Changing Habitats: from the familiar to the new
At the end of last year, we made the move from the Lancashire Pennines to the Inner Hebrides: the Isle of Skye, in fact. I grew up in the Pennines, in a valley of mill towns and stone villages surrounded by moorland. It’s a place I know intimately: the topography, the quiet places, the history and the people. I loved the familiarity of it all, the paths and walks, the way I could tailor my expeditions to my mood, the amount of time I had, the seasons or whether I was walking alone or in company. Some were favourites, others came into their own for foraging or gathering.
I could climb onto the hills for heather and bilberries, wander into the woods to find bluebells amongst the birches or follow the river in search of wild raspberries. It was a varied landscape of wild moorland and green, sheltered valleys. The only thing missing: the sea.
And so to Skye. Our new home presents us with an entirely different prospect. Yes, there are similarities (an abundance of sheep and heather, all that wind and rain). But for the most part, it’s so very different to what we’re used to. Prior to holidaying here, I had an imaginary picture of Skye - rainbows, mountains, mist. What I didn’t know was just how big an island it is. Miles and miles of stark, harsh moorland. Those mountains are vast, often disappearing into the clouds. Gargantuan cliff faces and crashing waves, fearsome storms and deep, silent pine forests.
I’m a complete coastal-living rookie. I know so little about the birds of prey which sit, sentinel-like, on fence posts as we drive past. Other than herons and cormorants and gulls, I’d struggle to identify anything we see bobbing about in the bay. I’m perhaps a bit more knowledgeable about the plants and flowers; as winter melts away and spring arrives (we always used to visit in May), there are masses of violets, primroses, orchids, and ferns. One of my favourites is the cotton grass, the pale tufts of which seem magically suspended above the ground as they blow in the wind.
As well as exploring this new landscape I’m keen to learn more about it. About the machair, that low-lying and sandy ground, fertile and floral (when not closely-cropped by sheep and cattle). About the birds and deer and butterflies. I want to educate myself on the weather here, on the tides, shells, and seaweed. And to discover stories, folklore, and traditions. This is a place not so much shaped by people, but which shapes those who live here. It’s an island of contrasts: winter quiet, summer activity as the tourists descend. Blue skies and turquoise seas, lashing rain and howling gales. It’s not just about going outside and experiencing it on foot; for me, I need to know and understand too.
The island library has a comprehensive section upstairs on Scottish and local history. It spans both the social and natural heritage of Skye, and I fully intend to study my way around those shelves.
How much do you know about where you live? Was it shaped by an industrial past or by previous inhabitants, centuries ago? Are you aware of plants and animals specific to your particular region? It could be worth prescribing yourself a little course where you choose the content and then do the research. Read, speak to people, explore. You never know: you may end up unearthing a few surprises.