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.

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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.


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In the south of Scotland – where eagles dare

John Mathew Thompson was brought up in Penicuik, south of Edinburgh. As a youngster, he spent several days raptor watching with the great expert Derek Ratcliffe.


Golden eagle soaring,  L.Campbell

Golden eagle soaring, Laurie Campbell

The news of improving prospects for golden eagles in the south of Scotland is heart-warming. It’s amazing to think we could have up to 16 ranges occupied by these supreme predators. When I was just eight years old, I spent a day with my father and Derek Ratcliffe looking for eagles and peregrines in the south. Derek had written the classic monograph on the peregrine in 1980, and in 1946 had found a golden eagle’s nest in Galloway – the first modern day find of the bird nesting there. Derek visited Galloway annually, with the exception of one year, between 1946 and 2005, and died just days after completing the brilliant New Naturalist volume Galloway and the Borders, published in 2007.


The eagle has landed, Laurie Campbell

In the Moffat Hills we spied a crag where Derek had seen a prospecting male. With a twinkle in his eyes Derek proclaimed eagles would return if left alone and the right management was put in place. I was thrilled by this, and now feel the return of eagles to these parts would be a genuine sign of a healthier environment, and something Derek would be proud of.

Flying high, L.Campbell

Flying high, Laurie Campbell

It is difficult to deny the sense of elusive magic attached to the golden eagle in Scotland – reigning sovereign over wild land. I experience an overwhelming sense of privilege when encountering eagles in their unforgiving environment and am left marvelling at the way this predator has mastered its challenging domain.

Yet, in many ways this is a fabrication, a projection of the observer on to the spectacle, in order to make sense of the species and the environment in human terms. This romantic simplification may in part be why we have overlooked the possibility of the golden eagle in the south of Scotland. But what an exciting prospect it would be to have them back in haunts less than 50 miles from Scotland’s bustling central belt.

Golden eagles feature on pages 16 – 19 of the Autumn / Winter edition of The Nature of Scotland magazine.  For further information take a look at our Golden eagle key facts leaflet and our Naturally Scottish – Raptors booklet.


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Species of the month – red deer

The roar of red deer stags across a Highland glen is one of the most evocative sounds of a Scottish autumn. For many of us who take to the hills at this time of year, hearing that wild sound and perhaps seeing the outlines of a herd silhouetted against a far horizon makes our day on the hill seem complete; the quintessential Scottish wildlife experience, seemingly timeless and eternal. But appearances can be deceptive, for the ecology of this, our largest native land mammal, has been changed beyond all recognition through its interactions with man.

Red deer have been in Scotland for at least the last 10,000 years – the end of the last ice age. But they evolved as a herbivore of the woodland edge, not as an animal of the open hill; they probably became more dependent on open moorland as man felled more and more of the native tree cover of Scotland.

However, it seems red deer never quite lost a penchant for their original habitats: from the 1970s, as commercial afforestation began to significantly build up Scotland’s woodland cover once again, red deer began to cause increasingly serious damage to the new plantations. Tall deer fences are often used to protect the new trees, but these can bring problems of their own – particularly in respect of birds like capercaillie and black grouse, which can be easily killed when they fly into the wires. Large numbers of red deer can also limit the expansion of new native woodlands in Scotland, and potentially affect the biodiversity of valued open habitats.

Man’s reliance on the species goes back a long, long way, even as far as the mesolithic period – as shown by the presence of red deer bones in middens from the west coast island of Oronsay, which may be as much as 6,000 years old. And today red deer are, of course, an important economic asset for many Scottish estates; venison is a source of healthy, low-fat meat from free-ranging animals.

However, red deer have no natural predators left in Scotland, the last Scottish wolves being killed around 300 years ago. This means that red deer numbers need to be managed by man to limit their potential impacts. Most deer control is carried out over the autumn and winter; you can find out more at http://www.snh.gov.uk/land-and-sea/managing-wildlife/managing-deer/

So, perhaps you saw a red deer on the hill today. But can you be sure it really was a red deer? In parts of Scotland – particularly in Argyll – hybrids between red and sika deer have become common, and they’re often very similar in appearance to ‘pure’ reds. Sika deer aren’t native to the United Kingdom, having escaped from collections brought across form Asia. In order to conserve some red deer populations that are as free from sika genes as possible, islands off the west coast of Scotland have been designated as red deer refugia. Today, islands such as Arran, Jura and Rum hold notable populations of red deer.

To some a wilderness icon, to others a tourism asset or an economic resource; sometimes a road traffic hazard, sometimes a woodland pest. Whatever your perspective, there can be few other species in Scotland that mean so many different things to different people.


Further information:  the red deer is one of the iconic species and habitats featured in our Scotland’s Nature app which  is compatible with Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch and can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store.


It also features in our Big 5 app which is supported by a mobile website – you can find this at http://www.scotlandsbig5.co.uk/

Image credits – top image ©BertieGregory/2020VISION, second and third  image ©Laurie Campbell/SNH, Fourth image (c) Lorne Gill/SNH.

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Back from the brink

Kelly Ann Dempsey, an Environmental Project Officer with Angus Council, has been working on rescuing north-east Scotland’s fragmented Small Blue butterfly population. Here she gives us an insight into what is entailed in this kind of work.

Small blue butterfly

Small blue butterfly

The Small Blue is our smallest resident butterfly. Although it can be found from the tip of Northern Scotland right down to the south coast of England, colonies tend to be isolated, with many in coastal locations and numbering fewer than 30 adults.

Along with the rest of the UK, Angus in North East Scotland has suffered butterfly declines, but still has some of those isolated populations of the Small Blue. Surveys looking at the UK’s smallest butterfly have been carried out at locations along our coastline since the late 1970’s and although records of Small Blue are numerous, important data on the distribution of its sole food plant — Kidney Vetch — have been missing.

Kidney Vetch

Kidney Vetch

However, to put that right, since 2012 Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Tayside Biodiversity Partnership have worked together to help annual volunteer surveys of both the butterfly and the host plant along the coastline.

Historical data from Butterfly Conservation, together with Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Natural Heritage survey data from both Seaton Cliffs Local Nature Reserve and St Cyrus NNR, has been used as a starting point to focus survey effort. Other sites along the coast have had anecdotal sightings recorded by local volunteers

The small blue only flies for a short period of time mainly in June and July so that element of the work is quite concentrated. Kidney vetch is also inspected for eggs and larvae. The main focus in the future will be will be understanding the nature of kidney vetch and where possible enhancing its numbers at a small number of carefully chosen sites. More regular, widespread surveying of both species is the most important element.

Fixed point photography may be carried out in the future at some sites to understand fully the variability in kidney vetch plat numbers – year on year sites can fluctuate immensely. Land use, particularly grazing, can have an effect on kidney vetch, as can general plant community succession.

Kidney Vetch

Kidney Vetch


An investigation of land use practices along the coastline has revealed that landowners are receptive to the idea of collaborative restoration works. It is really encouraging that 79% of the landowners approached would consider managing land for wildlife as a priority, especially if practical habitat enhancement works can be funded and implemented by a third party.

It will need a collaborative approach if we are to help dwindling Small Blue numbers. The good news is that during 2014, as an in‐kind contribution to the project, Scotia Seeds arranged with local landowners to collect Kidney Vetch seed and are drying and cleaning the seed in anticipation of the Partnership being able to cultivate. Things are looking hopeful at the moment with a few thousand seeds collected.

In 2015 Butterfly Conservation Scotland and Tayside Biodiversity Partnership will be holding an awareness raising/training day. We would like to have people report anecdotal sighting as in previous years but would also like people to volunteer to monitor their own dedicated survey site. We will also be looking at how we can work with St Cyrus NNR where there is potential to perhaps boost small blue numbers and also revisiting one or two coastal sites where there could be potential but we need experts out on site to survey.

The UK’s smallest butterfly is a popular species, and with a little luck the plans outlined above will help the Scottish population in Angus thrive.


Read more about St Cyrus NNR @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/st-cyrus/

Find out more about Butterfly Conservation Scotland @ http://butterfly-conservation.org/842/scotland.html





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Scotland’s Priority Marine Features – bottlenose dolphins

Priority Marine Features (PMFs) are species and habitats that we consider to be conservation priorities in Scottish waters. Our coasts and seas are home to around 8,000 animal and plant species. The PMF list is used to help target future marine conservation work in Scotland.

In the first of a series of posts focusing on PMFs, Ben James from our marine team zooms in on perhaps the most iconic species on the list.

You’re most likely to see a dolphin display at Chanonry Point if you time your visit to catch a rising tide. As the tide rolls in the dolphins are frequently seen in numbers here, chasing salmon and generally having what looks like a lot of fun.

Dolphin with salmon

Dolphin with salmon

The marine team recently received a new camera lens for use on future surveys and I could think of no better way to test it out than by snapping dolphins. As I was doing this in my own time, the deal was that I would share the best of the photos taken with you!

Leaping dolphin

Leaping dolphin

Based in Inverness we are lucky to be just a short journey away from Chanonry Point, on the Black Isle, which is without doubt one of the best places in the UK to see dolphins. The Moray Firth is home to the world’s most northerly resident population of bottlenose dolphins and if you time it right, you can marvel at these beautiful mammals from just a few metres away. Sometimes it seems as though they are putting on a display expressly to entertain the small group of wildlife watchers who have gathered on the pebble beach to see them.

Close to shore

Close to shore

Chanonry Point falls within the Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation (SAC), an EU designation for its sandbanks, as well as the bottlenose dolphin population. The Moray Firth population is isolated and, because dolphins can live a long time and reproduce slowly, it’s potentially vulnerable in such a busy firth. The population is also relatively small: around 200 individuals are thought to live off the east coast of Scotland, stretching from the Moray Firth to Fife and further south. Some of the dolphins in the population travel along the coast between these different areas. Recent research found that over 50% of the population use the SAC at some point in the year.

Juvenile with adult

Juvenile with adult

The SAC designation ensures that the various activities in the firth are managed to avoid significant disturbance to the dolphins. The dolphins are a big tourist attraction, generating around £4m for the local economy, so looking after them is not only good for the dolphins, it’s also good for us.

A tourist attraction

A tourist attraction

Several boat operators offer trips out to see the dolphins and other wildlife in the area. Those who follow the best practice guidelines set out in the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code can become accredited by the Moray Firth’s Dolphin Space Programme.

Bottlenose dolphins can also be found off Scotland’s west coast. Elsewhere in Europe the species is scarcer, so we also have an international duty to protect those living in our seas.

Juveniles having fun

Juveniles having fun

Bottlenose dolphins around the UK are special: not only are they at the northern limit of their range, they are also considerably larger than those found in other parts of the world. The dolphins put on quite a show when I went to try out the lens and it was great to see some new additions to group – I was lucky to get a couple of shots of these juveniles as they played.

You can find my dolphin photos on our Flickr page, together with a few hundred other marine life photos that we’ve taken on surveys over the years. All of our Flickr photos can be downloaded freely for any non-commercial use and you can find out more about Scotland’s Priority Marine Features on our website.

Coming up for air

Coming up for air

All photos courtesy of Ben James, © SNH.

Posted in biodiversity, Marine, Nature and technology, photography, Priority Marine Features, Protected Areas, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Beautiful Scotland – a bird’s eye view

Regular readers of our blog might have noticed a recurring theme of nature and technology. So, when we saw freelance filmmaker John Duncan’s short film, Beautiful Scotland, a stunning product of this relationship, we asked John to say a few words about the making of his film for Scotland’s Nature.

Wherever we live in Scotland, be it in Edinburgh as I do, down in Dumfries or up in Inverness, we’re fortunate to have some truly magnificent sites on our doorstep.

lighthouse - John duncanOver the last eight months or so I’ve been putting together shots for my aerial show reel, Beautiful Scotland. This has involved traveling around the country and getting up at offensively early times to catch the best light. I wanted to make a film which really shows what a beautiful country Scotland is and I’ve been utterly blown away the past few days at the response to it. Social media has enabled me to very quickly share the video with a wide audience and it’s also allowed people to instantly give me their feedback.

tentLight was a very important factor when making the film. I found a great website called Suncalc, which projects a chart onto Google Maps showing the angle at which the sun will rise at specific times. This was really helpful when planning where I needed to be and when. Walkhighlands was a great resource for researching routes up into the hills and fortunately the Met Office weather forecasts were pretty much spot on, so there weren’t too many wasted trips.

suncalcThe film was shot using a quite incredible Quadcopter, a DJI Phantom 2, with a GoPro 3+. Before I could use it for commercial purposes, I had to get my Civil Aviation Authority unmanned aircraft qualification, known as a BNUC-s. The CAA regards Quadcopters as aircraft but they are more commonly known as drones.

DroneThe Quadcopter allowed me to get incredible shots that would otherwise be impossible. Due to its size it has the ability to reach places impossible for a full sized helicopter. The drone has a flight time of 15 minutes and with the GoPro on a stabilised gimbal, it remains totally smooth even with the wind. From the ground I am able to see what the camera is filming and other information, such as battery life, distance from take-off and speed.

Scotland 25.Still008Making this film has been an incredible experience and most of the shots involved some kind of adventure: from camping on top of Sgurr a’ Mhaim as the sun sets, driving overnight to Skye’s Old Man of Stor to catch the sun rise and stomping through fields, chasing after the Jacobite Steam Train. The film also includes shots of the magnificent Kelpies, the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the Wallace Monument in Stirling, Ben Nevis, Dunbar, Rannoch Moor, and some closer to my home in Edinburgh.

Click on the image below to watch the film. I really hope you like it and if you want to leave feedback, or if you have any burning questions, you’ll find a way to contact me here.


Posted in National Nature Reserves, Nature and technology, Nature in art, photography, Protected Areas, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,