Marvel at the Miniature

Marvel at the Miniature 

I was thrilled that the sun chose to shine on Wednesday for my guided walk at Loch Torr. This Forestry Commission Scotland site is really productive for the wildlife on the smaller side, including dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies but they’re only really active if the weather allows. Thankfully on the day we weren’t disappointed by the variety and complexity on offer.

We started off at the lovely Loch Torr Wildlife Hide and scanned the surrounding landscape here to spot buzzards in flight, with a family of greylag geese below on the loch itself. We wandered off up the track and discussed how an interest in the less iconic or ‘big’ species means you’ll never be disappointed – there’ll always be something to see. Our participants were shocked to realise we have two carnivorous plant species on the isle, which you can spot easily once you know what to look for. We hunted out butterwort and round-leaved sundew, both of which acquire nutrients from unsuspecting insects.

We then marvelled at mating four-spotted chasers, watching the male and female join on the wing and whilst she laid her eggs into the most unwelcoming pond – a pool of water you’d dismiss and walk on by. We had great views of these wonders of flight, but then also spotted numerous newts dwelling in the algae ridden water. These were palmate newts – Britain’s smallest amphibian.  Look even closer and you might spot a camouflaged caddis fly larvae, they cover themselves in available materials and can end up looking like twigs or something much more unusual. A lesson in wildlife; expect the unexpected in the most unexpected locations!

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Other species we spotted included golden-ringed dragonflies, small heath butterflies, dor beetle, red admiral butterfly and plenty of wildflowers. We’re were surrounded by the sounds of siskin and willow warbler too.

Pop-up Ranger Service

Join me this Wednesday morning at the Loch Torr Wildlife Hide for a “Pop-up Ranger” session. I’ll be at the hide with binoculars, scopes, ID guides and local wildlife knowledge. Come along and pop in! In the last few weeks we’ve had great views of buzzards, sand martins, dipper, grey wagtail, ravens and more. Otters have been seen regularly in the loch, so we’ll keep an eye out for them too.

It’s a great place to visit if the weather isn’t playing ball, or somewhere handy to stop off for lunch.

I’ll be there on Wednesday 14th, 10am-12pm.

Free, but donations welcome.

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Mull Eagle Watch 

Look out for a Mull Eagle Watch blog coming soon with some exciting images giving a real insight into the nest life of our fast growing chicks. Our eaglet pair at West Ardhu (North West Mull Community Woodland) were ringed earlier this week, which will allow us to monitor their progress in future years.

The season with both our eagle pairs is going well and we’re getting some great views of the adults and youngsters in their nests. It’s flying by though, as the West Ardhu eagle chicks are around 6 weeks old already!

Thanks for reading, back soon with another one!

Rachel (Mull Eagle Watch Ranger)

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Bluebell Woodland & Plastic-free Workshop

Eagles & Electricity

Almost two months into my seasonal position here at the Ranger Service already, and it’s been a busy start with some wonderful weather. Most of my time is given to providing daily guided tours at Mull Eagle Watch – I’m based primarily at West Ardhu, in the North West Mull Community Woodland. This is so handy and environmentally friendly as this area is my home patch, and I’m lucky to be driving a fully electric van (thanks to the Mull & Iona Community Trust/Sustainable Mull & Iona). The van, running completely on electricity is so enjoyable to drive, whilst being better for the planet. So far at the eagle viewing hide we’ve had a great start and our adult eagles Hope and Star are very busy raising two eaglets/chicks in their nest.

Unique Ulva

For my first main event of the season I led a guided walk on the stunning Isle of Ulva. I was joined by the knowledgeable, retired Wildlife Ranger Steve Irvine and twelve guests for a lovely woodland walk on the peaceful, car free island.

Annoyingly, after having glorious sunshine for days before the walk we were provided only with thick cloud but never the less we still had a great time and spotted plenty of wildlife. Sadly, the numerous butterfly species the island has to offer weren’t active. A few days before the walk I’d visited to check my route and enjoyed lovely views of the tiny, but beautiful green hairstreak butterfly.

The woodland on Ulva is brilliant and much work has been done by the owners to improve the habitat by deer fencing and management, and the higher slopes have recently been replanted with native tree species. We marveled at the variety and the dense undergrowth among the trees – something missing from many overgrazed woodlands.
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Flower species we spotted included;
Yellow pimpernel, bugle, ramsons (wild garlic), lousewort, water avens, wood anemone, lesser celandine, birds-foot trefoil, dog violets, bitter vetch and of course bluebells.

Bluebells (Knock, Mull) (1)
The bluebells were out in full force throughout the walk and were a real treat. Did you know that bluebells were used back in the bronze age to fletch arrows and that they’re poisonous? On Ulva there are standings stones dating back to the bronze age – so they could well have used the island’s bluebells for many things!

Other wildlife we noticed included a family of grey wagtails with recently fledged chicks, heron, greylag geese, tree pipit, wren and willow warbler.

We all finished off with either a delicious lunch or a tea and cake at The Boathouse.

Plastic Beach Workshop – become a “plastic-free person”

You can join me on Wednesday May 24th for my next event! I’m running a ‘Plastic Beach Workshop’ on the shore of Loch Buie. We’ll have a  pleasant walk to reach our picnic site, whilst enjoying the local wildlife and chatting about the global impact of plastic on the our planet.
We’ll munch on our picnics – can you bring along a plastic free lunch? I’ll then talk you through easy, cost effective ways to reduce your reliance on plastic at home, with some of my alternatives on hand for you to look at.

Plastic is one the biggest global threats facing our planet, it’s wildlife and us.

Petrifying Plastic Facts:

* Did you know that 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year?

* By 2025, 10x more plastic will end up in oceans each year.

* Plus 70% of that plastic sinks, so we’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg!

* Each day we throw away 100 million plastic bottles across the world – every day!

* 80% of the plastic in the oceans leaks from land based sources like landfill sites

Black Beach Litter

We should all be doing the simple things to reduce our reliance on plastic – especially, the one-use “disposable” items like plastic bottles, straws and cutlery. Plastic lasts forever, yet we use it to make things we use once!

Join me on our Plastic Beach Workshop – call 07540792650 for more information.
Plastic Workshop Poster

I’m looking forward to next few months with lots of exciting summer events and great wildlife to spot around the island!

Thanks for reading – back soon!
Rachel

Wildlife Walks

Wolf Island

I’m now extremely jealous of the amazing weather everyone else in the UK is enjoying; Wimbledon looks more like America than London! We’ve still been busy with plenty of events going on and I’m now busy most days at Mull Eagle Watch (read about our eaglet here). It’s a great time of year to appreciate the smaller wildlife, including butterflies and wildflowers. Jan and I led a guided walk for a group of American visitors on the Isle of Ulva on Sunday 21st June and it actually turned out to be a nice day!

Marsh management

Ulva is a great place for wildlife, with lots of deciduous woodland remnants and areas of land managed particularly for rare butterfly species. The marsh fritillary butterfly is one of Europe’s rarest butterflies and relies upon devils-bit scabious as the food plant for its caterpillars. Grazing and cutting of fields at the wrong time can be catastrophic for these butterflies and so support and good management are important. The island is also known as wolf island, giving another indication of the part fauna here, it is thought that this name comes from the Viking/Norse people who took Ulva as their home for a time. Obviously we’ve lost our large mammalian predators like the wolf and the lynx but thankfully we do at least have the white-tailed and golden eagles.

Luscious lichens

We enjoyed lots of wildflowers and trees in bloom – particularly the hawthorn. We spotted lousewort, foxgloves, birds-foot trefoil, bluebells, flag iris, tormentil, bugle, water avens, common bistort and more. We also enjoyed the amazing diversity of lichens covering the trees and walls including dogtooth lichen and beard lichen; this gives us an indication of ancient woodland and demonstrates the cleanliness of our air.

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Mull lichen diversity

Loch Torr guided walk

On Wednesday 1st I ran a guided walk in the Quinish Forest surrounding Loch Torr. We had a brilliant afternoon in the warm weather with a huge array of wildlife to be seen. We were also joined by Ewan Miles of Inspire Wild, great to have him and his wealth of knowledge for the afternoon. Ewan spotted some great species for us including some common lizards, one of reptile species that were enjoying the heat of the day.

Common lizard

Common lizard (Ewan Miles)

Insect life

Much of the area is commercial plantation with Sitka spruce and larch trees making up the bulk but despite this the area is brilliant for insect life. The rides along the forest tracks are wide and sunny, with large open areas full of heather and cotton grass. We enjoyed a multitude of butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies throughout the afternoon making for a very slow walking pace! We recorded species like dark-green fritillary, small heath, speckled wood and green-veined white butterflies. Dragonflies are on the wing now and we watched golden-ringed and four spotted chasers hawking along the waterways. Damselflies were in abundance; we spotted large red damselflies and the stunning beautiful demoiselle. Day flying moths were also visible, speckled yellow was the most notable. I also noted a very odd looking parasitic wasp species, which I think is called the black slip wasp, very mean looking black and red individual!

Beautiful damoiselle

Beautiful damoiselle (Ewan Miles)

Northern Eggar

Northern eggar moth (Ewan Miles)

Coming up 

I’m already getting lots of bookings for the butterfly/wildflower morning at Treshnish (Wed 15th July), so if you’re interested it would be great  if you could let me know on 07540792650. Straight after lunch on the same day you join myself and Dr Conor Ryan from HWDT to do some sea watching to look for marine mammals and seabirds, so you could spend the whole day with the ranger service!

Speckled wood on water avens

Speckled wood butterfly on water avens flower (Ewan Miles)

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)

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…

Rio 2014 View from SugarloafCapuchins in Rioprotest 102

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)