Creag Meagaidh update

From the wild and windswept mountain plateau to a woodland that’s slowly finding its feet again, Creag Meagaidh feels like the Highlands compressed into one nature reserve. Rare mountain plants like woolly willow and Highland saxifrage battle against the elements, whilst black grouse flourish in the combination of woodland and open moorland. With Munro summits, an exposed whaleback ridge and ice carved gullies, Creag Meagaidh is the complete mountain experience.

Loch Laggan

Loch Laggan

The reserve has proved extremely popular this year. Visitor number at Creag Meagaidh have rocketed, jumping from 8000 to around the 20000 mark. Arguably the key to this has been new tourist signs, a further 3,000 metres of all abilities paths, and a new car park that helps people to pull in easily and soak up what Creag Meagaidh has to offer.

Creag Meagaidh is home to a variety of insects

Creag Meagaidh is home to a variety of insects

Reserve Manager Rory Richardson keeps a swipe-board at the reception area up-to-date with all the recent sightings and he was able to reel off a very impressive list of things seen by visitors. “We’ve had a huge range of birds of late,” he explained “including oyster catchers, curlew, ringed plover, stonechat, mallards, golden eagle, merlin, peregrine, osprey, kestrel, black grouse, red grouse, ptarmigan, and snipe.”

Stonechat

Stonechat

The reserve isn’t just a haven for a rich variety of birds. There are plenty of mammals about too and Rory mentioned that red deer, roe deer, otter, and pine marten were all spotted over the last few weeks.

Stoat

Stoat

Making sure that people can enjoy the reserve is a huge element of what staff aim to do at Creag Meagaidh. It isn’t just the provision of paths and car parks that contributes to that work. Each April Scottish Natural Heritage staff stage a black grouse safari which features an early morning viewing of the courtship ritual of the grouse known as ‘lekking’. This daily display takes place just before sunrise hence the early start of 6am at Creag Meagaidh.

However there is a reward of a mug of tea and bacon rolls back at SNH’s Aberarder base for all participants.

Black grouse

Black grouse

Rory is keen to welcome people along to the free event. “The black grouse numbers on Creag Meagaidh have been increasing in recent years – we do annual counts in spring and it is always interesting to see the numbers are like each year”, he said. “It is a real delight to be able to share the beauty of the black grouse display with other people, though they are absolutely stunning birds to look at and some of the noises they make are out of this world.”

Spot the ptarmigan

Spot the ptarmigan

Volunteers are vital to the success of Creag Meagaidh too. This year saw a record number of ten volunteers staying on the reserve at one time. They came from all over the world to experience working on a National Nature Reserve and spent fifty percent of their time on their conservation projects and the other fifty percent helping with estate maintenance. They all get free accommodation, cooking and washing facilities, they also get the chance to learn and experience life on a highland Nature Reserve.

Grazing

In 1790, the Statistical Account recorded 20,000 sheep in the Parish of Laggan, which included Creag Meagaidh. By 1840, just fifty years later, the New Statistical Account recorded the presence of 40,000 sheep in the parish. Thus, like much of the Highlands, vegetation has been heavily grazed for centuries, so it was decided to reduce the number of grazing animals by removing sheep and culling red deer.

The aim was not to eliminate grazing animals altogether, but to keep numbers at a level that allowed the habitats, especially the woodland, to recover. Although controversial in some quarters initially it is now recognised that the vegetation around Creag Meagaidh NNR has benefitted hugely form this, then innovative, approach.

Wild flowers at Creag Meagaidh earlier this year

Wild flowers at Creag Meagaidh earlier this year

The reserve was designated in May 1986 and in 2011 celebrated its 25th anniversary. On the evidence of this year it has many more years of popularity to anticipate.

 

Find out more about Creag Meagaidh NNR @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/creag-meagaidh/

 

Images: Rory Richardson / SNH and David McKenzie (Loch Laggan and black grouse)

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News from St Cyrus

Therese Alampo is the Reserve Manager at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve. In today’s blogpost she looks at the links being forged between National Nature Reserves and education.

Picture 014Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are selected as the best examples of nature in Scotland. The first was Beinn Eighe, designated in 1951, and we now have almost 50 NNRs. These are scattered all around Scotland, and how lucky we are to have one so close to the towns and cities of Aberdeenshire and Angus for all to enjoy and experience.

NNR’s like St Cyrus are special places for nature. But they are also places for people. All have facilities to allow the public to enjoy, experience and learn why they are special. Many are also an educational resource, offer research opportunities, or show examples of specialised management.

All these uses can knit together in harmony with the common philosophy that we must all enjoy and protect the things that make St Cyrus so very special. A good example of that in the current year has come from local dog walkers who have behaved very responsibly by keeping dogs on their leads and respecting the sanctuary area to the south of the reserve where we have ground nesting birds.

St Cyrus NNR

St Cyrus NNR

The world has changed so much for the birds returning to breed at St Cyrus; some of which are returning from extremely far flung shores. The human population in Aberdeenshire and Angus has doubled in the past 40 years, and along with this there has been a huge growth in dog and cat ownership, habitat loss, intensification of farming, challenges from use of pesticides and a plethora of other obstacles.

Pressures on wildlife at times seems daunting, so thank you to our local dog walkers for ‘leading’ by example and protecting our ground nesting birds.

Outdoor learning

I think it was Nelson Mandela who said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

I’d like to thank all of the schools who use St Cyrus as an educational resource, particularly for having the drive and ambition to bring school groups on outdoor expeditions to this wonderful place. Last year we had a very impressive 50 school groups, and an additional 22 other educational groups, visiting the reserve.

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It is never easy to single out individuals but I would like to say a special thanks to the inspirational local nursery school teacher Pamela Karner, her assistant Bev, and the volunteers and parents who bring the nursery children down to the reserve every two weeks. They regularly visit here come rain, shine, hail, snow, ice and everything in between.

Pamela approached SNH three years ago about the possibility of enhancing the outdoor learning already taking place at St Cyrus to incorporate a ‘forest school’ for the children. A brilliant and unusual concept, especially as we are a beach, dune and grassland reserve. We do however have a small area of self seeded alder ‘woodland’ behind the office on the old river bed. The trees are only small (about 10-12ft) but to a four year old I’d imagine these areas are ‘proper’ forests!

The programme we developed with Pamela gives great opportunities for learning about all the aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence. Pamela and her team have been doing some amazing things – things that it’s wonderful to see young children doing. For instance, they listen extremely carefully to the sounds on the reserve during silent walks and some of the children are only three! Then, they record their findings in imaginative ways. They also learn about numeracy through collecting sticks, grading them, sorting, matching, grouping, measuring and comparing.

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The activities occur in the same place at very regular intervals, so that children experience the great depth of learning that can be found in the same space over time. The challenge and stimulation of being outdoors also has wider benefits for child development, and allows children and parents to develop positive attitudes to risk and natural environments too.

Pamela is an inspirational teacher and really values our National Nature Reserve here at St Cyrus. When we met recently she told me “I would like to express a big thank you to St Cyrus National Nature Reserve staff. Without their vibrant enthusiasm and support we just could not have started ‘Forest School’ at the reserve. They allowed and trusted the process. Everyone at our ‘Forest School’ takes this awareness, respect and care seriously. It is an arc of connections.”

As part of our work at Scottish Natural Heritage, we endeavour to educate about the connections between people, their environment, their local landscape, ecosystems and biodiversity. Issues like sustainability, values and attitudes arise and it’s very important that children grow up learning about these, as part of their education, in real life situations. It is part of our heritage.

 

For further information about this work see http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/resources-for-teaching/learning-outdoors/

 

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Heading for the hills ?

Taking a walk in the Scottish hills is one of life’s great pleasures for many of us. But we’d like to give you a friendly reminder that with the some of the best public access laws in the world in Scotland comes some responsibility as well. Fiona Cuninghame, of our Access and Recreation team, explains how to get the most from the Heading for the Hills website.

Upland landscape in the Glenshee hills.

Upland landscape in the Glenshee hills.

‘Heading for the Scottish Hills’ website helps you find out where deer stalking is taking place on participating estates over the busy stag stalking season (1st July to 20th October). This helps you to plan routes which minimise the chance of disturbing stalking, in line with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  But, luckily, it isn’t much of a chore with the Heading for the Scottish Hills website, which is a quick and easy way to check that you won’t disturb deer stalking.

The service covers over 70 estates in popular hill walking areas, mainly in the Cairngorms National Park, the Breadalbane area and on the west coast. Most estates begin stalking in August and September.

Family hillwalking on an upland footpath

Family hillwalking on an upland footpath

You can find general information about stalking on all participating estates and contact details for further information at www.outdooraccess-scotland.com/hftsh. Some estates provide detailed information on the site up to a week in advance, describing where and when stalking will take place, as well as suggested walking routes. There is also information about responsible behaviour for land managers and walkers.

The service, started five years ago, has received positive feedback from walkers and has demonstrated that there is demand for the service from both walkers and land managers.

We’re working with partners to consider how we can re-design the system to make it more user-friendly and cover a larger area, and are hoping to launch a new, improved service in 2015.

The website helps walkers follow the advice in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code to try and find out where stag stalking is taking place because it was not always easy to find out who to contact. The Code also encourages walkers:

  • to follow reasonable alternative routes on days when stalking is taking place
  • not to cross land where stalking is taking place
  • to avoid wild camping where stalking is planned for the next day
Hillwalker in Glenshee,

Hillwalker in Glenshee,

The web page takes its name from the ‘Heading for the Scottish Hills’ book, which was a collaboration between landowners and mountaineers. It was published between 1988 and 1996. For the first time, this book provided hill walkers with an easy way to identify and contact participating estates to find out where stalking was taking place.

 Find out more @ www.outdooraccess-scotland.com/hftsh

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The Tay Landscape Partnership

The Tay Landscape Partnership was the brainchild of David Strachan and Paul McLennan, managers for Perth and Kinross Heritage and Countryside Trusts respectively.  An application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to support 28 projects was successful in 2013 and by 2014 the group were able to begin work on a raft of plans.  Shirley Paterson, who works with the group, gives us an insight into some of the projects they are currently working on.

The River Tay and Kinnoull Hill from the slopes above Newburgh.

The River Tay and Kinnoull Hill from the slopes above Newburgh.

The group basically aims to celebrate and enhance for future generations the landscapes where the rivers Tay and Earn meet. A key principle is to reconnect residents and visitors with the natural, built and cultural heritage of the area.

Water voles

One recent project has really caught the eye. There have long been tantalising reports of remnant water vole populations hidden away in quiet corners of Perthshire’s waterways, but confirmed sightings have been hard to verify.  The group are currently seeking the help of locals and visitors alike to test the rumours and hopefully confirm that lowland Perthshire has these beautiful but elusive creatures.

Water Vole

Water Vole

Results from the survey will help target future management for these mammals.    So, if you think you’ve seen water voles within the Carse of Gowrie, Sidlaw Hills, Perth or lower Strathearn, between Forteviot and Abernethy, then let the Tay Landscape Partnership know. Call Catriona Davies on 01738 475379 or email her at catriona.davies@pkht.org.uk.

Green ambitions

Of course, water voles are only one aspect of the natural heritage that the Tay Landscape Group is interested in. They seek to improve access to a range of natural features and in so doing encourage many more people to learn about their landscape. There is also a desire to provide training opportunities for people in local, traditional skills and in so doing link with public and private investment in Dundee, Perth and Fife, to support sustainable economic development.

The Tay Landscape Partnership also works with the built environment

The Tay Landscape Partnership also works with the built environment

The future plans of Tay Landscape Group are many and varied. They will seek to involve local school children, provide new roost sites for a range of birds, plant over 1,000 trees and focus on creating and improving wildlife corridors. Add to this mix biodiversity surveys, delivering workshops and maintaining an informative website and it is clear that the group have bold ambitions and are set to make a real impact.

 

An apple tree at Port Allan, Carse of Gowrie Orchards

An apple tree at Port Allan, Carse of Gowrie Orchards

You can help the group by joining them as they create wildlife corridors by planting hedges and trees, assist with restoring declining historic orchards or learn about bee keeping, hedge laying and coppicing.

The Tay Landscape Partnership is made up of 28 projects so there’s something for everyone!

For more information about the Tay Landscape Partnership and upcoming events and activities visit www.taylp.org. You can also follow on facebook and twitter.

Images – (c) Lorne Gill / SNH except built environment image which is courtesy and (c) George Logan and water vole (c) Laurie Campbell.

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Arrivals and departures

Craig Nisbet is one of the seasonal rangers working on our Noss National Nature Reserve in Shetland. Today his blog post looks back on July, a particularly active month for the seabird colonies on Noss. Already he has had to say “good-bye” to a few new residents as they set off out to sea from the cliffs.

Guillemot chick maiden voyage

Guillemot chick maiden voyage

Guillemot chicks spend very little time on the cliff. As soon as is possible, they become jumplings; unable yet to fly, but capable only of the daunting leap of faith, following the encouraging calls of their father. Those that survive the intimidating plunge, are quickly led out to sea by their fathers, away from the predation threats closer to land, where they’ll spend as long as three years, before reaching maturity and returning to the sea cliffs to breed themselves.

A more leisurely breeding strategy is adopted by other seabirds. Gannets have been holding territories since April, and their chicks are growing slowly but surely, into large fluffy nestlings. In many cases the adults are eventually pushed to the side of the nest to allow the chicks enough room as they grow into large flightless birds. They will eventually have to take to the wing, but unlike the guillemots, they should be able to make their first flights from their nest sites, hopefully avoiding the long drop to sea.

Gannets

Gannets

Fulmars have been incubating single white eggs for many weeks around the island, and early in July the first chicks were seen. Soon afterward, it appeared that there were fulmar chicks on every cliff; miniature versions of their parents, with the ability to project a foul smelling oily substance toward potential intruders.

The lower levels of the cliffs are occupied by nesting shags. Often tucked away in caves where they are safe from predators, surveying the population can present a challenge and requires boat monitoring work in suitable sea conditions.

The last all-island shag count revealed a minimum of 67 nests, with young either in or near their natal sites, observing the activities of adult shags gathering on rocky headlands at sea level.

Shags.

Shags.

Elsewhere on the island, skuas inhabit much of the grassy moorland, and their young chicks have begun to wander from their nests, as many gull chicks do. The more abundant bonxie (great skua) is found across the island, with scootie alans (Arctic skuas) being marginalised on Noss, to the outer fringes.

Bonxie chick

Bonxie chick

 

Arctic skua chick

Arctic skua chick

The demise of the latter is a sad story locally, but Shetland represents a stronghold for bonxies, whilst the Arctic skua population is relatively stable elsewhere. Both chicks bare little resemblance to their adult form, but both will grow to become opportunistic predators and scavengers. The Arctic skua is often referred to as the pirate of the seabird world, for its persistent pestering of the next species- the tirrick, or Arctic tern.

The relative success of the tern colony on Noss this year indicates good availability of a key food source to many seabird populations- the sandeel. None hatched last year, but with at least 14 fully fledged chicks this year from an estimated 33 nests, we are pleased to report some success again this year.

The adults will soon, set off for their long migration south, where they’ll chase perpetual sunlight all the way to Antarctica. But for now, they are keen to encourage rapid growth of their fledglings in the hope that they too will have the strength and ability to follow them on their epic journey.

Arctic Tern.

Arctic Tern.

Another significant change on Noss is the arrival of our new warden Andy Denton from the Farne Islands in Northumberland, as we bid farewell to Katherine Snell after two-and-a-half seasons. Andy’s experience from working on Farne Islands continues a tradition of wardens moving between the two seabird colonies. His first contribution has been to establish a new Gungstie stick tree, which he hopes will become a haven for passage migrants as the autumn migration season approaches, in the absence of any actual trees to provide significant cover.

Gungstie stick tree

Gungstie stick tree

The new Gungstie stick tree is, I’m sure you will agree, a masterpiece in tree construction!

 

To find out more about Noss National Nature Reserve visit http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/noss/%5B/embed

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A Scots-Orcadian take on Eynhallow

Our guest blogger today is Dr. Simon Hall, who has provided a posting written in Orcadian/Scots. Simon works as a teacher in Orkney and is currently seconded to Education Scotland as Scots Language Coordinator. His piece focuses on the marine environment and in the coming months Simon will be providing blog postings on birds and landscapes.

Broch of Gurness. Orkney.

Broch of Gurness. Orkney.

 

“The local variety o the Scots language here is kent as ‘Orcadian’. Hid’s alive and weel, and there’s no area o language that better demonstrates this than the rich range o words and expressions used in Orcadian tae describe features o the marine environment. Jist tae mak this point, I’d like tae tak ye on an imaginary journey in a sixteen-feet sea dinghy.

“We’ll slip her in the watter at Tingwall in the West Mainland, pull the cord until the auld two-stroke sterts tae rattle and gargle, and head oot north-north-east for the Wyre Skerries. Selikes haal oot on the skerries, and work boats shoot their creels roond here for partans and lapsters.

“There’s some debate aboot the definition o whit a skerry is and whit a holm is. Most folk agree that a skerry is a rock that might or might no ebb dry, and generally doesna grow gress. A holm, on the ither hand, tends tae grow gress and can graze twathree sheep, dependin on the acreage. There are exceptions tae this rule, though, wi skerries in Orkney such as the Pentland Skerries or Auskerry actually bein whit some folk wid call islands. (The Iron Age sheep still kept by some folk in the North Isles o Orkney are kent as ‘Holmies’, because they bide on the holms and feed aff tang in the ebb.)

Tidal rapids at Eynhallow Sound, Orkney,

Tidal rapids at Eynhallow Sound, Orkney,

“If the tide’s ebban we’ll mak good speed doon through Eynhallow Soond tae the Point o Aikerness, whaur folk hiv likely fished fur cuithes since Neolithic times. There’s aye cuithes or sillocks there, fae early summer right through tae December or January, and wi a hand line or a traditional wand ye’ll soon be haalin them in owre the gunwale three or fower at a time. An underrated fish, the cuithe is a bonny olive green above and a creamy white below. The flesh is white. Many o the fish fund in Orkney watters are still kent by Norse names: cuithe or sillock and comper are common fish, and tusk appears fae time tae time in the local shops – hid’s a proper delicacy.

Common seal

Common seals

“At the Point o Aikerness the ebb tide can ramp on at sivven or eight knots. In the grimleens o a summer night the watter eddies roond in muckle great whorls, dark and viscous-lukkan, like used engine oil. In the winter, if there’s westerly wind against the ebb tide, it’ll rise up intae a violent, frothy chabble. When the wind reaches forty knots or so, the sea sterts tae smook.

“Ferder oot Eynhallow Soond, in the tidal nerrows atween the isles o Rousay and Eynhallow and the Burgar shore, there’s the Eynhallow Roost. This is a gey dangerous piece o watter, whaur the powerful ebb runs owre an underwater craig, makkan a standan wave o up tae three or fower metres. If the spring ebb meets a westerly gale the roost can be fearsome, and folk hiv droond in it in livan memory.

“In the middle o summer though, it’s peaceable enough as the sun dips doon bonny at the back o Eynhallow at half-ten at night, reflectin aff the hamars in the Rousay hill. It’s true that ‘the west wind goes tae bed at night’. Time tae turn roond an mak again fur Tingwall, haal the boat up, and get home tae fry the sillocks!”

Images:  Broch of Gurness and Tidal (c) George Logan. Common seal image and rapids at Eynhallow Sound, Orkney (c) Lorne Gill / SNH

 

 

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News from St Cyrus National Nature Reserve

Therese Alampo is Reserve Manager at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve. Here she provides an update on what has been happening on this popular reserve which lies four miles north of Montrose off the A92.

I actually don’t know where to start. I have never in all my life and travels, seen such a magnificent display of wild flowers as beautiful as this year at St Cyrus. It really does take your breath away. As your eyes wander across the dune grasslands there are colorful display of wild marjoram, thyme, clustered bellflower, golden rod and so many more flowers that you are completely taken aback.

Clustered bellflower.

Clustered bellflower.

When you finally catch your breath again it comes back with a gush as your lungs fill with honey scented ladies bedstraw. The sights, smell and the sound of the bees, grasshoppers and other insects are incredible. The combination of a damp, warm, humid spring then a hot sunny summer has obviously been a winning combination. I’d recommend you get down to the reserve immediately before you miss the flowers.

Meadow Grasshopper

Meadow Grasshopper

St Cyrus NNR is an amazing place with a very special microclimate and average temperatures more similar to 300 miles further South. It really does feel like the Mediterranean at the moment. It’s hardly surprising then that we have species that are at their northernmost limit or very uncharacteristic of the surrounding areas. Plants such as Nottingham catchfly (and insect eating plant) and wild liquorice are in evidence, and moths such as the cinnabar whose black and yellow striped caterpillar can be seen munching their way across the ragwort on the reserve at the moment.

Cinnibar moth caterpillars on a Ragwort plant

Cinnibar moth caterpillars on a Ragwort plant

Moths and butterflies are very good at being ‘micro indicators’ of climate change as they are sensitive to changes in climate so monitoring can show species shifting north as it gets warmer and so on.

We have been walking the same route to monitor our butterflies for 22 years at St Cyrus and have gathered great information but I want to draw your attention to the less well known and possibly less loved moths.

A Common Blue butterfly

A common blue butterfly

Moths and butterflies are in the same order of invertebrates called ‘Lepidoptera’ and as some moths fly during the day they are often mistaken for butterflies. My favourite – the hummingbird hawk moth – is often mistaken for a hummingbird! Here at St Cyrus we are privileged to be one of the best sites in Scotland with nearly 500 species of moths and butterflies. Moths are often overlooked as people see them as dull, boring night flying bugs that get stuck in your hair or car radiators. However, most moths are so beautiful, even the brown ones when inspected more closely are gorgeous. And with names like burnished brass, Merville de jour, gold spangle how could anybody not be seduced to their charms ?

St Cyrus used to be famous for its barn owls, wonderful birds of prey with an ethereal quality like no other bird. After many years of absence with the last pair thought to have been killed by the peregrines, they appear to be back and nesting. Perfectly silent whilst they fly through the air with wonderfully adapted ears (one higher then the other) and a face that acts like a flat diamond shaped radio receiver they can locate small items of prey such as mice and voles to the millimeter. Perhaps they have returned because the peregrine have not nested here for a couple of years? Whatever the reason I hope they stay. It’s wonderful to think I may be bumping into these silent ghosts on my evening patrols. Keep your eyes peeled!

St Cyrus National Nature Reserve

St Cyrus National Nature Reserve

The reserve can also boast lions mane jellyfish … there are still a few around so please do be careful as they really do sting. But why are they here and what are they?

Jellyfish are pretty amazing creatures and have roamed the seas for 700 million years making them amongst our oldest animals. They are made of 95% water, and with only very simple bodies. Lions mane are the largest of the jellyfish species and some on the beach have been the size of dustbin lids. But the ‘really’ big ones can have bodies up to 2.3m diameter with tentacles 37m long. They eat zooplankton (mini animals in the water) little fish and other jellyfish. They have a main body (the bell) which they pulsate to enable them to get around and trailing stinging tentacles they use to capture prey.

They act as mini floating oasis for certain types of shrimp and young fish and are one the main food sources for our visiting leatherback turtles, which is why turtles are so desperately vulnerable when there are plastic bags floating in the ocean – they look just like jellyfish (so pick up any bags you find please). The recent warm weather has produced lots of plankton in the sea causing a feeding frenzy and ‘bloom’ of jellies!

I’ll be back to tell you much more about St Cyrus in the coming weeks, but for now I hope the above has given you a flavor of the many delights that await if you make a trip to this fabulous north-eastern reserve.

Restharrow

Restharrow

Further information @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/st-cyrus/

Images (c) Lorne Gill / SNH, except grasshopper which is ©Laurie Campbell/SNH.

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