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: email@example.com.
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.