Highland tourism: Like the birds, hoping for an income, fat and seed to feed us after an extra-long winter

Visitors could return again in July

By John White

We have a bird feeder hanging in the tree outside my kitchen window.

It can suck away quite a lot of my time, as I watch the antics of the birds it attracts.

Reed buntings with their wonderful Edwardian moustache markings, ubiquitous sparrows, goldfinch – which almost seem too colourful to be allowed here.

Beautiful gold flashes on the wings, with bright red faces, shouldn’t they be living in some tropical clime? They look ready to perform some contemporary dance act, or seventies glam rock show.

And then there are the starlings, I think they are my favourite – equally as colourful as the goldfinch, with an iridescent shine in the sun.

A feeding frenzy

They also mimic sounds from their surroundings, and can sound like phones and car alarms embedded in their complex song patterns.

There has been a lot of bickering of late around the feeder, adult starlings feeding their fairly grown up kids that look old enough to fend for themselves.

The slightly duller browner juveniles scream and jostle on the branch next to the food supply: “me first, me first” as the parent removes a seed from the dangling cage and thrusts it down the throat of its boisterous offspring, in a veritable feeding frenzy.

Like lockdown meals with children?

If the feeder runs out of fat seed balls, the birds disappear, to find either a natural food supply, or another human patron.

As July the 15th has been marked on year planners and in diaries, and a possible restart to aspects of the tourist industry looms, I am not sure if the birds are like the visitors descending on our communities – briefly eating and flying away. Or if we the providers are the birds, desperately hoping for an income, fat and seed to feed us after an extra-long winter.

Social media fluttered with posts from businesses stating ‘we hope to be open’, the sensible ones being aware of Fergus Ewing’s proviso: “This date cannot be definitive and is conditional on public health advice and progression to phase three of the route map.”

While a lot of work will need to be done, practicalities and protocols worked out, how do we clean rooms, how do we ‘meet and greet’, do we leave rooms fallow for 72 hours, do we use PPE when cleaning, I think as much work needs to be done in the wider community.

How are the visitors going to eat, how are they going to shop?

I have seen some quite lax adherence to protection in local shops with face covering usage fairly minimal at best.

We have probably got away with this behaviour due to the low numbers of cases outwith the care home community.

This could change with an influx of people from away. Any vigilantism must be directed at ourselves and the messages we put out when we go about our day to day business as lockdown eases.

Protect ourselves and others.

Those vulnerable people we have been looking after with prescription runs and message collections, some of them might not be looking forward to an influx of staycationers.

What else are they bringing with their much-needed cash?

Starlings flocking together

None of these problems are insurmountable. Guidelines will be available and in the month ahead, confidence will hopefully return and a dose of common sense will go a long way to making things work.

The talk is that furlough is just the precursor to redundancy, and the economy will be struggling in all sectors.

The knock on is likely to be fewer visitors with less money, and of course with the quarantine enforcement for overseas visitors, there won’t be many coming from afar.

I hope the tourism return will be a trickle, then a stream, in order for us all to get used to how it can work.

Despite being involved in the business I actually hope that it never returns to the flood, the tsunami of the last two years, where the danger was the destruction of our environment and our community.

We were perhaps too busy making money to spend time with our families, friends and neighbours.

While loving the quiet roads, the time spent with family, and the time spent re-evaluating priorities (as well as painting anything that doesn’t move and fixing everything that has been broken) it couldn’t last for ever.

The savings are being eaten into, the government assistance also doesn’t last forever, reality looms.

There is an economic model of price and product determination, that everybody is acutely aware of called “supply and demand’.

In recent years as the visitor numbers went through the roof, and perhaps became unsustainable, bed provision rose, spare rooms developed, cabins and pods built, garages renovated.

Still numbers rose, and so did the prices, a simple correlation.

There is likely to now be an oversupply of bed provision, the economists would foresee a reduction in price as people compete for a smaller market.

This may at first bring prices down to a realistic level, there was perhaps a danger that Skye was becoming a rich person’s destination.

A possible consequence may be what I have heard described as “a race to the bottom”, with what is effectively a price war, and possibly falling too far.

This when the product suddenly has become more expensive to manage, rooms costing more to clean, hotels only being able to cope with fewer guests to comply with social distancing.

We have a free market economy, there is little or no control, people can charge what they like, and undercutting is a valid entrepreneurial technique; do something better cheaper…!

I mentioned weeks ago, for many, the tourist dollar is the icing on the pension cake, a second income to a professional wage.

Perhaps there is a fine line between need and greed.

Some tourist operators have been forced to use food banks and needing help from the Skye Community Response group during lockdown.

As business returns, and these people can begin rebuilding their livelihoods, perhaps others have to decide what their own needs are.

The pension or the wage might be enough.

One of the reasons I love starlings is the incredible murmurations they create in autumn, just before roosting in the evenings.

These bickering birds who flutter and jostle around the trees, for twenty minutes or so before descending to reeds and branch to sleep, put on a display with no equal in nature.

Moving in unison, they create patterns in the sky, shapes, forms, dance. Apparently, each bird affects the six or seven around it but a flock of tens of thousands moves as if one, producing something beautiful.

Community can be like that.