Badgering away in Scotland

Our guest blogger today, Eddie Palmer, is the chairman of Scottish Badgers. Eddie tells us all about these charismatic animals — and what we can do to help protect them.

6 @SBP Crossing water on fallen tree night SBP cropped - for SM

Copyright @ScotlandBigPicture

Our Scottish badger is the same animal that is found right across Europe and Asia. The oldest badger bone remains found in these islands were carbon-dated to 35,000 years ago. Badgers are between half a metre and a metre in length, and a burrowing animal, with a distinctive black and white face, and dense fur which looks grey. They have a good sense of smell, but very poor eyesight. An extended family, or ‘clan’ can occupy several setts in ancestral territory used for many years.

Sadly, most people have never seen a live badger – only dead ones at the sides of roads at certain times of the year. The experience of seeing badger cubs at play in the spring is truly memorable. Badgers live underground in a maze of tunnels and chambers called setts and come out mainly at night time to feed.

9 @SBP Dry stane dyke cropped

Picture copyright @ScottishBigPicture


  • In Scotland, badgers live only on the mainland, and not on the islands, apart from Arran, where they were introduced by Victorians for sport.
  • Badgers belong to the order known as ‘mustelids’ – together with otters, stoats, weasels and pine martens.
  • Badgers can eat up to 200 worms a night!
  • A badger ‘sett’ is the name for its burrow, and ‘cete’ is one collective noun for a group of badgers.
  • A badger sett can extend for at least 30 metres underground from an entrance.
  • Badgers also use day nests, in the daytime, to relax and sleep.


    Badger cubs at play in the spring. Video credit @ingham_mal

Where badgers live – Badger setts can be anywhere – in woodland, hedgerows, in sand dunes , in open fields, in gardens, and under patios and decking. Any habitation is a sett, and is protected by law. The number of sett entrances does not correspond to the number of badgers inside.  There could be 10 badgers in a three hole sett, and only six animals in a forty hole sett.

Badger Sett.©Lorne Gill/SNH

A badger sett. Copyright SNH/Lorne Gill.

Badger signs – How do we know badgers are around? There are many signs to look for, including newly dug earth (snuffle holes), badger hair in spoil (excavated material found at sett entrances), foraging signs nearby (dug earth), latrines, beaten paths between badger holes, and claw marks on tree branches.

What do badgers eat? – Badgers are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of food, but they mainly eat earthworms. They also feed on insects, larvae, tubers, fruit, nuts, cereal crops, eggs, slugs and fungi. They move slowly over land at night, covering at least half a mile from the sett.

The Badger Year – Sows delay implantation, mating at any time of year, but giving birth in February. This is so there is food for the young when they emerge above ground in early May. During this time, last year’s cubs, the yearlings, are pushed out to fend for themselves and this is why so many get killed on roads. Autumn sees a period of feeding up for the winter, with again more killed on the road as they forage. From November to February, badgers go into ‘torpor’, which isn’t really hibernating, but they do become slower and less active.

There are problems for badgers – They may be disturbed by development, including forestry and agriculture, and badger baiting with dogs still goes on.


  • Reporting road casualties to us on the Scottish Badger website – this is important for finding setts.
  • Telling us about badger setts – we need accurate records in order to protect badgers.
  • Informing us about any possible crimes or disturbance to badgers.


Badgers for Beginners course Falls of Clyde Oct 2016 - small

Participants at a Badgers for Beginners course at the Falls of Clyde.


Posted in badger, biodiversity, citizen science, mammals, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Scottish Natural Heritage Staff Reveal Their Favourite Dog Walks

Scotland has so many great places to walk and what better way to experience them than with a furry friend at your side! With plenty of fantastic options it’s hard to choose where to go so we’ve asked our Scottish Natural Heritage team to suggest their favourite dog walking spots.

Riverside exploring

Meryl Carr, one of our Operations Officers in the Protected Places Team, has found a great spot to stop on her long drives between Inverness and Ullapool.

Meryl’s collie spaniel cross Bess enjoying some time outdoors © Meryl Carr

“As we often travel to Inverness from Ullapool my favourite “on the road to Inverness” walk is the Silver Bridge Circuit along the banks of the Black Water River Alltan Dubh.  This is a Forestry Commission Scotland site with two parking places to choose from. One nestles in the forest at Little Garve, the other is convenient if you just want to park quickly off the main road and get walking, it is by the public toilets on the west side of the main road.

This is a beautiful part of the Black Water river. Waterfalls, pools and fascinating geology keep you occupied as you roam through a  beautiful woodland of silver birch and Scots pine. Loads of blaeberry bushes grow on the woodland floor and in late summer spoil you with succulent, plump berries – guaranteed to give you a purple mouth by the time you have got around. The circuit takes you across the Black Water river at either end of the walk by way of two historic, beautiful stone built bridges from where you can look down on cascading falls. On the east side of the river Forestry Commission Scotland have recently completed a path upgrade giving a lovely walking surface, so if you do not want to take off your ‘about town shoes’ you can be guaranteed of a lovely walk without getting your footwear in a mess.

On the west side of the river the path is more natural (trainers, boots or wellies are best) and meanders through the Scots pine, close to the waterfalls, channels and small gorges. If you are there at the right time you might find Chanterelles or Hedge Hog fungus. In the meantime it is a doggy paradise of smells so both you and the dog return to the car feeling much more relaxed and ready to head to the city or head for home.”

Nature trails and paths can be busy places and attract a whole range of visitors. Approaching something new can be a daunting experience for you and your dog but we have lots of advice to how to safely pass other path users including cyclists, joggers and even those on horseback!

Another great waterside suggestion comes from Erica Knott, our Senior Casework Manager for Marine Energy, who loves her daily route along the River Tay.

Erica Knott

Seula on her morning walk along the River Tay ©Erica Knott

“My black lab, Seula and I walk every day on the North Inch in Perth, along the banks of the River Tay.  It’s a great spot and quite often we are able to spot, kingfishers, otters and seals.”

And, if you’re looking for some panoramic views of the river, Erica recommends a trip to nearby Kinnoull Hill in Perth – a perfect spot to watch the sunrise on a morning dog walk.

Coastal wanders

Beach walks are a fantastic way to enjoy the outdoors and proved a popular dog walking option for our staff including our Activity Manager for Protected Areas and Surveillance, Andy Dorin, and his 11-year-old Border Terrier, Ivy .

 Janet Hooper

Ivy enjoying some outdoor exploring © Janet Hooper

“One of our favourite walks is Rosemarkie Beach on the Black Isle, north of Inverness and Ivy loves it from the very start when she’s let out the car. As a walk of the “there and back” variety, our route covers the beach that stretches for a mile or so up to an elegant curve of Chanonry Point with views across the Moray Firth to the historic fortification of Fort George and the chance to stop and watch bottle-nosed dolphins leaping after salmon close to shore. The walks heads north across a complex geology of sandstone and metamorphic rocks and there are often waders such as redshank, curlew and oystercatchers at the water’s edge. Sometimes we clamber up the local shaded dell which in spring is carpeted in garlic and other wild flowers for dogs to worm through but it’s a muddy scramble to follow the burn over the rocks. Although the beach is popular, it’s rarely crowded and it’s amazing how half-an-hour in nature brings a smile to everyone’s faces and makes them calmer and more content.”

Want help exploring safely with your pet? Check out our free dog training modules on Responsible Dog Walking in Scotland’s Great Outdoors

Our Policy and Advice Officer for Marine Mammals and Benthic Ecology, Karen Hall, has found a fantastic local beach walk in Shetland that has plenty to keep dog Brodie entertained and out the muddy puddles!

Brodie enjoying Levenwick Beach, Shetland ©Karen Hall

“My favourite dog walking spot is Levenwick Beach, Shetland.  It’s my local beach about 2 kilometres from my house and I can walk down the road passing the neighbours en route. Brodie loves it as he’s half seal/ half dog and has to go in the water wherever it is. Our alternative walks tend to end up with him wallowing in a muddy ditch or peaty pool so the beach is the cleanest option.  He is quite happy swimming laps or trying to retrieve old kelp holdfasts that you throw for him (there tends to be a lack of wood on Shetland) whilst the seals watch on – the only thing we have to watch for is to make sure he’s not in the water when killer whales go by!”

Coastal areas are great places to explore with your dog and encompass much more than just sand! Our fantastic Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve has a great variety of habitats to explore so you can enjoy a morning on the beach and an afternoon on woodland walks and watching wildlife at the lochside.  It’s also a favourite spot for our Outdoor Learning Officer, Penny Martin, and pet Pablo.

©Penny Martin

Pablo exploring the fantastic views along Tentsmuir beach ©Penny Martin

“Tentsmuir is a favourite walk, starting from the car park at Tayport. The walk along the forest edge and then on to the beach is magical because the light is always changing. Maybe, we’ll see a peregrine dashing among the whirling flocks of birds. The dunes are a rolling patchwork quilt of colour, a tapestry of plants. Here, there’s lots of space here for the dog to run when it’s quiet, plenty of scents to sniff out, and always wildlife to see. The downsides?  Some people don’t clear up after their dogs especially near the busy Tayport end, and dogs can disturb wading birds particularly in winter. Amazingly though, by the time we’ve reach the beach it can feel empty, just ourselves and a dog under a big sky.”

Adding some variety to your route is a nice way to ensure the morning walk isn’t a slog but remember sometimes it’s important to change a little throughout the year to allow for wildlife seasons too. Our coastlines are important habitats for lots of species so it’s good to be wary of resident or seasonal wildlife. For ground nesting birds, make sure to follow any local guidance to avoid disturbing of nest sites. Dog walkers should also keep well back from seals with their dog on the lead keeping at least 150 metres away. These are beautiful animals to watch but if seals raise their heads when people are in the vicinity, then you are too close and best to continue on your dog walk via an alternative route.

Coastal exploring is also a favourite for Cathie Sunderland, our Unit Administrator for Argyll and Outer Hebrides.

Cathie Sunderland

Scout out enjoying some beautiful sunshine above Ganavan Beach, near Oban © Cathie Sunderland

“This is Scout on the hill above Ganavan Beach just outside Oban. It’s a popular spot for locals and visitors and a great place to catch up with some doggy friends and to let Scout have a little time running free. During our walk Scout even manages to find the odd ‘nice bit’ to have a good roll around in…which usually means a bath later. As well as great views across to Morven and Lismore, we also see plenty of rabbits on the walk as well as birds, including the odd Sea Eagle. When things are a bit warmer this is also a lovely spot for butterflies and moths.”

Local greenspace and country parks

Outdoor adventures with your pet are great no matter where you go and local greenspace and parks can also be fantastic places to exercise your four-legged friend. Communications Officer, Suzanne Downey, has a found her favourite route through a local country park.

SNH Staff Dog Walks - Roxy WHW

Roxy loving her daily stroll on a section of the West Highland Way © Suzanne Downey

“We are lucky living close to one of Scotland’s Great Trails, the popular West Highland Way. Set within the super country park in Milngavie (7 miles outside Glasgow) it has miles of footpaths and cycle routes to enjoy. My fave route takes you alongside Mugdock Reservoir, through Mugdock Wood, along Allander Water. The combination of peaceful woodland trails and waterside paths makes for a lovely cycle, run and of course walk with the family pet, fox-red Labrador Roxy.

The park also includes the remains of the 14th-century Mugdock Castle and the ruins of the 19th century Craigend Castle, a Gothic Revival mansion which might look familiar….The Last King was filmed here!  I often run with my dog around the Milngavie Reservoirs (which is a 3 mile loop) on the eastern side of the park. It will take you around the Craigmaddie and Mugdock reservoirs with lovely views and woodland trails to enjoy.”

Having grown up in the area, my young family and I are well aware of the need to follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code but it is striking how many visitors or indeed locals are not so knowledgeable or aware.  There are many signs along the way during lambing times or at times of ground-nesting birds to kindly warn dog walkers of the need to put the dog on the lead – why would anyone risk the safety of their pet and other livestock?   The rangers are not trying to spoil or interrupt your walk by advising this – so it is disheartening when many don’t follow these simple set of instructions.   We all want to enjoy the countryside and trails together.”

Country parks and indeed local countryside can be great options for walking the dog but there are some guidelines to follow. As we head into spring remember that you might need to take extra care on your usual local routes as farms and small holdings head into the lambing season. During this time, look out for signs warning you not to enter fields and make sure to take note of animals before you head out. Remember to keep your dog at heel and under proper control around livestock to make sure everyone stays safe on a family dog walk.

The countryside afternoon walkies

Some other top options near Glasgow include around the Campsie Fells north of Glasgow. Our Non-Native Species Officer, Jenny Park, and dog Kelpie, have a few favourite spots around the area but, sadly, the walks aren’t always well looked after.

Kelpie out in some snow weather © Jenny Park

Kelpie out in some snow weather © Jenny Park

Campsie Glen is a steep walk so good for a cardiovascular work out with the dog and the waterfall there creates deep clean pools for doggy paddling. As a popular spot, the only problem with this route is during summer there are a lot of day trippers that do not follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Many camp and leave their litter (and even whole tents!) behind them – as well as remains of food which dogs will make a bee line for and gobble no matter whether it’s harmful to them or not.

Another option is Fin Glen, previously a hill sheep farm but purchased by Forestry Commission Scotland a few years ago so now great for dog walkers!  This walk is less well known than neighbouring Campsie Glen so isn’t spoiled by litter the way that Campsie Glen can be.  It also features a waterfall and pool for doggy (or human) paddling but you have a bit of a hike before you reach it – the reward is that you’ll probably get it to yourself.  Fin Glen has a wilder feel to it so worth the extra hike.  There are plenty pheasant and roe deer in some areas as well as the occasional stray sheep from neighbouring farms so I do need to keep Kelpie on a lead in parts.

There are bins at the start of these walks but not along them so you have to be prepared to carry dog poo with you. “

Sadly, Jenny and Kelpie’s experience of litter isn’t unique to this spot!  Scotland has fantastic access rights which extend to hiking and wild camping but key to this is being responsible and clearing up after your visit. If you plan to camp in a natural area make sure to check the Scottish Outdoor Access Code guidelines on camping. Important things to remember include taking away all your litter, removing all traces of your tent pitch and not causing any pollution in the local area.

Are you a landowner looking for some advice on how to support responsible access? Find help and support from the Scottish Outdoor Access Code

Hillside hikes and mountain adventures

For those that want to head out on something a little more strenuous there are also a few uphill suggestions from our Scottish Natural Heritage cohort. If you’re in Aberdeenshire, Katie Bain, one of our Planning Advisers, suggests the Bennachie Range as a great spot to explore and is a firm favourite to walk with her dog Mallie.

“This image was taken at sunrise from the top of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. This is home for me so will always be my favourite spot! There are four official paths to the top. The steepness of these varies so there is something for everyone – the gradual path up from the Rowantree car park is very popular. We also walked up to the top for Hogmanay and there were loads of people up there with their head torches including a bagpiper! Another bonus is that Bennachie also has a great swimming spot nearby.”

This route is also one seconded by our Landscape Advisor, Sarah Fletcher, but she also has a few other great hill paths for those in the area.

“I live in Insch, Aberdeenshire with some top walks right on my doorstep including up to Dunnydeer Hill and around the woodlands to Drumrossie House, Insch. Plus some more just a short drive too such as Bennachie, Tap o’Noth and Boyndie Bay – a beach west of Banff.”

If you are heading on a hill or mountain path remember to be prepared for your journey with suitable resources – and that includes for your furry friend. Long trails are unlikely to have many bin options so remember the poo bags and take them with you. If you can’t find a bin please don’t leave a full poo bag along the route even if it is to collect later as these are rarely picked up again.  Need something more suitable for longer walks? Our Non-Native Species Officer, Jenny Park, recommends neoprene bags designed to clip onto belts or rucksacks. You can also find more about these and how to deal with dog poo when out and about in our free dog training resources.

Tilly on a snowy adventure day Graham Boyle

Tilly on a snowy adventure day ©Graham Boyle

If you are closer to the North-West, our Chief of Staff, Graham Boyle suggests the Beinn Eighe Mountain Trail as a top option to take your pet on an outdoor adventure. This route includes woodland areas including ancient Scots pines, amazing views from high peaks and fascinating glacial geology. Look out for dippers splashing in the cascading burns, golden eagles soaring above the ridges and alpine plants clinging to the higher slopes.

Scotland’s nature reserves are great places to visit but remember these areas are carefully managed for nature conservation and to safeguard rare animals and plants. If you are planning to visit one of our reserves take care to avoid damaging the site or disturbing its wildlife by ensuring you follow responsible access guidance. 

Want to ensure you’re exploring responsibly with your dog? Check out our free online course on Responsible Dog Walking in Scotland’s Great Outdoors or if you need to know more about getting out and about check out the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  Why not show us your latest adventures and how you are putting our course or the Scottish Outdoor Access Code into practice using our #TakeTheLead hashtag on social media!


Our team have some great suggestions from up and down the country but we’d love to know your favourite dog walking spots! Share them in the comments below.

Posted in country park, Dogs, Farming, paths, Scotland's Great Trails, SNH, Staff profile, Trail, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

Get involved on Global Recycling Day

On Global Recycling Day we’re taking the opportunity to reflect on the impact of plastics on our natural world, why recycling is so important and the actions that we can all take to help the environment.

Global Recycling Day 2018 from Global Recycling Day on Vimeo.

The first ever Global Recycling Day took place in 2018 with the aim of celebrating the importance of recycling in securing the future of our planet.

The key message is that by recycling, we can preserve our precious resources and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill, which is not only an unsustainable use of natural resources but also produces gases which contribute to climate change.

Recycling is also an important part in preventing pollution in our natural environments.


©Lorne Gill/SNH

We are all increasingly aware of the extent of plastics in the world’s oceans but perhaps not quite so aware of its presence in freshwater.

More research has been undertaken in recent years and we know that microplastics (plastics of less than 5mm in size) can be present at significant levels in freshwaters.

Microplastics are of particular concern because they can be ingested at many different levels throughout the food web much more easily than larger pieces of plastic.

Researchers from Cardiff University and the University of Exeter have sampled rivers and found that microplastics were present in at least half of all aquatic insects in the rivers surveyed.


©Lorne Gill/SNH

The researchers thought that the microplastics came from a variety of sources, including wastewater from sewage works, surface water runoff containing road paint and bits of tyres, and litter.

More recently, the University of Bangor and Friends of the Earth found microplastic in several of Britain’s most well-known lochs and rivers.  The sites they surveyed included two sites in Scotland (Loch Lomond and Falls of Dochart), both of which were found to contain microplastics.

In Scotland we have a target to recycle 70% of waste by 2025, and currently progress stands at 46%.



Encouragingly in 2018 the levels of household waste recycled exceeded the amount sent to landfill in Scotland for the first time, but more action is needed to reach our national recycling targets.

So what can be done to help tackle this problem?

As the organisation tasked with protecting and improving Scotland’s nature, here at SNH we are leading by example in taking action to reduce, re-use and recycle as much as possible, for example by having recycling bins in all our offices, reducing the use of paper and taking steps to eliminate the use of plastic bottles, cups, packaging and cutlery.


© C Webster/SNH

But all of us can take simple steps in our everyday lives to help reduce the amount of plastic that we use and protect our environment.

These include:

  • Try avoiding using plastic for one day and see what changes you can make
  • Use plastic-free teabags
  • Refill your water bottle
  • Switch to plastic free options when they are available. Buy loose fruits and vegetable
  • Bring food and drinks in sustainable containers. Bring your own cup to meetings.
  • Carry a reusable bag with you.
  • Say no to plastic straws and cutlery.
  • Avoid overly packaged items

Global Recycling Day encourages us all to think again about what we are throwing away, and begin to see not just waste, but opportunity.

Raising awareness can lead to crucial action –such as the recent EU policy aiming to ban 90% of microplastic pollutants.

Individuals have as much a role to play as large organisations, so do your bit this Global Recycling Day and celebrate what we’ve achieved so far!


Posted in Recycling | Tagged , , , , ,

Getting close to biodiversity at Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve

Our Biodiversity Strategy Team has been catching up at Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve finding out more about the intricacies of the site and getting some hands-on tasks in too. Read about how they got on from our Biodiversity Strategy Officer, Iain Macdonald, below.

© David Pickett/ SNH

Biodiversity Strategy Team © David Pickett/ SNH

On 21st February the Biodiversity Strategy Team spent a few hours catching up on a little biodiversity at Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve (NNR) near Stirling.  When we meet up it is usually around a table, but this was a different sort of meeting altogether.  For a start it was outdoors and it involved not just the “usual suspects”, but  listening to Dave Pickett, the Reserve Manager, answer all sorts of questions.

“Where did the thousands of tonnes of peat go that used to surround the NNR and which are now green fields?  Into the Forth Estuary having been stripped off and been dumped into the River Forth many decades ago.”  Can you believe that even a water wheel was used in the early days to power the peat removal?  I guess that peat is still out there somewhere, possibly lying off Edinburgh? “Are there deer? Yes, lots, a particular challenge for lowland deer managers when there are lots of people.”  “Why the sheep?  To help control woodland regeneration while the bog surface is still recovering.”

© Kamila Fraser/ SNH

Fox moth caterpillar © Kamila Fraser/ SNH

Trees and non-native shrubs have been removed in large numbers  at Flanders Moss and drains having been dammed, including recent work near the public entrance by the EcoCo LIFE Peatland Project. The water table in the area we visited is at ground level with surface pools in many places.  There are not many lowland raised bogs left in Scotland and of those which I have visited, I can testify from first-hand experience, that this definitely one is the wettest!

© David Pickett/ SNH

Hands on biodiversity © David Pickett/ SNH

As well as finding out about the NNR, we helped remove some of the Sitka spruce trees which have been cropping up on the peat.  Armed with saws and loppers we cut down a good few dozen – every little bit helps!  And there was biodiversity present on the day – a pale grey hen harrier quartering the mire, abundant bog-cranberry and a fox moth caterpillar making the most of one of the warmest February days in Scottish history!

Absolutely amazing to visit a protected area in a state of gradual improvement. If you haven’t been you should visit!  You don’t need to get wet – there is a walkway and viewing platform. There is even a good café/ restaurant quite close to the entrance, so no excuses!

Find out more about visiting Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve here. 

Posted in biodiversity, Flanders Moss NNR, National Nature Reserves, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH

Scotland shines in springtime

Spring is in the air and as nature begins to wake up there has never been a better time to visit Scotland’s National Nature Reserves. Whether you’re wildlife spotting or just want to get out and enjoy some fresh air and spectacular scenery, these special places are great to explore. Here are 10 of the best spring surprises Scotland has to offer and where you might find them:

  1. Stacks of seabirds
Puffin at Sumburgh Head, Shetland ©Lorne Gill SNH

Puffin at Sumburgh Head, Shetland ©Lorne Gill SNH

Around the coast of Scotland, seabirds are returning home to breed, after a long winter at sea. Don’t miss the chance to see thousands, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags and kittiwakes, gathering on island and coastal cliffs. Just a short distance from Edinburgh the Isle of May and St Abb’s Head are fantastic places to witness this spectacle, while further afield in Shetland the most northerly cliffs of Hermaness and Noss are fabulous and dramatic places to visit.

  1. Wonderful wild flowers
Bluebells in springtime at Sunart oakwoods, Ardnamurchan ©Lorne Gill SNH

Bluebells in springtime at Sunart oakwoods, Ardnamurchan ©Lorne Gill SNH

Spring is when Scotland’s woodlands, from the temperate rainforests of the west coast to our ancient oak woods, come alive with delicate wild flowers.  Take a walk in the ancient gorge woodlands of Clyde Valley close to Lanark (don’t forget to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of New Lanark), where bluebells create a colourful blanket in April and May. Alternatively, explore the hidden gem of Glasdrum Wood on the shores of Loch Creran, where the woodland floor is carpeted with wild flowers including violets, wood anemone and primrose.

  1. Climb high
The Beinn Eighe ridge and temperature inversion, Beinn Eighe NNR ©Lorne Gill SNH

The Beinn Eighe ridge and temperature inversion, Beinn Eighe NNR ©Lorne Gill SNH

Scotland’s mountain landscapes are outstanding, whether you just want to take in the view from the roadside or embark on a challenging hike. Visit the majestic Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross, one of the most scenic areas in Scotland (and the UKs first National Nature Reserve), where lochs and mountains combine to dramatic effect. Enjoy an easy low-level walk with views to the high ridges or take the Mountain Trail into the heart of the hills, a way-marked mountain path with stunning views. Elsewhere, explore Creag Meagaidh, a magnificent mountain plateau fringed by some of the grandest cliffs in Scotland. Hike on a trail through lovely regenerating woodland to Coire Ardair, where a lonely lochan sits below towering crags.

  1. Soar with the eagles
Rum and Skye from Gallanach on the Isle of Coll ©Lorne Gill SNH

Rum and Skye from Gallanach on the Isle of Coll ©Lorne Gill SNH

Spring is when Scotland’s majestic eagles return to their nesting sites and these iconic birds can be seen soaring high above the coasts and hills. The Isle of Rum lying splendidly off Mallaig is home to golden and sea (or white-tailed) eagles, and visitors to the trails of Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross can also spot both species as they search for food over the reserve. After a recent reintroduction of white-tailed eagles, you can also now see these magnificent birds around the forest and beach at Tentsmuir.  Join a guided walk to have the best chance of spotting them.

  1. Coastal gems
Beach and dune system at St Cyrus NNR, Montrose, Grampian area ©Lorne Gill SNH

Beach and dune system at St Cyrus NNR, Montrose, Grampian area ©Lorne Gill SNH

Scotland has an incredibly varied and rich coastline, which we’ll be celebrating next year as part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters.  From extensive sandy beaches to rocky inlets, our diverse coast supports amazing wildlife and is great fun to explore at this time of year.  Visit Caerlaverock in Dumfries & Galloway, where the views across the Solway Firth are constantly changing with the light and large gatherings of waders and wildfowl feed in the extensive salt marshes. Don’t forget to visit mighty Caerlaverock Castle. Or why not enjoy a walk along the sandy shores, gentle dunes and grasslands of St Cyrus in Aberdeenshire?

  1. Gone fishing
Osprey in flight ©Lorne Gill SNH

Osprey in flight ©Lorne Gill SNH

One of Scotland’s most iconic species, the osprey, returns each spring from wintering grounds in Africa to breed. The birds come back each year to the same nest site in the tops of trees or occasionally on top of pylons. Watching osprey fish is one of the highlights of wildlife watching in Scotland. Loch Leven, close to Kinross, is one of the most accessible places to see osprey, while those at Abernethy in the Cairngorms National Park are probably the most famous in Scotland. Enjoy fantastic views across to the nest from the visitor centre and let expert RSPB guides tell you all about the birds.

  1. Seal Slumbers
A grey seal pup resting on the foreshore at village bay, St Kilda NNR, Western Isles ©Lorne Gill SNH

A grey seal pup resting on the foreshore at village bay, St Kilda NNR, Western Isles ©Lorne Gill SNH

Scotland’s seals are some of our most charismatic mammals and this is a great time of year to see them. Watch as they haul out on rocky shores and beaches, slumbering in the spring sun. Head to Loch Fleet, on the North Coast 500 route in the North Highlands, where you can spot common or harbour seals hauled out in the sandbanks of this tidal loch. Or visit Forvie, on the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire, home to a growing population of up to 1,000 grey seals. A short walk along the shore from Newburgh offers great views across the estuary, to the seals resting on the shores of the firth.

  1. Scramble with squirrels
Red squirrel ©Lorne Gill SNH

Red squirrel ©Lorne Gill SNH

Who could resist the chance to see one of Scotland’s most famous red heads – the acrobatic red squirrel? Spring sees them active and out and about – often spotted chasing up and down tree trunks.  The woodlands of Muir of Dinnet in Royal Deeside are home to these charismatic characters while at Tentsmuir in Fife, visitors to the squirrel hide at Morton Lochs have an excellent chance of seeing and photographing their antics.

  1. Return of the terns
Arctic tern in flight ©Lorne Gill

Arctic tern in flight ©Lorne Gill

In spring, terns return to our shores from their southern wintering grounds. With their delicate shape and flight they are one of the most elegant seabirds.  Visit the Isle of May off the pretty fishing village of Anstruther, where the terns nest all around the harbour and visitor centre, filling the air with their calls and letting you know whose island this really is! Or take a coastal walk to the dunes of Forvie in Aberdeenshire, to see an extensive colony of terns and enjoy their stunning aerobatics.

  1. Woodland wanders
Glen Affric NNR ©Lorne Gill SNH

Glen Affric NNR ©Lorne Gill SNH

Scotland’s woodlands are the perfect place to relax and unwind in springtime. Enjoy a scenic walk and listen out for woodland birds as you wander. Explore Abernethy near Aviemore or Glen Affric in the Highlands to experience the best of the Caledonian pine forest, home to crested tits and unique Scottish crossbills. Or take a peaceful and energising dawn walk in the woodlands of Craigellachie near Aviemore, Ariundle Oakwood on the Sunart Peninsula or The Great Trossachs Forest in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.

Visit Scotland’s naturally inspiring National Nature Reserves this springtime. Who knows what you will find?

Posted in National Nature Reserves, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Agroforestry in Scotland? Forestry Grant Scheme funding still available until December 2020

In today’s blog, our woodlands specialist, Kate Holl, talks about the many benefits of agroforestry for farmers, as well as the funding available.

Agroforesty blog 1

Agroforestry simply means integrating trees into agricultural land.  But in contrast to farm woodland creation, which normally results in a net loss of productive agricultural land, agroforestry can help improve farming productivity. Agroforestry systems are made up of trees or shrubs integrated into the rest of the farming system in a variety of ways, including alley cropping (rows of trees in between alleys of crops or pasture), trees in pasture, grazed woodland, shelter belts, pollards, trees in riparian zones and orchards.

A central benefit of agroforestry is that productivity is higher than in single crop systems, due to the fact that harvesting is from more than one level. In other words, in a silvo-arable system (trees and crops) with barley and fruit trees, there is the harvest of grain from the field level and the additional harvest of the fruit from trees on the same bit of ground. This means that overall productivity of arable agroforestry farms can be more than 40% higher than a monoculture system on the same land area.

Agroforestry also delivers many other important benefits:

  • It provides shelter and forage for farm animals, which can also improve their welfare and save money on feed and bedding costs.
  • It offers the farmer an additional income stream from wood fuel, fruit or timber.
  • The trees will sequester carbon, hence helping with climate change.
  • Nutrients accessed from deeper in the soil by tree roots and brought to the surface through leaf fall, contribute to healthier, more fertile soils.
  • When trees are reintroduced to agricultural landscapes as part of agroforestry systems, run-off of nitrogen and phosphate, erosion from soils and pollution of waterways and air (ammonia) may be reduced.
  • Agroforestry will also be beneficial for wildlife on the farm (depending on species and planting design), and can make the land less vulnerable to drought and flooding.

Agroforesty blog 2

I’ve experienced the benefits on my smallholding. Sheep on my land enjoy eating “leaf hay” cut from surrounding hedgerows at the end of summer.  Leaf hay cut from trees and shrubs can be a very valuable source of food for livestock – particularly when grass is in short supply, with nutrient and mineral levels often significantly higher than in pasture, so avoiding the need for costly “bought-in” supplements.

At the moment, agroforestry is not common in Scotland. Old wood pastures which are a form of traditional agroforestry can be found, but many of these are no longer actively managed.

However more farmers are now embracing agroforestry, seeing the benefits, now and in the future, for the resilience and productivity of their farms.

Agroforestry blog 5

Malting barley in between rows of apple trees at Parkhill Farm in Newburgh. Photo by Roger Howison

There is help for farmers who are considering introducing agroforestry to their farms. Funding is still available (currently until December 2020) under the Scottish Government’s  Forestry Grant Scheme to help create areas of agroforestry within sheep-grazed pasture land  or on arable land.  The land that is intended to be planted with trees must be permanent grassland pasture, temporary grassland or arable land (Land Capability for Agriculture – Class 1.1 to 4.2 inclusive). Under the current scheme, if planning a silvo-pastoral regime (trees and livestock), then only sheep (not cattle) can be used for grazing, as the tree protection provided within the grant is not sufficiently robust for cattle or other grazing animals. However, changes are currently under discussion that may widen the scope of the integration of trees on farm land, so watch this space!

Under Scotland’s Rural Development Programme, the aim is to establish around 300 hectares of agroforestry by 2020; we still have a way to go to meet this target.  So we’d encourage farmers to look at ways they can add trees to their farms and apply for funding before it’s too late. The potential is definitely here for agroforestry to flourish in Scotland, and for us all to benefit from harvesting the many benefits of this way of farming.

Guidance and information on funding for Agroforestry can be found on the Scottish Government’s Rural Payments and Services web pages, under the Forestry Grant Scheme.

Farmers looking for help with the planning and design of an agroforestry scheme can contact their local Forestry Commission Conservancy office.



Posted in Agri-Environment Climate Scheme, Farming, sustainable farming | Tagged , , ,

Faclan eile airson ‘Madadh-allaidh’ / Gaelic words for ‘Wolf’

Tha an t-uabhas fhaclan Gàidhlig a tha a’ seasamh airson ‘madadh-allaidh’ / There is a large number of Gaelic words meaning ‘wolf’.

Faclan eile airson ‘Madadh-allaidh’

Tha an t-uabhas de cheann-fhaclan ann am Faclair Dwelly a sheasas airson na Beurla wolf, a dh’aindeoin ’s gun deach an t-ainmhidh sin à bith anns an ochdamh linn deug (a rèir choltais). ’S e madadh-allaidh am facal as cumanta an-diugh, agus tha dùil gum buin cuid de dh’ainmean-àite le madadh don mhadadh-allaidh, seach am madadh-ruadh, ged a tha e doirbh a bhith cinnteach mu dheidhinn. Tha faclan fillte eile airson ‘wolf’ stèidhichte air madadh, leithid alla-mhadadh, madadh-mòr, mòr-mhadadh agus madadh-gul (am fear mu dheireadh co-cheangailte ri a nuallan).

Wolf, Canis lupus. Highland Wildlife Park near Kincraig, Strathspey. ©Lorne Gill For information on reproduction rights contact Scottish Natural Heritage on Tel. 01738 444177 or

©Lorne Gill

Tha faclan eile air an leasachadh air , mar a bhiodh dùil. Tha na leanas againn airson madadh-allaidh – fiadh-chù, marbh-chù, cù-fàsaich, coille-chù agus cù geàrr. Ach ’s dòcha gur e an ceann-fhacal as inntinniche – faol – a nochdadh gu h-eachdraidheil na dhreach meanbhain faolan ‘madadh-allaidh beag’. Tha Naomh Faolan ainmeil ann an eachdraidh nan Gàidheal, agus ’s iomadh duine a bhuineas don chinneadh MacIllFhaolain an-diugh. Tha faol a’ nochdadh ann an Dwelly cuideachd mar faol-chù, faol-allaidh agus faol-ulaith. ’S dòcha gum faicear buaidh na Seann Lochlannais anns an fhear mu dheireadh – ’s e ulfr am facal a bh’ aca airson madadh-allaidh. Tha Am Faoilleach, a rèir choltais, stèidhichte air àm nuair a thigeadh na madaidhean-allaidh às na coilltean, agus an t-acras orra. Gu traidiseanta bha Am Faoilleach a’ dol eadar meadhan January agus meadhan February.

Captive European Wolves (Canis lupus), Highland Wildlife Park. ©Lorne Gill For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or

©Lorne Gill

Gaelic words for ‘Wolf’

There is a remarkable number of headwords in Dwelly’s Gaelic dictionary which correspond to the English ‘wolf’, despite the fact that the animal became extinct in Scotland (most likely) in the eighteenth century. The one in commonest usage today is madadh-allaidh ‘savage wild dog’; some of the madadh names in our landscape may refer to the wolf, although the fox can also be called madadh-ruadh ‘russet wild dog’. Other madadh-based terms for the wolf are alla-mhadadh ‘savage wild dog’, madadh-mòr and mòr-mhadadh ‘great wild dog’, and madadh-gul ‘wailing wild dog’.

Captive European Wolf (Canis lupus), Highland Wildlife Park. ©Lorne Gill For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or

©Lorne Gill

Other names are based on – traditionally a hound, but more modernly any type of dog. For the wolf, we have fiadh-chù ‘wild dog’, marbh-chù ‘dead ie killing dog’, cù-fàsaich ‘wilderness dog’, coille-chù ‘forest dog’ and cù-geàrr ‘short dog’. But perhaps the most interesting headword is faol which was historically used in its diminutive form faolan ‘little wolf’ as a man’s name. St Fillan is the anglicised form of Naomh Faolan, and many MacLellans carry a clan name derived from him (MacIllFhaolain ‘son of a follower of Faolan’). Faol appears as faol-chù, faol-allaidh and faol-ulaith, the last perhaps being influenced by the Old Norse ulfr ‘wolf’. The month of January in Gaelic is Am Faoilleach, generally interpreted as the ‘wolf-ravaging time’; it originally represented an older Gaelic ‘month’, from mid-January to mid-February.

Posted in Gaelic, Scottish Natural Heritage

Introducing: Why invest in nature? a short film competition

Young filmmakers with a passion for nature are being sought for our new competition that aims to encourage businesses to see the benefits of the natural world.  We have joined forces with the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital (SFNC) to help promote why businesses should care for and invest in nature.  Rebecka Bergh, who is helping to organise the competition, explains all.

Why invest in nature? film competition © SNH/Lorne Gill

Why invest in nature? film competition © SNH/Lorne Gill

Businesses depend on nature for resources like timber or water supplies. They also benefit from a range of services provided by nature, such as pollination of crops and nutrient cycling in soils, or healthy environments for people to live in or visit. By making the connections between businesses and nature visible, we hope that decision-makers in all sectors will see the benefits of protecting Scotland’s nature and make certain that it prospers. We need to move towards a society where we live within the resource boundaries of the planet and don’t damage our natural environment or the species that live within it.  Businesses need to be part of that transition.  Caring for, and investing in, nature is vital for long-term business operations and will provide benefits for the whole of society, such as improving public health and well being.

Natural Capital Film competition - tell a story

We want to give businesses and policymakers a better understanding of how they both rely and impact on nature, to make sure that Scotland’s environment can thrive.  Therefore, we’re looking for short films to communicate this message to businesses, and we’re looking for help from young people.  This is a part of our work to continue the legacy of Scotland’s Year of Young People and to give young people an opportunity to influence businesses and the future of their natural environment.

This competition is an opportunity for those aged 16-30 to demonstrate their creative skills and present a convincing case for business investment in nature that will benefit all of us. Plus, there are some great prizes up for grabs!

There are six different categories on offer, each representing key business sectors in Scotland with an interest in nature. These include food, drink and agriculture, forestry and land management, energy, the built environment, tourism and finance. The winner of each of our six categories will receive £500 and one overall winner will be chosen to receive an additional £500.   We are backed by businesses from each sector that will sponsor the category prizes and also be a part of the judging panel.  These include Scottish Woodlands, Scottish Land & Estates, Baillie Gifford, Scottish Power, Robertson Tayside – part of Robertson group and Speyside Wildlife. For some of the categories there are also additional prizes from the sponsors, aiming to encourage the young person’s learning and development.

In addition, we’re also collaborating with Creative Scotland and YoungScot to reach a broad range of young people. We’d like to see participants who have an interest in environmental issues but also those with a passion for storytelling and film-making. With the competition running from early spring into early summer, it allows for some beautiful landscape footage, but we also encourage a range of video entries such as animations or stop motion. We are excited to bring together young people and businesses in this creative project and to raise awareness of the importance of businesses caring for and investing in Scotland’s environment.

Natural Capital film competition - tell a story

Video entries must highlight why businesses should invest in nature and how business can play a role in protecting and rebuilding our environment, and will be used in our future work with businesses. The competition will run between the 18 February and 31 May 2019, with the winner being announced in June. Find out more about the competition here together with the terms and conditions for entering.

Best of luck to those participating!

For inspiration, here is a short film, from Scottish Forum on Natural Capital showcasing the importance of Scotland’s natural capital:



Posted in Natural Capital, Year of Young People, Young people | Tagged , , , ,

Tiny shells and hidden animals

Do you like snails? The gastropod molluscs commonly found in your garden are probably the first thing that spring to mind. Or maybe you smell garlic and see a yummy plate of l’escargot.  However, this small word covers an array of species, in fact most gastropods (meaning literally ‘belly foot’) that have a shell into which they retract: whelks, winkles, cockles, razor shells, freshwater pearl mussels and many more species are basically snails! Nigel Buxton, our Natura Project Manager, tells us about the importance of Protected Areas for some of Scotland’s lesser-known land snail species.


Snail on dune grass, (C) SNH/Lorne Gill

Common land snails come in an impressive range of shapes and sizes – with around 120 species in the UK alone. In Britain the garden snail, one of the largest land snails, is well known especially to gardeners!  There are also white-lipped snails, brown-lipped snails, banded snails, glass snails, chrysalis snails, even edible snails; most of these are less than 2 cm in size.

Now imagine a land snail that can have a shell 20 cm long and 10 cm high; that’s the giant African land snail, one of the world`s largest land molluscs. This is a very successful species, originally from east Africa but now naturalised in many parts of the world where, with the ability to survive down to 2⁰C, it is a highly invasive and damaging agricultural pest.  Thankfully it does not occur in Britain where, as you well know, temperatures frequently fall well below 2⁰C!

This giant snail has often been promoted as a pet, contributing significantly to the invasive non-native species problem:  because it is hermaphrodite, a single individual has the capability to produce fertile eggs – over 1,000 in a single year. In the US the potential for agricultural damage is recognised as so severe it is now illegal to have one as a pet or to bring one into the country.

Our numerous land snail species utilise a variety of habitats and are widely distributed across the countryside, including our Protected Areas. Except where calcium is scarce (essential for building shells), all Protected Areas will support species of snails, from the banded white and brown lipped snails of grassland and hedge banks, to the abundant sandhill and pointed snails found in seaside sand dunes and machair.

In contrast to the giant African land snail, some of Scotland`s most important snails are tiny; these are the whorl snails. Three whorl species live in Scotland – Geyer`s whorl snail, the narrow-mouthed whorl snail and the round-mouthed whorl snail – all of which are less than 2 mm in size!  Desmoulin`s whorl snail, the largest species at 2.6 mm long, occurs only in England & Wales.

These tiny snails have restricted distributions within which they are scarce – although knowledge of numbers and locations is constrained because they are so hard to see!  Nevertheless, their conservation importance is such that they are identified as features on some Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) in Scotland.


Geyer’s whorl snail, (C) Dr Roger Key

At Garron Point SAC, in Aberdeenshire, the narrow-mouthed whorl snail is the site’s only protected feature. Geyer`s whorl snail occurs on three Scottish SACs in the eastern and central Highlands and may be found alongside the round-mouthed whorl snail. These species apparently flourished in postglacial conditions but climatic change has greatly reduced their range so that they are now known only at widely scattered European localities including northern Scandinavia, the Swiss Alps, to Britain and Ireland. Round-mouthed whorl snails are a protected feature on two of our SACs and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

With innocuous, hard-to-see species like whorl snails that are found at restricted locations and have limited overall range, you can see how vulnerable these animals are. With rapid ongoing climate change it is vital to avoid unwitting damage to these locations and to focus optimum management on those sites we know about. These tiny snails highlight where Scotland`s Protected Areas can be of paramount importance, especially when continued survival is both tenuous and sensitively balanced.

Our network includes more than 1500 protected areas across Scotland that are nature’s special places. Some are nature reserves managed by SNH or charities, but most are privately owned, and most have good public access thanks to Scotland’s Outdoor Access legislation.  SNH plays a key role in looking after these sites and monitoring their wildlife. Do you know where your local protected areas are and why they are important? How many have you visited? For more information on these amazing places visit Sitelink.

Six snail facts

  • Our common garden snails can reach a top speed of about 45 metres per hour (or 75cm in a minute).
  • Snails can see and smell but they can’t hear. Most land snails have two sets of tentacles, the upper ones carry the eyes and the lower ones are used for smelling.
  • Hermaphrodite snails have both male and female reproductive organs, however, they usually still mate with another snail, with both partners laying eggs.
  • Snails have a courtship process for attracting a mate, which can last between 2 and 10 hours.
  • Snails tend to live for between two and five years, however in captivity some can live for up to 25 years.
  • Snails are surprisingly strong and can lift up to ten times their body weight.

Photo Credits

Common chrysalis snail, (C) Christophe Quintin, Creative Commons

Underside of snail, (C) Vicki, Creative Commons

Giant African snail, (C) Malcolm Manners, Creative Commons

Giant African snail mating, (C) Tim Ellis, Creative Commons

Pointed snail, (C) Katja Schulz, Creative Commons

White-lipped snail, (C) Martin Cooper, Creative Commons

Narrow-mouthed whorl snails, (C) Museu Valencia Historia Natural

Narrow-mouthed whorl snail on palm, (C) Dr Matt Law

Posted in biodiversity, climate change, Insects, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Short-eared owls dazzle at Forvie

Our guest blog this week is written by our SNH former colleague, Ron Macdonald. Now retired from the day job, Ron is still staying busy, chairing the North East Biological Records Centre and serves on the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Committee – when he’s not watching short-eared owls in the beautiful North East of Scotland!

Short-eared owl quartering the Coastal grassland 2 - copyright Ron Macdonald

Short-eared owl quartering the Coastal grassland ©Ron Macdonald

I’ve come to Forvie National Nature Reserve in Aberdeenshire to watch one of my favourite birds, the short-eared owl.

Definitely five, and possibly up to seven, have been here since October quartering the coastal heath and dune grasslands. They’ll stay until March when they return to their breeding areas or until their prey is so depleted they decide to move on.

The short-eared owl is a beautiful bird, with golden yellow irises and black pupils set against black mascara-like feathers, making their eyes stand out. The effect is a piercing stare that literally stops you in your tracks.

Short-eared owl 1 - copyright Ron Macdonald

Short-eared owl. © Ron Macdonald

Like most owls, it’s primarily a nocturnal hunter, preying upon small rodents, particularly voles and field mice, but also small birds such as meadow pipits and reed buntings. One of the Gaelic names for an owl is cailleach-oidhche and this literally translates as ‘old woman of the night’. They also hunt during daylight, flying slowly in large or tight arcs as they quarter the ground, with occasional quick beats of their wings and then a slow glide until, on hearing a movement below, they hover, then pirouette- like, fold their wings and dive talons first into the vegetation to snatch prey.

Following the ‘Forvie’ owls over the last four months is addictive. I can’t get enough of seeing them hunt, a love that’s shared by many, especially wildlife photographers who are attracted by their photogenic good looks and interesting behaviour.

Understandably for a bird that hunts primarily by locating its prey by sound, I come across them much more frequently when winds are lighter and it’s dry. Presumably it’s both the sound of the wind and rain and the rustling of the vegetation that is the reason. Anything beyond 15mph or light rain and it’s likely there will be a no show.

During inclement weather owls hunker down, often several together in long heather or grass, waiting it out until the wind or rain abates. During one recent hooley, two owls flew up as I stumbled across Forvie’s moor.

On dry nights with light winds, they will be feeding for most of the time, and if they’ve fed well, will become elusive during the morning, presumably resting in the long vegetation. They reappear again in the afternoon: early afternoon if the wind and rain have been strong or heavy in the days before and later if night hunting has been good. Like all predators, they only hunt when they have to.

Their success rate is surprisingly low-less than 10% of attacks I observed were successful. Some owls will consume their prey there and then, occasionally mantling it with their wings, before swallowing it whole. Bigger prey, such as birds and larger rodents are plucked before eating. I’ve also seen owls caching small rodents, creating a food store for when the weather or lack of prey makes it difficult to hunt.

When the owls reappear together in the afternoon, I’ve seen them fly over, splitting to go to different parts of the reserve. Aerial skirmishes are frequent, chasing each other and occasionally locking talons, with grating calls that show their annoyance. These don’t last long, the need to hunt overcoming any initial aggression. Owls will actively chase away kestrels from the area they are hunting over. However, all this changes if a food item is captured with other owls, kestrels and crows quickly zeroing in to try and rob the prey. Kestrels are particularly quick and successful at snatching food.

Short-eared owl - face-off between short-eared owl and kestrel trying to steal its prey - copyright Darren Dawson

A face-off between a short-owl and kestrel trying to steal its prey. © Darren Dawson

Over the months, I’ve come to recognise individual owls by their size and plumage patterns and also by behaviour and feeding strategies. Males are smaller than females and one of these that I call ‘Blondie’ because of its very pale plumage will allow you to approach much closer than the others. In general, short-eared owls are tolerant of people and will pass within a few yards. This is only in winter as during the breeding season they are very vulnerable to disturbance and nest predation. If they perch close-by, you will know when they become alarmed by the manner in which they raise their ear tufts or adopt a hunched pose and by the way they change their face shape with the eyes staring you down. Occasionally, they will hiss, telling you to back off.

Short-eared owl - hissing - copyright Ron Macdonald

A short-eared owl displaying threat behaviour to a nearby owl. © Ron Macdonald

Another one of the owls has a very ginger tone to its plumage (yes I call it Ginger) and this bird frequently hunts over the scrub willow that surrounds Sand loch, diving into bushes in its effort to catch the small birds like reed buntings that feed and roost there. It’s even been seen to take an interest in a snipe which was flushed, although it quickly gave up the chase.

It’s likely some of the Forvie owls are from continental Europe, as shown by UK ringing recoveries. They mix with our native birds, which breed in the uplands and on islands such as the Uists and Orkney. With the coming of winter, our short-eared owls leave the uplands and move to feed and roost on the coast, favouring grasslands and heaths. However, they are occasionally also found in open scrubby woodland and on tidal salt marshes.

From 1970 to 2010, the short-eared owl has been lost from nearly half of its former UK breeding range (Breeding Bird Atlas 2007-11, British Trust for Ornithology) with a similar 50% reduction in the breeding population. The current UK population is estimated to be between 610-1240 pairs, the wide margin a reflection of how difficult it is to census the species. Scientists believe the actual term figure is closer to 610 pairs. It is now a rare UK breeding bird in urgent need of conservation management.

Short-eared owl hunting with visitors in the background - copyright Michele Emslie

Short-eared owl hunting with visitors in the background © Michele Emslie

So what has caused the halving of the population in the last 50 years? One possible reason is that while our conifer plantations are very attractive in their establishment phase, with wide expanses of rough grassland rich in rodent and small bird prey, as they mature, they close in and the habitat becomes much less attractive to owls.

However, there well may be other reasons, as yet unknown, why we have seen such a dramatic decline. Current research by the British Trust for Ornithology in Scotland, using satellite tags, is looking at the owls’ habitat requirements throughout the year and hopefully this will reveal the key factors that determine their survival.

The results of the tagging are also showing just how nomadic they are. The map below shows the remarkable movements of a female SEO tagged as a breeding adult in May 2017 up to November 2018. In the two breeding seasons this bird has been tracked, it has nested three times in two countries, at least twice successfully fledging young. In common with other females which were followed, she left her young within weeks of hatching, leaving the male to finish rearing them to independence.

Short-eared owl blog - map

The large-scale movements of a satellite tagged owl in 2018 – Copyright British Trust for Ornithology

In the month or so before the owls return to their breeding areas I’ll continue to enjoy the ‘nomads of the sky’. Do please visit to see the owls and if I’m around I’d be more than happy to share my knowledge. I’ll be the one singing the 60’s classic rock and roll song, ‘The Wanderer’ –

♪They call me the wanderer
Yeah, the wanderer
I roam around, around, around♪

SEO at sunset on the Forvie NNR for SM - Copyright Ron Macdonald

Owl at sunset on the Sands of Forvie National Nature Reserve © Ron Macdonald

I wish to thank the following people: Dr John Calladine of BTO Scotland, who is leading the short-eared owl research programme, kindly provided advice and the map showing the movements of the satellite tagged female. However he is not responsible for my anecdotal musings. I also wish to thank Darren Dawson, Charlie Davidson, Lone Kiter and Michele Emslie for allowing me to use their fantastic photos.

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH | Tagged , , , , , , , ,