Rewilding NatureScot collegues

Blawhorn Moss NNR

There is a saying (in our team anyway) that “before you judge a nature reserve you should walk a mile in its wellies”. There is only so much you can glean from screen and paper and to really get a feel for a site, its wildlife, issues, people and importance you have to get out there. So we were really pleased to have Jason Ormiston Head of External Affairs for NatureScot, don his wellies and come out for the day at Blawhorn Moss. It was his first visit to an NatureScot NNR so we were very glad he came to Blawhorn moss, one of the lesser known NNRs.

Work party days like this that allow staff from different offices and NNRs, and NNR volunteers, to work away together while discovering the work of the NNRs are invaluable. As we come out of the pandemic maybe our NNRs have a role to play to let NatureScot staff mix safely, network, contribute to enhancing the biodiversity and be rewilded themselves. 

Jason writes about the day:

We’ve all been on holiday and found that being with a knowledgeable guide makes the trip so much better. My day trip to Blawhorn Moss, one of NatureScot’s 29 NNRs was not a holiday, but it was welcome respite from too many hours in front of a PC.

Dave Pickett was our guide. I was keen to understand the engineering behind peatland restoration. But he put us to work first. Our band of NatureScot colleagues and volunteers dived enthusiastically into a small woodland on the reserve to clear protective plastic tubes from a mix of native trees. NatureScot has found a supplier which will recycle these tubes. I got the impression that was no easy task. I can only imagine how many of these tubes have been deployed across Scotland and where they might end up! Anyway, we recovered several hundred along with their wooden stakes, some of these stakes going to a community woodland in nearby Stirling. It was uncomplicated labour, but without people giving up their time it wouldn’t get done. The army of volunteers that support us on our reserves deserve massive credit for everything they do for these special places.

We broke for lunch, and as we did the sun started to break through the dark clouds.

Then we went for our bog walk. Dave spoke about the plans to improve people’s experience when visiting the Moss, extending the boardwalk across the bog and linking up paths in the area. If we improve the experience then we enhance visitor’s understanding of how peatbogs are created and grow. Dave has found that experience – the solace of this wild place – has been a big help to local people during the lockdown. Keep that going, then these important habitats – for animals, plants and storing carbon – will be treasured by more people. Connecting people and nature.

Unfortunately too many peatbogs in Scotland – collectively storing billions of tonnes of CO2 – are in poor condition. Allowed to dry they emit carbon, 7 to 10 million tonnes every year in Scotland. The engineering work at Blawhorn Moss is raising the water table. If water is within 30cm of the surface, sphagnum moss can get a foothold. It is this moss that absorbs carbon and when it dies it does not decompose in water. Over time, this forms the peat, a store of carbon which needs to stay in the ground if Scotland is to hit net zero by 2045. We lunched near a derelict farm steading and I could imagine the unforgiving task of farming the moss hundreds of years ago. This involved digging ditches to drain the landscape and encourage grass growth to feed sheep. It is these ditches that are now being blocked by peatbog engineering, slowing the escape of water (and potentially reducing flood risk downstream) and expanding the dome of peat on the Moss. 1mm a year. Also, in a nod to the past, some sheep are on hand to munch on remaining grass and heather, helping the moss gain a stronger foothold.

Dave talked about how ditch blocking has evolved from using oak and elm, to metal dams, to heavy duty plastic and now to using peat. He talked about how much the sector was learning and developing its expertise by investing millions in peatland restoration through initiatives like NatureScot’s Peatland Action. Essential if Scotland is to get to grips with its national peat challenge.

Plastic piling dams being installed.
Peat beng used to slow the flow of water off the site at Blawhorn

It seemed to me he starts by reading a landscape, working out how water moves across it and then intervening for nature and climate. A skilled eye.

And as we increased our “bog fitness” on the walk across the moss, removing our raincoats in the sun, the wild flowers, the emperor moth caterpillars and the midge-eating sundew were pointed out by our knowledgeable guide.

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From staring at fence posts to staring at the ground

Flanders Moss NNR

You might recall us peering at crusty old fenceposts in search of the Rannoch Brindled Beauty (Lycia lapponaria) moths back in April as part of our ongoing research into the species and it’s habitat preferences.

Well, for every successfully-mated female we found (which hasn’t since succumbed to predation or any other unfortunate ending) there must have been a batch or two of eggs laid on these aforementioned fence posts, as well as birch trees, the odd pine tree and bog myrtle shrubs.

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The wingless female ready to lay her eggs in the craggy fence post using her long ovipositor.

As these eggs have hatched, the larvae will have sent out a silky string to catch the wind and parachute (or ‘balloon’) away, aiding their dispersal across the moss. (I’m aiming to witness this one day!)

I’ve been finding out where they have ‘ballooned’ to. This is easier said than done as there is no sure way of knowing how far they might have travelled. Although the caterpillars tend to wait until conditions are ideal, putting their lives in the hands of the Scottish wind and weather there is every chance that they could have flown too far! In which case they may have landed on the wrong habitat and starved. I now know some of them managed to in the right place, though…

Over the course of about 6 weeks, I’ve managed to find 48 caterpillars dotted across the reserve with the help of the NNR team and some generous volunteers. This may not sound like many, but considering how widely the larvae has probably dispersed, I reckon this ain’t too bad!

Caterpillar-hunting involves… well, looking all over the ground basically!
Excitement over the first caterpillar of the day! ©Katty Baird

Species with ‘ballooning’ caterpillars tend to have a wide variety of foodplants. Makes sense really, considering they don’t know where they might land!

With this in mind, we needed to keep an eye out for the larvae on pretty much any plant we came across. When surveying in the right habitat, this is easy-going enough as there will be plenty of heather (Calluna vulgaris), cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) and/or bog myrtle (Myrica gale) to focus on. However, we’ve been finding them on cotton-grass, birch, bog cranberry and one was even just sitting on a carpet of sphagnum!

An RBB larvae munching away on some cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) ©Katty Baird.

We even had a go at a night-time survey, having heard that caterpillars show up well in torchlight. We found one…so it was worth it! Very cool being on the moss at night, although I wouldn’t recommend doing this without an experienced bog wizard.

These surveys will allow us to better understand Rannoch Brindled Beauty distribution as well as their habitat and foodplant preferences. We may also be able to understand how climate change could be affecting the populations and potentially other species.

They’re a pernickety species. I’ve found myself recognising ideal habitats and conditions that the larvae prefer. The not-too-dry, not-too-wet bog. Not-too-tall, not-too-short vegetation. Not-too-healthy-looking bog myrtle (yep, they really like the scrubby stuff). Not too sunny, not too cloudy, not too loud…

A patch of ‘ideal’ habitat for finding RBB larvae on Flanders. Short, scrubby bog myrtle with Calluna and Erica intermixed. The canes are where I’ve found larvae. Maybe they came from that birch tree?

It’s been an incredibly interesting project so far and, despite frustrations of not finding many (or any) where you think they’d be, it’s been very enjoyable as well. Slowing down to look at bog-specialist plants has allowed the whole team to see new things that would be otherwise overlooked, even those who’ve worked on Flanders Moss for years!

Thanks so much to everyone who has helped with the searches!

I will end with this video of the most active caterpillar of the whole search. If only they were all this conspicuous.

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Secret heroes

Stirling NNRs

You will have seen a few rants over the years about the dumping of rubbish and litter across the Stirling NNRs. But this post is actually about the other side of the story. It seems that we have some invisible heroes at work on the reserves. People who quietly, with no fanfare and virtually no recognition, do their bit to improve the nature reserves and clear up after others.

How we find the reserves sometimes.

A little while back I was clearing up the usual litter in the Flanders Moss car park when a chap drove in, got out of his car and said “oh, you have beaten me to it”. I asked him what he meant and he said that he lives locally and whenever he comes down he clears the car park of litter. Obviously I thanked him profusely, it is fantastic to meet people that feel enough attached to the reserve that they take it upon themselves to clean it up.

And recently I was talking to Billy Craig, our voluntary warden at Blawhorn moss (another hero who does a huge amount for the reserve) and he said he was out an about picking up litter at the reserve when he met a woman coming the other way with a carrier bag. She said that she lives close by and every time she walks down the path she clears litter as she goes.

I suspect that there are more than just those two. I wish these good people didn’t have to do this sort of thing but am delighted that they are out there, caring about these special sites, doing their bit to improve the site on their visit. We are very lucky as there are quite a few people who contribute to the reserves positively, like our volunteers, citizen scientists and others. All very special people.

So a huge thanks and respect to these 2 people and anyone that visits these reserves and minimises their impacts on them and leaves these nature sites in a better state than they found it.

And what about you? Are you a hero? or a villain?

Are you a tidier or a tosser?

Is the nature reserve in a poorer state after you have visited (fires, litter or disturbance)? or better?

Nature comes first on these sites so we would like people to think carefully about just what impacts their visit has on the reserve.

A work party of staff and volunteers
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A sublime emerald experience

Flanders Moss NNR

David McCulloch, photographer, Flanders Moss dragonfly counter and one of our fantastic volunteers, tells about how he finally caught up, after a lot of searching, with our rarest of dragonflies on Flanders:

Can you restore a damaged peat bog? Here’s proof that you can!

The Northern Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora arctica) is a rare example of a dragonfly that, in the UK, only occurs in Scotland. Its stronghold is the Northwest Highlands, and Flanders Moss appears to be the only known site where it breeds in the Lowlands, making our population rather special.

They were first recorded at Flanders Moss in 2007, across on the west side of the Moss. Since then, there have been very occasional sightings. However, the western side of the bog is rarely visited, and this must affect the number of records submitted. One interesting development was the first sighting at the boardwalk on the southeast side of the bog in 2019. Then, David Pickett, the Reserve Manager, spotted two in 2020 close to the boardwalk:

David’s sighting prompted me to put ‘See a Northern Emerald at Flanders’ at the top of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2021. David Pickett saw one on 15 June this year, then 16 June, and a pair on 28 June. The seasonal rangers, Amos and Polly, managed to find (and film) a mating pair the previous weekend. I was getting more than a little frustrated at hearing of all these sightings, but never being able to see one for myself. It was becoming a running joke. Maybe I was the joke?

However, my luck finally changed on 24 July. I had been out on a remote part of the bog trying to photograph sundews, and on my return I had to cross a wide ditch. A wide ditch full of sphagnum moss. Indeed, the habitat favoured by Northern Emeralds! As I approached the edge of the ditch, I saw one Northern Emerald, partly obscured by a birch sapling and grass, but clearly a Northern Emerald. Not only that, it was a female laying eggs into the sphagnum moss. Bingo! Possibly the first record of egg-laying at Flanders, and proof of breeding at a particular spot.

I didn’t manage to get any decent photos that day, so I returned to the same spot two days later. As I approached the ditch, I immediately saw a pair of Northern Emeralds flying in the mating ‘wheel’ position. I watched them land on a birch sapling, and followed them.

They stayed coupled together for 28 minutes before consciously uncoupling and going their separate ways. As I had been watching the mating pair, a solitary male flew in and began to patrol the ditch, up and down, repeatedly. In fact, I watched him for about 90 minutes, on and off, and managed to get some photos of him during brief stops on the vegetation, and also a few flight shots.

During that 90 minutes, I spent some time sitting on a dry tussock beside the ditch in a remote part of the bog watching these three dragonflies, and also a few other species including four-spotted chaser, common hawker and black darter. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that particular moment. It was a sublime experience.

The site on the Moss where I found ‘my’ Northern Emeralds has an interesting history. It’s in what NatureScot staff refer to as the “Plantation Site”. That’s actually a misleading name because there are no plantation trees. The conifers, which had been planted as a commercial crop, were felled in 1997/98, although it’s still shown as forest on the Ordnance Survey maps today. The ditch was blocked in the early 2000s, about 20 years ago. Further remedial work, including ‘stump flipping’ and grazing by sheep, started from 2010 onwards. Therefore, this is not pristine and untouched raised bog. It’s a site where trees had been planted on deep peat, a practice that is now considered to be environmentally-damaging.

It’s clearly a Good News story that a site with such a chequered past can be remediated, and within 20 years become a hotspot for a dragonfly that is very choosy about breeding only on peat bogs.

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Bog butterflies – Large Heath

Flanders Moss NNR

Large Heath (Coenonympha tullia)

Another of our fantastic flutters on Flanders is the Large Heath. We’ve been seeing these in really high numbers out in the middle of the moss over the last few weeks, but they can also be seen from the boardwalk – particularly when the sun is shining. Interestingly, unlike most butterflies, the Large Heath can often be seen flying even when the sky has clouded over.

The key identifying features of this butterfly are the orange underside of the forewing, but most importantly the dark rings/eyespots along the edge. The Small Heath (below), mostly seen on more grassy habitats, only has one defined eyespot on the forewing underside and is smaller (although it can be hard to differentiate unless they’re sitting still!).

Small heath (Coenonympha pamphilus) is less likely to be seen on the bog, but meadowy margins are ideal.

Fluttery fact: in Scotland, we have a subspecies of Large Heath called scotica, which has very faint or no eyespots at all on the wings. This is only usually found on the northern and western parts of Scotland.

Further fluttery fact: The eye spots are believed to be natural selection based on bird predation. The more distinct eyespots on the regular Large Heath, and on a subspecies in England (davus), detract attention away from the body of the butterfly – meaning they’re more likely to lose a bit of wing to a bird’s beak, rather than more important bits! It’s thought that the scotica subspecies doesn’t need this tactic so much due to cooler temperatures in the north, making the butterfly less active and harder to spot (pun intended).

Large Heath is distributed across Scotland, northern parts of England and scattered in Ireland. It’s a UKBAP priority species. Peatland restoration, such as the work we do on Flanders Moss, is important not only for carbon capture but for conserving the habitat characteristics that certain species thrive on. Ditch-damming and invasive scrub-removal helps to maintain the water table of the bog and allow favourable vegetation to establish, such as sphagnum mosses and cotton-grasses.

Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count is ongoing until 8th August if you fancy counting the butterflies in your garden or local green space! Details here.

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Going up river for an unproductive day

Loch Lomond NNR

The office for the day

Last week we spent another day at loch Lomond on the boat. We felt very different from the blizzard of gin palaces, speed boats and jet skis that were churning around the loch as we had a mission of work to attend. Well 2 missions actually.

The main work to be done was to check the inaccessible areas along the river bank for the invasive Himalayan balsam. Parts of Loch Lomond reserve are very hard to get to by walking in. The boat is a more efficient way of getting there. The area where Gartfairn Wood reaches the river is a bit like a lost world – dark swampy willow woodland, thickets of the prickliest blackthorn and glades filled with head high grass and wildflowers. Hiding in amongst the jungle is the balsam and in the past this has been a brutal area to clear with thousands of plants pulled during a season These sections need checking every year as if left the balsam will recover to previous levels and all the previous hard work is wasted.

So in scorching temperatures we headed in. The loch level was low enough for Skipper Steve to need to get out and walk to get the boat over the sandbanks – we’ve always thought Steve can walk on water and here he proved it!

Steve walking on water

Once into the jungle there were head high nettles to battle and sometimes we had to resort to hands and knees to get into the blackthorn. But the good news was that we found and cleared only 90 balsam plants. An unproductive but extremely important use of time. It just goes to show that putting in the effort in invasive plant management year after year reaps dividends.

Found one.

The second mission was less pleasant. The usual clearing up of filthy rubbish left by dirty campers on these most beautiful of islands. The reserve dog doesn’t like people swearing so he was unhappy with what he had to listen to as we cleared up the litter. But the swear box did well out of it.

Hard to imagine how people can defile a beautiful place like this.
Bags full of empty and broken bottles etc and a chair dumped as well.
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Flanders Moss on the radio

Flanders Moss NNR

Last week we were delighted to welcome Mark Stephen from the BBC Scotland radio programme Out of Doors. Mark and his co-presenter and partner in crime Euan McIlwraith have visited Flanders a few times before and their enthusiasm for this special site comes through in the programme.

Euan McIlwraith and Mark Stephen

This time they were here to look at the art work from the Middle of the Moss project (more info. here), but as the ever the chat widens to cover more bog subjects including #International Bog Day.

You can listen to the programme through the link below – the Flanders Moss section is from 35:00 to 47:00 minutes though the whole programme is worth a listen to.


BBC Scotland radio – Out of Doors –

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The best thing about bogs

Blawhorn Moss NNR and Flanders Moss NNR

On International bog day it is worth thinking about just why bogs are special and why so many people visit to enjoy our 2 peatlands.

Well it might be the amazing wildlife you find on them from belly button fluff to fluorescent jumping spiders, from sundews and sphagnum to rare bog rosemary, from whinchats and cuckoos to skeins of geese?

Or it might be all of the benefits they give to society through locking up carbon and holding onto flood waters so taking the edge of the effects of climate change (especially pertinent in the context of the events in Europe?

But when talking to the people that visit Flanders and Blawhorn it isn’t these things that they visit these reserves for. For them it is the feeling they get when on the site. Many tell me it is an escape from the frenetic activity of real life. By leaving the car park and walking out on site they leave behind temporarily the noise and stress and lose themselves in the peace and tranquility of the wide open spaces of the peatlands. There is something special about the smell, the air, the landscape and the soundscape that is different from other places. At Flanders the average visit takes nearly 1 hour – that is a long time spent on a path less than 1 km long. It is interesting to watch people on site. As they head out on the paths they seem to slow, their voices drop in volume, they start looking around them more, they linger on a bench to absorb it more, if with someone else they start pointing out features to each other. As part of a natural health service bogs are immensely important and for many this is the best thing about bogs.

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Counting dragons and damsels at Flanders Moss NNR – David McCulloch

Flanders Moss NNR

Common hawker by David McCulloch

We are very lucky to have David McCulloch, one of our volunteers, monitoring dragonflies at Flanders Moss NNR. Working with the British Dragonfly Society (see here) David set up a transect around the boardwalk at Flanders Moss. The aim of this transect is to get an annual picture of how the dragonflies and damselflies are doing on the moss. This is important as the populations could change with climate change (new species recorded or others lost) but also with the bog restoration work that we are carrying out (numbers individuals increasing or decreasing). So by monitoring the dragonflies we can get an idea of how the bog itself is doing.

To find out more about David’s monitoring work you can watch this short video of his presentation at the British Dragonfly Society Scottish conference this year.

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Northern emeralds are going for it at Flanders

Flanders Moss NNR.

Male northern emerald

Its dragonfly week (more info here) so a perfect time to mark that Flanders Moss NNR, a BDS dragonfly hotspot, is getting better for dragonflies.

A walk around the boardwalk gives a great chance to see a whole range of dragonflies and damselflies close up. And one special species that is being seen more often around the path is the Northern Emerald. This is a rare dragonfly that specialises in living in sphagnum pools. It was only discovered living on Flanders Moss in 2007 by the late John Knowler way over on the west side of the moss. Flanders Moss is one of the southerly most sites for the striking looking insect. But excitingly in recent years we are getting more and more sightings around the visitor path. Just a few weeks ago out seasonal reserve officer team of Amos and Polly filmed (with commentary) a pair of northern emeralds mating just next to the path – sure evidence of breeding on site. Their presence on the east side of Flanders, which was historically much more damaged, shows that the restoration work that we have been carrying out on Flanders is really starting to pay dividends and we are creating sphagnum-rich pools of suitable habitat. And of course an additional bonus is that it gives visitors a chance of having a face to face meeting with these rare creatures. So keep your eyes skinned when you are visiting.

Male northern emerald
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