Documentary revealing the wildlife of the Scottish Highlands, seen by film-maker Fergus Beeley. Featuring rare black-throated divers and white-tailed sea eagles.
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'This isn't Patagonia or the Himalayas...
'although you might think it was.
'As a wildlife filmmaker,
'I've been able to work in some amazing far-flung places.
'But my greatest challenge yet
'was to spend a year making a film
'about the elusive creatures of the Highlands.
'The most serious problem is usually the weather.
'You can have day after day when the rain is horizontal.
'And when the weather settles down, the midges can make your life hell.
'And yet I love this place, like nowhere else on earth.'
If you're patient enough and you really sit it out,
you can see some amazing sights.
And I think that's what makes me come back.
It's got a charm to it, this place.
It's not as if the wildlife is in your face,
it's not as if you come bumping into great spectacles.
'I've come to Loch Maree in the North West Highlands -
'one of the remotest corners of Britain.
'It's somewhere I know well from my childhood.
'The loch is covered in magical, secretive little islands,
'straight out of Swallows And Amazons.
'It's a last refuge for some of Britain's rarest wildlife,
'like black-throated divers...
'..and sea eagles.
'Now, I'm going to spend a year
'following them in this barren landscape,
'as they too struggle with the fickle weather to raise their young.
'Deep Atlantic depressions
'can hit the west coast of Scotland at any time of year.
'As clouds rise up the hills, they drop their rain.
'The summits can get a little snow too, but not much.
'This is the wettest place in Britain.
'It can rain two days in every three.
'Ruadh Stac Mor, the summit of Beinn Eighe, dominates this landscape.
'You really don't want to get caught out on this hill
'when a storm comes in.
'The mountains, or hills as they're called here,
'are some of the most dangerous and challenging in Britain.
'The wind is so strong
'that waterfalls can flow up as much as down.
'Loch Maree below can fill like a basin
'before draining quickly back to the sea.
'This 14-mile-long freshwater loch is close to the sea,
'and because of that it attracts some rather unusual wildlife.
'In the spring,
'this haunting noise can be heard echoing across the loch.
'It's a black-throated diver.
'They come here to feast on the loch's abundant small fish.
'They're surprisingly snake-like for a bird.
'I love the white beaded necklace they wear under their chins.
'And the chequered patterns on their backs are stunning.
'These birds have come in from the sea to breed.
'They like the shelter of these islands,
'and are looking for a secluded spot to nest.
'They may find solitude here,
'but in this land of rain there's the constant risk of flooding.
'In Britain they're incredibly rare -
'just over 200 pairs -
'but a few have always nested on this loch.
'The islands attract other rare birds, although these are newcomers.
'The white-tailed eagle, or sea eagle, lives here as well,
'but they weren't here when I was a boy in the 1970s.
'Extinct for a hundred years,
'the eagles were recently reintroduced from Scandinavia.
'This bird made the loch its home about ten years ago.
'Such a presence.
'It's like the return of a king.
'Their eagle eyes don't miss much.
'This one has found a dead deer by the water.
'Red deer fatalities are common in early spring.
'It's weeks and weeks of cold rain that does it.
'More die here than anywhere else in Scotland.
'But all the bodies
'make it a great place for big scavengers like sea eagles.
'A hooded crow close up looks quite large -
'until you see it beside the sea eagle.
'The hoodie is waiting for the eagle
'to use its massive beak to break into the carcass.
'There's an indescribable spirit to this place,
'and there are sinister legends about the islands -
'particularly this one, Isle Maree.
'Ancient graves litter the forest floor.
'Some date back to the Vikings.
'I've heard it said that a burial on the island
'would protect the graves from wolves,
'which were once a problem on the mainland.
'I've never quite bought into that,
'as I've seen wolves swimming far out into lakes in the Arctic.
'But with legends of pagan worship and bull sacrifices
'the island has a real chill, believe me.
'The sea eagles don't seem to like the island either.
'They've chosen to nest on an island thick with ancient pine trees.
'They use the same nest year after year,
'until it gets blown down by a winter storm.
'There are two chicks, and they're both looking well.
'It's now early May, and the last few weeks have been dry.
'Eagle chicks are very vulnerable soon after hatching,
'By this time last year,
'both offspring had already died of pneumonia.
'So far, both the chicks are doing well.
'I just hope the weather will be kind to them.
'The black-throated divers are sitting on eggs.
'They've chosen to nest on a man-made raft
'put out for them by the wardens of this reserve.
'These floating beds can rise and fall with the water level,
'which stops the nest drowning.
'Other divers have chosen real islands.
'You can see how low the water level is at the moment.
'A bit of rain, and they'll be in trouble.
'They can't lay far from the edge of the loch,
'as they really struggle to walk on land.
'They're just not built for it -
'they're a sea bird, after all.
'The eagles wouldn't want to be far from the coast, either.
'That's where most of their food is coming from.
'From the distinctive forked tail,
'I'd say this is a mackerel going down.
'The parents are doing well.
'There seems no shortage of food.
'But something is up with my divers.
'Neither of them is sitting.
'They're looking spooked. Heads down.
'Have they deserted the nest?
'I watch from a distance for hours, but they don't return.
'One egg has been abandoned, and the other's missing.
'It's a complete mystery.
'Did something scare them?
'I wonder if the low water helped a predator from the shore.
'Or maybe an aerial nest robber like a raven.
'But it seems odd they've only lost one egg.
'Their chances of raising a family now look very slim.
'Where IS the rain?
'It's only May, and I've never seen this place look so dry.
'These ptarmigan are acting strangely.
'They should be on eggs, or with chicks.
'But they're looking for water.
'Normally they don't need to drink,
'as there should be enough moisture in their diet of heather shoots.
'This place typically gets a metre of rain in May.
'But this year there hasn't yet been a drop.
'It's the driest May on record.
'Small fish are stranded in pools.
'Some of them will need to get out to sea to grow.
'The receding shoreline is exposing muds that are rich in insect life.
'It's a good thing for birds that come here to feed.
'And ringed plover.
'The beach nesting divers have done well.
'They've just hatched two chicks.
'Any rain will pose less danger to them now,
'as even small chicks can swim.
'I'm surprised to find the other pair still hanging out by the raft.
'They've laid, again.
'A second clutch of eggs -
'but they're now a month behind the others.
'It's so late in the season.
'The odds are stacked against them, even if the eggs do hatch.
'The strangely dry spring is over.
'It's June, and rain-bearing clouds are piling in from the west.
'This is more like the Highland weather I love and expect.
'Small sea trout, called finnock, can now swim down river to sea.
'The vital cycle that was damaged by the drought has now been fixed.
'Something else moves in the rain-sodden ground.
'They emerge into the drizzle in their millions.
'The Highland midge.
'They're on the wing from April until September,
'but after these June rains they've hit their peak.
'The males form swarms which the females visit to find a mate.
'It's actually only the female midges that bite -
'they need blood to get into breeding condition.
'The only way to cope
'is to realise that this whole ecosystem needs them.
'They're just another part of this complex Celtic rainforest,
'and many creatures feed on them or their larvae.
'The peaty ground has softened with the rain and swollen the bogs.
'Out of them emerges one of the jewels of summer,
'and one that also eats midges -
'I've never seen them in greater numbers.
'This place has more species than anywhere else in Scotland.
'I remember being entranced by them as a boy.
'I wanted to catch one and soak up its brilliance.
'But of course I never got close.
'What I didn't realise
'was that this is one of the best places to see them in Britain.
'They thrive here BECAUSE of the rain and the midges.
'For anything that wants to escape the midges, the best route is up.
'This is where the deer go.
'There's a continual breeze -
'but there's something else to worry about.
'I had some amazing encounters with them.
'Even though I find them a bit intimidating.
'But for the deer,
'they represent a real threat to the lives of their young.
'The calves wisely stay close to Mum when an eagle is overhead.
'For five days I watched the eagle circling over the newborn calves,
'but I never saw a kill.
'Although there are plenty of locals that have.
'Back down at the loch, the divers are still sitting on eggs.
'It's unusually late, but it can't be long before they hatch.
'I barely recognise the eaglets,
'yet it was only a couple of weeks since I saw them last.
'Their flight feathers have grown,
'and there's no down left on them at all.
'They look as if they know
'they should be doing SOMETHING with those huge wings.
'And to see this tender side between them -
'that's new for me.
'It could have been another story.
'A shortage of food early on can make the siblings fight.
'The younger one usually dies, and may even be eaten.
'But these two are more like friends.
'The weather up here can get you down,
'but on a beautiful evening like this you quickly forget.
'The changing light is mesmerising.
'Even a wet day can finish with a sunset of gold.
'Dawn in late June,
'and there's a flurry of activity at the diver raft.
'The chicks have finally hatched.
'The divers have done well to hatch this second clutch,
'but there's still an awfully long way to go.
'They need to work on their parenting skills.
'That soft down isn't waterproof, and heavy rain can drown them.
'They seem terribly fragile on such a big, windswept loch.
'With a bird this rare, every chick counts.
'These chicks are a month behind the other divers,
'so there's no time to lose.
'The loch is an important nursery for many species of fish,
'and that's what makes it such a good nursery for the divers too.
'The parents must keep the chicks well away from the mainland shore.
'Pine martens work through the trees and along the edge of the loch,
'looking for nestlings and fledglings.
'They're highly intelligent predators, and miss nothing.
'There's a storm coming in,
'and the wind is rising already.
'At this young age, the chicks are very vulnerable.
'The waves are building, and they're bobbing around like corks.
'They need to get out of the water before it gets any choppier.
'Everything up here turns on the weather.
'A sunny day can turn into a rainstorm within hours.
'And all the Highland animals need to be able to respond.
'There's one creature that has been WAITING for this rain.
'They smell the fresh rain that's pouring off the peaty hills -
'a smell they recognise in the estuary -
'and they follow it up the river to the loch.
'Some of these fish
'might have been waiting for rain for a month or more.
'Loch Maree's salmon and sea trout numbers
'have crashed since I was a child.
'It breaks my heart.
'As a fishery it's a shadow of its former self.
'Scientists are trying to work out what's gone wrong,
'and how to reverse the decline.
'Hopefully, they will.
'July turns to August.
'The young divers have grown -
'but they're still vulnerable to bad weather.
'That soft down still covers their backs.
'They're still being fed by the adults,
'and I haven't seen them try to dive yet.
'It'll be several weeks more before they can fly.
'Unlike the eagles, which could fledge at any time now.
'A wind like this should encourage the youngsters.
'It could be an exciting day.
'The adults need only open their vast wings to the wind
'to generate lift.
'They've deliberately underfed the eaglets in the last few weeks,
'otherwise the youngsters would have little reason to leave.
'But it's the irresistible draw of the wind
'that finally tempts it into the air.
'They throw their feet up, begging for food.
'Maybe they can tell that the adults have fed recently.
'Perhaps the adults want to take the youngsters to a carcass.
'What a moment for them -
'seeing the islands below for the first time.
'But the wind is still rising,
'and one of the eaglets has been airborne for well over an hour.
'It must be tired by now.
'Like a broken kite, it suddenly swings out of control downwind.
'A good recovery, but it still looks pretty shaky...
'..compared to its mother's effortless mastery of the air.
'It's TRYING to land,
'but the thin top branches just can't hold its weight.
'The adults stay on the wing, as if to support the youngster.
'It finally descends into the leeward side of the tree,
'and looks for a larger branch.
'That's quite an introduction to flying.
'In the last 12 hours we've had everything -
'sun, rain and now gale force winds.
'That's the west coast of Scotland for you -
'all the seasons in one day.
'As we move towards the autumn equinox,
'it'll become even more unstable...
'..with cold, wet fronts driving in one after the other.
'It's early September.
'Divers are now on the wing.
'Some have already left for the sea -
'except my family, which is still out on the loch.
'At least they're now learning how to fish.
'Like the eagles, the adult divers are feeding their chicks less,
'encouraging them to join them underwater.
'I guess it's as big a step as flying was for the young eagles.
'Up in the hills, the ground is soaked through.
'Hundreds of glinting burns bring the landscape to life,
'and below, the rivers are swollen.
'But the real power in this flood
'is the effect it has on the Highland wildlife.
'The loch has risen by three metres.
'Salmon respond to this extra water,
'and use it to get up the steeper, narrower sections.
'They're gaining height all the time.
'I'm hoping my young divers will soon manage to fly.
'They're such big birds - the size of a goose.
'But with short, narrow wings,
'they have to run at speed to get any lift.
'Not this time.
'But spending hours quietly by the loch brings other surprises.
'A good-looking stag
'is heading for the shelter of the islands for the winter.
'This is a rare moment to see.
'Could this be it?
'The first few flights of any bird are often ungainly,
'but once in the air, this diver looks surprisingly competent.
'As with the eagles,
'it's interesting to see how they cope with landing.
'This one left me speechless.
LOW, ECHOING HOWLING
'The weirdest of sounds is now echoing around the Highland glens.
'It's the autumn soundtrack to these hills.
'It's the red deer stags starting their rut.
'They're sorting out who's who, and trying to impress the hinds.
'They're so wild and proud...
'although I think I'm more impressed than the hinds are.
'Chasing can be dangerous over this treacherous ground.
'An injury now would probably result in a slow and uncomfortable death.
'By December, these hills are really cold and bleak.
'Most of the deer get off this high ground.
'Those that remain are always moving
'to shelter from the changing, cold, wet wind.
'It feels dead up here.
'Even the crows are silent.
'But it's rare to come in from a walk on the hill disappointed -
'even in December, when it's this cold.
'Look carefully at the water, and you'll find new life stirring.
'The most unlikely burns are full of salmon.
'This is where they've been heading since midsummer.
'There's a real thrill in seeing such a big fish in a small stream.
'They needed all that rain to get up here.
'Now, the hen fish will lay in the gravel.
'Too much rain, and her eggs could wash away.
'Too little rain, and she wouldn't have got up here.
'Only in January does this part of the Highlands really feel empty.
'Now, all the creatures that summer brought into the loch
'have finally returned to the sea.
'The sea eagles, young and old, will range the coast,
'waiting for storms to bring them food.
'The divers have rafted together, and are now fishing the seabed.
'And as for me,
'my childhood love affair with the Highlands has been rekindled,
'with new memories added to old of wildness and weather.
'What a treat to spend time with such magnificent wildlife.
'Watching every drama of their lives played out right in front of me.
'There's something defiantly wild about this landscape.
'I watch the clouds that bring rain,
'and from it both life and death.
'I watch the rhythm of the loch as it ebbs and flows.
'It's this ever-changing weather that shapes all life here.
'And it makes ME feel alive too.
'That's what keeps me coming back.'
'I knew that making a film up here wouldn't be easy.
'Filming the eagles was relatively straightforward.
'But I had no idea just how difficult it would be
'to film two of the other animals I wanted -
'and the pine marten.
'To get close to the divers -
'an extremely rare and sensitive species -
'I'd need to work with Lorna, a local diver scientist.
'For the last few years,
'she's been studying these birds on the nest,
'so I thought it would be easy to find a good site.
'But there was a mystery, one that she was investigating.'
No, they are still out there, but I...
'Diver eggs were curiously vanishing.'
This pair's got one egg and they nested on a raft around there before.
And they failed and they've now moved to an island site.
It's the first time they've nested here.
-You've got a camera on them?
-We've got a camera on here.
Well, it is there. The egg's there still.
'We would need to work fast while the diver was off this egg.
'We wanted to install the remote camera as quickly as possible
'and get out of the area.
'Lorna has been using them to spy on nests
'and to reveal what's been taking the eggs.
'Anything that comes close to this egg will be caught on camera.'
Tilt it up slightly now, it's a bit too low to the ground.
That's probably fine.
'What on earth would it be?'
-Are we out of here now?
-Yep, that's us.
'Lorna and I moved on to a nest
'where the eggs had gone only a few days before.
'Any egg losses for these rare birds
'are a serious cause for concern.
'But I was also beginning to realise that it was going to be difficult
'to choose a nest that I thought would succeed.
'Then there was the added risk of shore-based nests flooding.
'What had I taken on?
'A nest on a raft seemed the best bet.
'At least it wouldn't drown if the loch were to rise after heavy rain.'
It's a very good hide.
'We put up the filming hide nearby and I just crossed my fingers.
'In the meantime, I thought I'd stake out the pine martens.'
'I've known them to den in these woods before
'and has no reason why they shouldn't still be here.
'But, after long days watching,
'I still had no more than the odd glimpse of a pine marten.
'We needed much more.
'And I certainly hadn't remembered the midges being as bad as this.'
The important thing is that I get some sightings
before I can expect a poor cameraman to sit out these midges too.
'To make matters worse, at this crucial stage in May,
'Lorna rang to say that the divers on the raft had deserted their nest.
'One egg abandoned, the other gone -
'the adults weren't going to return.
'I thought they were going to be safe on the raft,
'and we were going to be filming a hatching.
'I had a cameraman arriving in a week's time.
'It was too late to find another nest.
'There was a slim chance they might re-lay on the same raft.
'And that was my only hope.'
We can't put in a hide at any other clutches,
-because that would disturb them.
So I've got all my eggs in one basket.
All your eggs on one raft.
-Yeah, all my eggs on one raft.
Sometimes the birds can sit very, very tight,
so we always like to make sure the bird's off so we don't scare them up.
It's better to go in slow and let them slide off slowly into the water.
-You know she's off?
'Lorna has seen the birds back near the raft.
'I'm just hoping this could mean they're nesting again.
'They have re-laid. What a relief!'
So you can see, she actually came and laid right underneath the camera
when she laid second time.
'We just have to hope for more luck this time.
'But we were back in business, at least with the divers.
'I was back to the pine martens,
'determined that they weren't going to beat me.'
It makes me think that, all the time,
there are eyes looking at me.
The eyes of a pine marten. It knows I'm here.
'I really needed to find a den.
'To find that,
'I would need to establish a clear pattern of movements.
'A friend of mine and I built a simple phone-triggering device.
'I baited the inside with something I know they can't resist -
'a jam sandwich.'
The hope is that the pine marten will scurry along,
smell the jam sandwich in here and push that aside,
as a pine marten might.
And sniff and go, "Hmm."
Now, already, that's been set off.
-PineMarten1 has called.
'I know how cunning pine martens can be -
'you have to play them at their own game.
'Back on the loch,
'our divers on the raft were thankfully still on their eggs.
'Over time, Lorna has been gathering some really interesting evidence
'from the remote cameras.
'I couldn't wait to go through it with her
'and see who the likely egg thieves might be.'
-That looks to me like an otter.
-That is definitely an otter.
-So it's walked over the egg, has it?
-That's its tail.
I would say it's passed slightly to the side of it. More or less.
-It hasn't eaten the egg.
-So it's ignored the egg.
I even wondered there if it's sniffing
where the adult bird's been sitting for a long time,
so I wasn't quite sure what was going on there at all.
'Otters were clearly coming onto the raft,
'but if they weren't actually taking the eggs, what was?
'There was one visitor that I would never have suspected.'
-A big bound, isn't it?
-As if it's trying to catch it.
-Is that a pine marten to you?
-These are very distinct ears.
-And then this is it moving around, I think taking the first egg.
People knew that pine martens lived on the island already,
and they've known that historically,
but somehow we hadn't really thought
the pine Martin was going to be there.
It's absolutely intriguing - without the camera trap,
you really would have said everything was the otter.
-But it's not, it's a pine marten.
'I was really surprised.
'How could the pine marten know that there were eggs on the raft,
'let alone swim out there and back with an egg?
'That's a shot for another film.
'They are so clever.
'If they find the new eggs on our raft, everything's lost.
'These pine martens are putting me under real pressure.
'And, to add insult to injury,
'they've now started raiding my house.'
In the last few nights,
we've suspected something's been coming into this kitchen.
So we have been leaving out a few jam sandwiches
and if you look at them, well, they've been taken off the table
and all the jam's been licked off, so I have to say I think it's...
Look at all these muddy prints, too, I think it's pretty likely
that the pine marten is coming in here. And, um...
It's getting up to the window, right up here, jumping down.
It's slightly ironic that, there we are, out in the woods,
setting these ridiculous phone traps
to try and work out their movements -
"They're so elusive, they're so intelligent!
"We can't see them, we don't get the better of them."
And yet here, now, suddenly, we've got a pine marten
coming in from the wild, into the cottage,
taking food from the kitchen and out again.
It's like a robber. We didn't hear anything.
Look at these marks down here.
Look at that!
These are the scratch marks.
It's actually had a really good dig.
It's like we're chasing each other.
'Well, the only slight consolation
'is that, if the pine marten is busy raiding my kitchen,
'she might be leaving the diver eggs alone.
'To my relief, the diver eggs did finally hatch
'and we filmed them through to adulthood.
'I was lucky.
'I had achieved one of my goals.
'But the pine marten?
'It got the better of us.
'I reckon it was always there,
'but she had nearly always seen us before we saw her.
'Just for fun,
'we did manage to capture our midnight thief on camera.
'And it turned out to be the only significant footage we ever got.
'That's just the way it is
'when you're making a film about wild animals.
'Despite your best efforts,
'there are stories that work out
'and those that just...get away.'
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
This stunningly beautiful film reveals the unique wildlife of the Scottish Highlands, seen through the eyes of film-maker Fergus Beeley.
Based for a year at Loch Maree and the surrounding hills in Scotland's far north west, Beeley presents his personal view of the shy animals whose lives are ruled by the rains. He follows the fortunes of rare black-throated divers and white-tailed sea eagles, which both breed there, while capturing the red deer and salmon whose lives also revolve around the loch.
With an evocative score provided by local musician Phil Cunningham, this enchanting film captures the magic of a very special place.