Alan Joyce – citizen scientist and inspiration

Citizen Science can appear like an ‘in-phrase’ at the moment, but it isn’t new and Alan Joyce was encouraging it many years ago in the north of Scotland.

As a young man in the 1950s Alan read an article in Country Life magazine about a rural bus service which ran from Lairg to Durness and resolved to visit Sutherland, his first experience of the Highlands. Ending up at Rhiconich he then walked and hitched all the way home to Aberdeen. He had fallen in love with the north of Scotland, and a few years later Alan took up a post in Golspie High School teaching biology determined to transmit his enthusiasm to others.

He would become a legendary figure in his local community and particularly amongst pupils at Golspie High School. His previous work at the Aberdeen Fisheries Laboratory had given him some expertise in freshwater biology so he quickly devised some exciting projects for his pupils. With 32,000 lochs in Scotland – and a great many of them in Sutherland – he had plenty of scope.

Young Scientists of the Year

When the British Association for the Advancement of Science held their annual meeting in Dundee in 1968 the Headmaster suggested Alan and his pupils exhibit their work on ‘Food for Fish and Man’. For three days, three pupils and their teacher manned their display and their efforts were rewarded by being told that they had been selected to enter the Scottish round of the Young Scientist of the Year competition. In November they discovered they had won, and they went on to take the National Award the following January.

The three Young Scientists were given a great welcome home at Golspie railway station, and as a reward later that summer were despatched to spend three weeks in Iceland, with the school minibus and driver. One of the three prize winners went on to become a council roadman in Tongue, another a solicitor and the third an Exploration Manager for British Oil.

Although not strictly on the school syllabus, Alan was able to pursue further projects on salmon, trout and Arctic charr, and on freshwater crustaceans. It was an inspirational approach although one that took some time to take hold. He noted in the 1960s that “Strangely enough freshwater biology does not seem to feature much in Scottish education. However, recently, I was pleased to read of 40 primary schools near Glasgow undertaking an interesting project on trout in the River Clyde.”

Alan’s pupils went on to investigate the diet and distribution of Arctic charr in Sutherland, examining stomachs from fish caught on the local estates. They also looked at the survival and growth of Pacific oysters in the Kyle of Tongue, which encouraged a local couple to set up a successful oyster farm. This addition to the approved curriculum was all Alan’s work and a hugely enjoyable departure from the norm.

Desmids and crustaceans

He was an inspirational teacher and influenced so many of his pupils to look on our natural heritage from a fresh perspective. Some time after he retired he reflected on his achievements which extended well beyond the school gates.

“‘When I retired 20 years ago,” he recalled, “I was approached by the Head Teacher of Achfary Primary School (who was a former pupil), and then by Bettyhill School, to lead the pupils in a freshwater project. It stopped me completely mentally rotting in retirement! I prepared work sheets for the children with background information about what desmids and crustaceans are and what they do. We’d then go out to a loch and take a sample of sludge back to the laboratory. When the children found desmids under the microscope they could identify them from the sheets and colour them in. They really were incredibly quick at picking them out and they even surprised their teachers. We wrote to Zeiss to order a microscope for the school, but when they realised what it was for, they kindly sent us another one free of charge.’

Alan Joyce’s class worksheets were copiously illustrated, and adorned with his own entertaining verse, which seemed to sum up his tireless lifestyle:-

Wandering amongst Scotland’s mountains beside its many lochs

You’ll find there tiny beasties, lots and lots and lots. . .

 . . . Refuge comes at last, with the very sagacious Charr

Whose taxonomic skills are superior to ours by far.

Without the help of microscopes, teachers or books on beasts

He knows which Cladocerans to gather for his feasts.


What’s more there are baby salmon, trout and stickleback,

The occasional Cladoceran their diet will not lack.

He who made these mountains with their many lochs

Gave all who live there food, even though some be just tiny dots!


You can listen to Alan Joyce talking about Citizen Science – before it was known as that –

This biography of Alan E Joyce, who passed away in 2007, was originally produced for SNH’s Highland Naturalists project – part of our contribution to 2007 The Year of Highland Culture.


Images form part of the Alan Joyce collection and are courtesy of his family. The initial image (colour) was provided by Pete Moore.


Posted in The Highland Naturalists | Tagged , ,

Protecting Scotland’s maerl beds

The Scottish Government used an Urgent Marine Conservation Order (MCO) for the first time at the end of 2014, to protect a fragile ecosystem in the sea off Arran.

Maerl and black brittlestars amongst seaweeds and sponges in Loch Sween MPA, © Ben James.

Maerl and black brittlestars amongst seaweeds and sponges in Loch Sween MPA, © Ben James.

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead made the order in response to fishing activity that could damage maerl beds within the South Arran Marine Protected Area (MPA). Announcing the Order, Mr Lochhead said such fishing activity was in breach of a “voluntary agreement between Marine Scotland and the fishing industry”.

“Maerl beds are crucial to the biodiversity of the marine environment in this area”, he added, “and scientific evidence shows that dredging can destroy significant proportions of these delicate habitats in just one pass of the gear.”

Maerl bed with common brittlestars, © Marine Scotland/Graham Saunders

Maerl bed with common brittlestars, © Marine Scotland/Graham Saunders

Living maerl is a fragile, purple-pink, rocky seaweed that grows unattached, forming colourful spiky ‘carpets’ on the sea floor. Many bivalves, urchins, sea cucumbers, anemones and worms live on, amongst and under the maerl.

Maerl beds are one of Scotland’s Priority Marine Features: a list of 81 habitats and species which are considered conservation priorities in Scottish seas. Maerl beds are particularly good places for juvenile animals to hide from predators. Young scallops, for example, show a strong preference for living maerl beds as nursery areas.

Protecting our maerl beds therefore helps to sustain scallop fishing, a commercially important fishery on Scotland’s west coast. Ironically, scallop dredging causes significant damage both to maerl beds – by breaking up and burying the thin surface layer of living maerl – and to the wildlife they harbour.

Maerl can also be damaged by other kinds of seabed disturbance, such as by heavy anchors and mooring chains. The MCO prohibits a range of activities across relevant parts of the site, including the use of fishing gear, for one year or until replaced by permanent legislation. However, the Order has not affected fishing boats that were already following the voluntary arrangements for the MPA.

Queen scallop on maerl bed, © Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

Queen scallop on maerl bed, © Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

A public consultation on statutory management measures for a number of MPAs closed earlier in February and Ministers are now considering the submissions made. The consultation included consideration of maerl bed management in several MPAs around Scotland, including South Arran, Wyre and Rousay Sounds, and Wester Ross.

Scottish maerl beds represent about 30% of all maerl beds in northwest Europe.  Maerl is extremely slow growing and it’s thought that some of our more extensive beds may be several thousand years old. Living maerl on a bed that can be destroyed in minutes, takes many years to recover, if at all.

Sand mason worm on maerl, © Graham Saunders/SNH

Sand mason worm on maerl, © Graham Saunders/SNH

You can find more information about Nature Conservation MPAs, Priority Marine Features, the MCO and maerl on our website.

Posted in biodiversity, Marine, Marine Protected Areas, MPA, MPAs, photography, Priority Marine Features, Projects, Protected Areas, Research, Uncategorized, website | Tagged , ,

Spring signs

The signs that spring is on the way are many and varied. Changing bird behaviour is one obvious indicator, and plants bursting into life is another. Here we take a brief look at things to spot and listen out for.

Great tit

Great tit


Woods everywhere are starting to wake up to the sound of spring. Pick a sunny day in February and you can begin to start to think, spring is definitely on the way. The loud ‘teacher, teacher’ call of the great tit is one of the most obvious and generally indicates males calling away in their selected territories. If you have a nest box in your garden you may have seen great tits or blue tits checking them out. Although they won’t lay their eggs for a while yet, they are keen to find a home for summer.

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker

Woodlands are also alive with the drumming sound of great spotted woodpeckers just now. Male woodpeckers use drumming on wood to proclaim their territories; the more resonant the tree the further the sound carries, up to half a mile if conditions are perfect. Frustratingly they have a knack of moving around the tree trunk so can be difficult to spot ! You can tell male and females apart as male birds have a distinctive red patch on the back of their heads.



Our upland and farmland birds are stirring too. Known as the lapwing, peewit, or green plover, and in Scots as ‘teuchit’ or ‘peasie’, the sight of this charismatic bird on our farmlands is a harbinger of spring, and flocks will be beginning to gather now. From a distance the lapwing appears to be black and white and it is easy to identify by its ‘peewit’ call, tumbling flight and rather splendid crest. Numbers of this popular wader have been falling in recent years, indeed lapwings have declined by around 56% between 1994 and 2013



The oystercatcher is often heard calling at night and their harsh piping call makes a welcome return inland after a winter spent on the coastline. The same applies with the curlew which any time now will be making its presence felt with its bubbling call on our uplands and moorlands.

Plant pointers

Occasionally known as ’The Spring Messenger’, the lesser celandine is one of the first flowers to catch the eye as winter heads into spring. Lesser celandine flowers sometimes close up for part of the day, especially in cold weather. A member of the buttercup family it is poisonous but that didn’t prevent it becoming a firm favourite of literary giants such as D. H. Lawrence and Wordsworth, the latter writing a trio of poems about the little yellow flower. We would love to hear when and where you spot lesser celandine.

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine

Purple saxifrage meanwhile signals the coming of spring in our mountains. It is by far the earliest montane plant to flower in Scotland and brings great pleasure to many hill-walkers. It is one of the hardiest arctic flowering plants and vies for the accolade as the most northerly growing and has been recorded on the north coast of Greenland. The flowers are nectar rich and in Scotland the only recorded pollinator is a blow fly.

Purple saxifrage

Purple saxifrage

Another plant to look out for is coltsfoot. Also known as Horsehoof, the name derives from the shape of the leaves as they resemble a hoof. One of spring’s first flowers it can be mistaken as a dandelion due to the close resemble of each plant’s yellow flowers.

Out and about along river-side paths, one of the earliest flowers which you might find is butterbur.  The purple flowers appear before the leaves and in some places most of the plants seem to be male, in others female.  There is a suggestion that the hand of people might have been involved in moving the plants about.  One reason for doing so is that the early flowers might provide an early source of pollen (the male flowers) and nectar (the female flowers) for bees.  A second reason might be that for a long time the plants have been used by herbalist as a cure for illness.  The name butterbur is thought to come from the large leaves being used in olden days to wrap butter!

Some woods and areas of waste ground now have large populations of non-native white butterbur. The white butterbur can be a bit of a pest as its large leaves effectively shade other species out.




Further reading

Data from our trends indicator which shows lapwing have declined by around 56% from 1994 to 2013.

We also have our Farmland Bird Trend Note which provides information on possible reasons as to why they have declined


Images (c) Lorne Gill / SNH.






Posted in biodiversity | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Repelling invasives

Aliens were in the news last week – but these ones are from right here on planet Earth. In a week-long awareness raising push by the UK Government, invasive, non-native species and the problems they can cause were put under the spotlight.

The cost of invasive species to the Scottish Economy is an estimated £245 million per year and they are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide. Globally, invasive species have contributed to 40% of animal extinctions in the last 400 years. They can be animals, plants or fungi and in Scotland we have them on land, in fresh water and in the sea.

Rhododendron invading a native woodland in Perthshire, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Rhododendron invading a native woodland in Perthshire, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Not all non-native species are invasive. The UK Government’s Invasives Week focused on species introduced to the UK that also have a negative effect on native wildlife, our environment, our health, or the economy.

The battle with invasive non-natives aims to eradicate, or limit the spread of species which have found their way here. Prevention is better than cure though, so it’s just as important to raise awareness of invasive species not here yet but which could be on the way.

copyright DEFRA

copyright DEFRA

One such creature to keep an eye out for is the Asian hornet. Although not yet established in Britain, it is a highly predatory species which will have a serious impact on our honeybees if it arrives. It’s a ferocious insect which has evolved to hunt around honeybee nests, waiting to ambush returning bees. It’s also one more human-stinging insect we could do without! To help us spot the difference between the Asian hornet and six similar native flying insects a Flickr page has been created, with advice what to do should you spot one.

The grey squirrel, introduced from North America, is a well-known invasive non-native in Scotland which out-competes our smaller red squirrels for territory and passes on diseases which can be fatal to reds. We have been working for several years to protect red squirrels by preventing the spread of greys northwards. Other familiar invasive non-natives in Scotland include the North American Mink, the pervasive rhododendron, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam.

WIld brown rat, © Reg McKenna via Creative Commons

WIld brown rat Reg McKenna via Creative Commons

Invasive non-natives also pose a significant threat to islands. In 2008, non-native rats were eradicated from the island of Canna in the Small Isles, where they were creating big problems for the island’s seabirds by preying on their eggs. In the Outer Hebrides, mink were causing similar problems for important nesting bird populations on the islands. Now the end of mink on the islands is in sight and tern colonies have reappeared where they had been absent for decades.

A different kind of invasive non-native problem was resolved recently when we worked with an East Lothian farm to home their North American prairie dogs in a secure enclosure. The animals had previously been free to roam the farm, with the potential for escape onto a neighbouring Site of Special Scientific Interest, where they could have caused substantial damage.

Prairie dog, Crown copyright 2009

Prairie dog Crown copyright 2009

Several water-dwelling pests have also found their way to Scotland. Some, like the North American signal crayfish, are better known about than others, like parrot’s feather and ruffe. Parrot’s feather originates from the Amazon but is now found on every continent except Antarctica. Introduced as a garden pond plant, it escapes and fragments to establish new colonies in the wild, out-competing similar native species and clogging waterways. In Britain it appears to be spreading northwards but so far it hasn’t been recorded in the wild in Scotland. The ruffe is an aggressive, predatory fresh-water fish introduced from southern Britain. Its introduction to Loch Lomond has been disastrous for powan, a fish which in Scotland is only found in Loch Lomond and Lock Eck.

Several other watery pests have become widespread in Scottish seas, including wireweed, leathery sea squirt and the Acorn barnacle. In summer months on the west coast Japanese skeleton shrimp numbers can reach as many as 300,000 in a metre-square. First recorded here in 2000, it’s not yet known what impact these aggressive shrimp will have on our seabed communities, but research suggests they may outcompete our native shrimp for food and space.

Japanese skeleton shrimp, © Hans Hillewaert

Japanese skeleton shrimp, © Hans Hillewaert

Carpet sea squirt is a highly invasive non-native animal that could threaten conservation, fishing and the shellfish industry. If you think you have found carpet sea squirt, please report it!

Carpet sea squirt with orange sponge for comparison. Copyright © Scottish Association for Marine Science/SNH.

Carpet sea squirt with orange sponge for comparison. Copyright © Scottish Association for Marine Science/SNH.

An invasive species already south of the border which we think could arrive here soon is the Chinese mitten crab, a voracious predator that will eat a range of invertebrates and fish eggs. These crabs spend most of their time in freshwater and burrow into riverbanks, which can cause increased erosion and problems for spawning fish. Their distinctive furry claws and unusual liking for fresh water makes Chines mitten crabs easily identifiable, so keep an eye out and if you see one, please report it straight away.

To report sightings of invasive non-native species please call 08452 302050 or email You can also report invasive plants and freshwater and marine invasive species using the mobile apps, PlantTracker, AquaInvaders, and Sealife Tracker.

Chinese mitten crab, copyright Christian Fischer

Chinese mitten crab, copyright Christian Fischer

Posted in biodiversity, Insects, Marine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Habitat definitions

Do you know the difference between Lowland meadows and Lowland calcareous grassland ?  If not then read on, as Sarah Smyth of Scottish Natural Heritage reveals how the art of habitat definition is undergoing a transformation.

In Scotland we have many of the 65 UK BAP habitats found in the UK – there are subtle differences between these habitats and each habitat supports a range of important species.

Loch Shiel by Davie Hudson

Loch Shiel by Davie Hudson

Some can be widespread throughout Scotland found from the lowlands to high tops – some are very restricted in their distribution.

A team of habitat specialists has been working for the last few years trying to capture the essence of these habitats and describe them in a clear easy to understand way. The habitat definitions project has for the first time pulled together a ‘pen portrait’ for each of the 19 broad habitat types as well as the 39 associated priority habitats

Beauty within a Scottish Corn field by Andy Richardson

Beauty within a Scottish Corn field by Andy Richardson

Each habitat description tells us what exactly the habitat is, including the characteristic species that make up the habitat as well as species that are typically found there. There is information describing how you would recognise it and some of the key differences between the habitat and other similar habitats. The geographical distribution of the habitat is outlined as well as the qualities that make it so important and special.

Whitenhead Sutherland by Joseph Black

Whitenhead Sutherland by Joseph Black

There are useful guides on how to manage it and a range of further information specific to each habitat.

It is our intention that these are working documents so please take a look if there is something you disagree with or something we have overlooked please do get in touch via email on and let us know what you think.

This work complements the recent publication of the Manual of terrestrial EUNIS habitats in Scotland  which defines our habitats in a European context.

It is anticipated that a series of look up tables will also be produced and will be published on the Biodiversity Scotland website shortly.


Read more about Habitat definitions @

Posted in biodiversity | Tagged , ,

Cairngorms Nature

Cairngorms Nature is now a well-established partnership delivering an ambitious agenda for nature conservation in the Cairngorms. It brings together several organisations and engages a wide range of people with nature. Charlotte Milburn, of the Cairngorms National Park,  outlines what we can look forward to in 2015.

It has been nearly two years since the Cairngorms Nature Action Plan was launched and real signs of progress are starting to become apparent. Over 800ha of native woodlands have been planted and more than 350ha of peatland restoration has taken place at seven  project sites across the Park. Some of the UK’s rarest species, such as twinflower (pictured below) and Scottish wildcat, have been targeted for innovative action and there are plans for re-naturalising extensive floodplains on the Dee and the Spey.

The Cairngorms is one of the best places in the UK to deliver landscape scale conservation. Current Cairngorms Nature priorities include woodland expansion, wetland enhancement, action for capercaillie and getting people more involved.

There is an exciting scale of connected woodland expansion taking place from Abernethy, round the central Cairngorms to Mar Lodge and the early stages of a montane woodland project to restore one of the UK’s most impoverished habitats are being developed.

Capercaillie male in snow-laden pine forest

Capercaillie male in snow-laden pine forest

Work also started on the Cairngorms Capercaillie Framework in 2014. With around 80% of the UK’s capercaillie population in the Cairngorms, what happens here is critical to the species’ future survival and expansion. The first Phase of the Capercaillie Framework has been led by the CNPA, with the guidance of a strong team comprising RSPB, SNH, FCS, GWCT, SportScotland and Seafield Estate. The main purpose of the Capercaillie Framework is to better co-ordinate management for habitat, recreation and development to best effect for capercaillie conservation.

The framework will be targeting woodland expansion, recreation management in key locations and will be co-ordinating work to mitigate potential impacts from development. Working directly with land managers and communities the next phase of the work will involve to taking forward the recommendations of the report and developing specific proposals at key locations.

Communities in the National Park have identified that the landscapes and wildlife around them are fundamental to their quality of life and to the economy of the Park. With this in mind Cairngorms Nature projects are creating opportunities for people to get involved in its management and contribute to looking after their natural heritage.

Involvement in Cairngorms Nature ranges from everyday actions such as walking the dog on a lead during the ground nesting bird breeding season, to hours of dedicated recording by individuals and local groups to provide data for large co-ordinated schemes such as the Big Garden Bird Watch and the Scottish Mink Initiative.

The cumulative effect of people getting involved in this way is that we have seen over 18,000 new plant records along with new invertebrate, plant and lichen species found in the National Park, and a return to the uplands of the water vole which has seen all old territories filled and new ones being created in areas where no water voles have been seen for decades.

Water Vole

Water vole

Cairngorms Nature will continue to find more and more ways people can get involved. We will be celebrating nature with our park-wide Cairngorms Nature Festival on the 16th and 17th May 2015. There will be events to suit all ages and abilities as well as volunteering opportunities and it will be a fantastic weekend to come and explore what makes the Cairngorms so special.

Join us on and Twitter @CNPnature to keep up to date with all our projects, news and events.


Capercaillie image courtesy of Pete Cairns/2020VISION, water vole courtesy of CNPA and all others (c) Lorne Gill/SNH.

Posted in biodiversity | Tagged , , , , ,

Mountain hares

Mountain hares have been in the news of late. Rob Raynor and Vicki Mowat reflect on recent controversy concerning this extremely popular species.

Mountai hare (Lepus timidus). Glenshee hills.©Lorne Gill

Mountain hares are a special part of Scotland’s nature. They’re Britain’s only truly arctic/alpine mammals and our only native species of hare (the brown hare and its other smaller relative, the rabbit, were both introduced).

Scotland holds almost all of the Great Britain mountain hare population, except a small introduced population in the Pennines. They’re also an important part of the diet of some of Scotland’s most charismatic wildlife, notably golden eagles.

Mountain Hare caught in a snow shower. ©Lorne Gill

But controversy has surrounded these small creatures lately – and it’s over questions which seem quite straightforward: How many are there? Have their numbers dropped? Are they now at risk?

Those questions may sound simple, but counting wildlife is often quite tricky – and hares in particular. First, they’re most active at night and, although some are visible during the day, daytime counts are likely to miss quite a few. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you’re only interested in population trends – that is, broadly how the population is changing over time – but it can cause difficulties when you’re trying to accurately work out how many hares are present in a particular area. Second, around half of hare populations naturally fluctuate widely, roughly in 10-year cycles. So any apparent changes in hare numbers need to be considered against these natural fluctuations.


That’s why we’ve begun a study with the James Hutton Institute and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) to determine the most robust and cost-effective way to count mountain hares. There is some evidence of a decline in hares since the mid-1990s and there are anecdotal reports of mountain hares being scarce, or even gone altogether, in some local areas. A reliable method of counting hares is needed to verify this.

Why are mountain hares culled at all? Well, heather moorland managed for red grouse is a very good habitat for them; hare numbers are actually highest in such places. As well, like many forms of wildlife, mountain hares carry sheep ticks which, in turn can infect grouse with the louping ill virus. As a result, some estates cull them to try and reduce this disease in grouse.

Mountain hare, Lepus timidus. ©Lorne Gill

Mountain hares are also a quarry species and can be shot for sport outside the March-July close season. They are also culled to protect forestry. While we conduct this study to determine if mountain hares are at risk, we’ve asked land owners and managers not to carry out any large-scale culling of mountain hares. We’ve also tried to communicate the message as widely as possible that there is no evidence that culling stops the spread of ticks and louping ill virus on red grouse when other animals, such as deer, are present to act as hosts for ticks.

We all want to see mountain hares thriving in Scotland, and the Scottish Government has a responsibility under European legislation to maintain a healthy and sustainably managed mountain hare population.


Sporting estates play a crucial part in this: the habitats where mountain hares thrive, such as those you often find on grouse moors, need to be maintained. And estates have a right to shoot mountain hares in season. We need to work together – those who own and manage the land, conservationists, walkers and all of us who love to catch the sight of a mountain hare running wild.

We urge those who are regularly out and about in moorland areas to report any evidence of continued large-scale mountain hare culling to us. The occasional one or two dead hares found on the moor are not the issue – it’s evidence that many hares are being targeted that we’re concerned about. If you have any such information, please email



Posted in biodiversity, Projects | Tagged , , , ,