Saturday, 8 July 2017

The warden's new wife.

We felt like traitors when we left Arundel. Our friend and curator Andrew Dawnay waved us off. "Goodbye my chickens." "You'll never make it in that car." And we didn't.

Our old faded turquoise Citroen GS was heavily overloaded and it made a nasty banging noise every time I turned left. We made it over the South Downs but then, just outside Petersfield in Hampshire, the suspension gave out. We crawled up to a rather tatty petrol station that sold cheap used cars from a compound out the back and decided then and there to change horses.

I had always fancied an old VW beetle and we took one for a test drive, but it was in a bad state and, anyway, it had nowhere to put all our stuff. The only sensible and affordable choice was a red Lada Riva. If you don't know anything about cars, you will still know all the old jokes about Ladas, such as:

"What do you call a Lada with a sunshine roof?"
"A skip?"

"Why do Ladas have heated rear windows?"
"To keep your hands warm when you get out and push"

The value of a Lada was loosely based on how many wheels it had plus the amount of fuel in the tank. I paid £300 for mine. I was done, but it got us there and it lasted another year or two. We spent a night or two on the floor and then our furniture arrived.

My predecessor, liked rainbows and so we lived in a long narrow bungalow where almost every wall was a different colour. We found the house, which sat under the hill, rather dark and so we painted everything white and hung paintings everywhere.

There was a rather large garden to the side where we would later plant potatoes and keep chickens, but before all that I had to start work and Hanna had to find a job.

Our kitchen door.
Graham had his office up in the top of the big converted barn that housed the shop and an upstairs viewing gallery. I was safely installed up there out of harm's way and the staff breathed a sigh of relief. Only, after working with people all the time at Arundel, I didn't like it up there, cut off from what was going on, so I moved to the back of the shop where "Will-not-let-you-go" Trish Millar* was the secretary. I'm sure I was too disruptive but I could get a good feel for what everyone was doing and I could overhear what was going on in the shop. If the conversation got interesting, then I'd dive in. (I know, really annoying!)

One of the first people to pop into the shop was a large man in a long wool coat. He could either have been a football manager or a Glasgow gangster. Nowadays I'd say he was straight out of an Ian Rankin novel. As is often the case with people, there was a lot more to Les Peters than met the eye and he did us a lot of favours as a journalist and later editor of the Dundee Courier, which had a much bigger circulation than the Scotsman. He would nip out of his car with a camera every time a school visited (which was often) or when we had an event, or just needed a bit of publicity. A total star, he later became press officer to the police and a famous after dinner speaker.

I think the extra publicity and an increase in tourism led us to open seven days a week. Not everyone was thrilled.

Over the years we had visits by quite a few celebrities including Annie Lennox from the Eurythmics, (I was out fishing at the time, dammit!) I also missed Barbara Dickson, who popped in quite often, but I did meet the Liverpudlian comedian Jimmy Tarbuck OBE. His daughter Liza is a tv presenter and actor these days.

My favourite "celeb" who stopped off by surprise was Humphrey Lyttelton who brought his whole band in for a cup of tea and look around. I took Humph up the hill and found him to be as wonderful in real life as he was when presenting "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue" on Radio 4. My parents had 78 rpm records of his jazz-band and they used to follow him around London during the late 40s until I put an abrupt stop to all that in 1950 by being born.  My Mum was thrilled to hear that I had met him. I still can't believe that I spent about two hours with him birdwatching, which was one of his many passions.

The gates used to be locked at five on the dot, but this meant tracking down the owners of cars that were still in the car park. I don't know if it was true, but I was told that Graham once got so fed up with waiting for one car owner that he set out to find him. What he found was the man's bare behind sticking up out of the bracken and he was not alone. Cool as a cucumber, Graham walked over and tapped the man on the shoulder. "I'm locking the car park, you have to leave now".  The reply was equally frank. "Aye, just a mo, I won't be long now."

Partly through being disorganised and never around at five, we stopped locking the gates except over the Christmas break. This meant that people could visit the reserve at all hours and sometimes they would bang on the warden's door to report a sighting or to give a donation. A reserves officer from Edinburgh popped in to see me one afternoon and got rather annoyed that there was so much going on that I didn't get to sit down with him until after five. Then a lady came to the door and asked to join the RSPB and he sent her away! 

I was more than fully occupied at the Vane, and Hanna was kept busy too, but she needed to earn some money and have a job of her own and that's where our story really begins.......

In those days there were two wardens at Loch Leven; the RSPB warden at the Vane and the Nature Conservancy (later SNH) warden, who, just to make it all more confusing to the locals, also lived at the Vane in a bungalow 100 yards away from ours.

Gordon Wright was known as "Gordon the Warden" and was, to most people, The Warden. He moonlighted as a marksman, deerstalker and helicopter winch-man, which meant he was away a lot. He was probably a spy as well. He was absolutely dreadful at Trivial Pursuits because he literally knew all the answers. This wasn't because of his superior intelligence but more because of his misspent youth in the Royal Navy where the crew would sit in the dark watching movies for days on end. Apparently we only had a few ships so crews would take it in turns to have a go in a real boat. 

Looking to St Serf's island and Lomond Hill.
Gordon had put in a bid for a project that involved knicker elastic and sophisticated electronics. No one was more surprised than he was when the money came in and he needed a field assistant in a hurry. Hanna got the job, which meant that she spent long days out on the loch with Gordon. I wasn't thrilled about this but the upside was that I got to fish using Gordon's boat, so it was a sweet deal really, but it lead to more confusion among the locals.

The job involved catching ten female mallards who were incubating eggs on St Serf's Island and then fitting them with radio transmitters. The transmitters themselves were light but they were glued to a AA battery and then the whole thing was cased in Araldite to make it waterproof. A few inches of wire aerial poked out of the end. Falconers used similar kit, sewn into the tails of peregrines so that they could be tracked if they went AWOL, but that wouldn't work with a duck so the transmitter was attached to the bird's back using knicker elastic that went in loops around the wings, like a backward bra. It worked a treat. Hanna would follow the ducks with their ducklings around all day using a receiver. 

At the same time there was another project. Two researchers called Jim and Rosie Green used the same kit to track an otter that they released onto the Loch. At first it was kept in a pen so that it could get used to the outdoors and the neighbourhood while still being cared for. Hanna had to feed it a large live eel every day. but one of the eels was really quite aggressive towards Hanna and so he succeed in surviving until the last feed.

The otter was tracked for night after night and then it was lost. Jim and Rosie searched high and low and eventually picked up the signal again in a reed-bed. The trouble was that it wasn't moving. They decided to go in after it and found one of Hanna's transmitters. It looked like the radio tracked otter had eaten of of Hanna's radio tracked ducks.

Tracking ducks.
Fishermen thought they were being spied on
 or Hanna was being paid to watch TV.
The result of Hanna's project was that, from ten broods totalling about 100 ducklings, not a single one survived. Loch Leven held a lot of wildfowl in winter but probably didn't add many ducks to the breeding population in Scotland.

One day, Hanna was in the post office at Kinross. If you are not British, you need to know that our post offices are world class when it comes to organising a long queue and Kinross was possibly top of the league at the time. If the queue wasn't growing long enough, they would shut a hatch and combine the queues that they already had (pretty much like the immigration section at the airport.) Rather than create a riot, like it would in most countries, the post office queue became the town's social hub and information exchange; a gossip shop.

Hanna was cashing a postal order and was asked for her address. The Vane.

"Ah, so you are the warden's new wife?"
"No, I'm the new warden's wife!"

* Sorry about this Trish, I can't get the tune out of my head. I probably owe Queen royalties for plagiarising Bohemian Rhapsody.

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