The value of ivy

Ivy flowers late in the year in November and December, which is a huge benefit to a range of insects (including honeybees) who welcome the rich nectar supply at a time when few other plants are flowering. Sarah Smyth, an Ecosystems & Biodiversity Adviser for Scottish Natural Heritage, explains.

Ivy covered oak trees in Cleghorn Glen near Lanark, Clyde Valley Woods

Ivy covered oak trees in Cleghorn Glen near Lanark, Clyde Valley Woods

The rich insect life attracted to flowering ivy in turn attracts small mammals and birds when they are trying to put on reserves for the winter.  Ivy provides a great home for lots of insects and animals as it provides shelter from frost and hiding places safe from predators.  For example, it provides sheltered roosting and nesting sites for small birds such as robins and wrens.

Red Admiral feeding on Ivy flowers

Red Admiral feeding on Ivy flowers

Ivy is a native species and an important part of a woodland ecosystem.  It has an unfair reputation for choking and killing trees;  this is not true, the ivy will grow up the outside of the tree using it for nothing other than support.  The only time ivy can become a problem is when a tree is old or damaged. Deadwood is a very important habitat too (particularly standing deadwood)  and one very rarely found in an urban setting.

Ivy is often considered a festive species, like mistletoe. Ivy is not a parasitic species though, so it does not depend on the host tree. The plant is supported by an independent root system that does not compete with the huge network of tree roots, which have the ability to spread further and deeper than ivy.  There is a school of thought that suggests that Ivy will actually protect walls of buildings that are in good condition, reducing weathering effects and exposure to temperature extremes.  It will penetrate into vulnerable areas, however, such as cracks.

Slate roof and climbing ivy

Slate roof and climbing ivy

 Further reading:

Images: (c) Lorne Gill / SNH except red admiral butterfly (c David Whitaker).


Posted in biodiversity, Birds, Flowers, Insects | Tagged , , ,

Species of the month – red squirrel

Having recently moved house from the country into town, I’ve just seen my first red squirrel foraging for beach nuts under the trees across the road. And I’m delighted! I studied red squirrels as a student and am still involved in conservation work to protect them, but to see them in our towns and cities is still a real treat.

Red squirrel climbing down the trunk of a Scots pine tree.  ©Lorne Gill

Red squirrel climbing down the trunk of a Scots pine tree. ©Lorne Gill

In our Big 5 campaign last year the ‘Tufted acrobat’ was voted as the public’s second favourite species. I think they are a favourite with many because they’re active during the day, unlike many other mammals, and we are still fortunate in being able to see them in woodlands across large parts of the country.

The main populations are in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll, Perthshire, Angus, Highland and Grampian. Highland is the only region that currently has red squirrels but no grey squirrels.

This Big 5 map provides some ideas of  good places to see red squirrels:

Autumn is a time when squirrels are said to gather their nuts and they do, but red squirrels are scatter hoarders. This means they store food for the winter and spring by burying it across the area where they live rather than in a single cache or midden. They do this to prevent it being squirreled away by other animals, including birds, mice or other squirrels, or from rotting on the ground.

Red squirrel jumping.  ©Pete Cairns/2020VISION

Red squirrel jumping. ©Pete Cairns/2020VISION

However, in conifer forests, they feed on the small seeds contained within the cones and these tend to stay on the trees for much longer and hence the squirrels can forage in the canopy at their leisure; hence these trees form a natural larder.

Heading towards winter and colder weather red squirrels will be at their bushiest, donning their winter coats and crinkly ear tufts. Their daily activity pattern shrinks towards the middle and the warmest part of the day, but contrary to some beliefs, they do not hibernate.

Red squirrel at woodland pool, Scotland, November 2011. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Red squirrel at woodland pool, Scotland, November 2011. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Squirrel nests, or dreys, are also important for keeping them warm in the winter. Dreys are made of bundles of twigs and lined with moss, leaves, needles and bark. One study in Scandinavia estimated the difference in temperate inside the drey was 20-30o above the ambient temperatures of -5o. Dreys can be used by several squirrels normally over a period of time, but occasionally at the same time.

Red squirrel (c) Shelley Shipton-Knight

Red squirrel (c) Shelley Shipton-Knight

But our red squirrels are under threat from grey squirrels – both due to competition for food and from the spread of disease. Squirrelpox virus does not obviously affect grey squirrels, but is carried by them and if passed to red squirrels is normally fatal. Hence we have been concerned that grey squirrels will continue to replace red squirrels as they have in central Scotland and much of England and Wales.

However, with the help of gamekeepers, foresters, local communities, volunteers, and with co-ordination from the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels Project, red squirrels appear to be holding their own and in some places making a come-back.

Red squirrels are now being regularly seen in Aberdeen city, the Annan valley in Dumfriesshire and parts of the Borders, where their numbers had dramatically declined in recent years. The targeted work to remove grey squirrels looks to be creating the conditions to allow red squirrels to reclaim their past haunts. This work will need to continue into the future, but the results give us more optimism that seeing red squirrels gathering their nuts will be a pleasure many of us can continue to enjoy.

Final squirrel photo: (c) Shelley Shipton-Knight (SSRS facebook site)

On the SNH website:

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels links:

Posted in biodiversity, photography, Projects, Species of the month | Tagged , , , ,

Drones and environmental mapping

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or ‘drones’ are a rapidly evolving area of technology with many potential applications from intelligence gathering to delivering Amazon orders.   However, they also have clear environmental applications and here Duncan Blake, SNH’s lead analyst on remote sensing advice, explains how they can help in monitoring our natural heritage.

UAVs offer several advantages over traditional remote sensing platforms (aircraft and satellites). They can be deployed rapidly and regularly which allows repeat surveys of dynamic environments at low cost. They can fly lower so are less affected by cloud (in fact on cloudy days shadows are less of a problem) and can collect much higher resolution imagery.

They also have a much lower carbon footprint than a larger aircraft. On the other hand strong winds and rain can be a problem and Civil Aviation Authority regulations limit the use of UAVs to within 500 metres of the operator.

The products they can provide include traditional aerial photography, infrared aerial photography which is invaluable for vegetation mapping and monitoring and detailed Digital Surface Models (DSMs) derived from overlapping aerial images.

SNH is investigating their potential in a number of areas by assessing images being provided by EagleiSystems in Dundee.

The first of these is coastal change assessment. Some parts of the Scottish coastline are very dynamic, especially with the growing impact of climate change, so predicting how they may change is crucial for planning protection or mitigation measures.

One such example is the dunes north of St. Andrews, which have been managed by a local partnership. Episodic erosion is being managed by beach feeding, where by sand is moved from plentiful areas to areas of sediment scarcity. Repeated topographic surveying is essential to inform where and when to take sand.

A sample image of part of the area is shown below. In this case each individual pixel is less than 1cm in size.

The second image has an overlaid DSM which has been created from the overlapping aerial imagery. This will allow us to plot the location of the current Mean High Water Spring line. Monitoring this over time lets us see the direction and rate of coastal erosion or accretion.

This winter SNH hopes to trial whether the technology can also provide efficiencies in monitoring deer populations. These surveys are better carried out in the winter months to minimise the effects of forest cover and because deer can be more readily isolated against a snow backdrop.




Posted in Research | Tagged , , ,

Natural bookshelf

Tweet of the Day was a hugely popular BBC Radio 4 production that went out just before 6am each morning. In a brief 90-second programme the essence of a different bird was captured in song and narration. Listeners would hear the bird singing and a little bit of narrative about the bird, often delivered by a celebrity.

Now captured in book format, the paper version doesn’t deviate too far from that successful formula. Obviously the printed book lacks the audio, but the short, sharp summaries of each species are beautifully crafted, and the illustrations by Carry Akroyd are simply stunning. Compiled by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss this is a wonderful addition to any nature book shelf but particular for those with an interest in birds.

All of the Scottish classics like crossbill, crested tit, golden eagle are there and much, much more besides.  This is a book that is equally enjoyable whether you read it cover to cover or simply dip in and out as a species grabs your attention.

Whilst Tweet of the Day looks at over 200 birds, H is for Hawk is essentially a one bird study. Nonetheless it is very interesting and wide ranging read about a single species – the goshawk – and the myths and assumptions that lie behind a fabulous raptor. The author – Helen Macdonald – has been recently bereaved and as she comes to terms with life without her father seeks to train a goshawk. Despite having had a life-long interest in falconry, she had previously shied away from this particularly challenging hawk. However, when she does acquire a goshawk she gains an intimate insight into the world of one of our most spectacular birds of prey. There is inevitably a lot of detail about other elements of nature and the writing is hugely enjoyable.

Otters Return to the River

Otters are the subject of a beautifully produced book by Birlinn titled ‘Otters, Return to the River’. Featuring the superb photographs of Laurie Campbell and the telling words of Anna Levin the book is not only a study of the otter but of the work of one of Scotland’s leading and best-loved natural history photographers. Laurie has been following the fortunes of otters on the River Tweed for a few decades now and his admiration for these engaging mammals shows through very clearly in his wonderful images. One of Laurie’s strengths is his desire to portray the wildlife on his doorstep, and around Scotland, and his superb field craft and eye for a picture are now finely tuned. It shows in this lovely book.

Finally for younger readers Can’t Dance Cameron is a great tale to get toddlers interested in nature. Set in the Cairngorms National Park the book introduces youngsters not only to the Capercaillie and the lek, but also to red squirrels, pine martens and wildcats. Without wishing to spoil the story, Cameron the Capercaillie can’t dance which is unfortunate as his family, the MacFeathers are the best dancers in the Cairngorms but sadly, when Cameron wiggles everyone giggles. Cameron meets a new friend, a red squirrel called Hazel Nut who takes him on a journey through the forest. Lovingly illustrated this is a fine example of how children can be subtly charmed by the wonders of nature and that not all stories need to feature overseas exotica.

With winter nights approaching there are clearly some good reads out there … regardless of age.


Posted in Natural history books | Tagged , , , , , ,

What has nature ever done for us ?

Ewen Cameron is an Operations Manager in our Tayside and Grampian team and descended from many generations of farming folk. Here he talks about how we can help nature locally and in so doing help ourselves and future generations.

If you have ever watched the film, The Life of Brian, you will recall the conspiratorial scene when the question is asked – “What have the Romans ever done for us?”   Starting from the assumption that they have always been the losers, the conspirators gradually realise that they have actually done quite well from the Romans.   Our relationship with nature has some similarities to that comedy routine.

Often, we only see the ‘bad’ side of our wildlife and natural processes.   Many people dislike (or even ‘hate’) animals like foxes because they will take a lamb or a chicken or two; forgetting they also take lots more rabbits, mice and rats.   I grow strawberries in my garden, but I don’t mind the blackbirds eating some.   They eat a lot more slugs and leatherjackets; all in all I get just as much out of that relationship as the birds do.   Farming, forestry and fishing get far more out of Nature than they ‘lose’ to it.

2020V poster - farmland

So before we complain, or even go so far as killing wildlife or trying to control these natural processes, we should think it through.   We may get a short-term gain; but what will it cost us, our children and grandchildren in the longer term.   Rather than just look at the superficial effects, it is always worth looking at things a bit more deeply.

A few years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage and the comedian Phil Kay produced a short video entitled – Biodiversity begins with a Bee – which you can still see on YouTube  The video introduces the idea that despite all its sophistication, modern society is still very dependent on the natural world.

Most of us know (or do we?), that much of what we eat depends on nature giving food producers a ‘helping hand’ – pollination by bees and other insects is probably the best known example of this and is reckoned to be worth about £43 million a year to the Scottish economy.   In fact there is now a bit of jargon to describe Nature’s philanthropy and our continuing dependence on it – ‘Ecosystem Services’.   Much as we all bemoan jargon, it has a place and can be useful shorthand for ideas and processes that would take up lots of space if written out in full every time.

Like the conspirators in The Life of Brian, if you give it some time, I have no doubt you will be able to think of lots more instances where, despite all our modern technology, we are still very dependent on these Ecosystem Services.   If it wasn’t for lots of beetles, fungi, red kites and other scavengers dealing with everything from cowpats to dead rabbits; what would your countryside walk and the daily work of farmers and foresters be like?   Permanently knee deep in all sorts of dead and decomposing stuff!!

2020V poster - forest

Without a range of micro-organisms, sewage treatment simply wouldn’t work and without natural fungi, bacteria, earthworms and goodness knows what else in the soil, agricultural production would be a tiny fraction of what it is.

The decline in our native bees has led to some 45,000 bee colonies being imported to the UK every year for the pollination of greenhouse and field crops like tomatoes, peas and strawberries.   The financial cost of this importing is known – £4-5 million a year, but what about the less obvious costs.

Studies have shown that a significant number of these ‘imports’ carry parasites which can affect local honeybees and bumblebees.   Is that not an argument for a little more space being given over to restoring the habitat of native bees on farms and in the countryside generally, rather than running the risks and incurring the cost that go with importing?   In recent times we have seen the consequences of pests and diseases arriving in the UK.   The first confirmed UK case of Chalera dieback in ash trees was found in a consignment of infected trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire.   The financial cost of control is likely to be high, but we still don’t know what the longer term will bring for ash in the Scottish landscape.

Of course we cannot make Scotland a biological fortress, the wind, climate change, the migration of wildlife and movement of people will also bring us new pests and diseases.   When we look at changes in the way we manage our land, wouldn’t it make sense to consider all the costs and benefits of the actions we take.   The obvious action may be a cheaper option for us today – but will our children and grandchildren see it as a choice wisely made?   They may be left with all of the costs and none of the benefits.

In recent times, flooding has been a very emotive issue in the UK.   While there may be a case for dredging some watercourses, it’s also worth asking the question – where does all the sediment that blocks these watercourses come from?   Could something be done to prevent the sediment getting into the watercourses in the first place?

2020V poster - river

A few years ago the James Hutton Institute did some research on potato fields in Angus and estimated 80 tonnes of soil was washed off a 17 hectare field after the potatoes were lifted. That quantity of soil was also estimated to contain 60 – 70 kilograms of phosphorus; a vital crop nutrient in the fields, but a major pollutant to wildlife and fisheries in our lochs and rivers.

This explains why many people campaign for the wider use of buffer strips of natural vegetation because they provide an ecosystem service by trapping soil that might otherwise end up in watercourses.   The buffer strips are a loss to the farmer in terms of cropping land, but they are also a great benefit to the farmer and many others.   The farmer finds less soil (surely his or her most basic asset) washing down the ditches, burns and rivers, where it blocks drains and can cause flooding far and wide.

Urban dwellers have also contributed to these problems.   More and more development produces more and more non-porous surfaces of roads, hard standings, forecourts, and car parks, all of which mean rain gets into drains and then into watercourses much more quickly than if it filters through soil or gravel.   How many people do you know who have tarred over their driveway or part of their garden? It’s certainly easier to maintain, but creates a cost we all ultimately bear. Now multiply that by many thousands and you have a vast volume of water sloshing into drains and watercourses and rapidly raising the water level and overtopping the banks.

2020V poster. Urban greenspacepsd

Porous gravel driveways, bogs, forests and well vegetated riverbanks and burnsides all mean that much more rainwater takes the long route via the soil into watercourses so the rise in water levels is much slower.   In all such cases we have opted for the cheap, short term benefit without seriously considering the much wider and longer term costs and consequences.   If you’ve ever been flooded out of your house – you’ll know exactly what I mean.   So keep your gravel driveway and parking spot and you will be helping reduce the risk of flash flooding.   Yes, peat is good for your garden, but is probably much better left in the bog where it acts like a giant sponge and reduces the risks of flooding.   And of course an intact bog can extract and store vast amounts of carbon, the main component of the greenhouse gases we continue to pump into the atmosphere as if there was no tomorrow.

2020V poster. Bog

None of us can claim to have been great custodians of the natural world, but it’s not too late to mend our ways; to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions and make some small changes that will help make our children’s future a bit less bleak.   This article can’t give you all the details, but is just trying to prick your conscience.   Google ecosystem services and you’ll get lots of advice on what you can do to make a difference.

Remember – if you’re not taking part in securing the solution, you really are part of the problem.   If everyone who reads this article left a little more space for Nature on their farm, in their garden, on their allotment, in their local park, in their woodland or school grounds – we will all be repaid a thousand times over.   That sounds like a bargain to me.

Acknowledgement – this article first appeared in Leopard magazine.

Posted in biodiversity | Tagged , , , , , ,

Tentsmuir NNR – an inspiration for artists and scientists

Today we hear from Tom Cunningham, our Reserve Manager at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. Having worked at Tentsmuir for 17 years, few people know the reserve as well as Tom. Here he updates us on the work of  the reserve’s 2013 Artist in Residence and some recent arrivals on the NNR.

The brilliant, award-winning wildlife artist Derek Robertson was appointed Artist in Residence at Tentsmuir NNR for Year of Natural Scotland 2013. It seems as though he hasn’t stopped painting, sketching, teaching, talking and exhibiting ever since.

Swell evening. Painting of eider ducks - Derek Robertson

Swell evening. Painting of eider ducks – Derek Robertson

I recently attended the opening of an exhibition celebrating the collaborative efforts of all the people who worked with Derek on Tentsmuir last year. During his residency Derek initiated a Art-Science Project, which brought together scientists and artists to be inspired by the reserve and its wildlife. These collaborations resulted in a varied range of artwork, including poetry and paintings, photography and storytelling.

At the exhibition opening Derek talked about his year on the reserve, his work and the honour he felt it was to be the Artist in Residence. In my introduction, I summed it up by saying it was definitely one of the best things I had managed to bring to the Reserve. Dr Jim Stewart, Poet and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee, recited a poem which had inspired one of Derek’s paintings, about a red squirrel that managed to bite the author.

Inspired by the poem “Squirrel” by James Stewart

Inspired by the poem “Squirrel” by James Stewart

The exhibition, Between Tides: Riddles of Tentsmuir, runs until December 13th at the University of Dundee’s Lamb Gallery. See below for more upcoming talks and exhibitions by Derek.

Coming home to roost

Pink-footed geese have arrived on the reserve for winter. We’ve around 1200 roosting at Tentsmuir, relatively small numbers compared to further north at the Montrose Basin and west towards Loch Leven. At Tentsmuir Point, common scoter and eider duck numbers are increasing, ringed and grey plovers have been observed and gannets are a regular sight. Beautiful red-throated divers are on the reserve, but I’ve only seen six lately.

Sea eagle on the shore- Derek Robertson

Sea eagle on the shore – Derek Robertson

Of course the UK’s largest bird of prey can be seen on the reserve, the white-tailed sea eagle, with one chick also around. However, for some reason sightings have been less frequent than last year when I was seeing them almost every day. Along Tayport Heath the birds are piling into feed along the mudflats of the Tayport Bay area, which is always a big draw when the tide is out. And at Morton Lochs the red squirrels can be easily seen around the feeders at the squirrel hide.

Upcoming talks and exhibitions by Derek Robertson

1 November  – Some Lines on a Landscape: A workshop in the Lamb Gallery in which Derek and Jim Stewart will give an insight into their science/art project at Tentsmuir NNR.

7 November – Tentsmuir: A nature-themed lecture by Derek at the Perth Museum & Art Gallery.

25 November – An artist in residence at Tentsmuir: Derek will talk about his work on Tentsmuir as part of a lecture series organised by the Dundee Naturalists’ Society, in the Tower Building, University of Dundee.

Posted in Birds, National Nature Reserves, Nature in art, Projects, Protected Areas, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A dangerous combination: dusk, deer and driving

As the clocks turned back this weekend, few of us who enjoyed the hour of sleep we gained  will have thought about being plunged into darkness for our commute home on Monday.

But those extra hours of darkness, coinciding with many of our drives to work or home as the nights get longer, can be dangerous. Accidents between deer and vehicles peak in Scotland between October and December. At this time of year, deer move down to lower ground for shelter and to feed on grass verges at the side of the road. The highest risk time of day is from sunset to midnight and shortly before and after sunrise.

Because of this, you’ll see some warning signs on Scottish trunk roads for the next three weeks, starting today, asking you to be alert for deer on the road.

The most recent deer-vehicle collisions research shows there are more than 7000 collisions between motor vehicles and deer every year in Scotland, with an average of 65 of these resulting in human injuries. The combined economic value of these accidents, through human injuries and significant damage to vehicles, is £7 million. Across the UK, it’s estimated there are between 42,000 and 74,000 deer-vehicle related accidents a year, resulting in 400 to 700 human injuries and about 15 deaths, with an annual cost approaching £47m.

Deer in mist at sunrise. ©Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Deer in mist at sunrise.
©Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Many people think most accidents with deer happen on remote Highland roads, but up to 70 percent actually take place on trunk roads or motorways. And when traffic volume is taken into consideration, the risk of a collision with a deer is about twice as high per vehicle-mile driven in Scotland compared to England.

So how do you avoid being one of these statistics? Here are some tips from the experts:


  • Slow down and watch for deer crossing roads at dusk and dawn.
  • Be particularly alert if you’re driving near woods, as deer can suddenly appear before you have time to brake.
  • If you do see deer, try not to swerve suddenly to avoid hitting them. A collision into oncoming traffic could be even worse.
  • Only brake sharply and stop if there is no danger of being hit by following or oncoming traffic. Try to come to a stop as far away from the deer as possible to allow them to leave the roadside without panic, and use your hazard warning lights.
  • Be aware that more deer may cross after the one or two you first see, as deer often travel in groups.
  • After dark, use full-beams when there is no oncoming traffic, as this will illuminate the eyes of deer on or near a roadway and give you more time to react. But dim your headlights when you see a deer or other animal on the road so you don’t startle it.
  • If you do hit a deer, report it to the police, because the deer may be fatally injured and suffering. The police will contact the local person who can best help with the injured deer. Do not approach an injured deer yourself, as it may be dangerous.


Posted in Projects | Tagged , , , , , ,