Investment – worth every penny!

Blawhorn Moss, NNR

Well, we have truly started 2023 with a bang!

For many years the number one complaint with our visitors regarding Blawhorn Moss was about the condition of the access track which leads to our reserve car park. In some cases, people didn’t visit because of the track’s condition.

Over the many years we have filled in the potholes, however in my eyes it was like watching money evaporate in front of us! The track is on a hill with poor drainage, which meant that when it rained it was like you were driving up a stream. The water flow caused severe erosion, so any pothole filling crumbled and washed away.

Since returning back to the Stirling NNRs I had one main job I wished see complete on my watch….. a new resurfaced access track. This was challenging: NatureScot don’t own the access road so there were some negotiations to be had. I won’t go into detail how we got here, or how I have made it until Thursday this week without throwing in the towel as NNR Manager! But we’ve got there!

A NEW ACCESS TRACK TO BLAWHORN MOSS, NNR CAR PARK!

This is by far one of the best if not the best visitor improvement for our reserve to date. We know the condition of the track was a barrier for many of our visitors who wished to explore our boardwalk. The speed bumps are laid at a slant (they are squint, you don’t need glasses), this design will divert water to run off onto the side which will help keep the road from deteriorating from further surface water.

So, before opening the gate and removing the signs I wished to enjoy the piece and quiet.

A moment of reflection soaking up some vitamin D to recharge for the next project at Blawhorn Moss!

Phase 2 of the boardwalk extension will commence in March!

We hope that our visitors can now return to our reserve, along with welcoming new visitors to our wonderful, wet and wild National Nature Reserve.

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A chilly hen harrier count

Flanders Moss NNR

Over winter we carry out regular hen harrier bird counts which feed into the RSPB’s National Winter Roost Survey. As many of you will know hen harriers are one of the UK’s most threatened and persecuted birds and although protected, they are on the Red list of UK birds of conservation concern. Carrying out regular counts and feeding into national statistics is an important way of tracking the status and all the conservation efforts to protect this beautiful species

Steve and I carried out our January survey last week and it was definitely one of the coldest days of the year although beautifully clear and crisp. We follow RSPB guidelines and start our surveys one and a half hours before sunset and finish half an hour after. We positioned ourselves at the top of the tower at Flanders Moss and armed with hot flasks of hot chocolate, binoculars and scope we settled in to wait. Lucky for us there was really no waiting as within minutes we spotted a bright flash on the horizon and realised it was the distinctive pale grey of a male hen harrier. This fine fellow went on to move beautifully across the bog coming closer to us swooping and gliding showing off his distinctive wings as he went. We must have watched him for around fifteen minutes before he finally dived down and we lost sight of him. We hoped he had found something tasty for his tea before heading back to his roost.

Thanks to a great zoom on the camera I managed to catch a couple of pics but I didn’t manage to get any in great focus. But you can just about spot the distinctive colours, wing tips and tail shape.

We didn’t see any more hen harriers that evening but we enjoyed the lovely evening winter glow over the moss watching the ravens and crows and were delighted to have seen our one male. We hope we keep seeing these wonderful birds in future continuing to visit Flanders Moss in the winter months.

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Going batty at Blawhorn

Blawhorn Moss NNR

A guest blog from the Oatridge Rangers & Countryside Stewards (ORCS), Chris Crawford and Emma Stevens-Veitch

Dawn at Blawhorn Moss

Emma – Last summer, my ORCS colleague, Chris Crawford and I were excited to lead on a project to discover if there were any bats present at Blawhorn Moss NNR. ORCS stands for Oatridge Ranger & Countryside Stewards and is a student run body from the SRUC Oatridge campus. ORCS help students gain valuable practical experience in wildlife and conservation management. I’m a student with SRUC alongside my seasonal role as a Nature Reserve Officer (some of you eagle eyed regular blog readers might recognise my name). Chris and I’ve put together a guest blog post from ORCS to share with you a little about our experiences. So, Chris what did we get up to and why?

ORCS surveyors at dusk

Chris – Thanks Emma. So this year we thought that ORCS and NatureScot could work well together and we met Amee Hood, the Reserve Manager, to chat about what projects we could work collaboratively on. When it came to light that there hadn’t been a bat survey conducted at Blawhorn we decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. Emma and I had experience with bat surveying and so we set up some online training and invited the members of ORCS and SRUC to come and join us. It was good practice for Emma and I to lead our own surveys but also opened the doors for our volunteer surveyors to learn about what it entails and why recording this protected species is so important. Our lecturers at Oatridge campus of SRUC generously provided us with detecting equipment for the summer and even joined us in the field. After getting a fair bit of interest, we set off on the first of our 6 surveys on a summers evening in June.

Some of the ORCS team getting ready to start a dusk survey

Chris – Needless to say that after all the preparation, organising and risk assessing there was a tinge of anxiety thrown in with the excitement of the occasion and the question if Blawhorn Moss had any bats at all! Our marvellous mammals didn’t let us down and on that first evening and within no time at all we were surrounded. It really was a great feeling (and a bit of a relief) to know that there were bats at Blawhorn and they treated us to loads of sightings and echolocation calls throughout the whole survey. Over the summer we ran 6 surveys in total, 3 dusk and 3 dawn and a mixture of transect type and static surveys. This meant late nights and early starts for our dedicated volunteer surveyors and we had to endure the rain and cold on occasion as well as the midges!

Emma – I loved being at Blawhorn for dusk and dawn surveys. It was a chance to see the place in many beautiful lights and we were lucky to get some brilliant sunrises and sunsets despite the occasional (very) wet survey. It definitely made up for the unsociable hours and was a very rewarding experience. It was wonderful to see and hear the wildlife at night. It wasn’t just bats but deer, owls and foxes were all spotted amongst the crepuscular creatures, as well as the birds treating us to their spectacular dawn chorus. The bats put on quite a show for us on some of our surveys and in some cases they were whizzing just centimetres away from our noses! Bat surveys are definitely a feast for the senses.

Emma – We were delighted to record over 150 bats passes over our surveys. These were mainly Common pipistrelle and Soprano pipistrelle species but we also picked up a few Noctule bats. We also identified potential roosting sites and there were clear commuting routes and foraging areas observed over the course of our surveys. So it’s fair to say that we were really pleased with how it went and were very happy to have the support of all the volunteers that came along and without them we couldn’t have covered so much of the reserve. We’ve provided the NatureScot NNR team with a report of our survey findings which we hope will provide insight into the bat activity we observed at Blawhorn Moss.

Chris – All in all it was a great success. The aim was to find out if we had bats at Blawhorn and give volunteers the opportunity to learn about these great creatures and how to record them and we were lucky enough to be able to do all of these. Volunteer surveyor feedback was that everyone really enjoyed the experience and had a lot of fun into the bargain. Working with Amee and NatureScot has encouraged us to explore further projects and I for one will be putting my name down for those. A big thank you also has to go out to SRUC for the equipment loan and Chris Smillie our lecturer, Laura Carter-Davis at Echoes Ecology and Amee Hood for their guidance and advice, without which we it wouldn’t have made it such a success.

We hope to see some of you next year, same bat time, same bat channel!!

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Going out with a bang

Stirling NNRs

After almost 2 years I am saying bye to the bogs. Emma recently asked what my highlights were, and it was very difficult to answer because it’s all been sooo good.

Until I started working on the NNRs and writing blogs on our work, I didn’t really think I was much good at putting words together. For an essay…maybe, but not for a blog! I still struggle a bit, particularly now actually. So I’m going to let the pictures do most of the talking. Starting from my very first day watching/listening to the Frog Chorus to my last project making the magnifying posts, here are many, many highlights:

This placement has honestly been the best job ever, doing some incredible practical conservation work, wildlife monitoring, community engagement, road/path/fence maintenance… the list goes on.

Looking back through photos has reminded me of lots of highlights, including all the wildlife I saw for the first time. A major air-punching moment was finding the tiny Bog Sun-Jumper spider, and…

…the first time spotting a stand-out species which deserves a gallery all of its own! Taking many of my work and personal hours finding and studying this beastie which lurks on the big bog. It even got me on the radio at one point!

A valuable peatland species and charmingly hairy creature. No, not Amee’s bog dog, Oatie…

The Rannoch Brindled Beauty.

AKA… the ‘belly button fluff’.

This little moth had me hooked as soon as I stumbled upon my first fluffy specimen upon a fence post on Flanders Moss. I knew I wanted to look more into its distribution and ecology. It was good timing that I was in my 2nd year of distance-studying MSc Countryside Management at SRUC and was thinking about my 3rd-year research project. You can read a bit more in this blog post.

Of course, it’s inevitable that there will be some low points. Take my last day in the field – Emma and I took a trip to Loch Lomond NNR yesterday to check up on the site and see what wildlife we could spot. After a lovely, if a little soggy, scoping session at Crom Mhin, we trundled along another access track. We were almost at our stopping point when we started hearing a dreaded rhythmic thud and, well, the next picture will speak for itself.

So, yeah, literally going out with a bang.

I can’t leave without mentioning my fantastic team – I will miss Emma, Steve and Amee (and Oatie!) and I have to hand it to Amee for being so patient, organised and generally great at her job when coming into managing our little team and several reserves at a really, really busy time!

On Monday, I’ll be starting a new position with Forestry and Land Scotland as a Forest Craftsperson, so if you’re ever wandering around the woods of Aberfoyle I may bump into you sometime! I’ll also be visiting the bogs for my regular fixes.

Bye, for now!

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Winding down to Christmas

As we come towards the end of our last working week of the year and get ready for Christmas it’s a time to look back and today we’ve been talking in the team about our highlights from the year gone by as well as having a little party for Ellie who will be leaving us early in the New Year. 

Seeing the Water rail at Loch Lomond – Steve and Ellie’s highlight

Ellie’s creative photography skills alongside Water rail image (c) David Whitaker, Highland Wildlife Photography 2014

Steve and Ellie carried out three BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Surveys over the spring and summer months at our Loch Lomond NNR.  These surveys are an important part of our calendar for the year and contribute valuable statistics for measuring local and national bird population trends.  Steve and Ellie said that doing these were a real highlight for them and in particular spotting several Water rail which are normally very elusive.  

“The surveys were really nice and peaceful although quite tiring as we covered quite a stretch but seeing the Water rails really perked us up for the last stretch. I was quietly delighted at seeing its little white bum disappearing into the rushes” (Ellie) 

Blawhorn boardwalk – Amee’s highlight

This March saw the opening of the 170 metre extension to the boardwalk at Blawhorn Moss NNR.  This was Amee’s personal highlight.  It was quite a project to co-ordinate, working in partnership with Drumduff wind farm (GreenPower & Thrive renewables) who funded the work, the contractors as well as having the support of SRUC Oatridge students who fitted the hundreds of anti-slip strips.

“It was huge relief to get it finished as we were up against the elements with storm after storm and a deadline of the end of March to get the work done. It wasn’t an easy job with the anti-slip strips needing hours of time and a two-way gate that hadn’t been specced having to be fitted to create a bespoke fit. It’s made the peatland more accessible and was great to get support from GreenPower and Thrive Renewables who contributed 70% of the costs.  Here’s to 2023 and Phase 2 of the boardwalk extension which will stretch over the northerly section” (Amee)

Dragonfly discovery day – Emma

This was definitely my favourite event of the year.  It was brilliant putting together displays and talks for this day and it was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of all the visitors.  I learned a heap in the process about these beautiful and fascinating creatures and it was especially great that we had quite a few dragonfly sightings on the day. 

Farewell Ellie!

Ellie chuffed with her gifts!

A big thank you Ellie from all of the team here for all of your passion and energy and amazing ideas – you are leaving a legacy behind you at our Stirling NNRs and you’ll be sorely missed!  For those of you who don’t know, Ellie will be moving onto her next adventure with Forestry and Land Scotland as a Forest Craftsperson.   We had a little party today around the workshop fire with one of Steve’s famous cakes and gave Ellie some gifts to wish her well. 

Fear not, fans of Ellie’s blog writing; she will be back in January for a few days and will be leaving you with her own departure post. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Christmas is also a time to appreciate and show gratitude so,, firstly, we want to say a special thank you to our volunteers.  It is amazing to have the support from a fantastic group of regular volunteers who come out and help every week, come rain or shine helping tackle Invasive Non-Native Species and other physically demanding jobs on our reserves.  We just couldn’t do it without you!

A big thanks to all the other groups who helped over the year including SRUC Oatridge and ORCS who have been involved in all sorts of work including building the boardwalk, fencing and surveys.  Thanks also to the other local groups and schools, including Gargunnock Primary School for their art work and the Forth Six Scouts who helped created hibernacula.

Thank you to our international group visitors such as Wetlands International, the delegates of the Glasgow 22 World Congress of Soil Science and the Natural Resources Wales, LIFE Raised Bog and Quaking Bog teams. It was great to share learning and to boost the profile and value of peatlands.

And a final thank you to all our visitors and friends of the Stirling Reserves. We know there are many who deeply value the NNRs and help to keep them protected and the special places they are.

Merry Christmas to you all! We look forward to seeing you on the reserves soon!

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A mega, frosty Christmas tree forage

Flanders Moss NNR

A mega turnout for this year’s volunteer Christmas tree harvest on the bog. Lots of NatureScot staff came out as well as a few of our regular volunteers. Maybe it was the frozen bog (low risk of sinking). Maybe it was the promise of mince pies and cake.

Anyway, what a day for it! The aforementioned icy bog made the walk out to the trees unusually easy in comparison to normal, and the bright sun made it incredibly pleasant. Actually, I’m assuming all of this as Emma and I didn’t walk, we drove the ArgoCat out!

With some prior planning by the NNR team, we’d identified a good patch of nice-looking, not too big, not too small, Scots Pine trees growing on the moss. Ideal for the 20-odd people to choose their perfectly wonky Flanders Christmas tree. Despite that, one volunteer chose THE BIGGEST TREE to fill their living room… and the Argo trailer… It’s all good, we came prepared!

Everyone’s trees nicely strapped down (ish).

Of course, we didn’t just cut our Christmas trees and leave. This is important tree-removal business, and we gave instructions to chop down however many trees they wanted. It all counts towards the conservation of the bog (here’s a reminder of how) and with our big group we cut our way through a pretty large chunk of pine trees, and even the odd neat little Sitka Spruce got taken away to be decorated.

So with that, a bit more of Flanders Moss will stay a bit wetter without these trees soaking up the spongey bog in the future. If it ever thaws!

As an extra treat (literally extra, as many sweet treats were passed around at lunch time) we invited everyone to a fireside gathering with mince pies and non-alcoholic mulled wine. Reserve Officer Steve had been busy burning leftover gorse cuttings from our Gorse and Spud day.

When we saw the smoke signal in the distance, we knew things were ready. The mulled wine would be mulling, and the mince pies will be…opened. Time to start walking off the bog and head towards the fire.

Steve’s smoke signal.
Off we go!
A lovely, cosy sight.

A huge thank you to everyone who came to help clear the trees. Volunteers and staff – old and new – we hope everyone enjoyed meeting new people, catching up with others, and getting outside to do some sustainable Christmas-tree foraging!

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Birthday on the bog

Flanders Moss NNR

I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday than to be at Flanders Moss on a day like today with a piece of Steve’s famous Yorkshire Parkin cake. The sun was shining and after a week of very cold temperatures the bog looked incredible. I know I only just blogged about frost and wintery conditions last week, but today’s conditions were just stunning and I felt it impossible not to share some photos from today’s visit.

Anyone who regularly visits Flanders knows, that on a clear day, the views are just stunning and today they were some of the finest. There were lots of birds on the wing and we were greeted by Fieldfare a plenty, large flocks of Pink-footed geese, Redwing and Ravens cronking at us.

One of the things I love best at Flanders is the many species of Sphagnum mosses and it is absolutely fascinating to see how they behave in different conditions. Today they were encrusted with ice and in the thickly frosted bog pools their air bubbles had been captured in time.

The other bog vegetation was also standing out in the light and both Ellie and I noted we were observing features in a way we wouldn’t normally, with the ice making certain aspects stand out such as the multitude of grasses or the heather taking on new dimensions. The spiderwebs on the tower too were a thing to behold.

We have another week of very cold weather ahead of us so do drop by to see Flanders in all it’s wintery glory.

The pot holes have all been filled in on the access road this last week too so you’ll have a smoother journey here!

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Winter is here

Flanders Moss NNR

Well it’s safe to say winter has well and truly arrived. We had a very frosty day today out on Flanders Moss. The sun did appear but it didn’t warm up much. Ellie and I joined two of our hardworking volunteers, Ann and Ken for a day of birch cutting. For more on why we cut down the trees on the bog have a look at Ellie’s recent post. Even though we were just a small team today we made good progress and were pleased with how much we cleared.

I’ve had a few weeks away from work and it was good to be back outdoors working as a team, getting the muscles working again and enjoying the fresh crisp bog. The frosty conditions made for beautiful scenery and a new perspective for me of the bog including my first ever sighting of hair ice fungus (see top right photo below). Flanders is ever changing throughout the year and it is wonderful to be able to appreciate all the differences as the seasons shift. Here are some of our frosty appreciation photos from today. I’m sure there will be plenty of other fresh frosty days if you fancy visiting over the winter months and seeing it for yourself.

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Magnificent magnification

Flanders Moss NNR

Something new has appeared on the moss, allowing us all to take a closer look at nature (as long as it doesn’t crawl away!)

Inspired by something spotted on a recent wander, we’ve crafted these two new pieces of interpretation.

With the vision in mind, I enlisted the help of Emma and Steve to realise my dream of installing some magnifying posts along the Flanders Moss circular walk. We hand-crafted these from (almost) scratch – using some large posts we had in the workshop, some reclaimed Larch plank for the tops and even some aluminium plates leftover from a past project. The only expense was the magnifying glasses themselves.

It was brilliant to get stuck into an unusual practical project. It allowed Emma and I to get to know tools we’d never used before, and gain confidence in ones we’d already experienced.

The resulting posts have a rustic charm. At least that’s what we’re calling it! Straight edges are few and far between, but they work well. Do give them a go next time you’re wandering around Flanders – pick up a bit of Sphagnum moss, a garland of cranberry leaves, an obliging insect (if it’s safe to do so!) or even just amuse yourself with a close-up view of your own fingerprints. Go nuts.

Complete with shiny engraved plaque. Guess the Sphagnum species…?
Looking very photogenic in the setting sun.

Why not be amongst the first visitors to try them out this weekend?

Don’t forget to share any interesting observations with us on Instagram and Facebook!

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Shrubs and spuds

Flanders Moss NNR

A brief blog on how potatoes mark the start of Winter for the Stirling NNR team.

A dewy day begins on Flanders Moss.

Our annual gorse-bashing session landed on the brief window of lovely weather last week. Arriving on a rather atmospheric boggy meadow on the edge of Flanders, we got to work on clearing some of the gorse encroachment.

This area is where we get Lesser Butterfly Orchids in the summer! A beautiful, delicate but also sturdy-looking orchid which grows on the lagg fen (bog margin) on the West of Flanders Moss. Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera bifolia) is a biodiversity conservation priority species and classed as ‘vulnerable’. So to preserve this population at Flanders, we need to prevent the gorse from taking over this patch.

Lesser butterfly orchids grow on the Lagg Fen – a rare habitat.

Most of the cut brash was tidied up and lobbed on a well-supervised and neatly burning fire, which kept us toasty in-between shifts of sawing, lopping and dragging.

Much like the bog trees, we don’t want to cut back all of the gorse as it serves as good habitat for nesting birds. We clear the gorse in a sort of cycle, leaving last year’s cleared gorse to grow back (and my goodness, it grows back with a vengeance!) while we focused on a more mature patch this year.

Of course, me being the queen of forgetting ‘before’ photos, you’ll have to imagine our clearing efforts.

Much is the tradition, halfway through the day, Steve popped some home-grown tatties into the ash to bake. A well deserved treat for the volunteers, and an event which marks the beginning of the end of the year for us as winter descends!

Enjoying our spud-based picnic after the hard (and spikey) graft.
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