Ramblers Scotland

Our guest blogger today is Jeannie Cranfield of Ramblers Scotland and she has a simple message … Get Outdoors this Summer. A series of events in early August are planning to make it easier than ever to sample the delights of walking in Scotland, as Jeannie explains below.

I’m lucky to live at the foot of the Ochil hills and have spent many happy hours exploring the many paths and enjoying the peaceful surroundings and expansive views.

I’m not a particularly fit or fast walker, I think it’s fair to say I’m a plodder, but who cares, there’s never any hurry, and some days in summer, it’s just great to plonk down on the grassy slope, hot and out of puff, feeling the wind caress your cheeks as you lie back and watch the clouds dance across the sky.

It matters not to me if I do a long walk or a short walk in the hills, I always feel rejuvenated and uplifted by my excursions – at a deep place it feeds my soul.  It’s the stillness of the land, the astounding beauty of the tiniest detail in a wild and open landscape, the gurgle of a burn, the song of a skylark or the call of a buzzard and the fresh air in my lungs.  I can’t think of a better tonic, especially as my working week is spent behind a desk in front of a computer screen!

Sitting quietly on a hillside is one of my favourite things to do.  The world stands still and you with it, there is only the rustle of the wind through the grass and a timelessness that is rich and full.

When I find a great place to stop, there’s nothing better than enjoying a favourite treat!  Food always tastes so good when you’re outside so I never venture far without my favourite snacks – and a bar of chocolate tucked away in my pack!

It’s a great way to spend a day and I return home happy, uplifted and relaxed.

So if you’re looking for things to do of a weekend, why not plan a walk and explore somewhere new?   Ramblers Scotland’s Get Outdoors Weekend 1- 3 August provides the perfect opportunity to get on your walking boots.  Loads of walks and walking routes are lined up for you to try on your own or with family and friends.  There’s over 450 mapped short walks (Medal Routes) that are easy to find, and there’s over 45 group led walks so you can explore somewhere new without getting lost.

Or if you’d like to plan your own trips, Scotland  has 26 long distance routes showcasing some of the best scenery which also make a great basis for a day trip.   There’s Munros, Donalds and Corbetts to climb and a myriad of wonderful low level walks too.  And Scotland has plenty of woodlands to explore and  great walks in National and Regional Parks to discover, and hundreds of miles of spectacular coastal trails.

Ramblers Scotland also has over 100 prizes on offer for those that share their photos, including two nights in Gleneagles Hotel and some great Paramo jackets!  See the website for details: http://www.ramblers.org.uk/go-walking/get-outdoors-weekend-2015.aspx

So there are plenty of good ideas and incentives to help you enjoy Scotland outdoors.  Although the weather may not always be great, the scenery and landscape is sure to be!

Images 2, 3 and 4 courtesy of Jeannie Cranfield

 

 

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Skate cases

Following the designation of the Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura MPA for common skate last year we are looking for information about common skate egg cases in Argyll from beachcombers, divers and fishermen. We hope the information will help solve the mystery of where common skate lay their eggs in the area.

Common skate are the largest elasmobranch egg cases you are likely to find in Scotland – and the rarest.  They are about the size of an A4 sheet of paper – roughly 30cm long and 15cm across – with short slightly curved “horns” at the corners.  Divers might spot green, leathery eggs with the fish still inside in rocky areas from 10 to 30m.

Beachcombers may find empty egg cases in the shallow water on the beach in which case they will be flat and black.  However they are more common amongst the seaweed in the strandline where they dry and shrink, crinkling up and developing a coating of brown, papery, bark-like material.

Join The Shark Trust Great Eggcase Hunt at http://www.eggcase.org to help you identify any egg cases you find.  Remove any empty skate egg cases from the beach and email us at skate@snh.gov.uk with the location and date you found them.  If you can, attach a photo of the egg case with a ruler or a 2 pence piece for scale.

 

Further information:

MPA information at http://www.snh.gov.uk/protecting-scotlands-nature/protected-areas/national-designations/mpas/mpa-sju/ 

Photo credits: Skate photo courtesy of and (c)  SSACN, two skate cases images by Jane Dodd of SNH.

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Scottish Ornithologists’ Club news

The Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) is Scotland’s bird club with over 3,000 members and a network of 15 branches across Scotland, each hosting a programme of evening talks and outings. The Club produces the only dedicated journal to Scotland’s birdlife, Scottish Birds – a quarterly publication that has been in circulation since 1957. Here Wendy Hicks updates us on their latest news with a guest blog.

Waterston House Garden by June Scott

Waterston House Garden by June Scott

Waterston House is the SOC headquarters and is fully accessible by wheelchair and has toilets and tea/coffee facilities. In addition to housing a wildlife art gallery, the building serves as a birdwatchers’ resource centre and includes a small retail area (optical equipment, birdfood, birdfeeders, art books, gifts and cards),  a second-hand bookshop and one of the largest ornithological reference libraries in Scotland, with over 10,000 books and journals (a borrowing service is available to SOC members). There is no charge to visit the centre and visitors (members or non-members alike) are always very welcome.

If you go along to the visitor centre between now and September 9th you will be able to view our latest exhibition – ‘Birds and Light’ by Brin Edwards

Four sleeping Teal by Brin Edwards

Four sleeping Teal by Brin Edwards

Brin has been fascinated by the appearance of birds for as long as he can remember; one of his earliest memories is as a six-year old, drawing a picture of a Black-naped Oriole, which he saw in his garden in Singapore. His parents moved there for a couple of years in the early sixties and the intense saturated colours of tropical birds made a huge impression on him. Most children sadly stop drawing once they reach their teens but Brin kept going. Making drawings of birds became an itch that he had to scratch!

After studying Biology and Ecology at University, Brin spent the next twenty years or so as a freelance illustrator, producing work for many UK publishers and charities including the National Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

Oystercatcher laminarea by Brin Edwards

Oystercatcher laminarea by Brin Edwards

Nowadays he spends most of his time painting birds in oils with a looser, more abstracted style than his precise illustration work. Here he is trying to make bold statements and capture the essence of the birds rather than get bogged down in too much fussy detail. The ideas for his pictures relate to direct observation and often a spit-second glimpse of a bird will set in motion an idea for a composition. Sometimes an image will arrive, fully formed in his head and will demand urgently to be resolved but often ideas will rattle around in his head for some time before he commits to them to canvas.

Brin is a council member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) and won the RSPB Award at the SWLA annual exhibition at The Mall Galleries, London in 2010. He also received the British Birds ‘Bird Illustrator of the Year’ award in 1999.

 

Bullfinch study by Brin Edwards

Bullfinch study by Brin Edwards

Scottish Bird News – proposed digitisation

From 1986 to 2009, the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) published a quarterly magazine, Scottish Bird News, which ran for 91 issues and included all manner of articles and Club news from headquarters and SOC branches. It is an important record of SOC activities over that period and the Club would now like to make that record more widely available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The BHL www.biodiversitylibrary.org, whose main partners in the UK are the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, has become the world’s main free archive of digitised natural history literature, and has established itself as a leading online research library. If you don’t already know it, you should have a look – it offers free access to a vast amount of historical books and journals, including the Scottish Naturalist and the Annals of Scottish Natural History through to 1922, the Proceedings of the Glasgow Natural History Society, rare books by Pennant, Harvie-Brown, MacGillivray and much more. By adding Scottish Bird News to the BHL, the SOC hopes this will allow more people around the world to find and read its past newsletters.

SOC Council has endorsed this proposal but authors, photographers and artists originally submitted their articles and other material to Scottish Bird News for print publication, mostly before the idea of digital access came along. It is now impracticable or impossible to trace all the individual contributors or their legal representatives, but we believe that most or all would be happy to see their work now reaching new and wider audiences to the overall benefit of Scottish natural history. If any copyright holder does not wish to have their material included in free digital access, they are asked to contact mail@the-soc.org.uk to discuss this with us as soon as possible, preferably before 1 December 2015. Arrangements are in place to have material excluded from web access where necessary.

 

 

Waterston House is open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm, and between 12 noon-6pm at the weekends.

For more information on the SOC and its work, visit www.the-soc.org.uk

Images: ‘Four sleeping Teal’ by Brin Edwards, ‘Oystercatcher Laminarea’ by Brin Edwards, ‘Sandwich Tern with Redshank’ by Brin Edwards, ‘Bullfinch study’ by Brin Edwards

Sandwich Tern with Redshank by Brin Edwards

Sandwich Tern with Redshank by Brin Edwards

Posted in biodiversity, Birds | Tagged , , ,

Species of the month – heather

The name is so closely associated with Scotland that it seems part of the very fabric of the nation. Whisky, bagpipes, red deer stags, porridge, heather: each might seem to have aspects of cliché or stereotype about them, but each is also of great value (in widely different ways) to the country.

 

Scots pine and heather. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scots pine and heather. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Wide moors that flush purple in late summer and early autumn – and have a slow fade to the tawny tones of winter – owe their colour, fundamentally, to heather.

‘Heather’ can refer to any of three small, woody heathland plants, each adding their own tints to this palette. Cross-leaved heath is pale and salmon coloured. Bell heather has a hotter pink. And ling – the commonest small shrub of the Scottish moors – is pale purple-pink. It’s ling or ‘common heather’, more than the others, which is the plant most people know simply as ‘heather’.

Large areas of upland Scotland – particularly in Perthshire, the Cairngorms, Deeside and the Borders – are dominated by ling. In these places, the mass of flowers spread across many hectares of moor in August and September is unmistakable; their blush is the dominant colour at ground level. In other places and at other times, you might see fewer plants or less punchy colour. That’s when you need to look more closely to identify ling and related moorland plants.

Ling is a bushy shrub that can typically grow up to about 60 cm high in places where heathland is ‘managed’ through grazing and/or periodic burning. Where moors aren’t managed, it can grow even taller. Close-up, look for many side shoots along the twiggy stems. These are packed with rows of narrow leaves, each row opposite one on the other side of the shoot. Leaves in cross-leaved heath and bell heather are arranged in whorls up the stem.

Ling flowers can be packed together quite densely along leafy spikes in the upper part of the plant. Each purple-pink petal tube is shaped like a tiny bell (more bell-like, in fact, than bell heather flowers, which are more tubular in shape).

Bell heather (Erica cinerea). ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Bell heather (Erica cinerea). ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Heather occurs in many parts of Scotland, sometimes as an occasional plant sprouting among other vegetation – for instance, in grasslands where the soil is fairly acidic. However, the prime areas for heather are the uplands, where heathland cover (much of it with ling present or abundant) is internationally important.

Scotland is the European stronghold for upland, heather-rich heath, with about a quarter of the whole surface of the country covered in it. Both wet and dry types of heather moor grow here, each with a slightly different mix of other plants that grow with common heather. The wet moors are commonest in western and northern hill areas, where drainage may be poor and rainfall high. Dry moors are commoner elsewhere, including the heather moorland heartlands of the central and eastern Highlands and the Borders.

Woodland clearings could be considered the ancient home of heather. That’s where it can be part of an unfolding sequence of vegetation that moves in to cover ground laid bare by fire (such as after lightning strikes) or exposed to extra sunlight when trees are blown over (after storms). However, man has been giving a boost to heather for a very long time, especially through using patterns of grazing and burning that favour it over grasses and trees. In Scotland, the amount of heather has gone up and down, linked to human activity, over many hundreds of years.

Heather. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Heather. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

The most distinctive heather moors are in drier uplands, where a characteristic pattern of burning strips on grouse moors is used to boost the growth of young heather. Other stages of the plant are kept as cover for nesting grouse and their broods. Typically, each of these strips is torched every 10 to 15 years. The practice of burning not too often and not too hot removes old stems but keeps the roots alive. These roots can then support fresh, food-rich young shoots, which are now free from competition with competing trees, as these will have been killed or suppressed by the fire.

In the past, heather was used for many different purposes. For instance, the people who lived in the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae on Orkney, many thousands of years ago, twisted the tough stems to make ropes. Large balls of heather rope could be used to secure thatch and the stems were packed in as insulation inside cavity walls. Other uses included brooms and basket handles.

The best time to line a box bed with heather was after harvesting when the heather was in full bloom. After being spread out to dry for a few hours, the material was packed with all the flowering heads upright and leaning a little towards the head of the bed. Held in by logs at its edges, the finished product was said to look like a field of purple bending in a breeze. It might also give out a honeyed, sleep-inducing perfume, which provided quite a mattress for use in a peasant’s cottage.

Heather would continue to grow in many places – including the woodland clearings that are its natural home, so to speak – without people’s help. But the large, heather-rich moors that are famous for both their colour and extent owe their continuing presence to human action.

Many of these moors would, through natural processes, become woodlands if they weren’t regularly burnt to promote the regeneration of heather. It would survive in open areas there, but it wouldn’t be the dominant plant across a whole landscape. So in that sense, heather moorlands are very strongly linked to human activity.

The action with the most obvious heather boosting effect is grouse moor management. This also produces the distinctively patterned, multi-toned strips on hillsides. Elsewhere, a different kind of ‘muirburn’ to promote fresh growth of grasses may also maintain some heather.

So if we’re to continue having large areas of heather in Scotland, then very careful muirburn (now governed by law and through codes of practice) is essential. People are also trying to keep Scottish heather in the pink (or purple) through research into how different amounts of grazing affect heather cover, along with advice to different kinds of upland managers.

 

 

Seasonal scenes

Spring

Where buds at the ends of long ‘leading’ shoots have survived the winter, these are usually the first to break into new growth in spring. Where those buds have died, ones on shorter shoots might sprout first. The fresh leaves are bright green and widely spaced, in strong contrast to the dull, densely packed foliage from the previous year’s growth.

Summer

Fresh shoots continue to grow.

Autumn

August and September are peak times for vibrant heather colour on Scottish moors. The timing of peak colour varies from year to year, depending on the weather conditions in both spring and summer.

Winter

Growth stops and plants become dormant. This includes buds that will, with luck, survive until the following spring and be able to send out fresh shoots.

Further reading – Plantlife page on heather http://www.plantlife.org.uk/wild_plants/plant_species/heather/

 

Posted in Species of the month | Tagged , , , ,

Here be dragons

Dave Pickett, who looks after Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve, follows his introduction to this central-belt gem with a short piece looking at one resident in particular – the lizard.

Sometimes when you visit a nature reserve it can be a bit disappointing as you have gone to see nature but none is about. Well, pick a sunny day and take a stroll around the Flanders Moss and you will be sure to see wildlife … lizards abound right at your feet.

Common Lizard. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Common Lizard. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

The moss has always been a great spot for reptiles and amphibians, the pools and ditches good for frogs, toads and newts and the drier areas good for lizards and adders but seeing them can be difficult.

The moss is hard walking and a slip into a deep water filled ditch can spoil your day. But as soon as we put in the boardwalk the lizards took to it immediately. For them it provides an ideal basking place where they can sit on top and warm up in the sun but if it rains or turns cold or people come along then they can just slip between the treads to safety.

The wide flat spaces of the boardwalk also offer great feeding areas were quick darts can bag a lizard their main food flies. Of course the boardwalk was put in to give people a flat, dry easy path to enjoy the moss so when a feature is put in that brings people and wildlife together it adds to the excitement of a visit.

 

Flanders Moss NNR.

Flanders Moss NNR.

Over time the Moss has become well known as a good place to see lizards, if you go slowly and quietly and are light on your feet then you can see the smaller, blacker, this year’s youngsters and mixed in the occasional bigger adults resplendent is their beautiful green, black and blue mosaic overalls.

I have met many parents and children who have come across the central belt just to see the lizards on the boardwalk, so many that we considered changing the name of the NNR to Lizard NNR.  So never mind Springwatch or Summerwatch, if you fancy a walk and an encounter with real life wildlife, and real miniature dragons at that, then take a sunny walk on the boardwalk of Flanders Moss NNR.

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There is more to a bog than bog

Dave Pickett, our reserve manager at Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve, reports from the ever-changing patchwork of colours that characterise one of the central belt’s hidden gems. This wild space is one of Britain’s largest, intact raised bogs. Extending over three square miles it is a special place and an internationally important habitat.

Blaeberry, heather and lichen carpet growing on a raised bog at Flanders Moss NNR. Argyll and Stirling Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.snh.gov.uk

Blaeberry, heather and lichen carpet growing on a raised bog at Flanders Moss NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lying in Scotland’s central belt is a nature reserve that offers something a little different. It is wild but accessible, tranquil but buzzing, soaking wet but you will keep your feet dry, peaceful but absolutely buzzing and one of Scotland’s biggest bogs but not that bad! It is Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve.

Don’t be put off by the name bog, behind the word is a special habitat with a multitude of riches to be enjoyed from special wildlife to unique landscapes with interesting histories. And Flanders Moss NNR is one of the biggest and least damaged bogs in the UK, it covers 860ha (over 2000 football pitches) but was once much bigger.

It lies on the Carse of Stirling, about 10 miles west of the city and is surrounded by rich farmland, some of which in the past was won from the bog by peatland clearances of an epic scale. Scottish Natural heritage has been working on Flanders for the last 30 years, to restore the bog habitat and to make it easier for people to visit the reserve.

The viewing tower at Flanders Moss NNR.

The viewing tower at Flanders Moss NNR.
©Dougie Barnett/SNH

There is now a boardwalk and path that allows you to walk around a small corner of the site in dry feet and a viewing tower that lets you look out across the full extent of the bog and its setting of hills and mountains all round. The path from the car park to the open moss takes you from bleak farmland to the vibrant wild bog in a few steps.

Visitors on the boardwalk trail at Flanders Moss NNR,

Visitors on the boardwalk trail at Flanders Moss NNR,

A survey carried out on the many visitors to the moss brought to light a few surprises of how and why people used the reserve. Though many came first because it was a nature reserve, it appears that it is the feel and atmosphere of the bog that people actually enjoy. The most common words used to describe it were quiet, peaceful, different, atmosphere and accessible. And in order of popularity the things people liked the most were the quiet, the tower, the peace, the wildlife, the colours and the view.

One visitor said that she always stopped at the moss with her children when returning from parties as it was the best way of calming them down. And though the path is only just under 1 km long and is a flat easy surface that is accessible to all, the average time spent by visitors at the reserve was nearly 1 hour. Some didn’t dawdle quite some much, with the great views and easy path making it popular for health walks and even short jogs!

So if you want to sample a bit of wilderness, escape the rat race and enjoy the peace, take in some special wildlife, sample the birdsong and just chill then why not take the bog road at Flanders Moss.

 Find out how to get to Flanders Moss NNR at http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/flanders-moss/visiting/

 

Posted in Flanders Moss NNR, National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , ,

New breeders and passage migrants

Craig Nisbet is the warden on our Noss National Nature Reserve. With a keen interest in birds he has been sharing news of his latest sightings, and below he updates us on what he has spotted in the month of June.

June has been a month of varying fortunes for two species of bird on Noss this year. Both golden plover and greylag goose made breeding attempts this season.

Golden plovers have bred on Noss in small numbers in the past, with the last successful attempt being made in 2008. Greylag geese on the other hand have never been recorded breeding here, and with this year’s attempt they become the 32nd species of breeding bird for Noss. The pair of golden plover had been observed holding territory since May of this year, with the familiar plover-like broken wing diversion display tactic being seen by my colleague Andy while passing them by. We were delighted this week when a chick of no more than a few days old was discovered under their protection near the south side of the island, and we’re hopeful that they can bring their youngster to fledging age over the coming weeks.

Golden plover

Golden plover

The greylag geese were surprisingly more elusive, and nothing was known of their breeding intentions until this week, when I was surprised to see a pair of them leading two few-day old goslings toward Cradle Holm. The adults flew, leaving the young goslings alone to wander down a near vertical embankment. It was heart-breaking to watch one fall to its death, while another valiantly struggled to climb the cliff back to its calling parents, before being predated by a hooded crow. A dangerous part of the island for geese to breed.

Greylag goose

Greylag goose

Spring has been brightened up in no small part this year by the visits of a few stunning migrants. By far the most unusual of visits was the nightingale, usually seen no further north than their breeding grounds in the south of England.

Nightingale

Nightingale

The most colourful of our visitors was the striking spring male bluethroat, with his spectacular blue patch glistening in the early June sunlight after being discovered in typically drizzly conditions the night before.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat

A familiar British bird with parasitic tendencies stopped in briefly for a visit a few days later, and although its distinctive call was not heard, the regal appearance of a male cuckoo was unmistakable. Their habit of using other birds’ nests to rear their young doesn’t endear them to many people, but as strategists they must be admired, as they are able to use smaller passerines as hosts to their offspring while they promptly depart for warmer wintering grounds in Africa.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

The latest migratory highlight was an icterine warbler. After a fall of them in Shetland on various other islands the previous week, we were delighted to have discovered that Noss had not been excluded after all. The chances are that this individual was in fact one of the birds that had already been in Shetland, and with unfavourable winds would probably have been biding its time before continuing its migration eastwards.

Icterine warbler

Icterine warbler

The peak of spring migration has now passed, but with some of the biggest Noss rarities having turned up in June and July, you really never know when something extraordinary may turn up.

 

Images courtesy of Craig Nisbet.

Find out more about Noss NNR at http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/noss/

 

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