Inch Farm: farming and the environment in action

Kirsten Brewster, SNH Agriculture Officer, visited Inch Farm and met with farmer Andrew to discuss his Agri-Environment Climate Scheme. The farm, in Fife’s East Neuk, has views across to both the Isle of May and Bass Rock. On the day of Kirsten’s visit, both are surrounded by a mass of azure blue, glinting in the sunlight.

Corn bunting - Lorne Gill-SNH copyright

Corn bunting. Copyright SNH/Lorne Gill.

Andrew took on the running of the farm at just 22. Like many would expect, he got his head down and carried on in the way it had been worked previously. But high input and high output didn’t result in increasing returns, and in 2014 potato prices dipped to £10 per tonne. The boxes were becoming of greater value than the food they contained! It was then that Andrew felt he had to make changes; he switched to contract farming, relinquishing the need for big machinery and staff. It is a sorry state of affairs that Andrew understands all too well from his studies towards a Masters in Food Security.

Outside the farm office, birds flourish in the hedgerows and he points out to me the substantial areas which he has devoted to nature conservation. Surely a farm looking to maximise efficiency wouldn’t set aside huge swathes from production? Ever the pragmatist, Andrew explains that he can avoid some of the risk related to volatile vegetable prices and achieve a higher level of income per acre than possible for cereal crops.

Yellowhammer - copyright Lorne Gill-SNH

Yellowhammer. Copyright SNH/Lorne Gill

The idea was prompted by a visit from an RSPB conservation advisor looking primarily to bolster corn bunting numbers. Since then, the success of the Farmland Bird Lifeline project has been well documented, but for Andrew it was the assistance of RSPB officer Yvonne Stephen that really got the ball rolling. As he talks me through the various maps and plans for the five-year scheme, I can see the need to be organised over the coming years is something that Andrew welcomes.

Many have relayed that “you can’t be green if you’re in the red” but here Andrew demonstrates that being “Green” may help with staying out of the red. Economic considerations are of course vital, but Andrew also wanted to make his patch more environmentally sustainable with his young daughter in mind and through the success of his environmental work he feels that he is achieving this goal; corn bunting numbers have increased threefold on the farm in just two years. Yellowhammer, reed bunting and skylark have all benefitted from measures such as wild bird seed plots, overwinter stubbles and conservation headlands.

Looking to the future, Andrew hopes that environmental work will continue to be supported and that farmers will see that this is vital work they should be undertaking. After all farming is dependent on a healthy environment.

Skylark on the South Uist machair, Western Isles Area.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Skylark. Copyright SNH/Lorne Gill.

Andrew kindly offers me a look around the farm. Seeing 25% area of a farm in a scheme is really quite something and I can only imagine the vast abundance of wildlife that this will support. In the field closest to the main road, we briefly catch sight of a corn bunting. We finish back with his pride and joy: two London route master buses which are shortly to be advertised for use at weddings and events. As with so many young farmers, it seems there is a need to be creative and look at all kinds of options – including ones that help wee yellow birds!

Follow Andrew on Facebook @InchFarmFife

Farmers who are interested in being part of this round of the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme have until 30 April to apply. For more info, see the Rural Payments website.

Posted in Agri-Environment Climate Scheme, biodiversity, Birds, climate change, conservation, Farming, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, sustainable farming | Tagged , , , ,

The Graips of Sloth: the List of Winter Gardening Don’ts & Dos

This week, our gardener at our Battleby office, Jim Carruthers, shares some great tips on what to do – and NOT to do – to keep our gardens in good shape over winter. 


Fieldfare feeding on ornamental rowan berries. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Many are tempted to atone for the excesses of the festive period by having a good breenge at the garden. This is the way, they reckon, to reduce personal levels of fat, stress, cholesterol, blood pressure and guilt. Frankly, the most positive steps you can take are the ones that lead you back indoors. If you must garden, then there are a few constructive jobs worth doing.  But there are more that, at this time of year, are genuinely counter-productive or that will jeopardise the wildlife in your garden.

One of the fundamental tenets of good husbandry is working with nature not against it. Gardening is essentially an intervention against natural processes. Putting these two aspects together judiciously is the secret of good gardening.  And that stands for wildlife gardening in particular.  Even if you only slightly care for the wildlife in your garden, try to mind and practise the following mantras…

Try not to think tidy, try to think not too tidy, try to not think to tidy…

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) covered in snow.©Lorne Gill

Snowdrops covered in snow. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Here’s an inexhaustive list of random dos & don’ts.

Herbaceous borders- on no account tinker with your perennials. Attacking the herbaceous borders is folly; there are a myriad micro habitats underneath the rammy of collapsed leaves, stems and seedheads. These are invaluable for insects to overwinter, particularly hollow stems. Scruffiness & lack of disturbance are essential. Leaving these intact does also act as an aide-memoire in helping  you mind which plant combinations were successful &, more importantly, which ones were not.

Hedges- do not go raking, scraping or even horking in about them to improve hygiene. You won’t help your hedge or improve your own hygiene. Hedges remain open and soft throughout most of the winter. They allow shelter and security for many small creatures, birds in particular which can continue to forage there when everywhere else is frozen. Birds can lose a tenth of their bodyweight overnight so feed them during the day and let the hedge shelter them at night. The hedge is one large community centre, heated & open to all except sparrowhawks.  Hedge clippings by the way make good mulch, ideal for shrubs with roots close to the surface. For instance, neither blackcurrants and rhododendrons appreciate their roots being scorched by sun or drying winds.

Rhododendron flowers covered in snow, Battleby.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rhododendrons in the snow at our Battleby grounds. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Ponds should be kept unfrozen to protect their oxygen content. If necessary, thaw by placing a pot of hot water on the surface. Don’t attack the ice with a pinch bar, pick or any other WMD.

Try not to plant much just now, the ground is cold & the long range forecast is full of frosts. Many shrubs, like humans, become brittle during cold periods and they are easily damaged. The best months for planting are October & March. The worst is December when the soil is cold and clarty, just grand for rotting roots. Pruning is not recommended either during these brittle days. But sometime in February you must use a milder day to prune your butterfly bush (Buddleia). Cut down to the existing framework of the shrub by removing all the long flowering shoots from last year. Do not cut into the older wood.

If you must dig, go the vegetable garden. Do some warm-up exercises, speak nicely to your graip and delve uphill if you’re on a slope. It is not too late to plant garlic cloves. The frosts to come affect the cloves, a process called vernalisation, and they produce bigger bulbs when you harvest them in the blithe summer days ahead. Take advantage of another milder day and divide snowdrops ”in the green”. Lift a congested clump and tear apart with some care into little clumps of five stems or so. Purportedly best carried out when the flowers are just passing over.

Frosted bramble leaves.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Frosted bramble leaves. Picture copyright Lorne Gill/SNH.

Other things you could be doing instead of wreaking havoc include some planning. The veg plot is best done with a kindler on the fireside rug. Go through seed catalogues and order up before March. If there are areas upon which you are undecided, look at the Hardy Annual section. They are cheap, cheery and quite straightforward. Avoid varieties which have double flowers to maximise value to wildlife. Simply sow in situ at the start of May.

Visit other gardens.

Go for long walks in suburbia to glean ideas.

Read “The Natural History of the Garden” by Michael Chinery

Happy March

In the meantime, be untidy.

Posted in battleby, gardens, plants, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Peat bogs offer a solution to carbon storage

Today, along with others around the globe, we celebrate World Wetlands Day – and this year’s theme of climate change. In Scotland, peat bogs play a crucial role in tackling climate change. 

Peat bog for SM

Scottish peatlands host an amazing array of wildlife, from sphagnum moss, white cotton grass & purple heather to insects looking for a drink. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

We need to find ways to drastically reduce our global footprint, especially our carbon footprint; it is estimated that 60% of our ecological footprint is carbon. One place to look is definitely peatlands – and Scotland has plenty of those! Ecosystems like peatlands are capable of absorbing and storing large amounts of carbon dioxide known as “carbon sinks,” making them ideal for helping to tackle climate change.

What usually springs to peoples’ minds when asked about carbon sinks are trees, whether it’s the local woodland where you walk your dog every day or the tropical rain forests of Borneo. But research suggests that trees actually aren’t the most efficient way to store carbon. Other often forgotten ecosystems, like peat bogs, can make a big impact.


Volunteers clearing willow scrub at Loch Leven ©Lorne Gill/SNH


About 60% of the world’s wetlands are made of peat. Peat forms in waterlogged, acidic conditions. Layers upon layers of the partially decomposed sphagnum mosses and other bog plants build up, forming peat. The further down into the peat bog you go, the more decomposed and darker the peat becomes as it gets squished by the layer on top. This peat forming process is very slow – it can take 100 years to form just one meter of peat.

Equally, peat bogs are very low in nutrients, and only very specialised plants – like sphagnum, cotton grass and sundews – can grow in them, but more importantly for climate change, the carbon in these plants are trapped in perpetuity.

As peat is formed in waterlogged conditions, it is hard to disturb, making it a very efficient carbon sink. However, if you drain or burn the peat, the balance is disturbed.

For example, draining water away from peat bogs causes the peat to dry, resulting in the vegetation decomposing much faster – and the release of carbon. Similarly burning peat – just as burning a tree – has the potential to release hundreds of years of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Peat core from Loch Lomond for SM

Peat core taken on a peat bog at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland. The peat here is dark at it was taken at four meters deep. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Scottish peatlands store 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon; this is equivalent to 140 years’ worth of Scotland’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland ACTION – with funding from Scottish Government – is working with land managers and partners to restore this vital carbon sink.

In essence, the project is returning peat bogs into thriving wetlands. For climate. For nature. For people. For the planet.

This great short film, which you can pan 360 degrees, explains the science behind why we are working so hard to rewet and restore the bog habitats of Scotland.

If you have a peatland restoration project, Peatland ACTION pre-application advice is available now (for the next funding round which will be announced in the spring). If you would like to speak to one of our advisors, contact us at


Posted in biodiversity, climate change, peatland restoration | Tagged , , ,

Scottish Natural Heritage and Partners Launch Support for Greener Social Housing Projects

Our Scottish Natural Heritage Placemaking Team Manager, Ivan Clark, helped launch a new opportunity for greener social housing projects at the recent #HousingInnovationScotland event. He tells us more about it in today’s blog.  

Last Week, at the Scottish Federation of Housing Association’s (SFHA) Innovation Factory #HousingInnovationScotland event, I was very pleased to be able to announce an exciting opportunity for a path-finding social housing provider to access a £60,000 package of financial and design support to help deliver an innovative social housing development that maximises the benefits of the vegetated land and water within and around housing sites.

Ivan Clark, Scottish Natural Heritage Placemaking Team Manager and Lorna Wilson (SFHA) at the Innovation Factory

Ivan Clark, Scottish Natural Heritage Placemaking Team Manager and Lorna Wilson (SFHA) at the Innovation Factory

This ‘green infrastructure’ can provide space to socialise, to play, to grow food and to connect with nature. Green infrastructure can also provide a range of other functions that support successful places such as water management and managing the impacts of pollution.

This pocket park in Malmo, Sweden includes a cycle path, a place to play and socialise, wildlife habitat and reed-beds to help manage surface water flooding

This pocket park in Malmo, Sweden includes a cycle path, a place to play and socialise, wildlife habitat and reed-beds to help manage surface water flooding

Scottish Natural Heritage, along with our project partners Architecture & Design Scotland, Scottish Government, and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations are looking to partner with a housing association or local authority housing provider that is intending to commission design contracts for social housing in the next 12 months.

Support may include:

  • Site appraisal – with a specific focus on the efficient use of open space and integration with adjacent green networks
  • Facilitated Design Brief workshops with key stakeholders, including local community, potential future residents and/or tenant focus groups
  • Preparation of Masterplans/ Designs
  • Cost consultancy to support the business case and value for money (VFM) approvals process, with a focus on ‘whole-life’ costs and benefits
  • Post occupancy evaluation including VFM, Place standard and other complementary tools relevant to evaluating the benefits of green infrastructure

Want to find out more?

You can find out more about the project and download the Call for Interest document from the SFHA Website. If you would like more detail please email Lorna Wilson, SFHA Innovation and Future Thinking Policy lead on or Ivan Clark, SNH Placemaking Team Manager on

Posted in conservation, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, Uncategorized

A ‘good story’ beats the facts


There’s been some media hype in Scotland over the last few days, claiming that beavers caused a suspected case of giardia. But giardia, the most common form of gut parasite infection in the UK and the world, has not been found in any beavers in Scotland.

We have sympathy for anyone suffering from giardia, but we want to make it clear that despite extensive testing of beavers in the UK for giardia, there has never been a positive result. We are only aware of one study that has ever found giardia in beavers anywhere in Europe – and that was in Poland.

In fact, humans, livestock such as sheep and cattle, wild animals like deer and foxes, and pets, are all potential sources of giardia. Research examining the public health risk posed by reintroduced beavers in Scotland concluded the risk of giardia was low to very low. In comparison, the risk posed by livestock was high, and that posed by humans and other wildlife was medium to high.


The media coverage also raised concerns about the damage which beavers may cause. In response, we’d first like to make it clear that beavers have many benefits for nature. By building dams, beavers improve local water quality and help nurture other wildlife, and it’s wonderful that people now have a chance to see these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat.

But in some parts of Scotland, beavers can cause problems, particularly in areas with prime agricultural land. So it will sometimes be necessary to minimise or prevent beavers’ impacts on farming or other interests. Over the last year, we have worked with the Scottish Government, farmers, conservation bodies and other partners to realise the many benefits that beavers will bring to Scotland. But we also have to allow management when necessary to help farmers and others deal with beavers – for example, when they dig up riverbanks or cause fields to flood.


To wrap up, here are some FACTS about beavers – an absolutely fascinating animal!

  • Beavers are Europe’s largest native rodent.
  • Beavers can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes.
  • Beavers live for 10 to 15 years and mate for life.
  • Beavers are completely vegetarian.
Posted in biodiversity, Scottish Natural Heritage | Tagged , ,

Brìde, a’ Chailleach agus an Cuilean / Bride, the Cailleach and the Puppy

’S e toiseach a’ Ghearrain àm sònraichte, anns am biodh na Gàidheil gu traidiseanta a’ dùileachadh droch aimsir  / The beginning of February is a special time, during which the Gaels traditionally hoped for bad weather.

Brìde, a’ Chailleach agus an Cuilean

’S e toiseach a’ Ghearrain àm sònraichte ann am mìosachan nan Gàidheal. Tha e co-cheangailte ri Brìde, uaireigin na ban-dia phàganach a chumadh rian air an earrach agus air torrachas, agus Naomh Brìde aig na Crìosdaidhean. B’ e Latha Fèill Brìde, a’ chiad latha dhen Ghearran, latha ràithe letheach-slighe eadar Samhain agus Bealltainn agus, mar sin, bha e air leth cudromach.

Mist rising from Coire Ardair, Creag Meagaidh NNR on a typically wet summers day 2008. East Highland Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

©Lorne Gill/SNH

Bhiodh daoine an dòchas gum biodh droch shìde aca aig an àm sin. Nam biodh Latha Fèill Brìde (no Imbolc mar a bh’ aig na h-Èireannaich air) soilleir, grianach, bha dùil aca gum biodh an còrr dhen gheamhradh fada, oir b’ e sin an latha air am biodh a’ Chailleach, ban-dia a’ gheamhraidh, a’ cruinneachadh fiodh airson a teine airson a’ chòrr de ràith an fhuachd. Nam biodh geamhradh goirid fa-near dhi, cha bhiodh feum aice air fiodh a chruinneachadh, agus leigeadh i leis an aimsir a bhith stoirmeil is mì-chàilear.

now covered woodlands, Battleby, Perthshire, January 2015. ©Lorne GIll/SNH

©Lorne GIll/SNH

Bhiodh na seann Ghàidheil gu sònraichte ag iarraidh cruaidh-reothadh, no eadhon cur is cathadh, air an treas latha dhen Ghearran, air an robh an t-ainm Latha a’ Chuilein (ged nach eil fios carson a tha e co-cheangailte ri cù òg). Bha iad a’ creidsinn gum biodh am fuachd air an latha sin ‘a’ glanadh’ galaran a’ gheamhraidh agus gum biodh an sluagh na b’ fhallaine às a dhèidh. Saoil an obraich e ann an 2019?!

Bride, the Cailleach and the Puppy

The beginning of February is a special time in the Gaelic calendar. It is connected to the ancient pagan figure Brìde, once the goddess of spring and fertility, and to her later Christian namesake (St Bride or St Brigid in English), who is recalled in the many Scottish settlements called Kilbride (Cille Brìde, ‘the cell or church of St Bride’). Latha Fèill Brìde (Bride’s Feast Day), the 1st of February, is a traditional quarter-day, halving the six month interval between the pivotal Celtic celebrations of Samhain (the start of winter) and Bealltainn (the start of summer).

Spring. Loch Maree through car window in rain.

© Scottish Natural Heritage

People would hope for bad weather at this time. If the 1st of February were a clear, sunny day, the remainder of the winter would likely be long, as this was the day when the Cailleach – the ancient goddess of winter – would collect her firewood for the rest of the cold season. Were she planning an early spring, she would have no need of a gathering-day, and she would permit the weather to be unpleasant and stormy.

Lochan a' Choire and Coire Ardair at Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve in winter.©Lorne Gill

©Lorne Gill

The Gaels particularly hoped for freezing weather on 3rd February, which was known traditionally as Latha a’ Chuilein (‘the puppy’s day’ although the reason for the appellation is shrouded in mystery). They believed that extreme cold at that time (perhaps including snow and blizzards) would destroy winter germs and make for a healthier population. Keep your eye on the weather and see if it works in 2019!


Posted in Gaelic, Scottish Natural Heritage

Local community takes pride in local conservation site

The Friends of Almondell and Calderwood Country Park tell us how they‘re implementing management to improve the biodiversity of their local wildlife site – Calderwood Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).   

The group embarked on an initial five year plan to control the spread of invasive reed canary grass and improve the biodiversity of a little known area of fen within the park in West Lothian, just 100m from the busy A71.

With the support and advice from their local Scottish Natural Heritage Area Officer, Mike Thornton, and the West Lothian Countryside Ranger Service, a conservation plan was developed and funding agreed. First up was the purchase of traditional scything equipment, as well as training on their use, care and maintenance provided through the National Trust for Scotland Thistle Camp working holidays.

Scything equipment was purchased by the group and training was provided by the National Trust for Scotland Thistle Camp working holidays

Scything equipment was purchased by the group and training was provided by the National Trust for Scotland Thistle Camp working holidays

Scything was commonly practiced throughout Scotland in the 19th century to manage hay meadows; a land management practice which maintained a rich biodiversity.  However, this form of management eventually died out in the 20th century due to mechanisation and intensification of grassland management, sadly leading to a loss of biodiversity.

The group explain:  The reed canary grass had spread throughout the fen, leading to a loss of plant diversity in what is probably an old river channel or old oxbow lake of the Linhouse Water.

At first the area appeared to be dominated by two species – reed canary grass in the low lying circular fen and bracken on the surrounding raised area. However to our delight, we discovered a much wider variety of plant species during an initial survey, with 77 flower, 19 grass and 11 tree species identified in the fen and its immediate environ. As a result we subdivided the area into 10 separate sites to reflect these findings. The different habitats discovered numerous bird species, mainly in the surrounding woodlands. However, butterflies, moths and other insect species were noted on the fen along with toads & frogs. Finally our survey confirmed sightings of visiting roe deer, fox (resident) and evidence of smaller mammals.

The removal of invasive species, which can dominate fen vegetation, is carried out using a traditional scything regime which will eventually allow a more diverse flora to develop. Looking east before scything (June 17)

The removal of invasive species, which can dominate fen vegetation, is carried out using a traditional scything regime which will eventually allow a more diverse flora to develop. Looking east before scything (June 17)

Looking east after scything (June 2018)

Looking east after scything (June 2018)

The plan is for the reed canary grass to be scythed twice a year for five years which in historic cases is enough to discourage its growth and allow a greater diversity of native plant species to grow in its place. The interesting and still very much open question is how much it is discouraged as there is a lot of it on the fen. A key indication of success will be the removal of the cut grass from the fen so that nutrients are not recycled, however this is proving difficult as there is no access (except on foot) to the fen. Because of this we were restricted this year to creating ‘haystacks’ and scattering the grass over the higher ground where the bracken is. Perhaps next year we may attempt to burn it; we’d be interested to hear from other groups on other successful methods.

Removing the cut grass can be difficult due to limited access to the fen

Removing the cut grass can be difficult due to limited access to the fen

So what next? Over the winter the team will be opening up a number of small areas of open water, among the roots of the reed canary grass, to provide increased habitat for amphibians and insects. As the grass starts to grow, and to avoid disturbing nesting birds, we’ll be out in early spring with the scythes and rakes to cut it back and remove. In addition, with a few more volunteers, a significant portion of the bracken on the higher land will be cut back to provide areas for a greater diversity of plants, insects and birds.

This conservation work hopes to encourage a wide variety of species to thrive such as the Northern Marsh Orchid

This conservation work hopes to encourage a wide variety of species to thrive such as the Northern Marsh Orchid

In the longer term, with evidence of success in our battle with the invasive reed canary grass, we hope to source grant funding to provide better visitor access to the area from both Calderwood and Oakbank ends of the park as well as a circular route for visitors to enjoy the fen and its abundant wildlife.

Additional Information

The Friends of Almondell and Calderwood Country Park are an energetic group of volunteers who meet one Saturday each month to work with the Rangers. Tasks can include tree planting, gardening, path maintenance, biological recording and countryside patrols.

Find them on Facebook and if you’d like to get involved contact the Ranger Team at the Visitor Centre on 01506 882254.


Posted in Community engagement, conservation, country park, Scottish Natural Heritage, SSSI, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

On the trail of the 64s group – capturing Wild Shetland

Wildlife cameraman Fergus Gill was Maramedia’s main team member on the ground throughout summer 2017, when they filmed their latest spectacular nature documentary Wild Shetland: Scotland’s Viking Frontier. Fergus is of course the son of our own celebrated photographer, Lorne, who must be a proud Dad today after the programme was aired on BBC One Scotland last night. We’ve been lucky enough to catch up with Fergus and ask him a few questions about his experience filming on the most northerly parts of the British Isles.

fergus and his dad waiting on orca©richardshucksmith

Fergus and his Dad waiting for orca, © RichardShucksmith


Was this your first job as a wildlife cameraman?

I’ve been working with Maramedia for a number of years now in a variety of roles. Earlier on it was mostly as a camera assistant out on location and then filming stories myself in my spare time. Wild Shetland was the first time I was working predominantly as one of the camera operators, but at other times in the production I was still working as a camera assistant. My first week or so was spent scouting out filming locations stretching from Unst in the far North to Fair Isle in the South. When other team members  (Raymond, Pete, Justin and Jackie) came up I’d help and assist them with the filming, but in the weeks between those trips I was filming stories myself, which was an amazing experience.



How important is patience for a wildlife cameraman? 

No matter how well we plan our filming, patience is always going to be required as you work to the schedule of the wild animals, not the other way around. When filming somewhere spectacular like Hermaness National Nature Reserve (NNR) in Shetland, it doesn’t require patience to see a gannet, as there are thousands of them there; but it does require lots of planning and patience to see particular behaviours and to get the best light to show off such a stunning place.

Other species, like the orca for example, are far more challenging to spot, let alone film. On my second day in Shetland I saw a pod of orca about 1km South of Sumburgh Head, the mainland’s southern tip. I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d get lots of opportunities to see them again throughout the summer but three months later, as my last week in Shetland approached, we’d still not managed to catch up with them to film anything. With Shetland’s thousand miles of coastline, you’ve not just got to be in the right place at the right time, you need to do that repeatedly to get enough encounters to build up a story.

fergus and justin ©maramedia

What do you eat when you’re out in the field? Fergus and colleague Justin with penne lunch, © Maramedia


What was the most professionally satisfying thing you filmed?

The orca, or ‘Killer whale’ story was easily the highlight of my time filming in Shetland. Just to see these incredible animals hunting in the UK was extraordinary. To get to film them was extra special and something I could have only dreamed I’d get the chance to do.


Orcas are often seen hunting seals off Shetland, © Lorne Gill

In my last week we spent nearly every day out at sea searching for and following the 64s group as they moved around Shetland. The 64s is a pod of nine orcas which includes the infamous bull named Busta. This is one of two main pods that are seen throughout the year in Shetland, the other is the 27s, although other pods do visit Shetland. All the killer whales are in a photo ID catalogue and through research and encounters over the years marine biologists have worked out which individuals are generally seen together.

I was joined by local award-winning cameraman Richard Shucksmith and my Dad, who’d picked the best time to come up for a week’s holiday! We had several superb encounters, none more so than watching the pod successfully hunting very early one morning off the east coast at Eswick. I’ve never had an adrenaline rush like it, following and watching Busta and the rest of the pod was a real buzz. It took a week’s worth of encounters to build up enough footage to tell their story. Being out on a headland and filming them coming past often wasn’t enough as it’s all over so quickly. That’s why it was key to spend as much time with them as possible, to maximise our chances of seeing something different.

fergus and richard_filming orca ©brydon thomason

Fergus and Richard Shucksmith filming Orca © Brydon Thomason


What are the main differences between wildlife photography and videography?

There are a lot of similarities between wildlife photography and videography when it comes to fieldcraft and patience. I think the main difference between to the two is how you tell a story. With photography one striking shot can be enough to convey a strong message. This can sometimes be more difficult to do in film making, if it requires context, a single clip often isn’t enough to tell the story you’re filming.  So it’s more about thinking of how to build a sequence of shots that together will tell your story. The benefit of this is that with the extra time and the addition of music, narration and natural sounds you can create something really strong.



What did you like most about Shetland and your time there?

I’d always wanted to visit Shetland, ever since I read Hugh Mile’s book On the Track of the Wild Otter when I was young. The scenery was stunning and I had a great time meeting the wonderful local people, all filled to the brim with knowledge and great humour! Shetland has got that mix of stunning scenery and incredible wildlife all packed into an area that’s not too large to explore. Every week I spent there I was discovering somewhere new. It’s that kind of place, where every corner seems to hide another dramatic stretch of coast. But it’s hard to beat the view from Neap at Hermaness NNR. I remember standing high above the cliffs at Hermaness, home to tens of thousands of gannets, thinking I can’t imagine there’s a more spectacular view anywhere in the UK.

fergus filming gannets at hermaness ©maramedia

Fergus filming gannets at Hermaness NNR, © Maramedia


How much of an influence has your Dad been on your chosen career?

Growing up in rural Perthshire I was surrounded by nature, and my Dad always encouraged me to get out and explore with a camera from a young age. I think the real benefit of this was to take pictures of what I saw and then be able to identify things later. I was always asking my Dad a million questions wherever we went. What’s that bird? What kind of tree is that? A camera was a useful tool!


As I got older it started to become a means of remembering special encounters with wild animals. The first that really sticks to mind was on a beach at the bottom end of the isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, photographing a pair of non-breeding sanderling in summer. I remember slowly crawling closer and closer and taking photos on my Dad’s first digital camera. It was amazing to be able to see the pictures straight away.



When can we next expect to see your work on our screens?

I spent all of last year filming a 10-part TV series at the SSPCA’s National Wildlife Rescue Centre near Alloa, for the new BBC Scotland channel. The series follows the stories of injured and orphaned wild animals and the people who look after them as they get fit and return to the wild. That will hopefully be on TV in the not too distant future.

If you haven’t yet seen Wild Shetland: Scotland’s Viking Frontier you can catch it on the BBC iplayer here  (until 22 February). You can follow Fergus’ promising career and see where it takes him next on Twitter – @Fergus Gill.

Posted in Birds, coastal, Marine, National Nature Reserves, photography, Scottish Natural Heritage, sea life, seals, Shetland, SNH, Uncategorized, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Valuing nature in a complex world

Projects and Partnerships Officer Neville Makan reflects on a recent conference that posed the question – how do we value nature?

Oakwoods in springtime ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Oakwoods in springtime ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Valuing nature poses many challenges.  Yet recognising what we value in nature is an essential first step in establishing a more sustainable way of life.  Recently I was fortunate to be able to attend the third annual conference in Cardiff of the Valuing Nature Programme – a five year, £6.5m initiative that considers the economic, societal and cultural value of nature.

Our keynote speaker Professor Ian Hodge did not avoid the complexities by asking us first off, what is it that we are trying to value?   Do we want to maintain an ecological system in a particular state to make it resilient to change or to maximise economic gain?  It is safe to say that we cannot value everything in economic terms, even though hard numbers persuade politicians.  We cannot put a price on a sacred cultural site or a wildflower meadow. The moral argument clearly favours more considered approaches to valuing nature over cost-benefit analysis.  Ian suggests a pluralistic approach is required, with both quantitative and deliberative methods employed, requiring more research to inform policy and practice.

National Museum Cardiff ©Neville Makan

National Museum Cardiff ©Neville Makan

Rob Cooke, director of EU Transition at Natural England, presented the emerging context for domestic agricultural policy post-Brexit.  He sees a move in all four of the UK countries’ developing policies towards more sustainable agricultural systems that look after natural capital over the long-term.  Also developing are schemes that would provide income and investment support to more economically marginal farms to ensure their resilience and to reward them for providing public goods. More advice to farmers in developing land management plans is a strong theme, as is more landscape-scale collaborative working.  The overall annual cost of meeting environmental land management priorities across the UK is expected to be £2,118m (£448m for Scotland).  It will be society that decides how much we spend, so there is real pressure to embed valuation into this decision-making.

Natural England gave a presentation on the natural capital accounting that has been trialled on National Nature Reserves to inform land management decisions, while other talks covered a variety of ways of how valuing nature can inform decisions.  For example, biodiversity net gain was shown to be possible in a Clackmannanshire housing development case study using habitat maps, while in Southampton a majority of businesses were found willing to invest in urban green infrastructure.

Conference plenary session ©Neville Makan

Conference plenary session ©Neville Makan

There is around $69 trillion in global circulation, with 100s of billions of dollars being invested by the likes of insurance companies and pension funds.  So there is much needed money out there, and according to a session on investing in natural capital, things are moving quickly in terms of connecting the private sector with natural capital investment opportunities.  However, there is still much to do, with a need for more brokers or skilled communicators to make the links, more evidence, information, monitoring and tools.

We live in a changing and complex world, however overall the conference reflected a positive feeling that our values of nature are being brought more into decision-making.  But attitudinal and cultural changes are still required and there is still a sense of urgency in the need to tackle the huge challenges we face.  There was a call for more local work – connecting people with their places and tapping into the emotional feeling that most people have with nature.  The more that people can get on and do what’s right in their area, the more this is likely to influence the decisions that politicians and business leaders make.

Find out more about the Valuing Nature Programme here.


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The bird with the golden eye

Goldeneye may bring to mind one of the better James Bond movies of the 1990s but it is of course also a medium sized duck which is found all around the world’s more northerly regions, from North America, across Europe to Asia. But is there more to this bird than meets the eye? Nigel Buxton, our Natura Project Manager, tells us more…

The goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), for most of the year, is a widespread and common bird in Scotland. It is also one of our rarest breeding ducks.


Female and male goldeneye, (C) David A Mitchell, Creative Commons

It’s a diving duck with marked differences in appearance between the green-headed, black and white males and the significantly smaller brown-headed, mottle-grey females. Although the two sexes couldn’t be more different in their plumage, what they do have in common is a bright yellow, or golden eye.


Resting female, (C) Kurt Bauschardt, Creative Commons

The UK wintering (non-breeding) population of goldeneye is estimated to be about 27,000 birds. The most recent British Trust for Ornithology Atlas shows the species to be widely distributed during winter, being absent from only the highest areas, including the Grampian mountains and the Pennines, and the more remote parts of northern Scotland. Overall the birds are most densely concentrated in the north of England and Scotland, especially towards the coast.

Currently 12 of the top 20 locations for overwintering goldeneye are in Scotland, several of which are Special Protection Areas (SPAs). These include four coastal locations, although only recently have ornithologists realised the true importance of coastal areas for these over-wintering birds. The Scottish goldeneye SPAs are: the Firth of Forth, the Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary, Loch Leven, Loch of Skene and the Upper Solway Flats and Marshes. These sites are part of a network of over 1500 protected areas across Scotland that are nature’s special places. SNH plays a key role in looking after these sites and monitoring their wildlife. Some are nature reserves managed by SNH or charities, but most are privately owned. Thanks to Scotland’s Outdoor Access legislation most sites have good public access.

Heavily watched areas like the Firth of Forth have been known about for decades, largely popular with the birds because of the edible refuse which was emptied from sewer outfalls and the ensuing enrichment of the surrounding locations. At one time back in the 1970s more than 4,000 goldeneye were regularly concentrated into this firth, alongside thousands of scaup, common scoter and eider. As the Firth has been cleaned up, especially from the 1980s and 90s, these numbers have plummeted and larger numbers become less regular, as birds presumably disperse to look for winter food elsewhere.

Today we know that significant numbers of birds are concentrated in 10 main sites. At Scottish locations goldeneye numbers increase rapidly in November, reach a peak in January and decrease rapidly from March. Very small numbers remain through May, June and July.


Goldeneyes taking off, (C) Michael Brager, Creative Commons

Alongside the pintail, garganey and common scoter, goldeneye is one of Britain’s rarest breeding ducks. Although the birds can turn up in many areas of Scotland, all wild breeding records are concentrated in a very small area of Scotland.  In the recent past there were around 200 breeding pairs here, however, today it’s thought there are probably less than 100 pairs.  A significant difference from these other three species is that the breeding population is over 90% maintained through the provision of nest boxes – only a very small number of birds nest each year in natural holes. Without the nest boxes the goldeneye would almost certainly be Britain’s rarest breeding wild duck. Throughout the remainder of its northern natural range it nests in tree holes provided by species such as black woodpeckers.

It has a curious breeding history in Great Britain. It has been well known here for centuries as a wintering species but there are no references to its breeding. The first breeding record was only in 1970, at Loch an Eilean in Badenoch.  The subsequent provision of nest boxes has allowed the population to build up, generally along the River Spey, although nest boxes were provided far more widely. Since about 2000 another population has built up in a small locality in Deeside. Elsewhere there are just a few scattered breeding records in northern Scotland.

The courtship display of goldeneye has been described as being more spectacular than that of any other duck.  The complexity of this showing-off has attracted the attention of several naturalists who have written about it in great detail, giving names to many of its moves, including the masthead, the bowsprit and the head-throw-kick.  The latter involves bending the head back as far as it will go until it to touches the rump, while moving rapidly forward and kicking up water with its feet. Females respond with their own displays, most often with the ‘head-forward’ move. Monogamous pairs form and they stay together until early in the incubation period when the male abandons the female, who then raises the ducklings by herself.

For more information on Scotland’s network of protected areas, including finding your nearest, visit our Sitelink website.


Posted in Birds, coastal, Marine, sea life, SNH, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,