Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Wednesday, 23 April 2008 18:00 UK

Highland Diary: Remote munro

Beinn Eighe's National Nature Reserve

BBC natural history producer Fergus Beeley has headed to the top of a remote munro in Scotland to film the spectacular wildlife that live there.

Animals such as red deer, mountain hares and ptarmigan can be seen in the rocky terrain.

The footage is being recorded for a BBC Natural World wildlife programme, Secrets of the Highlands, to be broadcast next year.

Mr Beeley is writing a diary of his experiences on the expedition for the BBC News website.

4 April 2008: BY THE THROAT

The outboard engine is pulled to life by Eoghain Maclean, and in this little but sturdy wooden boat we are heading out from the shore of Loch Maree towards the little islands and islets.

From the shore the islands are enticing, magical, secret and pristine. Eoghain knows these waters well, which is a blessing, as they are riddled with jagged peaks just below the surface, which can be a real hazard.

Eoghain on boat

These islands are part of Beinn Eighe's National Nature Reserve, managed by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Eoghain is the reserve manager, and clearly his greatest passion on the whole reserve are the black-throated divers that live in a greater abundance on his loch than anywhere else in Britain.

I'm with him today on this boat trip to see if any of his birds are back in from the seas around the Shiant islands, where they have spent the winter.

For me, it'll be a first sighting of the species. I've seen black-necked and red-throated divers in Britain, but never these black-throated birds.

Don't they all sound the same? What can be special about a black-throated? All I can say is that when I caught the birds in my bins for the first time, I was quite awe-struck with their beauty.

Their markings are exquisite, with gentle puffy grey heads and then striking chequerboard black and white body stripes.

Untouchable dead

They swim with a lunge from the hip like they're pacing the cat-walk. They're much larger than I was expecting, too.

They're glaring back down the barrels of my powerful Swarovski bins like they can see my pupils better than I can see theirs.

They have a reptilian look. Ancient. Primitive. Specialised. Perfect. We pass more islands and then see another pair of divers.

Beinn Eighe map (BBC)

Eoghain is clearly buzzing. He's greeting them fondly - "this is territory J", he remembers to tell me, in a more scientific tone.

He knows their breeding history well, but can't hide his pleasure as he recalls their events and dates like he might be talking fondly of many different grandchildren.

The islands are strikingly forested. Dense, ancient Scots pine cluster on most.

We pass another island which has more oak than pine. Eoghain tells me of gravestones on the island, as old as Viking, and how being buried on an island rather than on the mainland would have saved the bones of the dead from being dug up by wolves.

Crikey. We'll have some of that in the narration for the film, please!

Rise and fall

The cry of the black-throated diver sounds like the wicked witch of the west screaming on a bad day. Add that to the picture of the pictures of ancient graves?

No, no. This is a wildlife film, not a Hammer House. As we weave between more islands, we approach a table-sized raft, which has been constructed as a nesting platform for the divers.

These rafts are made and put out for the divers to use if they choose, and evidently, they're preferable to the natural island shorelines. The latter sites can easily fail as waters rise, drowning out the eggs after heavy May rains.

The rafts are so well designed with heather and turf that they really could be real table-sized islands, but they function well to rise and fall with the water level of the loch, which can go up more than 2.5m after heavy rains.

We'll be spending much time with these birds over the summer. They're new to me now, their behaviour and their traits, but I hope that within a few months we'll know them intimately.

They'll be starting to court and call within the next few weeks, which is when we'll return, to record both the sight and the sound.

28 March 2008: ON OTTER POO

"Otters are sometimes seen here," say the locals, "bounding through the kelp at low tide, just in front of the bay."

Well, before I was going to put a cameraman in place here for a spell, I'd want to know more about the patterns of behaviour and what was happening.

I found otter spraints everywhere
Even though the towns of Gairloch and Poolewe have shores close to the road, they also have quiet, undisturbed headlands. These are what I wanted to check out for otters.

Walking north and west along one such peninsula, I find a fresh otter spraint (dropping) close to a burn.

This spraint is a marker, both for other otters, and for me - it's at least a certainty that there are otters here (smell it; otter droppings have a distinctly fishy tang over other stringy poos like pine martens).

The spraint sits on a small mound some 10cm high. The prominence of the mound is achieved by endless generations of otters choosing to mark here at this burn.

A fairly distinct track leads through the grass towards the up-turned trunks of mainly Scots pine.

Could there be a natal holt (a place where they have babies underground) amongst these roots and stumps?

I think not. It would be too good to be true, this early in the day. I look back out over the bay. Red-breasted mergansers are courting on the estuary.

Scrambling up and down the narrow headlands and along the rocky shore, I soon stumble across five holes quite close together high on the bank, looking not unlike a rabbit warren.

The holes are close to the trees, with very fresh spraints.

It looks like the kind of place that pine marten would favour, or even mink, but the spraints definitely belong to an otter.

Otter runs (BBC)
The worn path of otters

This is an active sight, for sure, but a natal holt? Maybe just a wintering site, or a resting site.

There is no tell-tale abundance of droppings, which I would expect to see at a natal holt, nor is there any freshwater, which otter families love.

Perhaps the otters have left their natal holt somewhere and been brought here? The mystery thickens, but this is the part of the job that I love.

Walking on, I decide to cut over the headland - the tip is too steep for me and probably for otters.

Small ground-hugging yellow celandines are in flower. Maybe this was once woodland. The plateau is slow to walk.

Tough deer grass (the same colour as deer's hair) and carpets of pale-bleached green Cladonia lichen both grow out of the sphagnum moss.

I have to leap over the boggier areas and pools - over the deliciously lush, spongy green sphagnum, Scorpidium scorpoides, and round the "woolly hair" moss, so loved by the moor nesting dotterel. Grey "dog ear" lichen grows out from the bank in an abundance that I have never seen before.

Each "ear" is 3cm long, looking more like bats' ears than dogs' ears; all whiskery with bent and gnarled edges.

Striding through thick heather on a steep slope I go round the ridge of a headland. Recessed into a secretive cove is a small copse of birch and grey willow.

Otters clearly need their water

There are tracks everywhere, and spraints, too; five in just four square metres, and all very fresh.

The wing of a bird, perhaps a shag, lies on the ground, as well as part of an unidentifiable fish, perhaps a salmon.

This is only 50m from the seashore. Now there could be a natal holt to here.

A stream of freshwater runs right through the copse toward the sea. I'll definitely watch this area from a distance some time in the next few weeks.

26 March 2008: TAN LANDSCAPE

Loch Maree (BBC)
The vegetation can be so thick it is hard to make progress

The dawn Sun has just re-appeared through the cold cloud, making the icy rock around me glisten.

I'm glad to see it again - it's cold up here. I've walked up through the pine forest on the eastern slopes of Beinn Eighe to the higher, more open ground above 300m.

It's 7am now. An hour ago, before I gained any height, I looked up and saw the Sun catching the snow and making it the colour of fire.

That was what made me want to come up, to join that colour, and I have no regrets after the climb. Looking north-west, where Loch Maree joins the sea at Poolewe, I can see a heavily snow-laden cloud.

There must be more to come. Over on Slioch, a dramatic peak on the north shore of Loch Maree, I notice how the colours of the winter heather and bracken are so like that of different shades or tans of leather.

These colours make spotting red deer very difficult unless they move. Then their white tails give them away.

Peaceful spot

Descending, I go into the tree line again. The bark of the Scots pine is patterned in distinct, thick, elongated plates; like armour.

It is known that some of these trees are over 500 years old. It is also thought that they probably originate from a different relict population to those Scots pines found further west in Scotland, such as at Glen Affric.

Red deep (SPL)
The team is trying to film animals like the red deer

As I descend further down again, the clumps of heather are growing waist high out of the mounds of sphagnum moss.

The colours of the various species of sphagnum are eye-catching - there's one, called capillifolium, that is the colour of dead roses, or spilled claret.

Without a path, this thick terrain would be impenetrable, but the team looking after it at Scottish Natural Heritage have made a very good path through it for the public to get in and enjoy it.

There's no-one daft enough to ruin my peace up here on this icy morning in March! As I follow the trail, I find the scats of pine marten, often and fresh.

This is a good sign, as I want these animals to feature in the film, and clearly, this is the edge of an active home range.

Lucky pine marten for being able to use the path, too!


We drove along the shore of Loch Maree at dawn.

It was still raining. We found and filmed red deer feeding hard in the driving, cold rain - so hard that the deer were not bothered by us.

The rain ran off their thick matted coats, but they looked hungry.

Rain and cold wind apparently has a greater effect on the mortality of deer than when it is just very, very cold; and in this specific west coast range of the Highlands, there is a high loss from the cold rain.

We'll head south soon, and return in a few weeks when early spring will be underway - the divers will be calling, the white tailed eagles nest-building.


With the wind speeds now well down from storm force, we were able to walk back up the hill from Kinlochewe and recover the camera from the top of Beinn Eighe.

Waterfall blown upwards (BBC)
The wind does strange things

Most of the gear was remarkably still in tact - the water and shock-proof pelican cases into which the camera and lenses were packed had been lashed together.

Our personal belongings? Beinn Eighe had apparently had the highest rainfall in the country over the last few days of the low pressure and storms, and when we opened our "waterproof" holdalls, it looked as if most of that regional rain had come right in.

Swilling puddles, swollen wet down jackets and sodden socks.

I was at least comforted in the knowledge that we were together with our filming gear again.

One striking image that we filmed was a column of water ascending into the air above a cliff like a chimney. This was a waterfall that was catching the strong cold updraft.

The visibility soon went, and the snow descended. The wildlife - ptarmigan, hares? I assume they had found shelter in the rocky crags and boggy overhangs. They remained out of the cold wind, and were not visible.

Back off the hill again, we quickly accepted the kind invitations to use the drying rooms in both the Kinlochewe Hotel and the Headquarters of Scottish Natural Heritage.


The helicopter crawled up the edge of the mountain, hugging the barely visible ground through the mist and cloud.

No-one had expected that we would soon be fighting to remain on the ground in an extraordinary gale that reached storm force 11

At about 700m, the visibility improved and the snow-capped peaks of Beinn Eighe came into view. The camera was running.

This was day one of filming for a wildlife documentary in the north-west highlands of Scotland and the images today were stunning.

This was a good start. For the next week our aim is to camp on the top of this mountain to film ptarmigan and mountain hare.

After the gale (Jim McNeill)
The storm devastated the team's kit

Our location safety advisor, Jim McNeill, came into vision in the round, deep corrie just below the triple buttresses of the munro known as Ruadh Stac Mor.

His earlier reconnaissance had identified this as a more sheltered position than the actual summit.

With strong winds soon to be coming in from the south-west, this was our "plan B". And it probably saved our lives - for no-one had expected that we would soon be fighting to remain on the ground in an extraordinary gale that reached storm force 11.

We could not ride out this storm now without some significant danger of hypothermia setting into us.

It came on us as night fell, as if an angry dinosaur shared the corrie with us.

It first swiped its claws at our tents.

These strikes were sudden odd gusts of wind that reached 160km/h (100mph), smashing the roofs of our tents down heavily onto our faces.

These hits were followed by an eerie, empty silence, lasting sometimes 20 long seconds.

By midnight, the "dinosaur" was furious. Jim and I, sharing the same tent, could only remain absolutely flat as the gale crushed the now broken tent down onto our bodies, making even breathing difficult.

Mountain hare (SPL)
Mountain hare can also be found at the remote munro

Cameraman Ian McCarthy was struggling to remain in the last standing tent, as it shifted with him across the ground.

Though he was also safely anchored to our own rope-to-boulder lashings, if anything were to go now, our tents would be lifted straight off the ground and away with the dark, the snow, the mouth of the storm.

Jim, on all fours, checked the lashings and was lifted off the ground.

It was difficult to crawl and impossible to stand; but trained and experienced in conditions such as these from his solo expeditions on the Arctic ice, Jim was calm and clear in his commands.

Escape plan

We could not ride out this storm now without some significant danger of hypothermia setting into us.

On all fours, clinging to the rocks, we gathered and lashed together the widely strewn film cases

Clearly, Ian's tent, the last, had only a short life now.

We had to descend off the mountain if the storm wasn't going to let up soon.

I could just make out Jim shouting down the satellite phone through the din of the whipping and flapping.

It was 0900, and our procedural call back to base was in progress.

Eoghain Maclean, the Beinn Eighe Reserve manager and Kinlochewe Mountain Rescue Team member, agreed that an immediate descent was advised.

Beinn Eighe map (BBC)

Our exit plan and route were agreed.

On all fours, clinging to the rocks, we gathered and lashed together the widely strewn film cases.

With the visibility down to just a few metres, and the blizzard making standing impossible, we started our descent.

Happy Birthday, dearest Rosie. Today was my daughter's first birthday, and now, back down the mountain, I learn that she took her own first few steps today.

Secrets of the Highlands is likely to be broadcast on BBC Two in the Spring of 2009, on the BBC Natural World series

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