Herbivore Impact Assessments

Loch Lomond NNR

Last week we were able to get our boat back on the water and visit a couple of the Loch Lomond islands that we manage to conduct a couple of key springtime tasks. The first being a litter pick of the entire islands, but since we’ve touched on the issues of littering recently, let’s focus on the other issue of today – deer. Herbivore Impact Assessments (HIA’s) are what they say on the tin. A way to assess the impact that deer have on the island vegetation. This was my first experience of helping with such a survey, and it was a shock to the system to say the least.

Think of Loch Lomond, and you probably picture old, wild woodland. It’s where we go to get away from it all, to immerse ourselves in and appreciate the beauty of the natural world – right? But the closer you look, the more you see just how unnatural everything really is. Whether that’s noticing that none of the trees have lower branches, that over half the bilberry bushes don’t have leaves, or that there were practically no sapling trees to be seen. The effects of overgrazing are everywhere, and once the ‘natural habitat’ goggles come off, it’s a fight to get them back on!

It’s a tricky topic too, because deer are such lovely creatures that many of us get excited to see – they contribute to tourism, and the red stag is practically our wildlife mascot, lording over the Scottish mountains. There’s no doubt that people are enchanted by their presence, and can come away from wild sightings feeling that bit closer to nature. This is, now more than ever, an invaluable connection for people to develop, and we as conservationists shouldn’t be dismissive of this just because of the damage that deer cause. But cause damage they do, and HIA’s are just one method for objectively quantifying this through stats and percentages.

Over the next couple of weeks we will be carrying out further HIA’s on the islands we haven’t yet visited, to gauge the status of each and the subsequent deer management that will need to be carried out to combat this. We don’t shy away from the fact that, right now, this means culling. It’s the most effective – both in terms of deer numbers and cost – method of deer management, but there are constant talks across Scotland of what other options are out there. Could re-wilding our landscape with predators remove the need for culls? Would you be excited to see lynx on the Lomond shores?

Scotland’s wildlife is amazing, and Loch Lomond days have so far always been glorious. But this was a stark reminder of the fact that our ecosystems are not truly in balance, and that we have a long way to go to rectify this.

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Today is Earth Day!

Stirling NNRs

Every year on April 22nd, the world gathers as a collective to celebrate our home, to acknowledge the fragility of our planet, and remember just how important it is for us to care for and protect it – creating a healthy, sustainable world for both humans and wildlife. But Earth Day is not just another day of awareness, it is a call to action – and has been since its conception.

The first Earth Day took place in 1970, when 20 million Americans united to demand greater protections for our planet. Just 20 years later, in 1990, this increased tenfold to 200 million people across 141 countries, and played a significant role in establishing the first UN Earth Summit in 1992. 30 years on and Earth day engages over 1 billion people each year, with over 75 thousand organisations across 192 countries are working in partnership with the official EARTHDAY.ORG

Each year, the day takes on a specific theme for which to orient conversations and campaigns. Last year’s theme was ‘Climate Action’ and even in the midst of a global pandemic saw over 100 million people engage in what has been called the ‘largest online mass mobilization’ in history. This year the theme is ‘Restore Our Earth’- with a focus on how we can utilise technology and innovation to restore the world’s depleting ecosystems, as well as how important climate education is in reversing and reducing the damage done across the globe.

Restoration is a key theme within NatureScot too! Across our three reserves there is a core focus on peatland restoration, carbon capture, biodiversity increase and visitor engagement. Within the wider organisation our priority is nature based solutions – woodland restoration, blue carbon capture, providing space for – and connecting people with – nature. Scotland’s landscape is beautiful and unique, and our world as a whole can recover if we make the effort. This means taking more ambitious actions forward sooner not later, holding the right people to account, working together and continuing to love and appreciate nature for nature’s sake.

So, this Earth Day, get outdoors and appreciate what we have now. Consider making space for nature and help tackle these emergencies with the urgency they deserve. It was unity that made change happen yesterday, it is collective action that is making change happen today, and it is only by continuing to work together that we can ensure that future generations – that my generation – will have an Earth to celebrate tomorrow.

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The wetter the better!

Flanders Moss NNR

If you’ve been taking your regular exercise around Flanders Moss this past winter, you will have noticed that wellies had become a bit of a must as the season drew on. Whether rain, snow or ice, the east section of the path regularly made for tricky navigation (unless you enjoy a bit of a splash around of course!).

Boardwalk or river?

From the perspective of reserve management, this is a really good sign – seriously! A central goal of Flanders Moss is to restore the peatland, allowing for the greatest level of carbon capture which is a vital component of climate change mitigation. To do this, we need more sphagnum for peat soil. And for more sphagnum, we need to raise the water levels. And what clearer sign of more water could there be than a pathway that was once dry now being regularly underwater!?

Wellies and walking shoes necessary on this reserve!
Who can tell where the boardwalk ends, and the bog begins?

Great news for us…but not so great for you, our visitors. After all, if you wanted to get all boggy and soggy like we do, there wouldn’t be a boardwalk there for you to use in the first place! Which is why we can happily announce that we have received funding to rectify the issue, and a team of contractors are now close to finishing their work on raising the wettest sections of the boardwalk that are currently flooding the east side, as well as those areas most likely to begin flooding from further rises.

We are very grateful for your patience while this work has been ongoing, and hope you enjoy being able to experience a more accessible – and drier! – visit to the moss again. Flanders is getting wetter, but there’s no need for you to get bogged down in it!

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From god to pot and back again

Flanders Moss NNR

The nature reserve experience at Flanders Moss starts before you get to the car park as often in the fields either side of the access track there are interesting things to be seen.

A few days back I spotted a couple of brown hares. They become very visible at this time of year as they gather together with mating on their minds and the crops are not long enough to hide them.

They really are magnificent animals – much bigger than rabbits, with elegant long ears and legs and a beautiful russety fur coat that has to withstand all weathers. Hares don’t live in burrows like rabbits but above ground all of the time so they need better protection to keep them warm. In the little bit of film and pictures, the hares are not doing much – just dozing in the sun and enjoying the warmth after a long winter. And a bit of gentle interaction with each other. There is something calming and relaxing just watching them, a bit like having a dog asleep in front of the fire.

Hares have been valued in different ways through history. It seems they were first introduced to the mainland Britain in the Iron Age when it is thought they were considered to be Gods or deities. Intact skeletons carefully arranged in burials of individuals were found by archaeologists. But during Roman times bones were found that showed that the animals had been eaten and were probably keep in captivity for food. In more recent times they have been popular as a sporting animal – either shot or chased by dogs. Perhaps now, in a time of a biodiversity emergency and declining hare populations, it is time for people to just valued them for being beautiful to watch? Maybe to be saved they need to become a modern form of a deity again?

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More belly button fluff

Flanders Moss NNR

It’s that time of year, the belly-button-fluff count.

On Tuesday we spent the day zig-zagging across Flanders Moss to count Rannoch Brindled Beauty moths. We split the Moss into different sections and allocated transects for each person to survey. The survey was a success, finding females in all transects but one (sorry, Bethia, you drew the short straw there!) and 4 males were counted across the moss. One surveyor even found 7 females on one tree!

For those who are not familiar with these endearing little moths, the female is wingless and so cannot fly about. In order to find a mate and reproduce, she must climb up birch trees and fence posts and wait for a male to pick up the pheromones she’s releasing and find her.

Her wingless state gives her the appearance of a little blob of fluff, and sure enough these blobs can be found sitting and waiting on top of fence posts, just like the one below. I can’t describe how excited I was when I first saw one…

A female Rannoch Brindled Beauty waiting for her mate.
A successful pairing of male and female on a birch tree.

The moth is a nationally-scarce species and not a huge amount is known about their ecology. Knowing their preferences for fence posts and medium-sized birch trees is extremely beneficial to survey and monitor the moths, but there is ambiguity around their food plant preferences. They are often found in close proximity to Bog Myrtle – a sweet-smelling bog-specialist – but not always. In fact, many of the moths we found on Tuesday seemed to be nowhere near Bog Myrtle. As well as counting the moths in our transects, we also recorded the plant species around them so that we can see if there is any relationship there.

Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale)

The more we know about these moths the more we can understand their vulnerability to factors such as climate change, particularly if their food plants are affected. This knowledge could, in turn, contribute to understanding similar effects on other species. You never know – we believe the more data, the better! Because of this, I’m anticipating a summer of crawling on my hands and knees looking for RBB caterpillars on the bog plants. What can I say, I’m hooked on them now!

Another striking feature of the female moths is how similar they look to early Bog Cotton flowers – a perfect disguise! I’ve been caught out several times by flowers leaning against fence posts looking incredibly RBB-like.

This Bog Cotton flower isn’t looking too fluffy, but you get the idea.

They seem to take a liking to old, craggy fence-posts where the female can lay her eggs, via a long ovipositor, into the nooks and crannies. When the caterpillars hatch out, they are thought to ‘balloon’ (send out a thread of silk to catch the wind) and disperse across the bog. Considering about 50% of them will turn out to be flightless females, I guess that’s a rather efficient way to spread out!

Here are some more pictures of fluff, just because…

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Meet the Nutjobber

Flanders Moss NNR

When walking recently in Ballangrew wood last week on the west side of Flanders the noise of what sounded like a small boy with trumpet started up above me. Looking up and there was a Nuthatch in full voice.

Nuthatches are a recent colonist to Scotland. They were first found to have bred in 1989 in the Borders of Scotland having spread across the border from the south. Since then they have continued to move north and only started to make themselves heard in central Scotland about 10 years or so ago. They are now starting to breed as far north as Aberdeenshire and for a very sedentary bird this rapid expansion of range has been a surprise.

So getting a clear view of a Nuthatch is still of note at Flanders.

They are entertaining birds to watch – working their way along branches and down trunks looking for a range of foods. When they find nuts they wedge them into cracks in trees and them hammer them to get at the contents and this habit gives them their name, both Nuthatch and one of their Scots names the Nutjobber.

Their calls are loud and insistent and their song a manic trilling giggle, which sort of matches their nature. They are aggressive at bird tables, easily holding their own against bigger birds in the competition for the feeders. And one bird book descripted them amusingly as “mutually antagonistic” as as soon as young birds are fledged they tend to be chased out of their territory by parents, and each other. Perhaps it is this anti-social stroppiness that has resulted in their rapid spread north.

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The ospreys are back

Loch Lomond and Flanders Moss NNR

In the last week it looks like there has been a rush of ospreys returning. After a long winter it is great to have birds appearing on both Flanders Moss and at the Loch Lomond reserve.

At Flanders it seems we finished working on the nesting platform just in time. Only a few days later 2 birds have been seen on the reserve, one was perched on the ground close to where we felled the nest tree from last year (see here) while the other came in with a big fish and headed to the tall trees they nested in 3 years ago. We hope that they consider the two beautifully prepared nesting platforms that are available to them and use one but then nature is not often so cooperative. We will wait and see. And keep you posted.

An osprey on the ground.

At Loch Lomond 2 birds have returned to a long standing nest on the reserve but the reserve is also a favourite feeding area so ospreys from all around come to fish there. On Monday morning a magical couple of hours was spent watching a string of ospreys come in and try their luck.

Having not seen these magnificent birds for 6-7 months it is so exciting to see them back. They are real all-action crowd pleasers that draw the eye whenever they are in the air. Watching the birds fish must be one of the top wildlife spectacles. I hope that you get a sample of osprey action in this next summer.

The next 3 photos shows one of the birds as it came in to fish showing just how they end up right in the water and yet can flap their way out again.

Just fantastic.

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Spring on hold?

Loch Lomond NNR

An early morning visit a couple of days to the Loch Lomond NNR was an absolute delight. We are in a spell of ice cold night and sunny days that on initial appearances are quite lovely. But a walk around the reserve showed that things seemed to be very quiet on the bird front. A few summer migrants were present but not many. A few birds were displaying and holding territory but many weren’t. It seems like some migrants like a few chiffchaffs and sand martins and a lone willow warbler arrive in the warm spell a couple of weeks back but the cold weather has slowed everything else. The nights have been down to minus 4 or 5 making it quite brutal for small birds and but also their insect food.

Fresh snow on Ben Lomond, just north of the reserve.

Of those that have travelled shorter distances lapwing and skylarks were the only ones displaying. The redshank, oystercatchers, goosanders and shelducks and meadow pipits were around but were very quiet. Our ospreys had arrived back – but they are bigger, a bit more robust and not dependent on insect life for food. The contrasting sight of summer visitor ospreys sitting on their nest while winter visitor pink-footed geese headed north behind them just emphasized the Heathrow airport vibe of this time of year.

Ospreys on their nest as pinkies go by.
More pink-footed geese heading north.

So it feels a little like a waiting game -once the warmer weather comes, migrants will arrive is a frantic rush and those here already will jump into action as the frenetic breeding season kicks off.

Male goosander
Shelduck – not yet ready to start the breeding season
The office for today – cold but stunning.
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Helpful Fieldwork Advice

Stirling NNRs

It has been a long winter for those working at home, especially those that normally are able to get out into the field as part of their jobs. But Spring is starting, restrictions are easing, the breeding season is starting soon and colleagues are getting itchy feet and are making plans for the new fieldwork season.

Fieldwork is often why many of us have got into our jobs. Working outside, close to wonderful wildlife, learning more and more detail about the natural world can be incredibly rewarding. But it can also be very challenging. All day in atrocious weather, crippling terrain, malfunctioning equipment, uncooperative wildlife, identification challenges, unusual colleagues and navigational nightmares. It can all go horribly wrong.

So with collegues and team members starting to think about getting out more, I decided it would be useful for their preparation to ask them what field work tips and tales they had that they would like to share. It is obvious that much of this really useful knowledge has been won the hard way. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom that I hope you find useful:

  • Don’t ever get separated from your lunchbox. The first thing I was told in my first job, reinforced the hard way and the best bit of advice I ever got.
  • Don’t start any risky or complicated jobs on a Friday.
  • If you and your colleague have decided to shorten a very long field day by using two cars positioned at the start and the finish, always make sure that you don’t leave the car keys behind locked in the first car.
  • Pick your lunch spot very carefully when working in wood ant country, those comfortable looking mounds of pine needles might not be comfortable for very long,
  • Clipboards can be used to help negotiate safe passage and avoiding nasty injury over barbed wires fences for those with short legs.
  • Put damp face cloths in the freezer before taking them out on very hot days in the field.
  • When at the end of the day you throw a heavy bag into the car make sure it doesn’t hit the fire extinguisher.
  • When in deer country, if you have a particular collegue who is an absolute tick magnet, always make sure you walk behind them.
  • For clear field notes that you can read at the end of the day always use a really sharp pencil, but never keep it in your trouser pocket.
  • When chainsawing never leave your chainsaw helmet up side down at lunchtime if it’s raining, and if you do, empty it before you put it on.
  • Always wear a brightly coloured hat when working on Flanders Moss – then if you fall in a ditch the hat floats on the surface and people can tell where you fell in.

Unfortunately some of the stories and tips were not suitable for public consumption therefore had to be edited. So I won’t be recounting the advice coming from the fieldwork that involved parts of a dead water buffalo or the geological survey and the dead cetacean. I also will not be revealling the recipe for the chocolate cake made for a volunteer bog work party that was so dense it made it onto the risk assessment of the event. And I definitely won’t be recommending the NatureScot senior manager’s suggestion that when staff are approached by irate landowners they should just say that they work for the RSPB.

Happy fieldwork.

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Low cost new osprey housing available on Flanders

Flanders Moss NNR

The team has just finished building some low-cost housing on Flanders Moss and it is now available for a lucky couple to move in. It has fine views, airy location, distance from neighbours, excellent facilities, close to educational facilities for youngsters and the fishing is top class. It’s an osprey nesting platform.

We firstly picked a good healthy Scots pine tree, one with plenty of branches, off the beaten track a bit, and then chopped the top off.

The chosen tree without top.

A base of fencing rails with branches were tied in on the tree top to give a strong platform. On top of that a layer of smaller branches were laid and then on top of that a layer of moss and grass tussocks. Apparently the pale grass attracts the attention of the ospreys. It all looked pretty comfy to me and the views fabulous.

A very smart male stonechat (below) watched the building with interest. He took the opportunity to feed on any insects disturbed during the building process.

This accommodation building effort has been because of the problems the ospreys had with the previous nest. A dead tree had been chosen, one of probably about 30-40 dead trees across the moss. But the nest that they built was so big and heavy that it caused the nest to collapse, taking the chicks with it (see here). So we waited until winter and felled the dead tree, nest and all. And then to try to persuade the ospreys to choose a good healthy strong tree, we built them the platform. Another old nest that sat in a strong healthy tree has also been renovated so the ospreys have a choice of 2 suitable nest sites to use. We will have to wait to see if they take to it either one or try to do their own thing again, and we will keep you up to date with all of the osprey news over the summer.

The nest back last summer
Timber!!! – Steve in action.
The felled dead tree.
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