A River Irvine Ramble

Linda Brown

Days are getting shorter. Darker afternoons beckon. Nights are fair drawing in. Autumn has officially arrived.
But, as the seasons change, there’s still plenty to see, admire and photograph while out walking.
Camera at the ready, I’m striding along the path which runs alongside the River Irvine between Newmilns and Galston in East Ayrshire. It’s a well walked, tarmacked route, used by walking groups, dog walkers, mums or dads with babies in buggies, folk on mobility scooters and cyclists.
Today, the river level is low – a few ducks bob downstream, deftly swerving around rocks. Overhead, in a cornflower blue sky, the sun dazzles, but there is a definite autumnal nip to the air. Along the riverbank, foliage on the trees is beginning to change and yellowed leaves are already spiralling down to the water on the light morning breeze.
Movement in a hawthorn tree adorned with red haws catches my eye; a blackbird stalks its narrow branches seeking out the juiciest berries for his breakfast. He’s being fussy but, finally settles on just the right one and I snap an image at the perfect time. Not long now until redwings and fieldfares fly in from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe giving the poor blackbird berry competition – those winter visitors love haws and rowan berries.
For several hundred yards the path veers away from the river. Black and white cows with big soulful eyes watch me from a field; their faces so serious as they ruminate both on grass and the prospect of a photoshoot. Cows love cameras. Just stand and take some photos of them and curiosity will generally make them crowd closer to the fence to pose.
Hedgerows lining either side of the route are quiet. During spring and summer they buzzed with sparrows. Willow warblers and sedge warblers darted about the undergrowth and ditches. But the warblers have gone now – they have headed to warmer climes in Africa for the winter. Same goes for the swallows who, until recently, gathered en masse on the telephone lines spanning the fields, like they were re-enacting a scene from an old Hitchcock movie (The Birds, of course). Only a few stragglers are left. Performing their aerobatics, they swoop and spin above me, then rest, chattering on the wires. Soon they too will take their leave.
When the path reaches the woods it has moved closer to the river again. I totter down a steep banking, then negotiate my way through the trees to the river’s edge.
I’m looking for otters. There are, reputedly, some around this area. People I meet on my walks regularly regale me with epic tales of otter sightings; otters dining on fish or scampering over muddy banks or gliding through the water, a trail of bubbles in their wake as they dive under the surface to hunt. Yet, in all my years of walking the Irvine, I’ve never clocked an otter. Not once. Not even as much as a whisker… and it’s not for the want of trying. I often lurk among trees in the vicinity of the most recent encounter, to wait and watch. Dawn and dusk are the best times for otter spotting, I believe, although walkers on this stretch of river seem to have sighted them at all times of day.
I choose a good spot to hang about behind a beech tree. My vigil will probably be otter-less but, it’s worth a try. Remember that old TV ad for a well-known biscuit, when the photographer at the zoo waits for pandas to emerge from their den, only for them to pop out and dance the minute he turns his back to ‘have a break’? Well, I reckon, as soon as I give up and walk away, otters dance the cancan behind me.
I hear rustling and snapping from trees further down the bank; a roe deer, a buck with his antlers still intact, emerges from the woods. Seemingly unaware of my presence he steps into the shallow water, takes a drink, then plods across the river. Sure-footed, he picks a path over stony ground, then is swallowed into thick undergrowth. It is a breath-taking moment and I almost forget to take a photo.

Time passes. Unsurprisingly, no otters make an appearance so, eventually, I retreat and follow a track through the woods, circumnavigating fallen trees that are too large to climb over. The damp woody conditions are ideal for fungi and some gorgeous ink cap mushrooms sprout on a mossy branch on the woodland floor. A good opportunity to practice my macro/close-up photography before moving on and rejoining the tarmacked path.
Near Galston there’s a crude wooden chair embedded into the ground on the cusp of the river; a convenient perch, perhaps, for local fishermen. It is a great place to park my posterior and soak up the picturesque view upstream. However, although I always look for the beauty and the positives on my walks, I can’t ignore the negatives – like rubbish in the river. A plastic bottle floats past. Shreds of plastic bags are tangled in river weeds. A toilet rim freshener dangles over the water from a narrow low hanging branch.
The River Irvine rises near Drumclog in South Lanarkshire, meanders through the Irvine Valley towns, skirts Kilmarnock and flows onwards to the coast, covering 29 miles by the time it converges with the River Garnock and reaches Irvine Harbour. There is a group of volunteers in Irvine called the Irvine Clean Up Crew (I’ve seen them on TV). They give up their spare time to collect and bag up trash from the beach and harbour area of their town. The amount of detritus travelling to the sea from both rivers is concerning, their chairperson told me recently. Having witnessed rubbish being swept downstream when the Irvine is in spate I understand and share their concerns.
A loud, harsh squawk overhead distracts me from environmental worries. A grey heron, broad wings flapping an almost leisurely beat, neck shrunken into his shoulders and long skinny legs trailing behind him, flies to the top of a tall tree directly across from me. He settles amongst the leaves, stretching out his neck to survey the river below. His white and grey plumage and dark crest makes him a striking image against the deep blue sky. I lift my camera. Rattle off a couple of shots.
“That’ll make a braw picture.”
The voice from behind startles me. I spin around to face an old man with a walking stick.
“I’ve just seen an otter upstream, hen,” he continues. “Did you manage to get photos of it too?”
I sigh. Then smile. And resist the temptation to ask if the otter was dancing the cancan.