Monday, 19 September 2011

Loch Ken and the Galloway Kite Trail

To the north of the busy market town of Castle Douglas in southwest Scotland is beautiful Loch Ken. This sliver of water ten miles (sixteen kilometres) long is part of the River Dee system providing some of the finest scenery in Dumfries and Galloway. Today, Loch Ken is well known for sailing and fishing. Perhaps less well known is the important role that the loch and surrounding area play in protecting and enhancing the nation’s wildlife. It is a role that presents many challenges and although some struggles lie ahead, history bears testimony to the fact that in this part of Scotland challenges and struggles come with the territory.

Around Loch Ken lie several attractive villages including New Galloway to the north and Parton and Crossmichael to the east. High on the green slopes to the west is the old church at Balmaghie. It is in the graveyard of this small country church that evidence of darker times can be found. 

The old church at Balmaghie
In the late 1630s King Charles I, son of James VI of Scotland (James I of England) attempted to introduce what many protestant Scots regarded as more catholic practices to the church; notably a new book of prayer and liturgy. Refusing to accede to the King’s demands, many Scots signed up to the National Covenant of 1638 declaring their intention to uphold their own protestant beliefs. Thus, they became known as Covenanters. Under threat of death they held meetings and religious services, sometimes high in the hills at secret locations, away from the prying eyes of government troops who hunted them mercilessly. Lasting the best part of fifty years, it was a dangerous time for there were many sympathisers on both sides and spies were not uncommon.

George Short, and two unrelated men, both by the name of David Halliday paid for their beliefs with their lives at the hands of the ruthless Robert Grierson of Lag, the Deputy Steward of Kirkcudbrightshire. All three are buried in Balmaghie churchyard. The inscription on Short’s gravestone reads –


Loch Ken from the graveyard at Balmaghie Church
"HERE LYES GEORGE SHORT
WHO WAS PURSUED AND TAKEN
AND INSTANTLY SHOT TO DEATH
UNDER CLOUD OF NIGHT
IN THE PAROCH OF TONGUELAND
BY GRIER OF LAG
MEMENTOMORI
AND THE EARLE OF ANANDALE
BECAUSE OF HIS ADHERENCE
TO SCOTLANDS REFORMTION
COVENANTS NATIONAL AND
SOLEMN LEAGUE 1685"

The Hallidays’ stone bears similar witness to their execution –

BENEATH THIS STONE TWO DAVIDS HALLIDAYS
DOE LY WHOSE SOULS NOW SING THEIR MASTERS PRAISE
TO KNOU IF CURIOUS PASSENGERS DESYRE
FOR WHAT BY WHOME AND HOU THEY DID EXPYRE
THEY DID OPPOSE THIS NATIONS PERJUREY 
NOR COULD THEY JOYN WITH LORDLY PRELACY
INDULGING FAVOURS FROM CHRIST’S ENEMIES
QUENCH’D NOT THEIR ZEAL THIS MONUMENT THEN CRYES
THESE WERE THE CAUSES NOT TO BE FORGOT
WHY THEY BY LAG SO WICKEDLY WERE SHOT
ONE NAME ONE CAUSE ONE GRAVE ONE HEAVEN DO TY
THEIR SOULS TO THAT ONE GOD ETERNALLY.

Fortunately the area now enjoys more peaceful times but strangely enough, it is another grave dating back to 1777 in Kells churchyard to the north of New Galloway that has more to do with why Loch Ken is famous today. This is the final resting place of John Murray, a local gamekeeper. His fame is for catching the ‘Loch Ken Monster’, the largest pike on record, weighing 72lbs and measuring over 7ft in length! When compared with the Scottish record of 47lbs 11ozs caught on Loch Lomond in 1947, it is indeed a monster. Although nothing approaching 70lbs has been caught in recent years, Loch Ken remains a favourite with pike anglers and regularly produces large specimens.


Loch Ken

Unfortunately, there is something more alarming than big pike lurking in the depths of Loch Ken and it is having a devastating effect on the loch’s ecology. It is the North American Signal Crayfish. This crustacean is the freshwater equivalent of the lobster growing to 16cms in length. It is not clear how they came to be in the loch, although one theory is that there were earlier attempts to farm them in waters feeding the loch but a failure to take adequate steps to contain them. In any event they are breeding at an astonishing rate. With their numbers now in millions it is impossible to fish for pike with bait on the bed of the loch, as the crayfish will devour it within minutes. The problem is so severe that many anglers are refusing to fish here.

These alien predators feed on fish eggs and also compete directly with fish for other aquatic food sources. The ecological damage being caused is a serious problem. Environmental bodies are finally taking the threat seriously amid concerns that the crayfish are so widespread within the loch that it is only a matter of time before they migrate further afield. The potential threat to prime salmon and sea trout waters is a major worry. Despite some success in trapping and netting the invaders, the problem is presently out of control and other solutions are being sought.

Crayfish apart, the ecological picture of this area is not all doom and gloom. On the contrary, there are many positive things including the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) at the Ken Dee Marshes at the north end of the loch. With valuable habitats now protected, native and migratory bird species such as redstarts, pied willow catchers, willow tits and the Greenland white fronted goose can be observed.

However, the big success story in recent years is the Red Kite reintroduction project and the creation of the Galloway Kite Trail. Once common in medieval times, Red Kite performed a useful function across the country as scavengers. So important was their role that killing a Red Kite was punishable by death. As society found proper ways of dealing with its waste, pickings for the birds became harder to find. In their continuing hunt for food they gradually became regarded as a pest. Although largely carrion eaters, many farmers and landowners mistakenly believed they killed livestock and so they were hunted, trapped and poisoned to the verge of extinction. The last breeding pair to be recorded in Dumfries and Galloway was about 1870 and, with the exception of a very small colony in Wales, no Red Kite had been seen in the UK for over one hundred years.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
Chris Rollie, RSPB area manager, explained that as the public became more aware of conservation and environmental issues changing attitudes made it possible for RSPB Scotland and its partners to embark on a reintroduction programme. Thus, in 2001, secret cages were flown in by helicopter and hidden within a local forest. These cages were designed to ensure that the birds never saw their keepers and therefore didn’t form a bond with humans. Food was provided by way of a secret compartment. The cages were stocked with 33 juvenile birds from several countries and these were released into the wild later that year. Between 2001 and 2005 104 birds were released, a handful of which had tracking devices fitted to enable monitoring of their spread and flight routes. Reintroduced birds have coloured wing tags fitted to enable quick and easy identification. The coloured tag on the left wing indicates the part of the country in which the bird was released whilst the tag on the right wing denotes the year.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
 Red Kite are magnificent birds with golden brown plumage interspersed with white and black. They are similar in size to a buzzard but their colour is richer and their distinctive forked tail makes them easily recognisable in flight. Although pairs establish their own territories, these can overlap. They are largely sociable birds often setting up communal roosts. Nests are usually at the main intersection of large tree branches and the normal clutch of eggs is 1-3.

The reintroduction project has had its setbacks. In the first couple of years 13 birds were lost, some through illegal poisoning. The public outcry was a clear demonstration that the tide had turned in favour of the Red Kite. Today, the support from landowners, gamekeepers and the public is significant and very welcome. The result is that Red Kite are now establishing themselves and breeding well within the surrounding area although, overall, they still remain on the RSPB’s ‘amber list’ of species in danger.

The Galloway Kite Trail forms a circuit around Loch Ken with various visitor information stations and the support of local hotels and businesses that benefit from the increased tourism. Between 2003 and 2009 the trail accounted for £2.5 million of visitor spending. Whilst this may not seem much, it is a significant amount for this part of Scotland and supports 19 full time jobs.

Ann Johnstone at Bellymack Hill, Lauriston knows only too well the benefits that the birds have brought to the area. She ran a dog breeding business at her farm and, like many others, was facing financial hardship after having seen her 700 sheep culled at the height of the foot and mouth epidemic. She often fed her dogs chicken, throwing the scraps onto the farm midden. Over several days she noticed some unusual birds scavenging at the farm and when she contacted the RSPB to enquire about them they knew she was one of the first to witness the newly released Red Kite. Ann continued to feed the birds that seemed to like the location of the farm. The southwest-facing slope was perfect for the prevailing wind, giving the birds excellent uplift for flying. The ongoing feeding and congregating of the birds soon resulted in a more permanent arrangement and Bellymack Hill Feeding Station is now a significant tourist attraction.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Standing by the graves of the Covenanters at Balmaghie Church and looking down on Loch Ken, I thought it likely that these men would have been familiar with the call of the Red Kite. I contemplated how they all were persecuted, hunted and killed. As I turned to walk away my spirits were lifted as one of these magnificent birds circled overhead, its distinctive whistle echoing over the loch below. 

Tom

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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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