Social distancing

In the future I hope we’ll look back on the Covid-19 pandemic as the threat to global health and economics that could have been much worse.

Now, just over a week into a lockdown, we’re still several weeks away from the peak of infections in the UK and it’s beginning to feel like a dystopian dream.

Normal life is suspended for the moment. Everyone who can work from home is doing so. I spend large parts of my day on video conference calls.

There’s a suspicion that some taking part with ‘audio only’ may still be in their pyjamas 😉 .

Or they might just have a slow internet connection … who knows?

Putting the remote into remote working

I’m fortunate to have a job that means I can easily work from home. I’m also fortunate that it involves quite a bit of writing and thinking, not necessarily in that order.

We're all keyboard warriors now

We’re all keyboard warriors now

And you can write and think when the weather is bad, or during the night.

Which means I’m getting to see a whole lot more of this spring than I’ve seen of any spring for the past 30 years.

The lockdown came into force before the spring migrants arrive but after most of the winter migrants have departed. The fieldfares and redwings are long gone. The swallows and house martins are still a few days away.

But the local frogs have already spawned …

Frogspawn - early March 2020

Frogspawn - early March 2020

… and the tadpoles that subsequently emerged completely ignored the recently introduced rules about social distancing.

However, once the remainder of the yolk sac had been eaten the individuals spread throughout the pond and followed the even stricter guidelines which now preclude more than two meeting.

This little pond wasn’t used by the frogs last year, possibly because it is transient and disappears unless there’s a reasonable amount of rain. According to the SEPA rainfall records from Tobermory (the closest recording station) both December and January were unusually wet, with about 150% the usual levels of precipitation.

Tobermory monthly rainfall records

Tobermory monthly rainfall records

But February was unusually dry (not something you often hear said about Ardnamurchan) and that’s when the frogs would have been congregating to spawn.

Whatever the reasons, there are hundreds of tadpoles in residence this spring. The pond is adjacent to an outside tap (fed from a burn up the hill) so, should it remain unseasonably dry, I’ll periodically top it up as I watch the froglets develop.

One period of exercise a day

As recently noted by Tom Bryson, with a population density of only about 4.5 people per square kilometre, social distancing is relatively easy on Ardnamurchan. The roads are even quieter than usual as there’s a near-complete absence of tourists.

I use my bike to get out and about. With one notable exception this is a perfect mode of transport on the peninsula. You can stop anywhere, for a minute or an hour, with no danger of blocking a passing place. There’s ample time to view the wonderful scenery and wildlife but you also cover a reasonable distance so get a wide variety of views as well.

The exception is the hills, of which there are several.

Kilchoan to Acharacle profile

Kilchoan to Acharacle profile

An unexpected advantage of social distancing is the solitude it has brought … no one can see me wheezing up the gentle gradients at a snail’s pace, or gasping like a cod out of water on the steeper stuff.

But it’s worth it.

Maintain 2 metres distance from others

Maintain 2 metres distance from others

At the beginning of the lockdown there was an influx of caravans and camper vans as people ’escaped’ the cities - either taking advantage of enforced time off work, or avoiding regions with high numbers of Covid-19 cases.

Covid-19 notice

Covid-19 notice

Unsurprisingly this was discouraged. Sparse rural communities tend to lack the healthcare infrastructure needed for resilience and, being at the the end of supply and delivery chains, limited resources to support visitors 1.

There is another disadvantage of being on a bike. You see the rubbish discarded by others littering the ditches or in parking areas.

One thoughtless visitor decided to discard the contents of their portable barbeque in the parking area overlooking Camas nan Gael, together with some unwanted food, dumping it right next to the sign about protecting rural communities.

Leave nothing but footprints ... and potatoes and charcoal.

Leave nothing but footprints … and potatoes and charcoal.

Thanks a lot 😞

Spring is sprung

One of the things you notice on a bike is the influence of local geography on the pace of seasonal change. The first primroses I saw were on very sheltered south-east facing banks over Camas Bàn. Soon they’ll be everywhere … not least because deer don’t eat them 2.

For the first time I also noticed that the slopes above these primroses hold old coppiced hazel woodland, very different from our usual birch, alder and oak. This is something I’d have never noticed speeding past in the car.

Coppiced hazel near Camas Bàn

Coppiced hazel near Camas Bàn

As I write this the hazel catkins are still present and the leaf buds are just breaking. The deer - bless ’em - have yet to discover the hazel I’ve planted, but have already decimated some of the willow.

Alder buds are also close to breaking and the larch still have tightly packed clusters of needles looking like small green anemones along the branches.

With a bit more time I’ve also noticed differences in the Ardnamurchan birdlife. Siskins have reappeared again in good numbers. For a period they were absent, presumably because there were better food sources in cones on the conifers.



The birds are carving up their territories and laying claim to nesting sites around the house and garden. Most of the nestboxes appear to have regular visits, but there’s little evidence of nest building activity quite yet.

Finally, I’ve noticed how the wind direction seems to influence the views I get of raptors. On days with southerly or south easterly winds I’ve seen good numbers of buzzards, sea eagles and ravens (which I consider an honorary raptor) passing, together with one stunning male hen harrier slip-sliding past at close range. In contrast, the more normal westerlies, give regular (but distant) views of golden or sea eagles over the Morvern hills. In late February I watched three pairs of golden eagles together over Beinn Ghormaig, a fantastic sight.

More of the same

It’s looking as though this lockdown will be in force for at least three months. After that there will probably be an extended period with variable restrictions in place. The outbreak-control modelling by Neil Ferguson and colleagues at Imperial College shows these may be needed for many months. There may also be geographic variation reflecting local flare-ups or pressure on healthcare services.

Whatever happens, it is likely to be a very strange and unsettling experience. One of the small benefits will be the increased time we have to appreciate the natural world around. This will carry on as it always has … we’ve just been too busy to notice it.

With fewer cars, visitors, planes, light pollution and noise we might even be able to see more of it. A friend in Edinburgh noted he’d heard the dawn chorus for the first time in two decades due to the reduction in traffic noise.

Western skunk cabbage, Glenborrodale, March 2020

Western skunk cabbage, Glenborrodale, March 2020

These small pleasures are the silver lining accompanying the cloud we’re currently under.

  1. It’s notable that some of the most remote global communities suffered the highest fatality rates during the 1918 ‘flu pandemic. In Brevig Mission, overlooking the Bering Strait Alaska, 72 of the population of 80 died in a five day period from ‘flu. ↩︎

  2. Though I can confirm, through financially painful experience, that they do appear to eat primulas. ↩︎