Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Plight of the Scottish Wildcat







The summer sun dips behind the pine trees. A deer drinks at the edge of a rippling stream; its ears flicking with every sound. An owl on sentry duty calls, heralding the changing of the forest guard. There is a stirring on a branch above and the rising moon catches a pair of waking eyes piercing the gloom. Then slowly he descends, like amber sap sliding down ancient bark. On the ground he pauses, displaying tiger-like black markings and a distinctive broad, ringed tail. He is alert and his senses keen. Something in the heather moves and he hugs the woodland floor, silently edging forward. He pounces, lifts his head revealing a small vole, turns and melts into the night.

He is a Scottish Wildcat and his ancestors have lived in these forests since the last ice age separated this land from modern day Europe. He was here before man came to these lands and before domestic cats existed. Back then, he shared this island with his distant cousin the Lynx, before the latter was hunted to extinction. Now the wildcat stands alone, the only native member of the cat family to live in Britain and sadly, it too is perilously close to extinction.



The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) is around fifty per cent larger than the average domestic cat. He is stockier, muscular, untameable, and has a pelage with distinctive black stripes and a blunt broad black-ringed tail. This, and his reputation as a ferocious fighter, has given rise to his other title of ‘the Highland Tiger’. Other less obvious differences between this cat and his domestic relatives include slightly different skull dimensions and a smaller intestinal tract. There are also genetic differences and scientific research in this area is on-going.

The wildcat’s preferred habitat is a mixture of woodland for shelter, fresh water for drinking and open land in which to hunt. Voles, mice, rats, birds and rabbits all form part of his diet and the ancient Caledonian forests of the Scottish Highlands and adjacent tracts of open land provide the ideal home. It is only here, in the north of Scotland, that native wildcats can still be found. Wildcats tend to breed in midwinter producing an average litter of 3-4 kittens in the spring and otherwise, they are solitary animals. Scent marking is the main way of communication with a male’s territory ranging up to eighteen square kilometres.

The independent and fearless qualities of the wildcat were admired by ancient Scottish tribes and clans: The myths of the ancient Catti tribe of northern Scotland tell how their ancestors were attacked by wildcats: Caithness (Land of the Cats) was home to the Pictish tribes that venerated the wildcat: Today, the Chief of the Sutherland Clan is known as Morair Chat (Great Man of the Cats): The federation of Highland Clans, known as Clan Chattan (Clan of the Cats), that led the charge at the Battle of Culloden has the clan motto, ‘Touch not the cat bot (without) a glove’ and many clans have the wildcat as their motif.

Historically, wildcats have been hunted for their fur or because they killed small farm animals or birds bred for game shooting. This, along with habitat loss through deforestation, has greatly reduced their numbers. Today, the biggest problem for the wildcat is interbreeding with domestic and feral cats. The resultant hybridization destroys the true genetic signature of the species whilst contact with domestic cats renders them susceptible to unfamiliar feline diseases.

Establishing precisely how many wildcats exist is difficult. Recently, efforts have been made to record as many wildcat sightings as possible and then attempt to establish if these are pure wildcat or hybrid. The results suggest that at worst, there may be only a few tens of these cats in the wild and at best, perhaps four hundred.

The situation is critical. If these numbers are correct the Scottish Wildcat is now more endangered than the Bengal Tiger.

The plight of the wildcat is now acknowledged but whether the situation can be redressed remains to be seen.

In 2007-2012 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) instigated the Cairngorms Wildcat Project. It was a Species Action Framework intended to raise awareness of the wildcat problem. SNH sought to educate farmers, game-keepers and cat owners as well as expanding neutering programmes through local vets. It endeavoured to work with estates to promote feral cat control without harming true wildcats and it intensified reporting and documentation of potential sightings.
 
There are various initiatives in the pipeline including the option of having expert scientists trap potential wildcats in any areas where there are frequent sightings and there exists the likelihood that some of these are true wildcats. All the cats could then have blood samples taken to test if they are genetically true wildcats. All other cats could be neutered and removed from the programme leaving the true wildcats to be reintroduced. If necessary the genetic pool could be be diversified further through the introduction of captive wildcats. Somehow the feral cats have to be removed from the equation for they are the greatest risk to the Scottish Wildcat.

Sadly, none of this is easy and it may well be that time has just run out for the wildcat.

As the first shafts of sunlight sparkle on the woodland stream I look for the wildcat that inspired my ancestors but he has gone.

I can no longer be certain that he will return.


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Thursday, 7 February 2013

Party Politics


It’s the party political gathering 
hear you’ve never had it so good
as the fizz from the Moet et Chandon
preludes the five star food
swimming with upper class oysters
while the pearls on the ocean floor
drown in a sea of indifference
and the wines of injustice they pour

Observe the herding instinct
as they chase around in packs
it’s the cosy rubbing of shoulders
and the intimate scratching of backs
it’s the diamonds and rubies and Rolex
mixed with the scent of Chanel
climbing ivory towers to false heavens
to look down on the captives in hell

See the mutual admiration
that by so many is held
for the Christian Dior dresses
and the suits by Lagerfeld
but they forget when they flash the plastic
in their fancy expensive stores
the victims of their decisions
they stepped over to get through the doors

Sheltered by lies and statistics
from the winds of change that they blow
the barometric measure of wealth
shows how the investments grow
and the fat cats bask in their sunshine
tinted shades hiding the pain
of the souls on the streets where the shadows are cast
and the lives that are lived in the rain

by Tom Langlands  
 

 

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Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Secrets and Mysteries of Kilmartin Glen



Looking south along Kilmartin Glen from Kilmartin Churchyard

In a churchyard in the village of Kilmartin, Argyll stand some of the oldest carved gravestones in Scotland. Intricate patterns chiselled on slabs of rock 800 years ago provide subtle clues about those long departed and give death a sense of poignancy. Standing by these ancient stones and gazing across the landscape of Kilmartin Glen it is evident that carving stones and marking the landscape is an inherent part of this special place. Journey through the mists of this glen and you will travel through time to prehistory and the birth of a nation.

Long after the glaciers of the ice age that carved the valley had receded, Kilmartin Glen gradually became a fertile place with a tapestry of plant life supporting a rich and varied animal kingdom. Around 12,000 years ago the first Stone Age hunters arrived to exploit the rich pickings in the Glen. They survived by hunting, fishing and eating the fruits of the land. Several thousand more years would pass before simple methods of farming were brought to the area. Between hunting and farming, Kilmartin Glen remained an important source of food and not surprisingly, those who lived off this land formed a deep and meaningful relationship with it.
Ancient Burial Chamber in Kilmartin Glen
Around 6,000 years ago the first chambered burial cairn appeared in Kilmartin Glen. Later, came various wooden and stone circles that appear to have fulfilled ceremonial roles. Today, a number of standing stones and cairns still mark the landscape, bearing witness to another culture in another time.
Standing Stones in Kilmartin Glen
In addition to these structures, the landscape was also marked in more direct ways. Some of the best and largest examples of rock art to be found anywhere in Europe are located within Kilmartin Glen. The most common pattern is a circle or series of concentric circles often referred to as ‘cup and ring’ markings. A single rock face may contain dozens of such motifs. With hundreds of examples scattered across the wider area it is obvious that such ‘art’ had great significance in the lives of these people. Despite much research and many theories there is no conclusive answer regarding the purpose or meaning of these elaborate carvings. This is still one of the great mysteries and attractions of the Glen.
Ancient Rock Carvings in Kilmartin Glen

Towards the southern end of Kilmartin Glen a rocky hill stands in the middle of the flat valley floor. On its summit are other marked rocks and one of particular interest is shaped and hollowed to accept a human foot. Standing here, with one foot placed firmly in the rock, it is possible to survey a vast area of the surrounding land and it is in this way that kingly status was ceremoniously granted to important individuals. This was the royal fortress of Dunadd and all around lies the kingdom of the Gaelic speaking Dál Riata. In this place the first shoots of the Scottish nation appear but its roots are firmly planted in nearby Ireland.

Standing Stones in Kilmartin Glen
The centre of the Gael culture was in County Antrim in the north of Ireland although there was a Gael presence and shared language with the islands and coastline of western Scotland. The Romans referred to these early Irish and Scottish Gaels by the derogatory name of Scoti or Scotti. This term was later used to describe Gaels generally. Total Gael domination of the area is attributed to Fergus Mór mac Eirc, from County Antrim who invaded Argyll around 1500 years ago and established the hill fort at Dunadd as his power base. Lying in the middle of the Mòine Mhór or the ‘big bog’ it was a well-positioned stronghold that enjoyed connections to the wider world by way of the adjacent River Add.

As the Dál Riata influence expanded Dunadd became a major trade and political centre within the kingdom. Strategic alliances were made on this hill. Exotic goods, fine wines and precious metals were imported and beautiful jewellery was crafted here.

As the Gaelic influence of the Dál Riata spread so did the more general use of Scoti or Scotti to describe the wider population, eventually giving rise to the modern name of the people and their country as ‘Scottish’ and ‘Scotland’.

Back in Kilmartin churchyard I wondered how many secrets the Glen still has to reveal and as I walk away I contemplate how much man has marked this landscape and how much this landscape has carved a nation. 
Standing Stones in Kilmartin Glen
 
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