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Paul Castle: Help bring a 'Little Ray' of sunshine into your life

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Making Space for Nature by Paul Castle

Little Ray and the empty case.
Little Ray and the empty case.

As a High Life Highland countryside ranger, I’m often called on by the public to advise on wildlife in need of help.

Assisting wildlife to thrive brings so much joy through having that personal connection with nature.

As such, I thought I would share my experience with a wildlife rescue and release earlier this year.

Let’s set the scene: I was out enjoying a walk with my dog on Dunnet Beach in north Caithness in early March, which many will remember had been a particularly stormy period.

Amongst the tangle of strewn seaweed, I spotted a quite sizeable ray egg case (known colloquially as a “mermaid’s purse” for its shape). While I am familiar with egg cases found regularly on the shore, this one stood out as unusual. I could tell from the weight that it still had an occupant inside.

Safely back at base, I inspected the egg case with a quick shine of my trusty torch, revealing the distinct silhouette of a small round body with a long and rapidly beating tail. I quickly placed the egg case in a bowl of fresh seawater, with a careful light squeeze to expel air and help it sink.

Now for the final touch, a name – our new friend was given the sweet and simple nickname “Little Ray”.

On the Shark Trust website, there is an egg case section (which you can find by visiting www.eggcase.org). It was using this source that I was able to identify Little Ray’s species as “Raja Brachyura”, also known as a blonde ray.

The egg case found on Dunnet Beach.
The egg case found on Dunnet Beach.

This species is more commonly found in the south of the British Isles, so it was no surprise I couldn’t identify it straight away given it had washed up on comparably far-north Scottish shores.

My next few weeks consisted of regular trips to the shore to collect fresh seawater to Little Ray’s temporary fish tank home, ensuring a good supply of oxygen. The beating of a young ray’s tail is how a young ray circulates fresh, oxygenated water in and out of the egg case. I also installed a small air pump to keep plenty of oxygen in the water, and regularly checked to ensure Little Ray’s tail was still moving.

On the morning of April 17, a rather excited shout from my wife alerted me to the wonderful fact that overnight, Little Ray had emerged!

There, on the bottom of the tank, was a tiny but perfectly formed blonde ray bobbing around next to the now-empty egg case. Plenty of photographs and short videos were taken of this simply beautiful creature, happily swimming around the tank.

Later that same morning, I headed to Dunnet Bay, where I originally spotted Little Ray, and released him back into the wild. Watching Little Ray swim away to develop into a fine adult blonde ray was a rewarding sight and feeling.

These little glimpses into the often-unknown world of wildlife, like Little Ray, are one of the many joys of working as a High Life Highland countryside ranger. This chance encounter led to quite an effort on my part, but was rewarded by the honour of a happy ending.

I encourage everyone to keep your eyes open for struggling wildlife, so that we may do our part to help in any way possible. Making space for nature can really bring a "little ray" of sunshine into your life.

If you are in any doubt as to whether or not wildlife is in genuine trouble, always seek professional advice before disturbing it – your local countryside ranger will be pleased to talk it through with you.

Paul Castle, HLH countryside ranger.
Paul Castle, HLH countryside ranger.
  • Making Space for Nature is a monthly wildlife column with tips about how we can act to help wildlife in our communities. This month’s wildlife columnist is Paul Castle, High Life Highland countryside ranger for north Sutherland and north Caithness. Paul studied environmental and resource science at Salford University. He worked as a volunteer officer with British Trust for Conservation Volunteers before moving to Caithness to take on the role of north Sutherland and north Caithness countryside ranger in 2000. Paul is also a trained member of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme.

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