July, 2014

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Scottish Nature Notes

Keep up to date with the latest wildlife and nature news in Scotland. Regular blogs from RSPB Scotland's conservation teams across the country. Writing about Scotland's amazing wildlife & natural environment.
  • Bee beetle bonanza

    RSPB Scotland Trainee Ecologist Kirsty Godsman is back with a new blog.

     Bee Beetle Bonanza

    I think there is just about enough time left this month to introduce you to July’s beetle of the month.

    The bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus)

    The bee beetle might just be my favourite beetle (and I don’t make a habit of statements like that if I don’t really mean it!). If ever there was a case for insects being cute and furry too, this is it.

    As the name suggests, this is a beetle that mimics bees. This is known as Batesian mimicry and it confuses any potential predator of the harmless beetle into thinking that it is a dangerous, sting-bearing bee. There are many insects that copy the yellow and black colouration of bees and wasps. The aptly named wasp beetle, for example, is a longhorn beetle that does quite a good impersonation of a wasp.


    The wasp beetle (Clytus arietis).

    The masters of this trick though, in my opinion, are the flies. It took me years to trust that marmalade hoverflies were not going to sting me and sometimes you need to get really close before you can say it isn’t a bee or a wasp (hint: they have huge eyes, shorter antennae than bees and wasps and one pair of wings rather than two – although this last feature can be difficult to spot).


    The deer botfly (Cephenemyia species) An incredibly convincing bee mimic. If this was a bee, however, there would be an obvious pair of antenna protruding from between the eyes.

    But back to the bee beetle. This particular species is a scarab beetle of the Trichiinae family. Their larvae develop in rotting birch stumps – quite a niche! The adults are often found wrestling each other on flower heads for nectar sources and mating opportunities. Look out for them on melancholy thistles, these seem to be a favourite.


    Three surprisingly strong bee beetles fighting for this melancholy thistle flower head.

    This species has a very disjointed distribution in the UK, being found predominantly in Wales and the Highlands. But if you do find yourself in the right area, they can be found from June to September so now is as good a time as any to get out there and see these incredible species for yourselves.


    The distribution of the bee beetle in the UK from NBN Gateway.

  • Dale, Cottascarth – the story of an Orkney farm

    Jill Harden, Project Archaeologist at RSPB Scotland, explores a small abandoned farm at Cottascarth and Rendall with the help of some volunteers.  

    Dale, Cottascarth – the story of an Orkney farm

    Orkney is a fascinating group of islands to explore at any time of year, for their archaeological, historical, and natural heritage. The archaeologist’s visit this time focused on one specific reserve and one particular aspect of it: The small, abandoned farm of Dale at Cottascarth and Rendall. It is here that the RSPB is about to develop a new larger hide for watching and enjoying nature in an apparently simple building that is part of a farmstead that has its own particular story to tell.


    The farm buildings at Dale

    Lowland Orkney is a rich agricultural landscape that has changed considerably over the last 6,000 years. Neolithic farm settlements, like Skara Brae, survive under the soil. However today’s rectangular or square field patterns and dispersed small farm buildings owe little to past settlement or land divisions. Most were laid out only 150 years or so ago, when agricultural improvements were imposed by estate landowners, small holdings were created, and rents were increased.

    The RSPB reserve at Cottascarth and Rendall Moss is no exception.  The largest area on the reserve is that at Dale, an abandoned small hill farm that includes the moorland grazing of Mid Tooin. Today it is renowned for the hen harriers that breed here; they probably hunted across the hill ground in previous centuries too, but during the 1870's their landscape was put under pressure by the creation of Dale farm. The rough ground had to be taken in-hand to create 20 acres of arable ground and a house had to be built from local stone. We can only imagine the hard laboring of the first tenant John Pearson, who came in to Dale from the nearby island of Rousay.

    Volunteers recording the building that is to become the new hide

    The RSPB seemed to have little information about the historic buildings at Dale and so, before one of them is transformed into a new hide, we have been working with volunteers to record the farm and try to find out more about it. This is part of the Enjoy Wild Orkney project that the RSPB is involved with, to enhance public engagement on these magical islands. Nature certainly inhabits these roofless buildings - they house pied wagtails and starlings. The farm is also very evocative of past ways of life of Orkney farmers and crofters.

    Initially we thought the buildings had been constructed all at the same time, creating an L-shaped farmstead, but this proved not to be the case. John Pearson must have built a farmhouse and an attached byre first, providing shelter while the land was brought into cultivation. Then, a decade or so later, the other range was constructed, along with additional roofed buildings against the far end of the house. The plans and photographs that have just been produced tell the basic story, and will be entered into the national historic environment record. It is fortunate that Orkney has a well resourced library and archive and by working there we have been able to people Dale’s past to some extent.

    It may have been John Pearson or the next tenant John Isbister who bought a powered threshing machine for use on the farm, but to use it water-power had to be harnessed from the nearby burn. A mill pond was created to the west and a lade was dug from it to take water to the waterwheel sited against the building that housed the threshing machine. Although roofless today, parts of the system still survive, including the small cast-iron mill wheel, linked to the cogged wheel that once powered the thresher.

    The building which housed the threshing machine and the waterwheel still in situ

    One or other of the Johns also built a separate range of farm buildings, including a byre and dairy with its recessed cupboard and sae bink (a curved recess that could accommodate a barrel) for a water tub and dairy products. By the time the farm was abandoned in 1957 there were four roofed buildings in this range, one of which was possibly a pig sty.

    None of the tenants stayed at Dale for life. The census, gathered once every decade, notes a change in the family staying there every time. The last tenant to live at Dale was David Hourie, a bachelor, who worked the land from 1937 to 1948. He grew Keppleton Kidney potatoes and made butter to sell in the local shop when milk was plentiful. But it is said that he could only afford to buy yesterday’s bread. It was a very hard life.

    Recording one of the buildings at Dale

    The day’s work to record the buildings at Dale was a great success – this is one sort of local volunteers project that we hope to develop on Orkney and elsewhere. It may seem a departure from monitoring birds and developing habitats, but the historic environment is important, and peopling the past provides fascinating background to our reserves. It is also best management practice to record what we have now before changes completely alter places.

  • Inspiring the next generation

    RSPB conservation manager Stuart Benn is back with a new blog. 

    Inspiring the Next Generation

    I was born on the 4th of July but I didn't spend my birthday week putting on a song and dance routine like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Instead, I was fitting satellite tags on golden eagle chicks, and I wasn't alone – 18 year old Luke Curno came along too.

    It’s become fashionable to knock the young – that they’re obsessed with the virtual world and their interest in nature stops with Sonic the Hedgehog.  But some people are challenging that view and, just as importantly, doing something about it.  One of those is Lucy McRobert who, with others, set up A Focus on Nature - an organisation run by young people, for young people to get them involved in as well as enthused and passionate about the natural world.

    I like what they do, I like it a lot, so I got in touch.  One thing led to another, AFON ran a competition on the theme of bird of prey persecution and Luke won with his video about peregrines in south-west England.  His prize – a day out helping RSPB North Scotland fit satellite tags to golden eagles!

    Luke lives in Devon – not the most convenient for North Scotland but his dad, Greg, stepped in and drove them both up north making a wee holiday of it. 

    And what a day we had – brown hares, mountain hares, peeping common sandpipers, and spotted flycatchers on the drive in, then a steep climb in the sun to the eyrie to get the chicks.  Lovely, healthy twins – one male and one female - which Luke has called Errol and Sorcha (Gaelic for ‘wanderer’ and ‘brightness’).  Whilst we got on with the delicate business of tagging, Luke filmed the whole thing – bit of editing still to be done but keep an eye out for ‘Eagle tagging – the movie’ coming out soon!

    Job done we had a leisurely walk out and a chance to talk about those eagle chicks and what they’ll do and see.  To talk about the different sides of land management in North Scotland – those carrying out fantastic and visionary restoration work whilst others are still stuck in the Victorian era.  To take time out to watch frogs and froglets hop off.  To appreciate how lucky we are.

    Luke is now back down south with a different view of life than when he set off.  He’s said he’ll never forget the day and nor will I – it really was extra special and particular thanks are due to Anders Holch Povlsen who owns the ground where we tagged, and to Lucy - we couldn't have done it without them.