SNH people – Alison Matheson

In the first of our series of posts highlighting the great variety of work people do within SNH, Alison Matheson, Policy and Advice Officer, based in our Inverness office, tells us about her job.

Photo of Alison Matheson

Why did you want to work for SNH and what was your previous experience? 

Before I worked for SNH I was a Countryside Ranger in the Pentland Hills Regional Park which is just south of Edinburgh.  That was quite a long time ago!  I chose to move to SNH to broaden my experience. I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of different roles in SNH.

What are the main aspects of your work? 

My current role, in our People and Places Unit, is all about getting more people outdoors to enjoy Scotland’s nature.  My role is quite varied and includes overseeing volunteering in SNH, working on ranger service matters – hopefully spreading the word about how great ranger services are, helping to implement a new path grading system for Scotland, and contributing to our equality, diversity and social inclusion work.

What’s the best thing about your job? 

Knowing that more people are getting outdoors, enjoying nature and benefitting their health, as a result of what we do.  One project that SNH is currently grant aiding, the Backbone Community Leadership project, is a wonderful example of this.  The community leaders are trained and then use that training to have confidence to take their communities outdoors – perhaps walking or cycling.  I was lucky enough to meet the community leaders recently at one of their training weekends – they are inspirational.  Some of them have been encouraging members of their community to learn to cycle for the first time – what a life changing activity that has turned out to be.

Eider Ducks resting at Sands of Forvie NNR.

Eider Ducks resting at Sands of Forvie NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Where is your favourite place to get out and about in Scotland? 

That is a tricky question – we are spoiled for choice in Scotland.  It could be at the top of one of our highest mountains – up there, on a fine day, you feel on top of the world.  But I think I’ll opt for Forvie National Nature Reserve – I was the Reserve Manager there for a number of years and it remains very dear to my heart.  Take a visit there to hear the eider ducks calling and be inspired.

To find out about visiting Forvie NNR look at the website.



Posted in Staff profile | Tagged , , ,

Earth Observation Project

Paul Wheelhouse (Minister of Business Innovation and Energy) spoke recently at the Data.Space Conference in Glasgow. He mentioned the exciting work that Scottish Government, SEPA and SNH are carrying out using Earth Observation data. Here’s a brief summary of what the project means and the benefits it could deliver.

UAV image showing peat bunding at Carsegowan Moss, Galloway. ©SNH

UAV image showing peat bunding at Carsegowan Moss, Galloway. ©SNH

What is Earth Observation?

Earth Observation comes from three types of platforms – satellites, manned aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones).

There is currently an explosion in the availability of data from satellites and huge potential from UAVs.  Although SNH already makes very good use of its aerial photography which is available to SNH staff via our geo.View software, there is a great opportunity to use these additional data sources across a whole range of SNH business interests for the benefit of Scotland’s people and habitats.  

One example of where new data sources gleaned from Earth Observation offer huge potential is in the upcoming review of our Site Condition Monitoring process. Another area where the impact of this emerging technology is eagerly anticipated is in helping to monitor peatland habitat condition in order to contribute to site management, assessment of restoration progress and, in particular, to carbon accounting.

Partnership working

Funding for the peatland project was secured through the Scottish Government Contract Research Fund.  SNH have played an active role in the Scottish Government Remote Sensing Working Group and this project is part of a wider package to kick start four Earth Observation projects in Scotland.  The peatland project is being managed by Joint Nature Conservation Committee and is co-funded by the Defra Earth Observation Centre of Excellence.

At the conference in Glasgow Mr. Wheelhouse noted that “The Scottish Government is collaborating with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to deliver a number of projects to build on our understanding of remote sensing data.

“One of these projects assesses current measures for addressing rural diffuse pollution, which will ensure that Scotland’s water environment is protected and improved in a way that balances costs and benefits.  A second project involves developing an understanding of the role remote sensing can play in assessing the condition of peatland habitats.  This is obviously a key concern for the Scottish Government as this will inform greenhouse gas assessments and accounting.”


False-colour infrared image of Inverness and surroundings from Sentinel 2 satellite. © SNH

Remote sensing will clearly allow organisations to collect and analyse more data about the earth’s surface without actually ‘being there’. Satellites have enormous potential in this area of work and the new European Sentinel Satellites will play a major role in the information we gather in the coming years.

Exciting times indeed.

Watch this space: You can keep up to date with developments in this area of work by following our recently launched GIS twitter page .

See the BBC news website for a short piece about the recent SNH trial of new stereo colour near-infrared aerial imagery to map Glenfeshie.







Posted in mapping | Tagged , , , , ,

Why the chough needs a champion

Did you know that there is now a parliamentary majority of ‘Species Champions’ in the Scottish Parliament? Amanda Trask from the University of Aberdeen tells us more.

Red-billed chough. Gordon Yates (

Red-billed chough. Gordon Yates (

This is great news for Scotland’s wildlife – 65 MSPs have each chosen to champion the survival of a different threatened Scottish species. Threatened species are first nominated by a sponsoring organisation, then MSPs can choose to ‘champion’ them, by lending political support, contributing to practical action and raising awareness of the threats their species face.

However, there are still threatened species in Scotland that need urgent help. One such species is the red-billed chough. The chough is one of Scotland’s iconic coastal birds, with bright red legs and beak, and glossy all-black plumage. It is a member of the crow family and is known for its aerial acrobatics and distinctive call, which resonates off the sea cliffs. 

Why are Scottish chough threatened?

Sadly, there are currently less than 200 individual chough left in Scotland, with the last remaining populations existing on only two islands in the Inner Hebrides; Islay and Colonsay. Historically, chough in the UK faced various threats, ranging from changes in farming (which led to changes in the coastal habitat they rely on), persecution (with crows, rooks and chough quite possibly controlled indiscriminately) and egg collecting.



Red-billed chough. Gordon Yates (

However, to better understand the recent decline in chough numbers in Scotland, the Scottish Chough Study Group (SCSG) have been monitoring the population since 1981 and their efforts have recently been recognized and highly commended in the Nature of Scotland Awards. Along with researchers from the Universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow and the Scottish Rural Agricultural College, they have found that the decline in chough on Islay is likely to be linked to availability of their invertebrate food. In particular, young chough may not get enough food and so starve to death. This is bad news for the population not only because the individual young chough die, but also because those young chough then never breed, and so any future offspring are also lost. In response to this, an emergency conservation initiative was set up in 2011 by Scottish Natural Heritage and the SCSG to supplementary feed chough on Islay with mealworms. Alongside this, agri-environment schemes aim to improve grassland habitat for chough in Scotland in the long-term.

Sea cliffs on Islay, home to one of the two remaining populations in Scotland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Sea cliffs on Islay, home to one of the two remaining populations in Scotland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

However, other factors may also be contributing to the population decline, including genetic problems which can lead to diseases such as blindness (for more about blindness in Scottish chough, see here). Genetic problems are a particular concern in small, isolated populations as there is an increased chance of mating with a close relative, which is known as inbreeding. These genetic concerns can only be reduced if unrelated individuals from different populations are introduced into the Scottish chough population. However, introducing new chough into the Scottish populations would only work if we can make sure these introduced chough don’t also starve to death. Future research will hopefully look at both the genetic and environmental threats to the population to try to come up with a future conservation strategy to ensure the survival of chough in Scotland.

How can a Champion help?

I recently attended a Species Champion event at Holyrood, hosted by Graeme Dey MSP, who is Species Champion for the woolly willow. Both current Species Champions and MSPs interested in becoming Species Champions, as well as 15 different wildlife organisations, attended. At the event, the enthusiasm the Champions had for their species and their eagerness to contribute to conservation initiatives in Scotland was clear to see. The event was a chance for wildlife organisations to nominate new threatened species in Scotland to be championed. However, I was surprised to see that the chough was not a species being nominated to be championed. I was further surprised that few people seemed aware of how low numbers of chough left in Scotland currently are.

A Species Champion for the red-billed chough could help raise awareness of the plight of the chough in Scotland and the threats this species faces. A Species Champion could also lend both practical and political support to future conservation initiatives to address the environmental and genetic threats that chough in Scotland face. In this way, we can make sure chough remain an iconic Scottish coastal bird.

For further information about the Scottish Parliament’s Species Champions, see here.



Posted in Birds | Tagged , , , , ,

Helping rivers to do what they can do…

Rivers provide us with many, many services. They help drain the land by carrying rain water to the sea.  They help our well being by providing us with a playground for sports ranging from fishing to canoeing to our many riverside walks.  They also provide us with clean water – both for ourselves and for iconic industries such as whisky.

A section of the River Dee beforerestoration work. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

A section of the River Dee before restoration work. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Our rivers also provide a home and shelter for some of our most captivating wildlife. Many of our rivers support world renowned salmon populations. Less well known perhaps is that they also provide a home to one of Europe’s most critically endangered animals – the freshwater pearl mussel.  This somewhat obscure and little seen animal has been in decline across Europe for a number of reasons: including exploitation, poor management of our rivers and poor water quality.

We, along with many others, have been working hard to improve the health of our most important pearl mussel populations. To do this, we have frequently been trying to restore the overall health of their rivers.  Doing this not only benefits the pearl mussels but other wildlife and, in turn, it also helps the river.  And the river can then provide more of the services that we need too.

Most recently our large ‘Pearls in Peril’ project has begun to restore water flows to a back channel of the River Spey in Aviemore. This will increase the wetted area of the river and benefit both the pearl mussel and the river’s salmon population (which the mussel’s need to complete their first year of life ). And it will also provide other benefits for the river.  It will provide a more varied scene for nearby walking routes.  It will provide another route for canoeists and fishermen to use.  And, by allowing the river to return to take a more natural and wider route on its journey to the sea, it will give it more space for the river water during times of high flows.

The same section of the River Dee after restoration work. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The same section of the River Dee after restoration work. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Our Pearls in Peril project has, over the past four years, been doing this kind of work in several places such as Braemar, Banchory, Aboyne and Glen Clova. Looking at the scale of a large area like the River Spey or Dee catchments, these changes to restore a river’s route and behaviour might appear relatively small.  But collectively, and alongside other work we’ve been doing such as creating riverside woodlands and restoring nearby bogs, this work can allow our rivers more space and time to help them cope with floods, maintain clean water, maintain our great landscapes, provide us with greater sporting opportunities and so on.

So, in helping to save important species like pearls mussels, perhaps we can also help our rivers to keep providing for us.

Find out more about our Pearls in peril project here.


Posted in fresh water pearl mussel | Tagged , ,


What is wild? If it is the opposite of tame, what is “tame”?  Are wildness or tameness a perception or a state of reality?  SNH’s Iain Macdonald ponders over this question in relation to wild geese on a cricket pitch.

Barnacle geese, Islay. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Barnacle geese, Islay. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

I’m just back from looking for barnacle geese.  Through the telescope I found distant black and white dots, meandering across bright green islands off the west coast of Sutherland.  Small parties, just a handful, and I know their movements well.  They hop from island to island, as far away from people as is possible.  In the windy shades of grey sea and sky, surrounded by waves and mountains the birds are surely the epitome of wild.  In childhood I imagined the geese during a Spitzbergen summer fleeing polar bears and dodging gyr falcons and icebergs before returning to spend the winter on tiny wave-lashed islands.

The following day I went to Nairn to check out the brent geese on the cricket pitch beside the bandstand.  A playground for children, walkers, dogs and evidently now also for geese.  Over the last few years the “brents” happily ate seaweed on the beach, dodging dogs and roosting on the salt marsh beside Culbin Forest.  Over the last few weeks however the geese have become local internet celebrities.  Dog walkers were only metres to their right and the pack of geese responded by moving a few metres to their left.  They didn’t fly away and people commented on how tame they were?  In their smudgy dark plumage they looked “urban”.

Brent geese on Nairn cricket pitch. © Martin Cook

Brent geese on Nairn cricket pitch. © Martin Cook

I recall a talk from a Norwegian scientist who measured the heart rate of “tame” grouse sitting on their nest whilst being petted. He said that the birds were absolutely petrified, stressed beyond belief.  Simon at work made an interesting suggestion.  Brent geese in Dublin also wander about public parks and have been doing so for a few years.  Perhaps one of the Irish birds met up with the Nairn birds and introduced a little bit of Irish park culture?  Perhaps the local birds have learnt to be tame?

Who knows what goes through the head of a brent goose when a walker gets close and personal? I am guessing that we want them to be tame, but I suspect it’s a front.  Before chilling out at Nairn these brents have been up north, way up north, about as far north as any living bird might dare to venture.  Too far north for the average barnacle goose.  These are not tame birds, but tough birds, hard birds even.  Definitely wild birds..

“All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.” John Muir

Posted in Birds | Tagged , ,

A blog escape from the city

For those of us who live and work in towns and cities, our daily lives awash with traffic, noise and business, the countryside can sometimes seem a faraway place. It can be a breath of fresh air to even read about places where the day-to-day involves kingfishers, otters, and pink-footed geese more than it does cars and people.

Sunrise over Davan. © Catriona Reid/SNH

Sunrise over Davan. © Catriona Reid/SNH

So if you don’t even have time to nip out to an urban park during your lunch hour, may we recommend a dose of a National Nature Reserve blog to remind you of what you’re missing – and where you can head out this weekend? (Or if you’re lucky enough to live near one.)

We have three amazing blogs – straight from local National Nature Reserves (NNRs) – and full of amazing wildlife tips and information. They’re written by our knowledgeable and enthusiastic NNR staff at Loch Leven, Isle of May, and Muir of Dinnet.

Here are a couple of excerpts to show you what you’re missing!

Loch Leven – Reserve staff, Gus and Jeremy, recently wrote their own Winterwatch series of blogs, comparing what was seen on BBC Winterwatch each night with what you can see on this wonderful nature reserve. Here’s a short excerpt:

“The stonechat can be seen around the trail in small numbers anywhere there is gorse. This little bird breeds in the hills and drops down to the loch to spend the winter. Listen out for their call: it sounds like two pebbles being knocked together.”



And to show their absolute dedication: “For the sake of this blog, at lunchtime I climbed into the roof space of the office to look for wintering butterflies. I did, however, fail but I was surprised at the amount of wasp nests up there.”

Isle of May – David, our Isle of May reserve manager, gives a wonderful taste of what it’s like to live among thousands of seabirds for months on end with his blog. He’s as enthusiastic and entertaining telling us about the puffins the island is known for, as he is about the rare migrant birds he spots.

Long-tailed tit.

Long-tailed tit.

Here’s a great example: “Just as we thought migration was slowly coming to a close, we had these: four long-tailed tits! Now for those thinking it’s not that special as you get them in your back garden, remember we are on an island in the North Sea! The general rule of thumb is that if it’s a woodland bird, it’s probably going to be rare out here. The last great spotted woodpecker was in 2013, the last blue tit record was in 2005 and the last magpie was 1986!!”

Muir of Dinnet – Catriona, our Muir of Dinnet reserve manager, is both a wealth of information and a true word wizard. She’s immensely fun to read – here’s a sample:

“There have been quite a few swans on the lochs as well, much to the disgust of the resident pair. The male has been steaming from one end of the loch to the other, chasing the interlopers off ‘his’ patch. Not that they go far – they just move around him and re-form into a group elsewhere on the loch. And off he goes, again….”

Aggressive male mute swan.

Aggressive male mute swan.

“Winter is actually one of the best seasons for wildlife watching … you get spectacles like geese coming in to roost or huge flocks of winter thrushes. Sunsets and sunrises are at a time of day you can actually see them, not the middle of the night. And there aren’t any leaves on the trees, which makes spotting birds a lot easier too.”

NNRs are wonderful places to explore and see wildlife, and are also an important part of what we do to help protect and restore Scotland’s biodiversity. The reserves are part of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy SBS 2020 Challenge which aims to halt the loss of biodiversity and restore essential services that a healthy natural environment provides.

Vicki Mowat is one of our Media relations and PR Officers.

Posted in National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , , , ,

What exactly does a reserve assistant do?

 A lot of people don’t quite understand what it is I do, where I am or what my job is. I explain to them that I spend a lot of my time outdoors, share my experiences with others, and thoroughly enjoy every day of the week. Most people are satisfied with that answer and the conversation moves on, but I’m going to expand upon it here because otherwise this wouldn’t be a very long piece of writing at all!

Himalayan Balsam becomes a large part of my life in summer.

Himalayan balsam becomes a large part of my life in summer.

My role with SNH has many names: ‘SRUC student placement’, ‘reserve assistant’, or even ‘trainee assistant reserve manager’. I’ll start with the first one. SRUC stands for Scotland’s Rural College and I study Countryside Management BSc on the SRUC Aberdeen campus. I completed my first year in the 2015/16 period and during this time I applied for a year-long internship with SNH to work on one of seven National Nature Reserves across Scotland. Obviously, my application went well as did the interview hence I am writing this now.

Carrying out WeBS counts at Loch Leven.

Loch Leven NNR.

I began my placement in July 2016 at Loch Leven NNR, with little idea of what the coming year was going to entail. This brings me to the second title I’ve been given; ‘reserve assistant’. As this suggests, I help with the general management of the reserve and this can range from counting the thousands of birds that use the loch to feed and rest on and around, to sawing down trees, to leading group events around the reserve.

This opportunity to experience so many aspects of how the countryside is managed is invaluable to me. I’m learning and understanding more every day and there is no better way of doing this than just getting out there and seeing or doing it for yourself. Carrying out a wide range of tasks, I have seen myself develop in many areas over the past six months.

Carrying out WeBS counts at Loch Leven.

Carrying out WeBS counts at Loch Leven.

There have been some unexpected aspects of the internship, but I have found myself seizing these opportunities to learn something new. One particular skill I have enjoyed discovering and developing during my time at Loch Leven has been the ability to share my passion for the natural world with others. Being outdoors for at least three hours every day, I see a lot of wildlife and I know that there are many people who either don’t have the opportunity or don’t have the time to see these things. Therefore, I love the fact that I can share the wonders of nature with people whether through social media with my photography or face to face on the heritage trail around the loch.


Working with volunteers to create flower-rich wet meadows.

One of my favourite moments of the internship so far is when, after asking two visitors to fill in a visitor survey form, I casually mentioned that the kingfisher had been flying up and down the River Leven beside us. The reply I got was quite ecstatic as this lady had never seen one before, and right on cue I heard the distinctive “zee-zee-zee” of a kingfisher as it rocketed off of its perch by the river. I managed to say, “there it is!” just in time for her to turn around and see the brilliant, electric flash of blue and orange as the bird blasted past us in a typically speedy fashion.


Red Squirrels have become one of my favourite features of the reserve.

This happens often, I’ve shown people their first red squirrel, opened peoples’ eyes to the number of lichens growing in the unpolluted air, and seen children amazed at the apple-y flavour of wood-sorrel leaves. Wherever I go, I always have my camera on me and always will. That’s another one of the many brilliant things about my internship – the opportunity to see new places. Although I am based at Loch Leven, SNH makes sure that I get about to experience different management on other reserves.

I’ve been to the awe-inspiring Creag Meagaidh with its dramatic landscape and healthy, regenerating birch woodlands; to the sometimes very noisy (seabird season and seal season) and sometimes very quiet (in between the aforementioned seasons) Isle of May with its staggering numbers of breeding seabirds and slightly messy but very cute grey seals; and to many other places that I can’t fit into this one piece! Suffice to say, I have cherished every moment.

This placement with SNH has been the most eye-opening and information-packed six months of my life, and I’m only halfway through! What I know I’m going to take from the whole experience is that nature is incomprehensibly important for people, and I am determined to spread that message to as many people as possible by helping them see and enjoy wildlife.

Follow the Loch Leven blog to see what Gus Routledge and the rest of the reserve staff are up to.

Find out more about Loch Leven and Creag Meagaidh NNRs on the NNR website.

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