Life on the wild west coast Archive

Ned on south tip of Baleshare Benbecular behind

Lost

Ned playing with bottle on Baleshare beach

Ned playing with bottle on Baleshare beach

 

It probably still only remains because of the crumbling ribs of rock in it’s centre that jut out into the force of the Atlantic. Baleshare is a chaotic blend of sand, shingle, dunes, kelp and pounding Atlantic energy. During the autumn and winter the beach morphs daily, white sand, the following day thousands of tones of heaped brown kelp torn from the seabed. In the face of frequent storms and high tides the sand and kelp are ripped from the beach revealing a rough shingle base and huge sheets of fragile machair soil torn away from the retreating Baleshare crofts.

Storm driven kelp round old boat on Baleshare beach

Storm driven kelp round old boat on Baleshare beach

The beach is about 4 miles long and square on to the south west Atlantic storms, to the north it ends with a channel that turns Balehare into a tidal island twice a day. The southern tip marks the start of the ever shifting treacherous sand banks and inlets that separate North Uist from Benbecular. Looking west the wild low Monach islands can just be seen, the north is marked by white round spheres of a radar station high inland, the control towers of Benbecular military airport distantly frame the southern tip.

looking west from dunes south Baleshare

looking west from dunes south Baleshare

In the summer Baleshare appears to be a benign white sand and tropical sea blue beach. People park above the beach at the end of a rough track close to where the crumbling rock ribs form the natural groins that protect the beach. Though never busy it’s a popular place to walk. In winter Baleshare is different and very few people come to walk.

 

My first November walk on the beach was to the north and at low tide far out the west close to the waves breaking on white sand, a rare day with an easterly wind. Without any warning Ned, a spaniel tore of at full speed deaf to my calls towards the dunes and a low grey speck at their base. Over the dunes there are often sheep, I ran after the dog concerned he might go over the dunes. However, the grey speck was a dead seal, Ned had picked up the smell of the ripped open body on the east wind. Walks over the next couple of weeks revealed that Golden and White tailed eagles were feeding on the dead seals. I stopped and sat with Ned at the base of the dunes at the north end of the beach, sea water was still draining from the low sands that surround Baleshare west down the channel to the sea. Repeated and persistent sweeps with binoculars finally revealed the otter I had been looking for fishing in the channel. I knew I would be back next winter.

Seal eaten by birds on Baleshare beach

Seal eaten by birds on Baleshare beach

The top end of Baleshare is farmed, fenced fields feed sheep and cattle, stacks of round black silage bales wait for winter. But, to the south Baleshare is less tameable the ever shifting dunes and blowing sand not so easily managed.

 

The weekend had seen back to back storms with winds of 80mph and gusting more. Monday morning was cloudless and the wind, just wind, I decided to walk south down the beach early as the winter sun came up over the dunes. The tide was high with only a short strip of rounded stones forming a narrow beach at the base of the dunes, I set of with Ned along the top of the dunes. The Atlantic was still boiling, white and angry from the weekend and sounded like a distant jet engine. For the first few hundred metres sheep rough graze the flatter part of the dunes. The track we were walking quickly becomes rougher. The ridge of the dunes facing the sea is like walking a rollercoaster, further slowed by marram grass whose roots defend the dunes from being blown away.

Foam after the storm on Baleshare beach

Foam after the storm on Baleshare beach

The first morning after the storm, the birds are hungry. To the west groups of waders chase the retreating tide line. To the east over the wild dunes ravens reel and roll, a hen harrier diligently followed the undulations, my binoculars turned two black dashes into a couple white tailed eagles playing in the turbulent air. Looking down in the marram grass Ned nudged a chocolate brown lump that became a woodcock whirring away on tired hungry wings to find a new hiding place. Near the southern tip of the beach the gales had blasted a hole in the dunes, we half walked and slid down the steep sand to the beach where the tide was starting to retreat. Movement over my shoulder, a golden eagle low, at dune height it glanced at me and flew up the beach searching for food exposed by the tide, with binoculars I followed it north. I turned looked and called, Ned had gone, the beach was empty, the first flash of concern.

Storm breach in the dune Baleshare beach

Storm breach in the dune Baleshare beach

Climbing up the dune breach was much harder and slower than coming down. From the top nothing. But, the grass is tall and dunes deeply folded riddled with rabbit holes that all have to be checked by any self respecting spaniel. I stood and called while scanning with binoculars. More than a mile north the sheep were bunched and then I saw the fast moving black dot close enough to concern the sheep and of more concern to me, their owner. Ned has learnt to ignore sheep, he walks by even when they are trapped on the road between field fencing and they bolt past in panic but I can’t explain this to a farmer a mile away. When he has chased after a hare or rabbit before he has always come back to where he last saw me, don’t move and wait he always comes back. But, this time I can’t, I have to move, I can see a pickup driving down the track to the beach.

Southern tip of Baleshare beach looking east

Southern tip of Baleshare beach looking east

I move as fast as I can calling in case Ned has doubled back and passes me back south where he left me, I don’t see him again. The pickup moves away, the sheep are relaxed and grazing, has he been picked up, has he gone back, what to do? I get to the car, no dog. I decide to drive after the pickup, the farmer is in her kitchen and comes to the door. No, she has not seen him, learning he is a spaniel says she is not concerned for the sheep and says she has to feed other stock and will come as soon as she can to help me look. I drive back to the beach and start to walk south again.

Many emotions and thoughts compete in my head for attention, deciding what to do next becomes confusing. Last seen near the sheep but, he left me nearly two miles south down the beach much more than an hour ago, what would he do? Decision. Walk down the crest of the dunes so I can see the beach and over the dunes. Try to balance walking fast with looking hard, I go back to the hope that he always goes back to where he last saw me but this time I am not there.

Then, stopping to use the binoculars again, a black dot at the far south point of the beach much more than a mile away. Is it an otter? No, the dots’ legs are too long and it is moving randomly, otters have better sense of purpose. Hope? I slide down the dune to the beach to walk faster. Certain now it is a black dog, the roar of the still angry surf must be muting my calls and whistle. Despite moving fast I don’t seem to be getting closer, Ned is following the tide as it rushes out over the low sand bank towards Benbecular. Then he walks into the sea and starts swimming south.

Hope is exchanged for something much more negative. Unlike many spaniels Ned is not a fan of water, he won’t jump in to retrieve a ball or stick, he just looks at me as if to say you get it. To walk into cold rough sea water he must be desperate. The small black head appears and disappears getting smaller to the south. Should I follow? Even though upset I still have enough sense not to. Think. If he drowns is there anything I could have done to stop it? 999, what service? I don’t know, I am given the Coastgaurd. Local, she knows where I am, are there any boats visible? No. Very sympathetic she says she will send a unit to me down the beach but I know there is not time.

The call has taken minutes, I had to squat down so the wind did not block out my voice. Standing I look again, the binoculars can’t find him, is he gone? Then, to the west and closer I see his head, he has turned and started to come back but is being washed out to sea and has no strength. I take of my boots and thick waterproof trousers and walk out into the sea and soft sand. At thigh height I clench his collar and pull him back to the beach. Ned is shaking violently and can’t stand, I wrap him in my coat and keep him still by heaping kelp over him. Call 999 again, she is genuinely relieved, I assure her I don’t need help and need to get the dog back up the beach as fast as I can.

Feet dry, boots and trousers on the shakes are no longer violent, Ned even eats a little of the dried dog food I always carry. I put the wet coat on and stand Ned up, his legs are starting to work again, the lead goes on, walking will start to warm him again.

Approaching the car a well used Massey tractor comes out of the dunes with a sheep dog running round it. She steps out of the tractor, a still shivering Ned goes to greet her and I describe briefly what had happened at the point. She had as promised been out in the dunes looking for Ned. She knows it is easy for a dog to get stuck in the many rabbit burrows. Thanking her, she smiles and returns to the cab to drive back to the farm.

The memory will become less sharp, however like the others it will remain, something to learn from and possibly improve?

Ned on south tip of Baleshare Benbecular behind

Ned on south tip of Baleshare Benbecular behind

 

 

Images of Baleshare in November

 

oter head, tail and ripples. November Skye. Lutra lutra

House on the point, otter hotspot

otter flat on flat water. November Skye, Lutra lutra

otter flat on flat water. November Skye, Lutra lutra

 

I walked along the beach back to the House on the point at lunchtime. The sweeping bay to the south was mirror smooth on a windless November day, the low sun highlighted any disturbance on the surface, a ripple nearly 1km away. Binoculars turned the ripple into an otter diving and bringing small fish to eat on the surface. Lunch forgotten I sat on the table in front of the house and looked more carefully.

 

House on the point

House on the point

Among the ducks and gulls near where the stream runs into the bay two more otters probably a mother and near full grown cub. Further round the bay on the stony gorse fringed beach another mother with two smaller cubs was teaching them to hunt by dropping a small flatfish into the shallow water. I scanned further east over the Sound of Sleat where the turning tide was beginning to churn the surface water, another lone otter was fishing in the deeper water of the channel.

 

looking south from House on the point

looking south from House on the point

Including the two otters I had been watching earlier that morning to the north near the Kylerhea ferry slip I had seen nine otters within a short walk of the House on the Point where I was staying. The fierce tidal flow forced through Kyle Rhea brings in fresh food making the sheltered waters a magnet for otters, white tailed eagles, seals, fishing ducks, gulls and porpoise.

 

Kyle Rhea north from The house on the point

Kyle Rhea north from The house on the point

In the winter months the Kylerhea ferry is closed and the rugged rocky points small sandy bays are left to the wildlife. This people free part of the year is when I come to Kylerhea, probably the most reliable place I know for feeding my obsession for watching otters.

 

Otter looking down from rock. November Skye Lutra lutra

Kylerhea otters in November

House on the slip – Kylerhea Skye

Across the inky water the head and following v-shaped ripple appeared from around the rocky outcrop. Seconds later, the otter dived pointed tail last, leaving the sea like a black mirror. 7.00am in November the sun has yet to rise at Kylerhea. Colours are muted, almost monochrome, and the tide is running out. We are still in bed with a cup of coffee looking north up the narrow sound between Skye and the mainland through the huge picture window in our bedroom. We have been staying here four days and have seen otters from our bed every morning; hunting for fish and crabs and coming up the rocky shore in front of The House on the Slip.

Otter swimming to the shore, Skye November. Lutra lutra

Otter swimming to the shore, Skye November. Lutra lutra

 

I have been to Kylerhea many times over the years, mostly in winter when the ferry is not running and the rocky shoreline and beaches are deserted. The landscapes and ever-changing light are captivating and addictive. But what draws me back are otters; I have never failed to see these fascinating animals when I have visited Kylerhea.

 

Jeanette and Dave Campbell live on a croft at Kylerhea and they have always been very welcoming. In summer I have camped in one of their fields and they kindly let me use their kitchen and bathroom. My wife and I have also stayed at their iconic cottage “The House on the Point” which, on a stormy winter night, feels as though it is built in the sea. In the summer there is a ferry from Kylerhea to the mainland. Jeanette and Dave bought the deserted cottage next to the ferry slip several years ago; Dave’s long project to renovate it has finally finished. “The House on the Slip” is where we are staying.

 

House on the slip - Kylerhea Skye

House on the slip – Kylerhea Skye

The traditional two up two down cottage has been made very comfortable with wooden floors, stone walls, central heating and modern bathrooms and kitchen. But the outstanding feature is the two-storey extension on the north end with huge picture windows in the upper bedroom and in the sitting-viewing room below. Both rooms, which are connected by a spiral staircase, have mesmerising views with the constantly changing light and weather. At the highest tides the sea is only a few metres from the cottage but it retreats more than 50 metres twice a day because of the huge tidal range at Kylerhea.

 

The tidal range is why Kylerhea is so attractive for otters and the other abundant wildlife. Twice a day the tide races up and down the sound. Powerful fishing boats struggle against these tides, often appearing to be stationary even though they are at full power. Each tide brings in new food and flushes out waste. Often schools of small fish appear to be boiling in the surface. Flocks of gulls and cormorants feed in the water, swept along by the tidal currents up and down the sound. They are swept past the cottage only to fly back, passing by many times on each tide. The shore is lined with waders and fishing ducks such as mergansers. If the many herons that line the shore crabbing in the seaweed fly up together it is sign that a sea eagle is cruising through the sound. Watch the water for only a few minutes and seals can be seen swimming, diving or just resting with their blunt heads pointing upwards.

 

House on the slip - at low tide

House on the slip – at low tide

Although there is an abundance of wildlife at Kylerhea, seeing it can be a challenge. North west Scotland is a tough place to live and the weather is constantly changing so that in winter a rain-free day is a bonus. Otters are best seen in the morning, especially if the tide is low, but they are elusive and hard to spot and even when seen they can just melt away. Some days it can take hours to see an otter and trying to get photographs takes infinite patience.

kelp, sun and low tide. November Skye

kelp, sun and low tide. November Skye

 

The house on the slip is the perfect base for wildlife watching and photography. Seals, otters and seabirds pass up and down the sound, sometimes only metres from the cottage’s huge picture windows. But for that heart stopping close encounter with an otter you must go out and spend time close to the shore. After a day taking all that a Scottish winter can throw at you returning to The House on the Slip is very welcoming and the views from the huge windows mean you miss nothing.