Monday, 25 March 2013

Life and Death in the Snow

In upper Teesdale and Weardale we have had snow here for weeks. This is the border sign between Teesdale and Weardale several days before the latest band of snow arrived.

06D-2314 Snow piled up against a road sign on the B6278 at the Teesdale Weardale Border in County Durham
Sign on the B6278 before the latest bad weather hit

It is of course blocked yet again. The pic incidentally was used by the Times Newspaper on the 21st March to highlight the anticipated bad weather

As a result weather related imagery has been in high demand and despite there being plenty of pro photographers stupid enough to give photos away for free (egos bigger than their brains springs to mind) it has still been possible to license some to various news organisation. I could at this point have a massive and perhaps pointless rant about such photographers, but I suppose I had better refrain...... for now at least.

Anyway, one area I noticed that was being under reported was the plight of farmers who are currently in the middle of lambing and so after a night of high winds and driving snow I headed out early.

06D-2661 Sheep coping with the heavy snowfall and blizzards Teesdale County Durham.
Sheep are hardy animals

This farmer was already doing his rounds and battling through the drifts and driving snow to check on his sheep, give them their winter feed and collect up any sheep that had lambed during the last few hours.

06D-2682 Farmer driving through deep snow to check on his sheep.

Sheltered by a wall one mother had given birth recently and I grabbed a few shots of mother and lamb. What I did not notice, was that right next to her and covered by the drifting snow lay a second which sadly had not survived. This was the first lamb to die so far this year, which is amazing considering the weather and testament to how much time and effort is expended on caring for these animals, day and night.

06D-2631 Newborn Lamb in Snow Teesdale County Durham UK
What a horrible day to be born

06D-2739 Farmer and lamb.
Sadly some do not make it

It never ceases to maze me that any can survive in such conditions but they do. Within a short time the surviving lamb was soon struggling to get to its feet and after half a dozen tries stood there looking wet and bedraggled. Soon the mother had him/her cleaned up and then few minutes later they were moved to the barn.

06D-2710 Sheep with lamb born during heavy snowfall Teesdale County Durham
Standing and taking those first steps

06D-2746 Mother and Newborn Lamb in Snow Teesdale County Durham

A portrait version of this shot was published in the Daily Mail on Sunday.

Text/images copyright David Forster

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

There seem to be plenty of Pheasants around at the moment. I counted 7 around the feeders at Low Barns Nature Reserve the other day. There were a couple of males but they were very wary of each other which is probably a good indication they will be breeding soon. I also saw one with a damaged foot which could well be as a result of a fight. Seeing these common birds got me thinking about their background and life cycle.

The Pheasant is a common none-native Game Bird that was probably introduced into the UK as long as 2,000 years ago by the Romans. Food remains found at Silchester certainly show the Romans ate these birds and it is not unreasonable therefore to draw the conclusion that they would have bred here. That said a number of sources suggest they were actually introduced by the Norman's in the 10-11th century. The earliest documentary evidence is certainly from that time where it is said that King Harold in 1059 offered the canons of Waltham Abbey a brace of pheasants. (Ritchie J. 1920, The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland, Cambridge University Press).

Pheasant colouring can be very variable as there are a number of different races. For example, Phasianus torquatus which has a white band around the neck and the much less common Green Pheasant P. versicolor.

07-6145 Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
Some evidence of the white neck band can be seen which relates to Phasianus torquatus. In a pure bred bird this band is several cm wide and goes completly around the neck

02D-3579 Male Pheasant Phasianus colchicus in Sunlit Woodland UK
This male does not have any white at all

Another mutant variation has a very dark plumage and is known as Phasianus colchicus, var. tenebrosus. These birds are often refered to as being "Melanistic" but technically they aren't.

02D-3546 Female Pheasant Phasianus colchicus var. tenebrosus in Sunlit Undergrowth UK.
Female bird with characteristics of Phasianus colchicus, var. tenebrosus sometimes incorrectly referred to as being Melanistic

Interbreeding between races unfortunately makes it impossible to tell if a particular bird simply has similar plumage characteristics as opposed to being an actual true form. So much so it is thought there are in fact no pure bred pheasants of any particular race in the wild in Britain

Pheasants like many other none-native species have become very successful throughout the UK. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that the British countryside with its patchwork of fields, woodland and heathland is the perfect habitat.

Add to this the fact pheasants are prolific egg layers with some nests having well over a dozen eggs in them (last year I counted 19 eggs in one nest) and it is hardly surprising. A key factor however is that in some areas pheasants are an integral part of the rural economy and are bred specifically for release prior to the pheasant-shooting season, which lasts from October through to February. In these areas bird densities can be very high adding millions to the overall UK population

06D-2071a Female Pheasant Phasianus colchicus in Woodland Habitat UK

Unfortunately their success as a none-native species does have some drawbacks for the native wildlife and there are concerns that reptile populations are declining in some areas where pheasants can be found in artificially high numbers.

Shooting interests aside pheasants do not necessarily have an easy life and predators such as Fox, Badger, Mink and Stoat all regularly take eggs, chicks and adult birds. Birds such as Crow, Magpie and Buzzard among others also prey on the pheasant during each stage of its life cycle. This of course brings them into conflict with shooting interests. Road deaths it has to be said also reduce numbers considerably.

The latter will be of no surprise to anyone who drives on country roads and has met an indecisive pheasant waiting quietly at the roadside. Males in particular seem to stand there partially hidden in the grass and just as you reach them something in their pea sized brain clicks and with head held high he will dash straight out in front of you. Then, just as he reaches the middle of the road he will often change his mind and run back. If you were observant and managed to slow down you will then be entertained by the silly bugger running back and forth until he is either hit by a car coming the other way, or with considerable luck makes it back to where he started. If the road is busy you may well be treated to a repeat in your rear view mirror as he does exactly the same to the next car.

If they manage to survive the roads they are easiest to observe in the spring when the males are at their most colourful. Very often you will hear their hacking, "Cukk Cukk" call accompanied by a strange Brrr-rrrring sound made by their feathers as they do a kind of "look at me" display by flapping their wings and fluffing out their chest and tail feathers.

02D-3601a Male Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Displaying in a Woodland Environment UK
Male Displaying

If a male ventures into another males territory they will both put up a pretty vicious fight and have even been known to have a go at humans too.

Once all of the chicks hatch from a brood they leave the nest and unlike many other birds that are fed at the nest by their parents they are capable of feeding on their own. .

Come the autumn the birds will be in their greatest numbers, but shooting, predation and harsh weather all take their toll on the population and around 50% of the young birds will die during the first year.

So there you have it a little bit about a common bird that is colourful, vocal, full of character and when it comes to roads a little stupid.

As ever I am keen to produce articles that are accurate and if you have any useful information, or indeed corrections it would be great to hear from you.

Text/Images Copyright David Forster

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Balknakeil Bay - Scotland

With a stormy snow leaden sky as a roof, a cold wind sighing though its empty windows and across the lichen stained stonework, Balnakeil Church can have a desolate air. Of course ruins, especially roofless ones, do tend have an atmosphere reflected by the weather. Stand here under a blue sky and a warm sun and the church does have a much more benign feel to it. At this moment however the atmosphere was brooding and malevolent and I actually felt a little uneasy as I stepped inside.

06D-7012BW The Ruined Balnakeil Church Near Durness Scotland UK
Balnakeil Church

On the left guarding the doorway is the tomb of notorious villain Domhnuall MacMhurchadh and once you are aware of his history it is easy to understand why this place of worship might have something of a malevolent air. MacMhurchadh it would appear was a cruel and heartless killer with at least eighteen murders to his name. Some say he worked alone, but very little went on without the knowledge of the local clan leaders and many sources suggest he was simply a henchman for the Clan MacKay. 

06D-7025a Heraldic Symbols Balnakeil Church Near Durness Scotland UK
Heraldic Symbols with the date 1619, the date when the church was built on the site originally founded by St Maelrubha in AD 722. This panel is above the tomb of MacMhurchadh which itself has the skull and cross bone symbol on it

Typically while he dumped the bodies of his victims down the deep shaft of Smoo Cave and denied them a decent burial, he greatly feared what would happen to his own mortal remains after death. To protect himself he used his ill-gotten gains to buy both spiritual and physical security within the church walls by lining the pockets of Uisdean Dubh MacKay the second Lord of Reay with a thousand pounds. 

07-2947 Waterfall in Smoo Cave Durness North Coast of Scotland
Inside Smoo Cave.

It is of course easy to focus solely on the barbaric activities of a single individual and there is much more to this place. In the churchyard itself there is a monument to the Gaelic poet Rob Donn Calder, Mackay. Elizabeth Parkes, an aunt of John Lennon, is also supposed to be buried here but we did not see her grave. A little to the south a slightly raised area is the unmarked grave of those who perished off Faraid Head when the emigrant ship The Canton went down in 1849 with the loss of all on board. There is without doubt a palpable sense of loss here which seeps into your being.

Such melancholic thoughts were not helped as the sky darkened bringing yet another heavy snow shower across the bay. Fortunately the siren call of waves breaking on the beach reached our ears and we were happy to be drawn away from the church to walk along the sands of Balnakeil Bay towards Faraid Head.

Any dark thoughts of death and destruction soon faded when the sun broke through and rays of light began to play on the hills to the south. Immediately the mood lightened and a friendly wave and cheery hello from a passing walker leaning hard into the wind lifted us further. Its funny how easily the mood can change with a bit of sun and a cheery word.

Heading across the sands the tide was still receding so we spent a while beach combing before heading across to some shallow caves where we had a cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat out of the wind. 

05D-7087 The Cape Wrath Peninsular Viewed from Balnakeil Bay Faraid Head Durness Sutherland North West Coast of Scotland UK
The view from the caves with the Cape Wrath Peninsular across the bay

Further on the beach merged with the cliffs at its northern end we headed up towards an old boat winch where we had good views south towards Cranstackie and across the bay to the Cape Wrath peninsular. In the sun it was hard to imagine the stormy sky and chilling snow showers of the morning had ever existed. 

05D-7240 Old Winch For Fishing Boats and the View Across Balnakeil Bay Faraid Head Durness Sutherland North Wesy Coast of Scotland UK
The view from the winch across Balnakeil Bay towards Cranstackie

The rusting boat winch was a reminder that people have existed on these exposed shores for millennia. In fact it was near here in the dunes that the grave of a young Viking was found by a walker in 1991, after a storm exposed part of the skeleton. Grave goods suggested a date of around 850-900. Then a few years later in 1997 a Pictish burial was also found in the nearby Sango Bay. This find took the history of the people living in this area back to pre-Christian times.

Moving on we headed up and across Faraid Head towards the military lookout post to get views of the 300 ft high northern cliffs. Unfortunately any plans we had for enjoying the view with another coffee in the sun were soon blown away by the wind. Retreating downwind towards the dunes the weather turned yet again and under an increasingly threatening sky we headed back to the campsite.

Images and Text Copyright David Forster

About Balnakeil Church
Originally founded by St Maelrubha in AD 722 the site became an important place of worship for Celtic people. The current Church was then constructed in 1619 and altered in 1692 when an aisle was added. The church then continued in use until around 1814 before being abandoned when the new church was built.

Further Information
Balnakeil Church

Viking burial found in Balnakeil Bay

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Review - Mens Geo Softshell Winter Trousers

Mens Geo Softshell winter trousers.


Sizing: S-XXL, available in short, regular and long leg

Purchased from: Gaynor Sports Ambleside

Price Paid: £34.99 currently on offer at £24.95 at

Used for: Winter hill walking, photography, snowshoeing, downhill and cross-country skiing.

While looking for a new pair of winter trousers in a short leg length in Gaynor Sports, Ambleside the Regatta Geo Soft Shell Trousers caught my eye. Now I have to be honest here and say I would normally head straight for well-known mountain brands. Unfortunately over the past couple of years I have had some bad experiences with some brands and have been shocked at how poor the quality can be. These trousers lack the complex design of some and don't have crampon protection, ventilation zips and reinforced panels here and there, however all I wanted was a pair of simple trousers with an articulated knee that would do the job.

I have worn these trousers a lot over the past couple of months, both here in the UK as well as in temperatures as low as minus 15 in Lapland. In fact they have been worn on just about every occasion I have ventured out in the snow. In use the wind and water resistant outer material itself feels very stretchy and certainly has a durable feel to it. So far there is little evidence of wear in areas such as the knee, seat and where the rucsack contacts in the lumbar area.

Mens Geo Soft Shell winter trousers

Comfort is good and the articulated knees, part elasticated waist and stretch fabric allow for plenty of movement. Activity wise, regardless of whether it was stomping around the Pennines searching for photographic inspiration, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, or snow shoeing they have proved to be more than up to the task. When it comes to wearing them in snowy conditions I was also pleased to note that despite plenty of thigh deep floundering, lots of kneeling while photographing - and in Lapland, day upon day of continually falling snow, I never had a problem with snow sticking to them. Water resistance from new was good, but after a number of washes has reduced. That said it is important to recognise that these are not waterproofs and they will really only cope with light showers. These trousers incidentally do take quite a long time to dry out and getting them soaked on the hill will probably mean staying soaked. After washing all you have to do is turn them inside out to expose the fleece lining which helps speed up the drying process.

Lower leg detail.

Despite the lack of ventilation breathability was still adequate, although it has to be said there were a few occasions where moisture did build up making them feel a little clammy. In reality this was not a significant issue and really only occurred in warmer weather conditions while exercising at quite high levels such as when walking up steep slopes.

All in all I have found them a comfortable and functional pair of winter trousers at a very affordable price.

Verdict 4/5.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Adder are out in Teesdale

After what seems like weeks and weeks of cold grey skies we finally have some sunshine in Teesdale. With the increased temperatures I suspected adder would be out of hibernation (Brumation) and basking in sun so headed across to a hibernation site I regularly visit on the Teesdale/Weardale border. Sure enough two males were found in their usual spot enjoying a few rays. I didn't want to disturb them too much so simply grabbed a few record shots and left them to it.

06D-1884 Male Adder Vipera Berus.
Male Adder (Vipera berus).