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Scotland’s wild places need to be protected

The John Muir Trust has welcomed the result of a Scottish Natural Heritage public consultation on its core wild land map, describing it as a “resounding endorsement” of the proposal to step up wild land protection. According to its analysis of the 410 responses received:

80 per cent back the wild land map
14 per cent oppose the map
6 per cent are neutral

John Muir Truse LogoIn the view of Stuart Brooks, chief executive of the John Muir Trust, “the scale of support for the map and the eloquence of the responses underline how passionately people value Scotland’s wild land.

We would now urge politicians of all parties to come together to support the map as the next step towards protecting Scotland’s world famous wild land from unsightly and ecologically damaging development. In particular we would ask the Scottish Government to include a reference to the wild land map in the draft National Planning Framework, which is now being scrutinised by parliamentary committees”

John Hutchison Stop the "mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes"

John Hutchison
Stop the “mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes”

Hundreds of individuals and dozens of not-for-profit organisations, including environmental charities, councils, community groups, and national bodies such as SportScotland and Historic Scotland have thrown their weight behind the wild land map.

John Hutchison, who chairs the Trust, stressed that the map was about protecting wild land from energy corporations and landowners intent on exploiting it for profit. “As one of the main driving forces campaigning for the map,” he explained, “the John Muir Trust would emphasise that this is not about preventing small-scale development of renewables or other infrastructure by communities and local people.

“This is about stopping the mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes under tangles of turbines, pylons, road and power sub-stations. These developments might generate lavish profits for landowners and distant shareholders, but they create few if any jobs for local people.”

All of the responses can be downloaded from this page on the Scottish Natural Heritage website.

The Tale of the Lonesome Pines

Gosh, we are becoming an imperious nation. The mighty Scots Pine has just been declared our national tree. The Scottish Parliament is considering making the Golden Eagle our national bird. We already have the lion rampant. I hate to think what insect we might choose as a national emblem…the praying mantis perhaps. Thank goodness for the humble thistle.

Silver Birch Came well down the list

Silver Birch
Came well down the list

The Scots Pine came top of a consultation exercise carried out by the parliament’s petitions committee, well ahead of the rowan and the holly.The silver birch, my favourite candidate, came well down the list. I can only think this is because of the Scots Pine’s grandeur. They are not unique to Scotland. We don’t have that many of them, we are down to our last 250 million (around 8 per cent of our woodland). We chopped most of them down, remember, when we felled the ancient Caledonian forest.

They are only called Scots Pines because they do not grow naturally in England. But they are native to much of northern Europe, from Spain to Siberia. In Norway they are called the Norway Pine, in Mongolia the Mongolian Pine. Besides, they are not nice-looking trees. They are scraggy below and bushy on top. They don’t turn golden in autumn or light green in spring. They don’t sway in the wind or give shelter to much wildlife. And, like most of us these days, they live too long.

The Golden Eagle too is a worrying statement of national aggrandisement. The Conservative MEP Jackson Carlaw reminded us this week that the eagle was a symbol of the Roman invaders and the Nazis. He suggests we should adopt instead the cheery little Robin. The late Helen Eadie, MSP for Cowdenbeath, once championed the cause of the pigeon, though she called it the “dove of peace.”

Golden Eagle Scotland's favourite wild creature

Golden Eagle
Scotland’s favourite wild creature

The merciless Golden Eagle came top of a poll carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage, not just as our favourite national bird, but our favourite animal, beating the red squirrel, the red deer, the otter and the harbour seal. And, again, way down the list came some of my favourites, the puffin, the pine marten and the wildcat.

I’m left wondering if this is the sort of country I want to live in. It’s a question constantly on the lips of the referendumistas these days. And there was plenty for them to obsess about this week. The Governor of the Bank of England (and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland incidentally ) came north to meet the First Minister to discuss his plans for a currency union after independence.

Mark Carney Governor of the Bank of England

Mark Carney
Governor of the Bank of England

This cool Canadian, Mark Carney, hinted vaguely that Scotland would have to sacrifice some of its financial sovereignty if a sterling zone was to avoid the problems the euro zone had been experiencing. The pro-union side took that to mean that an independent Scotland would have to accept whatever interest rate, debt level and tax-and-spend plans the Treasury in London might dictate. Mr Salmond read it rather differently – it was the Governor of the Bank of England accepting that independence could happen and that “technical discussions” could get under way about how a sterling zone would work. There would be no question however of an independent Scotland having its tax or spending plans dictated by London.

The Scottish government has meanwhile been making economies of its own this week. It announced that the number of police control rooms are to be cut from 11 to 5 and fire control rooms from 8 to 3. The fire brigade union said it will be “a disaster” for the north of Scotland but the government says it will lead to a more efficient service. The changes will be phased in over the next five years and there will no compulsory redundancies.

Mike Russell Attacked UK immigration rules

Mike Russell
Attacked UK immigration rules

The education secretary Mike Russell also breezed into the independence debate this week with a tirade against the UK immigration rules. He said they were preventing Scottish universities attracting valuable graduate students from India, China etc. He accused the Westminster government of being driven by xenophobia and the fear of UKIP. But an opinion poll in The Scotsman earlier in the week showed that more than half of Scots favour new limits on immigration. And I havn’t heard the Scottish government offering to take in refugees from Syria.

While on opinion polls, it’s perhaps worth recording what looks like a decisive shift in favour of independence. An ICM poll in Scotland on Sunday shows the Yes camp on 37 per cent, up 5 from last autumn. And when the 19 per cent undecided are excluded, the figure rises to 46 per cent. It’s being seen as a vindication of the SNP’s white paper putting the emphasis on child care.

I hope the children of Shetland were safely tucked up in bed on Tuesday night, as the Up-Helly-Aa celebrations saw the streets of Lerwick invaded once again by the Vikings. The Jarl Squad, a fearsome looking bunch of men in beards, threw their flaming torches into the traditional longboat and pushed it out to sea. Apparently in Norse mythology, the eagle was a symbol of strength and I guess the longboats were built of good Norway Pine. So perhaps our choice of national emblems is a sign that we are following our North Sea neighbours and heading for independence.

Scotland’s favourite bird
[Photo by Jon Nelson, Creative Commons]

The Scottish Parliament has heard an appeal to make the Golden Eagle the national bird of Scotland. It came from the RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan. During his comments to the Petitions Committee, Mr Buchanan called for an end to the “persecution” of the birds in Scotland, arguing that he along with others was “astounded” that both shooting and poisoning took place.

The petition was first lodged in December by RSPB Scotland. Mr Orr-Ewing described the bird as a “true bird icon of Scotland”. He pointed out that many highland chieftains wore an eagle feather, as did the Royal Company of Archers. With only 431 pairs of golden eagles remaining in Scotland, he added that this represented “the whole of the UK’s breeding pairs, and it is regarded as a Scottish species.”

There was an objection to the plan from the Conservative MSP, Jackson Carlaw. He pointed out that the eagle had been used as a symbol both by the Roman empire and later by Nazi Germany. In his words, “The golden eagle is the symbol of an empire that once invaded large parts of Scotland, and more recently of another empire that tried to.”

He went to say that it was “a symbol of imperial power of which Scotland is emphatically not, never has been, and hopefully never will be.” He asked why another national symbol was needed and suggested that the robin would be a better candidate. However, the Committee agreed to take the proposal forward and it will now go out to public consultation. It follows a similar appeal for the Scots pine to be designated as Scotland’s national tree.

A report published by RSPB Scotland last year said there had been a “significant number” of occasions where birds of prey had been illegally killed in areas managed for grouse shooting. Just last month, police in Angus appealed for information after tests showed that a golden eagle found dead there had been poisoned.

Last year, as part of the Year of Natural Scotland, the eagle came top in a poll run by Scottish Natural Heritage and VisitScotland to find Scotland’s favourite wild animal.

Puffins along with guillemots and razorbills are under threat

A report from RSPB Scotland suggests that a number of seabird colonies could face ‘extinction’ unless action is taken now to protect them. It’s concerned about the fall in bird numbers, with the latest end-of-season count showing a severe decline in guillemots, with other species such as puffins and razorbills struggling to cope. The charity suggests that the best solution would be for the Scottish Government to designate Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for seabird populations.

Common Guillemots Especially under threat in Caithness

Common Guillemots
Especially under threat in Caithness

In its latest count, RSPB Scotland found that the number of guillemots in its coastal reserve at Dunnet Head on the Caithness coast had dropped by around 45% since the last seabird census in 2000, falling from 8,980 to 4,880. There was a similar fall at Noup Cliffs on Orkney – down 41% – with the colony on Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde reduced by more than 27%. It believes that the main causes of the decline are food shortages and the effects of climate change.

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on the location of possible MPAs – that’s due to end in November. However, the charity wants the proposals to cover more species and to help manage the problems already found on the cliffs. For instance, black guillemots have been marked for protection under the plans but colonies of this bird are said to be doing well.

According to RSPB Scotland marine policy officer, Allan Whyte, “Scotland is home to 24 species of breeding seabird and it is baffling that the Scottish government chooses to ignore all but one when designating MPAs. Puffins, kittiwakes, common guillemots and the rest are struggling to survive these tough times. The Scottish government can and must throw these birds a lifeline and designate MPAs to protect this amazing group of species in danger of disappearing from our coasts. It is time we take action to give all of our seabirds, like common guillemots, a fighting chance.”

In a statement, the Scottish Government said it had asked Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to provide formal advice on what additional marine Special Protection Areas were required for the conservation of seabirds. The advice is expected to be received at the end of 2013.

Earlier this year, thousands of puffins were found dead along the coasts of Eastern Scotland. However, research at the Isle of May National Nature Reserve suggest that the puffin population appears to have weathered the worst of the Spring storms. The count, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), found that numbers of the iconic bird were similar to those of 2009. The reserve, about 5 miles off Crail on the Firth of Forth, hosts the largest colony of puffins in the North Sea and is a centre for research into their activity.

Puffin Numbers  Higher than Expected

Puffin Numbers
Higher than Expected

The survey by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology suggested that around 46,000 burrows showed signs of being used by puffins this spring. And researcher Mike Harris expressed some surprise at this, pointing out that “This March’s wreck (the technical name for the large scale deaths of puffins: ed) has clearly had a serious effect on the puffins on the Isle of May but, perhaps surprisingly, numbers are very similar to the last count which took place in 2009. Our general impression over the last few years was that the population was increasing slowly and this may explain why we have not seen a decline following the recent wreck.”

It’s clear from the count that the awful weather in March seriously disrupted breeding on the island, with many birds laying two to three weeks later than normal. It is now possible that some pairs will not breed this year. In the view of David Pickett, SNH’s reserve manager on the Isle of May, “The March wreck has seriously affected the timing of breeding with those birds that did survive breeding very late. “It would not be surprising if they needed a few weeks to recover and get into breeding condition. We now wait to see how successful these birds are in raising chicks this summer.”

Sperm whales in Firth of Forth
Pictures (c) Denis McCormack

Staff at the Scottish Seabird Centre were thrilled to confirm that there had been a “spectacular sighting” of a pod of 14 sperm whales in the Firth of Forth. The whales were seen swimming in the Firth on Thursday 25 April between 1 and 2pm, heading from the island of Fidra to the Lamb, just a mile offshore from the centre in North Berwick, an official Sea Watch Foundation National Whale and Dolphin Watch 2013 site. The whales then appeared to change direction, heading towards Crail in Fife.

The amazing sight was reported to the Seabird Centre by microlight pilots from East of Scotland Microlights. They spotted the whales from a height of around 500 feet and captured some stunning images. The water was completely still apart from the disturbance created by the whales’ blowholes and the froth churned by their tails. The whales were also observed by Scottish Natural Heritage staff and other researchers on the Isle of May who were able to identify the whales’ tail flukes, dorsal fins and plumes of spray. Their sighting reports, along with expert views, confirm that these were almost certainly sperm whales.

Sperm whales in Firth of Forth (2) (c) Denis McCormackNorth Berwick-based marine conservationist and author Erich Hoyt said that the sighting of the whales was “…encouraging. Sperm whales are rarely seen in the Firth of Forth, and to see 14 of them travelling together is very special. The previous close sighting of sperm whales in North Berwick was exactly 10 years ago this month when a large sperm whale landed on the beach at Canty Bay; but this is certainly the largest group of living whales we’ve seen travelling together in or near the Firth of Forth. Sperm whales are usually residents of deeper waters off the north and west of Scotland where they hunt squid.

“The images confirm that they are sperm whales, including a few that are either immature males or females. Sperm whales in groups are usually either all males or females with juveniles and calves, so given the absence of calves and the location this is most probably a group of young males. The one tail that is visible is consistent with a sperm whale tail fluke.”

David Pickett, Scottish Natural Heritage’s National Nature Reserve Manager on the Isle of May, added that it had been “a thrilling experience. We were able to get distant views of two pods of sperm whales, distinguished by the flattened dorsal fin, the way the plume of spray went forward rather than up, and their enormous size. For the next hour we saw flukes and whole tails being waved and lots of ‘spy hopping’ when whales raise their heads out of the water.”

Tom Brock OBE Chief Executive Scottish Seabird Centre

Tom Brock OBE
Chief Executive
Scottish Seabird Centre

For Tom Brock OBE, CEO of the Scottish Seabird Centre, the sighting “helps to highlight some of the amazing wildlife that can be spotted right here on our doorstep. It’s thrilling that such a large pod of whales were seen so close to the Seabird Centre. In the Year of Natural Scotland this important sighting is a useful reminder that Scotland’s seas are special and need to be properly conserved for future generations. Scotland’s maritime environment and wildlife are of international importance and it is vital they are safeguarded for everyone to appreciate and enjoy in a sustainable way.”

A special talk on whale and dolphin conservation will take place at the Scottish Seabird Centre on Wednesday 15 May at 7pm. In “Dolphins Down Under” marine ecologist Dr Mike Bossley will speak about his pioneering conservation work with dolphins in South Australia, with an introduction by Erich Hoyt. Erich will talk about the worldwide work of Whale and Dolphin Conservation in protecting marine habitats as part of the WDC “Homes for Whales & Dolphins” campaign. Full booking details are on the Scottish Seabird Centre‘s website.

© Gareth Easton

The Bass Rock gannets have been spotted around the Firth of Forth and staff at the Scottish Seabird Centre are appealing to visitors to keep an eye out for the gannets landing. Gannet Watch is a very popular time in the Discovery Centre as visitors control the interactive cameras and zoom in on the world-famous Bass Rock, the largest single island gannet colony in the world, without disturbing the bird and marine life in any way.

A mere 4km (2.5m) from North Berwick, the Bass Rock is home to gannets until late October, with more than 150,000 on the Rock in mid-summer. The first sighting will mark the start of the nesting season on the Firth of Forth islands and over the coming months there will be around 500,000 seabirds in the area, including puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, shags and terns.

Tom Brock OBE, Chief Executive of the Scottish Seabird Centre, explained that Gannet Watch was “a very exciting time at the Centre with visitors competing to be crowned the champion. Seeing the first gannet land is a real honour – last year it was on 18 February and on the 15 February in 2011, so I would recommend the Discovery Centre as a must-visit attraction during the February half-term.”

The visitor who is the first to spot the gannets on the Discovery Centre cameras will win a treat from the Centre’s popular gift shop.

By John Knox
The migration season is upon us again. ‘Tis the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness….. and gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” It never ceases to amaze me that birds with tiny brains and such delicate bodies can out-fly us, out-navigate us, out-survive us, we who have the whole powers of human ingenuity and civilisation behind us.

The twittering swallows are leaving for South Africa, travelling 200 miles a day, at speeds up to 35mph. The gannets on the Bass Rock will be leaving shortly to spend the winter soaring over the Bay of Biscay. 50,000 geese will be arriving on Islay on an overnight flight from Greenland.

The grand Lady of the Loch of Lowes in Perthshire – the oldest breeding osprey we have ever known – has gone to her winter feeding grounds in West Africa for the 22nd time. Her latest offspring, “Blue 44” left on Saturday, heading down the East Coast main railway line. Another young osprey, Alba from Loch Garten, completed the same 3,000 journey in just two weeks. We know this because he called in on his mobile phone – otherwise known as an electronic tag.

Through such tagging devices, we now know more about the astonishing network of bird flypaths which covers the globe. A modest little woodcock has been tagged flying 4,400 miles from the leafy woods of Britain to the wilderness of central Russia. The arctic tern is the champion migrator. These slight, elegant birds breed in the Arctic summer but fly to their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to take advantage of its summer, a round trip each year of 44,000 miles.

There are many theories to explain how migrating birds navigate. Some follow coastlines, or mountain ranges or rivers or railway lines. Some follow the sun or the stars. Others follow the scent of vegetation. Some can detect the Earth’s magnetic field through tiny traces of iron in their beaks or in the retinas of their eyes.

Man has noticed this phenomenon for quite some time and been amazed and puzzled by it. Migrating birds are mentioned several times in the Bible. Aristotle tried to figure out what was going on. Many people believed that swallows go to the moon in the winter time. Others believed birds hibernated in secret places. As recently as 1878, the American ornithologist Elliott Coues in his Birds of the Colorado Valley could not discount the theory that some birds hibernated deep under mountain lakes.

Not all birds migrate of course, only 1800 species out of the total of 10,000 do so. And some species are undecided whether they are travellers or not. The female chaffinches of Scandinavia, for instance, migrate while the males stay at home. British starlings stay with us for the whole year but Danish starlings cross the North Sea to spend the winter here. There can be “moots” of up to a million birds all flocking together, swirling in one of nature’s most spectacular displays of individual yet communal activity. There is no leader but each bird is influenced by the others.

Nor are birds the only migrators – think of the whales or turtles or salmon or wildebeests. Perhaps even in humans, there is an urge to spend the winter somewhere warmer. Unfortunately, we need so much infrastructure to get there we are prevented from going (except for short trips to Spain).

But what intrigues me is this idea that migration is at once an individual activity and a communal one. Some birds travel alone, like the osprey, but end up in the same place as their fellows. Some travel together, like the geese from Greenland – taking that 20 per cent energy advantage in flying in formation. But none are led.

President Putin forgot this political lesson when he set out the other day to lead the Siberian cranes on their annual migration to somewhere in central Asia. Sitting precariously in his micro-lite, the ex-KGB agent, dressed in white to resemble the leading crane, flapped his way southwards only to be followed by one young and inexperienced bird. On the second attempt, five followed him but three turned back after just a few minutes.

It was not a great parable on political leadership. And perhaps the example of migrating birds is something we can all learn from, particularly nowadays when humans are becoming less biddable and more individualistic. We tend to swarm around computer messages rather than charismatic leaders. We believe more in the wisdom of the crowd rather than the wisdom of our leaders. And yet, miraculously, things get done…the Arab Spring, the stock-market crash, the craze for new products, the making of celebrities.

There is a lot to think about as we stand and stare at the starlings swirling in their self-choreographed displays or the swallows gathering in the autumn skies.

– John Knox is a former BBC journalist who now works part-time at the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

A panda at Edinburgh zoo

Panda-monium at Embra zoo. Picture: Alexander Baxevanis

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it – but will Edinburgh’s pandas do it? Now, possibly for the first time ever, a mainstream UK bookmaker is offering odds on whether two large Scottish-resident mammals are going to mate successfully.

High street bookies Ladbrokes are offering odds of 4/1 that Yang Guan and Tian Tian (sunshine and sweetie) will manage to conceive successfully.

Spring has arrived – just forget about the snow – and so, according to experts, has the time when Edinburgh’s giant pandas enter their most likely mating period. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome of this mating season is that the two pandas will be separated for fighting – that’s what comes of letting them out on to Lothian Road on a Saturday night.

So, for those who like to punt on that sort of thing, here are the odds:

  • To conceive during two day period: yes 4/1, no 1/8.
  • Yang Guan and Tian Tian to be separated for their own safety without conceiving 2/1 (as confirmed by official zoo source).
  • How many panda cubs born? One 5/6, two evens, three or more 33/1.
  • When will the cub(s) be born (void if no birth)? Before 15 June 2012 8/1, 15 June to 1 July 4/1, 1 July to 15 July 3/1, 15 July to 1 August 2/1, 1 August to 15 August 4/1, 15 of August or later 7/1.

by John Knox

<em>Picture: Dave Hamster</em>

Picture: Red Kite by Dave Hamster

Figures to be released by the RSPB are expected to show that there’s been a 20 per cent fall in the number of kestrels in the UK and the population in Scotland has gone down by 50 per cent in the last 15 years.

A major cause of the decline is the use of poisons designed to kill mice and rats. The use of so-called rodenticides is also being blamed for the death of eight red kite chicks on the Black Isle earlier this month.

At the last count there were 36,800 breeding pairs of kestrels in the UK. They normally feed on voles, mice and lizards and are often seen hovering in the wind by the roadside, ready to swoop down on their prey. But changes in agriculture and the use of poisons means that hovering kestrels will become a rarer sight in future.

The news comes as Lomond Books launches a new guide to Scotland’s birds of prey. It gives the latest facts and figures on their numbers and where they can best be seen. More than 50 sites are listed, giving details of 23 species of birds. The top sites include:

Skye – for golden eagles, and on the north coast sea eagles.
Mull – for golden eagles and sea eagles
Loch Garten – for ospreys
Loch of Lowes – for ospreys
Loch Ken – for the Galloway Red Kite Trail
Langholm Moor – for hen harriers, merlins and peregrines
Forsinard – in Sutherland for hen harriers
Assynt – for golden eagles
Black Isle – for red kites

The main compiler of the list, Brian Etheridge, says: “With recent press reports about appalling poisoning incidents, involving golden eagles and other birds of prey, one can easily forget how special these birds are when seen in the wild. In the guidebook, we have tried to point people to places where birds can be watched with due regard for their welfare.”

The guidebook is available from tourist outlets from this week, price £3.50, or direct from the publisher.