Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Summer's lease hath all too short a date.


Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Lockdown has been a time for slowing down and taking note, so I have watched the passing of spring into summer of various plants, especially members of the carrot family, but with diversions.

First, the flowering of the pignut (Conopodium majus) from late April here to May: a modest plant that owes its name to the nut-like tubers in its root system. It seems that these make tasty morsels, though you would have to be determined to dig up enough to make a worthwhile meal: better leave them for the badgers.

As the flowers of the pignut fade away, its seeds set, clumps of aniseed scented sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) amass along the roadsides and rivers. Originally this plant was native to the mountains of the Pyrenees and Central Europe. It is used to flavour akvavit.

In the meantime banks of ground elder, or gout weed (whichever name you prefer, but Aegopodium podagraria to science) come into flower. If you listened to gardeners you would think only ill of this plant and be surprised that it had not attracted a name such as Gardeners’ Bane (such is the tenacity and pervasiveness of its roots), but I am pleased to see it flowering and hosting its insect visitors. Ground elder was brought to this country by the Romans and can be eaten like spinach when it is young and before the plant has become too stringy.

Next to emerge in my list is cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvatica), over by the end of June, intruding itself modestly into the mix of wayside flowers. Then, just as you are getting used to their presence, a newcomer appears: the basal rosettes of hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) start to unfurl their great acanthus like leaves. Almost overnight the splendid inflorescences telescope out and make landing strips for insects. By now we are into July: the weather is warmer and on sunny days their buzz lulls one into the fantasy that summer will never end. 

Myriads of flies, hover flies, bees and wasps, not to speak of sinister ichneumon wasps gather to feed on the pollen and nectar. One of my favourites is the soldier beetle (Cantharis livida). These mini-beasts sit around on the hogweed in pairs, motionless, mating. They are orangey red - hence their name which must date back to the days when the British Army wore red coats. They are a valuable food for trout when they fall into the water, no doubt exhausted by their love making.

Below the tall hogweeds by the paths there are yellow flowered common bedstraw, yarrow, lady’s mantle, stitchworts and chickweeds - not to mention grasses, nettles, thistles and other vulgar ruderals. Elsewhere, draped over the wild raspberries are cleavers (Galium aparine), a member of the same family as the bedstraws (the Rubiaceae). Walking in an old wood not far from here earlier in the summer I saw an elegant plant with simple white flowers and delicate whorls of leaves. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but identified it later as sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). A few days ago, walking next to the Burnieshead Burn, my eye lit on a bed of frothy vegetation with little white flowers and slender stems with whorls of leaves: another bedstraw, I thought. And so it was. This time it was marsh bedstraw (Galium palustre). Common enough in boggy places, except that there are fewer of these nowadays.
Then, as the hogweed achieves its full height, angelica (Angelica sylvestris) rises through the surrounding vegetation, another member of the carrot family that used to be eaten by people and which had diverse medicinal uses.

Now for August with its purple blooming heather on the moors, flaming willow herb, and wild raspberries in woods and clearings: is August to be a wicked month?


Thursday, 18 June 2020

June 2020

Yes, it's time to post again. Here is my piece for this month's number of the Alyth Voice, now published on line

Peacock Pie?

It is time to rise and go. The vapours of my post prandial repose are receding and a cup of coffee will clear the rest. Then it will be hey for the hill!

Which way will my stick take me? Go north and then west it directs. I march past the Grieve’s House. A peacock has pecked and broken a window on the ground floor. There are some who wish to exonerate him of this crime, but I have found recipes for roast peacock on-line, so note that the window breaking peacock is for the chop. The execution, followed by celebratory feast will happen once Covid restrictions are relaxed. 

Spring is rushing into summer. The tentative steps of the last month have become a gallop as trees that seemed to be bare only a few days ago are now in leaf - except the ash, that is (and the black alder). Ash is always late, as is the alder, but the prevalence of ash dieback means that many of the ash we see still leafless are dead or dying. The wood anemone’s moment of glory is passing, but wood sorrel is still plentiful. Already chickweed wintergreen is blooming in some places.

Out on the newly planted area of the Bamff Hill there are carpets of cuckoo flower. It is a delight to see these pretty, pinkish flowers at the same time as hearing the call of the cuckoo, with whose return its flowering coincides. Lady’s smock is an alternative name for the species (Cardamine pratensis). Orange tip and green veined white butterflies feed on it.

Where were we? Oh, yes, walking and musing, I think. Wood violets contrast with wood sorrel: violet and white against lush green. And the wood wide web beneath it all. Did I turn left? No, I about turned and headed down the drive to consider the willows. Great candelabras of new stems are sprouting from their coppice stools. A vole runs towards me across the drive. I watch it disappear into a bank of primroses and then reappear for a moment before it hurries into the next tunnel of dry grass. Beyond the little stripe shines with marsh marigold (aka kingcup), a member of the buttercup family.

What is that word ‘stripe’? It is a Scots word for a rivulet, or rill. I was reminded of it recently while browsing through the late Adam Watson’s ‘Place Names in much of North East Scotland’. In the terminology of hydrologists and geomorphologists a stripe is a first order stream. In immediately local terms stripes or runners join the Bruckly Burn, which flows into the Alyth Burn at Mill of Fyal as the charter says. Downstream of Alyth the burn becomes the Water of Quiech and joins the Isla at Inverquiech, where there was a royal hunting lodge. King Edward I of England stayed there on at least one of his punitive expeditions into Scotland in the 1290s. I don’t suppose that king ate peacocks while on campaign, but his people must have fed him venison killed in the Forest of Alyth.

There was still a bank of wood anemones in flower at the Steffort as I walked past and a few dandelion clocks reminded me of the passing of time and the seasons. ‘Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse, mais tout se remplace.’

Well, who knows if it will come to that - the fate of the peacock, I mean? An appeal on the media for understanding homes to welcome peafowl resulted in several replies. We shall see what comes of them.

18th June.

No developments in the affair of the peacock so far: some enquiries, then silence.

I was very excited to see chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulpureus) in ancient woodland near Bridge of Cally recently. For some reason the photo I took of this fungus will not come over to Blogger. I was also delighted to see woodruff (Galium odoratum), whose photo did paste onto this blog.

 Here is a piece that I wrote for July's 'Alyth Voice', but didn't send because something more exciting came up and I decided to write that up and send it in as my contribution.

The WhatsApp message announced itself with a ‘Ping!’ The message was brief it said get your act together and produce something for the ‘Voice’. Of course I must do that: so it’s on with the boots, stick at the ready and, with my binoculars around my neck, I stride out. Beyond the herbaceous border of Bishop’s weed in full bloom I pass the row of lime trees at whose feet a bank of Siberian Purslane displays its pink flowers. This species is described as being originally from western North America, not Siberia as its scientific name, Montia sibirica (Claytonia sibirica is a synonym), suggests, but I see from its entry in Wikipedia that its range does include the Commander Islands, the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Straits. Striding past this gathering of incomers, which have been here since the eighteenth century (their leaves are good in salads,) there is an assembly of yellow flowered Wood Avens, some of whose stems are decorated with cuckoo spit. I wonder if I will see any of this plant’s near relation the Water Avens with its drooping head and pinky purple flower - I am sure that there are some further down the drive. These two species are closely enough related to hybridise freely, which always seems odd to me because, superficially at least, the flowers look so different. Past the trees, the drive side verge is grassed out. We are at that time of year when grasses, particularly the agricultural species, are reaching the peak of their annual growth and coming into flower. I notice some Timothy whose stamens are heavy with golden pollen, waiting to be carried away by the wind.

Left along the Burnieshead path: yesterday evening wrens were cacophonous. The young were trying out their wings. A week before Greater spotted woodpecker fledglings were making a tremendous noise up in their hole in a dead sycamore tree: their parents were flying about the nest, apparently distracted by their offspring. The woodpeckers are quiet now. I suppose the young have fledged and flown. On the water the mallard duck with her brood of seven continues to supervise their activities. A couple of weeks ago I watched with amazement as the ducklings attacked a hatch of mayflies, or some other aquatic invertebrate. They darted about snapping at the insects. A few days later I saw them busy again, hunting for something on the surface. Some were upending. It was as though they were getting lessons in hunting and gathering. All the while their mother sailed along, watchful and attentive. In the meantime the moorhen pair still have one of their first brood of chicks, the other six having disappeared. Otters were around at the time of this disappearance and I haven’t seen them since. I wondered if the moorhens would try to breed again. One evening I saw a couple of young with one of the adults.

The ferns are now fully grown. It is a pleasure to see a beaver swim over to the bank and then, some moments later, swim back to the lodge with ferns trailing from its mouth. I used to think that ferns were good only for bedding, but I have learned that the male fern (Dryopteris files-mas), one of our commonest species, is valuable nutritionally. I walk on. A roe doe in her brilliant summer coat of chestnut red bounds out of the young regenerating birch. Bumble bees forage in the broom and foxgloves are massing in the clearings, ready to burst into purple and white.

Walking back up the drive after the circuit that has taken me by the Old Drove Road, a new bicycle path through the Steffort Woods and on to Cold Corner, I see Water Avens flowering and scattered groups of columnar purple bugle. All through the beaver wetlands along the drive the willow and birch regeneration is flourishing. The yellow flag will be out soon and I notice knapweed readying itself to flower. The seasons advance. It is high summer.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Spring 2020

Here is my latest piece for the Alyth Voice - the May number.

'Spring Steps

A conversation overheard on a bus the last time Louise and I visited Edinburgh led to a brief and informative exchange with our fellow passengers about those apps that tell you how many steps you have walked. Now I am smitten with an obsessive need to walk at least 10,000 steps a day. Well, that is all to the good. 

Thinning in one of the plantations gives me a reason to walk over and see how the work is getting on. This takes me through one of the latest plantings. 

Striding along one of the old tracks that passes through the ground we had planted in 2018 it is hard to avoid noticing the exposed tunnels of the voles. The place is pock marked with them. From time to time I notice that a sapling has had its stem gnawed, and bared of bark, by voles. Throughout the area, as a counterpoint to the signs of the voles, are abundant fox scats: they are everywhere, as are owl pellets. Every now and then you can see digging where a fox has tried to unearth a vole.

Around the outside of this plantation, whose little birch trees are showing the first signs of bud burst, is a heavy duty fence: high to shut out deer and netted lower down against rabbits. Here and there foxes and badgers have lifted the net and found their way through to hunt for voles and mice. When we realised that foxes and badgers were trying to enter the area during the winter of 2018 we arranged for badger gates to be installed. However, these seemed not to be used often or at all by those for whom they were intended, the foxes and badgers preferring to make new holes for themselves. This seems to me to be very understandable. If you were a fox or badger and knew about our species’ unrelenting persecution of their kind would you trust a gate that had been specially made for you? No, you would not. You would say, as our soldiers used to say, in the days of the war in Northern Ireland, ‘don’t go through the gate because it may be booby trapped. Cross the fence somewhere else.’ So, like good soldiers the foxes and badgers avoid the gate and make their own way through the fence, lifting the netting and pushing through. For the human managers of the plantation this is an irritation and an expense. A hole in a fence is an opportunity for unwanted visitors such as rabbits, capable of devastating young woodland, so they must be shut out, but it is also the access for the very creatures that you should want to help you establish the young wood by eating the tree predating herbivores. 

“Step on,” I say to myself and look at my iPhone see how many steps I have taken since I last looked a few minutes ago.

Another day, another walk; this time not so vigorous. I am back on a woodland path. It is warm. It is early afternoon. Birch and willow are coming into leaf. I rest on the trunk of a fallen tree by the burn. Well, fallen? It was felled some years ago by a beaver. Sap bleeds from a nearby stump.  I sit and watch and watch. The water gurgles past and a pair of buzzards flies overhead. Time to step on through the green pavilions of spring. Persephone is back from Hades.' 

The longer evenings and the growth of vegetation have made it much easier to see beavers going about their business. This one was grazing on the young grass growing around one of their pools. I have had wonderful sightings of otters hunting, playing and play fighting with each other. Similarly it has been wonderful to watch beavers play fighting together. It is curious to witness otters active at one end of the pool and hear a beaver gnawing something near the lodge. Next a fallen tree in the pool moor hens have made a nest. Seven tiny, black chicks have hatched out and will have to survive the otters in the pool that the beavers have made for them.

Every now and then I notice elm. Back in the '70s most English elm (Ulmus procure) in England were killed by Dutch elm disease. By the mid 80s most of the wych elm (U.glabra) in Scotland had gone the same way. We were told that any apparent recovery would be vitiated when, getting to a certain age, recovering elm would succumb again to the fungus bearing beetle. However, it does seem that some trees are getting beyond this stage and growing beyond bushes into trees. I came across this row of three or four elms growing along the old drove road that goes from Glenisla to Alyth. I hope they survive and become fine trees.

Walking on down this old drove road, a mallard duck flew up. I looked and saw her nest with its  clutch of eggs.

The Tay Bridge wood, a plantation of predominantly Norway spruce, planted in the 1950s, is in the aftermath of a good mast year. The ripe cones are being taken, and stripped of their seeds by the red squirrels. Visiting a Sitka spruce plantation here that is being thinned, I see masses of cones, but almost none that have been stripped of their seeds. 

And what about seed years and voles and El NiƱo?

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

More walks

A chance overheard conversation on a bus the last time Louise and I visited Edinburgh led to a brief and informative exchange about those apps that tell you how many steps you have walked. Now I am smitten with an obsessive need to walk 10,000 steps a day. Well, that is all to the good.

What is this photo of? The faeces of a mustelid, yes, but is it pine marten or stoat, or even polecat?

Walking through the Beaver Swamp I came across these foot marks of an otter. 

As March has turned to April I have become aware that the land is drying up. Muddy morasses are turning dry and baked. This is the season for forest fires and moor burn.

It is also the time when beavers, recognising that water levels are dropping are repairing breeches to dams that have been left unprepared through the winter. You can make out the dark patches where  fresh mud has been used to fill a gap.

My first primrose this spring, seen near the burn in the Burnieshead den. I expect that they are springing up along the drive as well.

A surprise greeted me when I went to get some feed for the hens this morning - four mice awaited me in the bottom of the bin. I photographed them and watched them running into the wood stack.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Time for a Catch Up

It has got to be time for a catchup after months of silence. Here is my current offering to 'The Alyth Voice'

A Couple of Short Walks in Late Winter
Coronavirus… well, let’s give it a break and go for a walk. My default route is by the Burnieshead path, and then up and through the Tay Bridge Wood. I note, as always this winter, the abundance of cut and stripped stems of birch saplings, piled up against the high dam. These young birch have come from the regeneration on the bank above the burn. In late winter (early spring) when there are so few signs of new growth these fellings can look a bit extreme.  However, Spring is on her way. The coppiced saplings will push out new shoots in May, eventually to create a thick, branchy scrub, habitat for the insect life that goes with it. Warblers will rejoice.

Turning right to leave the path I climb the bank and walk in to the Tay Bridge Wood. Fourteen days into March, the stripped cones of Norway spruce are accumulating on the floor of the plantation. The squirrels are wearing through the winter stores, but there are still plenty on the trees. I see a cone stuck upright in the ground. A squirrel has raised it from the prone position. Is it easier for the squirrel to grapple with the cone upright to strip it of its seeds and eat them? But why did the squirrel leave that cone? A pine martin, a human, the shadow of a buzzard flying overhead?

Another day and I am walking along the bank of the main ditch. The winter storms have done much to rework the burn. New side channels, dug earlier by beavers, are now taking a share of the water that used to flow headlong down the straight, main channel. Sediments that used to lie on the channel floor of the burn have been swept on to leave a bed of coarse gravels and cobbles, habitat for young trout. Further downstream, where the water level has dropped since the latest floods passed through, and the current slows, these fine sediments have accumulated on the bank. Looking at the sediments I notice the foot marks of a small bird and pinpricks in the mud. What can have made these? The muddy bank makes me wonder if eels will return to these places one day.

A bird rises from the ground just ahead of me. I am still puzzling over its identity when another rises from the rushes. I get a clearer sight of the creature. It looks like a snipe, but smaller, and doesn’t make that ‘crick crick’ call at take off: jacksnipe, the two of them, I realise. I stand and watch for a moment before heading on again. Later, it occurs to me that those pinpricks in the mud were the work of the just disturbed jack snipe. The birds were using their beaks to probe the mud for food. They must be on migration, heading back to breed in Sweden, Finland and Russia after wintering with us, like the flocks of greylag on their way to Iceland.

Spring is with us. I know because I heard the chorus of the frogs over in the Beaver Swamp. Some years ago I managed to get some photos with which I was pleased of the creatures. 

The wet winter has resulted in the amazing expansion of waterways through the swamp. Walking about yesterday I took a few photos of things that struck me.

Magnificent works on the north side of the Beaver Swamp

Another view of this growing swamp.

I was surprised by this new dam, beautifully plastered with mud.

The first shoots of sweet reed grass (Glyceria maxima) - a fresh bite to cheer the beavers, water voles and other herbivores.

 Gnawed rhizome of yellow flag

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Scottish Government's consultation on the restoration of the beaver to this country ends on the 6th March 2018.

The following is a letter that we are sending friends of the beaver and our Scottish Wild Beaver Group members.

It would be good to give a really strong signal to the Scottish Government that we should protect this returned native.

Dear Beaver friend / SWBG supporter

Soon the legislation allowing beavers to remain in Scotland will be debated in the Edinburgh Parliament. Before that can happen, the Scottish Government is obliged to issue a report and hold a public consultation on the conclusions of that report. The report was issued in December 2017 and the consultation is now underway. 

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment indicated in 2016 that she is minded to allow beavers to remain in Scotland. However,  the final decision is not a forgone conclusion, and she may well be influenced by the results of the consultation and the subsequent debate in Parliament.

If you want beavers to remain in Scotland, please could you contribute your views to the 5 substantive questions in the consultation which can be found at the following link:

The deadline date for receiving responses is 6 March 2018 - and the more of us who reply positively, then the more likely the Cabinet Secretary will be persuaded to stick to her initial decision to allow beavers to stay. As we have seen in the press recently, those who are opposed to beaver’s presence in Scotland can be very vocal - and we need to make our voices heard.

The government report on beavers in Scotland is technical and lengthy. So to make responding to the 5 questions easier, we set out below a summary of the answers that Scottish Wild Beaver Group has provided to the consultation. You should of course, feel free to respond to the questions as you see fit. If you feel uncomfortable or unqualified to answer any particular question, we suggest you just leave it blank.

Please help us to keep beavers in Scotland - by responding to the Consultation by 6 March

Kind regards

Louise Ramsay

Convener Scottish Wild Beaver Group

Question 1
Do you agree with the re-introduction policy and that the Environmental Report has correctly identified the potential impacts and appropriate mitigation?

-Yes ✔

Please explain your answer
We strongly agree that beaver populations in Scotland should be allowed to remain,and that beavers should receive strong legal protection.
Beaver bring many benefits such as flood risk reduction, improved water quality and increased biodiversity.
In addition their presence has socio-economic benefits  (such as  ecotourism potential)
Beavers should be actively managed to reduce any negative effects on farmers, but culling should only ever be a very last resort after all other mitigation methods have been exhausted

Question 2. 
What are your views on the evidence set out in the Environmental Report that has been used to inform the assessment process?
Very positive   
-Positive ✔
Very Negative
Please give details of additional relevant sources:

The evidence contained Environmental Report is generally detailed and thorough.

Question 3
What are your views on the predicted environmental effects as set out in the Environmental Report? See page 15 and Section 4
Very positive
Positive ✔
Very Negative
Please explain your answer

The report’s findings on the predicted environmental effects of beaver reintroduction are generally comprehensive and well reasoned. 

Question 4 
Are there any other environmental effects that have not been considered?

The creation of riparian buffer zones (involving beaver dams) could potentially provide a critical solution to combatting agricultural run-off pollution in intensively farmed areas. 

Question 5 
Please provide any other comments you have on the environmental report
The environmental Report has correctly identified the the potential impacts and appropriate mitigation – but it will be critical to see how the identified mitigation measures are implemented in practice, that sufficient funding is made available for beaver management, and that any evidence of wildlife crime involving beavers is swiftly investigated and prosecuted.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Runoff and Dams

I was surprised when I found this pool of muddy water as I walked through the beaver swamp here at Bamff. I used to call this the 'Wet Wood', but the character has changed so much with all the work that the beavers have undertaken over the years.

Downstream of the dam the water was clear.

I went in search of the source of the muddy runoff and found that it started with a puddle on the public road.

The water flowed down this ditch. The dam in the first photograph is a few yards round the corner in the distance.

some of it flowed into this tributary of the main ditch and 

flowed into this pond. You can see the lighter sediment laden plume of water. It is joined by another sediment rich body of water that has run off a nearby field. The direction of flow is towards the dam in the top right of the photo, built by the beavers that inhabit this swamp.

Here is the dam through which the muddy runoff must flow. I think it is between 70 and 80 paces long.

This shows the clean water that the dam has filtered.

It was good to see such a clear example of the capacity of beaver dams to stop excess sediments. I suppose that the water on the road contained traces of oil, rubber from tyres and so on.