Time to celebrate bugs in the Cairngorms National Park

Which animals would pop into your head, if you were asked to list the most iconic species of wildlife found in the Cairngorms National Park. Red deer? Golden eagles? Red squirrels? Pine marten perhaps? Or maybe it’s the charismatic capercaillie? It’s probably fair to assume that the tiny six-legged creatures that creep, crawl and flutter by might not be the first things that come to mind.

This is despite the fact that the Cairngorms is home to an amazing suite of insect life. Researchers at Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust – have been putting together a list of key sites around the country that are vital for conserving our rarest invertebrates. The initial analysis shows that the Cairngorms National Park is one of the most important areas for invertebrates in Scotland. This is because the Park supports a high diversity of insect species, including many rarities. Some of these species are unique to the National Park and conservation work taking place here is vital to maintain their status in the UK.

One example is the pine hoverfly. Due to intensification of forest management over the decades this is now an endangered species, so rare in fact that it is restricted to a single location in the Cairngorms National Park. It depends on the deadwood cycle – the process of trees (in this case big old granny pines) falling over or succumbing to fungal disease and decaying. The pine hoverfly’s larvae live in wet role holes created by this process – a very specific niche. Natural occurrences of these “rot holes” are nowadays few and far between because most pines in forestry are felled before they get to be old, knarled granny pines. To help save the pine hoverfly from extinction, a range of organisations in the park have been making artificial holes in tree stumps to give the pine hoverfly a home. It is hoped that in the future numbers of the hoverfly will increase to levels that allow it can survive on its own, and with more pine forest in the park being managed less intensively, natural rot holes should become common again.

Not all of the key invertebrates are insects; the fresh water pearl mussel, a bivalve mollusc, lives in cold water rivers and streams. Its life cycle depends upon salmon – the pearl mussel’s larvae actually live inside the gills of salmon (causing no harm to the fish) for the first year of their life. Pollution, climate change and poaching have all contributed to the huge decline of this species across the UK, the watercourses of the Cairngorms support internationally important populations of this species. The Pearls In Peril project has focused on improving the condition of watercourses to support this species, working with landowners and engaging local communities to develop a wider understanding of the plight of this very special mollusc.

Butterflies are a harbinger of summer and sunshine. Their night-time counterparts – the moths – often have a reputation for being dull and boring. However, if you were to see the diversity of moths that live in Scotland, you would be surprised at how they rival the butterflies for colour, shape and lifestyle. In fact, three moth species which are almost entirely restricted to the Cairngorms in the UK are all day-flying species. And thanks to the Victorians, they all have fantastic names: Kentish glory, dark bordered beauty, and small dark yellow underwing. The Kentish glory (once known as far south as Kent, hence its name) is a big, fluffy, chestnut coloured moth and the males have strikingly large antennae to “sniff” out the females which “call” to the males using special sexy pheromones. The dark bordered beauty is a much daintier creature, but none the less beautiful, displaying autumnal oranges and yellows on its wings. Its caterpillars depend on aspen and it has a reputation for being elusive –only small numbers of adults are usually seen, making conservation work for this species very challenging. The small dark yellow underwing lives on heathland where its foodplant bearberry grows. It loves to fly in sunshine and zips across the heather at incredible speed – the best way to find it is when it stops for a breather on a fence post or tree trunk on an overcast day.

A wood ant, the UK’s largest ant, one of many forest species which calls the Cairngorms its home.

A wood ant, the UK’s largest ant, one of many forest species which calls the Cairngorms its home.

The Cairngorms acts as a vital refuge for many of insects that are in some cases found nowhere else in Scotland, and even the UK. The range of species is huge and here are just a few examples of the diversity of amazing invertebrates that call the Cairngorms their home. They are every bit as exciting, and beautiful, as our more familiar furry and feathered friends.

Cairngorms BIG weekend.

Cairngorms BIG weekend.

The Cairngorms Nature BIG Weekend 12-14 May is a celebration of the fantastic natural heritage of the Cairngorms National Park. With over 50 activities taking place across the Cairngorms National Park there will be something for everyone, from families to the more seasoned nature lover.

We have a number of events where you can discover and explore things that creep, crawl, flutter and buzz, including a ‘Minibeast safari’ with TV naturalist Nick Baker!

You can see the whole programme and book places at www.cairngorms.co.uk/big-weekend

Posted in Cairngorms National Park | Tagged , , , , , ,

How collaborative scientific investigation will help conserve Glasgow’s hidden geological gem

A team from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) is helping us to safeguard the future a 325 million year old geological site. Our blog today comes from Dr Lyn Wilson, Digital Documentation Manager,  Sarah Hamilton, Conservation Scientist and James Hepher, Surveyor/Spatial Analyst, all from HES.

A perspective point cloud view through the building across the fossilised tree stump area. The colours represent intensity of the reflected laser beam.

A perspective point cloud view through the building across the fossilised tree stump area. The colours represent intensity of the reflected laser beam.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Glasgow’s Victoria Park lies the hidden geological gem of Fossil Grove Site of Special Scientific Interest. Discovered during landscaping of the park in 1887, the site contains the beautifully preserved casts of 325 million year old Carboniferous Lycopod tree stumps and their Stigmarian root systems. Recognised at the time as a site of great interest and importance, the Victorian city fathers chose to encapsulate the site as a visitor attraction rather than send the fossils to a museum. As a result of this forward-thinking, Fossil Grove is the only site in the world where these trees have been preserved in their growth positions and is considered one of the world’s first examples of geoconservation.

However, in recent years the much modified Victorian building has begun to suffer from water penetration problems leading to discolouration and decay of some areas of the fossil exhibits. HES offered the services and expertise of their Digital Documentation and Conservation Science teams to undertake a 3D laser scan and mineralogical analysis to help gain a better understanding of the site and the problems faced. It is hoped that this work will help to inform future recommendations for improving both the fabric of the building and its environmental conditions, in order to safeguard and ensure the continued preservation of this fascinating site for future generations.

Point cloud plan annotated with sampling locations for salt efflorescence analysis.

Point cloud plan annotated with sampling locations for salt efflorescence analysis.

The Conservation Science team have used a technique known as X-Ray Diffraction (XRD) to analyse the mineralogical make up of the main rock types found at Fossil Grove, and to identify the salt growths which are causing discolouration to some of the rock surfaces. Only tiny quantities of material are required for this type of analysis, meaning that already loose fragments of rock were used and no further damage to the fossil exhibits was necessary. Interpretation of the results is ongoing, but by identifying the salts present at the site, we can assess where they may have come from, their damage potential, possible methods for removal and determine the most suitable environmental conditions required inside the building to minimise their future growth.

James laser scanning around the exterior of the Victorian building.

James laser scanning around the exterior of the Victorian building.

The Digital Documentation team came armed with two laser scanners, with James undertaking a traverse around the outside of the building with our survey-grade Leica Geosystems ScanStation P40 scanner and Lyn covering the interior with our light-weight Faro X350 scanner which is set up on a photographic tripod – well suited to scanning close to the fossils themselves. The two scanners had overlapping areas at the building’s doorways, allowing the exterior and interior scans to be joined together giving us one overall 3D ‘point cloud’.

Lyn laser scanning the fossilised tree stumps.

Lyn laser scanning the fossilised tree stumps.

A point cloud is a 3D representation obtained from laser scanners or other digital documentation equipment, with accurate spatial coordinates representing surface geometry. Point clouds can be processed and developed in lots of different ways, making them useful for conservation, site management, interpretation and education – just to name a few applications! Within HES, our current task is to record all 336 heritage sites we look after using 3D laser scanning, primarily for conservation purposes. It allows us to monitor the condition of sites by comparing laser scan data from different time periods. We do this to check on coastal erosion at Skara Brae for example, every two years.

A perspective point cloud view through the building across the fossilised tree stump area.

A perspective point cloud view through the building across the fossilised tree stump area.

We are fortunate to have gained a lot of experience over the years working in partnership with The Glasgow School of Art on The Scottish Ten project. This saw our combined team digitally record all of Scotland’s World Heritage Sites in 3D plus fantastic international heritage sites such as Mount Rushmore and the Sydney Opera House. The data we captured has been used to provide virtual access, create architectural visualisations and virtual reconstructions, to help in site management and to bolster UNESCO World Heritage nominations.

Back in Scotland, part of our role is to support our partners in the sector so we were really pleased to be able to help SNH at the gem that is Fossil Grove. We hope our scientific analysis and 3D records will be of practical use in the conservation process, as well as supporting the future architectural redesign and interpretation process.

Find out more about the work of HES’s Conservation Science and Digital Documentation teams and about the Scottish Ten Project.

Posted in Geology | Tagged , , , ,

Has spring really sprung in St Cyrus?

It’s not just the weather that’s been busy these last few weeks at St Cyrus NNR as Andrew Ferguson, our reserves assistant, student placement, recounts.

Skylark. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Skylark. © Lorne Gill/SNH

It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

Alastair Reid

The weather has been nice at St. Cyrus NNR for about three weeks now. Too nice. Worryingly nice. Skylarks are reeling and singing over the cattle field, the first early wildflowers (primrose and lesser celandine) have started to bloom, the ravens have built their new nest, the number of geese overhead is dwindling and at home there is more frog spawn in the pond than water.

“Spring is here!” people announce recklessly.

I am less convinced, squinting suspiciously at the sunshine and staunchly wearing full thermals, ready for the inevitable April blizzard.

Another month, another carcass washed up on the beach. This time it was something a bit different to the usual occasional porpoise. The carcass was about eight feet long, definitely cetacean and in quite an advanced state of decomposition. Identification of marine mammals in this state (known as blobsters) is difficult but based on the size, the skull and the shape of the body the team at SMASS thought that it could be a beluga whale, an arctic species and extreme rarity around the coast of Scotland. It was collected and necropsied as far as possible by a team from the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. On closer inspection it turned out to be a very large bottlenose dolphin with some spinal deformities. Still very exciting but not quite on the beluga level.

We have almost finished the mammoth job of arranging our events programme for the year. Our events kicked off on Saturday the 1st April with a spring beach clean! We were joined by ‘Surfers against Sewage’ and lots of locals to blitz the beach! Greggs the bakers also kindly provided cakes. The events program then takes an arty turn and on Sunday 7th May weopened an exhibition in the visitor centre collated by the team at Arthoos, a collective of local artists. Ther will be three weeks of art workshops and, linking in with the Aberdeenshire Wellbeing Festival, an art therapy workshop. In summer we have an eclectic mix of events including wildlife identification workshops, four sessions with bushcraft expert Willow Lohr and our popular fungal foray. We will advertise exact dates and times on the Facebook page and down at the reserve.


The singing of the skylarks, the ravens’ nest-building and the imminent return of the swallows and house martins all serve as a reminder that the bird breeding season will soon be underway. As always we ask that from this time of the year dogs on the reserve are kept on a lead and under close control to minimise disturbance to the birds at this critical time and to respect the sanctuary area in the Southern part of the reserve.

You will be glad to know that in the time since I wrote the first paragraph of this article, the wind has picked up, the bins have blown over twice and some malevolent-looking dark clouds have closed in from the direction of Montrose. That’s more like it.


Posted in Uncategorized

World Heritage Day – 18 April 2017

Scotland has plenty to celebrate on World Heritage Day. We have six magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites which combine all sorts of history – the emphasis is on the architecturally and culturally significant, but there is a fair smattering of natural history interest in there too. Why not visit one of our fabulous sites this year – here’s a taster revealing what you can expect to find.

The Stone Circle at Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The Stone Circle at Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The stunning ancient monuments of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site were positioned in the landscape with great care.  Maes Howe, with its pudding-shaped grass mound, has its entrance aligned so the sun strikes the tomb chamber on the winter solstice.

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle stands dramatically on a narrow strip of land between lochs Harray and Stenness.  These, the two largest lochs in Orkney, are nationally important scientifically for their sequence from marine, through brackish, to fresh waters.  They support a rich diversity of plant and animal life.

The heathland on the low hills that fringe the wide loch basin is also designated, as it contains some of the best and largest areas of maritime grassland and heath in the UK, with plant species that include the rare Scottish primrose.  Further north on this coast lies the Stone Age village at Skara Brae.

It’s fair to say that in Orkney monuments and scenery intertwine to form an evocative cultural landscape that still resonates with us today.

Bonnington Linn, Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Bonnington Linn, Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

New Lanark is a former 18th century cotton spinning mill village located on the banks of the Falls of Clyde just under one hour from Glasgow and Edinburgh. New Lanark attracts over 300,000 visitors annually from all over the world. The site has something of interest for everyone, visitors can go back in time and immerse themselves in the cultural and built heritage of the village, with its imposing buildings, or explore the natural heritage of the dramatic river gorge and the tumultuous Falls of Clyde.

From the natural heritage perspective the Falls of Clyde (actually a series of waterfalls) is the iconic focal point to this landscape.

The Falls are one of the largest in the UK and make a breath-taking spectacle, especially after heavy rain or snowmelt. Surrounded by steep gorge woodlands of oak and ash, much of it is owned and managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust as their Falls of Clyde Wildlife Reserve. These woodlands are also an important part of the wider Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve, one of the most biodiverse woodland habitats in Europe. The forests and gorges which surround the World Heritage Site are home to a wide range of wildlife, including peregrine falcons, badgers, otters, roe deer and kingfishers. Visitors can take advantage of an excellent path network which explores the reserve and provides access to the key viewpoints.

View over Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle from Calton Hill. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

View over Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle from Calton Hill. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In contrast with New Lanark are the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. It was the remarkable juxtaposition of two parts of the city, the Old and the New Towns, that led them to be declared a World Heritage Site in 1995. The Old Town had developed organically since medieval times but the New Town represented a carefully planned approach and dates from 1767. As well as being distinct in their architecture the two parts of the city also have underlying differences in their origins, founded on Edinburgh’s ancient volcanism.

The Old Town sits on the ridge running from Castle Rock down to Holyrood Palace. Castle Rock itself is a volcanic plug that formed on a lava flow from a volcano which was last active some 300-350 million years ago, and is part of Arthur’s Seat Site of Special Scientific Interest, along with Calton Hill. These distinctive features of the city’s landscape are nationally important for their geology.

Calton Hill is another prominent and iconic landmark on the skyline to the east of the New Town. It’s not a volcanic vent like Castle Rock but rather a fragment of the eruptions, formed by glaciation into a shape known as ‘crag and tail’. The hill’s natural elements of rock, gorse and woodland, together with the man-made buildings and monuments, make it popular with residents and visitors – looking down from the top gives you spectacular views of the Old and New Towns.

The buildings of the World Heritage Site don’t just have human interest either – they are important as homes for city-dwelling species such as swifts and bats, which use them for nesting and roosting. Swifts in particular have suffered a steep decline in breeding numbers due to loss of places to nest; they are completely dependent on buildings. To help, the Edinburgh Local Biodiversity Action Plan is encouraging the installation of swift boxes when older buildings in the city are undergoing renovations and there are a number of other biodiversity initiatives in Edinburgh, including action for pollinators in this urban landscape.

Kayakers under Forth Rail Bridge. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

Kayakers under Forth Rail Bridge. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

The iconic red steel structure of The Forth Bridge may be 127 years old but it wasn’t declared a World Heritage Site until 2015. It is the sixth and most recent addition to the list of WHS in Scotland. The accolade recognises that the bridge is ‘a potent symbol of Britain’s industrial, scientific, architectural and transport heritage and, in particular, Scotland’s engineering pedigree and ingenuity’. Amongst all the impressive metal work it’s easy to overlook the wildlife that surrounds it.

At either end of the bridge’s impressive span, lie the intertidal areas of the Firth of Forth Special Protection Area (SPA). Stretching along the coast from Alloa to the Fife and East Lothian coasts, the site is a mixture of rich intertidal flats, rocky shores, saltmarsh, lagoons and sand dune. These habitats attract large numbers of 27 species of wintering wildfowl and waders, such as pink-footed goose, shelduck, dunlin and turnstone. The Firth of Forth is so important for these birds, that it is designated as an SPA under European legislation.

If you were a bird at the top of the bridge, you’d be able to see the islands of Inchmickery, Long Craig, the Isle of May, Fidra, The Lamb, Craigleith and Bass Rock. Together, these islands make up another SPA, the Forth Islands SPA. They support almost 100,000 breeding seabirds, including fulmar, lesser black-backed gull and herring gull. Birds can be perverse creatures and don’t just nest on the islands in the Forth – sometimes they take a fancy to nesting on the rail bridge. This poses additional work for the bridge’s maintenance teams who have to remove the guano (birds’ droppings) and the leftovers from nest building! The chicks must have one of the most desirable views of any residence in the Lothians.

The village and bay from Conachair, Hirta, St Kilda. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The village and bay from Conachair, Hirta, St Kilda. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

St Kilda is of global importance for breeding seabirds, supporting as it does about 700,000 individual seabirds in the breeding season (a figure based on the last full count of seabirds for the last British and all Ireland Seabird 2000 count). It is a notable stronghold for a number of seabird species such as Northern gannet, Northern fulmar, Atlantic puffin and Leach’s storm petrel.  The steep cliffs and offshore stacks provide ledges for cliff nesting species and the steep, grassy slopes hold about 25% of the British population of Atlantic puffin as well as the biggest colony of Leach’s storm petrel in the eastern Atlantic.

Seabirds on St Kilda, once hunted for food, are now fully protected by international designations, both on land and at sea.

Despite this, many seabird populations in Britain and Ireland have experienced marked declines in recent years, and seabirds on St Kilda are no exception.  While there may be multiple reasons for changes in particular species, there is little doubt that climate change has played a role in this through its effect on the availability of food at critical times of the year.  However the rich waters surrounding St Kilda and along the nearby edge of the continental shelf, continue to support large numbers of seabirds feeding on fish such as sandeels. The northern gannet colony appears to be stable, unlike other colonies that are increasing but is still one of the largest colonies globally, contributing to the spectacular sights and sounds experienced by visitors to St Kilda.

Walker on Antonine Wall. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

Walker on Antonine Wall. ©beckyduncanphotographyltd/SNH

The construction of the Antonine Wall, part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS, started around AD 165 between the Forth and Clyde estuaries, and marked the new Roman frontier.  It was constructed mostly from layers of turf as opposed to the earlier and more southern Hadrian’s Wall which was built out of stone.  If you were to travel along the wall from the Forth to the Clyde then not only would you experience rich cultural heritage but natural heritage too!

During the winter months at the Forth estuary you will notice many of our wintering bird visitors, including dunlin, red-throated diver and the Slavonian grebe.  Moving inland and eastward you can visit Avon Gorge Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), an ancient, semi-natural woodland with many native tree species, and some rarities like the small leaved lime tree, and flowers such as the lily of the valley and moschatel.

Red-throated diver adult and young chick. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Red-throated diver adult and young chick. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

This is also the area to head to if you want to see the internationally unique Falkirk Wheel that joins the Union Canal with the Forth & Clyde Canal, which is now fully open to boat traffic.  The Antonine Wall skirts alongside the Forth & Clyde Canal across much of the central belt with thriving local wildlife to enjoy, as the canal boaters do too.  Just north of Cumbernauld, again associated with the ecology of the canal, is Dullater Marsh – a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve and a SSSI, with an unusual transition of fen, fen meadow, marshy grassland and fen woodland habitats, which host nationally scarce plants such as tufted loosestrife, as well as a range of marshland birds, like water rail, teal, snipe and grass hopper warbler.

Getting closer to Glasgow, and the historic features of the Antonine Wall encapsulate Cadder Wilderness SSSI, a very special birch and oak woodland that is home to three Red Data Book species of insects; a beetle and two sawflies – species that are internationally valued!  And as the Antonine Wall ends near the river Clyde you will encounter the Haw Craig and Glenarbuck SSSI with an area of ash and elm woodland, as well as a basalt escarpment rich in mosses and flowers, such as the shining crane’s bill and pellitory-of-the-wall.  One final stop overlooking the Clyde estuary and you might spy a flock of redshank feeding along the shoreline.  A winter visitor that is protected by the European network of Natura sites – we’ve come a long way since the Romans felt the need to build a wall to protect themselves from the Scots!

Dubh lochans on the blanket bog at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Dubh lochans on the blanket bog at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In addition to Scotland’s six existing World Heritage Sites, The Flow Country, an extensive area of blanket bog covering much of Sutherland and Caithness, is on the UK’s tentative list of future World Heritage Sites.

The Flow Country consists of an extensive area of blanket bog habitat within a wider complex of mountains, moorland and more fertile straths. It is one of the largest and most intact areas of blanket bog in the world. The total area of peatland in Sutherland and Caithness extends to some 400,000 ha, and around half of that contains the characteristic surface patterning, pools and bird assemblages synonymous with the term ‘Flow Country’.

Together with associated areas of mountains, heaths, fens and open water, it is of international importance for its habitat and the diverse range of rare and unusual breeding birds it supports, many of which are typically northern species found here at the southern limit of their range. These include red-throated diver, black-throated diver, golden plover, greenshank, golden eagle, merlin and short-eared owl.

It is also a huge carbon store, storing 100s of millions of tonnes of carbon, which if released into the atmosphere would contribute to climate change. The carbon stored in the peat of the Flow Country is about three times greater than that stored in all the UK’s forests.

The case for WHS status for the area, considered by independent experts to be ‘the best blanket bog of its type in the world’, is being developed by The Peatlands Partnership.

So World Heritage Day will allow us to revel in some of our most precious heritage sites; take a wider view and you are bound to enjoy some wonderful natural heritage sights too.

Posted in World Heritage Day | Tagged , , ,

The Great Outdoors – Young People, Outdoor Learning and the 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity

Scotland is facing key pressures on its biodiversity. Some of these pressures are physical, such as pollution, the overuse of resources, or climate change. Others are more about the way we (under) value nature and the goods and services it provides in decision making. Modern living means we have less connection with it in our everyday lives and there is growing concern that younger generations are missing out on the experience of nature and the benefits it brings to learning and development.

Pupils from Kelvinside Academy Glasgow on a photography workshop at the Glasgow Botanic Garden.

Pupils from Kelvinside Academy Glasgow on a photography workshop at the Glasgow Botanic Garden.

Against this background, the Scottish Government has published Scotland’s Biodiversity a Route Map to 2020,  which has developed and helps direct priorities for action. It sets out six Big Steps for Nature, key amongst which is recognising the value of quality greenspace for health and education benefits and identifying a range of projects to engage young people with nature.

Why take learning outdoors?

The policy framework for outdoor learning is well established within Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and Learning for Sustainability is a core part of the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s (GTCS) Professional Standards. Outdoor Learning is one of the three core strands of Learning for Sustainability, alongside Global Citizenship and Sustainable Development Education, identified in the GTCS Vision 2030+ report (published March 2016), tying in with the UN Global Goals.

More generally, the Government’s National Improvement Framework , with its focus on attainments and equality, is cited as one of the most significant policy developments in Scottish education over the last 10 years. Outdoor learning can significantly contribute to delivering this agenda, but a key challenge remains to pull together the evidence base to demonstrate comprehensively that this is the case in everyday practice.

Outdoor classroom at St.Cyrus NNR.

Outdoor classroom at St.Cyrus NNR.

Improving attainment – how can outdoor learning help

The outdoors, particularly natural spaces, can stimulate and support learning in a way that the indoors simply cannot. Outdoor space allows children the freedom to move and express themselves, and learn by doing. Nature, across all of its aspects, weather and seasons, is dynamic, surprising, and multisensory. Include adventure and fun, and all these elements can motivate the learner and support experiences that provide depth, breadth, challenge and progression.

Many children and young people, who have disengaged from learning indoors, thrive in the outdoor context. Typically, high quality outdoor experiences are child-led and take an interdisciplinary approach. Often, teachers will experience a shift in attitude, seeing sometimes challenging learners in a new and positive light. Increasingly, parents want to know if their children have access to quality outdoor play and learning at nursery and school.

The importance of greenspace for health and wellbeing is recognised by the biophilia hypothesis (our innate positive response to the natural world). But how do we know outdoor learning really delivers education benefits? Anecdotal evidence, from teachers who have embraced outdoor learning approaches, is backed up by an increasing volume of empirical research. For example, recent collated evidence finds links between natural environments and learning.

Nearly a decade ago, Scottish Natural Heritage’s research report Young people’s interaction with natural heritage through outdoor learning Scottish Natural Heritage (2007), identified that “the effect of learning and play within green or natural places of all kinds…was particularly strong in generating greater engagement and challenge and enjoyment”. More recently, research published by Natural England in 2016 found ‘school students engaged in learning in natural environments have been found to have higher achievement (in comparison to their peers or projected attainment) in reading, mathematics, science and social studies, exhibiting enhanced progress in Physical Education and drama, and a greater motivation for studying science’. Whilst the RSPB identified higher English attainment amongst youngsters who were more connected to nature.

Examining frog spawn.

Examining frog spawn.

Learning through doing

Involving young people in the Route Map is an increasingly important part of SNH’s approach. In 2015/16, we funded 84 projects that engaged nearly 100,000 young people in outdoor recreation, learning, volunteering and citizen science activity. Many of these participants were from disadvantaged backgrounds or had other protected characteristics. Some of the third sector partners in this work include Grounds for Learning, John Muir Trust, National Trust; Outward Bound Trust; RSPB and The Conservation Volunteers (TCV).

One of the key projects identified in the Route Map is all about taking learning outdoors. Led by SNH, Learning in Local Greenspace aims to support 100 schools across Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas to have access to quality greenspace for outdoor learning by 2020. This project tackles the multiple challenges of addressing the attainment gap and community health and wellbeing, as well as engaging young people in the curriculum through outdoor learning.

Our Teaching in Nature programme, a career long professional learning programme for teachers developed by SNH with partners across Scotland, aims to support teachers to support learning outdoors in local greenspace and special places for nature.

The availability of dedicated staff, including Environment and Forestry (ENFOR) Outdoor Learning Project Officers, provided through Scottish Natural Heritage, supports a smarter, more joined-up way of working across Scotland’s environment, heritage forestry and national park bodies. Our online portal, the Outdoor Learning Directory, facilitates this collaboration and cross-boundary, cross-sector working by making it easier for teachers and others to find outdoor learning training, events, learning resources and grants provided by this sector.

Countryside ranger and kids at Mugdock Country Park near Glasgow.

Countryside ranger and kids at Mugdock Country Park near Glasgow.

Working in partnership with Young Scot, we have also established a national youth advisory panel to help us engage young people in each of the Big Steps for Nature set out in the Route Map. The Panel – named ReRoute – is made up of 16 volunteers aged 13-24 from across Scotland, are investigating and recommending to SNH and Scottish Government how to engage young people across Scotland in Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy and Route Map to 2020. As part of this the panel have conducted a survey of young people, gathering opinions, and information about their understanding and relationship with nature. The results are encouraging and offer a positive view of the future which we hope will be explored further as part of the Year of Young People in 2018.

One youngster in Moray told us: “I think it’s important that we look after nature and the environment as it is beautiful and beneficial”. The development of outdoor learning in Scotland has a very important part in realising this vision.

This post was originally written for Children in Scotland Magazine, by Penny Martin, our Outdoor Learning Project Officer. Children in Scotland is a registered charity working to make Scotland a world leader in securing the wellbeing of every child and improving the quality of every childhood. You can find out more about Children in Scotland here , including how to become a member, and you can subscribe to their bimonthly magazine here.

All images ©  Lorne Gill/SNH


Posted in biodiversity, Outdoor learning, Research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Heritage and nature on your doorstep – the new Seven Lochs Wetland Park

Spring is in the air – and with it a change in Scotland’s nature. And this is especially true for the Seven Lochs Wetland Park, where our plans for Scotland’s largest urban heritage and nature park are really starting to take shape. Scott Ferguson, Seven Lochs Project Coordinator, tells us about this exciting new project.

Enjoying a stroll alongside Johnston Loch in Gartcosh. © Becky Duncan Photography

Enjoying a stroll alongside Johnston Loch in Gartcosh.

The Seven Lochs Wetland Park comprises almost 20 sq km of lochs, parks, nature reserves and countryside spanning the Glasgow City and North Lanarkshire boundary between Easterhouse, Coatbridge and Stepps. While the idea of a new, largescale heritage and nature park for this part of the city region isn’t new, it was with the publication of the Seven Lochs Wetland Park Vision and Masterplan in 2014 that the idea really took flight.

Since then the Seven Lochs Partnership* and the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Green Network Partnership have been working on detailed plans for the new park, and in July 2016 we were rewarded with the announcement of £4.5million of HLF funding towards a 5-year, £6.8million project to develop the Seven Lochs as a new hub for heritage learning, outdoor recreation and community engagement. With a Seven Lochs staff team now in place we can really get going with change on the ground.

Whooper swans on Hogganfield Loch. © Becky Duncan Photography

Whooper swans on Hogganfield Loch.

When the whooper swans, now leaving Hogganfield Loch for the long flight to Iceland, return in October they’ll notice a few changes. Hogganfield lochs is one of three sites where we’re installing BioHaven floating wetlands to help create almost 500m2 of new wetland habitat and improve water quality, planted with over 2000 wetland plants collected from around Seven Lochs by our hard-working volunteers. We hope these floating wetlands will increase opportunities for breeding birds such as great crested grebe, as well as helping to reduce blue-green algae.

It’s not just the lochs that are changing. As part of our Pearls and Pollinators project we’re looking at how we can increase the diversity of wildflowers in areas of grassland and woodland habitat. Focussing on nectarrich species and butterflyfood plants we’ve developed bespoke wildflower seed mixes for these habitats, and are trialling the use of a ‘wildflower earth’, alongside more traditional methods like seeding and plug planting. We’re also training volunteers in survey and biological recording so that we can monitor the success of habitat enhancement.

Although a distinctly urban park, the Seven Lochs area is home to an amazing array of wildlife. In the last year both osprey and bittern have been seen at Bishop Loch Local Nature Reserve (LNR), and Gartcosh LNR is home to Scotland’s largest population of great crested newt. And we’re only just beginning to understand the unique grassland populations of water vole that have been discovered in parks, gardens and areas of vacant and derelict land across N E Glasgow. These feisty rodents seem to have found a way to survive and thrive away from their usual watery habitat – and Cranhill Park in particular has perhaps the highest density of water vole anywhere in the UK. But their love of derelict sites also puts them at risk from planned new housing, so with support from the SNH Green Infrastructure Fund, we’re planning a network of permanent grassland sites that can be managed specifically for water vole.

There's something to enthrall visitors of all ages at Drumpellier Country Park. © Becky Duncan Photography

There’s something to enthrall visitors of all ages at Drumpellier Country Park.

The Seven Lochs will be a great place for people too. Four visitor gateways are planned for Provan Hall, Drumpellier Country Park, Glenboig Life Centre and Hogganfield Park, and these will be hubs for a range of heritage and nature activities. New visitor facilities and heritage interpretation will reveal the hidden history of people that have lived in the area over many centuries, and the secret lives of the wildlife that calls the park home. A programme of events and activities – to be launched at Easter – will allow people of all ages to discover the nature that thrives in the Park, and offer opportunities for training and volunteering. A network of walking and cycling trails will help visitors explore the area’s wetland treasures.

Working with, and involving, local communities is is vital to making sure that the park becomes both a major visitor attraction and an important community resource. The Seven Lochs Wetland Park is at the start of an amazing journey. It really is heritage and nature on your doorstep – a great place to discover, go wild, get fit, or just relax and enjoy the fresh air. And a place local people can be proud of.

You can find out lots more about the Seven Lochs Wetland Park, and everything that’s going on there, on our website.

* The Seven Lochs Partnership brings together Glasgow City Council, North Lanarkshire Council, Forestry Commission Scotland, The Conservation Volunteers Scotland, Glenboig Community Trust and Scottish Natural Heritage.

All images © Becky Duncan Photography

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What goes clatter, clatter, click, click, pop, pop in the woods?

The capercaillie lekking season is upon us. Capercaillie Project Officer, Gareth Marshall gives us an insight into these extraordinary birds.

A clattering in the branches , a capercaillie male comes down to face his opponent in the lek. ©Pete Cairns/2020VISION

A clattering in the branches, a capercaillie male comes down to face his opponent in the lek. ©Pete Cairns/2020VISION

Deep in the pre-dawn darkness of a spring-time pine forest, something is stirring. It’s still too dark to make out any shapes, but above the sound of the wind blowing through the canopy there’s something else: a clattering in the branches, fluttering wingbeats and then…click…click…click.  An eery wheezing, rasping cough punctuated by clicks and pops comes out of the darkness.  More clattering wingbeats.  Click…click…click.  As dawn light eventually starts seeping through the wood the sounds increase, coming from several directions at once. The shapes of the forest begin to emerge from the gloom. The clattering begins again and two dark shapes move toward each other through the heather, tails fanned, chests puffed, necks out-stretched; two male capercaillie square up, the lek has begun.

An adult male capercaillie displaying in a pine forest. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

An adult male capercaillie displaying in a pine forest. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Capercaillie, the giant grouse of the pinewoods, begin their breeding season at the lek (‘lek’ is an old Norse word that means ‘play’), where the males come together early in the morning at traditional sites to display and fight for their place in the pecking order. This happens throughout the Spring but the females, for whom the display is intended, only attend the lek for a few crucial days in mid to late April.  They perch on a branch with a good view of proceedings until it’s clear who the dominant male is and then fly down to the ground to mate with him.  In capercaillie populations, the dominant male gets to mate with all the females and the subordinates go away with nothing, so if they want to pass on their genes it’s vital that they’re the top dog.  For this reason male capercaillie expend a huge amount of energy during the lek and it’s not uncommon for a few to die from exhaustion or wounds inflicted by their rivals each year.

A female capercaillie. ©Danny Green

A female capercaillie. ©Danny Green

In Scotland, capercaillie numbers declined by about 90% between the 1970s and 1990s and there are now just between 1000 and 2000 birds left. The decline was caused by a combination of factors: changes to the way their forest habitat is managed, increased use of deer fencing (a killer if they fly into it), a changing climate and predation pressure.  On top of all that, in recent years there has been growing evidence that human disturbance is also having a negative impact.  If the lek is disturbed, particularly on one of the few mornings when the hens are there to be mated, there might be no breeding at all.

For this reason capercaillie are legally protected during the breeding season, so unless a licence has been granted by SNH it’s illegal for anyone to disturb them, either intentionally or recklessly, while they’re displaying. Despite making for an incredible wildlife spectacle, we urge the public to act responsibly and not go out looking for lekking capercaillie.

This protection also extends beyond the ‘traditional’ leks and breeding season. Every year a few birds show atypical behaviour such as losing their fear of people, vehicles or dogs. They can attract significant attention as they may seem like an easy and low-risk opportunity to see a capercaillie, but if encountered, the responsible course of action is to withdraw immediately and not share the location. This avoids causing unnecessary stress to a bird that’s already fighting for survival, not to mention disturbing other wildlife nearby.

If you do want a chance of a view of lekking capercaillie without risking disturbance, the RSPB runs Caper Watch at the Loch Garten Osprey Centre throughout April. For more details go the RSPB website.

Gareth Marshall is RSPB’s Capercaillie Project Officer. The project is joint funded by RSPB, Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage.

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