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Tayside

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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The dawn of beer: Cue music from '2001: A Space Odyssey'. <em>Picture: Apolinar Fonseca</em>

The dawn of beer: Cue music from '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Picture: Apolinar Fonseca

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Academics have pondered over why we began to cultivate cereal, and in particular barley, crops alongside our livestock around 4000 BC. Common sense dictates that these grains provided an ideal source of carbohydrate, and it allowed some welcome additions such as bread, porridge, and sugars into the larder. But archaeological findings also suggest that we were partial to a bit of ale to wash down our supper, and that we have been home-brewing for quite some time.

In fact radiocarbon dating of residues found in a drinking vessel in Strathallan, Fife, identified the alcoholic tipple as having been fermented as early as the second millennium BC (1540BC to be exact; at a time when the ancient Egyptians were erecting gargantuan pyramidal structures). Next to this archaeological find lay the body of a young woman, so perhaps it had been a bad pint, or there was some refining still to be done with that particular recipe.

Fast-forwarding to our crop-growing Neolithic and Bronze Age years, at a ceremonial site in Balfarg/Balbirnie, Tayside, fermented grain and plant residues were found in large buried earthenware vessels – evidence that the cultivated grain was being used for more than making porridge and bread. The sample also contained the pollen of Deadly Nighshade, which may have had hallucinogenic properties, or perhaps was designed to poison all the party guests. Again, the recipe maybe just needed a bit of tweaking.

But then, without the benefit of a biochemistry degree to understand the processes involved, these early brewers could only experiment and learn through trial and error how to achieve the best brew. Shared with their neighbours, they probably drank the good with the bad, and slept off the effects to come back and try another day.

So, what would the brewing process have involved in 4000BC?

Malting (germination) could be achieved in watertight vessels with frequent water changes or by placing the grain in a tied bag in a running stream so the water remained fresh and didn’t require changing. Soaked grain would then be laid on a flat floor away from the outside elements and regularly raked and watered. Once the grain reached an early stage of germination, the grain would be dried with a kiln to preserve the sugars.

Mashing (when starch is converted to sugar) involved grinding the grain with quernstones. This would help release natural enzymes and speed the conversion of the remaining starch to sugar. The gentle heat needed could have been provided by hot stones or by using the ash from the fire.

Sparging is washing through the mash with hot water to produce sweet wort that can then be fermented. Our ancestors would have probably used their woven baskets for this job, and let the watery soup filter into an earthenware vessel. The spent grain provided quality fodder for the livestock.

Fermentation needs yeast, and there are a number of possible methods to explain how this yeast was introduced. Airborne yeast could be enough but, in the Western Isles, a hazel “wand” was traditionally used to stir the brew during fermentation. Each time the wand would stir a new batch, the dried yeast on the wand would reactivate the process. Perfect.

A couple of mystical, biochemical hocus pocus weeks later, and a tantalising pitcher of ale with supper was a reality. And a party a racing certainty.

NHS Scotland logoThe Scottish Government has bowed to opposition pressure to publish workforce projections for the NHS in Scotland.

Publication is surrounded by huge caveats – the introduction explicitly says it has been done “in response to the Opposition Parliamentary Motion on the NHS” and warns that the information is not “quality assured”.

The main findings are an estimated reduction in whole time equivalent (WTE) staff members of 3,790 (2.8 per cent) by the end of the financial year 2010/11. Nursing and midwifery takes the biggest hit – 1,523 WTE, followed by administration services (1,053 WTE).

In an accompanying press release, health secretary Nicola Sturgeon repeats her guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies, and says that there will be more staff in the NHS at the end of this parliamentary term than at the start. She also says the quality of patient care is paramount.

She has also announced that a national scrutiny group will be formed, made up of the main health trade unions, NHS employers and the government, to scrutinise plans and “ensure they do not compromise the quality of care”.

“NHS boards are committed this year to securing more than £100 million in non-workforce related efficiency savings which will all be reinvested in frontline care. But the drive to deliver services more efficiently also involves looking at staffing requirements and these projections are part of that process.

“These figures are not set in stone. I expect boards to continue to try to minimise the reductions by working hard to maximise non-workforce related efficiencies.”

Unison expressed concern. Tam Waterson, Chair of UNISON Scotland’s Health Committee said: “We are concerned at the scale of these planned job cuts. The Scottish government’s commitment to ensure no compulsory redundancies is welcome, as is the involvement of unions in scrutiny of the health board plans. But it is clear that we face deep cuts which will impact on our vital health services.”

The union says that 1250 job cuts are planned for Greater Glasgow and Clyde this year, 700 in Lothian – with another 1,300 in the pipeline for next year. Tayside plans to 500 full time equivalent jobs. Grampian has announced 600 job cuts, and Highland plans to cut 100.

Unison adds that NHS Scotland requires to save £270 million in the current financial year to balance the books following a tight Scottish budget settlement in February – and warns that further pressure on funding is likely after the Westminster government implements its emergency budget in June.

RCN Scotland director Theresa Fyffe accused health boards of short-termism, saying that as the wage bill makes up 70 per cent of health board budgets, it had become the primary target for cuts.

“RCN Scotland fully recognises that health boards need to find ways to save money. However, in the interests of protecting standards in patient care, health boards must focus on the long-term needs of patients, rather than on short-term cuts to the workforce this year, which may cause costly problems in the future.”

Speaking ahead of today’s parliamentary debate on the cuts, she added: “Health boards are using a number of short-term measures to cut wage bills, ie not replacing someone if they leave, replacing registered nurses with unregistered nursing assistants or redeploying highly skilled and higher-paid specialist nurses to carry out regular ward shifts to cover staff shortages.

“If health boards across Scotland continue to pursue such cost cutting measures on the wage bill without properly carrying out service redesign and looking at other areas of cost pressures, they will be left with a demoralised and overstretched workforce and may risk standards in patient care. It would also make it difficult and more costly to redesign services to meet patient needs in the future as appropriately skilled nurses and other healthcare professionals may no longer be in the workforce, due to today’s short term cost-cutting measures.”

She said the RCN had agreed in principle to be part of the scrutiny group, but warned: “We will also be seeking assurances that health boards will only implement their workforce plans if they have first considered all the options available to them, not just short-term cuts to the workforce.”

The BMA has also confirmed it will be part of the scrutiny group. Scottish chairman Dr Brian Keighley said: “The NHS is currently running at full capacity where even small cuts to frontline services will have a direct impact on patient care. It is therefore essential that in reaching these decisions, NHS managers consult with healthcare professionals locally and value the medical leadership offered by doctors to reshape and develop services to make them more efficient without affecting the quality of patient care.

“As part of this national scrutiny group, the BMA will seek to ensure that decisions made by local NHS boards to make cuts will have a minimal impact on patient care and will maintain the high quality care services that our patients expect.”

The tables can be found on the Scottish Government website.

The River Tay at Grandtully <em>Picture: Kirsty Smith</em>

The River Tay at Grandtully Picture: Kirsty Smith

It has been a tragic week for Scottish canoeing, with two confirmed deaths and one missing, presumed dead.

On Thursday 1 April, Kester Wigram, 51, went missing while sea-kayaking off the western side of Shetland. He had set off alone, launching from Bigton, near St Ninian’s Isle.

Mr Wigram, a New Zealander who had lived in Shetland for over a decade and who worked as a teacher and then as a chemical engineer, was a “highly experienced” and well-equipped canoeist. The helicopter search was called off on Saturday, although foot searches of the shoreline will continue. A spokesman for Shetland Coastguard said on Saturday: “The survivability is now long gone. He would only have had one hour or so survival time if he had been in the water.”

On Tuesday morning, Emily Parker, 20, died when her canoe overturned while she was paddling the River Coe with friends. Parker, from Doncaster and in her final year at Leeds University, had been a keen canoeist since her early teens.

Then on Wednesday afternoon a 19-year-old man, believed to be from the north-east of England, died in the Grandtully rapids on the River Tay after his canoe overturned and became trapped. The Grandtully Premier Double, a canoe-slalom event scheduled for this coming weekend, has been cancelled as a mark of respect.

The three fatalities are only connected in terms of the activity being pursued at the time, and Shetland sea-kayaking is a different world from churning-river canoeing. The Coe and Tay incidents both relate to the present very high river levels, a situation that occurs every spring but which has been heightened this year by late heavy snowfall followed by a rapid thaw.

Rivers across the country have been unusually high and turbulent for several weeks, affecting hillwalkers and land-based workers as well as canoeists.

The two river fatalities arguably have more in common with Monday’s tragedy west of Enterkinfoot, Dumfriesshire, where Linda Weir, 58, was swept off her quad bike while trying to cross a swollen tributary of the River Nith near the family farm.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) provides an interactive map giving information on river levels.

No-one from the Scottish Canoe Association was available for comment, but its website http://www.canoescotland.com/ provides advice on safety, coaching and river levels.

A spokeswoman for the Nottingham-based British Canoe Union (BCU) was unable to comment on the specific incidents, or on whether this sequence of three separate canoeing fatalities in such a short space of time is unprecedented.

Update – At 10:30pm on Thursday 8 April, the British Canoe Union issued the following statement:

Fatality on River Tay, Grandtully, Scotland

We are deeply saddened to confirm the fatality of nineteen year old canoe slalom athlete Simon Fletcher. Simon was training on the stretch of river ahead of a canoe slalom race this weekend.

Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with his family and friends at their tragic loss. Our thoughts are also with his fellow training athletes, the coaches and the canoeing community who are shocked and upset.