Paddle on the Wild Side

I often wonder when paddling with friends, are they ever aware of what is happening on the riverbank or shore line. This for me is what paddling is all about. Observing nature from a completely different perspective and understanding what is going on. What has nature got to do with paddling some may ask, well it has everything to do with paddling. Us paddlers are venturing into an environment that belongs to a diverse range of wildlife and having an awareness of this can enrich our days out. However, many of us are oblivious to it. Probably because we should be reading the water ahead, looking out for our group or even nervously wondering where you put your car keys for the shuttle ahead! Let us forget about that for a moment and immerse yourself in the natural environment and absorb what is happening around us.

Being a relatively new paddler, I have yet to explore all the rivers and lochs of Scotland and not to mention our stunning coastline but there are places I often visit locally. Living within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (LLTNP), there is no shortage of easily accessible lochs and one such loch being Loch Lubnaig. On a fine summer’s day, I often canoe to the head of Loch Lubnaig, close to where the River Balvaig terminates, pull into the grassy marsh and sit. This area is designated as a S.S.S.I. (Site of Special and Scientific Interest) due to the presence of rare flies. I don’t suspect there are many fly enthusiasts reading this article, so I shall quickly move on, however I am hoping you may be interested in what possibly hunts them! After settling, it doesn’t take long for wildlife to appear. Kingfishers can be observed here along with Ospreys. Quite a spectacle watching an Osprey plunge into the water and finally take off with a fish. Many dragonflies and damselflies find this wetland habitat suitable for breeding and hunting and they too can be observed patrolling the waters edge. The UK’s longest dragonfly is found here, the Golden-ringed Dragonfly, certainly one of my favourites due it vibrant colours, behaviour and mostly because of its aerial hunting ability. These dragonflies can be observed hunting damselflies and other invertebrates whilst the dragonflies can be observed hunting flies and possibly the rare ones!

Otters too are very occasionally observed here; however, they are very shy and the last you see of them are the ripples they leave behind when they quickly submerge! Their spraints (poo) can be found along the shoreline, generally as territorial markings and are identified by the visible fish bones and scales and further clarified by the not too unpleasant aroma of fish and hay. Yes, I am known for investigating animal poo but that’s another story!

Later I pole my way upstream as the river is gently flowing and listen out for the bird song of our migrant breeders such as Willow Warbler, Chiff Chaff, Cuckoo and even our UK red listed species, Grasshopper Warbler. These birds overwinter in Africa and after completing their incredible journey, it is a joy to hear them. The hardships they must have endured to get here and then the determination to get back to their wintering grounds is completely mind-blowing.

There have been many occasions when I have asked my paddling companions to raft up and listen to the Willow Warbler’s distinctive melodic lowering scale of notes. I clearly remember doing this during my Paddlesport Leader assessment on Loch Lubnaig. Of course, later in the day I would quiz the group after hearing another warbler and to my delight, someone would correctly identify the call!

The banks of the River Balvaig is predominantly lined with deep rooting Alder which is easily identified by their small woody cones that produce seeds when pollinated. These trees are important within riparian zones as they minimise soil erosion, provide corridors for a diverse range of wildlife, create shade and shelter therefore maintaining the balance of aqueous plant life and regulating the water temperature. Not only that, many invertebrates that use these trees will eventually fall into the water becoming prey for fish and other creatures higher up the food chain.

Continuing further upstream, a mink raft can be found attached by a painter to a tree on the bank. These are installed by land managers and conservationists to monitor for the presence of Mink. I suspect in this case the LLTNP Ranger Service manage these. The raft contains a clay tray where footprints are left behind by any inquisitive creature that visits, then it is the duty of the nature detective to identify if Mink is present or not.

Some of you may have encountered American Mink on your paddling adventures and possibly mistaken it for a cat roaming the river bank. I have certainly come across these during the daytime on a couple of local rivers including the Balvaig. These animals were brought over from the states during the early 20thcentury and farmed for their fur, however some escaped as well as being deliberately released into the wild. These opportunistic predators have adapted only too well within our countryside creating a devastating effect on the bankside wildlife. Water Voles are a prime example as populations have plummeted to the point of being the most rapid of any other wild mammal.

Continuing the theme of mammals and nature detective work, there are signs of beaver activity on the river, however it did not appear very recent. I suspect this may have been a passing rodent that has not decided to stay. Bankside trees have had branches removed thus leaving the tell-tale pencil point ends. This is very much a different case on the Tay catchment as there is recent evidence all the way down, ranging from bankside feeding sites, felled trees and lodges. These illegally re-introduced Eurasian Beavers are now well established here and reports have stated this has been the case since 2006. I must admit, this is one mammal I have yet to catch sight of, so I can only live and hope. These animals have created a fair bit of controversy since their discovery, but we are not going to go into that, the good news is that they are being given European Protected Species status under the EU Habitats Directive. This will secure their future, aid in their range of natural expansion, and management within Scotland.

On a recent canoeing trip on the upper Tay, it was very noticeable that the non-native Himalayan Balsam has colonised much of the river bank. Pretty to look at when in full bloom but clearly an issue for our native wildlife. It doesn’t require much light to establish itself, is shallow rooted, grows tall and a rapid coloniser, therefore shading out the native bankside flora. This in turn leads to a slowly impoverished habitat. Management of this species is difficult and as a Ranger, I have spent many an hour pulling out this alien plant and co-ordinating volunteer teams to do the same. Flowering during the summer months is followed by seed pods that explode so propelling the seeds five metres and more. A single plant can produce up to 800 seeds, so you can only imagine what it is like further downstream!

This for me is a snapshot of a typical day out paddling and the beauty of it is, it’s only a short distance away. This experience of observing nature has expanded my knowledge and understanding Finishing off, I’m hoping this has sparked a memorable wildlife encounter and when out paddling again