Some reflections on our recent wintry spell by Ben, one of our residential volunteers.

As an Englishman I usually get quite excited at the sight of snow. Up here in Forsinard I’m finding the snow to be a bit of a drag though, especially with it driving at the windows with gale force winds (by the morning of the 12th we had about an inch of snow already on the ground)! The snow means we can’t do any of our work out on the reserve, not only because of the arctic conditions but because the vegetation and dip-wells (hydrological sampling points) we need to survey are covered in ice and snow. I thought because outside has become tundra for a few days I would write something to give you guys out there a bit of an idea about what it’s like to be up here in the winter.

I’ve been up here since November and the days have been really short, sunrise isn’t until at least half past 8 and the sun sets at around 4. Towards the end of December the sun only rises properly for about an hour which means the landscape is constantly bathed in the hues of sunrise and sunset. I remember working on my own just before dawn and watching the sunrise bring colour back to the landscape after a crisp, frosty night. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all stunning sunrises and crisp mornings, most of the days are rainy and grey but I find the reserve just as beautiful on a grey day as a blue one.

It takes an incredibly hardy constitution to survive the winter up here when you can’t shelter in a cosy field centre, so only the most resilient species stay here on the reserve. Most of the really rare species migrate away, like the common scoter which migrates to winter feeding areas. Some species do stay and one or two even migrate in for the winter. Snow buntings spend the summer in Iceland and migrate south for the winter. We sometimes see them on the edges of the tracks picking at insects that get stuck in frost.  

Often when we’re out on open parts of the reserve the only sounds are the wind in our ears and the croak of a raven overhead. Ravens are one of my favourite birds! They’re really acrobatic in flight, often doing barrel rolls just for the fun of it, and they’re highly intelligent. They’ve been known to use tools to find food and remember specific people. I even read a story last year about a little girl who received gifts of shiny baubles from the ravens she had been feeding in her garden. The raven is a bird which is often associated with harsh environments, so it definitely fits in here in the winter.

It’s not only birds that manage to survive the winter here, red and roe deer also stay. There are huge numbers of deer. I’ve seen herds of 50 individuals or more out and about. It’s usually difficult to get close to them on the open bog, especially when the wind is blowing your scent towards them, but there have been a few times when I’ve been out for a run and come face to face with a big red stag just off the side of the road. It’s spectacular to see them with their huge antlers staring at you from just a few metres away and although they quickly flee those few seconds always stick with me.

Living up here means we’ve had a lot of chances to see some really rare species. White tailed eagles used to be widespread across the UK but now are only found in Scotland where they’ve been reintroduced after being wiped out by persecution. We saw one along the river Halladale on our way to Thurso a few times before Christmas sitting on the river bank. These birds are as big as golden eagles and their short tails make them easily identifiable (I’ve heard them likened to barn doors taking flight!). Although we haven’t seen it since early December it could be searching out a territory in the flow country which is an exciting prospect for the reserve. 

The winter landscape is harsh at Forsinard and the wildlife needs to be hardy to withstand it. The short days and cold, wet weather are difficult challenges for anything to overcome, but the animals that do succeed here lend the place a sense of scale and isolation that really captivates the imagination. The forecast says that the snow should be gone by Sunday so we should be able to get back out to work next week. Fingers crossed!