Rewilding the Isle of the Thundergod

by frankbeswick

Taransay is an uninhabited island one mile off the coast of Harris.but there are ambitious plans to rewild it.

Taransay was abandoned in 1974, leaving it to be visited by a sheep farmer who kept a flock there. For a brief period of a year it was the site where Castaway, a survivalist experiment for British television, was filmed, and it launched the career of Ben Fogle, a presenter who specializes in wilderness-living projects, then it fell back into slumber. But new owners mean new projects and the latest couple to own the land have ambitions to rewild the island.#

Picture courtesy of MrsBrown, of Pixabay

Historical Background.

For a place named in honour of the Celtic Thundergod, Taran,  Taransay is very quiet, an island where for much of the year only the bleating of sheep and the booming of winds breaks the vast and awesome silence of nature. As is the case with many Hebridean islands its fifty acres were subject to depopulation, especially in the nineteenth century, when pernicious, greedy capitalists drove the island population into enforced emigration in the Highland Clearances. Isles which managed to save a remnant population necessary to maintain pastoral sheep farming were fatally deprived of the numbers of people needed to sustain a breeding population, and young people, reft of opportunities, migrated to the cities of Scotland and 1974 the isle was abandoned and the last surviving farmer left, leaving a land where only fleeting memories, spectres of better times, flitted across desolate hills. 

The island is about fifty acres and was once home to a population of seventy six people. It is composed of two rocky elevations with a low, sandy patch in the middle. Geologically, the island is composed of a bedrock of Lewisian gneiss, an old, harsh, precambrian rock devoid of minerals through eons of leaching. This meant that the islanders would have had to use a lazy bed system of crop growing, in which ridges of   manure and seaweed were laid down as the basis for crop growing, mainly potatoes and barley. There is one tree on the island, though  there seems to have been trees on several Hebridean isles in the Mesolithic period, when soil samples reveal hazel trees on some isles. However, soil erosion due to Atlantic weather may have made growing conditions less friendly over the millennia, so inferences on this matter are tentative.

The island had a brief place in the sun in 2000, when it became the site of a year long social experiment televised as Castaway, when for a year a community of downshifters worked to develop a self-sufficient lifestyle. Some did well, but there were tensions and one particularly difficult character created trouble. That makes good television, doesn't it? The television got good ratings, but it did nothing for the island, and after a year the castaways and film crews left, leaving the island to return to its silent slumber. 

But the island changed hands, once in a card game and eventually fell into the hands of a group of crofters,  farmers who tend the harsh lands of north Scotland. They, however, sold it on to a couple who had ideas for the isle. They had experience in running survival courses, and so a course on an island brought to public attention by television would be a good business opportunity, they thought.


Hebridean views

Hebridean Views
Hebridean Views
Mrs Brown

Rewilding the Island.

The owners, Adam and Cathra Kelliher,  who took over with great ambitions soon had a reality check. Having taken off the sheep that had kept the turf grazed to ground level, they soon found that long grass  took over the previously trimmed grazing lands. The lesson: grazing by large animals is necessary for ecological restoration. The intervention of humans is also necessary for the successful establishment of a genuinely wild landscape desired by the owners. Wild landscapes existed before humans did, but we cannot turn back the clock, Eden cannot be re-established. The pre-human landscape was characterized by grasses of various kinds, heather and scrubby trees, with probably bilberry and crow berry. Bilberry is a relation of blueberry found in British moorlands. It is edible by humans and formed part of the diet of previous generations. Heather can regenerate itself, as can grass. But  the grass situation will be dependent upon the presence of cattle. 

The new owners want to introduce wild cattle as part of the rewilding project, for it is hoped that they will be complementary to a small herd of sheep that will eat the short grass, leaving longer grasses to be grazed by the cattle. But celebrating rewilding should not mean switching off our critical facilities. The island is fifty acres, not large enough to sustain a large range of large beasts, Moreover, wild cattle revert to wild behaviour. There are three herds of wild cattle in Britain, and members of the public are strongly advised to stay away from them, as the strongest and most aggressive bulls soon  dominate and herd the females to themselves, as happens with stags. Wild cattle are extremely dangerous and their presence on the island would be incompatible with regular human visitation by all except experienced rangers who would pay occasional visits.  Also suggested as large wild fauna have been elk, which roamed the Scottish landscape millennia ago, but what can be said of cattle can also be said of elk, they are large beasts never domesticated and can be dangerous to humans. I think that a varied fauna which contains such large creatures is not possible on fifty acres, especially when it is visited by tourists. 

Another beast suggested for the island is the beaver, which has the advantage of being harmless to humans, but beavers are creatures of mature forests and riverine terrain, and as I said earlier there is but one tree on the Isle. Establishing a woodland on the isle would take several years, during which time the beavers would be bereft of the trees on which they depend for a living. Beavers have never been denizens of small islands, so it is unlikely that beavers would be at home there.

What Future is there for Taransay.

The owners have an ambition to help restore the Caledonian Forest, the Great Wood of Caledonia, which once blanketed much of Scotland. There are patches of this wood remaining in Scotland, some of them on islands in lochs. A restoration would work on an island of fifty acres. The question is what flora and fauna should be established on the isle. Deer are abundant in Scotland and their numbers must be controlled. They are not dangerous, but would need to be subject to population control. A wood would be an ideal place for red squirrels, Britain's native squirrel now largely restricted to fringe areas. Wild cats could also be introduced to this new Sylvan terrain. Birds are capable of flying in to restore their own habitat.

Tree planting would not, the owners agree, focus on the Scottish pine, of which there is enough in Scottish landscapes, but would include a number of native trees some of which are under pressure in their native landscape. The newly planted trees would not include conifers, which are trees which in Britain were introduced as part of a forestry program. Rather, hazel, which was once abundant in the Scottish Isles, could be introduced and it would provide a food source for squirrels. Sessile oak, the native oak of Northern Britain, whose numbers suffered drastically in the days when we constructed wooden warships, hearts of oak, and which have never truly recovered, could be introduced. The acorn of the sessile oak differs from the English oak in its not being attached to the oak branch by a stalk.

Some grazing by large herbivores ,such as cattle and sheep would be necessary, but it would probably be prudent not to establish a large, permanent herd or flock on the isle. The Hebridean islands have a long tradition of using small islands for summer grazing and bringing in the herds to safer ground in winter, when islands exposed to the Atlantic weather are not amenable places to live.This would prevent cattle herds from becoming feral.

It is a good thing that the owners are planning to do on Taransay. I hate to see islands that were once inhabited abandoned to lonely dereliction. Work needs to be done to finesse the project, but it is a step in the right direction.

Once the safety aspects of large herbivore farming are established the island can be used for survival experiences, especially in summer time. There are still the remains of traditional Scottish "black houses" on the isle .These could be refurbished for human habitation on a temporary basis as residences for visitors. The god Taran has not shown up, so we can surmise that he doesn't object to the project. He seems to have retired anyway. 


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Updated: 02/25/2024, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/03/2024

The red squirrel can nest in conifers , but the grey cannot. But greys carry a disease fatal to the native red. The two should as far as possible stay apart. They do not interbreed. Efforts are being made to suppress grey numbers by contraception. The Isle of Anglesey, where my daughter lives, and where I was yesterday, is a site which has kept the greys at bay.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/02/2024

Thank you!

Gray and red squirrels as respective west- and east-pond natives, east- and west-pond naturalizees always fit more with what online and published sources furnish scientifically if not always anecdotally.

Unitedstatesian eastern versus western gray squirrels guard respective arboreal preferences for beech, hickory, oak and walnut versus pine trees.

What might matter most arboreally to British-Isles red squirrels?

frankbeswick on 03/02/2024

The grey squirrel is not native to Britain. The red is native fauna over here

DerdriuMarriner on 03/02/2024

Thank you!

The first paragraph to the third subheading, What future is there for Taransay, advises us that "A wood would be an ideal place for red squirrels, Britain's native squirrel now largely restricted to fringe areas."

The biogeographical story on the western side of the Atlantic pond considers that (now Unitedstatesian) North America domiciled forests from the entire east coast westward such that the native red squirrel enjoyed filing from touching tree-branch to touching tree-branch all the way to the Mississippi River.

The English settlers finished off that tree-to-tree forest, got rid of the native earthworms, had red squirrels housed in the British Isles and housed their own native British-Isles earthworms and native gray squirrels there.

So Unitedstatesian biogeographies identify gray squirrels as native east- and naturalized west-side ponders and red squirrels as native west- and naturalized east-side ponders.

How might that tally with British-Isles biogeographical accounts?

frankbeswick on 03/01/2024

You are probably right on this surmise.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/01/2024

Thank you!

That's a bit disappointing to latch onto something that looks like a lone-tree candidate and to learn that it only lives elsewhere in the Hebrides.

But I like your rowan tree bird-dispersed (all the way from where?) best anyway.

(Might absent middens nudge archaeologists towards no ancient settlements on Thunder-God island?)

frankbeswick on 03/01/2024

Possibly. The hazel husks were discovered in the archaeological excavation of middens in the inner Hebrides. Taransay is Outer Hebrides and no Midden has been found

DerdriuMarriner on 02/29/2024

Thank you!

The second paragraph to the first subheading, Historical background, considers that "There is one tree on the island, though there seems to have been trees on several Hebridean isles in the Mesolithic period, when soil samples reveal hazel trees on some isles. However, soil erosion due to Atlantic weather may have made growing conditions less friendly over the millennia, so inferences on this matter are tentative."

Might there have been hazel trees on Thunder-God island?

frankbeswick on 02/29/2024

Rowan trees are spread through the British Isles, naturally in rocky terrain, but in lowland areas as an ornamental.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/28/2024

Thank you!

A sandy peninsula apparently anchors one component island to another in the two-island Thunder-God island. Online sources bare as land cover granite-veined metamorphic rock, heathland, machair grassland and peatland. They characterize machair grassland as clustering wildflowers.

Owners Adam and Cathra Kelliher designate, on their Borve Lodge Estate site, as native species desirable for island reintroduction Scottish alder, ash and willow.

No information there or anywhere else emerges regarding the location and the species of the lone thunder-god island tree!

So your rowan suggestion, particularly with your suggested seed-dispersing birds, sounds logically-est likely-est!

(Would the nearest land to Thunder-God island host rowan trees?)

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