Uilebheistean a’ Chuain / Gaelic Sea Monsters

An e fìor chreutairean a bh’ anns a’ chionaran-crò agus cìrean-cròin? / Are the great Gaelic sea-monsters merely creatures of myth?

Uilebheistean Iongantach a’ Chuain

Tha creutairean car annasach nar dualchas a tha a’ fuireach fon mhuir, leithid mhaighdeannan-mara agus ròin a tha a’ dèanamh cruth-atharrachadh gu bhith nan daoine, ach ’s dòcha nach eil gin dhiubh cho annasach ris a’ chìrean-cròin. Ge bith dè an seòrsa beathaich a bh’ ann – muc-mhara no mòr-ghibearnach no rudeigin gu tur mac-meanmnach – a rèir an rainn seo, bhiodh e gu math acrach aig amannan!

The_Adventure_of_the_Giant_Squid

Am mòr-ghibearnach – modail airson a’ chìrean chròin? / The giant squid – a model for the cìrean cròinon. Illustration by N.C.Wyeth.

Seachd sgadain sàth bradain, Seachd bradain sàth ròin,Seachd ròin sàth mial-mhòr-mhara,Seachd mial sàth cìrein-cròin. Tha rann car coltach a-mach air creutair dhen aon seòrsa air an robh an cionaran-crò:Seachd sgadain sàth bradain, Seachd bradain sàth ròin,Seachd ròin sàth muc-mhara bheag,Seachd mucan-mara beaga, sàth muc-mhara mhòr,Seachd mucan-mara mòra, sàth cionarain-crò,Seachd cionarain-crò, sàth mial mhòr a’ chuain.

Chruinnich Alasdair MacIlleMhìcheil (Charmina Gadelica) naidheachd mun chionaran-chrò aig bodach aois 84 bliadhna ann an Nis ann an Leòdhas – Aonghas Gunnach a bh’ air a bhith a’ fuireach roimhe ann an Rònaigh, eilean beag cuantach, tuath air Nis. A rèir Aonghais chòir, bha Naomh Rònan air tighinn a Nis airson na daoine a thoirt gu Crìosd. Ach cha robh gnothaichean a’ dol gu math dha, agus bha na daoine uabhasach fhèin aimhreiteach is buaireanta. Rinn e ùrnaigh airson a bhith air a thoirt air falbh gu àite sìtheil, agus nochd aingeal sa bhad. Chaidh innse do Rònan gun robh cionaran-crò a’ feitheamh ris shìos aig laimrig.

Mother_and_baby_sperm_whale

Muc-mhara spùtach agus a h-isean – biadh airson cionaran-crò? / A sperm whale and calf – prey for a cionaran-crò? (C)Gabriel Barathieu

Chaidh an naomh air muin a’ chionarain-chrò a thug e, os cionn na mara, gu ruige eilean beag (air a bheil Rònaigh a-nise), anns an robh creutairean annasach beò – nathraichean nimhe, grìbheanan ìneach agus leòmhannan beucach. Theich na creutairean seo an comhair an cùil ron fhear naomh. Thairis air na creagan don mhuir a chaidh iad (a’ fàgail nach fhaighear leòmhann ann an Rònaigh an-diugh!) agus ’s e sin as coireach gu bheil comharran de sgrìobadh air creagan an eilein. Fhuair Rònan sìth bho mhuinntir Nis, ach chan eil fios dè thachair don chionaran-chrò. Saoil a bheil e a-muigh an sin fhathast ann an dubh-aigeann a’ chuain?!

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Eilean Rònaigh – dachaigh do chreutairean neònach, a rèir Aonghais Ghunnaich / The island of Rona – home to strange animals, according to Angus Gunn. (C)Roddy MacDonald

Sea Monsters of Gaelic Myth

Gaelic tradition has stories of mermaids and seals that take on human form, and even of people that live beneath the sea, but perhaps the strangest are the sea-monsters which operate at the top end of the food chain, although their taxonomic affiliation remains unclear. Are they perhaps giant cephalopods? Or massive cetaceans? Or simply creatures of the imagination? Whatever the truth might be, the following traditional rhyming verse gives us a glimpse of their appetites.

Seachd sgadain sàth bradain,

Seachd bradain sàth ròin,

Seachd ròin sàth mial-mhòr-mhara,

Seachd mial sàth cìrein-cròin.

Seven herrings a salmon’s fill, Seven salmon a seal’s fill, Seven seals a great whale’s fill, Seven whales the fill of a cìrean cròin.

That makes the cìrean-cròin one mighty animal, if one presumes that the predatory whale in question can eat seven seals at a sitting! Another similar verse calls the unidentified animal a cionaran-crò, but has an extra line in which seven of them make a meal for an even greater whale (mial mhòr a’ chuain). Both cìrean-cròin and cionaran-crò defy interpretation, and it is presumed that mial refers to a whale (as it does in Irish Gaelic), although the modern Scottish term is muc-mhara, literally ‘sea-pig’. The word mial is archaic in Scottish Gaelic and originally stood for ‘animal’ (marine or terrestrial), so perhaps it is not here a whale, but another great unidentified denizen of the deep.

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Muc-mhara mhioncaidh a’ briseadh na fairge. Bhiodh an cìrean cròin mòran na bu mhotha / A minke whale breaching. The cìrean cròin would dwarf it in size. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

Alexander Carmichael (of Carmina Gadelica fame) collected a story of the cionaran-crò – and other mythical, but terrestrial, creatures – from 84 year-old Angus Gunn in Ness on the Isle of Lewis. Gunn had previously lived on the remote oceanic island of (North) Rona, north of Ness. He told Carmichael that Saint Ronan came to Lewis to convert the people to Christianity, and built himself a prayer-house in Ness. But he was unhappy at the quarrelsome nature of the people, and prayed to be removed. An angel told him to go down to a laimrig, a natural landing-rock, where the cionaran-crò awaited him.

Ronan sat on the back of the great beast which ‘flew over the sea’ to reach the island which, at that time, was full of ‘biting adders, taloned griffins, poisonous snakes, and roaring lions’! Then, ‘all the beasts of the island fled before the holy Ronan and rushed backwards over the rocks into the sea’, leaving the rocks grooved and scratched ‘with the claws and the nails of the unholy creatures’. And that, of course, is the reason there are no lions on Rona today!

Ronan found peace from the people of Ness on his little island, but nobody knows what happened to the cionaran-crò. Perhaps it’s still out there … somewhere.

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Eilean Rònaigh à Sùla Sgeir / Rona from the Island of Sulasgeir, (C)geograph.org.uk

Posted in coastal, Folklore, Gaelic, History, mammals, Marine, Scottish Natural Heritage, sea life, SNH, Uncategorized, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Marine Operations Officer Jane Dodd

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’re joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month we join Jane Dodd, a marine operations officer based in Oban, on fieldwork to study the critically endangered common or flapper skate, which took place at the start of the month before coronavirus restrictions.

Jane Dodd

Jane at work ©James Thorburn

Skate spend a lot of their time in water deeper than 100m, so while angling might seem a strange way to study a species, if it’s done well it can help us to learn a lot about them. Today we’re collecting data to help us try to determine when and where the skate lay eggs. Ultrasound images of the ovaries help us to see whether the skate are in breeding condition and blood samples will be analysed for reproductive and stress related hormones.

We are also fitting long-term acoustic tags to provide more detail on the movement of the skate in between captures. Acoustic receivers are stationed throughout the Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area (MPA) and they record when the tagged skate come with ~500m. The tags will track the movements of the skate for around 10 years.

Skate 1

Imaging the ovaries of a skate using ultrasound ©Jane Dodd

The team arrives at Dunstaffnage Marina early and we load MV Bluefin with our equipment for the day. The 40 minute steam from the marina to the fishing mark is nice and calm and our skipper, Roger, drops the anchor, baits up the barbless hooks with large mackerel and drops the lines down while we get our equipment ready.

And then we wait, and wait, and wait until…at 11:30 a rod whirs and we have a skate! I put on a harness and start to reel in the fish. Forty-five minutes and a fair amount of effort later a large female skate appears at the surface and she is landed through the back gate of the boat.

Skate 2

A skate is fitted with a long-term acoustic tag ©Roger Eaton

I scan her with our PIT tag scanner while Ed Lavender, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews, checks the number against the list of previously acoustic tagged fish and we find a match – we have tagged this fish before! Another team member Georgina Cole, a vet at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, gives the skate a thorough check and ultrasound while James Thorburn, also of the University of St Andrews, collects blood samples.  After we take a photograph of the skate for Skatespotter– an online resource for tracking skate movements – she is lifted into the water and swims away from the boat.

Skate 3

A skate swimming away on release ©Jane Dodd

While Roger baits up the lines again, I check Skatespotter. The tag number corresponds to a 92kg (202lb) female we have seen eight times since 2014. The photos and the tag records, submitted to us voluntarily by skippers running skate angling trips and private anglers, tell us that the skate are making repeated use of the area.

We don’t have to wait long before we get another bite. This time it’s a smaller female (50kg, 110lb). I check the tag number against our list and she has not been acoustically tagged but is known to us, she has been caught 16 times since 2014! We turn the skate onto her back on the specially designed mattress and, as with the first skate, Fenella Wood from the University of Aberdeen, turns on the oxygen cylinder and the water pump so we can deliver oxygenated seawater to the skate’s gills.

Skate 4

The skate is lifted using a sling and water is poured through the gills until it is released ©Jane Dodd

We check her respirations and heart every few minutes and monitor the time the skate has been on the deck while Georgina fits the tag and James takes blood samples. James also ultrasounds the ovaries and saves the images for analysis later. Five of us work on the skate and we still need Roger to pass us the odd thing because there isn’t much room to move around her on the deck! After 20 minutes we turn the skate back over and lift her through the door at the back of the boat using a sling. She slides gracefully into the water, flaps her wings and swims down.

Skate 5

A skate is released back to the sea ©Jane Dodd

We stash everything away against the blustery showers and wait again. The skate live in such deep water we really are at their mercy, if they don’t bite we don’t see any! I am learning to be more patient but sometimes sitting at anchor in a rolling sea isn’t the most pleasant experience, although foot warmers and motion sickness tablets do help! Today we manage to catch and study two more skate before it’s time to pack up, lift the anchor and return to Dunstaffnage. It’s been a successful day – the tag data will allow us to check the status of flapper skate within the MPA, while the ultrasound and blood samples will help us learn more about the ecology of this little-understood species.

Angling on a “catch and release” basis has provided a huge amount of background data about skate, and helped to justify the designation of the MPA for the protection of the species. We are very grateful for the continued contribution of anglers to the monitoring of skate in the MPA. Our Skate Handling Best Practice Guide available on the Skatespotter website has been developed with the help of experienced skate skippers to prevent damage to skate during angling.

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

#YCW2020: A spotlight on our freshwater and wetland habitats for World Water Day

This year’s message for World Water DayWater and Climate Change – Everyone Has a Role to Play – stresses the need for us to use water wisely and care for our watery habitats and species. With increasingly extreme changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, water may become more unpredictable or scarce. Clean and healthy waters are a valuable part of our nature-rich future. Find out how SNH is working to protect and restore them for future generations.

WWD photo - Little Gruinard River - Lorne Gill (A3196022)

Little Gruinard River ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland is renowned for the beauty of its rivers, lochs and wetlands, and these waters are valued by residents and visitors alike. Activities such as kayaking, open water swimming, riverside walks or a simple game of Pooh sticks enrich our personal wellbeing and happiness. With a high annual rainfall, Scotland’s watercourses flow throughout our land, carving the landscape to produce a wide range of specialised habitats. Waterfalls, mountain streams and corrie pools in the uplands contrast dramatically with larger lochs, wetlands and slower-flowing rivers in the lowlands.

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Waterfall ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Freshwater and wetland habitats provide a variety of ‘ecosystem services’ – benefits that are vital to our way of life. We rely directly on water for domestic, agricultural and industrial uses. Less obvious are the ‘regulating’ benefits provided by these habitats.  Water quality is maintained by natural filtration – an ongoing catchment process which helps to keep our waters free of finer sediments whilst recycling nutrients and maintaining fertile floodplains.

Flood peaks are buffered by slowing the flow of water downstream, and rivers with a natural connection to their floodplain are better able to protect us from the impacts of flooding, erosion and drought. All of these services will become more valuable as the impacts of climate change intensify. As such, we have an important role to play in maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystems to enhance their resilience.

SNH is working with land managers and other organisations to take action on climate change. At our Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve, one of the UK’s largest bogs, a wetland feature called lagg fen is being created around the moss edge by sealing off old drainage ditches and building a bund of compressed peat and clay to hold up water flowing off the peatland. This marshy area helps the bog by raising the water table, making it wetter and more resilient in dry periods. The lagg fen is also a valuable wetland habitat in its own right: at Flanders, snipe and teal love it! The production of organic beef from the cattle that graze there is an added bonus.

SNH is also currently assessing the potential effects of climate change on water scarcity in wetlands across Scotland. Climate data are being analysed to indicate sites at greatest risk from prolonged summer drought. This work will provide us with mitigation strategies to help prevent negative impacts on these precious habitats.

Meanwhile our Biodiversity Challenge Fund is supporting a number of riparian planting projects across Scotland, funding planting of native deciduous trees alongside riverbanks to increase shading. The creation and restoration of riverside woodland in Sutherland, Aberdeenshire and the Borders will benefit fish, invertebrates and other animals by reducing water temperatures during the height of summer, whilst enhancing other aspects of in-stream habitat through inputs of leaf litter and woody debris.

WWD photo - Riverside tree planting on the River Muick to increase shading - Lorne Gill (A3196045)

Riverside tree planting on the River Muick to increase shading © Lorne Gill/SNH

Salmon and trout are especially vulnerable, as warm rivers can severely affect their growth and survival. Consequently, Marine Scotland has been developing computer models to predict changes in river temperatures across Scotland, and highlight stretches that will become the warmest and most vulnerable to summer peaks. These models will help to inform new tree planting strategies; by planting on southern banks, alongside shallow areas or slower flowing waters, the benefits of shading can be maximised.

Understanding and adapting to the water effects of climate change will protect human health and our way of life, while strengthening the resilience of our freshwater and wetland habitats. We can all play a part in the wise use of water and contribute to the future protection of this valuable resource.

The World Water Day website offers you more information and resources to help your celebrate, understand and promote the special value of water. Please visit SNH’s Managing Freshwater page for more information on the conservation and management of these habitats.

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

Sgeul Allt a’ Bhradain / The Story of the Salmon’s Burn

Tha mòr-sgeul air cùl ainm-àite inntinneach ann an Loch Abar / A sadly fulfilled prophecy lies behind a fishy place-name in Lochaber …

Bàs Gormshuil agus Allt a’ Bhradain

’S dòcha gu bheil e na iongnadh do chuid nach eil am bradan (no am breac mar a chanas cuid) a’ nochdadh nas trice air mapaichean na dùthcha. Tha Eas nam Bradan ann, aig ceann Loch Aineoirt anns an Eilean Sgitheanach, ceart gu leòr, ach chan eil a leithid de dh’ainm-àite pailt.

waterfall-near-loch-ainort

Waterfall near Loch Ainort (Ceiniog, Mar 2009)
Isle of Skye (TripAdvisor.co.uk)

Tha eisimpleir inntinneach aig ceann an iar-dheas Loch Lòchaidh, anns a’ Ghleann Mhòr, far a bheil Allt a’ Bhradain. Tha an t-ainm a’ tighinn à tachartas sònraichte a bha uaireigin ainmeil ann an Loch Abar, anns an robh a’ bhana-bhuidseach, Gormshuil na Maighe, an sàs. Bha i a’ fuireach sa Mhaigh, deas air Loch Lòchaidh.

Bha i na Camshronach tro phòsadh agus a sinnsearachd, agus bha i mar sin dìleas don cheann-chinnidh, Camshron Loch Iall, a bha a’ fuireach ann an Achadh na Cairidh, eadar Loch Lòchaidh agus Loch Airceig. Turas a bha seo, shàbhail i beatha a’ chinn-chinnidh le bhith ag innse dha mu fhoill na aghaidh aig Iarla Athall, agus an dithis cheannardan gu bhith a’ coinneachadh ri chèile ann am Bàideanach. Bha an Camshronach taingeil airson na comhairle, agus air an rathad dhachaigh, chaidh e a thadhal air Gormshuil. ‘A dh’aindeoin ur faclan coibhneis,’ thuirt i ris, ‘crochaidh sibh mo mhac latha air choreigin.’

A male fish leaping a waterfall on the River Almond, Perthshire.

A male fish leaping a waterfall

Ist,’ thuirt an ceann-cinnidh, ‘chan eil agad ach tighinn thugam agus – eadhon ged a bhiodh do mhac airidh air crochadh – nì mi cinnteach gum bi e air a shàbhaladh.’

Ùine an dèidh sin, bha mac Gormshuil anns a’ mhonadh le dithis charaidean nuair a chaidh na gillean eile a-mach air a chèile. Mharbh fear dhiubh am fear eile. B’ e am murtair an t-aon mhac aig banntrach bhochd. Dh’iarr Gormshuil air a’ ghille aice fhèin a ràdh gum b’ esan am murtair, agus gun leigeadh ise mu sgaoil e, le bhith a’ bruidhinn ri Loch Iall. Chaidh an gille mar sin gu Achadh na Cairidh, dh’aidich e a ‘chiont’, agus chaidh a thilgeil don toll-dubh.

Chaidh Gormshuil an uair sin a bhruidhinn ris a’ cheann-chinnidh ach, mu mhìle gu leth goirid air an taigh mhòr, chunnaic i bradan ann an linne ann an allt. Chaidh i air a glùinean airson am bradan a ghlacadh le a làmhan. Aig an dearbh mhòmaid sin, chaidh maoim-uisge sìos an t-allt gun rabhadh, chaidh Gormshuil a sguabadh a-mach a Loch Lòchaidh agus chaidh a bàthadh. Agus, mar a bhiodh dùil, chaidh an gille aice a chrochadh, dìreach mar a thuirt i. Bhon latha sin, tha Allt a’ Bhradain air a bhith air an allt sin mar ainm.

 

The Burn of the Fateful Salmon

It probably surprises many people that the salmon – king of our beautiful rivers – is not more commonly named on our landscape. The Gaelic for the fish is bradan (dialectally breac), but it is not highly prominent on our maps. An example is Eas nam Bradan ‘the waterfall of the salmon’ at the head of Loch Ainort on Skye. Presumably, it is named for salmon making their way up the waterfall in their time-honoured fashion.

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Fall at the head of Loch Ainort on Skye, Norrie Adamson / Wickimedia.

There is another example of a salmon toponym at the south-western end of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen – Allt a’ Bhradain ‘the burn of the salmon’ – but in this case, the name is reputed, not to come from observations of the fish, but from a famous incident which saw the demise of one of the great witches who lived in Lochaber – Gormshuil Mhòr na Maighe ‘Great Gormshuil of Moy’. Her name Gormshuil (pronounced approximately ‘GOR-OM-ul’ ) means ‘blue eye(s)’. She lived at Moy, which is now on the banks of the Caledonian Canal, south of Loch Lochy.

Gormshuil was in the Cameron clan and so pledged allegiance to the clan chief, Cameron of Lochiel, who lived at Achnacarry, a few miles away, between Loch Lochy and Lock Arkaig. On one occasion, possessing the second-sight, she saved the clan chief’s life by warning him of planned treachery by the Earl of Atholl at a meeting between the two men. On his way home, the Cameron called to her house to thank her. ‘Despite your kind words,’ said Gormshuil, ‘you will one day hang my son.’ The clan chief protested he would do no such thing, that she only had to speak to him, and he would forgive the son his misdemeanour, however serious.

2. Many female Atlantic salmon are returned to the river immediately after capture to allow them to spawn.

Female Atlantic salmon

Some time later, Gormshuil’s son was on the hill with two friends when this pair got into an argument, one of them killing the other. The guilty party was the only son of a poor widow. Gormshuil asked her own son to take the blame for the death, and she would have him released by going to Cameron of Lochiel. The lad went to Achnacarry, said he was the murderer, and was thrown in the dungeon.

Gormshuil then headed to the chief’s house to plead for her son’s life. Fatefully, when about to cross a burn a mile and a half from Achnacarry House, she spied a salmon in a pool. Being a fine food forager, this was too good a chance to miss and she stopped to guddle the fish. As she did so, a sudden torrent came down the burn without warning, and washed Gormshuil into Loch Lochy where she drowned. And, of course, her son was hanged by Lochiel just as she had predicted (sadly she had not foreseen the flash flood!) From that day, the burn has been called Allt a’ Bhradain. At least, that’s the story …

Posted in Folklore, Gaelic, History, SNH, Uncategorized, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Highlights from our Year of Coasts & Waters poetry competition

Our Coast Lines of Tentsmuir poetry project has just had its wonderful finale at StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, at St Andrews’ Byre Theatre. Molly Aldam has been with SNH on a graduate placement since September, working to connect a wider range of communities with our National Nature Reserves in the central belt.  Passionate about environmental engagement through the arts, she’s been running the 2020 Coast Lines of Tentsmuir poetry project, and here shares the winners of the poetry competition…

Our competition saw an explosion of poetic work celebrating Tentsmuir and the Year of Coasts and Waters – and a lot of ‘firsts’.

 

Creative art at the Tentsmuir NNR open day.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Sand art at Tentsmuir NNR

 

The poetry afternoon with StAnza on Wednesday was their first ‘relaxed performance’, challenging the image of a poetry audience as sitting strictly still and silently, to make the reading as inclusive as possible.  In partnership with the charity Promoting a More Inclusive Society (PAMIS), it also saw the first-ever performance of a multi-sensory poem involving people with profound learning disabilities onstage at a mainstream poetry reading.  During Maureen Phillip’s original Tentsmuir multi-sensory poem, Rachel and Ariane gave us recorded birdsong and seal calls, and umbrellas trailing shells floated through the audience.

 

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Multi-sensory poetry from PAMIS

 

Anna Crowe’s poetry reading included her wonderful ‘A Tentsmuir Flora’, while Jim Crumley brought home the troubling projections of sea-level rise with his new work ‘Tentsmuir 2050’.  Valerie Gillies likewise wrote a Tentsmuir poem especially for the event, involving the audience in a lively Scots addition to her Tay sequence.

And over just six weeks leading up to StAnza, my inbox brightened with entries to our poetry competition that were thoughtful, imaginative and of an extremely high quality.  In all of them, a real love of the Tentsmuir coast came through.

I’m absolutely delighted to announce our winner Kathleen Gray and our runners up, Alexia Grosjean and Elizabeth Taylor, whose poems will form a mini poetry trail at the Tayport side of Tentsmuir.

Kathleen Gray is a Tayport local who volunteers with sea eagle monitoring at Tentsmuir.  This is her winning entry:

The Return of the Eagle with the Sunlit Eye

Welcome back, wise bird of the waters.

     Welcome back, you belong to us.

          Welcome back, guardian of seas.

               Welcome back, you are safely home.

 

We know this place.  Passed down from

the old ones.  They spoke of the land between

two estuaries: great Tatha and little sister, Eden.

A washed, water map.

Our friend the great North Sea still strums sand;

greeting us again.  Her bounty of salty, sweet

seal provides.  The clarsach ebbs, flows, the tune

of tides.  Our presence completes this shore song.

Memory of wing, feather, fur, claw, scale, fin.

All that is gone, will return.  We, the harbingers

of hope.

         

               Welcome back, great soarer of the skies.

          Welcome back, to your rightful place.

     Welcome back, a return from exile.

Welcome back, to your sunlight eye.

 

Alexia Grosjean, who also lives in Tayport, was a runner-up:

Tentsmuir

Sink, softly,

into the silken sands.

 

Sea-spray stings

and

seal-song sings.

 

Above,

clouds catch currents

and

sea-eagles soar, serenely.

 

Our other runner-up was Liz Taylor:

Tentsmuir

Shifting sands, drifting sands,

storm and spindrift lifting sands,

an ever-changing line.

Where Tay and Eden greet the sea,

creation and destruction hail

the shifting Sands of Time.

 

Kathleen, Liz and Alexia have been published along with 13 other competition entrants in a poetry pamphlet, which we gave out at the StAnza event and is also available in the hides at Tentsmuir and online from our website.  After our winners delivered their poems at StAnza, we had spontaneous readings from others published in the pamphlet: thank you to the fantastic Jodi Glass, Beth McDonough, Finola Scott and Mary Harwood.

Mary was one of four poets in the pamphlet from a writers’ group in the Hilltown Community Centre, Dundee.  The group made Tentsmuir their January project and came on two trips across the Tay to the reserve, where we did activities such as writing from the perspectives of a sea eagle, the sea, marram grass and a razor shell.  In my main role of running facilitated visits to the NNRs for community groups, I’ve found that engagement happens best through art, as it gets people noticing – as they write about wildlife; as they collect shells and grasses for crafts; and as they take in the natural world and relay it in a personal way.  The arts can help us, as a culture, to shift the focus away from our own species and pay more attention to the needs of whole ecologies.

Although the poetry competition and event is over, we have more creative projects coming up to celebrate coasts and waters at Tentsmuir:

  • On April 9th we will have a drop-in afternoon of Easter nature crafts for families
  • We’re working with the Dundee Rep Theatre’s Community Company to put on a Tentsmuir-inspired performance in Dundee on the 27th June, and a public outdoor theatre workshop on the NNR itself later in the summer.
  • On the 7th and 14th July we will have bushcraft expert Willow Lohr at Tentsmuir, teaching us traditional forest and coastal crafts such as woodcarving and net-making.

I hope you can join us and get inspired at some of these events – do keep an eye on our website for more details!

See our website for more on the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020.

 

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Left to right: Pete Cunningham, Tom Cunningham, Molly Aldam, Kathleen Gray, Alexia Grosjean, Jim Crumley, Liz Taylor, Finola Scoth, Mary Harwood, Jodi Glass, Beth McDonough, Anna Crowe, Valerie Gillies

 

Posted in art, beach, beaches, coastal, Community engagement, Competition, graduate placement, Marine, Nature in art, poetry, Scottish Natural Heritage, sea life, seals, SNH, Uncategorized, Year of Coasts and Waters, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Marine Ornithology Graduate Placement Jen Graham

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’re joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do for the benefit of people and nature. This month we meet Jen Graham, who is working on Marine Ornithology and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) as part of SNH’s graduate placement scheme.

As a graduate placement, I am part of the marine ecosystems team, working on a project  looking at novel ways of monitoring our inshore wintering waterfowl.

The project is multi-faceted, using different methods to survey our seaducks and divers. We have 35 volunteers who visit different sites along the Moray Firth coastline to do land-based surveys, and we also have HiDef’s digital aerial survey team operating alongside this – taking high-quality video of the Moray Firth birds from a ‘birds eye view’!

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Aerial survey plane ©Ravenair

January and February are key months for surveying these species. As migratory species, many of these birds spend the breeding season in the arctic along the coasts of Russia and Northern Europe, coming south to the warmer climes of the UK and Baltic Sea during the winter.

In order to prepare for the surveys I have spent these last few weeks allocating volunteers to different sites and liaising with the digital aerial team about the best dates for weather. Getting everyone lined up on the same day can be tricky, especially in winter. Once the day is decided – it’s time to pack and prepare for the survey itself. We have specific equipment required for surveys: a telescope and tripod, as well as a pair of binoculars and data recording sheets. I also bring a tally counter to help me to keep track of large flocks – and lots of warm layers to be able to stand outside in the cold weather (I’ve occasionally been spotted with a hot water bottle!).

Once at the site, volunteers set up the equipment and record information about the conditions at sea, the equipment we are using and the date and time. Then the fun part begins – looking for the birds! I am always amazed how when I first look out at the sea it looks as though there is nothing there – but once I take a look through the scope, hundreds and thousands of unique and fascinating birds appear on the water. These birds are perfectly adapted to the marine environment – and are remarkably mobile underwater, using their large webbed feet to propel them to find food.

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Volunteers surveying ©Jen Graham

Working from left to right with the scope, we record each species that we see and count the flocks of birds as we see them. This can get challenging as flocks of scoter can be over 4,000 strong! Other species tend to be much more solitary, and can be tough to spot, like the tiny Slavonian grebe. We record various information about flocks such as the bearing to where they were seen, how far out to sea they are and information about the behaviour of the birds. All of this can be used to inform the management of the site in future.

Male and female Eider Ducks.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Male and female Eider ducks ©Lorne Gill/SNH

During all of this the HiDef digital aerial survey plane is flying overhead, taking high quality video of the birds. This will allow comparison counts to be made at a later date. Five of our volunteers were lucky enough to see the survey plane at their site – this will make our comparisons of the methods much more accurate.

Once we have recorded all the birds we have seen, we record the finish time of our survey and pack up to go home – a good day of surveying complete and a cup of tea and biscuit well earned!

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Beautiful views along the Moray Firth ©Jen Graham

For me – the work has just started. All the data collected by the volunteers needs to be collated and entered into the data base. This is a part of my job I really enjoy. Getting to look through the data sheets at all the species recorded is really exciting, and it’s great to see the comments left by volunteers – many of them remark on all of the other interesting species that they have seen – like dolphins and otters! The diversity of species in our Scottish waters is truly breath-taking.

 

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#YCW2020 – Take a dose of nature’s medicine at Tentsmuir

Tentsmuir NNR is a magical coastal reserve, with dynamic dunes and a vast foreshore that looks different at every visit.  The reserve includes Morton Lochs – inland lochs which provide great habitat for a range of birds, butterflies and red squirrels. Water and coasts are definitely at the heart of our work at Tentsmuir NNR, which makes the Year of Coast and Waters 2020 even more special and worthy of celebration. Graduate placement, Marijke Leith, tells us more…

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A view of the South Loch at Morton Lochs – part of Tentsmuir NNR, ©Tom Cunningham/SNH

Dynamic dunes

Tentsmuir Point is in a period of accretion the opposite of erosion where sand is being deposited onto the beach and extending it seaward. Succession is now taking place on the bare sand, with marram grass already growing. Marram grass grows in clumps and has an extensive root network that gives the sand stability. If conditions remain favourable and this continues, it could see new sand dunes forming, but only time will tell.

Seeing these processes happening naturally is amazing and brings what I learned in secondary school biology to life! The sand dunes here also provide great research opportunities for universities and schools to come and study sand dune succession. Dollar Academy students (pictured below) visited the reserve to gather data on ground vegetation cover along transects of the dunes and also soil samples, to later be used in their Environmental Science projects.

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Dollar Academy students collecting data and samples.

Group visits to Tentsmuir

As well as educational visits from schools and universities, there are many other visits by community groups. These group visits are about giving a great outdoor experience and learning about the history of Tentsmuir.  For many people this inspires them to return unguided with their families and friends. Often with the visits from ethnic minority groups, some have not been to the beach before, which makes walking to the edge of the water quite an experience, and in some cases leads to impromptu dancing! Lots of the women say that they would like to bring their families back and we are now planning a family day in June, for the Dundee International Women’s Centre and their families.

Another group that we were more than happy to welcome was the Green Health Prescription Group. This is a project managed by Dundee City Council and NHS Tayside, where patients can be prescribed with nature-based intervention to benefit their health. We were delighted to be one of the prescribed options and a group of 10 came out to enjoy a 2 hour walk. We saw lots of wildlife including oystercatchers, grey seals, goldfinches and mistle thrushes. One lady described the walk as “exercising without feeling like you’re exercising”. I think this is significant and shows how being out in nature can have multiple benefits without us even realising it.

 

Four for the Shore

Litter pollution is a hot topic and has devastating impacts on wildlife, so we decided to take action with our new initiative ‘Four for the Shore’. Four for the Shore gives the public visiting Tentsmuir NNR the equipment needed to collect four pieces of litter (or more) from the foreshore or dunes, and provides designated areas to deposit the equipment and litter at the end of their visit. The litter can be deposited in the fish boxes next to the cabinets and we regularly patrol the sites to remove the litter and either reuse, recycle or dispose of it.

The boxes were made by our volunteers, using leftover wood from previous projects on the reserve. Inside the cabinets we used old tool handles to create pegs that the canvas litter bags can hang on. So far we have had positive feedback and on our launch day with the Dundee Healthy Minds Network we collected multiple bags of litter and the group were surprised at how much can be found on what appears to be a clean beach! Although it’s great that we are removing litter from the environment, we hope over time  that people will become more responsible for their waste and not leave litter to be picked up in the first place.

We also have a variety of events planned to celebrate the Year of Coast and Waters 2020. This includes a poetry event, Easter crafts, a dragonfly pond dipping day and summer bushcraft, with more to be confirmed! For up to date information, like us on Facebook – Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve.

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See our website for more information about Tentsmuir NNR.

All photos (except the top image) ©Marijke Leith.

 

Posted in beach, beaches, coastal, coastal erosion, Community engagement, National Nature Reserves, Natural Health Service, Scottish Natural Heritage, sea life, SNH, Uncategorized, Year of Coasts and Waters, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

A year in the life of a ranger

The days are getting longer, the birds have started singing again and rangers are thinking about their year ahead! In today’s guest blog Emily Wilkins shares highlights from a year in her life as a ranger for the islands of Iona and the southwest of Mull, part of Mull and Iona Ranger Service and working in partnership with Mull and Iona Community Trust (MICT) and the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

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Staffa sunset ©Kate Mennie

Spring is on its way and we are planning our events programme.  Rangers play a key role in increasing participation in enjoying the outdoors, and raising awareness of our natural heritage.  Here on Mull and Iona we try to run a wide selection of weekly events across spring, summer and autumn to cater for a range of interests and abilities, for both visitors and local residents.

Last year these included gentle village walks to listen out for birdsong; coastal rambles spotting wildflowers, marine mammals and fossils in the rocks; a garden bioblitz identifying plants, birds and insects; moorland hikes to investigate the cultural heritage of abandoned townships; and encouraging people to contribute knitted, felted and crocheted creatures and then visit them in situ in our Woollen Woods display at Tiroran Community Forest.

We also link up with community groups where we can, running stalls at local events and supporting landowners working on new footpath projects, encouraging people to be active in the outdoors and providing information on our local wildlife.  During the summer holidays I try to provide extra events for children and young people, often with the help of a summer volunteer ranger.  Offering this volunteer placement provides a good opportunity for an introduction to rangering for someone considering it as a career option, so I try to make sure they get involved in the whole variety of tasks that we cover.

As spring turns into summer we welcome thousands of visitors to our islands – Staffa National Nature Reserve attracts around 100,000 people each year, so this year I will have 2 Visitor Services Assistants to help engage with people, promote responsible access and provide information to make their visit even better!

All those visiting feet do take their toll on the landscape and so another part of ranger work is to maintain paths and countryside infrastructure, and encourage participation in taking positive action for the environment.  I get lots of help from willing volunteers from the local area, and the NTS Thistle Camp working holidays.  Beach cleans are one of our regular tasks linking to the current awareness of marine plastics.  The NTS also employs a professional footpath repair team who contribute some of their time and expertise here each year.

Both Staffa and Burg are part of designated sites, important nationally or internationally for the species and habitats living there, so I spend a lot of time during the summer on wildlife monitoring and surveying, again with a lot of volunteer help.  This could be anything from counting seabird colonies from boats and clifftops, crawling on hands and knees across gravelly hilltops looking for tiny arctic alpine plants or walking down lanes at midnight listening for calling corncrakes!

Approaching autumn is a good time to connect with our local schools, and we could be found running afterschool nature club sessions or working with teachers on outdoor learning projects.  Recent highlights have involved being part of the Lost Words campaign, aiding nature connection by keeping nature vocabulary in use; and being out in all weathers to research and design a new nature trail at Tiroran Community Forest.

Winter tasks can include regular checks of path routes, updating guidebooks, leaflets and signage, responding to storm damage, report writing, and monitoring of migrating species such as geese.

The Mull and Iona Community Ranger Service is supported by Mull and Iona Community Trust, SNH, National Trust for Scotland and Forestry and Land Scotland. SNH is currently consulting on the future of rangering in Scotland and you can have your say here: https://www.nature.scot/connecting-people-and-places-policy-statement-rangering-scotland

 

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SNH celebrates International Day of Women & Girls in Science

Today is International Day of Women & Girls in Science – a day declared by the UN to bring attention to the fact that less than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women. Biases and gender stereotypes are still steering many girls away from careers in science. But here are at Scottish Natural Heritage, we’re bursting with wonderful role models – and we’d like to introduce you to some of them and tell you what inspires them and what they love about their jobs.

lucy and penguins. photo by Sian tarrant

Lucy has studied birds from the Antarctica to the tropics. Photo by John Dickens

Dr Lucy Quinn
As a marine ornithologist, I have travelled the world studying seabirds from the bleak Arctic Circle in Iceland down to the icy cold sub-Antarctica, to the humid tropics, and various places in-between. I’m now so excited to be working back in Scotland, which has some of the best seabird colonies in the world.

My first seabird job was working on the Isle of May for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Being immersed in a seabird colony, living alongside nature, was a real privilege. In the midst of seabirds continues to be where I feel most happy. To try to understand the natural world around us, you really do need to get out there and live in the midst of it!

What I love about my job with SNH is that the work aims to make a positive difference for marine birds in Scotland, and I get to work alongside other dedicated scientists. I would encourage future scientists to get the most out of sharing ideas and collaborate with others where possible. And when it comes to thinking about what you want to do, remember there are no limitations in the jobs you can go for. Surround yourself with positive people and never stop learning. It’s also important to have good mentors around for advice. Above all, it’s about never giving up when you want to achieve something and keeping continued passion for your subject, even though at times it can seem tough. Remember that, as individuals, our own small actions can collectively make a huge difference.

Catriona Reid - high res

Catriona has worked as a nature reserve manager for about 20 years.

Catriona Reid
I’m the manager for Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. Birds were what got me interested in nature in the first place. From there, it’s only a short hop to doing science; science can explain or tell you more about so many of the things I was interested in.

The world is so complex, so infinitely varied and beautiful, it still leaves me breathless. I knew from a fairly young age I wanted to work outdoors in nature conservation (it was that or astronaut, but they need you to be better with numbers than I am, in case you miss the moon), and I am lucky that I have been able to do that for most of the past 20 years.

Managing a nature reserve is a very varied job and, nowadays, I’m as likely to be found with a chainsaw as a clipboard. But science underpins all of our work here. While we might spend a lot of our time carrying out practical management, it’s the science that informs it: what species do we have? Are the declining? If they are, what’s causing it? What can we do to reverse this? Only through good, sound science can we make informed decisions on managing the reserve – or, on a wider scale, the planet.

Karen Rentoul 1

Karen Rentoul is an operations officer in the beautiful Scottish Borders.

Karen Rentoul
For me, it all started as a small child going on family camping, cycling and walking holidays fuelled by Creamola Foam, darting about the countryside and becoming interested in nature.  This led to joining the RSPB Young Ornithologist Club, helping the neighbouring sheep farmer herd and manage sheep in the pens, and walking up Ben Nevis at age nine. All of this inspired me to be interested in the natural world and how it works.  After school, I went to university focussing on environmental biology, with my Honours degree (BSc (Hons)) looking at the genetics of giant hogweed in different river catchments. I then went on to do a Master’s degree (MSc) in environmental protection and management.

My work for SNH is as an operations officer based in the Scottish Borders. My job involves helping farmers apply for environmental funding, and advising on managing and monitoring of designated sites, among other things. But the best part of my job is being on the board of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project, a partnership aiming to reinforce the population of golden eagles in Southern Scotland. It is a wonderful project to be a part of: the most exciting a day for me was at the release site, where we were adding to the food supplies left out on the hill for recently released birds, while they are practicing their hunting techniques. We saw two of the birds in the distance: after a while they took off and passed us, giving us the most spectacular view. I don’t think I will ever forget that experience.

Lesley Watt - shearwater monitoring

Lesley with volunteers on the Isle of Rum.

Lesley Watt
My job is Reserve Manager for Rum National Nature Reserve where I’m responsible for the day-to-day running of the NNR.

One of the best things about my job is working close to nature and the outdoors. I lead on a whole range of tasks from monitoring and research of important species to habitat management and planning and overseeing work on paths.

I love that there is great variety and problem solving in my job and that I get to work with many talented people who I’m constantly learning from. I also love a challenge which definitely helps when you live on a small Scottish island!

I wanted to work in ecology and conservation for as long as I can remember, and it’s thanks to a particularly passionate high school biology teacher that I pursued this. She inspired and encouraged me to achieve a career in an area I love and for that I will always be grateful.

Abi Gardner

Abi in a beautiful landscape!

Abi Gardner
My fascination for learning how landscapes are formed led me to study geography, and later, ecosystem services. However, as time goes on, it’s a growing sense of duty and responsibility that has steered me to working on how human impacts affect the natural world.

Counting monkeys in the Costa Rican jungle, recording deer grazing while climbing Scotland’s Munros, and holding workshops with coastal residents are just some of the work I’ve experienced in my career so far.

With the climate emergency and biodiversity loss taking centre stage politically, it’s more important than ever that scientific research done is effectively and accurately communicated. I’m now part of SNH’s placemaking team, and I work to encourage planners and developers to include more nature-based solutions in their developments, ensuring we design more resilient places for people and nature.

Posted in biodiversity, Diversity, International Year of Girls and Women in Science, Marine, Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, National Nature Reserves, Rum NNR, SNH, STEM, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

Outdoor learning and a life caring for the natural world.

Chris Mackie is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport.  His research – the first to be funded through Scottish Natural Heritage’s Magnus Magnusson studentship – asks whether outdoor learning can foster a desire to care for the natural environment. Here he shares some of his experiences from recent fieldwork with two schools, using their school grounds and local greenspaces for outdoor learning.

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Field border, ©Chris Mackie

In higher education, you’re often told that as your journey progresses, your field of inquiry goes from ’broad and shallow’ to ’narrow and deep’, like a nice neat funnel, pointing in a single direction. At the start of a PhD, it’s tempting to feel that you’re already at the start of the narrowing, and should just be able to follow your nose to the end of it.

Maybe some folk do have this experience, but my education has never felt like that. Instead, I’ve been lucky enough to spend years following tangents and ideas across a few different disciplines and settings – more like grasping at threads blowing in the wind, rather than drilling down in one place.

Thanks to the support of SNH, through the Magnus Magnusson Studentship, I’ve been able to spend the last two years following some of those threads back to their sources, and now I’m in a position to start pulling them all together and weaving something.

My research is looking at what happens when young children go outside at school, mainly with their teachers. I’m interested in this because lots of research and professional experience suggests that outdoor environments provide different opportunities for learning and teaching, as well as a range of outcomes related to health, well-being and connection to nature.

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Mud digging, ©Chris Mackie

Researchers use a range of tools to learn about these different elements, but I think it’s hard to unpick such complexity into subjective human experiences, or statistical generalisations. Instead, I am specifically interested in how spending time in natural environments at school might allow children and teachers to develop the skills and desire to care for the world around them.

To do this, I’m observing the intra-actions between humans, nature and social practices during outdoor learning at school, to form a detailed account of some of the processes that emerge. I use a small video camera, audio recorder and bright orange notebook to try and capture moments where the different parts of this system that we call ‘outdoor learning’ come into relation with each other.

For example, some of the questions I ask when reviewing my observations might include:

  • How do teachers and children talk about, or come to know the natural environments that they are in?
  • Do the play or learning activities represent exploitative, conservationist or other relationships with nature?
  • What elements of these outdoor places are children drawn to?
  • How does this affect the non-human beings that live here, and how does that link to the educational goals of the activity?

This is different from some other research in the field, much of which focuses either on specific ways of teaching and learning outdoors, or measuring outcomes (such as connection to nature or physical activity) in ways that can be scaled up and applied in other situations.

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Hill climb, ©Chris Mackie

Over the last sixth months, I have been visiting two schools regularly and spending time with several primary one and two classes (children aged between 4 and 7). One school is in a village with access to a garden and big old oak trees just over the wall, while the other is a large school in a recently constructed suburban housing development on the edge of a big town. They have quite contrasting approaches to primary one and the environments that are available to them, but it’s been fascinating seeing some of the commonalities in how the children play in their school’s outdoor spaces, particularly in terms of physical activity and movement.

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Digging, ©Chris Mackie

I have over 100GB of materials that I’m now thinking my way through, before going back to see how the spring-summer term affects things. I’m looking forward to beginning to share stories about where I think ethics of care for the natural world could be nurtured during the first years of school.

At this early stage in the analysis, I’m starting by following three key strands. The first is about relationalities, and how children come to understand themselves in relation to the world around them: whether that be other living beings, like plants or minibeasts; processes such as photosynthesis; or even physical materials such as plastic. The nature of these relational entanglements form the basis of how we act ethically in the world. Seeing how they develop in early childhood may help inform practice and make links to other research on environmental identity.

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Tree Club, ©Chris Mackie

My second strand looks at how the environments (physical, social and policy) of school-based early childhood education might nurture or hinder the type of relationality that leads to care. Where, when and how (or not) do children come into contact with other living beings, for example? Linked to this are considerations of how much agency both children and teachers have within these environments, and thinking in particular about play-based learning.

The final strand is how children’s direct experiences outdoors (e.g. of nature, or litter) relate to the cultural representations that they engage with in school and other contexts. For example, do the activities, places, digital media, books, stories and games that they come into contact with at school and home support or hinder the development of care for the world? What types of futures do they see represented? As young children spend more time in formal education and care settings, and the ecological crisis becomes increasingly urgent, taking a holistic view of this becomes more important, but is ethically and practically complex in itself.

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Garden bed, ©Chris Mackie

These are big issues of critical importance to understanding how we may shape teaching policy and practice, to enable stronger learning for sustainability. By starting with two specific settings and the privilege of being able to pay attention to small interactions that maybe get missed in the flow of learning and play, I will be able to craft research outputs that can be put to work for a range of users.

I’d better get writing!

See our website for further information on outdoor learning, including facts, activities and inspiration to help you bring Scotland’s nature and landscapes to life for learners.​

All photos are courtesy of and ©Chris Mackie.

Posted in conservation, Natural Health Service, Outdoor learning, Research, science, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, Uncategorized, urban nature, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,