Loch Gruinart (pronounce Groo-nyart) is perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of Islay offering stunning views combined with unique wildlife, rare birds and thousands of geese in the wintertime. From the parking close to the bird hide a track takes the visitor through some sheltered woodland offering nice views over the loch, good birding opportunities and viewing platform. When you follow the road along Loch Gruinart, it will pass Kilnave chapel and Kilnave cross which were built around the same time as the Kildalton cross. Kilnave chapel stands on an extremely remote part of Islay and after that only Ardnave farm and some houses remain before the road ends. Kilnave chapel also has a 'bloody' history, for it was here that the Battle of Traigh Ghruineard took place in 1598. This was the last big Clan battle to be fought in the Isle of Islay, and it was between Sir Lachlan Mor MacLean, the 14th Chief of Duart and his nephew Sir James MacDonald of Islay. They fought over possession of the Rhinns in Islay which Lachlan Mor claimed was the dowry given to his wife in 1566 by her brother Angus MacDonald, chief of Clan Donald South, and the most powerful branch of Clann Dhomhnuill. When the battle was nearly over 30 MacLeans sought sanctuary in Kilnave Chapel. Rushing inside they bolted the door and waited fearfully, hoping that the MacDonalds would respect holy ground. Alas, the men were half mad with grief and anger at the thought that their chief had been killed, and lusting for vengeance they set fire to the roof of the chapel. The men inside were all killed with the exception of one man, a Mac Mhuirich (Currie) who managed to climb through a hole in the roof when the burning thatch collapsed.
Geese arriving at Loch Gruinart in the Autumn
RSPB Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve lies to the north west of Islay and covers some 1600ha. It is a special kind of nature reserve because it includes a working farm - in fact, the biggest in-hand farming operation on a nature reserve anywhere in the UK, and possibly in Europe. Roughly a third of the reserve comprises farm land for grazing or for silage or arable crop production. The rest consists of approximately 250ha of mud flats and salt marsh, and 980ha of heather moorland.
The main management tools are the stock - 250 beef-suckler cows and 150 black-faced ewes. Together these maintain and structure habitats for wildlife. Each field has a particular management regime to benefit a range of different species, so through our activities we aim to demonstrate that faming and wildlife can go hand in hand.
There is something to see year-round at the reserve. Some say the most spectacular time to visit is in October, when internationally important numbers of barnacle and white-fronted geese return from Greenland for the winter. The fly down Loch Gruinart and spend the first week or so regaining their energy on the 'Flats' (which the Visitor Centre observation window overlooks) before dispersing to other parts of the island. This means that there are over 18000 geese on the Flats in the third week of October - they literally turn the fields black and white.
At the same time brent geese and whooper swans fly in from Iceland and stop for a day or two's rest before heading onwards to Ireland. This is also a good time to see birds of prey - hen harriers, sparrow-hawks, merlin, peregrine and golden eagles. Redwings strip bare the berries on the rowan trees, flocks of small birds feed in the autumn stubbles, and choughs pull apart cowpats for dung-beetle larvae.
As the season changes to winter, goose numbers drop, but still many thousands of barnacle geese can be seen returning to Loch Gruinart at dusk to roost on the mudflats. From the bird hide, situated between two flooded fields, stunning views can be gained of wintering wildfowl - large numbers of teal and wigeon, also mallard, shoveler, golden-eye and pintail. Peregrine and hen harrier are sometimes seen hunting and up to 1000 whitefronted geese use the floods as a roost site - dusk is a fantastic time to sit in the hide to both see and hear them coming in. If you're lucky you might even see a barn owl hunting along the roadsides on your way to the hide.
The geese head back to Greenland in the spring and the reserve suddenly seems much quieter. But there are new things to see. The spring migration is a good time to look out for unusual birds which have made a wrong turn. In 1998, for example, soon after the new hide had been built, good views of great white egret, marsh harrier, wood sandpiper and blue-winged teal could all be seen from the hide. The floods are full of activity as breeding ducks and waders get down to hard work of nesting and bringing up their young. Tiny roe deer fawns are reared among the rushes and magnificent red deer stags feed close by. Otters often swim through the shallows on the hunt for wader chicks and ducklings, causing a real commotion as lapwings and redshanks dive-bomb and shout abuse at them in an attempt to distract the otter away from their precious young.
In the adjacent silage fields lapwings perform impressive display flights, while elusive corncrakes call from specially created patches of nettle and iris. Female hen harriers fly up from their nests in the deep heather to catch food dropped by their hard-working partners in a dramatic mid-air-food-pass, and curlews give mournful cries over rough pastures. Butterflies, including the endangered marsh fritilarry, dance among spectacular displays of wildflowers in herb-rich meadows and ungrazed moorland.
By late summer many of the birds have finished breeding and they soon leave the reserve to begin their autumn migration, so this is the time when we carry out most of the management work on the fields. But time passes quickly, and before long autumn migrants from the arctic begin to appear - waders on their way south to Africa, ducks returning to the floods for the winter, and before you know it, it's October again, and the air is filled with the calls of skein after skein of barnacle and white-fronted geese returning from Greenland.
Visitor Centre: Visitors are welcome at the reserve - there is a visitor centre (open from 10am to 5pm daily) in which you can view Gruinart Flats from the observation window and look at the interpretive panels and videos. The bird hide is always open. For those with limited mobility, these facilities (including the toilets) are accessible to wheelchairs, and it is possible to drive right up to the door of the hide (please phone beforehand).
There are guided walks from May to October every Thursday at 10am (by arrangement from November to April). Additional walks are held in the summer. Sturdy footwear and waterproofs are advised. For more details contact the reserve office (+44 (0) 1496 850505).
Some facts about the reserve:
RSPB Visitor Centre at Loch Gruinart
RSPB Loch Gruinart Reserve, Bushmills Cottage, Gruinart, Bridgend, Isle of Islay, Argyll, PA44 7PR. Tel: 01496 850505