Red squirrels are being returned to the Ledmore and Migdale woods in East Sutherland, about 20 years after they last lived there. They’re being moved from Inverness-shire in a joint operation between Trees for Life and Woodland Trust Scotland. Squirrels seemingly don’t like moving across big open landscapes; these woods had become isolated and the red squirrel population there was lost. About 20 of them are being re-homed over October and November, with local volunteers helping to feed and check on them as they settle in. They’re getting hay-lined nest boxes so I hope they’ll be grateful and bide in the wood.
It’s a wildlife and art co-project: three willow sculptures of squirrels, made by Dragon Willow in Yorkshire, have been placed on the woodland paths, and a bench made from an oak tree by Bill Ross of Ardgay has been installed.
The squirrels will be helping to extend the woods because of their habit of burying tree seeds. In turn, it’s hoped that their population will increase as the woods there are free of grey squirrels with their squirrelpox virus – fatal for red squirrels. It’s this virus along with the reduction in tree cover that have led to the decline in the native red squirrel numbers. The Woodland Trust has estimated that of the 138,000 red squirrels left in the UK, 120,000 are in Scotland. There’s some good news however as numbers are stabilising in some parts of the country and the animals are moving back into some areas near Aberdeen by themselves.
Red squirrels can already be seen in Strath Carron, not too far away from the Migdale woods, after a reintroduction in 2013 and Trees for Life have plans for releasing more at a site further north by 2021. This is making me absurdly happy, to know that these wee beasties are coming back to their woods.
The Ledmore oak wood on the northern shore of the Kyle as you approach Spinningdale from the west is one of the largest remaining in the country and, I think, is the most northerly. It was planted on the orders of James IV who used to make pilgrimages to the shrine of St Duthac in Tain; he made at least 18 of these journeys north between 1493 and his death at Flodden in 1513. His reasons were not environmental alas as he wanted the wood for the building of his warships.
The Woodland Trust have a short film on YouTube called “Ledmore & Migdale – A Highland wooded landscape”. It lasts for 2 and a half minutes and has been shot mainly from a drone so it gives very good views of Loch Migdale and the woods and the valley mire – the only one in east Sutherland – which I never realised existed. You can see part of it in the photo below.
Spinningdale, like Bonar Bridge, is very quiet and has been since the Dornoch Bridge was opened. There are a couple of prominent buildings near the road which are empty and now looking very run down; one used to be a café and the other was the Old Mill Inn which at one time employed two cousins in the summer time. I keep hoping that either or both of these businesses might re-open. On several occasions, I’ve seen some building materials outside the Old Mill Inn and I nearly drove off the road a couple of weeks ago when I spotted the front door was open. However, the sign in the window that reads “Closed” is still a bit unnecessary: you’d never mistake it for a going concern. Maybe the old café could re-open as the Squirrel Café, like the guinea pig-themed one in Fleabag – but no caged squirrels, please.
Spinningdale of course used to be on the main road north. The artist William George Gillies made several paintings in the local area in the late 1930s. I saw one in an exhibition in Edinburgh a few years ago which showed just the buildings close to the road that comes off the A949 and goes to Migdale. I think this is the same painting I found online called “In Spinningdale” but am not completely sure. Another of his paintings is called “Spinningdale” and shows hill crofts above a pool of water while another, also called “Spinningdale” has grass in the foreground, with trees and a rounded hill in the background; it’s got an autumn feel to it. He also painted “Crofts, Bonar Bridge” so he clearly went right along the road as far as Migdale.
The first part of this road is being called the Fairy Glen but to get to the original Fairy Glen, folk went off the road just before the old bridge as you approach from the Spinningdale end. Andrew Carnegie built a log cabin at the top of the glen and he also, I believe, had wooden bridges put in across the burn in several places. These bridges were taken down during the war and then not replaced. It was a special place for local folk to visit and we have several family photos of children on the roof of the cabin. They’d cycle from Bonar Bridge and make a fire in the wood for tea. We went looking for the remains of the cabin a few years ago but had no success at all. Maybe the squirrels will find it and there are rafters left for them to swing from.
(Since writing the above, I’ve learned that the cabin burned down after the war so my flight of fancy about the squirrels finding it will remain just that. See Ledmore and Migdale Memories – ARCH Highland)
Before I go, I’ve praised Grace of Dornoch on here twice but am now sad to say it looks like it’s closed down. I headed there for coffee last Monday but was distressed to find a locked door. One window blind was half down but underneath was a display of 3 bags of bere meal and 17 dead flies.