Thursday 13th February 2020 – First of all Bill Neill will talk for 15 minutes about Bumblebee Identification then Martyn Jamieson will present “Geese, Peat and Malt Whisky: Islay”Geese, Peat and Malt Whisky: Islay
On 9th January 2020 a number of people braved the seasonal weather to assemble in the Dark Island Hotel to hear Robin Sutton’s talk about the Yorkshire Dales. We were treated to a full range of seasons, but on a breezy January night it was good to see a lot of pictures of the dales and their wildlife in summery weather.
Robin worked in the Dales at Malham Tarn Field Studies
Centre for fourteen years, giving him a good opportunity to explore the area
and record many aspects of its habitats and species in different seasons. He
noted the importance of regularly recording common things, allowing observation
of changes over time.
The Yorkshire Dales lie between the Pennine hills that
form the watershed between east and west in northern England, so some rivers
flow into the North Sea and some eventually into the Irish Sea. The dales are
glacial valleys: the typical U shape with flat bottom and steep sides, cut into
the hills which are composed of alternate layers of hard sandstone and
limestone, the sandstone on top of the peaks and the layers of limestone
increasing in thickness on the lower slopes and valley bottoms. The highest
‘Three Peaks’ are well known: Whernside [possibly named from the use of sandstone for querns],
Ingleborough [the fort of the Angles] and Pen y Ghent [Hill of the Wind]. The
limestone has horizontal bedding planes formed as the sediment was laid down,
and vertical breaks or joints; while the stone itself is impermeable, water can
travel along these joints. In some areas there are expanses of limestone with
an uneven but overall bare level surface
broken into segments or ‘clints’ by deep
clefts or ‘grikes’ which follow lines of joints, forming a ‘limestone
pavement’. In the clefts, with shelter from winds and grazing animals,
vegetation grows, including woodland species; if stock were excluded soils
would gradually develop and the whole area become a woodland.
Robin took us on a circular ramble in the Malham Tarn
area, showing different types of vegetation and some typical and some unique
species on the way. For instance, Malham Tarn is home to a flightless caddis
fly which occurs nowhere else in Britain, but is also known from Estonia!
Plants occurring in the area include Bloody Cranesbill, Rock Rose, Birds Foot
Trefoil which supports the Common Blue Butterfly, Early Purple Orchids [some of
which are white] which attracts queen bees although the orchids produce no
nectar. In early summer a lot of the flowers are yellow: Ladies’ Bedstraw,
Yellow Rattle, Cowslips; and later in summer blue is more dominanat: Harebell,
Small Scabious and Devil’s Bit Scabious and Hard heads, attracting Painted
Ladies, Red Admirals and Dark Green Fritillaries, Chequered Skipper and Brown
Argus among other things.
The area has a range of soils from the calcareous on the
limestone to more acid where there are areas of boulder clay formed during the
glacial period and some acid peaty areas. In the limestone areas there are
‘shake holes’ which have formed when water running down joints in the rock has
eroded the rock under the surface until a cavity is formed and at some point
the uppermost rock with the topsoil drops down; these can be a hazard to
As water is diverted from the surface down sink holes to
channels under the rock, dry valleys form, but in very heavy rain the
underground channels can be filled and the valleys run again with surface
streams. At some time in the past the cliff at Malham Cove was formed, but
water very rarely comes over it now: Robin did not see water falling there
during his years living there but was told that during Storm Desmond in 2015 so
much rain fell that water did come over, forming the highest waterfall in
Britain. There are dark areas on the rock face looking like soot. When Charles
Kingsley visited the area and saw this it may have inspired elements of his
Peaty areas are formed where water loving plants grow in
wet areas and gradually accumulate a growth of peaty material which as it rises
above the water table supports such plants Lesser Clubmoss, Cotton Grass and Cross
leaved Heath, the very pretty Grass of Parnassus and the Birds Eye Primrose
which grows only in the north of England.
There are also areas of woodland with Ash, and expanses
of Wild Garlic, Bluebells, Red Campion, and Sweet Cicely, which was brought by
the Romans who chewed the stems.
In Malham Tarn itself there used to be crayfish, which
may have been eradicated by a crayfish disease, as there are none now apart
from in a very small area of the tarn, close to an area of yew, giving rise to
the theory that chemicals from the yew, leaching into the water, may provide
some protection to the crayfish in that area of water.
Robin had all sorts of intriguing little facts about the
area, plants and animals, which added to the interest of his talk. His
illustrations were excellent.
The next talk will be: Geese, Peat and Malt Whisky: Islay by Martyn Jamieson on 13th February at the Dark Island Hotel, 7.30pm
On Thursday 12th December 2019 a good number of people assembled in the Dark Island Hotel to hear a talk by Viv Halcrow, the Woodland Trust’s Croft Woodland Project Officer for the Western Isles.
The Project started in 2016 in all the crofting counties,
and in the Outer Hebrides is funded by the Point and Sandwick Trust, with
support from Scottish Forestry and the Scottish Crofters’ Federation. Funding
for the scheme is now secure until 2026.
Viv provides advice and practical help, including getting
funding for planting schemes. The Outer Hebrides has seen the greatest number
of enquiries, with at least 450 since the project began, resulting in more than
90 schemes started, of varying size. By April 2020 just over 100,000 trees
should have been planted in over 31 hectares.
Viv went on to list the main reasons for planting trees: to
shelter buildings, gardens, livestock or crops; to improve soil by raising deep
nutrients nearer the surface and depositing leaf litter; to add variety to the
landscape; to provide habitats and food for wildlife; for fuel; and for craft
purposes, particularly willow.
Locations need careful consideration; trees won’t grow on deep peat [planting should not be attempted anyway as peat stores carbon] and should not be planted on machair; in between, they will do best when they have some shelter from the immediate topography, and a good depth of reasonably fertile soil (at least a foot – or 30 centimetres). Water pipes, electricity cables both underground and overhead should be avoided, and sites designated for particular natural features or archaeological remains may not be suitable for planting.
Native species are most appropriate, and ideally of local provenance or as near as possible: grey willow, eared willow, downy birch and alder; and other local species are aspen, hazel, hawthorn, bird cherry, sessile oak and rowan. Non-native trees that will grow are sycamore, which is resistant to salt, other types of willow, lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce. Shrubs with waxy leaves that are resistant to drying in strong winds are escallonia and olearia, which can be grown for shelter round plantations.
Some tree nurseries are now getting under way in Lewis at Leurbost and near Shawbost, and one in the Bays of Harris, growing trees from locally collected seed.
Planting involves design of the scheme, neighbour consultation, fencing (including deer fencing in many places) ground preparation and fertilising. Once the trees are planted they may need protecting against rabbits and, in Uist, voles. Planting at a high density with seedlings just 1 or 1½ metres apart is recommended, and the grants support this density. Ideally a scoop of soil is removed and turned over to provide a low mound with no other plants around the newly planted tree, so no competition for light and nutrients.
Maintenance is essential: weeding, and/or mulching around the trees; replacing trees that fail, topping up fertiliser, repairing fencing if necessary, and checking for browsing damage, including by caterpillars which can defoliate the trees. Mulches should be organic material that will gradually decompose and add to the soil; cardboard, paper and sheep wool are all suitable materials. If there is a long dry spell ideally the trees should be watered if possible; mulches help to retain the moisture in the soil as well as discouraging weed growth.
There are grants available:
MORE woods provides a
60% grant for a minimum of 300 native trees, under a twelve year agreement, but
this does not include money for labour, fertiliser or fencing.
The SRDP Forestry Grant
Scheme provides £3600 per hectare for between ¼ and 3 hectares of planting,
with an additional allowance for fencing, tree guards or netting, gates and a
management grant for five years. This is under a twenty year contract. A CAGS shelterbelt grant is available for fencing and
shelterbelts for horticultural businesses or for shelter of livestock.
More information can be found on the Point and Sandwick Trust website where you can see a map of schemes already planted, (one of the largest in Uist being in Grimsay with over 5,000 trees), the Woodland Trust website, or ‘Facebook’ under ‘Western Isles Trees on the Croft’ or get in touch with Viv by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Thursday 14th November 2019 the usual room in the Dark Island Hotel used for Curracag talks was filled to capacity for Andrew Stevenson’s talk on our local raptors, a talk organised by Martyn Jamieson for Curracag, but open to anyone interested.
Andrew started by telling us modestly that his talk was based on the work of the Uist Raptor Study Group, one of 13 raptor study groups which cover Scotland, and of which he has been an active member for a number of years. Even for the most dedicated groups, keeping track of a range of birds with a small membership in some of the challenging terrain we have, especially on the east side of Uist, is very difficult.
He described briefly the
range of habitats available to raptors: the extensive hill and moorland, loch
systems, machair, offshore islands and cliff, providing a wide range of food
sources from various sizes of birds, mammals and carrion. Of the smaller
mammals, woodmice, rats and rabbits are present in most of the islands, but
field voles are not known in Barra or some of the offshore islands, and though
hares were introduced to North Uist in the last century they have not survived,
so the range is limited. Likewise, the range of predators is more limited than
on the mainland, as we have no foxes or pine martens.
Other factors that affect some of the birds (and their prey) are weather; wet and windy springs and summer can affect nesting birds; and muirburn, when carried out outside the legally permitted season and not controlled. Human interference is limited.
Andrew then took us through a
list of our resident raptors, with comments on each.
Golden Eagle, for which there are about 25 ranges in Uist, taking as prey birds such as red grouse, ducks, sometimes fulmars, geese, and also rats and rabbits; one pair seem to specialise in taking gannets. Recently some eaglets have been found dead or dying from an unknown cause, but not a lack of food sources. Our golden eagles are slightly different from the mainland population; there seems to be very little if any exchange across the Minch.
White-tailed Eagle, which now has 11 ranges in Uist, the result of expansion since their re-introduction to Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s. They take wildfowl, grouse, and herons, and even hedgehog and octopus have been known to feature in the diet!
Uist supports between 40 and 50 breeding female Hen Harriers, a big improvement on the 10 to 15 pairs known in the 1980s, nesting on moorland and foraging over considerable distances, sometimes as much as 11 kilometres. They are not present in Barra as there are no field voles, one of the main prey items. They have recently colonised Lewis despite the absence of voles, feeding mainly on small birds.
Similarly, Short-eared Owls only breed in Uist; between about 60 and 90 pairs, with a long breeding season, the earliest chicks fledging in mid May while some appear in August. Short-eared owl populations are declining internationally; ours fluctuate although the Uist vole populations don’t seem to crash as they do in other places.
Long-eared Owls breed rarely in North and South Uist, possibly about 10 pairs, but are difficult to find and study as they are nocturnal owls, unlike the short-eared owls which fly during the day and are often seen from the road.
There may be about 95 to 100 pairs of Buzzards, which are mainly on the west side, and will be familiar to most.
Peregrines are limited: in 2002 there were 19 ranges, but now there seem to be fewer, paralleling a decline on the mainland. Prey: waders, seabirds and rock doves are not in short supply.
There are probably 20 to 30 pairs of Merlin, taking passerines and small waders.
And a similar number of Kestrel, living mainly on the east side on Uist. These too are declining nationally.
Sparrowhawk is a recent colonist, arriving about 2001. 10 pairs take advantage of the conifer plantations that are a comparatively recent habitat in Uist, and even sometimes gardens.
Andrew bestowed honorary raptor status on the Raven, which is widespread, 70 to 90 pairs frequenting quarries, trees, disused buildings, mainly in remote areas. A large non-breeding population use different roost sites. Pellet analysis in 1997 showed that their food was mainly rabbit, birds and small mammals.
Though large raptors may take
smaller ones: eagles will eat everything; buzzards take short eared owl and hen
harrier chicks, but smaller raptors don’t necessarily avoid the larger ones,
being, apparently, more concerned about their own food availability.
Andrew also mentioned species that visit occasionally such as snowy owls and honey buzzards.
Curracag – the Outer Hebrides Natural History Society – held
their first indoor meeting of 2019 in the Dark Island Hotel on 8
January. The speaker was John Love who has been a member since the
Society’s inception. Based in South Uist, John was formerly an Area
Officer for Uist, Barra and St Kilda with Scottish Natural Heritage,
also a former Chairman of Curracag and, for several past issues,
editor of their journal Hebridean Naturalist. Appropriately his talk
was about Highland Naturalists, tending to focus on the Hebrides with
a selection of home-grown individuals and a few other notable
The Hebrides has
long been a fertile stamping ground for naturalists from home and
‘abroad’ and John began his talk with Skyeman Martin Martin, a
tutor to the Macleods of Dunvegan who visited the remote archipelago
of St Kilda back in 1697. His popular book on the voyage was soon
followed up with another on subsequent visits to many other Hebridean
islands, both Inner and Outer. One has to bear in mind that his
travels took place only five years before the Massacre of Glencoe and
also before the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellions. Martin wrote how these
islands had never before been ‘described till now by any Man who
was a Native of the Country’. Indeed he went on to lament how
‘foreigners sailing through the Western Isles have been tempted
from the sight of so many hills that seem to be covered all over with
heath and faced with high rocks, to imagine the inhabitants, as well
as their places of residence, as barbarous; to this opinion their
habits, as well as their language, have contributed.’
Being a native
Gaelic speaker he was able to glean from his fellow islanders a
wealth of folklore, natural history, traditions, customs, cures and
remedies that would otherwise now be forgotten. ‘In the course of
my Travells,’ he went on, ‘anything that was remarkable fell
under my Observations’ . . . ‘the field of Nature is large, and
much of it wants still to be cultivated.’
After the ’45,
travel through the Highlands and Islands became easier and even the
elderly Dr Samuel Johnson was able to journey extensively in 1772. An
eminent naturalist of the 19th century was William
MacGillivray. Born in Aberdeen but raised in Northton, Harris,
MacGillivray later walked all the way to attend university semesters
in Aberdeen. He claimed ‘the solitude of nature was my school’
and how he had ‘reaped most advantage from solitary travelling.’
He even walked all the way to London to visit its Natural History
Museum and went on to become a museum curator himself first in
Edinburgh then assuming the Chair of Natural History back in
Aberdeen. MacGillivray wrote many scholarly books and was well known
for leading his students ‘to take to the fields and the woods, the
mountains and shores, there to examine for themselves the rich
profusion of nature.’ Indeed, it was said, he frequently walked
‘the most active of them into a state of limp helplessness’.
John Love himself
gained his degree in natural history at Aberdeen where he first
encountered the name and exploits of William MacGillivray. William
was also an accomplished artist and many of his fine bird paintings
are now in the Natural History Museum.
Our speaker went on to highlight other distinguished naturalists who shared a profound interest in the Highlands such as JA Harvie-Brown, Seton Gordon, Robert Atkinson, Frank Fraser Darling and J Morton Boyd – all greatly influencing him as a youngster. On joining the Inverness Bird Club in 1959, he was to meet Seton Gordon himself, Morton Boyd – who would later become his boss in NCC/SNH, George Waterston and Lea MacNally – all eagle enthusiasts. George was then Scottish Director of the RSPB who inspired John to volunteer at the Loch Garten Osprey hide in the summers of 1963/64. Lea MacNally was a stalker/naturalist in Fort Augustus who went on to take some wonderful photos and write several books about Highland wildlife.
schooldays John was mentored by two birdwatchers in particular. Dr
Maeve Rusk was an ophthalmic surgeon at Raigmore Hospital who held
regular clinics in the Hebrides. She was president of the local Bird
Club, took John on her monthly duck counts and taught him how to
mist-net and ring birds. The Club secretary was Inverness Police
Inspector James MacGeoch, a keen photographer and island enthusiast.
At the time MacGeoch was Honorary Warden for North Rona and
Sulaisgeir National Nature Reserve and had recorded on film the
famous Gannet or Guga hunt by the men of Ness. Sadly Jimmy died soon
after retiring from the police but Maeve died in 2011 aged 93.
Recently, with the MacGeoch family and his friend Dr Finlay Macleod
from Ness in Lewis, John was able to see MacGeoch’s classic
photographs of the guga hunt published by Acair. North Rona was to
feature prominently in John’s island experiences, ringing Leach’s
Petrels, one of which was retrapped there no less than 30 years
later. From his time in Rum John became good friends with Dr John
Lorne Campbell, the eminent Gaelic scholar and folklorist from
Argyll; it is less well known that he was a passionate lepidopterist
and planted many trees to create wildlife habitat on the Isle of
Canna which he bought in 1938.
In 1975 John became involved in the White-tailed Sea Eagle Reintroduction Project on the Isle of Rum – championed by Morton Boyd, encouraged by Roy Dennis and George Waterston, and assisted throughout by a host of others. Shetlander Bobby Tulloch typically provided John with a couple of amusing anecdotes in his talk. As did Professor George Dunnet from Caithness who, as lecturer at Aberdeen University, initiated a long-term study of fulmars in Orkney. John showed a photo of George handling the first fulmar he ringed there in 1951 and then another taken in 1986 as he held the very same bird – it looked exactly the same but George had not weathered quite so well!
John could not
end his talk without mentioning Murdo MacRury from South Uist who
became the first Nature Conservancy warden at Loch Druidibeg. Also
two redoubtable naturalists (and columnists in the local Press),
Peter and Andrew Currie. There are many others of course it was clear
at the end of the evening that not only have the Highlands, and the
Hebrides in particular, attracted many fine naturalists over the
centuries but they have also generated many of their own. John just
felt fortunate to have encountered a few of them in his own lifetime.
Nature’s Recyclers: from Dumbledore to Dung Roundheads
Christine Johnson gave a talk for Curracag on 13th December 2018 in the Dark Island hotel; it was organised by Martyn Jamieson.
started with a diagram to show the importance of ‘Nature’s
Recyclers’; in both terrestrial and marine environments there is a
huge range of plants, from tiny plankton to huge, old trees. These
take in from their surroundings water, air and various minerals, and
through the power of sunlight digest them and form further plant
material. Over time ephemeral parts of plants and eventually the
whole plant will die, if it hasn’t been eaten: various animals from
tiny larvae to elephants, consume different types of or parts of
plants; then, in due course some of these ‘Primary Consumers’ are
themselves eaten by carnivores – the ‘Secondary Consumers’, and
they in their turn may be eaten by other carnivores: the ‘Tertiary
these life forms consuming inevitably produce waste, and indeed in
time die themselves, leading to masses of dead plant material, dung,
droppings, faeces, and carcasses.
does it all go? Why are we not wading through a morass of waste
products? – which, in a temperate woodland would amount to 5 tonnes
of plant and animal material per hectare.
this is waste to the producers, it contains useful elements which can
support a huge range of organisms: up to a thousand species per
square metre, e.g. bacteria, fungi, and small invertebrates such as
nematodes and larger worms, springtails and woodlice.
then concentrated on the fungi, explaining that the part we see above
ground is the fruiting body – which may drop spores [the
‘toadstool’ type], or catapult them over a distance [like
puffballs]. The part in the growing medium – underground or embedded
in leaf litter or wood – is a network of very thin tubes [hyphae]
which collect and digest the material for growth; this network can
extend over huge distances, in Siberia, for instance, over hundreds
of square miles. Only fungi can digest cellulose. There are very
small ones which grow on leaves and conifer needles; once they have
started the process of breaking down leaf litter other large types
move in, and may appear to be growing from the soil rather than
reduced plant material. Fruiting bodies on the edges of some of these
networks produce ‘fairy rings’. Some fungi grow on dead wood, the
hyphae extending into the wood and softening it; when timber falls,
other fungi may move in. Some opportunistic fungi will grow on
processed timber such as pallets and chipboard.
all fungi are processing dead material; some cause problems in live
plants, such as root rot in conifers; the oyster mushroom grows on
standing trees and derives its nutrition from trapping and digesting
animal scavengers generally deal with the soft parts of other
animals, fungi will grow on hard remains such as hair, feathers and
bones, eventually digesting them.
consists of partly digested plant material, mainly cellulose, and
there are fungi that grow on dung and break it down. As these
deposits are often scattered, to ensure that some spores may reach a
hospitable site, they are scattered over the grazing area and
ingested by the animals, then emerge already within a good growing
medium. In the UK alone, there are about 400 species of fungi living
talk was well illustrated with pictures of some of the amazing range
of fungi, from large and robust ones to tiny delicate ones, some of
them microscopic. It was a fascinating introduction to a small number
of an extraordinary range of species and their very important
function in the environment.