Whitelee National Nature Reserve has its own flock of "Wild" Goats (Capra aegagrus), which roam at will across the moorland, well almost! In fact, they are constrained to Kielderhead and Whitelee by a fence (although I think they have learned to walk around it now.
Very occasionally there is a need to intervene with these animals, usually if their numbers get too large (which may result in damage to the population as well as the site. Thus an annual census is taken to make an informed decision on whether a cull may be required (which is very rare).
Thus a beautiful sunny day in June 2010 saw us deposited at Whitelee, armed with binoculars, sun cream and Mars Bars. Joined by rangers from the Forestry Commission, we divided the ground up. My colleague for the day, Anthony, and myself elected to climb to the White Crags, circle across the top of the watershed and then descend down the Batinghope Burn.
At 1510ha, a NNR, SAC and SSSI, this is Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s largest reserve and is notable for its active blanket bog and heather heaths. Some of it is even in Scotland!
The ground that we covered was principally moorland, with a little bit of recently planted woodland. At first view an open vista but once entered its full of small gulley's and peat hags, many of which could easily hide a Billy Goat and his hareem.
Within five minutes, I remembered my age as my first wind went and the second never really got there! Its pretty steep and being out of condition, it was very hard going across the tussocky heather. Despite my stertorous gasping, the trip was enlivened by the soaring of Skylarks and numerous Meadow Pipits, darting from under my labouring feet in places. Breeding appears to have been reasonably good for these species, although for nearly an hour these were the only birds we saw (the exception being the odd wood pigeon flapping around the nearby conifer blocks).
Reaching the top was a relief to my aching lungs and the ground flattened off. Most notably, the entire blanket bog was a dry as I have ever seen it, crusted in places. Water lurks beneath the surface still, but the availability of insects for feeding young is bound to take its toll this year, adding to an over harsh winter. A couple of small-leaved sundew were noted.
Crossing the watershed, still with naught but "mipits" and skylarks, we entered the rough ground around the top of the Coomsden Burn and dropped in to the Batinghope Burn, where the ground is fairly steep and broken in comparison to other areas. Within minutes we had picked up additional species, the most obvious being a pair of Common Buzzard with two young, both of which were able to fly and join their parents for short periods, being coaxed by the female. Willow warbler, stonechat and pied wagtail were later joined by a single juvenile wheatear, just close to a large sheep stell, where it probably had recently emerged from a nest. On the burn, we startled a dipper and a couple more pied wagtails. In the shelter of the valley, there were a few butterflies, small white, small copper (3) and a single brown job that we couldn't quite see for long enough.
The valley bottom has a few small flushes and standing pools, one of which was alive with the biggest common toad tadpoles I have seen for years! A few small frogs were also noted and by taking the time to look we also found the pool to be full of Palmate Newts, one of which was extremely pale, almost white.
Shortly after this we flushed another dipper, presumably a mate to the previous one. It was at this point that I decided to entertain Anthony by plunging off the bank side into the burn, soaking myself in the process as well as crunching my leg on boulders. One look at my leg and it was," I think we'll look at that WHEN we get back" (a later visit to the General confirmed it wasn't broken-so what was that mystery white object projecting from the shin?).
On meeting the others and comparing notes, we had the addition of Golden Plover (with young) and everyone agreed it had been a lovely day - but NO GOATS!