News from St Cyrus National Nature Reserve

St Cyrus National Nature Reserve is dynamic and changeable at this time of year. With high seas and the North Esk in spate things can feel and look very dramatic. Reserve Manager Therese Alampo gives an update on what’s been happening at this popular reserve just outside Montrose.

A lot of debris has come down the river by high waters, surging and ripping at the banks and lades which have been dry for months or even years. The dramatic scene includes many natural/organic objects, including several massive bails of straw, trees that have been uprooted and several dead animals. Deer, sheep, rabbit, otter, fox and even chickens have found their way to the shores of the reserve.

All these natural items will in time decompose and the tonnes of wood will become part of the habitat available to the creatures of the reserve. In fact all this organic material is attracting loads of invertebrates, which in turn is attracting lots of birds to the buzzing and hopping bugs.

The real worry is how much plastic, rope and other items, which present a real threat to wildlife are now littering the beach, some from the surrounding area but many from ships and further afield. Many people have been asking about this litter so I thought I would write a little in the newsletter about it.

Marine litter poses a major threat to wildlife, either directly through entanglement but more insidiously through the animals mistaking the litter for food. Polystyrene is particularly nasty and all of the pieces we have picked up over the last few days have had peck marks in them.  These items stay in the marine environment for 100’s of years (a plastic bottle for example will remain for 450 years!). As time goes on the plastics may become smaller and smaller and actually start entering the food chain – a solemn thought as we tuck into our fish suppers.

Fulmar are being used to measure the occurrence of North Sea plastics and the stomach contents of the dead birds are being analysed. Sadly over 95% of Fulmar have plastics in their stomachs, and in their lifetimes they are likely to eat 44 pieces of plastic, once in the stomach they stay there taking up valuable room that real food should be taking. The worst case has been 1603 pieces of plastic being found inside the Stomach of an individual bird, poor thing.

I’d like to give huge and heartfelt thanks to all the wonderful people who have been collecting rubbish and the great job that Lathallan School, Duke of Edinburgh students have done. Please come to the office for bags if you would like to help, we would like to find the oldest pop can, crisp packet and the item from furthest afield to demonstrate how long these things stay in the sea! We found a 15 year old can yesterday hardly damaged.

Some of the natural treasures (collected and left by a visitor on a fish box), dead man’s fingers, common starfish, flounder, sea mouse and a male salmon (with elongated lower jaw, Kype).

Last month Radio Scotland visited the reserve and Mark Stephens spent the day with Michael Craig and I. We discussed bird migration and the wonderful visitors and wildlife that St Cyrus hosts. He was really impressed with the thousands of birds that were using the area in front of the hide to roost, feed and preen, what a magical sight and what incredible sounds as the mixed flock of gulls and waders rose up like smoke after being spooked by something. I do hope you heard the program and it was lovely for St Cyrus reserve to be on the radio for all to hear about.

Some of the recent wildlife highlights include:

  • The beautiful red back shrike that visited the reserve on its migration to its wintering ground in tropical Africa. These birds are also known as butcher birds as they ‘skewer’ lizards, beetles and other prey items on thorny bushes.
  • Watching the whooper swans from the bird hide, these beautiful swans come from Iceland and gently call to each other as they feed, magic.
  • The incredible display of fungi on the reserve, this year the best I have ever seen it, and the wonderful flavour of the Blewitt mushrooms delivered to the office by Shiela Brown.
  • Seeing the beach in total disarray and beach combing and picking up litter, it’s fascinating, I loved seeing the dead man’s fingers close up, named so as they are thought to look like the fingers of dead men when looked at under water. The ‘fingers’ are actual formed by a colonial soft coral, fascinatingly most colonies are either all male or all female. Each part of the colony (polyp) has tentacles it uses to catch plankton so when you see them underwater feeding they look a little furry.

So many more things but as always I have run out of space.  Thanks again all for litter picking and please do look out for those old items and pop in for bags and a hot chocolate.


Find out more about St Cyrus NNR @

Read our reserve leaflet before you go @

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Species of the month – wildcat

When is a wild cat a wildcat?

There has been quite a lot in the press lately about the authenticity or otherwise of the Scottish wildcat. What is it that marks some animals out as the genuine article and other wild-living tabby cats as part of the problem?

Scottish wildcats form the most northern and western part of the European wildcat range. Whereas, domestic cats come from a lineage of wild cats originating in Africa. Despite their evolutionary paths having been separate for around 130,000 years; wildcats and domestic cats are able to breed and produce fertile offspring. And, they were brought together by the introduction of domestic cats to Scotland around 2500 years ago.

Readers will appreciate when it comes to protecting Scottish wildcats we are now faced with complex issues of hybridisation, probability and conservation values. So how do we know if our wild-living cats are moggies or mystical creatures of the glens?

Wildcats are reputed as untameable. Unlike domestic cats, they have not been domesticated and even as kittens, wildcats have a basic mistrust of people and fierceness towards anyone who comes near. Given this feisty propensity, they have featured in the badges and mottos of several clans– including MacBean, Macintosh, MacGillivray, MacThomas and MacPhersons. Feral cats that are not socialized as kittens can also be pretty spirited, but a cat that is biddable to humans is probably not a wildcat.

Wildcats primarily feed on small rodents, with rabbits being their prey of choice where there are available. Den sites can be rocky cairns, logging piles, under tree roots or may be less obvious structures such as brash mats or beneath whins. At this time of year some female wildcats may be becoming fertile with the main breeding season being late winter (January to March) with kittens (normally 3-4 per litter) emerging in the spring.

Researchers have studied the physical characteristics that distinguish wildcats from domestic cats and their hybrids using museum specimens and cats killed on the road. This has involved looking at skull shape and size, limb bones and relative intestine lengths. But such measures do not readily help to protect living wildcats and hence their outward appearance and in particular, their coat markings have been closely studied. An identification key has been published – It relies on 7 key ‘pelage’ characteristics. However, in the field the most prominent characteristic is the thick bushy tail with distinct dark rings and a blunt, black tip. The wildcat definition is quite a strict test, however, recent trail camera footage has revealed there are still wild-living wildcats that possess these typical features.

Wildcat based on ‘pelage’ criteria taken in Morvern 2014

Wildcat based on ‘pelage’ criteria taken in Morvern 2014

Delving further into the murky waters of wildcat-iness we have to consider their genetic make-up. Research suggests that the cats living-wild in Scotland range from domestic cats, through every shade of hybrid, to probable wildcats. Animals are assigned to a wildcat or a domestic ancestry based on genetic markers (based on probability). Further work is ongoing, and a larger sample of wildcats need to be tested to verify this early work, but indications suggest there are still individuals that are largely of wildcat ancestry. However, even some of the ‘best’ wildcats may have a small number of domestic markers. Given the time that domestic cats have been in Scotland and that our Highland glens were once more populated, there may be some domestic cat DNA in the wildcats in even our most remote areas.

So if we have animals that look like wildcats, appear to behave like wildcats and (from a small sample) appear to be of predominantly wildcat ancestry, are they wildcats? The partner organisations in the national conservation action plan believe this is the pragmatic approach and are seeking to protect the distinct group of cats that look like wildcats, but may not all be genetically pure wildcats.

However, there have also been domestic cats and poor hybrids in all the areas studied. Hence there is a need to reduce the risks our remaining wildcats are facing. The Wildcat Action project which aims to do just this in six priority areas will start in the New Year.

Two cats in image

To find out more about wildcats read our online Naturally Scottish booklet – Scottish wildcats or watch the wildcat video on our YouTube channel @

Web links – Highland Tiger


Photo credits – Image one by Laurie Campbell, image number two by Pete Cairns, image three (c) SNH, final image courtesy of Roo Campbell WildCRU.




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100,000 John Muir Awards achieved in Scotland

At the end of November, the John Muir Trust celebrated a landmark achievement when Sarah Oswald, a senior pupil from Balfron High School in Stirlingshire, became Scotland’s 100,000th John Muir Award recipient.  Here Toby Clark, the John Muir Trust’s John Muir Award Scotland Manager, celebrates the Trust’s main people engagement scheme.

This is a fantastic achievement, and something that everyone at the John Muir Trust is really proud of. However, this milestone could never have been reached without the thousands of organisations who have worked with the Trust since the Award was launched in 1997.

Sarah with her cetificate

From universities to prisons, and schools to health agencies – an army of amazing teachers, community workers, volunteers, rangers and youth leaders have invested their time and energy into introducing people from all backgrounds to Scotland’s wild places.

The John Muir Trust has benefitted from excellent long-term partnerships too. We value continuing the 10+ years of investment with the Cairngorms National Park Authority, and more recently with Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park Authority. And since funding the John Muir Award feasibility study back in 1995, Scottish Natural Heritage has continued to play a vital role in supporting the Trust.

Everyone involved in delivering, managing, and supporting the John Muir Award can be immensely satisfied with this achievement.

However, it is not just about celebrating the top line figures. Behind every statistic is an individual personal experience in wild places. 100,000th Award recipient Sarah Oswald (aged 16) said, “I really enjoyed doing the Award. My favourite wild place was Aberfoyle in the National Park, it was just so different and peaceful.”

We believe that helping connect people with the peace and beauty of wild places is something that John Muir would have been proud of. As we look back on 100 years since John Muir’s death, it is fitting to celebrate 100,000 John Muir Award achievements. People from across Scotland have followed in Muir’s footsteps, and we look forward to encouraging this awareness, understanding and responsibility for wild places with the next 100,000 participants.


The John Muir Award is a leading nature engagement scheme run by the John Muir Trust. It was launched in 1997 to help people from all backgrounds to connect with nature, and enjoy and care for wild places.

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Location, location, location

Financially these can be challenging times. Office buildings in particular can be a big outgoing, and when various public sector buildings sit close to each other this can seem like a missed opportunity on several levels. It therefore makes good sense to share resources and in particular office space wherever we can. Sharing offices also helps SNH reduce the climate change impacts from our own operations (by cutting CO2 emissions from energy use), so helping achieve our “Low Carbon Vision”.

Across the public sector there has been a desire to see an increase in shared facilities (colocations) and at Scottish Natural Heritage we’ve risen well to this challenge. In 2014 alone we have successfully identified and delivered three excellent opportunities at Clydebank, Torlundy and Battleby to share facilities, save money and cut our carbon footprint.

Of course we had these benefits in our sights for some time and earlier colocations at Hamilton, Dingwall, Dumfries, Golspie, Ayr, Edinburgh (Silvan House), Elgin and of course Inverness were precursors to a busy 2014.


Great Glen House, SNH HQ building, Inverness.

Great Glen House, SNH HQ building, Inverness.

Our Great Glen House office (illustrated above) is home not only to Scottish Natural Heritage’s headquarters but also houses Crofting Commission, Paths for All, Bord Na Gaidhlig and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Services. A little further north at Golspie we share our office space with Highland and Islands Enterprise and Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) as well as Agriculture, Food & Rural Communities.

But to 2014 and beyond. In February we welcomed Scottish Enterprise into Caspian House – our Clydebank office. Reductions in staff numbers had seen SNH no longer needing both floors in what is a good sized office and Scottish Enterprise moved into the top floor.  We already had some Forestry Commission and John Muir staff that had been with us since 2010 and they remained with us on the ground floor.

As Hilary Britton in our Clydebank office noted, the colocation was a winner from the off. “With Forestry Commission and John Muir Trust sharing open floor space with us there is much better understanding of what work they are involved in. It is really useful being able to go direct to them for advice and details, and much better working relations have been formed simply by the fact that we are so much closer.”

It was Scottish Natural Heritage’s turn to move in March when our colleagues in the Fort William office headed off to Torlundy (pictured below) to share a brand new office with Forestry Commission Scotland.

Torlundy office near Fort William

Torlundy office near Fort William

Even before we had officially moved in Forestry Commission staff were making us welcome when we visited Torlundy to see how the building was shaping up. And since we moved in this has continued, we have also noticed that our working with FCS staff has improved. It is now quite common for either our staff to pop into the FCS workspace to raise a quick query over an issue or vice versa, saving time and energy. And it’s fair to say that our general working relations really have been strengthened by regular contact over the coffee table.

The trend continued in autumn with Forestry Commission staff in Perth moving to SNH’s Battleby office to make it an exciting 2014 ‘hat-trick’. And already we have plans for 2015, with a move of our 32 members of staff in Stirling to the SEPA office at Strathallan House.

In terms of climate change, these collocations are saving us about 154 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, which is 9% of all SNH’s emissions – so well worth doing.

SNH has an active and successful carbon management programme to reduce the carbon costs of our operations.  We have reduced our emissions by 41% from 2900 tonnes of CO2/year in 2000-01 to 1708 tonnes of CO2/year in 2013-14; and we continue to look for carbon savings and opportunities in terms of delivering our services for the people and nature of Scotland and meeting our Low Carbon Vision.

The new SNH office at Golspie. ©John Paul

The new SNH office at Golspie.
©John Paul

It’s good to share on many levels. Shared services make economic sense, shared workspace can lead to shared ideas and opportunities, and in the current climate a carbon footprint reduction is good news for our environment.


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William Roy

Following the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, Major General William Roy mapped Scotland in detail. His maps remain valuable in the present day as they form the basis of our Ancient Woodland Inventory of Scotland. Roy was a superb cartographer and his efforts helped speed the development of the Ordnance Survey in 1791, which remains one of the world’s most famous producers of maps.

Roy's map showing Abernethy

Roy’s map showing Abernethy (Image copyright of The British Library Board)

The Jacobite uprisings in the Highlands encouraged the government to facilitate troop movements by building roads to link strategic army camps such as Fort George and Fort William. However, the road builders such as General Wade and Major Caulfield laboured without detailed and accurate maps.

A year after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson was charged by the Duke of Cumberland to undertake ‘The Military Survey of Scotland’, now popularly referred to as ‘Roy’s Maps’, after his assistant.

William Roy was born in Carluke, Lanarkshire some twenty years earlier. Not much is known about his early life but it seems it was always his dream to map the whole of Great Britain. He developed extraordinary cartographic skills whilst apprenticed as a civilian draughtsman to the Board of Ordnance employed in surveying new roads for the Royal Mail. He then joined Watson’s Military Survey team based at Fort Augustus, but his position as Practitioner Engineer carried no particular military status.

The Board of Ordnance had been lobbying the Duke of Cumberland, as Head of the Army, to rectify this matter and in 1755 Roy was elevated to Ensign rank and commissioned into the 53rd Regiment of Foot.

A Scot himself, Lt-Col Watson received a payment of five shillings a day, his two assistants (Roy and a man named Stewart) got four shillings. Non-Commissioned Officers and men were recruited for the Military Survey for their qualities of ‘carefulness and sobriety’. Each surveying party, under the Engineer Officer, comprised an NCO and six troopers; one carried the theodolite, two measured with the chain, two manned the fore and back stations, and the remaining one acted as batman.

Roy modestly maintained that his maps provided ‘a magnificent military sketch [rather] than a very accurate map of the country’. However they conveyed a clear impression of the landscape in the mid-18th century. At the time Scotland’s population was around one million people, just over half in the northern part, and mostly rural in distribution. Enclosed fields and parks tended to be clustered around the estate houses, but also on the larger tenanted farms and steadings.Settlement clusters comprised mainly single-storey thatched cottages. All these were depicted carefully on Roy’s Maps along with unenclosed cultivated land and meadows, with rough grazing, scrub woodland and plantations which yielded fuel in the form of peat and timber.

Roy’s original field sheets, to a scale of approximately 2 inches to a mile, are preserved in the British Library but they were never to be assembled into a complete atlas of mainland Scotland. They did however provide an essential baseline for many mapmakers to follow, and pre-empted modern land use surveys, alongside which his meticulous attention to detail can stand to this day. After the survey was completed, Roy was then deployed in the south of Britain where in 1764 he undertook a private study of the ‘Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain’, ultimately published by the Society of Antiquities in 1793.

Roy was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767 and had gained the rank of Major-General by 1781. By then living in London, his efforts led to the formation of the Ordnance Survey in 1791, a year after Roy died at the age of 64. Recognised as one of the greatest surveyors of all time, his name is engraved for posterity on the glass doors on the Ordnance Survey Headquarters in Southampton.

Did you know ?

The Military Survey of Scotland, compiled by General Roy around 1750, has allowed us to verify the continuity of woodland cover back to that time across the whole of Scotland.

For many Highland areas, Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, is arguably the only standard topographic map prior to the Ordnance Survey mapping in the 19th century.

Read more on the National Library of Scotland (NLS) website @ and view the Roy map on the NLS site @ .

Read more on the SNH website @

This biography of William Roy was originally produced for SNH’s Highland Naturalists project – part of our contribution to 2007 The Year of Highland Culture.

Image copyright ‘The British Library Board’





Posted in The Highland Naturalists | Tagged , , , ,

A focus for Scottish wildcat action

A recent study highlighted six areas recommended as priorities for future wildcat conservation work in Scotland. The study comes as part of the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan, which aims to protect our best remaining wildcat populations.

SNH Wildcat - Strathpeffer
The report detected examples of cats with many typical wildcat features in each of the six locations – Strathbogie (near Huntly), the Angus glens, northern Strathspey, Morvern, Strathavon and Strathpeffer.

However, feral domestic cats and hybrids – crosses between wildcats and domestic cats – were also found, meaning more work must be done to tackle hybridisation, the main threat to wildcats.


More than 30 organisations representing land managers, the Scottish Government and various environmental charities back the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan,  which was launched last September.

The new report titled ‘Survey and Scoping of Wildcat Priority Areas’ was produced jointly by researchers at the James Hutton Institute, WildCRU and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS). It details the methods used to select areas of a suitable size for conservation action. The study also examined local support and views on the actions proposed.

Fieldwork used camera traps, scent lures and live-trapping and has provided new insight to the wild-living cats in these areas. A limited sample of cat hair, droppings (or scats) and blood were subject to genetic tests.

The next stage is to reduce risks to wildcats in these six important areas by:

• Co-ordinating an ambitious trap, neuter and release (TNR) programme to neuter all feral and hybrids cats;

• Encouraging cat owners to neuter and vaccinate cats; micro-chipping will also help to make pet cats easily identifiable;

• Working with gamekeepers, farmers and foresters to reduce the risks to wildcats from predator control;

• Monitoring populations to see the benefits of this work.

Jenny Bryce, SNH’s wildlife ecologist, said: “These priority areas give us real opportunity to halt the decline of the Scottish wildcat and preserve its distinctive identity. The Action Plan partners take a pragmatic view – there are good examples of wildcats out there, displaying many of the characteristics of this species. And this is very much the focus of the new Wildcat Action project.

SNH Wildcat camera image - cropped  - Strathbogie

“We have been encouraged by the number and the quality of wildcats that have been observed, given the relatively short duration of the surveys. We think this is indicative of populations persisting more widely.

“But the threats are ever-present and we need to act now to preserve animals that are distinctive as Scottish wildcats. And with the help of people in these communities we aim to do just that.”

Public attitudes surveyed in the report indicate good levels of support for wildcat conservation. Interestingly people did not always recognise the importance of their local area for wildcats.

Local support has also been strengthened by a series of public drop-in sessions in each of the proposed priority areas over the summer. Those attending have been extremely positive and many have volunteered to help with the work when it is underway.

The project will involve local people and sets out to be of lasting benefit to these areas.

Based on indicative genetic tests carried out by the WildGenes laboratory at RZSS, all the wild-living cat samples collected in the last 30 years appear to have some domestic cat genetic markers. Hence the project partners are mindful that the term ‘pure’ wildcat may not be helpful in conservation terms. Dr Rob Ogden, RZSS Head of Science commented:

“We are observing a range of genetic mixes, from feral domestic through to predominantly wildcat. As our DNA tests develop, we are increasingly able to identify individual wildcats with the highest conservation value for the population”.

The survey findings support the view that there are wild-living cats displaying many of the typical wildcat features in these areas. Although some of the best examples caught on camera were not tested for their DNA, some of the cats tested had a high proportion of wildcat genetic markers. Hence a pragmatic view is that our wildcats remain distinctive and are worthy of protection.

The report does not give an estimate of the number of wildcats ‘out there’ as surveys were limited to nine locations, and will only have captured a proportion of the wildcats present.

SNH Wildcat camera image - cropped  - Angus

The project partners recognise there may be wildcats across the Highlands and that the work in the six priority areas will be complemented by other efforts to protect wildcats across their range.

It is hoped the Wildcat Action project will start in earnest in each of these areas at the start of 2015.

Following publication of this report an article appeared in the Observer and the Guardian. You can read our response to this article here.

Posted in biodiversity, Projects, Research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Taynish National Nature Reserve

There are several popular National Nature Reserves in the Argyll area – Taynish, Glen Nant, Moine Mhor and Glasdrum Wood. Here Alan Martin and Doug Bartholomew give an insight into one of the most spectacular of these special spots with a look at Taynish.

The Taynish peninsula forms part of the coastline of Argyll and it’s an area of great diversity. Oak woodland covers much of the National Nature Reserve and the moist, clean air here means that lichens and mosses cover the trees. In amongst the oak trees you’ll find smaller trees, like holly and birch. In spring time this woodland is blanketed with a colourful mix of wildflowers.

In winter, old man’s beard turns the woodland grey-green while holly berries provide spots of colour. The leafless birches add a purplish tinge to many shades of brown

Taynish is surrounded on three sides by water. Loch Sween to the east, the Linne Mhuirich to the west, and the turbulent waters at the south end of the peninsula known as the rapids. With its long coastal border Taynish has a wealth of coastal habitats which are perfect for a wide range of species.

Most people arrive at Taynish by foot or car, but if you are lucky enough to be a competent paddler a journey round the coast of Taynish will be rewarded by stunning views of the oak woodland reaching right down to the rugged rocky coastline and good chances to see a wealth of wildlife such as the shy otters which frequent the reserve and much of the surrounding coastline.


Otters spend much of their time fishing along the shore for crabs and small fish. When an otter catches its prey it often swims to shore to devour its catch. The remnants of these meals are common along the coast at Taynish. Crab shells and cracked sea urchins are left on favoured rocks used for dining by otters. Other signs of otters are their sweet smelling spraints which are made up of tiny fish bones and crab remains.

The otters use their spraints to mark their territories and will poo in the same historic locations again and again. Over many years this has made mounds which are characterised by the lush green of grasses thriving in the nutrients left by generations of otters.

Seals, both common and grey, also frequent the coast of Taynish. Unlike the retiring otter, these inquisitive animals will often come and swim in quite close to get a better look at you.

The coast is also home to a range of birds. Regular sightings at Taynish include the common sand piper. With its distinctive bobbing and bowing walk and stiff winged fluttering flight this small wader is quite a character on the shores of Taynish.
The Linne Mhuirich is also home to eider ducks. On calm days in the spring their cooing calls can be heard right up on the Barr Mor. These coastal ducks can sometimes be spotted in large rafts in the Linne Mhuirich where they feed on salt water molluscs. The eider is both the heaviest and fastest flying duck in the UK!

You may even be treated to the sight of a sea eagle soaring high over the reserve or being chased away by anxious crows. Over the summer ospreys also regularly fish in the rapids. There are a wealth of other birds along the coast of Taynish – cormorants, Canadian geese, oyster catchers and red breasted mergansers to name just a few.

Calm loch
The natural wonders at Taynish are not confined to its shores, on the sea bed a myriad of sea weeds, corals and shellfish live. But this underwater world deserves its own blog so we  will leave it there for now.

Next up from Argyll … the woodland wonder of Glasdrum Wood NNR.


Find out more about Taynish NNR @

Enjoy our 12 minute video of Taynish NNR @

See our Taynish NNR pinterest board @


Images courtesy of Doug Bartholomew



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