It must be 2021 by now…

The calendar suggests we’ve already ticked off a sizeable chunk of the first quarter. Somehow that doesn’t feel right; I’m more inclined to think that 2020 consisted of 14 months and only now can we begin the process of wishing each other ‘Happy new year’.

Pied flycatcher (male)

A few days back, March 13th, we started a walk from somewhere other than our own front gate for the first time in around four months. Not that we travelled far, or that much had changed: we found the Wyre Forest to be every bit as muddy as we’d left it back in November. But, as Sam Cooke so memorably sang, a change is gonna come and indeed is already under way: the fieldfares and redwings have gathered into their groups and departed, mostly north and east, although a few stragglers may remain for a while longer; today (17th) the first returning osprey has been recorded  in Rutland; soon the flycatchers and redstarts will reach the end of end their unfathomable annual pilgrimages and nest in this very forest.

The Dowles Brook, Wyre Forest

This is a good place to come to appreciate the distinction between a genuine forest and a sizeable expanse of woodland. A few miles from the centre of Kidderminster, about as much again from the last suburban fringes of the West Midlands, this is a properly wild and thankfully under-appreciated jewel. I’m half of a mind to keep it to myself.

Wren, Wyre Forest

The forest is managed in parts, but there are many other places where the managing is done by nature: trees lie where they fall, some living on for a while, others straight away beginning the slow cycle of decomposition and reclamation by nature; providing food, shelter and habitat just as they did when they were upright. Come often enough, for long enough, and you will see the fallen trunk which once acted as an impromptu bench slowly reducing to fragments, then splinters, sawdust, a fading colouration of residue, until finally the last traces are lost to the human eye.

These next few months will see the forest at its best: new growth all the way from ground to canopy; the feeding and fledging of woodland birds, some of them on the tightest of schedules before that long southward migration rolls around. Getting the timing wrong isn’t really an option.

Within the confines of the forest proper there are rarities to be found, some of them varieties sufficiently scarce as to appear on red lists: adders, lesser spotted woodpeckers, goshawks; all of which we have seen, none of them very often and mostly not for long. The adder population is having a particularly difficult time, as indeed is the case in many places locally. Grey squirrels on the other hand appear to be flourishing, although a recovering buzzard population is helping a little with that particular pest; more goshawks, or recolonisation by pine marten, would help to tip the balance of that equation further in the right direction.

Apparently a pine marten recovery isn’t beyond the realms of possibility; there are polecats here already, doing their bit during the hours of darkness but apparently, while they’re a formidable ground predator, they just don’t climb like a marten.

To close, as the album recently celebrated its 50th birthday, what could be more appropriate…

Tapestry

Addendum: There is a native species which flourishes almost everywhere within the forest: it is the wood ant, and they are awake. At least one of them has left its visiting card in a couple of places just above my ankle bone.

The last words on 2020…

Once this is done I will embrace 2021, or more likely eye it suspiciously from an appropriate distance while wearing a mask. These were the last full days of our hastily arranged two weeks in the highlands back in July/August.

In the context of 2020 that all too brief interlude feels, in retrospect, like a period of parole. An incongruous piece of normality shoehorned into a year which was, for the most part, anything but normal. Were it not for the pictures I might take some convincing that these weren’t just recollections from a dream.

Penultimate: (Findhorn)

The penultimate day involved a return to the atmospheric valley of the Findhorn for an out and back walk along the good trails of the Coignafearn estate. The valley has a surprisingly open feel considering that it cuts deep into the heart of the Monadhliath, which often give the impression of being unremittingly tightly packed when viewed from certain aspects. The valley also has a reputation as something of a raptor hotspot and yet remains relatively undisturbed by visitors – possibly a consequence of access being via a long, slow drive along a tight road with intermittent passing places.

The estate track passes close by a number of buildings, many of them seemingly little used but by no means derelict. Aside from the very occasional estate vehicle working across one of the tops there was little sign of occupancy or human activity throughout the day

Despite there being no forecast for rain, the sky during the outward part of the walk – apart from a few brief glimpses of the blue beyond –  remained very much ‘Monadhliath’ in nature. The rain thankfully did stay away, but any deviation from the main track indicated that there had been plenty of it in recent days.

Immobile on its rock perch, this small bird – which we thought to be a juvenile Wheatear just transitioning into adult plumage – was either deep in concentration, indifferent to our presence, or possibly aware of some threat against which the best defence was to stay absolutely motionless…   

By the time we’d turned to retrace our steps the cloud cover was thinning out appreciably and shades of grey gradually gave way to a somewhat more varied palette. The most noticeable absence from both the valley floor and the hillsides is anything in the way of tree cover; something not unique to this valley or these hills.

We remembered these goats, which may or may not be feral, being in almost the same spot on a previous visit. There’s fresh water and plenty for a ruminant to sink its teeth into; although there don’t seem to be enough of them to hold completely accountable for the absence of trees. We did however find a discarded antler from a red deer stag and, without wishing to jump to conclusions, there’s probably a connection to be made.

We were most of the way back to the parking spot when this merlin decided to give us a display of ‘flying just for the fun of it’. Almost too quick in level flight to be captured by the camera, these raptors (there were a pair) seemed to have chosen a territory adjacent to some crags occupied by peregrines, which might seem unusual bordering on the outright reckless. However we’ve seen similar instances of the two varieties of falcon living cheek by jowl in the Shropshire hills.

And at least we might have found the explanation for the immobilised wheatear from the earlier picture…

Final full day (Einich)

Like it or not, a sense of winding down inevitably sets in as the time for heading back south closes in. More often than not we’ll choose a familiar outing – one where the pace of the day just takes care of itself.

A relatively late start meant that we were just at the point where the views of Sgoran Dubh Mor, Sgor Gaioth and the western corries of Braeriach had begun to dominate the view south when it was time for a lunch stop. On what was a warm, cloudy day with scarcely a breeze, there was the most unexpected of discoveries – a sheltered spot, close to the water and absolutely midge-free. We were able to enjoy both the views and refreshments in leisurely comfort.

I can offer no explanation: a few years back Glen Einich was the scene of the most sustained and vindictive midge attack we’ve ever been subjected to. The vagaries of the natural world…

A roughly out and back route meant passing Lochan Deo twice. The second of these two photographs was probably taken on the return leg, by which time the mood would undoubtedly have degenerated somewhat. We were most likely walking in subdued silence.

And now, 2021…

Missing pictures tell a story

As a precursor to importing them into Adobe Lightroom I made a decision – long overdue – to properly organise my photographs into a logical structure. Yes, and…? It’s hardly a remarkable revelation…

No, but what is remarkable is that I actually stuck to the task and saw it through to the end. Including the import, from which I noticed something – how few photographs we’d taken during 2020.

Guided by advice from a few people who know more than I do about organising photos I chose a very simple folder structure: main folder/sub-folders by year/further sub-folders within each year. The latter group representing various locations or events – Highlands, Elan Valley, Wyre Forest, SVR gala days, and so on…

Lightroom took care of the import flawlessly, although it could maybe do with a feature whereby an on-screen alert pops up and asks ‘Do you really need to keep all of these? Quite a lot of them are pretty crap!’. Maybe something to consider for the next update.

Looking back over the years from 2016 to 2019 there were, on average, eight sub-folders within each year; in 2020 just the one. Not that we were trapped indoors, more a reflection of the inevitable repetition during the periods of lockdown.

Not massively significant, perhaps. Just another permanent reminder that 2020 was a year like no other.

One that did get taken – Glen Einich, 5 August, 2020

2020 Hindsight

Whatever the ultimate legacy from this past twelve months it should at the very least have been a salutary lesson for us as a species; a bonfire of the vanities if you like. Our supposedly robust first world technology and infrastructure have been stripped bare by a microscopic pathogen; one which effortlessly and undetected crosses international borders. We can’t confiscate its passport, cancel its credit rating, track it on CCTV, block its mobile phone reception. Thankfully we’re also denied the possibility of trying to ‘take it out’ with anything explosive, because you just know there are people out there who might be tempted…

I’ve never really subscribed to Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – just a bit too mystical for my tastes; a bit like believing in ‘The force’ – but 2020 has exposed the extent to which even the most supposedly advanced societies can, within the space of a few misplaced steps, turn into a house of cards. And Lovelock might turn out to be right and the planet will find a way to rid itself of a species simply too destructive to be accommodated. Or maybe we’ll just do it to ourselves. Much of evolution has been driven by exception and random chance.

For all that, happy 2021 to any who pass this way; may we live in uninteresting times (just for a while at least – we all need a breather).

In hope of better times to come…

Renaming the blog…

This has been on the cards for a while…

The name The Oss Road was chosen because it is an expression which has its roots, like my own, in the Black Country. The ‘About’ page featured this explanation:

“What is the Oss Road? Just the road, the street, the lane outside your door. Or someone else’s. It’s an old blackcountry expression, deriving from the fact that horses are known locally as ‘osses. I can remember when it was still not unknown for milk carts, coal trucks and brewers’ drays to be horse-drawn”

Problem is that there are a number of other blogs – one or two of which may pre-date mine – featuring those same three words in their title and all of them appearing to have blackcountry origins. So this change is intended to eliminate any confusion arising.

The new title? Well, I’d been struggling a bit with that until I happened to be in the room when my son was watching an episode of The Mandalorian. The question mark is my own, and intended to signify the uncertainty which can never be entirely eliminated.

The blog URL has now been changed to: justafewmoresteps.wordpress.com This should at least ensure that anyone looking for the history of chain and nail making in Cradley Heath, or the Stourbridge crystal glass industry will avoid the puzzlement of finding themselves looking at an item about footpath erosion in Glen Feshie or pied flycatchers along the Elan Valley Trail.

Ah, well… onwards and downwards.

 

 

Moray

I find it easy to become distracted by… well, by all sorts of strange things. A few years back, as we stood on Kessock Bridge, I was pointing out Caledonian Stadium at the bottom of the hill. Nobody appeared to be interested, which isn’t in itself unusual. “Look, down there on the left, it’s Caley Thistle’s ground…” “Oh, right; we were watching the dolphins…”

Okay, the reasoning was sound: the dolphins could disappear at a moment’s notice; the football ground would wait. Such are the potential pitfalls of distraction; I hadn’t noticed the dolphins. This was like a hand of spotters poker – I’ll see your football stadium and raise you a pod of dolphins; I folded and looked over the parapet. Later in the day, from Fort George, we saw more of them; or possibly we saw the same ones again, it doesn’t matter.

We also saw Chanonry Point across the strait and resolved to add it to our ever growing list of places to visit. A resolution which has been honoured on a couple of occasions now, including back in August. Crowds hardly applies to Chanonry Point but, such as they are, they tend to congregate around the lighthouse, where there are benches, tables and a slightly elevated viewing area. There’s no need to travel far to find a quiet spot.

As with just about all wildlife, dolphins are hit and miss in terms of their appearances; other stuff will invariably show up while you’re waiting. We wouldn’t usually be looking for kite around the coast but there is a decent population on the black isle, albeit one whose development is consistently hampered by persecution, frequently by poisoning with substances long designated as illegal.

Looking across the mouth of the Moray Firth in the direction of Fort George and beyond to the hazy outline of a north sea platform away in the distance. A cormorant – one of many seen on the day – skims low over the sea.

There were common terns around in small numbers (mostly in pairs) and the occasional curlew. But, as the morning wore on, as yet no dolphins. Then, with our allotted car park time ticking down to zero, they did at last put in an appearance. A long way out – too far for any meaningful photograph, but clearly visible through the scope, which I was just about to dismantle – a pair of them, playing around a fixed buoy, slowly moving further out to sea but still just in view when it was time for us to leave.

We cut across the Black Isle to take a look at the RSPB’s Udale Bay reserve – an interesting mix of industrial, post industrial (decommissioned) and populous wetland habitat. The hide was closed for understandable reasons, although the view from the roadside is just as good, and anyway most visitors would probably choose to move around a bit.

Udale is a known haven for geese and other wetland/saltmarsh varieties. Canada geese, which seem able to thrive the length and breadth of the UK, were probably the most numerous, but we also spotted Greylag and Pink Footed geese – neither of which we are used to seeing in big numbers. There were also oystercatchers (lots), curlew (not so many), a group of unidentifiable small waders, just beyond the range of even the binoculars, and a large flock of the hooded crows which we only ever get to see in the north of Scotland.

This might not be the prettiest stretch of the Black Isle coastline, but it is an uncomplicated place for a stop-off if you’re ever in the neighbourhood. Just pull into the lay-by, get the bins out, maybe make a coffee… Below is a shot of The Cromarty Bridge, which takes the A9 across The Cromarty Firth. Probably in common with a lot of people I was familiar with the name ‘Cromarty’ long before I ever knew where it was. One day I’ll take the trouble to find out where Forties and German Bight are.

Musing…

I’ve been doing some of late; musing, that is…

About all sorts of random stuff; the kind of things that lead to those imaginary conversations where you eventually (and sometimes quickly) put yourself into a foul mood and then wonder where can be the sense in that.

Shooting estates, for instance; there’s a subject that’s guaranteed to get me scouring Ebay for a crocheted cat, just so I have something to kick. Shooting estates and the sheer, irrational, stupidity of what goes on – what is allowed to go on – mostly with apparent impunity.

Anyone who has ever had a bird table or feeders in their garden will probably also be acquainted with the fly-through of their local sparrowhawk(s). And while some might find it a little disturbing most of us recognise that it’s part of the deal. The raptor is a component in the natural equation.

So, what is it exactly that certain elements within the ‘sporting’ fraternity seem to be finding so difficult? Create a concentration of prey species within a relatively restricted area – songbirds in a suburban garden, red grouse on a stretch of open moorland – and you will inevitably attract the attention of predators. For all its simplicity, the message seems to be a long time in getting through.

The law, as it stands – the outlawing of many of the traps widely used on upland estates, the banning of carbofuran and the like, the classification of raptors as protected species – is a decent reflection of our values as a society. It is, in its framing and scope, good law; but not yet, sadly, in its observance and enforcement.

Patience is wearing thin: an occasional acquaintance, who by no means could be described as a firebrand, said to us recently “Time’s come to start shutting ’em down. Killing and conservation don’t mix, mate – never have, never will…”

I’m not, by nature, drawn to the idea of banning activities of which I don’t happen to approve, but tolerance is not inexhaustible. And tolerance and intransigence don’t mix well – never have, never will.

With no goal in mind…

2020 being the year it has been, this year’s trip to the highlands was never going to be about big hill days: a booking arranged in October of 2019 was only possible to finally confirm during the first week of July. We had a number of opportunities to cancel – the owners of the cottage offered a full and unconditional refund of the deposit, and we were appreciative of that – but if there was even the slightest chance of making the trip we were resolved to hold on to that possibility. The log-jam finally broke just three weeks before we were due to travel and we couldn’t wait to settle the balance and begin the preparations. But observing the restrictions throughout spring and early summer meant that our fitness would carry us only so far, and certainly only so high.

That said, wonderful as being on the hills might be, looking at them from the valleys is hardly a terrible substitute. This post is mainly about doing just that: wandering the trails, taking in the views of places we’d climbed to in the past (and hopefully will again), others as yet unvisited. There are few certainties in life, but one is that we’ll never get round to all of them. And it’s always worth remembering to focus on things happening a bit closer to the path…

The camouflage skills of the treecreeper are remarkable. Often, unless one moves to the edge of a branch and displays its white underparts, it would be easy to overlook. They’re not especially rare – many tracts of woodland have a population – but for every one you spot you could easily walk past twenty without ever noticing.

The interaction between land and sky is always interesting to observe; especially so in mountainous areas. On this particular day the cloud base was fairly static, barely moving and mostly at above 4,000 feet; occasional wisps – some of them substantial – detached themselves and drifted down towards the summits. Meall a’ Bhuachaille and Creagan Gorm – seen below from the open moorland near to Whitewell – were only ever briefly skimmed by the odd remnant; some of the higher tops would intermittently disappear completely and then slowly emerge again.

Walking with no particular plan, pleasantly distracted by the wildlife, we eventually climbed out into the northern end of the Lairig Ghru and decided to cut past Rothiemurchus Lodge and improvise a return route. But not before we’d found one of our old favourite snack stops – just where the forest is giving way to the open hillside – and taken a break. Turned out we weren’t the only ones enjoying some refreshment….

The lodge buildings appeared deserted; a couple of men with a flatbed working their way through filling the worst of the potholes were the only people we saw until we were approaching Loch Morlich. By then the clouds were beginning to roll across the tops and down into the valleys…

 We started the day with no specific objective, made up a route on the hoof and added bits as we went along. As is often the case with such days we eventually had to have the “better think about heading back, we’ve run out of food” conversation. Then it always seems a bit farther than you expect…

Two exceptional talents…

Nethy

Other rivers, other watercourses are always available; just one of the many delights of the highlands. One of the Milton Burns (there seem to be a number with that name – this is the one that exits the northern end of Loch An Eilein) runs just beyond the single track road outside the cottage. Even at dead of night it was possible to catch sight of the moonlit reflection through a screen of hawthorn. Like the Feshie on the previous day, it rose quickly, subsided slowly, without ever posing a threat.

The Nethy seemed subdued by comparison; sufficiently benign for this young dipper to slip into and out of the water without much difficulty, albeit not quite able to emulate the poise, or success rate, of an adult bird gorging itself on larvae just downstream.

The Dorbach burn – pictured here near to Lettoch – was equally quiet and slow, which seemed to suit the damselflies hovering over the surface. Probably they were also comforted by the tree cover on both sides of the water offering some protection from swallows, of which there were many on the wing.

This indistinct brown shape, which we at first took to be a some windblown vegetation, turned out to be a brown hare, flattened against the ground, inconspicuous without binoculars or a longish lens. Clicking the image makes it a little easier to see…

A couple of views of the northern Cairngorms, taken from slightly further away than the ones we’re most used to seeing and looking roughly south across the eastern edge of the forest of Abernethy. The present edge, that is, not the historic one. Lurcher’s crag, Cairn Lochan and a distant Ben Macdui (in low cloud) and – across the Lairig Ghru – the long ridge up onto Sron na Lairige and eventually Braeriach.

Then, looking slightly to the east, the Bynacks, Strath Nethy, the east face of Cairn Gorm and, further distant… well, I’m afraid I don’t know, but it might be Beinn Mheadhoin. That’s an area as yet an unexplored for us; so many mountains, so little time…

That said, finding that on this day we did have a little more time available, an improvised change to the planned route added a bit of distance and took us back into the woods. The smaller birds had been active throughout the day, possibly raising their second broods of the year. This blue tit posed nicely against a backdrop of diffused sunlight…

We were almost back at the outskirts of Nethybridge when we spotted this pair of bullfinches taking advantage of a generously placed nut feeder. They looked up for a fight…

This is as good a way as any to wind up a post… Norah Jones

Feshie

You might not get this impression from the photographs but this was actually a very pleasant day in terms of the weather. We decided that, in the aftermath of the previous day’s unremitting rain, the rivers would likely be in spate. We decided to take a look at the Feshie, confident that the substantial footbridge just south of Achlean (sometimes known as ‘the pony bridge’) would still be standing and wouldn’t have surrendered – as a number of others have down the years – to the combined assaults from torrent and erosion,

Starting from the car park just before Achlean means a short stint of tarmac and until quite recently you stepped straight from the road end and onto a rough track maintained only by the passage of feet…

Things have changed over the last couple of years and there’s now a transitional stage: these days the tarmac road feeds into an arrangement of engineered paths and infrastructure; there are masts (mobile networks, presumably), substantial fencing and gates. The spur for Carn Ban Mor and Sgor Gaioth is now unmissable, which wasn’t always so, and way-marked by a boulder…

First time (2019) I found it all a bit intrusive and overdone. A year on and some of the pristine edges already seemed to be softening a little…

The bridge was intact, as we’d hoped it would be, and the morning river was lively but nothing more than that. The afternoon version which we re-crossed later in the day had already risen appreciably and a couple of burns which we’d simply stepped across on the way out needed a spot of boulder hopping to negotiate on the return.

Crossing to the western side of the Feshie means a bit more tarmac for a while, but on a road so lightly used that it’s never an issue. Eventually the tarmac gives way to a gravelly vehicle track – again with little or no vehicular traffic. Looking across to the east bank of the river gives a clear view of the continuing erosion at the confluence of the Allt Garbhlach and the Feshie. There seems to have been a notable acceleration in recent years, unfortunately resulting in the loss of more trees whenever there is a landslip.

Walking the path to the west of the river probably gives the most expansive views for most of the way, albeit at the expense of missing out on some of the interesting aspects of the east bank – things like the refurbished Ruighe-aiteachain bothy with its adjacent chimney, for example. Unfortunately there was no possibility of switching sides for the return walk – something presently only possible during extended spells of dry weather.

Not that out and back by the same route is in any way a disappointment – the views in both directions are outstanding.

Finally, we probably all have those moments in time we’d like to revisit: wish I’d been here…