Friday 23 March 2018

Where to find and see red squirrels in Scotland..... "squirrel hot spots".

If you have been paying attention to some of the recent posts on this site you will be well informed about squirrels and might now want to see some

It's the school Easter holidays soon and if you are in Scotland you can visit a number of Forestry Commission sites where you can see them close up. Scotland is home to 75% of the UK's surviving red squirrels and our forests are being managed to help them flourish. It's in these red squirrel, "strong hold forests" that you can see them close up.

For an interactive map of Scottish red squirrel distribution have a look at this site; it will help you find them. Where to see red squirrels in Scotland

I visited one of these sites at Inchree just south of the Corran Ferry, off the A82 earlier this week. As usual I didn't have high expectations but I was wrong. At one point there were five squirrels only a few metres away from the wooden screen with viewing holes in the Forestry Commission car park.

The best time is probably around mid-day when it's warmer. And!...... if you have a dog please don't let it loose, if you do you certainly will not see squirrels.

I only had my phone camera with me so You have to look very carefully at the feeder in the second tree, there is a squirrel peering out from behind it. How to find the Inchree squirrels

View from the screen

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Silent Spring 21st March 2018............ neonicotinoids again.

I first read Rachel Carson's classic, "Silent Spring" nearly 60 years ago in 1963. It's an account of the indiscriminate use of pesticides in the USA and their devastating effect on wildlife, pets and  people. Today is the first day of Spring 2018 and according to French researchers, Spring in France will be much quieter than 25 years ago. Birds are disappearing from the French countryside at a phenomenal rate.

One third decline in 25 years
Research by the, Centre national de recherches scientifiques(CNRS)  shows a catastrophic decline of at least one third in song birds due to agricultural intensification, particularly the use of neonicotinoids on wheat mono cultures. Bees and other insects in general have declined by 75 - 80 per cent. As a result there are one third fewer partridge, thrush, chaffinch and turtle doves compared with 25 years ago.

Although the adults of the species above eat grains the young nestlings all need insect  protein to grow and survive. We have known this about the grey partridge in the UK for fifty years. The researchers say that the partridge in France is virtually extinct.

These results are based two methods; a long term study over 25 years on 10 ha sites throughout France and citizen science using amateur ornithologists to carry out surveys together with the professionals.

Virtually extinct in France
In order to bring you this piece of bad news I had to translate from the CNRS ( Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques ) press release with my big Hachette dictionary, any mistakes are mine.  My own observations on declining insect numbers are anecdotal and  based on car windscreens. Fifty years ago when cars were slower  we had to stop regularly in summer to clean the windscreen of , "fly squash". Now we don't! ......there are far fewer insects about.

A final thought.........loss of biodiversity on this scale is as catastrophic as climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, global freshwater use, interference with the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles and changes in land use. ......... we are standing by watching while our house burns down.

Click here for original press release

Tuesday 20 March 2018

An alien invasive species.......... the grey squirrel's days are numbered.

National treasue
Red squirrels are a national treasure, we are brought up on stories of Squirrel Nutkin, in the wild they are pretty,charismatic individuals, we love them and we want them to thrive but their future is threatened by the alien, invasive grey squirrel.

Greys cost the UK forest industries round £14m a year by damaging timber. They strip bark exposing the phloem cells causing damage that isn't often apparent until the trees are felled.

I spent yesterday at a conference where the latest research on interactions between.  pine martens, grey squirrels and red squirrels was presented and discussed. The message was; where European pine marten populations have recovered from near extinction grey squirrel numbers decline dramatically towards extinction, while the native red squirrel population in the same areas increases.Pine marten recovery reverses decline of red squirrel

National enemy
The grey squirrel was introduced to Britain in the nineteenth century and it carries squirrel pox virus, this doesn't harm the grey but it's lethal to the reds when the two populations meet and mix. A whole range of grey squirrel control methods have been used with varying success; shooting and trapping are the commonest. Birth control is on  the brink of widespread use.

A specially designed protein that causes infertility is incorporated in a bait for the greys. The baited traps can only be sprung by the greys because they are heavier than the reds. The active ingredient in the bait works once ingested and is then broken down quickly in the body of the grey squirrel, this should avoid, "unintended consequences" such as passing on the birth control effect to other species such as scavenging mammals and birds.

Even choice of tree species by foresters can help to control  the greys, in areas likely to be colonised by greys, not planting large seeded broad leaved tree species,such as hazel and oak, removes the grey's food supply but can favour the red.

National hero
In the Sottish Highlands the recovered pine marten population is likely to stop the invasion of greys. In the Borders, Wales and Northern England it may take 30 - 40 years for pine marten numbers to recover sufficiently to  provide effective grey squirrel control. In the meantime birth control looks as if it might be quick and effective.

The red squirrel and the pine marten co-evolved over millions of years. Reds tend to know how to avoid martens most of the time. The greys evolved in N. America and are not really acquainted ( co-evolved) with the pine marten and are less aware. this seems to account for the martens killing many more greys than reds.

Meanwhile, today we have the first video recording of a pine marten in Northumberland.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

Tripylos (1,407m) and a wild mountain sheep

Valey of the cedars from Tripylos
The Valley of the Cedars has two species endemic to Cyprus, the Cyprus cedar ( Cedrus brevifolia ) and the Cyprus mouflon (Ovis gmelini ophion). On a  walk up to the fire lookout on Tripylos summit I would certainly see the cedars in their complex ecosystem  and there would also be the chance, however remote, to see  mouflon.

Cyprus cedars have high ecological and economic value but by 1879 it had been recognised that it was in danger of extinction after fires, grazing and over felling. Since then it has been protected by the Forestry Department in a nature reserve between 900 - 1,400 m.

Mouflon lookout
The very fact that large, rare,wild mammals live in woodland add a great deal to any woodland walking experience even if I don't' see  them it's important to know and feel that they are there. So I set off with little hope of seeing wild mountain sheep but packed my binoculars anyway.

What better place could there be than fire lookout for a 360 degree view of the surrounding forested ridges.  Here the woodland is quite open with glades and scree slopes where mouflon might travel or graze. It is lambing time so the herds tend to be split up with the males travelling and living alone.

A close cousin, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep

After 30 minutes or so at the limit of my eyesight and binoculars I found the rounded golden brown form of a reclining mouflon ram in the sun on the opposite ridge about a kilometre away.

Monday 12 March 2018

Winter hill walking for crumblies............

A "Crumbly" is over seventy years of age, if you are 60 - 69 you are a "Wrinkly". I have noticed that the little green international footpath direction sign features two Crumblies with walking sticks, bad posture and dodgy knees. See below.

For Crumbly hill walkers in Scotland  winter isn't really over until June and by then the last warm, dry day you can remember was nine months ago. So I have been researching an escape for Crumblies with and without dodgy knees. I think I have found it; don't do it in Scotland do it in  the Troodos mountains of Cyprus. It's like California; aquamarine skies, brilliant silvery light and draughts of warm fragrant air welling up from the valleys.

It must have been Napoleon who said, "time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted" it's the second rule of warfare. The first rule is, " don't invade Russia", that was General Montgomery in 1945, but I digress. I have spent a week doing some reconnaissance  for you.

The best time to go is now, perhaps a little later if you want migratory birds or May for flowers, the weather is perfect, shirt sleeves all day,  no heavy waterproofs needed, just a light windproof jacket at the bottom of your pack with factor 50 sunscreen to hand, it's the one your grandchildren use.

The roads are amazing, almost traffic free and no potholes so hire a small car. Even remote villages have excellent roads slightly wider than our single track roads in the highlands this is necessary as Cypriot drivers don't take prisoners when cornering. Drive on the left.

Troodos is probably the best base for a few days, two hours from Paphos airport and a hub for walks. When Cyprus was part of the British Empire the entire colonial administration moved up here in summer to avoid the heat down in Nicosia. The Jubilee Hotel is one of the last remnants of British rule and residence.

The trails are well engineered, they tend to contour around the mountains, are well surfaced so trainers will do and they are well way marked with a combination of sunshine and shade as they weave in and out of the pinewoods

Thursday 8 March 2018

A short walk around Mt Olympus and some serpentinophilus grassland.

Serpentinophilus grassland
It's still winter on the shores of the N. Atlantic but here in Cyprus  there's sun, almond blossom and blue skies. On Mt. Olympus the ski lifts are abandoned, the last of the snow is rotting on the forest trails and the woods are slowly filling with flowers,  birdsong and  walkers.

The Cyprus Forestry Department has laid out a series of, "natural trails" on old forest tracks and newly engineered paths that are attracting walkers from all over Europe. In the car park at the start of the "Artemis trail" this morning nine out of ten vehicles were hire cars ( they have red number plates) the walkers were French, German, Italian and British.

600 year old black pine
I am a week or two early for birds, next month the bird watchers will be here along with millions of birds on passage to Europe. Swallows, wheatears and hoopoes should be here already.

As for serpentinophilus grassland, it's not grassland full of snakes; it's an endangered habitat type that grows on serpentine rocks and soils derived from them in the Troodos. I didn't see any grass in it only; rocks, spiky, thorny shrubs and some celandine perhaps the grass comes later with the summer.

Sunday 4 March 2018

UK government policy for Bovine TB control or, "Bullshit baffles brains"

Since 2014 it has been UK government policy to control bovine TB by killing badgers in the areas of highest TB incidence. Here is what happened

                                    Badgers shot                          Cases of Bovine TB in dairy cows 

            2014                          615                                                      27,474

           2017                     19,272                                                        42,010

The policy has been an unmitigated failure despite the killing of tens of thousands of badgers, against the advice of scientists who know about these things...... bullshit baffles brains! as our politicians know only too well.

Read the UK Government review of badger culling here

In 2014 the Northern Ireland  Department of Agriculture, Environment,  and Rural Affairs published a review paper entitled, A review of the potential role of cattle slurry in the spread of bovine TB

Read the review here and draw your own conclusions Cattle slurry and Bovine TB

Transmission of Bovine TB can be either direct, cows touching each other, or indirect by exposure to viable bacteria in the environment, the air, pasture, silage and buildings. The pathogen could enter the respiratory system of cows after the airborne spreading of contaminated cow slurry.  So........

The UK has about 2 million dairy cows that each produce 7,500 litres of milk a year. For every litre of milk a cow produces it also generates a litre of slurry, a toxic mix of shit, piss and dirty water. This is then spread on fields usually before and after the silage crop has been taken.

Our two million cows are therefore giving rise to 15 billion litres of toxic and potentially TB contaminated slurry countrywide. Could this be a more likely transmission route than via badgers?  and where would the 15 billion litres be dumped otherwise? a difficult question for politicians and farmers.

Definition of bullshit................ "A lie knowingly told without remorse"

Friday 2 March 2018

A kittiwake's story ...... plastic, climate change and industrial over fishing

They usually nest on cliffs.
I got home this week to find that Hamza (Wildlife photographer and cameraman) had rescued an exhausted black-legged kittiwake. It was living in his bathroom eating fish, projectile dumping and swimming in the bath.   For more detail on kittiwakes see:-  Kittiwakes - Scottish Seabird Centre

An oceanic species kittiwakes were once the most numerous gull species in the world but are now on the list of breeding British birds facing extinction for three main reasons; plastic pollution, climate change and industrial over fishing.

Plastic waste has been found in large quantities at nest sites and as micro-plastic in the gut; all of these kill chicks.

Warming seas as a result of climate change have resulted in fluctuating sand eel populations ( the bird's main source of dietary energy) during the breeding season. Warmer seas in Spring mean earlier planton growth which results in earlier peak sand eel populations when the kittiwake's food demand is greatest. Peak sand eel numbers no longer seem to be synchronised with peak kittiwake demand.

Then there is the farmed salmon  and bacon in your diet. Industrial fishing of sand eels for animal feed ( they are high in protein and energy) has lead to starvation and breeding failure in seabird colonies around Scotland.

For a detailed and thoroughly scientific summary of kittiwake population change see:

"Storm" -  Hamza's kittiwake 

Alisdair Maclachlan a Kilchoan creel fisherman picked up an exhausted immature kittiwake on the deck of his boat and passed it to Hamza for resuscitation and recovery. The bird was emaciated and unable to flap it's wings when it was picked up.

 However, after two weeks in the bathroom with copious supplies of fish, warmth and a bath to swim in it recovered and has been subsequently released.

It is just possible that this bird could have wintered on the Eastern seaboard of the United States where populations of British bred immature kittiwakes have been observed. The three thousand mile journey in February back to Scotland would have been exhausting.

The video: Hamza has put together a 2 minute video covering the two week recovery period you can see it on his Facebook pages at:-

Thursday 1 March 2018

Kilchoan Bakery.... fresh bread with natural ingredients

We've been making bread for thousand's of years from some simple ingredients; flour, yeast,water, salt a small amount of sugar to help te yeast get going and oil or butter for a better crumb; nothing else.

The Dutch bread oven bakes 100 loaves
Shop bought bread on the other hand does contain all of the above ingredients plus a cocktail of chemicals to speed up fermentation, preserve shelf life and affect the colour. Even the flour is different, it's super refined.

Dough conditioners are added to speed up fermentation, there's one called azodicarbonamide that is also used to make yoga mats apparently. Chemical preservatives prolong shelf life and keep your loaf fresh while some of the colourings start life as petro-chemical products.,

Hand crafted bread

Now we don't have to eat the shop bought, steam proved, tasteless stuff, we can place a weekly order with Kilchoan Bakery for a range of hand baked breads containing only natural ingredients.

Kirstie's  back yard bakery is taking orders for wholemeal, white, sourdough and focaccio loaves baked freshly every Thursday throughout the year.