Naturalist and writer Sir John Lister-kaye
The sights of the wild continue to surprise and delight the naturalist and author
IN MY NATURE WRITER’S perpetual search for wildness, at dawn yesterday I walked out to a remote islet half a mile offshore called the Culbin Bar, separated from the Moray Firth coast by quick, dangerous tides. At low water you can walk out to its ridge of dunes. A few solitary gulls dot the expanse, but otherwise nothing; just a million worm casts in wet toothpaste curls.
It was one of thos e auspicious dawns that seem to quiver in a sky so pure and distilled that it drew me out across the muddy flats to the dunes’ crest, to find that the sea had withdrawn by a further mile, leaving a huge expanse of ribbed sand stretching east towards Findhorn as far as the eye could see – a sight that immediately makes you want to gallop a horse. I sat among the saw-blades of marram grass and scanned the great expanse before me through binoculars. Far off, a thin white line of surf flounced soundlessly ashore. The world was new again, and utterly pristine. I felt as if I were the first person to set foot here.
Later, I stood at the ocean’s edge where, only a few yards beyond the surf, deep water winnowed past. The mechanical-looking tracks of harbour seals scarred the edge, punctuating the otherwise perfectly patterned sand. As I turned back I heard a strong, throaty sigh I re cognised instantly. I spun round just in time to see the great scimitar dorsal fin of a bull killer whale slice through the waves only 50 yards away, immediately followed by the curved fin of a female, then another, much smaller, of a calf. When they breached again, still goose-pimp-lingly close, they rose right up out of the water so that I could see their white flanks and their dark, shining eyes. They were coursing the sand edge for seals, and I watched them for 10 minutes. I could scarcely believe my luck. TODAY I AM BACK at the coast, at Loch Fleet Nature Reserve in Sutherland, with a group of botanists attending our field-studies centre at Aigas. We’re on a mission to see one of Brit- ain’s rarest wild flowers in the pinewood that borders the loch. I come here most years to see if the rare and exquisite St Olaf’ s Candlestick is raising its delicate white-petalled star beneath the pines. Years ago, I marked it with an old wellington boot upturned on a stick. Now they are personal, the flowers and the boot, both still there, both doing well, although the boot has grown a little moss in recent years as if to dissociate itself from the untidy world of man. BEING A NATURALIST and a writer is not easy. I have to work at it, getting out there, always searching and never knowing what I’ll find next. But it’s legwork I have never resented. Whether high in the mountains or out here at the land’s edge, come rain, sun or storm, there are always surprises, always rewards to repay the effort. On our way back to the minibus, walking the scruffy plastic and driftwoods-trewn-shore, an osprey obligingly crashes into the tidal shallows and snatches a flounder right under our noses. I must have witnessed it a hundred times, but it never fails to take my breath away.
I spun round just in time to see the great scimitar dorsal fin of a bull killer whale slice through the waves only 50 yards away