Ewen Cameron has spent four decades working with Scottish Natural Heritage and its forerunners. He retires in September and we asked him to reflect on his 40 years in the environment business.

Ewen the warden copy

This September 2016 marks 40 years since I started work with the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) – one of SNH’s predecessors – and inevitably it awoke a reflective spell. Brought up on a family farm north of Inverness, I am old enough to remember the last days of working horses. I even had a ration book for sugar – which probably explains a lot to people who know me! Farming never really appealed but I was lucky enough to have a wee brother who loved it. Many things I disliked about farming don’t happen anymore though – like hoeing turnips or digging a hole with a spade to bury a dead sheep. Take my word for it; that’s a lot of spadework!

I didn’t like being cold, wet and dirty either, so when I got the chance of a six-month contract working for NCC in their new Inverness office in 1976, I jumped at the chance.  Late that year, I was sent to Inverpolly National Nature Reserve (NNR) to collect some native tree seed.

There was a bit of cold, wet and dirty involved, but now I was being paid, which made it much more tolerable, and for the first time I met – Nature Reserve Wardens!   An exotic breed of outdoor men (and they were always men in those days), usually bearded, who worked with Nature. I was hooked.   The wardens at Inverpolly then were Bill Henderson and Davie Duncan and I learned a great deal from them those two days – enough to fill a whole book.


Scots pines growing beside the mountain trail at Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

A couple of weeks after my first contract finished, I got a call from NCC asking if I would be interested in a contract as summer warden on Beinn Eighe NNR – would I ever! After a few months there, I was asked if I would like a longer term contract managing the soon to be declared NNR in Glen Strathfarrar. My ‘own’ nature reserve – what more could I possibly want?

Newly married, my wife Susan and I now rented a furnished three-bedroom house for £20 per week, but my take home pay was only £29.70! I never did manage to grow a beard.

The wildlife records for Glen Strathfarrar were a bit patchy and I set to compiling records of birds, butterflies, moths and plants – I was amazed and excited as the lists grew longer and longer. A picture grew of a part of Scotland still incredibly rich in wildlife which I loved sharing with visiting groups.

One of my main tasks was to identify areas that could be fenced off to allow woodland regeneration, which meant I came into close and regular contact with two local keepers: Donnie Fraser and Henry Bain. Once again, I was lucky to learn a lot from two patient and observant men. I have no doubt my leg was pulled from time to time without my even knowing it – but these were very happy and productive years.   Decades on, it is gratifying to see some areas of woodland that in the early 80s were just scatters of a few ageing trees. The nature reserves at Ben Wyvis and Nigg & Udale Bays were added to my ‘portfolio’ as was Rhum (as it was still spelled) after a short stint, and various delightful tasks like ferrying the newly arrived Norwegian sea eagle chicks from RAF Kinloss to Mallaig. All that would fill another book.


Information Panel at Ben Wyvis NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The mid-80s saw turmoil as, with our young daughters Ailidh and Kirsty and a slightly mad cross-bred terrier called Jaina, we moved to Aberdeenshire where the nature reserve in Glen Tanar became my main responsibility. But it was my secondary responsibility at St Cyrus that introduced me to another wildlife hotspot.


Ragwort growing in the dune slacks at St.Cyrus NNR, Grampian. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

It was only after my dad’s death in 1985 that I discovered he had been a reluctant farmer himself with no brothers to take on the family business; he had once won a school prize for his wildflower collection. I well remember him getting on and off the tractor to move oystercatcher or lapwing eggs. I don’t remember ever being taught all these things – I guess that, like the best education, it just seeped in rather than being forced in.


Oystercatcher nest with chick and egg.   ©Lorne Gill/SNH

As the 80s progressed to the 90s, SNH came into being and I spent more time at my desk and eventually in front of a computer. I relished the fact that SNH had a bigger budget and was able to help get more done. When I came to manage the grants budget in NE Scotland, it was great to be able to fund small groups and initiatives that were busy doing We helped fund major footpath projects, organisations that used the outdoors in their therapeutic work with special needs groups, countryside ranger employers, school grounds projects and various wildlife charities which were managing their own nature reserves. The pleasure then was seeing lots of others empowered to do the things that they wanted to get done.

Two projects from that time which remain close to my heart are the NE Biodiversity Partnership and the North East Scotland Biological Records Centre. Both organisations help and encourage people not to wait for ‘them’ to do something but make a difference themselves. Whether it’s in the garden, on the farm, or in the school grounds, we can all make a difference for wildlife.

Wildlife recording and managing areas for wildlife is valuable for all sorts of things; it is open to absolutely everyone and I will certainly be doing more of that once I retire. And remember, despite all the pricey machinery farmers have nowadays and all our clever technology, it’s still wee beasties and creepy crawlies that pollinate food crops and keep the soil fertil, while and the more natural areas help us lead healthy lives.

While tidying out my desk for the last time, I found an old lamp, which I rubbed and lo and behold a genie appeared offering three wishes.

Wish 1 –People stopped squabbling about who the real custodians of the countryside are. We have all contributed to environmental decline during my lifetime and we are all responsible for helping to put things right.

Wish 2 –People stopped trying to blame environmental declines on single causes – our environment is complex. Pine martens aren’t responsible for the decline of red squirrels. While some slugs will eat your plants, other slugs will eat the plant-eating slugs. I only net some of the soft fruit in my garden – I’m happy for the birds to have some too because they are also important predators that help “keep the balance.”

Wish 3 –Everyone in Scotland submitted wildlife records to their local records centre. People often assume we know everything there is to know about wildlife – where it is, how common it is, etc. But nothing could be further from the truth. And with climate and other changes, numbers and locations are always changing. All sorts of people use these records for planning, developing, providing new services and infrastructure, land use and more.   Wildlife recording is both useful and fun.


Farewell Ewen from all your colleagues at Scottish Natural Heritage, it’s been a pleasure working with you.

Posted in Uncategorized

Beinn Eighe

Douglas Gibson works at our Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve.  Sometimes people stop him and ask “What do you actually DO on that reserve?  Wonder no more, here Douglas lifts the lid on some fairly typical activities.

A visitor quite innocently stopped me a while back and said “Wow, your rhododendrons are beautiful.”

Well, they might well be – but although many visitors to our reserves (and indeed, places such as Inverewe Gardens) love to look at the beautiful colours of the ‘rhoddies’, flowering Rhododendron Ponticum seriously damages the ecosystem.

This vigorous plant has been shown to reduce the numbers of earthworms, birds and plants and regenerative capacity of a site, leading to a reduction in the biodiversity of the area. Established bushes then act as a seed source for further invasions in adjacent areas, eradicating ground cover plants and interfering with the process of natural regeneration of trees.             

For these reasons we are trying to remove this plant from the reserve. So, during a pretty wet and misty July, Beinn Eighe volunteers and staff been searching for and removing rhododendron from the Loch Maree Islands. They have also removed several lone plants along the visitor paths. and trails. So if you see any rhododendron whilst walking on the reserve we would be grateful if you could let us know!

Beinn Eighe 1

Rhododendrons 0, Beinn Eighe Reserve 1


Note what the well-dressed West Coast volunteer wears….creams and sprays are all very well, but the ONLY way to combat the wee blighters is the faintly unglamorous ‘Midgie Suit’!

The other job during July was to do with bashing brackenWhat? I hear you ask.    Well, the bracken we have here on Beinn Eighe is particularly dense, and to be honest – it grows like an express train! A small burst of growth one week becomes nearly two metres of dense undergrowth only a few weeks later!

Beinn Eighe 2

Volunteers tackling bracken along the village trail


The problem here is that dense bracken reduces light to woodland flora and this can limit biodiversity on the ground. By reducing bracken cover we can stimulate ground flora diversity allowing other native plants such as Blaeberry to become better established.  Not only that, but we will also create structural diversity in stands of continuous bracken and prevent it from falling onto paths. Creating space with more light will allow seedlings and saplings enought light to grow.

Let’s dance!

The other major item that took place in July was the Feis Rois open – air concert, which took place right outside our front door! This is an annual event,  and is a fun-filled family day out at Beinn Eighe with Fèis Rois as part of their National Ceilidh Trail, when they entertain visitors to the Reserve with traditional music played by some very talented young musicians from around Ross-shire. 

Beinn Eighe 3

Feis Rois

Fèis Rois is a leading cultural arts organisation in Scotland which gives talented young musicians the opportunity to develop their skills in traditional Scottish music, providing audiences with a rich cultural experience. Many of their past members have gone on to make distinguished careers for themselves in Scottish folk music.

As well as the great music on offer, there was also great food at the BBQ, with venison burgers generously provided for free by Scotland’s Natural Larder, an SNH initiative which promotes local and natural produce, and encourages responsible use of natural food resources. Beinn Eighe’s Reserve Volunteers were also on hand to provide face-painting for those entering the spirit of the occasion, be they children or adults alike. Even the sun came out from behind the clouds to raise a few smiles on the day.

The team at Beinn Eighe would like to give a big thank you to Fèis Rois, to Scotland’s Natural Larder, to our volunteers, and to all the visitors who came along on the day, helping make the event such a big success.

Yes, indeed! Beinn Eighe might be a working reserve,  carrying out valuable research – but it’s also one of the largest Visitor Attractions in Wester Ross. ‘Largest’ in terms of physical size, but also in popularity. Something in the order of 30,000 visitors come here each year to enjoy our walking trails and wildlife, and of these visitors, about 16,000 come into the Visitor Centre at Aultroy (just  one mile North of Kinlochewe) .

Beinn Eighe 4

Beinn Eighe visitor centre

 The centre was completely overhauled for the 2015 season, and gives visitors an opportunity to look and learn all about the reserve through fantastic photography and information on the wildlife and history of the reserve – the first one to be created in Britain back in the 1950’s.

The reserve has walking trails from ten minutes to nearly five hours around the area, with some of these being all abilities – why not pay us a visit? Best of all – entrance is free!

Beinn Eighe 5

Next month on the reserve, we’ll be … well,  why not log on to our story and see what happens on the reserve next!

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

Growing up on the Isle of May

A busy breeding season on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve is all but over. Here Reserve Manager David Steel reflects on the season, and shares one or two charming pictures of the new batch of youngsters.

My how they grow. As the breeding season draws to a close it’s great to see so many youngsters on the wing. Huge numbers of puffin chicks have already successfully departed whilst Arctic terns, shags and kittiwake young can be seen scattered across the island.

The data has yet to be crunched for the breeding season, but in general it appears to have been good. Over the next few weeks we’ll start to see changes on the May as the seabirds depart and bird migration will pick up as small passerines use the island as a fuelling stop as they head south for the winter.

And then the fun will really begin as we welcome our grey seals…

The Isle of May is a stunning place for wildlife and keep tuning into the blog as we’ll be bringing you all the highs and lows over the next few months.

Follow David’s regular posts about the comings and goings on the Isle of May blog.

Find out more about the Isle of May NNR on the website.

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

Air rothair gu socair air Slighe Innse Gall….. Cycling the Hebridean Way slow time…..

‘S ann air latha geamhradail am meadhan a’ Mhàirt a ghabh am fear-rothair iomraiteach Mark Beaumont an dùbhlan os làimh gun siùbhladh e Slighe Innse Gall gu lèir an ceann 24 uairean a thìde. Da rèir fhèin bha an t-slighe, a tha 185 mìle a dh’fhaid agus anns an robh frasan fuar flinne cunbhalach, ‘caran garbh an siud ‘s an seo’. Chaidh a bhrosnachadh air an rathad le clann sgoile agus a ghiùlan cuideachd le bàta rib, agus choilean e a dhùbhlan ann an nas giorra na 12 uair a thìde san dìollaid. Leughaibh an t-artaigil Gàidhlig gu h-ìosal.

It was a wintry day in mid-March when round-the-world cyclist Mark Beaumont took on the challenge of riding the Hebridean Way end-to-end in under 24 hours. He later described the 185-mile ride in a strong wind with occasional sleety showers as ‘a bit gritty in places’.   Cheered on by school children and at one point transported by high-speed rib, he accomplished the feat in less than 12 hours in the saddle. Read the full Gaelic version below.

Hugging the coast in South Harris. ©Becky Shaw

A’ cumail dlùth ris a’ chosta ann an ceann a deas na Hearadh / Hugging the coast in South Harris. ©Outer Hebrides Tourism/Richard Barrett

Thankfully, a greater degree of comfort and a more relaxed pace is possible for those contemplating this exceptional route through the length of the Outer Hebrides. The Hebridean Way website gives options for a four or six-day trip to just take the time to enjoy the stunning scenery, get acquainted with the wildlife, or relax over the delicious food and drink on offer.

Most people choose to ride from south to north, with the prevailing wind.

Take a gentle start on the low-lying, machair-fringed island of Vatersay. Across the causeway you reach Barra. Abundant wildlife, flower-strewn machair grasslands, and quiet roads make for a great day’s cycling before crossing the Sound of Barra to Eriskay.

Leaving Eriskay

A’ fàgail Èirisgeigh / Leaving Eriskay. © Outer Hebrides Tourism/Richard Barrett

There’s a beautiful loop walk from the ferry terminal in Eriskay which takes in the sandy beach where Bonnie Prince Charlie first stepped ashore in Scotland. And a causeway takes you to South Uist and your fourth island after less than 20 miles.

On the spectacular island of South Uist, the Hebridean Way meanders on and off the main road, taking the traveller into the heart of the crofting landscape.

Crofting by Loch Druidibeg NNR, South Uist. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Croitearachd aig tèarmann nàdair nàiseanta Loch Druideagbaig, Uibhist a Deas / Crofting by Loch Druidibeg NNR, South Uist. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

With the next causeway you’re in Benbecula and island five of the 10-island trip.

There are spectacular beaches and broad sweeps of machair to greet you in Benbecula, and the Hebridean Way follows the main road to Balivanich, a good place to stock up on supplies. Onward through Grimsay, where you can buy seafood direct from the pier to enjoy as you relax after your day’s exertions.

Another causeway – there are six linking islands on the Hebridean Way – takes you to North Uist and this lacework of water and land is fringed on the west coast by wide expanses of wildflower and bird-rich machair in the summer.

The Sound of Harris ferry crossing runs only in daylight, due to the intricate coastline the ferry navigates. An hour after leaving Berneray, you’ll arrive in Leverburgh and set out on your ninth island and the steepest climbing leg of the trip, the Clisham. The route follows the west coast, through fertile farmland and past jaw-droppingly wonderful beaches. From Tarbert the road climbs slowly over the hills of North Harris, home to golden eagles. You’ll have plenty to time to look out for them as you take in the 800m climb. From the top you can coast downhill into Lewis. Island number 10 on the official counter and the end is in sight.

Shell sand beach at Traigh Scarista, Isle of Harris. ©Lorne Gill

Tràigh Sgarasta, Na Hearadh / Shell sand beach at Traigh Scarista, Isle of Harris. ©Lorne Gill

And then you can marvel at the breathtaking monuments of Calanais’s early settlers and the remarkable Iron Age Broch of Dun Carloway. The crofting settlements of Barvas, Bragar, Brue and Galson line your route for the final stretch to the parish of Ness in the far north. The Hebridean Way ends at the spectacular Butt of Lewis lighthouse, perched high on a clifftop and in the summer surrounded by the calls of seabirds.

Traigh Mangurstadh, West Lewis, Isle of Harris. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Tràigh Mhangurstaidh, taobh an iar Leòdhais / Traigh Mangurstadh, Isle of Lewis. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) works in partnership to promote the use of the outdoors for better health and well-being, and contribute to a healthier Scotland. We are committed to improving levels of regular participation in outdoor recreation, and support for projects such as the National Walking and Cycling Network is a key element of this.

Gu fortanach, faodar an t-slighe a ghabhail os làimh ann an dòigh nas cofhurtaile agus gun a bhith a cheart cho cabhagach air turas rothair air leth air feadh nan Eilean Siar. Faodar Slighe Innse Gal a shiubhal mar thuras ceithir no sia làithean no faodar a dhèanamh nas socaire agus tlachd fhaighinn às na seallaidhean àlainn, às an fhiadh-bheatha agus à biadh is deoch bhlasta na sgìre.

Bidh a’ mhòr-chuid a dhaoine a’ siubhal bhon cheann a deas chun a’ chinn a tuath, air sgàth àird nan gaothan àbhaisteach.

The Vatersay machair. ©Lorne Gill

Machair Bhatarsaigh / The Vatersay machair. ©Lorne Gill

Tòisichibh air ur socair air machair Bhatarsaigh. Thairis air a’ chabhsair thig sibh a Bharraigh. Chithear fiadh-bheatha am pailteas, a’ mhachair fo bhlàth agus rathaidean sàmhach mus tèid sibh a-null thar Caolas Bharraigh a dh’Èirisgeidh.

Tha slighe coiseachd aig a’ chidhe ann an Èirisgidh a bheir sibh mu thimcheall an eilein taobh na tràghad gainmhich far an tàinig Teàrlach Òg Stiùbhart air tìr an Alba airson a’ chiad uair. Bheir an cabhsair sibh a-null a dh’Uibhist a Deas, an ceathramh eilean taobh a-staigh 20 mìle.

Tha Slighe Innse Gall a’ lùbadh air ais is air adhart air an rathad mhòr agus far an rathaid ann an eilean brèagha Uibhist a Deas, far am faicear fìor chridhe tìr na croitearachd.

Thairis air an ath chabhsair agus tha sibh ann am Beinn na Faoghla, an còigeamh eilean de na deich.

Tha tràighean àlainn agus raointean mòra machrach rim faicinn ann am Beinn na Faoghla agus tha Slighe Innse Gall a’ leantainn an rathaid mhòir a Bhaile a’ Mhanaich, deagh àite airson stad agus ur cuid bidhe is deoch a cheannach. A’ leantainn air adhart a Ghriomasaigh, far an urrainn dhuibh biadh-mara a cheannach aig a’ chidhe fhèin agus beagan fois a ghabhail an dèidh saothair mhòr nan rothan.

A ringed plover on the South Uist machair. ©Lorne Gill

Bothag air machair Uibhist a Deas / A ringed plover on the South Uist machair. ©Lorne Gill

Tha cabhsair eile ann – tha còig dhiubh ann a’ ceangal sia de na h-eileanan air Slighe Innse Gall ri chèile – a bheir sibh a-null a dh’Uibhist a Tuath, eilean nan lochan far a bheil raointean mòra machrach air an taobh siar agus dìtheanan agus eunlaith am pailteas.

Cha bhi aiseag Caolas na Hearadh a’ seòladh ach ann an solas an latha air sgàth cladaichean creagach is sgeireach a’ chaolais. Uair an uaireadair an dèidh Beàrnaraigh fhàgail, ruigidh sibh An t-Òb agus an naoidheamh eilean agus an earrann as caise den turas, An Cliseam. Tha sinn a’ leantainn slighe an taoibh siar an seo, tro thalamh torrach agus seachad air tràighean air leth brèagha. An dèidh an Tairbeirt, tha an rathad ag èirigh thar beanntan Taobh Tuath na Hearadh, rìoghachd an iolaire-bhuidhe. Bidh ùine gu leòr agaibh air an lorg fhad ‘s a shreapas sibh na 800m. Bhon a’ mhullach, ‘s urrainn dhuibh siubhal air ur socair leis a’ bhruaich a-nuas a dh’Eilean Leòdhais. ‘S e seo an deicheamh eilean agus tha an deireadh air fàire.

The Calanais standing stones, Isle of Lewis. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Tursachan Chalanais, Eilean Leòdhais / The Calanais standing stones, Isle of Lewis. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Chithear an sin clachan arsaidh Chalanais agus Dùn Chàrlabhaigh a chaidh a thogail ann an Linn an Iarainn. Thèid sibh tro na bailtean croitearachd ann am Barbhas, Bràgar, Brù agus Gabhsann air an earrainn deireannaich gu ruige Nis san fhìor cheann a tuath. Tha Slighe Innse Gall a’ tighinn gu crìch aig taigh-solais Rubha Robhanais, a tha suidhichte air oir creagan an rubha agus air a chuairteachadh as t-samhradh le gairm nan eun-mara.

Bidh Dualchas Nàdair na h-Alba (SNH) ag obair an com-pàirteachas airson ùisneachadh a’ bhlàir a-muigh a brosnachadh airson slàinte a thoirt am feabhas agus airson cur ri Alba nas fallainn. Tha e fa-near do SNH tricead com-pàirteachaidh ann an cur-seachadan sa bhlàr a-muigh a thoirt am feabhas agus tha an taic a chumar ri pròiseactan a leithid Lìonra Nàiseanta Coiseachd is Rothaireachd na prìomh eileamaid a dh’ionnsaigh coileanadh an dùbhlain seo.

Posted in Gaelic, National Walking and Cycling Network | Tagged , , , , ,

Surveying birds at sunrise

Tentsmuir NNR is lucky to have a fantastic team of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. Here, one of the group, Tom Ross tells us about his love of birds and his days out surveying on the Reserve.

Tom getting close with an osprey.

Tom getting close with an osprey.

There are three surveys I do and I find them each very different but very interesting. The first is the Morton Lochs survey which I do twice in the month. This is the easiest one as there are good hides to shelter in if needed and it’s not in any way taxing in effort. It always takes about an hour and there’s a good chance of something turning up. The main part is the teal count which is very variable with virtually none over the summer but then getting into the hundreds in winter, although the numbers appear to be decreasing compared to historical records. I think my most exciting bird observations to date are probably the white-tailed eagle, kingfisher and the water rail, but all the birds here are special to me.

View from the hide of he North Loch at Morton Loch NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

View from the hide of the North Loch at Morton Loch. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The second survey is the Goose Count which is done over at Tentsmuir Point by the Ice House area. This count is carried out over the winter months while the geese are over-wintering here. I started it in November 2015 which involved very early morning starts as you have to be out on the dunes before daybreak in the hope of catching the geese lifting off from their night roosts. Depending on the state of the tide, this is often away out on the Abertay sandbanks. The main species are pinkfoot and greylag with the hope that there may be some other of a rarer kind with them, although the last winter/spring was a bit quieter than previous years, mainly due to the mild and wet weather.

Greylag geese. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Greylag geese. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

For me, the best parts of the Goose survey are the quiet early mornings and the stunning sunrises with not a person except you out there. This survey is a weekly event which can be done in the morning or evening when the birds arrive back from the feeding fields and are looking for a safe place to roost overnight, which they find out at Tentsmuir Point.

Flocks of Waders at Tentsmuir Point ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Flocks of Waders at Tentsmuir Point ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The third survey is my favourite and is called The North Transect Survey where all birds are counted between the south border fence close to the Ice House and the north boundary fence on Tentsmuir Point. The fact it covers a very diverse habitat, means there’s a chance of any kind of bird turning up and generally gives a good species mixture. This survey is carried out once a month and gives me a pleasant walk through fantastic scenery.

Would you like to become a volunteer with SNH? You can find more about what to expect and how to apply here.

And to see the wonderful and varied sites and sounds of Tentsmuir NNR for yourself, have a look at the website to help you plan your day.

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

All you ever wanted to know about the pesky Scottish midge

You’re sitting outside on a warm summer evening, watching a beautiful sunset but as soon as the sun goes below the horizon you feel something crawling over your eyelid, it stops and suddenly it bites. Before you know it you’re covered in tiny black biting midges, they crawl inside your clothes where they continue the onslaught, protected from your swiping  hands.

Sunset over Loch Kanaird from the summit of Meall Mor, Ullapool. ©Lorme Gill/SNH

Sunset over Loch Kanaird from the summit of Meall Mor, Ullapool. ©Lorme Gill/SNH

This is a story heard all over Scotland, not just in the Highlands but in city gardens and parks too. There are actually around 35 different species of midge in Scotland, although only five of these will bite humans. The most infamous one, with a wingspan of just 1.4mm, is the Highland midge, or the Scottish biting midge, Culicodes impunctatus, which lives mainly in upland areas and the Highlands. But there’s also a midge that’s found in urban areas: this is the garden midge. It has a less painful bite than the Highland midge but is even more persistent.

So what exactly is a midge?
–  An invertebrate: it has no internal skeleton.
–  An arthropod: it has no external hard skeleton.
–  An insect: it has six jointed legs.
–  A fly: it has just one pair of wings.

Midges are only around in summer, what do they do for the rest of the year?
Midges have an interesting life cycle. Like butterflies and moths they have three very different forms after they hatch: first the larvae, a large-headed worm-like creature; then a pupa where the larvae’s body parts turn to mush and reorganise into a completely different form; then finally the adult midge.


The secret of the bite
Midges have a very specialised way of feeding. Whereas a mosquito pierces human skin with syringe-like mouthparts and sucks up the blood, a midge cuts the skin with scissor-like mouthparts and sucks up the pool of blood that forms by rolling its mouth into a short feeding tube. Meanwhile, its saliva stops the blood in the wound from clotting so it can keep on drinking to its heart’s content. It is this saliva that irritates the human body and causes the itchy lumps where we’ve been bitten.

Only the females bite. The male’s mouthparts are not strong enough to pierce skin so instead they feed on rotting plants or nectar from flowers. Females need the blood for energy to produce eggs. She can lay her first batch of eggs without feeding but she needs a blood meal before laying any further eggs.

A midge caught on a sundew growing at The Flows NNR, Forsinard. ©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

A midge caught on a sundew growing at The Flows NNR, Forsinard. ©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

Midges seem to be such a pain, can’t we just get rid of the lot of them?
People who work in the outdoors can lose many days work because of midges. The tourist industry can also be affected if visitors have a bad midge experience on holiday. But aside from the fact that it would be almost impossible to control populations of the midge (each square metre of soil can contain up to 700 larvae), midges are an important part of the Scottish ecosystem. They provide food for bats, other invertebrates, birds and even carnivorous plants like sundews and butterworts. If you visit a bog, look out for midges stuck to the sticky hairs of the sundews.

What’s the best way to avoid being bitten?
Researchers have estimated that in an hour up to 40000 midges can land on an unprotected person. Midges are sensitive to light and only come out during the day if it’s cloudy or shaded. They don’t like wind, low temperatures or very dry conditions. To avoid being bitten, go inside around sunrise and sunset and when it’s cloudy or still. If you find yourself attacked by midges then cover your exposed skin, wear a midge net and use repellents that contain the chemical DEET. In the past Scots used bog myrtle, a plant that grows in bogs and moorland.

Bog myrtle, an old Scottish midge repellant. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Bog myrtle, an old Scottish midge repellant. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Nobody escapes
Finally, midges have no respect for royalty. After a picnicking trip in Sutherland in 1872, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she was half devoured by midges.

Illustration by Chris Tyler.

Illustration by Chris Tyler.

This blog is taken from SNH’s All About series, devised for late primary and early secondary school children.




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Scotland’s Nature weekly – 4 August

A rare pea-sized jellyfish and the surprisingly deadly six-spot burnet moth are out and about at this time of year and under the spotlight in this week’s blog.

Exploring Shetland’s sea caves and rocky reefs

With the help of Hughy the seal, Lisa Kamphausen and the Heriot-Watt Scientific dive team set out to the tiny island of Mousa to survey the condition of one of Scotland’s SACs (Special Areas of Conservation).

A tiny seaslug (nudibranch) on red seaweed - life underwater is as much as rich as above the waves, but much harder to observe and monitor.

A tiny seaslug (nudibranch) on red seaweed – life underwater is as much as rich as above the waves, but much harder to observe and monitor.

“Hughy! Come here boy! Hughy!” A second later a huge seal jumps out of the water and grabs a mackerel out of Alan’s hand. Hughy has been on standby for our return to port every day this week, and never fails to get a fish or two out of Alan the skipper.


Fancy a snack? Hughey the seal eying up a fish.

As Alan ties up the boat, we unload a big pile of empty dive cylinders, bags of samples collected during the day, tape measures, compasses, quadrats, cameras, a few soggy leftover sandwiches, and a team of scientists from Heriot-Watt University, SNH, and National Museums Scotland onto the pier. Smiles all round after another successful day’s surveying, and a star performance by Hughy.

Intertidal survey team in action. To study the rocky reefs the team recorded all plants and animals along a line running from the top of the intertidal to 100m beyond the waterline. Divers took over from where welly boots flooded.

Intertidal survey team in action. To study the rocky reefs the team recorded all plants and animals along a line running from the top of the intertidal to 100m beyond the waterline. Divers took over from where welly boots flooded.

Alan is taking us out on the boat for a survey of sea caves and rocky reefs around Mousa’s shores. Having lived and fished here all his life he knows the place better than anyone. We are out here for just three weeks and hope to catch enough calm weather to be able to make detailed observations of at least five sea caves and five rocky reefs, before finishing the survey off with a week of remote video work. The survey is part of SNH’s Site Condition Monitoring programme, to assess the condition of Scotland’s SACs, and compare it to how things were in the past.  Alan has taken out the team who conducted the previous survey as well, eight years ago. Our initial impression is that things have not changed much, and the caves and reefs remain in good shape. More smiles.

To assess the status of the caves and rocky reefs, divers from the scientific dive team make records of the physical environment, animals and plants, the biotopes and associated communities, and take video footage and photographs.  Today the divers made an interesting find in a shallow bay just by the Mousa ferry pier: they came across a stalked jellyfish which they think is of a species only recorded in the UK once before, in Caithness. To confirm whether the pea-sized carnivorous animal is indeed Haliclystus sapinx they need to examine the specimen they collected more closely in the laboratory.

At the end of the day two of us did a quick dive to check up on a maerl bed site which we may study in detail if we unexpectedly finish the other sites ahead of schedule – or more likely, on a day when swell and surging waves make working in the caves and reefs impossible. We found the maerl bed covered in translucent seasquirts, and happened across an octopus who looked a little surprised.

We now have two weeks left to spot the pod of killer whales which is circling Shetland at the moment. And we hope that Hughy will tell his fellow seals, some of whom like to hang out in the caves we come to survey, that we are friendly and don’t need to be chased out of the caves. So far the trick seems to work. We better make sure he gets his mackerels tomorrow as well.

Obligatory team photo in front of the Broch of Mousa.

Obligatory team photo in front of the Broch of Mousa.

You can listen to an interview with two of the team members on BBC Radio Shetland here.


Species of the month – the six-spot burnet moth

Athayde Tonhasca explains the deadly beauty of burnet moths.

Six-spot burnet moths feeding on a flowering thistle head. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Six-spot burnet moths feeding on a flowering thistle head. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

For over 430 million years plants and animals – particularly insects – have been tangled in an evolutionary tug of war. Through the inexorable process of natural selection, a plant produces chemicals which are repellent or harmful to insects. These insects then develop the ability to overcome the plant’s defences, which in turn puts pressure on the plant to come up with ever more powerful chemicals, and so this arms race goes on.

As a consequence of these adaptations and counter-adaptations, plants have accumulated an arsenal of more than 300,000 products, known as secondary metabolites, which repel or poison potential enemies. Among these chemicals, cyanogenic glucosides – CNglcs for short – are particularly efficient. When an insect rips through plant tissue, CNglcs immediately react with other chemicals to produce hydrogen cyanide, a substance highly poisonous to most animals, including humans.

Self heal and a six spot burnet moth on the Vatersay machair. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Self heal and a six-spot burnet moth on the Vatersay machair. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

However, in an ingenious twist of plant-herbivore coevolution, CNglcs have not only become harmless to a few millipedes, centipedes and insects, but have even turned into phagostimulants (substances that induce eating).

Why would this happen?

Through several behavioural and physiological adaptations, these herbivores have developed the ability to sequester CNglcs from their food plants, that is, ingest and store them in their bodies, without triggering the chemical reactions that create poisonous hydrogen cyanide. By accumulating CNglcs, these species then put their toxic chemicals to their own use as defences against predators.

No group illustrates this process of chemical manipulation better than the moth family Zygaenida (forester and burnet moths), of which the six-spot burnet, Zygaena filipendulae, is the best known representative in Scotland.

A six spot burnet moth caterpillar and bird's foot trefoil. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

A six-spot burnet moth caterpillar and bird’s foot trefoil. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Six-spot burnet larvae feed only on bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), from which they sequester CNglcs. But that’s not all; the larvae can also produce their own CNglcs from amino acids in their host plant. As a result the caterpillars, and later the adults, are extremely unpalatable, which could partially explain why burnet moths can afford to fly about during the day: few predators would dare to take them. And they will have been well warned by the moths’ black-red contrasting colouration, which is a common pattern among poisonous animals.

A six spot burnet moth caterpillar at Forvie NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

A six-spot burnet moth caterpillar at Forvie NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

But the six-spot burnet moth’s association with poison is even more remarkable. Researchers have found that females release gaseous plumes of hydrogen cyanide to attract males, and refuse to mate with those with a low content of CNglcs. If a male is perceived to be suitably toxic and accepted, it then transfers some of its own chemicals to the female during mating. It is believed that this ‘nuptial gift’ is then relocated to her eggs to help protect them from predators.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; but when life gives burnet moths cyanide, they make chemical weapons.

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