Harriers & hawk moths

Blimey, almost another four weeks have disappeared since I last managed to write a post. Of course this is a busy time of year for the Ranger Service and Mull Eagle Watch, with our daily trips at the viewing hide a large part of my working week. We’re still struggling with nice weather though and this is showing with our wildlife.

Harrier hunting – with binoculars 

Since my woodland walk in May I’ve ran a few more events. On a crisp, clear afternoon we set out on a “Skydancer Spotting” guided walk, to try and see some hen harriers. This was at the north of Loch Frisa and we wandered down the forestry commission track stopping to scan regularly. Probably due to the weather during May hen harriers proved to be elusive in this area but we still had a great afternoon with plenty of wildlife. We’re very lucky to have good numbers of hen harriers on the island, we don’t have any problems with illegal raptor persecution here, but elsewhere in the UK they’re on the brink of extinction as a breeding bird, wholly due to illegal killings, such a shame for a wonderful raptor. An adult white-tailed eagle from a nearby territory flew right over head and we all got fantastic views of the broad, 8ft wingspan. We also caught sight of golden eagle pair. Countless buzzards were seen throughout the walk, all enjoying the blue skies and strong breeze. We tend to take buzzards for granted now that they’re our most common raptor, but it wasn’t that long ago they were missing from the majority of the country. We also spotted a pair of my favourite bird, the kestrel. These raptors are in short supply on the island and are undergoing rapid declines across the country, up to 40% of our kestrels have gone. Wildflowers were varied along the edge of the track and included birds foot trefoil, bugle, wild strawberry, bitter vetch and tormentil.

Tormentil

Tormentil

Loch Buie Wander 

Despite the weather on Wednesday 17th we had an enjoyable walk at the head of Loch Buie, covering Laggan Sands and the restored Mausoleum. We enjoyed the view of three fallow deer and one red deer stag with only one velvety antler, sure he won’t be the top boy during the autumn rut. We noticed the first flowering foxgloves, along with flag iris, birds foot trefoil and tormentil. We then had brilliant views of a white-tailed eagle pair, both of which disappeared along the inaccessible coastline.

Flag iris

Flag iris

Drop-in Ranger Service 

In addition to the varied events I run, every other week I also provide a drop-in ranger service in the Fishnish wildlife hide. This hide is community based and open at all times, so do pop in. Sightings here are varied and include white-tailed eagles, heron, oystercatcher, greylag geese, gull species, otter and marine mammals like harbour porpoise. I’m next in the hide on Wednesday 24th June, so call in between 10am and 12pm to say hello.

Coming up 

We have so many events to look forward to toward the end of the month and throughout July. On Wednesday 24th along with the Fishnish hide drop in you can join a geology based guided walk at Carsaig, a fantastic area. Our yearly fishing competition is coming up next weekend, so head down to Lettermore for that one. In July we have plenty things to chose from, kicking off with a guided walk at Loch Tor, a brilliant area of mixed habitat. You can join a wildflower and butterfly walk at Treshnish Farm in the morning, followed by coastal sea watching in the afternoon, both on Wednesday 15th. Look out for the moth morning in July too, we’ll have a few hours to appreciate some of the night time wonders we don’t often see. I’ve been trapping in my own time when the weather allows and caught my first ever hawkmoth, an incredible poplar hawkmoth, definitely better than butterflies! We’re also running the nature club in Aros park for children again, where we’ll focus on moths!

Poplar hawkmoth

Poplar hawkmoth

Head over to our events page for more information on all of these.

Thanks for reading again, back soon with more!

Rachel

Woodland Wonders

Wild woods

Woodlands are places that catch your imagination. Woodlands are the home of fairytales and folklore, they inspire. Free play in a woodland encourages children to explore and develop. Trees enrich our senses – whatever the season. But springtime is surely one of the most enchanting times to visit a wood; your senses will be overwrought with sounds, smells and sights. Luckily for me I lead guided walks and can share the experience with others.

Bluebell magic

Bluebell magic

Aros Park

Last Friday the National Trust for Scotland cruise ship, the Saga Pearl 2 made a last minute change of plan and arrived in Tobermory rather than Oban. I ran two short walks in Aros Park for some of the passengers. We started out on the coastal path from Ledaig car park and strolled along the track looking for woodland wildlife. This is a great walk and offers a very different perspective on Tobermory Bay and Aros Park itself, as we so often drive in to the main car park. The park is owned by Forestry Commission Scotland and is a great asset right by Tobermory.

Flower power

Wildflowers are only just starting to come to life, everything seems to be clinging to winter, emerging later than normal this season – probably due to the colder temperatures, it feels more like January than May! Along the coastal pathway in Aros we relished the smell of wild garlic, also known as ramsons, an edible woodland treat. Bluebells were looking brilliant too, here in the UK we have 50% of the worlds bluebell population. We also spotted yellow archangel – a species of dead nettle, opposite leafed golden saxifrage and water avens. Another plant we see a lot of in Aros is called Tutsan which is thought to mean “all-healthy”, linking in with healing properties. We also spotted some dor beetles on the move; we looked at these guys through a hand lens and were amazed by the small details and metallic colours.

Water avens (Geum rivale)

Water avens (Geum rivale)

Dor beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius)

Dor beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius)

Ancient woodland walk 

This week I ran another woodland guided walk which was open to the public. We began the walk at the Loch Buie/Croggan turn off from the main road, south of Craignure and enjoyed some of the protected woodland nearby. Ardura and Auchnacraig are both listed as a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) primarily for the large area of ancient oak woodlands, geological interests and a small section of salt marsh. The largest area of ancient atlantic oak woods in the Hebrides remains here, most of the woodland across the islands is lone gone.

Osprey encounter 

There is a footpath through some of the woodland which emerges onto the shoreline of Loch Spelve. We were lucky enough to catch a great view of an osprey, a species which doesn’t breed here on Mull. This individual bird has been hanging around for a few weeks now though and will maybe return to breed in the future. Due to the leg ring we know this male bird was ringed in 2012 at Loch Lomond. We also saw plenty of greylag and canada geese, oystercatchers and common sandpipers.

Invasive non-natives 

Within the woodland itself we spotted some worrying non-native invasive species, very concerning when walking in such an important site. Japanese knotweed and rhododendron were both present. The third was skunk cabbage, an American bog plant that is readily available in garden centres in the UK. Also known as the swamp lantern this species is spreading from gardens to interfere with our native wildlife.

Native wildflowers 

Plenty of lovely native wildflowers and plants to be seen too though. The main tree species in this area are silver birch and oak, with holly, rowan and hazel making up the threadbare understory. We were pleased to see some successful saplings but overgrazing in some sections of woodland was apparent. Wildflowers included:

Opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage

Primrose

Lesser celandine

Tormentil

Marsh marigold

Yellow pimpernel

Wood anemone

Wood sorrel

Greater stitchwort

Selfheal

Bluebell

Heath milkwort

Lousewort

Cuckoo flower

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some and this doesn’t even consider all the lichen and moss species, out woodlands are teeming with life. Well worth an hours exploration, take the time to get lost in a wood and encounter some new wildlife.

Thanks for reading as usual! Check our events page for upcoming dates to join us soon. Rachel 🙂

One thing is for sure

Completing start-of-season checks and the first bird count of the year on Staffa over Easter weekend, the light was stunning in the early morning as the mist rolled back.  Here’s some photos and a wee guest blog from one of our ranger service volunteers:

Easter Sunday morning Staffa Josef photo Black guillemot count Staffa Josef photo Misty Treshnish Isles from Staffa Josef photo Inside Clamshell cave Josef photo

One thing is for sure. There is a big difference between going on a trip to Staffa with a boat and having one hour ashore before immediately traveling back again, or waving goodbye to the boat that would take you back and spend 24 hours on the island to yourself. For one, you get Fingals cave all to yourself as the light is starting to fade and there is no one else in sight that could look at you in a strange way when you decide to test the cave acoustics by shouting out a medieval chant from that children’s program you watched on telly twenty years ago when you were a kid in Sweden (any likeness to real people in the previous sentence is purely accidental). Just in case you were wondering.

Of course, I wasn’t alone.

The whole reason I was there was because it was somewhere decided that spending 24 hours alone on a tiny island in the Atlantic isn’t something you can require from your employee. So I tagged along. And so did round about 122 Black Guillemots as it turns out when we did the bird count at dawn the following morning which was one of the main reasons for the trip.

I promised Emily I would include a Haiku in this blogpost.

Eight or twelve or ten?
Maybe there was seventeen?
I’ve lost my count again…

So There.

Josef
NTS Volunteer
(And proud owner of a get-into-nts-things-for-free-card)

Where did April go?

We’ve recovered from the busy Mull Music Festival weekend and now we’re busy again for the bank holiday weekend. There’s plenty for us to be preparing for as we’re nearly into May, a great month to visit the isle and join one of the many events we run and hopefully we’ll have some lovely weather to enjoy too.

Countryside Code

We’d just like to remind everyone about the countryside code, this helps everyone enjoy our wild areas and ensures livestock and wildlife are safe. Please keep all your canine companions under close control. Dogs should be on short leads in areas with sheep during the lambing period. In areas with cattle please use your discretion, but often owners are safer when dogs are off the lead if cattle are looking unhappy. Many of our protected bird species are nesting right now and many of them are ground nesting, including species like lapwing, curlew, redshank, hen harrier and short-eared owl so please be aware of this, your actions could determine the success of a nest. If you have any issues regarding this please contact us on 01680 300640.

Mull Eagle Watch & Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Unfortunately due to tree felling and timber extraction we have had to temporarily close Mull Eagle Watch. Due to disease the Larch trees have to be removed as soon as possible. The forest operations mean we lose access to the hide and our parking area. It would also give us considerable concerns over health and safety and it would deter from our usually peaceful experience. We are hoping to open again by Monday 11th May. We’ll keep you all up to date with progress, along with Iona and Fingal news – we’re expecting our first egg to hatch around the 6th May.

In the meantime I’ll be running drop in ranger sessions at the Fishnish Community Wildlife Hide. I’ll be there every morning from Monday 4th May – Friday 8th May between 10am and 1pm. If you were disappointed to miss out on Mull Eagle Watch come along. We’ll look for a variety of wildlife including a nearby pair of white-tailed eagles, otters, seabirds and marine mammals like harbour porpoise and seals. I can help you spot wildlife, answer questions you may have and point you in a good direction for other sights! This is free but we’d appreciate donations to the Mull and Iona Ranger Service.

Oystercatcher - lots of seabirds to see from the Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Oystercatcher – lots of seabirds to see from the Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Bioblitz Detectives – Nature Club Numero 2

We’re nearly ready for the second nature club of the season! Last time we enjoyed an hour learning all about bats. This time we’ll be up close and personal with some small mammals like voles and mice. We don’t notice them often but they’re found in big numbers anywhere with grass and they’re so important for lots of other wildlife. We’ll check out harmless mammal traps to see if we caught any critters, play some games and look for mammal signs.

Come along to Aros Park, we start at 5pm (please be early) and finish at 6pm. Meet me in the main car park.

Children aged 5-12 are welcome (£3 per child) and parents are encouraged to stay for free, especially with the wee ones.

Call me on 07540792650 for more information, but booking isn’t necessary.

Mammal Bio Blitz - Nature Detectives

Mammal Bio Blitz – Nature Detectives

Ulva – Guided Walk

Join the ranger service on Wednesday 6th May for a guided walk on the Isle of Ulva. Enjoy a tranquil wander around part of the island, giving you a taste for future visits. We’ll learn about the island’s history and look at island life now whilst looking out for wildlife too. Please wear sturdy footwear and weather appropriate clothing. Bring binoculars if you have them. We’ll stop for lunch at the Boathouse.

Meet at Ulva Ferry for 10am. Ferry fare and lunch per menu are required plus £5 per head to the Mull and Iona Ranger Service. Booking is essential (20 places), call 01680 300640 or 07765898600.

Staffa Stuff – Puffins

If you’d like to be slightly more adventurous and head out to sea, why not take a trip to Staffa to meet our Ranger out there, also on Wednesday 6th May. Make you own way to Staffa via one of the boat operators (boat trip fare required) and meet the ranger who will be on hand to answer your questions and guide you to the best place to see puffins up close.

Puffin - head out to Staffa or Lunga to see these comical birds

Puffin – head out to Staffa or Lunga to see these comical birds

Bio blitzing & Beach cleaning

Easter has sped on by and the island enjoyed a rush of visitors for the break. The weather played ball on Easter Sunday and Monday thankfully although the beginning of the weekend was a little doubtful! The last few days have given us all a taster of summer and we’d love it to hang around. Wildlife has been booming. Basking sharks arrived and were seen in nearby Hebridean waters over the weekend; often they aren’t around till July in any numbers! Hopefully this is an indication of a great year for our wildlife. My family spent the weekend here too and we had a great few moments along the shores of Loch na Keal with lovely views of a golden eagle above the skyline. This was followed by an otter fishing nearby, despite my water loving dog splashing around!

Nature Detectives

Aros Park played host to our first Nature Detectives club in the evening yesterday. This is aimed at children aged 5-12 and will give them a fun and hands on way to love nature. So many children these days have a real disconnection to the outdoors and nature, often thanks to TV, computers, smart phones and tablet devices. Alongside the technology we’ve developed a fear of natural play thanks to health and safety and worry of stranger danger. As a child I was extremely lucky and on weekends rampaged about getting muddy, climbing trees and catching frogs. I have no doubt that my childhood created my love of nature and shaped who I am now.

I’ll be running five more Nature Detective clubs for children over the season. Last night we focused on bats and learnt all about them, how to listen in on their world of echolocation and what we can do to help them out. Over the next five sessions we’ll meet some small mammals face to face, dip into the crazy world of pond life, the night time life of moths and the creepy crawly creatures in the undergrowth. This fun and active approach will be great for the kids and maybe spark a lifetime love and respect to our natural world. The next club is Tuesday 5th May; this one is all about mammals. We’ll start at 5pm for one hour, so please be prompt!

Mammal Bio Blitz - Nature Detectives

Mammal Bio Blitz – Nature Detectives

Beach clean

Looking for something to do this Sunday afternoon? Head to Calgary beach to lend a hand in tiding it up! Help get this busy beach ready for the summer, as well as beach clean the paintbrushes will be out for tables and we’ll generally spruce the place up. Litter in our oceans is an ever growing issue unfortunately, with plastic waste being top of the list. Plastic does not degrade, ever. It ends up as tiny little micro beads or nurdles, which looks exactly like plankton or fish eggs – food for many animals which then works its way up the food chain. So all that plastic we use once and throw away ends up in the ocean and will remain there forever. Unless it washes up on our shores, we can then collect it up, but even then it’s likely that once again it’ll end up in our waters. If you can, every time you head outdoors please bring a few pieces of litter home with you, even if it isn’t yours! We can all help a little. It doesn’t cost anything, it takes very little time and it’ll make you feel good! Here is a brutal photograph just to demonstrate the issue; it isn’t nice to look at but a great way to make us wake up on plastic.

Albatross deaths due to plastic waste

Albatross deaths due to plastic waste

The Calgary Beach clean and work party is on Sunday 12th April, 2-4pm. It’s a free event but donations to the ranger service are appreciated as is any home baking for tea and coffee afterwards.

Calgary Beach

Calgary Beach

Mull Eagle Watch

Don’t forget you can now book your trips to Mull Eagle Watch. We are open from next Monday, 13th April and will be running two trips per day. Please call 01680 812556 for more information or to book in. You can also head over to the Mull Eagle Watch blog page to catch up.

 

Thanks for reading, Rachel 🙂

April showers?

Another couple of weeks have flown by and it’s April tomorrow, although it certainly doesn’t feel like it should be Spring with the wintery weather we’ve not been enjoying the last few days. I found myself putting out extra bird food first thing today whilst it attempted to snow! It feels like the showery month of April has arrived early, minus the warmer temperatures we’d expect. Hopefully this bad weather snap won’t last long and our wildlife will be able to bounce straight back. We now have all of our events planned out for the season, head to our events page to have a look, we have a few coming up in April including Bunessan Birdsong and a Calgary Beach work party.

Bat Bonanza

I’m running my first event of the season tomorrow evening in Aros Park. Come along to do some bat detecting and to enjoy a nice evening wander around the loch. If it’s clear we’ll have a lovely view over to Tobermory from the old pier. Bat detectors allow us to hear the complex system of echolocation that our bats depend on, not only to catch their prey, but to ensure they don’t crash into an obstacle. You might be surprised to find that here on Mull we have a few bat species, including the most familiar the common pipistrelle. We also my favorite, the daubenton’s bat, also known as the water bat. No need to book, just turn up – I hope to see some of you there.
Where: Aros Park, meet at FCS notice board
When: 6.30pm – 8.30pm
Cost: £5 adult £3 children
Bring: Waterproofs and warm clothing

Bat Bonanza Event

Bat Bonanza Event

Mull Eagle Watch

Mull Eagle Watch is open from Monday 13th April 2015 and you can now book in by calling the Craignure Visitor Information Centre on 01680 812556.

Sula and Cuin’s nest site from last year is now playing host to another brilliant bird, the raven! Corvids like crows and ravens happily move into larger disused nests. As our eagles are nesting at another eyrie within their territory, ravens jumped at this highly desirable housing opportunity and are now incubating their own eggs. Ravens aren’t often a favored bird, especially by the farming community as they do regularly cause issues within lambing season but they are a fantastic species. They’re one of our most intelligent birds and can have a repertoire of 70 different vocalisations.
So Mull Eagle Watch will leave the ravens to it. We’ve been welcomed back to Tiroran in Glen Seilisdeir with open wings by Iona and Fingal and we look forward to working with this wonderful pair of eagles again.

Fingal - seen through the telescope at Tiroran

Fingal – seen through the telescope at Tiroran

Geocache galore

The ranger service have now hidden over 40 geocaches around the island, so give it a try if you haven’t already. Or, if you thought you’d found them all, think again! Jan and I had a lovely, albeit very blustery morning at Loch Buie and Croggan to hide a few. This is such a great area with a range of habitats for Mull’s wildlife. If you do head down that way think please think about taking a couple of pieces of litter home with you to recycle, the beach and coastline around here has accumulated debris over the winter. Look out for eagles and otters, I found a well used otter track and some spraint full of fish scales and crab claws.

Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Don’t forget about the community wildlife hide at Fishnish. This is open at all times so drop in to enjoy your lunch or shelter from the weather. We don’t yet have a visitor book or white board for your sightings yet, so if you do spend some time there, please let us know what you see. The location is great for seabirds, otter, harbour porpoise and white-tailed eagles. Look out for the tiny dab chick in between it’s feeding dives too.

Thanks for reading again and check back soon for more, Rachel 🙂

Bugs, birds, & red nose day

Geo-caching

On Tuesday last week I went down to the Forestry Commission Scotland walk at Scallastle (just outside of Craignure) to check the footpath and signs and to place two new geocaches. I’d never been to this site before and the walk was lovely. Despite being quite steep and rough in places its well worth it for fantastic views over the Sound of Mull. The surrounding mountains are stunning too and this is a good place to see golden eagles. The woodland is mixed, with a lot of native species including birch and hazel, I caught sight of long-tailed tits working among the huge variety of lichens. I laid out two new geocaches along the trail, this is an ever growing interest and hobby around the world and a great way to encourage people to walk outdoors. Scallastle is also home to a fairly new addition to Mull, the pine marten. This carnivorous mammal is a controversial species on the island, but is hopefully here to stay and will add to our wonderful wildlife. I managed to find some pine marten poo (scat) on the trail – they often leave signs in obvious places.

Pine marten scat found in Scallastle woodland

Pine marten scat found in Scallastle woodland

Mountain Wildlife

On Wednesday last week I got to meet some of Bunessan Primary School, I didn’t manage to visit them last season unfortunately. I joined Emily, our ranger for the Ross of Mull, Burg, Iona and Staffa to run a session on our mountains. We thought about how we can prepare ourselves for a mountain hike, and what to pack in our rucksack. We learnt that this can make all the difference when things like weather, accidents and midges can cause dangerous problems. This led us onto the adaptations wildlife needs to survive and why each animal or plant lives in a particular zone on the mountain.

This is where the eagles came in; both our golden eagle and white-tailed eagle have some fascinating adaptations which could mean the difference between life and death in the harsh Scottish mountains. The kids enjoyed seeing our stuffed golden eagle up close to look at the talons, feathered legs, powerful beak and large eyes. We then focused on how all the mountain wildlife links together and what would happen if one animal or plant were to disappear. Overall we had a great day!

Bug hotel renovations & brand new bird box builds…

I also visited Lochdon Primary who are working hard to develop their very own conservation area. We wanted to create some bird boxes to encourage garden birds like blue tits, great tits, robins and pied wagtails to set up home. We all got stuck in with the hammers and built four bird boxes, two with open fronts and two with smaller holes. These will be installed outside and help increase the wildlife onsite.
We also got our hands muddy outside despite the weather. We started some renovation work on their bug hotel, which was looking a bit forlorn and unloved. Old pallets are great for bug homes, so we added a few extra pallets to the pile. We then found lots of materials to fill in all the gaps, creating homes for bees, beetles, slugs, woodlice, spiders and more. A great way to collect up unwanted garden items lying around too, if you don’t want it, the bugs will! The children will keep adding to bug hotel and I’m sure they’ll investigate the insects living there when the weather improves.

Red nose day fun

Finally on Friday last week I ended for the weekend on a great note. Tobermory primary school children (P5/6/7) were doing a sponsored walk along the coastal route to Aros Park so I met them there to run an activity. Thankfully the weather was great, so the kids seemed to have a lovely time. I hid loads of items out in the trees for the children to find in pairs, but the catch was one of them must be blindfolded! This was harder than you’d think, but they did well, I only had to help with the last few. Once we had everything, the kids realised we could make a person. We created a fisherman, complete with his own red nose. I left them to enjoy another game, but managed to leave my sunglasses hidden in a tree, they’re still there someone now.

Thanks for reading! Rachel 🙂

Looking over to Loch Tor under stunning blue skies

Looking over to Loch Tor under stunning blue skies (mobile phone photo)

Rain, rain go away!

I’m waiting with baited breath for my first butterfly or slow-worm of the season, but I think we’ve forgotten what sunshine looks like. Whilst we swim about in mud and rain, with gale force winds, the rest of the country seems to be relishing the coming of spring with red admirals, small tortoiseshells, bees, adders and slow-worms emerging. It feels more like autumn than the start of spring and temperatures are still on the chilly side. The only inkling I’ve enjoyed so far of wildlife waking from winter slumber is in the pond. One evening the sound of mating frogs emanated from the depths and with a brief respite from rain yesterday I went to investigate.

Amphibians

Frog spawn surrounded the pond edge, lying dejectedly on the grassy banks. Frogs in their excitement can go a little overboard but this only means a tasty meal for others like otter and heron. Eyes peered back at me from the water but with any movement they would disappear. On the opposite side of the pond toads were at home, moving around below the surface. Frog and toad spawn differs; toad spawn is less familiar, long thin strings rather than clumps; I couldn’t see any in the pond yet. I did see a newt though! These small newts are really difficult to spot unless they move and spend most of their time looking like vegetation. Palmate newts are the UK’s smallest amphibian. The name comes from the black webbing of the males hind feet in the mating season, making them look like over large palms.

Common Toad

Common Toad

Stargazing – Pennyghael Hall

Come along to enjoy an evening of stargazing with the ranger service at Pennyghael Hall. It’s a great time of year for looking up at the night sky with lots of planets in view. You should be able to see Jupiter and its moons. Venus, the “evening star” will rise just after sunset but disappear at 9.30pm and Mars will be showing too, not from Venus.

Pennyghael Hall; 7-9pm
Cost: £6 adult/£3 child
Learn how to find your way around the night sky with Seamas Westland and Emily Wilkins.
18th, 19th, or 20th March – weather dependent, clearest night will be chosen so please register your interest and we’ll let you know

Call 01681 700659 or 07717581405

PennyghaelWreck Ewan Miles

Pennyghael Wreck – night sky (thanks to Ewan Miles)

Easter Events

Bat Bonanza -Come along to Aros Park for an evening bat walk. Bat detectors on hand so we can ID the species & hear them in action. We’ll have fun facts, activities for children and ending at the old pier for a lovely view of Tobermory.

Wednesday 1st April, Aros Park
6.30pm – 8.30pm
Meeting at FCS notice board in main car park
£5 adults, £3 children
Call 01680 300640 or 0754079265

NEW – Bioblitz Nature Detectives

New Nature Club for 2015 – every four weeks, 6 sessions across the season – Aros Park
Tuesday 7th April – Bioblitz Nature Detectives: Bat Bioblitz
First session of six, open to children aged 5-12
Come along to the first session to Bioblitz Aros Park and the bats that live their!
We’ll have 1 hour to record as many bats and different kinds of bats as possible.
Learn lots of cool facts, hear bats echo location and have a later night than usual!

6.30-7.30pm (please be prompt)
£3 per child (parents encouraged to stay for free, especially with the wee ones)
Aros Park, FCS notice board in main car park
Appropriate footwear and warm clothing. Notebook or camera if you like
01680300640 or 07540792650

Bulgarian Nature Exchange 2012

Continuing the international theme, this is the report from a fascinating study tour Emily attended in Bulgaria a couple of years ago.  As one of the funding conditions was to share our findings as widely as possible (but we didn’t have a blog back then), I thought it would make good winter reading for those of you who enjoy this kind of thing!

The short version: I’ve just come back from a study tour to Bulgaria, and for once it’s good to come home to sunshine! We had thunderstorms and heavy rain showers, although it was warm. It was very interesting to see how they are coping with the changes in land use caused by changing political systems over the years. Some families who have had their land restored to them have become more urban-based in the last few decades so may not even know where their patch of forest is, let alone take an interest in managing it. The flat plains are quite intensively farmed with wheat, sunflowers and vineyards. However, within their national parks and protected areas (which cover 30% of the country), traditional ways of life continue and we saw beautiful forest-covered mountains with herb-rich alpine meadows containing fruit trees and small groups of sheep or goats always accompanied by a shepherd, meaning less need for fencing. Red deer are larger in size but fewer in number than in Scotland, and they also have wild boar, brown bears and wolves to add to the dynamics. Every rural house has its own neat vegetable patch and grapevine, and even in smaller towns their pavement ‘flowerbeds’ were being used to grow potatoes, and vines were growing up to first or second floor balconies in towerblocks! Part of an island in the Danube, once used for ‘political prisoners’, is now a marshland nature reserve full of birdlife, and they have white-tailed sea eagles there too!! There are regional rural tourism and development projects similar to our own Holiday Mull and Ross of Mull and Iona Development. We spent a lot of time talking to foresters, rangers, hunters, local mayors, academics, tour guides and staff of outdoor museums, generating lots of information and ideas, so no doubt you will hear me making comparisons with several of our local projects over the next few months.

Photos from the trip can be found here:

http://opa.cig2.canon-europe.com/s/m/ErMiQTunmuP

The long version, our detailed group report, follows below:

Introduction:

Between the 12 to the 19th of May 2012 a delegation of Scottish professionals involved in conservation, policy and education visited Bulgaria. They were concentrating on deer management but were also looking at wider species interactions and social and economic connections in rural areas.

The group was hosted by the Stara Planina Regional Tourist Association. The Association was established in 1996 to co-ordinate the activities of 12 local tourist organisations in order to create, develop and promote an ‘attractive tourist product’. They bring together diverse groups involved in heritage management and tourism from hotel owners to museum curators to develop a holistic plan for their area.

The Nature Exchange was developed by ARCH network and its European partners over the last 9 years. ARCH fully funded the study visit with the aim to exchange best practice and to establish new contacts and partnerships for future cooperation. The study visit was funded by the Leonardo da Vinci programme; the costs of travel, accommodation and subsistence were covered by the grant. The trip was open to everyone working in natural heritage, conservation and land management sectors.  The group wishes to fully thank ARCH Network and the Stara Planina Regional Tourist Association for the excellent educational experience.

Nature Exchange Participants:

Rebecca O’Hara (Scottish Natural Heritage)
Jeanne Robinson (Glasgow Museums)
Emily Wilkins (National Trust for Scotland/Mull&Iona Community Trust)
Richard Luxmoore (National Trust for Scotland)
Andrew Treadaway (Barony College)
Bruce Wilson (Scottish Wildlife Trust)

The+group+at+Cherni+Ossam+mountain+guide+school

Picture 1: The group gathered outside the Mountain Leader School in Cherni Ossam

The Group were expertly guided and driven throughout the trip by Velis and and Ivo and we would all like to thank them.

Day 1:

On day one the group travelled to Sofia and onward to the Village of Ribaritsa on the Northern slopes of the Central Balkan National Park. We spent time getting to know one another and discussing the week’s activities.

Day 2

At the start of day two the sun was splitting the sky, this was not a precedent for the rest of the day or indeed the rest of the week…. The group met with Stoyan Hristov, senior ranger from the Central Balkan National Park. Stoyan gave a guided walk of hills at the boundary of Tsarichina Strictly Protected Reserve.

Tsarichina was designated as a reserve in 1949 and is 34.2 km2 and it was composed mostly from state owned land. The reserve consists of both forest (mainly ancient beech and hornbeam) and subalpine ecosystems and takes its name from the flower Scarlet Tsarich (Geum coccineum) which grows locally. Tsarichina is part of UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program.

During our walk Stoyan explained the protected area designations in Bulgaria. There are 6 categories (in order of legislative protection); Strict Nature Reserves, National Parks, Protected Landscapes, Maintained reserves, Nature parks and Protected Sites.

The group walked on the boundary of the park but was interested to note that only hiking was permitted in the Strictly Protected Reserve and only on specially designated paths. This was in contrast with the “right of responsible access” in Scotland, and was more akin to the strict laws in protected areas in America. There was also an emphasis on “leaving things as you find them” see picture 2 below.

Bulgaria - junk back in rucksack
Picture 2: Please take your “junk” home sign

It was apparent from low erosion levels, lack of disturbance and litter that the trails had low usage rates compared with a similar area in Scotland. The group thought the difficult socioecomic climate in Bulgaria may have been a contributing factor in this. Also that the winters being harsher with heavy snow falls would restrict access during winter months.

The paths were maintained by rangers and there was some low-level “infrastructure” provided for hikers such as viewing towers, benches and a composting toilet. Stoyan indicated that money 10 years ago from the EU had been used to construct these facilities; however, he was not sure which funding stream this was from.

The agriculture conducted in the region was not intensive and was very traditional. A variation of transhumance farming was carried out with shepherds over-wintering their stock on the valley floor and bringing stock up to the lush pastures on the steep upper slopes to graze in the spring. Shepherds stayed with their flock (of sheep, goats and cattle) at all times to guard against wolf attack. However horses are allowed to roam free and are causing concern as to their exact numbers. This grazing regime provided an ideal habitat for wildflowers and herbs to flourish (see picture 3). This style of livestock farming is very different from Scotland (although has some similarities with the seasonal use of hill pasture and shielings in the past) and had very visible effects on the landscape and biodiversity. The group found it very different not seeing fences dividing the landscape even in areas where grazing pasture was interspersed with arable land.

Bulgaria - orchid on upper slopes

Picture 3: Orchid on upper slopes

Grazing with sheep, cattle and horses (but not goats) is permitted in some parts of the National Park to assist with the management of the open areas of grassland. The shepherds are required to pay a nominal tax to keep their animals in the park and the numbers of stock allotted to each shepherd are strictly regulated. Fires, formerly used as a management tool, are not permitted and the burden of responsibility for managing this is placed with the shepherds. If fires are set, shepherds lose their grazing entitlement. Shepherds receive some subsidy for keeping animals in this less favoured area, with horses receiving the highest subsidy.

The group asked Stoyan if he had experienced problems with deer browsing; he stated that there was no problem with deer and, if anything, they could maybe do with a few more. He believed that hunting by humans and predation by wolves and bear was keeping deer populations at an acceptable level. The group noticed that there was very little understorey of the beech forest and this may have led to a lack of browsing material and therefore low density of deer (see picture 4). Tree regeneration was limited in most areas though relatively good in others. Grazing by deer was limited to the small pocket clearings and upland meadows. On the border of the reserve the group saw small clear cut regimes which were being allowed to naturally regenerate. These type of areas would have been more attractive to the deer and this area was under the actively management of a hunting club.

Bulgaria - beech forest with little regeneration
Picture 4: Beech forest with very little regeneration or ground vegetation.

As well as deer the group also asked Stoyan about other species present in the park and he stated that the park was host to around: 15 amphibian species including the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) see picture 5 – which we were lucky enough to spot – 30 mammal species including pine marten (Martes martes), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), river otter (Lutra lutra) and wildcat (Felis sylvestris). 75 bird species.

Bulgaria - fire salamander

Picture 5a: Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)

Stoyan was not involved in any invertebrate surveys, this was left to ‘the experts’. In Scotland’s most important nature reserves surveying for popular insect groups (butterfly transects, bumblebee surveys, moth trapping, dragonfly surveys etc…) is more likely to occur, often facilitated by our rangers. We did spot some interesting species including the Tau emperor moth (Aglai tau), whose caterpillars eat beech leaves; like the fire salamander a species we wouldn’t encounter in the UK.

Bulgaria - Tau emperor moth
Picture 5b: Tau emperor moth (Aglai tau) resting at path edge.

The group would like to thank Stoyan for his guided tour and greatly appreciated him sharing his expert knowledge with us.

After dinner the group had a self guided walk through the orchards above Ribaritsa. We saw a number of shepherds tending their flocks and noted that some had constructed shelters.

Day 3

The group visited a vocational forestry school in Teteven and were shown around by a past pupil and current teacher – Riko Rikove. The secondary specialist School is for pupils from the ages of 14 to 18/19 and provides courses for pupils interested in forestry and woodland management and carpentry. It also provides them with a route to higher education courses in land management/forestry. The school also runs short “ticketed” courses in practical skills such as cross-cutting and maintenance.

Rico explained that as well as teaching forestry skills and game management, a traditional syllabus with maths, English, economics and Bulgarian was delivered. The school also carried out commissioned joinery work, such as window construction and fitting, to raise funds and give practical experience to the pupils. There are three other similar institutions in Bulgaria. The school was equipped with a small museum and an arboretum which we also had time to observe.

Bulgaria - Teteven forestry school

Picture 6: The vocational forestry school at Teteven

After this visit we had a long drive to Belene, this trip gave a chance to view the wider countryside. The group noticed that in the flatter valleys and on the Danube plain much more intensive commercial scale agriculture was taking place. The main crops were maize, peppers, sunflowers, potatoes, wheat and barley. It was noted that this was a wide variety of crops for a region with such changeable climate e.g. the temperature when the group were there was 12degreesC and last year it was 30degreesC. There were also fenced dairy systems in operation.

We learned that, in communist times, most of the farms were run cooperatively in large farming units. Following the fall of communism, the land had been returned to the families of their original owners. Many of the farms appeared abandoned. There were several large vineyards due to Bulgaria’s long tradition of wine making. However, like the agricultural land many of these vineyards had become over grown.

There were abandondoned factories in many areas which had been given back to the families of the original owners but due to the economic situation and lack of modernisation they were unable to compete in a free market economy. Family disputes amongst descendants over ownership were said to be common. Often these families had not the retained knowledge or did not have the money to run these businesses so they were left abandoned.

The group noticed local people collecting edible snails which were for personal consumption and also for sale through a co-operative to Spain and other countries. The town of Belene is a former garrison town with a large military base which has been radically cut back. This, and the closure of a number of factories and communal farms has resulted in the town appearing to be rundown with many partly occupied blocks of flats in poor repair. We noted that many of the suburban houses had thriving vegetable gardens which had overflowed to take over the street flowerbeds which are now given over to planting potatoes and onions thereby displaying a entrepurenal spirit of the townspeople to harvest and utilise these bonus areas extra crops. It was felt that this would be a difficult example to follow in Scotland due to rigorously upheld bye laws and possible unexplained loss of these crops.

Bulgaria - Street+potatoes

Picture 7: Potatoes and grapevines in the street

At the edge of the town is the Persina Nature Park had a recently constructed visitor centre. The centre was in stark contrast to the town, with modern facilities, picnic areas and viewing platforms. The centre was built with funding from the EU, World Bank and WWF and had interpretation facilities for hosting school groups. There did not seem to be much evidence that it was extensively used by other local visitors, and there was a lack of directional road signs would make it near impossible for foreign or local tourists to find the centre. There were no “bolt-on” extras to the visitors centre such as coffee shops, play parks etc. of the type which are extremely common in Scotland. The group observed that this may also make the centre less appealing to a wider audience.

At the centre the group was greeted by a ranger from the park, while colourful bee eaters swooped overhead catching insects. The ranger explained the history and general principles behind the Persina Nature Park.

The area was designated in 2000 by the Ministry of Environment and Water for Bulgaria and is one of newest natural parks in Bulgaria. It is located to the North of Bulgaria, along the Danube valley, near Romania. Persina covers 21762 ha and is included in the territory of three Bulgarian municipalities (Nikopol, Belene and Svishtov).

The park’s main aim is to conserve and restore the wetlands of the Danube river; this also includes the numerous islands found in the park, of which there are two groups, Nikopol (made up of four main islands) and Belene (consisting of 19 islands 5 of which are Romanian). The unique qualities of the site meant it was proclaimed a RAMSAR site in 2002. The group compared this to areas in Scotland where the largest RAMSAR site is the Solway Firth at 43600ha.

The ranger gave the group an overview of the current projects being undertaken by using an interactive “floodable” 3-dimensional map of the region. The main island of which half of (which also held a Farm prison) was slowly being “re-wetted” by opening sluice gates periodically to maintain habitat conditions. It was also explained that during the communist era the border with Romania (here formed by the Danube) was largely closed and there was a 10km buffer beside the river with limited access. This had meant that there was a large strip of semi-natural habitat for many species. However, there were only three river crossings between the Black Sea and Sofia; this may have been a barrier to development in the region. It was also noted that next to the visitor centre were Roman remains that were due to be excavated at some stage in the future.

Bulgaria - Danube model at Persina

Picture 8: Danube Model

The group would like to thank the staff and rangers at the park for their time.

The group then went on a bird watching boat tour of the Danube where we spotted several species on the water and on the land including: Great cormorant, Pygmy cormorant, Mallard, Little egret, Night heron, Grey heron, Sand martin, Swallow, House martin, Nightingale, Hooded crow, Red backed shrike, Goldfinch, Bee eaters

The group noted that we were the only “pleasure” craft out on a clear day in May and this would be different in Scotland, again it may have been possible to attribute this to the socio-economic situation in Bulgaria. Boats still need a special permit to be out on the river as it forms the border with Romania.

The group then set off to our next destination of Gabrovo. On route we drove past PR signs for a proposed nuclear power station near Belene. Our guide explained there was a thirst for energy independence from Georgian and Russian gas and the power station would probably be built in the near future, once the economic situation had stabilised. However, current politicians had called a halt to its building, taking a lead from the anti-nuclear stance of Germany.

We stopped off in the town of Veliko Tarnovo , which was the most “touristy” destination we had been to on our trip and looked well used to catering for coach parties etc… and was much more akin to “tourist towns” in Scotland (it also had an entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook, unlike most other places we went to this week). This medieval town had formerly been the capital of Bulgaria and had a walled fortress of former rulers which had been restored.

Bulgaria - Veliko Tarnovo
Picture 9: The town of Veliko Tarnovo

Day 4

In the morning the group enjoyed a walking tour of the Etara Architectural and Ethnographic complex, the only open air museum in Bulgaria. This is a state owned venture. It consists of three original installations, including an 18th century mill house and a “water powered washing machine” that is still used by local people. The site has been enhanced with a large number of other historical water-powered devices rescued and relocated from the neighbouring villages, which would otherwise have fallen into disuse after industrialisation. These included a sawmill, spinning mill, lathes, several grain mills and a braiding mill, the first of its’ kind in Bulgaria. There were a number of artisans demonstrating traditional crafts and selling their wares in stalls throughout the complex. Some of the artisans were on Etara’s payroll, others paid for the privilege of being there. The group commented on similarities between Etara, an open air museum which shows pre industrial technology, and the Beamish Museum in the North of England (which celebrates the age of the Industrial revolution in Britain), whose artefacts and buildings are more modern but also allow you to see historical life in an open air setting.Bulgaria - Craftsman at Etara museumBulgaria - water powered washing machine
Picture 10a: Craftsman, Etara museum     Picture 10b: Water-powered washing machine

The group then met with representatives of the Bulgarka Nature park, which is located on the northern slopes of Central Stara Planina mountain, above the towns of Gabrovo and Tryavna.

The park’s highest point in 1524m and it supports 32 flora species that are included on the IUCN red list and also many mammal species including Pine Marten and Bear. The predominant land cover in the park was beech forest but there were also several rocky outcrops where lichens and mosses thrived.

The group were intrigued to learn that forestry age is measured differently in Bulgaria where the mean age of trees is used rather than the length of time the area has been afforested.This is due to the influence of other European countries where a more holistic approach thorugh continuous forestry methods are adopted. Unlike Scottish forestry which is still in the infancy of this and mostly managed on a financial /accountancy basis. The oldest tree in the park was a 500 year old beech.

The group asked several questions about deer but it was apparent there was no problem with high densities due to a combination of factors, primarily predation by wolves and anthropogenic hunting. One of the rangers stated that there was probably less than one deer per 100 ha. The hunting in the region is managed by local hunting groups and licences are issued by the Ministry for Food and Agriculture.

The rangers stated that there had a problem with poaching of chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and that the shooting of wolves was forbidden within the park but was legal outside its boundaries and so allowing better protection of livestock.

The park also included several ancient archeological sites mainly Roman and Thracian roads and buildings.

The park staff gave a presentation about the opportunities for “eco” tourism in the park. The mix of natural and historical attractions made the park attractive to tourists as did the range of habitats and walking trails available. There are 4 long distance eco trails, 13 tourist trails and 3 mountain bike trails.

The park staff have developed a working farm where children can see animals and take part in “green” outdoor lessons. They also hold open days and have fairs and exhibitions. A significant amount of time is devoted to promoting the park on the web.

The Central Balkan National Park park is a member of the PAN parks network which is a European-wide organisation focusing on the protection of wilderness areas it applies an approach combining wilderness protection and sustainable tourism development. The PAN park partners aim to create a network of European wilderness areas where natural systems of animals and plants can thrive and where people can appreciate the pleasures offered by wilderness. The park management aims to co-operate closely with the people who live around the park. Local PAN Parks partners, offering facilities and working together with the park, are recognized by the PAN Parks logo based on environmental standards and their commitment to conservation.

The group then had “break out sessions” with various experts from around the region. The implementation of the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was discussed with Lora Jibreel (a WWF expert in public funding for green projects) and it was agreed that greening of the next CAP programme was vital for biodiversity across Europe. Differences and similarities, in high nature value farming, between Scotland and Bulgaria were also discussed.

After lunch the group met with one of the curators of the museum. She told us that they received up to 160,000 visitors a year. Only 20,000 of these were from outside Bulgaria. They were very well used by the school. Even on a damp day the visitors were quite numerous. There was plenty to buy and a restaurant serving a Bulgarian menu. The hotel we were staying in provided a further revenue stream for the complex. Etara charges everyone a small entrance fee. The money generated by the complex exceeded what it cost to run, the state was making a profit from this venture. Despite the majority of the visitors being Bulgarian, all the interpretation was presented in both English and Bulgarian.

The museum also helped attract more people to the neighbouring Bulgarka Nature Park. The group would like to thank the museum staff for their time.

It was edifying to discover that the curator had visited Scotland on a similar cultural exchange and had been so inspired by a display on childhood she had seen whilst visiting that she developed one on her return.

The group next received a presentation at the Central Balkan National Parks Central Office in Gabrovo from the Head of Biodiversity and tourism. We were given more in depth information about the conservation status, land-use/zonation and management and the unique wildlife of the area. He talked about the large numbers of rare, endemic and relict invertebrate species that inhabited the Central Balkans including 36 on European/Global endangered species lists and 10 species protected under Bulgarian legislation. He highlighted the fact that only certain groups of invertebrates had been surveyed in the most accessible areas, so the 2400 inverts recorded so far are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. They were keen to collaborate with international invertebrate experts.

The final visit of the day was to the office of the Stara Planina regional tourist association, host partner of Archnetwork in Bulgaria, where we met Silvia Hinkova who explained a number of ecotourism and other projects with which her organisation is involved.
Day 5

The group awoke and drove to the Devetaki Plateau. On route we stopped off at Gavran (ravens hole), a large limestone cave that supported a lively amphibian community, including fire-bellied toads, see picture 11, and newts.

Attempts had been made by the local community to turn this site into a “beauty spot” with picnic benches and toilets. However, after disputes with local planners the site infrastructure was dismantled.

Bulgaria - fire bellied toad

Picture 11: Bombina bombina – Common or European Firebelly Toad

Gorsko Slivovo was our next destination and we explored the spectacular Devetashka limestone caves. The caves were absolutely fascinating and were a Natura Site for their numerous species of bats as well as many species of amphibians. Six species of hirundines were nesting in the vicinity, including crag martins, red-rumped swallows and alpine swifts.

Bulgaria - caves

Picture 12: Caves

The communist regime had used the cave system as a fuel silo and it had recently been used as a location for an action adventure film (Expendables 2) during which a large concrete access bridge over the river had been constructed and gifted to the region by the movie company.

The group then travelled to the small town of Karpchevo where we met with the mayor and local residents. We were shown a booklet that was produced to attract Bulgarians to visit the region. The booklet included recipes and folklore and was a good example of entrepreneurship in trying to attract more visitors to the town. We were also shown the beautiful town hall where concerts, plays etc… were shown.

Bulgaria - group with mayor in town hall
Picture 13: Group with Mayor in town hall

The town had an ageing population as many young people move away for education (as the local school had been closed down) and work. Bulgaria has a problem of depopulation at present where people are emigrating and the birth rate has dropped with a present population of about 7.5M– several of the villagers’ children had moved to the UK for work. The population was around 80 permanently but this swelled to 120 at the weekends and on holidays. The local residents also all had multiple jobs and comparisons were drawn with small Scottish communities.

We then travelled to a stunning set of local waterfalls at Krushuna for lunch and were lucky to see the waters in full flow after a heavy few days of rain! Stunning metallic-green Rose Chafer beetles (Cetonia aurata) lined the route to the falls.

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Picture 14: Rose Chafer beetle

The group then met with the mayor of the municipality of Letnitsa – Dr Krassinii Dzhoner. The mayor was a vet to trade, enjoyed studying local flora and fauna and was also interested in hunting. The group discussed the main issues in this rural region with the mayor mainly the effect of rural development and agriculture programmes and the diversification of businesses in the local area. The mayor felt the region was slowly diversifying its economies and proudly told us of the Walltopia factory in the town that produced world class climbing walls and indeed built several of the walls at the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena (Ratho).

The mayor was concerned that there seemed to be a lack of forestry expertise in the area and they were looking for ways to reduce the risk of forestry fire. He seemed keen to keep in touch with our forestry tutor, Andrew.

The group enquired about deer management in the area and the mayor explained that the deer population was kept in check by the local hunting group who also shot many other species including wild boar. The mayors thought the population of deer to be around 100 over about 1500ha and were regulated by strict government management plan guidelines as to what could be shot. This is in contrast to that of Scotland where there is no government intervention and deer numbers in some areas are becoming a nuisance .

Day 6

Bulgaria - pan parks logo
Picture 15: PAN parks logo

After a lovely breakfast the group drove to Drashkova polyana to see an “eco” guest house. The group discussed tourism with the owners. The guest house was a member of the PAN parks network  and also “green lodges” (a quality and “green” assurance scheme), the owners felt this had positively affected their business. They estimated that around half of their guests were from outwith Bulgaria and this was higher than most other attractions/accommodation. The owners also provided an informal “guided walk” service, photography lessons and pottery making classes and the food they served was locally sourced and traditional.

After the meeting at the guest house the group went to the mountain guide school in the village of Cherni Ossam. We met with the head teacher who gave us a short run through of the curriculum of this vocational school.

The school acts as normal between the ages of 7-14 but it then specialises out into “mountain guiding education” e.g. skiing, walking, first aid, avalanche rescue, climbing, rescue, first aid, navigation, cartography etc… as well as the normal curriculum. Pupils often went on to study geography and related sciences at university or became mountain, walking, skiing guides. The school accepts pupils from all over Bulgaria and boarding was available locally if necessary. The school has high standards and good grades must be achieved to gain entry. The group thought that the only comparable institution for school children in Scotland would be the Plockton traditional music school. The head teacher was very interested in our impressions of their school and asked if we could draft something about them for the local press, which we did. The group were most impressed by the two outdoor climbing walls at the school!

Bulgaria - climbing wall

Picture 16: Climbing wall at school

After the visit to the school the group visited the museum of natural history. The animals had once lined the classrooms and hallways of the school, the work of their former Biology teacher, a keen taxidermist. In 1976 the state built a formal museum to house the collection. The museum does charge a small entrance fee and is also supported by small grants from local government. The museum is currently run for by the founder’s son, who is also a taxidermist. The museum staff had many keen students to pass on their animal preservation skills to, 20 students a year for 15 years, until the Ministry of the Environment requested that these lessons ceased. Many British Natural History Collections have also lost the ability to prepare their own specimens just as the popularity of the art has started to escalate. Apart from being used for taxidermy the museum was being enjoyed by the students from the attached school as a teaching collection, a facility that few, if any British Schools still enjoy. The collections were all native species and were donated by the local community; with the exception of a pet iguana and a polar bear which had come to them from the local zoo. Mounted birds and mammals, wet preserved fish, reptiles and amphibians and pinned insects were all displayed. There was building work underway to extend the museum.

Bulgaria - stuffed animals

Picture 17: Stuffed animals at the natural history museum

Also housed within the museum was the park’s visitors centre which included information boards, simple manual interactives and a small herbarium. The combining of the visitors centre with the natural history displays seemed a very sensible combination.
For lunch we visited a local restaurant where some of the team bravely managed to consume the vast quantity of locally prepared high quality inexpensive nutritional delicacies. The group opted for sliced pork fat, tripe soup and “meat tridents” and, in one case, all of the above. The food was very nice but had no real strong spice much like traditional British food.

Bulgaria - meat trident

Picture 18 : “Meat Trident”

The rest of the day was spent looking at local arts and crafts and sampling the merchandise on sale at the National Exhibition of Popular and Artistic Crafts, a large series of exhibition halls funded by the EU.
Day 7:

On day 7 the group travelled to the Forestry University in Sofia and met with the head of the forestry faculty. The professor gave us a brief history of forestry practices in Bulgaria. After world war two there was an early recognition that many of the ecosystem services – such as avalanche and erosion control – that were provided by forestry in Bulgaria had been lost, so several replanting programmes were adopted. French experts assisted with this programme.

Previously forestry had been taught in combination with agriculture but in 1925 forestry started being taught separately to a “higher education” standard. This was done in a traditional “German/Austrian” style as these were the main centres of expertise.
The state owns 74% of the forestry in Bulgaria and the rest is owned privately. Most of the owners of this forestry do not manage the land properly due to the diversity of land holding sizes and most live in urban areas as a result of land redistribution post communism. The feeling is that these owners lack expertise on how best to mange the forest asset.
In 2009 there was a change in legislation to encourage regeneration of native woodland, which normally happens spontaneously. However, if trees have not appeared after a period of 7 years, replanting is undertaken. Reasons cited for when there was a lack of forestry regeneration were: an inadequate/depleted seed bank, trees being outcompeted by grasses, browsing by deer and insect damage.

The university’s game management expert, Stoyan Stoyanov, also discussed current issues with the group. In Bulgaria there are 25 species of mammal legally hunted and 29 species of bird.

In relation to red deer, hunting quotas are calculated on the basis of the carrying capacity which is estimated in each region (average around 2-3 deer per km2). The number of deer to be culled is worked out depending on age structure but usually it is 25 per 100 per year. This comprises, a management cull of hinds and poor stags and a trophy quota of about 3 trophy stags (9 – 14 year old). The North East of Bulgaria, near the Danube, boasts some of the biggest red deer in the world and the world record stag comes from this region (273 CIC points). Bulgarian red deer are significantly larger than Scottish deer, with stags weighing up to 400kg due to a far superior diet.

During the communist era the population of red deer was around 28000 but fell to around half of this after the removal of communist controls. Now the number has recovered slightly and is at around 20000 which is believed to be sustainable under the current hunting regime. Wolf predation may be significant in the mountain regions but is low in the Danube Plain.

The roe population is estimated to be in the region of around 80000. There is no hunting quota but hunters must pass proficiency qualifications. Venison may only be sold through state sanctioned outlets.

Wolves are widespread but are primarily concentrated in the National Parks. The total population exceeds 1,000. believed there to be around 1000, from which around 350 are shot each year. Wolves may not be shot in the National Parks, but elsewhere there are no restrictions. There is no compensation for wolf damage to livestock and control is down to the land owner. The population is believed to be stable.

In the Danube Plain, Golden Jackall (Canis aureus) is widespread, though it is less common where wolves are also present. It is not protected and is heavily culled as it fills the equivalent role of foxes in Britain in concerns to livestock damage.

Brown bear are strictly protected with an estimated population of between 500 – 1200 but there are no accurate figures. 10 licences a year are issued to shoot bear but poaching probably accounts for a further 50 deaths a year which also includes problem bears. Where predation of livestock can be proved, compensation is paid to the owner.

The forestry school was home to a very large collection of game species, second only in size to the Natural History Museum in Sofia. The collection showed an enormous variety with age, sex and pathology of the various game species and was still a key tool to the delivery of their forest management teaching.

Bulgaria - university collection

Picture 19: Sofia Universities extensive natural history collection

The final stop on our trip was the Bulgarian Biodveristy Foundation (BBF). Here we met with the acting director, Petko Tzvetkov. He explained that the Foundation was formed with the re-birth of environmental NGOs, which took place after the political changes in 1989.

The BFF is mostly dependent on state, EU and foreign funding, Norway and Switzerland in particular. Although the Foundation has public supporters, it does not offer membership so no funds are generated in this way. Their main supporters tend to be young people living in the bigger cities, who have an interest in nature conservation.

Our host highlighted the great biological diversity found in Bulgaria, with approximately 90 habitat types, 3,700 vascular plants and 400 bird species. 34.3% of the land area of Bulgaria is designated as Natura 2000. This is made up of 118 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and 231 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). However, the designation order is not yet complete for SACs.

Petko described a number of projects that the Foundation is involved with, aimed at promoting the conservation of certain habitats and species. He highlighted how key they and the Academy of Science had been to the implementation of Natura 2000 before they joined the EU. Of particular success was the 2007 project “the green belt in Osogovo Mountains”. Here the BBF worked in partnership with the Macedonian Ecological Society and funding was provided by the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Pro Natura, Switzerland. The project involved field investigations in Bulgaria and Macedonia to improve knowledge of the species and habitats found there. On the Bulgarian side, a large part of the project area is designated as Natura 2000. The data collected through the project is available to the responsible national institutions in both countries, to help inform management and encourage transboundary cooperation in the protection of the mountain.

Other projects included working with the Balkani Wildlife Society and a local hunting group to conserve Chamois in their natural habitat. Introductions of Spanish Griffon vultures to augment the Bulgarian population. Restoring Dragoman Marsh, a wetland that had been drained for agriculture approximately 70 years previous.

He outlined their involvement in the ‘The Green Belt Initiative’. This is an IUCN recognised scheme and the largest nature protection initiative in Europe. The European Green Belt initiative is trying to create an ecological network that runs from the Barents to the Black sea, spanning some of the most important habitats for biodiversity and almost all distinct biogeographical regions in Europe. Large sections of this belt are parts of the former east-western border, once No Man’s land, promoting cross border activities in nature conservation and sustainable development.

The group asked how biological data was managed in Bulgaria. Petko explained that a number of organisations collect data, including the Ministry of Water and the Environment, the Bulgarian Academy of Science and the Bird Society. However, there is no central records centre and the BBF hope that a recently proposed project to establish a monitoring system for biodiversity will improve the collection and collation of data in the country.

It was interesting to note that the BBF are campaigning strongly for an independent body to consider proposals affecting Natura 2000 sites. These proposals are currently assessed by the Regional Department of the Ministry for Water and the Environment.
And alas… it was time to go home!

On last evening the group enjoyed a very pleasant last meal together and saw a few sights in Sofia including several ancient churches and mosques. In the morning we packed up and were on our way back to Scotland after the experience of a lifetime in Bulgaria!

The group all found the trip extremely interesting, informative and educational and continue to use the valuable lessons learned in their day to day work. We would like to thank all involved for an excellent experience and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone!!!!

Brazilian Reflections

As Jan has mentioned before, for us rangers it’s sometimes difficult not to have a ‘busman’s holiday’, and as I’ve recently been lucky enough to visit friends in Brazil, I thought I’d share some of what I noticed of wildlife and conservation during my travels.

What comes to mind when you think of Brazil?  For a lot of people I suspect it would be ‘Rio’ and ‘rainforest’ or perhaps ‘football/world cup’…but Brazil is a huge and extremely diverse country, a true melting pot of many cultures, different landscapes and in the coastal Atlantic rainforest some of the most species-rich habitat in the world.

Rio de Janeiro is a city built among mountains.  Steep, forested mountains which present some challenges for the road network with its long tunnels and crazy traffic jams, but also intersperse greenspace and forest wildlife throughout the city.  Street trees are popular in Brazil, often sprouting tropical fruits, and to my surprise it’s not unusual to look up from an ordinary street to see huge brightly-coloured butterflies, hummingbirds or capuchin monkeys right there amongst the towerblocks, shops, vehicles and people.  I enjoyed spotting my first wild toucans in the treetops of the Botanic Gardens (backing onto an area of native forest)  and the coastal path around the base of the Sugarloaf, with its joggers and climbers, waves crashing on boulders as huge cargo ships pass nearby, large birds gliding high up on the thermals and close-up wildlife encounters (and an idyllically-sited nursery school with access to forest and beach right from the gate!).  Of course, looking up it’s impossible not to notice the favelas, shanty towns straggling up the steep hillsides…

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Recycling is widely promoted in public areas – it is common to see a row of several different bins encouraging waste separation – although another side to this also commonly seen in residential streets as people from the favelas work their way systematically through domestic rubbish bags, looking for plastic bottles or cans to sell.  A degrading sympton of poverty built on others’ wastefulness…or a useful source of income with environmental benefits?

Travelling west from Rio, it was easy to see why this area is known as the Costa Verde (Green Coast) with mile upon mile of forested mountains, white sandy beaches, small towns (and the odd nuclear power station…just like Scotland!).  Crossing by boat to Ilha Grande in the misty drizzle I wondered if I had been transported back to the Hebrides!  The whole of this lovely island is a car-free protected area, with reserve staff giving information on walks and wildlife, running a tree nursery to restore degraded areas of forest, trying to control invasive species and providing environmental education for local young people.  I enjoyed staying in a guesthouse on the edge of the village with giant lizards, squirrels and lots of birds visiting the garden, and making use of forest trails and brightly-painted wooden boats to get around.

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After a couple of days in another lovely car-free coastal town which made good use of horses and wheelbarrows for pollution-free transport of tourists, supplies and rubbish, it was time to head inland to the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines) and my friends’ home city of Belo Horizonte.  As the name suggests, evidence of open-cast mining was everywhere, long trains filled with iron-ore producing constant background noise, and many hillsides on fire, presumably to stop the forest from re-colonising areas of farmland.  Perhaps this is a familiar picture, as we are used to statistics about the rate of rainforest destruction, but it’s still a shock to see it up close, and not hard to see why only 7% of the original Atlantic rainforest still remains…though the fact is this is what provided the wealth to build many of the beautiful buildings I’d just been admiring in the town of Paraty.

However, government policies are changing and there is now much more support nationally for protected areas and for the land rights of indigenous people.  Alongside this is the work done by environmental charities, many of which are international and undertake high-profile campaigning in the UK.  It’s unlikely you’ll have heard of the next place I visited though, staying there was a unique experience like nowhere else I’ve been.

Caraça is a true sanctuary, an old monastery in the hills which used to be a school from which emerged several influential Brazilian leaders.  Since the school building burnt down in the 1960s it has functioned as a guesthouse with the aims of integrating hospitality, spirituality and mission, culture and education, environmental conservation, leisure and tourism.  The church and residential buildings are part of the Catholic church, and are set in a huge private nature reserve of forest and grassland habitats full of wildlife such as tapirs, anteaters, jaguars and many birds.  My particular favourite was the guaço, building intricately woven hanging nests dangling from the fronds of palm trees.  We hired a knowledgeable guide for a mountain walk taking us up to one of the rocky peaks from where it was clearly obvious the contrast between protected natural habitats within the ring of mountains, and development outside…it felt a little like a scene from the end of Lord of the Rings!!  The guesthouse grows some of its own food, composts and recycles waste and meals are taken communally in a huge old refectory.  There’s an education centre where local school groups come to learn about the surrounding nature reserve.  It attracts many visitors and provides about 70 local jobs, but the whole place still has an air of quiet contemplation about it.

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In the 1980s one of the priests discovered that the local maned wolves were raiding bins and had the idea to start feeding them.  These wolves do not hunt in packs but are more solitary – one family needs a large area to sustain them, and they are omnivorous eating small mammals, birds and fruits.  The priests have gradually gained the wolves’ trust, to the extent that it’s possible to sit on the church steps in the evening where a plate of food is placed on the ground, and wait…sometimes for several hours…until someone spots a shadow slipping across the terrace and suddenly the wolf is padding cautiously up the steps, ears constantly scanning for danger, grabbing a mouthful of food and running to the top of the steps to check for safe escape routes, it could return several times and seems oblivious to the camera flashes and hushed excited whispers at being so close to a wild animal.  It is truly wild, free to come and go as it chooses and sometimes may not turn up for several days…a beautiful symbol of trust and respect between humans and another species which surely gives hope that our relationship with the planet is not all doom and gloom.

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I was recommended other hopeful projects that I didn’t have time to visit, for example the Guappi Assu Bird Lodge integrating ecotourism with conservation.  Then there’s the success story of the golden lion tamarin.  Having been a member of the pioneering Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (who breed and re-release endangered species) since I was four years old, and then studied the issues surrounding these tiny golden monkeys during one of my university courses, I was delighted to read of a local farm hosting a programme of environmental education and ecotourism daytrips from Rio based around a population of captive-bred golden lion tamarins reintroduced to the wild, see this website for more information.

My final travel destination was the Iguaçu National Park in southwest Brazil where it borders Argentina and Paraguay.  In fact the park spans the border with Argentina and it’s possible to visit both sides to view the magnificent waterfalls, largest in South America and a sight I’ll never forget.  Although the well-developed tourist infrastructure created a slightly theme-park like atmosphere at times, and is not without its problems – signs everywhere reminding people of the dangers of feeding the coatis and monkeys – again it was great to see so many people looking for an up-close-and-personal experience of wild nature. Tiny swifts were darting through the curtain of water catching insects.  Part of the area was closed off due to walkways being washed away in a flood earlier in the year, seeing the remains of large iron supports wrapped around rocks was a reminder of the power of floodwater, that there are some things humans can’t control!

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Rangers were very much in evidence here, with a moving memorial to one who was killed while on duty.  Sadly there many similar stories of deaths during clashes over land development versus protection, with Chico Mendes, one of the most famous, giving his name to the Brazilian Institute for Biodiversity Conservation which administers this park.  Interpretive signs drew visitors attention to different issues, for example the fact that the water often runs red with the evidence of soil erosion in the river catchment area.  I loved the informative visitor centre explaining all about rainforest wildlife and ecological niches, and the history of the local Guarani people, with a vision for sustainable small-scale agriculture and selective harvesting of forest products alongside conservation, very inspiring!  While in this area I also visited Itaipu, the largest hydro-electric power plant on the planet and an impressive engineering feat, but source of another controversial debate as Brazil is currently constructing another huge dam in the Amazon…is all of this clean renewable electricity generation worth what is lost when large numbers of people, wildlife, forest and waterfalls are displaced or destroyed?  Is that a question we can ask in today’s energy-hungry world?  Itaipu were keen to show off their many environmental and social responsibility projects and it’s certainly good to see what has been achieved in terms of mitigation 30 years on.

After enduring temperatures of up to 42°C, part of me is quite glad to be back to autumn in our small temperate country, even though the weather has been causing ferry disruption all week!!

So, I hope this post has inspired you to look beyond the ‘doom-and-gloom’ headlines, to look for signs of hope on your own travels, or even to ask a few questions about landuse here in Scotland.

(PS – yes I will be carbon offsetting all of those flights, with Climate Stewards)