Inspiring insights from the Isle of May

Edinburgh-based artist, Kittie Jones, returns for another week of drawing and painting on the Isle of May.

Puffin drawing, sketchbook.

Puffin drawing, sketchbook.

For me, the Isle of May is so much more than the puffins, but it would be fair to say that it is the puffins that make a big impression during late spring. The strange grunting noise they make is curious. Whilst walking around the island, grunts would arise from burrows making me aware of life beneath the surface. Puffins have the most amazing fluorescent orange feet and legs – as they stand around in bright sunlight a pinky-orange reflection can be seen on their white bellies. The many rabbits on the island inadvertently help the nesting puffins by keeping the foliage short, building burrows which may be appropriated, and providing young as prey for the population of great black-backed gulls.

Cliff top Guillemot, mixed media on paper.

Cliff top Guillemot, mixed media on paper.

At this time of year the guillemots and razorbills are well established on the cliffs around the island. There are over 13,000 pairs of guillemots breeding on the Isle of May – they need a space of less than 10cm to nest, meaning guillemot colonies are tightly packed. The noises emanating from the colony are difficult to describe: a cacophony of high-pitched barking and gargling – you’ll need to head out to the island to hear for yourself!

Razorbill looking over Pilgrim's Haven, mixed media on paper.

Razorbill looking over Pilgrim’s Haven, mixed media on paper.

Whilst watching razorbills and guillemots you may notice that the inside of their mouths (their gape) is a bright buttercup-yellow – quite striking if you see one yawn, and they do! It is also worth noting that their colouring is more subtle than you may initially think – soft chocolate browns and charcoal greys are there, alongside the black and white.

Nesting eider drawing, sketchbook.

Nesting eider drawing, sketchbook.

The eider ducks were a major part of the trip this time – many of them were gathered in pairs or small groups around the island. There were a number of nesting females who were so well camouflaged that at times it felt like you were almost upon them when you first caught sight of them. They had morphed their bodies into a flying-saucer shape and if it was windy or cold (which it often was) they would tuck their beaks into their back-feathers and aim their unblinking gaze at you. They make perfect models for an artist, although I was careful to avoid getting so close that they were frightened off as gulls keep a watchful eye on eider nests.

Artist and muse.

Artist and muse.

One morning I set off to seek new subject matter and headed out to look for the grey seals that breed on the island each year. As I peered over the side of a gully I saw a single buff-coloured velvety seal lying across the ridge from me. I could not see its head, just flippers resting against a plump body, and its tail which it would occasionally stretch out to reveal two scallop-shaped limbs.

Reclining seal, mixed media on paper.

Reclining seal, mixed media on paper.

It was a joy spending time drawing the seals, a different approach was required from my more familiar subject of birds. With birds the difficulty is in grasping a sense of the skeleton underneath, unseen flesh and shape-shifting feathers. Birds also have a tendency to move much more! With seals, the problem is in finding interesting shapes amongst a mass of blubber. Luckily the seals had beautiful colouring and markings, plus their faces were so compelling that it was hard not to find a sense of character in them.

Two seals, mixed media on paper.

Two seals, mixed media on paper.

The human stories of the island are interesting too: this time I met a researcher who was spending the next three months counting puffin corpses (studying great black-backed gull predation), an ornithologist recently returned from 18 months in Antarctica and a puffin expert who had decided guillemots were more interesting!

Artist selfie!

Artist selfie!

Many thanks to reserve managers Dave Steel and Bex Outram for letting us come back, Mark Newell for organising our accommodation, Roy of the Osprey for two exhilarating boat trips and of course my fellow artists for their wonderful work and company: Leo du Feu, Liz Myhill, Susan Smith, Nye Hughes and Emily Ingrey-Counter.

For more information about my work please visit my website:

Why not make a trip out to the isle of May this season and see all these amazing birds and animals for yourself. Have a look at the website for details on how to get there.

All images by Kittie Jones.

Posted in art | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

SNH divers assess Loch Carron flame shell bed damage

Images of bright orange, dead flame shells strewn across the seabed in Loch Carron received widespread social and mainstream media coverage recently. Recreational divers had reported that the flame shell bed – a rare and ecologically important habitat – had been damaged by a scallop dredger.

An exposed flame shell amongst a clump of empty and smashed shells

SNH’s dive team was quickly asked to head out to Loch Carron, to team-up with Marine Scotland Science (MSS) colleagues, investigate the flame shell bed and report back to Ministers.

Flame shells are beautiful, four centimetre long bivalve molluscs with vivid red and orange tentacles. They spend most of their lives completely hidden on the seabed inside nests built from shells, stones and other materials around them.

A healthy flame shell on the surface of the bed, taken on a previous survey

A healthy flame shell on the surface of the bed, taken on a previous survey

Hundreds of these nests – occasionally, many thousands – can combine to form a dense bed, raising and stabilising the sea floor and making it more attractive for lots of other creatures. Flame shell beds are known to support juvenile shellfish, including scallops, and commercially important fish species. In one study, in Loch Fyne, six nest complexes supported 265 species of invertebrates.

Close-up of a queenie Aequipecten opercularis with an orange sponge and bryozoan covering on a maerl bed

Close-up of a queen scallop with an orange sponge and bryozoan covering on a maerl bed

Flame shell beds used to be more widespread but they are extremely sensitive to physical disturbance, such as dredging and they are now rare in the UK. The species is mainly found on the west coast and the densest beds are in Scottish waters, where it is a Priority Marine Feature.

Video showing the healthy flame shell bed in 2009

Our team met up with surveyors from Marine Scotland Science to carry out a joint survey of the flame shell beds in the area and to confirm the extent of any damage. MSS studied the bed using an underwater camera which relayed high resolution video footage to their Research Vessel, Alba na Mara. This enabled them to carry out surveys to work out how big the bed is. A small number of ‘grab samples’ were remotely collected to validate this footage and enable the team to analyse the composition of the seabed.

The SNH team carried out 16 dives over two days and confirmed that the damage on the seabed was consistent with scallop dredging.

Video showing the damaged flame shell bed in 2017

Most of the damaged animals seen by the recreational divers had already been eaten or had decayed. In photos taken by our divers you can see patches of grey mould around the clumps of bright white, empty shells that are evidence of this. Distinct tracks and broken urchins are also visible on the seabed.

The decaying remains of a flame shell (filamentous tentacles still visible) on the seabed

The decaying remains of a flame shell (filamentous tentacles still visible) on the seabed

Additionally, the divers investigated the wider distribution and condition of flame shells and other Priority Marine Features in the area. And to complement the work being carried out by our MSS colleagues from their boat, our team collected 22 brief video samples from the SNH Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB), by dropping a camera attached to an ‘umbilical’ overboard.

An SNH diver filming on the flame shell bed

An SNH diver filming on the flame shell bed

Intact flame shell habitat was found around the margins of the damaged areas and at other sites surveyed away from the mapped bed, so there is some hope that the habitat will eventually recover, but this is likely to take many years.

A painted goby on the surface of a flame shell bed

A painted goby on the surface of a Loch Carron flame shell bed

The samples and images from the survey are currently being analysed in finer detail, to provide a clearer picture of the extent of the flame shell bed. We will publish the findings later in the year but in the meantime our field report provides an initial analysis of the survey results and you can view that here.

All photos and video (C) SNH.

Posted in biodiversity, conservation, Marine, Marine Protected Areas, MPA, MPAs, Priority Marine Features, Protected Areas, Research, sea life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mull Eagle Watch – community takes a thriving partnership to new success

The unique partnership of Mull Eagle Watch – an eagle protection and public viewing partnership between Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB, the Mull and Iona Community Trust, and Police Scotland – has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with 2016 being a particular success.

White-tailed eagle adult feeding chick at nest. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

White-tailed eagle adult feeding chick at nest. ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Mull Eagle Watch is a fantastic example of SNH and its partners promoting community empowerment. Prior to 2016 the Mull Eagle Watch Partnership provided a hide on Forestry Commission land, which offered unique viewing of sea eagles on the nest. In a bid to evolve the project, the partnership reached out to the community to see if they wanted to play a bigger role in delivering the project with us. Following community buy-outs of formerly Forestry Commission land on the island, in early 2016 the community took the lead with two viewing hides on their newly acquired land.hide

Both community trusts (South west Mull and Iona Development and North west Mull Community Woodland Company) working with local volunteers, hosted the MEW hides and learned valuable lessons on running such an enterprise in the longer term on their land. The eagle viewing season ran from April to end-September, with visitors totalling 3092 across both sites. The profits from the two hides were shared equally between the two communities, who could then choose how these funds were distributed in their local area. The MEW also retained a small sum to allocate to their wider Mull grants pot.

Despite the transfer of the hides from FCS to community land, the Sea Eagle Viewing hide project retained its accolade of a five star rating from Visit Scotland. Better still, the Mull Eagle Watch Sea Eagle viewing experience won the Innovation in Tourism Award at the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards (HITA) in November 2016. The island group now goes on to the National Finals in March of this year. The HITA committee stated the following reasons for the win:

“The success of Mull Eagle Watch involves many partners to create one of the UK’s most high profile wildlife attractions, featuring Mull’s majestic white-tailed eagles. It is the mix of involvement with organisations, communities – human and digital – that impressed the judges and raising money for local causes. Congratulations to the Mull and Iona Community Trust for the Mull Eagle Watch for creating and sustaining one of the United Kingdom’s most high profile wildlife attractions. Working across the community with public and private sector groups, engaging with schools, residents, social media channels, Mull Eagle Watch goes from strength to strength – creating a destination in its own right.”

Adult White-tailed eagle in flight. ©Lorne Gill

Adult White-tailed eagle in flight. ©Lorne Gill

And if one award wasn’t enough, MEW was also shortlisted for Community Initiative and Nature Tourism at the 2016 Nature of Scotland Awards, taking home another win!

MEW was also hugely successful in that it was able to operate whilst essential forestry operations continued, ensuring regular communication with forestry contractors to ensure no conflict with nesting eagles.

MEW is increasingly community led, providing an excellent example of innovative, community asset ownership working across multiple sectors (tourism, wildlife management, forestry and community). Such a partnership is a real cornerstone of Mull’s resilient rural community and one which SNH will continue to support.

Keep in touch with the MEW project here.

Posted in Birds, Community engagement | Tagged , , , , , , ,

What will global conservation look like 50 years from now…

SNH’s Clive Mitchell, Strategic Development Manager, examines the question.

Family Fresh Air Club outing to Barry Mill, Carnoustie, November 2016. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The inaugural WildTalk event on wildlife conservation at St Andrew’s University saw four speakers take on the challenge of anticipating what global conservation might look like 50 years from now. The short answer is that nobody knows (of course), but in different ways all of the speakers suggested that it will need to look quite different from the way it does now.

Nature ‘over there’ was a common theme for all of the speakers. In one way or another nature ‘over there’ risks being a displacement activity for nature here and now. This operates at all scales, from raising money in developed countries to spend on charismatic species in developing countries, to flower-rich borders around mono-cultural fields. It applies to protected areas which are generally where people are not, and it overlooks the nature in between them and in our towns and cities where people (mainly) are. Nature ‘over there’ is easy to forget or to ignore, because it’s not ‘here’.

Greenspace around Dundee. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Nature is a tricky policy issue. It is difficult to define, difficult to measure and underpinned by widely differing worldviews or narratives. It involves significant asymmetries, such as activities in the uplands to reduce flood risk downstream, activities now to benefit future generations and activities carried out by wealthy people that impact on poor people, and vice versa. And it can be understood and valued from a wide number of viewpoints. Nature itself is a slippery idea, it is socially constructed, means different things to different people and strongly depends on the context in which it is discussed. For all of these reasons it is deeply political, but not often framed that way in practice.

Berwick Law, East Lothian. ©George Logan/SNH

Looking back over the last 50 years, we have witnessed more widespread and intensive use of natural resources associated with the impact of the oil economy. Farming, fisheries and forestry moved to industrial operations. Oil transformed transport and allows people to reach into previously remote, inaccessible areas and their resources. The impacts of human activities on natural processes and systems including climate, ocean acidification, deforestation and the state of nature all escalated. At the same time there have been similar marked changes in socio-economic measures including GDP, population, energy and consumption. The costs and benefits associated with these changes are not evenly distributed, making the issues ripe for political contest.

Young sitka spruce self seeding on a blanket bog at Whitelees windfarm. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In parallel with that, policy and practice in conservation has become more firmly established over the last 50 years. In practice this has centred on protected areas and priority habitats and species – often on the less-used areas of land and sea than where the direct pressures occur. Whilst this approach has many successes, it has clearly been insufficient compared to the scale of socio-economic change and the use of natural resources.

If nature emerges from power relations acting across societies over time and is always changing, what should we conserve and why? What are the motivations for that?

Fifty years from now, conservation will have to be better integrated with social and economic interests and be centred on an ecosystems approach. It will be rooted in environmental change and centred on a circular economy, mindful of key elements and nutrient flows (e.g. C, N, P, K) and freed from arbitrary baselines. It will be clear about the benefits to people. What that means in practice will of course be disputed, so good governance will be important, being alive to and open about the power relations that are at play, and who stands to gain. The alternative is to continue with nature in fragments, ‘over there’ competing with other demands on the land and sea and continuing to lose the false argument about whether it is more important to feed birds or people.

Like climate change, what conservation might look like in 50 years’ time is really a question about what kind of world we want to live in.

If you have any comments on the ideas presented in this blog, I’d love to hear them – please email them to, or reply to a copy of this message on conservation conversations.

All images © Lorne Gill/SNH except Berwick Law © George Logan/SNH.

Posted in conservation | Tagged , , ,

Sàr-rùrachd ann an Dùn Stafhainis – Gourmet foraging in Dunstaffnage

Cuir sàr-eòlaiche rùrachd ri oide àrainneachd Gàidhealach agus tha cuirm biadh fiadhain air leth ann.

Take a foraging expert and add a Gaelic environmental educator to create the perfect recipe for a day out discovering wild food.  Read the full blog in Gaelic below.

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What a great day! We were with the foraging expert, Mark Willliams, who hails from Galloway, and Highland-based Gaelic environmental educator, Roddy Maclean, to learn about putting a Gaelic perspective on wild food collecting in a West Highland context at Dunstaffnage near Oban. Mark enthusiastically gave us information from his vast store of practical knowledge about what you can eat that grows naturally on our ‘doorstep’, and Roddy added his own ‘colour’ with the Gaelic names for the species, and cultural and practical knowledge related to Gaelic tradition, delivered in that language. The experience was informative and great fun.

We started with some trees, chewing on the edible and tasty buds and young leaves of the lime and elm trees, as well as that ubiquitous Highland species, the rowan. Mark talked about how to use the nettle and wood sorrel as food and introduced us to the dangers of poisonous species such as the foxglove and the hemlock water-dropwort. He highlighted his ‘favourite’ species – hogweed – and gave us a piece of his delicious cake made using hogweed seeds. One of the delights of Mark’s work is his ‘bag of tricks’ which is full, not only of cakes, but of vials and bottles of drinks and sauces made from native species. Most are delicious, although one or two are less so!

Tasty buds and young leaves.

On the sandy ground behind the beach, we chewed on sea sandwort, which is very pleasant, and Roddy introduced us to silverweed, an important addition to the Gaels’ diet in times of famine. As low tide approached we spent time foraging on the seashore to access edible seaweeds and learned there are no foraged or shallow-water species in Scotland that are poisonous (but polluted areas should be avoided). We ate, or at least chewed on, forest kelp, dulse, pepper dulse, sea lettuce, Dumont’s tubular weed and channelled wrack, and collected some newly washed up sugar kelp to take back to cook.

At the cooking session, Mark introduced us to delicious wild plants which are not as common in the Highlands as in Galloway, notably sea kale and sea beet, making a great seafood soup, and he fried young hogweed shoots which were surprisingly tasty. We went home hungry – but only for more knowledge about how to forage wild food! Thanks to Bòrd na Gàidhlig for their support for this, and related, Gaelic foraging events.


Abair latha math! Bha sinn còmhla ris an t-sàr-eòlaiche air cruinneachadh bìdh, Mark Williams, à Gall-Ghàidhealaibh, agus Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a bhios a’ teagasg mun àrainneachd tro mheadhan na Gàidhlig, airson eòlas fhaighinn air ‘rùrachd’ airson biadh air taobh an iar na Gàidhealtachd (aig Dùn Staifhinis faisg air an Òban). Bha Mark gu math practaigeach agus sheall e dhuinn na ghabhas ithe air ar stairsnich. Chuir Ruairidh ri sin le fiosrachadh ann an Gàidhlig mu ainmean Gàidhlig nan lusan agus eòlas air cleachdaidhean traidiseanta nan Gàidheal. Bha iad le chèile fiosrachail agus spòrsail.

images - Low water at Dunstaffnage

Thòisich sinn le craobhan, ag ithe nan gucagan is duilleagan òra air an leamhan, teile agus caorann. Bhruidhinn Mark rinn mu chleachdadh na deanntaig agus na feada-coille airson biadh agus mar a dh’aithnicheamaid gnèithean puinnseanta, leithid lus nam ban-sìth agus an dàtha bàn iteodha. Dh’inns e dhuinn gur e an t-odharan an lus as fheàrr leis agus thug e dhuinn pìos cèic air a dèanamh le sìl an odharain. Tha màileid iongantach aige a tha làn (a bharrachd air cèic) de bhotail de shabhs agus deochan. Tha a’ chuid as motha dhiubh air leth blasta, ach tha fear no dhà ann a tha car searbh!

Air an talamh ghainmhich os cionn a’ chladaich, chagnaich sinn air duilleagan blasta lus a’ Ghoill agus bhruidhinn Ruairidh mun bhrisgean, a bhiodh na Gàidheil ag ithe aig àm goirt. Le ìsle na mara, thug sinn ùine seachad air a’ chladach, a’ lorg feamainn a ghabhas ithe (chan eil gin a lorgas tu beò air a’ chladach puinnseanta – ach bithibh faiceallach ma tha truailleadh ann). Dh’fheuch sinn stamh, duileasg, duileasg piobarach, glasag, an fheamainn phìobach agus an fheamainn chìrean, agus chruinnich sinn langadal a bh’ air tighinn a-steach leis an làn airson a chocaireachd.

Foraging on the seashore.

Anns a’ ‘chidsin’, dh’ullaich Mark brot biadh-mara le lusan nach eil cho cumanta air a’ Ghàidhealtachd ʼs a tha iad ann an Gall-Ghàidhealaibh, leithid càl na mara (smaoinich brocolli) agus biatas-mara (smaoinich bloinigean-gàrraidh), agus dh’fhraighig e gasan òga odharain a bha gu h-iongantach taitneach. Chaidh sinn dhachaigh làn acrais – ach airson tuilleadh eòlais fhaighinn air mar a chruinnicheas sinn biadh air a’ bhlàr a-muigh! Ar taing do Bhòrd na Gàidhlig airson an taice le seo agus le tachartasan Gàidhlig eile dhen aon seòrsa.

Posted in Gaelic | Tagged , , ,

Co-design: Young Scot and SNH, a natural partnership

Ettie Shattock, the SNH Partnership Officer at Young Scot, reflects on the Co-design partnership between SNH and Scotland’s national youth information and citizenship charity.

Putting the finishing touches on an environmental art activity they tested out at St Abb’s Head NNR.

Putting the finishing touches on an environmental art activity they tested out at St Abb’s Head NNR.

SNH and Young Scot have been working in partnership since 2016 to engage young people in Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy and Route Map to 2020. Using a co-design approach, they established Scotland’s Youth Biodiversity Panel, ReRoute, which is made up of 15 young volunteers aged 13-24 from across the country. ReRoute aims to engage more young people in Scotland’s amazing nature, landscapes and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

ReRoute members Ryan and Katie respond to the ECCLR’s questions on how they can better engage young people in their work.

ReRoute members Ryan and Katie respond to the ECCLR’s questions on how they can better engage young people in their work.

Co-design was not something that I was familiar with when I started working for Young Scot. Whilst supporting ReRoute and SNH to use this approach, I’ve experienced the many benefits of including young people in decision making processes and in creating ideas and solutions to things in their lives. This means that the young people have been able to identify issues that affect them as well as work with and challenge the organisations who can make changes to address these issues. ReRoute have had the opportunity to work with SNH staff, including their senior management and leadership teams in order to understand what SNH currently do and identify future opportunities together.

ReRoute members talking to former SNH Chair, Ian Ross about their survey insight briefing at SNH’s Urban Nature, Get Connected Parliamentary Reception.

ReRoute members talking to former SNH Chair, Ian Ross about their survey insight briefing at SNH’s Urban Nature, Get Connected Parliamentary Reception.

ReRoute investigated young people’s opinions and understandings of biodiversity and nature in Scotland in order to get a clear understanding of any issues that could be addressed. Their insight briefing from a survey they conducted with over 1000 young people demonstrates that young people in Scotland do care, and are passionate, about their natural environment. The survey gave ReRoute and SNH an understanding of what would encourage young people to enjoy the outdoors more often and this feedback is informing the digital information articles and content that they are now creating to engage young people in the topic.

Exploring urban nature in Glasgow.

Exploring urban nature in Glasgow.

I am excited to see ReRoute’s ideas develop. Some of the topics in the Route Map such as natural capital or peatland restoration may be difficult to link to young people’s lives, yet the group members are exploring creative and innovative ways of doing this with SNH. This is what Co-design is all about – working collaboratively to identify issues, test out ideas and re-develop them with both young people and SNH to find the most effective approaches.

Young Scot has provided ReRoute members with a unique opportunity to develop their skills, confidence and experiences as young people but it has also empowered them to be challengers, questioners and creators for all young people in Scotland. Furthermore, they have been able to access and work with organisations and SNH staff who are at the centre of decision making and information sharing for the natural environment in Scotland.

Posted in Young people | Tagged , , ,

Meet the secretive large velvet ant

After an absence from the records of 32 years, the large velvet ant (Mutilla europaea) has been sighted again in Scotland by Dr Jenni Stockan from the James Hutton Institute. Athayde Tonhasca reveals the idiosyncrasies of this surprising insect.

Female large velvet ant. © Steven Falk

Female large velvet ant. © Steven Falk

Velvet ants are so called because of the dense ‘hairs’ (setae is their proper name) covering their bodies. However they are not ants at all – they are wasps.

The females of this wasp family (Mutillidae) are wingless, so it is not surprising that they are mistaken for ants. The males do have wings and fly about in search of pollen and nectar, but are rarely seen. Some velvet ant species exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism, which means that males and females look very different. So much so that it is often very difficult to pair up males and females belonging to the same species, unless they are captured while mating.

Male large velvet ant.  © Steven Falk

Male large velvet ant. © Steven Falk

All velvet ants are parasitoids of other insects, that is, they spend part of their lives inside the body of their hosts. After mating, the female wasp invades an insect nest, typically a ground-dwelling species of bee, fly, beetle or butterfly. In the case of the large velvet ant, their hosts are various bumble bee species and occasionally honey bees. The female deposits her eggs inside bee pupae, which the velvet ant larva then eats. Males leave the host nest soon after they emerge, but females sometimes remain there throughout the winter.

Studies in Italy have shown that large velvet ants are also cleptoparasites: they sneak into the nests of the paper wasp Polistes biglumis to steal their food. It is believed that they get away with it because they have developed the ability to disguise their scent and therefore go undetected by their victims.

But there are more tricks in the velvet ants’ bag: when threatened they stridulate, meaning they produce noises by rubbing together different sections of their body. These sounds are no more than faint squeaks to us, but must have a stunning effect on creatures of their own size. On top of this, they are exceptionally strong and thick-skinned; they are not easily crushed, and in America have been reported to force their way out from the mouths of predators such as lizards and frogs.

Velvet ants are also known as ‘cow killers’, which is a completely inappropriate name. Although their stings are known to be painful, they are not dangerous. In fact, velvet ants’ venom is about 25 times less toxic than that of the honey bee. Moreover, females are not aggressive, and will only sting if handled.

The large velvet ant is quite rare in the UK and probably declining. Elsewhere, it can be found in Europe, the Near East and North Africa.

To learn more about velvet ants, go to: Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) Species Gallery & Accounts.
BBC Earth The almost invincible velvet ants

Posted in Insects | Tagged , , , , ,