Jill Harden is a reserves archaeologist with RSPB Scotland and was involved with the excavation of 3,000 year old bronze weapons on our Isle of Coll nature reserve in 2015. Kilmartin Museum is now running a crowd-funding campaign to conserve these finds and put them on display for future generations to learn from. Found out more here.
RSPB Scotland’s nature reserve on the Isle of Coll is renowned for its sweeping machair habitat, shell-white beaches and of course, for the wildlife that lives there. Visitors can listen out for the distinctive rasping call of the elusive corncrake in summer and watch large flocks of geese arrive in winter. However, did you know that the island also contains some interesting archaeological and historical sites?
The Totronald standing stones were erected around 4,000 years ago.
Back in 2015, I was one of a group of archaeologists that uncovered a collection of prehistoric bronze weapons buried on our reserve on Coll. In total, the team excavated 13 objects from the ground – component parts of at least seven separate weapons that we know to be about 3,000 years old.
We recovered all of the items from what was probably once a freshwater loch and none of them were intact, for example the haul included broken sword blades and snapped spearheads. It seems as though the weapons had been purposefully broken and cast into the water – we know ceremonies used to take place like this in the Bronze Age with offerings being made to the gods and goddesses of the time.
Discoveries like this one provide rare and exciting opportunities to learn more about what life was like in different parts of Scotland thousands of years ago; what the landscape was like, how people lived and also how all of this has changed over time.
Recording the archaeological work on Coll.
The archaeological dig on Coll was carried out by the Treasure Trove Unit, National Museums Scotland and RSPB Scotland and once the weapons were successfully excavated, they were allocated to Kilmartin Museum in Argyll for ongoing conservation and care. Kilmartin is the closest museum to the Isle of Coll.
A complete spearhead encrusted with sand which will be removed as part of the conservation process.
Prehistoric bronze is very fragile and the fact that it survived for 3,000 years buried in sandy-silts is quite remarkable. What’s important now is to ensure that the weapon fragments are preserved properly to prevent further decay and to allow them to be displayed for future generations to see and learn from.
Kilmartin Museum has recently launched a crowd-funding initiative to raise the money needed to undertake this work and we at RSPB Scotland would love to see that succeed. If you would like to donate to the cause or you would simply like to find out more about it, click here.
Jim Densham, RSPB Scotland's Senior Land Use Policy Officer, takes us through a recent decision by Midlothian Council to approve an application for commercial peat extraction.
Peat bog destruction needs to stop – but how?
A site close to Auchencorth Moss where peat extraction is taking place - RSPB Scotland also opposed the application for this site (photo credit: Emma Goodyer)
Last week we heard the sad news that Midlothian Council granted permission for commercial peat extraction at Auchencorth Moss. In itself this is disappointing news but it is doubly so because an adjacent part of the same lowland raised bog is a protected SSSI, has had work done to restore the habitat and could be damaged by the extraction next-door.
A further terrible irony is that this decision comes just weeks after the Scottish Government made an ambitious commitment to fund the restoration of 250,000ha (2500km2) of peatlands by 2030. The purpose of restoration is to make conditions right for the damaged peatland habitat to recover and prevent the breakdown of the fragile peat soil. When peat dries and is exposed it loses carbon to the atmosphere, so restoration helps fight climate change. Other benefits of restoration include improved water quality and a better quality habitat, giving a home to a myriad of rare species, like sphagnum moss species, sundew, otters, water voles, curlew and reed bunting.
Auchencorth Moss is an example of a lowland raised bog, a pocket of peatland habitat nestling in the landscape at a low altitude. These habitats are rare and threatened and are classed differently to blanket bog habitats found on hills and moors. However, the main components of these habitats are essentially the same; waterlogged ground which promotes the growth of sphagnum moss and its transformation into peat as it dies off and sinks down into the oxygen-starved conditions under the surface.
Peat extraction is a hugely damaging process. The bog is drained by having huge ditches cut into it to dry out the peat soil, the upper vegetation is removed and then machines roll across the peat mining it level by level. It’s a bit like opencast coal mining. Some mined sites have been restored to allow sphagnum to regenerate and the habitat recover, but despite this the peat will be bagged, and sold in garden centres, and the carbon within it lost to the atmosphere.
Peat extraction taking place a site nearby to Auchencorth Moss (photo credit: Emma Goodyer)
Using peat-based composts always means the destruction of a habitat. Peat can’t be grown in a laboratory. Thankfully, there are many very good peat-free composts on the market although these alternatives tend to be more expensive. To get people to switch to the alternative composts we need to educate people about where peat comes from, convince retailers to promote peat-free alternatives, and ultimately make peat composts so expensive that gardeners will choose the alternatives.
In fairness to Midlothian Council they had the invidious choice to make between allowing the peat extraction at Auchencorth Moss or having to compensate the company. That’s because the company had already obtained planning permission to extract peat from the site based on a consent dating back to the 1980s, at a time when the importance of peatlands for the climate was not recognised. The permission issued last week concerned only additional matters of detail.
There are likely to be a number of these historic permissions across Scotland and, while some may be able to be bought out, the cost of compensation or buying out the extraction rights for all sites could be significant. We need another way to prevent peat extraction in Scotland but one which doesn’t result in peat being mined from habitats in other countries.
With our partners we are investigating how we can influence policies to reduce the sales of peat composts in Scotland and the rest of the UK. For example, a small levy on each bag of peat compost sold would help to make peat-free composts more competitively priced. Money raised from the levy, could go back into improving and promoting alternative composts and for restoring peatland habitats. It would be a nudge in the right direction, just like the plastic-bag tax or the way a small tax on disposable coffee cups could encourage people to use a reusable one.
Ultimately, we must reduce the demand for horticultural peat and then it will no longer be financially worthwhile for companies to dig up peat habitats whether they are at Auchencorth Moss, in Scotland, or anywhere else in the world. Our lowland peatlands are valuable habitat hotspots and stores of carbon that must stay in the ground, not lost to the atmosphere.
Soil Association Scotland won the inaugural Food & Farming award at the RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards in 2016 for their Future Farming Scotland programme, helping farmers, growers and crofters to learn and share information about more effective and sustainable ways to farm. This guest blog from the association explains why this work is so important and what their next steps will be.
We’re helping land managers in Scotland to make some positive changes for the future – the future health of their business, and the future health of the environment.
Soil Association Scotland have spent almost eight years working with land managers – a catch-all term we use for farmers, crofters, foresters, estate, and habitat managers. In that time we’ve grown from one member of staff to a whole farming team, and we’ve even won a Nature of Scotland ‘Food & Farming’ award for our work (thanks RSPB Scotland)! One thing that hasn’t changed in eight years is a desire to work with as many people as possible, and to make a practical, hands-on, and business focused case for good land management. And by ‘good’ we mean management that protects and enhances the environment.
We hold a lot of events, and we usually focus on one particular aspect of land management. This could be soils, crops, livestock, trees, wildlife habitats, or something else. We make sure we use knowledgeable and engaging experts to get a message across about how best to look after these things. Even more importantly we have a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere where everyone gets the opportunity to ask lots of questions, and tell us and the expert about what they think, and what their experiences are. We love it when we get a difficult question! It makes us think a bit more, and challenges the experts.
A really inspiring part of what we do are ‘field labs’ – DIY on-farm experiments that land managers carry out by themselves, with a bit of support from us and a researcher. They give people the opportunity to try something new out – maybe they’ve read something on the internet and want to see if it works where they are, maybe they want to challenge an assumption, or maybe they’ve had a bit of a mad idea and want to give it a go. We help them set up a trial based on scientific principles, gather some data from it, and then think about if what they did made a difference.
We hold a few meetings on the topic to really get to grips with it, and engage others with a similar interest. We have looked at several topics in this way – including using green manures which benefit the soil and are good for insects and natural predators, controlling rushes without chemicals and helping wading birds, and managing grassland to produce healthy and productive livestock and support biodiversity.
We’re excited to be working on a new project with Scottish Water and RSPB Scotland that will be all about win-wins – for business profitability and the environment. One part of this involves going out to a farm in April with a researcher from SRUC. We will set up a trial that looks at ecological intensification – an exciting concept about how increasing wildlife (in our case pollinators) to increase production (in our case an arable crop). We will be looking at lots more win-wins as we go forward, and telling as many people as we can about them. We might even see you at one of our meetings!