The fruit is out there

Autumn … we explore the ‘Season of mellow fruitfulness’ with our  Rambling Brambler, aka Jim Carruthers, Battleby’s gardener.

Bramble or Blackberry fruits. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Bramble or blackberry fruits. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The time of brambling is upon us. You and yours should take advantage of this fine autumn weather and get out there picking. Enjoy the experience afforded by one of the great, if not greatest, foraging traditions in Scotland.

If you have never done it before here are some pointers to help you make it less of a “sair fecht”.

Top Tips for beginners…

Take a stick… Essential accessory. Useful for making access through the sternest of thickets and pulling fruits to within reach. If you beat it on the ground as you approach a patch, it helps to scatter bears, venomous snakes, guardian readers and crazed ascetics. Splendid for controlling the weans and encouraging work-shy grannies.

Look out for brambles in your local park. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

Look out for brambles in your local park. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

Watch out for professionals… Instantly detectable by their glower. Pros are fiercely territorial. Plying with scones, drink, even waterboards, will not make them reveal their secret patch. Commonly take evasive, protracted detours to protect their source. If you come across a pro, do not attempt small talk. Back away slowly. It is said if you maintain eye contact they will not charge. Just mind that their stick will be stouter than yours.

Brambles differ… The main reason a pro like Mrs Gow can pick 3kg and you are lucky to get ½ kg is that she knows that brambles vary. They vary so much a typical bramble does not exist. It is known as an aggregate species because there are so many variations (try 500 for starters).Their fruits can be big and sweet like grapes from Nineveh or wee and wersh like Mrs Gow’s dog. Not just the fruits vary, but also the flowers, leaves, vigour and habit can all differ in themselves and in their response to the “terroir”. This explains the pro’s sense of ownership. Be aware that some variations in flavour in low-slung berries can be caused by dogs.

Know why you’re picking… jam, jelly, puddings and pies, freezer, breakfast, steeping in gin or as winter health foods. Best way to pick is judiciously and often. In these fine autumn afternoons, brambles will ripen daily. The more outings you have, the easier it is to pick solely fully-ripened fruits. Jam-makers should include a few deep brown berries which will help setting. Wine-makers may include the odd over-ripe one to encourage a natural yeast ferment. It’s only a matter of time before some vintage is launched with the slogan “Made with Scottish native yeasts”.

Over-reaching… Should be avoided but hey if you are going to do it, do it early on before you spill hunners. It will happen. Everybody’s done it. The wisest only once. Disentangle slowly. No, no, no, much more slowly than you are imagining.

Rooking… Overpicking is bad! Near enough a sin. It’s anti-social in what is essentially a community sporting event. Not the best way to become locally famous.

Comma butterfly feeding on bramble fruit. ©John Baxter/SNH

Comma butterfly feeding on bramble fruit. ©John Baxter/SNH

As a member of the rose family the bramble, like the rasp, is rich in nectar and so is visited by all kinds of insects. The leaves are used extensively by certain butterfly species. But the fruits without doubt make the greatest contribution to biodiversity. Birds, insects, small mammals like mice, larger mammals like foxes, awfy large mammals like yourself. So it is vitally important to leave some for others.

Top top tip…Pick each fruit by the sides only, thus avoiding the wasps that lurk with purposeful menace on the back.

A handful of juicy berries. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

A handful of juicy berries. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

Part 2

Bramble crops are becoming more reliable than those of raspberries. Recent weather patterns give wet summers and dry autumns. Rasps, both wild and cultivated, fail to ripen well, develop moulds and pests flourish on them. Brambles, however, are becoming more luscious than ever, the good growth brought on by the ample rains, plenty fruits due to the large number of pollinators, the autumn sun and dry weather come on cue to complete the blueprint.

One way round this dearth of rasps is to grow some autumn-fruiting rasps in your garden. Ensure you get a variety suitable for Scotland such as ‘Autumn Bliss’. Pick them in the early morning when they are cool with dew. Reliable and pest-free, they’ll keep fruiting until the frosts get serious.

You could even plant a cultivated bramble. An area the size of a whirligig will give you a punnet a day for weeks.

In fact dinnae stop there. What do you really want with all these lawns and shrubberies and herbaceous borders in these dismal summers when the only dry days have to be spent maintaining them rather than sitting in them? Plant a Bramley apple and then puddings and pies will put a smile in your belly all autumn and Apple and Bramble jam shall make the winter rain tolerable. Keep a few flowers like Japanese anemones and asters, which will be nice for you and your visitors. You will get lots of visitors, once the “crumbles on tap” word gets out.

Just practice glowering between grins. Mrs Gow’s grandweans will be sure to be among the visitors.

Posted in gardens | Tagged , , ,

The life and times of Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve – butterflies and dragonflies

It’s not all about trees and eagles, you know! One of the many tasks that we carry out here at Beinn Eighe NNR during the summer months is butterfly surveys. Butterflies are an extremely useful indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem, and may also provide early warnings of climate change, as species normally associated with warmer climates to the south are gradually being recorded further north each year.

Scotch Argus butterfly. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotch Argus butterfly.

At Beinn Eighe we carry out butterfly surveys on a weekly basis along a fixed 1.2 km route or transect from the beginning of April to the end of September, on days when weather conditions are suitable for butterfly activity. Having a fixed route provides a control method which allows butterfly sightings to be compared at the same site every year, as weather conditions will vary.

When carrying out the survey, our surveyors walk the transect, recording any butterflies that they see within a 5 metre width along the route. We also record any moths, dragonflies and damselflies which are also good indicators of ecosystem health. As well as species and numbers, we also record information such as weather conditions, wind speed/direction and cloud cover. Once completed, the survey data is entered online at the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme website, where it becomes part of the national record along with data from thousands of similar weekly butterfly surveys being carried out across the UK.

One of the butterfly species we’ve recorded on our surveys over the last few weeks is the speckled wood. This pale brown butterfly with white markings can be seen throughout the summer, preferring the dappled light of woodland habitats and feeding on common grasses such as cock’s foot and Yorkshire fog. Another recent record at the reserve is the large white butterfly which, although widespread across most of the UK throughout the summer, is much less common in north-west Scotland.

By far the most frequently recorded butterfly during the month of August has been the Scotch argus, which is easily identifiable from its dark brown wings, orange bands and distinctive eyespots. Found mainly in the Highlands and south west of Scotland, it appears for only a few short weeks between late July and early September. Despite its name, the Scotch argus is not entirely indigenous to Scotland, as two isolated populations also occur in northern England, though its population there appears to be in decline. Favouring damp grasslands, bogs and woodland clearings up to an altitude of 500 metres, there is no shortage of suitable habitat for the Scotch argus butterfly here at Beinn Eighe. The Scotch argus has an ability to survive cooler temperatures than other butterflies, making it likely to have been among the first butterfly species to recolonize the British Isles following the last Ice age.

Beinn Eighe’s ancient woodlands, wet heath and bog habitats aren’t just favoured by butterflies, they are also ideal habitat for dragonflies and damselflies. Recent records at the reserve for these amazing insects include large red damselflies, common hawkers, azure hawkers, golden-ringed dragonflies and many Highland darters.

One dragonfly species we frequently record at here Beinn Eighe is the golden-ringed dragonfly. Easy to identify with its black body, distinctive golden-yellow bands and striking green eyes, the female golden-ringed dragonfly is the longest dragonfly in the British Isles, due to her long ovipositor (the tubular organ through which a female deposits her eggs). You may see these beautiful dragonflies patrolling back and forth above lochans, mountain streams and other small bodies of water at the reserve, looking for small flying insects which they prey upon.

Golden ringed dragonfly.

Golden ringed dragonfly.

Now, moving towards the end of September, the butterfly survey season will soon be drawing to a close and the completed data for this year will provide yet another page in the ongoing story of Britain’s butterfly (and dragonfly) population.

With many species, not just butterflies, facing an uncertain future due to threats such as habitat loss and climate change, the data from our butterfly surveys will help to ensure that conservation efforts are targeted where they are needed most, as well as help to assess the effectiveness of current conservation strategies.

And a final word on the transects: these have to be carried out under specific conditions. Look at the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme methodology page for information on this. Not only that, but these conditions vary with latitude – in northern areas we can get away with 11°C as long as there is enough sun. It’s far from just randomly wandering around waving a butterfly net !

Next month? More voluntary work, and a look at some of the other wildlife we have on the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

For more information, look at our  website. The Beinn Eighe Reserve Visitor Centre is open from April until the end of October and has an award-winning display about the reserve, along with a range of walking trails from ten minutes to as much as a full day.

The view from the Mountain Trail - a four hour circular walk in stunning scenery. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The view from the Mountain Trail – a four hour circular walk in stunning scenery.

Butterfly and dragonfly text courtesy of Stuart Mackenzie, SRUC Placement.
All images ©Lorne Gill/SNH.




Posted in Uncategorized

Biodiversity on the move!

Millie Pringle is a student at Wallington High School for Girls, and recently spent a week’s internship with SNH and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Here she shares some thoughts on how we could involve more people in spreading the benefits of nature.

Millie Pringle.

Millie Pringle.

Scotland hosts around 85,000 species – but probably hundreds more as many have yet to be discovered. Each animal, plant and microbe contributes to our distinctively special environment. What we enjoy around us, and eat, drink, touch and smell comes from nature. Our moods, conversations and health all benefit from the sights and sounds around us.

Too often we take nature for granted, and yet it does so much for us. Nature provides our clean water, and helps in more subtle ways through reducing flood risks and carbon emissions.

Berwick Law, East Lothian. ©George Logan/SNH

Berwick Law, East Lothian. ©George Logan/SNH

So how do we excite and involve people, especially youngsters, to care for this wonderful asset? That’s what I’ve been thinking about, and trying to come up with some ideas that merit further work.

Research work in this area is fascinating. It shows, for example, medical patients with access to green space recover more quickly, and people taking part in gardening improve their health, well-being and life opportunities. These simple findings come from 121 projects currently running in schools, hospitals and prisons (2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy).

Even primary school children can get involved. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Even primary school children can get involved. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Can we involve more people in such projects? One idea I came up with is to get more schools and communities involved with the campaign Championing a Species. This would target the age range of 12-17 year olds who have a far greater interest in the environment than many of us realise. A lot of us read whilst travelling. Could we make greater use of posters and social media on public transport to give more information on our local neighbourhoods? Could we provide details on joining events or volunteering opportunities? We could run ‘live’ stories on these, encouraging more people to get involved and care for our local areas. Bus and train companies could make a real difference here!

By engaging with more of my age group we will should be able to tap into the wider network of families and friends – hopefully having a catalytic effect.

Shortly after Millie’s visit to SNH, the UK’s youth nature network published its Vision for Nature report. This sets out the hopes and aspirations for the kind of future young people want to inherit.  An inspiring document, it makes several key recommendations for action.

Posted in green health, Volunteering | Tagged , , ,

Eye-opening weekend at the Isle of May NNR

Most people head out to the Isle of May in spring and summer to see the masses of nesting puffins, terns, guillemots and other seabirds the island is famous for. Right now, it’s not a busy time for the May – most of the seabirds have abandoned the island, and just a few of the 4000 or so seals that will winter here are beginning to circle the island. So why did I feel so lucky recently to escape my usual office job and join some colleagues for Doors Open Day at the Isle of May?

Isle of May NNR.

Isle of May NNR.

It wasn’t just the spectacular lighthouses open to the public for the weekend. No, the big draw was that there was nothing to distract from the island’s stark beauty. I love the sight of a puffin as much as the next person, but it’s easy to become quite fixated on the birds when you dash over to the Isle of May, determined to see all the seabirds you can in your allotted hours before heading back to the mainland.

But with two days to explore, it became a weekend to savour.

Exploring the island at our leisure, we had time – and breath – to take in the well-named Palpitation Brae, the steep hill up taking you up to the main lighthouse. The main lighthouse itself is stunning: the winding stair made many a visitor gasp as they stepped in – before heading up the 68 steps to make it to the top! The low light is also worth a visit – a quirky building with yet another wonderful view.

We tried to explore every bit of the island over the weekend. It’s only 1.5 km long by 0.5 km wide, but there seemed to be unique and stunning views everywhere we looked. We startled the May’s many resident rabbits quite a few times, as we tromped about excitedly. (The rabbits, although not native to the island, play an important role in conservation on the island. They constantly nibble the grass, keeping it short and springy – just the way puffins like it for their burrows.)

One of the most special times of the weekend was a guided tour for SNH staff of the island’s ruined monastery by archaeologist, Peter Yeoman. Peter was popular with visitors over the weekend as well, putting on tour after tour for those coming off the boats for Doors Open days.

We travelled over on a RIB on Saturday with Peter and his wife, Sarah, and within a few minutes on the May, Peter had found a medieval shard of pottery. During our tour, he mentioned that they had found piles and piles of ancient pottery, as well as roof tiles during the excavation in the 1990s. He found yet another relic – a sturdy, shiny piece of tile while he toured us around the site.

The ruins of the Isle of May Priory.

The ruins of the Isle of May Priory.

I had no idea that the monastery on the May was such an important early Christian site, or that they had found 50 skeletons with four different styles of burial, giving us important insights into the medieval lifestyle and diet. In fact, the monks were the ones who brought rabbits to the May in the 1300s, as a source of fresh meat.

Peter told us that the May is one of the three most important priory sites in Scotland, even though it had only 12 or 13 monks at its height. It was established by King David, who apparently had special boat on hand to transport him to the May anytime he wanted to visit the chapel. Peter also told us that the Firth of Forth would have been a busy transport thoroughfare back then – a complete contrast to the scene before us, with just miles of blue sea and not a boat in sight.

This year’s Doors Open day is passed but keep an eye out for future events on the Doors Open website.

There’s still time to visit the Isle of May before the end of the season, find out how to get there and what you’ll discover once you ‘re there on the Isle of May website.

Vicki Mowat is one of SNH’s Media Relations and PR Officers.

All images by Vicki Mowat/SNH other than introductory image by Lorne Gill/SNH.

Posted in National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , ,

A Bridge over Endrick Water

Poetry in motion as SNH’s Danielle Casey, joined by a band of merry friends and colleagues, cycles the John Muir Way

Beguiled by sakura. © Alan Crawford

Beguiled by sakura. © Helen Taylor

We embark on our journey
Beguiled by sakura
A motley of cyclists
Racer, mountain and tourer

Charging through the streets
With armour-like vigour
We begin our adventure
On to higher, richer and deeper
Experiences of our country
To share amongst men
Over the Blackhill and Look!
There’s the Ben

East of Loch Lomond
Mike’s aw tapsalteerie
Up through the park,
By the last home of Tom Weir, he
Was another who inspired us all
To get out and about
Winter, spring, summer and fall

Bridge over Endrick Water. © Alan Crawford

Bridge over Endrick Water. © Alan Crawford

We take some pictures
Lest we forget
What it’s like in nature’s temple
Each image beset
With intrinsic beauty
Each atom a link
On to Croftamie
Where some of us sink
A couple of beers, a juice or a coffee
“Shall we crack on?”
“Make haste!” We’re offski!

The West Highland Way
A plethora of gates
We develop a system
The first man opens and waits
’Til the whole gang has wiggled
And weaved its way through
The fields and the farms
And the scent of fresh poo

It was a bit of a challenge
Coming up that last hill
Before a bumpy descent
To Strathblane and time to chill

Day two we begin
With the mist hanging low
We glide along
How easily we flow
Dunglass Hill appears
Like a beluga from the sea
With a nod “Good morning!”
As if it too can see
Mergus merganser
Glides in solo flight
Ducking and diving
and then slips out of sight
Its path laid out
In wide open space
With this one fleeting glimpse
We’ll always remember this place

Arriving at the Falkirk Wheel. © Alan Crawford

Arriving at the Falkirk Wheel. © Alan Crawford

The Radical Pend
Where once was a battle
“Mind how you go”…
‘Bump!’, ‘Bang!’, ‘Rattle!’
The Falkirk Wheel
“Wow! That’s impressive!”
The ‘People’s Route’ through the Central Belt
Take pleasure; respect it!

Along the Union Canal
Into a rhythm we tucked
Elevated above land
The mighty Avon aqueduct
This awesome construction
Stands long and tall
High above the highest trees
My ‘self’ feels small

Surprise appearance of Thomas at Bo'ness. © Andrew Whewell

Surprise appearance of Thomas at Bo’ness. © Andrew Whewell

At Bo’ness and Kinneil
Steam engines delight
As wee rest by the Forth
With industrial sight
We whizz by the Seat
And out of the city
It’s been a long day
A kind lady takes pity
She guides us to our bed for the night
Just an afterthought
Maybe one of us should have brought a light!

We meet by the harbour
By Fisherrow Sands
For the last leg of our journey
Through Musselburgh and Prestonpans
Alan appears
To take a quick photo
Worth his weight in whisky that man
A saviour, our hero

Cockenzie for coffee
And the cake is delish
Some enjoy the artwork
Others take a…
…Walk in the garden

Becky’s strip – that was quite tough!
Will they smooth out the path
Or leave it quite rough?
The song of the lark
A chipper distraction
As we power on through
Fraction by traction

As one by one
We land in Dunbar
Alan hands out the bubbly
From the back of his car
We raise our glasses
“Let’s make a toast!”
“To him and her and us an them
Who made it Coast to Coast”

Plan your own coast to coast cycling trip along the John Muir Way with the help of the John Muir Way website.

Posted in John Muir, National Walking and Cycling Network | Tagged , , ,

An eight-year-old’s first underwater experience on the North West Highlands Snorkel Trail

The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s ‘Living Seas’ project has launched a snorkel trail of nine coastal sites, that showcase the stunning coastal habitats that Sutherland and Wester Ross have to offer. This coastal edge, a continuous seam of frill, indent and island where sea meets beach and rock, shelters a cornucopia of marine life. The snorkel trail invites us to dip into it and get up close. As part of the trail launch I went along with my eight-year-old daughter this summer to a Scottish Wildlife Trust snorkel taster session at Ullapool Harbour on the shores of Loch Broom, with fifteen fellow Wildlife Watch Group members. The aim: to give a gentle introduction into what it’s like to peek under the surface of the sea.

Snorkel Trail site at Clachtoll.

Snorkel Trail site at Clachtoll.

There is a fair amount of activity required on the shore before we can even dip our feet in the water, and a lot of groaning and straining to pull neoprene over feet, hands and heads. Then a run through water safety, and a discussion of the kind of things you need to be aware of when entering the sea, including tides, currents and the weather. We then practice a sample of the universal hand signs used to communicate underwater.

Learning underwater hand signals.

Learning underwater hand signals.

Next we get to spit in our masks like ‘real’ divers and swill them out with cold seawater before strapping them to our faces. “It might be freezing cold, I might not like it”, my daughter squeaks. I smile at her, as encouragingly as I can with the snorkel clamped between my teeth. Staying within the shallows we finally take the plunge and put our heads beneath the surface.

Crab's-eye view of a young snorkler.

Crab’s-eye view of a young snorkler.

Why make the effort to break that blue surface and take a peek under the sea? It could be described as akin to journeying to another planet. “Crabs are out crawling about, not under rocks”, my daughter observes; because when the tide retreats, crabs are always wedged away in some crevice, hiding. Now we can watch them in silent dance across the cobble sea bed or edging sideways up vertical rock. The laws of gravity seem up ended; “there are bubbles under water, things are floating in the sea that don’t float in the air”.

Underwater exploration.

Underwater exploration.

Ever present are the slurpy, trickly sounds of the water enfolding you, “you can hear the sound of your breath in the snorkel, it sounds like Darth Vader”. Floating gently above, we are observers in this ‘water world’, adapted for entry with mask, suit and snorkel. As my daughter rightly points out, “wearing the mask it’s not as clear as it would be if you could see underwater”. What she means is, if you had the eyes of a seal. Snorkelling you become acutely aware of the perfection of adaptation of everything living below the surface, from seaweed to barnacles, from sea slugs to fish. Adaptations to float and swim, to feed and breed in the sea’s tide and current. Entering into their world, we feel like intrepid explorers just metres from dry land.

Snorkel Trail site at Achmelvich.

Snorkel Trail site at Achmelvich.

The North West Highlands Snorkel Tails are for everyone.  Find out more about the snorkel trails and snorkel safety on the Scottish Wildlife Trust website.
Always check the tides and weather first and never snorkel alone.

All photos by Noel Hawkins/Scottish Wildlife Trust.


Posted in Marine | Tagged , ,

Bass Rock gannets scoop British Wildlife Photography Award

We offer our congratulations to Charlie Everitt on winning the ‘Habitat’ category of the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016.  Charlie is well known for leading so much of our work in tackling wildlife crime.  Here, Charlie gives us an insight to his photographic endeavours – and his books.

Gannets on the Bass Rock.

Gannets on the Bass Rock.

Nature photography has been an important part of my life since ‘retiring hurt’ from the rugby pitch in the late nineties. Starting out on landscape photography, I began by taking wildlife images.  At the outset, all the advice I received suggested that I should “photograph the local patch”… which I promptly ignored and began to fly around the country desperate to photograph anything red – red deer, red squirrels, red grouse, red kites – in an attempt to capture Scotland’s iconic species, but my photography soon became aimless and unimaginative. Around 2007 I went down to the Water of Leith to experiment with photographing water. Little did I realise the impact this would have as I discovered the river to be a hidden gem.  I embarked upon the idea of photographing the wildlife, landscape and flora along the water course.  Four years later, this culminated in my first book Water of Leith: Nature’s Course, showing the seasonal changes along the river, from its source in the Pentland Hills to its outflow into the Firth of Forth at Leith. My photography has remained ‘project-driven’ ever since.

Yellowcraig beach at sunset.

Yellowcraig beach at sunset.

This year I concluded my second project with the book Forthshore: East Lothian’s Coastline, taking the reader on a journey through the bays and along the beaches between Longniddry and Tantallon Castle. Taking in the views, landmarks and birdlife – including the Isle of May and Bass Rock – it provided me with endless memories of fantastic sunsets, wonderful wildlife encounters and glorious wild flowers. There were times when you had to remind yourself that you were on Scotland’s east coast rather than on the west’s, given the remote, empty beaches and golden skies around sunset.

Tantallon castle at dawn.

Tantallon Castle at dawn.

The winning photo of gannets packed around the ruined chapel on the Bass Rock was from the East Lothian project and shows remote, unpopulated areas relatively free of predators to be their favoured habitat. Every square inch appears to be packed with birds, thereby accommodating some 150,000 pairs across the island. The image was taken from the mainland above Canty Bay on a breezy summer’s night and was not without its challenges.  A 500mm lens with two-times convertor provided enormous magnification but also exaggerated every vibration caused by the breeze.  Due to technicalities, I had to manually focus the image and then press the shutter during momentary lulls in the breeze.  Thankfully the image came out clear and sharp.

Badger at night.

Badger at night.

My current project is photographing the nature around the green of one of Edinburgh’s golf courses just two minutes walk from my house. This has already given me some wonderful encounters with badgers and foxes which have been very rewarding, and the proximity to home allows me to make regular visits. I have now moved onto the flora around the green and hope to continue capturing the essence and spirit of this small special area of land.

It amuses me to think back to the wisdom of those photographers who at the outset suggested I should “photograph the local patch”; that’s exactly where I’ve ended up!

The exhibition of images from this year’s competition goes on tour from 6 September 2016, starting at The Mall Galleries, London.

To see the winners’ work from other categories, the tour dates or to find out about entering next year’s competition got to the British Wildlife Photography Awards website.



Posted in photography | Tagged , ,