When an old friend learnt we were moving to Inverness after living on the Black Isle for more than 30 years, he immediately invited me to join a group of volunteers. For some years he had been a member of the team who tend the woodland and the network of paths, on the hill overlooking and around the old Craig Dunain Hospital. My friend became insistent when he heard that our new house was to be in that same Victorian building.
But ‘lockdowns’ meant it took well over a year before our house was ready and I was able turn out for the Dunain Community Woodland’s (CDW) ‘Monday Club’. This body of volunteers most certainly should not be confused with the right-wing political grouping of the same name. Dunain’s version just happens to meet every Monday morning to tackle the tasks of the day. These can range from strimming the paths to the judicious felling of selected trees; clearing gorse and bracken to building benches; mending fences to planting saplings and putting up tastefully painted notice boards. After a couple of hours the group gathers to discuss world affairs, the meaning of life or the fortunes of Inverness Caley/Ross County. These exchanges are conducted while sitting on logs drinking tea from thermos flaks and enjoying an apparently endless supply of apple tarts.
The dozen or so who can turn out on a Monday morning are mostly retired, but come from a variety of backgrounds. Significantly some worked in the old hospital when it was operating. They can still close their eyes and see the golf course, football pitch and farm that used to be part and parcel of Craig Dunain. They watch from the hill as the wards in the old building that used to be their place of work, are converted into flats and town houses. But there are also former firemen, council officials, businessmen, a crofter who used to work for the Crofters Commission, a retired vet and now a second former journalist. For the most part they just enjoy being outside doing some practical work, and making a wee bit of difference.
I learnt early that several of the volunteers had been involved for over 15 years, going back to when Dunain Community Woodland (DCW) was established. That was in 2005 when Robertson Homes, the company developing the Craig Dunain site, had proposed transferring management responsibility for around 100 acres of woodland and hill to DCW. That transfer has never been completed, and so the ambitious plans for a community woodland have not all been realised. Much has been done over the years, however, from the planting of an area christened the children’s forest to staging small festivals in the woods.
Meanwhile the Monday Club’s work continues every week. It is an entirely voluntary effort with members using their own equipment and providing the fuel for their chainsaws, strimmers, etc. There is an obvious pride in caring for the area. It an area used by hundreds seeking local recreation or those embarking on/ just finishing the Great Glen Way, 74-mile long-distance walking route to Fort William. It has been obvious from the start that the volunteers make a point of engaging with those crossing the hill, whether to provide local information or encouraging those embarked on some physically demanding effort - it is amazing the number who seem to enjoy cycling up a steep track.
Monday of course is not the best day for those who might want to join the team, but have a job or other weekday commitments. Consideration is being given, therefore, to see if it might be possible to start a team who could give a few hours over the weekend. So watch this space.
A short video captured by Martin while out walking the dogs.
If you haven't managed to come and see the bluebells yet - hurry, they won't be here for long!
This has to be my favourite time of year for birdwatching. Migrants are back and watching the antics of fledglings on my fence whilst enjoying my morning coffee has always been a treat. Usually at this time of year as a family we would be out exploring the local area and travelling further afield but due to the recent events this has been curtailed and we have had to rely on our garden more and are very lucky to be able to take our daily exercise in the woodland.
I have always been amazed by the amount of bird life in Dunain Woods. Moving to the area over 4 years ago and seeing Siskin and Redpoll at our garden feeders was a surprise and welcome change from Sparrows at our old house (not that there's anything wrong with sparrows). Wildlife has carried on oblivious to lockdown, you only have to stand and listen to the dawn chorus to know that it is business as usual for the wildlife. Aside from the very noisy Song Thrushes and Blackbirds you can hear the sounds of some of our summer visitors. Chiffchaff are usually the first of the migrants to return, very similar in appearance to Willow Warblers they are easily identified by their ‘chiff chaff chiff chaff’ sounding call. Black caps flute like song has earned them the name ‘Northern Nightingale’ a short stroll up the hill and you can hear the many males vying for the attention of the chestnut capped females.
If the climb up the hill sometimes feels difficult, spare a thought for the House Martins, these little black and white hirundines you see flitting about collecting mud to build their nests in the eaves of houses, have just made a long journey from Africa or Asia where they spend the winter. Slightly later in returning this year it’s great to watch them flitting about eating bugs and very frustrating trying to get a photo! Other migrants like swallows and swifts are also seen flying around chasing the multitude of flying bugs amongst the trees.
On any day in Dunain Woods you will see Birds of Prey. The amount of voles, toads, rabbits and other small mammals support a diverse range of Raptor species. Red Kite are very common and identifiable by their forked tails and agile flight style. Buzzards seem to be doing very well and can fly quite low over the houses at times, if not chased off by the nesting crows! Recently our local pale Buzzard was spotted carrying a small stoat. If you feed the birds you may see Sparrow Hawks regularly checking out your garden and flying very low over the fences chasing their next meal. Kestrel regularly hunt for voles over the grassy areas, instantly recognisable by their flapping hover whilst eyeing up their prey.
We do on occasions get a rare sighting of larger Raptors passing through. The last two winters we have spotted White Tailed Sea Eagles flying over the woodland. These huge birds have an eight foot wingspan and often referred to as a flying barn door, they can range quite far in the winter months so worth keeping a look out especially when there is snow on the hills. However a Golden Eagle is extremely rare, so imagine our excitement a few weeks ago when we spotted a young Golden Eagle over the woodland being harassed by a buzzard and managed to get a photo.
Ospreys are also regularly seen flying over carrying fish. So whilst looking at the bushes and in the trees during your daily walk is always a good idea, it’s worth keeping your eyes to the skies too as you never know what you might see!!
Debbie Borthwick is a Dunain Community Woods Trustee and lives locally to the woodland.
Inverness Courier article expressing our concern about the number of trees being felled along the back road up to Westercraigs, and our desire to build a positive working relationship with Robertson Homes.
Today was a day that Emma, Lynne, Debbie and I thought would never come. But it has, and we're very excited about the potential of what happens next.
So why all the fuss?
In two words. Robertson Homes. After a flurry of emails over the last month or so, the four of us took time off work to meet Tim Metcalfe, Robertson's new North Regional Director. We met at duck pond and took Tim for a 2 hour 'walk in the woods'. To say he was surprised by what he found would be an understatement. Thankfully, unlike Bill Bryson's own adventures in the woods, he didn't come across any bears!
"Wow, this place is amazing, what a view, I just never knew this was up here and I expect most of Robertson's staff don't either!".
What we discussed
Tim's email following the meeting is provided below. But in summary:
To help him get a better appreciation of the wider complexities, Tim is currently meeting various parties including: ourselves, planning dept, transport agencies and local councilors - before presenting a proposal to the Robertson Group Board in late July.
At this point Robertson's will be in a better position to agree a way forward with ourselves, planning department and the local community.
If you have any ideas about what you'd like to see happen around the woodland comment below or via the Contact Us form.
It was good to meet you all today and really enjoyable being able to get a proper tour of the open space around our development and see some of the great work you and others have been doing. The setting for our development is truly unique and special and I want Robertson Homes to play its part in keeping it that way or enhancing where needed.
The specific items we discussed were:
I will look into each of the above to see if we can help in some way.
I would suggest that our main focus would be on improvement to areas that are widely accessible eg duck pond, so that maximise benefit for the community is achieved.
We also discussed the potential lease of the woodland areas. I will speak to our solicitors to see what our options may be and specifically to understand whether some form of management agreement might be a better route.
I will also give some thought about how we can work better together going forward to our mutual benefit. Please feel free to pitch any ideas you have.
Be in touch again soon
Saturday morning brought an unexpected ray of sunshine, and I'm not just talking about the yellow ball in the sky that made an appearance after a week of very wet weather!
It came in the form of a big yellow fork-lift truck rumbling past the bottom of my garden heading up the lane immediately opposite the old mental hospital. Thirty minutes later it came back with a load of old HERA fencing panels - many with bits of gorse and grass hanging off. I was so surprised I ran indoors to get my phone to take some photos.
So why all the fuss? About 3 weeks ago I dropped into the Robertson offices at Fairways to see if I could find out who to talk to about running some small woodland partnership projects. Following a year of getting the administrative side of things in better shape, the directors are keen to get stuck in and make a difference where it matters - in the woods.
I met Jim Smith, who was interested to hear what I had to say and we agreed that a closer partnership between the woodland group, residents and Robertson's would be mutually beneficial. We exchanged details and agreed to keep in contact. Two week's later, following some email exchanges with Margaret Davidson (Leader of Highland Council), I was invited to a site walk-around with Brian McBride to discuss issues such as abandoned fencing, broken lamp posts, concrete blocks, abandoned cones, builders waste and the ruined (burned-out) cottage. Unsightly and unsafe for people and nature.
It was a very amicable walk-around with Brian showing genuine concern and a willingness to take action. I also got an insight into their own constraints around tight man power and cost management. Things I understand all too well!
Following our Tuesday meeting I received an email (and photos) outlining the main points discussed. I must admit I thought it would be sometime (if at all) that anything would happen. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see a big yellow fork-lift truck and a couple of chaps coming past my house on Saturday morning!
Although not technically part of the Dunain Community Woods remit and plans, I hope local residents take pride in the clean-up work being undertaken on their behalf. There's a lot still to do, but it's a great start. Thank you Jim and Brian.
I hope these early gestures will turn into a genuine partnership with Robertson's, resulting in ongoing projects the entire community can get involved in, with all parties mutually benefiting.
Stay tuned for clean-up part 2, and progress with Jade O'Hara - Robertson's Community Engagement Officer.