Quiet morn­ing at loch

Stirling Observer - - FIRST WORLD WAR CENTENARY - With Keith Gra­ham

It was a day when low cloud and mist ob­scured the hills. Ear­lier, the whole vale had been sub­merged un­der this blan­ket but slowly, as a weak win­ter sun be­gan fleet­ingly to show its face, the mist at low level had cleared.

The hills how­ever, re­mained in­vis­i­ble be­hind the cur­tain of mist and cloud.

As this en­velop­ing murk cleared from the lower ground, the loch emerged, still and dark, the sur­face dis­turbed only by the move­ment of ducks, geese and swans. It is strange how such an at­mos­phere seems to muf­fle any sound, ac­cord­ingly the loch was very quiet.

A dozen mute swans hugged the far bank where they would be able to use the shal­low wa­ter to tip them­selves up and feed upon the wa­ter weed be­low the sur­face. A small flight of pink-footed geese caused a tem­po­rary dis­tur­bance as they took off. Their jour­ney was short as they set­tled on a field less than a hun­dred me­tres from the wa­ter. Soon their heads were down chomp­ing on the grass, al­beit that one or two of them re­peat­edly lifted their heads to en­sure there was no ap­proach­ing dan­ger.

The waters of the loch dur­ing spring, sum­mer and au­tumn are gen­er­ally dis­turbed by the wakes of fish­er­men’s boats but for now, apart from some fish­ing for pike, the boats are safely hauled on shore. The fish there­fore, may en­joy some respite. No fish­er­men cast­ing their in­tri­cate, home-made flies in an ef­fort to lure them on to their hooks and of course, no ospreys plung­ing from the sky to catch them un­awares when they lan­guish close to the sur­face.

How­ever, the fish are not en­tirely preda­tor free for there lurks the shape of a bird, a cor­morant, which gen­er­ates much fury among fish­er­fold, ly­ing typ­i­cally low in the wa­ter. This of course, is a very pro­fi­cient fisher which, due to its ap­par­ently black ap­pear­ance, ap­pears to some, even more men­ac­ing. In truth cor­morants are not en­tirely black. Their plumage re­flects an iri­des­cence of green and there are white face patches. Nev­er­the­less, they ex­ude a dis­tinctly rep­til­ian pres­ence, which adds to the aura of aver­sion. Pierc­ing green eyes add even more men­ace.

We tend to re­gard cor­morants as birds of the seashore, yet over the course of the last 30 or so years, more and more of them have made in­land ex­pe­di­tions, seiz­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by fresh­wa­ter lochs, lakes and reser­voirs, many of which are stocked with juicy fish. A cor­morant gen­er­ally catches more than its own weight in fish ev­ery sin­gle day.

The ca­pa­bil­ity for catch­ing such quan­ti­ties of fish is based upon their un­der­wa­ter skills. When they dive, cor­morants pin their wings tightly to the body and pro­pel them­selves with their quite large webbed feet at sur­pris­ing speed and with re­mark­ably quick turn­ing ta­lent as they sin­u­ously pur­sue fish.

There­fore, their ap­pear­ance some­times causes apoplexy among rod-wield­ing an­glers, an ab­hor­rence that is ex­ac­er­bated by their black ap­pear­ance. There are still plenty of folk who re­gard black birds es­pe­cially crows and the said cor­morants with deep sus­pi­cion. I heard one an­gler sug­gest that cor­morants re­sem­bled an an­i­mated, wartime U-boat!

Uni­ver­sally, fish­er­men have com­plained of cor­morants ru­in­ing river fish­ing dur­ing the course of those last 30 years or so. Their pres­ence is more ev­i­dent dur­ing the win­ter months when their num­bers are greatly in­creased by the ar­rival of thou­sands of them in Bri­tain from the Con­ti­nent. Of the es­ti­mated 24,000 such im­mi­grants it is reck­oned that at least 10,000 of them in­habit in­land waters. Con­ti­nen­tal cor­morants are en­demic on fresh­wa­ter, rather than be­ing found by the sea hence these days their in­stinct brings them in­land to fish such waters.

And, I have seen the other side of cor­morant life on one of our lo­cal rivers. Un­ex­pect­edly, cor­morants do not pro­duce wa­ter­proof­ing oil as do most other birds. Thus, when they have been fish­ing, they need to dry out and the fa­mil­iar sight of cor­morants perch­ing on a river­bank with their wings spread is com­mon­place. I also well re­mem­ber see­ing a num­ber of cor­morants perched in such a man­ner on a leaf­less win­ter tree by one of our rivers. There was a dis­tinct hint of ‘covens of witches and war­locks’ about them!

An­glers call this the ‘black plague’ and in re­cent years have de­manded that ac­tion should be taken to re­duce their num­bers. This is quite un­der­stand­able when you con­sider that so many lochs and rivers are these days stocked with fish – at a cost. Well might it be claimed in some in­stances, that cor­morants there­fore im­peril the liveli­hoods of those em­ployed to man­age fish­eries. How­ever, some con­ser­va­tion­ists sug­gest that cor­morants do not do the dam­age to fish­ing stocks and that the an­glers’ com­plaints are there­fore ex­ag­ger­ated. As to a claim that the pres­ence of cor­morants is a fac­tor in re­duc­ing pop­u­la­tions of herons, king­fish­ers and ot­ters, this is highly un­likely.

In­deed, that claim is earnestly re­futed by con­ser­va­tion­ists. They cite the rise in pop­u­la­tions of all three of these species across the UK. Nev­er­the­less, the ar­rival of large num­bers of cor­morants must have some ef­fect of de­plet­ing fish stocks, even if the im­pact of their pres­ence is ex­ag­ger­ated.

Doubt­less the ar­gu­ments will go on and on so long as cor­morants con­tinue to ex­ploit in­land waters.

Raider the cor­morant

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