A few weekends ago was definately one of the latter as we headed north into bonny Scotland on a water vole fact finding mission. Our intrepid crew consisted of Tom Dearnley (Driver), Kevin O'Hara (navigator) and me (back seat counterweight). Its a long journey, especially around Perth where we have three goes at finding the right road, during which time Newcastle go from winning 1-0 to losing 2-1 to Stoke City (I ask you!).
The journey is filled with lively banter, most memorable of which is Kev goading us with tales of mouth watering pies from the butchers at Ballater. By the time we reach, Carter Bar, we are all drooling and craving pies something rotten. Needless to say, the butchers is closed when we get there and we have to settle for a tasty italians.
It's cold in Ballater, minus 1 degree celsius, we understand. That was evident from the young ladies frequenting the doorstep of the village pub. No need for extra hatstands here.
Next morning, I'm gazing out of the window at beautiful mountain terrain, with lots of pines and layer of low clouds, tucked around like a scarf. There's a small flock of blue and great tits on the feeders, scrapping with Jackdaws as I make my way down to breakfast. If only my room had been at the front where some crested tits had been flitting around the tree tops!
What a great breakfast mind - all the trimmings and a big bowl of porridge to start the day.
We meet Prof Xavier Lambin (Aberdeen University), who has been researching water voles for some time and can therefore be considered to be expert in these matters. An hour later, I am convinced this has been a trip worth every second as Xavier outlines the fantastic success of the work that has been going ahead in Scotland, guided principally by his research work.
Once in the field on the nearby Balmoral estate, its a "red day" with first red squirrel, followed by red grouse and then two tremendous red deer stags sitting majestically in front of Queen Victoria's hunting lodge! Signs of water voles were everywhere in this very untypical area for the species and we even found burrows in the rocks around a bridge, showing how resiliant they are and how easy it is to miss signs. We also disturbed snipe and mountain hare during the short walk before coming across a large herd of red deer lurking on the low ground (obviously aware that stalkers would be on high ground!).
On the return journey, prolonged by a massive detour because of a fatal road accident, we reflected on the project which has seen a focus on mink control and involving lots of volunteers. Any gaps in water vole populations can be plugged by a "hard" translocation, ie: animals are moved into the suitable area immediately rather than from a captive bred release on a vole sex farm. In this way, hardy and aclimitised animals have a greater chance of success as the hardiness has not been bred out of them. Its essential that there is good quality monitoring and effective mink control but this method seems to be far preferable to the alternative. Its certainly made us go for a total rethink about this knotty problem and with FC potentially on board, it may have a greater chance of success.
Overall, a good weekend, spoiled only by the collision with a barn owl in the mist on the way back near Ridsdale. But some marvellous and legendary pies!