Allan Bantick OBE welcomes you to the Cairngorm Wildlife Diary for 2017

Most of the badger sightings mentioned here were made at the Strathspey Badger Hide. If you would like to go, click here for booking details.    Locations of sensitive nests and dens are kept deliberately vague for obvious reasons.     The diary will be updated as often as time allows, usually daily.   For more immediate brief updates follow me on Twitter @AllanBoat.    Enjoy the diary and please do get in touch if you have any comments.

Badger Wildcat Pine Marten
Red Squirrel Crested Tit Goldeneye


Sun 1st to Tues 3rd Jan
Checked the camera at Auchgourish and was rewarded with some videos of a fox stealing the chicken wing.

Fox stealing the bait intended for wildcats
A Fox Was First To Find The Chicken Wings

Managed to keep up with the demands of hungry birds and squirrels at the feeding stations around the woods.  Laid plans for more cat cameras in our woods as part of the Scottish Wildcat Action project.  On Tuesday 3rd we set up camera SWA 004 at the woodland edge, baited with chicken wings.

Cat Camera On The Edge Of  Boat Woods
Camera Trap For Wildcats With Chicken Wings For Bait

Weds 4th to Fri 6th Jan
Finished the lid for the pine marten box apart from painting the edges.  Cancelled the public badger watch due to the very cold weather and therefore the unlikelihood of badgers coming out.  The local ranger went there anyway with a friend and sure enough despite them staying in the hide for something like three hours no badgers were seen.  On Thurs 5th I checked the cam SWA 004 to see if anything had tackled the bait but it was intact.  Later that day Bea and I set up camera SWA 023 on the edge of woodland south of Loch Vaa, then checked two of the local badger setts, one of which showed signs of being used fairly recently but we couldn't find the other one.  I vaguely remembered a similar issue the last time we were there some years ago.  On Fri we met with a volunteer to explain BogWig's activities; he doesn't live locally but visits regularly and is keen to get involved.  Painted the pine marten box lid.  Photographed cresties and tree creepers at the Angle feeder.

Camera South of Loch Vaa

Sat 7th and Sun 8th Jan
On Saturday we changed the card in the Auchgourish camera and replaced the bait.  No wildlife on the the card, just a man and a dog.  On Sunday I did the same for the SWA camera 004 by Donald's track; somehow the camera had taken lots of shots of deer and jays and a pine marten but missed the actually taking of the bait.  Later Bea and I went to the badger hide and fitted the new lid to the pine marten nest box.  Due to the slightly precarious business of climbing a ladder and balancing in amongst the branches of the tree I made a rope harness and fixed up a rope system to catch me if it all went pear-shaped.  Fortunately it all went smoothly and the splendid new lid should keep the rain out of the box for the foreseeable future.

Fixing a new lid to the pine marten nest box
Fixing A New Lid To The Pine Marten Nest Box

Mon 9th to Weds 11th Jan
Mon: was hoping to get some decent crestie pictures but the weather and the dogs intervened.  Dealt with lots of badger emails to do with scheduling clashes in the summer.  Tues: watched the whole three hours of the Scottish Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform committee meeting at Holyrood which included evidence given by Police Scotland, the Crown Prosecution Service, Bat Conservation, Scottish Gamekeepers Association (Andy Smith), RSPB (Ian Thomson) and Scottish Badgers (Eddie Palmer).  MSP Graeme Dey chaired the meeting and there were contributions from MSPs David Stewart, Kate Forbes, Mark Ruskell, Claudia Beamish and others.  Very impressed with Graeme, Mark and Claudia but not so much with Kate Forbes who is notoriously pro business and anti wildlife, judging from a recent article in the press in which she complained that planning applications were obstructed and delayed due to too much emphasis being placed on protecting wildlife and the environment.  She applied this thinking as much to National Parks as to anywhere else.  Weds: the weather turned increasingly wintry, as forecast, so our plans to check wildcat camera 023 were put in doubt.  However, we manned-up and went through the snow to the camera to find that the bait was untouched and there were no photos of any wildlife on the camera, but plenty of us setting up the camera and a few of us arriving to check it so the camera is clearly working OK..

Eddie Palmer at Holyrood
Eddie Palmer giving evidence for Scottish Badgers at the Scottish Parliament

Thurs 12th Jan
Some snow fell overnight and there was more arriving as I went out with the dogs to top up some of the woodland feeders and also to check camera 004 and replace the bait.  The bait was almost chewed down to the bone and on checking the card we found the culprits were almost certainly red squirrels; one of the photos showed two together on the tree trunk near the bait but none of the photos showed them actually eating the meat so there must be an interval between photos.  This problem is one of the reasons I prefer with my own cameras to use video rather than photos.  I'll ask Hebe if there is a reason SWA doesn't do the same.  I may also commit one of our own cameras to sit beside the official one so that we can compare.  When topping up the feeders at the Angle and at the Community Hall it was noticeable how much more activity was going on compared with other recent days before the snow arrived.  To my delight there were crested tits at both sites.

Fri 13th to Tues 17th Jan
A period of snow for a few days until the thaw set in on Sunday so it was mostly a matter of keeping feeders topped up interspersed with the occasional photo session for crested tits.  On Sunday we checked the Auchgourish camera where disappointingly the bait was untouched and there was no wildlife on the card, just two people and a dog passing by.   On Monday I set the Maginon camera to take videos and mounted it underneath the SWA cam 004 on the same tree beside Donald's track to try to find out what is taking the bait because the SWA camera is missing it.  It will also provide information on the comparitive benefits of taking photos versus taking video as a basis for discussion in future.  My own work has deduced that video is more useful because you get all the action and if you require a still photo it is easy to extract one from the video with modern software.  The quality of such photos is usually good enough for species identification and is sometimes better because a moving subject will almost always produce a blurred still image, especially at night, whereas in a video there is usually a brief moment when the animal stops or changes direction and a decent frame can be extracted.

Crested tit in January
A Crested Tit In Woods At Boat of Garten In January 2017

Weds 18th and Thurs 19th Jan
Two days of meetings at RZSS in Edinburgh concerning the Scottish Wildcat Action project.  The first day was all about communication of various kinds including brain storming about how partner organisations could best contribute to the project and how we might best conduct a campaign for responsible cat ownership such as to persuade cat owners to make their cats "SuperCats" by having them vaccinated, neutered and microchipped.  The second day was about genetics; very technical and well outside my area of expertise but it was useful to get an insight into which of our scientific partners are doing which aspects of the work and to meet the personalities I did not already know.   Over the two days there were a few opportunities for networking plus the chance to get to know the project staff rather better during the working sessions and over dinner on Weds evening.

Fri 20th Jan
Slept a full 9 hours last night, having been exhausted by two days of strenuously exercising my poor old brain.  No real wildlife work done today due to the need to clean the car, clear it out and negotiate with the insurers because I got a message last night to say my new car, a "Fiat Doblo Trekking", had arrived and can be collected at 4pm today.

Sat 21st and Sun 22nd Jan
Checked both Scottish Wildcat Action cameras over the weekend.  On Saturday we visited SWA cam 004 (set on photos) which had the Maginon underneath it (set on videos) so we were able to compare the performances.  The bait was fully stripped to the bone, probably by jays but neither camera captured the stripping, although between they got sheep, red squirrel, a jay and some roe deer..  As to other aspects of performance, the SWA camera missed some of the action that the Maginon picked up so the SWA trigger mechanism is not as sensitive as the Maginon.  However, the SWA cam is picking up some of the sheep, deer and the jay so I'm fairly sure a cat would trigger it.  On Sunday it was the turn of camera 023 which had the same issue as last time: the bait was untouched.  However, the camera did pick up a passing badger and some sheep.

Checking SWA camera 023
Checking SWA camera 023 with the dogs

Mon 23rd to Thurs 26th Jan
Spent most of the time recovering from a frozen shoulder, popping tablets and rubbing in Voltarol.  Managed to keep abreast of topping up feeders and juggling the meetings diary for February which is getting a bit out of control.  Had a couple of photo sessions trying to get better pictures of red squirrels but achieved nothing more than frozen feet.  On Weds 25th Bea and I checked the Auchgourish camera to find the bait totally demolished.  The culprit was a badger which had climbed the tree and set to work, as evidenced by 30 videos spread over two evenings.  Speaking of badgers, that same evening I went to the hide to make sure all was well.  The tunnels were freshly dug out and bedding was visible in two tunnel entrances so clearly the badgers are there and active but sadly they did not come out for the peanuts during the hour I was there despite my coaxing.  On Thurs 26th I went back to Auchgourish and removed the camera because cats, which we are looking for, are unlikely to find the bait if the moment we put it there the local badgers are going to pinch it, now that they have twigged where to look.  I'll put it somewhere else shortly.

Fri 27th to Sun 29th Jan
Mostly relaxed to try and fix my injured shoulder - decent progress I'm pleased to say. On Sun 29th Bea and I went to the Maginon Camera (videos) and SWA camera No 004 (still photos) beside Donald's track.  Disappointingly the bait was still intact so we had to be content with photos and videos of just sheep, roe deer and red squirrels.

Mon 30th and Tues 31st Jan
Spent two days trying to fight off Bea's cold and failing. 


Weds 1st and Thurs 2nd Feb
On Weds had a morning meeting with Hebe Carus at our house to plan the forthcoming Sharing Good Practice wildcat event.  After lunch the dogs and I checked out the AU SE badger sett to find all was well with plenty of signs of activity.  On Thurs I drove to Battleby for the wildcat Steering Group meeting.  Had a near miss on the A9 with an idiot taking unwarranted overaking risk - the new Dash Cam recorded it all but I doubt if there's any point in sending it to the police.  In future I'll stick with the train - lesson learned.

Fri 3rd to Sun 5th Feb
Spent Friday laid low with this rotten cold.  On Saturday I set up the Acorn camera near the tree containing the pine marten nest box to monitor any pine marten activity around it.  While I was there I had a snoop around the badger hide sett; all was well with lots of freshly excavated tunnels. demolished cow pats and heaps of bedding.  The weather however was very cold indeed with a bitter wind so when tonight's clients phoned to say they too were a little concerned about the conditions I postponed their planned badger watch till the weather improves.  I think it's time to rethink our schedule of advertised watches and limit them to two season: March to May and July to November.  Just before dark I refilled some of the woodland bird feeders.  On Sunday I finished filling the feeders then Bea and I checked camera 023 near Loch Vaa.  On the way in we saw a woodcock near the badger sett and on the way home Max found fox dung near The Yard.  There were 90 pics of badgers and roe deer on the camera but still no cats.   Now that badgers have found the chicken wing bait at that site there's no point in continuing there so we removed the camera and will put it somewhere else.   Parcelled up the hare skeleton we'd found last month in the pine marten box ready to post to the Museum tomorrow; they're doing some hybridisation research and want as many hare carcasses as possible.

Mon 6th to Thurs 9th Feb
Bea and I recced a possible new site for a wildcat camera on Kinchurdy farm near the steam railway line.  Looks OK so we'll get it installed in the next day or two.  On the way out we met with some friends and the chat was all about the arrival in the area of ravens and a few other exotics.  It reminded me that a few days ago I thought I was seeing ravens at Auchgourish but thought I must have been mistaken; apparently not then.   Exchanged a number of emails over the thorny question of how best to support the Badger Trust's objections to the expansion of the badger cull down south.  We'll discuss it at the Scottish Badgers Trustee meeting on Friday I expect. Tuesday was foul; snow, sleet and rain on and off so no practical work achieved.  I did however get through a good deal of planning and preparation in the office for a busy period over the next few weeks with several trips to Perth and Edinburgh for events great and small.  I also looked into buying Memory Map for our computers but the demo version refused to work on any of them and their support team were not much help so a rethink is required.  Evidently Windows 10 is not strictly compatible with the software.   Spoke on the phone with the the tennant farmer at Kinchurdy to let him know we'll be putting out a wildcat camera in one of his fields - the estate had told him we would be coming and that they supported our wildcat work and he was cool with that.  I promised to let him know if we captured anything interesting on the cameras.  On Weds Bea and I set up the camera on Kinchurdy Farm and while we were there visited badger sett KF2 which was clearly in current use with lots of digging and busy latrines.  Later we arranged to help check a cat trap next week with others in rotation.  On Thursday Bea and I met Andrea Goddard and Brad Chappell to plan the Hen Harrier Day event at Boat of Garten Community Hall on Sun 6th August, hosted by Boat of Garten Community Company Wildlife Group in support of Get Mad For Wildlife and Birders Against Wildlife Crime.  Some first-rate speakers have already signed up and more are being approached.  Later we checked the Maginon and SWA cameras at Donald's Track; only cattle and roe deer recorded this time. 

AB at Kinchurdy Farm
Setting up the trail cam at Kinchurdy Farm

Fri 10th Feb
Train to Perth for the quarterly meetings of Scottish Badgers Advisory Group (morning) and Trustees (afternoon).    The work is going really well on all fronts.  Proud to be part of it.

Sat 11th and Sun 12th Feb
On Saturday we drove the Jeep up a snowy track to locate a trap that we will have to check on Monday.  We found it no problem.  On the way we met the local keeper and had a useful chat.  He is going to show me some badger setts that I might not already know about.  On Sunday I checked out a Topo map app on my phone and found it very useful.  Unlike Google Maps and similar apps it shows countour lines and heights as well as the usual roads so it will be quite useful if I happen to be caught without my GPS and need an accurate location for something out there in the wilds.   The down side is it's a bit heavy on the battery.  Later I went to the badger hide where there was lots of badger activity; fresh digging, bedding and busy latrines.  While I was there I took away the Acorn camera and replaced it with the much better Bushell to continue monitoring the tree in which we have the pine marten nest box.  Over the past 11 days the Acorn had only recorded brown hares but we'll persevere for a few more weeks to see if the pine martens will be tempted to breed there this season.

Monitoring the pine marten nest box tree
Monitoring the pine marten nest box

Mon 13th Feb
Checked the Glencarnie trap - no cat but the food seemed to be gone.  It was actually quite hard to tell in the cramped conditions, even with a torch, so we will bring the endoscope in future.  We put more food in to be on the safe side and prodded it into place with a stick.  Spent much of the morning working on my notes for next week's wildcat Sharing Good Practice event and later started the rounds of the woodland bird feeders again.  In the evening I took a couple to the badger hide, not expecting to see much and sure enough it was an hour and twenty minutes before a badger strolled into view.  We hung on for another hour during which badgers came and went; the most we saw at once was two but there's every chance we had seen as many as four different animals.  Nice evening. 

Tues 14th and Weds 15th Feb
On Tues we checked the cat trap - no cat in the trap or on the camera but some of the food had gone.  The rest of the day was domestic stuff; dogs annual vet check and guests for dinner.  On Weds it was the same story at the cat trap, then Hebe from Scottish Wildcat Action came for a meeting to finalise plans for the Sharing Good Practice wildcat conference on 24th Feb.   In the evening I attended the Scottish Wildlife Trust North Area meeting where RSPB's Stuart Benn gave an excellent talk on golden eagles to an audience of about 30.

Thurs 16th Feb
Checked the cat trap one more time and again it was the same story - no cat and no cat images on the camera.  Yesterday Hebe and I had discussed the possibility that there may hardly be any feral cats in this area which led me to reflect on my camera trapping over the past 15 years.  At various times I've had between zero (holidays) and five (two borrowed) cameras on the go which you could argue meant an average of at least one, possible two, cameras on the go full time for fifteen years.  One camera for fifteen years gives 131,400 camera trap hours, two cameras would give 262,800 hours so it's reasonable to say I've run something like a quarter of a million camera trap hours over the fifteen years, all of it in suitable wildcat habitat.  In all those hours we only recorded one cat and that was a black furry moggie, probably from the local farm, so I guess we're pretty short of wild-living cats here.  In the evening I took John and Shirley Martin briefly to the badger hide to check the Bushnell pine marten cam and to see badgers if they happened to be in the mood.  No luck with the cam but at 6pm a badger came out to entertain us on and off for 30 minutes.

Fri 17th and Sat 18th Feb
On Friday Bea and I checked the trap and camera north of the A95 but there was no cat action to report and then later on we checked camera 023 which again showed no action; the bait had not been touched.  On Saturday we moved the bird feeder array at the Angle to a new location that would better fit in with plans for an all-abilities footpath so that people in wheelchairs for example could watch the birds and squirrels more easily.   I should add that in the past week I've twice heard woodpeckers drumming in Boat woods.

Sun 19th to Tues 21st Feb
Sunday was a day of rest then Mon and Tues were mostly preparing for going away for 3 days of meetings.  That included finishing my script for Friday then editing in the changes that cropped up after I thought I'd finished (grrr) and filling all the local bird feeders.  The highlight was Monday evening's badger watch during which we not only had 2 badgers but also watched a pine marten eating peanuts for ten minutes in the full glare of the floodlights.  Brilliant.  On Tuesday morning during the dog walk I checked three of the crestie boxes for signs of prospecting; one had been used for a roost but the others showed no signs.

Weds 22nd to Fri 24th Feb
Train to Edinburgh on Weds in time for a lunch-time meeting in the Parliament; part of the ScotLink Environment week programme.  The event was to do with engaging young people with the environment and was attended by lots of Link people but only a few MSPs.  In the evening I attended the annual Link Holyrood Reception in the Garden Lobby; one of the best networking events of the year.  I probably knew about half of those attending so there wasn't time to talk to as many people as I would have liked to.   On Thurs there was a breakfast meeting in the Members Restaurant in the parliament but the weather was awful so quite a lot of the expected guests did not turn up - more food for those who did.  I took a mid-morning train to Perth and walked to the Royal George Hotel and went to bed for a while to recover from two quite hard days; lots of standing around and lots of walking in bad weather.  I was joined in the evening by SNH Staff who had travelled down from Inverness in readiness for next day's Wildcat meeting.  On Friday I Chaired the Wildcat Sharing Good Practice event at Battleby; my first public event since being appointed Chair of the Steering Group.  The event was very well attended, oversubscribed in fact, and I think we all considered it a success.

Sat 25th to Tues 28th Feb
Saturday was spent preparing for the big day on Sunday; Mum-in Laws' 100th Birthday party in Dundee, however during the morning dog walk we saw two buzzards fly low above the trees between the Angle and the Crossroads .  Heather and I travelled down on Saturday evening so as to be in pole position to help run the party, which was a great success.  There was snow overnight and on Monday morning the woods looked lovely.  Undeterred by the cold weather a woodpecker started drumming near the burnt forest which contains several tall dead trees in which woodpeckers have drilled nest holes in the past.  Got a call asking us to take a hybrid wildcat to the vet for neutering which we did.  Got a bit of attitude from the vet about stuff over which we had not control but it all got sorted in the end.  On Tues I headed off to Edinburgh for a couple of meetings, beginning with the Link Wildlife Crime Task Force meeting at RSPB HQ.  Raptor persecution and badger related crime were the main focus as usual but bats, wildcats and beavers also got a mention; it isn't appropriate to go into detail here.


Weds 1st Mar
On behalf of the Boat of Garten Community Company Wildlife Group I attended the Scottish Policy Conference entitled "Next Steps For Environmental Policy" at the Edinburgh Radisson Blu Hotel.  There were more than 100 delegates and 13 speakers spread over two main sessions.  The first session was Chaired by Alexander Burnett MSP, a member of the Environment, Climate-Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) committee and the second session was chaired by Graeme Dey MSP, Chair of the ECCLR committee.   Between the sessions we were treated to a very positive address by Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for ECCLR.   Outcomes from the conference from the point of view of Boat of Garten included the good news that environment seems to be very much higher up everyone's agenda than it has been in recent years.  Monetising the environment, whilst understandably being treated with suspicion by purists, is increasingly being seen as a way of valuing the natural world in a way that is easy to understand by non-specialists.  This is particularly helpful to decision makers and their economists whose backing is essential if the environment is to be protected.  In this sense the term Natural Capital was much bandied about although I am not convinced it meant the same thing to everybody and neither did the expression, "We must learn to internalise externalities".   Filtering out all the jargon, there was clear recognition that communities in much of the Highlands benefit hugely in economic terms from eco-tourism and it was noted that the central activity of wildlife-watching is growing quickly and has increased by 25% in just a few years.   It follows that any threat to wild habitats in the Boat of Garten area must be vigorously repelled.

Thurs 2nd to Fri 3rd Mar
What a day on Thursday - spent almost all of it writing up meetings over the past week while outside the weather was lovely.  Did manage a brief outing with the dogs and topped up some feeders on the way.   Good to see that our newly positioned feeder at The Angle has now been found by crested tits and red squirrels; it took them much longer than I expected.  Friday was more to my liking in which we checked some cameras out there in the countryside and brought some of them home at the end of their designated sessions.  The camera on Kinchurdy farm had recorded just sheep and badgers but the ones on Donald's track in Boat woods had captured cattle, roe deer, red squirrel, badger, a jay and one of my dogs.   While were out there we heard woodpeckers drumming and we met some birders who exulted over the goldeneye ducks they had just seen on the river.  In the office I managed to confirm some upcoming wildcat project meetings; I am happy to say that the mission to save our native cat now occupies a fair slice of my time.

Sat 4th and Sun 5th Mar
Saturday was a day of rest.  On Sunday I joined in with the Ranger's penultimate wood ant survey.  I only managed the morning session due to these aging old knees and hips - that's rough old country out there off piste in the woods.  Later I refilled the community hall feeders and noticed the squirrel feeder lid is delaminating so will have to make a new one.  In the evening there were badger watches and wildcat meetings to organise for the next week or two.

Mon 6th to Fri 10th Mar
On Monday I fought a losing battle with Vodafone - switching numbers shouldn't be this difficult.  Brought the broken squirrel feeder home for repair.  Took a supply of peanuts to the badger hide for Wednesday's badger watch and scattered a few around the sett for tonight's badgers.  Checked the Bushnell camera at the pine marten nest box tree but in the past week at had only captured badgers and a brown hare.  Got ready for tomorrow's trip to Edinburgh.  Tues 7th Mar took the Chieftain to Edinburgh in time for lunch at Ocean Terminal before a meeting with the Scottish Wildcat Action comms officer at Scottish Wildlife Trust HQ at Leith.   Quite a long session with plenty for me to absorb as I ease into the job of Steering Group Chair.  Later I took the bus over to Holyrood for the evening's reception "50 for the Future", celebrating an SWT initiative and setting out SWT's vision for the next five years, much of it based around the idea of effective stewardship of the environment.  As always it was great to catch up with friends and former colleagues and a brilliant networking opportunity both in the parliament and later at Holyrood 9A, one of our favourite Edinburgh pubs.  On Weds I headed home on the early train and spent the rest of the day reading and writing up the past few days.  Thursday morning I checked the Maginon camera at Donald's track but it had only recorded a jay, some sheep and some roe deer. The rest of the morning was spent on more paper work and phone calls, then after lunch I decided to move the Maginon camera deeper into the woods now that the cat surveying has finished for this winter.

Sat 11th and Sun 12th Mar
I attended the Scottish Green Party Spring Conference at Maryhill in Glasgow; a long day starting at 4.30am and not finishing till I got home at 11pm.  This was my first ever political conference and I was frankly disappointed because the programme included virtually nothing about the environment.   Climate change and renewable energy did get passing mentions within a list at one point but I cannot recall anything else.  At lunch time around the food tables there was a bit of talk about environmental issues but that was probably my fault!  Next day Claudia Beamish was quoted as saying that as things stand Scottish Labour is greener than the Greens - from what I saw in Glasgow she might be right.  Such a pity.  Sunday was a day off from all this - spent much of it watching football on tv.

Mon 13th and Tues 14th Mar
On Monday morning I went to RZSS Highland Wildlife Park to get a briefing on their part in the Scottish Wildcat Action project - mostly to do with captive breeding.  Fascinating.  Later I took a couple from Sheffield to watch badgers - a superb evening with at least three different badgers in view on and off.  I checked the Maginon camera while I was there; just badgers, a roe back and a brown hare recorded.  On Tuesday I did some SWA admin and filled woodland feeders.

Weds 15th to Tues 21st Mar
This period has been a bit of a blurr of paperwork and planning mixed in with a few practical bits.  On Weds the North Scotland Member Group was treated to an excellent presentation about wildcats from Roo Campbell, project leader of Scottish Wildcat Action.  At various times I checked cameras and refilled bird feeders as necessary.  The cameras revealed badger, hare, jay, roe deer and red squirrel but no pine marten or wildcat.  As for actual sightings there were multiple views while out with the dogs of crested tits, gs woodpeckers and buzzards plus the usual small birds.  Encouragingly these birds were sometimes seen in pairs which bodes well for the breeding season.  Speaking of breeding, ospreys are now arriving back in small numbers.