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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part III.—Natural History of Gairloch

Chapter V.—Mammals of Gairloch


THE mammals found in the parish of Gairloch are, or have been, as numerous as in any other part of the kingdom. The following list has been prepared with the assistance of Mr Osgood H. Mackenzie of Inverewe, and is believed to be complete. I have added an account of the Arctic fox trapped on the North Point in January 1878, and of some other captures of the same animal in the Highlands, but of course this cannot be called a native species. Tradition says that the mountains of Gairloch were formerly the haunt of numerous wolves, bears, elk, and reindeer; and there is no doubt these animals were abundant in the Highlands in the old days.

Red-Deer (Cervus ellaphus).—The wild red-deer is abundant on the mountains of Gairloch, and is the subject of the sport of deer-stalking, treated of in Part IV., chap, xviii., where some information is given regarding this animal. Its horns have been found deep in peat bogs, where they had probably lain many centuries, for in one case an antler was found close to the bronze spear head described in Part I., chap, xxi., in a peat bog half-way between Tournaig and Inverewe, and the spear head could not have been in use since remote times. There are few finer spectacles than a herd of red-deer. In severe weather, in winter or early spring, this sight may often fall to the lot of the traveller on the shores of Loch Maree, without leaving the high-road.

Roe-Deer (Capreolus caprcea).—This pretty little deer is not so numerous as it used to be in Gairloch, but I have often seen individuals not far from the high-road near Slatadale, and there are always a few about Flowerdale and Shieldaig. They frequent woods and adjoining moorland. Very few are now shot by sportsmen. They are a delicate little creature, and sometimes die in a hard winter. I have seen specimens lying dead by the roadside, passing through the Glas Leitire woods. Possibly the increase of rabbits has tended to reduce the number of roe-deer, by diminishing their food supply.

Fox (Vulpes vulgaris).—The common fox is very abundant in Gairloch, but is kept down by the keepers on account of the destruction it wreaks on all kinds of ground and winged game. The fox also kills many lambs, and sometimes, though rarely, full-grown sheep. It has even been known to kill the calves of red-deer when very young. The foxes here have their earths or dens mostly in cairns of rocks and stones. The keepers will watch one of these dens all night in order to destroy or capture the old and young foxes. Any that are taken alive (and these are most usually the young ones) are sent to England to be turned out by masters of fox-hounds, who generally pay ten shillings a piece for them.

Badger (Meles taxus).—The badger is now nearly extinct in Gairloch, but is' still occasionally met with. Mr John Munro, gamekeeper on the North Point, told me that one was trapped in Garbh Coire, near Loch Bad na Sgalaig, in 1874. The badger lives on worms, honey, eggs, and carrion, but its staple food is grass. It does little harm to game, unless it destroys a few eggs of grouse. It frequents cairns of stones like the fox.

Otter (Lutra vulgaris).—The otter was formerly very plentiful, and is still frequently met with in cairns on the sea-coast of Gairloch and Loch Ewe and of the island of Longa, but it is not so abundant as it used to be. When the people found how valuable the skins were they captured all they could. The skins, like those of the badger, are much used in making sporans (purses), to be worn with the kilt. The head is usually mounted as the over-lap of the sporan. Two young otters were taken in Fionn Loch in 1881, and were sent to the Zoological Gardens, Regent's Park, London. The otter lives exclusively on fish.

Wild-Cat {Felts catus).—The wild-cat is frequently trapped by the gamekeepers in cairns of rock. It destroys great quantities of game. The wild-cat is shorter in the legs than the domestic cat. Mr O. H. Mackenzie has killed a true wild-cat measuring forty-three inches in length. The wild-cat is about twice the weight of the domestic cat. Many domestic cats become wild, and adopt the !habits of the wild-cat, and some persons take them for wild-cats. There are also crosses between the two.

Marten-Cat {Maries abtetum, or foina).—The marten is now •scarce in Gairloch. One was trapped in Gairloch in 1877. An old one and several young ones were killed about the same date in Torridon, on the southern confines of Gairloch. One was trapped in 1884 at Kerrysdale. It is generally found in woods or long heather, and was formerly plentiful hereabouts. Mr O. H. Mackenzie tells me that he once came upon a dead sheep at the foot of a steep place, down which it had evidently rolled; beneath the carcass he found a dead marten-cat. He believed it had attacked and killed the sheep, and the latter in its struggles had rolled down the hill, and unwittingly been the cause of its destroyer's death.

Polecat {Putorius fetidus).—There are a few polecats still occasionally to be met with in Gairloch, but the beast is scarce. It used to abound in the woods. In its habits it resembles the weasel.

Weasel (Mustela vulgaris).—This well known animal is very numerous in this parish. It destroys many rabbits. I have seen it more than once in the very act of killing a rabbit.

Stoat, or Ermine {Mustela ermined).—The stoat is very numerous and has the same habits as the weasel, which it closely resembles in appearance, except that it is rather larger. The stoat generally becomes snowy white in winter, except the tip of the tail, which remains black. Numbers of them are imported into Britain from Russia in their white state, and make the ermine fur used in the royal robes.

Alpine Hare {Lepus variablis).—The Alpine hare is quite distinct from the common brown hare and the Irish hare. It is commonly called the " blue hare," but the epithet grey would be more suitable, for in colour it resembles a common rabbit. It mostly frequents the higher moorlands and the mountain sides, but is sometimes found on quite low ground. Towards the end of November its coat becomes nearly or entirely white, the change being gradually effected, so that sometimes piebald hares may be seen. In February or March the coat again assumes the grey colour. Mr John Munro is of opinion that the change to white is the result of a loss of colour, and involves no actual change of the coat. But he believes the change from the white to the original grey colour is due to a complete change of the coat itself,—that in fact the old white wool of winter comes off, and is replaced by a new grey coat. In support of this view he states that he has often found quantities of the white wool on the ground at the time of the spring change, but he never found grey wool in November. The grey hare has three or even four young in a litter, and has several litters in the year. Its average weight is from four to five pounds. I have seen several which weighed seven pounds, but this is a very uncommon weight. They feed on grass and heather, and even on lichens and mosses. Their white colour makes them an easy mark for the gunner when there is no snow on the ground. Some thirty years ago this hare was almost unknown in Gairloch. Now it is very abundant, though perhaps less so than a few years back.

Brown Hare (Lepus titnidus).—The common brown hare was very numerous in Gairloch some years ago, but is now comparatively scarce. It is the same species as the English hare, and is larger and heavier than the Alpine hare. Sometimes a variety, or supposed variety, occurs, alleged to be the result of a cross between this species and the Alpine hare.

Rabbit {Lepus cuniculus).—The common rabbit was quite unknown in Gairloch parish until about the year 1850, when it was introduced at Letterewe. It did not become general for many years after, but is now common almost everywhere. Occasionally black or white individuals are met with, probably descended from. tame rabbits let loose.

Brown Rat {Mus decumanus).—This obnoxious creature swarms everywhere. They arrived in this country about i860. It is said they had been known before for a short time, but had disappeared.

Black Rat (Mus rattus).—The old black rat is very scarce. Mr John Munro tells me that he has seen it near a bothie on a mountain in Gairloch. It is not such an objectionable beast as the brown rat.

Mouse {Mus musculus).—The common mouse is very abundant everywhere.

Water Rat, or Water Vole {Arvicola amphibius).—Mr O. H. Mackenzie says this rat is not uncommon, though rarely seen.

Long-Tailed field-Mouse {Mus sylvaticus).—This creature, which is not a vole but a veritable mouse, is found about gardens in Gairloch, where it eats the bulbs of the crocus, tulip, &c. Mr O. H. Mackenzie tells me that he has actually found this mouse (February 1885) inside the house at Tournaig eating fruit on the shelves.

Short-tailed Field-Mouse {Anncola agrestis).—It is common enough, and is found in corn-fields.

Shrew {Corsira vulgaris).—The common shrew-mouse is quite common. Cats will not eat them. The shrew lives on worms.

Water-Shrew {Crossopus fodiens).—The pretty little black water-shrew is not often seen. Mr O. H. Mackenzie gave me a specimen °n 13th October 1885.

Mole {Talpa Europced).—-The mole is now very abundant, but was quite unknown in Gairloch twenty years ago, and no one can tell how it came here. No doubt the mole does good, but it is very annoying to see a newly-sown patch of vegetables or flower-seeds destroyed all along the top of the underground path of the mole.

Bat (Pleiotus communis),—The common bat is frequent. Only the common small kind is found in Gairloch. It is seen near woods and houses on calm evenings.

Seal (Phoca vitulina).—The common seal is often noticed in Gairloch and Loch Ewe, especially near the mouths of streams. They do not breed here.

Porpoise (Plwcetna communis).—The porpoise is not uncommon in the sea lochs of Gairloch. I have known one approach close to Poolewe, at the head of Loch Ewe, no doubt attracted by shoals of herring which were then in the loch.

Whale, Shark, and Grampus.—Occasionally a whale, shark, or grampus is observed off the coast of Gairloch.

Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus).—On 30th January 1878 an Arctic fox was trapped by Mr John Munro, on the edge of a very small sheet of water at the back of the Bac an Leth-Choin, on the North Point, about two miles from Rudha Reidh. The remains of several hares had previously been found with the head and neck eaten off to the shoulders. This fox was a female, and quite white, and its shape was unmistakeably that of the true Arctic fox. It was set up by Mr W. A. M'Leay, of Inverness, and is now in the possession of Mr S. .W. Clowes of Norbury, Derbyshire, who has for many years been a shooting tenant on the Gairloch estate. It is impossible to determine how this animal, which does not belong to the British isles, had found its way to the North Point. The following occurrences of the Arctic fox in the Highlands were narrated to me by Mr M'Leay, of Inverness :—

An old Gairloch shepherd, who had been a foxhunter in his younger days, shot an Arctic fox, about 1848, while on a pass before the hounds on the heights of Monar. There never was a fox known in that district which made such fearful havoc amongst lambs.

About 1871 an Arctic fox was sent to Mr M'Leay for preservation, for Lord Abinger. Mr M'Leay inserted a descriptive paragraph in the local newspapers. In the course of a few days he had a letter from a gentleman in Peterhead, asking particularly about it, and saying that an Arctic fox had been given him by the master of a Greenland whaler, which he had kept chained in his yard for upwards of a year ; that six weeks before it had managed to escape, and though he had advertised offering a good reward for its recovery, no trace could be got of it. From Mr M'Leay's description he had no doubt it was his fox. How it had managed to elude all the keepers, guns, traps, and snares between Peterhead and Fort-William, a distance of about two hundred miles, was very strange.

Another Arctic fox was shot at Inverness on 14th February 1878, within three weeks of the capture of the Gairloch specimen. Mr Findlay, superintendent of Tomnahurich, observed the fox in the cemetery, and chase being given it was driven down towards the Infirmary. After an exciting run, the animal was shot in the field at the back of Tomnahurich Street.

I cannot but suppose that the Arctic foxes of Gairloch and Inverness, killed so near the same date, had a common origin, but nothing positive is known of their previous history.


 


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