Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Seabird sojourn

May 31st, 2014

SIR WALTER SCOTT, on a sea journey from Arbroath to Aberdeen on which he was seasick, wrote in his diary – “…vessel off Fowlsheugh and Dunnottar. Fair wind and delightful day.” Which was just how I found it – not the seasickness bit, the weather.

This is the best time to visit the seabird reserve at RSPB Fowlsheugh. Kittiwakes and guillemots, and razorbills too, all of which spend much of the rest of the year at sea, come ashore to lay their eggs.

I set off from home in bright sunshine but nearer the coast ran into a typical north-east haar. Steam was rising off the ploughed fields as the sun burnt off the mist. A “fair wind” blew up, chasing away the last of it and, as if echoing Sir Walter’s words, it turned into a fine spring morning.

The reserve at Crawton is between Catterline and Stonehaven. It’s aptly named Fowlsheugh, which means bird cliff. It’s not the squalling voices of seabirds that greets you, as you might expect, but the powerful, fishy smell of generations of seabird guano coating the high cliffs where the birds nest.

There’s more than just the seabird colonies to see. The grassland on the clifftops was speckled with red campion. White common scurvy grass was, well – common. It’s widespread there.

Thrift, or sea-pinks, shivered in the breeze on stiff, skinny stalks. They were favourites of my mother’s and seeing them growing in dry, arid crevasses on the cliff face brought back memories of Highland holidays by the sea.

Readers who are smoother in the tooth will remember that thrift was depicted on the reverse side of the old ‘thrifty’ thruppenny-bit coin.

It’s an opportunity to see the seabirds close to, for some nest just below the clifftop. Guillemots were far and away the most numerous species. They are social birds and nest shoulder to shoulder on the narrow cliff ledges, uttering a growling sort of cry as if warning their neighbours to give them more room.

The female lays a single egg on the bare rock. It’s pear shaped so that if it is knocked by a careless bird it’s more likely to curl round on the ledge than roll off the cliff. Try rolling a hen’s egg and you’ll see what I mean.

Whatever the reasons, the numbers of breeding birds at Fowlesheugh are not what they used to be. There’s certainly plenty of kittiwakes and a healthy population of herring gulls and numbers of fulmars. But in the past you’d hardly be able to hear yourself think with the numbers of birds and volume of their cries during the breeding season.

It was never the most prolific breeding ground for puffins, but I didn’t see any. Another walker I spoke to had seen only one. One cause for such a dramatic decline is probably related to commercial sand eel fishing.

In the late 1980s, Danish fishing boats arrived on Scotland’s north-east coast to fish for sand eels for manufacture into animal feed and fertiliser. They hoovered up, literally, hundreds of tons of the wee fish which are a primary food source for many of our seabirds, especially in the breeding season when greedy chicks need constant feeding. Recovery from that sort industrial fishing takes years.

Birds of any species which can’t feed their chicks just won’t breed, and we humans will share that loss with them. As Princess Anne said on television recently, the countryside – and you can include the sea in that generality – is for our survival. Put another way, the countryside is only the countryside because of the life that lives in it.

Closer to home – after a talk in Montrose Library a member of the audience, from Arbroath, told me she hadn’t heard a cuckoo for ages. If she takes a drive up Glenesk to the car park at the head of the glen, she will hear cuckoos. My contacts tell me there are more cuckoos in the glen this year than for several years past.

On the way home visit the refurbished museum of agricultural life at the Glenesk Retreat Museum to see just how hard life was in the glen a century ago. Finish the day with tea and the excellent home baking in the Museum restaurant.

Written on Saturday, May 31st, 2014 at 1:31 pm for Weekly.