical hat
Through Fyfield village sleeping dark and blind,
Oh surely as he piped his soft B-Flat
The most harmless, the most innocent of mankind.

Douglas Stewart


Thumb Image Credit: Joe Pell

Basking in Glory

Sunday afternoon, and conditions were appalling.

Doors blew open, windows jolted and George glared at me from under the table.

He is not fond of “using the facilities” during inclement weather. Mysteriously though, he overcame these precious tendencies once a chance to raid the Coffee Shop bins presented itself.

George was in mighty hot water when I discovered half a bread roll hanging guiltily from his mouth.

As far as the wildlife was concerned, it wasn’t much of a day. An occasional Raven swooshed over the velux – looking for all the world like it was being sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner. Smaller birds wobbled about on the bird table, reluctant to let go lest they be swept away too. They had adopted a bracing moonwalk gait, which was quite amusing to watch as they jockeyed for space near the buggy nibbles.

It was with some surprise that I watched Alex gather up his fishing gear and head out to Sorne Point on the quad. Usually, I’m all enthusiasm when it comes to fishing, but on this occasion I found myself strangely busy elsewhere…

Ten minutes later, he re-appeared dripping wet in the porch. A magnanimous smile was just parting my lips when he said:

“Basking Sharks”

The effect was immediate and electric. I threw down my computer, lunged for my camera, and bolted for the door.

Trees shuddered under the force of the wind; their upturned leaves silvery with moisture and clinging to the boughs like fish to a wreck.

Rain pelted my face and stung my eyes as we tore down to the cliffs. Long grasses squalled around the bike, echoing the mood of the distant sea.

We stopped, breathless, and watched.

The first fin slid out of the inky swell like an upturned knife through butter. An improbable distance away, a smaller more triangular fin also broke the surface. This was the tip of the tail.

My wellies skittered alarmingly on the wet rocks as we scrambled down to shore. The gusts were so strong, I was physically struggling to stand. Breakers battered the cliff-base, and each smoked like a bonfire as fine spray was blasted from its crest.

The thing that surprised me most about the sharks was their speed. The wind was blowing from the land to the sea, pushing them away from the coast. The waves were nothing short of enormous, and boats were conspicuous by their absence. Yet, they motored though the swell as if it was a trifling thing. Not even an inconvenience.

For those who live on Mull – or who visit during the summer – you might feel a bit sorry for me here. This is the first time I have ever seen a Basking Shark, and I’m sure there are people reading this who have been fortunate enough to see them under calm conditions, or even close-up from a boat.

When I saw the sharks, the weather was violent. The sea was a grasping, angry thing – roiling vengefully under a frowning sky.

It made them magnificent.

Imagination filled in the gaps: cavernous ribcage mouth, yawning like white bone from gloomy water. Clouded midnight eyes and dark, supple flanks. Bunched muscles at the base of the tail, powering a half-moon scythe of caudal fin. When the thin light struck the water at just the right angle, I could see the hulking shadow of the shark below the surface.

There were at least four individuals, but possibly more. One in particular was larger than the others, and its dorsal fin bowed under the weight of wind and water when it turned. The fact that we could see them at all given the severity of the weather bore testament to their colossal size.

Basking sharks are second only to the aptly named Whale Shark. They have been known to grow to lengths of over 11m and weigh in at 7 tonnes, though large animals like this are not often recorded now. The majority of sharks seen today do not exceed 9m. This lack of larger specimens is thought to result from hunting pressure. Basking Sharks enjoy full legal protection in the UK, but are sadly still vulnerable to the trade in shark fins elsewhere in the world.

However, shark fishing in Scotland was only outlawed as recently as 1994. Staggering.

The sharks were primarily [but not exclusively] hunted for their enormous liver, which can account for up to a quarter of their body weight. The liver is full of squaline-rich oil, and is thought to help the shark manage its buoyancy in the water column. The shark’s digestive tract extracts this oil from the plankton in their diet, though precisely how this is done remains unclear. A single liver can provide up to 400 gallons of fluid.

Shark oil commanded a high price up until the 1970’s because of its commercial uses as a fuel, an industrial lubricant and later as an ingredient in cosmetics, perfumes and silks. By the 1990’s the price had halved due to the availability of better synthetic substitutes. For all you Otter fans out there, our good friend Mr. Gavin Maxwell [he of “Ring of Bright Water” fame] was a Basking Shark fisherman in the Hebrides, so despite all his Mij this-and-that, he didn’t exactly have a spotless record.

Quite sobering to think that the cheap make-up I enthusiastically daubed on as a little girl probably contained essence of Basking Shark. Worse still to imagine them having their livers cut out at sea, their remains cast adrift, as I flounced about in a lurid pair of pink star-shaped sunglasses and tie-dye frock [timeless look].

To my untrained eye, the sharks appeared to be feeding for the most part. However, there were fairly frequent interactions. At times, two sharks would either swim parallel to one another, or would appear to follow in procession. Often, a period of interaction would last a couple of minutes and be followed by both animals submerging for a short time.

The speed with which they moved seemed to vary: individuals cruising at the surface maintained a steady – but fairly quick – course up and down past Sorne Point. When two sharks were interacting, they seemed first to slow, and then either keep a steady bearing together or circle excitedly. This behaviour does seem more like courtship, but it was difficult to gauge just how close to one another the animals actually were [apparently, courtship is usually done at very close quarters].

For more information about the amazing basking shark tagging project see:

I feel extremely fortunate to have seen Mull’s Basking Sharks in all their stormy glory. They looked fantastic out there in the turbid water – just like sharks should be.

The sight of those fins cruising through the splintering waves with such effortless grace is something that I won’t forget.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

Over the Sound of Mull

To compliment Steph’s fantastic write up, here’s some behind the scenes shots of what the humans were up to during the our trip to Sanna! Many thanks to Tom and the team for making this such a great day.

Heading out from Tobermory we arrived at Sanna Bay for an afternoon on the beach. There were 40 of us on board and this stretch of sand seemed the perfect size for our party.
We threw down the anchor and the boarding parties were shuttled in to shore.

Heading in to shore

Some made their own way in…

And once on shore each person instinctively selected their activity.
Teenage frisbee
Junior dam building
And Sumo Wrestling for the adults.

Sea Life Surveys do trips daily for Whale watching and charter cruises from Tobermory.