October, 2015

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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.
  • What to see in Scotland this month X

    October is a great month to see the wildlife that isn’t with us all year long. Many species head for Scottish shores for the winter, leaving countries like Iceland and Greenland behind until the warmer months, while mammals like grey seals come ashore to breed at this time of year. So grab a pair of cosy boots and a scarf, and head outside to take it all in.

    What to see in Scotland this month X

    “Honk-honk...” - does that sound made you stop and look up? How about: “Whoopa... whoopa”? If you’re out wildlife watching this month, you’re going to become pretty familiar with these noises. 

    In October, pink-footed geese and whooper swans start arriving in Scotland, to spend the winter months with us. Pink-footed geese usually fly in what we call ‘skeins’ (like the picture above); great flocks of birds moving in a V-shaped formation. More than 150,000 pink-footed geese migrate here from Iceland and Greenland, with individual flocks containing up to 40,000 birds! Good places to see this species include our Loch Leven and Loch of Strathbeg nature reserves or at the Montrose Basin, which is run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

    When they arrive in Scotland, pink-footed geese remain fairly sociable creatures, moving around in large groups. At dawn, the geese leave their night-time roosts together and head for feeding grounds before returning at dusk.

    The whooper swans that winter here also come from Iceland but their numbers are significantly lower, somewhere around the 4,000 mark. Whoopers are slightly smaller than mute swans, with long, thin necks and a black bill with a large triangular patch of yellow on it.

    They have a loud whooping or trumpeting call which is thought to have originally given the bird its name. Both whooper swans and pink-footed geese will stay in Scotland right through the winter before departing for their breeding grounds once again by mid-April.

    While many species do not breed at this time of year, some do. And that includes one of Scotland’s brilliant marine mammals; the grey seal. Seals spend most of their time at sea and could end up covering thousands of watery miles during the course of their lives, but they do come ashore to breed.

    For grey seals that time is now; they gather at communal breeding beaches from October in Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides, the Monach Isles and on the mainland around Helmsdale and at Loch Eriboll.

    Pups are born on these beaches and mating takes place a weeks later when the female has finished suckling her calf. Roughly a third of the world population of grey seals breeds on the coast around Britain.

    And, on the subject of mating, October is actually the peak team of year for the red deer rut. Red deer are Britain’s largest land mammal and we have a fair few of them in Scotland. This amazing spectacle is basically when male red deer come together, locking antlers in battle, fighting to gain control of the largest harem to mate with.

    Mornings and evenings are probably the best time if you want to get out and see this for yourself. You’ll come across the red deer rut anywhere that you’d find deer; the Highlands are a good place to start. But do be extremely careful and don’t get too close – red deer can be really aggressive at this time of year.

    Happy wildlife watching! We’ll be back with a new blog on what to see around Scotland in November.  

  • The Great Trossachs Forest is officially an NNR....but what does that actually mean?

    The Great Trossachs Forest has officially become a National Nature Reserve. In fact, at 16,500 hectares (about the size of greater Glasgow) it’s now the largest NNR, not only in Scotland, but in the whole of the UK. It’s a fantastic achievement for a project that only got underway in 2009, and is a credit to the hard work of its partners, volunteers, and the funders who support it.

    But what exactly does its new status as an NNR really mean?

    Designations

    There are an array of different designations given to land (and water) that is special in some way for wildlife and geological diversity. All these designations have different definitions, come with different levels of protection, and have different impacts on visitors and land owners, so it can seem a little complicated.

    Some of the designations you might see or hear about are SSSIs, SPAs, Ramsar sites, World Heritage Sites, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Marine Protected Areas. What these designations are there to do is help protect areas from things like inappropriate development, so they should stop someone draining wetlands that might be essential for migrating whooper swans, or stop an area of nationally important peatland from being destroyed.  

    Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Dr Aileen McLeod, visiting The Great Trossachs Forest.

    Accolades

    National Nature Reserves aren’t designations, they’re accolades, and that makes them a bit different. When an NNR is awarded, it means a site is nationally important for its wildlife and habitats, but it also means that it’s a site which makes visitors very much part of the picture. NNRs are less about saying: this place needs a particular level of protection (though parts of the GTF are also designated) and more about celebrating what’s there, and encouraging people to come and experience it for themselves.

    So The Great Trossachs Forest is a perfect fit. It’s an area that’s being managed now, and into the future, with nature in mind. It’s a project that aims to create new habitats, and restore damaged ones, and it’s an amazing landscape that’s perfect for visitors to walk through, cycle through, and experience.

    There are now two gateway visitor centres in the forest, a long distance path (blogged about in April), lots of other paths and even a newly-released App, with info about routes, history, wildlife and the local area.

    So why not visit Scotland’s newest NNR for yourself this autumn, and see what all the fuss is about?

    The Great Trossachs Forest is a partnership project between RSPB Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland and the Woodland Trust Scotland. Full information about the NNR, its paths, conservation projects, volunteering opportunities, and wildlife can be found here. The new GTF app is free to download from the Apple App Store and Google Play store.  

  • Norway Norway over the sea

    Kate Bellew, Conservation Planner from RSPB Scotland, tells us of her recent nature exchange programme in Norway.

    Norway Norway over the sea

    Earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to get offered a place on one of Archnetworks structured training programmes in Norway. I jumped at the chance to explore a place with so much wildlife – including beavers, moose, reindeer, wolves, lynx and bears! 

    University of Hedmark, Evenstad Campus by the Glomma. Doug Shapley (RSPB Scotland)

    I’d never been to Norway before and the first thing that struck me when I arrived was the amount of native forest cover. Many of the landscapes reminded me of Scotland - just with more trees! We were based at the University in Evenstad, within Hedmark County which has over 90 per cent woodland cover. This compares to around just 17 per cent in Scotland. 

    The hillsides are generally densely forested, with species such as native Scot’s pine, Norway spruce, birch and aspen. Agricultural land seemed confined to the flatter low lying areas although we did come across some sheep grazing within the forestry and on the open hillsides, as well as several moose.

    Adult moose hiding in the forest. Doug Shapley (RSPB Scotland)

    We met our guide for the week - Marius - a University lecturer, experienced hunter and knowledgeable about all things wild. Marius explained that although the forests look very ‘natural’ they have actually been managed for generations and are very productive.  

    In Hedmark, one of the major commercial timber species is Scots pine which has very slow growth in Norway, but the resulting timber is of very good form and quality. Forestry practices are vastly different from Scotland. In Scotland there is a preference for large scale clear fell and restocking whereas in Norway forests are generally managed by felling the majority of mature timber trees in a coupe (which varied in size from around half to several hectares) but leaving selected trees at regular intervals (usually about 25 m) to provide a seed source for regeneration. 

    Some of the natural forest clearances provide a haven for wildlife. We came across black grouse and capercaillie, which are widespread in Norway. These birds are red listed and of high conservation concern in the UK. 

    Marius Kjønsberg: Our Guide for the week. Doug Shapley (RSPB Scotland)

    Capercaillie: Species which are widespread in Norway. Doug Shapley (RSPB Scotland)

    Moose and reindeer featured strongly on the menu in Norway. There is a big culture of sourcing wild food locally; around 10 per cent of people in Norway hunt.  

    For many people, hunting provides a vital income as well as being a recreational activity. It is also an important way of controlling large herbivores such as moose and reindeer as well as big predators. We didn’t see any big predators during our trip but we did come across a recent wolf kill. As we walked through the forests, just knowing bears, wolves and lynx were all in the area made it an exciting place to be! 

    Rondane National Park. Doug Shapley (RSPB Scotland)

    As well as visiting the more forested parts of Norway we took a visit to the Rondane and Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Parks which are great wilderness areas with abundant arctic alpine habitats. 

    Norway has 44 national parks across the mainland and Svalbard, and the way in which they are managed is entirely different to the UK. In particular, the park boundaries are much more regulated with regards to development. In most cases there are no roads and access by the hiking, cycling and cross-country skiing are the only means possible. 

    Dovrefjell is famously home to a population of Musk Ox. These large herbivores went extinct in Europe 9,000 years ago but were re-introduced to the area in the 1930’s. They are a popular ‘visitor attraction’ but they can be very aggressive especially when they have young to protect. We were asked to keep at least 200 m away in case they decided to charge.

    Musk Ox in Dovrefjell- Sunndalsfjella National Park. Doug Shapley (RSPB Scotland)

    The whole trip provided a great way to learn about wildlife and conservation management. Having access to local contacts and experts provided an invaluable insight into a different perspective of biodiversity. 

    It was clear that there are some major similarities between Norway and Scotland, including a lot of species overlap but there are of course some significant differences. Most apparent are the cultural differences in how humans connect with the land, in particular the historical cultural connection with hunting. Another striking difference is how areas of land are managed for a more diverse range of purposes and on a much larger scale. 

    Farming, forestry and hunting are all commonplace on the same land holding and are often well co-ordinated between neighbours. I think lessons can be learned from Norway and it is clear that working together at a large scale can provide multiple benefits for both wildlife and people.

    I’d like to thank Libby Urquhart, Archnetwork and the Erasmus+ programme for providing me the opportunity to take part in this fantastic exchange programme. Archnetwork is a Scottish organisation which promotes learning and development in natural and cultural heritage between Scotland and other European countries. I’d also like to thank Marius Kjønsberg for his energy and enthusiasm in guiding us for the week and my colleague at RSPB Scotland, Doug Shapley, who contributed photographs and information for this blog.