Dirty camping

Today’s blog is written by Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve (NNR) Manager, Catriona Reid, who’s had her hands full since she’s been able to get back on the reserve a few weeks ago, once restrictions lifted.

Loch Kinord

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Scotland’s beautiful scenery spread out in front of you, your nice cosy tent pitched somewhere quiet, the smell of the pines and the sausages frying on your stove … and, when you pack up to go, there’s only a wee flat bit of grass to show you’ve ever been here. That’s proper wild camping – you leave no trace and you should be rightly proud that your visit and  enjoyment hasn’t damaged anything or spoiled anyone else’s day.

And then there’s the other sort. With the lockdown being lifted, people are piling into the countryside in droves … it feels so good to get out again. But it’s likely folk can’t go far on holiday – places in the UK are booked up and foreign travel is fraught with risks, from catching COVID to suddenly having to quarantine with no pay. So it’s safer to stay at home, right? After all, Scotland has the most amazing and varied landscape, so why not spend a few days out there? And that’s great – we need visitors to come back to restart local economies and it’s heartening that so many people want to spend time in nature. Unfortunately for nature, some of those people are very destructive. I will say, right now, that the majority of visitors are great, it’s a selfish minority who spoil things for everyone. But there are so many people in the countryside just now, that those who choose to please themselves are causing serious problems .

litter - small

The problems often start on the roads. If people have resolved that they are going to a certain destination, they are often unwilling to change their plans, even if a place is overly busy. At Muir of Dinnet, we’re seeing issues with up to 58 cars parked on the verge and people walking on the roads, putting themselves at risk. We’ve had to call the police because of the parking on more than one occasion and hope there isn’t an accident. But we’re not alone in seeing this – our sister reserve at St Cyrus has similar problems, as do other local beauty spots like Glen Muick and Glen Tanar. On Deeside, on a sunny weekend day, it’s likely every reserve and  beauty spot car park will be full by 11am. Look at the advice on our website and avoid the busy nature reserves.

full car park

With the high visitor numbers, we’re also seeing unprecedented amounts for irresponsible camping, litter and fires. I tend to think of this as ‘dirty camping’ ….tents pitched any old how, sometimes right on footpaths. This can really upset other visitors who have to step round these, especially if the tent’s residents have been partaking of a drink or seven.

abandoned tent

Another big issue is that most people who camp want a fire, even if it means scorching a bit of the NNR and they all seem to want their own fire – even if it means scorching another bit of ground only feet away from another fire pit. Often, live branches are cut for these fires (which is vandalism, pure and simple, and a bit of a waste of time, because green wood doesn’t burn well). Even collecting dead wood destroys habitat for invertebrates and that’s not counting the risk of wildfires when people walk away and leave them burning. The the best solution is for people to use a stove as there are often very few places that a fire can be safely lit, especially in wooded sites.

We’re also seeing more litter on the reserve than I’ve ever seen, in 15 years of working here. It’s not uncommon for us to pick up two wheely bins worth of litter over the course of a weekend. As well as being unsightly, it can be dangerous to wildlife and other visitors…we’ve found some horrible shards of broken glass where bottles have been thrown into the loch or burn. Human waste is also an issue. Yes, okay, if you’re in the countryside and need the loo…well, it happens and when you gotta go… but there are ways and means of going. ‘Go’ well away from water and bury any waste. Don’t use wet wipes (we must have picked up hundreds in the past few weeks, and quite a few were brown-stained) …but far too many people are ‘going’ right by the path and leaving everything lying. I’m pretty sure we don’t need to elaborate further!


All of this is, or has the potential to have a huge detrimental effect on our wonderful country…and on wildlife and visitors. The NNR staff, along with rangers from the Cairngorms National Park, do our best to keep on top of it, but, like many land managers, we’re struggling with the weight of numbers.  Things like litter also have a financial implication for land managers as we have to pay to have waste removed…and there’s been oh,so much of it.

So, please, if you’re out on a nature reserve this weekend, be respectful of others, leave our beautiful natural sites the way you find them, and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC). There’s more info on the SOAC website on responsible camping, dog walking and more.



Posted in Access, Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, National Nature Reserves, SNH | Tagged , , , , , ,

#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Bog Manager David Pickett

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and watery places to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month, following on from International Bog Day, National Nature Reserve (NNR) Manager David Pickett tells us about the importance of the bog habitat he looks after at Flanders Moss NNR.

At Flanders Moss you might be long way from the sea but there is certainly no shortage of water! In fact the reserve has been called “the land of water” as it consists of an enormous area of peat 5m thick covering an area of more than 2,000 football pitches of completely water-logged peat.

For hundreds of years, landowners and tenants alike put in a huge amount of time and effort trying to get rid of what was seen as agriculturally unproductive land, resulting in about 40% of the original bog disappearing down the River Forth – cut, removed and flushed away.


Luckily 60% avoided this end and, though damaged and drying out, it survived to modern times to be saved as a National Nature Reserve. We now look on bogs with very different eyes and greatly value them for their rare species, the ways they help to reduce flooding by holding onto rain water and how they can help to reduce the effects of climate change by capturing carbon. Plus of course they are wonderful places to visit!

I do feel a bit of an affinity to the workers who cleared the bog though – the moss lairds as they were known locally – as much of what we do today is spent working with water on the difficult bog surface. The difference being that they spent their time trying to get the water off the moss quicker to dry it out while we are working to hold the water onto the moss to restore the bog habitat.

I also feel an affinity with Rob Roy who roamed the area nearly 300 years ago plying his trade of stealing cattle and disappearing with them. He was reputed to be one of the few to know their way round the impassable wetlands of the Carse of Stirling. Walking on Flanders today is tricky – there was are many hidden, water-filled ditches that can spoil your day if you don’t know the paths round them. Since first venturing out on Flanders Moss 20 years ago I have found most of these the hard way but nowadays don’t fall in as many as I used to!

It’s not just communing with the ancients, although things certainly don’t happen quickly here – after all the bog has taken thousands of years to grow to what it is. An end of year report can say “another mm of peat accumulated”. But time away from the place can highlight that changes are happening. After three months of lockdown my first walk back across the moss revealed carpets of sphagnum spreading across the bog surface, sparkling with sundews, white-beaked sedge, cranberry and other rare bog species. A break from a site can be very illuminating – less is taken for granted, details are not passed over but observed, walks across the moss become more rewarding.


That first walk was to plan more restoration work, removing invading scrub and damming more ditches. This work has been ongoing going since the site became an NNR and the positive effect of damming km’s of ditches can now clearly been seen. Despite the very dry spring, sphagnum carpets are spreading, two bog specialists – large heath butterflies and northern emerald dragonflies – are turning up in new places and the moss is so wet that waterlogged conditions are causing some invading trees to die.


This is a long-term restoration process using water to rewild and it is tremendously exciting to be have personally been able to watch the recovery of such an amazing place, and to take the bog and the work we do to people through social media, photos and our regular blog. As bogs go, Flanders is one of the wettest and getting to be one of the wildest! Why not come and visit and discover the bog for yourself.

All images ©David Pickett unless indicated.

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

An t-Ùraisg – Mac-meanmnach no Fìor? / The Urisk – Scotland’s ‘Bigfoot’?

Ma nochdas ainm ‘gnè ainmhidh’ air mapa oifigeil, feumaidh gu bheil e fìor is creideasach … no an fheum …? / If an ‘animal species’ is named on an official map, it must surely be a biological reality …. mustn’t it?

An t-Ùraisg – Mac-meanmnach no Fìor?

Tha e na shamhla dhen lagachadh ann an dùthchas is cultar nan Gàidheal, agus nan Albannach san fharsaingeachd, gu bheil mòran nar measg an-diugh nach eil eòlach air an ùraisg (no ùruisg). ’S e a th’ ann ach creutair a tha, no a bha, beò (mura robh e gu tur mac-meanmnach) ann an ceàrnaidhean uaigneach, iomallach dhen Ghàidhealtachd. Tha faclair Dwelly (stèidhichte air seann fhaclair Armstrong) ag innse dhuinn gun robh e na chreutair a ghabhas a-steach buadhan mac an duine agus buadhan os-nàdarrach. Tha na h-aithrisean a th’ againn air na h-ùraisgean ag innse dhuinne gun robh iad air am fuadachadh às na h-àiteachan san robh iad uaireigin a’ fuireach.

urisk front

Tha iad, ge-tà, air na mapaichean againn, mar gur e ainmhidhean dùthchasach a th’ annta. Mar eisimpleir, air cladach a deas Loch Ceiteirein anns na Tròisichean, eadar Bealach nam Bò agus Ceann an Fhèidh, tha Coire nan Ùruisgean far am biodh na creutairean sin a’ tighinn cruinn còmhla aig amannan. Nas fhaide tuath, faisg air t-Sàilean ann am Muile, tha Coire an Ùruisge. Beagan deas air sin, ann an ceann a deas Mhuile, tha Sloc an Ùruisge, agus tha àite leis an aon ainm ann an Tiriodh. Timcheall Ghleann Urchaidh, bha am facal boireanta oir an sin tha Eas na h-Ùruisg faisg air Taigh an Droma, agus Clach na h-Ùruisg ann an Abhainn Urchaidh. Ann an Carmina Gadelica, tha Alasdair MacIlleMhìcheil a’ toirt dhuinn cunntas de Gleann na h-Ùraisg deas air an Òban, far nach rachadh eadhon ‘daoine treuna’ air an oidhche, agus Coire na h-Ùraisg ann an Cuiltheann an Eilein Sgitheanaich.

map 1

Coire nan Ùruisgean (‘na’ should be ‘nan’) on the shores of Loch Katrine, The Trossachs. Detail from OS Six-inch map pub. 1901.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Tha cuid de sgoilearan a’ cumail a-mach gur e ‘uisge’ an dàrna eileamaid ann an ainm a’ chreutair, agus tha na ceanglaichean a th’ aca do dh’uillt is aibhnichean gu math aithnichte. Bha cuid dhiubh air an aithneachadh gu pearsanta, le ainmean orra, agus tha trì-deug dhiubh air an ainmeachadh ann an rann à Bràghaid Albainn. B’ e fear dhiubh Padarlan no Padarlaidh, a th’ air a chuimhneachadh ann an Allt Coire Phadarlaidh siar air Feàrnan air cladach a tuath Locha Tatha. Tha naidheachd ann mun dòigh a chuir tuathanach às an dùthaich e, le bhith a’ cur a mhic fo bhruid.

Shaoileadh cuid gur e Padarlan an aon ùraisg a th’ air a chomharrachadh gu pearsanta ann an ainmean-àite na Gàidhealtachd, ach bidh feadhainn ann an Obar Pheallaidh a’ cur an aghaidh sin, oir tha iad dhen bheachd gu bheil am baile a’ faighinn ainm bho ùraisg air an robh ‘Peallaidh an Spuit’ a bha a’ fuireach faisg air an eas as àirde san allt a tha a’ sruthadh tron bhaile.

Fada tuath air Siorrachd Pheairt, bhathar ag ràdh gun robh dithis ùraisgean beò faisg air eas air Allt a’ Pholl-choire, deas air Poll Iù ann an Ros an Iar. ’S Crotachan Liobastan a bh’ air fear dhiubh, agus Ciuthach Caogach a bh’ air an fhear eile. ’S iongantach gun robh iad bòidheach don t-sùil! Tha sgeulachd ann, coltach ri sgeulachdan à sgìrean eile, gun d’ fhuair boireannach cuidhteas iad le foill, agus nach fhacas bhon uair sin iad.

’S e Bràghaid Albainn an sgìre leis an dualchas as làidire a thaobh ùraisgean. Dh’fhoillsich Raibeart Armstrong am faclair iongantach aige ann an 1825. Bhuineadh e don Cheannmhor, taobh Loch Tatha, agus b’ e fear de na h-earrannan cinn-fhacail as motha a th’ aige anns an leabhar an tè mun ‘Ùruisg’! Ged a thuirt e gun robh iad mac-meanmnach, sgrìobh e mar gun robh iad air a bhith ann am bith ann an dha-rìreabh, ged nach fhaiceadh duine iad mura robh an dà-shealladh aige no aice. Anns an fharsaingeachd, b’ fheàrr leotha a bhith leotha fhèin, ach aig deireadh an fhoghair bhiodh iad a’ tighinn timcheall nam bailtean, agus bha iad cianail measail air bainne, ìm is càise. Cha robh iad fòirneartach, agus cha robh annta ach peasanan draghail, ged a dh’fhaodadh iad a bhith ràcanach aig amannan. Tha na h-ùraisgean gu mòr mar phàirt de ar dualchas, agus bu chòir dhuinn na sgeulachdan mun deidhinn aithris, ged nach urrainn dearbhadh gun robh iad dha-rìreabh, seach mac-meanmnach.


The Urisk – Scotland’s ‘Bigfoot’?

It is perhaps a mark of the weakening of our cultural heritage that more Scots are probably familiar with the North American ‘Bigfoot’ – a humanlike creature dwelling in remote places, which bears a dubious connection to reality – than with the array of anthropoid creatures that pepper our own folkloric heritage. Among those – and once widely celebrated – is the urisk, known in Gaelic as ùraisg or ùruisg, which Dwelly’s dictionary informs us ‘had the qualities of man and spirit curiously commingled.’ The past tense is perhaps appropriate, as verified sightings of such creatures have not been reported in recent times, and no photographic evidence of one exists.


Coire an Ùruisge ‘the corrie of the urisk’ near Salen on Mull. Detail from OS One inch map (pub. 1927).
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

And yet they appear on our maps (even those produced by the Ordnance Survey) as if they were any other native animal species. On the shore of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, sandwiched between Ceann an Fhèidh ‘the headland of the deer’ and Bealach nam Bò ‘the pass of the cows’, there is Coire nan Ùruisgean ‘the corrie of the urisks’, reputedly a place where these creatures would meet. Further north, near Salen on Mull, there is Coire an Ùruisge, presumably a corrie where an urisk lived, and from which he would descend to cause a nuisance among the populace. In the south of Mull and on Tiree, there are hollows named Sloc an Ùruisge, while the creature is also remembered (in grammatically feminine form) in Eas na h-Ùruisg ‘the waterfall of the urisk’ at Tyndrum and Clach na h-Ùruisg ‘the stone of the urisk’, a riverine stone in Glen Orchy. Alexander Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica Vol II has an account of Gleann na h-Ùraisg near Kilinver south of Oban which ‘strong men’ avoided at night, and of Coire na h-Ùraisg in the Cuillin of Skye, neither of which appear on the modern maps.


Some etymologists have claimed that the second element in the creature’s name is uisge, the Gaelic for ‘water’ – and, certainly, they are commonly recognised as living near streams or rivers. Individual urisks became so well-known to the populace that they had personal names – indeed thirteen different urisks are named in a rhyme from Breadalbane. One was Padarlan or Padarlaidh, who is remembered in Allt Coire Phadarlaidh ‘the burn of Padarlan’s corrie’ near Fearnan on Loch Tayside; he is reputed to have been forced to leave Breadalbane by a farmer who kidnapped his son. Padarlan might be considered to be the one urisk whose individual name survives in our toponymy, but any such assertion is likely to be challenged by some of the residents of Aberfeldy who consider their town – Obar Pheallaidh in Gaelic – to be named after Peallaidh an Spuit ‘Peallaidh of the spout’, an urisk who is reputed to have had his abode near the Upper Falls of Moness.

Far to the north, two urisks reportedly lived near a waterfall on Allt a’ Pholl-choire near Poolewe in Wester Ros. One was called Crotachan Liobastan, crotachan being a ‘hunchback’, while the other was Ciuthach Caogach ‘the squint-eyed shaggy man’. In an echo of folkloric heritage in other parts of the Gàidhealtachd, there is a story there of how a woman, being fed up of the urisks visiting her kitchen and wasting her time, outwitted them and caused them to leave.

But it is Breadalbane that affords us the strongest evidence of the presence of these creatures, and some folk on Loch Tayside still tell their stories today. Robert Armstrong, a native Gaelic-speaker from Kenmore, compiled an outstanding Gaelic dictionary in 1825, and one of his most comprehensive and lengthy entries is for the Ùruisg. Despite characterising them as ‘imaginary beings’, he wrote as if they had truly existed, although seen only by those who had second-sight. In general, they favoured solitude, but they became ‘more sociable towards the end of harvest and had a particular fondness for the products of the dairy.’ In general, they were good-natured and mainly of nuisance value, although they could become ‘wantonly mischievous’. The urisks form a rich vein in Scotland’s heritage and their stories deserve to be told, even if it is unlikely that a specimen of Homo uriskus will ever be unearthed!

The Author

Bha am blog seo air a sgrìobhadh le Ruairidh MacIlleathain, a tha na sgrìobhadair, craoladair, eòlaiche-nàdair is sgeulaiche, stèidhichte ann an Inbhir Nis.

This blog was written by Inverness-based writer, broadcaster and storyteller Roddy (Ruairidh) Maclean, whose work highlights the connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment.

Posted in Folklore, Gaelic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I’ll Walk 500 Miles

It’s 5am and time for Yvonne Ferguson to rise and take her Border collie, Jess, out for a walk before she sets out from Collieston, 15 miles north of Aberdeen to Newburgh, walking four miles across the wide expanse of Forvie Moor.

By 6.45 am she is on the ‘Mussel Roadie’ or ‘Fish Wivies Path’, named after the Collieston fisher folk who, in times long gone by, used the path to and from the Ythan estuary to collect mussels as bait for the long-line fishing boats that once worked out of Collieston harbour.

pic 1

Collieston fishing folk baiting their lang-lines with mussels collected from the Ythan estuary. Note the basket beside the woman in the middle which would be carried on her back along the ‘Mussel Roadie’ or ‘Fish Wivies Path’.  Photograph from ‘Old Collieston and Slains’ by Ellie Ingram Stenlake Publishing 2012.

It takes her an hour and a quarter to reach Newburgh where she gets the Aberdeen bound bus. And come late afternoon, she does the return leg. I’m tired just thinking about it.  Yvonne has been doing the walk since lockdown at the end of March when the bus service she uses to go to work was suspended, leaving her with no transport to get to her job in Aberdeen. Working in a laboratory means that she cannot work from home, and without a car, she has no alternative but to catch the bus in the neighbouring village of Newburgh. On a couple of days a week she manages to get a lift from friends who also work in Aberdeen but for the most part, from Monday to Friday, she walks to and from Newburgh to Collieston. I asked if she could use a bicycle but the bus company doesn’t carry them unless they can fold-up. In any case, there’s nowhere to safely leave bikes in Newburgh.


Yvonne Ferguson  on the trail

On this glorious late May morning, I join Yvonne on her daily commute, meeting up near the Trig point at the heart of Forvie Moor, the highest point of Forvie National Nature Reserve. We walk together for a while and I do a quick back of the fag packet calculation and reckon by the end of June she will have clocked over 500 miles! I try hard not to start singing “I’ll walk 500 miles…”


Yvonne’s route across Forvie NNR

On her daily commute Yvonne experiences the full range of weather that the Scottish climate can throw at you – late winter snow and hail in March and even April, frequent rain showers and on this occasion, wall to wall sunshine.


A male stonechat on Forvie Moor. Copyright Ron Macdonald

She has seen the moor change from the faded browns of winter to the fresh greens and yellows of spring and early summer – the scrub willow now covered in fresh green leaves while clumps of wild tormentil and birds foot trefoil adding splashes of colour on the sand dune ridges that poke out of the brown moorland and heath.

I ask about what wildlife she has seen in her travels and immediately Yvonne mentions the normally shy roe deer that have become accustomed to her and rather than run away they stay put. The other morning Yvonne swears blind that one was following her.


Roe deer at Forvie NNR. Copyright Ron Macdonald

She frequently sees birds such as the meadow pipit and skylark and where there are clumps of gorse and trees stonechats scold her from their treetop perches. At the moment they’re busy raising their first brood of chicks so are wary of people. From Waterside Bridge, she’s seen an Osprey fishing in the Ythan estuary, the bird hovering above the water looking for its next meal.


Osprey fishing over the Ythan estuary. Copyright Ron Macdonald

I leave Yvonne to continue her journey across the moor. She’s setting a cracking pace which in little over an hour will see her arrive in Newburgh. As she disappears over the horizon she looks so small in that big landscape. We rightly salute our medical and other key workers who are doing so much in the fight against the Covid-19 virus. But there are also other, unsung heroes who continue working, doing their bit to keep our society functioning and supporting the economy. Yvonne is one of those.


The tiny figure of Yvonne setting across the wide expanse of Forvie Moor, part of the Mussel Roadie or Fish Wivies Path.


I wish to thank the following for help in writing the blog.  Ellie Ingram for providing me with the image of fisherfolk baiting their lang-lines, staff in SNH’s Geographic Information Group (GIG) for producing the map showing Yvonne’s daily commute across Forvie National Nature Reserve and last but not least Yvonne for allowing me to write about her walking those 500 miles!

The Author

The blog is written by Ron Macdonald who retired as SNH’s Director of Policy & Advice in 2015.  Ron is a member of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Committee, chairs the North East Biological Records Centre Advisory Group (NESBReC) and is a Trustee of the Macaulay Development Trust. Since retiring his newfound passion is wildlife photography, examples of which appear in the blog. You can follow Ron’s passion on Twitter – @ronpon_ron



Posted in Access, active travel, Forvie NNR, National Nature Reserves, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The wasp and the ladybird

Photographer in residence at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, Pauline Smith, not only takes awesome wildlife photos, she writes fascinating blog posts too! Today she looks at the intricate adaptations and evolution of mind and body-controlling parasites, through the very specific relationship between a wasp and a ladybird…

Ladybird lockdown!

I found this lovely seven-spot ladybird posing on the Ceanothus in the garden but suspected something unusual was going on when I saw it again the next day in exactly the same spot. A closer inspection revealed the sinister truth: the ladybird was`standing guard’ over a cocoon (among the fibres you can see under the ladybird), the cocoon of a parasitic wasp (Dinocampus coccinellae).

This wasp is a specialist parasite of ladybirds and has a very interesting life cycle.


Ladybird on guard over a cocoon, (C)Pauline Smith

The female parasitic wasp (about 3mm), using her ovipositor (the `spike’ at her rear end), injects an egg into the adult ladybird. On hatching inside the ladybird, the wasp larva first kills any other parasitoid eggs/larvae already present inside the ladybird (to have the host to itself!). As it develops, the larva derives all of the nutrition it needs from the ladybird, and by taking nutrients only from non-essential parts of the ladybird, the wasp larva ensures that the ladybird survives, at least for the duration of the parasite’s larval development.

After a few weeks, the larva, still inside the ladybird, is fully developed and ready to move to the next stage, where the plot takes an even more sinister twist! After burrowing out of the ladybird’s`undercarriage’, the larva spins itself a cocoon – incredibly, the ladybird is still alive but now rooted to the spot, where it stands guard over the cocoon (which is what I witnessed above). While the wasp larva develops inside the cocoon over the next couple of weeks, the ladybird remains in place, providing shelter and protection against predators for the cocoon; the ladybird even twitches if anything gets too close!


The parasitic wasp (Dinocampus coccinellae), (C)Pauline Smith

Almost immediately after emerging from the cocoon, the adult wasp will be on the lookout for a new victim, into which it will inject an egg, and the whole cycle will begin again. Interestingly, these wasps are primarily parthenogenic; the female is capable of reproducing without the input of a male wasp, which occur only rarely.

Amazingly, the story doesn’t always end there for the ladybird: one-third of ladybirds make a full recovery, and may reproduce … and they may even be parasitized again! This almost unbelievable recovery of the ladybird is also a testament to the parasite’s `care’ to not kill the ladybird, at least while the wasp develops – and any surviving ladybirds are then available for future `use’ by another parasitic wasp.

The wasp’s strategy is as clever as it is cunning! The ladybird provides all that the wasp needs to comfortably progress from the egg to the adult stage. It acts as a protective shelter for the egg and the larva, and also a source of food for the larva, and it then continues to provide shelter and protection for the pupa; all of this is strengthened by the ladybird’s striking colouration, which warns potential predators of its ability to release unpalatable and poisonous chemicals.

Curious as to why the ladybird would stand guard over the cocoon, in 2015, researchers found evidence suggesting that the female wasp also injects a `mind-controlling’ virus along with her egg into the ladybird. This virus is thought to be responsible for the zombie-like state of the `locked down’ ladybird. Much more is yet to be discovered.

I find these types of inter-species interactions absolutely fascinating, and can never quite get my head around how this would all have begun!

Posted in biodiversity, gardens, Insects, National Nature Reserves, photography, St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

The seabirds of Hermaness

In today’s guest blog, former warden Mike Pennington reflects on a long association with Hermaness National Nature Reserve, the changes he has observed over the years and the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on this special place.


Puffin at Hermaness ©Mike Pennington

I first came to Hermaness National Nature Reserve, on Britain’s most northerly island of Unst in Shetland, as seasonal warden in 1988. A 30-year teaching career at the local school followed, before early retirement saw me back at Hermaness, undertaking the annual seabird monitoring contract.

As an Unst resident, I have of course visited many times in between, but the contrasts between the two spells on the reserve have been interesting. The blanket bog is thriving. There are now fewer sheep, thanks to an agreement with the grazing committee, and species like bogbean and great woodrush now bloom regularly, while the plastic boardwalk to the clifftop has replaced the old short wooden sections and has had a remarkable impact in reducing erosion.

On the cliffs, the fortunes of the seabirds have been more mixed for complex reasons. Changes in food availability are key, due to overfishing or, more importantly, climate change warming the seas and changing the ecology. The monitored guillemot plots only hold about 10% of the maximum counts from the late 1970s, and my favourite spot for puffin-watching in the 1980s, at Sothers Geo, is usually all but deserted. The gannets continue to thrive, however, and several further stacks have been colonised over the last few decades. There is still little more thrilling than arriving on the top of the Neap to the sight, the curiously mechanical, throbbing sound, and the distinctly fishy smell of the southern part of the gannetry.

One of the biggest changes has been the increase in visitors. In 1988, I could sit watching my favourite puffins for hours and only a few people would go past. In the last few years, there has been a stream of people heading up and down the boardwalk all day, even in the evenings, when in the past you could have watched the sunset in glorious isolation.

In 2020, of course, the lockdown meant that very few people could visit the reserve at all until late May, and seabird monitoring only got underway in June, as restrictions eased. With inter-island travel within Shetland and ferry and air travel to and from the islands still restricted through June, it has been possible to spend the whole day on the reserve without seeing anyone, although it was lovely to see eight car loads of island residents enjoying the reserve on the first sunny Sunday at the end of May when the lockdown rules changed.


Puffin ©Mike Pennington

The wildlife has responded to the changes as well. The boardwalk has been a great success in channelling people into one route, but it also created an area which was constantly disturbed, so the birds either became habituated or moved away. This year, though, I have almost stood on a snipe sat motionless beside the path, seen dunlin chicks within metres of the boardwalk and had the novelty of being dive-bombed by angry bonxies (the local name for great skuas). Normally, bonxies beside the boardwalk become so bored with the sight of visitors that they completely ignore them.

It reminds me of the irony pointed out by Douglas Adams: “Everything you go to see is changed by the very action of going to see it”, while there is also, I have to admit, something magnificent about having the huge vistas of the Hermaness cliffs all to yourself. But, such magnificence should be shared and admired. Many of my fondest memories on Hermaness involve showing school groups or tourists or friends and family the view from Toolie, or from the Neap, or from above Clingera Stack and seeing their reaction when they first see it. After lockdown, I look forward to seeing people come back to share the experience and cherish it.

Find out more about Hermaness National Nature Reserve. All images taken at Hermaness ©Mike Pennington

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Marvellous Mining Bees

The discovery of mining bees in Simon Ritchie‘s parents’ garden inspired him to read-up on these scarce burrowing insects. There are more than 1,300 species of mining bee around the world. However, only a fraction of these species are known to occur in Scotland,  making the task of identifying the find a little easier for Nature Reserve Assistant, Simon…

The bees I first noticed seemingly, magically, appearing out of nowhere in my folks’ garden, I later discovered to be buffish mining bees (Andrena nigroaenea). There are about 50 to  60 bees in the group I found living underground and they are beautiful, busy wee things.

Buffish bee

Buffish mining bee, (c)S. Ritchie

Mining bees are known as solitary bees because they do not work together and they live and feed alone. The colony  I’ve observed in the garden look like they are all socialising together, but this is not the case. Each bee creates a mining hole, and all of the holes together make a cluster of individual holes. Some mining holes can be used as a common hole meaning that numerous females will enter and leave the ground from that hole. However, they will still nest in solitude in their own ‘mine’ and will not interact with the other bees. The bees will spend the night inside their tunnel and when it starts to warm up in the morning, they will slowly emerge.

early bee

Early mining bee, (c)Pauline Smith

Mining bees or Andrenidae are the largest genus of bee in the UK with 67 different species. As the name suggests, they nest in the ground. Some bees can even nest in soft wall cavities and other areas in which they can mine. Mining bees a have flight period typically between early spring and late summer.

The mining bees first emerge from hibernation; typically the first to emerge from the ground are the males. They frantically search the area for females to mate with as they have a short lifespan. Once mated, the males tend to die off. The female then creates her cells (nests) and lays one egg per cell in her tunnel. The females tend to lay around five eggs. Then once the egg has hatched as a larva it will feed on the nectar and pollen that the female provided while laying. Fully fed larva then form a pupa which can overwinter under the ground to emerge as fresh adults the next year. The adults normally last 6-8 weeks and the cycle is repeated over again.

life cycle

The life cycle of a mining bee, (c)G. M. Cottrill

Mining bees are usually fluffy or hairy and can have orange/black/grey hairs on their thorax. They have short mouthparts and a really pointy tongue. Mining bees can also be parasitised by other different kinds of bees. Other bees like cuckoo bees can raid the tunnel and lay its own eggs (much like the cuckoo bird). These eggs will hatch before the mining bees eggs and the cuckoo bee larvae will destroy the mining bee eggs and eat the pollen and nectar that has been provided by the mining bee – wow!

At St Cyrus NNR we have different species of mining bees. Including; tawny mining bee, (Andrena fulva), chocolate mining bee (Andrena scotica), early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) and many others that I need to get out and have a look for! They are so fascinating and can turn up in any habitat. Have a look in your garden or your local patch for some mining bees. Look out for the mounds in the soil that look like mini molehills, then just sit for a while and wait for one to appear. It is extremely relaxing! If you are lucky enough to find a very active aggregation of mining bee nests, then try and get some photos and see if you can identify them, it can be a rewarding challenge. Happy Hunting!

Posted in bees, gardens, Insects, National Nature Reserves, St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Isle of May Nature Reserve Manager David Steel

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 important and varied work they do. This month Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) Manager David Steel reflects on an unusual start to the season as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 


Isle of May NNR ©Patricia and Angus Macdonald/SNH

It has certainly been a strange season on the Isle of May NNR. The early spring period saw myself heading back for my sixth season on the island alongside my assistant Bex Outram, who was returning for her seventh year. However within days, the nation was gripped by Covid-19 and the decision was taken to close the island down – not an easy decision but an important one in strict accordance with Scottish Government and NHS Scotland guidelines. As a result, we locked up the buildings, packed our bags and departed the island in late March.

At that stage we did not anticipate what the spring would hold for us, but just over two months later, after many virtual meetings and plenty of form filling, we were eventually able to return. The decision process was complex with many hurdles along the way, but thanks to a great team effort we landed back on the island on Monday, June 8.

Life back on the Isle of May has certainly been very different to previous years. We returned at a time when the island is normally at its busiest – boats are usually full of visitors, with 18 staff and researchers working long hours and a further six residents at the island’s Bird Observatory. Two days after our arrival, we welcomed three researchers from UKCEH and BTO who were carrying out essential work for the renewable industries but otherwise there has just been the two of us, both socially distancing and living with no visitors and no bird observatory. It’s certainly a very different Isle of May although we do feel lucky and very privileged to be back and working – and there is certainly plenty of work to do!

In our absence it has been life as usual for the seabirds and wildlife of the island. Our nesting Shags had both small and medium sized young in early June with the first fledgling leaving the cliffs on June 22. The auks were feeding youngsters with Guillemots and Razorbills all with chicks and the first fledgers were starting to jump off the cliffs from June 23. Small numbers of Puffins had hatched young by the time staff returned to the island with the majority of the colony hatching by mid-June.

As usual, Kittiwakes appeared to have started later than most birds with the first young hatching from June 14 while Fulmars were still incubating with the first chicks not expected to hatch until early July. On the island top, the Terns were well settled with the first Arctic Tern chicks hatching from June 17, while the majority of Eiders had completed their breeding season with very few evident by the time staff returned (small numbers were seen leaving for the open sea with ducklings). The large Gull species were (as expected) very vocal and very evident.

On a more unique note, four pairs of Cormorants are nesting on Rona with the first chicks hatching from June 13 (only the second ever breeding attempt) while Shelduck parents were seen leaving with young on June 18. With no human presence on the island birds certainly took advantage as a pair of Wrens successfully nested at the Low Light bushes and a pair of Carrion Crows (including the long term resident individual known affectionately as ‘patch’) raised a family of four in the same area.

While some other seabirds nested in new areas (Guillemot, Razorbills and Kittiwakes were discovered in new nesting areas on the cliffs) the award for the most bizarre location has to go to one of the pair of resident Wood Pigeons. On arrival back to the island it was discovered that a pair had entered a building in Fluke street through an open window and nested on a work surface! However it wasn’t just the bizarre location but it appeared at least three pairs of Wood Pigeon are nesting on the island, taking over the world having only nested for the first time in 2015!

Pigeon nest (David Steel)

Wood pigeon nest! ©David Steel

It has certainly been a very strange 2020 and we definitely won’t be forgetting this season in a hurry. While you might not be able to visit currently, why not keep up to date with all the latest from the island on the Isle of May blog.

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Nature key to Scotland’s green recovery action plan

On the blog today, our chief executive, Francesca Osowska, looks at how the Covid-19 crisis has made us look at our future differently. She asks if a green recovery can be a vital component to help us solve social, economic and environmental issues…

Francesca Osowska Chief Executive Scottish Natural Heritage ©Lorne Gill SNH 2

Francesca Osowska, Chief Executive and Accountable Officer, Scottish Natural Heritage. 

Build back better. Reimagine the future. Many of us will have called for a new perspective, as we look to life after the Covid-19 pandemic. I am no exception. Monday’s report from the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery (AGER), commissioned by the Scottish Government, is an action plan for the recovery. The environment – or natural capital – is set to be a cornerstone of a broad-based economic revival.

In Scotland, we can take pride in our commitments to reverse significant ecological decline and to cutting carbon emissions to net-zero. And in many areas, we have made great progress in delivering on those commitments, such as reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. In others, progress has not been as impressive. The State of Nature report published late last year said that in Scotland there was a 24% drop in average species abundance since 1994. We need urgent, and significant action if we are to enjoy a nature-rich future in Scotland.

Landscape Craigallian Loch_m90369

And, as the environment sector’s role in delivering on these commitments evolves, we need to look with fresh eyes at the skills and workforce needed. The economic hit from COVID-19 has illustrated the disproportionate impact on young people and SNH will work with providers and help steer the sector to step up and respond.

Triggering investment is key. AGER’s advice on the recovery looks to simultaneously encourage investment in the environment to help the economy back to health, and keep us focused on the twin challenges of the climate emergency and ecological decline.

Forthquarter Park_ Granton _m184102

The multiple benefits of investing in nature have long been recognised. Nature-based solutions to climate change, not only help to enhance our environment, but they also create jobs. Last year the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital calculated that natural capital in Scotland was worth £196bn and supported 240,000 jobs. There’s a lot to play for.

We know that continued investment in areas like peatland restoration – referenced in the AGER report – can make a big difference. The £250mn Scottish Government commitment to restore degraded peatland will not just help keep billions of tonnes of carbon in the ground, but deliver a return to the Scottish economy. It will help secure jobs, create business opportunities as well as supporting biodiversity, water quality and flood alleviation.


Peatland Action – transplanting sphagnum moss onto bare peat.

But the long-term scale of the investment needed across all nature-based solutions is in the order of billions. A blend of public and private money is needed from government and public agencies on one side and the commercial sector on the other. Working in partnership, both will seek a return on investment in nature-based solutions. However, a mature, market framework for green finance that delivers on carbon and biodiversity in the UK is not quite there yet. The AGER report highlights that. An alliance is forming, including SNH, to find a good and just way forward.

And that’s the strength of the report. Short and long term horizons. Let’s get the spades in the ground as soon as we can safely, to secure jobs and help the environment. And let’s think about the big things that can help us build back better for future generations.

Posted in biodiversity, climate change, Natural Capital, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

An dreathan-donn – eun beag leòmach / the wren – small and ‘conceited’

Ged a tha an dreathan-donn beag, gu dearbh chan eil e bog / The wren might be diminutive, but in Gaelic tradition, it has a high opinion of itself…

An dreathan-donn – eun beag leòmach

Ann am beul-aithris nan Gàidheal, ged a tha an dreathan-donn beag, tha e car leòmach. Bhiodh na seann daoine a’ cur nam briathran seo na bheul: Is bigid e sin, is bigid e sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn, nuair a thug e làn a ghuib às a’ mhuir. Bha an aon seòrsa beachd aca air an dearbh eun, nuair a bha e a’ cur ris a’ chuan mhòr: Is mòid i sin, is mòid i sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn nuair a rinn e dileag sa mhuir mhòir. Chan eil an dreathan làn irioslachd, co-dhiù!


’S dòcha gu bheil an dreathan-donn a’ sealltainn dhuinn fuasgladh, nuair a tha gnothaichean trom is dùbhlanach dhuinn. Ann an stòiridh traidiseanta, tha an dreathan (neo ‘dreòlan’ mar a ghabhas cuid air) a’ dèanamh a’ ghnothaich air ‘rìgh an eunlaith’, an iolair-bhuidhe. Tha an iolair a’ cumail a-mach – a’ bòstadh, gu dearbh – gun itealaich i nas àirde na eun sam bith eile, agus chan eil eun ann a tha deònach a dhol an aghaidh a beachd. Ach a-mhàin an dreathan-donn! ‘Thèid mise nas àirde na thu,’ tha e ag innse don iolair le misneachd.

‘Nach dearbh thu sin,’ tha an iolair ag ràdh mar dhùbhlan, agus i àrdanach, uaibhreach mar as dual dhi. Tha an iolair a’ falbh gu na speuran, a’ coimhead sìos air a h-uile creutair eile, agus truas aice orra. Chan eil sgeul air an dreathan, agus tha an iolair dhen bharail gu bheil am bigean air a dhol am falach am measg nan craobh ’s nan lus shìos fòidhpe. ‘Coimheadaibh orm, nas àirde na gach creutair eile,’ tha an iolair ag èigheachd. Tha an naidheachd a’ tighinn gu ceann le rann beag. Tha an iolair a’ bruidhinn an toiseach, agus tha an dreathan ga freagairt: Càite a bheil thu, ’dhreathain-duinn? Tha mi ’n seo, os do chinn! ‘Tha an dreathan – beag is aotrom – air a bhith am falach air druim na h-iolaire agus, gu dearbh, tha e nas àirde!

’S dòcha gu bheil an iolair agus an dreathan-donn a cheart cho àrdanach ri chèile, ge-tà. Seo mar a sheinneas an dreathan:

Thig thig, thig a dhiol-dèirce,

Thig thig, thig a ghille-frìde;

Is gillean-frìde na h-eòin uile

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Gillean-frìde, gillean-frìde.

Chan e gu bheil na Gàidheil uile-gu-lèir a’ dèanamh dì-meas air buadhan an dreathain-duinn. A dh’aindeoin ’s gu bheil e beag, tha iseanan gu leòr aige (suas ri ochd anns an nead gach turas), agus tha seanfhacal againn a nì aithris air sin: Ged as beag an dreathan, is mòr a theaghlach. Agus seo agaibh seanfhacal eile a nì tuairisgeul de dhà eun – agus ’s dòcha mac an duine cuideachd! Aon isean aig a’ chorr, is e gu doitheamh, doirbh; dà isean deug aig an dreathan, is iad gu soitheamh, soirbh. Faodaidh sibh fhèin co-dhùnadh co-dhiù tha sin ceart no ceàrr!

The wren – a small bird with a big ego!

In Gaelic tradition, the wren – or dreathan-donn – is considered to be lacking in humility for one that is so diminutive. A traditional saying has the following commentary: Is bigid e sin, is bigid e sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn, nuair a thug e làn a ghuib às a’ mhuir  ‘tis the less for that, tis the less for that, as the wren said, when it sipped a bill-full from the sea.’ As if the sea would notice!

The corollary – addition rather than subtraction – is perhaps a little less mannerly, but its message of a wee brown bird with a big ego is just as strong: Is mòid i sin, is mòid i sin, mar a thuirt an dreathan-donn nuair a rinn e dileag sa mhuir mhòir  ‘it’s the bigger of that, it’s the bigger of that, as the wren said when it added its pee to the great sea’. No false modesty there!

St Kilda Wren. Artist - JFL/SNH.

Perhaps the wren is a role model for all small people and those who might find themselves intimidated by seemingly overwhelming circumstance. A traditional Gaelic tale tells of how the wren outwits that great ‘king’ of the avian world, the massive and powerful golden eagle. The eagle – an iolaire – boasts that it can fly higher than any other bird, and no other feathered creature dares argue the point – except the wren, of course. ‘I can fly even higher than you, eagle,’ it says with bold confidence.

‘Prove it then,’ says the eagle, with the arrogance of those born to rule, and the great bird takes to the sky and soars above the whole world, observing the lesser creatures with pity. There is no sign of the pathetic little wren, which the eagle assumes is hiding its precious little head – along with its ridiculous shame (if it has any) – among the trees and heather on the ground far below. ‘Look at me, higher than all other living creatures,’ calls the eagle. A rhyming couplet finishes the story, with the eagle calling first, followed by its nemesis: Càite a bheil thu, ’dhreathain-duinn? Tha mi ’n seo, os do chinn! ‘where are you, wren? I’m here, above you!’ The wren – small, light and mobile – has perched itself, surreptitiously and undetected, on the eagle’s back and, indeed, is higher than the great raptor!

Perhaps, however, the eagle and the wren are equally conceited. The song of the wren is said to be:

Thig thig, thig a dhiol-dèirce,

Thig thig, thig a ghille-frìde;

Is gillean-frìde na h-eòin uile

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Ach mise leam fhìn,

Gillean-frìde, gillean-frìde.

Come, come come, oh beggar, Come, come come, oh mite; All the birds are mites (ie tiny, insignificant), Except me alone, Except me alone, Mites, mites.

Next time you listen to a wren chattering, see if you think there is a note of conceit in its voice! Not that the Gaels are entirely negative about this little lively bird, as is seen in traditional sayings about its offspring. Despite being small, the wren is considered to have a large number of offspring (and, indeed, the clutch size is usually healthy, comprising up to eight eggs). This is summarised in the saying, Ged as beag an dreathan, is mòr a theaghlach ‘though the wren is small, its family is large. And, in a positive way, it is used to express a rhyming observation about (human) family size and children’s behaviour: Aon isean aig a’ chorr, is e gu doitheamh, doirbh; dà isean deug aig an dreathan, is iad gu soitheamh, soirbh  ‘the heron has one chick and it is cross and churlish; the wren has twelve and they are docile and good-tempered’  Readers can decide for themselves if the saying is an aphorism!

Posted in Beinn Eighe NNR, Birds, Folklore, Gaelic, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,