Birds, Beasts and Bugs at Kielder
By Chris Smout
David asked me to give some account of what birds and other wildlife we might see on our final workshop at Kielder Forest. A Sitka forest and a deep artificial lake do not seem at first sight to lend themselves to much biodiversity, and this is partly correct, in the sense that the absolute variety is likely to be quite small. But what is there will often be interesting and specialised to its habitat. The forest will hold robins, chaffinches, coal tits, which are pretty familiar, but also we should see siskins (bright greeny-yellow little finches that make a fizzing noise) on the feeders, and there will be crossbills about though these are harder to see. These eat spruce seeds and have a peculiar beak to enable them to open the cones. They spend most of the time in the tree tops, but need to drink frequently (conifer seeds are evidently very thirst-making) so you might see them at puddles. It will be interesting to see if the cold weather have left any wrens—I doubt it, as we saw none even in what is supposed to be warmer Quantock. There will be bullfinches lurking in any deciduous scrub, and if we get to open country, the first meadow pipits should be returning to the moors (most spend the winter in some warmer country). Goldcrests, the smallest British bird, squeaky and well hidden in the trees, but pretty on a good view, should be plentiful; but like the wrens they are susceptible to a bad winter. Big game birds will be in short supply apart from the ubiquitous pheasant: we could ask about black grouse, though.
A speciality of the forest is the goshawk, like a very big sparrow hawk, which is flourishing here, though it is rare nationally. In the middle ages there were native goshawks in the UK, but they died out through persecution in the 19th century and the present British population are thought all to be descended from falconers’ birds, either escaped or deliberately released. They are very shy, but the spring is the time when we may see them displaying over the forest—a fine sight, that I have only seen two or three times. Tree-nesting merlins (a small falcon, smaller than kestrels) are another speciality, as most merlins nest on the ground. There will be buzzards and kestrels, as at Quantock, and there is a chance of an osprey. They start to return from Africa at the end of March. I don’t know if they nest here, but they will certainly pass through the reservoir on the way to Scotland. They are an interesting example of a bird that re-introduced itself in the 1950s after being exterminated, and they have gradually spread from their original site in Speyside. The only introduced ones in the UK are at Rutland Water in the east Midlands.
That leaves the birds of the reservoir itself, and as it is large and deep they may not be numerous or easy to see. There will be the usual ducks, of which the most conspicuous in mountain lakes is the goldeneye. It dives, like the more spectacular goosander in which the males are pale pink beneath. Common ones like tufted duck, wigeon, mallard and teal will be about where the lake is shallow or has grassy edges. Geese may just be Canada geese (a classic alien species which has wited for two centuries before becoming a pest) but greylag and pinkfeet may pass over on their way north, as they use Scotland as a staging post for Iceland later. Whooper swans would be a bonus; you can tell them from the common and irritable mute swan by their straight necks, yellow-and-black beaks and splendid trumpet voice. They are also bound for Iceland to breed.
Other wildlife—the red squirrel is of course iconic and easy to see at feeders. Are they troubled at Kielder by the dreaded squirrel pox, which is what is likely to do for them finally in mainland England and Wales? It is carried by the alien American grey squirrel, which does not die from it. Luckily, Sitka seeds do not much appeal to grey squirrels, and this fact may have kept them out or at least they may be present only in small numbers. I guess there will be otters on the reservoir, and that we will not see them—like badgers, stoats, weasels and foxes, they keep away and use the dark. As for deer, I don’t know if there will be anything except roe deer, but there might be a population of sika deer, an alien species that interbreeds with red deer in Scotland, but is essentially a woodland species. If so, what will be the official policy towards it, and why?
That only starts the wildlife—for real afficianados there will be frogs, newts and the whole splendour of the worlds of insects, spiders and beetles. As J B S Haldane remarked, when asked by a pious lady what his studies had taught him of the mind of God, the deity is evidently uncommonly fond of beetles. We shall bring a moth trap so we can see what is flying early in the season (and show them off before letting them go), but I leave the rest to proper biologists and vicars.