Exploring The Isle of Mull
Updated: Feb 16
With Covid-19 sweeping across the world and grounding life to a halt, travel has been put on hold for many. I feel very fortunate to have been able to go to the Isle of Mull last September with my dad, when restrictions eased slightly and we weren’t in a state of lockdown. As a Zoologist with a deep-rooted interest and fascination for the natural world, getting to venture out to the Hebrides was a dream come true. Mull is the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides, after Skye, accessible only by boat. The ferry crossing from Oban to Craignure is the gateway to the Isle of Mull and with so much to see, I wish I could have had a barn-owl’s vision and been able to turn my head in all directions!
I was awed by the sheer diversity of flora and fauna on Mull. Due to the island being relatively small, there is wildlife everywhere you look; the biodiversity on Mull is astounding and it’s a haven for plant and animal life. There are 261 bird species on Mull and with my dad and I being keen birders (with dad’s bird ID skills being far superior to my own), we were able to see an impressive 69 different bird species in a week! Whilst all the bird species there are impressive in their own right, the white-tailed sea eagles stand out as being the most majestic. These birds of prey were driven to extinction in the 1900s as a result of hunting and persecution. They were re-introduced to Rum and Wester Ross and they have returned naturally to Mull. Their numbers are now thriving and Mull boasts the highest nesting density of white-tailed sea eagles in Britain. My dad and I were only on the island for a week, yet we managed to see 10 white tailed sea eagles during this period. Each time we saw one, I was amazed by their grace, power and beauty. They make flight look effortless and when they land, that’s when you can take in their full splendour. The females are significantly larger than the males and they have these incredibly powerful beaks and glaring eyes- you definitely don’t want to mess with a white-tailed sea eagle. To this day, I’m still in disbelief that dad and I witnessed a very rare interaction between a pair of white-tailed sea eagles and a Eurasian otter. In the moment, as I was filming the eagles, my brain refused to comprehend that the small, dark-bodied animal which had just emerged from the water right next to the eagles was in fact an otter. My eyes did a double take as I watched one of the eagles open its wings and lean forward to peck at the otter as it walked right past the eagles before running off into the long grass. I remember just looking at my dad with wide eyes and an open mouth and just saying “wow”. That is definitely on my list of one of the most incredible wildlife interactions I have ever been fortunate enough to witness.
As well as bird-life, Mull’s 380km coastline and its vast expanse of lochs host an impressive array of marine and coastally-adapted mammals such as seals and otters. Harbour seals are a common site along the coast and they can be seen hauling themselves out of the water, particularly on sunny days. A behaviour I had never seen displayed by seals before was one known as ‘porpoising’, where they leapt out of the water like dolphins, completely breaching the surface of the water. It was such lively, joyful behaviour and from a human perspective, it appeared that the seals were doing it for the sheer fun of it. There may be a more scientific explanation to this behaviour, but with pinnipeds being highly curious and intelligent, it’s very probable that some of their behaviours are playful and have no further purpose other than fun. As well as the seals, Mull also hosts a healthy population of coastally adapted Eurasian otters, which are well adapted to hunting out at sea or in the coastal lochs. They have insulating fur and streamlined bodies and are efficient hunters of fish and crustaceans. Dad and I had one particularly memorable encounter with an otter where we spotted a lone individual feeding out in the water. We pulled over and cut the engine. The otter bobbed up and down on the water before diving below, almost every dive resulted in a successful catch. Through our binoculars we could see the otter chewing and feeding on a variety of prey species. After about an hour of very successful hunting, the otter swam towards the shore, coming closer and closer. It appeared to almost glide on the water as it came towards us, leaving small ripples in the water behind it. Neither of us dared speak or make a noise as we watched this graceful animal swim right in front of us in the sea below, before diving underwater and making its way further down the coast.
On land, mull also supports a variety of mammal species including red and fallow deer, pine martens and highland cows. Pine martens are not native to Mull and came across on timber boats, subsequently establishing themselves in the forests near the port. These animals are illusive and nocturnal and even using camera traps, we didn’t manage to see any on that trip. However, with plans to return to the Isle of Mull with the Biome team in June 2021, I am hopeful that next time we may catch a glimpse of these secretive mustelids. Highland cows are known as the gentle giants of Scotland and have luscious, flowing locks of fur which puts my hair to shame any day of the week. They really do have the best hairstyles out of any animal I’ve ever met before and there is something very charismatic and endearing about these wonderful cows. Despite their large size and impressive set of horns, they are very docile and we spent 20 minutes sat in the car waiting for one to move from the middle of the road as it refused to get out of the way. The cows have become well adapted to the slow- paced relaxed lifestyle on the Isle of Mull.
Mull was everything I could have ever imaged it to be and more. I loved every minute on this incredible island and am beyond excited to be returning again this year (covid-19 permitted) to hopefully capture even more remarkable, wonderful wildlife. In the midst of the turbulent, chaotic, stressful world we find ourselves in at the moment, I take solace in the fact that there is a little piece of my heart on the Isle of Mull with the majestic white-tailed sea eagles, elegant otters and downright epic highland cows.