Monday, 16 November 2015

Autumn 2015

Last summer we went to Brittany. At some point in our stay I remembered that beavers had been returned to Brittany in the 1960s. We drove towards the catchment of the Elez and found this sign near a lake. Freshwater pearl mussels and beavers! I had always thought the two species must coincide, not least because Peter Goodwin told me that he had seen banks of freshwater pearl mussels near beaver dams while on visits to the USA.

Now we return to November in Perthshire.

This is the famous top dam downstream of the drive at Bamff after the recent heavy rains.

Ambitious? Not really - it's just a willow.

This is part of a new complex of dams in the burn below the old and ruined gamekeeper's cottage at the Burnishead.

Monday, 7 September 2015

An Indian Summer?

On the way to the Wet Wood, a pool dammed by some reed sweet grass.

The simplestem bur reed has spread remarkably into the Wet Wood and down the Burnished Burn to flourish along its reaches. Jeremy Purseglove mentions the plant as an important one for wetland habitats in his 'Taming the Flood', first published around 1986 and republished with revisions and beautiful woodcuts this year. 

Summertime, a short spell of drought, and the canal is running more as a trickle than an engineering work along which branches may be floated.

Overall the work of the beavers has made the whole place wetter. My leaky trainer shoes confirmed this for me, though the undergrowth was too thick to see through.

The arrival of a hobby was an excitement of the summer at Bamff. Hobbies tend to be further south. They prey on fast birds such as swifts and swallows, but also dragonflies. Could an abundance of dragonflies at Bamff encourage them? I don't know, but swallows, martins and bats looking for invertebrate life over the ponds could well.

Friday, 21 August 2015

I Missed the Deadline for September's 'Alyth Voice'.

There you go. There is no latitude on the deadline even for the editor of 'The Alyth Voice'.

The Sting and the Buzz

I have taken to standing and waiting for the green figure to replace the red one at pedestrian crossings with traffic lights. It gives one a moment to stand and stare. As the Welsh poet WH Davies put it:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

It was just at this moment, while waiting for permission to cross the road that I heard the sound of an angry group of herring gulls. Looking up from the display of pumpkins on the other side of the road, I saw a group of gulls, a regular hue and cry, chasing a buzzard. Well, I would not have been surprised at home, but this was Edinburgh.

Here we are in Edinburgh for a few days: going to the Festival and its Fringe, walking about, reading and writing. I love Edinburgh during the Festival. I like to see all the people going about, hearing all the different languages and the discussions. What of the performances? The Marriage of Figaro, performed by the Budapest Opera was a delight. I have been haunted by magical memories of the music for the last three days.

As to reading, I have just finished ‘A Buzz in the Meadow’ by Dave Goulson. Until a year or two ago, he was Professor of Biology at Stirling University (since moved to take up a chair at Sussex University). I wandered through his department once, while lost in a maze of corridors, looking for another Dave (Dave Gilvear, a professor of fluvial geomorphology). The walls were adorned with beautiful photographs of bumble bees. Back home again, and on to the internet, I discovered the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a charity Dave Goulson set up while at Stirling University to promote their conservation. 

Bumblebee numbers are declining: thirteen species became extinct in at least one country in Europe between 1950 and 2000. Why? The usual reasons are given: loss of habitat due to agricultural intensification, urban development and disease. Last year Goulson’s book ‘A Sting in the Tail’ was published to great acclaim. An interesting section describes the dependence of soft fruit growers in Strathmore on wild bumble bees to pollinate crops of raspberries and strawberries while at the same time buying in commercially reared bumblebees. The worry is that centrally reared bumble bees may be the bearers of disease to the native wild populations. 

This year Goulson has followed up his earlier success with ‘A Buzz in the Meadow’, another excellent and readable, but alarming work in which, among a great deal else, he describes his research on the effects of the neonicotinoid insecticides on bumblebees and their part in the Colony Collapse Disorder that so worries the keepers of honeybees. 

When they were first introduced in the 1980s the neonicotinoids were seen as  reassuring successors to the organochlorines (DDT.Dieldrin, etc.) of the 1950s-1970s, and the organ-phosphorus compounds of the 1980s to 90s. The neonics, as they are called for convenience, are very poisonous to insects, but less so to mammals, which has to be a good thing. Since the late 1990s, however, there has been increasing concern about their environmental impacts. Like the organochlorines they build up in the soil and can linger on in sediments under water. They cause initially subtle, but real damage to the nervous systems of bees. The worrying thing is that these pesticides are very widely used: as seed dressings for cereals and oil seed rape, and as sprays for soft fruit. Being systemic they penetrate right through the plant, making the whole thing poisonous to insects. This is fine if the insects are pests, but disastrous if the species affected include bees, and the other insect pollinators that enable us to continue to live on this planet.
Did the light go green? 

STV's Nature Nuts with Julian Clary went down very well. The filming that happened here took place last year some time, I think. Bob Smith took the part of paddler of the canoe

This is the 'High Dam' in full flow, taken about the 8th August.

Now we have a team from the RSPB filming beavers here. I am looking forward to seeing the results of their work.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Alyth Flood, 17th July and afterwards.

Much has already been written about the flood of 17th July and its aftermath, and I am going to add to it. An important aspect for those of us who are interested in the official restoration of the beaver to Scotland is the concerted attack on the species by interests hostile to their return.

Peter Grewar Jr. seems to have begun the campaign. He visited Alyth on the 17th and drove up to Bamff where he noted that some rough grazing had rushes growing in it that indicated poor drainage.

High water table indicates that there is little capacity for the soil to take more water: a reasonable point of itself, but what he missed was that although that field is a wet field it is not always so, at least not in summer, generally speaking, when there is a water deficit for at least some of the time. Ewan Pate in his article in the 'Courier' last week spoke heavily and portentously about poorly drained land and those who own it.

Why would you drain generally wet land if there is no significant profit to be had if you did? Besides what beaver dams achieve is to spread the water, so taking the energy out of the flood - leaving aside the important filtering functions: the removal of surplus nitrates, phosphates that are such a problem in the diffusely polluted waters of lowland Strathmore. And then again there is the biodiversity of wetlands.

Originally Peter Grewar Jr. claimed that logs and branches in the debris that lodged in Alyth were the work of beavers. A tree still in the Den of Alyth, upstream from the town had the marks of beavers on its barked trunk, he had been told. Our friend, John Ferguson, who helped clear the Alyth Burn of debris  told me that he had seen no examples of timber that had been gnawed by beavers.

Here is a tree that was photographed and the barked bits of the trunk described as having been stripped by beavers. In fact the bark must have been stripped off the tree as it was washed down the Alyth Burn and rubbed against rocks on the river bed, or other detritus. I could see no signs of beaver tooth marks on this tree or any of the others I walked by.

'Na craobhan mòr, miarach,
As am friamhaich 'gan reubadh.

The big branchy trees,
Ripped from their roots. (Gaelic song)

But what if there were? The area of the beaver ponds at Bamff amounts to about a hectare. Taking into account the rest of this mini catchment of perhaps up to five hectares, you have to remember that the whole Alyth Catchment amounts to 3600 hectares. If we take the outside figure of five out of 3600 hectares that is 0.001 of the catchment. Water did run over the barrage that closes the ponds at Bamff, but did not break it, or any of the other dams at Bamff that are part of the Alyth catchment.

The blame game started by a few people spread with the help of one Alex Stoddart of the Scottish Countryside Sports campaign. This group seems to be a subsidiary of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association.  'The Courier' published an interview with him in which he spouted all sorts of nonsense. This nonsense was published in 'The Scotsman' and 'Herald' as well. Much of the same article found its way into the 'Sunday Express'. It is true to say that I was quoted giving a response to Stoddart's assertions. 

In the meantime opinion in Alyth itself had focussed on the management of the Alyth Den, a riparian woodland, managed by Perth and Kinross Council for recreation. Over the years paths have been made, some building up of the river bank carried out, and a large concrete sluice installed, as well as a foot bridge. The foot bridge was built in 1990 by the Aberdeen University Officers' Training Corps. Solidly built of two massive steel girders, set in concrete, the bridge survived.

The criticism of Perth and Kinross Council was based on the fact that substantial amounts of chain saw cut logs had been present in the debris that carried away the two foot bridges and had come to rest against the bridge in the Market Square.

Given the force of the flood, already washing away farm roads as far away as Craighead of Bamff, I wonder how relevant the logs from the Den were. 

Built up bank with downstream banks swept away.

The bridge built by Aberdeen University OTC.

A large sluice close to the town of Alyth from downstream side.

The same sluice from upstream with some debris still present. Did this block early in the incident, get torn away by a build up of more debris and contribute to the second pulse of flooding of which people speak?

The severity of the rainfall of the night of 16/17 July had been predicted by the UK Met Office.

Here are two photos of one of the dams near the drive at Bamff before and after the 17th July



Alan Law, part of whose study area for his PhD about beavers and their ecology was at Bamff, tweeted.

This graph is taken from his research.

This photo shows the Wet Wood, which is on a mini catchment that flows via the Auchrannie Burn into the Isla and so misses out Alyth, late in June when there had been a spell of dry weather. Some water did remain in a channel immediately next to the dam (the Long Dam), but otherwise the area was very dry.

Recent years have seen the arrival and tremendous expansion of water bur reed (Sparganium erectum) and sedges.

This photo and the ones below show the area after the 17th, now once again full of water. 

A beaver kit explores its surroundings at Bamff

Here is my piece for August's number of 'The Alyth Voice'

The Flood

A wall of water thundered down the burn: within a few hours the Market Square of Alyth lay four feet deep in it. Cars parked along Commercial Street were shunted onto each other like so many copulating beetles. John Ferguson rescued a lady caught in her car. The occupants of a hundred houses had to be offered accommodation as their homes flooded. Massive amounts of woody debris, including large bits of tree trunk had smashed the two foot bridges. Some came to rest in the arch of the main bridge that spans the burn, as did a skip, while the rest sped on. A sheep washed by, struggling on the chaotic waters. Luckily the old pack horse bridge survived. 

A downpour of unprecedented proportions had struck Alyth. The Meteorological Office has been warning us for some years that the kind of flash flood that results from such an event is to be expected as a feature of climate change. But why Alyth, we ask ourselves? There is no answer to that, but to say that Alyth is not alone: think of Bankfoot, Pittodrie in Aberdeenshire, even the Open at St.Andrews. These may be random strikes that come with little warning. A forecast of ‘heavy rain’ doesn’t imply massive flooding, after all: or does it? 

The flood itself was relatively short-lived. By mid-day on Saturday 18th July, a visitor to the Market Square, would hardly have known that a serious inundation had taken place, except that clearing up was continuing and the high visibility jackets of the SSE people were prominent. Driving home from Edinburgh, we could see flood waters gathered around the confluence of the Isla and the Ericht.

In the meantime those affected by the flood had been offered temporary accommodation and food and clothes provided. The community of Alyth had pulled together tremendously and with characteristic generosity, I learned, but the repairs to homes and property will take a long time to achieve. Some damage may prove to be irreparable.

Flash floods happen in a context. The Alyth Burn rises high up in the Forest of Alyth, way back near the watershed, north of Drumderg. It flows through this bowl of land, joined by the Ollies Burn in the den south of Tullymurdoch and to the west of Gauldswell. The dens that receive the runoff from the open hills concentrate the flow: a cloudburst in the hills must lead to flooding below. This is what happened on the night of Thursday/Friday, 17th July. The rush of water uprooted trees, smashed fences and dykes, carrying with it water gates from the Mains of Creuchies as it flowed past on its way to Alyth. At Mill of Fyal water from the Welton Den, the Bruckly Burn and Bamff (and yes, water from the overtopped beaver ponds, too), joined the wall of water, gathering momentum on its way through the Alyth Den and so to and through the town.

When Alyth grew out of the old town that ran along today’s High Street into the low boggy ground below, the burn was effectively turned into a canal, and the drained haugh next to it built over. As a result, for the last two hundred years or so, the water has not had the former flood plain into which to overflow and lose energy. This is no comfort to those whose homes and shops have been damaged in the latest flood, but it may be an opportunity to consider aspects of flood and catchment management that have eluded us so far, but need to be resolved in this time of climate change, so that people in Alyth can live reassured.

The problem for Alyth as a flood prone place does not lie so much in the Den as in the hinterland. The open hill grazings and the ploughed coniferous plantations shed water with great speed. The Rivers Isla and Ericht are notorious for the speed with which they rise and fall. There needs to be a good programme of re-afforestation of the hills. Research for the Eddlestone Water project has shown that soils under old broadleaved woods are ten to fifteen times more permeable than are soils under coniferous plantations or hill grazings. It is time we took notice of this kind of research and acted. 
Will this kind of flood, relatively infrequent until now become a 30 year event? What will insurers think of that? Perhaps flood prone, flood plain settlements will have to move to higher ground?

The press reaction fails to credit the Alyth folk with their intelligent and compassionate reaction as they set about recovering from the shock of the flooding.

Very few believed that the beavers had any part in the floods: in fact the idea of beavers with chainsaws has become a joke.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

January 2015 - Dippers and Other Matters

This is my piece for February's number of the Alyth Voice.

Dippers in the Burn

Standing for a moment before joining the queue for the checkout in the Co-op, I looked through the magazines on the periodicals stand. I noted 'Horse and Hound', 'the Scottish Farmer' and sundry others, many with pretty cover girls: I decided that I liked a lovely brunette best, and then my eye lit on 'The Scots Magazine'. Now, I had been meaning to buy the current number because I noticed somewhere recently that Jim Crumley had an article about beavers in it. I took a copy from the shelf and looked for the piece in question. Well, there it was and blow me down if he hadn't written about the very same subject that I had chosen to write about in February’s ‘Voice’! In short, Jim's article in 'The Scots Magazine' is as much about dippers as it is about beavers: and why not? Here is what I wrote, but I should like to recommend Crumley's excellent piece in January's 'Scots Magazine' to you.

The dipper is a delightful bird. For a while I have been able to watch one going about its business along the Burnieshed Burn here at Bamff. The first I know of its presence as I walk along the path is the song,  melodious, but slightly harsh. I stop and stand, wondering when the bird will reveal itself to me. It is going to be hard to make out in the snow blotched landscape. Perhaps it will show itself by taking off and flying swiftly along the burn to some other stance, where it will look out for things to eat, or it will give itself away by bobbing up and down and displaying its white front? Today, it was the latter. All of a sudden I realised that a white patch on the other side of the burn was the dipper. I watched to see what the bird would do. At one moment it jumped into the water and splashed around for a while. I hoped to see what it had caught, if anything, but could see nothing. It emerged from the water and went back to its stance. Dippers favour streams with fast flowing water and gravelly beds. Their diet consists mainly of the larvae of mayflies and caddis flies and other insects, as well as some fish eggs and very small fish. I watched for some moments and took a few photographs before moving on into the wood. The exciting thing about the colonisation of the Burnieshed burn by dippers (and the visit last autumn of a kingfisher) is that it is evidence of the increasing productivity of the burn and its capacity to maintain populations of birds, fish and mammals, having been until eight years ago no more than a narrow ditch, and seasonal destination in the years past of breeding sea trout.

The harder weather of the last few days has brought in the snipe. Out for a walk at dusk, I disturbed several of the birds. They zigzagged into the sky, crying ‘Grit, grit!’ Three mallard quacked their way off the flooded land as I continued on my way, slithering cautiously over the refrozen patches of ice. Over the fence at the end of the field, I climbed up the bank and on to the farm road, then down the other side and over another fence into the West Wards. The burn is running full and the water level in the wet wood beyond is as high as I have seen it. The neatly cut canals are flowing and paths to felled trees show that the beavers are active. Having completed my circuit I headed for the warm glow of the kitchen windows and a cup of tea.