Dreaming of auks

Natalie Sinclair is a PhD student at the University of St. Andrews. She takes us on a journey from her university studies, through her Work Placement with SNH in 2014-15, and talks about where the experience has taken her, a few years on.

On Caithness cliffs during bird survey with SNH. © Glen Tyler/SNH

On Caithness cliffs during bird survey with SNH. © Glen Tyler/SNH

I packed a lot into my one-year work placement at SNH in Battleby. I helped to update the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code (SMWWC); carried out a series of literature reviews; planted six trees; made new friends; ran numerous 5K’s at lunchtime and counted razorbills and guillemots (auks) as part of my research project. I counted a lot of auks: 81,571 to be precise. This took up so much of my time that at night I dreamt of counting auks, although I didn’t include those ones in the final figure.

I completed a Master in Science (MSci) degree in Marine and Freshwater Biology at the University of Glasgow in 2016. This degree takes the top students of the eligible BSc degrees and sees them compete for spaces within Glasgow’s most prestigious undergraduate degree through application and interview stages. Successful students must find an eligible work placement: I was very lucky to secure a placement based at SNH Battleby within the CMEU (Coastal and Marine Ecosystem & Use Unit) for one year from September 2014 and September 2015.

I worked on a variety of projects at CMEU. I worked to update the SMWWC, this gave me experience of conservation legislation and speaking with both internal advisers and external parties. To aid this work I also attended the Scottish Wildlife Conference and developed communication ideas for the Code.


Guillemots at Sumburgh Head, Shetland © Natalie Sinclair/SNH

I also carried out a series of literature reviews, including the effects of anthropogenic (induced by human activity) noise on marine mammal behaviour, entanglement risks to marine mega-fauna from creel-lines and adverse effects of tour-boat operations on cetaceans (whales and dolphins). This gave me great experience in assimilating new information efficiently and communicating the content effectively for members of staff.

And now to the pesky auks! I carried out my research project, which used the novel method of remote automated photography to monitor auk’s (guillemots and razorbills) wintering attendance on Shetland and Orkney, supervised by SNH member of staff Alex Robbins. As Project Lead my activities included: material sourcing, equipment set up, liaising with internal and external partners, designing the research protocol, field visits and set up, data processing, data analysis and report writing. From this research project, I produced both a commissioned report for SNH and a peer-reviewed paper, which is due for publication early this year. Thankfully the auk dreams have now subsided!

My poster detailing methodology and preliminary results of my research project while at SNH. © Natalie Sinclair/SNH

My poster detailing methodology and preliminary results of my research project while at SNH. © Natalie Sinclair/SNH

My experience at SNH was really positive and I’m proud to say that, with support from SNH, I completed my Work Placement year at the top of my degree group. I then went into the final year of my degree brimming with confidence and in the end all the hard work paid off: I was awarded a First Class Master’s in Science degree and I received the Graham Kerr Memorial Award for Excellence in Marine Science as the top performing student of my class. I have recently started my PhD, funded by a Carnegie PhD Scholarship. I am based within the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) and the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) which are both part of the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews. I am now researching how cetaceans can adapt their acoustic communication signals to combat noise from a variety of sources, such as from human activities.

Deploying a camera box for my research project while at SNH. This was taken on the cliffs of Marwick Head in Orkney. © Alex Robbins/SNH

Deploying a camera box for my research project while at SNH. This was taken on the cliffs of Marwick Head in Orkney. © Alex Robbins/SNH

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Secondment brings fresh perspectives to Peatland ACTION

Lauren Dixon is a recent graduate and currently on secondment at SNH as a Peatland ACTION Project Officer. She tells us how her secondment looks to benefit SNH and Scottish Water.

SNH and Scottish Water site visit in Loch Lomond to view Peatland Action restoration work. © Lorne Gill/SNH

SNH and Scottish Water site visit in Loch Lomond to view Peatland ACTION restoration work. © Lorne Gill/SNH

This secondment opportunity arose as the Ugie Peatland Partnership was being established and it was realised that the collaboration between SNH and Scottish Water would be beneficial to both organisations. Scottish Water is placing more resources into peatland restoration in drinking water catchments. Peatland restoration has a multitude of benefits for water quality, as less organic material reaches the water treatment works (WTW).

Previously, at Scottish Water my role within the Sustainable Land Management Team involved processing and monitoring applications for the Drinking Water Protection Scheme (DWPS). The DWPS aims to improve source drinking water quality by providing capital items or pesticide substitution, specifically metaldehyde, in priority drinking water catchment areas. Other responsibilities included extracting and analysing water quality data for reporting and providing consultation responses for pesticide spraying applications.

My main role as a Peatland ACTION Project Officer at SNH involves developing partnerships with landowners across the whole of the North East Scotland in order to allow peatland surveys and ultimately peatland restoration. Other key responsibilities include monitoring project delivery and providing advice on peatland management to landowners.

As a recent graduate in Environmental Science, I share SNH’s values of promoting, caring for and improving our natural heritage. The opportunity to contribute to this ethos and work through my role here is one that I am glad to be a part of.

SNH and Scottish Water site visit with Cruinn a’Bheinn in the background. © Lorne Gill/SNH

SNH and Scottish Water site visit with Cruinn a’Bheinn in the background. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Being a young person in organisations like SNH and Scottish Water, means a vital knowledge exchange can occur between those who have worked within an organisation for many years, and there is opportunity to integrate fresh perspectives and ideas from young members of staff.

Already in my short time here at SNH, I have gained a vast amount of knowledge not only on the important work that Peatland ACTION is undertaking but some of the other functions of SNH through the people I meet. I hope to gain further understanding of the link between peatlands and how different restoration techniques can help improve water quality before it reaches treatment. I intend to use and share this knowledge when I return to Scottish Water after my secondment.

Find out more about peatland restoration and the Peatland ACTION project here.

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What do wetlands do for you?

On World Wetlands Day, Andrew McBride, Peatland ACTION Programme Manager, explains the importance of taking care of our wetlands by telling us about Sandy Loch. This northern loch provides drinking water for Lerwick and much of the Shetland mainland but may also play a role in reducing the effects of climate change.

Land around Sandy Loch in Shetland is typical rough grazing, modified over decades, possibly centuries, from peat cutting for domestic fuel and pasture improvement for livestock.  ©Scottish Water - Sustainable Land Management team

Land around Sandy Loch in Shetland is typical rough grazing, modified over decades, possibly centuries, from peat cutting for domestic fuel and pasture improvement for livestock. ©Scottish Water – Sustainable Land Management Team

Recently, Scottish Water treatment works at Sandy Loch noticed high levels of discolouration and organic material in the water. Survey work by the utility company’s Sustainable Land Management (SLM) Team identified a large area of bare (unvegetated) peat in the water catchment area, which was likely to be contributing to these high levels.

The peat was likely eroded as a result of a change in land management practices such as overgrazing, and made worse by rain which washes the peaty soils into the loch. Removing the organic materials from the water is an expensive and lengthy process, often requiring the use of extra chemicals before the water is piped to the main drinking supply.

In cases such as this, where bare peat is impacting the raw water quality, restoring the habitat is often the best way forward: this environmentally-friendly option helps to improve and protect raw water quality in the catchment while reducing the filtration process and amount of chemical treatment, and the overall cost of treating the water.

Scottish Water SLM Team reached out to SNH’s Peatland ACTION project for help. We advised them to create bog-pools to help slow the flow of water and trap and reduce the loss of peaty sediments into the loch. The pools also provide conditions to allow for the growth or re-colonisation of bog plants, particularly sphagnum – a key ingredient in maintaining a healthy peatland habitat. A living mulch was added to help kick start this process.

Sandy Loch. The eroding peat has been transformed into bog pools and re-planted with bog vegetation. ©Sue White/Shetland Amenity Trust.

Sandy Loch. The eroding peat has been transformed into bog pools and re-planted with bog vegetation. ©Sue White/Shetland Amenity Trust.

The restoration work at Sandy Loch should not only assist with improving or maintaining the raw water before it enters the treatment works, but also lead to a number of environmental benefits such as protecting the ground from further erosion, reducing the flashiness of flood waters, creating suitable conditions for new peat to form, and enhancing biodiversity.

But perhaps the most important environmental benefit of restoring the habitat around Sandy Loch will be helping to maintain, and where possible improve Scotland’s natural carbon storage and resilience to climate change. Peat is a source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions (methane and nitrous oxide), and as it erodes and dries out these gasses are released back into the atmosphere. By creating conditions where the peat can start to grow back, we can reverse this trend and store greenhouse gasses instead.

In other words, improving wetlands can contribute to providing clean drinking water, better habitats and reduced air pollution – a triple win!

Phase one of the project was completed in March 2017. Scottish Water SLM Team is due to begin phase two in spring 2018 with the help of Peatland ACTION funding and under the supervision of project officer Sue White from Shetland Amenity Trust.

Jared Stewart, Catchment Liaison Officer Team Leader for the Sustainable Land Management Team at Scottish Water, said: “This is the first time Scottish Water has been involved in a habitat restoration project of this calibre. It’s been exciting to work with Peatland ACTION and see how the choices we make to manage and improve our water supply can also benefit the environment and slow the effects of climate change. We will continue to monitor the site as part of our water quality monitoring programme and look forward to seeing the results.”

Read about Sandy Loch in the news!
Shetland Amenity Trust News
Sandy Loch peatland restoration completed

The project received a Shetland Environmental Award – Shetland News – Awards

Peatland ACTION
SNH supports the Peatland ACTION fund to provide funding for projects that restore or lead to the restoration of peatlands and/or wider public engagement with peatlands in Scotland.

Visit the Peatland ACTION web page to find out about funding opportunities for peatland restoration in Scotland.

Get involved:
Find a World Wetlands Day event near you.

For more information about Scottish Water’s Sustainable Land Management Team and the work they do to protect drinking water sources visit their web page.

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Nature conservation and natural capital

After two months on a graduate placement with SNH, Tom McKenna recently secured a permanent role as Economist with us. He tells us about his experience at SNH as a young person, and his work with the Natural Capital Asset Index.

Tom during a trip to the beautiful Isle of Skye in the snow. © Tom McKenna/SNH

Tom during a trip to the beautiful Isle of Skye in the snow. © Tom McKenna/SNH

I grew up in the small English town of Warlingham, not far from Croydon in south-east London. After graduating from the University of Southampton with a Geography degree in 2011, I pursued my dream of travelling. Between 2013 and 2016, between periods of employment, I travelled for a total of 15 months, visiting 24 different countries. This travelling experience was invaluable: I learned lot about the world; about how varied the world’s environmental climates can be; and meeting so many interesting people. This provided a unique experience for me to discover, explore and understand that the array of environmental problems we are experiencing across the world need to be tackled from both a social and economic angle.

I initially moved to Scotland to study a master’s degree in Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh/Scotland’s Rural College in 2016: I was drawn to Scotland specifically because of its beautiful environment. Ecological Economics is an interdisciplinary subject which considers world problems from environmental, social and economic perspectives in order to create sustainable solutions from all three perspectives. One of these processes is “Ecosystem services”.

A photo taken in Glen Affric during data collection for Tom’s master’s degree dissertation. © Tom McKenna/SNH

A photo taken in Glen Affric during data collection for Tom’s master’s degree dissertation. © Tom McKenna/SNH

Ecosystem services are the range of benefits people can derive from the natural environment. These services are often grouped into four distinct categories and can include the provisioning of water and food; the regulating of climate or disease; the supporting of nutrient cycles and crop pollination and cultural contributions including health, well-being and recreation. Unfortunately when political, economic and social decisions get made, these benefits are often critically overlooked because they cannot be traded (for example, clean air or the pollination of crops cannot be physically or economically exchanged). The natural value or benefits society can experience from these services are usually not included in decisions because, put simply, they are hard to assess in terms of economic or monetary value, and don’t impact the economy in the sense that economic, social and political sectors can immediately recognise.

A photo taken in Glen Affric during data collection for Tom’s master’s degree dissertation. © Tom McKenna/SNH

Another photo taken in Glen Affric during data collection for Tom’s master’s degree dissertation. © Tom McKenna/SNH

My master’s dissertation looked at the cultural ecosystem service of ‘aesthetics’ or how people’s visual preferences for landscapes changed with natural forest regeneration – in short, people like trees! This was a great opportunity to spend four weeks in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. As I was finalising my dissertation, I applied for and was lucky enough to secure a graduate placement at SNH. This allowed me to apply the knowledge gained during my degree to the research and formation of a graduate placement project: the placement focussed on Natural Capital Investment options – where is the best place to invest money to create the best outcomes for nature and people.

Lochan a Choire, Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. © Tom McKenna/SNH

The incredibly photogenic deer dog, Dillys, at a cold (-12 ⁰C!),and beautiful Lochan a Choire, Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. © Tom McKenna/SNH

My graduate placement with SNH was short lived: within a couple of months of it beginning, an ideal position as Economist opened; I now provide economic advice for SNH on a wide range of subjects and projects, but mainly on Natural Capital. The Graduate Placement was a great opportunity to meet other young people at SNH (including a graduate trip to Creag Meagaidh to network with the other graduates, learn about reserve management and try my hands at reserve volunteering).

As part of my new role as Economist, I currently maintain and will continue to develop the Natural Capital Asset Index (NCAI). The Index is an indicator which looks to measure the changes in the amount of, and quality of Scotland’s habitats or ecosystems and how this will affect the benefits people will gain from them. By showing how changes through mismanagement or investment in our environment are affecting people’s wellbeing, we are able to illustrate how important the natural environment really is to concentrate importance, effort and funding to necessary projects. The NCAI is an incredibly useful and insightful tool with a lot of potential in the future for development; especially now that Natural Capital is being more widely recognised (it was mentioned 114 times in the new Defra 25 year plan!).

I feel incredibly lucky to have come out of my university studies into such a great organisation which is achieving positive work and impacts for our environment. I hope to stay with SNH for the foreseeable future. Especially, I’m looking forward to continuing my career in a country that values nature, understands how it contributes to our wellbeing, wants to care for and enjoy it and ultimately contribute to its sustainable use.

Read more about ecosystem services and the Natural Capital Asset Index here.

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Volunteering and learning new skills

David Murray has been volunteering with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) in Glasgow for approximately three years.


David Murray

David about to go on a volunteer project with TCV.

“I was paid off from my job and did nothing for a couple of months, so I went online looking for something to do. I’ve always liked the outdoors, gardening and the like.  I saw something about TCV, so I just phoned up and started a few days later.

We do all sorts – building fences, clearing vegetation, digging ponds, tree and wildflower planting , even drystane dyking. I prefer helping to build things. It’s good for your CV – the job centre told me that as you’re doing something and employers think you’re still busy.

I’m out two or three times a week. It gets you out of your bed, so it’s something to do in the morning.  And it’s motivational – if I didn’t do this I would probably vegetate in front of the TV or something.

It gets you out of the house meeting and being with people, and having some chit-chat.  I love going anywhere where there’s a pond or nice scenery and trees, and I just like travelling around nice countryside.

 David Murray, TCV

And I’ve learned a lot – I’m interested in it all. Sometimes you don’t actually realise you’ve learned new skills, but you have. Things like making raised beds – it’s dead easy now as you just remember from the last time you did it. You learn! I just love the outdoors and you’re always doing something different. 

I’d definitely recommend volunteering to others, especially if you’re not working. There have been so many highlights. I just love the variety of the things that we do.”

The TCV Glasgow volunteers group is organised by Lauren Lochrie, Senior Project Officer: lauren.lochrie@tcv.org.uk or 0141 552 5294.

 You can visit the TCV Scotland website @ https://www.tcv.org.uk/scotland

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Building a career through volunteering

Jack Ward, our Deer Stalker and Reserve Officer at Beinn Eighe NNR, tells us how he got into deer management through volunteering.

Jack out stalking. © Cameron Waite

Jack out stalking. © Cameron Waite

I have volunteered for different organisations since the age of 15. Initially for a charity called the Deer Study Centre, monitoring deer populations, as well as other wildlife. This was my first experience of deer management and ecological methods to survey various wildlife.

I have also volunteered for organisations such as the Wildlife Trust and the RSPB, assisting with general reserve tasks, as well as volunteering for SNH at Creag Meagaidh NNR. Over the years at Creag Meagaidh, I have assisted with deer management, as well as other reserve tasks, such as path building work and woodland management work.

Why did you choose this particular type of volunteering?

I knew from an early age that I wanted a career with wildlife, so I volunteered in the right field to gain experience. I also enjoy being practical outside, so all these positions allowed me to do this. As well as allowing me to travel and work in various locations, I gained an insight into how various organisations are run. This all helped me to identify my career path, and tailor my volunteering to get paid work with my choice of organisation, doing the job I aimed for.

The Beinn Eighe team, with Beinn Eighe in the background. © Doug Bartholomew/SNH

The Beinn Eighe team, with Beinn Eighe in the background. © Doug Bartholomew/SNH

What skills did you gain from volunteering which aid you in your current position with SNH?

In several voluntary positions I was responsible for locating and monitoring deer populations and movements. I was also involved with deer management and learned how to write management plans.

I had opportunities to use a variety of tools and machinery which I now use in my current position.

Jack working in the larder. © Cameron Waite

Jack working in the larder. © Cameron Waite

What do you consider the most enjoyable aspect of volunteering to be?

Being able to travel to places which I may not have visited otherwise, and contribute actively to various sites. As a volunteer, I definitely got to know places much more, than if I had just travelled on holiday.

How have your career/life aspirations been influenced by the volunteering you’ve done?

Volunteering definitely provided me with direction for my career aims. It enabled me to better understand the role that I wanted to achieve, and learn about what was involved, and how best to prepare myself to achieve it.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about volunteering?

If you are volunteering with the aim of building a career, then I would say to have a few personal aims whilst volunteering; even if they are small, as they will provide some guidance for your experience. For example, I was keen to get to use various equipment, such as tree winches and fencing equipment.

Secondly, I would suggest gathering a variety of experience. This will keep it fresh and interesting; it will also broaden your experience and allow you to discover different organisations.

If you are able to identify a career path and a preferred organisation, then I would advise targeting that organisation as a volunteer, to try to volunteer in and understand the potential role as best as possible. It will also really help them to get to know others within the organisation.

Find out more about volunteering with SNH here.

Read about how sustainable deer management benefits the people of Scotland as well as our nature and landscapes here.

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Practical People Power

It’s said that when elk walked on the Slamannan plateau peatland they could stroll all the way to Denmark.  The elk may now have gone, though you’re likely to spot a relatively new species on the Central Belt’s bogs today – the practical conservation volunteer. Phil Baarda, our Policy and Advice Officer for Ecosystems and Land Use, tells us about the amazing contribution they’re making.

Clearing Birch, Wester Moss. © David Palmar www.photoscot.co.uk

Clearing birch, Wester Moss. © David Palmar http://www.photoscot.co.uk

Although maybe not quite so elegant as an elk, these non-camouflaged folk dressed in hi-viz protective clothing and wellies are having just as profound an effect on the environment – and all for the good.

Slamannan is only a single example. This once-huge peatland south of Falkirk is now severely fragmented, and is under pressure through drainage from the surrounding agricultural land, and has trees and scrub invading and over-running the fragile peatland habitat. Over the last two years, groups of volunteers coordinated by Buglife have cleared around 33 hectares of spreading gorse, birch and lodgepole pine trees, returning the bog to its open heathy – and healthy – state.

They’ve also blocked drainage ditches and installed nine dams to retain water within the peatland site ensuring sphagnum and other essential bog mosses can thrive. The stats are impressive – this work was achieved by 60 volunteers over six separate days.

The variety of volunteering tasks at Slamannan. © Buglife

The variety of volunteering tasks at Slamannan. © Buglife

The same is true of other bog and peatland sites across Central Scotland. Wester Moss near Stirling has seen Butterfly Conservation volunteers also clear scrub and build dams (eight separate groups of 30 volunteers). The same is true across in the west, where the East Ayrshire Coalfield Environment Initiative (CEI) is charged with restoring and enhancing areas that are in and around former coal fields – a dauntingly huge area. Despite this, they’ve actively restored an amazing 450ha of peatland, much of it with volunteer people power. CEI’s Project officer Gemma Jennings says this ‘would be a lot of ground to cover without the help of our amazing volunteers.’

Moss near Stirling.  © David Hill, Butterfly Conservation Scotland

Dam building at Wester Moss near Stirling. © David Hill, Butterfly Conservation Scotland

It’s not only practical work that volunteers get involved with – if you have a skill, these organisations can use it, or they can train you up. As well as ‘scrub-bashing’ birch and pine trees with bowsaws, or driving in plastic piling for ditch blocking and dam-building, you’re as likely to be monitoring the effectiveness of the bog’s hydrological restoration through measuring the depth of water at dipwells or through aquatic invertebrate surveys. You may be recording vegetation height and growth, or noting bog recovery through surveying for indicator species such as the large heath butterfly or black grouse, or for wading birds. You might even be bumblebee spotting or going on a bog sun jumper spider hunt!

CEI volunteers taking part in a large heath survey at Airds Moss. © EACEI

CEI volunteers taking part in a large heath survey at Airds Moss. © EACEI

These organisations may be small, but all punch considerably above their weight – largely because of volunteers. David Hill, Butterfly Conservation’s peatland restoration project officer acknowledges much of BC’s success is because of people’s commitment and enthusiasm. ‘What we’ve achieved,’ he says, ‘wouldn’t have been possible without the help of our volunteers’.

Get involved, and make a difference. Stand where elk once stood!

More information

Much of this work has been through the EcoCoLIFE project – an EU LIFE funded project which is joining up nature and people across Scotland’s Central Belt.

To get involved with any of these organisation see:

Butterfly Conservation 


East Ayrshire Coalfield Environment Initiative

Further reading

The latest CEI Volunteer Newsletter can be viewed here.

Read a blog from a volunteer session with CEI: ‘Biodiversity on the bog – a day at Airds Moss’

Find out more about volunteer work days by reading the blogs:  Butterlfy Conservation and Buglife Bog Squad and Wild Reekie .

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A regular volunteer

Michelle Munro from Parkhead, Glasgow, is a ‘regular’ with the mid-week volunteer group run by The Conservation Volunteers (TCV). This is her story of being a volunteer.

Michelle Munro 2

Michelle path building at Auchengillan Outdoor Centre.

“I was first told about volunteering with TCV by a friend – a former volunteer himself who thought I might like it too. That was almost three years ago, so I gave it a go and that was me – I’ve loved it ever since.

There are various things I like about the group – travelling to different places around the city, learning new skills, meeting new people and making a difference.

I don’t like to be in the house all the time – I like to get outdoors and keep fit and active. I don’t mind the weather, so come out with TCV three days a week come rain, snow or shine.

We do lots of different activities like building raised beds, path work, tree planting and cutting back Rhododendron. I love nature and seeing wildlife as well, things like bugs and butterflies. I recently discovered a ruby tiger moth caterpillar which I’d never seen before.

You learn a lot as a volunteer, such as how to plant trees properly and how to cut them down properly. And I’ve learned a lot about nature, including how lichens can be indicators of pollution.

To sum up my volunteering, I’d say – amazing!”

Michelle Munro 1

Michelle felling a small non-native tree at Cadder Wilderness SSSI, near Bishopbriggs, north of Glasgow, on behalf of SNH.

The TCV Glasgow volunteers group is organised by Lauren Lochrie, Senior Project Officer: lauren.lochrie@tcv.org.uk or 0141 552 5294.

Find out more on the TCV Scotland website @ https://www.tcv.org.uk/scotland

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Mossgiel farm – the land once worked by Robert Burns

Arriving at Mossgiel farm on a bright January morning to speak to farmer Bryce Cunningham I am met first by the face of another famous Ayrshire dairy farmer: that of poet Robert Burns which adorns the Mossgiel farm advertising.  It’s a reminder for me to stop and look around this rolling landscape. Looking out, I wonder just how much this landscape has changed since Burns’ time?

Bryce and his dairy calves. © Bryce Cunningham

Bryce and his dairy calves. © Bryce Cunningham

Aged 31, Bryce is relatively young amongst those of his profession which may explain his innovative approach to surviving in the dairy industry. He tells me that in fact he didn’t want to be a farmer and had left the farm as a teenager to pursue a career with Mercedes. The illness of his father prompted him to return with his wife Amy in 2013 and, in the short time since taking on the farm tenancy, revolutionary changes have taken place. Admittedly these changes were prompted by the market when in 2013 milk prices fell from 28p/L to 15p/L and eventually to 9p/L by 2015. Mr Cunningham Sr. had invested in intensifying the production from his 130-strong Ayrshire dairy herd milking three times daily with all-year-round indoor housing. This wasn’t enough to stem the losses and in 2015 the bank froze the farm’s accounts. Bryce and Amy faced a crisis with their son Arran only 4 months old at the time.

Two aerial pictures of the farm prompted Bryce to reconsider this approach; one from 1973 and the other from 2013. The loss of hedgerows is visible and tallied with the noticeable lack of birds that Bryce recalled so vividly from his youth on the farm.

Aerial picture of Mossgiel from the 1970’s © Bryce Cunningham

Aerial picture of Mossgiel from the 1970s © Bryce Cunningham

Aerial picture of Mossgiel from 2013. © Bryce Cunningham

Aerial picture of Mossgiel from 2013. © Bryce Cunningham


I thought you know what we have done to the environment in that short amount of time? Thirty, forty years is a relatively short amount of time. I just started researching conventional farming and how it’s causing issues and how fertiliser is causing problems.”

It was then that Bryce had a real vision of something he had seen down south a couple of years earlier; a herd of English Red Poll cattle at Melton Mowbray with a raw milk machine at the farm gate where Jamie Oliver actually buys the cheese. He decided this was what he wanted to do. So with some online research the next steps included a reduction of the herd by half and a considerable investment in a pasteuriser required to produce non- homogenized milk which is now sold directly. Some 35 litres are sold each day from the fridge in the family’s front porch and over another 100 customers, such as independent coffee houses in Glasgow, who prize the creamy milk for its “froth-ability”.

Packaging on the milk produced and sold directly by the Cunningham’s, with an image of Robert Burns who once farmed at Mossgiel. © Bryce Cunningham

Packaging on the milk produced and sold directly by the Cunninghams, with an image of Robert Burns who once farmed at Mossgiel. © Bryce Cunningham

This business model depends on production of a high quality product that customers buy into as part of supporting a sustainable family-run business. The pedigree Ayrshire cattle take care of the first part; in fact the aim is to have the ‘girls’ fed on 100% forage in the next few years as this not only improves the milk quality for discerning baristas but also reduces the business’s carbon footprint.

Currently the farm is undergoing conversion to organic certification and there are plans in place to make the farm carbon neutral and to improve soil health. Accessing grant funding has been a challenge despite being eligible for the Young Farmers Capital Grant Scheme. Nonetheless they are persisting and hope to create cow tracks across the farm in the near future to improve both animal welfare and reduce carbon loss from trampling bare soil. Of course, this will be no ordinary track and Bryce animatedly describes to me the Consolid system of soil stabilisation which he has researched and found to be more environmentally-friendly and lower in cost.

The Mossgiel “Girls”. © Bryce Cunningham

The Mossgiel ‘Girls’. © Bryce Cunningham

“ I want to get back more to the way we used to farm; where you would work with nature and work with wildlife to farm better. “

Future work also includes a series of separating ponds leading to the natural wetland on the farm. This has two aims: to improve the quality of wetland habitat and to create a reserve of nutrient rich silt in the ponds which can be dug up and spread across the fields to increase the amount of organic matter returned to the soil. Herbal leys and composting dung for both their environmental and business benefits are aspects that have been carefully considered and are going to be implemented at Mossgiel in 2018.

Here you feel that there is a grand plan in place but Bryce attests that he is simply interested in returning to ‘the way we used to farm’ meaning in a more local, small scale with relationships of trust between producer and consumer. Any use of innovative technology is intended to make necessary processes more sustainable such as heat storage from the pasteurisation equipment.

Bryce and Amy’s son, Arran, getting stuck in to sustainable farming early! © Bryce Cunningham

Bryce and Amy’s son, Arran, getting stuck in to sustainable farming early! © Bryce Cunningham

Like many farmers Bryce sees an obvious advantage to reinstating hedgerows both as a means of stock proofing and also as a key wildlife habitat for many species. Currently he is unsure how he will finance this idea but feels that post-Brexit there may be an opportunity for him if public money is channelled into the provision of public goods such as habitat creation, carbon storage or water purification. Professional advice is another area that he hopes there will be funding for in the coming years.

The Cunninghams are upbeat about the future and feel that each opportunity which has presented itself so far has bolstered their confidence in the new blueprint of dairy production they are implementing. The returning customers are evidence of their success and in future Bryce would like to help other conventional dairy farmers convert to organic, direct production.

Scotland’s most famous Bard wrote works such as To A Mouse while resident at Mossgiel farm and only later do I consider the poignant verse:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union

With the fresh approach to farming Mossgiel perhaps there is hope for nature still.

A misty morning on Mossgiel farm. © Bryce Cunninghame

A misty morning on Mossgiel farm. © Bryce Cunninghame

Read more about Mossgiel Farm here.

Bryce is holding regular open meetings at the farm to discuss environmental win-wins.

This post is part of a series of conversations that SNH Graduate Placement Kirsten Brewster has been having with farmers across Scotland about #farmingwithnature



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‘Coileach’ air Aghaidh na Tìre / ‘Rooster’ in the Landscape

Tha Bliadhna a’ Choilich aig na Sìonaich an impis thighinn gu ceann – deagh àm airson sùil a thoirt air an fhacal ‘coileach’ ann an ainmean-àite / The Chinese Year of the Rooster is about to come to an end – an appropriate time to consider ‘rooster’ references in Highland place-names.

A male red grouse. ©Lorne Gill

A male red grouse. ©Lorne Gill

Coilich, Coilich-Fhraoich agus Bras-shruthan

Thathar ag ràdh gun d’ fhuair Clach a’ Choilich (no Clach na Coileach) ann an Gleann Sìthe a h-ainm air sgàth ’s mar a ghairm coileach à mullach na cloiche air an oidhche, a’ toirt rabhadh do Chlann MacThòmais gun robh sluagh a’ dèanamh orra le droch rùn. Bidh am facal coileach a’ nochdadh an-siud ’s an seo air aghaidh na tìre, ach ’s ann ainneamh a tha e a’ buntainn ris a’ choileach thaigheil – ’s dòcha gur e Uamh a’ Choilich anns a’ Mhorbhairne eisimpleir dhiubh. Tha cuideachd càraid de sgeirean far costa Sòdhaigh an Eilein Sgitheanaich air a bheil An Coileach agus a’ Chearc (gu h-inntinneach canaidh sin ‘tha coileach air a’ mhuir’ nuair a tha bàrr nan stuaghan geal air sgàth na gaoithe).

Tha An Coileach no An Coileachan air corra beinn mar ainm – ’s dòcha air sgàth an cumaidh no a chionn ’s gu bheil an coileach-fraoich no coileach-dubh pailt orra. Tha Cnoc a’ Choilich air grunnan chnoc (me ann an Cataibh, Siorrachd Rois agus Eilean Leòdhais) agus tha Creag nan Coileach faisg air na Caoil Bhòdach. ’S dòcha gur e Dorus a’ Choilich (a’ ciallachadh ‘bealach cumhang’ – deas air Loch Maol Àrdaich) an t-ainm-àite as annasaiche.

Ge-tà, chan eil coileach an-còmhnaidh a’ buntainn ri eun fireann. Tha e cuideachd a’ ciallachadh bras-shruth ann an abhainn (’s dòcha gun robh freumh an fhacail a’ ciallachadh fuaim mar a nì coileach no uisge air creagan aibhne). ’S iad eisimpleirean Abhainn a’ Choilich faisg air Gleann Afraig, Slugan a’ Choilich ann an Rùm agus grunnan allt air a bheil Allt a’ Choilich.

White water at Rumbling Brig on the River Braan. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

White water at Rumbling Brig on the River Braan. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Cockerels, Male Grouse and River Rapids

The famous Clach a’ Choilich (also given as Clach na Coileach) ‘the stone of the cockerel’ in Glenshee is said to have been named for a bird that crowed from the top of the rock one night, waking the MacThomas clan and warning them of a raiding party. The word coileach is not infrequent in our landscape but only in a few cases does it refer to a domestic rooster, an example perhaps being Uamh a’ Choilich ‘the cave of the cockerel’ in Morvern. There is also a pair of sea rocks off the coast of Skye called An Coileach agus a’ Chearc ‘the cockerel and the hen’ (interestingly, coileach has a secondary meaning of ‘white horses’ on the sea).

A few hills are called An Coileach or An Coileachan ‘the small cockerel’, perhaps because of their shape – or because they are the haunt of the coileach-fraoich ‘heather-cock’ ie male red grouse or the coileach-dubh ‘male blackcock’. There are several hills called Cnoc a’ Choilich ‘the hill of the grouse’ (eg in Sutherland, Ross-shire and Lewis) and there is a Creag nan Coileach ‘the rocky hill of the grouse (plural)’ near the Kyles of Bute. Perhaps the most unusual name is Dorus a’ Choilich ‘the door i.e. pass of the grouse’ south of Loch Mullardoch.

However, not all references to coileach apply to a male avian. It also means rapids or white water in a river (the root of the word may have anciently referred to a ‘calling’ noise such as is made by a cockerel and by water running over rapids). Examples are Abhainn a’ Choilich ‘the river of the rapids’ near Glen Affric, Slugan a’ Choilich ‘the gorge of the rapids’ on Rum and Allt a’ Choilich ‘the burn of the rapids’, of which there are several.

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