Otter spotting in Tiree

Today’s guest blog is from the Tiree Ranger, Hayley Douglas. Hayley works for Tiree Community Development Trust and took up the ranger post in November 2019 after working at Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park as a ranger and project officer from 2010. At the park, she tracked otters and other mammals using camera traps, as well as lesser black-backed gulls using the latest satellite tagging techniques. She’s gone back to basics for her otter tracking on Tiree and loves sharing her skills.

Cheese Rock on Tiree – a spectacular view and a special place to spot otters. © Hayley Douglas

“There he is!” I yelped.  I was taking my first group of visitors out to look for otters here on Tiree. We had just arrived at the viewing spot as a sleek male with a fish popped onto Cheese Rock 15 metres in front of us. The extended family group of three generations were over the moon and everyone sat down quickly but quietly to enjoy our time with him. (I actually sat down so fast that I broke my camera so never got any otter pics myself).

I couldn’t believe my luck, as taking folk to see wildlife usually results in nothing being seen. I call it the KitKat panda effect – if you were around in the 90s then you know what I mean. But the lockdown had allowed me to spend time familiarising myself with Tiree in preparation for the visitor season starting. 

Previous visitor activities provided by the Ranger Service had focused on guided walks, and I was keen to offer a completely different programme of events to locals and visitors.  I had tracked otters on the mainland and followed a number with camera traps, but I’d only ever seen them in the flesh at that site once.

However, my explorations around Tiree showed that the situation here was completely different; in fact, it’s highly unusually if I come away from a walk without seeing some signs of an otter.  So, the plan started to hatch that I could start working on a survey of the island’s otters, as well as taking folk to see them.

On the search – otter footprints and other signs of their presence are common in Tiree.

Otters are on many visitors’ wish list, but no one had previously offered the opportunity to track and see them. But where was the best place – one which wasn’t too hard to access but quiet enough that our potential watching activities wouldn’t be disturbed by other visitors, in and out of the water? It was my crofter landlord that solved that problem.

He had an area that I had become familiar with during the lambing period that ticked all the boxes – but were there otters?  I headed out to explore. It wasn’t long before I found paw prints, spraints and runs through the grass. I wandered around the bay to find the best sites to watch from and eventually settled on the one in front of Cheese Rock. Here, when the tide drops, the rock becomes more exposed and a shallow channel appears between it and the shore. It was here that I saw the otter swimming as I watched from above. He once or twice looked in my direction, but didn’t seem too fussed. How would he behave if more folk were about though?

Well a few months later, I found out with that first walk. The otter wasn’t bothered at all and I spent most of the summer, when the tides were suitable, taking folk up to the site.  It’s fair to say that, after the third time we saw the otter, my time had been well spent reccing the area.  It had been a bleak year with the pandemic and seeing folks’ reactions to finally connecting with an otter more than made up for it.

We didn’t always see him but the hit rate was over 70 % and the majority of visitors who didn’t spot one went on to see one elsewhere on the island using the tracking skills I had taught them.  The last visit before restrictions came back in was a trip out with a solo visitor, and just as we were preparing to leave two otters appeared and gave us an hour of their time. 

I’ve kept an eye on the site over the winter and still see the otter there, an experience that still hasn’t lost its magic with me. Today is a wet and windy day here on Tiree with the mainland being in lockdown and no idea when visitors will be allowed back. When they are though, the otter walks will be back on, as connecting with nature is something we definitely all need.

Posted in biodiversity, mammals, Marine, Uncategorized, Year of Coasts and Waters | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating International Day of Girls & Women in Science

Today is International Day of Women & Girls in Science – a day declared by the UN to bring attention to the fact that less than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women. Biases and gender stereotypes are still steering many girls away from careers in science. We have many female scientists at NatureScot though, from graduate placements to unit heads. We asked them to tell you what inspires them and what they love about their jobs – and why you might want to consider a career in science yourself!

Jen is one of our area officers covering Caithness. To the right is an example of some of the seaducks she’s been surveying recently, eider ducks.

Jen Graham, Area officer in the Northern Isles & North Highland

I spent lots of my time as a child being dragged up munros, and I thought I’d never want to do work outside! But as time progressed, I grew fascinated by nature’s systems and the true variety of life both on a small scale and more globally. Ultimately, it was spending time in Scotland’s wild spaces which led me to pursue a career in environmental science.

I’ve recently finished working on a project investigating monitoring methods for Inshore Wintering Waterfowl – birds like eider, Slavonian grebe and long tailed ducks. This project allowed me to get out and talk to volunteers and survey waterfowl in the Moray Firth Special Protection Area. I developed a passion for ornithology through this work and enjoyed learning about seaduck ecology and behaviour, and being able to go out with volunteers and count the birds was an amazing opportunity.

I feel truly lucky to get to do work like this! You’re always learning and getting to experience nature first-hand, from counting flowers to encountering bats and hen harriers. It’s just so fascinating. In this role, you are always meeting people who are experts and people who know the environments they work in so well.

A short poem by Adrienne Rich reminds me that it is ordinary people who do good and important work to protect and look after our environment and it’s the day-to-day perseverance that matters.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

With no extraordinary power,
Reconstitute the world.

Fairlie began working for NatureScot as a graduate placement.

Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird, Geographic Systems Officer

I’ve been passionate about (and somewhat terrified by) the climate crisis since I first learned about it in school. After doing a degree in history, I decided I wanted to combine my interest in social science with my concern for the environment and pursue a career in conservation. I spent a summer up in the Flow Country doing practical conservation on the beautiful bog there, and then managed to do a masters in ecology before being lucky enough to join NatureScot as a graduate placement.

I spent the placement modelling likely changes to drought risk in Scotland due to climate change, the results of which are now being used to inform conservation strategies and target mitigation work to areas most at risk. It’s really rewarding to contribute actively to climate change resilience in Scotland, and to help fill a gap in our knowledge (unsurprisingly, not many people think about drought risk in Scotland!). I’m now part of NatureScot’s GIS team, which helps colleagues use geographic data to achieve NatureScot’s conservation goals. As part of that, it’s really interesting to see all the exciting projects going on throughout the organisation. With the severity of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, I’m glad to be working in a sector that’s trying to do something about it.

For more on Fairlie’s work on drought risk, see our recent news release.

Alison has worked in a number of different roles in NatureScot. To the right is an example of the type of sustainability projects she’s worked on.

Alison Shand, Supporting Good Development Administrator

I had the good fortune of growing up on the banks of Loch Lomond, spending a lot of time outdoors and developing a love of nature. Despite this, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up. As my friends set out to pursue their chosen careers, I made a last-minute decision to study zoology. I’d enjoyed biology at high school and I liked animals. It was through studying subjects like ecology and evolutionary biology that I really came to love science, as it helped me understand the natural world around me, how it works and how it came to be. I became particularly interested in urban nature, and how some species have adapted to live alongside humans.

I went on to study sustainability and environmental studies for my Masters. This led to me working for NatureScot in a graduate placement with our Supporting Good Development team, researching Sustainable Drainage System (SuDS) ponds and the benefits they can provide to people and nature. From there, I’ve taken on roles in NatureScot’s Executive Office and then Communications, and now I’m again working in planning and development. I really enjoy being able to make use of what I learned at university, and to be part of NatureScot’s efforts to make Scotland’s future more sustainable.

I’ve never approached my career with much of a plan – I’m very much a generalist and have taken up different opportunities as they’ve arisen. From assisting with research on crypsis in moths, to visiting SuDS ponds all over Scotland, to organising Sharing Good Practice events, I’ve gained a lot of different experiences and been part of some really interesting work. Studying science has given me the tools, qualifications and inspiration I’ve needed to develop my career. Some people know exactly what they want to do when they leave school, but for those who don’t, like me at 17, I’d definitely recommend pursuing science – it opens up so many possibilities!

Katie helping to tag a common skate in Loch Sunart, part of the Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area.

Katie Gilham, Head of Marine Ecosystems

Some of us are born with a dash of saltwater in our blood! I always wanted to work with the sea, so after studying Oceanography and Marine Biology at university, I gained experience through volunteer work. This included surveying coral reefs in Belize and Honduras, and soon led to a job with NatureScot in Shetland, working on developing a management scheme for the Papa Stour Special Area of Conservation –  23 years ago now! From there, I became an area officer in Shetland for a few years, before moving to the mainland to join the Marine Ecosystems team.

I’m now part of a team working on selecting and managing Marine Protected Areas and Priority Marine Features. We also monitor, survey and advise on marine birds and habitats, and make marine data more accessible. Part of my role is to agree our priorities each year, review research project proposals developed by the team and help  secure the funding to ensure that projects can go ahead when necessary. This involves a lot of work with people from other organisations, as the majority of our research is delivered through partnerships with Marine Scotland, or through organisations that are part of the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology in Scotland (MASTS).

A big project over the last couple of years has been contributing to the Healthy and Biologically Diverse Seas section of Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020. This is a statutory assessment to provide the evidence to underpin marine planning. As part of the steering group, I helped identify topics to be covered on marine habitats and species, and oversee completion of work with Marine Scotland colleagues on content relating to, for example, basking sharks, waterbirds and Priority Marine Features. In the coming weeks, SMA2020 will be used to inform a review of Scotland’s National Marine Plan.

Posted in conservation, Ecology, graduate placement, International Year of Girls and Women in Science, Marine, science, STEM | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mapping the Birds of South East Scotland – A Celebration of Citizen Science in Action

This week’s blog is written by Mike Thornton, a NatureScot operations officer in the Lothians, and a keen volunteer citizen scientist. Mike has worked on a range of citizen science projects, including the Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-13, a Scottish Ornithologist Club project charting changes in the distribution of birds in the Lothian and Borders.   

A redshank, one of the waders whose range has shrunk in South-east Scotland, according to records compiled by over 800 volunteers. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The UK has a strong tradition in amateur natural history, going back to the 18th century, when the English parson naturalist, Gilbert White, compiled detailed observations of wildlife in his Hampshire parish for nearly four decades. We now have a well-established network of amateur naturalists in the UK, collecting data in citizen science projects, charting changes in the locations and numbers of animals and plants across the UK, and providing a strong evidence base to inform conservation policy and management.

Citizen science has been particularly successful in mapping Britain and Ireland’s birdlife, with three national Bird Atlas projects revealing how the distribution and abundance of birds in these countries has changed since the late 1960s. These national projects have inspired many regional bird atlases, including the recently published Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013, which updates a similar atlas survey completed between 1988 and 1994. More than 800 volunteers helped map just over 160 breeding bird species in the Lothian and Borders bird recording areas, a wonderful example of volunteers contributing to conservation efforts.

Buzzard territories have expanded in South-east Scotland. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The project has shown some remarkable changes in the region’s birdlife, with just over half of the breeding species showing range contractions, and a third range increases. Perhaps the most significant change revealed was the loss of breeding waders, such as redshank, snipe, lapwing and curlew, particularly from the uplands and hill fringe areas, as a result intensified grassland management, and an increased number of their nest predators, such as crows and foxes.  Conversely, consistent with national trends, the buzzard has shown a significant range expansion. Buzzards were only found in the uplands in the late 1980s, but now occupy most of the region, a response most likely associated with reduced persecution and an improved food supply.

The Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013 provides the most up-to-date information on the distribution and abundance of the region’s birdlife, and allows organisations like NatureScot to better understand how environmental pressures, such as land use and climate change, are affecting our biodiversity. This knowledge can be used to develop conservation policies, as well as to target management to help mitigate some of these pressures on our biodiversity in our rapidly-changing world. If it were not for the great army of citizen scientists, like those who participated in the Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013, we would not be in such a strong position to take well informed conservation action, and we have a lot to thank them for.

This exhaustive study is based on nearly
half-a-million items of data collected by over 800 observers.

More information about The Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013 and where you can purchase a copy can be found here. If you want more information on getting involved in bird recording with the Scottish Ornithologists Club, see SOC’s Get Involved web page and The British Trust for Ornithology web page.

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, citizen science, conservation, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Land at the heart of nature-based-solutions

Transforming how we use land is an  essential  part  of our  response  to  the  climate  emergency. Great  progress  could  be  made  rapidly  in  agriculture,  forestry  and  other  land  uses  by  using  existing  technologies. But we will need to go further to support a transition  in  the  rural economy  at  the  rate  and  scale  required.

Our post today comes from NatureScot Chief Executive, Francesca Osowska, who this morning spoke at the latest Climate Emergency Summit, hosted by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. The summits allow people from across the sectors to come together to offer solutions to the climate emergency. The focus of today’s summit was land…

Commercial and native woodland, Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill/2020VISION

The Society’s Climate  Summits  have been  invaluable  in  bringing  many  leading  people  together  to  work  on solutions  to  the  climate  emergency. We  know  that  society  is  going  to  be  transformed  by  the  impacts  of climate  change.  If  we  are  to  avoid  ‘dangerous’  climate  change,  we have  to  address  the  triple  challenge:  to  reduce  emissions;  adapt  to  our  future  climate;  and,  restore  nature.  A  nature-rich  future  is  the only  response  to  the  climate  emergency  which  addresses  all  three challenges  and  achieves  much  needed  resilience  against  future  societal shocks.

Covid-19  has  hammered  home  our  lack  of  resilience.  This  pandemic originated  from  an  unhealthy  relationship  between  the  human  world and  the  natural  world.  It  has  led  to  disease  jumping  and  mutating  from  species  to  species.  This  same  unhealthy  relationship  is  degrading nature  across  the  planet  and  driving  climate  change.  Therefore,  it follows  that  ensuring  society  is  more  resilient  against  future  pandemics must  involve  tackling  the  climate  and  nature  crises.

Winfarm and blanket bog, Sutherland. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

I  am  sure  it’s  clear  to  all  of  us  here  that land is  an  essential  part  of our  response  to  the  climate  emergency.  Looking  at  the  land  use  sector  as  a  whole,  nature-based  solutions  are  one  of  our  primary  tools  to  absorb  some  of  the  carbon  in  the  atmosphere,  whether  that is  through  restoring  our  extensive  peatlands  and  managing  our  uplands  more  sustainably,  planting  more  woodland  –  as  well  as allowing  more  native  woodland  to  regenerate,  while  supporting transformative  change  to  low  carbon  agriculture. 

There  has  been  a  stronger  focus  on  agriculture,  forestry  and  other land  uses  in  recent  years.  But  significant  challenges  remain  –  for forestry,  in  terms  of  the  time  it  takes  for  new  woodlands  to  mature into  carbon  sinks;  for  agriculture  in  how  we  manage  our  soils  and livestock,  to  a  more  comprehensive  review  of  our  food  system,  what we  eat  and  how  it  is  produced  and  distributed. 

And  we  know  that  over  70%  of  our  peatlands  are  degraded  and  are  a source  of  emissions.  The  ambition  to  escalate  significant  action  on peatland  restoration  will  be  a  challenge  to  scale  up  quickly.

Great  progress  could  be  made  rapidly  in  agriculture,  forestry  and  other  land  uses  by  using  existing  technologies.  But policies,  practices, consumer  and  producer  behaviours  will  all  need  to  change  to  support a  transition  in  the  rural  economy  at  the  rate  and  scale  required.

Organic pigs foraging for food in a woodland at Whitmuir Organic farm near Peebles. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

We  have  many  good  examples  of  best  practice,  where  land  managers are  taking  action  to  protect  and  restore  nature,  reducing  emissions and  using  land  to  sequester  and  store  carbon.  There  is  a  real opportunity  to  build  on  these  great  examples  to  make  sure  that  land managers  can  be  the  champions  of  climate  change,  and  not  only  the victims  of  it.

But,  I  hope  today  we can  look  at  how  we  can  restore  nature  at  the same  time  as  responding  to  the  climate  emergency.  Would  it  be  a hollow  victory  if  we  slash  our  emissions  yet  in  doing  so  fail  to  restore ecological  abundance?

We  know  that  many  of  the  actions  that  we  take  for  the  climate  can have  positive  benefits  for  biodiversity  too  –  but  this  is  not  a  given.  Careful  choices  must  be  made  to  ensure  that  we  restore  habitats.  This is  not  just  about  peatlands  and  the  right  tree  in  the  right  place.  It  is also  thinking  about  improving  connectivity  between  our  increasingly fragmented  habitats,  effectively  providing  an  escape  route  for important  animals  and  plants  from  the  impacts  of  climate  change.

Heather blooming in a springtime public garden – a great source of pollen for our early pollinators. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Finally,  we  know  that  climate  change  is  one  of  the  biggest  issues  we face. 

Encouraging  ecological  diversity  has  to  be  the  solution  to  the  twin  and chronic  crises  of  nature  losses  and  climate  heating.  If  our  natural  world  can  become  more  resilient,  then  it  follows  resilience  will  grow across  our  economy  and  society,  protecting  us  from  acute  emergencies such  as  the  recent  pandemic.  Changes  to  land  use  to  increase  the space  for  nature  with  more  networks  of  nature-rich  areas  will undoubtedly  support  resilient  natural  systems  and  community well-being.

Francesca Osowska (29.01.21)

Francesca planting snowdrops opposite the Meadows in Edinburgh to benefit bees and butterflies as part of Buglife’s B-Lines project, a recipient of the Biodiversity Challenge Fund.
Posted in Agri-Environment Climate Scheme, biodiversity, climate change, Farming, Land management, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beavers on the move – Part Two

This is the second of a two-part blog written by Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who was just awarded the Nature of Scotland Conservation Science Award for her long-term work with beavers in Scotland. Roisin previously worked for RZSS overseeing the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, and now works as an independent ecological consultant specialising in beavers, which she also studied for her PhD. NatureScot employ Roisin to provide us with advice on beaver management and she works with a range of other organisations on beaver research, survey, advice and translocation projects.

Roisin carrying out pre-release health checks for English beaver projects.
© Roisin Campbell-Palmer

In today’s blog, I’ll cover the management measures used in areas where beavers are causing issues – for example, causing waterlogging or flooding of farmers’ best fields. But following on from my last blog, the focus here is on the work we’re doing to move beavers from areas where they are causing problems to areas where their presence is much sought after to improve nature and the environment.

Under NatureScot’s Beaver Mitigation Scheme, a range of measures, ranging from tree protection to installing flow devices to regulate water levels, are now being trialled across over 50 sites on Tayside. However, on sites where there are serious issues that currently can’t be solved through mitigation and NatureScot are satisfied that certain criteria are met, licences can be issued that permit beavers to be controlled. This can obviously be controversial and is considered a last resort measure, and I have been working with NatureScot and land managers in conflict areas to instead trap and move beavers where possible.

A beaver trap set on a drainage channel where there are serious conflicts with farming.
© Roisin Campbell Palmer.

As interest in this species’ influence on ecosystems and support for beaver restoration across Britain rises, there are growing opportunities for translocation. Translocation in itself is a recognised mitigation tool, practised widely in conservation. It has been critical to both ease beaver-human conflict and restore beaver species across their native range following historic levels of persecution for the fur trade.

Beaver translocation follows strict licensing and animal welfare protocols, from a NatureScot trap and removal licence, to health screening to legal release licence requirements in the country where beavers are being relocated.

Any translocation involves the use of recognised best welfare live traps, designed by beaver management experts in Bavaria. These traps have been used in Scotland as part of recognised beaver projects for over 10 years now. Any trapping programme aims to remove established pairs or family units as far as possible, respecting and avoiding the breeding season. All individuals are then transported in specially designed beaver crates to quarantine holding facilities at Five Sisters Zoo, where they undergo veterinary screening and body condition checks to ensure they are fit for release and present no health risks to people, livestock or other wildlife associated with any release site. Samples are also collected for genetic analysis to identify current diversity levels and give us more information to help restore beavers across Britain.

A beaver held in specially designed quarantine holding facilities before moving to its new home. ©Roisin Campbell Palmer.
A beaver family in the holding facilities which enable the family group to be kept together. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

So far, beavers from Scotland have been successfully translocated to several licenced projects throughout Britain – including the River Otter Beaver Project in Devon, National Trust enclosed projects at Honicote, and several Wildlife Trust projects in Cheshire and Cumbria. As well, we have moved beavers where private landowners have been seeking to alleviate flooding and restore wetlands, including at Wild KenHill, Spainshall and Knepp Estate. With the exception of the River Otter Project, all the projects in England are within fenced enclosures and are accompanied by long-term scientific monitoring studies to document how beaver activities could have measurable benefits to the environment.

One such project is the Forest of Dean Beaver Project which saw two beavers relocated from conflict areas in Tayside and introduced to each other on site to form a new pair. These animals were selected as they matched each other in weight, body condition and were both non-breeding sub-adults. Both individuals were removed from separate agricultural ditches in which they were living and where repeated damming and collapsed burrows were ongoing issues. Following removal, NatureScot trialled exclusion fencing at one of these locations to prevent new animals from recolonising the ditch system.

A beaver in a trap at the capture site. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

The two animals quickly took to their new environment, which consists of six hectares of enclosed woodland with the Greathough Brook running through the centre. The beavers have since constructed a series of dams to create ponds to store water, improve water quality and slow the rate of water flow, hopefully reducing the flash flooding downstream which affects the village of Lydbrook.

The mixed woodland, managed by Forestry England, will benefit from beaver activity. Their foraging will encourage woodland plant diversity, and make river and shorelines more complex and diverse, providing more microhabitats for other species. Their foraging also increases the amount of dead wood, and opens up the canopy – this, in turn, increases plant and animal biodiversity by providing more foraging, shelter and breeding opportunities for a range of invertebrate, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species. Another interesting aspect of this project is to investigate if beaver foraging and opening up of this mature riparian woodland has a positive habitat creation effect for water vole colonisation, another endangered native mammal.

To date, this pair have created several burrows along the brook and have begun to construct dams. They are fairly elusive but a volunteer team lead by Forestry England rangers closely monitors their activities and looks forward to their future breeding.

The new dams attract a range of species using them as foraging opportunities. Dipper image. ©Kate Woolen, Forestry England.

You can read more about this project here.

Currently, we are actively undertaking beaver translocations between September and April. We work closely with those landowners experiencing impacts which currently can’t be solved through mitigation. At present, any successfully captured and screened beavers are being translocated to restoration projects in England, though moving beavers to locations within or on the edge of the existing beaver range in Scotland is now being considered.

Whether we see beavers restored to all our rivers and lochs, will depend on political and societal decisions on if we are willing to accept the changes to our river habitats that beavers will bring – which through positive engagement and mitigation, could offer exciting biodiversity benefits.

Read Part 1 of Roisin’s blog here.

If you’re interested in learning more about beavers, Roisin suggests the below web pages:

Posted in Beaver reintroduction projects, beavers, biodiversity, NatureScot | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Beavers on the move – Part One

This is the first of a two-part blog written by Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer, who was just awarded the Nature of Scotland Conservation Science Award for her long-term work with beavers in Scotland. Roisin previously worked for RZSS overseeing the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, and now works as an independent ecological consultant specialising in beavers, which she also studied for her PhD. NatureScot employ Roisin to provide us with advice on beaver management and she works with a range of other organisations on beaver research, survey, advice and translocation projects.

Roisin carrying out a beaver health check with the staff and veterinary team at Five Sister Zoo. This kit was part of a family group moved from Tayside to Broadridge Farm Beaver Project, Devon. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

In this first blog, I’ll cover the history of beavers in Europe, from their near extinction to reintroduction, as well how they benefit nature and wildlife. In my next blog, I’ll cover the reasons for and how we are moving beavers from areas where they are causing serious issues for farmers and others to other areas.

The return of the Eurasian beaver has certainly captured the hearts and minds of people across Europe, seeing as this species is one of the most reintroduced and translocated mammals. A highly effective trade in its thick luxurious fur saw global population estimates at one point reaches lows of just over 1000 scattered individuals, facing the verge of complete extinction.

As early as the 1920s, the Scandinavian countries implemented serious attempts to restore this species, seeing beavers moved from Norway to Sweden, followed by multiple releases in Finland and Russia, initially to re-establish beavers as a fur resource. Since then, Eurasian beavers have been restored, both officially, unofficially and through natural colonisation to most of its former range, recovering across Europe, Russia and into Mongolia.

Over 200 release events in more than 20 countries have been known to have occurred, making the Eurasian beaver one of the most commonly re-introduced animals in the world. The emphasis has dramatically shifted from viewing beavers as a productive hunting resource to more ecologically-founded arguments for them to be recognised as the key missing element in wetland restoration.

Beaver on the move as part of The National Trust Holnicote reintroduction project.
© Roisin Campbell Palmer.

There is no doubt beavers are one of the few species that can have a significant impact on the habitats they occupy. Where they build dams, ponds can be created, giving refuge to many species from aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, birds and other mammals. Next to humans and elephants, beavers are fairly unique in being able to take down mature trees, although their diet extends from grasses, aquatic and bankside vegetation to a wide range of woody material.

Native plant species have a long evolutionary history co-existing with beavers – for example, willow is highly tolerant to flooding and coppicing and therefore reacts vigorously to beaver feeding by producing multiple shoots. Aspen will also respond to main truck felling by producing multiple suckers. As well, their burrowing activities, including canal and burrow construction, results in an increased complexity of the bank, offering numerous habitats and refuge opportunities to species such as fish and amphibians.

Beaver-modified habitat in Tayside – increased water levels enhances loch margins, while canal creation allows beavers to access foods without leaving the water, all creating better habitat for animals such as amphibians. Mixed beaver foraging, including tree felling, encourages diverse vegetation. © Roisin Campbell Palmer.

However, beavers’ abilities to change woodland, wetland or agricultural areas are not always welcomed. In Scotland, we have no living memory of co-existing alongside beavers, and our modern landscapes have rapidly developed in their absence.

Therefore, when a 20kg plus animal that readily fells trees, dams drainage systems and is capable of punching burrows into flood banks arrives in urban or agricultural areas, for example, their presence and impacts can be costly and controversial, unless a system of mitigation and education is implemented.

We have to balance this by keeping in mind that this species, living in human-dominated landscapes, creates dynamic and beneficial changes in habitat restoration and species biodiversity. With the right management and resources, co-existence is possible, though this requires a change in mind-set and tolerance in how we view our landscapes.

Dubh loch in Knapdale where beavers increased the loch size by damming, creating new wetlands and new habitats in the form of standing dead wood. © Lorne Gill, NatureScot.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of how beavers were reintroduced to Scotland and much more, see the Beavers in Scotland report on the NatureScot website.

Watch out for Part 2 of Roisin’s blog on Friday!

Posted in beavers, biodiversity, Ecology, Flood management, mammals, NatureScot, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frozen lochs – what lies beneath?

In recent weeks as we experienced wintery conditions, many people will have noticed their local ponds and lochs froze over for a period. In today’s blog our freshwater advisory officer Ewan Lawrie takes a closer look at what’s happening below the surface.   

A frozen Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms ©Catriona Webster/NatureScot

In the recent cold snap many of our lochs and ponds have frozen over, with a thin layer of ice forming on the surface. Beautiful to look at, but have you ever wondered why lochs freeze from the top down? For most substances, the cooler they get the denser they get with less space between the molecules. Warmer, less dense substances tend to float; without this property hot air ballooning would be much less popular!

Ice starting to thicken at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve (NNR) ©Simon Ritchie/NatureScot

A quirk of water is that it is at its densest at around 40 C. Below this temperature the hydrogen bonds are not able to pack the molecules as tightly. So, as lochs cool in winter denser water drops to the bottom of the loch. This in itself is important ecologically as it creates mixing throughout the whole of the loch. But, as the temperature drops below 40 C it becomes less dense, floating on the surface and eventually forming ice.

Frozen Loch Kinord at Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve (NNR) ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot

The ice and snow provide a layer of insulation on the top of the loch and because they are on the surface are more strongly affected by the heat of the sun and melt more quickly. Ten years ago Loch Leven froze in the harbour to a depth of 9 inches, but only relatively shallow lochs freeze completely. If lochs froze from the bottom it would have an important effect on the ecology with only specialised plants and animals being able to survive.

Ice forming at Muir Of Dinnet at Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve (NNR) ©Catriona Reid/NatureScot

Historically there has been a sport and culture in Scotland based around the ice. In the 19th Century there were special trains and platforms for curlers and many now sadly neglected shallow curling ponds across the country. However even if ice looks thick, it can still be thin in areas and venturing out on it can be very risky for you or your pet. If in any doubt stay safe, stay off the ice and just enjoy the view!

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Soilleireachadh ‘dubhair’ air mapaichean / Shedding light on toponymic ‘darkness’

Airson ainmean-àite le ‘dubh’ a thuigsinn, ʼs dòcha gum feumar coimhead air slighe na grèine / To interpret place-names with the descriptor ‘dubh’ you may need to look at the path of the sun …

Soilleireachadh ‘dubhair’ air mapaichean

Is e seo àm math dhen bhliadhna airson sùil gheur a thoirt air ainmean-àite anns a bheil dubh oir gu tric bidh an tuairisgeul stèidhichte air dubhar a th’ air adhbharachadh le cnuic is beanntan, agus a’ ghrian a’ gabhail slighe ìosal anns an iarmailt. Cha bhi dubh a’ nochdadh ann an co-cheangal ris an fhacal srath oir tha a leithid ro fhosgailte do sholas an latha. Air an làimh eile, tha iomadh eisimpleir de ghlinn air a bheil gleann dubh, oir gu tric bidh beanntan àrda air gach taobh de ghleann. Tha eisimpleir fìor mhath ann am Bràghad Albann, far a bheil An Gleann Dubh a’ coinneachadh ri Gleann Dochard air a cheann a tuath – àird às nach tig solas na grèine sa gheamhradh. Air gach àird eile, tha beanntan drùidhteach a’ cuairteachadh a’ ghlinne, ga fhàgail ann an dubhar no dorchadas.

An Gleann Dubh faisg air a’ Chaolas Chumhang. Tha e air a chuairteachadh le leathadan casa. / The Gleann Dubh near Kylesku. It is virtually surrounded by steep hills. ©Jim BartonCreative Commons.

Tha dubh gu tric co-cheangailte ri cliathaichean beinne. ʼS e eisimpleir mhath An Leitir Dhubh (tha grunnan dhiubh ann) a tha mar as trice a’ coimhead a dh’ionnsaigh na h-àird a tuath agus a gheibh glè bheag de sholas na grèine sa gheamhradh. Tha eisimpleirean ann cuideachd de leathaidean dubha a fhuair an ainmean air an aon adhbhar.

Fionn Loch agus Dubh Loch, tuath air Loch Maruibhe, taobh an iar Rois. Tha an diofar eatarra stèidhichte air dubhar nam beann ri làimh, seach diofar sam bith ann an dath an uisge fhèin.
Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ and Dubh Loch ‘dark loch’ in Wester Ross provide a classic example of the pairing of contrasting toponyms in the Gaelic landscape. The names here are a reflection of the proximity of shade-throwing hills. Note that the pronunciation of the first name is ‘FYOON loch’, not ‘FEE-un loch’; the latter, while attractive, is unlikely as it would represent Fìon Loch ‘wine loch’!
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Tha iomadh eisimpleir ann de choireachan air a bheil An Coire Dubh agus tha iad mar as trice le creagan no beanntan gu deas orra. Ge-tà, chan eil e buileach cho soilleir carson as e dubh a th’ air cuid de chnuic no beanntan. ʼS dòcha gu bheilear a’ dèanamh tuairisgeul air dath creige, lusan no mòine a cheart cho math ri solas na grèine, agus ʼs e a bhiodh math nan dèanadh cuideigin sgrùdadh mionaideach air ainmean-àite mar Càrn Dubh, Beinn Dubh, Meall Dubh agus Stob Dubh (mar a nochdas iad gun alt air mapaichean an t-Suirbhidh Òrdanais).Tha ciall an ainm A’ Chreag Dhubh follaiseach gu leòr mas ann air bearradh a tha e a-mach, ach faodaidh beanntan air a bheil a leithid de dh’ainm a bhith gun bhearradh, ach le leathad rudeigin creagach nach eil air an taobh a deas. Corra uair, chaidh ainm mar seo a thionndadh gu Creag Dhu (ainm club sreap stèidhichte ann an Glaschu) no Craig Dhu, agus tha eisimpleir dheth sin ann an Siorrachd Àir a Deas ann an seann Ghàidhealtachd Charraig is Ghall-Ghàidhealaibh.

Tha am buadhair dubh ri fhaicinn gu tric an cois a’ chladaich cuideachd. Tha na ficheadan de ghoban no àirdean air a bheil An Rubha Dubh. ʼS iongantach mura h-eil iad ainmichte airson a bhith creagach no fraochach, gun a bhith feurach, crotalach no feamainneach – oir bhiodh na trì mu dheireadh a’ tarraing a’ bhuadhair bàn no buidhe don ainm. ʼS iomadh eilean air a bheil An t-Eilean Dubh cuideachd, agus air adhbharan ceudna.

Ach ʼs dòcha gu bheil aon ainm-àite anns a bheil dubh a’ seasamh a-mach bhon chòrr, co-dhiù a rèir cho fillte is cho tarraingeach ʼs a tha e. Ann an ceàrnaidh iomallach dhen Mhonadh Liath, don earra-dheas air Loch Nis, tha Sìthean Dubh na Cloiche Bàine. Tha an t-ainm fillte ga dhiofarachadh bhon t-Sìthean Dubh a tha pìos beag gu tuath air, agus tha sin air eadar-dhealachadh air a dhath bhon t-Sìthean Odhar agusbhon t-Sìthean Liath a tha le chèile faisg air làimh. Tha na sìthichean – mar a tha na dathan – mar phàirt mhòr de dh’ainmean-tìre na Gàidhealtachd!

Dubh-lochain ann an Teàrmann Nàdair Fors na h-Àirde ann an Dùthaich nam Boglaichean. Tha an t-uisge dubh dorch air sàillibh stuthan a thig às a’ mhòine. / Dubh-lochans at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve living up to their name in winter. The water in this peaty landscape is stained dark with tannins. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Shedding light on toponymic ‘darkness’

This is a great time of year for analysing toponyms (place-names) that contain the adjective dubh [pronounced ‘DOO’] in Scotland’s Gaelic landscape. This is because the word often means ‘dark’ in landscape terms, rather than its primary meaning of ‘black’, and the low sun path in winter can often reveal places that remain in shadow for much of the time and which have therefore attracted the descriptor. There are virtually no examples of the use of dubh with the generic srath ‘wide valley, strath’ whereas gleann dubh, ‘dark glen’ is a relatively common toponym – gleann representing a steeper-sided ‘glen’, often located directly under high hills. A classic example is the Gleann Dubh south-west of Killin (Stirlingshire). It opens into Glen Dochart in the north – a direction from which the sun never shines in the winter months – but is surrounded at all other compass points by a ring of great hills which leave it in shade for long periods.

An Loch Dubh ann an ceann a tuath Chataibh, le Meallan a’ Chuail air a chùlaibh. Tha beanntan ga chuairteachadh air gach taobh ach an taobh tuath. / Loch Dubh with Meallan a’ Chuail behind it, north-west Sutherland. The loch is north-facing, with high hills shading it from the track of the sun. ©Andrew SpenceleyCreative Commons.

Shaded hillsides often carry the descriptor dubh, a good example being leitir ‘above-water slope’ which is a feminine noun and therefore causes the adjective to lenite, giving us Leitir Dhubh [pron. ‘lay-tchir GHOO’]. These are generally north-facing slopes which see little direct sunshine in winter and can often experience considerable shade even in the brighter months. There are also examples of north-facing slopes called Leathad Dubh ‘dark slope’ – leathad being a masculine noun.

The effect of shade can also be seen in the pairing of contrasting descriptors with fionn, bàn or occasionally geal ‘fair, light, white’ being employed as a comparison with an adjacent place-name qualified by dubh. In Wester Ross the Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ and Dubh Loch ‘dark loch’ are connected and therefore share the same water. The contrast is not in the water quality but in the amount of shade, with the Fionn Loch being in relatively open country, whereas the Dubh Loch is tucked under the great steep hills of A’ Mhaighdeann and Creag an Dubh Loch. The reversal of the normal word order, with the specific preceding the generic is not uncommon with some colour descriptors, and is also in evidence at the northern end of Loch Lomond where the Geal Loch ‘white loch’ and Dubh Lochan ‘small dark loch’ are differentiated by the former being open to the south, with the latter being surrounded by hills on the east, south and west.

An Dubh Loch ann an Leitir Iù, Taobh Siar Rois. Nas fhaide a-mach tha am Fionn Loch a th’ ann an dùthaich fhosgailte gun bhearraidhean àrda mu a thimcheall. /
The Dubh Loch in Letterewe, Wester Ross (foreground), with high shading cliffs on its southern side. Beyond it, named in contrast, is the Fionn Loch ‘fair loch’ which is in open country and receives more direct sunlight. (C)Roddy Maclean

However, with many water bodies, it is necessary to examine both the topography and water quality to be sure of the reason for dubh being employed, as many examples occur in peaty Highland areas where the water is darkened by tannins and, in the case of many dubh-lochans, are formed entirely within a peat-clad landscape. Many environmentalists use the term dubh-lochan in English for these water bodies which are characteristic of Scotland’s famous Flow Country (Dùthaich nam Boglaichean), now being forwarded for possible World Heritage nomination. As well as dozens of water bodies called Loch(an) Dubh or Dubh-loch(an), there are many burns called Allt Dubh or its diminutive Alltan Dubh and even some rivers called Abhainn D(h)ubh. The upper part of the River Forth in Stirlingshire is known in Gaelic as the Abhainn Dubh. Other water generics are also found linked to dubh. A fine double example is to be found east of Strathnairn near Inverness, where the Caochan Dubh ‘dark, hidden streamlet’ carries tannin-stained waters off the peatlands of Càrn na h-Easgainn into the Uisge Dubh ‘dark stream’ (literally ‘dark water’).

Tha an Gleann Dubh faisg air Cill Fhinn a’ faighinn ainm on dubhar sa bheil e fad mhìosan a’ gheamhraidh, agus e air a chuairteachadh air trì taobhan le beanntan àrda.
Gleann Dubh near Killin is named for its being in the shade of high hills to the east, south and west, which block direct sunshine during the darkest winter months.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

There are many examples of corries called Coire Dubh and, like glens and slopes, these tend to be north-facing and often shaded. However, hills with dubh are not so readily interpreted. The darkness here might be a reference to rock type, vegetation or peat cover as much as sunlight, and it would be good to see a rigorous analysis made of common hill or mountain toponyms such as Càrn Dubh, Beinn Dubh, Meall Dubh and Stob Dubh. Rocky crags called Creag Dhubh [pron. krake GHOO] often have an obviously shaded side, but the name can also apply to a hill which is accessible on all sides, but whose rockiest side does not face south. These names have occasionally been anglicised to Creag Dhu – the name of a famous Glasgow-based climbing club – or even Craig Dhu, an example of which is to be found in South Ayrshire, in the old Gàidhealtachd of Carrick and Galloway.

The descriptor dubh is also extremely common in coastal areas. There are, for example, dozens of points or promontories known as Rubha Dubh. These are likely to be rocky or heathery, and not grassy or overly clad with lichens or seaweed (which might attract the descriptor bàn ‘fair’ or buidhe ‘yellow’). Many islands off the west coast are called Eilean Dubh, probably for similar reasons.

But perhaps one dubh toponym stands out from the others in terms of its complexity and attractiveness. In the depths of the Monadh Liath, south-east of Loch Ness, lies Sìthean Dubh na Cloiche Bàine ‘the dark fairy hill of the white stone’. The reason for the name’s complexity is that it has to be differentiated from another Sìthean Dubh just a short distance to the north, which in turn is distinguished from a nearby Sìthean Odhar ‘dun-coloured fairy hill’ and Sìthean Liath ‘grey fairy hill’. The Little People – like colours – are a big part of our landscape!

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.

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YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Freshwater and Wetlands Advice Manager Iain Sime

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been featuring NatureScot staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the varied work they do. In our final blog of the series, we join Freshwater and Wetlands Advice Manager Iain Sime on the slopes of Dark Lochnagar to learn more about our important work on water monitoring.

Lochnagar ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

NatureScot helps support the important long-term monitoring project, the UK Upland Waters Monitoring Network.  For more than 30 years it has provided a unique and extremely valuable long-term record of the water chemistry and biology of upland lochs and streams across the UK. The network was originally established to monitor the chemical and ecological impact of acid deposition (‘acid rain’) in areas of the UK that are sensitive to acidification.  It has evolved since to also examine a far wider range of pressures facing upland waters including nitrogen deposition, climate change and land use change.

Upland stream ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

I recently used my NatureScot volunteering day to help collect chemical and biological samples from a site within the network, Lochnagar, in the eastern Cairngorms.  This sampling usually takes place during the summer, but with Covid restrictions the fieldwork was delayed this year. I joined Ewan and James Shilland, who have both worked on the network for many years.  At the moment Ewan is doing his PhD at Queen Mary University of London, University College London and the Natural History Musuem London, funded by NERC and NatureScot.  He is studying how the aquatic plant communities have responded to changes in water chemistry over time, and is evaluating whether environmental DNA (eDNA) offers a further tool to help understand these changes over long timescales. 

Descending to Lochnagar ©Ewan Shilland

Lochnagar sits in a corrie, high on the mountain of the same name, at an altitude of 788m. Work conducted by scientists at University College London and the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at what is now Marine Scotland in Pitlochry, demonstrated that the loch had become heavily acidified by acid rain over a period of 150 years or more. On the day we visited, we were collecting water chemistry and plankton samples, filtering water for eDNA analysis and downloading data from loggers that are permanently located around the loch.  Various sensors and samplers are also positioned within the loch in order to monitor water temperature across a range of depths, and capture recent sediment. 

The findings from over three decades of monitoring at Lochnagar and the other sites within the network show some startling results. Perhaps most strikingly, they show that the sulphate concentration in the water has fallen dramatically. This has been linked directly to large regional scale reductions in the emissions of sulphur from power stations and other industrial sources over the last four decades, and the consequent reduction in sulphur deposition across the UK land surface. 

This is despite Lochnagar being a long way from most air pollution sources.  The reduction in sulphate has been accompanied by a welcome increase in pH and large drop in the concentration of labile aluminium, which is highly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, as the water becomes less acidified.  These trends are even more marked in more southerly lochs, such as in the Merrick Kells SSSI in Galloway, the Lake District and North Wales.

Declining excess (non-marine) sulphate concentrations and increasing pH in Lochnagar between 1988 and 2019 ©UKCEH

Despite the high winds giving rise to an estimated wind chill of -11oC, loch level data was successfully downloaded from the outflow of Lochnagar and the opposite side of the loch, just below the imposing cliffs that lead to the summit.  To collect samples for eDNA analysis, a lot of water was filtered through some bespoke filter apparatus.  Although genetic research such as this is relatively new, and seeing rapid advances in understanding and technologies, some more basic technologies are also required.  So, in the cold conditions, when fingers don’t work so well and the filter can clog up with the peaty water, using a DIY plunger from Screwfix really helps speed up the process!

James Shilland filtering water samples for later eDNA analysis at Lochnagar ©Iain Sime

Long-term datasets such as the UK Upland Waters Monitoring Network can also reveal important surprises.  In common with all the other sites on the network, concentrations of Dissolved Organic Carbon (that causes a brown staining of some upland waters) has been increasing progressively over the last 30 years.  The data from the network helped establish this is due to a natural response of catchment soils; as they recover from acidification.  This is not such good news for water companies that use upland catchments for public water supply, as it can increase their treatment costs – although this has also helped increase their interest in restoring peatlands to keep the water, and the carbon, in the soils. 

Such patterns of change often only become apparent over long timescales, and with the help of research and measurements of consistently high quality.  But helping collect the samples also provided a welcome day out in the mountains, where we also got to see some of the other local land-based residents including peregrine, a sea eagle, ptarmigan and mountain hares.  Not bad for an extremely windy but very welcome day in the hills. 

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Cairt-làir – lus beag le cliù mòr / Tormentil – little plant with a big reputation

Ged a tha e beag, tha dualchas iongantach aig a’ chairt-làir, gu h-àraidh am measg nan Gàidheal / Tormentil might be small and little celebrated today, but it played a substantial role in the social history of northern Scotland …

Cairt-làir – lus beag le cliù mòr

Chan eil ann an cairt-làir (Potentilla erecta) ach lus beag air an tèid neach-coiseachd a’ mhonaidh seachad gun aire a thoirt air, ach gum bi flùraichean brèagha buidhe ga shanasachd eadar tràth san earrach agus deireadh an fhoghair. Bha na seann Ghàidheil gu math measail air an lus, ge-tà, oir tha e cianail feumail – agus air a shàillibh sin, tha co-dhiù seachd ainmean deug air a shon clàraichte ann an Gàidhlig.

©Laurie Campbell/NatureScot

ʼS e cairt-làir a chanadh iasgairean nan Eilean Siar ris an lus, a chionn ʼs gun robhar ga chleachdadh airson cartadh lìn agus leathair (agus gum bi e a’ fàs gu h-ìosal air an talamh no ‘làr’). Bha cairt bho thùs a’ ciallachadh rùsg (craoibhe); bhiodh na seann daoine ag ràdh ‘cairt dharaich’ ri ‘rùsg daraich’. Ach dh’atharraich e gu bhith a’ ciallachadh a’ phròiseis airson seicheannan agus lìn a dhìon cuideachd – a chionn ʼs gur ann le cairt a bhathar ga dhèanamh. Ge-tà, nuair a dh’fhalbh craobhan-daraich thairis air mòran dhen Ghàidhealtachd, bhathar a’ coimhead airson stuth ùr a dhèanadh cartadh. Agus tha na freumhaichean (rìosoman) aig an lus seo làn stuthan-cartaidh.

Bhiodh na rìosoman air an goil ann am prais mhòr agus bhite a’ bogadh an leathair agus nan lìon anns an lionn nuair a bha e fionnar. Ach, an coimeas ri rùsg daraich, bha e a’ toirt ùine mhòr airson stuth gu leòr fhaighinn. Bhathar a’ tomhas gun toireadh e fad-latha do dh’aon duine freumhaichean gu leòr dhen chairt-làir fhaighinn airson aon bhogadh. Ann an eileanan a bha gann de chraobhan, leithid Colla is Tiriodh, chaidh casg a chur air cruinneachadh an luis a chionn ʼs gun robh e a’ dol à bith.

©NatureScot

Tha ainmean stèidhichte air braonan cumanta airson an luis seo cuideachd. Tha braonan a’ ciallachadh rudeigin car cruinn coltach ri boinneag uisge no boinneag deòir (braon-gruaidh) agus tha e a’ riochdachadh lusan aig a bheil freumhaichean a th’ air at, leithid cnò-thalmhainn, a bharrachd air cairt-làir. Mar sin, am measg nan ainmean eile air cairt-làir, tha Braonan a’ Choin (agus Braonan nan Con), Braonan a’ Mhadaidh-ruaidh, Braonan-bachlaig agus Braonan Fraoich. Tha an t-ainm mu dheireadh a’ cur nar cuimhne gu bheil an lus a’ fàs air monadh is mòintich far a bheil an talamh searbh, agus far am bi fraoch a’ fàs. Bha Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir a’ gabhail barra bhraonan air an lus mar a chithear e os cionn na talmhainn.

ʼS ann fon ainm braonan mar as trice a chithear e air mapaichean na Gàidhealtachd. Thathar a’ smaoineachadh gu bheil ainmean-àite leithid Cnoc nam Braonan (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach), Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain (Loch Aillse) agus Leacann nam Braonan (ri taobh Ionad-beinne Ghleanna Comhann) a’ taisbeanadh àiteachan far am bite a’ cruinneachadh freumhaichean chairt-làir.

Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain, Ràtagan, Loch Aillse. Tha dùil gu bheil e ainmichte airson ‘Braonan a’ Choin’ a chionn ʼs gum bite ga chruinneachadh an seo.
Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain ‘the peak of the tormentil’, Ratagan, Lochalsh. This is presumably a place where the plant was collected for tanning of animal skins and fishing nets.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Chruinnich Alasdair MacIlleMhìcheil, ùghdar Charmina Gadelica, naidheachd mu dhuine aig Bruairnis ann am Barraigh a bha a-muigh sa mhonadh a’ cruinneachadh cairt-làir nuair a chuala e bean-shìthe a’ gabhail òrain fhad ʼs a bha i a’ bleith le clach-bhrà. Sgrìobh e gun robh an lus feumail airson barrachd na cartadh – gu h-àraidh mar leigheas airson na buinnich agus eadhon airson na buinnich mhòir. Bha cairt-làir air a chur gu feum gu mòr anns an dòigh seo air feadh na Gàidhealtachd, agus tha aithris mu fhear Iain Friseal ri taobh Loch Laide ann an Obar Itheachan (taobh Loch Nis) a bha a’ dèanamh tì leis agus ga òl. Mar bu trice, bha na freumhaichean air an goil ann am bainne, agus an sùgh air òl. Bha feadhainn eadhon a’ toirt sùgh mar seo do laoigh a bha a’ fulang leis a’ bhuinnich.

Bha cairt-làir feumail ann an dòighean eile a bharrachd. Bhiodh feadhainn ga chagnadh mar leigheas airson an dèididh agus – ann an Uibhist a Deas co-dhiù – airson a’ phiocais-bheòil. Bha e feumail mar fhuar-lite air còrnaichean agus gheibhte dath ruadh bhuaithe airson clò a dhathadh. Gun teagamh sam bith, ʼs e a th’ ann an cairt-làir ach lus beag le dualchas mòr!

Tormentil – little plant with a big reputation

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) might be something of a small, cryptic plant, unexceptional in its vegetative appearance and only openly advertised by its small four-petalled bright yellow flowers, but its virtually ubiquitous use across Highland Scotland has left us a legacy of at least seventeen recorded Gaelic names for the species and a strong heritage of tanning and healing.

Perhaps the most recognised name is that given to the plant by fishermen in the Western Isles – cairt-làir ‘ground-bark’ – a nod to the species’ most valued use as a tanning agent to prolong the life of materials such as leather and fishing nets. The word cairt came also to be a verb meaning ‘tan’, as the most favoured source of tannins was originally the bark of trees such as the oak. However, as oaks became less frequent and in some parts of the Highlands disappeared altogether, the dark red swollen roots, or rhizomes, of tormentil became the next-best option for the provision of tannins. In the Northern Isles, the plant is known as ‘bark-flooer’ for the same reason.

The roots were boiled up in vats, and the skins and nets would be immersed in the solution once it had cooled. However, the rhizomes of tormentil are relatively small, and one 19th century account tells us that it would take a person a whole day to dig up enough roots for one infusion. On largely treeless islands like Coll and Tiree, a ban was placed on its use because of fears of over-exploitation.

©NatureScot

Another common name for the species is based on the word braonan, which stands for something shaped like a (tear)drop and is applied to earth ‘nuts’ (swollen rhizomes) such as pignut and tormentil roots. Thus, for tormentil we have Braonan a’ Choin ‘dog’s earth-nut’, Braonan a’ Mhadaidh-ruaidh ‘fox’s earth-nut’, Braonan-bachlaig ‘plant-shoot earth-nut’ and Braonan Fraoich ‘heather earth-nut’. The last is a reference to the plant’s preference for acid moorland, where it often grows among heather. The great environmental poet, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, called the above-ground part of the plant barra bhraonan, meaning ‘the vegetative part above the earth-nuts’.

It is in the braonan form that tormentil is most commonly represented in the Gaelic landscape. Place-names like Cnoc nam Braonan ‘the hill of the tormentil’ (Skye), Sgùrr a’ Bhraonain ‘the peak of the tormentil’ (Lochalsh) and Leacann nam Braonan ‘the slope of the tormentil’, adjacent to the Glencoe Mountain Resort, probably advertise localities where the plant was once collected.

Cnoc nam Braonan, Bracadail, An t-Eilean Sgitheanach. Bha braonan no cairt-làir uabhasach feumail do mhuinntir taobh an iar na Gàidhealtachd ʼs nan Eilean.
Cnoc nam Braonan ‘the hill of the tormentil’, Bracadale, Skye. The plant grows well on the damp acidic moorland which is widespread in the West Highlands and Islands.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Alexander Carmichael, the author of Carmina Gadelica, collected a story about a man at Bruernish on the Isle of Barra who was out collecting tormentil when he heard a fairy woman singing a song, while grinding with her quern. He noted that not only was the plant good for tanning, but that it was effective as a cure for diarrhoea. This was another common use for the species throughout the Highlands and supports the interpretation of the English name as referring to the relief of intestinal pain (tormentum in Latin). The roots were boiled in milk, and the solution strained and drunk – and even dysentery was treated in this way. Calves suffering from loose bowels were also fed milk infused with tormentil.

The root had additional uses. It was chewed for the relief of toothache, and as a remedy for cold sores in South Uist. It was applied as a poultice to corns and gave a valued red dye for the colouring of cloth. All in all, a small plant with big heritage!

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.

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