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Meet the tour guide bringing Scotland’s nocturnal wildlife to light

 

A stag spotted during the seasonal rut. Nocturnal Wildlife Tours

A stag spotted during the seasonal rut. Nocturnal Wildlife Tours

Keith Kirk and team use thermal imaging equipment to show animals going about their nightly routine.
Long before John Lewis put a bouncing boxer on a trampoline, wildlife expert Keith Kirk had field mice springing about like ping pong balls on his screen.

Roaming along the edge of Scotland’s dark forests at night with a thermal imaging camera, the 60-year-old says the little forest dwellers really light up in the dark.

Keith is the official leader of Nocturnal Wildlife Tours, the only venture of its kind currently operating in the UK.

“They look like glowing hot bouncy tennis balls when you see them through the lens,” says Keith. “People really seem to like the mice.”

Launched two years ago in Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway, the tour gives wildlife fans a chance to detect animals as small as rabbits at up to 600 metres away or get close enough to see badgers and Roe deer going about their nightly routine.

“It gives the public the opportunity to see that world for themselves,” explains Keith. “You’re able to see what these animals do naturally at night without disturbing them.”
A former countryside ranger and wildlife photographer for nearly 40 years, Keith jumped at the opportunity to join the nocturnal team and took early retirement to help launch the project.

Beginning at sundown, he now arms small groups of eager explorers with equipment formerly developed for the military, including night vision binoculars and heat-seeking cameras.

Going out in Land Rovers and then on foot, the public are guided through the dark and shown how to spot and film their own striking wildlife footage.

“A particular favourite location we go to is the National Trust estate, where we go out in the dark on the edge of the dark sky park,” says Keith. “As you head north on a starry night it’s pretty impressive.”
On one night alone this week, Keith was able to spot seven hedgehogs, a roe deer, badgers, foxes and some owls.

A firm favourite is always the bats at a nearby castle, which flit across the water like little white ghosts when viewed through a thermal lens.

“Once we get down near the castle it’s pitch black but the stone has absorbed the heat during the day,” says Keith.“So under the camera lens it comes up huge and glowing with bats skimming all around it.”

Everything the visitors see, whether out on foot or in the vehicle, can be recorded at the touch of a button for Keith’s team to edit and copy to a memory stick then give to guests to take home with them.
We take people out in small numbers, maximum five people, in a customised Land Rover,” says Keith. “We can control the thermal camera with remote controls and view them on screens in the vehicle, too. We’ve had a red deer rut on just know which has been just incredible to see.”

Under the lenses, everything that is hot glows white, meaning the outlines of the animals appear like ethereal ghosts in great detail, or for the JK Rowling Harry Potter fans out there, like a Patronus.

A curious badger spotted out for his evening stroll. Nocturnal Wildlife Tours

A curious badger spotted out for his evening stroll. Nocturnal Wildlife Tours

The tours have gone down so well they are now held three days a week and have attracted visitors including children and grandparents.

“We had a local farmer pop along who had just turned 80,” says Keith. “I think it has become a sort of bucket list experience.”
The region of Dumfries and Galloway, from the shores of the Solway Firth through farmland and woodland to the high tops of the Galloway Hills, remains a largely undiscovered part of the country for most tourists and many Scots.

It remains a stronghold for the elusive red squirrel and red deer, while wild goats and the elusive golden eagle have all been spotted in the area.

“It’s an abundant area,” says Keith. “And when you’re out there at night walking through the dark, with the stars overhead, it can feel like a pretty magical place to be.”

Source: Laura Piper, STV

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