Adventures upriver

Loch Lomond NNR

“Believe me my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

So says Ratty to Mole in ‘Wind in the Willows’, and I admit I share the feeling. It was, therefore, very nice indeed to have a day out on the water last week, exploring the Endrick Water – a new part of the Loch Lomond NNR for Bethia and I.

It was a chance not only to familiarise ourselves with the reserve, but to monitor species (including invasive non-natives), to assess grazing levels, and to pick litter, before bringing the boat out of the water for the winter.

With Steve at the helm, we left Balmaha in the morning. It was a calm, grey day, with little rain forecast. A cormorant flew past us, its pale belly marking it out as a juvenile, leaving the river as we entered it.

Soon, the long grasses fringing the bank gave way to trees, and the loch behind us was lost. The Endrick is unusual in having been unspoilt by human development – it has never been canalised or straightened, and it wiggles and winds in a slightly disorienting way.

This is how, centuries ago, most of our rivers would have been, and the Endrick has a timeless feel. Willows drooped their branches into the water and it would have only been half a surprise to have glimpsed Ratty and Mole sharing a picnic hamper in the shallows, or to have been thrown off course by the infamous Toad of Toad Hall – POOP POOP! – dashing downriver in a motorboat.

But even without these creatures of fiction, there was plenty to see. Long-tailed tits chattered and flitted in the trees, jays screeched and quarrelled, and we spotted several buzzards perched on trees, watching us with bright eyes.

A kingfisher flashed from its perch and flew upriver, low over the water. Later, Bethia spotted one on its perch, where it remained obligingly for a few moments before darting out of sight.  

We brought the boat in close to one large willow, looking for signs of beaver – one was discovered earlier this year along the Endrick, and Steve showed us what to look out for. We spotted no recent signs on our journey and it looks likely that it has departed. Perhaps it will return.

Further upriver, we saw high banks peppered with holes where sand martins had nested in the summer. Beyond them, cows were grazing – cattle play an important role in keeping the vegetation on the site at a suitable level, allowing rare plant species like the Lomond dock to flourish. They watched us pass, then returned placidly to their work.

We stopped for lunch, pulling the boat in where the bank was low and grassy. From nearby came a whistling call – a sound I couldn’t place, which Steve identified as teal.

Around thirty of these small ducks were swimming on a small stretch of still water. This is the reserve’s oxbow lake – once a bend in the river, it was gradually worn away at both sides until the river rerouted, leaving it behind. It provides habitat not only for ducks and waders but for plants like bog bean, which in early spring will carpet the lake in star-like white flowers.

Not far from the lake, we discovered a mess of discarded barbecues, plastic tubs, glass bottles, crisp packets and a camping chair. It’s always something of a jolt to discover litter on this scale, in places which feel both special and remote. We set to work with litter pickers and loaded several bags onto the boat, before setting off downriver.

Our return journey was swift – the current was stronger than I’d realised, and before I expected it we were back at the loch, looking out at the islands and at the mountains beyond.

It was the boat’s final trip this year. Back at Balmaha, we disembarked, and Steve togged up in a drysuit before entering the water (The key, he said, is to remember to zip it up). The trailer was backed into the water – the boat was attached – and the task was complete, with only one filled welly between us.

For now, we must explore the riverside from land – but come March we’ll be back on the river.

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