The rights and wrongs of spring

“Winter’s cauldest blasts are aye ahint her wellies”– W.J. Boak.
Battleby’s gardener, Jim Carruthers, struggles between the excitement of the grounds bursting to life with colour and song and the mourning of cosy winter pastimes.

Snowdrops covered in snow. ©Lorne Gill

Snowdrops covered in snow. ©Lorne Gill

Like frosts, the harbingers of spring come in waves to the gardens here at Battleby. They start in mid-February at the start of the snell winds from Russia that protractedly dog the balm of spring right up until Easter. Most folk would choose the iconic snowdrop as their favourite if not sole harbinger. Accompanying these bulletproof flowers here are Mahonia and Pieris, both fine lures for early bumblebees. At the same time woodpeckers start to drum out their territory. First light sounds like a Japanese percussion concert. By the time staff arrive, they have settled to an odd roll with a tardy response. Most striking of all though are the hunners of scarlet elf cups that radiate from deadwood lying between oaks. Oystercatchers used to pierce my dreams at this time but they haven’t appeared for a few years now.

Next come the early species rhododendron vying with plum blossom for the right to succumb to frost. Unlike humans, both can thole the biting winds. The rooks, having negotiated throughout the winter parliament, start to build their ungainly nests and daffodils will start to bloom on the sunny banking at the bottom of Big Wood.

I’ve spent the morning there attacking the understorey of rhododendron, at least the ones I dislike. Qualification is by their disease or aggression or my vindictiveness. Some of it is the scourge ponticum, originating here from rootstocks used during the wacky Victorian excesses of breeding known as “The Hardy Hybrids”. Early on I caught a beauty – a 2m long layer with an ashet-sized clod of root. I bashed it against a substantial rhodie trunk with gleeful vigour. The dry woodland soil splattered like shot across my face. One moment later, a shower of barely molten frost drenched me.

Bill and Jim at the rhodie bashing, Rookery Wood, Battleby. © Isobel Morrison

Bill and Jim at the rhodie bashing, Rookery Wood, Battleby. © Isobel Morrison

Later I went home for lunch and left the back door open such was the warmth of the sun. Last night’s leftovers, a mug of Darjeeling and a novel set in the swamps of Louisiana. Hardly had I pushed away the plate when in comes a bumblebee and starts feeding on the £1 bunch of British daffodils. I hear the fridge motoring and I know now we’re in the time when fridges are necessary and not an indulgent way to boost your energy consumption. A wave of regret passes over me. It’s just that winter is ending. No more thick soups, dark stews or rich crumbles. The steamy southern state is losing its attraction. In fact the reading season is away to end, whisky corks will go untouched for the close season, nae mair skeins of geese, the roasting of roosters (no no not the birds, the tatties) is over, the hungry gap approaches, oranges have turned to string and, worst of all, pomegranates are peelie-wally and juiceless, as insipid as spring is invigorating and as dull as this weather is contrary.

The bumblebee visits, it seems, every individual in the host, it moves on to the vibrant blue flowers of the indoor campanula (clip after flowering for a second flush) and then flies away to the kitchen window rather than the door. It buzzes with frustration at the unyielding glass and I manage, at some length, to flap it out the window.

Relieved and annoyed in equal measure, I go back to work. After an hour or so of visiting martial arts on some shrubs under the pretext of rejuvenation, I look to see the way the weather is going and try to decide on headgear for the morns. Will it be the full Mongolian with furry flaps or the Australian bush to keep off the U.V. rays that are ridiculously strong the now? I also do need to decide whether it is time to fit the mower onto the tractor or refit the snowplough. Either is possible, neither just as likely. I probably will decide not to decide. After all this now is the time for fudging. There used to be a time my wee John Deere relished; the gap between winter and spring when he was unfettered by the trappings of any part of those attachments. He could go through gaps, cross stumps, not get stuck by rocks or holes. I recognise his missing exhilaration and we mourn together the good old days when seasons were seasons. Winters were proper and springs just aboot predictable.

As Kurtz might have said, the joys the joys.


Posted in Uncategorized

Great news for golden eagles and the south of Scotland

Karen Rentoul, our Operations Officer in Southern Scotland, and member of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project Board, enthuses about good news from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A golden eagle in flight. ©Laurie Campbell

The spectacular sight of a golden eagle in flight. ©Laurie Campbell

27 March 2017 should go down in history as a good day for nature in south Scotland. At least, it ought to, for the Heritage Lottery Fund has announced a grant of £1.3 million towards boosting the golden eagle population in south Scotland. The small, fragmented population of two to four successful pairs has to benefit from this award.

A uniquely special partnership has formed to make a difference. Scottish Land and Estates and the RSPB have joined forces with Buccleuch Estates, Forestry Commission Scotland, The Langholm Initiative, and SNH to make a real difference for the fortunes of golden eagles. Through hard work to improve the prospects of these iconic birds, and painstaking work with local communities to develop exciting initiatives to benefit both, we are on the threshold of one of the most exciting conservation programmes this decade in Scotland.

An example of productive habitat for foraging golden eagles in south Scotland, the Black Hope valley, Moffatdale. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Examples of productive habitat for foraging golden eagles in south Scotland, the Black Hope valley, Moffatdale. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

An example of productive habitat for foraging golden eagles in south Scotland, the Grey Mare's Tail. ©P&A Angus Macdonald/SNH

The Grey Mare’s Tail. ©P&A Macdonald/SNH

One of the key Scottish Biodiversity 2020 Challenge projects, this ground-breaking initiative paves the way for a massive impetus for nature in south Scotland. Working with local communities, schools, members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, a wide range of land managers, and the tourism sector, we have a great opportunity to place golden eagles at the heart of economic rejuvenation in some of the more hard pressed parts of Scotland. And if we can bring benefits for these birds, we should bring wider gains for other wildlife so dependent on the upland and woodland haunts of this marvellous part of Scotland.

Think of this – with good fortune and the rallying support of organisations and people committed to making a success of Scotland’s nature – we can make a difference. For many thousands of people, a sojourn in the uplands of Galloway, the Borders or even closer to the Central Belt, may soon be rewarded with the sight of golden eagles.

Sparkling eyes, frenetic texts, excited blogs and cries of delight may soon be the hallmark of a trip to these parts. What more could you ask for, and return trips should be rewarded with even greater treats.

Let’s celebrate some good news, and wish golden eagles and all who are rooting for them the very best of good fortune. Ambition, fortitude, trust and good luck should see us succeed in this endeavour.

You can find out more about the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project here.


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Play for Scotland this weekend and take care of your trails

Mountain bikers from all over Europe will be out in force volunteering their time to take care of their trails this weekend, Saturday 1 & Sunday 2 April. The driving force behind this international competition is Graeme McLean, project manager of Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), a partnership project which SNH is pleased to support. Graeme is co-ordinating the Scottish groups over the weekend and he would love to have you as part of the Scotland team.  Graeme explains how the idea for this friendly battle came to him.

DMBIS TCOYT Trev Worsey Punchy-3437

On a cold, wet and wild winter Sunday in April 2014, I took my two children to the beach to take part in a ‘Surfers Against Sewage’ spring beach clean. It was a great day and the kids and I all loved playing our part in cleaning our beaches and getting blasted by fresh North Sea air.

I had a thought – if this works for surfing (& with over 7000 volunteers it is!) why couldn’t it work for mountain biking? In 2015 we started Take Care of Your Trails weekend – it was a success – and it grew in 2016 with 18 trail crews and 154 volunteers taking part in the weekend.

Graeme's kids

I was then asked to present at the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) Europe Summit in Germany last Easter, where I talked about our weekend of co-ordinated trail repair sessions.

People were enthusiastic about the idea and we followed this up by hosting a Scotland stand at the world’s largest bike show, EuroBike – also in Germany. Then, at an international conference we ran in November, we decided to go ahead and expand the weekend to include groups from across Europe.

DMBIS TCOYT Trev Worsey Punchy-3647.jpg

So, in 2017 we are delighted to announce that Take Care of Your Trails will be a Europe-wide friendly competition to find out who has the best mountain bike community! Trail repair groups from Scotland to Poland, Denmark to Czech Republic and Sweden to Spain will engage in a friendly competition. The winners will be the country that can get the most volunteers to help repair trails, per head of population. The winning country will be presented with a prize at the IMBA Europe 2017 Summit in Agueda, Portugal.

DMBIS TCOYT Trev Worsey Punchy-3939

Scotland has some of the best mountain biking trail provision in the world and those who spend time on these trails are keen to ensure that it stays that way. Scotland is in with a great chance of winning with 13 dedicated groups spread across the country. We are anticipating nearly 200 volunteers to take part and this could be enough to win us the award.

We are also delighted that the Scottish mountain bike business community is getting behind the weekend and we have a range amazing prizes – including event entry, helmets, fork servicing, shorts and more – which will be randomly selected and given to volunteers who take part in the weekend.

DMBIS TCOYT Trev Worsey Punchy-3695

Volunteers considering taking part in the event do not need any prior experience as there will be a range of tasks to suit everyone who volunteers, no matter how young or old.
It is a win, win, win scenario – you get the opportunity to win prizes; Scotland wins the ‘Best MTB Community in Europe’; and the trails we love get improved and better to ride – a great combination.

If you, alone or with friends and family, would like to join the Scotland team, you can find out how to get involved here. We look forward to seeing you out on the trails this weekend – let the friendly battle commence!

You can find out more about the DMBinS project on our website.


Posted in Access, active travel, citizen science, Community engagement, Competition, Land management, Projects, sustainable travel, Trail, Uncategorized, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Seagulls and seafish

Like them or loathe them, seagulls are a key part of our nature in Scotland. Many have made their home in our towns and cities and as opportunistic scavengers they can eke out a living thanks (largely) to us.

Herring gull. ©Lorne Gill

Herring gull. ©Lorne Gill

But, I’m not writing about these town gulls, nope, this is all about the wild, free-flying, free-living gulls battling for survival on the Island of Canna. If you don’t know where it is, Canna is one of the Small Isles, just south of Skye and just west of Rum.

Sea cliffs on Canna. © Simon Foster

Sea cliffs on Canna. © Simon Foster

Herring gull chicks. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Herring gull chicks. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

For the last 48 years, seabirds have been studied on this island. This makes it one of the longest running seabird studies in Europe and I’ve been part of the small team of dedicated volunteers who annually look at the changing fortunes of Canna’s seabirds. Over the years, we’ve counted the numbers of gulls nesting and when we started to look at the results we noticed a very steep decline. From 2001 to 2005 numbers plummeted from around 1,300 birds around 100. So we began to wonder why have they declined. What possible reason could cause such a steep decline?

herring gull numbers graph

As a kid I remember helping to count the gulls on Canna and looking at what the chicks were been fed, mostly it was whitefish and other items that had probably been scavenged from fishing boats. So was the answer to the question to do with fishing? We went back through the fish landing records for the nearby port of Mallaig and the results were astonishing … (well to us anyway!).


Graph to show fish landed in Mallaig.

Graph showing the decline in numbers of fish landed in Mallaig. Pelagic fish are those that typically feed close to the surface (e.g. mackerel) and Demersal are those that typically feed lower down towards the seabed (e.g. cod).

It appears that the changes in gull numbers were closely linked to changes in fish landings. When we looked at information from the 1930s the numbers of gulls nesting on Canna was very similar to the latest numbers. So although we talk about a decline, what we may be seeing on Canna is gull numbers returning to more normal, albeit lower levels. There is still much to learn about seabirds and long-term studies like those on Canna continue to be of immense value in adding to our knowledge.

If you’re interested in reading more about the work the paper is available from Taylor and Francis online.

Simon Foster is our Trends and Indicators Analyst.

Posted in Birds | Tagged , , ,

Reflections from the SNH Chair

After three years as Chair, Ian Ross will end his term on 31 March. Here he looks at SNH’s remit and vision for the future of Scotland’s nature and landscapes.

Visiting the site of the Canal and North Gateway Green Infrastructure Project at Port Dundas, Glasgow – one of the first projects to receive funding from the SNH-led European Regional Development Fund’s Green Infrastructure Strategic Intervention ©Tom Finnie

Visiting the site of the Canal and North Gateway Green Infrastructure Project at Port Dundas, Glasgow – one of the first projects to receive funding from the SNH-led European Regional Development Fund’s Green Infrastructure Strategic Intervention ©Tom Finnie

Over the last 20 years, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of public agencies in Scotland and my invariable experience has been one of hardworking, committed and able officer groups. This is no different within Scottish Natural Heritage, where I’ll shortly come to the end of my term of chairing the organisation’s Board. SNH staff are perhaps the most competent and professional of public servants – consistently professional in their approach, performing and delivering at the highest of levels.

A key part of my role with SNH has been to engage with a diverse range of groups and individuals concerned with Scotland’s natural environment and how we work together to manage it for future generations. At times it has surprised me that, while many associate the organisation with nature conservation work and generally have a respect for the ability of its staff, they do not fully grasp the nature and breadth of SNH’s work. We are the Scottish Government’s statutory body for nature conservation, delivering their policies in relation to our nature and landscapes and giving high quality, objective and evidence-based advice to the Government on a range of subjects. In this role, we are asked to provide advice on how development proposals may affect delivery of Government policies for our nature and landscapes. For a small number of these, this results in us raising an objection to highlight the scale and nature of the potential impact.

Nature is important to the future of Scotland, especially in urban areas where 70% of Scotland’s people live. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Nature is important to the future of Scotland, especially in urban areas where 70% of Scotland’s people live. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In the last three years in particular there has been a more explicit policy link between “nature” and the delivery of public benefits. This is intended to support a much closer connection between people and nature, throughout the country. Nature is a valuable resource, enabling, supporting and at times directly delivering benefits such as health and well-being, active travel, quality of place, economic development and much else. SNH will continue to play a key role in leading these areas of work, it is important that it is supported by strong, effective partnerships and collaboration involving public agencies, Scottish Government, local authorities, as well as private and third sector organisations.

I have come across the occasional comment suggesting that the link between nature and the benefits people experience from it has been at the potential cost of natural heritage enhancement. I would challenge this and would assert the firm view that the reverse is the case. The relevance of nature to our lives in Scotland is increasing and additional opportunities are being created to protect and enhance our natural heritage and landscapes. For example, resources have been secured to improve vital biodiversity gain and the creation of green space has taken place which would not otherwise have happened. This is an area where we need to work harder to get the message across.

Ian with Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform launching Scotland's Biodiversity, a Route Map to 2020, at Holyrood Park, Edinburgh. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Ian with Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform launching Scotland’s Biodiversity, a Route Map to 2020, at Holyrood Park, Edinburgh. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

As with many public bodies, budget reductions have brought challenge – although there have been positive and creative responses to the management of available resources, it has had impact and consequences. Uncertainties around the implications of Brexit add to this picture, but I would hope that greater clarity will begin to emerge over the coming months and I am optimistic over the Scottish Government and Parliament’s commitment to a high quality environment and its linked benefits.

SNH encourages people to experience and enjoy the natural heritage. ©Peter Sandground/SNH

SNH encourages people to experience and enjoy the natural heritage. ©Peter Sandground/SNH

SNH has consistently taken an inclusive approach to its work, with successful partnerships and work ongoing across rural and urban, and mainland and island areas of the country. SNH is an organisation which delivers and it has been a great privilege to have chaired it and I remain confident over the continuing importance of its work for the people of Scotland.


Posted in Staff profile | Tagged ,

Scientific advances in coping with flooding

Neville Makan, our Operations Officer in Stirling, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire, writes about the recent RSE Conference ‘How can we learn to live with floods? Challenges for science and management’.

Flooded parkland in Perth. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Flooded parkland in Perth. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) hosted a conference on 15th March addressing how we can live with flooding.   Identified by the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment as the top environmental risk to the UK over the next century, flooding is formidably difficult to tackle – socially, economically, scientifically and even ethically. The RSE event attracted more than a hundred people drawn from academics, agencies and NGOs, community groups and the public.

We know that global mean temperature is increasing, leading to climate change, but there is simply not enough data to statistically prove that the recent record-breaking flooding events, experienced across the UK, are linked to global warming.  Records have been broken before and, along with high levels of natural variability, it is difficult to predict when we will have flood events and have come to the conclusion that extreme flooding is the new norm.

However, the modelling studies are improving in predicting where floods will occur, and how we should manage them. That was the more reassuring finding emerging from the conference – we are now much better placed to advise on imminent floods and measures that should be taken to reduce the adverse impacts.

River Earn in spate, Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill

River Earn in spate, Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill

We were shown how ‘blue-green’ corridors can be created to manage surface flood waters, at source, along pathways and in and around receptors within the urban environment.   And we learned more about improvements in techniques for natural flood management within catchments across rural landscapes, where Natural Flood Management is now seen as an essential tool in the rural land management toolbox.

There is still much debate about how woodland regeneration and other ‘natural remedial’ measures can dampen the impacts of flooding. Coincidentally, on the morning of the conference some media attention was given to a scientific publication setting out some key evidence gaps that need to be filled before we can be more certain on the benefits.

We need people to engage with urban design solutions that can help them around their homes – not just in finding sustainable ways to live with floods, but in realising the benefits that can stem from more community action.

It was a great conference, capped by an excellent public debate in the evening. We look forward to seeing the formal report from the RSE, reassured that scientists agree on at least one point, admirably enunciated by  one of the speakers – “Water flows downhill and then collects in puddles!”

Posted in climate change | Tagged , , ,

Birds, bees and trees make Scotland beautiful

Juliette Camburn of Keep Scotland Beautiful invites communities to take part in the 51st annual Beautiful Scotland awards, one of the longest running environmental improvement campaigns in Scotland. The 2017 theme for Beautiful Scotland and It’s Your Neighbourhood is ‘birds, bees and trees’.

Blackbird feeding on an ornamental rowan tree ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Blackbird feeding on an ornamental rowan tree ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The campaigns aim to bring communities together to help deliver local environmental improvements and recognise the efforts of volunteers across Scotland as they work hard to enhance local areas.

Beautiful Scotland celebrates and supports the achievements of communities and Business Improvement Districts from across Scotland who help to improve the places they care for. Smaller-scale projects such as community allotments, friends of parks groups, after-school clubs, and community gardens can celebrate too by entering the non-competitive It’s Your Neighbourhood campaign.


Volunteers working at the Scottish Association for Mental Health walled garden at Redhall in Edinburgh. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

By providing quality greenspace for health and education, the campaign will help Scotland “take” one of the six “Big Steps for Nature” as part of Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy and Route Map to 2020. Making shared space great for biodiversity is not just fantastic for wildlife, but a great way to improve both our physical and mental wellbeing.

Both campaigns are part of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Britain in Bloom campaign and groups will receive support, encouragement, resources and national recognition from both Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Royal Horticultural Society.

Keep Scotland Beautiful is urging communities Scotland-wide to come together and take part in the successful initiatives which recognises the tireless efforts of volunteers to improve areas in which they live, work and play. All entrants will receive a free packet of native Scottish wildflower seeds for bees.

Registration is open until end of April and is available on-line here: Beautiful Scotland / It’s Your Neighbourhood

Keep Scotland Beautiful is also on the hunt for volunteer Beautiful Scotland judges and It’s Your Neighbourhood assessors – so, if you love Scotland, the environment, meeting new people, visiting inspiring projects (and pinching ideas!), and being part of a team find out more here or email

Honeybee feeding on a garden sedum. ©Lorne Gill

Honeybee feeding on a garden sedum. ©Lorne Gill

Free seeds for bees and butterflies

Keep Scotland Beautiful’s biodiversity campaign encourages and enables communities, groups, organisations, individuals (or anyone interested) to plant for pollinators, helping to increase biodiversity. This campaign aims to create healthy outdoor spaces for communities to enjoy, enabling people to learn more about biodiversity and reconnect with their environment.

To find out more, and to apply for free seeds, click here.

Follow these links to find out more about Beautiful Scotland, It’s Your Neighbourhood campaign, RHS Britain in Bloom competition.

Find out more about the benefits of greenspace for our general wellbeing here.



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