News and Events

Winter Talks 2019/20

Curracag is pleased to announce a series of illustrated talks throughout the winter to be held at:-

The Dark Island Hotel, Liniclate, Benbecula at 7.30PM

Entry to the talks is free to society members / £2.00 non members

The programme of talks is as follows:-

Thursday 10th October 2019 “Bald Eagles, punk Puffins and Sea Otters: Alaska to the Aleutians” by John Love

Thursday 14th November 2019 “The Raptors of the Uists and Barra” by Andrew Stevenson.

Thursday 12th December 2019 “Croft Woodland Project – the right tree in the right place” by Viv Halcrow.

Thursday 9th January 2020 – “Limestone Country – a natural history of the Yorkshire Dales” by Robin Sutton

Thursday 13th February 2020 – Geese, Peat and Malt Whisky: Islay by Martyn Jamieson

Thursday 12th March 2020 – tba

Heb Nat 2023

The latest Hebridean Naturalist is now published and has now been distributed to members.

Edited by Chris Johnson.

Articles in this issue include:-

  • A New Observed Behaviour of Colletes floralis
  • Drawn to Plants
  • Notes on the Hebridean Twite
  • Diatom studies in the Outer Hebrides
  • The Sea Eagle: was its extinction justified?

Plus a number of other interesting articles

Published in 2023

71 pages

A full list of contents of all issues of Hebridean Naturalist is available from the Outer Hebrides Biological Recording group website

Price is £7.50 plus P&P (journal is free to fully paid up members), if you a non-member and wish to purchase a copy this publication is available from our online shop at

Heb Nat 2022

The latest Hebridean Naturalist is now published and will be distributed to members very soon. Please note that due to the planned postal strikes there may be a slight delay in receiving your copy.

Edited by Chris Johnson.

Articles in this issue include:-

  • Plastic Machair by Graham Charlesworth
  • A bryological weekend in North Uist by Tristan ap Rheinallt
  • The Rock Doves of the Outer Hebrides by Willian J. Smith
  • Waxcaps: Jewels of unimproved grassland by Chris Johnson

Plus a number of other interesting articles

Published in 2022

93 pages

A full list of contents of all issues of Hebridean Naturalist is available from the Outer Hebrides Biological Recording group website

Price is £7.50 plus P&P (journal is free to fully paid up members), if you a non-member and wish to purchase a copy this publication is available from our online shop at

Summary – Talk – Limestone Country

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 visitors.

            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 ‘Water Babies’.

            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

Dawn at snowy Malham Tarn ©Robin Sutton
Plants of Malham Tarn ©Robin Sutton

Summary – Talk – The Croft Woodland Project

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:

House and young woods, Harris

Summary – Talk – The Raptors of Uist and Barra

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.