#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Isle of May Nature Reserve Manager David Steel

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) Manager David Steel reflects on an unusual start to the season as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 


Isle of May NNR ©Patricia and Angus Macdonald/SNH

It has certainly been a strange season on the Isle of May NNR. The early spring period saw myself heading back for my sixth season on the island alongside my assistant Bex Outram, who was returning for her seventh year. However within days, the nation was gripped by Covid-19 and the decision was taken to close the island down – not an easy decision but an important one in strict accordance with Scottish Government and NHS Scotland guidelines. As a result, we locked up the buildings, packed our bags and departed the island in late March.

At that stage we did not anticipate what the spring would hold for us, but just over two months later, after many virtual meetings and plenty of form filling, we were eventually able to return. The decision process was complex with many hurdles along the way, but thanks to a great team effort we landed back on the island on Monday, June 8.

Life back on the Isle of May has certainly been very different to previous years. We returned at a time when the island is normally at its busiest – boats are usually full of visitors, with 18 staff and researchers working long hours and a further six residents at the island’s Bird Observatory. Two days after our arrival, we welcomed three researchers from UKCEH and BTO who were carrying out essential work for the renewable industries but otherwise there has just been the two of us, both socially distancing and living with no visitors and no bird observatory. It’s certainly a very different Isle of May although we do feel lucky and very privileged to be back and working – and there is certainly plenty of work to do!

In our absence it has been life as usual for the seabirds and wildlife of the island. Our nesting Shags had both small and medium sized young in early June with the first fledgling leaving the cliffs on June 22. The auks were feeding youngsters with Guillemots and Razorbills all with chicks and the first fledgers were starting to jump off the cliffs from June 23. Small numbers of Puffins had hatched young by the time staff returned to the island with the majority of the colony hatching by mid-June.

As usual, Kittiwakes appeared to have started later than most birds with the first young hatching from June 14 while Fulmars were still incubating with the first chicks not expected to hatch until early July. On the island top, the Terns were well settled with the first Arctic Tern chicks hatching from June 17, while the majority of Eiders had completed their breeding season with very few evident by the time staff returned (small numbers were seen leaving for the open sea with ducklings). The large Gull species were (as expected) very vocal and very evident.

On a more unique note, four pairs of Cormorants are nesting on Rona with the first chicks hatching from June 13 (only the second ever breeding attempt) while Shelduck parents were seen leaving with young on June 18. With no human presence on the island birds certainly took advantage as a pair of Wrens successfully nested at the Low Light bushes and a pair of Carrion Crows (including the long term resident individual known affectionately as ‘patch’) raised a family of four in the same area.

While some other seabirds nested in new areas (Guillemot, Razorbills and Kittiwakes were discovered in new nesting areas on the cliffs) the award for the most bizarre location has to go to one of the pair of resident Wood Pigeons. On arrival back to the island it was discovered that a pair had entered a building in Fluke street through an open window and nested on a work surface! However it wasn’t just the bizarre location but it appeared at least three pairs of Wood Pigeon are nesting on the island, taking over the world having only nested for the first time in 2015!

Pigeon nest (David Steel)

Wood pigeon nest! ©David Steel

It has certainly been a very strange 2020 and we definitely won’t be forgetting this season in a hurry. While you might not be able to visit currently, why not keep up to date with all the latest from the island on the Isle of May blog.

Posted in Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Nature key to Scotland’s green recovery action plan

On the blog today, our chief executive, Francesca Osowska, looks at how the Covid-19 crisis has made us look at our future differently. She asks if a green recovery can be a vital component to help us solve social, economic and environmental issues…

Francesca Osowska Chief Executive Scottish Natural Heritage ©Lorne Gill SNH 2

Francesca Osowska, Chief Executive and Accountable Officer, Scottish Natural Heritage. 

Build back better. Reimagine the future. Many of us will have called for a new perspective, as we look to life after the Covid-19 pandemic. I am no exception. Monday’s report from the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery (AGER), commissioned by the Scottish Government, is an action plan for the recovery. The environment – or natural capital – is set to be a cornerstone of a broad-based economic revival.

In Scotland, we can take pride in our commitments to reverse significant ecological decline and to cutting carbon emissions to net-zero. And in many areas, we have made great progress in delivering on those commitments, such as reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. In others, progress has not been as impressive. The State of Nature report published late last year said that in Scotland there was a 24% drop in average species abundance since 1994. We need urgent, and significant action if we are to enjoy a nature-rich future in Scotland.

Landscape Craigallian Loch_m90369

And, as the environment sector’s role in delivering on these commitments evolves, we need to look with fresh eyes at the skills and workforce needed. The economic hit from COVID-19 has illustrated the disproportionate impact on young people and SNH will work with providers and help steer the sector to step up and respond.

Triggering investment is key. AGER’s advice on the recovery looks to simultaneously encourage investment in the environment to help the economy back to health, and keep us focused on the twin challenges of the climate emergency and ecological decline.

Forthquarter Park_ Granton _m184102

The multiple benefits of investing in nature have long been recognised. Nature-based solutions to climate change, not only help to enhance our environment, but they also create jobs. Last year the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital calculated that natural capital in Scotland was worth £196bn and supported 240,000 jobs. There’s a lot to play for.

We know that continued investment in areas like peatland restoration – referenced in the AGER report – can make a big difference. The £250mn Scottish Government commitment to restore degraded peatland will not just help keep billions of tonnes of carbon in the ground, but deliver a return to the Scottish economy. It will help secure jobs, create business opportunities as well as supporting biodiversity, water quality and flood alleviation.


Peatland Action – transplanting sphagnum moss onto bare peat.

But the long-term scale of the investment needed across all nature-based solutions is in the order of billions. A blend of public and private money is needed from government and public agencies on one side and the commercial sector on the other. Working in partnership, both will seek a return on investment in nature-based solutions. However, a mature, market framework for green finance that delivers on carbon and biodiversity in the UK is not quite there yet. The AGER report highlights that. An alliance is forming, including SNH, to find a good and just way forward.

And that’s the strength of the report. Short and long term horizons. Let’s get the spades in the ground as soon as we can safely, to secure jobs and help the environment. And let’s think about the big things that can help us build back better for future generations.

Posted in biodiversity, climate change, Natural Capital, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

An dreathan-donn – eun beag leòmach / the wren – small and ‘conceited’

Ged a tha an dreathan-donn beag, gu dearbh chan eil e bog / The wren might be diminutive, but in Gaelic tradition, it has a high opinion of itself…

An dreathan-donn – eun beag leòmach

Ann am beul-aithris nan Gàidheal, ged a tha an dreathan-donn beag, tha e car leòmach. Bhiodh na seann daoine a’ cur nam briathran seo na bheul: Is bigid e sin, is bigid e sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn, nuair a thug e làn a ghuib às a’ mhuir. Bha an aon seòrsa beachd aca air an dearbh eun, nuair a bha e a’ cur ris a’ chuan mhòr: Is mòid i sin, is mòid i sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn nuair a rinn e dileag sa mhuir mhòir. Chan eil an dreathan làn irioslachd, co-dhiù!


’S dòcha gu bheil an dreathan-donn a’ sealltainn dhuinn fuasgladh, nuair a tha gnothaichean trom is dùbhlanach dhuinn. Ann an stòiridh traidiseanta, tha an dreathan (neo ‘dreòlan’ mar a ghabhas cuid air) a’ dèanamh a’ ghnothaich air ‘rìgh an eunlaith’, an iolair-bhuidhe. Tha an iolair a’ cumail a-mach – a’ bòstadh, gu dearbh – gun itealaich i nas àirde na eun sam bith eile, agus chan eil eun ann a tha deònach a dhol an aghaidh a beachd. Ach a-mhàin an dreathan-donn! ‘Thèid mise nas àirde na thu,’ tha e ag innse don iolair le misneachd.

‘Nach dearbh thu sin,’ tha an iolair ag ràdh mar dhùbhlan, agus i àrdanach, uaibhreach mar as dual dhi. Tha an iolair a’ falbh gu na speuran, a’ coimhead sìos air a h-uile creutair eile, agus truas aice orra. Chan eil sgeul air an dreathan, agus tha an iolair dhen bharail gu bheil am bigean air a dhol am falach am measg nan craobh ’s nan lus shìos fòidhpe. ‘Coimheadaibh orm, nas àirde na gach creutair eile,’ tha an iolair ag èigheachd. Tha an naidheachd a’ tighinn gu ceann le rann beag. Tha an iolair a’ bruidhinn an toiseach, agus tha an dreathan ga freagairt: Càite a bheil thu, ’dhreathain-duinn? Tha mi ’n seo, os do chinn! ‘Tha an dreathan – beag is aotrom – air a bhith am falach air druim na h-iolaire agus, gu dearbh, tha e nas àirde!

’S dòcha gu bheil an iolair agus an dreathan-donn a cheart cho àrdanach ri chèile, ge-tà. Seo mar a sheinneas an dreathan:

Thig thig, thig a dhiol-dèirce,

Thig thig, thig a ghille-frìde;

Is gillean-frìde na h-eòin uile

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Gillean-frìde, gillean-frìde.

Chan e gu bheil na Gàidheil uile-gu-lèir a’ dèanamh dì-meas air buadhan an dreathain-duinn. A dh’aindeoin ’s gu bheil e beag, tha iseanan gu leòr aige (suas ri ochd anns an nead gach turas), agus tha seanfhacal againn a nì aithris air sin: Ged as beag an dreathan, is mòr a theaghlach. Agus seo agaibh seanfhacal eile a nì tuairisgeul de dhà eun – agus ’s dòcha mac an duine cuideachd! Aon isean aig a’ chorr, is e gu doitheamh, doirbh; dà isean deug aig an dreathan, is iad gu soitheamh, soirbh. Faodaidh sibh fhèin co-dhùnadh co-dhiù tha sin ceart no ceàrr!

The wren – a small bird with a big ego!

In Gaelic tradition, the wren – or dreathan-donn – is considered to be lacking in humility for one that is so diminutive. A traditional saying has the following commentary: Is bigid e sin, is bigid e sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn, nuair a thug e làn a ghuib às a’ mhuir  ‘tis the less for that, tis the less for that, as the wren said, when it sipped a bill-full from the sea.’ As if the sea would notice!

The corollary – addition rather than subtraction – is perhaps a little less mannerly, but its message of a wee brown bird with a big ego is just as strong: Is mòid i sin, is mòid i sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn nuair a rinn e dileag sa mhuir mhòir  ‘it’s the bigger of that, it’s the bigger of that, as the wren said when it added its pee to the great sea’. No false modesty there!

St Kilda Wren. Artist - JFL/SNH.

Perhaps the wren is a role model for all small people and those who might find themselves intimidated by seemingly overwhelming circumstance. A traditional Gaelic tale tells of how the wren outwits that great ‘king’ of the avian world, the massive and powerful golden eagle. The eagle – an iolaire – boasts that it can fly higher than any other bird, and no other feathered creature dares argue the point – except the wren, of course. ‘I can fly even higher than you, eagle,’ it says with bold confidence.

‘Prove it then,’ says the eagle, with the arrogance of those born to rule, and the great bird takes to the sky and soars above the whole world, observing the lesser creatures with pity. There is no sign of the pathetic little wren, which the eagle assumes is hiding its precious little head – along with its ridiculous shame (if it has any) – among the trees and heather on the ground far below. ‘Look at me, higher than all other living creatures,’ calls the eagle. A rhyming couplet finishes the story, with the eagle calling first, followed by its nemesis: Càite a bheil thu, ’dhreathain-duinn? Tha mi ’n seo, os do chinn! ‘where are you, wren? I’m here, above you!’ The wren – small, light and mobile – has perched itself, surreptitiously and undetected, on the eagle’s back and, indeed, is higher than the great raptor!

Perhaps, however, the eagle and the wren are equally conceited. The song of the wren is said to be:

Thig thig, thig a dhiol-dèirce,

Thig thig, thig a ghille-frìde;

Is gillean-frìde na h-eòin uile

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Gillean-frìde, gillean-frìde.

Come, come come, oh beggar, Come, come come, oh mite; All the birds are mites (ie tiny, insignificant), Except me alone, Except me alone, Mites, mites.

Next time you listen to a wren chattering, see if you think there is a note of conceit in its voice! Not that the Gaels are entirely negative about this little lively bird, as is seen in traditional sayings about its offspring. Despite being small, the wren is considered to have a large number of offspring (and, indeed, the clutch size is usually healthy, comprising up to eight eggs). This is summarised in the saying, Ged as beag an dreathan, is mòr a theaghlach ‘though the wren is small, its family is large. And, in a positive way, it is used to express a rhyming observation about (human) family size and children’s behaviour: Aon isean aig a’ chorr, is e gu doitheamh, doirbh; dà isean deug aig an dreathan, is iad gu soitheamh, soirbh  ‘the heron has one chick and it is cross and churlish; the wren has twelve and they are docile and good-tempered’  Readers can decide for themselves if the saying is an aphorism!

Posted in Beinn Eighe NNR, Birds, Folklore, Gaelic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Nature is for all

The Black Lives Matter demonstrations have challenged us all to think more deeply about racism. Francesca Osowska, CEO of Scottish Natural Heritage, says that as we are called on to reimagine a better future after the pandemic, it is vital that we build back better for everyone.

Francesca Osowska Chief Executive Scottish Natural Heritage ©Lorne Gill SNH 2

The demonstrations demand that organisations reflect and consider what they can do to help address the issue. This has also prompted more active discussion within Scottish Natural Heritage.

Nature is vital to all of us, so it is vital that we are an organisation for all of Scotland. The more diverse SNH is, the better we will be in connecting everyone with nature.

But we are not a diverse organisation. And our recent equalities report highlighted an unconscious bias in some of the ways we operate. This is something we have begun to address but we need to do more and listen to what communities need.

Are we confident we are taking into account all communities in our work? What more can we do to ensure black and minority ethnic (BAME) people benefit from what nature brings?

We are developing training in a bid to integrating equality into our day to day work and projects.  And we are reviewing our hiring strategies to make them as inclusive as possible. We are looking at the pathways into our organisation. Some of our volunteers go on to become part of our staff but we need to recognise that only a very small proportion of people can afford to work free of pay for months. So we want to introduce work placements.

We work in partnership with organisations aimed at engaging with more people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. I know we can do more. I want to help those groups get their voices heard to help influence the agenda.

I’m keen to keep up the momentum and discussion we have seen to help us become a more diverse and inclusive organisation to ensure that nature is for everyone in Scotland.

Posted in Diversity | Tagged , , , ,

Lockdown Nostalgia

Nature has helped many of us through the various challenges of the past few months. We’ve watched nature thrive through our screens and spent time observing life with fresh eyes and ears in our gardens and from windows. We’ve really come to appreciate and value the benefits of getting outside in nature every day, even if just for a short while. For Biodiversity and Communities Adviser, Alan Cameron, Lockdown has turned out to be a mixed blessing…

I never much fancied working at home. Even on Fridays, I would prefer to drive to Inverness from home in Nairn, to do my work, see who was about for a chat and maybe go shopping on the way home. I kept travelling to work each morning, even as our collective anxiety rose. Then lockdown came and changed everything. Suddenly we were all working from home. There was no one to meet in the office anymore. Great Glen House had turned hostile, become a place of danger.

But lockdown turned out to be a mixed blessing for me. Being advised by the Scottish Government to go for a walk every day was an unexpected gift. For the coming weeks, my only direct experience of the outside world became a short walk by the river Nairn to the south of town. Each day for about an hour I traced the same route up the river for about 1km, over a small footbridge and back home.

There was something extraordinary about the liberation of escaping from my crowded makeshift office and computer screen into a world turned silent without cars or planes; into the gentle unfolding of life during March, transforming into the explosion of birdsong and light and growth during April and May. We all became accustomed to the uneasy mix of fear and solidarity that we felt as we passed and acknowledged strangers on narrow paths.

After 15 years of living in Nairn, the new bonds I forged with that section of land feel
permanent. But what are the feelings I have for this tree-lined corridor intersected by the
river? Is this some mystical attachment to a place, or a more universal connection made
with the natural world in a specific place and gratitude for the healing power of nature?

It was a world seen through the lens of the camera I took with me each day during what turned out to be a wonderfully sunny spring. The flowering wild plants; the closing canopies of translucent leaves overhead; the deepening reflections of woodland on the river; the changing moods of the water; and the light spring rains. All these helped me to put the world back into perspective, to inoculate me against the anxieties of the endless news cycle of doom.

I wanted to capture and share the essence of something deep and eternal, wonderful and mysteriously beautiful: to collect vignettes to reveal deeper truths, about the evolution of life throughout the ages; the flows of energy and matter through the natural world; the play of air, water and light, and life returning; the patterns of shoots, leaves and flowers, the growth of lichens on trees, the eddies and ripples of flowing water.

As we take our tentative first steps into a new world, as cars reclaim our spaces, as our lives return to the rule of timetables, I will remain grateful and nostalgic for the place where nature maintained its ancient rhythms and led me to peace and taught me lessons I will carry forever.

All photos Copyright Alan Cameron.

Posted in green health, Natural Health Service, Nature in art, paths, photography, plants, Uncategorized, urban nature, wild flowers, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lockdown on Foula

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) provides funding to seven community ranger services in Scotland.  In today’s guest blog we join Foula Ranger Service to find out what life has been like during lockdown on one of the most remote inhabited islands in Europe.

Here on Foula, we are used to isolation. Many a day, in the winter, neither plane nor ferry can cross the miles between here and the rest of Shetland. Weeks can pass without seeing anyone else except fellow islanders. But, somehow, lockdown feels different, like we are stuck in some strange dream.

For Foula Ranger Service, this would usually be our busiest time of year. There are three part-time rangers, all local crofters, myself (Sheila), Magnie and Fran, plus support from volunteers. We work to conserve, monitor and interpret Foula’s unique natural and cultural heritage for our community and visitors from around the world.

Usually summer would be cruise ship season for the island. The ships carry up to 150 passengers, an invasion for our small population, so we plan carefully.  We use our Community Hall to help contain them, decorating it with interpretive displays, and from home bakes to music, pet lambs and a peat-cutting demonstration, our fantastic volunteers and local community all lend a hand.

Sun and blue seas or a day of rain and mist, there are some wonderful walks on the island we would usually guide visitors along. The long North Walk is my favourite. On a fine day I head up to Est Hoevdi to see the high cliffs of the Nort Bank, soaring above us, a sheer wall 700ft high. If it is rain and mist, Gaada Stack looms out of the whiteness just offshore, backed up by the great rock teeth of Sheepie and the Stacks o da Logit.

Along the coast to the War Memorial, you can wander among the wildflowers, spotting birds and seals while for slower walkers there is  the road with orchids, marsh marigolds and skylarks singing.

For us, welcoming cruise ship guests is like a big party, a chance to meet an array of interesting people from all over the world, see new faces, hear new voices. We go home buoyed up with the knowledge that they loved our island.

But this year is, of course, very different. There have been no cruise ships, no planes, no visitors and no school. Summer may have been cancelled but we are using this time productively to review our plans, refresh interpretative materials, explore online options and, after 20 years as rangers, writing our first ever blog!

Meanwhile nature continues its usual cycle.  The seabirds are back. Shags have already laid, gannets sit snug on nests, guillemots crowd the ledges. Inland, bonxies claim every square foot of hill and moorland and the evening sky hums with snipe drumming. Lambing is safely over and islanders are busy cutting peats. Slowly our world turns green.

We look forward to welcoming visitors back to this special place again once life gets back to normal.  In the meantime, you can get more of a glimpse of our island life and its special wildlife, history and culture by visiting Foula Heritage’s Facebook page.

All images ©Foula Ranger Service

Posted in Ranger Services | Tagged , , , , , ,

Tadpole Tails and Water Dragons

An overheard conversation between mother and child during a local stroll made Biodiversity Opportunities Adviser, Zeshan Akhter, wonder if lockdown is providing many people the time to look deeper into the nature that surrounds them…

To convince myself the wider world still exists, I have been exploring my local area and soon enough I found myself on the path to the local community woodland on the hilly outskirts of Glasgow. It’s a little oasis of impossibly tangled green; rustling leaves; calling birds with views clear over to Dumbarton Rock and the Kilpatrick Hills. I spotted the low slow dignified flight of a heron on one of my first expeditions.  A little way around the path, I encountered two large ponds. In snippets of socially distanced conversation with passing fellow lockdown escapees, I learned that the ponds were thriving with tadpoles, and there were rumours of newts. So the ponds, thick with the darting black spots of tadpoles, have become part of my regular route.

Frog Life Cycle Realistic Image

Poster with adult amphibian eggs mass & tadpole with legs.               https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/flower”, Flower vector created by macrovector – http://www.freepik.com

On my most recent visit, I came across a family with a child of about six or seven years old. The child was at the centre of a physical huddle and a negotiation was in progress. The child’s mother was trying to prise her daughter away from the pond but the child was disinclined to comply. Finally, the mother had a brainwave. She described the slow changes that they would see in the tadpoles’ appearance over the following weeks if they kept visiting each week. In an impromptu lesson, she described the sequential changes that would take place and ended with “…and one week, we’ll visit and the pond will be empty because the frogs will all have hopped away.” This was accompanied by appropriate hand gestures representing hopping frogs disappearing into the surrounding greenery. The only slight wobble in the mother’s description was that she told her daughter that the tadpoles’ tails would turn into legs. The child however, was mesmerised by her mother’s story and agreed, reluctantly, to come back another day. Perhaps her mother’s tactic was successful because it seemed to her daughter as if the intervening time between visits was somehow essential to the tadpole magic that would take place.

If the family does keep going back and observing the tadpoles’ changes, then I’m sure that the child will make her very own intriguing discovery that the tadpoles keep their tails for a time whilst at the same time growing legs. Lockdown may provide that child, and others, the time to notice nature in a way that they may not have had before.

Perhaps the tadpoles’ journey of metamorphosis will be a lockdown memory that stays with the little girl and help fuel her imagination in some way.

Now, to try and spy the water dragons…or newts by another name!

Posted in amphibians, Uncategorized, urban nature, woodlands, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

World Environment Day: Your lockdown nature stories

In these unprecedented and difficult times, many of us have found solace in the natural world and a renewed interested in, and appreciation of, nature. We recently asked people to share with us some of their memorable stories and images of nature during the lockdown. For World Environment Day our Biodiversity Adviser Iain Macdonald has picked some of his favourite submissions to brighten your day. A big thank you to all who took the time to participate!


Red Squirrel ©Karen Miller Wildlife Photography

During the lockdown, there has been a real feeling that, for some of us at least, animals and birds have been testing the social distancing rules and approaching that little bit closer.  Some also appear to be out and about that little bit earlier in the day.  All this allows for some great memories and images.

Photographer Karen Miller shared with us some lovely blogs about life under lockdown in the Scottish Highlands with all of her fantastic images taken within 10 minutes of her back door. We loved her tales of getting to know her furry (and feathery) neighbours that little bit better including her local squirrel family – watch this great video footage as they grapple with a new squirrel feeder!

Brian Sloan, from near Buchlyvie in Central Scotland, managed to gain the trust of something really special and shy – a family of brown hares.  Brian’s new friends are definitely stretching those social distancing rules, and the result is some amazing images. He said: “Over the last few weeks I have been building up a lot of trust with our resident hares. One in particular with a torn ear is now completely happy in my presence but I’m still shooting with a 400mm lens to give him/her plenty space. The hare has now bringing leverets closer as well, as if I have to look after them for the day.”

hare 1

Hare ©Brian Slone

hare 2

Leveret ©Brian Slone

On the subject of shy have you noticed how many roe deer are about?  Alexander Scott, a freelance photographer from Lennoxtown north of Glasgow, captured these great pictures of roe deer in fields and woodland around his local area. 

Further north Nick McCaffrey, of Aith in Shetland, has even filmed his wildlife lockdown blog. Nick flies drones for a living so it is perhaps not surprising that his aerial footage is amazing. It is well worth watching and listening to Nick’s videos for some inspiration set in a wonderful landscape. We completely agree with his view that “getting out and enjoying the sights and sounds” is what it’s really all about.  Scotland’s natural health service is right on the doorstep! 

Of course it’s not only animals that people have been noticing during lockdown.  Dr Val Bissland from Bearsden found an amazing display of bluebells on the Mains Estate, East Dunbartonshire.  Val said: “I have lived within walking distance for 32 years and probably would not have discovered this beautiful hidden gem without the lockdown.” 

Finally we were moved by Jacqueline Bain’s very personal story of how the unusual arrival of geese in her local park has brought a new lease of life to the local community, and to her personally, following an operation that restricted her mobility.

Jacqueline said: “I still sit in the garden, reflecting on how the geese have changed things. They’ve caused quite a stir and not a day goes by but I’m involved in a group chat; people, having to distance from each other, but brought closer, all fascinated by the geese. I now talk regularly to neighbours I’d never spoken to before. People of all ages join together in the blessings that nature has bestowed on us during an extremely difficult time. I’ve benefited in so many ways. I can geese-watch any time I like but I’ve also come out of isolation, and am part of my local community in a way I’ve never been before.”

A wonderful reflection on the true power of connecting with nature!

Posted in biodiversity | Tagged , , , , , ,

Celebrating Volunteers’ Week with the Loch Leven Volunteers

In our second blog paying homage to all volunteers during Volunteers’ Week, Chris Boyce, our student Placement at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve (NNR), explains some of the benefits of volunteering.

There are two main roles for people volunteering for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) at Loch Leven. We have a regular volunteering group every Wednesday, helping with essential work such as wildlife surveys and tasks such as path maintenance, tree planting, wildflower meadow management, and control of non-native invasive plants. And we have a separate team of dedicated insect surveyors who’ve been recording the populations of butterflies, bumblebees, dragonflies and damselflies on the nature reserve for an impressive 13 years. Much of this work is essential to the running of the reserve and could not be done without them, and the long-term monitoring is invaluable in understanding insect populations at Loch Leven.

Volunteers previously harvesting yellow rattle seed at Burleigh meadow

Volunteers previously harvesting yellow rattle seed at Burleigh meadow

Volunteering benefits the cause but also the volunteers themselves. It’s a real high point in my working week and it’s clear the volunteers also value this social aspect. Richard said “joining the Wednesday Volunteers became one of the highlights of the week [and has led to] new friends and banter,” while Dave has “found a close circle of new friends with whom I now share many adventures, social events and fun.”

Volunteering also promotes engagement with the wider community and John told me he’s most proud of “contact and discussion with the public … to help improve ownership and awareness of the reserve to more people.”

Volunteering can also lead to new skills and experiences. Frances particularly enjoys “the freedom of being outdoors in a beautiful environment, seeing wildlife at close quarters, and often getting pretty mucky!”. Everyone’s species identification skills have improved and Dave said “the most rewarding aspect is being able to share my new found knowledge of the local wildlife and countryside with my wife and two enthusiastic grandsons”.

I think a really positive feature of volunteering at SNH is the provision of formal training with external providers, such as Outdoor Emergency First Aid, driving our Polaris All-Terrain Vehicle, and using machinery like brushcutters. This helps boost confidence and allows people to really get stuck in with nature reserve work.

Volunteers building the new ramp at Burleigh hide low res

Volunteers building the new ramp at Burleigh hide

Many of our volunteers are inspired by the natural world, though most did not have any formal background in nature or conservation. When asked what work at Loch Leven they were most proud of, Jackie said “planting the reed beds at Carsehall bog – they’re there for the future,” while Richard added, “top of the list must include hedge laying,” a traditional technique to produce thick, dense hedges – perfect for wildlife. Richard nicely sums up a shared feeling amongst our volunteers: “the satisfaction afterwards of being able to say, ‘I helped do that,’ continues to be my motivation and indeed what I enjoy most about it all.” Hear more from some our volunteers in this film from a few years ago.

Volunteering is key to the success of the conservation and environmental sectors, whether it’s practical work, contributing to wildlife recording, or raising awareness of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Personally, I’ve volunteered with both national conservation charities and small local groups, while continuing to take part in bird surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology and submitting sightings of plants and invertebrates to national recording schemes. I can also attest to the satisfaction with being involved in something that will be there for future generations. I remember the sense of achievement when I was first involved in a tree planting project, marking the location on a map so that one day I’ll be able to visit the woodland I helped establish. Louise, our seasonal Reserve Officer, volunteered at Loch Leven before getting her job and told me, “I loved coming on a Wednesday and it was always a dream to actually work here. I enjoyed working alongside the other volunteers and it’s really nice that most of them are still volunteering with us”. The experience of having been a volunteer definitely helps when you find yourself leading a volunteering group and it makes you all the more appreciative of the hard work they do.

View over Loch Leven NNR from the hide at Burleigh ©Lorne Gill/SNH

View over Loch Leven NNR from the hide at Burleigh ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Our volunteering at Loch Leven, like many activities, are on hold due to the Covid-19 restrictions, but you can find out more about volunteering with Scottish Natural Heritage, explore volunteering opportunities at Volunteer Scotland, and during current restrictions you can still contribute to citizen science projects.

Finally, I would like to say thank you to our volunteers at Loch Leven and all of you around the country who help make our world a kinder and more beautiful place.

Posted in National Nature Reserves, Volunteering

Eilrigean – far an do shealgadh fèidh / Elricks – where deer were hunted

Tha na h-uibhir de dh’ainmean-àite le ‘Eilrig’ a’ dearbhadh far an robhar a’ sealg nam fiadh / The Scottish landscape abounds in ‘Eilrig/Elrick’ place-names, commemorating great hunts of the past.

Eilrigean – Comharraidhean de Shealg nam Fiadh

Ann am pàipear a chaidh a lìbhrigeadh do Chomunn Gàidhlig Inbhir Nis ann an 1895, sgrìobh Teàrlach MacFhearghais mu shealg mhòr fhiadh a chumadh airson Rìgh Seumas VI anns an Lùnastal 1582 ann am monadh Shrath Àrdail agus Athall: ‘Bha cruinneachadh mòr de luchd nam fineachan ann ro làimh, mar a b’ àbhaist, airson fèidh iomain a-steach bho na ceàrnaidhean timcheall. B’ e an t-àite-cruinneachadh, dhan robh na fèidh air an iomain, an Eilrig ann am monadh Doire nan Eun … a bh’ air a bhith airson ùine mhòr mar fhear de na prìomh àiteachan-seilg ann an Athall.’


Càrn Eilrig ann an Rat Mhurchais, Am Monadh Ruadh / Càrn Eilrig in Rothiemurchus, the Cairngorms.

Bha fios aig MacFhearghais gun tuigeadh an luchd-èisteachd aige am facal eilrig. Ge-tà, a dh’aindeoin ’s gu bheil e an ìre mhath cumanta air mapaichean na h-Alba, ’s iomadh duine an-diugh, a thogas a shùilean chun nam beann, nach bi eòlach air. O thùs, bha an dreach erelc air an fhacal, agus bha a’ chiall ‘feall-fhalach’ air. Tro fhuaim-iomlaid, chaidh atharrachadh gu elerc, agus ’s ann mar sin a nochdas e ann an Leabhar Dheir anns an dàrna linn deug. Mu dheireadh, ghabh e an dreach eileirg, eleirig agus eilrig ann an Gàidhlig, an dèidh nam meadhan-aoisean.

Tha eilrig a’ ciallachadh àite dham biodh fèidh air an iomain, le fir agus coin, airson am marbhadh le boghaichean is saighdean. ’S e gnothach fuilteach a bh’ ann, nach robh mar spòrs an latha an-diugh, ach bha am fiadh na ghoireas air leth cudromach do na seann Ghàidheil – airson biadh, aodach is iomadh rud eile, agus ’s iongantach mura robh an gnothach gu math mòr ann an clàr-bliadhna an t-sluaigh. Ann an cuid de dh’àiteachan, leithid Gleann Moireasdan, far a bheil druim air a bheil An Elric air mapaichean, agus Gleann Tromaidh anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh, thathar a’ dèanamh ceangal eadar an t-àite agus na Fianna.

Allt Dourie - compartment 4 of Glen Slugain RDC_ October 2012_JPEG Image Height 720px_m121313

Little Elrick (An Eilrig Bheag), Bràigh Mhàrr. Faisg air làimh, tha Meikle Elrick (Eilrig Mhòr) agus Tom na h-Eilrig – àite ainmeil airson sealg! / Little Elrick, north of Braemar. Close by is Meikle Elrick (both are reinterpretations of older Gaelic names). In the same vicinity is Tom na h-Eilrig ‘the hillock of the deer trap’, which retained its Gaelic name.

Am measg iomadh eisimpleir de dh’ainmean-àite le eilrig, tha Meall na h-Eilrig (ann an co-dhiù dà àite), Càrn Eilrig agus Lòn na h-Eilrig. Ann an sgìre Mhàrr, tha Tom na h-Eilrig agus, anns an aon nàbachd, tha dà bheinn eile làimh ri chèile, air a bheil Meikle Elrick agus Little Elrick, a’ sealltainn dreach an fhacail ann an Albais. ’S iongantach mura robh Eilrig Mhòr agus Eilrig Bheag air an dà bheinn sin uaireigin, ach chan eil sin clàraichte. Chan eil e coltach gun deach am facal Gàidhlig a-steach a dh’Albais mar fhacal-iasaid, agus gun tàinig na h-ainmean-àite le Elrick agus Eldrick ann an àiteachan mar Ghall-Ghàidhealaibh agus Siorrachd Obar Dheathain (anns an deach Leabhar Dheir a sgrìobhadh) gu dìreach bho thùs-ainm Gàidhlig. Cia mheud duine a thadhlas air Pàirc Dhùthchail Elrick Hill ann an Obar Dheathain a thuigeas gu bheil iad ann an seann dùthaich nan Gàidheal, far an robhar a’ sealg nam fiadh?!

A dh’aindeoin na th’ ann de eilrigean agus elricks air mapaichean na h-Alba, is cinnteach gun robh na h-uibhir eile ann nach robh air an clàradh. Tha Teàrlach MacFhearghais ag ràdh, ‘mar dhearbhadh air an uiread de shealg a bh’ ann an Srath Àrdail anns an t-seann aimsir, faodaidh mi innse dhuibh gun do dh’inns bràthair mo mhàthair, Raibeart Foirbeis (aig an robh eòlas thar chàich air a’ mhonadh an sin) dhomh gun robh e eòlach air dusan eilrig anns a’ mhonadh os cionn Cill Mhìcheil.’ Cumaibh ur sùilean fosgailte airson eisimpleirean de dh’eilrigean an ath thuras a tha sibh a-muigh anns a’ mhonadh air a’ Ghàidhealtachd no air a’ Ghalltachd.


Elrig above Strathardle, Perthshire – one of twelve ‘elricks’ recognised in the area at one time.
An Eilrig, Srath Àrdail, Siorrachd Pheairt. Bhathar a’ dèanamh gun robh dusan ‘eilrig’ ann an sgìre Chìll Mhìcheil aig aon àm.    Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Eilrigean – Landscape Reminders of Great Deer Hunts

In an 1895 paper about Strathardle in Perthshire, Charles Fergusson tells us of a royal hunt held for King James VI in August 1582 in the hills of Strathardle and neighbouring Atholl: ‘There was a great gathering of clansmen beforehand, as usual, to gather in the deer etc from the surrounding districts. The great meeting-place, to which all the deer were driven to, was at the hill of Elrick, on Dirnanean Moor, which hill, as its name indicates, had been for ages before one of the noted hunting-places of Athole [sic].’

Fergusson knew that his audience, the Gaelic Society of Inverness, would understand the relevance of the word Elrick to the hunting of deer, but, despite the word’s relative abundance on the Scottish landscape, it is likely that many modern users of our mountain country do not fully appreciate the term or what it represents. The Gaelic form is usually eilrig, and the Strathardle example is given as Elrig on OS maps. However, the ancient form of the word was erelc, meaning an ‘ambush’. It underwent a process called metathesis (a swapping of consonants) to become elerc in the 12th century Book of Deer, and finally eileirg, eileirig and eilrig in modern Gaelic.


Looking across Lòn na h-Eilrig ‘the damp meadow of the Eilrig’ from the slopes of An Eilrig, Aberchalder Forest / Sealladh thar Lòn na h-Eilrig bho chliathaich beinne ris an canar An Eirlig, Frìth Obar Challadair.

The reference to an ambush is important, because the word, as a landscape term, came to mean a space into which herds of deer would be driven by men and dogs, and then killed, usually with bows and arrows. It was a bloody affair and not a sport as we might recognise it today, but it was a means of sourcing animal protein and supplying other parts of a deer’s carcase that were useful to humans – and perhaps even a throwback to the distant practices of a hunter-gatherer past. Being a communal activity, where success depended on all parties playing their role, it probably also made a contribution to social cohesion. In some places, such as in Glenmoriston, where there is a ridge called An Elric on the OS maps, the place is connected to the great hunts of the mythological Fianna.

Examples of place-names which contain eilrig are Meall na h-Eilrig ‘the hill of the deer trap’, Càrn Eilrig ‘deer trap hill’ and Lòn na h-Eilrig ‘the damp meadow of the deer trap’. Near Braemar there is Tom na h-Eilrig ‘the hillock of the deer trap’ and two other hills, adjacent to each other, called Meikle Elrick and Little Elrick, which show a Scots form of what was probably an original Eilrig Mhòr and Eilrig Bheag. The Gaelic word does not appear to have gone into Scots as a loan, so it is likely that the many Elrick and Eldrick names in places like Galloway and Aberdeenshire (the latter being where the Book of Deer was written) have a direct link back to a Gaelic original. How many people who visit the Elrick Hill Country Park in Aberdeen are aware that they are on ancient Gaelic deer-hunting territory?!

Despite the considerable number of eilrigean or elricks in our landscape, there are likely to have been many more that have gone unrecorded. Charles Fergusson says that as ‘proof of what a hunting country Strathardle must have been in olden times, I may mention that my late uncle, Robert Forbes (than whom none better knew these hills), told me that he knew twelve elrigs in the district above Kirkmichael.’ Keep your eyes open for these fascinating landscape names next time you are out in the hills and glens of both Highland and Lowland Scotland.


Posted in Cairngorms National Park, deer, Folklore, Gaelic, History, mapping, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,