During the last week of April I spent a couple of days at Dundreggan, so that I could go out overnight with the volunteers who are taking part in our Project Wolf there. That’s the name for an experimental project we’re carrying out to see if we can replicate the natural disturbance effect of Scotland’s missing predators, such as the wolf (Canis lupus). By having volunteers walk through the edge of the native woodland on the estate at irregular and varied times during the night we hope to keep red deer (Cervus elaphus) from browsing on naturally-regenerating birch seedlings (Betula pendula and Betula pubescens), just as they come into leaf and are at their most vulnerable.
This is the second year we’ve been running this project, and it has been enthusiastically supported by volunteers – the places for this year were fully booked very soon after we advertised them. We’ve taken on two different groups, of three volunteers each, one for the month of April and the other for May. When I went out for my night with the ‘wolves’ it was the final week for the first group, which consisted of three women – Liv, Lotte and Chanel – who were quite experienced in the project by then, and were eager to share their nightly routine out on patrol in the forest with me.
Project Wolf is timed for the period around the emergence of the new leaves on the deciduous trees, particularly the birches, in the second half of April. Birch is the most common tree in the native woodland on the lower slopes of the land at Dundreggan, and there are large numbers of young naturally-occurring seedlings, especially at the top edge of the woodland, where it gives way to the open ground above. These have been held in check by the browsing pressure from the deer, and we believe the critical time for that is when the new leaves burst from their buds.
At this time of year the deer have come through the hardships of winter, using up all their reserves of body fat to do so, and are hungry for any food they can find. Because little vegetation has started growing yet, the new leaves of the trees are particularly attractive, both because they haven’t developed the full suite of defensive chemicals they have during the summer (which make them less appetising to herbivores) and also because as young seedlings the tender shoots are easy to reach. As the season progresses, there’s more variety of food for the deer to eat, and they tend to move uphill as well, to get away from insects such as the Highland biting midge (Culicoides impunctatus). This means there’s less pressure on the young trees then, so Project Wolf is designed to keep deer on the move during the crucial period of April and May, so that they don’t stay on the edge of the woodland, overgrazing every young tree in sight.
The women had established a base camp with a colourful silk parachute acting as an awning, in amongst some old Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) in the woodland. They lit a small fire and made some tea to warm up before we set off on our walk at dusk. The day had been cold and snow was forecast, so we were all dressed warmly, and it was good to have some hot liquid inside as well. The plan was to walk around the edge of the woodland for some hours, perhaps returning to the base camp for some more tea, and then possibly sleeping out in the forest for the remainder of the night.
There was some discussion about setting up a temporary camp for the night at a different location. That would be at a site where there’s a plan to build a ‘wolf den’ – a rustic shelter for the human wolves to stay in when the weather is bad, or to catch some sleep between patrols – but we decided against that, because of the forecast. It seemed like the right choice, because as we set off at twilight the snow began to fall, lightly coating the ground and the low-growing junipers (Juniperus communis) on the hillside at the edge of the woodland.
Leaving the trees behind we walked across the open hillside where I knew from experience there were birch seedlings, struggling to grow amongst the heather (Calluna vulgaris). It was a very different experience walking there in the gathering darkness, as the ground seemed unfamiliar, and it was a good test of our night vision to pick our way safely. The snow on the ground helped, as it made everything brighter, but it soon stopped falling and the clouds cleared, giving us a wonderful view of the stars.
Once it got fully dark, we switched on our head torches, and the landscape took on a different feeling again, as the trees stood out when they were illuminated by our lights. Chanel was carrying a powerful spotlight that she used periodically, to search for any deer. Their eyeshine reflects the light, making them easier to spot, and the women can then direct their walking to move the deer away from the woodland. As we walked, we didn’t see any deer, but we did find one birch seedling, bravely sticking its new leaves above the heather, and protruding through the snow.
We walked back and forth across the hillside, sometimes dropping down into the woodland, and then coming up out of the forest again. The aim is to make these night-time walks unpredictable in both their timing and route, so that the deer don’t become accustomed to a regular routine that would allow them to adapt their movements to come into the woodland when the volunteers aren’t there. This variation also seeks to mimic the behaviour of predators such as wolves, by surprising the deer at different times and in different places.
The volunteers had seen deer on many, but not all, of the nights they’ve been out in the forest, and I expected that the deer would be down in the woodland this night, to get shelter from the snow. However, as the night progressed we didn’t see any at all, which was something of a surprise. At a certain point we stopped to have some tea from our flasks, and discussed our options for the rest of the night. Despite the snow, which was now constant and sometimes blizzard-like in its intensity, everyone decided to continue walking on for another couple of hours.
By keeping on the move, we stayed warm, and it was beautiful walking in the falling snow in the darkness. I’ve been out in the forest at Dundreggan in many different conditions, but being in the dark in the middle of a blizzard was a new experience for me. We stayed close together, and the falling snowflakes got larger and wetter as time progressed, making them quite dramatic and spectacular as they appeared in the light of our torches. It was indeed a magical experience, and one that we all agreed very few people in our modern culture have the opportunity to take part in. It was meeting wild nature on nature’s own terms, and it made for a very memorable night.
As we walked we puzzled over the absence of any deer, and I could only assume that they had gone for shelter somewhere else – perhaps in the plantation of non-native trees on the western side of Dundreggan. At any rate, there weren’t any deer in the areas we walked through, meaning that the volunteers were being very effective in their role, of keeping the young trees safe from having their newly-emerged leaves eaten. Although the night was anti-climactic from the point of view of not seeing any deer, it was nevertheless very satisfying to know that our walk in the dark and in the snow was having a positive result.
At about 2 am, having traversed the hillside back and forth, in and out of the woodland, we returned to the parachute base camp and had some more tea. Everyone was in good spirits and we were all buoyed by the unexpected experience of being out in a blizzard in the darkness at the end of April. The original plan had been to sleep out in the woodland, as the women had done on many previous nights, but with the snow falling continuously the volunteers decided to retreat to their cabin near the lodge for the rest of the night. Lotte had a small tent pitched near the parachute that she sometimes used to sleep in, so she offered me the option of staying there if I was wiling to sleep on the hill by myself. It was an easy decision for me to make, as I’m always up for special experiences in nature, and I hadn’t slept out at Dundreggan in the woodland before in the snow. So, while the volunteers went to their cabin, I unrolled my sleeping bag, inflated my camping mattress and bedded down for the night …
After four and half hours of sleep, I woke up at about 7 am to the sound of drops on the tent – snow was melting from the trees and falling on to it. By the time I got out of my sleeping bag and put my boots on, the temperature must have dropped again, because fresh snow had begun to fall. I’d been perfectly warm during the night, having kept all my clothes on inside my sleeping bag, and the white landscape was wonderful to wake up to. Before heading down to the buildings for some breakfast, I took the opportunity of doing some photography. I also shot some video footage of the falling snow, so here’s a brief compilation of that, with the first scenes being from the start of our night-time walk the previous evening.
It snowed quite heavily for about 10 or 15 minutes, transforming the landscape into a white wonderland and providing a remarkable contrast with (and probably a shock to!) the fresh, bright green new leaves of the birch trees.
Ironically, while I had been warm in the tent, when I saw the volunteers later in the morning they said they had been cold in their cabin during the night! By mid-morning the temperature had risen again, and the snow melted quickly. In the afternoon it had all vanished, and it was almost as though our night in the forest had been an alternate reality, as the woodland had all the appearance of spring again, with the most obvious feature being the vibrant colours of the new leaves on the birches.
It had been a remarkable night for all of us, despite the lack of any encounter with deer, and it was complemented a day later by another interesting experience. As part of our ‘Rewilding the Highlands’ project my colleague Joyce Gilbert had organised for a group of Norwegian storytellers who were on tour in Scotland to visit Dundreggan. One of them was a man of Sami origin called Torgeir Vasvikk, from the far north of Norway. The Sami people have a tradition of celebrating nature in a number of ways including vocalisations that are called ‘joiking’, and Torgeir knows the songs or ‘joiks’ of wolves, so it seemed particularly fitting for them to meet with our volunteer ‘wolves’.
We walked up through the woodland as a small group, consisting of the Norwegians, some Trees for Life staff and the volunteer ‘wolves’, to the site of the planned ‘wolf den’. We were also accompanied by Richard Bracken, the artist/sculptor who is going to build the den.
Joyce had been hoping that she could entice Torgeir into performing a wolf ‘joik’ at the site of the wolf den, which has been chosen as it faces a rock outcrop across the glen which has a Gaelic place name that relates to a wolf. It was an auspicious place, both for the den, and for performing this ancient Sami tradition, and after we had been there for a little while, Torgeir duly gave voice to a wolf ‘joik’. It was quite a powerful experience for me, and I think for all of us, to hear this traditional invocation for the wolf at this site, and after the night mimicking the natural disturbance effect of our missing wolves.
I hadn’t been to the site of the planned ‘wolf den’ before, and although we’d intended to visit it during our night-time walk, we hadn’t been able to find it in the dark and snowy conditions. Seeing it then in daylight, I realised that it is indeed a very appropriate location, as it is a small rocky knoll that forms a natural viewpoint and looks like it has an inherent natural purpose or meaning to it. I could almost imagine that it had been used by people centuries or millennia ago for special ceremonies or events …
While I was exploring the area around it, I was surprised and delighted to find a Scots pine seedling growing beside a small watercourse about ten metres away. Remarkably, it hadn’t been browsed at all by deer, and by counting the number of sets of lateral branches on it I was able to determine its age as being six years. This seemed quite astonishing, given that all of the birch seedlings in that general area have clear signs of browsing on them. Also, this seedling was about 200 metres from the nearest mature Scots pine, whereas the average dispersal distance for Scots pine seeds from a parent tree is estimated to be about 5o metres. It seemed like a little miracle, just for us that day, symbolising both the aim of our work at Dundreggan to get more native forest re-established there, and the importance of Project Wolf in helping to achieve that. To me it was a gift from Nature, a clear sign that we are on the right track with our work, and that the land and the trees respond to our dedication, love and care.
To finish with, here’s a video clip of Torgeir explaining about, and then performing, a wolf ‘joik’: