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On the bonnie banks of Loch Garten. By Patrick Barkham

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | Apr 18, 2023


My children have been raised in a very flat place. So, rather than daunt them with a Cairngorms mountain walk, I took them for a stroll at Loch Garten, which is the Highlands – and nature – for beginners.

This RSPB reserve offers a walk between the woods and the water, Caledonian pine forest and scenic loch.

We spilled out of the car and headed to the visitor centre. An RSPB helper greeted us and grilled the kids on their nature knowledge. ‘What do golden eagles eat?’

To my dismay, my wild children were tongue-tied. ‘Badger?’ tried one. Oh, the shame.

Visitor centre patronised, eco-friendly beeswax sandwich wraps bought, keen to sample local nature we began the Two Lochs Trail, a circular two-mile stroll from Loch Garten to Loch Mallachie and back.

The osprey pairs who breed here in the summer had departed for Africa but, like most visitors, we’d happily settle for a golden eagle, a brace of red squirrels and half a pound of crested tits.

It was a still day; grey, soft and quiet, and it took a few minutes to realise that the forest was full of small birds. The trees peeped with great tits, coal tits and blue tits, and the occasional siskin – but no crested tits.

Some of Abernethy’s pine woods may be truly ancient but they didn’t feel very wild, because there was also a forest of signs and interpretation boards. A conscientious person could spend half a day reading them.

Loch Garten shone silver through the pinky trunks of the pines and when we reached its sandy shores, most of my walking companions fell at the first hurdle. My wife, Lisa, and two children set up camp on the little beach. So now it was just me and Esme.

At ten, Esme has the eyes of a hawk, the ears of a bat and the enthusiasm of a puppy. So she enlarges the perimeters of any walk.

The dry forest floor sounded hollow as she ran ahead, marvelling at the dazzling pink and yellow boletus, and the miniature forests of bright green moss that marched across the ground.

Like many small people, she is particularly adept at spying tiny things. She soon found ‘a weird hoverfly that looks like a hornet and makes a noise like a machine when it lands’, she explained, with characteristic precision. Her next forest discoveries were a black beetle, as shiny as a new car, and an unused lip balm.

Unlike many wildlife-idealising adults, Esme grasps that the natural world isn’t a land of peace and love, and is mildly obsessed with its peril – pondering whether fungi might be deadly death caps and on constant alert for a bloodsucking horsefly.

So when she declared she had found a tick, I was sure she was mistaken. A tiny beetle thing was crouched on a grass stem waiting to slip onto the leg of an unsuspecting walker or dog. Ah. Ahem, it was a tick. ‘I knew it,’ crowed Esme. ‘I recognised its flat little body.’

Tick avoided, we continued to the far loch, where green lily pads floated on dark water. A rising breeze sent miniature waves against the grey roots of the pines that formed the loch shore with a gentle sluice, sluice.

On our return, we admired fungi the size of a tea plate, breathed the damp woody scent, and all was good with the world. We were probably too noisy to see crested tits or red squirrels. But Esme didn’t mind.

On the car journey home, she spied an eagle. She knows her buzzards (called ‘the tourist eagle’ in these parts) and this big bird with frayed wing tips wasn’t one of those.

Eyes on the road, I couldn’t confirm her sighting but my confirmation wasn’t needed. Esme is no beginner in nature now. Like that eagle, she’s soaring – past the capabilities of her parents, for the first of what I hope will be many times in her life.

RSPB Loch Garten Nature Centre, Abernethy National Nature Reserve, Nethy Bridge PH25 3EF