Taynish mosses and liverworts

Argyll is a wet place. It rains a lot here. But the water shapes the land and makes it what it is. Only the westernmost sliver of Europe is this wet, and there are plants here that only live on this Atlantic fringe, amongst the fairytale green woods, bogs, burns and rocky coasts.

West coast temperate rainforest. Dave Genney

West coast temperate rainforest. Dave Genney

Here are temperate rainforests, found very much further north than the equally wet, but more familiar, tropical rainforests. Scotland has the most important temperate rainforests in Europe, and so are also called Celtic Rainforests

Walk into a west coast rainforest like Taynish National Nature Reserve and you be struck by the how green everything is. Not just the ground or the canopy, but everything in between, too. The trunks, branches and almost any other parts of the trees are covered in small green plants which give the place its special feel.

If you’ve been to these woods before, you’ll have noticed this greenery. But did you ever go and have a closer look at these small plants?

It would be tempting to think that this green covering is just a homogenous carpet of something common. But actually, Taynish has about 300 types of these plants growing over just about everything in these woods. Of course, they are mosses and liverworts. And these west coast woods are one of the richest places in the world for them, with many species that are rare, or absent, in the rest of Europe.

Mossy boulder, temperate rainforest, Argyll. Stan Phillips

Mossy boulder, temperate rainforest, Argyll. Stan Phillips

Like the rocks, boulders, ground and dead wood, much of the bark of living trees here is covered by mosses and liverworts. What isn’t covered by mosses and liverworts is usually covered by lichens, which form another very special community in these woods. One common species of liverwort that you’ll find on the bark of living trees here is Tamarisk Scalewort (Frullania tamarisci). It’s worth having a closer look at this plant.

At first glance you might notice a scuzz of browny colouration on the bark or rock, in amongst the greenery of other species. Getting closer you’ll notice some branching and, if you have good eyesight, or even a magnifying glass, you might even be able to make out some roundish leaves, thus indicating that we are actually looking at a plant of some kind!

Frullania tamarisci, upperside. Hermann Schachner, Wikimedia Commons

Frullania tamarisci, upperside. Hermann Schachner, Wikimedia Commons

The surprising structural complexity found on this small plant is typical of a range of liverworts, but doesn’t stop there, however. If you are lucky enough to be able to whip out a botanist’s hand lens, in order to magnify the view further, you’ll see even more surprises.

Turn over the tiny plant and under the hand lens you’ll see those round leaves have smaller lobes, tucked in underneath. Then, running down the stem on the underside is yet another set of leaves, called ‘under-leaves’, appropriately enough!

Frullania tamarisci, underside. Hermann Schachner, Wikimedia Commons

Frullania tamarisci, underside. Hermann Schachner, Wikimedia Commons

And, back on the main leaves, you might be able to make out what looks like a vein running down the middle of the leaf. Actually, none of these mosses or liverworts have veins – what you might be able to see is just a row of darker-coloured cells. These are important features for telling similar species apart.

Frullania tamarisci, leaf. Hermann Schachner, Wikimedia Commons

Frullania tamarisci, leaf. Hermann Schachner, Wikimedia Commons

All this on a tiny plant you can barely distinguish with the naked eye. And that’s just one of the species – now go check out the other 299!

But if you find going into the woods and looking at these plants on your own too daunting, then come along to an event Plantlife Scotland, Kilmartin Museum and Scottish Natural Heritage are having at Taynish on Sunday 15 May. Stan Phillips from SNH will be leading an excursion into Taynish’s woods looking at these special plants, and the event will be ideal for beginners, or anyone just wanting to explore the incredible biodiversity to be found in these woods. Hand lenses will be supplied!

For more information about the event, or to book a place (booking is free, but essential) then click here.

Find out more about the celtic rainforest here.

Posted in Argyll National Nature Reserves, liverworts, mosses | Tagged , , , ,

Species of the month – the Manx shearwater, the charming frequent-flier

A remarkable bird that flies up to 1 million miles over a lifetime? Athayde Tonhasca, SNH Species Advisory Officer, tells its story.

Manx shearwater in flight. © Chris Proctor

A Manx shearwater in flight. © Chris Proctor

From September to October, thousands of Manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) leave their breeding grounds located on a few islands off Britain’s west coast – Rum alone hosts around a third of the world’s population – and set out to South America. These trans-Atlantic journeys involve a careful flight plan. Travelling at about 55 km/h (35 mph) for up to 139 hours nonstop and making a few stopovers to replenish their reserves, Manx shearwaters may take 5-7 weeks to reach Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina, where they spend the northern winter. When they return in March, they will have covered some 11,000 miles. On top of that, Manx shearwaters travel anywhere between 40 and 400 miles round trip every day in search of food – mostly shoaling fish, but also squid, crustaceans and offal.

on the sea around the Isle of Rum NNR. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Manx Shearwaters feeding off the Isle of Rum. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Like other pelagic birds (of coastal waters and open ocean), Manx shearwaters live for a long time, usually more than 20 years; some ringed birds were over 50 years old at the time of recapture. Adding a conservative 20-mile daily feeding trip to their annual migration, a 50 year-old individual would have clocked around 1 million miles – not bad for a relatively small bird (about 400 g).

With such a wandering life, how do these birds find their way from South America to a small Scottish island across vast expanses of featureless seas? For years it was believed that Manx shearwaters and other birds navigate by visual landmarks and by interpreting Earth’s magnetic field. More recently however, evidence has accumulated to support another hypothesis: birds have the remarkable ability to orientate by odours distributed in the atmosphere. They seem to be able to pinpoint their targets by assessing gradients of scents from numerous sources such as plankton distribution in the ocean, and from areas where prey concentrates.

While impressive in the air, a Manx shearwater doesn’t do so well on land. It can barely walk, relying instead on shuffling or sledging on its belly. This handicap of course makes it an easy prey for predators (in fact, rats are a serious threat to a whole colony if they make their way to a breeding ground). To reduce the risk of predation, Manx shearwaters usually don’t come to land during daylight. On returning from fishing trips, they form ‘rafts’ of floating birds offshore, waiting until dark before making their way to their burrows. Then vocalization becomes important for communication between partners and orientation among similar burrows. So colonies are very noisy after dark, the air filled with a cacophony of thousands of birds growling, cackling and screeching to each other.

Manx Shearwater on its belly. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

A Manx shearwater on its belly. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

You can hear some of these sounds in this recording from the British Library Sounds

In the past, these peculiar, otherworldly nocturnal cries were considered manifestations of the supernatural, and 11th-century Vikings believed that Rum was inhabited by noisy trolls. They couldn’t have been more wrong; Manx shearwaters are not trolls, but rather tireless itinerant ambassadors of Britain’s natural heritage.

A final biodiversity note: the flea Ceratophyllus fionnus is found only in Manx shearwaters’ nests on the island of Rum, nowhere else in the world: it is one of the few Scottish endemic species.

Visit the Manx shearwater breeding grounds on the Isle of Rum by night – find out more here.

Check out the Rum NNR website.


Posted in biodiversity, Birds, Rum NNR | Tagged , , , , ,

Lus buidhe Bealltainn – Yellow plant of Beltane

The marsh marigold is a vivid reminder of the close links between Gaelic culture and the Scottish seasons, as Ruairidh MacIlleathain explains. Read the full Gaelic version below.

Marsh marigolds. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Buidhe aig a’ Bhealltainn.  Bha, and tha, lus buidhe Bealltainn a’ comharrachadh toiseach an t-samhraidh ann an inntinn nan Gàidheal. The yellow Beltane plant. To Scotland’s Gaels, the marsh marigold in bloom is a traditional symbol of the start of summer.  ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The day that starts the summer, now the first of May, is still known in Gaelic as latha buidhe Bealltainn – the ‘yellow day of Beltane’. Buidhe, however, doesn’t just mean ‘yellow’. It also has suggestions of good fortune. This plant, which bears yellow flowers at the time of Beltane (the English word came from Gaelic), is lucky – its blooms would often be tied above doorways or to the tails of horses or cattle to bring good fortune. The Gaelic name for the species is lus buidhe Bealltainn (sounds like ‘looss boo-yuh BYOWL-tin’) or the ‘yellow plant of Beltane’.

Another species named for this season is the whimbrel – eun Bealltainn (‘eeun BYOWL-tin’), actually meaning ‘bird of Beltane’. And Tullybelton in Perthshire would have experienced the fires through which cattle and other goods were passed as part of the purification rites of this pre-Christian festival. Its name comes from the Gaelic Tulach Bealltainn or ‘Beltane hill’. The two greatest festivals in the old Gaelic calendar were Bealltainn and, six months later, Samhain – the start of winter. The first day of Samhain is still widely celebrated in Gaelic Scotland, as it is in the English-speaking world, where it’s called ‘Halloween’.

Whimbrel. ©David Whitaker

Eun Bealltainn / Whimbrel ©David Whitaker

Tha na Gàidheil fhathast a’ comharrachadh na Bealltainn, co-dhiù le bhith ag ainmeachadh a’ chiad latha dhen Chèitean mar ‘Latha Buidhe Bealltainn’. Tha ‘buidhe’ an dà chuid na chomharra de dhath agus de dheagh fhortan (canaidh sinn ‘nach buidhe dhut’ gu cumanta fhathast). Bha Bealltainn bhò thùs na fèill phàganach a bha na inntrigeadh don t-samhradh. Bha e aig ceann eile na bliadhna bho ‘Shamhain’, fèill phàganach eile a bha a’ comharrachadh toiseach a’ gheamhraidh. Chanadh na seann daoine ‘bho Shamhain gu Bealltainn’ nuair a bha iad a’ ciallachadh an leth fuar dhen bhliadhna.

Tha Bealltainn air a comharrachadh ann an lus dùthchasach air an nochd dìtheannan buidhe mun àm sin dhen bhliadhna. ’S e sin Caltha palustris, lus ris an canar marsh marigold ann am Beurla. Ann an Gàidhlig, ’s e ‘lus buidhe Bealltainn’ an t-ainm a th’ air. Bhiodh daoine a’ cur dìtheannan an luis seo os cionn an dorsan airson droch gheasan a sheachnadh; uaireannan bhite gan ceangal ri earbaill cruidh air an dearbh adhbhar. Is cinnteach gu bheil dath an luis co-cheangailte ris mar a bha daoine ga thomhas mar fhortanach.

Marsh marigolds growing in a coastal flush, Skaw, Unst, Shetland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

©Lorne Gill/SNH

Tha e mar as trice blàth gu leòr aig a’ Bhealltainn ach corra uair cuirear an sneachd mu dheireadh dhen gheamhradh aig an àm sin. Thathar a’ gabhail ‘sneachd mu bheul na Bealltainn’ air a leithid. Agus bhiodh na balaich ag èisteachd airson na cuthaig air latha na Bealltainn. Nan cluinneadh iad i, dh’èigheadh iad “‘Gug-ùg!’ ars a’ chuthag Latha Buidhe Bealltainn”. Agus mhothaich na seann daoine gum biodh an t-eun beag ris an canar a whimbrel ann am Beurla a’ nochdadh aig an àm sin a h-uile bliadhna (coltach ris a’ chuthaig, bidh e a’ cur seachad a’ gheamhraidh ann an Afraga). Mar sin thug iad ‘eun Bealltainn’ air mar ainm.

B’ e an seann chleachdadh a bhith a’ togail dà theine air Latha na Bealltainn tron chùirte sprèidh is iomadh rud eile airson an ùrachadh is dìon an aghaidh droch bhuidseachd. Thathar a’ smaoineachadh gu bheil Tullybelton/Tulach Bealltainn ann an Siorrachd Pheairt am measg nan àiteachan anns an tachradh a leithid. Ged nach eil an t-seann fhèill Cheilteach seo air a comharrachadh gu mòr ann an Alba an-diugh, tha i air beatha ùr fhaighinn anns na bliadhnaichean a chaidh air an oidhche mu dheireadh dhen Ghiblean air Cnoc na Calltainn ann an Dùn Èideann. Ged a tha dreach rudeigin ùr-nòsach oirre, tha teine aig meadhan a’ ghnothaich fhathast.

Gheibhear tuilleadh sgeulachdan air ar làraich Ghàidhlig.

Visit our Gaelic website for more Gaelic language information and stories.


Posted in biodiversity, Folklore, Gaelic | Tagged , , ,

What’s in a Pond?

Are Inverness drainage ponds supporting biodiversity and community health? Marcia Rae, Graduate Research Assistant – SuDS for Highland Council, looks at the benefits these drainage systems can give to urban living.

Common frog in a garden pond. ©Lorne Gill

Common frog in a garden pond. ©Lorne Gill

The urban environment is increasing at an ever-faster rate and soon more than half the world’s population will be living in cities. This growth is particularly obvious in the Highland City of Inverness, one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, where there has been a large expansion to the south and east. This increasing urbanisation brings into question whether the cities we are building are supporting the health and wellbeing of their residents. Studies in recent years have shown that urban environments can contribute to physical and mental health problems among local residents. It’s no secret that obesity and depression are on the rise. So what can we do about this?

Research has also shown that contact with nature can counteract some of the negative effects linked with the urban environment. But how do we bring more nature in to our cities? There are a number of ways to do this, for instance planting more trees and creating green roofs. In Inverness there is already great potential to encourage nature, for roughly 20 years now new development in the area has been adding little pockets of nature to the city through Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS).

Inshes Park pond in Inverness.

Inshes Park pond in Inverness.

These are systems designed to deal with surface water close to its source and slow down its flow into nearby rivers, to prevent flooding, and they usually take the form of detention basins or ponds. There are now 40 SuDS ponds and detention basins in the Inverness area which have the ability to support wildlife within the city. A study in 2015 by Scottish Natural Heritage and Highland Council found that 75% of these sites were supporting amphibian species along with a variety of other wildlife.

Sunset on Inshes Park SuDS pond, Inverness

Sunset on Inshes Park SuDS pond, Inverness.

It seems SuDS are certainly bringing nature into closer contact with people. But how are local people interacting with these sites? Is there a SuDS pond near you? Do you know if there are any animals living in it? Do you think they are a good idea? Let us know what you think by following the link below.

Public Perception of SuDS Questionnaire https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/LWW6GGN

You can find more information about the project here.

Or contact Marcia Rae, email marcia.rae@highland.gov.uk

Photos by Marcia Rae unless stated otherwise.

Posted in biodiversity, Sustainable Drainage Systems | Tagged , ,

Sailing in the wake of Hugh Miller – Part 2

Elizabeth Pickett, geologist and illustrator, continues the account of her trip around the Argyll islands on the Brixham sailing trawler, Leader, along with a crew of other geologists, artists, ecologists, musicians and storytellers. The second half of the cruise heads off through the Gulf of Corryvreckan.

Paps of Jura

Paps of Jura.

23 June
Through the Corryvreckan

We take a window of opportunity and motor through the Gulf of Corryvreckan towards Colonsay and Oronsay. The sea is calm but seething patches of water hint at the whirlpool that churns when the tide rips through. On either side are vivid green hillsides of layered rocks. The Paps of Jura, blue-purple and sun-tinged, rise to the south. Landing on Oronsay we head inland from a white beach to explore the ruins of the 14th-century priory. Corncrakes rasp and medieval priors stare out from carved grave-slabs. We find one of the Mesolithic shell middens for which Oronsay is famous. Packed limpet shells tell of people’s lives 6,000 years ago, as close in time to the end of the last glaciation as to today. The turquoise waters tempt some of us in for a breathtaking swim!

Priory cross on Oronsay.

Priory cross on Oronsay.

24 June
Rock of the saints

The thin rugged spine of the Garvellachs is our much-anticipated destination today. We arrive at Eileach an Naoimh and step ashore by a sea-washed outcrop of Port Askaig Tillite. We learn of the ancient glaciation, around 650 million years ago, that formed this famous rock, and contemplate ‘Snowball Earth’. These small islands seem remote now, but were once an important centre of early Christianity. St Brendan founded a monastery here in AD 542 and St Columba reputedly visited the islands. We explore the monastery ruins, the grave of Eithne (St Columba’s mother), and two amazing beehive cells. A stump of lichen-crusted rock is known as ‘Columba’s pulpit’. A spring near our landing place is still called the Holy Stream.

Garvellachs rock.

Garvellachs rock.

25 June
Slate island songs

Luing welcomes us for the final part of our voyage. We walk round Cuan Point, past red cattle and over drifts of grey slate. It has a rippled sheen and is flecked with gold pyrite cubes. To our left, rear cliffs of Easdale Slate, sculpted by past quarrying. We are faced by a great wall of rock, a dyke, which chops through the slate and heads out into the green sea like a dark path. In the evening we join a ceilidh in the new Atlantic Islands Centre, which celebrates the natural and cultural heritage of the Argyll islands. Our leaders, Joyce Gilbert and Simon Cuthbert, speak about the voyage and we enjoy songs, poems, music and stories from islanders and Leader crew. It is a special end to a memorable journey.

Coming ashore at the Holy Stream.

Coming ashore at the Holy Stream.

26 June
Journey’s end

We head back to Oban past the dark cliffs of Seil and Easdale, veiled in rain and mist. Islands merge into a watercolour of slate, sea and sky. Back on the North Pier we say our goodbyes. We have heaved ropes, looked at rocks, sung songs, shared stories, written, sketched and much more – in short, we had an inspiring week. We have read some of the signs inscribed on Hugh Miller’s vast tablet of nature, and on this journey these certainly became ‘poetry in the mind’ for all of us. But this isn’t the end of the project.

Future initiatives are being discussed. Watch this space!

The voyage was run by the Scottish Geodiversity Forum, the Isle of Luing Community Trust and the Friends of Hugh Miller. If you’d like to find out more about the voyage or Hugh Miller see Emma MacLachlan’s film, Hugh’s News 26 in: www.thefriendsofhughmiller.org.uk and www.atlanticislandscentre.com


Posted in Geology, Hugh Miller | Tagged , , ,

The problem with stoats in Orkney

Although stoats are commonly found on the Scottish mainland they are non-native to Orkney, and were first spotted in 2010. It might look cute but, this small, feisty predator has since spread across the isles, becoming a major cause for concern for Orkney’s native wildlife.

Stoat with Orkney vole. © Michael Flowers

Stoat with Orkney vole. © Michael Flowers

The introduction of a ground predator to islands such as Orkney, where there are no native ground predators, is very bad news for Orkney’s native species. Stoats are likely to prey on Orkney voles, reducing their population.

Bird species, such as the endangered hen harrier, and short-eared owl also prey on Orkney voles so their populations are likely to suffer too if they are having to compete with stoats for their food.

Stoats also pose a huge threat to Orkney’s many ground-nesting bird species. Orkney has several Special Protect Areas (SPAs) designated for their ground-nesting birds, including red-throated divers and Arctic terns. These sites are likely to be negatively affected unless the stoat population can be controlled.

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Threatened bird species

Over the past few months, while we develop a bid for a full-scale eradication project, we have been working with a number of volunteer trappers across Orkney who are keen to do their bit to control the spread of this invasive mustelid. Stoats are least active, and therefore harder to trap, during the winter months but despite this we are already having successes and we hope this will continue as the weather improves. The data collected by volunteers will also help to inform the larger eradication project in terms of analysing trapping methods.

Find out more about stoats in Orkney on the SNH website


Posted in Uncategorized

A great trail – the Arran Coastal Way

They say that the Isle of Arran is ‘Scotland in miniature’ but the Arran Coastal Way is anything but miniature. It is a challenging and rugged long distance route hugging the island’s coastline for around 65 miles. But don’t be daunted, you can also tackle this walk in bite-sized chunks and day excursions can be just a much fun as completing the entire Way.


Sannox (behind Coire na Ciche, north Goat Fell range)

Given the variety of landscapes that Arran is famed for it’s little wonder that the Way boasts superb scenery, and it’s not solely a coastal walk – there are a couple of sections that take the walker inland – albeit never too far from the stunning coastline.


Kildonan Shore

For most of us the walk starts in Brodick and heads towards Sannox. This makes for a marvellous first day and walkers are often lured into squeezing in an ascent of the famous Goat Fell. If you can manage this you will be handsomely rewarded. Goat Fell is Arran’s highest peak and on a clear day it offers a magnificent vista. At 2,866 feet the views are big and it’s a great spot to get a sense of Holy Isle to the south of Brodick (you can see all the way out to the Western Isles, and also Ireland on a very clear day!).

Other highlights are less demanding. The beauty of Lochranza is undeniable, and the whitewashed cottages at Catacol Bay are well known. Named the Twelve Apostles of Catacol, each is said to have a distinctive window so as to be better identified from sea. More challenging sections resume in the south of Arran, particularly the two renowned boulder fields at Bennan Head (which is tidal, escape route signed) and Dippen Head, which is some of Cameron McNeish’s favourite walking on Arran, but is not for everyone (there is a waymarked inland alternative route). Fortunately the lovely villages of Blackwaterfoot and Whiting Bay offer respite to the weary walker from this wild but rewarding walking in the south of Arran.

Kings Cave between Machrie and Blackwaterfoot.

King’s Cave between Machrie and Blackwaterfoot.

Of course with its varied habitats, Arran offers superb wildlife watching opportunities. Common seals inhabit the waters around Lochranza whilst further out you could be lucky and spot basking sharks, dolphins and porpoises. Arran’s plant-life is easier to see – ragged robin, oysterplant, thrift and sea campion have all been recorded here.

Common seal pup ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Common seal pup ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Just how did The Arran Coastal Way come into being? It all began back in the 1990s when two locals – Hugh McKerrell and Dick Sim, had the vision of a circular walk around the island. They gathered a group of eager supporters and an army of volunteers who by March 2003 were able to celebrate the opening of the Way with Cameron McNeish.

Arran Access Trust now has responsibility for the route and has improved the path, signage and way marking at several points. This was funded by money sourced from the Coastal Communities Fund, The Arran Trust, North Ayrshire Council and Forestry Commission Scotland.

To plan your own trip the Arran Coastal Way and the Walkhighlands websites have detailed information on the route and lots of other useful tips.

And to keep in touch with what’s happening there the Arran Coastal Way Facebook page  has plenty of news and photographs to inspire you.

All pictures courtesy of Arran Access Trust unless stated otherwise.

Posted in Scotland's Great Trails | Tagged , , ,