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

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

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 @

Find out more about Butterfly Conservation Scotland @





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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.

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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.


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Species of the month – Scots pine

More than any other tree, the Scots pine gives some of Scotland’s oldest Highland woods their distinctive appearance. The dark green of its canopy and the orange-brown of the trunks are part of that beauty. So, too, is the way that individual trees, given space, develop unique shapes.

Ancient scots pine forest and the River Feshie, Glenfeshie

Ancient scots pine forest and the River Feshie, Glenfeshie

The common name of our finest native conifer is, as it turns out, rather misleading: it’s actually the world’s most widely distributed cone-bearing tree. The world range of Scots pine stretches from above the Arctic Circle to southern Spain from north to south, and from Scotland to the Pacific coast of Siberia from west to east. In Scotland it’s as happy growing on sandy, well-drained soils as it is on damp, acidic slopes, so you might find it growing pretty much anywhere away from the Western and Northern Isles – although a few have been planted in these areas.

Scots pine is the only native conifer in Britain that’s grown commercially for timber. But the extensive plantations now found around the Moray Firth are just the latest aspect of man’s exploitation of this tree. As far back as the 17th century the extensive native pinewoods of the Highlands started to be logged; in the 18th century the felling picked up speed, largely to support a burgeoning ship-building industry near the mouth of the Spey. To get the trunks to the shipyard, teams of men from Strathspey – the ‘Spey Floaters’ – would guide rafts of large logs down the river, in a tricky journey of around 80 km.

Native pinewoods now cover around 17,000 hectares of Scotland – perhaps just 1% of the area they originally occupied. Despite their limited extent, these remaining old-growth stands of ‘Caledonian Forest’ form some of our most cherished landscapes, as well as being hotspots for biodiversity. Today, you can explore these ancient woodlands around the Cairngorms National Park, at Beinn Eighe, in Glen Affric, and in the Black Wood of Rannoch.

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) boughs at dusk, Beinn Eighe NNR

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) boughs at dusk, Beinn Eighe NNR

Individual Scots pine trees can vary tremendously in size and shape, largely depending on their age and whether they are growing in a plantation or in a more natural woodland setting with wider-spaced trunks. From a distance in a native woodland, look for a tree with a flat or dome-shaped crown of bottle-green needles. The crown shape varies a great deal, depending on how much storm damage the tree has withstood over the years. Ones with quite irregular, but fairly flat, tops can be popular as nesting places for ospreys. Close up, look for bark that appears to be made up from small, jigsaw-like pieces. Needles are long and thin and grow in pairs, while cones are egg-shaped, ending in a point.

Scots pine flowers, Wolfhill, Perthshire.

Scots pine flowers, Wolfhill, Perthshire.

As the ‘flagship’ tree of the Caledonian forest, Scots pine has been the focus of much conservation work over many decades. The locations and extent of surviving ancient pinewoods have been mapped and described, plans have been put in place to help them and action has been taken to benefit both old and new pinewoods. For instance, in Glenmore and Glen Affric, national bodies have removed large areas of non-native trees to provide new ground for Scots pines and other native trees to colonise. The work of conservation groups, including extensive planting in areas enclosed by fences around Glen Affric, has also boosted pine cover. And elsewhere, reductions in the number of red deer (whose grazing can kill tree seedlings and saplings, especially in winter) has benefited old woodland areas.


Further reading @



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Good news from Islay as chough population grows

A nutritious supper for fledglings is helping to prevent the loss of one of Scotland’s rarest resident breeding birds. Rae McKenzie from our Bowmore office on Islay explains.

Scotland’s red-billed chough population is restricted to the islands of Islay and Colonsay off Scotland’s west coast and has been in serious decline for several years now. Only 39 breeding pairs were counted on Islay in 2013, compared with 95 breeding pairs in 1986.

Conservationists from Islay and Aberdeen University who had been studying Islay’s chough population noticed that the problem seemed to be a poor survival rate for young choughs. Few birds were managing to survive the two to three year period from when they leave the nest as fledglings through to adulthood.

A group of choughs on Islay

A group of choughs on Islay

To try to help them through these difficult early years and halt the population decline, we’ve been working with the Scottish Chough Study Group and local farmers to provide additional food for the young birds. For the last three seasons, the young choughs have been provided with an additional mealworm snack at their pre-roost feeding areas, before they go to their communal roosts at night.

In 2014 we’ve started to see the benefits of this work. An Islay-wide census of choughs carried out in collaboration with the Scottish Chough Study Group and the RSPB, as part of a wider survey including England, Wales and the Isle of Man, counted 46 breeding pairs. This includes several new pairs of young adults which we have been feeding at the sites during the project.

Islay is also now home to a healthy flock of 40 young choughs, something that’s been missing from the population in recent years. These young adults will be available to breed in coming years.

Chough art, by Claire Hewitt

In the long-term, providing food in this way cannot substitute for better management of Islay’s special habitats, so that a healthy population of choughs can support itself. But, in the shorter term, by providing food we can help make sure that the chough population remains viable and these enigmatic birds retain their rightful place as an important and attractive part of Scotland’s birdlife.

Longer term habitat management to benefit chough is being encouraged through Scottish Rural Development Programme options designed specifically for chough habitats. A number of farmers on Islay are participating in this scheme and the future is beginning to look brighter for Scotland’s choughs.

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