From Beinn Eighe to bees

It was in the reign of Queen Victoria that the first foreign honeybees were imported into the UK and our weather-hardy, chocolate-coloured brown bee began to fall out of fashion. Before this, all beekeepers in Britain kept the British Isles’ very own native subspecies of dark European honeybee (Apis mellifera mellifera).

Black bee images - (3)

Later, during the First World War, a bee plague called the Isle of Wight disease, possibly a virus brought in with imported stocks, was said to have eradicated our native dark bee completely. To quickly refill the empty hives regular imports of the Carniolan honey bee (Apis mellifera carnica), the Italian bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) and other races became the norm and the old dark bee was replaced in both our apiaries and affections with a yellow one.

Striped yellow bees are now the accepted stereotype. Crosses between subspecies now populate the British Isles with an assortment of varicoloured hybrids, from yellow Italian bees in the south to the dusky offspring of Caucasian and Carniolan parentage that masquerade as dark bees in the north.

Black bee images - (1)

However, there were rumours that relict populations of the native bee still existed in remote Scottish glens and islands, and in 1992 a few pure colonies were found by the Scottish Bee Survey, carried out by John and Morna Stoakley.

The same year another disease problem arrived– varroa destructor– literally brought in on the backs of imported bees. Varroa arrived with a range of associated viral diseases, such as deformed wing virus, transmitted into the bees’ blood when bitten by the feeding varroa mite. This double whammy of parasite and virus has caused world-wide concern for bee health as the problem spreads with the international trade in queen bees.

Black bee images - (6)

Fortunately some small areas of the British Isles remain varroa free, one of which includes Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve at Kinlochewe. This provided an opportunity to conserve an oasis in which stocks of healthy, native dark bees could be protected and reared.

In 2010 the first bee eggs, only a few millimetres long, were harvested from a small, secret apiary of pure dark bees 200 miles from Beinn Eighe. Boxes of bee eggs were taped to the skin of beekeepers to keep them warm on the long journey back to the reserve, where they were they grafted into foster hives ready to raise them as their queens.

Black bee images - (7)#2

After only a few years they’ve produced a healthy, native dark bee population, thriving in and around the gardens, hills and crofts of Kinlochewe. The twofold uniqueness of this population, being both pure dark European honeybee and varroa free, makes it of special interest to bee researchers working on varroa and viral disease.

Dr Ewan Campbell of Aberdeen University is closely involved with a pan-European bee initiative called SMARTBEES. “It’s a highly collaborative project with partners across Europe”, he explains. “We were approached to be part of the initial proposal on the back of our success with previous projects to stop the varroa mite. Varroa mites are still relatively unstudied so it made sense to apply our expertise to the economically important and devastating varroa mite.

Black bee images - (5)
“Varroa-free bees are an extremely important resource across the world. They will have low levels of benign deformed wing virus and allow an exploration of the honeybee immune system prior to the varroa invasion. Being native dark bees, they also represent the historical strain of bee that was dominant across Europe prior to the commercialisation of beekeeping. This makes them doubly important! We can use samples of bees from these hives to look at ‘natural’ benign virus populations, and take these native bees and use them to study response to mites and virus.”

Black bee images - (2)

The SMARTBEE samples were collected at Beinn Eighe this summer, and already the first vials containing larvae, pupae, females (workers) and males (drones) have been harvested by student volunteers and sent to the lab at Aberdeen University.

These native bees, which were thought to have disappeared, could now play a vital part in preventing millions of other honeybees disappearing throughout the world in the future.

Visit the SMARTBEES website to find out more about the project. You can also download our free Wild bees of Scotland identification guide.

Photos (C) Margie Ramsay

Posted in Uncategorized

Classic cars, pearls and mussels

Julius Caesar was said to have invaded Britain at least partly due to his love of pearls.

The Holy Roman Empire’s most able military commander launched his first invasion in 55BC, according to his biographer, Suetonius. Chariots were a feature of the Roman war machine, and their modern-day equivalents have been an intriguing aspect of the latest round in the battle to save our rare freshwater pearl mussels.

1975 Ford Capri JPS Special, (C) Gartenmeister, Creative Commons.

1975 Ford Capri JPS Special, (C) Gartenmeister, Creative Commons.

A number of cars – including a 1970s Ford Capri John Player Special – have been hauled up from the depths of the River Dee, Aberdeenshire, during work to remove obstacles and help save freshwater pearl mussels.

The finds stem from work in 1984 when a 100 metre gap in the riverbank on the Mar Lodge Estate, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, was filled with trees, old cars, and large quantities of rubble.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

©Lorne Gill/SNH

Up to 16 cars and many tonnes of concrete waste, rocks and boulders were removed from the bank of the River Dee as work to help reduce pollution risk to the mussels, and salmon, got underway. Work will also remove an eyesore as the corrugated iron facing on the stretch of riverbank mars the otherwise unspoilt landscape.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

©Lorne Gill/SNH

David Frew, property manager for Mar Lodge Estate, explains: “The car embankment has been a blot on an otherwise iconic landscape for many years, and it will be fantastic to see this restoration work finally take place. The project demonstrates how partnership working between landowners and public agencies can deliver real results for the environment.”

The work was initiated by the Dee Catchment Partnership and is being carried out as part of a £3.5 million Pearls in Peril (PIP) project. PIP is an EU-funded LIFE project to improve habitat for freshwater pearl mussels and salmon, co-ordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage with the Dee District Salmon Fishery Board and the River Dee Trust.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

©Lorne Gill/SNH

Once all the waste that makes up the car barrier has been removed from the riverbank, and the cars sent to be scrapped, the bank will be re-profiled to a more natural shape which blends in with the surrounding landscape.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

©Lorne Gill/SNH

Other PIP work on the River Dee includes planting woodland along a 70km stretch of riverbank to protect against the effects of future climate change; installing 45km of buffer strips in the middle catchment to protect watercourses from soil and nutrient runoff; and an education programme will be run in local schools. This will all benefit the river system by improving water quality and helping restore natural flow patterns.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

The exploitation of freshwater pearl mussels, the fascinating mollusc which may, or may not, yield the elusive pearl, has gone on since pre-Roman times. In Scotland the earliest reference is from the 12th century when Alexander I, King of Scots, was said to have the best pearl collection of any man living.  There are further references later that indicate a growing exploitation of Scottish pearl mussels and by the 18th century the first note of a decline in pearl mussel numbers can be seen. More recently evidence emerged that pearl mussels had become extinct from an average of two rivers every year in Scotland between 1970 and 1998 (when the species gained full legal protection).

Freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) ©Sue Scott/SNH

Freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) ©Sue Scott/SNH

Freshwater pearl mussels are rare molluscs that live in the gravel beds of clean rivers. They feed by filtering water and removing fine particles and so help to keep our rivers clean. The mussels are critically endangered and Scotland is one of their few remaining strongholds. Mussel larvae spend the first few months of their lives attached to the gills of young salmon and trout, so healthy fish populations are vital to their lifecycle.

Freshwater pearl mussels have historically been fished for the pearls they can produce. However, they very rarely contain pearls and they are fully protected under law – it a crime to kill, injure, take or disturb them.

Freshwater pearl mussels ©Sue Scott/SNH

Freshwater pearl mussels ©Sue Scott/SNH

PIP is working hard to ensure that the freshwater pearl mussel remains an important component of Scotland’s biodiversity. Given its place in our cultural history it would be doubly tragic if the final chapter in that history was to see the species become extinct in our rivers.

For more information visit the freshwater pearl mussel pages of our website.

Posted in Uncategorized

Species of the month: North Atlantic gannet

Killer acceleration, ultra-streamlined body, wrap-around airbags and dazzling speeds – we’re not talking supercars here but a seabird. In fact, the biggest seabird in the North Atlantic, with a wingspan of just under 2 m: the northern gannet.

© Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

© Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

For the first years of their lives gannets go through a variety of freckled, brown feather phases. But from about five years old they go for the snowy look. They retain their black outer wing feathers and in the breeding season, a sunny glow of yellow feathers on the neck and head. A gannet has forward facing eyes that, close up, give it a rather stern expression but are also are responsible for the binocular vision which allows it to judge distances accurately.

© Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

© Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

Gannets nest in large colonies on cliffs overlooking the ocean or on rocky islands in the North Atlantic, from the Faroe Islands to Newfoundland and Quebec, but most colonies are concentrated in Britain. Scotland is home to around 60% of Europe’s population. Bass Rock alone hosts more than 150,000 birds, making it the largest northern gannet colony in the world, closely followed by second largest St Kilda. The importance of Bass Rock to the North Atlantic gannet has long been reflected in its scientific name, Morus bassanus. Other Scottish hotspots include Ailsa Craig, Shetland and Troup Head.

Gannets usually mate for life, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Gannets usually mate for life, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Gannets live in a stormy, cold and unforgiving habitat. They survive thanks to their body weight and strength: they are able to capture big, strong fish at great depths, and they can fast for a long time thanks to their fat reserves. At speeds of up to 40 mph, a gannet can travel 300 miles in a day as it patrols the steely Atlantic waters in search of shoals of fish such as mackerel, herring and whiting.

A sku with an eye on this gannet's mackerel, © Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

A skua with an eye on this gannet’s mackerel, © Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

As soon as a gannet spots a fish it plunges towards the prey. As the bird plummets, it adjusts direction in response to the fish’s movements and may even accelerate with powerful strokes of its long, narrow wings. Just before impact against the water the body is straight and rigid, with the wings rotated in their sockets and pulled back tightly. The eyes are shielded by membranes, while air sacs in the head and chest soften the blow. Thanks to these aerodynamic tricks gannets hit the water like arrows, at speeds of up to 62 mph, penetrating up to 5 m below the surface. By using its wings underwater, it can swim even deeper, 15 m down.

© Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

© Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

It is not surprising then that mistakes can be fatal and gannets die of neck and head injuries if their dives are not of Olympic precision, or if they collide with another bird. Fortunately though, accidents are rare and this highly adapted bird is likely to live its typical lifespan of about 17 years.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Bryan Nelson MBE FRSE, who was the world biographer on the gannet.

Take a look at these amazing images of gannets diving for fish in Shetland.

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, Marine, photography, sea life, Species of the month | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland

How do you help someone to take the leap from thinking that, maybe they’d like to start cycling, to actually sitting on a saddle and pedalling?

Surveys often tell us that people mulling over that leap would be happier taking it if they had easy access to user-friendly, traffic-free routes. They also want more information: Where are the best routes? How can I find a group to ride with? Is there a course I can take to build-up my confidence?


By providing this kind of information and helping deliver more routes, the Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS) project aims to encourage more people to take up off-road biking. Now in its sixth year, the project also aims to increase tourism and economic development by positioning Scotland as the place to go for mountain biking, and to achieve greater sporting success for Scotland by producing world class mountain-bikers.
The DMBinS project takes a very broad definition of ‘mountain biking’ which includes any off-road bike use for leisure, not just the extreme, hurtling down a muddy hillside at 90 MPH kind.


Scotland was made for mountain biking, so to speak. As well as being great to look at, our spectacular landscapes offer varied terrain to suit all levels of off-road biking. And our progressive access legislation means that tracks and trails from the urban fringe to the wild and rugged can be used, as long as it is done responsibly.

The DMBinS project has worked hard to establish its website as a one-stop-shop for mountain biking information, for seasoned bikers, for those thinking about making that initial leap onto a saddle, and for everyone in between. The website also features information for people involved in encouraging greater participation or improving local facilities, such as marketing and funding info and case studies to help the sharing of good practice.

Pupils from Arbirlot Primary School riding their Mountain Bikes as part of a push to get more people out riding for exercise and to explore local areas

Pupils from Arbirlot Primary School riding their Mountain Bikes as part of a push to get more people out riding for exercise and to explore local areas

A successful feature of DMBinS has been the cultivation of five regional ‘Development Clusters’ to help provide strategic direction, co-ordination and to maximise each area’s potential. Although the cluster areas are at various stages of development and each region determines its own priorities, the clusters ensure there is a consistent approach to developing mountain biking in Scotland and that good practice is shared.

The Development Clusters have helped to produce sets of Route Cards and an e-guide for the Highlands promoting sustainable, natural routes and trail centres; being part of a cluster has helped member organisations gain access to a range of funding sources, for developing facilities and running events designed to encourage more participation in mountain biking; and the clusters have helped to make training for event planners available through a college.


DMBinS is now preparing its third three-year delivery programme, which will see it continue to steer the sustainable development of mountain biking and provide an effective cross-cutting agency role in the rather cluttered landscape of cycling interests and organisations.

A key element in the new programme will be a national participation scheme aimed at areas of low current participation and under-represented groups near large population centres. The scheme will seek to create awareness of the many off-road cycling opportunities near most people’s homes and build the confidence for people to use them. Another focus for the new programme will be to develop ways for bikers to get more involved in managing their local routes.

DMBinS logo

Developing mountain biking in Scotland is a sound investment that makes great use of our natural assets, has economic rewards and enables people to enjoy the benefits of exercise and being out in Scotland’s magnificent outdoors. And as more people take up mountain biking there could be environmental benefits too, as once someone takes that initial leap onto a saddle for fitness or fun, it may well lead to them ignoring the car and jumping on their bikes for functional trips too.

For more information on the project and to get involved visit the Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland website.

Posted in Access, Projects, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Swallows and heavy water – the making of a remarkable scientist

Professor Des Thompson, our Principal Adviser on Biodiversity, celebrates the pioneering work of life scientist Professor Dave Bryant, who celebrates his 70th birthday today.

Along with the spring return of swallows in 1972 a young lecturer arrived at Stirling University’s Department of Biology. Dave Bryant, fresh from finishing his PhD on bird physiology at Imperial College London, landed eager to put Stirling on the map for life science. Over the ensuing three decades he established an ecology group of world repute, and made Stirling synonymous with excellence in bird research.

University Staff photo

As an aspiring PhD student I met Dave in 1979 – he and Donald McLusky were carrying out cutting edge research on the ecology and conservation of the Inner Forth Estuary. I’d worked on shelduck on the Clyde for my undergraduate thesis, and Dave had recently discovered a local, massive moulting flock of these birds – exciting, as before then it was assumed most of Britain and Ireland’s population moulted in Helgoland Bight in the Waddensea.

I moved to Nottingham but kept in touch with Dave and marvelled at his ingenuity and energy. Much later I had the pleasure of examining his last of 40 or so PhD students at Stirling – one was Rhys Bullman, who went on to work for us as an ornithologist, but at the time stood out on account of the massive size of his thesis, matched by an outrageous afro-hairstyle.

Young Swallows, © Stevie Wilson

Young Swallows, © Stevie Wilson

Dave is a world authority on the breeding ecology of swallows and house martins. He pioneered the application of a technique using ‘doubly labelled water’ to study the ecology and eco-physiology of these and other birds, including dippers, great tits, seabirds and waders (D2O is a mixture of water used to measure metabolic rates, with the water heavier than normal because of the large amounts of the ‘heavy’ hydrogen isotope deuterium).

Dipper with a beakful of insects, © Lorne Gill

Dipper with a beakful of insects, © Lorne Gill

Working at the forefront of technology he was one of the first to use radio-transmitters and genetic markers to understand individual variation in bird behaviour and energy expenditure. His reach became global, and as an example of this he got involved in a New Zealand Government funded study of the flightless kakapo, one of the world’s rarest birds, which contributed to immediate population recovery. Other birds studied there included the takahē, blue duck and black robin.

Always keen to involve volunteers in research and surveys, Dave led the establishment of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Scotland Office in Stirling’s Biology Department. He developed important estuarine studies of waders, looking at the effects of coastal realignment and engineering works, and has had involvement in scores of conservation projects.

Stirling University viewed from the Wallace Monument, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Stirling University viewed from the Wallace Monument, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Becoming Head of Department, establishing a five-star ecology group, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1999, Dave was enticed to the University of Exeter in 2003 to launch a new Biology Department on a fledgling campus in Cornwall. That year he gave the prestigious Witherby Memorial Lecture at the annual conference of the BTO on ‘Swallows – life in an uncertain world’. Well, there was nothing uncertain about his own migration south. Cornwall’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation became an international leader, currently hosting more than 150 research students and postdoctoral researchers. It played a major part in the University’s recent top three ranking for Biology in the Guardian University Guide 2016 (just behind Oxbridge).

Now living within walking distance of Stirling University, Dave is encouraging yet more cohorts of field biologists. An adept skier (an on-going family passion), mischievously teasing when confronted with any form of academic pomposity, and highly adept in judging talent and skill in individuals, Dave is a place maker. Whenever you visit the beautiful university campus, perhaps catching a glimpse of swallows skimming across the lovely lake, just reflect on how one special person has put this place on the map. He could have settled anywhere in the early 1970s, but thankfully he chose Stirling. Happy Birthday Dave, and here’s to many more.

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, Nature and technology, Research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Spotted: Scottish wildcat sighted at Parliament

Vicky MacDonald is the Communications Coordinator for the Scottish Wildcat Action project. Here she gives us an insight into why this project is important and what their new website hopes to achieve.

It’s not every day you get to wear a cat suit, and this was no ordinary cat either. ‘William’ the wildcat is the official mascot for Scottish Wildcat Action, the first national project to save the wildcat, and one that Scottish Natural Heritage are key partners in. Our native cat has been in trouble for some time but William’s job (and mine) was to launch our new website,, at the Scottish Parliament on 1st September. This website not only represents months of planning but heralds the start of the action on the ground to protect what’s left of this rare and elusive species.

Scottish wildcat (Felis sylvestris) in the Cairngorms National Park, (C) Peter Cairns

Scottish wildcat (Felis sylvestris) in the Cairngorms National Park, (C) Peter Cairns

The website has easy-to-use functionality that allows people to report their sightings, not just of wildcats but also domestic cats living in the wild. These feral cats are proving to be a big problem for the Scottish wildcat because they are able to interbreed and produce fertile offspring with them. Now that wildcats are so rare, it is difficult for them to find other wildcats to mate with, so more and more hybrid kittens are born, diluting the gene pool and eventually wiping out the wildcat as a distinct species. On top of this hybridisation, feral cats are often riddled with disease and parasites which they can pass on to wildcats. It’s a hard life in the wild, so it’s not really surprising that Scottish wildcats only live to around 6 to 8 years of age.

 Photo (C) Louise Hughes Aigas Field centre

Photo (C) Louise Hughes Aigas Field centre

Scottish Wildcat Action has just five years to reduce threats in the wild and start the process of boosting local populations through conservation breeding for release. The first step is gathering local intelligence and then launching an extensive Trap Neuter (Vaccinate) and Release programme in six wildcat priority areas. This will help ensure the feral cat populations are not such a threat. These areas are Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Northern Strathspey, Angus Glens, Strathavon and Morvern. Project officers will also be working with local people here to protect wildcats from accidental persecution and hybridisation with pet cats.

Map - Priority areas overview

William will have his part to play too at local events to help raise awareness of the plight of the Scottish wildcat. It’s such a striking and iconic animal, woven firmly into the fabric of the Highland culture that everyone has a story to tell about a wildcat. Sadly, they all seem to be from the past: ten, twenty, even fifty years ago.

Launch of the Scottish Wildcat Action website with Dr Roo Campbell

Launch of the Scottish Wildcat Action website with Dr Roo Campbell

Time is running out! We have just five years to make a big impact but, really, the long-term success lies with our local communities and fellow cat owners. The website will, I hope, be an important way to get people involved in the action and who knows, maybe in another ten years’ time, you’ll have one of those heart-stopping moments when you catch a glimpse of a Scottish wildcat and you just know you’ve seen something really special.

Visit the Scottish Wildcat Action website to keep up-to-date on the project. Our free Naturally Scottish – Wildcats booklet provides more info on the wildcats and background to the current work.

Posted in biodiversity, Scottish Wildcats | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Islands at the edge of the world: exploring St Kilda’s sea caves

The World Heritage Site, St Kilda, lies 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides and is the most remote part of the British Isles. With life on the islands becoming increasingly challenging, the archipelago’s last 36 human residents were evacuated to the mainland in 1930.

However, the islands remain hugely important for their wildlife: they host huge seabird populations, including the world’s second largest colony of North Atlantic gannets; and the waters around St Kilda are designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for their reefs and sea caves, which attract a wealth of spectacular  sea life.  Lisa Kamphausen, from our marine team, has recently returned from these ‘islands at the edge of the world’.


When you get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a survey to study the sea caves at St Kilda and North Rona, make sure you can make it. It’s an experience you are unlikely to forget.

Additional images

That said though, coming face to face with a large seal, 100m into a passageway etched into the side of a rock miles and miles from anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean, it did cross my mind that knitting might be something I’d like to take up when I got home. If I got home.

Madadh Beag

Two weeks of storms, engine failures and sheer bad luck had thwarted all of our previous attempts to make it out to the islands. So our boat was buzzing with excitement when the islands finally appeared in view and we all realised we would get a chance to jump into the blue oceanic waters to join the sea cave dwellers in their dark tunnels for a few hours.

Additional images

It was very clear that people are only granted fleeting visits to the world of sea caves: fleeting visits, however, which we certainly made the most of. Between line-laying and measuring, defining biological zones, taking video and photographs, recording the details of animals which live inside the caves, and collecting specimens for the Natural History Museum, we had quite a few jobs to do between us. But we could only stay as long as our Scuba tanks would give us air, our dry suits would keep us warm, our torches had batteries, and as long as the wind blew from the right direction to avoid the worst of the swell.

Dun Arch Transect

In a mad flurry of dawn to dusk activity and against all odds, the team conducting this Site Condition Monitoring survey of the St Kilda SAC was able to survey five sea caves on St Kilda and three on North Rona. And I’m happy to know that there are plenty more caves left to explore which we did not manage to enter during this survey.

Additional images

When you get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set up a survey to study sea caves in St Kilda and North Rona, make sure you remember to take a professional photographer along, it will be worth it.

Our website has more info on World Heritage Sites, Site Condition Monitoring and the St Kilda National Nature Reserve. We’ve uploaded hundreds of photos from past marine surveys to FlickR for you to browse and share – all we ask is that your credit Scottish Natural Heritage.

Posted in biodiversity, Geology, Glasdrum NNR, Marine, Marine Protected Areas, MPA, MPAs, National Nature Reserves, Nature in art, photography, sea life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment