Westray Wildlife in the Wilderness

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This summer we holidayed in Westray yet again. And it won’t be our last visit – we still found lots of things to do that we’d not done previously. For example, this year we finally managed to do the Noup Head Walk in the far north-west of the island.

Westray Wildlife in the Wilderness

Why had it taken us 3 holidays to finally walk the 4 mile loop around Noup Head lighthouse, beside the largest seabird colony on the whole of Orkney? Well, in previous years the wind had been a bit too strong for me to feel completely comfortable doing a long cliff-top walk with 3 easily-distracted little girls. This year, after our traditional Day 1 visit to the always magnificent and enchanting Grobust Beach and Day 2 trip to the enormous playground of Mae Sands, we decided the girls were reliably calm enough to do Noup Head. It was gloriously sunny and unusually not windy at all, so we stuck a bottle of sunscreen on top of the biggest picnic known to mankind and drove around to the start point: the car park at Backarass.

I say ‘car park’, but it’s a bit of land kindly set aside by the farmer that would fit 2 or 3 cars – it’s a little island! We made sure not to block any gates, then set off down the obvious path towards a stile. We marched through the meadows of wildflowers like The Seven Dwarves meets The Sound of Music. Hi-hoooo!

Over the second, ladder stile, I looked around and marvelled at the natural arches in the layered rocks and the clear views all around to other Orkney islands and Orkney Mainland. As we rounded another corner towards the cliffs proper, I marvelled a lot less at the sight of 3 paths braiding their way up the hill: one fairly well trodden, with a fainter one towards the cliffs on the left (brave souls with a head for heights) and a really faint one inland (a cowardly custard comfort blanket of a path). Of course, I chose the most right-hand path and started making a new one of my own, while the minxes and Jon skipped along the main track. However, what I found most disconcerting was that as you looked back after rounding yet more corners, or ahead to other people walking towards you, you realised that occasionally all 3 paths appeared to overhang the cliffs. Which at their highest are 76m above sea level!

Whilst they have a better head for heights than me, the minxes have never been quick walkers. As toddlers it was one step forward, 5 steps back, then 10 sideways as they got distracted by things off the track. As older children they’re still the same. On that particular day, Maxi was even slower than usual and I narked as she fell waaaaay behind, yet again. Unknown to any of us, though, the poor girl was brewing a very nasty bout of tonsillitis that would hit that night and have her stuck in bed for most of the rest of the holiday. At the time, though, we diagnosed the problem as possibly running low on calories, so we stopped to have lunch near Loch of the Stack, halfway up the hill.

We watched thuggy great skuas (bonxies) chase gulls and even some swans on the lochan. Midi found some owl pellets and tried to discern which kind of owl had left them based on the contents of the pellet (yuck!) She concluded that they were probably from the short-eared owl (the ‘catty face’ that’s found all over the islands. I could have guessed that without delving into the pellets…).

As we sat munching boiled eggs, we spotted a very fluffy rabbit bounding around. It appeared to be spooked by the swooping bonxies, too. The minxes gazed at Peter Rabbit with big smiles on their faces as he darted away from one aggressive bonxie. Peter spotted us mid-dash then suddenly veered off towards the cliff-edge, picking up even more speed. Midi yelled “Look out!” as the bunny approached the edge. We watched silently in horror as the rabbit took a proper Thelma-and-Louise leap into the air, then disappeared from view. “It’s ok, kids, there’s another ledge just out of sight”, reassured Jon, fooling absolutely no-one.

Calories topped up and telling ourselves that the suicidal rabbit perhaps knew the secret way to Gentleman’s Cave, an old hideout from the Jacobite Rebellion that we knew was vaguely nearby, we walked onwards up North Hill towards the summit, topped by Noup Head Lighthouse. It was built in 1898 by David A Stevenson, cousin of Robert Louis and last of the Lighthouse Stevensons.

The lighthouse didn’t catch our attention till we got to its foot, though, as the birds in the RSPB Reserve were so attention-grabbing. We could hear the distinctive screaming of oystercatchers and saw a family of 5 grown-up fledglings chasing a parent for food. If you look really closely at the photo of us crossing a burn, you can see the oystercatchers mimicking the minxes, chasing me for more snacks. Or were we imitating the birds?!

It felt like the seasons were skewed 3 or 4 weeks early this year – most of the sea-pinks had already faded, and many of the sea birds had already left the nest and headed out to sea. Perhaps next year we’ll be able to go earlier and see them? Last year Jon had walked the Noup Head Loop on his own and attested to the incredible cacophony made by the tens of thousands of nesting birds.

Although we didn’t see more than scores of birds, we certainly found plenty of eggs. We’ve no idea whether they were blown up onto the grass by the wind, discarded by tidy parent birds clearing them from their nests or dropped by scavengers who’d eaten the unhatched contents. We inspected the perfectly clean insides and agreed that the middle hypothesis was most likely. Midi took photos and carefully measured the eggs against her clenched fist as a way of perhaps identifying them later.

After a quick walk around the lighthouse walls and peep in to see the solar panel array and family of resident rabbits (adults and Mini) and a little sit down and sunbathe (Maxi and Midi), we decided to walk back the ‘quick’ way along the gravel road from the lighthouse to Backaras via Noup farm.

Tired little feet don’t walk very fast. Even Mini’s boot ‘wheels’ didn’t work (Two years ago Mini’s vivid imagination led her to declare that her walking boots had hidden wheels that she could pull out by stamping her feet. So on long walks when she got tired she’d stamp her 5 yo feet then zoom off into the distance, leaving us all in her dust.) We got even more delayed because there were cows and calves over the road in front of Noup Farm. Westray is pretty much one large cow farm, so we waited patiently for the mother cows to finish drinking water at the trough, rather than risk disturbing them by thrashing through the middle of them. Maxi needed the rest, anyway.

I didn’t expect the Chief Mother Cow to stare us out for 20 minutes, though. I’m no animal body language expert, but even I could see that this matriarch wasn’t too happy about moving off her spot to let us past! A cyclist coming the other way felt the same as us, and he started to attempt to thrash through the thistle-field at the side of the road while Jon nipped over a gate to see if there was a crop-free way through the adjacent field. The big cow waited till we were passing minxes over the gate and the cyclist was cursing at the jags, then she nonchalantly ambled off, happy she’d shown us who was really in charge.

So when we finally got back to the car, 4 hours after we left it, there was really only one place we were driving to: the shop with the ice-lollies!

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About the Author

Jay Greengrass

Jay Greengrass

About Me & Mine

Hello! I’m Jay, married to Jon, living in North East Scotland with our 3 daughters: Maxi (10), Midi (8) and Mini Minx (6).

Favourite place in the world:

It’s hard to choose between the stretch of Moray Firth coast between Findhorn and Cullen, and Westray (a northerly Orkney island). Both have an amazing diversity of beautiful coastlines in a small space (empty, clean, sandy beaches; crystal-clear rockpools; crags, cliffs and stacks), fascinating wildlife, friendly people and endlessly interesting weather. Bar visits to friends and relatives, we’ve taken all our holidays in Scotland, north of where we live, for many years. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of this beautiful country.

Favourite things to do outdoors:

Rock-pooling and scrambling on local beaches; camping; walking in the gentler local hills; foraging for fruit and jam-making ingredients; and growing our own fruit and vegetables against the combined deterring efforts of our cat and the weather.

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