Loch Fleet Family Open Day

Adam Rose and Ian Mitchell, work in our Golspie office and have a strong association with our Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve. Tomorrow they host a Family Open Day and both were naturally keen to talk a little more about the fabulous day out visitors can expect.


Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve. September 2014 ©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or http://www.snh.gov.uk

Our natural environment and landscapes are important to us for many reasons.  They are a shared resource for everyone, irrespective of ownership, ability or background.  They provide a living history of Scotland’s past, and inspiration for Scotland’s culture.  They also provide a wide range of social and health benefits.

Attractive, accessible landscapes, including green spaces in urban areas, invite and encourage us to be more physically active.  They can delight and inspire us, significantly improving our general health and wellbeing.  Nature and landscapes have important ‘restorative qualities’ and are proven to promote recovery from physical and mental stresses.

Scotland’s ‘wild places’, such as mountains, forests and coasts, provide an opportunity to get away from the stresses of modern lives, and can provide challenge, adventure and exploration.

There are many ways we can interact with the natural environment and some of the best places to start are our National Nature Reserves.  In these amazing places you can have a casual stroll on a beach, wander through a forest or take a rigorous hike up a hill or mountain.  Or you can simply sit, relax and observe the nature and wildlife that surrounds you, or just lie back and watch the clouds roll by.


Loch Fleet NNR - Family Open Day - 7 October - Timetable

SATURDAY, 7th OCTOBER, 10am to 4pm

As a way of demonstrating how the environment can deliver these multiple benefits to local communities, on Saturday, 7th October, SCOTTISH NATURAL HERITAGE and the SUTHERLAND COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP are offering a range of exciting ways for you interact with nature at Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve.  The activities will be held on the Reserve at Littleferry, just 3 miles south of Golspie in Sutherland, from 10am till 4pm.

The Family Open Day at Loch Fleet will be opened at 10am by Jamie Stone MP, Cllr. Deirdre Mackay, Deputy Chair of the Sutherland Community Partnership and Scottish Natural Heritage’s Operations Manager, Graham Neville.

The Family Open Day is an ideal opportunity to come along, have fun and see what our natural environment really can do for you.  Activities are split into 4 themes: Naturally Active, Naturally Tasty, Naturally Useful and Naturally Relaxing.


Why not start the day with an outdoor Tai Chi taster session at 10am on the links beside the sea? Professional instructor Gavin Macfie of ‘Wild Tai Chi’ will be on hand to guide you through this ancient Chinese and health-promoting exercise that can help people reduce stress and improve posture, balance and general mobility.

Highlife Highland will be providing cycling activities (bring your own bike), fitness sessions and local Countryside Ranger, Marcia Rae, can take you on a guided walk on the National Nature Reserve.  You can also learn about bike tune up and safety checks with Jake Williams.


The Scotland’s Natural Larder campaign will have a number of wild food cookery demonstrations with professional cook, author and food demonstrator, Catriona Frankitti.   At noon, there will be a venison barbecue with musical accompaniment from the local group Baile An Or.

Noted wild food expert, Mark Williams, will also lead two autumn wild food foraging walks on the Nature Reserve – for which booking will be essential (http://www.eventbrite.co.uk).


Come along and make nest boxes and bird feeders with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Natural Heritage.  Enjoy exploring our past with Historic Environment Scotland and their touch and try replicas!

Come and chat about Wildlife Crime and Crime Prevention with Officers from Police Scotland and find out about the work of Voluntary Groups East Sutherland, East Sutherland Energy Advice, and other Sutherland Community Partnership members.

Loch Fleet NNR - Community Open Day Poster - A3 - 22 September 2017 (A2411763)


If all that sounds just a little too much like hard work, fear not!  Just come along and enjoy the beautiful nature and coastal landscapes around Loch Fleet.  Take a stroll along one of the many paths and trails on the Nature Reserve or just sit and listen to Baile An Or as they play to us at lunch time.

Graham Neville, SNH’s Operations Manager, said:

We’re really looking forward to welcoming many people to try out lots of activities at our Loch Fleet Family Open Day. The outstanding natural environment showcased by Loch Fleet, and the suite of National Nature Reserves across Scotland, offers us a chance to experience nature at first hand and help deliver a wide range of benefits for local communities, from greater health and wellbeing, to providing us with better places to live and work.

I am particularly grateful to all those individuals and organisations who are contributing to this event and I would also especially like to thank the Sutherland Community Partnership for helping us promote the importance of the natural environment to the health and wellbeing of our communities and for helping us deliver this Family Open Day.”

Cllr. Deirdre Mackay, Deputy Chair of the Sutherland Community Partnership added:

“The Sutherland Community Partnership is one of nine partnerships in Highland that brings together public agencies, third sector organisations and other key community groups to work collaboratively with local people to deliver better outcomes and address inequalities. Our partnership in Sutherland is already demonstrating how we are working together and more collaboratively with communities.  And this event is an excellent example of this in action with many different groups coming together to raise awareness of our work and to show how important a clean and natural environment is to all our lives.”

 Jamie Stone MP, who will formally open the event on Saturday said:

“As SNH know from my phone calls to their office – I take a great interest in nature!  

On offer at Loch Fleet is a showcase for the seriously good work being done by SNH. Not only does it promote public interest in our flora and fauna – but it also shows how important it is to preserve our unique local environment if our plants and wildlife are to continue to flourish.

All of this is good – but the icing on the cake for an older bloke like me is that taking a walk in the country is thoroughly good for you. I am greatly looking forward to the day.”

Loch Fleet NNR - Family Open Day - 7 October - Timetable

For further information about the Family Open Day at Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve, please contact Adam Rose or Ian Mitchell at SNH in Golspie (0300 067 3100 or north@snh.gov.uk).

Posted in Uncategorized

Engaging farmers in biodiversity solutions

SNH Graduate Placement Kirsten Brewster has been appointed to our “Engaging farmers in biodiversity solutions”, an SNH led project that is working to understand how farmers value nature and what they see as important in terms of conservation.


The project will help to identify what support is required for farmers to engage more actively in shaping their own solutions for biodiversity outcomes on the farm.

With over 70% of Scotland’s land area utilised as agricultural land, the way farmland is managed has a significant impact on nature and wildlife. Many farmers enter into voluntary agri-environment agreements which have delivered a range of environmental improvements. But some research suggests that the current approach to AECS (Agri Environment Climate Scheme) has been a barrier to uptake and implementation of the scheme.


The new project will help inform future agricultural policy beyond 2020 and, among other aspects, will explore a more collaborative approach to developing future agri-environment support mechanisms.

“Working with farmers is integral to the successful conservation of Scotland’s biodiversity.”

The project will focus on three farming areas in Scotland; hill farming in the West, arable farming in the East and dairy farming in Southern Scotland.

The method will be based on interviews with a selection of farmers in each area. These interviews will gather views on what the barriers are to farmers taking up biodiversity management, the support they need to achieve biodiversity conservation, and how they can be more actively engaged in shaping their own solutions for biodiversity on the farm. The project includes a specific focus on young farmers in order to address the future of farming and nature conservation.


Involving farmers in identifying solutions for biodiversity will help land managers do more for wildlife and conservation that fits within the running of the farm business. Using farmers’ experience, knowledge and skills will help us work together to halt the declines of farmland wildlife.

Kirsten says; “I can’t wait to get out and start speaking to farmers about nature on their farms. I think that farmers currently face very real challenges but there is also great opportunity for us to think about how nature conservation can be implemented in the future.”

The project is guided by a Steering Group of farmers including Sarah Allison, Soil Association; Edward Baxter, arable farmer and JHI researcher; Jennifer Craig, hill farmer and Chair, NFUS Clydesdale Branch; and Angus MacFadyen, hill farmer and Chair, NFUS Environment & Land Use Committee.

If you would like to get involved or find out more, please contact us.

Jenny Johnson, Agriculture & Food Manager, SNH.  jenny.johnson@snh.gov.uk  or Kirsten.brewster@snh.gov.uk

Posted in Uncategorized

The Narrows of Loch Fleet

All through this month we are taking a look at seasonal change. Autumn is a classic season for folk to get out and about, and in order to help you get the most from the month we will have posts on our various social media accounts offering tips and guidance on things you can do in autumn. Given that 2017 is Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology we asked Kenny Taylor to suggest a mix of history and the great outdoors that you could enjoy. Loch Fleet caught his eye.

LochFleet-D1492.JPGWhere the estuary disgorges through a channel just tens of metres wide, you can feel the force of tide and current. Look to the opposite bank, across waters where eiders, long-tailed ducks and other wildfowl ride the swell in autumn and winter and think – ‘so near, yet …’

In the history of people linked to this place, that’s sometimes how it’s been: a narrow divide between success and failure; a flick of fate.


Bone and stone

The broken shell of Skelbo Castle broods over the south shore, as it has done in different forms for some 800 years, since the lands of Skelbo were granted to Gilbert de Moravia by the Earl of Sutherland. When Gilbert became Bishop of Caithness, he gave the castle to his brother, Richard. Gilbert founded Dornoch Cathedral and after his death became known as Saint Gilbert of Dornoch. He was the last Scot to have a feast day, on April 1st, named in his honour in the Calendar of Saints.

Richard was not quite so blessed. Sometime in the 1260s (the precise date is unknown) he died in the Battle of Embo, having joined the Earl of Sutherland to fight a band of Vikings who had landed at Littleferry. The conflict was vicious, to judge from how it is said that the Earl killed the Viking leader using a horse’s leg bone. Richard’s remains are in a stone sarcophagus in Dornoch Cathedral.

The narrows of Loch Fleet…


Death and the maiden

Less than thirty years later, Skelbo was linked to an event of huge importance in medieval Scottish history. A messenger would have galloped from the north, that autumn day in 1290, wet with rain from storms that had shaken the North Sea to fury in the previous week. The young girl was dead, he told the Scottish nobles waiting in the Skelbo for news, felled by sea sickness in the rough passage from Norway. Her body lay in Kirkwall.

And with her death, Scotland would be pushed to war, both Scot against Scot and Scots against English. As part of that, Robert the Bruce would attack and burn Skelbo just a handful of years before victory at Bannockburn.

Yet if the seven-year-old Margaret – the ‘Maid of Norway’ – had survived, possibly to marry the heir to the English throne, Scotland, England and Norway could perhaps have been allies, bound by blood ties of marriage and kindred.

The Battle of Littleferry

For George, 3rd Earl of Cromartie and laird of Castle Leod by Strathpeffer, the foray in to Sutherland seemed to have gone well. An order had come from the Jacobite commanders to return to Inverness, but before setting off, George and his officers were entertained at Dunrobin by the Countess of Sutherland – a lady not unsympathetic to the Jacobite cause.

As the Jacobites marched across the coastal flatlands to Littleferry, the officers some way behind, two companies of Highland soldiers loyal to the British king attacked. Led by Ensign John Mackay, the government troops routed the rebels. Many were killed. Some Jacobites drowned trying to swim Loch Fleet and over 170 were captured, including the Earl himself.

It was the 14th of April, 1746; two days before the Battle of Culloden. Would a few hundred more Jacobites have made a difference on Culloden Moor, in the last battle fought on British soil, had they not lost the second-last battle, here on the Sutherland coast?

The narrows of Loch Fleet…


Holding back the tide

For just over two centuries, the ‘Mound’ causeway has divided the salty waters of Loch Fleet from the river valley to the west. Thanks to this great embankment, which stops the tides some 2.5km short of their natural limit, the Mound Alderwoods now stand as Scotland’s finest floodplain woodland.

Thousands travel the A9 over the barrier each day, while non-return valves in the original bridge at the north end can be opened to allow migratory salmon to pass. It’s one of the most significant pieces of road infrastructure in northern Scotland. But at first, the Littleferry narrows seemed a better choice for transport linkage by traditional ferry.

That’s what Thomas Telford, one of the finest civil engineers of the 19th century, thought when ideas were mooted for upgrading the road from Inverness to Wick and Thurso. It was William Young, factor to the Sutherland Estates, who envisaged a causeway. And although Telford drew up the plans, it was Young and hundreds of local workers who made the connection at the head of the loch between 1814 and 1816.

Writing of the final push to close the gap, Young talks of how hundreds of gallons of ale and huge quantities of bread would be needed to fortify the 600 men now ‘prepared to do battle with the sea’. They completed the task, and on the 26th of April 1816, the Countess of Sutherland crossed the Mound in her carriage.

Telford had worried that the whole enterprise could have ended in disaster, at one point hurrying north when he heard that works had begun without his supervision. But the connection was made and the rest is history.

The narrows of Loch Fleet…

Find out more about Loch Fleet NNR @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/loch-fleet/

Posted in Uncategorized

National Poetry Day – our favourites

Scotland’s array of beautiful environments remain the muse of many traditional and contemporary poets, songwriters and artists. Inspiration can be often found during an ascent in the Cairngorms; in morning’s birdsong; or upon reflection of evening’s sundown.


Misty morning at Battleby  (c) Steven Sinclair

As part of National Poetry Day 2017, we invited people to submit poems inspired by their experiences with nature.

Throughout the course of the day, we will be showcasing our favourites. You will find a selection of these below. Where possible, some of these are accompanied by a photograph and audio recording of the poem being read aloud.

Keep up to date with the next poetry post by coming back to this blog and visiting the SNH Twitter (@SNH_Tweets) and Facebook (@ScottishNaturalHeritage) pages.


Bleak, windswept world,
Languish ‘neath a louring sky,
Mourn your faded splendour;
The withered roses wilt and die.
Battered by a bracing gale,
The ragged birch lament,
An idle youth of wasted days,
Their olive richness spent.
Tiny beads of crimson blood,
From punctured hands adorn,
Tattered, rain-soaked hedgerows
Of tangled twig and thorn.
Yet nestled in the barren soil,
Bedecked in sparkling dew,
A breath of life from warmer days
Awaits to spring anew.

Oak leaves. © Sarah Budgen/SNH

Oak leaves. © Sarah Budgen/SNH

Written by Sarah Budgen (SNH), 2003

Listen to Sarah reading her poem here :


A Trip Tae Noss
(Shetland dialect version)

Ower da sea fae Bressay a peerie jewel lies
An isle lik nae idder aneath da changing skies
As da warden comes ta collect you fae da peerie quay
Your een ir always skoitin fur wha keens whit you’ll see
Maybe a swiftly passin neesik or da glisk o a draatsi
An Orca seekin dir next feed or a sunbathin sylkie
Eence you clamber ashore da isle afore you spreads
While Bonxies an Alaans fly menacingly ower your heads
Up fae sandy pasture trow heddery moorland hill
You come at last tae da highest clifts whaur seabirds swoop an mill
Whin you reach Charlie’s Holm an da Noup comes intae view
You solist in winder an delight at da sight (an guff) afore you
Da sandstone ledges gie a hom tae da teemin multitude
O nestin seabirds an gulls precariously raisin dir brood
Solan, longie an wilkie jostle fur space side be side
While on da cliff-tap nories fin burrows in which ta bide
Maalies float majestically as solan dive an plummet
Dey really pit on a show as you set aff fur da summit
Fae da trig point on a clear day you can simply see fur miles
Sumburgh Head tae da sudderd an nort up ta da isles
You might even catch sight o Foula lyin wye oot wast
But as mony fok will tell you Noss canna be surpassed.

A view towards Noss. © Lorna Leask/Scottish Natural Heritage

A view towards Noss. © Lorna Leask/SNH

Written by Lorna Leask (SNH), 2017

A Trip To Noss
(English version)

Across the sea from Bressay a little jewel lies
An island like no other beneath the changing skies
As the warden comes to collect you from the little quay
Your eyes are constantly searching for who knows what you’ll see
Maybe a glimpse of an otter or a sunbathing harbour seal
A swiftly passing porpoise or Orca looking for their next meal
Once you clamber ashore the island before you spreads
While Great and Arctic Skua fly menacingly overhead
Rising from sandy pasture through heathery moorland hill
You come at last to the highest cliffs where seabirds swoop and mill
When you reach Charlie’s Holm and the Noup comes in to view
You stop in wonder and delight at the sight (and smells) before you
The sandstone ledges provide a home to the teeming multitude
Of nesting seabirds and gulls precariously raising their brood
Gannets, guillemots and razorbills jostle for space side by side
Whilst on the cliff-top puffins find burrows in which to reside
Fulmars float majestically as gannets dive and plummet
They really put on a show as you set off for the summit
From the trig point on a clear day you can simply see for miles
Sumburgh Head to the south and north up to the isles
You might even catch sight of Foula lying way out west
But as many people will tell you Noss is the isle that’s best.


Listen to Lorna reading her poem here :


You walk and walk

then one day
you stop
and stare.
Really stare,
with eyes fresh
from finding
a new way of seeing
what has always been.

You walk and walk. Painting by Lindsay Turk ©

You walk and walk. Painting by Lindsay Turk ©

Written by Jon Plunkett


The botanist searches

He’d heard of its beauty, its life changing scent,
So picked up his map, his guide and his tent,
Into the wild he strode in a fever
‘Does it exist?, could I be a believer?’

Ten thousand places he searched with no rest,
Disbelieving, his faith, put to the test,
Not meant to be looked at these briars and these thorns,
That pulled at his flesh, bloodied and torn.

He followed the rules of where it should grow,
He knew if he tried, he should already know,
But each time he came to a glade or a clearing,
Nothing was there ‘cept a cold empty feeling.

The book that he grasped ‘The guide and the key’
He threw with disgust; at last he was free,
To follow his heart, to find his own way,
But, alas, the gloaming, the end of the day!

‘The darkness’, he cried, ‘has come far too soon’
But a cloud, unknowing, had blocked out the moon
As it lighted enough to see through the trees
He laughed out loud for he saw that he sees.

Cadder Wilderness, near Glasgow. © Jenny Greaves

Cadder Wilderness, near Glasgow. © Jenny Greaves

Written by Jenny Greaves (SNH); reading by Hamish Ross, 2017


A Frog In My Position

Beyond the glen of the hanging alders,
Across the moor
Where heath gives way to hill;
Beneath the birch beside the burn,
I hunkered down to calm my heart
Before the steepness of the climb.

And there, beside the asphodel, all damp:
A frog in my position,
Breast gently heaving, face a’glisten.
A frog in my position
Resting in the wood of the slender birch.

But communion incomplete, frog became flight
And, in the blink of a green eyelid
Became elemental frog swimming –
Fleeing for the dripping shelter
Where burn becomes bank in rocky caverns
Fringed by fern and mnium moss.

And watching, sure I could see it still,
I studied that dark hollow, ’till
Not frog, but beads of water on the rock
Was all that frog that could have been me:
Dewdrops sentient with life.

A frog in my position?
Not now, and never was.
For unlike frog, I cannot be
A part of all the things I see.

“A great miracle, Asclepius, is man!”
But frog as marvel is no also ran.

A common frog in the Fee Burn, Coire Fee National Nature Reserve. © Lorne Gill/SNH

A common frog in the Fee Burn, Coire Fee National Nature Reserve. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Written by Roddy Fairley (SNH)



Cirrus sweeps over a new moon.
Summer’s in; a swift’s
down in the grass, flailing,
stopped of air.

A momentary lapse;
fallen foul of the link, tenuous,
between earth and sky.
Holding light,

I climb high as I can
and throw it from the window.
Sure enough, a stiff arc,
striking the breeze,

scythes out of sight.
I follow it till
lost in the sun,
half hoping it might return.

A swift in flight. © Lorne Gill

A swift in flight. © Lorne Gill

Written by Andrew MacGregor (SNH)


Creag Meagaidh

Creag Meagaidh admiring
I gaze on thy charms
With the hills bold inspiring
Enfold in my arms
With the Cloud turbaned brow
And the Birch mantled breast
While the clear river Ardair looks to the west

Reflections on Creag Meagaidh. © Rory Richardson/SNH

Reflections on Creag Meagaidh. © Rory Richardson/SNH

Written by Rory Richardson (SNH)


The Cailleach’s Torment

The Cailleach’s plaid appears benign, draped across her hills.
Soft cashmere hews of ancient clans cage hamlets where she wills.
Cunning witchery beguiles,
Walk these peaks and glens, and peaks and glens,
Sky blue and grey and blue again.
Wishes in the floating sun, seeded, podded, spurring on.
The lightest rain,
A watergau*,
Breathe joy.
Yet further on, ever up, and up and upwards humid browns surround until,
Sucking shock of wet-socked bog releasing hoards,
Of tick and maddening midge.
Shatter of spirit being broken,
Stench of trolls at the rotten bridge.
Laughter of crone regales but still,
You may as well, on up and up and up to hell.
Gasping deep the pine blue air,
Tripping heather of the Cailleach’s lair.
Summit sighted.
Yet slips away,
As scarp,
That scarp,
That scrabbling scarp
Gets in the way.

*Watergau is a north east word for a partial rainbow
Morven towering over the Howe of Cromar, seen from the Queen’s View. © Hazel McSporran

Morven towering over the Howe of Cromar, seen from the Queen’s View. © Hazel McSporran

Written by Hazel McSporran


Loyal Hope ends with Wrath

Syenite, mid-way between Granite and who knows what,
Proud above the Loch of the same name,
Jagged, distinctive multitude of rocky summits,
Each ideal to survey the wise expanse of flow,
Always the same,
The roaring stags of October are King here,
The true Loyal residents.

It was not always so, Ribigill, Mharraich
and Bronze age settlement so old no name remains,
but the circles in the moor and the clearance cairns,
Speak loud in the silence,
Stone Rows, now buried in the peat,
Peak tentatively out at a world,
That no longer understands their meaning.

Hope springs eternal, smooth to the sunrise,
Optimistic above the loch of the same name,
Falling vertically and catastrophically towards the sunset,
Cliffs tumbling so far they will never end until,
You look towards sunset at Wrath,
Where the mightiest cliff on the mainland stands,
And beyond Wrath there is nothing.

Crouching down on Hope, I brace myself,
Against the West wind from nothingness and Wrath,
And turn back to gaze upon the rocky security,
Of multi-headed Loyal,
I listen for the Stag’s roar,
And await the next sunrise.

Towards Ben Loyal and Ben Hope. © Stuart Graham/SNH

Towards Ben Loyal and Ben Hope. © Stuart Graham/SNH

Written and read by Stuart Graham (SNH)


The Goose, the Trout and the Midge

Nestled here, on Scotland’s East Coast,
To your stunning location, I’ll certainly raise a toast,
Benarty and The Lomonds surround you on either side,
And seem to protect your waters, so still and wide,

The bird life is plentiful, of geese there are many,
Someone has to count them, without missing any!
Did Mary Queen of Scots, try to count all the geese?
As she stayed out in the castle, trying to hide in peace?

Perhaps she went fishing, for the famous Loch trout,
And somehow managed, to sneak one out?
It had popped up to feed on the swarms of Loch flies,
Where it was quickly taken by surprise!

Clouds of non biting midges caused an awful fuss,
But they didn’t bite, and were harmless to us,
The only danger that we really did face,
Was swallowing a mouthful on a “round the Loch” race!

Many people didn’t realise, as up the motorway they drove,
That so close by, is a real treasure trove,
Next time you’re passing, a few of your hours we might steal,
Be sure to pop in and ask to see Neil!

Loch Leven from The Sleeping Giant. ©Neil Mitchell/SNH

Loch Leven from The Sleeping Giant. ©Neil Mitchell/SNH

Written by Kevin Heaton


Am Monadh Ruadh

Cloaks her
graceful easy shoulders
in noble hues of purple gold
embroidering bronzed bracken ribbons
around the curves and contours of her velvet silhouette,
the evening light her coronet
bestowed by the Higher Source

is of
ancient times
of fire and ice and planetary collision;
in this world but not of it, ours we like to believe,
watching the movement of her stars, the flow of waters,
life from spawning to spawning
as the whirlpool of Creation spins.

Evening Light on Am Monadh Ruadh. © Judith Nott

Evening Light on Am Monadh Ruadh. © Judith Nott

Written by Judith Nott


Find out everything that’s going on as part of National Poetry Day 2017 on the website.


Posted in poetry | Tagged , , , ,

Walking with whales – again

Last year Ron Macdonald, formerly of SNH, described the thrill of observing two humpback whales off the Ythan estuary in Aberdeenshire. A year later, in early August, a humpback whale was spotted off St Cyrus National Nature Reserve and Ron was there to watch it.

The humpback whale with Scurdie Ness lighthouse in the background. © Ron Macdonald

The humpback whale with Scurdie Ness lighthouse in the background. © Ron Macdonald

I’m besotted with whales so news that another humpback whale was sighted off St Cyrus beach had me down there in double quick time. My interest quickened when, based on pictures of the whale’s dorsal fin and the pattern of markings behind it, it was identified as one of the two that had last year spent three months off the Ythan estuary. Yay, gotta get reacquainted!

Have you seen the whale?

Over the next fortnight, ‘have you seen the whale?’ was a question I’d frequently ask and which was asked of me. The presence of the humpback brought a tangible feel good factor to the local community and was reason enough for people to talk to one another when perhaps they might not otherwise. The village of St Cyrus took to ‘their’ whale which of course also brought in visitors, but it was more genuine interest that fuelled the banter.

The cliff-top observation point, on the path at the top of the relic shoreline within St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, gives you a commanding view of St Cyrus bay – northwards to the Kaime of Mathers castle with its dark history and beyond to Milton Ness at the head the bay – and southwards to Montrose lying between the rivers North and South Esk and beyond to Scurdie Ness lighthouse at the southernmost point of the bay.

Whale watchers at the cliff-top observation point. ©Jules Anderson

Whale watchers at the cliff-top observation point. ©Jules Anderson

Here could be found a hubbub of seasoned cetacean watchers, visitors from near and far and local people. It was a good place to look out for the characteristic blow as the whale surfaces and exhales, to watch it feeding or if you were lucky, to see it lob-tailing or breaching further out in the deeper water of the outer bay.

The humpback whale breaching in St Cyrus bay. © Phil Evans

The humpback whale breaching in St Cyrus bay. © Phil Evans

It soon emerged there were two hotspots where the whale was frequently seen – one off the mouth of the North Esk and the other in the northern part of the bay, below the Kaime of Mathers. Once sighted, I usually high-tailed it down the cliff path to walk with the whale as it swam along the shore or I perched on the cliff-top, high above the Kaime of Mathers looking down on it feeding. This brought me much closer to the whale, close enough at times to hear, and occasionally be startled by, the ‘blow’ of air from its double blowhole.

The whale feeding close to the breakers on St Cyrus beach. Tail seen. ©Ron Macdonald

The whale feeding close to the breakers on St Cyrus beach. Tail seen. ©Ron Macdonald

The whale surfacing, blowing as it does. ©Ron Macdonald

The whale surfacing, blowing as it does. ©Ron Macdonald

The whale at the surface showing its double blow hole. ©Ron Macdonald

The whale at the surface showing its double blow hole. ©Ron Macdonald

Feeding strategies – to lunge, cruise, eddy or bubble?

There seemed to be a number of feeding strategies used by the whale including:

  • A short lunge propelled by the tail, body and flippers with the head popping up and jaws gulping in seawater and fish. Until recently it was thought that the flippers were used only for steering but we now know that they also use them to lunge feed. Not really that surprising when you think about it. As a friend said, “if you have these large paddles, a third the length of your body, why wouldn’t you use them to drive yourself forward”?
  • The longer head down method, cruising, with the jaws open and then eventually closing, almost like a trawl. The whale often used this strategy while feeding in a leisurely way along the beach, at the mouth of the North Esk and further out in the bay. Alternatively the whale could decide to power forward using its tail as the main driving force, keeping near to the surface and using its flippers principally to to steer. See the video by Peter and Rachel Hazelhurst.
  • Creating a vortex or eddy with its body, flippers and tail. This is presumably to form a bait ball of fish or maybe to disturb the sediment below to force sand eels or crustaceans from their burrows, before the whale rises in the middle to gulp in and filter out its prey through its baleen plates. The tail is also used to lash the water further scaring the fish into the centre of the vortex created by the whale. I observed this method both close to shore and far out in deeper water.
  • Bubble feeding, encircling the prey with a ‘bubble’ net. The fish try to avoid the bubbles, so they are forced to ascend and concentrate in a denser part of the bubble net. Usually such behaviour is seen when several humpbacks fish co-operatively. Unfortunately I didn’t observe bubble feeding.

The pictures below show in some detail a sequence of lunge feeding:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Time to go….

The last sighting of the humpback whale was on the evening of Monday 4 September by Jules Anderson who set-up a Facebook page to let people know about the latest sightings. It somehow feels fitting that it was Jules who last saw the whale, in the evening light as it passed close inshore scaring the living daylights out of this surfer.

A surprised surfer. ©Jules Anderson

A surprised surfer. ©Jules Anderson

A couple of days earlier the blizzard of gulls, terns and kittiwakes that were for the past month also feeding on the shoals of sprats in St Cyrus bay, dissipated, maybe following the sprats further offshore or along the coast. I think it was a harbinger of the whale’s departure.

Gulls, terns and kittiwakes feasting on the sprats. ©Ron Macdonald

Gulls, terns and kittiwakes feasting on the sprats. ©Ron Macdonald

In the month or so the humpback has been at St Cyrus, it has provided enjoyment and wonder to many people. I met lots of interesting and helpful people; the Hourstons who farm the clifftop fields who, seeing me on the cliff path, took a break from the harvest to speak awhile and observe the whale; Ken Herd, a lobster fisherman from Tangleha who enlightened me about the shoaling behaviour of mackerel and sprats; the merry band of whale watchers ever watchful at the cliff- top viewing point; the villagers who were interested and proud of ‘their’ whale; and finally, Theresa Alampo, Reserve Manager at St Cyrus NNR and Jules Anderson who kept everyone up to date with sightings.

Hopefully the humpback will stay safe in a dangerous sea. Its been a ‘blow’ spending time with such a beautiful, wondrous and mysterious being.


The whale was briefly sighted again on 14 September feeding off the North Esk. Before that, on 9 September, a humpback was captured on a video off the Ythan estuary, some 40kms north as the whale swims.  On 18 September it was again seen breaching in St Cyrus bay. Could it be the same humpback briefly visiting its 2016 haunt before returning southwards to St Cyrus? Or maybe we have two humpbacks?

The whales may be gone for this year but there’s still lots to see at St Cyrus NNR. Find out more on the website.

And you might want to re-read Ron’s blog for us from last year as well as the one he wrote for Scottish Wildlife Trust.

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

Let’s head to Taynish

Now is the time to celebrate Taynish National Nature Reserve’s 40th Anniversary. Today (Friday) and tomorrow there are plenty of events to enjoy at the Reserve. But even if you can’t manage along there are lots of good reasons to pencil in a visit at a future date.


These are fairly impressive woodlands here aren’t they?

They sure are. There has been woodland here for over 6,000 years and the reserve provides a powerful reminder of times gone by. The Taynish peninsula forms part of the many fingered coastline of Argyll and features one of the finest ancient oakwoods in Europe. The moist clean air here means that lichens smother the trunks of trees, while mosses seem to pour down the branches.

Knapdale in miniature would you say?

For visitors to Knapdale in south-west Scotland, the Taynish peninsula presents a view, in microcosm, of how the Knapdale landscape might have looked, perhaps a thousand years ago. The NNR contains expansive remnants of ancient oak woodland, representing some of the best examples of temperate rain forest anywhere in Scotland. The woods are rich in wildlife, including many plants that benefit from the perpetual dampness within the woods. The fascinating history of how these woodlands were once used adds to the importance of the Reserve.


Sounds like this is home to a riot of species ?

The humid woodland offers ideal growing conditions. Trees and rocky slopes in the wood are home to around 250 species of mosses and liverworts (bryophytes) – a quarter of all the species found in Britain, including seven which are nationally scarce. Amongst the special ferns, delicate and translucent filmy ferns grow on rocks and tree trunks. Around 500 species of lichen have been found in the Reserve, including 91 nationally scarce species. Over 300 types of flowering plants grow here, including two colonies of narrow-leaved helleborine, an uncommon orchid for which Taynish is a UK stronghold. A wide range of butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies and other insects live in the woodland and woodland clearings, including many that are nationally scarce.

What do autumn and winter hold in store at Taynish ?

Autumn sees the woodland ‘come alive’ in a riot of colour with the vibrant hues of russets, reds and ochres of oak, birch, willow and alder. The bracken and ferns add muted hues of brown and gold to create a stunning autumnal visual feast. Hang on until winter and the scene changes as the woodlands are frosted pale grey green of the old man’s beard lichen, dotted with the bright red of the holly berries. Look out for whooper swans and great northern divers which can be found here in winter.

Is there a walk here I can do to get a feel for the reserve ?

Yes, the Bàrr Mòr Trail is a good one, and don’t ignore the delightful Woodland Trail or the Mill Trail. To reach Taynish National Nature Reserve, take the B8025 Bellanoch to Tayvallich road from the Crinan Canal. You can walk to the reserve from the car park just south of Tayvallich village or turn left onto a minor road signed for Taynish. Follow this partly unmetalled road (with care – it’s rough in the later stages) for a mile down to the small car park in the reserve.

A 3 km/2 mile trail takes you up the Bàrr Mòr (Gaelic for ‘big top’), from where you’ll have superb views over the surrounding woodlands, coastline and islands. You’ll need to be reasonably fit to reach the viewpoint at the top. The steep path climbs through superb woodland,with many steps, before emerging onto the hill top. It then continues down the far side of the hill to eventually rejoin the access road.

Posted in Uncategorized

Facelift for peat hags

Peatland ACTION have been hard at work on Beinn Dubh and Mid Hill high above the shores of Loch Lomond. The team have been using the healing powers of sphagnum moss to give old peat hags a facelift in an effort to combat climate change.


Richard Cooper, Peatland ACTION Project Officer for Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park with the help of Highland Conservation’s Andy Colman, and his team, have been working with Luss Estate to restore areas of peat that have become exposed and degraded due to historical overgrazing and climatic factors.

Healthy peatlands can deliver a range of benefits: acting as a store for carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere, a flood water store and clear water filter, this in addition to providing a rich habitat for wildlife, food for grouse, improved access to land, and reduced risks to game and livestock through fatalities in deep gullies and drainage ditches, and eroding hags.

Damaged peatlands, however, cannot deliver the same range of benefits – it is estimated that as much as 50% of Scotland’s peatlands are in poor condition, and 20% are badly degraded releasing carbon instead of storing it.

When peat is exposed it reacts with oxygen, causing it to degrade and release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change. Degraded and exposed peat also holds less water during heavy rains resulting in downstream flooding and increased sedimentation.

Richard Cooper, Peatland ACTION Project Officer for Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park said:

“Peatland ACTION is working closely with landowners, like Luss Estate, to restore damaged peatlands right across the length and breadth of Scotland. The work we are doing will have multiple benefits both for the landowner and the environment, such as helping improve water quality, acting towards flood prevention, rejuvenating our upland habitats and wildlife, and helping the fight against climate change.”

Peat hag reprofiling

A peat hag is a type of erosion that can occur at the sides of gullies or seemingly in isolation.

Peat hags arise as a result of water flow eroding downwards into the peat or where a fire or overgrazing has exposed the peat surface to dry out and blow or wash away.

Without help from projects like Peatland ACTION these peat hags can potentially enter a cycle of perpetual erosion resulting in the development of areas of bare peat. This is not good news for the environment or for landowners.

Areas where peat is more than 50cm deep are eligible for restoration work and some of the exposed peat hags on Beinn Dubh and Mid Hill were 2-3 metres high.

Re-profiling or giving peat hags a face lift has many benefits, and the results can been seen immediately.



First, diggers are used to reduce the profile of the eroding peat hag, the gaps in the exposed peat are then covered with nearby turves to stabilise the surface and prevent further erosion. In time, the turves will grow and interlock with their neighbours preventing erosion in the future and in some cases even contributing to active peat formation, and ultimately locking-in carbon.

The healing powers of sphagnum moss

Used in the First World War as a wound dressing due to its antiseptic properties, sphagnum moss is being used today to help heal the scars on the landscape, especially in areas where historical overgrazing and climatic factors has left the peat exposed.

Planting sphagnum mosses (the key bog builder) directly into areas of bare peat is being trialled in the hope that it will enable the landscape to heal itself. Sphagnum mosses are amazing plants that are able to hold between 10 and 20 times their weight in water and can come back from long periods of dry conditions. It is hoped that this technique which has been successful in other parts of the UK will also work on Beinn Dubh.

Transplantation involves harvesting sphagnum from a nearby donor site and handfuls are then heeled in directly into the bare peat.


As this short video shows it can be wet and mucky work, but as Andy Colman from Highland Conservation explains “this is why we wear waterproofs!”

Once established, these tiny plants play a major role in keeping water on the hill for longer, reducing the risk of wildfires and reducing erosion and flooding downstream.


Find out more in the following links:

If you would like to contribute to the on-going work of Peatland ACTION, we would like to hear from you. For further details please contact peatlandaction@snh.gov.uk

Link to PA applications web page

Link to video of hag re-profiling

Flickr album

Luss Estates is committed to sustainable land management, supporting our local communities, and growing the regional economy. For more information please visit www.lussestates.co.uk


Posted in Uncategorized