Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Islay Images for Loch Gruinart

The RSPB commissioned these six images to be used in their visitors’ centre on Islay. They depict the wildlife of the flooded meadows at the head of Loch Gruinart, and will be displayed along the sill of the huge picture-window that looks out across the fields. It’s possible to get very close views of all the wildlife on the reserve, and I spent a wonderful few days making my field-sketches here.
The pictures are all hand made screen prints from an edition limited to three prints of each image. All money from the sale of the first print will go to fund further RSPB projects on Islay.

The pictures chart the life of these meadows from January through to December.

The story starts on the left of the display, with the flooded winter fields.

Winter rain is held back by sluice gates, so the flooded fields can be used by ducks such as wigeon and pintail. Hares also feed on the rich grassland, which in Spring are covered in daisies, buttercups and marsh marigolds.

As the weather warms, these damp fields become full of insects. Nesting waders, like lapwing, find plenty of food for their chicks. Roe deer graze here, and may be chased by territorial birds.

Cattle manure is spread on the middle of the field to make a Corncrake Corridor. Corncrakes rely on this shelter when they return from Africa in April. Breeding snipe use the fence posts to survey their territory.

In late summer, once the corncrakes have fledged, the fields are cut for silage. Starlings feed in the stubbles. Cattle graze any rough vegetation, in preparation for our winter visitors.

In October many thousands of barnacle geese arrive from their breeding grounds in Greenland. Our mild, damp climate means that the grass grows throughout the winter. The geese can graze here, safe on the reserve.

Several thousand white fronted geese spend the winter feeding on the reserve. Along with the barnacle geese, they roost at night on Loch Gruinart, safe from predators. Whooper swans also make the reserve their winter home.

Peatland Pictures for RSPB

I spent most of last winter in my studio, creating twelve screen prints of Hebridean wildlife. These were commissioned by the RSPB, to be used in a display for their visitors’ centre on Islay. Six of the pictures depict the wildlife of the island’s peatlands. 

This part of the project was paid for by the whisky producer Lagavullin. To celebrate their 200th anniversary they released 522 bottles of a special 1991 single cask edition whisky to create a legacy fund for Islay community projects. Thanks to this fund, the RSPB is restoring 300 hectares of peatland on their nature reserves and the artwork will be used to help visitors learn more about this exciting landscape.

The artwork is designed to frame the big picture window in the visitors' centre on RSPB's Loch Gruinart reserve. These six pieces are available for sale as individual pictures (minus the text of course). Click on the image to see it in full.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Project Puffin

When I was invited to spend a week working with RSPB's Project Puffin team last year, I didn't realise that I would have to travel all the way to the most northerly point of the British Isles. And that was only the beginning. The team had assembled in Shetland to monitor an important breeding population of puffins. Every day started with a brisk uphill march of an hour to the colony, carrying heavy scientific equipment, rain coats, warm clothes, climbing gear, and in my case, painting paraphernalia. We had to run the gauntlet of a huge breeding colony of great skuas. In Shetland they're known as Bonxies, for their habit of seeing off any intruders from their territory with a vigorous peck to the head. Luckily the skuas had become used to people on the path, and so as long as we kept to the track we could enjoy seeing the birds at close quarters with their fluffy orange chicks.
Another distraction was all the other rare and exciting birdlife along the walkway. I have never seen dunlin displaying before, and it was wonderful hearing the snipe performing their drumming display overhead.
At first, the puffins were not easy to see. We discovered that the number of breeding birds here had declined by more than 90%. Without safety in numbers, puffins would fly in at top speed to avoid the piratical attentions of the Bonxies, and dive into their burrows carrying only a few tiny fish. The Project Puffin team attached tiny GPS trackers to the birds in order to find out where they were fishing, and you can read more about this work in an article that I've written for the Summer 2018 edition of the RSPB’s magazine “Nature’s Home.” 

The RSPB lobbies government on matters such as fishing policy and global warming, and scientific data is vital to informing decision-making. Marine ecology is a complicated matter, and although the puffins were really struggling, the gannet colony nearby was booming. Gannets feed on bigger prey like mackerel, and the birds were nesting all the way to the top of the cliffs. This allowed for great sketching opportunities.

By 11pm the midsummer sunset was skimming the horizon. As the Project Puffin team finished work there seemed to be puffins standing all around us on the cliff top. These were younger birds, visiting the colony to meet potential mates and size up nesting burrows for future years. Puffins can live for up to 40 years, and so there’s a chance that data from this project can be used to improve their chances of finding enough fish to raise chicks successfully in the future. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Tweet of the Week

I've recorded a podcast for Radio 4's Tweet of the Day. The individual stories will be broadcast during the week beginning 22nd January, and then all five will be available as a podcast called Tweet of the week. It's easy to find on the BBC's radio iplayer, and I think it's available for the next year. Nearly all the stories are from my book, Wild Island, which is still available in book shops.