A day in the life of a bryologist

A day in the life of a bryologist. What would that be like? What does someone interested in mosses and liverworts get up to all day? Last summer I was lucky enough to find out, and it wasn’t what you might expect. Whatever your expectations are…

Galmisdale, Eigg, with Eilean Cathastail and the mainland beyond.

Galmisdale, Eigg, with Eilean Cathastail and the mainland beyond.

I spent a few days on the Isle of Eigg with a group from the British Bryological Society (BBS), an annual excursion they organise each year to varying places in the UK. Eigg is one of the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland, the other three Small Isles being Rum, Muck and Canna. Very few bryologists have ever been to Eigg, so it was an exciting prospect to survey the island and perhaps discover some lesser known secrets of its better known, high-quality habitats.

Eighteen members of the BBS gathered on the pier at Mallaig and caught the CalMac ferry to Eigg. Upon disembarking we loaded our baggage onto a trailer, which would be driven to our accommodation. Baggage not only consisted of the usual clothing, bathroom bags, boots, wellies and waterproofs, but piles of food, heaps of microscopes and other survey gear, and, I noted, one or two bottles of single malt whisky. The trailer was filled, and then the heavens opened, tropical style, in a spectacular welcoming deluge, soaking everyone to the skin.

I looked for dismay in the eyes of the bryologists but these wet conditions are ideal for mosses and liverworts. The woodland habitats on Eigg, like much of the west coast of Scotland, are called temperate rainforest, such is the prodigious rainfall that descends from the skies in these parts. But I saw no dismay. Just resigned good humour. This was clearly a bunch of well-travelled, experienced bryologists who were very used to working in these conditions. They had come from near and far, too. Jo is a seaweed specialist working at the Natural History Museum, London, but also fascinated by bryophytes; Mark is a computer programmer from Devon; Liz a researcher from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; Sean a Physics lecturer from Oxfordshire. They’re a diverse bunch, be it age, gender, background or personality types. There’s obviously no such thing as a stereotypical bryologist.

The group limber up, apply sun block, and prepare wet weather clothing for the day.

The group limber up, apply sun block, and prepare wet weather clothing for the day.

You’re not allowed to take a car onto the island – one of the blissful idiosyncrasies of this wonderful place. So we followed the trailer up the track on foot for a couple of kilometres to our accommodation.

Each day we’d wake up in the Glebe Barn hostel, and visit a particular part of the island, surveying a range of habitat types and recording what we found in long lists.

On the cliffs above Cleadale.

On the cliffs above Cleadale.

Mosses and liverworts often like little hidden niches, and the places you visit when looking for them are off the beaten track. If a track goes over a summit, you can bet we’d traverse around the side of the hill, scrambling over rough vegetation and boulders. We ended up in places where people don’t normally venture, and probably quite a few places where no one has set foot for a very long time.

As far as you can go without ropes up the ravine of the Allt Bidein an Tighearna, above Cleadale.

As far as you can go without ropes up the ravine of the Allt Bidein an Tighearna, above Cleadale.

We climbed to obscure hillside crags, picked our way through boulder fields below the immense and imposing Sgurr of Eigg, crossed bizarre cobbled rock ridges of the western hills, ventured into caves, and waded up cascading burns. Perhaps the most exciting moment was scrambling up the deep cleft of a ravine high up on the cliffs overlooking Cleadale in the north of the island. Thankfully, it hadn’t rained the day before we visited – the next day it would be impossible to approach the ravine due to the amount of water coming down it.

Who would have thought that looking for bryophytes would be such an adventure: free-scrambling across the landscape. A true explore, the kind where you don’t quite know what to expect, or what you might find.

Below the massive cliffs above Cleadale.

Below the massive cliffs above Cleadale.

Evenings back at the Glebe Barn hostel were spent resting aching limbs, eating together, discussing difficult specimens under the microscopes and, yes, a comforting sip or two of the single malts to help whisk away the aches and pains.

Not surprisingly, the group found Eigg to be very rich in mosses and liverworts: some 375 species were found, of which 143 were new records for the island, including some important and rare species.

The uncommon Marchesinia mackaii (MacKay’s Pouncewort) in a ravine in the cliffs above Cleadale.

The uncommon Marchesinia mackaii (MacKay’s Pouncewort) in a ravine in the cliffs above Cleadale.

At the end of the trip, the bryologists reluctantly departed to the mainland and dispersed to various parts of the UK and Europe. The data they recorded, and our increased understanding of this less well known group of plants in a small corner of Scotland, is the legacy of their few days spent on this wonderful island.



Stan Phillips is an SNH Area Officer in South West Argyll with a keen interest in bryophytes.

All images by Stan Phillips.



Posted in Bryophytes, Eigg | Tagged , , ,

Scottish frogs under threat…enter the dragon finders

Dragon Finder is an initiative aimed at spreading the word about amphibian and reptile conservation. It brings together practical conservation, surveying, data collection and interactive educational activities and now everyone can be involved by downloading a free app to help with the research.

Great crested newt. ©Sue Scott/SNH

Great crested newt. ©Sue Scott/SNH

The project is being run by Froglife, the UK’s leading wildlife charity for the conservation of amphibians and reptiles which is dedicated to saving the habitats of native frogs, toads, newts, snakes and lizards. The Scottish Dragon Finder Project launched in 2014 and will run into 2018. The project, based at Stirling University Innovation Park, aims to reach as many people as possible of all ages across Scotland with numerous events and activities planned which will give local people the chance to find out more about wildlife in Scotland and spread the word of amphibian and reptile conservation.


Natterjack Toad. © SNH

Mating male and female adders. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Mating male and female adders. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

One of the project’s key aims is to improve data recording for amphibians and reptiles, particularly in remote areas of Scotland. Froglife Project Officer James Stead said: “Scotland is a special place full of beauty and home to some amazing amphibian and reptile species, from the great crested newt and natterjack toad to the slow-worm and adder. These species sadly all suffer from loss of habitat through drainage and development, degradation of habitat quality through neglect and pollution, spread of disease and the spread of non-native species. Very little is known about the abundance and distribution of amphibians and reptiles in the wilds of Scotland as these species are highly under-recorded in the hills. This comes mostly down to issues relating to accessibility and logistics.”

The charity is urging Scots, particularly hill walkers, to participate in species recording during their walks to increase records in remote areas. Anyone can take part in data collection by downloading Froglife’s free Dragon Finder app which allows users to identify reptiles and amphibians and report a sighting.

Dragon Finder Family Days are happening around Scotland. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Dragon Finder Family Days are happening around Scotland. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Froglife will also be hosting both outdoor events (where you can get involved in pond-dipping and reptile rummages) and indoor events (including amphibian craft exercises and Dragon Finder activities) this summer across Scotland. To find an event near you click here.

Scottish Dragon Finder logo

Froglife’s Scottish Dragon Finder project is a 4.5 year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

For more information visit:  www.froglife.org or www.froglife.org/dragonfinder

Posted in amphibians, citizen science, Reptiles, Scottish Dragon Finder | Tagged , , , ,

Gulls – glorious or greedy?

It may not seem like it when gulls are swooping down trying to steal your chips, but the number of many species of gulls has plummeted.

Kittiwake. ©Lorne Gill

Kittiwake. ©Lorne Gill

In fact, herring gulls and kittiwakes are on the red list of conservation concern in the UK, with many other types of gull on the amber list.

So why does it seem as if there are more gulls than ever? It’s likely to be because their food sources have dried up in some areas and – opportunistic and clever birds that they are – they have found our cities and towns to be full of food along with great nesting spots on roofs.

What do gulls eat? Just about anything: small fish, snails, insects, spiders, eggs – and, of course, rubbish. If you leave it out, they will come. They’re quite handy for cleaning up our beaches, but as their favourite grub of small fish has become harder to find, they’ll settle for our garbage.

There’s even the famous Aberdeen gull who shoplifted about 20 bags of crisps. (It’s worth a look at the video clip if you haven’t seen the footage before.)

Black headed Gull ©Laurie Campbell

Black-headed gull ©Laurie Campbell

Why are seagulls sometimes nowhere near the sea?

Black-headed gulls, the type of gull we often see in our towns and cities, are much more comfortable inland. Herring gulls are perhaps the gull that is most often called a ‘seagull,’ and you can see them in all of Scotland’s coastal towns.

Herring gull. ©Lorne Gill

Herring gull. ©Lorne Gill

Master fliers

Have you ever watched gulls fly? They are amazingly agile fliers and well worth watching. Their webbed feet mean they are also at home on the water. Seagulls are also quite clever. They are known to stamp their feet to imitate rainfall to trick earthworms into coming to the surface (this is known as foot-paddling). They also drop mussels onto rocks or road surfaces to break them open in order to eat them.

Kittiwake in flight. ©Lorne Gill

Kittiwake in flight. ©Lorne Gill

Urban trouble-makers

But some people see gulls as a plague in our cities and towns. Let’s take Aberdeen City as an example. It’s estimated that there are 3,500 pairs of herring gulls nesting in Aberdeen City every year. They are a regular source of complaint to the council, as in many other towns and cities, because of noise, their tendency to get into rubbish containers, as well as aggressive behaviour during nesting and while rearing chicks (from about May to August).

Although gulls are amazing birds, we do know they can sometimes cause problems. All breeding birds are protected by law, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do when problems arise. Gulls in towns generally use roofs for nesting and tend to return year after year. We recommend that people look for ways to prevent gulls from nesting in certain places to avoid problems in future years. You should also avoid feeding gulls and make sure that you dispose of all food scraps and litter carefully, so that gulls can’t get to them. Black plastic bin-bags are an open invitation to a hungry gull.

In certain cases you may be able to control gulls or their nests – for example, if gulls are affecting public health and safety. To find out more, see SNH’s bird licensing information.

Herring gull and chicks. ©Lorne Gill

Herring gull and chicks. ©Lorne Gill

So we don’t end on that negative note for our feathered friends, check out these amazing gull facts:

  • Gulls are attentive parents. They pair for life and take turns incubating the eggs, feeding and protecting the chicks.
  • Some species of gulls can live for over 30 years.
  • Like other marine birds, gulls can drink both fresh and salt water. Gulls have a special pair of glands above their eyes specifically designed to flush the salt from their systems through openings in the bill.
Posted in Birds, gulls | Tagged , ,

Keeping Scotland’s drinking water pure

The Sustainable Land Management (SLM) team at Scottish Water is working in collaboration with landowners and developers to help protect drinking water sources throughout Scotland. Lauren Dixon, Scottish Water’s technical Support, explains how.

SLM Incentive Scheme financed water trough.

SLM Incentive Scheme financed water trough.

Scottish Water takes water from the environment and treats it to provide clean, safe supplies of drinking water for the people of Scotland. Within the SLM team we focus on using preventative methods to protect drinking water sources before it reaches the treatment works. Land use such as farming practices, large and small-scale construction, wind farms and forest activities can all affect the quality of our source waters. If these risks are not properly assessed, we can see a deterioration in water quality, which in turn increases the energy and chemical use for water treatment.

SLM Incentive Scheme financed stock fencing.

SLM Incentive Scheme financed stock fencing.

One way that we have been assisting land managers is through the Scottish Water SLM Incentive Scheme. We don’t expect land managers to cover the costs for protection of drinking water sources where this goes above pre-existing legal requirements (e.g. General Binding Rules (GBRs), Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) rules). Land managers can apply to the Incentive Scheme for financial assistance to install measures that will help improve and protect water sources in the catchment, over and above the expected regulatory compliance.

SLM Incentive Scheme financed biofilter and pesticide sprayer loading area.

SLM Incentive Scheme financed biofilter and pesticide sprayer loading area.

This gives us the opportunity to enhance and maintain a high quality supply of drinking water, providing even greater value for money for our customers, while also delivering real environmental improvements. By working together, it is hoped that public health is protected, a sustainable approach to the improvement and protection of drinking water quality is adopted, and that, by selecting this more sustainable approach, land managers are not disadvantaged.

If you have any queries about the scheme please do not hesitate to contact Scottish Water at protectdwsources@scottishwater.co.uk.

For further information on what we do and the SLM Incentive Scheme, visit the Scottish Water website. You can also follow our activities on Facebook and twitter.

All images courtesy of Scottish Water.

Posted in Farming, Land management | Tagged , ,

Artistic antics on the Isle of May

Edinburgh-based artist Kittie Jones describes a recent creative week on the Isle of May with a group of fellow artists, all with a focus on the natural world.

Painting at Bishop's Cove. Kittie Jones

Painting at Bishop’s Cove.

Drawing trips can provide a wonderful opportunity for total immersion in a place, however it is always difficult to plan ahead. Factors such as weather dictate significantly where and what you end up drawing. This is particularly true if your destination is the Isle of May in early April!

The artist at work. Nye Hughes

The artist at work. Nye Hughes

I was fortunate to be there with five fellow artists: Leo du Feu, Nye Hughes, Liz Myhill, Lara Scouller and Susan Smith, for six-days staying at the Isle of May Bird Observatory. The island was at times occupied by a range of migrants, with one day providing the following numbers: 80 robins, 60 dunnocks, 150 fieldfares, 50 redwings and 50 blackbirds amongst others.

There were a couple of short-eared owls, the last to leave of around 20 that had spent the winter on the island, feeding on the abundant mice before heading north to breed.

Sketching a short-eared owl. Kittie Jones

Sketching a short-eared owl.

We were lucky to see many of the sea birds for which the Isle of May is best known, not least puffins which landed on a mist-shrouded day, filling every spare patch of land and criss-crossing over our heads; silent except for the whirring of their wings.

Sketching puffins in flight. Kittie Jones

Sketching puffins in flight.

The species I was struck by most during the trip were the shags. In their full breeding plumage they are such different birds to cormorants, with which they are often confused. Their feathers have an amazing iridescence which shimmers green and bronze, and their crests provide a dramatic adornment.

Sketching shags at Alterstanes harbour. Kittie Jones

Sketching shags at Alterstanes harbour.

We arrived on Saturday the 2nd April, by which point the shags had been settled on nests for a week or so. Their nests are beautiful multi-coloured constructions made from seaweed, twigs and foliage and found all along the rocky coastline. I spent a lot of time watching the males bringing nest material to the sitting females. They would fly in and land on the water in sight of the nest, then swim about with an offering of seaweed clasped in their beaks, before eventually clambering onto the rocks and hopping up to their nest, running the gauntlet as rival croaking males lunged at them aggressively.

Some nesting females got regular visits from their mates, while others were left alone for long periods, occasionally shifting their positions, revealing pale eggs in amongst the rich reds and yellows of the nest.

Nesting shag, mixed media drawing. Kittie Jones

Nesting shag, mixed media drawing.

When it got too wet to draw I would retreat into the cosy surroundings of the living room at the Low Light, the converted lighthouse where we were staying, and look through the many bird books. I was reading Sea Room by Adam Nicholson at the time and his descriptions of shags are informative and poetic, summing up the compelling appeal of these birds:

‘Nothing can really prepare you for the reality of the shag experience. It is an all-power meeting with an extraordinary, ancient, corrupt, imperial, angry, dirty, green-eyed, yellow-gaped, oil-skinned, iridescent, rancid, rock-hole glory that is Phalacrocrorax aristotelis. They are scandal and poetry, chaos and individual rage, archaic, ancient beyond any sense of ancientness that other birds convey…The earliest puffin fossil to have been discovered is no more than five million years old. The oldest shag, identical to its modern descendants has been found in rocks laid down sixty million years ago, a couple of million years after the cataclysm that killed of the dinosaurs.’

 Quote taken from Sea Room, Adam Nicholson, published by Harper Collins 2002, p 184
Looking at shape. Kittie Jones

Looking at shape.

It was a great week with much work made and lots of ideas to develop now that I’m back on the mainland. I would like to thank my fellow artists for their good company and the inspiring work they made.

Group selfie! Lara Scouller

Group selfie! Lara Scouller

Thanks also to the Reserve Managers, Dave Steele and Bex Outram, for their hospitality and the knowledge they shared about the wildlife on the island. You can read more about island life on their very informative blog.

And finally, many thanks to the Isle of May Bird Observatory for the comfortable accommodation and opportunity to stay on the island, plus the Osprey Rib based in Anstruther for ensuring we got on and off the island in style!

For more information about my work please visit my website  and my own blog.

To see the fantastic work of the artists I shared my week with have a look at their websites:
Leo du Feu
Nye Hughes

Liz Myhill
Lara Scouller
Susan Smith

Photos by Kittie Jones unless stated otherwise.

Posted in Uncategorized

Wireweed, the fast invading line of dirty washing

Iain Macdonald, SNH Policy & Advice Officer, tells us about the mysterious seaweed that’s making its way up the west coast of Scotland.

Wireweed growing in a rockpool, Great Cumbrae. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Wireweed growing in a rockpool, Great Cumbrae. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

I had been aware of wireweed for some time. How long for I don’t really know, certainly for quite a few years for, as seaweeds go, wireweed is one of the more distinctive. I can vaguely recall images of it when I was a child, possibly in the late 70’s, probably taken in Spain or Portugal. I don’t know why, but I also seem to recall the word “Japanese” forming part of the name, but that might be confusion on my part with Japanese knotweed, something completely different.

Fishing out a line of wireweed.

Fishing out a line of wireweed. ©SNH

In photos wireweed is sometimes held proudly aloft, out of the water as if it were some form of trophy. It isn’t, it resembles a washing line with lots of pieces of dirty brown, torn washing. Not that attractive a description you might think, but if you look at the photo above you might just see what I mean. “Once seen, never forgotten.” However I had not given wireweed any subsequent thought for about 30 years until I needed to revisit it as a part of SNH’s Species Action Framework (SAF).

When SAF started there was a suspicion that wireweed might even be spreading along the Scottish coast, but we didn’t know if that were true. We didn’t even know where the wireweed was. That might not have been a big problem, had there not been some evidence from elsewhere that wireweed likes living in Europe and can compete with native seaweeds. By changing the structure of a coastal area, the community of animals and plants living in an area might also change. This was much more than “just to do with seaweed”.

Wireweed the alien invasive seaweed growing on the shoreline. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Wireweed, the alien invasive seaweed growing on the shoreline. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The “issue” with wireweed is that whilst it might look at home on the Scottish coast, in reality it belongs to the Pacific. That includes Japan, so perhaps my memory is not completely gone? There is an unproven theory that wireweed might have hitched a ride to Europe with Pacific oysters in the 1960s or early ’70s when oysters were introduced for shellfish farming. However wireweed first arrived in Europe, by 2004 it had appeared in Scotland, at Loch Ryan to be exact, possibly via Ireland; and by 2013 wireweed had reached North Uist.

Even if we know where it is what can we do about wireweed? I asked myself that question, and then I asked colleagues. The answers were much the same, “not much”. Once in the marine environment it is simply not feasible to remove every part of every frond which is either attached to the Scottish coat or floating around it. Even if we could remove wireweed from Scotland, we would also need to remove it from neighbouring countries, otherwise it would just come straight back. It looks like wireweed is here to stay.

Although SAF as a stand-alone project has ended, work on non-native species continues. Recent Scottish legislation to control the release of non-native species into the wild is among the toughest in the world. European legislation has also been strengthened. Interesting times indeed.

You can find the SAF Handbook chapter on wireweed  here.

The SAF project relied upon volunteers telling us where the wireweed was. Some citizen science surveys for you to consider taking part in are:

Coastal – Capturing Our Coast

Non-native species – The GB Non-Native Species secretariat

Scottish native species – A list of surveys published on the Atlas of Living Scotland

Posted in biodiversity, Marine, Species Action Framework | Tagged , , ,

Conserving the marine riches of the Berwickshire coast

The Berwickshire coast and its shallow seas are home to some of the most spectacular marine life in Europe. The newly formed Berwickshire and Northumberland Marine Nature Partnership will help ensure its sensitive management. Claire Hedley, the Partnership’s Project Officer tells us more.

St Abbs Head's stunning coastline. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

St Abbs Head’s stunning coastline. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rocky reefs, boulder shores and mysterious sea caves provide important habitats for an incredible diversity of life. A kaleidoscope of brightly coloured sea squirts and anemones can be found on the shore, while shy hermit crabs and star fish dwell in the natural aquarium rock pools. The craggy reefs give way to large kelp forests where juvenile fish and crustaceans shelter in the swaying marine canopy. Deeper still, and as the light begins to fade, the kelp leads in to a carpet of animals, from soft-bodied corals to dense beds of brittle stars.

Dahlia anemone on brittlestar bed. ©Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

Dahlia anemone on brittlestar bed. ©Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

The more hardy species can be found around cave entrances, where the crash of waves is no challenge to the hard shells of barnacles and limpets. Cave walls are blanketed by a colourful mosaic of filter-feeding animals including sponges, sea squirts and tube worms. Back on the land, the sheltered bays provide safe breeding areas for large numbers of grey seals, while the towering sea cliffs provide nesting areas for thousands of sea birds who feed in the productive shallow waters.

Grey Seal. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Grey Seal. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Our local marine ecosystem is a complex environment, and its conservation value is recognised by an equally complex network of overlapping marine nature conservation designations that extend across the Scottish-English border. Our productive waters have supported a wide range of human activities for thousands of years, and they continue to do so today with activities such as coastal development, tourism and recreation, commercial fishing and harbour activities all interacting with these sensitive places. These human uses need to be carefully balanced and managed with conservation in mind.

Dead-man's fingers covering rock faces below the kelp. ©Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

Dead-man’s fingers covering rock faces below the kelp. ©Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

The Berwickshire and Northumberland Marine Nature Partnership is a collaboration between Scottish and English organisations responsible for managing coastal and marine activities across Berwickshire and Northumberland. The partnership has evolved from the former Berwickshire and North Northumberland Coast European Marine Site Management Group, which was established in 2000 to coordinate the management of two European marine nature conservation designations. Recently, the Management Group decided to apply its partnership approach to the entire network of inshore marine designations between Fast Castle Head in Scotland and the River Tyne in England. The suite of nine sites includes Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which are designated under European law, plus Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) which are designated under UK law.

A colourful male lumpsucker guarding a clutch of eggs. ©Alex Mustard/2020VISION

A colourful male lumpsucker guarding a clutch of eggs. ©Alex Mustard/2020VISION

Working together, the partnership will develop a simple toolkit, including accurate mapping, up-to-date condition assessments and an inventory of local monitoring activity, to help manage this suite of important marine areas. We hope this will eventually be available on line, so anyone interested in the management of the local marine environment can learn more.

Keep in touch with our activities on our Facebook page.

Discover the area for yourself. St Abb’s Head NNR is on a section of this coastline. Find out more on the NNR website.

Posted in Marine | Tagged , , , ,