John Sawyer (1st November 1968 – 6th November 2015)

Today (25 November) is John Sawyer’s funeral and gathering in his remembrance.


John Sawyer

Some people, at the end of their lives, have obituaries written and waiting for that moment. But when the end is unexpected at the early age of 47, no one is ready. John, who all too briefly was Chief Executive of the National Biodiversity Network Trust, delivered a shock to all who knew him when, a couple of painful weeks ago, he suffered a terminal massive heart attack after a day botanising in the woods of Mull that he adored.

It is only a little more than a year since I first met John. But in that time he became important to me. He was a joyful person to be with; a man of commitment and principal; a gentle and humorous individual; a man who, looking to lead, sought cooperation and guidance, but held close to a clear view of what he wanted to do and why.

Looking through social media at the many condolences and memories written about him, one word stands out. That word is “inspirational”. It was his ability to define his goal and commit to its delivery that justifies that word. “If you expect people to get ready to come with you”, he said, “then put on your boots and open the door”.

He wanted those who prize nature and make and share their observations about it to work together. Taken together their evidence underpins and justifies the social and economic changes we need to make. The most powerful thing these people can do, he argued, is to make their information freely available and to collaborate through the most effective means available to bring their evidence to the attention and understanding of everybody else. What is needed, he said, is for all that evidence to be a treasure trove; not a hoard! Even now, I can hear his voice passionately and patiently (an unusual combination) explaining the ethical inconsistency of those who wish greater care for nature but inhibit the open release of information, so preventing the widest analysis and communication of what is happening.

Such common sense is important because it is radical. Currently, data are commonly inaccessible or guarded, protected or, indeed, priced. Furthermore, information is often (usually) presented in ways that make it impenetrable to most of us. It could be revolutionary if all data gatherers collaborated in delivering open data, and in presenting it in accessible and enticing ways.

John’s legacy is that, in his brief time, he did a lot to bring that about. The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) has always been an organisation drawing together the national and local societies that record wildlife (including SNH and the other country agencies) and engage in what increasingly is known as “citizen science”. But, John began to forge these disparate bodies into a closer community with the Outer Hebrides Biological Recording Group, for example, seeing more eye to eye than ever before with the likes of the British Trust for Ornithology and bodies such as SNH – and certainly, all feeling more common purpose in, and ownership of, the NBN. And, his work to transform the access to, and presentation of data, through the Atlas of Living Scotland (imminently to be followed by similar atlases for Wales and Northern Ireland – and hopefully England too) shows how dramatically and quickly progress can be made in opening up data sources and making them accessible and meaningful to a wider audience.

Before landing back in Scotland, John spent close to two decades in New Zealand from where some of his “edgy” style of leadership might have derived. He knew the road he wanted to travel challenged a lot of the core beliefs of many of the groups he had to work with. But like the New Zealand “All Blacks” in their style of rugby – which he much admired – John’s stance was based in self-belief, careful attention to detail and perhaps most importantly on dependency and trust in a team with a shared strategy, commitment and vision. His small secretariat became the core of that team, but bit by bit was joined by member after member of the Trust too.

As a trustee of the NBN I share his vision and I know that SNH, too, is committed to its delivery. The Scottish piloting of the first “Atlas of Living” in the UK is testament to that. It will continue to be part of what we do to conserve and enhance Scotland’s natural heritage and further its understanding and enjoyment.

But our heart goes out to John’s partner, Karlene, their expected child and their wider family. They have lost far more than we have.

Roddy Fairley

Posted in Obituary, Research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Fern Scotland

We’re asking for your views on 85 proposed Gaelic names for ferns and associated species found in Scotland.

Polypody ferns growing on the trunk of an oak tree at Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR

Polypody ferns growing on the trunk of an oak tree at Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR

Some of the plant names are well-established and familiar to Gaelic speakers, and we’ve proposed names for other species that don’t have a known Gaelic title. We’ve also suggested preferred names (to be used in the context of education or science) where two or more exist.

Broad buckler-fern (Dryopteris dilatata)

Broad buckler-fern (Dryopteris dilatata)

Gaelic, perhaps more than any modern language, has ancient links with the nature and landscapes of Scotland – and in particular the Highlands. For example, in English we borrowed the word avalanche from the French, whereas the Gaelic is Maoin-sneachda – an eruption of snow. And some knowledge of Gaelic can add to our appreciation and enjoyment of the natural environment: next time you hear an owl you might recall that the Gaelic name for the bird – cailleach oidhche – translates as old woman of the night.

Spleenwort, Keen of Hamar NNR, Unst, Shetland

Spleenwort, Keen of Hamar NNR, Unst, Shetland

There are two slightly more cryptic Gaelic names for the bluebell: brog na chuthaig – the cuckoo’s shoe – because it appears at the same time as the cuckoo; and fuath-mhuc – the thing the pig dislikes – due to the shape of its flowers. This reflects the fact that you are unlikely to find a pig near bluebells, as they find the smell unpleasant,  so it’s thought.

Horsetails and Woodrush, Coire Fee NNR

Horsetails and Woodrush, Coire Fee NNR

In Gaelic there are six names for the cranefly, usually just nicknamed daddy longlegs in English. But back to our 85 fern names. The pillowort is a grass-like fern with a peppery taste, and so the proposed Gaelic name is feur a’ phiobair – meaning the pepper grass. Slightly more controversial might be the suggested name for the lemon-scented fern, which smells of lemon when bruised – raineach an fháile – meaning oderous fern.

Bracken dominated open woodland on the hills above Killiecrankie

Bracken dominated open woodland on the hills above Killiecrankie

You may be aware of alternative names for some of these plants, or maybe you’d like to propose another name. If you’d like to comment on the proposed list of names, simply email before 5pm on the 14th December.

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Species of the month – lions of the sea

Any guess what this is?


It is, of course, a star-forming region in the carina nebula, courtesy of NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

How about this?


(C) Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

Imagine a sunny warm day on the beach. You take off your clothes, feel the sand between your toes, run off into the gently rolling waves and… squirm! Swimming in jellyfish-soup is never a pleasant experience. And it can be painful too, if you are unlucky enough to get caught-up in the tentacles of a lion’s mane.


Lion’s mane in Scapa Flow, Orkney, (C) Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

So it is no wonder that jellyfish are some of the more under-appreciated animals in our seas. But a closer look, if you dare take it, does reveal some surprisingly beautiful details. Our marine team bump into them a lot on surveys.

Far from featureless blobs, lion’s manes are extraordinarily well adapted to life in the sea. They live in the freezing cold waters of the Arctic and Northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and are rarely found further south than 42 degrees latitude (that’s around northern Spain or Rome).


Close-up of lion’s mane, (C) Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

Jellyfish have been around for over 650 million years – they were there floating around before even the dinosaurs. So whatever it is they are doing clearly works very well.

Their internal structure may seem simple, but it does what it needs to. Instead of an energy-hungry brain, jellyfish have a loose network of nerves and receptors which can detect stimuli such as touch and light – so they know which way is up and down using the light of the sun, or whether they have caught prey which they engulf with their tentacles and pass into their mouth. They do have a simple digestive system, but don’t need lungs: gases can just diffuse through their thin skin.


Lion’s mane off Arran, (C) Lisa Kamphausen

Arctic lions manes are some of the biggest animals on the planet: their bells can grow over 2 meters in diameter, with tentacles of 30 meters. Luckily for us, the further south you go the smaller they get. In Scottish waters the ‘normal’ lion’s mane (Cyanea capillata) is usually 30-50 cm across, while the blue lion’s mane (Cyanea lamarcki) is even smaller.

And since jellyfish make good use of ecological niches freed up by collapsed and fished-out fish stocks, it might be worthwhile starting to appreciate them. Turtles find them tasty -leatherbacks live almost exclusively off them. Tempted? Nah, didn’t think so. They do look amazing though.

Posted in biodiversity, Marine, sea life, Species of the month, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bloga aoighe bho Dhachaigh airson Stòras na Gàidhlig / The Digital Archive for Scottish Gaelic

’S i Ceit Langhorne a sgrìobh am bloga againn an-diugh. Tha i na Neach-taic Corpais aig Dachaigh airson Stòras na Gàidhlig (DASG) aig Oilthigh Ghlaschu. ’S e tasgladh digiteach a th’ ann an DASG ’s e stèidhichte air cruinneachadh de sgrìobhaidhean Gàidhlig agus fiosrachadh a chaidh a chruinneachadh bho choimhearsnachdan air a’ Ghàidhealtachd ’s sna h-Eileanan agus ann an Alba Nuadh eadar 1960an – 1980an.

Tha tasglann ‘Faclan bhon t-Sluagh’ na chruinneachadh de dh’fhaclan Gàidhlig. Bha na faclan air an trusadh mar phàirt de phròiseact Faclair Eachdraidheil na Gàidhlig a thòisich Oll. Ruairidh MacThòmais aig Oilthigh Ghlaschu ann an 1966.


Tro rannsachadh corpais bidh DASG a’ toirt taic do phròiseact thar-oilthighean Faclair na Gàidhlig. Bidh am faclair stèidhichte air teacsa a thig bho DASG.

Mar neach-taic corpais, ’s e m’ obair teacsaichean Gàidhlig uallachadh airson cuir ris an tasglann. O chionn ghoirid tha mi air a bhith ag obair tro Mhac-Talla, foillseachadh mìosail a nochd tràth san 20mh linn ann an Alba Nuadh.

Bidh an sgioba againn a’ sgrìobhadh bloga seachdaineach agus ’s toil leam a bhith a’ sgrìobhadh mu nàdar, airson toirt air daoine smaointinn air mar a dh’fhaodadh iad an cuid Gàidhlig a chur gu feum fhad ’s a bhios iad air a’ bhlàr a-muigh, ann an coilltean daraich, sna boglaichean, no ri taobh lochan dorcha.


Tha am bàrdachd seo a’ cur ainmean Gàidhlig nan craobh nar cuimhne agus ag innse dhuinn far am fàs iad.

“Seileach allt, calltainn chreag, feàrna bhog, beithe lag, uinnseann an deiseir.”

Ma bhios tu a-muigh a’ coiseachd sna boglaichean, thoir an aire dhan t-suil-chruthaich. Chaidh an abairt seo a chlàradh ann an Leòdhas. Nam biodh tu air seasamh air suil-chruthaich a-riamh, dh’fhairicheadh tu an talamh a’ crith fodhad le uisge a’ bhoglaich a’ gluasad fon chòinnich. Agus bi air d’ fhaicill ro easgaich gun fhios nach dragh e fodha thu!

Feuch gun coimhead thu airson a’ mhòthain oir thathar a’ cumail a-mach gur e lus beannaichte a th’ ann. Cuimhnich air an t-seanfhacal:

… Dh’ òl e bainne na bò bath a dh’ith am mòthan.

Agus abair bainne milis, leigheiseach a bhiodh aig bò sam bith a dh’ ith e, agus deagh fhortan aig an duine a dh’ òl e! Cuimhnichibh, ma bheir thu pòg do ’m fear neo do ’n tè air a bheil spèis agaibh is am mòthan nur beul, fon teanga, bi iad dìleas dhuibh gu bràth! Dhèanadh deoch shùgh nam mòthan a’ chùis a’ cheart cho math.
(Carmina Gadelica, Vol 4, ri fhaotainn air Corpas na Gàidhlig)

A’ cumail ort ri taobh na h-aibhne, ’s dòcha gun cluinn thu plubadaich, glugadaich neo torman an uillt. Agus ’s mathaid gum faic thu puilm-shruth. A bheil an abhainn na gàire geal? Am faic thu làgaraid?

Tha eòlas air a’ Ghàidhlig gu math feumail nuair a bhios tu a’ cur ùine seachad air a’ bhlàr a-muigh. Tha dlùth-cheangal air a bhith aig a’ chànan agus a luchd-labhairt ris an tìr fad ghinealaichean mòra agus tron dàimh seo gheibh sinn sealladh eadar-dhealaichte air boidheachd nàdair. Nach tadhail thu air làrach-lìn DASG a rannsaich cuspair ceangailte ri dualchas nàdair anns a bheil ùidh agad.


Anns an dealachadh fàgaidh mi tòimhseachan agad. Dh’ionnsaich mi fhìn e beagan mhìosan air ais. Seo beagan cuideachaidh: ’s ann tràth sa mhadainn a chitheadh tu seo.

Tha mìle dearcag air an t-sliabh,
Nach itheadh neach a rugadh riamh;
Fàsaidh iad ri oidhche bhrèagh’
Ach siùbhlaidh iad nuair dhealras grian.

The Digital Archive for Scottish Gaelic

Today’s guest blogger is Kate Langhorne, a corpus assistant at Digital Archive for Scottish Gaelic (DASG) at Glasgow University. DASG is a digital archive based on a collection of Gaelic texts and information gathered from communities in the Highlands and Islands and Nova Scotia between the 1960s – 1980s.

Our fieldwork archive, Faclan bhon t-Sluagh (meaning ‘Words from the People’), is based on the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic which was started at Glasgow University by Professor Derek Thomson in 1966.

Through our corpus research DASG supports the interuniversity project Faclair na Gàidhlig (Gaelic Dictionary), by providing the Gaelic texts on which this dictionary will be based.


As a corpus assistant, it is my job to prepare the Gaelic texts for inclusion within the archive. Most recently I have been working through Mac-Talla, an early 20th century publication that was produced monthly in Nova Scotia.

Our team produces a weekly blog and I enjoy writing about nature, to inspire people as to how they can use their Gaelic when they’re out and about, in the oak woods, the bogs, or beside the dark lochs and gurgling rivers.

This poem can help you bear in mind the Gaelic names of trees and where they grow while you are out in the forest.

Seileach allt, calltainn chreag, feàrna bhog, beithe lag, uinnseann an deiseir.

Willow of the brook, hazel of the rock, alder of the bog, birch of the hollow, ash of the sunny slope.

Common butterwort

Common butterwort

If you’re out walking in the bog, be aware of the suil-chruthaich, or “quaking bog”. This phrase was recorded in Lewis. If you’ve ever found yourself standing on a suil-chruthaich you will feel the ground beneath you shake as the water of the bog moves under moss. And beware of the easgaich in case you end up sinking! Easgaich refers to a danger spot in a bog which is not at first apparent.

Keep your eye out for the mòthan, or common butterwort, as it is said to be a blessed plant. And remember the proverb:

… Dh’òl e bainne na bò bath a dh’ith am mòthan.

And what sweet, healing milk from any cow that ate it, and good fortune to the man that drank it! Remember, if you kiss a man or woman you have a notion for with the butterwort in your mouth, under your tongue, then they will be faithful to you forever! A drink of the juice of the butterwort would have the same effect.                                                                (Carmina Gadelica, Vol 4, Corpas na Gàidhlig)


Continuing along the path of the burn or river, you may hear its corraghul, plubadaich, and glugadaich. These are all rather onomatopoeic words for the gurgling, bubbling and belching sounds of the water! You may also hear the torman of the burn: that’s the rushing sound. Perhaps you will see the puilm-shruth. This is when the burn moves so fast over rocks and stones that bubbles appear on the surface as a result. If a river is na gàire geal then it is full and in spate. When you see a fast current in a sea loch, you could call this a làgaraid.

Some knowledge of Gaelic is a great asset for enjoying our natural environment. The language and its speakers have been intimately connected with our land for centuries allowing us an additional viewpoint on its beauty. Come and visit DASG’s website to find and investigate a natural heritage topic that interests you.

I will leave you with a riddle that I learnt a few months ago. I will give you one clue: it is seen early in the morning. I wonder if you’ll solve it!

There are a thousand berries on the moor,
that none ever born would eat,
they grow during a beautiful night,
but they will vanish when the sun shines.

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Sharing information about Scotland’s special seas

At almost half a million square kilometres the sea around Scotland is six times the size of our land mass and home to huge variety of internationally and nationally important wildlife. From the smallest plankton, the foundation of marine ecosystems, to the largest animals such as basking sharks and minke whales, Scotland’s marine life is truly diverse.

Anemones outside a St Kilda sea cave, © SNH/George Stoyle

Anemones outside a St Kilda sea cave, © SNH/George Stoyle

The significance of this wonderful natural heritage is recognised in the designation of 42 marine Special Areas of Conservation, 58 Special Protection Areas and, most recently, 30 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in 2014.

Basking shark off the west coast, © Ben James/SNH

Basking shark off the west coast, © Ben James/SNH

The draft management measures published in June 2015 will put into place ways to control human activity, better safeguard these important areas and manage them effectively.

Our seas provide us with valuable resources and they are critical to our economic well-being. These resources include our long-established fishing industry; key ports providing trade links; the hydrocarbon and aquaculture industries developed during the 20th century; the use of our clean and scenic coastline for leisure and recreation; and the recent development of wind, wave and tidal renewable energy resources.

Loch Madadh boat. © George Stoyle/SNH

Loch Madadh boat. © George Stoyle/SNH

Managing all of these uses presents a challenge and marine planning aims to provide a comprehensive, overarching framework for the management of all marine activities, as well as providing new powers for the designation of MPAs. Scotland’s first National Marine Plan was published in March 2015.

Dolphin eating salmon, Chanonry Point, Moray Firth, © Ben James/SNH

Dolphin eating salmon, Chanonry Point, Moray Firth, © Ben James/SNH

Published in 2011, Scotland’s Marine Atlas: Information for the National Marine Plan brought together a huge amount of information in a single document for the first time and presented an assessment of the overall state of Scotland’s seas.

Peacock worms with kelp detritus on a flame shell bed, (C) Ben James/SNH

Peacock worms with kelp detritus on a flame shell bed, (C) Ben James/SNH

To ensure that the most up-to-date data and information is publicly available, SNH and Marine Scotland are working with a range of partners to maintain and develop the National Marine Plan interactive (NMPi).

A gannet and a skua fighting over a mackerel, Mousa to Boddam MPA, © Lisa Kamhausen/SNH

A gannet and a skua fighting over a mackerel, Mousa to Boddam MPA, © Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

NMPi is an online portal for special information which is available to everyone through an internet browser. Users can select data layers as diverse as the location of cold-water coral reefs, bathing beaches or routes of underwater telephone cables and gas pipelines. With many hundreds of data layers to choose from, there is something to suit all interests and you can overlay the various layers to see how human activity takes place alongside the range of marine habitats and species.

Moorings in Loch Creran Special Area of Conservation, © SNH/Graham Saunders

Moorings in Loch Creran Special Area of Conservation, © SNH/Graham Saunders

Regional marine plans are now also being developed. SNH is expecting to play a role in supporting the marine planning partnerships that will be established to deliver and implement these plans. Information at the regional scale about natural heritage interests as well as the full range of activities in the area will be needed. NMPi is being readied to host this regional data too.

Snakelocks and plumose anemones under a canopy of sea oak, Loch Swee, © Ben James.

Snakelocks and plumose anemones under a canopy of sea oak, Loch Sween, © Ben James.

NMPi allows anyone to see the natural habitats and species that require protection while at the same time appreciating the complexity of the challenge of delivering marine management in the face of increasing and competing demands on our seas.

Visit the Scottish Government website to access Scotland’s Marine Atlas and to explore NMPi. You can find lots more information about Scotland’s MPA network on the SNH website.

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Fungi breaking down the forest floor

November is still a good month for finding fungi on our forest floors and our friends at Scottish Fungi have recommended two rather cool species to keep an eye out for at this time of year.

Pickling cucumbersThe cucumber cap is a ‘small brown job’ but actually quite distinct once you get your eye in for it. It is the smell that really gives the game away though – it ranges from putty, through cucumber to distinctly fishy – along the lines of cod liver oil. The combination of habitat, macro characters and the distinct smell make this almost always identifiable in the field and then easily confirmed with a microscope.

Macrocystida cucumis 1

Cucumber Cap

The cap can grow up to 5cm across and usually has a rich, dark red brown rather velvety appearance. The colour will fade as the cap dries out. The cap can be conical or more flattened and the edge of the cap can be faintly striate and is often a paler and contrasting yellow brown colour. The gills are paler, starting out white and becoming a reddish ochre colour. The stipe is stiff, pale at the apex, but dark and velvety below.

Fruiting occurs throughout the year but can also be found in the late autumn and winter month. It likes rich humus or nitrogen rich soils and so is often seen in nettle patches and increasingly on woodchip mulches in gardens and parks. As with so many fungi, this species is almost certainly overlooked – possibly because it often occurs late in the season when people are less often out foraying.

Olive Oysterling

Olive Oysterling

The Olive Oysterling, like the Cucumber Cap, is a saprotrophic or ‘recycler’ fungus, which is breaking down dead wood and plant material on the forest floor. Fungi are the only group of organisms that can break down lignin and without them we would be buried under many metres of woody debris. They also play a vital role in driving the carbon cycle, releasing nutrients that they don’t require back into the habitat.

The Olive Oysterling likes dead deciduous wood, usually large fallen trunks or branches, particularly beech and birch but also on alder, ash, oak, willow, elder and elm.

Olive Oysterling

Olive Oysterling

This species has a much reduced stipe forming to the side of the cap (described as lateral) and a more or less kidney shaped cap which can reach 10cm across. The upper surface is distinctly olive greenish, sometimes with reddish or lilac tones near the point of attachment to the wood. In wet conditions, the cap will be viscid and glutinous but the cap can become dry and matt. The under surface has yellowish /orange gills and the spore print is white.

Fruiting occurs throughout the year but is mostly recorded between late November and February.

Many thanks to Scottish Fungi – take a look at their website for loads of info on fungi in Scotland, including how to get more involved.

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The Shieling Project

Have you ever stumbled into an unexpected grassy area, full of mounds or low walls, in the middle of the hills?  Maybe you’ve wondered if the quiet heather-covered uplands were always that way? You may well have walked through one of the thousands of shieling sites that dot the uplands and moorlands of Scotland, places once full of bustle, cattle and song. Sam Harrison and his team at the Shieling Project bring this story back to life and ask what it means for young people today.

Story Telling with the Shieling Project

Story telling with the Shieling Project

Each summer, for a long stretch of our past, young people all over Scotland would play an integral role in taking livestock up to hill or moorland pastures, camping there in small bothies, learning about the world beyond the village. This was the shieling.

The shieling is a rich piece of our cultural heritage and the project allows us to explore so many important and interlinked themes: understanding how the landscape was and is used; where our food comes from (particularly dairy products); how we develop a healthy sense of place and lifestyle; the importance of Gaelic and culture in shaping relationships with the land; the range of exciting jobs in the countryside; and the ways in which sustainability fits into all these issues—personal, economic, ecological.

We are an education social enterprise, based in the amazing Glen Strathfarrar in the central Highlands, near Inverness. We offer hands-on outdoor learning for young people through their schools, and year-long accredited training for teachers. Our project site borders on the Strathfarrar SSSI and we regularly venture into this wonderful area to the historic shieling site which we will be excavating in the spring, and the stunning Caledonian pine woods.

Volunteers clearing hard standing

Volunteers clearing hard standing

Our experiential way of working gives hands-on experiences for young people with the opportunity to reflect on these, looking at the implications for modern life. For example, we are currently working to renovate the old byre at our site. Young people will be involved in learning traditional building skills, planning, and looking after our milk cow—milking and making butter and cheese in a modern micro dairy.

Walking and talking

Walking and talking

This whole experience ties together with the shieling past to give young people a sense of animal husbandry, different relationships with the land, and where their dairy products come from. For more details please visit the Shieling Project website.

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