Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Oh dear, about two months since my last post!

(I have just noticed a draft today, 23 August 2017, and thought I would write a bit more, add a couple of photos and post it all the same.)

Well, here goes!

That was back in May, I see. The beavers in the burn/ditch west of the drive have been doing great things. I notice tree stumps I had thought were dead sprouting coppice shoots.

A hazel stump sends out coppice shoots.

An ash does the same. I fear for the ash here because I see many signs of the ash die back.

Water spearwort is a spreading feature of the burn side.

Time for a Catch Up

Here is my contribution to 'The Alyth Voice' for August 2017

A Burnside Drama

High summer! A brilliant day of sun with thermals to send buzzards soaring. Swifts fly screaming at altitude and the swallows dart out from their nests on endless sorties. Perhaps there is a second brood to raise?

Life moves on. There are new routines to adopt. Recently, and don’t tell the foxes, pine martens, badgers, stoats, pole cats and others who might be interested, we bought six pullets from Mrs Bruce at Woodside. Now they are here I have to alter my routine to include them in it. They must be shut into their house at night and let out by day to wander and forage through what was once a tennis court. They must be supplied with food and their water supply maintained. Well, that is one new responsibility. Luckily the world is full of people who know about poultry.

Next, a researcher has installed a notched weir and various devices with which to record the flow of water along the Burnieshead Burn. Unfortunately beavers react to the sound of flowing water by going to check where it is coming from. If the flow results from an overflow that they have made themselves they leave it, but if the flow is unauthorised, so to speak, they will do their best to block it. This is what they are doing with the researcher’s notched weir. What is he to do with the situation? The altered flow resulting from the beavers’ work will affect his data. A solution must be found. For the moment I have to visit the notched weir every day to remove the beaver’s efforts of the night before. Perhaps they will give up?

After clearing the notched weir one day I walked on, turned left over the bridge that used to carry the drive to the house, and took along the northern endrigg of the field called Dance Naked. I stopped half way along by the big beech tree that stands there, and looked in towards the burn. A substantial area had been cleared of nettles, dockens and thistles. Climbing over the fence, I went to look more closely: a path led from the top of the bank into the burn: a beaver had cut this clearing among the bankside vegetation. I was fascinated because I had thought that the animals avoided plants like nettles and thistles: clearly not. Beavers do create characteristic areas of lawn along the banks of water courses, but my impression has been that they graze the tender species and leave the more fibrous grasses. I left the bank and crossed the fence back into the field.

I trod on my way, reflecting on what I had just seen, when I noticed a detached foot on the ground. I looked more closely. It was the right hind paw of a beaver kit. What could have done this? A few paces on and I noticed the rest of the creature among the rushes by a canal. All that remained of the little animal was its tail, skin and a shoulder blade. Some beast had scrobbled the kit and consumed it. 

After their first six weeks of life, when their parents keep them safe in the lodge, beaver kits can become surprisingly bold. They seem keen to explore their surroundings, while their parents stand guard nearby, mostly. Perhaps something distracted the parents’ attention in this case? A careless moment is enough to allow the alert hunter its chance.

Otters are around, so my suspicions fell on that species, but perhaps a badger had caught the beaver, or a fox? A Belgian correspondent has told me that it could have been a wolf in his country. So it goes.

Here is my contribution to the AV for September:

A Cock and Six Pullets

As August heads into September the first hints of autumn are becoming apparent; a touch of colouring on the crowns of trees, heavy dew on the grass. The swifts have been gone since early in the month. The house martins and swallows fly in gathering masses to catch their insect prey and fatten on it before setting off for Sub-Saharan Africa.

The pullets I bought in July have started to lay and to make some points clear about their contract with me as custodian. They made it plain very soon after arrival that confinement to their pen was too restrictive. No amount of reminding them of the danger of predators would make them change their mind. Every day as I went to visit their pen they would rush to the door and push as I opened it. Eventually I gave in and allowed the six to rush out, bearing at the back of my mind the thought that I owed them a duty of care as their protector. 

Once out they picked and pecked at the fresh blades of grass. They scratched at the ground with their feet. As the days have passed they have grown bolder and wander further afield. In the afternoon I round them up. Well, that gives you a rather inaccurate idea of what happens. I look around a hen-less landscape and wonder which of several species of predator will have enjoyed them. Perhaps it will be the fox I saw from our bedroom window recently, or the otter whose paw mark I saw by the burn yesterday? And there are pine martens and possibly polecats, not to speak of stoats and weasels. Then, all of a sudden, I hear the reassuring, conversational ‘toouck, toouck' of a hen. Two of the creatures have walked out of the undergrowth where they have been foraging. Soon most of them have come out into the open, curious to see what is going on.

An email arrived from friends in Argyll. They had bought a fine bantam cock for their hens and no longer needed the full sized beast they had on the strength at the time. At first I was unpersuaded: we didn’t need a cock for our hens. We were not planning to establish a breeding flock. Then, another email arrived.The cock in Argyll would face death if he could not be given away: an axe was at hand. Our friends would delay execution if we accepted the bird: they would drive him over to us. He was of a kindly disposition, would look after our hens and protect them from evil. He would even sacrifice himself rather than let his hens face death at the claws of a predator. 

This was too much for me. I emailed back immediately that the cock must come to Bamff without delay. He would be granted full rights of residence as an asylum seeker in danger of his life.

The cock has turned out to be a splendid red gold specimen with iridescent green black tail feathers, which include a white one for good measure. Our friends told me that he had an exceptionally pleasant character, was very quiet, would only crow at dawn and then only for a short time. We drank tea and I listened while my friends extolled the cock.

What of the reality on day two of his presence? He wandered round the house all day, crowing quite often. When it came to rounding up the hens in the afternoon he had only two with him. Is this the future, I thought, am I condemned to an old age of rounding up hens every day from two hours before dusk?

In the meantime our consumption of eggs has risen. Omelettes, scrambled, boiled, poached and fried eggs, mayonnaise, rum soufflĂ© (still to cook). 

This takes me to my last point: the poached egg. I have always consoled myself with the thought that the poached egg was an inferior fried egg. This was because I have never been able to cook one satisfactorily until now.  I would boil the water, break the egg into it and watch while the white spread through the water and seemed to curdle. Well, some months ago I heard on a radio programme that success with poached eggs depends on their freshness. 

With our own eggs I could put this to the test; so I did. I chose two eggs that had been laid that morning. I followed instructions from the internet ( and ‘Presto!’ They were perfect. Of course super market eggs may be months old by the time they reach the kitchen, so it’s not surprising they don’t poach well.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A Walk to the Wet Wood/Beaver Bog

Last week it was the otter latrine that excited me. This week it was the chorus of frogs. The British frog is Rana temporaria and the song it sings is a simple one note trill - satisfactory in warm weather and bright sunshine as a harbinger of spring.

Here is a choral group.

The small pond at the west end of the Beaver Bog/Wet Wood has grown dramatically.

Otters, water voles, frogs whatever next?

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Memories of our visit to Seattle

Forests for fish should be recognised in Scotland as being important for the health of the Atlantic salmon. That doesn't mean monocultures of Sitka spruce but of a programme of ecological restoration as proposed by Helen Armstrong (, Duncan Halley and others.

I took the next few photos at the Seattle Aquarium.

The removal of the Elwha Dam has been a huge project (,

It is thrilling to think that, as with other river restoration projects, salmon are running up the Elwha River again.

I liked this tank of coho parr in the Seattle Aquarium.

The two photographs below are taken just above the hatchery and so rather upstream of the now removed dam.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Spring Notes 2017

Being short of time I thought I would look out something I had written earlier and put it in for April 2017. But no, that would not do. The articles I found were all relevant to some extent, but not enough in the particulars. Snowdrops, aconites, migrating geese, beavers and wild boar were all mentioned in the articles that I looked through, but in the context of the year and seasons they described they were irrelevant to the present. There were late years and early years and comments that belonged to a particular year. No, I decided, I would not get away with it. I would have to start afresh and make time.

 This year I see that daffodils are beginning to flower, which seems a little early, but then the weather has been quite mild. Buds of the red berried elders are about to burst and I see one of those flowering currants coming into bloom. Greater Spotted Woodpeckers are drilling away in the snags of dead trees of which there are plenty here, especially along the banks of the Burnieshead Burn. Song thrushes are singing furiously from the tops of trees. One, at least, has been pretending to be an oyster catcher. 

What of the passing winter, revived as it is from time to time by frosts and teuchat storms? The green sandpiper that wintered here for the last two years made a brief touch down along the Burnieshead Burn a couple of weeks before Christmas, but I didn’t see it again. The dippers were absent too. Our Dutch shooters saw a flock of snipe during one of their visits. 

While walking in the Wet Wood I came across an otters’ latrine by the side of the burn. Usually I come across single spraints in various states of dissolution, but  this latrine comprised at least ten separate scats: clearly a meeting place for otters. The spraints are sources of information for the animals. They learn from each other’s faeces what there is to eat in the area and other important information such as the sex and state of sexual readiness of the informant. Otters are not seasonal breeders, but will breed whenever their body condition allows.

The species has made a wonderful recovery since the dark days of the 1970s when it nearly became extinct in this country owing to the widespread use of various poisons in the environment. Happily, scientists of the Nature Conservancy’s Monks’ Wood Research Station, led by the late Derek Ratcliffe, were able to persuade Government of the toxicity of the organochlorines and then the PCBs. This led eventually to the withdrawal and banning of these chemicals. Rachel Carson’s famous ‘Silent Spring’ was a classic summary of the case against the chemical companies’ irresponsible promotion of the use of these substances. And still the struggle continues: the British Government, unlike those of Germany and France, refuses to ban the neonicotinoid chemicals that threaten to destroy honey bees and bumble bees, essential pollinators of so many crops. 

Otters are still rare in various parts of mainland Europe, but making a come back just as ours have. There is the possibility of recovery: we must make the most of it.

There we go! Some photos of otter spraints

I should have pointed out that the short article is my contribution to April's number of 'The Alyth Voice'.

And now to the same walk at Bamff where I came across the otters' latrine.

This is the little pool that John Lister-Kaye dug with the excavator in September 2001.

The new dam for that pond - the dam topped with turf and mud.

Here is the pool created by the Long Dam. In the distance you see a mass felling grey alder. The trees are felled parallel to each other, but not facing specifically towards the water.

Here is the Long Dam, seen from near the lodge by the ditch.

Monday, 13 March 2017

More about Canyonville and the State of the Beaver Conference 2017

We reached Canyonville. The air was crisp and promised frost that night. Word was that there was a lot of snow higher up and not far away. The prospect of a visit to the Crater Lake was dismissed.

We met our fellow Brits and Gerhard Schwab in the Seven Feathers Hotel as well as Leonard and Lois Houston, and ate and drank with them before heading for bed.

We were sorry to learn that Heidi Perryman had decided not to come after all, put off by the prospect of floods. Louise and I were lucky not to have been blocked by landslides because two or three roads were blocked by landslides, either after we had passed through, or because we didn't take those roads by accident.

As she was absent Heidi sent us the following talk as a video. Here is a link to it:

Stan Petrowski welcomed us all, but the first talk came from Derek Gow who was standing in for Professor Bryony Coles. The talk covered the familiar grounds of Bryony's 'Beavers in Britain's Past' of 2007/8, but it was interesting to see photos of soil horizons in river banks with great gaps, filled with different sediments, their shape suggestive of beaver burrows, the significance of which I had not fully taken in before.

Gerhard Schwab's talk covered much familiar ground to do with the interface between beavers and people in Bavaria. The theme of much of the conference was exactly that. Gerhard also introduced us to Max Behr Amtman who worked on the protection of the beavers of the Elbe floodplains in the 1920s.

Translocation of beavers came up as a subject. It was interesting to learn of high failure rates (up to 40%) in some projects. Much of this had to do with predation by cougars and coyotes. Young adults of dispersal age must be specially vulnerable.

One of the most interesting talks was given by Stewart Reid. Dr. Reid spoke about the relationship between beavers and Pacific lampreys. Two years ago when Louise and I attended the last State of the Beaver conference I found myself wondering about beavers and lampreys. It struck me then that our river and brook lampreys (as ammocoetes) should benefit from the fine sediments that accumulate on the upstream side of beaver dams, as they seem to in the Pacific North West. As the Tay is a Special Area for Conservation in part because of the presence of three species of lamprey this is something worth remembering. On the other hand the amount of agricultural pollution in the lower stretches of the Isla and other tributaries of the Tay is probably such as to make the survival of lampreys difficult. It would be interesting to learn more about this.

Vanessa Petro spoke about beavers in managed forests. She started her talk interestingly by saying that we know surprisingly little about the species. For example it was not generally known that American beavers like the Eurasians, often live in bank burrows. 

I became aware of this recently. It seems that beavers of both species are more flexible in their solutions to housing problems than people had thought. 

Mike Callahan showed us a design for a ditch levelling device for narrow channels with high flows:

That is enough for now.

Except that here is a photograph of Stan Petrowski

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Some random thoughts about our visit to the 'State of the Beaver' Conference at Canyonvillle, Oregon.

I have been having difficulties in downloading photographs and thought I would move my blog to Wordpress. However, I thought I would try Blogger again and, lo and behold, photos downloaded. 

Anyhow, just to start with her is my piece for March's number of the Alyth Voice.

A Letter from California.

They do say that San Francisco is inclined to rain, but nobody told me that Los Angeles would suffer a massive rainstorm while I was there. Instead of golden sun and blue skies the rain lashed down, tearing old palm fronds off their trees and casting them on the roads and sidewalks. The famous Hollywood sign was hidden in the mist and there was no view from the Griffith Observatory. Ten inches or so of rain fell in the storm of Friday, 17th February. 

California is in the throes of a metereological turn around. For a good six years there had been unbroken drought and now there are floods. The US's highest dam, the one at Oroville was in danger of overflowing and the massive outpouring of water through the spillways threatened to destroy these structures themselves. About 180,000 local people had to be evacuated from their houses in case the dam itself collapsed. An article in the current number of the 'Scientific American' reports that recommendations that the dam should be strengthened as a response to the changing climate were turned down in 2008.

Interstate 101 is the highway that takes you through much of the Central Valley of California. This lies between the coastal range and the Sierra Nevada to the East.  The area amounts to some 18,000 square miles and is given over to intensive agriculture. We drove past vineyards and huge orchards, some of them almond orchards in flower. There were plantations of peaches and vast fields where rice would grow. Irrigation pipes were to be seen in many place, a curious counterpoint to the flooded fields in which those pipes lay. Single enormous fields stretched out of sight from the road as we drove by. The biggest fields in Strathmore were dwarfed in comparison.

The signs of the recent rains were present everywhere, but it was not until we drove through the northern end of the plain that we saw the extent of the flooding caused by the rainfall that has threatened the Oroville dam (and a couple of others) with apocalypse. By this time we had left Interstate 101 and were heading for Chico. I noticed a high rampart to our right and then saw a sign to Oroville. Wow! I thought. Passing so close to this enormous lake/reservoir with its threatened dam, was an unexpected brush with current headlines. We drove on and the rain continued to lash down. I noticed a huge flock of snow geese resting in a flooded field. On the other side of the road some Canada geese were grazing.

Looking at maps later I discovered that the rampart we had passed by was the boundary of the Thermalito Afterbay, which is part of the Oroville-Thermalito complex of reservoirs and structures. The main high dam lies further to the east. It was completed in 1968 and created a lake that flooded the Feather River and various others in the catchment to store water for hydroelectricity, irrigation, flood control, etc.

In my excitement about the Oroville dam I nearly forgot to mention our visit to the Muir Woods National Monument. This is a small reserve of about 500 acres a little to the North of the Golden Gate Bridge, and one of the last areas of old growth coastal redwoods. It was declared a reserve by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 in honour of John Muir who fought so hard throughout his life for the protection of wilderness and for the establishment of a system of national parks in a country that was being assailed by the demands of modern society and the growth economy. The great trees are an astonishing sight and presence, for which nothing can prepare the visitor. The old trees in this wood are at least 1,000 years old.

Rolling back in my memories of this journey from Los Angeles to Oregon I must mention Monterey, the site of John Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row', where we stayed a night. The canneries in Monterey processed fish, mainly sardines, of which there was once tremendous abundance, but the fishery was grossly over exploited and eventually collapsed by the late 1940s, leaving a legacy of pollution in the Bay and collapsed economy on land. Steinbeck's friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, and Julia Platts, the mayor of the town, campaigned for the restoration of the ecology of the marine environment with eventual success. Ed Ricketts is the 'Doc' of Steinbeck's novel. Dr. Ricketts founded the world famous aquarium in Monterey, a major attraction to visitors.

Now we are in Canyonville, Oregon after driving out of California, over the mountains, ready to attend the 'State of the Beaver' conference for 2017. 

Time to go.

Louise standing at the foot of a coastal redwood at Big Sur. The road to the South had been blocked by landslides and the road we took down fro Monterey was closed the next day.

We visited the Muir Woods National Monument - an area of about 600 acres which were declared protected by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. They escaped logging because the ground was at the bottom of a deep canyon. The wood was bought by Congressman William Kent and his wife. In 1906 the wood was threatened by a proposed dam. Kent insisted that the monument be named after John Muir.

More soon.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Resumption Of Activity

After a silence of more than a year here I am again, at last. I thought I would post my most recent contribution to the 'Alyth Voice'. Why not? And some photos of the Burnieshead area and Wet Wood at Bamff.

An Afternoon Walk in the Wet Wood

'A beautiful afternoon and time to visit the Wet Wood, I thought, so putting on my coat and boots, binoculars, and carrying my camera, I set off into the afternoon sunlight. 

Middle to the second half of January: most ewes should be pregnant by now and many will be bearing twins. I reach the end of the field and prepare to cross the fence. Placing my right hand on the top of a fence post, I raise my left leg to place my boot on the top wire and, drawing my right leg up to join the left leg, push up. My left hand swings over and places my stick on the other side, ready for landing. Over I go. With a light leap I touch down safely and climb the embankment onto the farm road and set off for the Quarry Wood. The path through it is clear since the Wild Sparks started, but there is no one about today: no sounds of children busy in the woodland. I cross another fence and make my way towards the wetland. A woodcock flies out from the undergrowth near me. The afternoon sun is still above the horizon and the landscape around me glows. Turning left I make my way towards the long dam. Usually I walk along the crest, but today I do not: the beavers have taken advantage of the open weather and have spent much time repairing it and raising its height. Mud has been dredged from the floor of the pool and slapped onto the dam wall. They have added sticks, mostly brushwood, and in some places small branches along the top. To tread on this structure would be to risk damaging it.

A pair of mallards flies up, interrupting my concentration for a moment as I make my way through the rushes. This demands some care because there are hidden channels up to a couple of feet deep.  

I walk on and note that the beavers have diverted one of their canals to create new pools. Another woodcock sweeps off. As I pause to look around a red squirrel appears: it has probably been eating alder seeds. Ravens croak and I look up to see a couple of the birds flying over. I walk on and another pair of mallards irrupts into the sky, quacking their warning to the world. By this time I have more or less completed my customary circuit and am crossing a dam. ‘Plop!’ What was that? Too small for a beaver: I look at the disturbed surface of the pool and wait. Moments pass: a beast raises its head from the water some yards away. It looks about, submerges and swims off: it is a water vole. I wait on, hoping to see the animal again. There are some ripples in the water and a sound of gnawing somewhere else, but the creature has gone. It has been a long time since I last saw a water vole and I am glad to see one about.'

This photograph shows huge bubbles in the foam that aquatic hyphomycetes produce during their breaking down of leaf litter in the Burnieshead Burn. I first learned about these fungi when attending a meeting of the Scottish Freshwater Group at Stirling University many years ago. 

Developments at the Burnieshead have been remarkable over the past year.

This is one of the new dams next to the drive to Bamff House.

The beavers in the Wet Wood have been active in repairs and alteration of their long dam, now more than 100 metres long.

The beavers have used a lot of brushwood gained from felling grey alders.

Further on in my walk I came across this place where beavers have diverted one of their canals to create new pools.

Here is a wide angle view, looking east through the wetland that resulted from the presence of beavers over the last 15 years.

A bit further east than the last photo in among some mainly grey alder woodland. 

December 2016 was a dry month, so it is interesting to see how the beavers have maintained and even raised the water level here this past autumn. 

Last winter I read John Pastor's wonderful book 'What Should A Clever Moose Eat?' Professor Pastor has a web site at What more can I say?