Am Bratach No. 249
July 2012

Nature’s call
by Paul Castle

No matter how advanced as a species we become some basic experiences can put a smile on our face just as I suspect it did long ago. A couple of years ago a colleague and I ran a simple bushcraft event as part of our summer programme. There were several activities on the day including wild food preparation and fire starting. The nettle and milk soup we made was very popular and the sugar kelp crisps made a welcome crunchy and savoury accompaniment. It was surprisingly tasty fare and virtually free apart from the preparation time.

The fire starting practise began with much enthusiasm and good intentions but proved to be very challenging for most of the participants on the day. We had prepared bow drill sets for folk to use to start a fire. Using a bow drill fire kit looks easy when someone such as Ray Mears demonstrates it with his years of practise and experience. Trying to teach someone in a couple of hours alongside other bushcraft techniques is quite a different thing.

There followed much sweating, under the breath cursing, and sighing with little more than a few puffs of smoke and frustrated looks. It’s a little like learning to drive: there just seems to be too many things to do at one time making it seem impossible. Bows were slipping, drills were shooting around the place like small blunt arrows and folk were constantly adjusting their positions to try and get comfortable without compromising their technique.

Finally, one gentleman who was with his young daughter managed to keep the bow moving at a good. constant rate and a collection of wood dust built up nicely in the hearth. With encouragement from us he went on to create a hot coal in the dust which began smoking away happily. He transferred the coal into a bundle of dry grass and rosebay willowherb seed and began blowing as directed, a short while later the grass ignited and burst into flames.

This is when this ancient smile of achievement appeared on his reddened face. A twenty-first century man using technology thousands of years old to produce one of our greatest tools. I’m certain that smile emerged from somewhere deep in his DNA and his young daughter too had a large smile of satisfaction at her father’s achievements. Ironically, it turned out he was a fireman and starting a fire using that technique was something he had wanted to do for many years.

I was teaching our seasonal rangers just the other day the same technique ready for an event and the very same uncontrollable smile appeared when one ranger finally managed to start a fire. For the rest of the day the smile lurked about his face. I’m determined to ensure that the other seasonal ranger will also be successful. It’s fascinating to imagine the smile of satisfaction and relief produced when in our ancient history starting that fire was a matter of life and death.

A truly rare and fascinating wildlife encounter was witnessed off the Island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth recently. A pod of orca (killer whales) was seen herding and attacking a group of white-beaked dolphins just out from the island. Some distant photos were taken of the incident and it is believed that a white-beaked dolphin may have been killed by the orcas. It has been suspected for many years that this behaviour does occur in British waters but this is the first time it has perhaps been witnessed. It is worth pointing out that an adult white-beaked dolphin can reach 2.8m (9ft 6in) in length so this is no small defenceless mammal.

Orca have been witnessed hunting immature whales and large seals but a white-beaked dolphin is a large, fast and agile mammal and the skill and co-operation of the orca pod cannot be understated. The incident did receive national coverage and will hopefully help in the drive to recognise these northern waters as a very important habitat for these impressive sea mammals. Details can be found by visiting the Seawatch Foundation website at

If you have an interest in dragonflies then come along to Borgie Forest log cabins on Saturday (July 7) and join dragonfly expert Jonathon Willet and me to learn about the local species. We will enjoy a presentation by Jonathon and also get out looking for the adults on the wing and possibly catch some nymphs in the ponds there. This is a free event but booking is required as there are limited numbers. Phone to book on 01641 521884 or 01847 821531

Paul is a Highland Council ranger based at Bettyhill and Dunnet.

CLICK to buy a postal subscription online

Go back to Home Page