Woodland restructuring – creating natural woodlands at Beinn Eighe NNR

As the wildlife at Beinn Eighe NNR busily prepares for winter, it’s a busy time too for our team, as work continues on improving and expanding the native woodlands at the reserve.

Beinn Eighe NNR volunteer planting pine trees.

Beinn Eighe NNR volunteer planting pine trees.

Over the years we have undertaken a number of different strategies at Beinn Eighe in order to achieve the long term goal of expanding the woodlands to reconnect the remnants of ancient Caledonian pine forest. During the 1960s this involved the planting of pine trees in neat rows, in the manner of a commercial plantation, as this method achieved quick results.

The problem with this planting method is that it creates an unnatural woodland, comprising trees of similar age which develop tall, thin trunks, due to the competition for space. As less light is able to penetrate the dense forest canopy, the ground flora in these plantation woodlands tends to be dominated by just one or two plant species that are able to cope with the reduced sunlight.

Felling trees by winch simulates natural felling from windblow.

Felling trees by winch simulates natural felling from windblow.

Over the last month our team has been carrying out woodland restructuring to help create more natural conditions within the plantation woodlands. This involves felling certain trees by winch rather than by chainsaw, simulating being blown down naturally by the wind. This not only helps to break up the regimented appearance of the woodland, but also allows for a greater diversity of plant species, as more light is able to reach the forest floor. Other techniques include topping, where only the top part of the tree is removed, leaving its trunk as standing deadwood.

Woodland restructuring may appear destructive at first, but it is important to bear in mind that healthy woodland should contain a certain ratio of both standing and fallen deadwood, as this provides habitat for a range of species, from plants and fungi to hibernating insects and bats. While natural woodland regeneration is encouraged as much as possible, tree-planting is still carried out at the reserve and around its neighbouring woodlands to help kick-start this process. Nowadays however, when planting trees, a method of random spacing is favoured over that of neat rows, as this simulates a more natural woodland.

Volunteers carry out work at the tree nursery.

Volunteers carry out work at the tree nursery.

At Beinn Eighe we are fortunate to have our own tree nursery, where seeds that have been collected from the reserve’s woodlands are germinated and grown until they are of a suitable size for planting. The Scots pine native to Beinn Eighe differ genetically from the Scots pine that grow elsewhere in Scotland, which could mean they have developed greater resilience to the wetter conditions of the Atlantic coastline. It is therefore important that any trees we plant at Beinn Eighe NNR come only from seeds that have been gathered from the woodlands here at the reserve.

We have just planted around 10,000 trees at Beinn Eighe, comprising Scots pine and native broadleaf species such as birch, aspen, holly and oak. These planted trees will help to reconnect Beinn Eighe’s fragmented ancient woodlands with the other woodland habitats just outside the reserve. Moreover the planted trees will act as a seed source allowing the woodland to expand naturally, one day forming a far greater forest expanse which will ultimately benefit the reserve’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Natural regeneration, helping reconnect Beinn Eighe’s fragmented ancient woodlands.

Natural regeneration, helping reconnect Beinn Eighe’s fragmented ancient woodlands.

There are no quick results when it comes to creating forests, and it will be many years before the trees we plant today become fully mature. For now we are simply planting the seeds of Beinn Eighe’s future pine forest, and only time will determine its outcome.

Stuart MacKenzie is our SRUC Placement at Beinn Eighe NNR.

Posted in National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , , ,

Pearls in Peril

Freshwater pearl mussels are an important, if slightly obscure, resident in many of our rivers.  Pearl mussels live partly hidden amongst the stones and boulders on the riverbed.  They remain critically endangered across Europe due to threats including pollution, construction work in rivers, climate change and criminal damage. 

Freshwater pearl mussels feeding in a highland river. ©Sue Scott/SNH

Freshwater pearl mussels feeding in a highland river. ©Sue Scott/SNH

The threat from criminal damage is such that, alongside more familiar species such as raptors, pearl mussels are a UK wildlife crime priority.  Criminal damage can come from those looking for very rare pearls, or others who pollute the rivers which are home to pearl mussels.  And sadly, as discovered earlier this month, it’s an ongoing problem.

Not only does criminal damage imperil the survival of many of our most important remaining pearl mussel populations, but it also damages the important salmon and trout populations that live in the same rivers and support many major fisheries.  To address this threat we work closely with the police and National Wildlife Crime Unit to raise awareness of the threat and encourage the reporting of any suspicious activity.

Pearls in Peril is the name of a large project that we have been working on with 20 partner organisations since 2012.  Its ambitious work has helped to conserve many of our most important freshwater pearl mussel populations.  It has done this in many different ways – by removing miles of past bank protection works to restore the right river conditions for pearl mussels and salmon;  and by planting miles of riverside woodlands to also improve conditions in the water for pearl musssels and fish.  We have also reduced pollution by working with farmers to help them provide alternative drinking water for livestock away from rivers, and introducing miles of ‘buffer strips’ between fields and the riverbanks.

Discarded fresh water pearl mussel shells. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Discarded fresh water pearl mussel shells. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

However it is saddening to all involved that these and many other efforts are undermined by the few who still kill and destroy pearl mussel populations in the hope of finding a pearl. The latest such finding was in a remote river near Lochinver just two weeks ago.  Please, if you see anyone acting suspiciously, contact the police.

Find out more about the Pearls in Peril project on the website.

Click here to find your local police contact to report a wildlife crime.

Posted in wildlife crime | Tagged , ,

What I learned from a year of active travel

There are clear health and environmental benefits from active travel. A key aim of our work to develop and promote Scotland’s National Walking and Cycling Network is to support physical activity and sustainable travel choices.  A year after ditching the car for her daily commute, Helen Todd, of Ramblers Scotland, tells us about some positive changes to her life and shares six things that she’s learned.

Setting off from home. © Helen Todd

Setting off on the daily commute.

A year ago I gave up commuting by car when our office moved to Edinburgh. After 11 years of a 50-mile round trip, I now faced a 6-mile city commute. As a long term campaigner for walking and cycling as modes of transport, I now had a chance to put my money where my mouth was. I could cycle to work in 30 minutes or have a 30-minute walk plus a 15-minute tram ride. Otherwise, for bad weather days, I could take a bus door-to-door in 50 minutes – I had options!

Walking to work past one of the most spectacular views of Edinburgh. © Helen Todd

Walkers in Edinburgh can enjoy spectacular views of the capital’s stunning skyline.

Twelve months on I’m now able to see what changes my active commute has brought about and it’s been astonishing – and very positive. Here are six things I’ve learned:

1. It doesn’t rain as much as I thought it would

There are long periods of time when I don’t get wet at all, despite Scotland’s dire weather reputation. For sure, there are weeks when it feels like my waterproofs are constantly dripping over the office chairs, but even in heavy rain I’d far rather be out in the elements than sitting in a steamy bus catching my neighbour’s cold, or stuck in my car in a traffic jam, and as a Rambler I’m used to wet weather.

2. It’s really enjoyable

Walking and cycling give me quality thinking time and I really get to appreciate the beauties of the natural world on a daily basis. There’s no doubt that the stresses and strains of everyday life have felt more manageable over this past year and I arrive alert at work. It’s also more sociable outside the bubble of a car, chatting to fellow cyclists at traffic lights, or exchanging pleasantries with passing dog walkers.

3. I spend less money

The cost of my tram or occasional bus ride, plus my annual bike service and batteries for bike lights, add up to much less than I used to spend on petrol each month. This means more cash in my pocket (apparently!).

You often don't need to cycle on the road. © Helen Todd

You often don’t need to cycle on main roads.

4. Infrastructure matters

It’s really important to have safe, pleasant paths away from traffic; it’s just not inspiring to trudge alongside busy roads or dice with heavy traffic, and it’s hard to persuade people out of their cars without a realistic alternative. My cycle route is mainly on leafy offroad paths and my walk is through the residential streets of a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of my trip.

5. Yes, I did lose weight

Weight loss and gain is all about calories in and calories out, but it’s clearly a bit more complicated than that. I’ve always been fairly active at weekends, but sitting behind a desk all day for 11 years meant that I’d built up some excess weight around the middle. Surely, swapping my daily 90-minute car drive for an hour’s cycle or walk would mean these extra pounds would just melt away? But they didn’t! After 3 months I’d barely lost any weight and the muffin top stubbornly remained. Reluctantly I started to cut down on biscuits and cakes, and, incredibly, after a month I had lost half a stone. Even more remarkably, this weight has stayed off even though I’m eating almost as much as ever. What does this tell me? Well, just being more active doesn’t mean I lose weight automatically but it certainly helps me keep it off if I watch the calories.

6. It’s easier to be more active

While car commuting I took part in an 8-week pedometer challenge and my daily activity levels added up to the equivalent of 11,000 steps – but I’d really struggled to find time to be active when I was behind a desk all day. This year I managed 15,000 steps a day without even trying as it was part of my daily routine. Even better, I now use my bike or walk for more trips – to the library or shops – rather than dropping by on my drive back from work.

Of course some journeys will always be better done by car. But with almost two-thirds of journeys in Scotland under 5 miles and 61% of trips taken by car, there’s clearly plenty of scope for people to switch to healthier forms of transport and have more active lives for many of these trips.

Despite knowing all the evidence, it’s still been a revelation as to how much my life has changed for the better through regular daily exercise, whether by losing weight, saving money or just feeling less stressed. Would I go back to car commuting? What do you think?

Helen is a Campaigns & Policy Manager at Ramblers Scotland, a charity working to promote walking for pleasure, health, leisure and transport to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities throughout Scotland. For more information visit www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland

For more information on Scotland’s National Walking and Cycling Network visit our website.

All images © Ramblers Scotland

Posted in active travel, green health | Tagged , , ,

Oh deer

Each year, around about now when the nights draw in, SNH puts out a little health and safety note about deer.  Not about looking after deer, although that’s nice, but rather about looking out for deer whilst driving. Iain Macdonald relates his experiences.

Red deer in heavy snowfall. ©Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Red deer in heavy snowfall. ©Peter Cairns/2020VISION

I am rather wary about deer on the road.   After all, I learnt to drive on roads full of them.  Quite a few years ago, I ran over a roe deer in Strath Oykel in Sutherland one night.  I remember three things about it: one was picking up the deer and feeling its broken bones grinding when I removed it from under the car, which wasn’t pleasant.  The second was that the bumper of my granny’s Renault 5 was cracked and I’d have to explain why, which also wasn’t pleasant. Thirdly, the deer seemed to appear from “nowhere.”  Nowhere being a clump of rushes beside a forestry plantation and right beside the road.

Red deer hinds in the mist at sunrise. ©Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Red deer hinds in the mist at sunrise. ©Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

A few years later whilst driving on the same road, this time at about five in the morning, and closer to Rosehall, a sika deer hit me.  That sounds a little bit better, and I do stress the deer’s fault in all of this, but that didn’t really affect the outcome.  The deer ran head first right into the front passenger side door.  If I had been a second later, things would have been rather nastier.  Again, I recall three things in particular.  Firstly, looking in the rear view mirror at a large animal kicking its legs in the air and wondering what on earth to do next; secondly, the long dent on the door which I’d have to explain to my partner; and thirdly, that the deer had seemed to appear from nowhere once again.  Nowhere this time was a forestry plantation, right beside the road.  For those of you who really like deer, and I consider myself one of those, I’m happy to say that the deer was only concussed and ran away, much to my relief and probably the deer’s.

Face to face with a red deer. ©Pete Cairns/2020VISION

Face to face with a red deer. ©Pete Cairns/2020VISION


Those were the days before the SNH health and safety notes; when the first note came out, I joked that at least I had not hit a red deer.  I am, you see, well familiar with stories about what a red deer can do to a car. I was discussing that with a colleague a couple of days before, and out of sheer coincidence, I found out – firsthand.  This November, whilst driving in Ross-shire between Inverness and Ullapool at 7:15 in the morning, a red deer jumped right in front of the car.  It seemed to appear from nowhere, having jumped over a roadside barrier from a position downhill of the road where it couldn’t be seen.  There was no warning, nothing that I could have done to avoid a collision.  Rather scarily, I really don’t think I would have driven any differently or indeed driven any differently on those previous two instances when car and deer became intimately connected.  Expensive, but it would have been a lot worse if I had been going fast.  Perhaps I would not even be writing this – I don’t know. I do know, however, that I had some explaining to do as the car is not mine….

A wet day on ther roads. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The messages are simple, nowhere does really exist, and deer will appear from it. Be particularly alert if you’re driving near woods where deer can suddenly appear before you have time to brake. The faster the collision, the nastier it’s going to be.  With night falling earlier, the peak commuting time coincides with deer coming out to feed on grass verges near roadsides.  And finally, health and safety warnings are there for a reason…


Our tips for avoiding deer-vehicle collisions

  • Try not to suddenly swerve to avoid hitting a deer. 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 animals 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.
  • Report any deer-vehicle collisions to the police, who will contact the local person who can best help with an injured deer at the roadside. Do not approach an injured deer yourself it may be dangerous.
Posted in deer | Tagged , , ,

Living with top carnivores

Scotland and Norway share many cultural elements including ‘loan words’ incorporated in our language and place names. Our natural heritage also faces similar challenges and opportunities. Lynne Clark reflects on her study tour in Central Norway.

One of the most topical challenges is how we live with top carnivores. Norway still has four species of large carnivorous mammals – wolverine, wolf, lynx and bear. In Scotland, our top land carnivores are mainly birds, such as eagles and harriers, but the conflicts between people and wildlife have much in common.

In May 2016, I took part in a study visit to Hedmark in Central Norway to learn about how they handle wildlife management. The trip was funded by Arch Network, through the EU Erasmus + programme.

One of the first things a visitor to the area notices is the vast expanses of woodland which stretch as far as the eye can see. The whole of Norway has enough woodland to cover Scotland one and a half times, so there is a notable difference from the heathery backdrop we are used to. Despite being one of the most agriculturally productive parts of Norway, Hedmark municipality still has about 20% tree cover.

Rondane National Park. © Lynne Clark

Rondane National Park. © Lynne Clark

Hedmark is one of the few municipalities in Norway where all four large carnivore species co-exist. With 10% of Norway’s overall agricultural area within the county, this inevitably leads to human/predator conflict. Several measures have been introduced to try to mitigate losses including fencing, bringing livestock in during certain seasons or overnight, guarding livestock with dogs and killing ‘problem’ carnivores. A study investigating human attitudes towards large carnivores in Norway showed that in general people displayed more negative attitudes towards wolves and bears than towards lynx and wolverines. This is largely due to the perception that the first two species can cause harm to people unlike the last two. Compensation schemes have also been put in place and farmers have to provide evidence that their losses were caused by a large carnivore. Rangers often visit farms to witness and approve these claims and the farmer will then receive payment for all lost animals minus ‘normal losses’.

These losses cause economic issues as well as social issues and conflicts between different sectors, particularly in rural communities. Many rural people feel they are taking the brunt of having viable populations of large carnivores, and studies have shown that communities experiencing greater damage are likely to have more extreme negative attitudes towards their existence.


Hunting in Norway appears to be a widely accepted recreational activity, firmly ingrained in Norwegian culture. Hunting is used not only as a wildlife management technique but also as a way of getting outdoors and spending time with friends and family. Log cabins are scattered throughout forests and are frequented by groups of hunters and cross-country skiers for a few days at a time. It seems that hunting is a key contributor in keeping the Norwegian people connected to the natural environment.

Hunters are also involved in gathering important information about the species which they are stalking. They provide samples, maintain and look after camera traps, report tracks and collect scat, all for scientific analysis. This information is used by environmental managers and scientists to determine numbers, structure and trends of key species, many of which are elusive and not regularly seen by non-hunters.

Capercaillie habitat near Jutulhogget, one of northern Europe’s largest canyons. © Lynne Clark

Capercaillie habitat near Jutulhogget, one of northern Europe’s largest canyons. © Lynne Clark

Some argue that this form of citizen science – public involvement in environmental monitoring, data collection and analysis – is an undervalued and unappreciated partnership. With advancements in technology, data gathering apps are becoming more popular, easily accessible and more people are using them as a useful tool for gathering data on a specific species or site. The quality of data being gathered is also improving and sharing this is becoming easier. Enthusiastic, passionate and often very knowledgeable volunteers are a crucial resource in achieving conservation goals. Many members of the hunting community in Norway act as data gatherers. In Scotland, many charities and non-governmental organisations have built up an extensive pool of volunteers. Citizen science provides an opportunity to involve and develop people’s interest and passion for their surrounding environment. This resource is one which should be encouraged and developed as it is vital in order to help achieve conservation targets, now and in the future.

Shared experience/co-operative working

The value of working collaboratively with other organisations and indeed other countries cannot be underestimated. With resources becoming ever more stretched across many sectors, co-operative learning and sharing of knowledge allows lessons to be learned and applied in different settings. Citizen science, human/predator conflict resolution and community involvement are all becoming increasingly used and better understood within Scottish conservation. This trip allowed for comparisons in the different ways of using these ‘tools’ and provided examples of ways this can benefit nature and people.

Click here to see a location map of Hedmark.

Find out more about the Arch Network scheme and future study visits.

Posted in citizen science, wildlife management | Tagged , , , , , ,

ReRoute to action

ReRoute, Scotland’s youth biodiversity panel, is certainly a project to keep your eye on. Joanne Elston, one of its members, tells us about their big plans for the future.

Reroute logo.

Young people are passionate about many things – friends and school, sport and music – yes, but we also care deeply about the environment.

How do we know? This is where ReRoute, a partnership between Young Scot (Scotland’s youth information and citizenship charity) and SNH, comes in.

The ReRoute group.

The ReRoute group.

ReRoute has been created to help SNH deliver Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy by focusing on youth involvement in environmental topics. We recognise the positive contributions that nature makes to young people’s lives, such as health and wellbeing benefits. Working together on residential trips every few months, myself and the other panel members are busy exploring issues that affect youth involvement in nature, as well as how environmental organisations work and engage young people in their work.

To understand young people’s thoughts and opinions on Scotland’s natural environment the group wanted to speak directly to them. So we created a survey that we published through Young Scot’s rewards programme.

The survey received 1079 responses from young people across Scotland and challenged many assumptions that may be held about young people. We found that 86% of respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that we need to protect the natural environment and 75% thought that nature and the outdoors were important to them.


However, the survey also revealed that only 15% had heard of Scotland’s Biodiversity: A Route Map to 2020 or the international targets for biodiversity and the environment.

Nevertheless, this is hugely encouraging for ReRoute and has inspired the whole group to work with environmental organisations to make sure that young people can have an instrumental role – whether this is through raising awareness, their lifestyle choices, or volunteering and employment opportunities.

ReRoute will also use Young Scot’s digital platforms and rewards programmes to test out ways of engaging young people on the topics and issues before ultimately making recommendations to SNH and Scottish Government on how these activities can be scaled to have an even bigger impact.

ReRoute group members have been attending events to gather information on topics in Scotland’s Biodiversity: A Route Map to 2020, how young people can engage with nature, and how environmentally focused organisations can get young people involved.

The Race Equality in Nature conference in Bristol was an inspiring event brought about by 14-year-old blogger and birder, Birdgirl, passionately campaigning for better access to nature for people from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities. We learned that people with various religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds can face many barriers to accessing and enjoying nature’s benefits. We hope to use these insights to ensure that they reach young people from all backgrounds in Scotland and champion equal access for all.

Other events, such as RSPB’s Big Nature Festival, Trees for Life’s Glen Affric Bioblitz and Edinburgh Science Festival talks (such as Ocean Junkyard) were also fantastic opportunities to gather information about involving young people in nature and environmental issues. However we noticed that few people aged 11-15 attended, and, after speaking to young people it was apparent that they often cannot or will not travel long distances or are unable to pay to go to these events.


We are, therefore, looking into how young people can access such events more easily, or whether other types of engagement would work better for certain age groups.

Already widely receiving recognition, for example from Scotland’s First Minister in her speech at the World Forum on Natural Capital, we have discovered so many different groups full of passionate people doing amazing work with nature in Scotland. We hope to create the right atmosphere to encourage change.

We will continue to make links with organisations, gather insights from young people and test out their ideas on how to engage them further. We will also begin to take on a more strategic role by talking to both senior staff and the board of SNH. Not only will this give us the chance to give a voice to the opinions of young people but they will also be able to co-create solutions and ideas. ReRoute are excited to take on the next phase of our challenge; we have a long road ahead, but we’re confident it can be done.

For more information on ReRoute visit the Young Scot ReRoute website  or the ReRoute web page. Follow us on Twitter #SNHReRoute.

All images © Young Scot

Posted in biodiversity | Tagged , , , ,

Good news for Scotland’s juniper

Once a prolific plant in Scotland, juniper has been in decline. However SNH’s Helen Taylor tells us about a recent discovery which suggests a positive turnaround.

Juniper berrries. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Juniper berrries. © Lorne Gill/SNH

I was out doing some site condition monitoring on Glenartney Juniper Wood a couple of weeks ago.  The wood has been suffering over the last 15 years or so. Large numbers of juniper bushes were dying and for a while we did not know exactly why – until early 2012 when scientists from Forest Research confirmed the presence of Phytophthora austrocedri. This is a fungus-like pathogen which was first discovered in Argentina, and in the UK it was discovered first in Teedsale, then at Glenartney.  However the genetics of the pathogen in the UK is different from that in Argentina so it doesn’t look as if the two outbreaks are linked and the origins of these epidemics are a mystery.


New juniper growth. © Helen Taylor

Glenartney Juniper Wood Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is the largest area of juniper in Tayside and has been looking in a sorry state, with the dead bushes creating a patchwork effect across the site.  However spirits have been lifted this week with the discovery of ‘baby’ juniper bushes  at several locations in the SSSI. Coincidentally, on the same day, staff from both SNH and Forest Research were visiting the SSSI to do some work and both teams found young bushes.  It is hoped that this might be a sign of a turnaround in the fortunes of the Juniper at Glenartney.  The wood is made up of bushes which are around 100 years old, with some as old as 300 years. There have been very few sightings of younger bushes at the site so the discoveries on Tuesday made it a real red letter day.  We are hoping that some of these young bushes may have a natural resistance to the pathogen so that in future centuries there is still a juniper wood at Glenartney.

Why juniper is important
Juniper is one of three native conifers in Scotland, along with Scots pine and yew, and was once widespread, particularly in the Perthshire area. Its conservation is important as the loss of juniper would affect wildlife such as black grouse, snipe and woodcock which all benefit from the dense ground cover it provides.

Its evergreen leaves are often the only grazing available to sheep and deer during snowy winters. Farm livestock also use the juniper’s shelter juniper. Whilst in the past Scottish juniper was often used for gin production by illicit whisky distillers because of its smokeless wood, most juniper berries for gin production in the UK are now imported from Eastern Europe.

You can find out more about the infection that’s  blighting our juniper here.

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