Island life – volunteering on The May

You might have noticed from Twitter that last week our Chief Exec, Francesca Osowska, was working on our Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR).  Her reasons for spending time on the Isle of May were twofold: to see life from the perspective of our NNR volunteers, while promoting volunteering opportunities; and to talk about the five major causes of nature loss, as highlighted in the recent UN IPBES report.  In our blog post today Francesca tells us more about her time on the island.


Welcome to The May Team

We have two employees on the Isle of May: Reserve Manager, David Steel and Assistant Reserve Manager, Bex Outram.  They are joined by two seasonal volunteers: Ella Benninghaus and Cristin Lambert. Also on the island are researchers from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and this week, a young birders group. So pretty busy for a small island!


Ella recording BBC Radio 4’s Puffin Podcast

I shadowed Ella and Cristin for the week, joining them on tasks such as the morning puffling rescue, various bird surveys (tern, wader and great black-backed gulls this week), beach cleaning, preparing for visitors (and clearing up after them) and talking to visitors when they’re on the island. A lot of this is fun (although when the puffling you’re trying to rescue runs even deeper into vicious nettles you begin to wonder…) but there are plenty of mundane tasks too. Cleaning the visitor toilets, trying to keep the accommodation tidy and cooking for up to 18 (happily I wasn’t put on the cooking rota), for example.

If you’re used to office work, working on a reserve can come as a bit of a shock.  Instead of the working day being dominated by the calendar and meetings, it’s dictated by season, weather and visitors. Some work is best done when visitors aren’t on the island and when they are, the job is to spend time with them. Wet weather can impact on the outdoor work, making time to input all the bird data that has been collected. ‘Working day’ has a different concept compared to the office based day. Some days start early (for example, one morning we started a rota from 06:00 to keep watch on vulnerable tern chicks) and the team here is often working late into the night (for example, helping the CEH researchers with their monitoring of puffin eating habits).

It was brilliant to see Ella and Cristin at work: natural and knowledgeable with visitors and a source of expertise on the island’s birdlife. Our NNRs simply wouldn’t function without our fantastic volunteers. It’s hard work, but also a lot of fun and very rewarding. We have a range of opportunities available to suit different interests, skills and availability. If you’re interested in volunteering on an NNR your first point of call is our website

The other thought that struck me whilst I was on the Isle of May was how much our NNRs encapsulate all the work that we’re doing to try to prevent biodiversity loss by tackling the key drivers highlighted in the IPBES report:

  1. Changing land and sea use;
  2. Pollution;
  3. Climate change;
  4. Direct exploitation;
  5. Invasive non-native species.

Much of our work across NNRs is directly addressing these issues in a very practical way.

It was brilliantly educative week – thank you David, Bex, Ella and Cristin for having me.


Posted in Uncategorized

The wild flowers of St Cyrus

Simon Ritchie has been working at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve since he was 16 – initially as a volunteer, he is currently employed as a Seasonal Reserve Officer. Here Simon talks about one of the many features that make this reserve such a special place to visit at this time of year.

There are a lot of things I love about St Cyrus National Nature Reserve (NNR); the people, the landscape, the history, the birds, the butterflies, I could go on forever. However, one of the features that tugs on my heart strings the most at St Cyrus are the wildflowers. The botanical life at St Cyrus is astounding! It is one of the reasons that St Cyrus was designated an NNR back in 1962. The plant communities at St Cyrus are more characteristic of 200 miles further south: we have a lot of southern species that are at their northern range here.

Dune grassland

St Cyrus dune grassland

This is mainly due to our neutral, base rich soils and mild climate. The dune grassland at St Cyrus is sheltered in among volcanic andesite and basalt cliffs that stretch to 75 metres on one side and a protective dune ridge on the other. This provides a more sheltered, mild climate which allows the flowers to grow. We have over 250 species of flowering plants on the reserve, some of which are extremely rare in Scotland. This rich floristic diversity also in-turn boosts our Lepidoptera numbers; we are the best site in North-East Scotland for butterflies and moths!

Brimstone moth

Brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata) on gorse

One of the rare plants at St Cyrus is Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans). It is named Nottingham catchfly because it was first found on the walls of Nottingham castle. St Cyrus is one of the few sites in Scotland in which this plant occurs. It is a very characteristic plant with a pinkish-white colouration and hairy leaves. This plant is carnivorous and feeds on night-flying insects, including moths!

Nottingham Catchfly (Silene nutans)

Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans)

The nationally important dune grassland at St Cyrus really comes into its own in mid-summer; it’s like walking through paradise! As you walk through our ‘Floor’y Meads’ trail (flowery meadows in north-east Scots) the first thing that becomes apparent is the colour. The yellow of the lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is extremely vivid. It carpets much of the dune grassland along with the subtle pinks of restharrow (Ononis repens). In among the carpet of yellow and pink we get clumps of clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) which provide a dark, rich purple colour.

Clustered Bellflower on the Dune Grassland

Clustered bellflower on dune grassland

White is another colour dominant in the dune grassland; eyebright (Euphrasia sp.) covers the shorter areas of grassland and provides a nice colour contrast to the yellow, pink and purple. Other plants that occur on the dune grassland and provide a lovely mix of colour include; maiden pink (Dianthus deltoides), yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) and the ‘deep’ purple of bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).

Bloody Cranesbill

Bloody cranesbill

As well as  a pleasant sensory overload on your eyes, dune grassland is also an extremely fragrant habitat; it smells phenomenal! The strong smelling restharrow is locally known as ‘stinking oxters’ in which ‘oxters’ is a Scots name for armpit. Although to give it it’s due, I rather like the smell! We have lots of wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) which is actually the same herb as oregano that you would have on your pizza! Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus) fills the air with a delightful fragrance and Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) also produces an extremely sweet smell. If only smell-o-vision was invented!

Wild thyme

Wild thyme

It’s not only the dune grassland that boasts a species-rich flower community, the whole reserve is a haven for flowers of all different types! That’s why I love St Cyrus NNR, there is always something to see no matter what part of the reserve you are on, and what time of year you are visiting. If you want to visit St Cyrus specifically to see the dune grassland and the vast plethora of flowers, then Mid-July is the best time to visit. It’s when the grassland is at its most vivid in colour!

Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)

Northern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella)

If you do visit St Cyrus NNR, be sure to pop into the office and say hi! If I am not in the office, I am more likely out on the reserve, crouched over on the dune grassland smelling the flowers…

Thanks for reading!

Simon Ritchie – Seasonal Nature Reserve Assistant at St Cyrus NNR


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A’ Mhuc Bheag Reamhar a Bhios a’ Puthadaich / The Little Fat Puffing ‘Pig’

Tha grunn fhaclan Gàidhlig airson ‘porpoise’; thàinig am fear as cumanta on Albais / There are many Gaelic names for the common or harbour porpoise; the most common came into the language from Scots

A’ Mhuc Bheag Reamhar a Bhios a’ Puthadaich

Common or Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) dorsal fin breaking the water

Common or Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) dorsal fin breaking the water

Tha dùil gun tàinig am facal Gàidhlig as cumanta airson Phocoena phocoena (harbour porpoise) – peileag – bho Albais, anns a bheil e air a chlàradh mar pellock, pellick, palach, pelluck, pallek agus pallo. Ge-tà, chan eil e soilleir mar a fhuair e àite ann an Albais, ged a tha ciall eile air mar rudeigin somalta no duine beag reamhar.

Tha faclan eile coltach ri peileag clàraichte ann an Gàidhlig, leithid pèileag, peilig, peilid agus peallach, ach tha faclan a bharrachd againn cuideachd. Bidh Hearaich is eile a’ gabhail puthag air a leithid. Tha am facal sin snog oir tha e a’ ciallachadh puthadaich no spreadhadh beag agus, gu dearbh, ’s e sin a chluinneas am maraiche nuair a tha e am measg sgaoth de pheileagan.

Ann an Geàrrloch is cuid de dh’àiteachan eile, ’s e cana a chanar ri peileag. Tha cuid de sgoilearan dhen bheachd gur ann on Laidinn canis ‘cù’ a thàinig sin. Ach ’s ann air mucan seach coin a bhios inntinn nan Gàidheal mar as trice nuair a thathar ag ainmeachadh mhamailean mara. Agus tha muc-steallain (tè a chuireas a-mach steall beag) agus poircean ‘muc bheag’ againn airson peileag.

Am measg nan teirmean Gàidhlig eile airson peileag, tha mulbhach, criabus-mara agus pulag, ach ’s dòcha gur e am facal as annasaiche fear à dualchainnt Gheàrrloch. Thathar a’ gabhail bualtairean ‘an fheadhainn a bhios a’ bualadh no a’ sùisteadh’ air buidheann de pheileagan a tha a’ leum an aghaidh na gaoithe ’s na fairge.

The Little Fat Puffing ‘Pig’

The most common Gaelic word for the (common or harbour) porpoise – peileag – reveals how our two unique native languages have interacted with each other over the centuries, as it almost certainly originates in the Scots pellack (also recorded as pellock, pellick, palach, pelluck, pallek and pallo). Its route into, or origin in, Scots is, however, clouded in mystery, although the word has a subsidiary meaning of something bulky or a short, fat person.

A pod of Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) off Shetland, Scotland

A pod of Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) off Shetland, Scotland

However, peileag (including its variants pèileag, peilig, peilid and peallach) is not the only Gaelic word for porpoise. Another common term is puthag, which has the primary meaning of ‘little puff or explosion’. Anyone who has sailed among a school of porpoises which are surfacing and expelling air from their blowholes, would attest to the accuracy of this name.

Another term, found in several Gaelic dialects, is cana. Some scholars have proposed that this originates in the Latin canis ‘dog’. However, marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises are more commonly referred to as ‘pig’; specifically, the porpoise is muc-steallain ‘pig of the small spout’ or poircean ‘small pig’.

Other recorded Gaelic terms for the porpoise include mulbhach, criabus-mara and pulag, but perhaps the most unusual word comes from the Gairloch dialect in Wester Ross where there is the collective term bualtairean ‘threshers, beaters’ for a group of porpoises which are leaping against the wind and waves.


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Why we welcome beavers – but also need to support farmers

It has been one month since beavers were added to the list of European Protected Species of Animals and protected under Scottish law. We look at the benefits beavers can bring, and work being done to tackle the problems they occasionally cause.

European Beaver (Castor fiber) ©Lorne Gill

©Lorne Gill

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has supported efforts to bring beavers back to Scotland for many years. We know that beavers can create incredibly diverse and rich habitats, particularly wetlands. This in turn benefits many plants, as well as animals like otters, water voles, fish, bats, birds and insects. Under certain conditions, these changes may help regulate water flow, reduce flooding and sediments and improve water quality.

But this incredible ability of beavers to significantly change the environment they live in can occasionally cause problems on farmland, in forests and gardens and even occasionally to infrastructure such as roads and culverts. Beavers can burrow into river banks and dam smaller water courses, block culverts, forage crops and fell trees.

While many landowners are happy to have beavers on their land, sometimes their activities can seriously compromise the ability to produce crops or rear livestock. This is particularly the case in parts of Tayside which has some of the most productive farmland in Scotland. Many of these areas are flat, low-lying, reliant on good drainage and susceptible to flooding.

There are a number of ways SNH helps farmers and other affected by beavers and their dams. Firstly, we can look at whether work can be done on the ground to minimise any problems. This includes measures such as installing specially designed water gates, beaver deterrent fencing, soft engineering on river banks, flood bank protection, piped dams and monitoring water levels in farm ditches. We are currently working on a range of these kinds of projects and increasing our understanding of how they can be applied more widely.

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION.

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION.

Further options include moving beavers that are causing serious damage to other locations where there are planned beaver conservation projects – this is known as translocation. So far, we have licensed the translocation of 12 beavers from Tayside to Knapdale in Argyll; Devon and Yorkshire. We currently have live licences and proposals for translocation for conservation projects elsewhere in the UK that could cover moving up to 50 additional animals, and there are likely to be a number of other potential translocation opportunities for this year and beyond.

Translocation is not without its own risks and has to be very carefully planned and undertaken, however we are working with farmers to identify sites where animals can be humanely trapped to support translocations and remove the need for lethal control.

Lethal control is a last resort when beavers are having a serious impact and there is no other satisfactory solution.   We have also made sure that any lethal control is done as humanely as possible by requiring that it is only carried out by individuals who have received SNH training. Licences are also very clear that lethal control should be avoided during the kit dependency period, except in exceptional circumstances, and that we must be notified straight away. We have not had any such notification to date.

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

To date we have issued 29 licences to permit dam removal and the lethal control of beavers as a last resort but we anticipate that many of these sites may be suitable for the capture of beavers for translocations to other conservation projects. We are aware of the recent discovery of the carcass of a pregnant beaver and of other dead animals being found, however no beavers have been shot under licence to our knowledge to date since protection was afforded on May 1. Any carcass found therefore either pre-dates this or has been unlawfully shot. We take any suggestion of unlawful shooting very seriously and we will work with the police and other agencies to help investigate these. If anyone suspects suspicious practice, please report this to Police Scotland.

Taken together, we are confident that our approach will not affect the continued expansion of the Scottish beaver population and the positive impacts they can bring to other areas. We will continue to carefully monitor both the use of licences and of the Scottish beaver population to ensure we achieve this aim.

We will continue working with farmers, landowners and managers, conservation bodies and a range of interest to ensure that we all learn from experience and realise the benefits that beavers will bring to Scotland, while providing support to those who are experiencing problems with the effects of beavers on their property.

Posted in Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, Uncategorized, wildlife management

An t-Eun Subhach a tha a’ Ro-innse Bàs / The Joyful Bird that Foretells Death

Tha a’ chuthag subhach, ach faodaidh i naidheachd dhuilich a ghiùlan leatha, co-dhiù a rèir beul-aithris / The cuckoo is a happy bird but can carry sad news, according to Gaelic tradition

Common cuckoo in springtime

Common cuckoo in springtime

An t-Eun Subhach a tha a’ Ro-innse Bàs

Tha seinn na cuthaig air a bhith a’ còrdadh ri daoine air feadh Alba, agus an samhradh oirnn mu dheireadh thall. Tha deagh bheachd againn air a’ chuthaig, agus na Gàidheil dhen bheachd gu bheil i subhach fad na h-ùine. Carson? Uill, bidh i a’ dol eadar blàths Afraga agus blàths (de sheòrsa air choreigin) an t-samhraidh ann an Alba. Seo rann a tha a’ comharrachadh sin:

A chuthag ghorm, a chuthag ghorm,
Tha iongnadh orm, gu dearbh.
Mur eil thu subhach air gach àm,
ʼS an Samhradh leat a’ falbh.
Chan aithne dhuts’ droch shìd’ gu beachd,
No sneachd no Geamhradh garbh,
Gur tha thu ʼn Cèitean ciùin do ghnàth,
ʼS air àghmhorachd an sealbh.

Ge-tà, bhiodh muinntir Hiort dhen bheachd nach nochdadh a’ chuthag anns an eilean aca, ach a-mhàin nam biodh iad airson gnothach mòr a chomharrachadh, leithid nuair a gheibheadh ceann-cinnidh nan Leòdach bàs. Tha an sgrìobhadair is fear-turais, Màrtainn MacIlleMhàrtainn, ag innse dhuinn mu thuras a dh’fhàg soitheach Dùn Bheagain airson innse do na Hiortaich mu bhàs an uachdarain. Ach, nuair a ràinig na Sgitheanaich Hiort, bha na h-eileanaich a’ caoidh an cinn-cinnidh mu-thràth. Bha na cuthagan air nochdadh ann airson innse dhaibh!

Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda from the slopes of Conachair. Western Isles Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Village Bay, Hirta, St Kilda from the slopes of Conachair. Western Isles Area.
©Lorne Gill/SNH

Tha an cunntas seo a’ tighinn ri beul-aithris bhon Eilean Sgitheanach fhèin. Nam faigheadh MacLeòid Dhùn Bheagain bàs ann am mìosan an t-samhraidh, bhathar ag ràdh nach cluinnte guth na cuthaig tuilleadh anns na coilltean timcheall Caisteal Dhùn Bheagain – chan ann air sgàth ’s gun robh na h-eòin air a dhol balbh, ach a chionn ’s gun robh iad air teicheadh a Hiort airson an naidheachd dhuilich innse do na Hiortach!

The Joyful Bird that Foretells Death

Many people around Scotland have been enjoying hearing the call of the cuckoo, that wonderful harbinger of the northern summer. The Gaels view it as a lucky bird because it never knows cold weather, spending its time between the warmth of Africa and the (relative) warmth of a Scottish summer. We have a rhyme that celebrates that (here in translated form, without the rhyme or rhythm of the original):

O blue cuckoo, o blue cuckoo,
I’d be really surprised.
If you aren’t always joyful,
And you leaving when the summer goes.
You don’t know bad weather,
Or snow or rough winter,
For you always have the calm of May,
And inherit pleasant times.

Male cuckoo in flight

Male cuckoo in flight

However, the people of St Kilda, far to the west of the Western Isles, had a slightly different view of this migratory bird, for they would tell of it being rarely seen there, and only then as a messenger of some great event, such as the death of their landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan (on Skye). The early 18th Century traveller and writer, Martin Martin, tells of a boat leaving Dunvegan for St Kilda, bearing news of the clan chief’s death. But when the Skyemen arrived, they found the St Kildans already grieving their loss, for the song of the newly-arrived cuckoo had told them!

The St Kilda street, Hirta, Western Isles Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The St Kilda street, Hirta, Western Isles Area.
©Lorne Gill/SNH

This account is supported by oral tradition from Skye which maintained that, should a MacLeod chief die in the summer months, the song of the cuckoo would no longer be heard in the woods around Dunvegan Castle – not because the birds fell silent, but because they had all left for St Kilda to tell those distant islanders the sad news!

Posted in Uncategorized

Helping Orkney’s Native Wildlife Thrive

The Orkney Islands, just off the north east coast of Scotland, are home to priceless natural heritage and it’s this unique environment that the Orkney Native Wildlife Project protects.

Orkney vole ©Alastair Skene

Orkney vole ©Alastair Skene

Although the combined land area of the 70 islands is less than 1% of the UK, Orkney hosts more than 20% of the UK’s breeding hen harriers and 8% of breeding curlews, bucking the trend of their decline over much of the mainland.

Orkney is naturally free of mammalian predators, and all bird species, including raptors, are ground-nesting in the largely treeless landscape. Invasive species are one of the greatest threats to the beauty and variety of our nature and Orkney’s conditions have provided a feast for the non-native invasive Stoats (Mustela erminea). These predators are native to Scotland but not Orkney, but were detected on Orkney Mainland in 2010.

Hen harrier landing in Orkney ©Christine Hall

Hen harrier landing in Orkney ©Christine Hall

By 2013 stoats had spread across the Orkney Mainland and connected isles. Early attempts were made to control the increasing population, but the population growth and increasing threat to native wildlife saw Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds partner in 2016 to develop a more ambitious programme to eradicate stoats from Orkney. Since 2016 Orkney Islands Council joined as an active partner evidencing the recognition in the community that action was needed to manage the spreading stoat population and to safeguard Orkney’s native wildlife on which the future of the county’s wildlife tourism business depends.

Short-eared owl at Durkadale ©Ian Francis

Short-eared owl at Durkadale ©Ian Francis

Following two years of dedicated consultation and planning, the necessary funding of £7 million over five years was acquired in October 2018. As a testament to the global importance of Orcadian wildlife EU LIFE Natura 2000 and the National Lottery Heritage Fund are generously supporting the project which has enabled the practical planning to begin. As a result, the recruitment of a 26-strong team based in Kirkwall is complete and we’re in the process of acquiring the critical land access agreement ahead of the planned roll out of around 10,000 lethal, humane trap boxes in the autumn.

Hen harrier nest ©Ian Francis

Hen harrier nest ©Ian Francis

As well as current eradication planning, biosecurity methods are already in place to monitor the neighbouring islands to ensure agile response to any recorded incursion with our partnership colleagues at SNH. As this is the world’s largest stoat eradication attempted, the team are mindful the world will be watching every aspect of its work – whether community engagement, citizen science and the eradication itself.

Keep up to date with the project on our Facebook page.

Find out more about the project here.

Curlews at Brodgar ©Alan Leitch

Curlews at Brodgar ©Alan Leitch

Posted in invasive non-native species, Non-native species, Orkney, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Beautiful but deadly – the plant with a dark side

Rhododendron may appear beautiful – but one type of this impressive looking plant is posing a deadly threat to Scotland’s rainforest plants and lichens.

Rhododendron ponticum, a majestic shrub with its early summer explosions of bright pink blooms, is a delight to see in formal gardens across Scotland. It was introduced into the UK as an ornamental plant in 1763 and was widely planted for its flowers and to provide shelter and privacy. However, this super-shrub found the British climate very much to its liking and by 1849 there were already reports of rhododendron spreading out of formal gardens into the wider countryside.

Rhododendron ponticum ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rhododendron ponticum ©Lorne Gill/SNH

There are hundreds of species, and thousands of cultivars, of rhododendron, most of which are no threat to Scottish wildlife.  However, Rhododendron ponticum is one of the greatest invasive non-native species threats to biodiversity in Scotland.  It has spread widely and become established over large areas of woodland and moorland, where its foliage casts dense shade, excluding all other plants from the ground beneath.   The leaf litter breaks down very slowly, and alters the chemical and biological properties of the soil.

Rhododendron ponticum growing on a blanket bog near Loch Torridon ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rhododendron ponticum growing on a blanket bog near Loch Torridon ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Nowhere is the impact of rhododendron on our native species starker than in our near unique temperate rainforests; found throughout western Scotland. In their pristine state these humid woodlands are ‘dripping’ with flowers, ferns, mosses and liverworts, and lichens. These species abound on boulders, wooded crags and as intricate miniature gardens on the rough trunks and boughs of ancient trees. Many species have their European headquarters in these elfin woods and some are globally rare. All of them need light, including the saplings that will secure our future rainforest habitat.

Mosses and ferns grow well in Scotland's rainforests Dave Genney

Mosses and ferns grow well in Scotland’s rainforests ©Dave Genney

As rhododendron has invaded our rainforest over the years, its dense shade has had a disastrous effect on many of these important native species. We have recorded these impacts over many years and it is likely that many species have become locally extinct before we’ve been able to document their existence. This pressure is compounded by others, such as over-grazing, climate change and historic losses of native woodland cover.

Once established, rhododendron is costly to remove. In 2010 it was estimated that it was costing £8.6 million each year to control the shrub across the UK; the total cost, estimated in 2013, of removing it from Scotland’s National Forest Estate would be £15 million. It is clearly much better to prevent future invasions rather than deal with the costly consequences of complacency.

Rhododendron control at Kippenrait Glen SSSI near Dunblane ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rhododendron control at Kippenrait Glen SSSI near Dunblane ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Recent research has shown that in areas where dense rhododendron has been cleared, the composition and diversity of species does not return to its natural state even thirty years after removal. Given time, some species recover better than others, so that the ‘community’ of mosses and liverworts can eventually be diverse but with different species dominating. Other species, such as woodland flowers, may require further management to re-colonise, such as re-seeding after the removal of some of the commoner fast-growing mosses that dominate the woodland floor once the rhododendron has been removed.

Yes, rhododendron is beautiful, but so are the numerous native species that can be lost when we let it get out of hand.  Please help our rainforest species into the future by managing invasive rhododendron carefully within gardens and replacing with non-invasive rhododendron species wherever possible.

Find out more about Rhododendron ponticum and invasive non-native plants.



Posted in invasive non-native species, plants, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Invasive Species Week….and Beyond

This week is national Invasive Species Week. Today’s blog, a collaboration between SNH and the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI), takes a look at invasive non-native species living on our riverbanks and lochsides, and explains the control methods used to tackle these problematic plants.  

SNH is the lead partner in the SISI project, working with other partners including Fishery Boards and Trusts, and the University of Aberdeen.  SISI operates across northern Perthshire, Angus, Aberdeenshire, Moray and Highland.  The project is developing invasive species management skills among a network of enthusiastic volunteers and partners, who are supported, trained and equipped to take on invasive species control at a local level.

In Scotland, there are three invasive plants that often cause the most damage to riverbanks and lochsides: Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam (images L-R).

Japanese knotweed was introduced into the UK in the early 19th century as an ornamental plant.  Since then, it has spread quickly and is now common across much of the country.  It can be very imposing to look at, with long bamboo-like stems that can grow to over 7 feet tall.  But it can develop into very dense stands that don’t allow native plants to grow.  This species is difficult, but not impossible, to eradicate.  The best method for treatment is to use stem injection.  ‘Stem injectors’ hold a cartridge of herbicide which delivers a measured dose through a fine needle (imagine a high-tech water pistol).  Although this method is time consuming, it is very effective at delivering the herbicide directly into the stem, where it is taken down into the rhizome.  Application of herbicide is strictly controlled and can only be done by qualified personnel, so SISI has been investing in local people and enabling them to achieve their herbicide qualification.

Japanese knotweed being treated

Japanese knotweed being treated

Giant hogweed was first recorded in the wild in the late 19th century and was also originally introduced as an ornamental plant.  It can grow into a huge plant – with flowering stems typically 2-3m tall, flower heads up to 80cm across, and lower leaves can be more than 1m wide.  Each plant can produce 20,000-30,000 seeds and some seeds can survive more than 3 years in the soil.  This species also grows in such dense stands that native plants are prevented from growing.  The most effective control method is through herbicide treatment.  This is applied by knapsack sprayer, using a spot spraying technique where a controlled amount is applied directly to the leaves of the plant. Great care must be taken as there is a risk of skin burns from the plant’s toxic sap.

Volunteers are key to controlling these plants

Volunteers are key to controlling these plants

Volunteer days are hosted by SISI project officers and local fishery trusts where teams of volunteers get suited up and stuck in to treating infestations of giant hogweed.  While this is a serious business, the emphasis is on having an enjoyable day with plenty of tea breaks and the essential chocolate biscuits. It is these volunteers who are key to the long-term control of this plant.  Inspired, enthused and trained, the hope is they will continue tackling their local stretch of river for years to come until the hogweed is finally gone.

Different plants require different control methods

Different plants require different control methods

Himalayan balsam was introduced to the UK as a garden plant in the early 19th century and first recorded in the wild in 1855.  It has very pretty flowers, which is no doubt one of the main reasons that it was introduced to the UK!  This plant grows up to 2m tall and has explosive seed capsules, which can eject seed up to 7m away from the parent plant.  It can grow in such high densities that when it dies down in winter, it can expose riverbanks that are bare of plants because native species haven’t had the opportunity to grow.  Himalayan balsam has a very shallow room system and if water levels rise during the winter and spring months, bare riverbanks can be at risk of erosion.

Unlike Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed, the shallow root system of Himalayan balsam means it is easy to pull plants out by hand.  SISI is working with communities throughout northern Scotland to tackle infestations of this plant. The model for this is to work in partnership with local groups (e.g. angling associations, Britain in Bloom groups, community payback and wildlife groups) to organise conservation volunteering days and encourage local people to come along and help pull out the plant. These have been successful with good numbers of people coming out, lots of plants being removed, lots of fun had, and awareness of Himalayan balsam and its impacts being raised locally.

Communities are encouraged to continue this vital work

Communities are encouraged to continue this vital work

Initially, events are organised and coordinated by the local SISI project officer or other partner staff.  However there is a gradual shift with the emphasis for organising moving over to the local community, who are keen to take on this work long-term, creating a sustainable model for successful long-term control of this species.

These invasive non-native plants can quickly take over an area. Image courtesy of the Tweed Forum.

These invasive non-native plants can quickly take over an area. Image courtesy of the Tweed Forum.

In Scotland, several organisations coordinate the approach to tackling invasive non-native species.  SNH is the lead for terrestrial species (which includes those on riverbanks and lochsides).  As part of our work in this area, SNH’s Freshwater and Wetland Group recently supported a student of Stirling University (Dr Alex Seeney) in investigating responses of young salmon and trout, and aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, to Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam.  The project was carried out on small streams across central Scotland.  This research showed a consistently negative impact of these species on the diversity of both terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates but suggested that the young fish may have been more resilient, due to their opportunistic feeding methods. These findings support management of these invasive non-native species, as heavily invaded sites were of a lower ecological quality, and intervention work would prevent these species spreading.

SNH’s Freshwater and Wetland Group supported research by Dr Alex Seeney

SNH’s Freshwater and Wetland Group supported research by Dr Alex Seeney

For more Information on invasive non-native species associated with riverbanks and lochsides, you can also visit:

Scottish Natural Heritage – invasive non native plants

GB Non-Native Species Secretariat

Papers from Dr Alex Seeney’s research project 

Scottish Invasive Species Initiative 

SEPA practical guidance on the Controlled Activities Regulations 

Posted in invasive non-native species, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Wonderful woodland wanders for National Walking Month

This National Walking Month, we’re celebrating some of the amazing walking opportunities on Scotland’s great National Nature Reserves (NNRs) – here are some of our top woodland walks to get you inspired!

Bluebells Clyde Valley Woods NNR ©Lorne Gill SNH

Bluebells at Clyde Valley Woods NNR ©Lorne Gill/SNH

May is one of the best times of year to enjoy our amazing native woodlands. This year is proving to be a great year for blossom with the blackthorn, hawthorn and wild cherry laden with blooms. The bluebells are also spectacular, carpeting the woodland floor with their deep rich blues, mixed with the fresh greens of spring.

Enjoy the seasonal colours in some of our wonderful woodlands of Taynish, Clyde Valley Woodlands, Ariundle Oakwood, Muir of Dinnet or Glasdrum Wood National Nature Reserves (NNR).

Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR

Bluebells at Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve ©Lorne Gill SNH

Bluebells at Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland’s oldest and richest forest lies hidden in dramatic gorges throughout the Clyde Valley. Since the last Ice Age, rivers have gouged deep clefts in the soft sandstone. Ancient woods of oak, ash, rowan and hazel now grow here. Clyde Valley Woodlands NNR is made up of six of the best of these woodlands.

Explore the many paths through these spectacular ancient woodlands, or better still, find a quiet spot and sit awhile; it’s always best to simply let the wildlife come to you. In spring the woodlands are rich in wildflowers; the bluebells are particularly vivid.  If you’re quiet, with luck you may see badgers, roe deer, otters, great spotted woodpeckers, kingfishers, peregrine falcons, dippers and much more.

Our trail guide describes six walks in the reserve, whether you visit the waterfalls of the Falls of Clyde, the quiet gorges of Cartland Crags and Cleghorn Glen or enjoy the spectacular views over the Avon Water at Chatelherault.

Muir of Dinnet NNR

Loch Davan at Dinnet NNR © SNH

Loch Davan at Dinnet NNR © SNH

Lying within the Cairngorms National Park, on Royal Deeside, Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve (NNR) is a mosaic of wetlands, woods and moors. It’s a great place for wildlife.

The woodlands here are young, most of the trees are less than 60 years old, but the woods are rich in wildlife. Spring spreads a pale green mantle of new leaves on the birch and aspen woodland. Scattered rowan, willow, alder and aspen grow throughout the wood. Delicate celandine, primroses, cowslips and wood anemone carpet the ground. Resident birds are beginning to breed and summer visitors, such as swallows and willow warblers, are arriving back from Africa.

Follow the Loch Kinord trail (6.5km) through Muir of Dinnet’s woodland with beautiful views across the loch. Or take one of the shorter trails to explore the Vat or Parkin’s Moss – each trail sharing a unique part of this wonderful reserve.

Ariundle Oakwood NNR

The woodland trail at Ariundle NNR ©Lorne Gill SNH

The woodland trail at Ariundle NNR ©Lorne Gill/SNH

On the Sunart Peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, Ariundle Oakwood NNR is just a fragment of the once-immense oakwood that stretched from Portugal to Norway. This precious section of ancient woodland is now very rare. Feast your eyes on all the shades of green you can imagine, with mosses, lichens and liverworts flourishing on every possible surface. Listen for bird song from the diverse species that live among the trees. And from shrews to red deer, badgers to wildcats, you might even spot something larger as you explore.

Take a trail through the woodland to the north, past a ruined croft, with excellent views over the glen. Another trail meanders alongside the river, or join them together for a beautiful 5km walk.

Taynish NNR

Taynish bluebells © SNH

Taynish bluebells © SNH

Taynish NNR lies at the end of a hidden peninsula. The peaceful oak woodlands are interspersed with grassland glades, heath, saltmarsh and shoreline. The reserve provides a truly amazing landscape that’s teeming with wildlife.  Trees have stood here for more than 6,000 years. A magical mosaic of mosses and lichens drapes from the trees and carpets the ground.

Spring brings white wood anemones, the unforgettable haze of bluebells and yellow primroses. By May, there are lots of resident wrens and migrant willow warblers, and the woodlands are alive with song. For a glimpse into this wonderful woodland, Peter Cairns (nature and conservation photographer), has captured this year’s bluebells in full bloom.

Explore the woodlands by following the Woodland Trail (5km), a mostly level and well surfaced route around this remarkable northern “rainforest”. It includes a path to Taynish Mill picnic area and shore (400m). If you are feeling more energetic, the Barr Mòr Trail (3km) is strenuous with some steep climbs, but it gives a great view from the top

Glasdrum Woods NNR

Walkers on the woodland trail at Glasdrum NNR ©Lorne Gill SNH

Walkers on the woodland trail at Glasdrum NNR ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Ancient woodland cloaks the slopes of Beinn Churalain, which rises steeply above Loch Creran. Get a taste of an Atlantic rainforest as you follow the woodland trail up through Glasdrum Wood NNR.

With ancient oaks, ash and hazel trees this temperate rainforest is even rarer than tropical rainforest.  Ferns sprout from rocky crevices, while lichens and mosses cling to branches.  In spring and summer the wood is also filled with the chorus of bird song. Wrens, chaffinches and wood warblers are a few of the birds you can see and hear. Butterflies flit among the flowers that grow in open spaces that the sunlight can reach. More than 20 butterfly species live among the woodland glades and open ground of Glasdrum Wood NNR.

Follow the woodland trail (1km) through the ancient mossy woodland and enjoy views to the south and west across Loch Creran.

You can find out more about National Nature Reserves across Scotland on our website. Or have a look at the Woodland Trusts Visiting Woods or Forest Land Scotland for some more inspiration on woodlands to visit.


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Livestock Worrying – “Your Dog – Your Responsibility”

Enjoying the outdoors with your dog can be a fantastic experience but it’s important to remember to explore responsibly. Many people live, work and day-trip in the countryside so there are many things to think about when looking after your pet in these areas. A vital one is interactions with farm animals and wildlife. This week our guest blog comes from Police Scotland National Rural Crime Co-ordinator, Alan Dron, who discusses the issues dogs can cause when not kept under control and away from livestock. 

Scottish blackface lambs ©Mark Hicken/Scottish Viewpoint

Scottish blackface lambs
©Mark Hicken/Scottish Viewpoint

Throughout Scotland, regardless of geographical location there is rarely a day passes without a report of livestock worrying being received by Police Scotland.

At the start of January 2019, the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime (SPARC) launched their latest campaign, “Your Dog – Your Responsibility”.  This five-month multi-agency campaign aims to highlight:

  • the reality of livestock attacks and distress caused primarily by dogs,
  • ensure dog owners understand the distressing and emotive nature as well as emotional and financial impacts such incidents can have, not just on farmers but everyone having to deal with the aftermath
  • increasing frequency of attacks on other animals such as horses and animals like camelids which are currently not included under the definition of ‘livestock’ such as alpacas and llamas

Comprising of 16 organisations and bodies tackling livestock attacks is an important issue and remains a priority for SPARC.

SPARC comprises of the Scottish Government, Scottish Land & Estates, Crown Office + Procurator Fiscal Service, NFU Mutual, NFU(S), Association of Young Farmers Clubs, Forestry Commission, Confor,‎ Historic Environment Scotland, Scottish Community Safety Network, Scottish Business Resilience Centre, Zero Waste Scotland, Neighbourhood Watch, Food Standards Scotland, British Horse Society + Police ScotlandThe target campaign audience is primarily dog owners living, working or enjoying the rural communities and environments.  Many dogs are left to their own devices during the day, allowing them to roam free without supervision while some owners take their dogs into the countryside for exercise and do not have them under proper control. Regardless of whether a dog has been let off a lead and does not obeyed commands or through the increasing number of dogs left alone at home or in gardens then escaping, owners are reminded that they must take responsibility for the actions of their dog. Further work is still required highlighting, not just the message about an owner or person responsible keeping a dog on a lead if there is livestock nearby, but a more general awareness regarding responsible dog ownership, both in the home and when outside.

©John MacTavish / Scottish Viewpoint

Springer Spaniel in Highlands of Scotland.
©John MacTavish / Scottish Viewpoint

Coupled with the use of stronger language and messaging, for the first time a physical launch was held at Penicuik House, Penicuik Estate, Mid Lothian to maximise opportunities for TV, Radio, written and social media press resulting in excellent national and local coverage.  Keeping this important issue in the public’s mind is vital if longer term behavioural change is to be achieved. Over the last few months, local events to raise awareness on the issue have also taken place throughout Scotland with the last main event on the 2nd of May at Conic Hill, Balmaha, within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

It is hoped by having a harder-hitting message that reaches communities throughout Scotland the campaign will encourage farmers and landowners to report all instances of attacks and distress to their animals. This also complements work undertaken by rural organisations, NFU Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage and adds to the debate on livestock worrying ahead of the proposed Protection of Livestock (Scotland) Bill consultation submitted by Emma Harper MSP.

Cattle near Peebles ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Cattle near Peebles
©Lorne Gill/SNH

If you need to contact your local Police Scotland division about sheep worrying or a livestock attack find a Police Scotland Rural Division Leads

To find out more about how you can #TakeTheLead and help keep both pets and farm animals safe on the Police Scotland website as well as our Scottish Outdoor Access Code resources for dog walkers.

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