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The Lews Fauna

VIEWED generally, the animals of the Lews, as might have been expected, are all of small breed. This refers alike to wild and domesticated animals, and no doubt arises from the lack of a sufficient supply of nourishment during a great portion of the year. On the other hand, they are remarkably hardy, from constant exposure to a trying, although not a severe, climate.

The fauna is more “conspicuous by the absence” of certain classes of animals than from the presence of any peculiar to the island. No moles rear their hummocks anywhere in the country, probably the damp, peaty character of the soil neither offering a hospitable reception nor a supply of congenial food. The same may be said of rabbits, which are nowhere to be found in the Lews, although numerous in the Harris district, where the nature of the soil is more suitable. Fortunately, no rabbits means, in this instance, no foxes; so Reynard the subtle does not imitate the rich man with the pet lamb of the cotter. Hares are quite a recent addition to the animals, as the Rev. John Buchanan writes in 1790 : “There are no foxes, moles, or hares over all the Long Isle; nor ferrets, partridges, black cocks, nor many of the granivorous fowls.” They must have been common shortly after his time, however, as Dr. Macrae mentions “grouse, hare, and snipe” as the common game at the beginning of the century. We understand white hares were first introduced by sportsmen into Harris, whence they rapidly spread over the country. For many years they were common in the neighbouring country, but did not pass into the Uige district until the bridges were built across the Grimersta and Blackwater, and the presence in Uige of these white ghosts flitting about in the darkness created a profound impression, as the natives thought the last day-must be nigh, with so many spirits going about loose. The brown hare, although common, is not so numerous as the white mountain hare, which, however, is too easily betrayed in the brown Lews land, and is much better suited for the snow-clad slopes of Harris. They burrow in holes in the rocks, like conies, in some districts. The ferret tribe is not generally supposed to be represented, although we were informed of a large mustela (polecat ?) having been killed in the west. But we are inclined to believe there are no weasels, as we can swear to the presence of multitudes of brown rats, and a perfect plague of mice. Besides the common mouse, a specimen of the long-tailed field-mouse was brought us.

Having thus considered the negative fauna, we shall cast a rapid glance over the actual.

The cattle are of a small enduring breed, and certainly require all their peculiar powers, developed by natural selection, to starve through the long winters on little but seaware. Want of proper feeding makes them very backward in their growth, and a two-year-old stirk is still a tousy-headed baby cow. They fatten well, however, and prove sweet and excellent for the table, bringing a large price in the English market.

The ordinary native sheep of the cotters are rags of creatures, manufacturing sweet mutton out of the memory of sweet summer feeding on the moors, and their share of the seaware. Superior sheep have been introduced by some of the farmers; but the best suited for the country generally is, no doubt, the hardy black-face, which is, at the same time, a decided advance upon the original small native breed.

Sheep become as active and sure-footed as goats, scrambling about the face of the cliffs after the sweet bits of herbage in the crevices, their valour or hunger occasionally outrunning their discretion and tumbling them into the sea. On such an occasion, we have known a daring cragsman ascend six or seven hundred feet of sheer cliff with a dead sheep under his arm, where several goats died of starvation from inability to ascend.

The Barvas ponies seem a distinct species from the Shelty, and are remarkably hardy. They are bred principally along the stony western district stretching from Shawbost to Ness. To-day they have become scarce, as their small size and great powers of endurance cause a demand for them for coal-pits, and the finer go for basket-carriages. They may be seen in the ditches by the roadside up to the knees in water, cropping the grass a foot under the water, as if it was their most natural position. But really none of the Lews vertebrata could exist, if objectionably sensitive to water.

Red deer are preserved in the various “forests,” as they courteously term the tabooed tracts of moorland, so as not to hurt the feelings of the noble animals. They rarely attain any size, or carry fine heads; that is to say, the form may be good, but the antlers even of a stag of ten are seldom considerable. In August, 1835, Sir Frederick Johnston, who had then the whole of the Lews shootings, shot in three weeks about one hundred head of deer. We have seen black-faced sheep much wilder than the deer in the home and Mossgiel forests.

Of the amphibia, seals and otters are both represented. The former are occasionally seen in numbers in the west; and the latter formerly inhabited almost every loch and pool. Even still they are very numerous ; and as the old cotters who were most skilled in their habits, and, consequently, in their capture, are dying out, and the keepers give little attention to them, they may continue abundant. Their skins are now purchased at such a high price, however, that it will stimulate the poor to exercise their ingenuity in devising better modes for their capture.

Whales are sometimes driven on shore in multitudes by the people. Martin tells us, “Young whales are most of them eaten by the common people, who, by experience, find them to be very nourishing food. They call it sea-pork: the bigger whales are more purgative than these lesser ones, but the latter are better for nourishment.” To-day they find them rather strong nourishment even for the land, unless previously made into a compost.

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