Bringing butterflies and bees back to Skolie Burn SSSI

Since starting a Community Woodland group, Ian Records’ life has changed completely – dropping leaflets, knocking on doors, writing up woodland management plans and doing flower surveys.  Here, he tells how a protected area can galvanise a local community to take action to improve their local area for people and wildlife.

I was moving house in 2017 and my wife was looking for a bungalow.  I had stipulated I wanted somewhere to walk the dog.  So while my wife was examining the inside of a bungalow, I took Skye for a walk in the adjacent field.

1

Greater Butterfly Orchid (a nationally rare species) was discovered by the local community at Skolie Burn SSSI.

There was hardly a butterfly or bee in sight. I have had a keen interest in butterflies and insects since childhood. I felt the urge to do something about it. What ‘it’ was going to be, I had no idea, but the thought kept coming back.  A cold winter passed and I had heard rumours that there was a rare orchid in the field.  I kept an eye out but only saw one single specimen of an orchid which I knew was common.

I found out from a neighbour that this field was a meadow called Skolie Burn Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), special for its grassland and geology.

2

An area where the local community want to introduce conservation grazing, in partnership with the local farmer to restore the grassland diversity.

I went out with my camera trying to photograph and identify every flower in the meadow. I have recorded where they were found as well as the date, with 69 distinct flowering plant species recorded so far.  This does not seem like a bad number but when you consider that it previously held over 160 species, you can see that there has been a considerable loss.

3

Flowering knapweed provides an important nectar source for insects at Skolie Burn SSSI.

My neighbours and I formed a community group (Skolie Burn Community Meadow and Woodland Group) and have developed a management plan with West Lothian Council (the main owners of the land) and SNH. This plan aims to restore the grassland and improve public access.  We have already completed botanical surveys. These surveys will tell us what we have and give a measure of success or failure in the future.

Next spring we shall start this exercise again in accordance with the National Vegetation Classification getting college science students involved and, yes, the orchid we were looking for was found: the greater butterfly orchid.  There were just five of them in a very small area of the meadow.

4

Lesser Celandine, a relative of the buttercup, adds some colour to the grassland plant community.

So what about the butterflies and bees? Well, there have been a lot more this year, but I have noticed that a few species are missing despite the abundance of their caterpillar food plants.  So why are they missing? There is nectar and food in the meadow and they should be there! The answer slowly dawned on me: the meadow is not in the right condition to support these species.  Dead grass is reducing the sunlight and smothering their food plants at the points of the year when they need them most, and there is not enough nectar to feed the adults. But many of the desirable flowers are still there and, with a return to traditional meadow management, Skolie Burn will bloom again and the butterflies and bees will return.

5

Skolie Burn provides an important habitat for Marsh Orchids

Thank you to Mike Thornton from SNH and Hannah Crow from West Lothian Ranger Service for all their support, advice and patience. Furthermore, I need to acknowledge the amazing bravery of my fellow trustees of the community group; the students of Edinburgh College, where I work; and finally, neighbours who have given up their time to help start this project.

SNH is currently working with the local community group, the main land owner (West Lothian Council) and a local farmer, to develop a Skolie Burn management plan which aims to restore the SSSI grassland, improve public access and provide environmental education. 

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