#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Peatland ACTION Project Officer Matthew Cook

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been featuring NatureScot staff and partners working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the varied work they do. This month we hear from Matthew Cook, from the Crichton Carbon Centre, on his day in the life of a Peatland ACTION Project Officer.

The sun shines down on a beautiful autumn day in the South of Scotland.  Parking the car at a remote farmhouse in Robert Burns’ Sweet Afton Glen, I hike for an hour uphill, through forest plantations and fields of grazing sheep, and arrive at Star Bog around 1,700 feet above sea level.  Under clear blue skies, far reaching views stretch out to the Lowther Hills in the East and the faint outline of The Isle of Arran in the West.  

Blue Skies ©Matthew Cook

With my peat probes, GPS, mapping tools and camera I begin to survey an area of eroding blanket bog, identified for possible restoration.   High up here, with the peat beneath my feet and no one else around, it is easy to remember why I signed up to be a Peatland ACTION Project Officer.

Tools of the Trade ©Matthew Cook

That was yesterday.  Today, as I sit in my makeshift home office, I weave together the different strands of work that go on behind the scenes to make a successful peatland restoration plan. As well as surveying out on site, a project requires detailed Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, consideration of appropriate restoration techniques, landowner liaison, contractor tendering processes, health and safety paperwork, funding applications and data management.  All being well, good planning and preparation will result in machines on site later in the year.

Series of drainage channels across the bog ©Matthew Cook

Often wild, inhospitable and lonely places, Scottish peatlands are also beautiful and diverse stores of history and culture, home to unique plant and animal life.  Peatlands play a vital part in regulating water flow and quality, contribute to wildfire mitigation and are a natural store of millions of tonnes of organic carbon.  They are also one of the few remaining quiet, remote and mystical landscapes we have.  To restore and preserve this beautiful natural habitat is the least we can do, and there is plenty of work to be done.

Sphagnum Moss – the bog builder ©Matthew Cook

Although the lockdown restrictions earlier this year stopped all work on the ground, the winter programme of works had almost been completed, resulting in another 6,000 hectares of peatlands across Scotland being put on the road to restoration.  

On the ground restoration work usually begins in September, after the breeding bird season.  This winter, here in the South of Scotland, 150 hectares of eroding and drained blanket bog in the Lowther Hills will start the restoration journey.  The restoration incorporates ditch blocking, hagg re-profiling and bare peat restoration techniques, working to slow the erosion of peat into watercourses and return the hydrology of the peatland to a more natural state.   As well as improving the quality of water in a protected drinking water catchment, the work will improve the condition of a habitat designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, noted for its assemblage of upland plant life. 

Eroding peat haggs ©Matthew Cook

Next time you are walking across hills of blanket bog or skirting an ancient raised bog in the mist and rain, you might like to think of the project officers, landowners and contractors working hard behind the scenes to safeguard this precious landscape.  On the other hand, you might want to just enjoy the moment, safe in the knowledge that we are doing our best for the peatlands of Scotland.

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

‘Sneachd’ air Aghaidh na Tìre / ‘Snow’ in the Gaelic Landscape

Faodaidh ainmean-àite le sneachd innse dhuinn mu àiteachan far an laigh an stuth geal sa gheamhradh, agus àiteachan a thaisbeanadh a dhearbhas dhuinn buaidh blàthachadh na h-aimsire / Gaelic place-names with sneachd can help to inform our understanding of the nature of snow lie and perhaps throw clues our way as to the consequences of climate change

‘Sneachd’ air Aghaidh na Tìre

Tha sinn a-nise fo bhuaidh a’ gheamhraidh, agus ʼs fhiach beachdachadh air far an nochd an stuth geal, co-dhiù a rèir ainmean-àite na Gàidhealtachd. Bidh an eileamaid ‘sneachd’ a’ nochdadh air aghaidh na tìre meadhanach tric. ʼS e an t-àite as aithnichte – ged a tha e gu tric air fhuaimneachadh ceàrr le sreapadairean is muinntir spòrs nam beann – Coire an t-Sneachda ann an ceann a tuath a’ Mhonaidh Ruaidh. Ann an Gàidhlig Shrath Spè, ʼs e Coir’ an t-Sneachdaidh a chanar. Tha aghaidh a’ choire ris a’ cheann a tuath agus bidh e a’ cumail a chuid sneachda airson ùine mhòr.

Coire an t-Sneachda (coireachan a’ chinn a tuath, Am Monadh Ruadh) anns a’ gheamhradh.
Coire an t-Sneachda (northern corries, Cairngorms) in winter.
(C)William M. Connolley (fromWikimedia Commons)

Beagan mhìltean air falbh, gu h-àrd sa Mhonadh Ruadh air Beinn Bhrotainn, tha coire eile leis an aon ainm, ged a tha e air taobh an earra-dheas na beinne. Tha Coire an t-Sneachda eile ri lorg air beinn air a bheil Toll Creagach ann an Gleann Afraig – àite iomallach far am bi sgithearan dhen nòs Lochlannach agus feadhainn a thogas taighean-sneachda a’ dol bho àm gu àm.

Os cionn Loch Iall ann an Loch Abar tha àite ‘sneachdach’ eile – Beinn an t-Sneachda, le Allt Eas an t-Sneachda air a leathad. Agus air ais anns a’ Mhonadh Liath, siar air Bail’ Ùr an t-Slèibh, tha Sneachdach Slinnean, ged a bhiodh dùil air Slinnean Sneachdach mar dhreach an ainm. Chan eil ‘sneachdach’ ro chumanta air aghaidh na tìre – mar as trice ʼs e an dreach ginideach dhen ainmear – ‘an t-sneachda’ – a dh’innseas dhuinn gum bi sneachd a’ laighe ann.

Bidh ainmean ‘sneachda’ rin lorg eadhon faisg air a’ chladach air taobh an iar na Gàidhealtachd. An cois na mara air Eilean Seona Beag ann am Muideart, tha Coir’ an t-Sneachda. Tha e a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àird a tuath agus tha e air a dhìon le beinn bho ghaoth bhlàth an iar-dheas. Tha coire eile anns a’ mhonadh deas air Loch Suaineart air a bheil Coire an t-Sneachda cuideachd.

Feumaidh gun deach Coir’ an t-Sneachda (shuas) ainmeachadh nuair a bha na geamhraidhean na b’ fhuaire na tha iad a-nise. Tha e ri taobh na mara air Eilean Seona Beag aig beul Loch Muideirt.
The maritime Coire an t-Sneachda on the north coast of the island of Shona Beag at the mouth of Loch Moidart. The spelling of Coire as Coir’ reflects the loss of pronunciation of the terminal ‘e’ in front of the vowel in the article ‘an’. This is a common feature of Coire place-names.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Tha Glac an t-Sneachda faisg air Mullach Glac an t-Sneachda anns an Ros Mhuileach agus, air ais air taobh sear na h-Alba, ann an Gleann Ìle, fear de ghlinn Monadh Aonghais, tha Dail na Sneachd. Feumaidh gun robh sneachd boireanta ann an seann Ghàidhlig Sgìr’ Aonghais.

Bidh sneachd gu tric na laighe ann an glacan is claisean far am bi uillt a’ ruith, agus corra uair bidh a leithid de shruth a’ giùlan an ainm Allt an t-Sneachda. Tha fìor dheagh eisimpleir air taobh a tuath an Aonaich Mhòir faisg air a’ Ghearasdan far a bheil goireasan mòra spòrs-sneachda. Faisg air Loch Muic ann an Siorrachd Obar Dheathain tha allt eile dhen aon ainm; gu siar air tha Allt an Uisge – feumaidh nach eil an sneachd a’ fuireach reòite cho fada an sin.

An iar-thuath air Bail’ a Chaisteil Bhràigh Mhàrr air ceann a deas Beinn a’ Bhùird, tha cruinneachadh beag de dh’ainmean ‘sneachdach’ – ann an àite a chumas a chuid sneachda fada. Bidh allt a’ sruthadh às an Iar-choire Sneachdach (Iar-choire an t-Sneachda gu h-ionadail) a’ coinneachadh ri allt eile a shruthas às an Ear-choire Sneachdach (Ear-choire an t-Sneachda gu h-ionadail). An dèidh a’ chomair, ʼs e Allt an t-Sneachda a th’ air an t-sruth. Agus tha caochan (allt beag falaichte) deas air Srath Fharagaig anns a’ Mhonadh Liath air a bheil Caochan an t-Sneachda.

Sealladh thairis air Beinn MacDuibh gu ruige am Bràigh Riabhach anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh.
Aerial view over the summit of Ben Macdui to Braeriach beyond, Cairngorms.. ©P&A Macdonald/NatureScot

A bharrachd air sneachd, bu chòir dhuinn a bhith mothachail gum bi am facal cuithe a’ dèanamh tuairisgeul air a leithid oir tha e a’ seasamh airson àite far an laighe sneachd nas fhaide na gach àite timcheall. Feumar a bhith faiceallach, ge-tà, nach e cuidhe a bha luchd nam mapaichean a’ ciallachadh – tha sin a’ seasamh airson crò no buaile. Tha dà dheagh eisimpleir de dh’ainmean-àite le cuithe anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh – le chèile A’ Chuithe Chrom (oir ʼs e sin an cumadh orra). Tha tè air taobh an earra-dheas Beinn nan Cìochan agus tè eile air leathad a tuath a’ Chùirn Ghuirm (chithear i às an Aghaidh Mhòir air latha math). Gu mì-fhortanach, ʼs ann ainneamh a chithear tè a’ Chùirn Ghuirm air mapaichean. Bhiodh na seann daoine a’ dèanamh fàisneachd air aimsir an t-samhraidh agus toradh an fhoghair a rèir a’ chinn-latha air am briseadh no am falbhadh cuitheachan-sneachda.

Ma tha sibh shuas sa mhonadh sa gheamhradh am-bliadhna, cumaibh ur sùilean a-mach airson ainmean ‘sneachda’ ionadail. Bithear an dòchas, agus blàthachadh na gnàth-shìde oirnn, gum faicear sneachd annta fhathast.

‘Snow’ in the Gaelic Landscape

As we have now reached the time of year when snow is once more close at hand, it is worth considering where the white stuff might be expected to lie – at least according to Gaelic place-names on our landscape. The Gaelic word for snow is sneachd (approximately ‘SHNEH-uchk’), which has cognates in many European languages, including Russian снег (‘sneg’), German ‘schnee’, Swedish ‘snö’, English ‘snow’ and Scots ‘snaw’.

Am Monadh Ruadh / The Cairngorms: Coire an t-Sneachda. Photo: Scott Muir/Steep Scotland

The best-known place-name containing the element sneachd is Coire an t-Sneachda ‘the corrie of the snow’ in the northern corries of the Cairngorms. The pronunciation – approximately ‘kor(-uh) un TRE-uchk-uh’ – seems to often pose a challenge to members of the outdoor fraternity who commonly frequent the location for skills training and pleasure. The corrie is well-named; north-facing and relatively sheltered, it holds its snow for a long time.

Coire an t-Sneachda – fear de choireachan a’ chinn a tuath anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh. A dh’aindeoin a chuid sneachda, chan eil e freagarrach do sgithearan Ailpeach a chionn ʼs nach eil a leathaidean cas gu leòr. Bidh sgitheadh air a chumail anns an ath choire gu tuath – an Coire Cas (air adhbhar follaiseach a rèir ainm!)
Coire an t-Sneachda (Coir’ an t-Sneachdaidh ‘kor un DRECHK-ee’ in local Strathspey Gaelic) is a well-known and much-loved topographical feature at the northern end of the Cairngorms. The t- blocks the sound of the ‘S’ in speech. Its name means ‘the corrie of the snow’.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Just a few miles away on Beinn Bhrotainn, also high in the Cairngorms, is another corrie of the same name, although this one faces south-east. Yet another Coire an t-Sneachda is to be found on Toll Creagach west of the Great Glen in Glen Affric – a remote hill that is occasionally frequented in winter by Nordic skiers, ski mountaineers and igloo-builders. Above Loch Eil in Lochaber is another ‘snowy’ place – Beinn an t-Sneachda ‘the mountain of the snow’, whose western side is drained by Allt Eas an t-Sneachda ‘the burn of the waterfall of the snow’. And back in the Monadh Liath, west of Newtonmore, is the unusually-named Sneachdach Slinnean ‘snowy shoulder’; the opposite word-order ie Slinnean Sneachdach would be expected. The adjective sneachdach is not common in the landscape; more usually the genitive or possessive form of the noun, ie an t-sneachda ‘of the snow’ is used as the descriptor.

‘Snow’ names are even found on the milder west coast (perhaps reflecting a naming process that took place when winters were considerably colder). Close to sea level on the island of Shona Beag in Loch Moidart, there is another Coir’ an t-Sneachda, a small wooded corrie that runs down to a rocky and muddy shore. It is north-facing and under a steep hill which protects it from both direct sunshine and the effects of the mild south-westerly wind. Another Coire an t-Sneachda with a similar aspect, although a little higher in altitude, is in the hills south of Loch Sunart.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, os cionn Coire an t-Sneachda, le leathad a’ Chùirn Ghuirm air a chùlaibh.
Stob Coire an t-Sneachda derives its name from the corrie below. In the background is the southern slope of Cairn Gorm. ©Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Licence

The Ross of Mull boasts another west coast hollow named for retaining its snow. North-west of Beinn Chreagach is Glac an t-Sneachda ‘the depression of the snow’. And, back in the east, Glen Isla – one of the famed Angus Glens – hosts in its upper reaches a ‘snowy field or dell’, Dail na Sneachd, the word sneachd here being feminine (it is masculine in most locations).

Snow will often lie in the dells and depressions created by burns in the hills, and occasionally the relevant burn is named Allt an t-Sneachda ‘the burn of the snow’. A classic example is a burn of that name which drains the northern side of Aonach Mòr near Fort William, one of Scotland’s major snowsport centres. Another example near Loch Muick in Aberdeenshire is instructive; the adjacent burn to its west is Allt an Uisge ‘the burn of the water’, possibly named in comparison to its snowy companion.

Allt Coire an t-Sneachda far an ruige e Allt na h-Imrich faisg air Beinn a’ Mheadhain, Gleann Afraig.
Allt Coire an t-Sneachda where it meets Allt na h-Imrich near Beinn a’ Mheadhain, Glen Affric.

North-west of Braemar at the southern end of Beinn a’ Bhùird is a collection of fascinating ‘snow’ names (in an area renowned for good snow in winter). The Iar-choire Sneachdach ‘western snowy corrie’ (locally called Iar-choire an t-Sneachda) and nearby Ear-choire Sneachdach ‘eastern snowy corrie’ (locally Ear-choire an t-Sneachda) are drained by burns which join to form yet another Allt an t-Sneachda. And another stream named for snow – Caochan an t-Sneachda ‘the hidden streamlet of the snow’ – is to be found in the Monadh Liath south of Stratherrick.

In addition to sneachd, a consideration of ‘snow’ names in our landscape should also take in the occasional appearance of the element cuithe ‘snow wreath’ ie a place where snow continues to lie when it has melted all around. One has to be careful with such names, however, as cuithe can be confused with cuidhe ‘cattle-fold, enclosure’. Two clear examples of cuithe ‘snow’ names – both Cuithe Chrom ‘crooked snow-wreath’ – are on Cairn Gorm and Lochnagar, the former rarely being shown on maps. The date of the breaking or complete melting of a cuithe could be used to predict the weather for the remainder of the summer and the likelihood of a favourable harvest.

If you’re out in the hills this winter, see if you can spot any local ‘snow’ names. Hopefully, in these days of climate change, the description will still apply.

The Author

Bha am blog seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

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Coigach and Assynt’s secret hazel woodlands

We sometimes think of Assynt, in the north west of Scotland, as a spectacular but stark place of rock, heath and bog. But here and there are plenty of trees – marvellous woodlands, those on better soils often dominated by hazel trees of amazing maturity, hosting stunning lichens, mosses, liverworts and fungi which are unique to these type of woods.  On a sunny day, all the greens are there: the bright leaves, the subtle mosses on trunk and rock, and the really wild range of lichens.  There are leafy, crusty and hairy forms on old, thicker stems and magical runic-style writing: dots, dashes and startling colours on the fresh younger growth.

We’ve found out a lot more about those stunning hazel wood over the last four years. Nature Scot has been a key partner and funder of the Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape Partnership (CALLP). The Hazel Wood Audit was one of over 30 projects that the partnership, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is delivering, with funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The audit project was led by the Assynt Field Club.

The final report, written by ecological consultant Roz Summers, has recently been released, and makes fascinating reading. This extract gives you a glimpse of the many intricate ways in which hazel trees are woven into the natural and cultural landscape of this wild corner of Scotland.

The trees themselves are in a myriad of forms: multi-stemmed and groaning outwards, mega-stemmed with an astonishing range of ages in one tree, broad single-stemmed trees with wide boles at the base, decrepit-looking ancients falling down the hill.  These, however, are rarely dead, indeed they seem to morph into new forms, even possibly reverting to upright multi stems.  This is the Celtic Rainforest.

Ancient hazel tree. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

Coastal Temperate Rainforest was identified as a rare and distinct part of a priority “Major Habitat Type” by WWF. It is confined to only seven areas of the world. The West Highlands of Scotland are part of the Northeastern Atlantic sector.  These Atlantic hazelwoods are special because of the high rainfall, lots of wet days, proximity to the coast and relatively even temperatures. They are also invaluable because they are still here – perhaps having survived in some form since the last ice retreated 10, 000 years ago.

Hazel arrived in Assynt around 9,500 years ago, and was an abundant part of the forest cover on mineral soils along with Scots pine and birch.  The mineral soils became progressively washed out over time as the climate cooled and got wetter.  The tree cover began to retreat from 5,000 years ago, and peat began to spread, with no evidence of human influence. 

Hazel leaves and nuts, © Lorne Gill

Birch and birch-hazel woods on mineral soils seem to have been cleared by fire from 3,500 years ago, surviving as fragments on brown forest soils. Human history in this area, close to the lochs, has been dated from around 4500 years ago. so the Neolithic cairns were being built when hazel and other woodland was still fairly plentiful, and it is possible they were gradually cleared for agriculture.

Our ancestors must have valued, indeed revered, hazel.  Hazels provided the 300,000 carbonized nutshells found in a 5m pit in the island of Oronsay, Inner Hebrides, dated to around 7700BC.  Hazel shells were found in Skara Brae, Orkney, eaten 5000 years ago.  It is possible our Mesolithic ancestors helped to spread, and possibly even managed hazel for tools, building and heat.

A hazel coppice. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

The natural growth habit of hazel means it is possible to select the exact size of stick or pole you need for a multitude of uses, particularly building works and stock management. Hazel trees may well be the main reason the ancestors could survive in North West Highlands, and would have been vital up until 100 years ago.

In Celtic memory the hazel tree was the tree of wisdom.  They believed the hazel nuts would fall from the tree into the river and be eaten by salmon, which made them clever enough to travel out to sea and find their way back.  Humans eating the salmon would gain that wisdom.  The spots on the salmon were evidence of their diet, they said.  Hazel is also one of the nine sacred woods used to light the Beltane fire every year.

Lichen training for the Assynt & Coigach Living Landscape project. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

To find out more about the Assynt and Coigach project, and what the audit discovered about these very special trees do read the full report. Hundreds of hours of volunteer work went into carrying out the surveys and processing the data – a huge achievement which will help inform action to help landowners and managers to protect these trees for the future.

Posted in biodiversity, conservation, Ecology, Lichens, NatureScot, trees, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Herald of Winter – and other November fungi

As the trees turn bare and opportunities for momijigari diminish – a Japanese word for admiring the colours of autumn leaves – lower your eyes when out on your woodland walks and you’ll find that there are still a good many fascinating fungi around to seek out and admire. Today we look at six species, some more common than others, that you might discover fruiting in Scotland during November.

Herald of Winter (Hygrophorus hypothejus)

As its English name suggests, this species is said to appear after the first frosts, signaling the beginning of winter, although of course frosts can occur any time in Scotland! This species can regularly be found under conifers later in the season, is very distinct and, once you get your eye in, it is very easy to spot.

Hygrophorus hypothejus, (C)David Kelly

Look out for an olive brownish cap with a darker centre and a glutinous surface texture – the remains of a glutinous universal veil. A universal veil is a temporary membranous tissue that fully envelops the immature fruiting bodies of some gilled mushrooms.

Universal veil

The flesh is a rich yellow / orange below the cap, which can sometimes be seen in damaged areas. The gills are decurrent (running down the stem) and become yellow at maturity. The stem is dry above the pronounced veil zone and slippery below.

Fruiting can occur as early as August but the main season is from September to November, tailing off quickly in December. It likes the acidic soils found under conifers – most usually under pine but occasionally larch and even birch. It is thought to be ectomycorrhizal with pine, a form of symbiotic relationship which provides the tree with most of its nutrients.

Herald of Winter, (C)Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh

Cucumber Cap (Macrocystidia cucumis)

The small brown cucumber cap is also quite distinct. The cap can grow up to 5cm across and usually has a rich, dark red brown rather velvety appearance. The colour will fade as the cap dries out. The cap can be conical or more flattened with either a broad or nipple-like umbo – the small bump on the top of some species. The edge of the cap can be faintly striate (stretch-marked) and is often a paler and contrasting yellow brown colour. The gills are paler, starting out white and becoming a reddish ochre colour; and they are adnexed, reaching the stem but not attached to it. The stipe is stiff, pale at the apex, but dark and velvety below. 

Types of gill attachment to stipe.

It is a saprotrophic or ‘recycler’ fungus, which helps to break down dead plant material. Fungi are the only group of organisms that can break down lignin, found in wood and bark, and without them we would be buried under many metres of woody debris. They also play a vital role in driving the carbon cycle, releasing nutrients that they don’t require back into the environment.

The cucumber cap has a smell that ranges from putty, through cucumber to distinctly fishy – along the lines of cod liver oil. It likes rich humus or nitrogen rich soils and is often found in nettle patches and increasingly on woodchip mulches in gardens and parks. It occurs throughout the year but can also be found in the late autumn and winter months.

Olive Oysterling (Panellus serotinus)

The olive oysterling also occurs throughout the year but is mostly recorded between late November and February. This species has a much reduced stem forming to the side of the cap and a more or less kidney-shaped cap which can reach 10cm across. The upper surface is distinctly olive greenish, sometimes with reddish or lilac tones near the point of attachment to the wood on which it grows. In wet conditions, the cap will be viscid and glutinous but the cap can become dry and matt. The under surface has yellowish /orange gills.

The olive oysterling is another saprotrophic (recycler) fungus, breaking down dead wood on the forest floor. Look for it on dead deciduous wood, usually large fallen trunks or branches, particularly beech and birch but also on alder, ash, oak, willow, elder and elm.

Chicken-of-the-Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

Chicken-of-the-woods is also saprotrophic, causing brown rot often on oak and other hardwood trees, such as beech, chestnut, and cherry.  It can colonize both dead and living trees acting as a weak pathogen on living trees. Wood is primarily composed of cellulose (long chains of sugars) and lignin (one of nature’s most complex substances). Brown rot is characterised by the brown colour of the wood which is a result of the fungus degrading the cellulose and similar wood components but leaving the lignin untouched. It is one of the easier to recognise fungi, its large size and striking yellow / orange colour making it hard to miss, especially as a single tree can often produces several kilos of this fungus.

Chicken-of-the-woods on oak, credit: Jane Corey / Woodland Trust

Some say it possesses a remarkably similar texture and taste to chicken, which is where it gets its common name. If collecting to eat it is advised to just collect young specimens, being bright yellow to orange, as older specimens, being dull yellow to white, become rather woody with age and often develop an acrid flavour. It’s a fast growing fungus which, if just the outer edges (about 5 cm) are collected/cut, recovers quickly and allows for a second harvest later during the season. However, around 20% of people show sensitivity to this mushroom becoming ill quickly after consumption. For this reason it is advised to only consume a small portion the first time it is tried. In addition, fruit bodies growing on yew trees are best avoided as the conifer itself contains toxins which apparently are taken up by the fungus.


The wavy-edged cap of the fruit body ranges 5 to 30 cm across, up to 20 cm deep and up to 3 cm thick, growing in a cluster that can reach up to 75 cm across. The Chicken-of-the-Woods belongs to the family of the Polyporaceae, and as suggested in the name Laetiporus meaning ‘with bright pores’, has small, pale yellow tubes, rather than the more commonly encountered gills, underneath the fruit bodies. The fruit body grows directly out of the tree trunk and therefore does not possess a stem. The flesh of the fruit body is thick, watery and soft when young and turns into a tough and woody like structure that becomes crumbly and cheese-like with age.

Chicken of the woods is most commonly found from August till late autumn but occasionally occurs as early as May.

Piggyback Pinkgill (Volvariella surrecta) & Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis)

Piggyback pinkgill is a species that fruits on the fruiting structures of another late season, litter-rotting species –  the clouded funnel. The exact relationship between the two is not entirely clear. Piggyback pinkgill has free gills, produces pink spores and has a distinct volva – a cup-like structure at the base of a mushroom that is a remnant of its universal veil.

While rarely recorded in Scotland, so far, with such distinct characteristics and its specific preference for the clouded funnel this is a pretty easy one to identify.

The cap of the clouded funnel can be variable in form as the images below demonstrate. The wavy cap edge is not an important distinguishing feature even though it looks distinctive in one of the photos. Not getting distracted with these variable characters is something that you learn with experience and all part of getting to know your fungi.

The host species, Clitocybe nebularis is often found in nitrogen rich soil and litter in gardens and both deciduous and coniferous woodlands. Since the key to finding Volvariella surrecta is to track down the host, these are the habitats to check.

The main fruiting period for these species in Scotland is in September and October but records occur in November, December and January so it is worth keeping an eye out for even late in the season.

Piggyback pinkgill on a clouded tunnel, (C)Natterjacktoad

Scottish Fungi

You can help to improve our knowledge of the distribution of fungi in Scotland by reporting your sightings to Scottish Fungi here. And if you’d like to get more involved you could join one of Scotland’s six fungus groups, each of which promotes the appreciation and survey of fungi in their area. Find your local Fungus Group.

Many thanks to Liz Holden & Dave Genney of Scottish Fungi.

Posted in foraging, Fungi, mushrooms, Uncategorized, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mentoring the next generation of conservationists

In February 2020, Murray Borthwick was staring down a telescope at Morton Lochs, undertaking fieldwork for his honours thesis and simultaneously realising that studying birds was what he wanted to do for a living.

Fast forward to the summer and we find Murray with a first class honours degree in Animal Biology from Edinburgh Napier University, graduating in what might be one of the hardest years to find an entry-level job in the environmental sector. Never an easy task even at the best of times!

For many years, NatureScot staff have taken part in Napier’s long-established mentoring programme to help support youth employment and the green jobs sector. Sue Haysom, one of our ornithologists, has mentored undergraduates and was delighted to take part in the new summer long micro-mentoring initiative for 2020 graduates.

A mute swan, one of the species Murray studied in his honours project, at Morton Lochs. Copyright Murray Borthwick

“Having been a mentor for Edinburgh Napier University before,” Sue said, “I knew how rewarding it would be. I’m so aware of how lucky I am to do a job I love, but also how difficult it is to get that first foothold within the environmental sector. We’ve all received advice and support during our careers and it’s great to be able to pass that on. I used my coaching and mentoring skills to listen carefully to what Murray wanted from the mentoring partnership, and we used that to build an action plan together.”

Murray signed up to the programme to gain a better idea of what a career in ornithology might look like and where and how to start. As Sue and Murray talked, it became clear that two things were important: developing specific technical skills, as well as more widely transferable skills, such as writing reports and presenting work to different audiences.

Murray explained, “Sue has shown me a huge range of places to look for jobs and volunteering positions, as well as giving me advice on CVs and cover letters. She also helped me carry out a skills gap analysis and identify how I can proactively fill any gaps to improve my employability.”

A tufted duck – another species which Murray studied. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Sue said that one of the unexpected downsides of mentoring is that it can make you feel very old! After her first meeting with Murray, she realised it had been several decades since she’d been in his shoes so she reached out to NatureScot’s Young Employees’ Network to ensure she didn’t miss out on any new aspects of job-hunting. They had some great ideas and were delighted to help; some of the network are now looking out for opportunities to become mentors themselves.

One of the most powerful and enjoyable parts of the mentoring partnership was revealing how environmental career paths are usually rather wiggly. Sue set up video conference meetings with other ornithologists in NatureScot, RSPB and private consultancies, which Murray found very useful. “A particularly valuable experience was meeting other ornithologists and hearing about their jobs and the paths they took to get there,” he explained. “This helped me understand for the first time exactly how I could work towards a career doing what I love.”

Morton Lochs at Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. Copyright Murray Borthwick

Sue added, “It’s easy to assume that people in roles you aspire to get there by following a strategically planned progression of jobs – but I’ve yet to meet that person! We’ve all been tenacious, worked hard on our skills and building networks but beyond that there’s not much commonality. It’s a cliché but there really is no wrong path.”

How would Sue and Murray sum up what they’ve gained from their mentoring partnership thus far?

 “Most importantly,” Murray said, “Sue has given me the confidence to approach people and apply for jobs which I would have been unsure about before. I’ve been kept on my toes and encouraged to continue pursuing opportunities. This has been vital when graduating in a time that it would have been easy to take my foot off the gas, but with Sue’s encouragement I have already found my way into several exciting projects.” Murray has become a mentee with the Scottish Raptor Study Group, a WeBS surveyor and a data entry volunteer for the Garden Bird Feeding Survey.

Sue found she gained a lot from mentoring as well. “Working with young people is energising,” she commented. “It helps you to pause and reflect on your own path and think about what your next steps might be. Working with Murray has reminded me how bright a future we have in the green sector.”

Posted in Birds, conservation, NatureScot, SNH, Young people | Tagged , ,

Sharing our views: the Scottish Beaver Forum

Today’s blog is written by the Chair of the Scottish Beaver Forum and NatureScot’s Tayside & Grampian Area Manager, Denise Reed.

Beaver in Tayside. Copyright Neil Mitchell/NatureScot

In Scotland, beavers became a European Protected Species in May 2019. Their numbers have expanded across Tayside and beyond in recent years, centuries after they became extinct. Beavers are amazing ecosystem engineers, playing a vital role in creating habitats such as ponds and wetlands where other species thrive, alleviating flooding and improving water quality. But beavers also detrimentally impact on some areas of prime farmland by causing flooding of fields.

To ensure we have a shared approach to beaver conservation and management in Scotland, NatureScot established the Scottish Beaver Forum in 2017 to take into account the views of the many organisations which are affected or have an interest. The membership of the forum includes conservation bodies, land and fisheries managers and other government agencies. It meets regularly to help guide NatureScot on how to manage beavers.

A dam created by beavers in Tayside. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

We’d like to share what we discuss at these meetings, so here are some highlights from our most recent get-together at the end of September.

2020 Beaver Survey – First up was an update on the 2020 beaver survey, which is now underway and will compare the beaver presence with previous surveys done in 2012 and 2017. Forum members have supported NatureScot in alerting land managers to the survey and asking their memberships for any new beaver sightings. The survey will report in July 2021, but interim findings will be presented to the forum as work progresses. The last survey estimated there were about 433 beavers in Tayside in 114 territories.

Mitigation scheme – NatureScot has dedicated staff working with land managers to trial new and innovative ways to lessen the effects beavers sometimes have on prime agricultural land. Jenny Bryce, our beaver project manager, gave an update to the forum on progress with this three-year mitigation scheme, which has now been running for just over a year. We currently have 53 cases which have received at least one visit and advice. Many cases involve multiple elements (advice, tree protection, planting, flow devices, etc). The types of cases includes flow devices (7 installed), tree protection, beaver exclusion fencing, water gates, translocations and tree planting for bank stabilisation. As well, we now have a number of water level sensors and trail cameras to use to monitor the success of mitigation projects. The forum agreed that when we evaluate the overall scheme, we need to seek the perspectives of land managers and other stakeholders on the success of mitigation and the cost effectiveness of measures.

A flow device pipe on beaver dam in Tayside. ©Nature/Scot

Technical sub-groups – The forum identified some key areas where we still need to develop our advice and management techniques, including the following: the impact of beaver burrowing on bank erosion and flood embankments; impacts on riparian woodland; impacts on migratory fish, and how best to include beaver mitigation and conservation in future environmental support measures. To develop thinking on these areas, specialist technical groups have been set up and the first meetings will be held during October and November.

Trapping and translocation – While lethal control continues to be necessary as a last resort to prevent serious damage to agriculture, forum members are aware that the number of beavers killed last year caused some concern. This year, we are putting even greater effort to trap animals for translocation and move them to conservation projects in England. Since trapping started in August a total of 15 beavers have been successfully trapped and translocated. In 2019, 19 beavers were trapped and translocated to Knapdale and England.

One of the Tayside beavers which was trapped and moved to the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate in Exmoor in January 2020 for a fenced reintroduction project. © National Trust Images, Nick Upton

Beaver Benefits projects – We were all excited to start considering opportunities for “beaver benefits” projects.

Scottish Beavers (the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland) have provided details on how they wish to see further translocations from high conflict to low conflict areas. They gave their support to translocation and releases within and on the edge of the current range in Scotland, while emphasising that they believe strategic releases in further areas should be an option in the near future.

They see translocation as a positive way to support the Beaver Management Framework and mitigate the need for lethal control. While all releases will need to follow the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations they suggested that the level of consultation required should be proportionate. In particular, the process to be followed for translocation should take into account the considerable knowledge and experience base that has been developed in Scotland over the last 12 years, and reflect that beavers are a native mammal with European Protected Species status. 

Manufacture of a mesh cage to prevent beavers from blocking a flow pipe with sticks. © NatureScot

The next step is for NatureScot to call a meeting of those that have approached us with proposals for ‘beaver benefits’ projects to coordinate efforts and resources. The types of projects this could include are:

  1. Conservation translocations within and on the edge of current range – for example, to restore and enhance wetlands, to deliver nature-based solutions such as reducing soil erosion and flood risk, or to enhance wildlife watching and public engagement opportunities.
  2. Opportunities for surveying and monitoring beaver impacts.
  3. Preparing areas for beaver population expansion – for example, enhancing habitats. NatureScot have recently appointed a graduate placement to help develop this area of work and we expect will be reporting on progress in future updates.
Posted in biodiversity, conservation, mammals, Rewilding | Tagged , , ,

Dis-guising water beasts!

Preparing a spooky disguise this Halloween? Did you know that, in our celebrated rivers and lochs, there are many animals that also like to use camouflage at this time of year? Some are even quite gruesome! Find out more about what lies hidden below the surface in the Year of Coasts of Waters.

Lamprey use suckers and rasping teeth to feed on other fish.

There are an array of animals that use our rivers, lochs, and ponds for their hidden early life stages and only really reveal themselves when they reach adulthood.  One occasionally gruesome fish that lives concealed in our rivers is the lamprey.  Lampreys are particularly primitive and unusual fish which have a long larval stage in our rivers. Right now, juvenile lamprey will be living as blind, filter feeders hidden within silt beds on the margins of rivers and backwaters.  But by next spring some of them will have transformed into eel-like adults. 

Their adult mouths are a disturbing sight, with circular arrays of teeth to suck blood and fluids for their meal!  The adults search for other fish and, when they find the right one, attach themselves with their sucker-like mouth and get a quick meal.  Sea and river lamprey both feed when they migrate down into the sea.  But our Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve hosts a unique river lamprey population that, instead of going down into the Firth of Clyde, only feeds on the fish populations that live in Loch Lomond.

Mayfly

A large number of riverflies also spend most of their lives on the beds of rivers and lochs.  The best known riverflies are perhaps mayflies which grow, largely hidden, underwater as larvae for a year.  During this time you may see them in the bills of dippers, which like to feed on them in fast flowing streams.  Or you might more commonly see versions of them as ‘flies’ that fishermen often use to catch trout or salmon.  However mayflies shake off their shy and hidden nature right at the end of their unique lifecycle, when their adult stage emerges for only about 24 hours.  As their name suggests, this happens during the month of May, when they famously ‘dance’ above the water to attract a mate, and then lay their eggs.

Our riverflies also provide a vital source of food for several fish species in our rivers and lochs.  Again, they are often hidden well below the surface at this time of year. The most famous of our fish species is the Atlantic salmon.  As juveniles they live largely hidden in our rivers feeding on riverflies and other insects.  But the adults will just be finishing their amazing migration up to their spawning grounds in many of our rivers, having travelled from feeding grounds in the North Atlantic.  They are most obvious when they briefly leap clear of the surface as they battle up waterfalls.  They will soon begin spawning and their backs can sometimes be visible when they spawn in shallow gravel areas.

Atlantic salmon

Find out more about freshwater life and how to visit our National Nature Reserves where you can find many of our freshwater species.

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

#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) Project Officer James Symonds

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining NatureScot staff and partners working along our shorelines and watery places to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month we hear from SISI project officer James Symonds about vital work to control invasive species along our rivers.

The Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) is a 4-year partnership project to manage riparian invasive non-native species and American mink across large parts of northern Scotland. The initiative is led by NatureScot together with ten fishery trusts/boards and the University of Aberdeen.  

In my role, I’m responsible for the management and co-ordination of invasive species control across four rivers in Moray and Speyside; the Spey, Findhorn, Nairn and Lossie. But what does a day in the ‘office’ look like post-lockdown? Well, my workday generally starts far too early as a father of two small humans!  But after finding coffee and feeding the rabble the first thing I do is check my work phone and the “Mink Police” app we use to check mink trap activation overnight.

Mink Police unit mounted on trap

Live capture traps must be checked at least once every 24 hours to meet animal welfare requirements.  The Mink Police units send updates for trap locations, removing the need to check each trap in person each day. I can remotely check trap status and, crucially, know if an animal is captured which needs my attention.  This means we can legally deploy traps in physically remote locations or where we don’t have a volunteer to complete daily checks and I can monitor multiple traps across a wide area myself.

After breakfast I check the weather for today’s activity – Giant hogweed spraying. The weather’s good so I reconfirm the session with the volunteers, collect the equipment for the day and stock up on supplies en-route to the site.

After meeting and greeting today’s volunteers, I complete the essential risk assessment and tools talk.  Often we work on uneven terrain and today we are tackling Giant hogweed – a plant with photo-toxic sap.  We also have COVID-19 working practices to explain.  Volunteer safety and welfare is our top priority.

Volunteers ready to start pesticide spraying

Having donned protective clothing and filled knapsacks we set to work – we are spraying about six acres of riparian woodland with frequent sizeable Giant hogweed stands.  Pre-coronavirus we would have a volunteer team deployed – battle hardened, dedicated and qualified hogweed assassins – but today it’s three people to allow for social distancing.  We work in a zig-zag upstream, treating all hogweed in our path.

We started at 10.00 am it’s now 12.30 pm – break time – and we set up camp on the riverbank.  Normally I would pull out the Kelly kettle, tea and biscuits – chocolate hobnobs if lucky – demonstrate how to make a fire using a steel and natural tinder and volunteers would have a go at fire lighting.  We appreciate our volunteers’ contributions and try to keep each day varied and fun – that way they might come back!  Sadly, this year volunteers bring their own flasks and there’s no fire making. 

Using the kelly kettle to make a fresh brew

We spray on and treat the whole woodland.  We’ve worked hard but it’s been fun.  As a reward we finish early, 2.45pm instead of 3.00pm!  I’m nothing if not generous….

While we were working a mink volunteer has called – there’s a captured mink on another river.  I’ll visit as soon as I’m finished here. The trapped mink is a large specimen and I have the task of humanely dispatching the animal quickly, quietly and discretely.  I take some basic measurements and sex the animal.  It’s a male – identified by the small matchstick-like bone between the hind legs – the baculum.

Dispatching mink is not enjoyable – but it is essential.  The mink is a voracious predator and can have devastating impacts on native wildlife.  For example, since the introduction of mink, UK water vole numbers have declined by more than 94%.  They also predate on ground nesting birds, amphibians and fish, and happily take domestic fowl.

American mink caught in trap

I get home, change a nappy, and follow up with tomorrow’s volunteers.  The forecast is wet so instead of spraying Giant hogweed we will decapitate the flower heads using pole saws.  I’m just about to email volunteers when my 4-year old runs in and rugby tackles me – it’s time to finish work.

Invasive species control work is seasonal.  When we are done with Giant hogweed, we move to pulling or slashing Himalayan balsam then, as autumn looms, switch to spraying or stem injecting Japanese knotweed.

Stem injection of Japanese knotweed

The threats invasive non-native plants pose vary in one way or another but they are all successful in our climate and our native flora cannot compete with them.  If left unchecked we face biodiversity losses, destabilisation of riverbanks and different ecosystems to the native ones we should protect. 

It’s been a productive day and there’s a real sense of achievement seeing the difference made in a short space of time with so few people.  I’ve missed working with larger volunteering groups this year – but we hope to safely welcome everyone back next season.  The volunteering opportunities we have offered this year have never felt so important – as well as helping nature they provide valuable time outdoors and social opportunities just when we’ve all needed these most.

To find out more and get involved, visit the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative website. All images ©SISI.

Posted in invasive non-native species | Tagged , , , , , ,

Autumn waterfalls to take your breath away!

Autumn, with more frequent rainfall, is often a stunning time for waterfalls, with the the glorious colour of the foliage adding even more drama. In this week’s pictorial blog, we’re featuring our photographer, Lorne’s, favourite waterfalls from this spectacular time of year. Many are from Perthshire, where he lives – and an amazing spot to capture this autumnal wonder.

© Lorne Gill-NatureScot.

Take a moment to enjoy the video above of the thunderous Black Linn falls on the River Braan at the Hermitage. The falls are best viewed from the folly of Ossian’s Hall. The surrounding beautiful woodland was originally designed as a pleasure ground in the 18th century for the Dukes of Atholl and is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

The gorgeous Falls of Acharn near Loch Tay are pictured above. To see the falls, it’s just a one-mile walk from the village of Acharn – but you’ll have to walk through the dark Hermit’s Cave to reach the falls!

©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

Pictured above is autumnal woodland and the Urlar burn at the Birks of Aberfeldy (birks is the Scotch word for birch), part of a popular walk on the outskirts of Aberfeldy. A visit here in 1787 inspired Robbie Burns to write a song entitled, unsurprisingly, The Birks of Aberfeldy.

©Lorne Gill-NatureScot

The stunning picture above is of Bonnington Linn on the River Clyde in the Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve. Scotland’s oldest and richest forest lies hidden in dramatic gorges throughout the Clyde Valley; the trees survived for hundreds of years relatively undisturbed, as the steep gorges didn’t allow timber to be harvested.

©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

We couldn’t resist including another view (above) of the thundering waterfalls on the River Braan, a tributary of the Tay, near Dunkeld.

Finally, here are two last stunners. Pictured on the left is autumnal woodland and the Ular burn at the Birks of Aberfeldy, and on the right is the Black Spout waterfall on the Edradour Burn.

Posted in autumn, biodiversity, NatureScot | Tagged , , ,

The salmon run: an autumn ending to a long journey

Each year, Atlantic salmon make an incredible journey back from the ocean to return to their breeding grounds. To get there, this mighty fish propels itself, like a dart, up and over the fast-flowing waters of some of our finest rivers in Scotland.

A male Atlantic salmon leaping up a waterfall, River Almond. Copyright Lorne Gill/NatureScot

At a cascade where salmon gather, their jumping against the flow can seem little short of miraculous. October is the peak season for Atlantic salmon moving upstream in over 350 of Scotland’s river systems.

On many rivers, waterfalls are obstacles that must be overcome if they are to return to their gravel bed spawning grounds. This gives us a unique opportunity to see this epic struggle as they launch themselves high through the air in a determined effort to clear the barrier in one tremendous leap. It can take many attempts before they make a successful jump, as many fall short or crash off the rocks that block their way. However some fish can get it right first time and soar majestically upstream in one perfect leap.

Atlantic salmon are found in the temperate and arctic regions of the northern hemisphere. They occur in the rivers of the countries that border both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean, and the Baltic Sea. Scotland is blessed with both many waterfalls and many salmon rivers. It is also unusual in having salmon that enter its inland waters most months of the year. This includes a sizeable ‘autumn run’ of fish, which often peaks this month in October.

People watching as Atlantic salmon migrate up the River Almond.
©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

As an anadromous species, Atlantic salmon live in freshwater as juveniles but migrate to sea as adults before returning up river to spawn. Atlantic salmon return to their native river, and even the same stretch of the river from which they were born, with amazing accuracy. This means that many ‘populations’ of Atlantic salmon may exist within the same river.

Spawning usually occurs from November to December, but may extend from October to late February in some areas, particularly larger rivers. About 90 to 95% of all Atlantic salmon die after spawning has taken place. Those that survive may spawn again.

Female fish lay their eggs in gravel depressions known as ‘redds’. As a female releases her eggs, an adult male or mature juvenile immediately fertilises them. The female then covers the fertilised eggs with gravel.

Hatched Atlantic aalmon egg at the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board Hatchery at Almondbank.©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

How long it takes for eggs to hatch depends on water temperature. Eggs will usually hatch in early spring. Once the fish have developed markings on their sides, they’re known as ‘parr’. The parr will live in the river for two to three years, depending on water temperature and food availability. On reaching about 12cm in length, the parr undergo a physiological transformation that lets them survive at sea.

The young fish, now called ‘smolts’, continue to change in appearance, becoming silver. These ‘post-smolts’ begin to leave rivers for the sea in late spring, with most fish gone by June.

We still don’t know much about the migration pathways of post-smolts or returning adults. Some research has shown that post-smolts move in schools when heading to deep-sea feeding areas. Some of these fish feed in the Norwegian Sea and the waters off southwest Greenland. These fish remain in the ocean from just over a year to three or four years.

Of course, many of us haven’t been able to get out and enjoy the salmon run this autumn, but luckily our photographer, Lorne, has put together this wonderful video – we hope you enjoy it!

Posted in biodiversity, Ecology, Marine, NatureScot, Year of Coasts and Waters, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , ,