Hares, witches, wildlife… and potholes

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One of the pleasures about writing this column is receiving emails, letters and telephone calls from readers across the world, providing further evidence – if, indeed, any was needed – of the popularity of The Oban Times and the interest its contents resonates with a wide audience.

The subjects I covered over the past two weeks certainly produced more than the average number of messages.

First up was an email from Jimmy MacDonald, formerly of Meoble, and now living in Skye, who was responding to my request for information on hare densities and distribution. He recalled seeing a few mountain hares on Meal Blair and Sgurr Choinnich above the northern shores of Loch Arkaig in Lochaber – sightings corroborated by Alex MacDonald, fourth generation stalker and sporting tenant of Achnacarry Estate, who tells me hares are still around but not as plentiful as they once were.

Donald Cameron, across the hill at Kinloch Hourn, recalls finding them in dwindling numbers in Glen Mallie on the south side of Loch Arkaig where he worked some years ago.

In Highland folklore, witches are said to assume the form of a hare, which Jimmy MacDonald reminded me of in a story he has about a big brown one that lived around Moy Farm above the Caledonian canal near Gairlochy.

It was given the name ‘the Witch of Moy’ after a famous hag who lived thereabouts and went around making all manner of mischief, including sinking ships in the Sound of Mull.

The hare survived for years on account of the farmer saying that if anyone attempted to harm it, they would be plagued by bad luck for the rest of their life. ‘I haven’t seen it for a long time,’ says Jimmy. ‘Maybe it has died a natural death. I hope so.’

Iain Mackinnon, a Jura man now living in Kilmelford, tells me that when he was a young man he used to accompany Dr Sandeman, the local GP, on his expeditions to shoot hares on the hills between Shian and Cruib above Loch Tarbert. Iain’s wage for picking up and carrying the hares, was 10 shillings a day, which sounds good but, given the weight of a dozen or so hares, was hard work.

The hares, which were largely confined to Sithean overlooking the loch, were almost wiped out by Sandeman who, given the chance, would shoot into double figures until he was stopped by the Astors who owned that part of the island. Many were handed round the houses but, as they weren’t a popular food, a high percentage were thrown away.

I gather there are still a few hares remaining on Jura and although I have often found their droppings on the summit of Beinn a’ Chaolais (Gaelic, ‘the hill of the narrows’), the lowest (2,408ft) and most southerly of the Paps of Jura, I have never seen one.

No doubt they provide a tasty dish for young golden eagles in early summer.

Julius Caesar, in one of his books, recorded the ancient Britons avoided eating hares. They were prohibited as food, according to the Mosaic law (Leviticus 11:6 ; Deuteronomy 14:7), ‘because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof’.

Hares grind their teeth and move their jaw as if it is actually chewing the cud. But, like the rabbit, it is not a ruminant with four stomachs, but a rodent such as a squirrel or a rat.

Scotland’s Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has launched the Scottish Mountain Hare Survey to understand, as far as possible, their numbers and range. Further information is available on Google for anyone interested in participating in this important survey.

Lynx

A reader of my piece in The Oban Times of February 15 has written to say those pressing for the release of dangerous predators into the countryside under rewilding proposals, use the excuse that there are too many red deer and that by reintroducing wolves and lynx, their numbers would be significantly reduced.

Not only are red deer numbers in the West Highlands already at their lowest ever, but the sight of a heavily pregnant hind having its throat torn out or pulled down by its haunches while still alive by an introduced species will go little towards the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW) at the United Nations, let alone the UK’s own Animal Welfare Act (2006).

The problem is not the deer but the humans, which is so often the case where country matters are concerned.

The same reader goes on to remind me that the Deer Scotland Act (1969) specifies that red deer must be taken with a weapon and bullet of approved calibre and performance. Introducing animals to kill deer will, therefore, be illegal.

I have wondered about the animal cruelty aspect of these predators. I would greatly prefer being shot to having the job done by teeth and claws!

Strange that the kind of person who deplores fox hunting seems content to introduce a violent death agent into the countryside – sorry – ecosystem.

Local firefighting units

Fire and flood are two dangers which have threatened man since the beginning of time, so when changes are being talked about which will alter significantly the workings of small, but vitally important, firefighting units in remote areas, it is not surprising local communities become nervous.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service intends replacing its existing appliances across the board with new rapid response units which it says will better achieve round -the-clock availability and counter poor recruitment.

Should the proposal go ahead, if indeed it isn’t already a fait accompli, it will inevitably lead to the removal of equipment and a reduction of well-trained crews.

Cost-cutting is all very well in urban areas where there are back-up units close to hand but, in outlying places such as Morvern, which is an hour and a half away from Fort William and where there has never been a recruitment problem or 24/7 cover, cut-backs and centralisation is not an acceptable option.

Interested parties are being encouraged to complete an online consultation form but should take care as it is one of those questionnaires where an answer could be misconstrued.

The proposal is to be discussed at a community council meeting in Lochaline this month. Members of the public are urged to attend to make their views known to help prevent the diminution of yet another vital service in the parish.

Potholes

It is nigh impossible to find words adequate enough to describe the state of the public roads.

Of course the problem is nationwide and has developed into a crisis. Where will local authorities find the all-important funding? Postponing building Gaelic schools might be a good start. Another should be lowering and monitoring the weight limit of vehicles. There are HGVs with articulated trailers, best kept on the A9, rattling along narrow single-track roads doing untold damage. Invoking a section 96 of the Road (Scotland) Act 1984 permitting the local authority to recover the cost of additional repairs is
another option.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com