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A Hundred Years in the Highlands
Chapter XIX - Vanishing Birds


This is a sad subject to take up, but, alas! I fear it cannot be disputed that birds of many, if not of most, kinds are far less numerous now on the west coast of Ross-shire than they were fifty or sixty years ago.

Let me start with the game birds. The Black Grouse is a bird of the past as far as this part of the country is concerned. Even on my small property I used to kill from twenty to thirty brace of Black Game in a season. In 1915, as far as I know, only one pair remained, but the old Grey-hen was shot by accident, and the cock, which was a very old acquaintance, disappeared. When I bought this estate there had been no cultivation of the arable land for some fifty years at least, and there was not a vestige of wood on the 12,000 acres, except one small patch of low, scrubby birch. Now all the arable land is cultivated, and there are a number of plantations dotted over the property of from fifty to three or four years' growth, which anyone would have thought ought to have encouraged Black Game, but even in parts of Argyll, which a few years ago was swarming with them, there are now comparatively few. I know of one place in that country where, in 1914, 250 Black-cock were killed, and in 1916 the total bag of Black Game was one Black-cock. Along the shores of Loch Maree my mother once counted sixty Black-cock on the stooks of a very small field, and the old farmer, to whom the patch of oats belonged, told her he had counted one hundred the previous evening. The keeper on that beat told me quite lately that along the whole loch-side, a stretch of country of from twelve to fourteen miles, he knows of only one Black-cock.

When I was a small boy in the fifties I used to follow the head-keeper, whose duty it was to provide game for the larder; on the low ground round the head of Loch Gairloch the bags used to consist of Black Game, Partridges, and Brown Hares; now there is not a single head of Black Game, nor a Partridge, nor even a Brown Hare to be found. From Cape Wrath, I may say, to the Clyde the Partridges are extinct, or very nearly so. They used to be fairly plentiful up and down this west coast, and quite good in many parts of Skye and Argyll, and even here, with only little bits of arable land, I have killed as many as fifty brace in a season in the sixties and seventies. No one can account for their disappearance, and though they have been reintroduced on various occasions, the restocking has been of no avail.

Though Red Grouse have not done very well on this coast for the last few years, there are still enough on some parts to replenish it if we could get a few good breeding seasons. Both north and south of us, however, I hear very ominous reports of districts where big bags were once made—in some cases about nine hundred brace used to be the bag—but where now there are practically none. Similar reports come from some of the inland portions of Inverness-shire and from many of the islands, from Islay right up to the Lews, where it is feared Grouse -shooting will soon be a thing of the past.

I have a record of all the game killed on a property on the west coast from 1866 to 1916. In the seventies (1872) 1,939 Grouse were shot, and 1,244 and 1,356 were killed in 1890 and 1891. Since then they have gone down and down till they got to 98, 90, 85, 62, and only 31 in 1914. The Black Game on the same estate used to average about 80, but now they run from 1 to 3 on an average for a season. The Ptarmigan used to be from 59, 47, and 55 each year, and after coming down as low as 4 they seem quite to have disappeared. From many other hills that used to hold them, our own hill of about 2,600 feet included, the White Grouse has completely vanished.

The Grey Lag Goose, which we formerly considered a nuisance, especially when flocks of them devoured our young oats in spring, used to hatch out their broods in the islands of many of our lochs. They too have left us, and are not likely ever to return. We are now surprised if we see half a dozen Wild Ducks floating about on the loch opposite our windows, where formerly there used to be eighty to one hundred waiting for dusk in order to start feeding on the stubbles and potato-fields. Snipe, Golden Plover, Green Plover, Greenshank, Dunlin, and Whimbrel are on the verge of extinction. I saw only one Whimbrel in May, 1918, and they used to be in flocks resting on our shores at the migration-time. The Golden Plover has entirely changed its habits, and has become migratory. A very few come in March to breed, but instead of passing the winter in hundreds on our low grounds along the coast, and during frost and snow swarming down to our shores at ebb-tide, they now completely desert this country in September.

I have known 350 Snipe shot in a season on a neighbouring shooting only a few years ago. They bred also in considerable numbers on my own ground, and gave me a lot of sport. Now there is hardly a snipe to be seen anywhere. The Rock Pigeons, which used to provide such good practice for our guns, have also pretty well disappeared. The Great Northern Diver is becoming quite scarce, whereas it used to be common. The Redthroat is also extinct here, and the Blackthroats have ceased breeding on many a loch where they used to nest every year regularly and without fail; but there are still a few pairs about.

The rapid decrease of the Lesser Black-backed Gull is one of the most striking instances of a bird disappearing. They were wont to breed in their thousands in the islands of Loch Maree, and their eggs were quite a source of food-supply in the hungry months of May and June; now there are hardly any, and they get fewer and fewer every year, in spite of the islands being now watched and preserved. The Storm Petrel, which used to breed in large numbers in a small island in this parish, now no longer does so, and I never see a Common Guillemot on the sea, though there are still plenty of Razorbills, Puffins, and Black Guillemots about.

No Nightjars have been seen for years here, though they used in former times to fly about the gardens and nest close to my house. The Wheatear, which was formerly the commonest of all small birds on our moors, is now quite rare. The House Martin deserted us thirty or forty years ago. Prior to that they came in swarms, not only nesting under the eaves of many of the bigger houses, but also in thousands in the precipitous Tolly rock on Loch Maree. The Rooks, which used almost to darken the sky with their multitudes, and the Jackdaws are gone, for which, however, we are truly thankful.

In 1918 we had about the heaviest crop of rowan-berries I have ever seen, and they remained on the trees in scarlet masses right through November and long after every leaf had fallen. In former years huge flocks of Fieldfares and Redwings came from Norway at the end of October and very quickly finished them off; this year all I saw was a tiny flock of Redwings, about a score all told, which, with the few Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, and Missel Thrushes (also in very reduced numbers), were quite unable to make any impression on the berries, which were nearly all wasted. In summer I did not see a single Ring Ouzel, neither breeding among our rocks nor later on descending with their broods to feed on our cherries and geans. Can anyone explain what has caused so many of our birds to disappear?

I have seen the following uncommon birds in the parish of Gairloch during my lifetime—viz., Quail, Turtle Dove, Kingfisher, Golden Oriole, Hoopoe, Rose-coloured Pastor, Chough, Crossbill, Great Grey Shrike, Bohemian Waxwing, and Pied Flycatcher.


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