What is happening to the orchids?

Flanders Moss NNR

Lesser butterfly orchid – Ballangrew meadow
Ballangrew meadow – Flanders Moss NNR
Close-up of a lesser butterfly orchid

Ballangrew meadow is a small area of grassland on the western edge of Flanders that isn’t actual bog but is wet grassland that transitions through fen and into the edge of the peat bog. Many years ago when I started working at Flanders is was hardly grazed at all and so was very overgrown and tussocky. This wasn’t very good for the wildflowers of the grassland as grazing animals thin out the grass and give room for the less rugged flowers to come through. One of the species to benefit was the lesser butterfly orchid. This striking white orchid is declining across the country because it likes grassland managed in a particular unintensive way that is different from modern farming practices. Over the years we change the grazing regime of Ballangrew meadow and the orchids benefited, rising from just a handful to nearly 100 flowering spikes. Another orchid species that did very was the fragrant orchid.

Lesser butterfly orchid
Fragrant orchid – Ballangrew meadow.

But in recent years the orchid numbers have declined dramatically despite there being little change to the grazing regime of the fields. This years monitoring visit found only 4 spikes of lesser butterfly orchids and no fragrant orchids.

Orchid populations often go through boom and bust periods so there is no reason to panic yet but it is worrying. It is obviously time to review the grazing management to see if we can fine tuning the numbers and timing of stock on the meadow. It maybe that we exclude stock for a year to see if no grazing makes a difference. An alternative reason for the loss of orchids is the high red deer population that has built up in the area in recent years. Deer can preferential browse off flower heads so maybe they are eating the orchids? Review management and tweek is the answer.

This problem is typical of managing a nature reserve. You might have a set management prescription written into the management plan but nature is never that straight forward. Changes in weather patterns, dry years, wet years, natural plant cycles, changes in animals populations, natural pest and diseases and foreign invasive species can all change plant and animal populations but are rarely accounted for when you try to write down the way a reserve should be managed. It is one reason why working on nature reserves is endlessly interesting, challenging and satisfying. We will keep you up to date with progress.

Lesser butterfly orchid

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Mothy Mayhem

Many moths and butterflies have boom and bust years. It’s one of the things that makes assessing population trends so difficult as it can take decades to assess the long term trend in some species.  For example, Marsh Fritillaries – although now a rarity, and highly protected due to habitat loss, back in 1928 a field in Fermanagh was described as being ‘black with caterpillars’.

Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia).©Lorne Gill/SNH

Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia). ©Lorne Gill/SNH

In a boom year, it can get pretty spectacular; who can forget the invasion of the Clouded Yellows in 1992 (well, everyone but me apparently: am I the only person who remembers these things?).

On a smaller scale, this ghostly coating of the hedge in Wickes car park, by the larval webs of the Bird Cherry Ermine Moth in 2016.


Bird Cherry Moth Larval Webs; Wickes Car Park Springkerse Retail Park

Sometimes a boom is less than welcome, by humans anyway. While reading my local paper, The Alloa Advertiser, I came across one of Valerie Forsyth’s “Walk in the past” articles (my favourite bit of the paper). The article was about the “The Great Caterpillar Plague” of 1937.

This is when millions of Antler Moth Caterpillars destroyed thousands of hectares of summer pasture. The caterpillars were so numerous that a reservoir supplying Denny had to be shut down because of the amount of caterpillar bodies floating around in the water, polluting supplies.


Antler Moth

The Antler Moth, so known because of the Antler pattern on the wings, is normally a fairly unassuming medium sized moth which usually goes unnoticed. Antler Moth booms are not particularly unusual, occurring only  once or twice a decade. Generally they’re localised to small areas. What made the outbreak of 1937 notable was its size. The caterpillars went on the rampage all over southern and central Scotland, from Dumfries-shire to East Perthshire.  Stampeding? Swarming down from the hills, travelling up to a mile day and attacking arable crops. The plague was so severe, it even came to the attention of the House of Commons (in between debates on the Spanish Civil War and the Gold Standard) .

Provoking this exchange:

“Mr. T. Johnston

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland, whether he is aware that a destructive plague of caterpillars has swept from the Ochil Hills, in Perthshire, to the Campsie Hills, in Stirlingshire, and that some 10,000 acres of sheep pasturage have already been affected; whether outbreaks have been reported from other parts of Scotland: and whether he can make any statement as to the origins and causes of the plague and as to the steps which may be usefully taken by agriculturists and the Department of Agriculture for Scotland for the speedy arrestment of the plague.

 The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. Elliot)

I am aware that extensive damage has been done during recent weeks by caterpillars of the Antler Moth in the areas referred to in the Question and in other upland areas in South and Mid Scotland. The position has been investigated by the authorities of the Edinburgh and East of Scotland College of Agriculture, and it is stated that the rare periodic outbreaks of this pest have always followed upon a season in which  much snow has lain on the hills until late spring or early summer protecting the young caterpillars. I understand that control by artificial methods at this juncture is regarded as out of the question. It appears that in the opinion of expert entomologists the outbreak is past its zenith, that the pest is not likely to spread to the low ground, and that the damage done is not permanent, and may very quickly be repaired by growth of new grass. The Department are in communication with the College as to whether any further action is required by way of advice to farmers on the subject.

 Mr. Johnston

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether this pest is also attacking the fronds of the bracken, and whether investigations are being made as to whether some permanent advantage might not be secured in that direction?

 Dr. Elliot

My information is that it is rather an underground pest than a leaf pest; that it attacks the roots. I will call for a report as to whether it is attacking bracken.

 Mr. Macquisten

Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that this pest, which is ruining small agriculturists, is completing the work which has been done in this part of the country by the Milk Board?


Dr. Elliot

I do not think the Milk Board is concerned with these particular areas”


Hansard proceedings July 1937

The esteemed Secretary of State: Dr Walter Elliot; wasn’t that wide of the mark in his replies.

Late snow protecting caterpillars from weather and predators is thought to be a factor in Antler Moth booms, but more recent research has; low viral and parasitic loads, also contributing to population explosions.

The caterpillars are quite wasteful. Their food plants are grass; preferably Mat-grass and Fescues; they start munching at the base of the stem and work their way down. Although they don’t kill grass; the result is a sort of extreme mowing, with the uneaten stems left to rot.

Fortunately these population booms are temporary, and caterpillar eating birds; have (quite literally) a field day.

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Fab fritillaries!

Flanders Moss NNR

At this time of year the grassland meadow at Ballangrew, on the west side of Flanders Moss, is brightening up – becoming dotted with a variety of flowering plants. Some of these are bog specialists, adapted to grow in wet acidic conditions, such as marsh thistle, marsh cinquefoil and marsh lousewort. We manage the area by allowing some grazing and removing scrub and its great to see the fruits of our labour as the meadow blooms. The volunteers will be happy to know that all their hard work battling with spiky gorse bushes was worth it!

The star-shaped flowers of marsh cinquefoil

With these flowering plants come the insects that feed on their rich nectar source and pollinate them. Butterflies and moths are particularly abundant in the meadow and we spotted some small pearl-bordered fritillaries fluttering around. This is just where you would expect to see these beautiful butterflies as they occur in damp, grassy habitats and feed on the nectar of thistle flowers.

You can most easily tell them apart from the very similar pearl-bordered fritillary by looking at their undersides – the small pearl-bordered has a mosaic of white, orange and brown markings, whereas the pearl-bordered has two distinctive white patches. Both have a string of seven ‘pearls’ on the outer edge of the wing, giving them their name.

Small pearl-bordered fritillary on a marsh thistle flower

If they are sitting flat, you can still distinguish them from the pearl-bordered as the black chevrons on the outer edge of their wings are attached to the wing border instead of floating above it.

Whilst small pearl-borders are common and widespread in Scotland, their populations have undergone serious declines in some parts of England. Their plummeting numbers are thought to be due to habitat loss and degradation so it’s really important that we continue to provide suitable habitats for them.

You can help Butterfly Conservation to monitor these and other species of butterfly with the iRecord Butterflies app – the app is free and really straightforward to use. It also includes a great butterfly guide which has useful diagrams to help you to distinguish commonly confused species which look very similar, such as the small pearl-bordered and pearl-bordered fritillary. Good luck and happy butterfly hunting!

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Flanders from up high – the viewing tower is now open

Flanders Moss NNR

The iconic viewing tower is now open at Flanders Moss after being closed during lockdown. Unfortunately it had been vandalised again with people forcing entry to get around the locked door and also some graffiti appeared.

To avoid further vandalism we have opened to tower for use, but visitors will need to be patient and respectful of others when using the tower and apply social distancing rules when going up and down the stairs and on the platform .

This unique tower gives quite breathtaking views of Flanders Moss and the surrounding mountains, but in the current situation please can visitors take care, take their time and be considerate when using it. #staysafe.

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Mown desert or meadow magic

Flanders Moss NNR

Its is National Meadows Day today (see here) . Flower-rich meadows are a part of our countryside that has been lost or damaged more than nearly any other habitat. When you look across the Carse of Stirling landscape these days it is hard to imagine how it was with wildflowers packed in many of the fields and verges. Today in the UK only 2% of the wildflower-rich meadows that existed in the 1930’s remain.  Nearly 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadow have been lost so far and they are still being destroyed.  Of those that do survive, around 75% occur in small fragments and remain vulnerable to destruction.

At Flanders Moss NNR car park, when we landscaped the car park we could easily created some amenity grassland that we mowed every few weeks to keep the site neat and tidy. But instead we created a wildflower hay meadow around the car park. Over the past 5 years it has got better and better. Some of the plants have come from wildflower nursery grown plugs but much has come from wildflower seed collected by us from the surround area.

Tufted vetch

This year it is looking better than ever. Tufted vetch, meadow vetchling, red clover, meadow buttercup, yellow rattler, birds-foot trefoil and common knapweed make a striking swirl of colour as a welcome to the nature reserve. Making a meadow is a long-term project and there is still plenty to do to improve it but there is a tremendous satisfaction to be had to look at the low cost riot of flowers.

A potter wasp species ?

And it is not just important for the flowers. This week when the sun came out the whole meadow buzzed with insects. The bumble bees are the really obvious ones but a bit of time watching the comings and goings and you can pick up grasshoppers, dipteran flies, soldier beetles, spiders, silver Y moths, parasitic wasps and solitary bees. And it is also solitary bee week – these insects are far more important than the domesticated honey bees – they are native wildlife for a start but also can be in such numbers that they do more pollinating that honey bees.

Bumble bee using white clover
Bumble bee on bird foot trefoil.
A solitary bee
Silver Y moth
2 of the many flies using the flower heads

We aren’t experts in identifying all of these insects to species level so if there are any budding entomologists out there who fancy helping us draw-up a species list then please get in touch. With the meadow being next to over 2000 acres of Flanders Moss there is the chance of something interesting turning up.

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Solving plant mysteries

Loch Lomond NNR

Every day is a school day during this student placement. Each time we’re out on the reserves I notice something new I haven’t seen before, resulting in frequent pit stops to ask: “what’s that plant?.. oooh what’s that?.. what about that one?”. I think the NNR team are really going to miss me when I’m gone!

Usually someone can answer my question and we move on but last week we came across a plant that left the whole team scratching our heads.

We were removing Himalayan balsam in a patch of wet woodland on Loch Lomond NNR when we stumbled upon this…

The mystery plant..

The plant had never been seen on the reserve before and Steve suspected it was some kind of ice plant but none of us knew for sure. Mysterious garden escapes often turn up along water courses after their seeds have entered the river upstream and dispersed downstream. Sometimes they will disappear just as quickly as they appeared but occasionally they can go on to cause problems. The very plant we were out there looking for, Himalayan balsam, started off as garden plant introduced to the UK in 1839. It soon escaped and became naturalised along riverbanks due to its explosive and abundant seed dispersal. It now grows rapidly throughout the UK, smothering native plants and taking over whole areas. Therefore it’s important that we identify any newbies that show up and keep an eye on their progress.

Luckily there doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about with this particular newcomer. After a bit of detective work (asking Henry, aka garden plant expert) we confirmed that the plant is Hylotelephium telephium, commonly known as orpine, livelong, alpine, life-everlasting and, rather oddly, frog’s stomach and witch’s moneybags. When flowering it produces clusters of pinky/red flowers. Although native to the UK in some habitats, this small colony are likely to have naturalised on the reserve after escaping from a nearby garden. We will keep an eye on them over time but for now the mystery is solved!


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Shake, rattle and roll

Flanders Moss NNR

Often nature provides the perfect solution to a conservation problem (after all it did a pretty good job at regulating itself before humans came along). One such solution is yellow rattle, otherwise known as the “meadow maker”, an annual flower that increases plant biodiversity wherever it grows. This architectural flower lends a very welcome helping hand in the creation of labour-intensive wildflower meadows.

It does this by suppressing the growth of meadow grasses thereby reducing competition from dominant grasses and making space for other plants to grow. The result is a grassland rich in different species.

Yellow rattle weakens other plants (particularly grasses) by drawing water and nutrients from them, a strategy known as partial- or hemi-parasitism. It still produces its own nutrients through photosynthesis but it can boost them by stealing more from other plants.

This property of yellow rattle makes it the perfect meadow-maker as it allows a variety of flowers to grow which are a great food source for pollinators. We sow yellow rattle in the wildflower meadow at Flanders Moss car park to do just that.

Since its creation 5 years ago, the meadow has really come on but it still requires a fair bit of maintenance to prevent dominant plants and grasses from taking over, so every summer yellow rattle is collected from a field at West Most Side farm and sown once the meadow has been cut later in the year. By harvesting the seeds ourselves instead of buying them we save money and ensure that the seeds we plant are a native subspecies.

Last week we went out to pick some yellow rattle in a downpour! We’ve laid out the soggy plants to dry and will go through them to collect the seeds later in the season.

In the fields, when their seed pods dry out the seeds inside rattle around, making a noise that indicates to the farmer that the hay is ready to be cut – giving the plant its name!

Whilst we were out there picking we bumped into an old friend – Catherine the Curlew – who was looking rather magnificent in amongst the fields of hay! Catherine, the giant wicker curlew, was built last year by the pupils of Wallace High School, with the help of expert willow weaver Kate Sankey, as part of the Dawn Chorus project – learn more about the project here.

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Moth magic and more – National Insect Week

Flanders Moss NNR

Back out working on the reserves and we had some essential fence repairs to sort out at Flanders Moss. By the end of the day the fence was sheep proof but that wasn’t all that was achieved. Flanders is a designated site for a number of reasons and one of those is because of its assemblage of rare moth species. We therefore monitor the moths on the moss to keep track of some of the rarities. So we took to opportunity to set up a moth trap the night before we did the fencing so that when we went out in the morning we could first of all check to see what has been caught.

A moth trap attracts in moths with a bright light during the night and holds them until the morning when they can be identified and then released back on to the bog. As it was National Insect Week it seemed to perfect time to be having a closer look at some of the inhabitants of the moss. The haul was small but definitely quality rather than quantity with some of u=our target species turning up. Find out below what was caught.

A True Lovers Knot – a common moth but when freshly emerged they are rather striking.

A Miller. A subtlety striking moth whose caterpillars most probably feeds on the birch. We don’t catch many so it is always a pleasure to meet again.

A Plain Wave. This moth has a patchy distribution and is seen much less that its close and very similar relative the Riband Wave.

This moth is the Dark Arches, named because of the 2 arched black lines on the side of its thorax, just behind its head. It is one of the commonest moths found on Flanders and this one was the first of the season. Later in the summer we may catch 50 + in the moth trap.

A Dark Tussock. Another scarce moth regularly found on Flanders.

A Light Knotgrass. A moth of heathy and boggy places so Flanders is just ideal for them. Thank goodness they come to a light trap as otherwise they would be very difficult to find.

A Rolls Royce of a moth, the Silvery Arches is just beautiful in a very cryptic sort of way. They have only been recorded a few times on Flanders so apparently my collegues informed me that I squawked in an ungentlemanly sort of way when I found it in the trap. I don’t care, they are just wonderful.

Not the most exciting moth to look at but the Round Winged Muslin was the rarest moth caught. There are very few places north of a line drawn between Glasgow and Edinburgh where this moth is found but Flanders is one.

But as ever there, was much more in the way of insects than moths to look at. This watchful fly caught my eye – maybe a Snipe Fly? I don’t know much about flies but there maybe someone out there who can correct me.

Having a bit of a rest on some dead wood was a leafcutter bee – one of the Megachile species. They cut out circles of leaf and then use them to create cells on holes in wood in which they lay their eggs. There is a lot of cool stuff to find out about insects.

A cracking big Caddis Fly turned up in the moth trap. Different from a moth having wings with no scales, and come from larva that live in water and stick twigs or stones together to make their homes. How cool is that?

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Sundew – Drosera rotundifolia

Flanders Moss NNR

Our blog editor, Jane Petrie, writes about what she has been seeing close-up from the Flanders boardwalk:

When out on the boardwalk at Flanders it’s easy to gaze about and be entranced by so much that’s going on – the twinkling field of white cotton grass, the dragon and damsel flies zooming around, lizards zipping along the boardwalk or if you’re lucky, a cuckoo or raptor cutting through the wide blue sky above…

However, there’s also a lot to be seen down at peaty watery ground level, if you’re willing to crawl about to get nose to nose with some of the moss’s smaller and perhaps less obviously flashy inhabitants.

Sundew, specifically the round leaved sundew, can be found near the boardwalk on Flanders.  It can be hard to spot until you finally see some, then you see patches of red and green leaves here and there so often you wonder how you ever missed it in the first place.  This month, the sundew plants are looking glorious in their bizarre, sticky, dew-dropped, tentacle haloed way.  If there was ever a competition for weird alien looking plants, sundews would surely medal.

Sundew form compact rosettes of leaves, red and green and what a thing of beauty this little plant is.  Their name comes from the drops of mucilage that resemble drops of morning dew.  And at this time of year, they look incredibly pretty with halos of reddish tentacles, each tipped with with a sticky gob, glistening in the light.

So far so good, but sundews aren’t just a pretty face – oh, no…far from it, because this is a cheerful looking little plant with a dark side.  The sticky dew is sweet and attracts flying insects to it, who then become entrapped.  All sundew species worldwide (and they appear on every continent except Antarctica, in myriad forms) can move their tentacles in response to contact with edible prey.  Once they have caught an insect, they can curl their tentacles inwards to hold it fast.  Having done so, they secrete enzymes which digest the insects and the plant then absorbs the nutrients released. 

Sundew grow in boggy, acidic habitats where the soil has low nutritional value so the carnivorous element supplements their diet.  Well designed, sundew flowers sit on a tall stalk above the sticky plant, perhaps to avoid potential pollinators becoming entrapped and thus unable to fulfil their pollinating function. 

Sundew in flower – Duncan Curry, SNH.

As with almost every plant found, our ancestors had various uses for it.  One such use was on the face to brighten the complexion or, mixed with milk and applied to the skin, to remove freckles and treat sunburn.  As Culpepper notes ‘The leaves are continually moist in the hottest day, yea, the hotter the sun shines, the moister they are’ so one can see why some might feel its juice would keep the skin plump and moist and prevent dryness.  However, Culpepper continues ‘It flowers in June and then the leaves are fittest to be gathered…The leaves, bruised and applied to the skin, erode it…destroys warts and corns’.  So, clearly, one had to be careful exactly how sundew was used because there is a wide range of effect to be had, from moistening to erosion or even destroying! 

The plant was further used to relieve chest conditions such as asthma and whooping cough. It was commonly mixed with thyme in a syrup to treat coughing in children.  The plant has properties that relax the muscles of the respiratory tract, which relieves wheezes.  In the 16th and 17th centuries it was thought also to relieve melancholy.  Later on, the plant was thought of as a love charm, given its ability to lure in and trap helpless insects.

So next time you’re out on the Moss, keep your eyes peeled for the fascinating sundew and just take a moment to marvel at it.

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Let out the hutch

Stirling NNRs

The whole team is very excited to be back working on the reserves

After being given authorisation by SNH managers, the Stirling NNR team are very pleased to be able to start work back on the reserves.

It has been a long time since we have spent some quality time on these special sites, with only fleeting health and safety visits to sustain us through the past 14 weeks so we are all champing at the bit to get back out there.

There is a very long list of jobs for us to get on with, these tasks being just a few – dealing with the invasive non- native plants at Loch Lomond, tidying up the visitor facilities at Blawhorn Moss and Flanders Moss, filling in the pot holes on the Flanders track, patching up collapsing fencing at Flanders and picking up what monitoring work we can in the remains of the season.

Looking forward to getting close up to the bogs again.

All this work will be carried out with enhanced hygiene procedures and socially distant which creates challenges in itself. We hope also to be able to start working with our fantastic team of volunteers soon, we are certainly going to need some help with some of the tasks. And talking of fantastic volunteers we would like to say thank you those local people and volunteers who kept a close eye on the reserves while we couldn’t visit them. It is so good to have loyal and committed people helping out in trying times, the reserves would be much poorer without them.

So if you see us out and about feel free to stop us for a social distant chat and we can tell you what we are seeing and what work is ongoing.

Can’t wait to get back out on Loch Lomond and visit the NNR islands.
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