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Natterjack toads mating <em>Picture: HotShotA</em>

Natterjack toads mating Picture: HotShotA

By Rob Edwards
Scottish ministers are facing “reputational damage” for failing to keep their promise to protect the nation’s precious countryside, animals and plants, the government’s nature conservation agency has warned.

In a new assessment, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) says that crises with otters in Shetland and natterjack toads on the Solway coast have contributed to the stagnation of efforts to improve the state of Scotland’s 1,800 designated conservation areas since July last year.

Many sites are getting worse because of pollution, poor management, neglect and other threats. As a result, the Scottish government’s target to “improve the condition of protected nature sites” is being missed.

The target is a watered-down replacement of an earlier government aim to “increase to 95 per cent the proportion of protected nature sites in favourable condition” by 2010. That was also missed, as less than 77 per cent of sites are currently judged to be in a favourable condition.

SNH’s latest assessment comes in a report to a recent board meeting in Inverness on “business performance” over the last three months of 2011. The report highlighted the lack of progress on designated conservation areas.

“A key risk to the programme is a failure to deliver improvement in the favourable condition indicator resulting in reputational damage for SNH and Scottish government,” it said.

One problem was a “worrying” but hitherto unreported crash in the population of otters at Yell Sound on Shetland. SNH has launched an investigation into why 85 per cent of otter holes had been found to be unoccupied, with some clues suggesting that they may be short of fish to eat.

The number of rare natterjack toads at the site of a former explosives factory at Powfoot near Annan in Dumfries and Galloway has also declined. According to Chris Cathrine, from the Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK, this could be because of a combination of disease, poor management and climate change.

The SNH report said that only 22 natural features in designated areas had been brought into favourable condition in 2011–12, compared to a target of 137. This made hardly any difference to the overall proportion in favourable condition, which went from 76.7 per cent to just 76.8 per cent.

Environmental groups described the government’s failure to meet its target as “a major concern”, and called for more investment. “We fear that a shift in focus to those parts of nature that simply generate a financial profit mean that this ecologically critical network is being neglected,” said Paul Walton, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland.

“We urge SNH to see new approaches as an extension of, rather than an alternative to, the essential baseline conservation mechanisms like protected areas which underpin our environmental quality.”

Deborah Long, conservation manager at Plantlife Scotland, pointed out that it was not going to be easy to improve the condition of the natural areas that were suffering. “But that does not mean that the target should be dropped,” she said.

“It would disastrous for Scotland’s protected areas, the health of Scotland’s wider countryside and the success of ecological networks if SNH and the Scottish government were to drop this target because it got too difficult.”

SNH accepted that it faced major problems in meeting the government’s target. “There’s no avoiding the fact that we face big challenges,” said the agency’s programme manager for designated sites, Phil Gaskell.

“Some of the early progress was obvious and more easily made. Now we are involved in the harder sites involving more complex issues, including joint management between a number of landowners and occupiers.”

Gaskell acknowledged that SNH had “fallen short” of the previous target to bring 95 per cent of protected natural features into favourable condition by 2010. “To address this, we will be focusing attention and resources on a limited number of specific habitats and species groups where we believe progress can be made most effectively,” he added.

The Scottish government stressed that it remained committed to improving the condition of protected nature sites. “We do not underestimate the challenges involved in doing so,” said a spokesman. “SNH is engaging with land owners and managers to identify and deal with any issues.”

Rob Edwards, environmental news and comment.

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Black Hill windfarm, Lammermuirs <em>Picture: Walter Baxter</em>

Black Hill windfarm, Lammermuirs Picture: Walter Baxter

By John Knox

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has signalled a change in emphasis to focus more on using Scotland’s natural assets to create jobs and boost economic growth.

In its latest strategy document, the government agency says its ambition over the next five years “is that Scotland’s natural assets will generate wealth for all, sustaining us and improving our health, lifestyles and culture”.

The agency has often been criticised for being too zealous in its efforts to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Critics say it puts landscape and wildlife before people and their need for jobs, housing and energy supplies. The new strategy will fit better into the hard-nosed age of austerity and the Scottish government’s priority of economic growth.

“We will streamline our guidance to deliver national and local priorities, simplify regulation and speed up decision-making,” the strategy document says. “Our advice will be evidence-based, proportionate and concise and will show decision-makers the levels of risk and uncertainty to which they may be exposed.”

So in future, there will be less emphasis on protecting eagles and rare ants and more on how windfarms and housing developments can go ahead without harming wildlife and beautiful landscapes. SNH will be trying to avoid the kind of trouble its objections encountered over projects such as the Boat of Garten housing development, the Beauly to Denny electricity line, the Lewis windfarm, the Trump golf course and the hedgehog eradication programme on Uist.

Conservationists will be alarmed at this swerve towards economic growth and they will be pointing out that SNH has a duty – in law and under European and other international treaties – to protect Scotland’s wildlife and the 20 per cent of Scotland’s land area that is covered by environmental legislation. They will also argue that natural assets are worth protecting for the long-run health of the economy and for the wellbeing of the human population – by which is meant a clean environment, more recreation and exercise facilities and the promotion of an outdoor culture.

These are points that SNH recognise. Its strategy document notes, at the very beginning, that Scotland’s natural assets contribute more than 10 per cent of economic output (£17.2 billion a year) and one in seven of all full-time jobs. But it says – reading between the lines – that the balance has to be altered in favour of immediate economic growth, to tie in with the political mood of the country.

SNH is also recognising that, in the words of the chairman Andrew Thin, it “will be part of a smaller public sector and will work with others to deliver the government’s outcomes”. The agency has already been through the bonfire of the quangos and has survived, but has to take on the work of the disbanded Deer Commission.

Thus its budget of £65 million and its 800 staff will be stretched more thinly across the country and it will have to work more closely with local councils, the National Park Authorities and the conservation organisations. It cites the Central Scotland Green Network – connecting parks, farmland and other open spaces in a green corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow – as an example of partnership working to serve the needs of mainstream communities.

Other new responsibilities include expert advice on rural development, biodiversity, marine planning, farming reform, climate change and the move to a low-carbon economy. Plenty to be getting on with and a long way from issuing glossy brochures about birds and bees.

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<em>Picture: dr. friendly</em>

Picture: dr. friendly

By John Knox

I have finally seen my neighbourhood otter. There he was, popping his head up in Duddingston Loch and then diving again with a swoop of his smooth back and long tail.

It was mid-afternoon, on a cloudy day, and I had just arrived in the hide on the south side of the loch. “Do you want to see an otter?” the man with the telescope asked me excitedly. I looked though but could see nothing except the dark surface of the water and the reeds on the shore opposite. “Try again,” said the man, “he comes up for air every so often.”

Sure enough, a moment later my otter appeared, head up, looking around – and then, with a speed and elegance you don’t expect, he plopped down into the water again and was gone in a circle of bubbles.

It was a moment of pure magic. Life on this planet suddenly took a turn for the better. My heart jumped. I don’t suppose the otter cared a splash what pleasure he had brought to us humans in the hide – even if he knew we were watching him from 300 metres away. But this rare interchange between man and beast reminded me of what Burns called our “social union”. It reminded me too of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, the very human story of how he saved an Iraqi otter and reared it on an island off the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Apparently there are only 8,000 otters in the whole of Scotland and freshwater otters are usually nocturnal, so I was so lucky to see one – especially here in the middle of Edinburgh. Scotland is home to most of Britain’s otters and we have one of the most important populations left in Europe. Happily, numbers are on the rise again after 40 years of decline due to urbanisation and chemical-based agriculture.

Curiously, one of the main threats to the otter is the motor car. Despite their agility and quickwittedness, otters are notoriously bad at crossing the road. Like hedgehogs, they get confused by the headlights as they scurry about at night between river systems. Otters can range for up to 16km in a single night. Perhaps this is why most of them live in the Highlands and why there is a healthy population of sea otters around our remote northern coastline.

In a recent online opinion poll for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), 84 per cent of people said they would like to see otters in all of Scotland’s rivers. The other 16 per cent are presumably anglers worrying about their supplies of trout and salmon. Or they may be frog lovers, because frogs are what otters eat when the trout and salmon and eels run out.

But the anglers need not worry. Otters are pretty few and far between. A typical family has a range of about 30km and they only have two or three cubs in a season. Another surprising fact is that otters only live for three or four years – so the population is vulnerable to a few bad breeding seasons. This is why they are highly protected by law: it is an offence to kill or capture an otter or to disturb their holts (burrows) or couches (nests).

Unsurprisingly, the SNH opinion survey found that most people – well over 80 per cent – want to protect our wildlife, whether furry or feathered. But more interesting was the order in which people ranked their environmental wish-list. First came clean waters around our coast, then litter-free beaches. At number three was well maintained parks, then wild salmon – and, at number five, an end to the persecution of birds of prey. My friendly otter did not make into the top end of the list at all. But prioritising is never an easy business, particularly when everything in the environment is connected to everything else.

Indeed, this is my point. That fleeting moment when the otter popped his head out of the water at Duddingston Loch was one of those moments when you realise that we human beings live on the same spectrum as the animals and indeed the plants on our planet. We are part of the same continuum and there is no end to it. It is a ring of bright water.

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Irvine Butterfield (right) with Bill Mejury, topping-out Dibidil bothy in 1970 <em>Picture: Irvine Butterfield collection</em>

Irvine Butterfield (right) with Bill Mejury, topping-out Dibidil bothy in 1970 Picture: Irvine Butterfield collection

When Dibidil – a bothy in a remote location on the south-east side of the island of Rum – was rebuilt in 1970, it gave its name to, and formed the subject of, the first book by Irvine Butterfield, the noted hill writer, photographer and activist who died in May 2009.

    Earlier this year, Dibidil – A Hebridean Adventure was republished by Roderick Manson – who discusses the book, the bothy and memories of his friend.

    Dave Hewitt: Why did you decide to republish Dibidil?

    Roderick Manson: It wasn’t really my idea. Bruce Walker, a sculptor and engraver from Kirriemuir, approached Irvine’s executor (me) with the idea of erecting a small standing-stone sort of memorial to Irvine by Loch Clair in Torridon where his ashes were scattered.

    Irvine had strong views on the subject of memorials on wild land, so it couldn’t go there. But it was a very generous gesture, so I looked for places with a strong Irvine connection and, after reading Dibidil, agreed with Richard Kilpatrick, the Scottish Natural Heritage warden on Rum, that it could go above the new pier at Kinloch. It’s a couple of hundred yards along the Loch Scresort trail and Irvine hasn’t come back to haunt me yet, so I suppose he’s pleased.

    I was put in touch with Richard by Dave Robertson, the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) maintenance organiser [MO] for Dibidil, who tracked down a copy of the original which was on the market for about £60. He suggested we reissue the book with some extra material and use it to raise funds for the MBA, just like the original. So we did.

    DH: How many copies did you print? How many were printed first time round?

    RM: There were 500 copies of the original book published. That seemed a reasonable number, so we printed 500 of the second edition as well. The first book took about 18 months to sell out. This one is heading the same way: we’ve just passed 400 copies sold. So far we’ve been able to send £1,000 to the MBA. We’re in profit, so every penny received, after postage, goes to the MBA.

    DH: Have you been to Dibidil? If so, what did you make of the place, both in terms of location/atmosphere and the weather-resistant aspects of the building?

    RM: Yes, Bruce Walker and I followed the coastal track down from Kinloch the day after the memorial stone went in last September. I’d seen the bothy on a previous traverse of the Rum Cuillin but never gone down (Kinloch Castle was a more convenient base) and the book was about to come out, so it seemed a good idea. The going is excellent, although Bruce managed the impressive feat of finding the only bit of bog on the entire path and falling into it up to his waist. I was even more impressed when he repeated the feat on the way back.

    It was one of those days you get out west where the light and shade vary from minute to minute, and Eigg and later Muck were wonderful to view. We crested a small rise with sea eagles circling overhead and just looked down in wonder to the bothy. Aesthetically, the situation is stunning. We did wonder how the original settlement could ever have been viable – it was built as a shepherd’s house in 1849 but was occupied only until the 1870s when economics and events overtook it.

    The building itself is as solid a bothy as you could imagine, with a new stove that heats the place to excess. Dave Robertson is in the habit of kayaking across – the rocky shoreline isn’t such a problem for him as for the original work party who had to land materials there in a force 6 gale.

    Dibidil in 2011 <em>Picture: Jonathan Moles</em>

    Dibidil in 2011 Picture: Jonathan Moles

    DH: How many would it comfortably sleep? Any idea how often it is used?

    RM: Comfort is probably a relative term. There are two sleeping platforms in one room and plans to build another platform in the other room next year. One room has a stove, the other an open fireplace, though there’s very little timber or driftwood in the area.

    There were apparently 25 people in it one night last year, but how comfortable they were can be left to the imagination. As with all MBA bothies, it’s open access and usually it won’t be too busy for anyone to find space to sleep. You may want to take a tent, though, just in case – it’s a long walk to the next bothy.

    From the bothy book we know that it is well used in summer, less so in winter due to weather and general difficulty of access; care has to be taken walking in or out after heavy rain when the burns are in spate. There is little soil higher up to absorb any rain, so when you get a deluge – not unknown out west – even the smallest stream can become a dangerous torrent in minutes. I stepped across the Dibidil Burn when I visited the bothy. The next day, the only resident waded waist-deep across a 30-foot-wide river on the way out.

    DH: Irvine Butterfield’s reputation is interesting – he was widely liked and respected during his lifetime and remains so more than two years after his death. He wasn’t part of the hill/mountain establishment – never a member of the main clubs and not the kind of man who fitted easily into a suit (in any sense). But he cropped up all over the place, especially in the early days of things – the MBA, the John Muir Trust (JMT), the Munro Society, etc. Was it this broadbased love of the hills that made people like him so much?

    RM: It was certainly a part of it, but I think there’s more to it than that. Irvine cared very deeply about the Scottish hills, but more than that he was prepared to invest colossal amounts of time and energy in pursuit of causes he believed in. He didn’t just pick one horse and ride it. He got involved whenever he felt he could do something. People responded to that and were in turn inspired to do more themselves than they otherwise would have done.

    As a small example, he put up a bottle of (rather good) whisky as a prize in a raffle at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival (DMFF) one year to try to attract new members to the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS). The next year the JMT was buying Schiehallion, so I suggested we hold a collection at the final evening lecture at the DMFF. Irvine got permission from the organisers and drew a picture of the mountain on the side of a cardboard box (think of the cover of Frank Zappa’s Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch and you’ve got the idea), then I just stood at the door shaking the box and promising to shut up if anyone donated a tenner. After that, he got me involved with the local Schiehallion group for several years.

    He did that with a lot of people: got them enthused, then got them doing things even if not on quite the scale he was doing things himself. A couple of years before he died, the Munro Society did a video interview with him which is still available. It gives a very good impression of what Irvine was like.

    It’s true he was not in any way an establishment figure, but he got involved and got on with doing things where others would just ponder and fret. He was one of those rare characters who more than deserved his reputation.

    DH: Irvine also seemed prone to disillusionment – anyone who spent much time with him wouldn’t have to wait long to hear him chunter about something, often about the way that some organisation had drifted from its initial ideas and intentions. The JMT generally and the Schiehallion group specifically were examples of this. But he never seemed bitter – more just disappointed – and, crucially, he always seemed to keep working with people rather than walking away.

    In the grough obituary, I described him as “cantankerous, but never curmudgeonly”, and I tend to see that as an endearing aspect of his Yorkshireness. Is that a reasonable assessment?

    RM: That’s a very good summary of Irvine’s character. Irvine was the archetypal Yorkshireman – gruff and curmudgeonly but with a soft centre. No one who knew him even slightly took the exterior too seriously because we knew what he was really like underneath as a friend and as an ally. It’s true he was often disappointed – his standards and expectations were extraordinarily high – but even his disappointment was amiable. Whatever he felt about what he and I often saw as serious errors in the JMT handling of East Schiehallion, he remained on good terms with the parties involved. The JMT even went so far as to make Irvine only the fourth recipient of their Lifetime Achievement Award, just before he died. They understood.

    DH: What did you make of his politics? Here was a man, after all, whose coffin was draped with two flags: the white rose of Yorkshire and the saltire.

    RM: We never discussed politics – just mountain issues. It didn’t really surprise me. Irvine was a very independent individual; I think it’s a Yorkshire characteristic, and there are a lot of things Yorkshire folk and Scots have in common – primarily being misunderstood by them from further south. If there had been a Yorkshire nationalist movement he’d have been part of it; as it was, he’d adopted Scotland and its mountains and felt they’d be better looked after by a Scottish government.

    The current random industrialisation of the countryside might have disappointed him, to put it mildly, but he would have stood by the principles he believed in.

    DH: What of Irvine’s legacy? Was there an Everyman aspect to him in hillgoing terms? He freely admitted, after all, to not being a tiger on the crags, and had various self-deprecating stories about being helped up awkward hills by more experienced clubmates and colleagues.

    RM: It’s certainly true that he was something of an archetype of the Munrobagger. Like many, he “got a lift” up the In Pinn and was decidedly nervous of exposure. He liked the views from the heights; he was less keen on the prospect of falling off. That may be why he balked at the main summit of the Cobbler. It wasn’t about self-aggrandisement with Irvine; he just liked being amongst mountains and he wanted others to enjoy it as well, which spurred his writing and the work he did with the MBA, the MCofS, the Munro Society and others.

    I think his level of fame within the outdoors community genuinely baffled him, but he accepted it and used it to further the causes he believed in. He was a very practical man in that way. He believed in giving something back and making the mountains glad.

    DH: Do you think he’ll remain a familiar name in, say, 50 years’ time? Or could he end up being a half-forgotten – and uncategorisable – character in Scottish hill history? Would a biography help?

    RM: Ask me that in 50 years’ time. There is a mix of the personal memories and the overall achievements when it comes to Irvine which makes it difficult for someone like me who knew him fairly well to be objective. That mix will change over time and a more objective assessment of everything he achieved will be possible. I think that assessment will be that he was a major factor in establishing several important organisations in the Scottish outdoors scene and that he was an important writer and first-rank photographer.

    You could compare him to Alfred Wainwright or Adam Watson, but his approach and his impact was much more universal and all-encompassing. In marketing terms, he was a niche product that filled a great many niches, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. His approach was targeted; it’s just he had the vision and energy to aim at a great many targets and to hit most of them.

    Irvine will be known initially, I think, because of The High Mountains, which will do a lot to keep his memory alive – but hopefully the work John Burdin and Terry Isles are doing with Dundee University to archive his slide collection will help to enhance his reputation as a photographer. The organisations he was involved with will remember him as well, for example through the Munro Society’s annual Irvine Butterfield Lecture.

    As for a biography, the Munro Society DVD was, I think, as far as he would be happy to go. I think he would regard a written biography as an unwarranted intrusion into his privacy. He was a very modest man. A lot of great men are.

    Copies of Dibidil – A Hebridean Adventure are available from Roderick Manson at 33 Cedar Avenue, Blairgowrie, Perthshire, PH10 6TT, or contact him by email at [email protected] Cheques for £8 made payable to Roderick Manson.

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    Beaver dam in Knapdale <em>Picture: Patrick Mackie</em>

    Beaver dam in Knapdale Picture: Patrick Mackie

    By John Knox

    The news from the beaver colony is mixed. We learned from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) recently that the beavers at Knapdale in Argyll are happily chewing their way through 10 per cent of the trees around their ponds. But life for the five beaver families has not been easy this last two years. Of the 16 original settlers, three have died and three more are missing presumed dead. Surprisingly, given their unpopularity in the area, there appear to be no suspicious circumstances.

    The SNH study finds that “the beavers are changing the woodland structure but so far they have had little effect on fish in streams”. This should reassure the anglers, just one of the human species which object to the re-introduction of the European beaver to Scotland.

    It is not that beavers eat fish – they are strictly vegetarian – it is just that their damn dams prevent fish from swimming upriver to lay their eggs. On the other hand, the ponds and wetlands created by the beavers are providing new homes for frogs, toads, water voles, dragonflies and several species of birds. The felled trees, young willow and rowan mostly, are also re-shooting quickly and producing a nicely coppiced woodland.

    Meanwhile, SNH has been trying to catch a number of mixed-race beavers who have been squatting illegally in the woods in Tayside. But there has been limited success: of the estimated 80 asylum seekers, only one has been arrested.

    And this rather awkward balancing act over Scotland’s biodiversity is being repeated with other species. There are the famous hedgehogs of the Uists, where £1m was spent removing the invaders but bird numbers continued to decline. In Orkney, they are trying to do the same thing with white-settler stoats. In the fight against the American grey squirrel, a line has been drawn in the sands of Perthshire beyond which the pox carriers shall not pass.

    On the plant front, I have spent many an unhappy hour this year pulling out Himalayan balsam on my local nature reserve at Duddingston. It is a nice enough pink flower – called “kiss-me-on-the-mountain” by the hopelessly romantic Victorians who introduced it – but it has a nasty blood-red root which can cling to the slightest suggestion of soil and it simply strangles and swamps all native plants. The Victorians can be blamed, too, for the other triffids: Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and the all-conquering rhododendron.

    In the rivers, we are battling against the American crayfish, the Pacific wireweed – and, all the way from New Zealand via our garden centres, the little white-flowered pygmy weed.

    But it is not just the invaders who caused us to miss our biodiversity target for 2010. We ourselves have not being doing much to help. The Caledonian forest has been cut down and replaced with Norwegian sitka, peatlands have been drained, farmers no longer do meadows and hedgerows, bracken has been allowed to take over whole hillsides, and we have tarmaced acres of land for roads and car parks. We have virtually fished out the sea and have been filling the atmosphere with carbon which has caused our climate to change, sometimes dramatically.

    The result is that 20 per cent of all bird species are in decline. Seabird numbers have dropped by around 40 per cent in the last ten years and freshwater fish by 50 per cent. Three quarters of butterfly species are in decline. Britain has lost three of its 24 species of bumblebee in last 70 years and the Scottish great yellow may be the next to go.

    The number of wild mammals has been falling, too. Britain’s 30 million hedgehogs have been reduced to 1.3 million in the last 50 years. The red squirrel population has declined by 50 per cent and we are down to our last 400 wildcats. Over the last few centuries, of course, we have lost our wolves, bears, lynxes and our returning friends, the beavers.

    How far the re-introduction programme should go is a moot point. The ospreys, the golden eagles and the white-tailed sea eagles have all been a great success – except among the bird-poisoning fraternity. Tourists have flocked to see the birds. The sea eagles on Mull, for instance, have brought in £8m to the local economy. But the planners are swallowing hard when they hear of Paul Lister’s vision for his Alladale estate north of Inverness, a land of wolves, wild boar, lynx and other megafauna.

    There are those who say all this angst about biodiversity is nonsense. Planet Earth, they scream, has always been changing. Heatwaves come and go, ice ages melt, while erosion, volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors and moving tectonic plates all change our landscape and our climate and our flora and fauna. We should relax and let the declining biodiversity rip. Let the puffin and the wildcat disappear and welcome the newcomers like the knotweed and the balsam and the grey squirrel. We are never going to bring back the woolly mammoth or the dinosaur, so let’s not stand in the way of the Earth’s progress.

    But such free-marketers are wrong. In fact, it’s unusual for them to take such a long-term view. We might not be able to affect the cooling of the sun or the movement of the continental plates, but man is now a major player in the Earth’s progress. Our industrial age has influenced its development and if we are heading for a less diverse world, we are the ones to blame.

    It was us men – mostly men – who shot all the wolves and eagles in the first place. So I, for one, now want to keep as many as possible of the 90,000 species we have left in Scotland. As John Donne would have it, “each one’s death diminishes me”.

    And, by the way, SNH’s list of over 1,000 threatened species is not dominated by nice furry mammals or dramatic birds of prey, but by obscure lichens, algae, fungi, flowering plants, beetles, and more than 300 other insects on which the chaps at the top of the Mikado’s list depend, including us. “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

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    Flanders Moss nature reserve <em>Picture: SNH</em>

    Flanders Moss nature reserve Picture: SNH

    By John Knox

    If you see a group of worried-looking men and women dressed in cagoules and gumboots walking out on to Flanders Moss west of Stirling this week, they are not the remains of a political party intent on committing mass suicide, they are scientists trying to save Scotland’s peat bogs.

    The scientists have been attending a three-day conference at Stirling University called by the UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands. The commission has found that a third of the UK landmass still has peaty soil of one sort or another, but that most of our proper peat bogs and fens have been lost, due to extensive draining for agriculture, forestry, industry, roads and housing.

    Does this matter? Yes, because peatlands absorb huge amounts of the gas we are all trying to get rid of, carbon dioxide. The conference was told that the loss of only 5 per cent of the carbon stored in UK peatlands would be equal to our total greenhouse gas emissions for a year. And if you thought that planting trees was the best way of absorbing carbon dioxide, then you should know that Britain’s peatlands can store up to 3 billion tonnes of carbon, 20 times what is stored in all the forests put together.

    Scotland is especially blessed with peat bogs. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reckons we have 1.9 million hectares of high-quality peat bog “which could potentially deliver around a million tonnes of carbon sequestration per annum”. And, as a wildlife organisation, the RSPB is also interested in the biodiversity which well-managed bogs can conserve.

    Scientists become dewy-eyed when describing places such as Flanders Moss. Here is the Scottish Natural Heritage description of the place: “Squelchy mats of sphagnum moss carpet the reserve with their swirling colours, whilst adders and lizards bask in the sunshine. Listen for the distinctive calls of snipe and stonechat or feel the slight shudder of the peat as it quakes beneath your feet.”

    How could farmers and crofters drain such beautiful places and cut into them for fuel just to stoke their peat fires? On Flanders Moss, the cutting began in the 1700s and continued, on an industrial scale, until the 1980s. Now, however, the drainage ditches are being filled in and gradually the bog is returning to its old squelchy self.

    In England, the loss of fenland has been dramatic. Fens, incidently, are bogs filled with ground water, as opposed to rain water. A survey in 1637 recorded what we would now call 34,000 square kilometres of fenland. Only 10 sq km remain today. Not before time, SNH and others have recently published a Fen Management Handbook, which basically suggests we stop draining our peatlands and polluting them and covering them with trees, windfarms, roads, houses, industrial estates and golf courses.

    The RSPB estimates that to reach the Scottish government’s target of 600,000 hectares of peatland restored by 2015 would cost around £60m. But with the floor price of carbon now at £16 a tonne and due to rise to £30 by 2020, we would get more than half our money back in notional climate change costs – and the price of carbon can only get higher in the longer term as the planet struggles for breath.

    Peatlands such as the Flow Country in Caithness, and fens such as the Insh Marches in Strathspey, are the lungs of our environmental system and we should be using them to keep our air and water fresh and our climate stable.

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    Ben Lomond path <em>Picture: GLaird</em>

    Ben Lomond path Picture: GLaird

    By John Knox

    Our increasingly wet and stormy weather is eroding Scotland’s 10,000 miles of pathways, according to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). So how about a job creation scheme to repair and extend them? It would be the best £200 million ever spent, and would leave Scotland with something positive from the great recession.

    SNH has just published a study of the impact of climate change on the network of paths and trails that criss-cross Scotland. It found that snow in winter and heavy rain in summer is causing scouring on the paths on Lochnagar and Beinn Alligin and deep ruts on Ben Lawers.

    The Fife coastal path, the John Muir Way in East Lothian and the John O’ Groats path are suffering from tidal erosion and storm surges. Riverside paths on the Spey, the Clyde, the Tyne, the Esk and the Almond are being regularly flooded. The West Highland Way on the east side of Loch Lomond is also subject to flooding and landslips. And high winds have caused the fine surface material to blow away on the path up Ben Lomond and have brought down trees across the Lion’s Face path near Braemar.

    The study concludes: “Unfortunately, the current funding regime of capital investment with limited or non-existent funds for aftercare, particularly of upland paths, is not conducive to adapting to climate change.”

    The funding regime ended altogether on Ben Nevis, with the result that the Nevis Partnership has had to cease operations. It has spent £3m on improvements to the “donkey path” that takes 150,000 tourists to the top each year. And plans for £2.5m more work have had to be ditched.

    This is all a great shame, because paths are an important part of what we now call “infrastructure”. They always have been. They were among the first pieces of infrastructure our ancestors built – paths from the shore to the village, to the fields, to the well or river, to the stone circle. They have formed the routes for our roads and they now take us out into the countryside without having to scramble across fields or through deep bracken or heather. They give us exercise and beauty.

    So why don’t we use the current shortage of jobs – 250,000 of them – to create work for at least some people by restoring these damaged paths and building new ones? They cost just £100 a metre. If each council in Scotland was given just £6m (on average), they could employ all of the 6,700 youngsters who have had no work for the last six months and set them to building or repairing 2,000km of pathways.

    We are well behind the rest of the UK and Europe in path kilometres. Our 16,000km network is less than half the figure in England. Norway has 18,000km and the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany has 45,000km.

    And where, you may ask, will the money come from to build all these new pathways? Scrapping the new Forth Bridge, of course. The pathways programme would use up just one-seventh of the £1.5 billion that the bridge is going to cost. And we would have money left over to build six new schools, 7,000 council houses, and even finish off the Edinburgh trams. Think of all the jobs that would produce.

    Think too of the benefits of giving Scotland a network of well-maintained, well-signposted paths, working our way out of recession and turning us into a cycling and walking nation.

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    Scottish Natural Heritage logoBy John Knox

    Scottish Natural Heritage, the government’s nature protection agency, is to have its budget cut by 10.6 per cent next year. There’s to be a recruitment freeze and there are fears that up to 150 jobs could go.

    Spending on nature reserves is to be cut, biodiversity projects will be trimmed and grants to wildlife organisations will not be renewed.

    “We will become a smaller and more focused organisation, concentrating on a smaller range of issues” said the SNH chief executive Ian Jardine. “But key activities, such as providing advice on marine renewable energy developments, supporting the Central Scotland Green Network and promoting enjoyment of the outdoors will remain core priorities.”

    SNH’s budget for next year has been fixed by the Scottish Government at £60.6m, a 10.6 per cent reduction on this year. SNH says part of the reduction will be absorbed by “efficiency savings” . It saved £3m in costs last year and it hopes to save £4m this year. £1.5m is expected to be saved by voluntary severance and early retirement.

    There will be an 11 per cent cut in SNH’s communications budget, a 5 per cent cut in spending on nature reserves, a 5.7 per cent cut in grants to other bodies for project work, and a “modest reduction” in wildlife management operations.

    But SNH says funding for the management of non-native species will continue, including its high-profile operation to contain the spread of grey squirrels. Support will also continue for the Rural Development Programme.

    The cuts come at a time when the agency is being asked by the government to take on new tasks, particularly new licensing duties, work on marine protected areas and advice on marine renewable energy projects. It means existing programmes will have to be shelved, such as direct support for formal education, new long distance paths and funding for new ranger services.

    “We have carefully thought through how to mange with a smaller budget,” said Ian Jardine. Details of the changes – including how many of the agency’s 800 jobs will go – will be announced over the coming months.

    <em>Picture: Mark Robinson</em>

    Picture: Mark Robinson

    A week ago in these pages, Hamish Macdonell discussed Sunday fishing in Scotland – the rights and wrongs, the legalities and traditions. The gist was that while it is illegal to go after migratory fish – salmon and sea trout – on Sundays in Scotland, other species are deemed OK provided they are in season. Few people do this, however, as the overall no-Sunday-fishing tradition is strong enough to prompt tut-tutting along the riverbanks.

    This raises the parallel question of the legality or otherwise of Sunday shooting in Scotland, especially for red deer and red grouse. Both are hunted (perhaps not quite the right word, especially for the humble grouse) in the latter part of the year. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) provides season dates for pretty much every conceivable quarry, and the red deer stag season is much shorter in Scotland (1 July – 20 October) than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (1 August – 30 April), while the hind season is roughly the same length in all areas but slightly earlier in Scotland (21 October – 15 February) than in England/Wales (1 November – 31 March) and Northern Ireland (1 November – 28 or 29 February).

    In Scotland, England and Wales the red grouse season opens on 12 August, the famous Glorious Twelfth, and runs to 30 November in Scotland and 10 December down south. In Northern Ireland, red grouse cannot be taken until 25 August (the Glorious Twenty-Fifth?), and the season ends on the last day of October – although a voluntary grouse ban is currently in place.

    These season dates tend to be well known across both the hunting and hillwalking communities, but the BASC also provides details of the less well-understood Sunday situation. “There are no statutory restrictions on the killing of game on Sunday or Christmas Day but it is not customary to do so,” it says of the situation in Scotland. “Wildfowl may not be shot on Sunday or Christmas Day.”

    In England and Wales, by contrast, things are formalised in law: “No game may be killed or taken in any county on Sunday or Christmas Day.” This appears to have been the case since the introduction of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, although various counties already had localised Sunday bans dating back to 1954.

    Simon Blackett, factor at Invercauld Estate on Deeside, was asked about the precise legalities as he understood them. “This would need checking,” he said, “but I am sure ‘game’, ie pheasants, grouse, ducks, deer, are protected by law on a Sunday, but rabbits, crows, stoats, foxes are not.”

    “My understanding is the Sunday code is a rule of tradition not law in Scotland,” said Andrew Bruce Wootton, the general manager at Atholl Estates, “and no, we do not let any sport including fishing on Atholl during Sundays. Perhaps it was a tradition embedded by the wives of sportsmen, stalkers and keepers to ensure they saw their husbands for at least one day of the week?” He added that the “nuance between law and tradition varies between species and activity”, and to be sure it would be best to consult a lawyer.

    They might not be lawyers, but the people at Scottish Natural Heritage seemed to be the ones to turn to. SNH is the government-funded body dealing with land and wildlife-related matters, so if someone there didn’t know the ins and outs of Sunday shooting, chances are no one would.

    Sinclair Coghill is Deer Officer North for SNH, covering a large area of remote country to the north of the Great Glen. “Deer can be culled on a Sunday in Scotland if in season,” he said, “although traditionally most estates don’t. Many recreational stalkers do, a Sunday forming half of their available time. It probably comes down to whether deer stalking is viewed as a job, in which case we all try to have a weekend off, or recreational, in which case you will fit it in where you can.”

    As to game birds, Coghill said: “Not my area of expertise, but there are no statutory restrictions on the killing of game on Sunday or Christmas Day, again provided they are in season, but it is not customary to do so. Wildfowl may not be shot on Sunday or Christmas Day. There are many more game shooters than deer stalkers, but at odds to deer stalking, even the recreational shooters do not seem to do any shooting on a Sunday.”

    So, in general, Sunday shooting restrictions appear to be more by tradition than by law in Scotland than compared with other parts of the UK. The tradition is widely respected and appears to work well. There are, inevitably, occasional issues at both extreme ends of the spectrum – the bloody-minded hillwalker who marches through a weekday shoot “on principle”, or the estate worker who dishes out verbals to Sunday walkers who are behaving perfectly legally.

    But these things are rare. There is a high level of mutual tolerance and respect across the various interest groups – and more walkers have tried their hand at estate work, and more estate workers climb hills on their days off than tends to be generally realised.

    Two final thoughts. Sinclair Coghill mentioned there being more game (in the sense of bird) shooters than deer stalkers, and supplied figures from a recent Scottish government statistical survey. Firearms certificates: 26,072 in 2009 covering 70,856 rifles. (This covers all rifles for all purposes, notes Coghill, not just deer stalking.) Shotgun certificates: 50,308 in 2009 covering 137,768 shotguns.

    That’s a lot of guns in a relatively small country such as Scotland – and it’s interesting that the gun-per-certificate ratio is 2.7 in both cases.

    Then there is the thinking underpinning the whole question of why there are different laws and traditions for Sunday than for the six other days. Despite the inroads of commercialisation and secularism, Sunday is still seen in many parts of the country as fundamentally different, and as a day of rest. It could be argued that shooting – and indeed fishing – restrictions form one of the last strongholds of widely heeded Sabbatarianism in Scottish society.

    Who better to ask for their thoughts on this than the serious-minded souls at the Free Church of Scotland? Hamish Macdonell mentioned them in his earlier piece, and their input would provide context to this whole issue. But their contact person offered apologies, saying that no communication or media people were available to comment, as the kirk was engaged in its first plenary session since 1843 – discussing whether or not to allow musical-instrument accompaniment to their Psalm-singing.

    By Rob Edwards

    Artist's impression of the giant scorpion. <em>Picture: Martin Whyte</em>

    Artist's impression of the giant scorpion. Picture: Martin Whyte

    Gigantic scorpions used to roam Fife, according to a unique fossil find by scientists. Footprints preserved in a rock show that huge six-legged monsters lumbered across the swamps of the kingdom some 330 million years ago.

    The creatures, which predated dinosaurs by millions of years, were about two metres long and one metre wide. That’s about the size of a large dining room table – and somewhat more threatening.

    The discovery of the distinctive trail of one of the beasts in a slab of sandstone in north east Fife has thrilled geologists. They say it is the largest known track of any invertebrate animal, and is hence globally significant.

    The find is “unique and internationally important”, says the government’s conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). It is unveiling the discovery to the media today, though keeping its exact location secret to prevent it from being damaged by casual visitors.

    “This is a fossil which is important to Fife, to Scotland and on a global scale,” says SNH’s geologist, Colin MacFadyen. “Helping to conserve this important find is vital for our understanding of this period in evolution.”

    The track shows three rows of crescent-shaped footprints on each side of a central groove, made by the scorpion’s tail as it crawled across wet sand. The groove suggests, scientists say, that it was moving on land, providing vital new evidence that it could survive out of water.

    Known as a Hibbertopterus, the animal is related to modern day water scorpions and horseshoe crabs. From the artist’s impression provided by SNH, it looks like it could have starred in a Hollywood horror movie about monsters from the deep.

    The fossilised track was discovered by a palaeontologist from the University of Sheffield, Dr Martin Whyte, on a walk in 2005. But it has not been advertised until now, while it was studied and funding was found for its preservation.

    Unfortunately the scorpion track is very vulnerable to erosion, and it is too large and expensive to move. So scientists have decided to make a mould instead, and put that on display to the public at the Kinburn museum in St Andrews, and elsewhere.

    SNH has given Geoheritage Fife, a group at St Andrews University that promotes the area’s geological history, £5,000 towards the work. “The track is in a precarious situation, having been exposed for years to weathering,” says the group’s Richard Batchelor.

    “The rock in which it occurs is in danger of falling off altogether. Moulding it in silicone rubber and making copies for educational and research purposes means that we can still see and research this huge creature’s tracks in years to come.”

    The prospect of giant scorpions on the doorstep should not, however, keep nervous Fifers awake at night. Even if the beasts had coexisted with humans, scientists point out that they wouldn’t really have been very scary because they were so slow-moving.