Celebrating Volunteers’ Week with the Loch Leven Volunteers

In our second blog paying homage to all volunteers during Volunteers’ Week, Chris Boyce, our student Placement at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve (NNR), explains some of the benefits of volunteering.

There are two main roles for people volunteering for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) at Loch Leven. We have a regular volunteering group every Wednesday, helping with essential work such as wildlife surveys and tasks such as path maintenance, tree planting, wildflower meadow management, and control of non-native invasive plants. And we have a separate team of dedicated insect surveyors who’ve been recording the populations of butterflies, bumblebees, dragonflies and damselflies on the nature reserve for an impressive 13 years. Much of this work is essential to the running of the reserve and could not be done without them, and the long-term monitoring is invaluable in understanding insect populations at Loch Leven.

Volunteers previously harvesting yellow rattle seed at Burleigh meadow

Volunteers previously harvesting yellow rattle seed at Burleigh meadow

Volunteering benefits the cause but also the volunteers themselves. It’s a real high point in my working week and it’s clear the volunteers also value this social aspect. Richard said “joining the Wednesday Volunteers became one of the highlights of the week [and has led to] new friends and banter,” while Dave has “found a close circle of new friends with whom I now share many adventures, social events and fun.”

Volunteering also promotes engagement with the wider community and John told me he’s most proud of “contact and discussion with the public … to help improve ownership and awareness of the reserve to more people.”

Volunteering can also lead to new skills and experiences. Frances particularly enjoys “the freedom of being outdoors in a beautiful environment, seeing wildlife at close quarters, and often getting pretty mucky!”. Everyone’s species identification skills have improved and Dave said “the most rewarding aspect is being able to share my new found knowledge of the local wildlife and countryside with my wife and two enthusiastic grandsons”.

I think a really positive feature of volunteering at SNH is the provision of formal training with external providers, such as Outdoor Emergency First Aid, driving our Polaris All-Terrain Vehicle, and using machinery like brushcutters. This helps boost confidence and allows people to really get stuck in with nature reserve work.

Volunteers building the new ramp at Burleigh hide low res

Volunteers building the new ramp at Burleigh hide

Many of our volunteers are inspired by the natural world, though most did not have any formal background in nature or conservation. When asked what work at Loch Leven they were most proud of, Jackie said “planting the reed beds at Carsehall bog – they’re there for the future,” while Richard added, “top of the list must include hedge laying,” a traditional technique to produce thick, dense hedges – perfect for wildlife. Richard nicely sums up a shared feeling amongst our volunteers: “the satisfaction afterwards of being able to say, ‘I helped do that,’ continues to be my motivation and indeed what I enjoy most about it all.” Hear more from some our volunteers in this film from a few years ago.

Volunteering is key to the success of the conservation and environmental sectors, whether it’s practical work, contributing to wildlife recording, or raising awareness of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Personally, I’ve volunteered with both national conservation charities and small local groups, while continuing to take part in bird surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology and submitting sightings of plants and invertebrates to national recording schemes. I can also attest to the satisfaction with being involved in something that will be there for future generations. I remember the sense of achievement when I was first involved in a tree planting project, marking the location on a map so that one day I’ll be able to visit the woodland I helped establish. Louise, our seasonal Reserve Officer, volunteered at Loch Leven before getting her job and told me, “I loved coming on a Wednesday and it was always a dream to actually work here. I enjoyed working alongside the other volunteers and it’s really nice that most of them are still volunteering with us”. The experience of having been a volunteer definitely helps when you find yourself leading a volunteering group and it makes you all the more appreciative of the hard work they do.

View over Loch Leven NNR from the hide at Burleigh ©Lorne Gill/SNH

View over Loch Leven NNR from the hide at Burleigh ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Our volunteering at Loch Leven, like many activities, are on hold due to the Covid-19 restrictions, but you can find out more about volunteering with Scottish Natural Heritage, explore volunteering opportunities at Volunteer Scotland, and during current restrictions you can still contribute to citizen science projects.

Finally, I would like to say thank you to our volunteers at Loch Leven and all of you around the country who help make our world a kinder and more beautiful place.

Posted in National Nature Reserves, Volunteering

Eilrigean – far an do shealgadh fèidh / Elricks – where deer were hunted

Tha na h-uibhir de dh’ainmean-àite le ‘Eilrig’ a’ dearbhadh far an robhar a’ sealg nam fiadh / The Scottish landscape abounds in ‘Eilrig/Elrick’ place-names, commemorating great hunts of the past.

Eilrigean – Comharraidhean de Shealg nam Fiadh

Ann am pàipear a chaidh a lìbhrigeadh do Chomunn Gàidhlig Inbhir Nis ann an 1895, sgrìobh Teàrlach MacFhearghais mu shealg mhòr fhiadh a chumadh airson Rìgh Seumas VI anns an Lùnastal 1582 ann am monadh Shrath Àrdail agus Athall: ‘Bha cruinneachadh mòr de luchd nam fineachan ann ro làimh, mar a b’ àbhaist, airson fèidh iomain a-steach bho na ceàrnaidhean timcheall. B’ e an t-àite-cruinneachadh, dhan robh na fèidh air an iomain, an Eilrig ann am monadh Doire nan Eun … a bh’ air a bhith airson ùine mhòr mar fhear de na prìomh àiteachan-seilg ann an Athall.’


Càrn Eilrig ann an Rat Mhurchais, Am Monadh Ruadh / Càrn Eilrig in Rothiemurchus, the Cairngorms.

Bha fios aig MacFhearghais gun tuigeadh an luchd-èisteachd aige am facal eilrig. Ge-tà, a dh’aindeoin ’s gu bheil e an ìre mhath cumanta air mapaichean na h-Alba, ’s iomadh duine an-diugh, a thogas a shùilean chun nam beann, nach bi eòlach air. O thùs, bha an dreach erelc air an fhacal, agus bha a’ chiall ‘feall-fhalach’ air. Tro fhuaim-iomlaid, chaidh atharrachadh gu elerc, agus ’s ann mar sin a nochdas e ann an Leabhar Dheir anns an dàrna linn deug. Mu dheireadh, ghabh e an dreach eileirg, eleirig agus eilrig ann an Gàidhlig, an dèidh nam meadhan-aoisean.

Tha eilrig a’ ciallachadh àite dham biodh fèidh air an iomain, le fir agus coin, airson am marbhadh le boghaichean is saighdean. ’S e gnothach fuilteach a bh’ ann, nach robh mar spòrs an latha an-diugh, ach bha am fiadh na ghoireas air leth cudromach do na seann Ghàidheil – airson biadh, aodach is iomadh rud eile, agus ’s iongantach mura robh an gnothach gu math mòr ann an clàr-bliadhna an t-sluaigh. Ann an cuid de dh’àiteachan, leithid Gleann Moireasdan, far a bheil druim air a bheil An Elric air mapaichean, agus Gleann Tromaidh anns a’ Mhonadh Ruadh, thathar a’ dèanamh ceangal eadar an t-àite agus na Fianna.

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Little Elrick (An Eilrig Bheag), Bràigh Mhàrr. Faisg air làimh, tha Meikle Elrick (Eilrig Mhòr) agus Tom na h-Eilrig – àite ainmeil airson sealg! / Little Elrick, north of Braemar. Close by is Meikle Elrick (both are reinterpretations of older Gaelic names). In the same vicinity is Tom na h-Eilrig ‘the hillock of the deer trap’, which retained its Gaelic name.

Am measg iomadh eisimpleir de dh’ainmean-àite le eilrig, tha Meall na h-Eilrig (ann an co-dhiù dà àite), Càrn Eilrig agus Lòn na h-Eilrig. Ann an sgìre Mhàrr, tha Tom na h-Eilrig agus, anns an aon nàbachd, tha dà bheinn eile làimh ri chèile, air a bheil Meikle Elrick agus Little Elrick, a’ sealltainn dreach an fhacail ann an Albais. ’S iongantach mura robh Eilrig Mhòr agus Eilrig Bheag air an dà bheinn sin uaireigin, ach chan eil sin clàraichte. Chan eil e coltach gun deach am facal Gàidhlig a-steach a dh’Albais mar fhacal-iasaid, agus gun tàinig na h-ainmean-àite le Elrick agus Eldrick ann an àiteachan mar Ghall-Ghàidhealaibh agus Siorrachd Obar Dheathain (anns an deach Leabhar Dheir a sgrìobhadh) gu dìreach bho thùs-ainm Gàidhlig. Cia mheud duine a thadhlas air Pàirc Dhùthchail Elrick Hill ann an Obar Dheathain a thuigeas gu bheil iad ann an seann dùthaich nan Gàidheal, far an robhar a’ sealg nam fiadh?!

A dh’aindeoin na th’ ann de eilrigean agus elricks air mapaichean na h-Alba, is cinnteach gun robh na h-uibhir eile ann nach robh air an clàradh. Tha Teàrlach MacFhearghais ag ràdh, ‘mar dhearbhadh air an uiread de shealg a bh’ ann an Srath Àrdail anns an t-seann aimsir, faodaidh mi innse dhuibh gun do dh’inns bràthair mo mhàthair, Raibeart Foirbeis (aig an robh eòlas thar chàich air a’ mhonadh an sin) dhomh gun robh e eòlach air dusan eilrig anns a’ mhonadh os cionn Cill Mhìcheil.’ Cumaibh ur sùilean fosgailte airson eisimpleirean de dh’eilrigean an ath thuras a tha sibh a-muigh anns a’ mhonadh air a’ Ghàidhealtachd no air a’ Ghalltachd.


Elrig above Strathardle, Perthshire – one of twelve ‘elricks’ recognised in the area at one time.
An Eilrig, Srath Àrdail, Siorrachd Pheairt. Bhathar a’ dèanamh gun robh dusan ‘eilrig’ ann an sgìre Chìll Mhìcheil aig aon àm.    Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Eilrigean – Landscape Reminders of Great Deer Hunts

In an 1895 paper about Strathardle in Perthshire, Charles Fergusson tells us of a royal hunt held for King James VI in August 1582 in the hills of Strathardle and neighbouring Atholl: ‘There was a great gathering of clansmen beforehand, as usual, to gather in the deer etc from the surrounding districts. The great meeting-place, to which all the deer were driven to, was at the hill of Elrick, on Dirnanean Moor, which hill, as its name indicates, had been for ages before one of the noted hunting-places of Athole [sic].’

Fergusson knew that his audience, the Gaelic Society of Inverness, would understand the relevance of the word Elrick to the hunting of deer, but, despite the word’s relative abundance on the Scottish landscape, it is likely that many modern users of our mountain country do not fully appreciate the term or what it represents. The Gaelic form is usually eilrig, and the Strathardle example is given as Elrig on OS maps. However, the ancient form of the word was erelc, meaning an ‘ambush’. It underwent a process called metathesis (a swapping of consonants) to become elerc in the 12th century Book of Deer, and finally eileirg, eileirig and eilrig in modern Gaelic.


Looking across Lòn na h-Eilrig ‘the damp meadow of the Eilrig’ from the slopes of An Eilrig, Aberchalder Forest / Sealladh thar Lòn na h-Eilrig bho chliathaich beinne ris an canar An Eirlig, Frìth Obar Challadair.

The reference to an ambush is important, because the word, as a landscape term, came to mean a space into which herds of deer would be driven by men and dogs, and then killed, usually with bows and arrows. It was a bloody affair and not a sport as we might recognise it today, but it was a means of sourcing animal protein and supplying other parts of a deer’s carcase that were useful to humans – and perhaps even a throwback to the distant practices of a hunter-gatherer past. Being a communal activity, where success depended on all parties playing their role, it probably also made a contribution to social cohesion. In some places, such as in Glenmoriston, where there is a ridge called An Elric on the OS maps, the place is connected to the great hunts of the mythological Fianna.

Examples of place-names which contain eilrig are Meall na h-Eilrig ‘the hill of the deer trap’, Càrn Eilrig ‘deer trap hill’ and Lòn na h-Eilrig ‘the damp meadow of the deer trap’. Near Braemar there is Tom na h-Eilrig ‘the hillock of the deer trap’ and two other hills, adjacent to each other, called Meikle Elrick and Little Elrick, which show a Scots form of what was probably an original Eilrig Mhòr and Eilrig Bheag. The Gaelic word does not appear to have gone into Scots as a loan, so it is likely that the many Elrick and Eldrick names in places like Galloway and Aberdeenshire (the latter being where the Book of Deer was written) have a direct link back to a Gaelic original. How many people who visit the Elrick Hill Country Park in Aberdeen are aware that they are on ancient Gaelic deer-hunting territory?!

Despite the considerable number of eilrigean or elricks in our landscape, there are likely to have been many more that have gone unrecorded. Charles Fergusson says that as ‘proof of what a hunting country Strathardle must have been in olden times, I may mention that my late uncle, Robert Forbes (than whom none better knew these hills), told me that he knew twelve elrigs in the district above Kirkmichael.’ Keep your eyes open for these fascinating landscape names next time you are out in the hills and glens of both Highland and Lowland Scotland.


Posted in Cairngorms National Park, deer, Folklore, Gaelic, History, mapping, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrating Volunteers’ Week 2020 and Thinking Ahead

By Alison Matheson, SNH Policy and Advice Officer

Today sees the start of Volunteers’ Week 2020.  Volunteers’ Week is an annual celebration of the contribution that millions of people make across the UK through volunteering.

Over the last few months, volunteers have made a critical contribution to society by helping with shopping, prescription collecting, and other key tasks, for our most vulnerable people.  Over 76,000 people signed up – in just one month – for the Scotland Cares Campaign.  Not everyone has been offered a volunteer role yet, but it’s so reassuring to know that they are there to be called on if needed.  What an amazing response to this call for action in these difficult times.  Well done, and thank you everyone.

I hope that all of you wonderful volunteers, and prospective volunteers, have been able to find time to get outdoors for exercise. It’s outdoor volunteering, as we emerge from the current crisis towards a green recovery, that I’m keen to consider today.

When outdoors for your exercise, there were probably things you noticed in your local area that could be improved, once government restrictions allow.

  1. Perhaps litter is a problem near you. Consider clearing it up, or when restrictions allow, organise a community litter pick.

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    TCV volunteers collecting litter and planting wildflowers on urban grassland, Easterhouse Glasgow, May 2018. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

  2. If you’ve noticed a path you think would benefit from some maintenance (blocked drainage, overgrown vegetation etc), contact the land manager, and when safe to do so, organise a community path work party
  3. Lots of us have enjoyed hearing and seeing wildlife in our local areas, perhaps noticing things more than ever. When restrictions ease, working with others in your community to encourage more homes for wildlife in your local area such as ponds, wildflower areas, trees, bug hotels, could be an option.
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    A bee hotel for Red Mason Bees (Osmia rufa) at Upper Battleby. May 2018.                   ©Lorne Gill/SNH 
  4. In the interim, to stay within government guidelines, you could contribute to citizen science projects from home.
  5. Pollinators might have been going crazy with the delight of less rigorous grass cutting and weed killing.  You could contact the managing authority to see if this can continue.
  6. You may have noticed that the air has been cleaner. Spread the word about air quality.
  7. When allowed, you could encourage more active travel by helping young people learn to ride their bicycles safely or help look after the National Cycle Network.

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    A family cycling at Monikie country park, Angus, Tayside and Clackmannanshire Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

  8. If you spotted any Invasive Non Native Species (INNS) when out exercising, report them and when safe to do so, consider helping remove them.

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    A Loch Leven NNR volunteer removing himalayan balsam from the shores of Loch Leven National Nature Reserve, August 2019. ©LorneGill/SNH

There are many resources and organisations that will help you with volunteering once government restrictions ease.  Some organisations who welcome volunteers are detailed here and the Volunteer Scotland website is a good resource to search for volunteer roles by topic or postcode.

June is also 30 Days Wild month, so until we’re able to get out to volunteer and take wider direct action for nature, this challenge will encourage you to do one thing each day for nature at home.  Go on, give it a go!

Happy Volunteers’ Week 2020 to you all, and thank you so much to everyone who gives their time to make our world a better place.

Posted in citizen science, SNH, Uncategorized, Volunteering | Tagged , , , ,

#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Nature Reserve Manager Catriona Reid

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the varied work they do. Inevitably the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected much of the normal day-to-day activity at SNH. This month Catriona Reid, manager for the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve (NNR), reflects on a very different spring.


Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve in Aberdeenshire ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Our nature reserve staff, like everyone else, are all currently in lockdown and so our work at the moment is very different to a typical day at this time of year. Not that there is such thing as a ‘typical day’, with 50,000 visitors a year and over 1000 hectares of nature to manage!

Muir of Dinnet is a mixture of woodland, wetland and moorland and provides a huge range of habitats for birds, animals, plants and insects. We are also a popular visitor destination as everyone comes to see the Burn o’ Vat, a giant glacial pothole, carved by water and ice thousands of years ago. While we’re celebrating the Year of Coasts and Waters this year, it’s easy to forget so much of Scotland was shaped by water over the millennia.

At this time of year we’d usually be busy with activities such as monitoring our breeding birds, maintaining paths for visitors and leading school groups. May and June are the peak months for school visits, something nice in the outdoors for the end-of-term. We often work with the Cairngorms National Park Junior Rangers in May, doing some bushcraft and biodiversity….and hopefully having some fun too!

hoof fungus firelighting

Hoof fungus firelighting with junior rangers ©Catriona Reid

Normally, by this time of year, all the migrant birds have arrived and we can assess what we have on the reserve. More often than not, this is by listening rather than looking – the dawn chorus in the birch woods is a thing of beauty. It’s a real treat to see birds like redstarts or this osprey enjoying a fish on a fencepost, or we might be looking to see how the lapwing have done. Trying to spot the chicks as they dash in and out of the nettles is a real challenge! We also spend a fair bit of the time cutting grass and strimming paths for our visitors, too. Everything grows like stink at his time of year and it’s a constant battle to keep the paths clear of grass.

However, 2020 has been far from a normal year. In lockdown our involvement with nature, usually our raison d’etre, has suddenly been confined to our daily exercise walks or what we see going to and from the shops. But we have been doing our best to try and continue to bring nature to people at home through social media and blogs. A nice picture can brighten someone’s day and trigger memories of happier times. I enjoy writing about nature and love sharing pictures of it. Check out our blog https://muirofdinnetnnr.wordpress.com/ for more!

Personally, I’m really lucky as I live right on the coast and have fantastic wildlife within a short walk of my house. I’m probably one of the few people in the country who can have puffin on their ‘lockdown list’….my list of birds and wildlife seen during lockdown.


Puffin ©Catriona Reid

With being at home, you really see the passage of the seasons on the coast, with the birds pouring through on the great sky roads to the north or south. I often miss this, working inland, and it has been a real joy to see the wader passage, as curlew, golden plover, ringed plover and dunlin work their way north. They’ve been remarkably chilled-out this year (probably because there are fewer people and better-controlled dogs going about), and have hung around on the beach, taking a well-earned rest on their migration.


Ringed plover enjoying the quieter beaches ©Catriona Reid

I’ve also noticed the terns coming back. They breed a few miles to the south of us but fish all up and down the coast. My favourites are the Arctic terns, easily (in my opinion) the most elegant of the sea-swallows and probably the greatest traveller in the natural world. Their annual migration can take them from Scotland to the Southern Ocean and back, via New Zealand, and they can fly the equivalent of to the moon and back in their lifetime. While I don’t aspire to go quite that far, I am very much looking forward to normality returning, not having to queue for the supermarket and being allowed to travel back to the reserve. Fingers crossed it will happen soon but in the meantime, stay safe, stay sane and enjoy the wildlife on your doorstep!

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Hovering Arctic tern ©Catriona Reid

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

Living Roofs for People, Place and Nature

Ivan Clark,  our Placemaking Team Manager at SNH, tells us about a partnership project exploring the contribution that green roofs can make to successful, climate-resilient places. He found that by applying the right kind of roof to the right building in the right place, green roofs can be a cost-effective way of helping cities adapt to the impacts of climate change, supporting the health and well-being of Scotland’s communities and providing habitats for wildlife…


In a recent response to a Scottish Government request for advice on a ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19, the UK Climate Change Committee suggested, among other things, “supporting the green roof and sustainable drainage industries to help to bolster Scotland’s adaptation services sector.”  This is to be welcomed, because although green roofs are commonplace in London and in much of Europe, there is very little use of Green Roof Infrastructure in Scotland, particularly in housing developments. A previous SNH Commissioned Report, Maximising the Benefits of Green Infrastructure in Social Housing, suggested that this was due to a lack of awareness of the benefits of green roofs, the need for a persuasive ‘business case’ and the assumption by some developers that the cost of green roofs could threaten development viability.


The Project

To address these perceptions, Scottish Natural Heritage has been working with City of Edinburgh Council and others to explore the viability of integrating green roofs into an existing development proposal.  The Meadowbank Development Green Roof Options appraisal was the result of a partnership between the Scottish Government, Architecture and Design Scotland, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and City of Edinburgh Council.

The partners commissioned a highly-skilled and multi-disciplinary design team (comprising Architects, Landscape Architects, Structural Engineers, Quantity Surveyors and a leading UK Green Roof expert) to carry out a viability study based on an existing public interest led housing and mixed-use development proposal at Meadowbank, close to the centre of Edinburgh. The team took a collaborative place-based approach to exploring the solutions most appropriate to the specific challenges and opportunities at the site.


Having agreed the types of roof solutions that would provide the most benefits, the costs were calculated and the proposals refined. In terms of the ‘business case’, the report considered the role of the blue-green roofs in attenuating the flow of surface water and the implications of this for the use of land and the need for other grey infrastructure. It also looked at the likely energy savings from the green roofs over the long term.


Key Findings

Green roofs at the Meadowbank site would help create an exemplar nature-rich development in the centre of Scotland’s capital city:  Meadowbank is within a short flight of other pollinator habitat at Holyrood Park and the Scottish Parliament.

Green roofs would support the health and well-being of residents and provide benefits to the wider community that would use the site: Some of the green roofs could add value to potential community facilities such as nurseries and GP surgeries.

Green-blue roofs reduce the need for other grey infrastructure: Introducing green roofs across the site could result in a 38% reduction in the rate of surface water run-off. Along with other SUDs features, this could allow the removal of the need for below ground treatments (tanks and pipework) and reduce potential interference with contaminated land.

Green-blue roofs allow for more efficient use of land in constrained urban sites. Based on an average density of housing across the whole site of 110 dwellings/ ha, the space required for a ‘traditional’ SUDs pond, large enough to provide similar levels of attenuation provided by the blue-green roofs, would equate to around 40 dwellings per hectare.

Initial capital costs of green roofs are modest compared to overall capital costs of the development: The use of green roofs compared to traditional roofs represented an estimated uplift in overall construction costs for the whole development of less than 0.25%. If the additional capital costs of the roofs were split between all the dwellings at the site, the costs would equate to around £350 per dwelling. Based on their increased longevity and contribution to energy efficiency (insulating in winter and cooling in summer) the ‘payback’ period was estimated to be between 6 and 20 years.

Note: The options appraisal is based on a development proposal currently (as of May 2020) subject to a separate live planning application. The current application does not require roof types to be specified but in light of this report, City of Edinburgh Council will consider how green roofs could be incorporated at the next stage.



Posted in climate change, Flooding, Green infrastructure, Planning, Sustainable Drainage Systems, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

Noticing change in times of uncertainty.

Chris Mackie is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport. His research is funded by Scottish Natural Heritage’s Magnus Magnusson studentship. In this post, he reflects on how the current situation can raise awareness of how we relate to the greenspaces in our home communities.

Across Scotland and beyond, we are all adapting to the measures put in place to minimise the impacts of COVID-19. For many parents and carers, this means juggling work and caring for children in novel ways while schools and early learning and childcare settings are closed.  Many parents are no doubt being bombarded by advice and ideas of what they can or ‘should’ be doing to support their children’s learning at home from a range of sources, and I don’t want to add to this cacophony. In times like these, which in this country we are fortunate enough to consider extraordinary, parents’ and educators’ primary concern should be the emotional and physical health and wellbeing of their children and themselves.

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©Chris Mackie

Being outdoors and in contact with the rest of the natural world is one way we can – while still following government guidelines – look after ourselves and our children. We know that spending time with nature can enhance our wellbeing in a range of ways, from promoting physical activity to boosting mood and developing our connection to the natural world. Miles Richardson of the University of Derby has recently suggested some ways to get a nature fix, even if you can’t leave the house. As a parent, and a researcher working with young children to better understand how they come to know the natural world, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of weeks about how restrictions on people’s movements might be affecting children’s lives. In this post, I want to consider how staying-at-home is making some things – both positive and negative – more noticeable.

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©Chris Mackie

Being told to stop and stay at home prompts us to take notice of our home-places. I want to think about two distinct forms of this, and how being mindful of each might shape how we do things on the other side of the lockdown measures. At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that these are extraordinary times, full of individual and collective suffering and we’re all trying to do our best with what we’ve got. However, when it comes to things like quality housing, greenspace, mobility and healthy, local, sustainable food, access is not always equitable, and that’s looking at it only from the human side of things.

The first form of noticing we might engage in relates to how our lives change when we have to re-localise them, even temporarily. There are different aspects of this that I could concentrate on, such as food sovereignty or low-carbon transport, but I want to focus on how important access to natural, outdoor spaces must feel suddenly, particularly to families with children. On a ‘normal’ day at school, a primary-aged child might expect to spend nearly an hour and a half playing outdoors as an integral part of their school day, aside from any formal outdoor learning. The UK Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines recommend that 3 and 4 year-olds “should spend at least 180 minutes (3 hours) per day in a variety of physical activities… including active and outdoor play.” As I said at the start, the circumstances that we’re living through are not normal, but noticing how much our children need safe outdoor places to play might start to shift how we value greenspace in our local communities and our schools. It also makes visible existing inequalities, which might be amplified or reduced at present.

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©George Logan/SNH

For those with gardens or who live in rural areas, some children may be spending more time outdoors and active than normal, but in urban areas,  small pockets of greenspace will be subject to very high levels of use as people make the most of what’s available to them in short bursts. This also flags how dependent on private transport some forms of outdoor recreation are. We have already seen tensions emerging in some parts of the country as authorities seek to balance the public health benefits of exercise in local parks with the need to enforce physical distancing. On the other hand, reduced road traffic at present probably means that parents and carers feel differently about children cycling, running and scooting close to home.

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Does (green) infrastructure support all of the members of your community equitably?  By actively noticing what’s different, what’s working well, what’s not, and trying to understand why, we can start conversations within our families and communities about what is important to us that might be extended beyond ‘lockdown’.

The second form of noticing that seems to be important at the moment is noticing the natural world around us, however we can. Several times over the last few weeks, I’ve been very grateful that we’re going through this during spring rather than autumn or midwinter – Earth is waking up, other beings are busy, changes and rhythms beyond the human continue. Noticing this might take different forms. You might be taking part in the RSPB’s #BreakfastBirdwatch, planting seeds in a garden or pots, or following the same path daily and seeing buds open or early flowers bloom. Research shows that noticing ‘good things’ in nature every day can increase nature connection, and many forms of mindfulness practice are grounded in processes which bring us into awareness of other beings and systems. As the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Love Letter to the Earth, “When we sit with this kind of awareness, we can embrace the whole world, from past to future. When we sit like that, our happiness is boundless.”

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©Mathew Hannett

When we engage in these processes, of looking, listening, acknowledging and caring for the non-human around us and when we look to natural rhythms for peace and certainty, we show our children that this is something worth doing for ourselves and other beings. In times like these, children are learning more than ever from our responses to what’s going on in the world – remembering this is just as important as making sure you can log into Google Classrooms. Whether paying attention to nature around you is new or a familiar ritual, maybe you’ll start to see things differently from your window, in your garden or in your local greenspaces. Ask yourself whether some humans or other living beings are privileged over others. What would it look like if multiple species and people could flourish in the same space? In taking the time to notice, especially if accompanied by clear-eyed children, maybe we’ll come up with some good answers.

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©Lorne Gill/SNH

There are lots of ideas for ways to connect with nature on the Outdoor Learning Directory website. Many of the activities suggested by organisations like the RSPB and Learning through Landscapes can be adapted to suit a range of environments at home or as part of your daily local exercise, and hundreds of outdoor learning ideas have been compiled at Creative Star Learning. In my next post, I’ll share some of my experiences spending time with my own son, concentrating on language as a way to make sense of the world and how this might affect how children relate to the natural world. In the meantime, stay safe and take time where you can to pay attention. Old and young humans alike might find some peace in the emerging patterns of Spring, however we can acknowledge them.


Posted in green health, Green infrastructure, Natural Health Service, Outdoor learning, Uncategorized, urban nature, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Garden sanctuary

Suzanne McIntyre is missing the nature reserves she manages in the south of Scotland. But she’s discovered there’s a lot more life in her own back yard than she had realised, and that tuning in to nature in your garden can make time disappear… 


The number of birds I’ve seen in my garden these past weeks is astonishing. A pair of dunnocks call reassuringly to each other as they hop through the hedge; blue tits take turns to chatter and preen in the willow as the great tits confidently make their rounds. I smile at the blackcaps’ rapid switch, from beautiful song to stone-striking alarm; and admire the elegance of the thrush, always dignified, even whilst smashing a snail from its shell.


There is laughter in the escalating verses of the blackbird; and the song of the robin, whose territory I now happily share, feels welcoming — after all, there are many worms to be had following my burst of energetic digging.


My garden, as for many of you, has become a place of refuge from the news headlines and frustrations of lockdown life.  I have never taken the time to practice meditation, but feeling like Alice in this newfound wonderland I understand how each and every moment can be momentous. Gardening is no longer a chore to be rushed, my subconscious takes care of the digging, raking and pruning, while I watch and listen, uncovering layers of sound and sensation.

One-note chaffinches, two-note chiffchaffs and three-note collared doves chant by turn and then in harmony through the trees. The stillness of lockdown amplifies their melody and the steady humming bass of hoverflies and bees floating above their flowers.


The alien beauty of a poplar hawk moth resting in the lilies catches my eye as I rise from a crouch, a prickle of numbness in my legs from too long watching a wren fussing in the beech.  I take a break, lying on the grass like a child and stare up into the blue sky where swifts track and turn above darting swallows, as wood pigeons shuttle heavy shouldered back and forth.


Clouds obscure the sun, sobering the mood. My garden time over for the day, as I take a step back to the house, a dropped biscuit crumb is whisked away by an opportunistic mouse.

All photos and videos (C) Suzanne McIntyre.

Posted in bees, biodiversity, Birds, gardens, green health, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Ponds for all!

Man-made mini-wetlands across Scotland provide oases for a wide range of wildlife in urban areas. To mark World Biodiversity Day, David O’ Brien from our Biodiversity team took a stroll around his nearest SuDS pond to see what he could find…


Wildlife enthusiasts will tell you that the best way to see more nature in your garden is to build a pond. But what if you don’t have your own garden?

You needn’t miss out. If you live in a house built in the last twenty years, you’re probably living near an artificial wetland built to reduce flooding risk. These wetlands have the rather unglamorous technical name of SuDS – Sustainable Drainage Systems – but they can host some amazingly glamorous wildlife, even in the heart of our biggest cities.


Marsh marigolds in a SuDS wetland, (C) David O’ Brien

A stroll around a local SuDS brought me instant happiness in the form of a sea of marsh marigolds with a soundtrack provided by the reeling whir of a grasshopper warbler, punctuated by the chirruping of house sparrows. All of this within a few hundred metres of a supermarket, petrol station and of course, hundreds of houses.


Common blue damselfly, a species often seen at SuDS ponds from late May, (C)Lorne Gill/SNH

In past years, we’ve taken local primary school children pond-dipping in the shallow water here and they’ve found an incredible variety of creatures. Indeed some SuDS can rival natural ponds in their diversity. SNH scientists have found all of our native newts, along with frogs and toads breeding in Scottish SuDS, as well as dragonfly larvae, water boatmen and even pollution-sensitive mayflies.


Northern marsh orchid in Scotland flowers mainly in June in July, (C)Lorne Gill/SNH

The other great thing about these wetlands is that they’re always changing. Soon the marsh orchids will be coming into flower, I’ll be seeing fledgling birds coming to drink, and the adult damsel and dragonflies will be hawking over the water.

I may not be able to get out into the country, but I can still enjoy nature right next to my home.



Posted in amphibians, biodiversity, Flood management, Flowers, gardens, Insects, Orchids, Sustainable Drainage Systems, Uncategorized, urban nature, wild flowers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Shooting frogs in the dead of night

Underwater photographer Mark Kirkland aims to bring the weird and wonderful of Scotland’s sea and freshwater life to the wider public. Recalling a mission shortly before lockdown restrictions, Mark gives us an insight into the techniques, patience and determination required when trying to reproduce an image conceived in the photographer’s head.

It’s 2am on a chilly Wednesday morning in March. I’m covered head to toe in mud, lying on the edge of a pond in complete darkness.  I’m waiting for the perfect moment to press the trigger of my camera which is sitting in a foot of water.


I’ve been here for over 5 hours, my flask is now only half full of tea and my bones are starting to shiver. It’s my fifth consecutive night here and my patience remains intact….just. In a few hours the industrial estate behind me will become a bustle of noise as the working day starts. Above, the stars peek out from behind the clouds and in front of me, the glow of the tower block reflects in the black water.


The water is still, apart from the intermittent movement of life — sometimes a gentle splash then a lengthy silence; sometimes a crescendo of vocal noise culminating in a frenzy of activity before suddenly pausing in unison. The silence returns, sometimes for a minute, sometimes for an hour or more.

I’ve been a keen scuba diver for nearly 10 years, however, for the last 5 it’s become a means to an end — the end being photographing the unseen wildlife of Scottish waters. Once I got my first underwater camera, the combination of creativity, unpredictability and that wee sense of adventure quickly got me hooked.


It’s a niche and technically tricky endeavour, with relatively few people in the UK taking on the challenge. Despite this, there’s a small group of accomplished underwater photographers in the UK with who I share ideas and inspiration. I’m always trying to push my photography beyond what I’ve tried before, creatively and in the subjects that I photograph. It’s a combination of both that led me to this small haven of urban wildlife in the South of Glasgow, (without my dive gear of course).


I first encountered the common frogs of Malls Mire in February 2018. It took some planning and luck to get here. With no knowledge of amphibians or freshwater habitats, I started my research by downloading research papers and contacting local and national wildlife charities and environmental agencies for advice. Despite the great responses, I still needed that bit of luck to find the right location.


Common Frogs spend most of the year in underground burrows, only entering the water for a few days each year to mate. This happens when night-time temperatures rise above about 4°C, however, recent unpredictable weather has made this event hard to track. Over four weeks, I visited different locations every day — some a couple of hours drive away  — only to find empty ponds (too early) or ponds already full of frogspawn (too late).

I found the Frogs at Malls Mire towards the end of the spawning season in 2018. It was probably the day I was ready to give up. It’s a small area of community-managed mixed woodland and wetland in the South of Glasgow and just twenty minutes away from me. The location near the River Clyde makes it an important green corridor for urban wildlife.


I quickly learned that frog behaviour is as unpredictable as the weather is these days. Unlike larger toads, frogs are easily spooked and can go into hiding for long periods, so one sudden move was enough to have them scatter out of frame and into the muddy underwater flora. I found that they are also incredibly curious. After a few hours, they grew comfortable with my shadow looming above and they would gather around the water’s edge until eventually, I’d have over fifty pairs of eyes staring at me. With gentle movements and patience, I was able to get my camera into the water and start taking photographs.



My head full of ideas and possibilities, since that first day, I could picture a photograph of the frogs underwater, with the tower blocks in the background. This ‘split shot’ photography (half underwater, half above water) is a tricky technique, sometimes used by photographers as a great way of putting something underwater into a wider context. It tells a more complete story. In this case, the intersection between hidden wildlife and its urban environment. Like most city wildlife, frogs are most active after dark and I wondered if I could add this extra layer to their story. I was intrigued by the idea of conveying another world on our doorstep that came alive as we slept.


I visited Malls Mire again in 2019, however nature, at it’s predictably unpredictable best,  served up a seriously muddy pond for the whole month with absolutely no chance of photography. This year the water was clear but it took four or five visits before the frogs emerged from their nearby burrows.

The shot I was trying to get over the next five nights combined multiple techniques: split photography; backlighting (where a flash is placed behind the subject); close focus wide angle (where you focus closely on a small object using a lens designed to capture wider scenes); and long exposure (usually used to photograph stars, it means the camera shutter stays open for at least a few seconds to get as much light in as possible — however, anything that moves is therefore blurry).



All of this was done using a (completely unreliable) remote trigger, which meant I could take the photo without touching the camera. I hit endless problems such as intermittent drizzly rain constantly ruining the top half of the shot, stirred-up mud, moisture in my underwater housing creating condensation on the lens, trying to focus in darkness (impossible), and trying to focus with torchlight (scares the frogs). The constantly changing weather meant I also had to frequently adjust my settings while trying not to move around too much.


Eventually, when the frogs, moon and clouds aligned perfectly, my remote trigger would inevitably fail. If it wasn’t that, my flash wouldn’t fire or my camera battery would die!

Despite more than 25 hours of trying, I didn’t get an image that I’m completely happy with. The shots are full of imperfections and there are a lot of ‘nearly, but not quite’ moments. It’s the perfect excuse to try again next year. Granted, it’s not everyone’s idea of fun but for me, it was five nights well spent. Aside from the enjoyment I get out of photography, I hope that some of these images help to show an insight into the lives of amazing animals that we share our urban spaces with. You can’t treasure what you don’t know exists.

All photos ©Mark Kirkland. To see more of Mark’s photography visit Mark Kirkland Photography, or you can follow his work on Instagram.

Posted in amphibians, art, Nature in art, photography, Reptiles, Sustainable Drainage Systems, Uncategorized, urban nature, Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Space Between Us

Markus Stitz is an Edinburgh-based filmmaker, photographer, writer and founder of Bikepacking Scotland. While used to going solo on his cycling adventures, Markus values the community around backpacking greatly and in his latest film explores the difference between social and physical distance…


Sitting in the shelter of Cadderlie, temporarily hidden away from the midges and the pouring rain, I feel relieved. While a solid stream of water runs down from the roof in front of the window, I am comfortable on the couch, reading the (at times entertaining) comments in the bothy book, while cutting my flatbreads and the cheese. As the rain gets heavier, I quickly poke my head outside the bothy to check if all bags on my bike are closed properly. Thankfully they are. I return to my couch and continue lunch.



Minutes after the rain stops. It’s time to move on. My original plan was to be here on the evening before, but sometimes the best-laid plans don’t work out. I started my trip in the morning in Connel. With clear blue skies in the morning, I decided to make a detour to Lismore first, arriving just ten minutes before the ferry left from Oban to the small island. The two times I had been here were too short or too wet to really appreciate it, and this time the conditions looked perfect. I wasn’t disappointed. With a population of 170 people, Lismore feels cosy. Packed into the ten miles, on which it stretches from north to south, are two castle ruins, beautiful lochs and much green space. From each little hill, the views towards the coast are magnificent, and a lovely cafe with refreshments invites to linger for much longer than planned.


From Lismore I continued to the Pierhouse Hotel in Port Appin, and even though I wasn’t really hungry, I couldn’t resist a stop for a coffee and some snacks. I had eaten here the night before, invited by Gordon, who had taken over the hotel a few months ago, and the seafood was simply delicious. From Port Appin I followed the Caledonia Way north to Ballachulish, and then ‘raced’ across the busy A82 to scrape into the Kingshouse Hotel for dinner, just before 9pm. By the time I finally made it to the northern head of Loch Etive it was dark. Even though the midges were ferocious, a night in my tent, with no phone reception and other people in sight, seemed like a good enough prospect to stop.


It feels fresh outside. For a short moment, I have forgotten about the midges. The clouds move quickly above me, and within a few minutes I can spot a small spot of blue sky. The weather is much more Scottish than the day before, with frequent rain showers but some sunshine in between. The conditions make for beautiful rainbows and dramatic photos.


Fast forward a few months, Scotland during lockdown. I look through the video footage from that trip back in June 2019. Between the trip and the here and now lies one of my biggest adventures since I returned from my round the world trip in 2016. The mountains of the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan provided not only the background for an amazing experience, they also encouraged me to work on a new film, ‘No Stone Unturned’, my first documentary since ‘Wild About Argyll’. Back from racing in Morocco, I have just planned new routes in Argyll and I am eager to return there, to get out into the Scottish mountains as the days get longer and snow and rain give way to fresh green and hope.



But that hope is crushed while the country is being put into lockdown. The spectacular views from the tent are replaced with an outlook over Edinburgh’s New Town. The sunsets are still spectacular, but I miss being in those vast spaces that provide much-needed solitude from time to time. For the first weeks, I hardly leave the house. While I am still allowed to cycle, the bike is the closest ‘thing’ I connect with freedom. And that freedom has been taken, at least for the foreseeable future. While I understand the reasons and accept the measures, I am still constantly reminded of my upbringing in East Germany. For the first time since 1989, I am told what to do. I feel watched, I feel stuck. The noise of the coronavirus coverage on the radio blends into the monotonous sound of stacking dishes on top of each other. Certainty is replaced with the unknown. Making decisions proves almost impossible as the world during a pandemic moves with breathtaking speed.

After a Zoom call, I switch to YouTube and watch a video with an ape staring out of water for ten minutes. It calms me down. I get my phone out and look at the footage from last June. I have half-heartedly started to work on a new film, but abandoned the project for a few times. While I still look at the ape, I start to think about what social distancing really means. I download the song and go to bed.

Photo 03-09-2015, 04 36 05

The first waves of the lockdown shock are replaced with the willingness to adapt. On my around the world, no day was the same, and uncertainty was part of the attraction of taking a year off to explore new cultures and most importantly, myself. For a year I paused, resisted the noise. I was also exposed to grief for the first time in my life, when three months into the trip I unexpectedly lost my dad to an accident. There were moments of crisis on adventures I went on. ‘Fix your own problems’ (thanks to Jenny Tough for that mantra) and ‘never scratch at night’ have become the pillars of my efforts of exploration. I still remember few of the good, but most of the challenging days. Challenging days have turned into remarkable memories.

I get my tripod out and film the here and now; staring out of the window, the beautiful sunsets. While doing the dishes I record the noise from the radio and sit down with a glass of wine to gather my thoughts about social distancing and solo adventures. While doing all of this, the Aphex Twin song from a few days before still calms me down, and so I decide to use it as a soundtrack for a new film.

Slowly but surely all pieces come together. ‘Distance’ develops over the coming weeks. It helps me to make sense of the here and now. I use the memories of great solo adventures in the Scottish outdoors to provide me with hope and inspiration. Working on a new film helps me create a distance in my head from the onslaught of news coverage. And while a film can’t replace the power of exploring those mountains and lochs of Argyll, it can at least provide hope and inspiration for the days to come – hopefully in not too distant times.

Markus Stitz
Markus Stitz is an Edinburgh-based filmmaker, photographer and writer. He runs Bikepacking Scotland and Dirt Dash events and has developed a number of long-distance bikepacking routes, like the Wild About Argyll Trail.

All photos ©Markus Stitz.

Posted in Access, active travel, Argyll National Nature Reserves, cycling, National Walking and Cycling Network, Natural Health Service, paths, sustainable travel, Trail, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,