A winter walk at Flanders

Flanders Moss NNR

Last week the team strode out onto the moss to conduct some general monitoring of the reserve. One of many crisp winter days to come, it provided a fantastically scenic experience for the Stirling team. And since a photo speaks a thousand words, we thought we would share them with you.

We entered the moss at first light, to a frost-covered ground and a shrouding of mist.

Morning dew clung to the plants and cobwebs, glittering in the low light.

The mist did not give way to blue skies, as it has done previously, but retreated slightly, providing a hint of sunshine beyond the grey curtain.

At late afternoon, the views from the tower were extraordinary. The mountaintops could now be seen, and pale pinks and blues dominated the skies in a beautiful palette.

And at the very end of the day, we were able to enjoy a fantastic skein of pink-footed geese, making their way across the moss and towards their roosting site.

A little reminder to us all of the beauty that winter can bring.

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Where have the hen harriers gone?

Flanders Moss NNR

Our second hen harrier count of the year took place last week – a much drier and brighter session than our first (see Ceris’ blog post “Winter Visitors to Flanders Moss”), but sadly, just as unfruitful a search for this elusive raptor – though we did have a lovely view of a male peregrine falcon! Indeed, it is an unfortunate time we find ourselves in when it comes to the hen harrier. Historically Flanders is a traditional wintering site, but for the last 5 years sightings have reduced, and the reasons for this can only be guessed at but are likely to be varied and complex.

Approaching the viewing tower at twilight

One thing is we are noting more sightings during early autumn and spring, whereas previously they were more likely to be spotted mid-winter. Is this due to a changing climate affecting the way hen harriers spend their winter? It can’t be ruled out.

Another change? Flanders itself! As the restoration of this reserve continues, we are seeing the expected switch from drier heathland to a much wetter bog unfold. This vegetation shift, a reduction in trees used for roosting, and heavy grazing by deer in places, may have reduced habitats with suitable cover for roosting in and maybe for prey species. And less food will mean fewer predators.

Hen harriers are one of the most persecuted birds in the UK and their population has been removed from large areas of suitable habitat by illegal killing. Is there a link between hen harrier breeding grounds and their wintering grounds? Are the birds that traditionally breed is areas where they are persecuted the ones that winter on Flanders? We don’t know, but these are the sort of questions that can be answered by the continuation of fixing of satellite tags to young hen harriers.

Biodiversity, and it’s changes over time, can be highly complex. We cannot point to any one specific reason because it could be several of these – or none! These issues require extensive monitoring and analysis – and that is ultimately why we conduct our counts. They feed into a national long-term survey that provides a much wider picture of hen harrier sightings across Scotland, and should gradually provide useful insights into the why, and where, of hen harrier distribution. So in the meantime we will keep watching.

All set up (or sat down!) for an evening of harrier-spotting from the top of Flanders Moss tower

There is a clear scientific consensus that our world is facing a biodiversity crisis, and the hen harrier is just one example of this. Scientific research, monitoring, and partnership working – across all organisations and interests – are fundamental to conservation. Preventing the endangerment and extinction of Scotland’s flora and fauna, and ensuring a biodiverse and ecologically rich future, has never been more important. We all depend on nature, and nature depends on us.

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The curious incident of the empty nest

Flanders Moss NNR

Whilst cutting gorse the other day, we came across a small treasure tucked away amidst the spines: a mossy green nest with a small entrance hole. Birds don’t nest on Flanders Moss at this time of year, so we were confidently able to remove the nest from the gorse and have a proper look. There’s always something new to learn… (Note: it is illegal to disturb birds on their nests and to damage or destroy nests during the breeding season).

Whose nest was it?

The globe-like shape of the nest narrowed down possibilities as to its architect – in the UK, most nest-building birds build cup-like constructions. Wrens and long-tailed tits are amongst the few to add a roof dome, which helps retain warmth. Whilst we’ve seen both of these species nearby on the reserve, the nest materials suggested it was a wren’s nest – being early breeders, long-tailed tits often weave lichen into their nests to help camouflage them. This green mossy nest was lichen-free, relying upon the gorse foliage to conceal and protect it.

Gently opening up the nest, we discovered that it was also moss-lined – again, pointing to wren and not long-tailed tit, who line their nests with feathers.

The mossy nest looked wonderfully cosy. Indeed, in a break from writing about death and daffodils, the poet William Wordsworth wrote that “Among the dwellings framed by birds/In field or forest with nice care/Is none that with the little wren’s/In snugness may compare.”

Yet there were no signs of use in this perfect construction – no shell, feathers or droppings.

Why was the nest empty?

Wrens are one of our most familiar birds – tiny, dumpy and brown, frequently seen with an upright tail, and with a tendency to shout irritably at you from the undergrowth. Some of this crankiness might be explained in male wrens by the fact that, in order to win approval from their mates, they must construct not one nest but several cock nests (like chickens, wrens are ‘cock’ and ‘hen’). The hen then peruses the nests and makes her choice. The remaining nests, perfect to our eyes, are usually left empty – though on occasion a cock wren may successfully woo a second mate.

What was the nest made of?

Back at base, we dismantled the nest, drawing on Steve’s botanical expertise to understand what plants the wren had – and hadn’t – used in nest-building, how far it would have had to travel, and what species were growing within its foraging area. Armed with reference books, eye glasses and large cups of tea, we set to work.

We discovered that the wren had used 11 species in its nest building. 7 were mosses: Kindbergia praelonga, Common Feather-moss; Pseudoscleropodium purum, Neat Feather-moss; Hylocomium splendens, Glittering Wood-moss; Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, Springy Turf-moss; Hypnum cupressiforme Cypress-leaved Plait-moss; Eurhyncium striatum, Common Striated Feather-moss, and Sphagnum papillosum, Papillose peatmoss.

All of these species were present within 20m of the nest site – almost all were present within about 4 metres. The wren, then, would not have had to travel far.

Also present were Agrostis stolonifera, Creeping bent; Cerastium fontanum, Common mouse-ear; Anthoxanthum odoratum, Sweet vernal grass; Festuca ovina, Sheep’s fescue, Male fern sp., and Juncus sp.

But how many trips did he have to make?

The wren’s nest weighed 122g. It was damp when weighed – but as the wren was collecting mostly damp mosses it is probably a good reflection of the how much weight the wren carried. Quite a feat for a bird weighing only about 9 grams.

In 20g of the nest – a sixth of it – there were 850 pieces of moss and other plants. Multiplied by six, this gives the staggering figure of 5100 pieces in a nest. Of course, we have to allow for the fact that some of these pieces may have come apart over time within the nest. Nonetheless, if a wren carried, say, 5 pieces in its beak in a journey, that would mean 1000 trips per nest.

Multiply that by three, four, five – and perhaps we can understand why the cock wren calls so crossly. But then, few birds have a sweeter song.

What have we learnt?

This is, of course, not a rigorous scientific study – here, one part observation is met with at least one part speculation! However, it gave us a chance to learn, to understand and to marvel at yet another aspect of Flanders Moss – and to admire the industry of the tiny wren.

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Volunteers vs bog invaders

Flanders Moss NNR

There are invaders on the bog. Quietly, they have taken root and, gradually, they are spreading. They may be small, but they are determined.

But they will not spread unchallenged. Up against them: the Flanders Moss volunteers. And they are more determined still.

The invaders: Labrador Tea, a small relative of the rhododendron. The history of the plant’s arrival on Flanders Moss is covered here in some detail by Ellen. In brief, whilst slow-growing, the plant threatens to compete with native bog species. To prevent the bog from becoming a knee-high forest of Labrador Tea, the team set out each year to keep it in check. The most effective way to reduce its spread is simply to pull it by hand.

The most recent episode of ‘volunteers versus invaders’ occurred on a particularly soggy Wednesday. We reached the Labrador Tea by traversing a particularly soggy section of bog. And, as the Labrador Tea gave as good as it got, there were few of us at end of play who were not particularly, if not generally, soggy.

For this plant was not going down without a fight. We sought to uproot it, or at least to break the root beneath the water line to prevent regrowth. As Steve has written about elsewhere, the task requires a mixture of finesse and brute force, in order to protect the nearby sphagnums in the process.

Each of us determinedly hand-pulling, we were occasionally distracted by the occasional squeaks of our peers, unbalanced by roots snapping. We let out determined and ferocious grunts as we tackled the roots. We were, in short, an alarming bunch.

Uprooting is a lengthy process, and whilst we cleared a good area of the Labrador Tea, there’s a fair amount to go at yet. Still, through these volunteer work parties, we’re able to plug away at it, preventing spread and reducing the extent of coverage year on year.

As we’ve entered Tier 4, we won’t see the team again for the next few weeks, and we’ll miss their determination, humour, and hard graft. We have reassured them, however, that there’s plenty more to do when they return…

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A goosey goosey gander

Loch Lomond NNR

Sometimes, wildlife counts take place in beautiful sunshine. Sometimes, you get unbelievable views of what you are hoping to see. Sometimes, the red squirrel comes right to your feeder, the bee lands right on your jacket, and the eagle soars right over your head.

And sometimes, you find yourself in yellow-warning level rain, sheltering behind a line of gorse bushes, bundled up like that Friends episode where Joey wears all of his jumpers, sipping at your hot tea in a flask for warmth, cupping your hands behind your ears just to hear the faintest echo of a goose call.

Who said conservation wasn’t glamorous?

Our view towards the end of the count

Our first goose roost count of the winter took place last Tuesday. While it was an incredibly early start (out of bed as early as 04:30, on site for 06:30) and in…shall we say, less than ideal? weather conditions, we still had a very successful morning.

After an hour of waiting for colour to come back to the world, we saw our first skein (pronounced “skeen” – the term for a flock of geese in flight. On land, they are called a gaggle!) at about 07:30. The following hour was spent counting goose after goose, identifying them by their calls and making a note of the directions they were headed. All in all, at least 39 Greenland white-fronted geese, 475 pink-footed geese, 112 graylag geese and a handful of Canada geese were spotted!

They say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation…!

Not bad for a first attempt! Definitely worthy of a reward in the form of a tasty egg roll once we were back in the warm and dry. Not a goose egg, though…

We also came up with what (at the time) seemed like poetry’s finest, inspired by the first hour of wildlife-less weather, and a far more legitimate poem introduced to us by Ceris – we hope you enjoy.

No sun, no light
No life at night –
No mice, no owls, no waterfowl
Not even a deer around!
No birds, no calls
No wildlife at all!
Just lots of mud
And rain that fall

Inspired by Thomas Hood’s “November'”-

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day –
No sky – no earthly view –
No distance looking blue –
No road – no street – no ‘t’other side the way’ –
No end to any Row –
No indications where the Crescents go –
No top to any steeple –
No recognitions of familiar people –
No courtesies for showing ’em –
No knowing ’em –
No travelling at all – no locomotion,
No inkling of the way – no notion –
‘No go’ – by land or ocean –
No mail – no post –
No news from any foreign coast –
No Park – no Ring – no afternoon gentility –
No company – no nobility –
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, –

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Our wonderful volunteers

Stirling NNRs

With the latest announcements from the Scottish government we are having to call a halt on our volunteer activity on the Stirling NNRs. We are hoping that it is only for a few weeks and they will be out again as soon as the restrictions are eased. Our small volunteer group were champing at the bit all through lockdown to get back out and once allowed they have been racking up numerous hours doing good deeds across the reserves. But these are not just any volunteers…these are “2 bogs, a swamp and some islands” volunteers and we get much more than muscle and hard graft. We get fun, stories, (luckily no songs,) ………………….and poetry.

Phil Graves was so inspired by the day out shifting tree trunks to build bridges across wet bits of the track that he wrote a poem. It was our iron horses that especially inspired him. Rather disappointedly, contrary to what the name suggests, these are low-ground pressure tracked vehicles used for load carrying on very wet ground. I think it was the fact that we got one of the iron horse stuck (only temporarily) that particularly encouraged Phil to resort to verse.

You can take a horse to water,

But you canna make it drink!

But an Iron Horse in water

Is liable to sink!

For this the rangers should be praised,

As over the years the waters raised.

One flounders now on Flanders Moss,

So when you drown, please don’t be cross.

At least the peat no longer dries,

Long may this bog just slowly rise,

We are particularly impressed that he managed to cover not only the iron horses but the success of the peatland restoration work carried out across the reserve.

Thanks Phil and the rest of the gang and hope to meet you on the bog soon.

Iron horse, unstuck and in action.
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Chasing rainbows

Flanders Moss NNR

It’s been a soggy old autumn on the bog, with the team rarely out of waterproofs and wellies. We’ve become intimately acquainted with the different types of rain, from fine smirr to heavy downpours. But every now and then, when the sun shines, we get rainbows – and Flanders Moss is good at rainbows.

The large, flat expanse of bog and its dramatic mountainous backdrop to the north are a perfect combination for rainbow lovers and admirers of big skies.

If one rainbow is good, two are better: but have you ever properly looked at a double rainbow?

You’ll notice that the primary rainbow is more intense in colour, with the secondary rainbow being more faded, and appearing slightly higher than the primary rainbow.

A (very brief) physics lesson – because the science behind rainbows is fascinating. A rainbow is formed by sunlight entering raindrops. As light enters the raindrop, it is refracted (or bent), such that different wavelengths become visible as colours. These light waves hit the back of the raindrop, which acts like a mirror and reflects the refracted light back out towards us – giving us our rainbow.

The so-called primary rainbow has the familiar colour sequence: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. Some of you may remember from school that: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.

However, in the case of a secondary rainbow we find that Vain In Battle Gave York Of Richard! – the colour sequence is inverted.

In this instance, not all of the light is reflected straight out of the raindrop. Some of it remains trapped within the raindrop, and is then reflected an additional time, before leaving the raindrop at a different angle. This double reflection means that the light is refracted again, leading to an inversion in the colour sequence. This explains ‘VIBGYOR’, as well as the faded nature of a double rainbow, and it appearing 9 degrees above the primary rainbow.

A rainbow isn’t a static object however, and all of this depends upon the position of the observer.

As to whether two rainbows means two pots of gold?… well, you’d have to find out for yourselves. But we’d warn you; it’s soggy out there.

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A bog laboratory

Flanders Moss NNR

Flanders Moss is one of the biggest and best bogs in the UK. Scientists have been interested in it for a long time and many research projects have been carried out here. Being close to Stirling Uni and with Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee not being much further away it is easily accessible site for researchers. We always have a number of research projects being carried out on the reserve at anyone time so often it seems like one giant outdoor laboratory. We know a lot about Flanders from all of the research that has been carried out on the site and also having managed it as a nature reserve for many years. But there is always so much more to learn about a place as big and complex as Flanders. So to fill some of the gaps we work with students and through their degree, masters and PhD projects we can answer some of the questions we have about the site.

So I find myself yomping across the middle of the Moss with Callum, a honours student from Stirling University who is doing his degree project on the water quality of a stream on Flanders Moss. The High Moss Pow is a small water course that rises on the north-west edge of the moss and flows right across the site and out of the south-east corner and then down into the Forth. It is interesting because its unusual character. The water that flows into the stream comes from mineral soils, mainly mounds of sand and gravel left by glaciers in the last ice age. Flowing through minerals gives the water a certain chemical characteristic. But the water then flows through a 1m deep peat area and then into a ditch. Numerous streams run into the main pow from the surrounding peatland and these will be carrying very acidic water. The degree of acidity and amount of minerals in the water of the Pow will affect the types of vegetation that grow around the Pow.

So Callum is taking water samples along the length of the stream and will then analyse them back in the lab. We hope that he can tell us what the make up of the water of the Pow is and which has the greatest influence, the peatland or the glacial soils, and how that changes along its length.

My job of this expedition was to act as a guide on our 6km hike along the length of the Pow. It wasn’t a bad day to be out on the moss and we were watched over by stonechats and ravens and flushed a jack snipe as well.

So by working with the universities and students like Callum we hope to learn more about Flanders, and hopefully Callum will get a good project and some first hand practical experience as well. A win-win situation.

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Good week, bad week

Stirling NNRs

The Stirling NNRs team have had a difficult last 7 days so let’s play good week, bad week.

Bad week

Yesterday at Flanders Moss we found that over the weekend someone had decided to drive their very large but ineffective 4WD over the wildflower meadow. They promptly got stuck and made a very big mess getting themselves out. To get material to put under the tyres they smashed up one of the picnic tables. I might have quite liked to have discovered a large BMW wedged in the car park and spent a few minutes imagining what I might have said and done. But instead Steve applied his usual magic in repairing the picnic bench and we have to try to patch up the meadow. It is very frustrating when I think of all of the effort put in by our volunteers over the years to manage the meadow and the pleasure it has brought visitors to Flanders Moss.

Good week

The annoyance of the meadow damage was shortly offset but the pleasure of a hen harrier roost count. No hen harriers but a beautiful 1 1/2 hour spent on the top of the tower enjoying the beautiful moss in end of day fine weather and attended by a cast of peregrines, ravens, fieldfares and redwings, pink-footed geese and greylags.

Bad week

The discovery in Blawhorn car park of the scattered debris of a large firework display. There isn’t anything much more disturbing on a nature reserve than a large number of fireworks being set off and the resulting rubbish. Some were even nailed to a tree. An uncooperative strimmer only made the visit less productive.

Good week

On the visit to Blawhorn the team met a local resident who was able to tell them just how important Blawhorn Moss is to them. As a place to escape from the stresses of the current situation and to recovery from personal losses Blawhorn, perhaps one of our smallest and less well know NNRs, has been absolutely essential to this one person. Hearing this reminder of the good these reserve do is almost as important to us as the reserve is to this visitor.

Bad week

A large trailer of garden rubbish was dumped in a ditch on the access track to Flanders. Unsightly and a causing a problem from introducing invasive non-native plant species to a native ecosystem, it illustrates the lack of respect and value that a few people put on these special sites.

Good week

A quality afternoon spent clearing up cut gorse and planning future fencing works at Ballangrew meadow on Flanders Moss. We were lucky with the weather and we took the opportunity to recharge batteries with nature after a challenging week, and brush up on our lower plant id skills.

Bad week

Our workshop / store was broken into on Tuesday night and a lot of our power tools stolen. Not only does it stop us doing important work for nature on the reserves until we have replaced them but also there is a huge amount of work and budget involved with dealing with the situation and the aftermath.

Good week

In the current situation of outdoor, socially distant meetings we have built ourselves an outdoor meeting space at zero cost. Reusing stone recovered from an old path and the drum from my old washing machine as a fire pit, we are now set up for long and drawn out planning and review meetings that might also involve marshmallows and sausages. We are even happy to trent out this space to others. In the future we also have plans to make this space better for wildlife as well, so watch this space.

We are very lucky to do our jobs but there can be difficult days. We don’t do it for the money and we are out in all weathers and times (this morning some of the team started at 05:30 in the pouring rain for a goose roost count). But there are always good times to be had, special places to work and fine wildlife to see.

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Peatland Heal Thy Self

Flanders Moss NNR

For hundreds of years huge efforts were made to get rid of Flanders Moss as it was viewed as worthless land. As its value was gradually appreciated the efforts turned to healing the past damage, namely blocking the ditches that had been dug to drain the moss. Over the past 30-40 years many kilometres of ditches have been dammed so bringing the water table back to the surface of the moss. But our man-made dams only start the recovery process.

The other day we noticed a natural damming process that was raising the water table on the moss even further. The recent heavy rains have flushed through some of the dammed ditches, washing sheets of sphagnum along until they catch on debris and vegetation in the ditches. This then causes a natural blockage that raises the water table still further. This one we found in one of the old ditches dug by the peat company that was preparing to harvest peat from Flanders before it became a nature reserve. It had raised the water table in its immediate surroundings by a good few inches, by chance flooding one of our footbridges we had put in to get across the ditch.

The damming that we carry out is really only to jump start the restoration process and after that it seems like the bog is almost healing itself. It doesn’t get much more satisfying that that for a bog manager!

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