Beside the old mill was a large muddy field, situated in a low lying basin that, obviously, was once the catchment area for the mill pond and race. Now all that remained were some isolated patches of reeds, yellow flags and the occasional clump of marsh marigolds. During the wetter months an overflowing drainage ditch would channel the surface water through the field only to disappear rather alarmingly into an old flagstone constructed subterranean drain. The course of the water is then a mystery to me but it must run too close, if not under, my house reappearing again at the base of a small ancient midden rich cliff to cascade down polished horizontal flagstone beds to merge with the sea in a swirl of fronded bladder wrack.
Due to the activities of cattle and sheep, the mill field naturally became a rather boggy mess in places, the reeds and flags if not eaten, were trampled and crushed. Curious young cattle would boisterously investigate the few birds that tried to settle amongst the clumps or feed in any suitable patches. The farmer mentioned that he was thinking of mowing away the remaining reeds and improving the drainage. This proposal worried us greatly for it was an interesting field geologically, with small hillocks and hollows in a sheltered position providing a contrasting landscape to the surrounding flat fields and pasture typical of this island. Alas, our own field was one such as this.
Anxiously, we tentatively approached the farmer to see if he would be interested in doing another deal. We inquired whether he would like to swap his muddy problem field (containing cattle poisoning weeds) with our green grassy one? With a twinkle in his eye an agreement was happily reached in which he retained a couple of acres of his field at the far end, for access purposes and a lambing area. We kept a similar acreage to provide a buffer zone from the cattle and in which we could take a late hay crop. The coastal strip of this hay field we intend to leave untouched as it is a favourite meeting place for fulmars and a haven for Orkney voles.
I daresay a few folk thought we were barking mad but we had exciting plans for our new quagmire. We had discussed with the farmer beforehand that we intended to build a dam and flood part of the area creating a wetland habitat for birds and other wild life. His only concern was that we took care not to flood his surrounding land and in due course the new boundary fencing was installed.
The first task, which took place in the drier months, was to create a temporary barrier of soil to retain the limited flow of water. In difficult swampy conditions, with much slipping about, often becoming detached from our Wellingtons, a dam was finally constructed from the remnants of a collapsed dry stone wall. We situated it in front of the drain outlet with two different overflow levels to prevent unwanted flooding and a route designed for otters to pass over when travelling up the drain from the sea.
Gradually, day by day, pools began to form, which proved irresistible to a few mallard and flocks of chattering starlings in for their evening bath. A humble start but the heavy rains soon came and the landscape began to transform. At first the water appeared murky with blankets of green algae growing in the shallows, probably due to the high percentage of cow manure and nitrates previously laying on the land. The algae eventually disappeared with the waters running clear and rising fast which prompted us to frantically save the clumps of marsh marigolds that would have perished in the deeper pools. Eventually the water level reached the top of the dam, flowing over and gurgling away down the mysterious drain, while a beautiful small loch glistened brightly in the winter greyness.
Photograph by Mary Harris
Photograph by Mary Harris
I heard our first notable visitors one calm night, their distinctive lonesome whistles floating across the moonlit water and in the morning we were delighted to observe a small group of widgeon grazing peacefully one of the small hillocks at the water-side. It was not long before they were joined by a pair of mute swans who graced the wintery scene with their white softness staying with us for many weeks. Rapid flying Teal circled overhead checking the waters below before descending quietly, amongst the Curlews that strode along the marshy edges probing their long slender beaks into the mud. As the days lengthened oystercatchers, redshanks, lapwings, snipe and black headed gulls decided that this was a good place to stop and perform their amazing aerial acrobatic and fancy footwork performances to prospective partners. As if by magic yellow flags and reeds thrust their spears of greenness in vast areas where previously they had been grazed short or trampled flat, slowly transforming the lochan into a mysterious place of secret deep pools, streams and reedy hide-outs. Glossy black coots, after violent splashy water fights with each other over territories, were the first to nest in lofty reed islands brooding patiently throughout the most atrocious storms and icy gales. The gentler moorhens nested a safe distance away from them in similar abodes. We could see four such nests from our house and I think there may have been more hidden away near the top end of the area.
Throughout the spring, bird noise was overwhelming and I spent many hours watching and listening to this magical performance, from drumming snipe to the parachuting warbling of curlews. Finally, the greatest thrill of all was to catch a glimpse of newly hatched chicks cautiously venturing out from the reeds to join their parents on the sunny banks. We know for sure that redshank, curlew, lapwing, snipe, mallard and oystercatcher all nested and fledged their young successfully. We are unsure if the shovellers had the same intentions but they remained for many weeks busily sifting the water with their tremendous beaks.
Occasionally, a silent grey heron sleeps up near the wall, perhaps keeping an eye open for an unattended chick. We did see a silver thread like elver but I doubt if any fish have found their way down yet. The flags bloomed yellow mingling with two types of subtle shaded reeds growing tall and thick, becoming home to numerous reed bunting. Unfortunately, precious few wild flowers are to be found, a situation we hope to rectify and we have sixty or so young native willows to transplant in a sheltered corner.
Winter is with us again, silent and harsh, freezing the reeds a soft wheaten brown. The occasional visit of a lonesome hen harrier alerts us to how many birds are still safely hiding in the wetlands. With shrill cries of alarm small flocks of birds arise frantically, dispersing in every direction as the low shadow of the harrier darkens their world. Daily, kestrels hover overhead or shelter on the lee side of the mill. Last year they nested in the gable end of an unused chimney on the house, seemingly unperturbed by our presence, and raising three healthy youngsters. They hunt over both the new wetland habitat and the hay field as does the superb peregrine, vigilant short eared owl and, occasionally, the merlin flashes through. The cold skies are silent now but we eagerly await the soaring song of skylarks, the annunciation of wrens and the cheerful bobbing of pied-wagtails - the latter two nesting in the nooks and crannies of the dry stone dykes. Wheatears brighten the world on their sentinel posts while rock doves, starlings and blackbirds prefer the high rafters of the mill.
I mentioned the drain that channels the waters from the wetlands to the beach and it is at the emergent point that otters prominently place their spraints, often leaving neat little footprints in the sand. We see them occasionally at dusk, creeping out of the drain with their shrill whistles and playful tumbling through the rock pools to the sea. The beautiful curve of the white sandy bay and wrack covered rocks is a stark contrast to the wetlands and from my kitchen window the dull tasks at the sink are enlightened by the scene outside. There are always seals playing in the surf or swimming by and it puzzles me why they sometimes struggle ashore to dig a hole in the sand with their flipper and then push their noses in to smell something apparently wonderful! On the magically calm days we quite regularly observe harbour porpoise feeding close inshore with a characteristic wheeling motion, accompanied at this time of year by groups of long tailed ducks and rafts of eider. The shore line is laced with exquisite beads of sanderlings and many more feeding waders and scavengers, the sky vibrant with the happy bouncing flight of snow bunting, one tired migrant flew in from across the sea to land thankfully on my friend’s head! Other migratory birds rest awhile here from wax wings to black caps and I give thanks to the obliging farmer who agreed to swap fields enabling us to convert the land back to its natural wetland habitat.