All creatures great and small: Meeting the woman behind a compendium of Scottish wildlife
She’s managed to co-write a new compendium of Scottish wildlife in between nursing injured and orphaned animals back to health on her farm in Aberfeldy. Susan Mansfield meets Polly Pullar and a pet deer called Ruby.
POLLY PULLAR wrote much of her latest book sitting on hay bales at a makeshift table in a shed. That’s because she combined her work on Fauna Scotica, a new illustrated compendium of Scottish wildlife, with looking after Ruby, an orphaned red deer calf. When Ruby arrived at Pullar’s farm in the hills above Aberfeldy, she was dangerously ill. Though just two weeks old, she had more than 200 ticks on her body and had become paralysed by the poisons in her bloodstream. “She got attached to me very early on,” Pullar says. “She loved company and made a big fuss whenever I left the pen, so I moved my study to the shed. She came at just the right moment, because I was struggling to discipline myself to get on with this book.”
Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the red deer is the first animal chronicled in Fauna Scotica, which Pullar, a wildlife writer and photographer, co-wrote with Mary Low, a scholar in Celtic and Scottish Studies.
Meanwhile, Ruby, whom Pullar feared might not survive, made a full recovery. She lifts her head at the sound of my car, towering elegantly above Pullar’s little flock of Shetland sheep, her big ears spread wide in curiousity. When we go to meet the animals, she’s at the front, softly nipping the sheep to get them out of the way so that the limelight can be all hers. “She’s a character,” Pullar says. “She loves to be bathed. On a hot day, she’ll stand at the gate and shout me to go out with a hosepipe. She’s settled here now, she lives with the sheep, she’s very attached to them. They like her too, but she’s the boss.”
Pullar, who regularly nurses injured and orphaned wildlife, from otters and red squirrels to hedgehogs and owls, is normally rigorous about helping her patients back into the wild. “The aim is to put them back in the wild as much as possible. I won’t keep things in cages. But some things slip the net,” she smiles. “Ruby will be here forever. It is rather different for a hind which has become humanised.”
Pullar admits that when Birlinn managing director Hugh Andrew approached her about Fauna Scotica, she was initially daunted by the scale of the project. The book is a survey of Scotland’s wildlife, from the monarch of the glen to the lowly midge, beautifully illustrated, and exploring not only the lives of the animals but their relationship to humans, whether in sport, conservation, farming, literature, history or mythology.
All sections of the animal kingdom are touched upon, including birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. There are the highly endangered, such as the Scottish wildcat, and those – the lapwing, the curlew – whose numbers are declining due to the destruction of their habitat. There are those no longer native – the brown bear, the wolf – and those which have been successfully reintroduced, such as the red kite and the beaver. And then there are small, unremarkable animals such as the field vole which is, Pullar says, “such an important building block in the ecology of everything”.
Pullar puts her lifelong love of wildlife down to her upbringing in Ardnamurchan “which is probably the best place for a background in natural history because you’re surrounded by it there – deer, seals, otters, badgers, pine martins, birds of prey, a lot of cetaceans – I had a childhood guddling in rock pools.” She also developed a love of farm animals, celebrated in a previous book, Rural Portraits: Scotland’s Native Farm Animals, Characters and Landscapes, illustrated by wildlife artist Keith Brockie.
At the same time, from an early age, she learned that man’s relationship with animals in the countryside is complex and unsentimental. “We grew up shooting things for the pot, and if a bullock got caught in a bog or broke its leg, it invariably ended up on the menu. My mother often went out with a gun to shoot things if she was making something for tea.”
Her varied working life has included a spell working as a photographer in London (which she hated), and a happier time in a zoo in Northamptonshire where she became an experienced veterinary nurse, not only hand-rearing litters of pumas and lion cubs, but taking charge of the injured wildlife which was brought to the zoo for help.
She continues wildlife rescue at her Perthshire farm, where her regular menagerie – Ruby, the sheep, three goats, four guinea fowl, and the two collies Molly and Pippin – is frequently augment by injured animals or orphaned babies. Two summers ago she rescued three tiny red squirrels after the tree containing their drey was felled in a storm, and raised them until they were old enough to return to the wild. She is full of stories about trying to teach owlets to catch mice (“owls are said to be really intelligent, but honestly, from experience, I can tell you that they are probably one of the most stupid birds of all”) and bottle-feeding baby hedgehogs in a basket during a formal dinner.
Caring for the animals is necessarily a family business. Pullar’s partner, Iomhair Fletcher, is something of an expert at pen construction, and her son, Freddy, now 25 and doing project work in Kiev, grew up surrounded by wildlife. “I’m quite fortunate to have a fairly big sense of humour, especially where animals and children are concerned,” she says. “And I’ve always loved working with both of these.”
Red squirrels are “like quicksilver” but the champion escapologist of the animal hospital is the badger. “They are the Houdinis of the animal kingdom, they can dig out through concrete. You would think you had one safely embedded, ill after they’d been hit by a car, and the next day you’d go in and there would be nothing there, just a big hole in the concrete. Unbelievable”. Otters, on the other hand, have been her most vicious patients. “They’re very ungrateful!” she laughs. “I had a female here who was hit by a car and by the end of it getting food to her was quite difficult because she would just come straight at you. We had to sweep her into a large box, shut the door quick and take her back to the river, and even then she tried to bite me when she came out of the box.”
After a storm, she might receive calls from concerned Perthshire citizens about seabirds that have been blown in from the coast. “I get phone calls from people saying, ‘There’s a penguin in my garden,’ by which they inevitably mean a guillemot or a razorbill. So they stay for a day or two, and then anybody who looks to be going to the coast gets asked, ‘Do you mind taking a guillemot?’” And there are occasional animal rescues. “I had an owl trapped in a wood-burning stove recently. She had come down the chimney, and when I looked into the stove, all I could see was a pair of talons poking through. We got her out, but she had to be shampooed – she was called Sooty, needless to say.”
One of her most unusual rescues happened in 1989 when a snowy owl was found on board a Canadian oil tanker. Pullar’s farm acted as a secret safe house for the bird – a celebrity in the bird-watching community – until he recovered. Then Pullar escorted him on a VIP flight to the Shetland island of Fetlar funded by the oil company Shell, in the hope that he might breed with one of the two female snowy owls living there at that time. “He hung around for two or three days, and then, like a lot of young males with wanderlust, he cleared out,” Pullar shrugs. “We don’t know what happened, but he had a chance”.
Fauna Scotica, subtitled Animals and People in Scotland explores our relationships with wildlife, which has not always been harmonious. Trigger-happy Victorian gents saw Scotland as a shooting paradise, bagging appalling number of animals, including red squirrels, mountain hares and even ospreys. Nowadays, we are better custodians, though there are still tensions. Bird enthusiasts are delighted to see the reintroduction of sea eagles to the West of Scotland, but sheep farmers believe the huge birds prey on their lambs. “I can see both sides of that argument because I adore sea eagles, but I’ve got sheep, and my little Shetland lambs would be perfect for sea eagles,” Pullar says. “It’s difficult to get the balance. I think we’ve interfered so much with everything over the years, to get it balanced again is very tricky, with us in the middle of it.”
In the course of writing the book, she met deer stalkers, sporran-makers and antler carvers. But one of her more unusual trips was to Lewis to meet the men of Ness who are licensed to harvest 2,000 guga (baby gannets) from the gannet colony on Sulaisgeis for their meat, which is considered a Hebridean delicacy. “I really wanted to go and meet them because I reckon it will be banned in our lifetime, and I will be very sorry. I’m mad on wildlife and I totally support what they do.” She was also determined to try the delicacy for herself. “I have to say it’s pretty disgusting, especially the fat. It is described as a hen dipped in creosote and hung in rafters for about a year.”
The book is a treasury of anecdotes and stories: the letterboxes in the Hebrides which have to be fitted with guards to stop starling nesting in them; the government-funded investigations in the 1940s which failed to find a solution to the problem of the midge.
“I wanted the book to be accessible, so that somebody quite young could pick it up and understand it, but also that somebody who knew quite a lot about natural history might find something new in it.”
It also lets us into a few secrets about common wildlife we might encounter on a daily basis. Take, for example, the dunnock, a small brown bird common to many gardens. “It has the weirdest sex life you can ever imagine. It’s a ménage à trois: the female has two males who pay her a huge amount of attention. One mates with her, then the other one will peck out the semen before he does the same. I spent quite a lot of time with my binoculars peering into the flowerbed to watch what was going on. It turns out that this little skulking bird in the undergrowth is quite a dark horse!”
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