Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 49

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Albert Einstein, in his book, The World as I See It, said: ‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.’

Nowhere are there more mysteries to be found than in the natural history world. As fine an example as any is why do two species of birds from the same family choose different material with which to line the inner cup of their nest to lay eggs in?

Almost always in the west Highlands, golden eagles have a marked preference for the dried winter leaves of the great woodrush (Luzula sylvatica), whereas sea eagles, according to David Sexton, the RSPB Scotland officer for the Isle of Mull, and an authority on the species, line their nests almost exclusively with dead, white purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) which becomes a very distinctive feature and makes them stand out at a distance especially in the sunshine when it turns pale beige – the same colour as the birds’ heads.

Neither the great woodrush nor the purple moor grass are rare in eagle country. The former is the largest woodrush whose name is thought to come from the Italian lucciola (to shine) or the Latin luzulae or luxulae, from lux (light) inspired by the sparkling appearance of the heads of the flowers when wet with dew or rain, while sylvatica comes from silva, Latin for forest.

John Cameron, in his Gaelic Names of Plants, Edinburgh, 1883, tells us that Luzula sylvatica is called in Gaelic, Luachar coille, meaning the bright grass or rush of the wood, which he describes as a very conspicuous plant, more of the habit of a grass than a rush, with the stalk rising to more than two feet and bearing a terminal cluster of brownish flowers, with large light-yellow anthers.

It may well grow to that height on sheltered low ground but wherever I have come across it in Morvern, it has been growing on acidic soils in damp shady habitants above 1,000 feet and, being exposed to the constant wind, is much smaller.

So what is it about the great woodrush that is favoured by golden eagles when there are so many other alternatives, such as the purple moor grass which their cousins, the sea or white-tailed eagles, prefer? Is it because its leaves, which are replaced by heather, moss, wool and sticks soon after the
young eagles hatch, are extra absorbent; is it their scent, or can it be that the birds are feeding on the caterpillar of the Coleophora sylvaticella moth, whose only food source is this plant?

I have often found ring-ouzels, the mountain equivalent of the closely-related common blackbird, nesting a few feet below occupied eyries suggesting that they may be taking advantage of scraps from something the eagles bring home. As John Muir, the influential, Scottish-American naturalist, author and environmental philosopher said: ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’

In appearance, at least, if not in character, the golden eagle is the UK’s finest wild creature and well deserves the age-old title the ‘King of Birds’.

Its tremendous wingspan, often nearer six than five feet, its massive build, the yellow of the beak and feet and the golden sheen on the wing and nape feathers as it wheels and turns in the sun, compel our admiration.

The seasonal clutch consists normally of two, occasionally three, eggs, and if the first are destroyed, others are not laid. The young are covered with white down, and great care appears to be taken with their food. At first the liver of its victims is often the sole diet of the eaglets, followed by portions of well-plucked birds, rabbits, hares, fox cubs or other mammals that have been carefully skinned by the parent birds. It is only when the birds are several weeks old that they are given whole victims to deal with themselves.

Even before they can fly, they hunch or arch their shoulders and spread their wings over a recent kill to conceal it from others. This is called mantling – a relic from the days when they lived in flocks like vultures and had to defend their food.

In Scotland, especially in the Highlands and Islands, the golden eagle’s presence or absence depends on the interests of the landowners. Where there are too many sheep, eagles are unpopular and shepherds would not care if they were extinct, even though it is usually only the smallest, sickly or dead lambs that fall prey to them.

The miracle of the golden eagle is that they exist at all. For years they have been persecuted almost to extinction. Old records from Skye show that in 1833 no fewer than 25 eagles were killed in a single year by one man.  Macleod of Macleod and his principal tenant considered eagles to be vermin and paid out five shillings for every set of talons from a dead one delivered to them. But when this greedy eagle-slayer called MacDonald, asked for his bounty, Macleod gave him only £1 and offered him a place in Glendale.

In Sutherland, the persecution was equally horrendous. Between March 1820 and March 1826, 290 adults and 60 young were killed. Despite this massive cull, another took place between March 1831 and March 1834, when 171 birds with 53 young and eggs were destroyed.

So scarce had they become that by 1848 John Woolley, a notorious English egg-collector, found it [the golden eagle], ‘verging on extinction due no doubt to the great death dealt amongst those birds by the gamekeepers, who were instigated to destroy them by the rewards offered’. No word of his own misdeeds.

Trapping and burning nests accounted for many others. Little more than a century ago more than 50 golden eagles were killed in six years in Jura and five pairs on Rum.

Happily, the situation has changed dramatically and today’s estimated 450 breeding pairs of golden eagles are being guarded by stringent legislation and extra special protection areas throughout northern and western Scotland.

Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said it was fitting that additional steps had been taken to protect what was becoming one of Scotland’s most iconic species. She added: ‘People come here from across the world with the hope of catching just a glimpse of one of these beautiful birds in their natural environment.

‘These new protected areas will mean they can continue to do this for generations to come. Along with other birds of prey, golden eagles can bring benefits to the local economy through wildlife watching; a recent study by SNH shows that nature-based tourism brings at least £1.4 billion a year to the Scottish economy, supporting the equivalent of 39,000 jobs.’

Iain Thornber