Stinky Mink

Mink were brought to the UK from America between the wars to be bred for their fur. Inevitably many escaped or were released by fur farmers following local opposition and a general decline in popularity of the fur trade. Soon a feral population was established, mostly dark brown with a white patch near the chin. These have continued to breed and thrive in many localities, including along the rivers and coast of West Scotland.

American Mink (Mustela vison)

Mink are mainly nocturnal and as a result are not often seen. But the damage that they are causing along the west coast is serious. One of the reasons for their success is that they frequently switch between prey, concentrating on whatever is abundant in any season or locality. Also they kill far more prey than they need to eat and because their prey has not co-evolved with them it often has no natural defence.

In some areas seabirds are the main victims. In built up areas it may be domestic fowl. But on many river systems the main victim has been the benign water vole.

Water voles are the largest species of British vole. They are also sometimes commonly known as the water rat because of a superficial similarity in appearance and habits to the brown rat.

Water voles have glossy brown or black fur and a blunt muzzle with small, black eyes. Their ears are almost hidden (unlike the ears of the brown rat), and they have slightly furry feet and tail. They are mostly active during the day, sitting on their hind feet and feeding on vegetation held in their front paws. When disturbed, they dive into the water with a characteristic ‘plop’ sound. When they swim, their head and back are visible.

Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius)

When threatened by mink, their natural escape mechanism is to enter the water and dive. However the mink simply follow them. Their next defence is to retreat into their burrows, but the smaller female and juvenile mink simply follow them and kill them.  A single mink feeding pups can exterminate water voles in a small river system.

Water voles have undergone one of the most serious declines of any British wild mammal during recent year. The post war intensification of agriculture caused the loss and degradation of habitat, but the most rapid period of decline was during the last decades of the 20th century as American mink spread. During the 90s, the population fell by almost 90 per cent.

Clearly if future generations are to hear a water vole “plop”, we need to eradicate mink and do something to mitigate environment loss and degradation as well as, where possible,  re-create and maintain suitable habitats. Landowners must be encouraged or forced to assist their survival with the support of the statutory and voluntary nature conservation agencies. Everyone needs to play their part.

 

 

Scottish Wildcat Action

Emily and Paul O'Donoghue
Emily and Paul O’Donoghue

Last May I blogged about the creation of Wildcat Haven Enterprises by my son-in-law and business “Dragon”, Douglas Wilson and experienced wildlife biologist Emily O’Donoghue, who is the wife of Paul O’Donoghue. Together they have worked on a range of projects from reintroducing the great bustard to the Salisbury Plain to capturing and DNA testing black rhinos in South Africa. Emily is also director of the Lynx UK Trust, which comprises a group of experienced conservationists and scientists with specialisations in wild felines, genetics, field research, re-introductions and education that have worked on projects worldwide. The Lynx UK Trust is supported by the law firm of Clifford Chance, one of the world’s pre-eminent law firms with significant depth and range of resources across five continents. Clifford Chance prides itself on an outstanding pro bono and community outreach programme that enables everyone in the firm to engage enthusiastically and which delivers effective assistance to chosen charitable and not-for-profit partners. I am excited by the prospect of the reintroduction of the Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) which was most likely hunted to extinction in the UK for its fur between 500-700AD.

Wildcat Haven has been working in Ardnamurchan since 2008, with spectacular results which have resulted in the first ever “safe space” for wildcats. Wildcats need a huge territory to survive, which may be as large as 40 square miles. The haven in Ardnamurchan, Morvern, Moidart and Sunart which has been carved out by Wildcat Haven over many years could support as many as 20-30 wildcats. But they need more space if they are to become a thriving population.  This winter, Wildcat Haven have begun work at the other end of the highlands, in Caithness, where a massive 1,500 square mile haven is planned. Once that is complete, Wildcat Haven intends to join the two areas up to create one massive haven, north and west of the Great Glen, the huge rift valley and lake system that divides the highlands from the rest of Scotland. This refuge will then need to be maintained and the need for this perpetual funding was the reason for creating Wildcat Haven Enterprises with its business model of selling souvenir plots.

Into this exciting mix, landed Scottish Wildcat Action, at huge expense and with lots of glossy brochures and administrators. So far, they have simply muddied the waters and have no results to speak of. Worse, there are those that see a hidden agenda in this project, that brings together Edinburgh Zoo, which wants to breed wildcat kits to bring in the paying public, with the hunting interests of Scottish Land and Estates. Could it be that the gamekeepers want to catch any remaining wildcats and put them into a zoo based breeding programme? It certainly looks that way to some people and if true, this would lead to the final extinction of the Scottish wildcat as a wild animal – because these cats can never be successfully reintroduced. This would shore up the flagging finances of the zoo, allow the gamekeepers to kill any feral cats with impunity but at the cost of our last wild feline predator.

The whole thing smell very fishy to me and I will continue to put my support behind the fantastic work that is being done by Wildcat Haven and hope for the ultimate demise of this Johnny-come-lately pretense at real conservation that the Scottish Government has backed with taxpayer’s money.

 

 

Scottish Trees

When I started Highland Titles in 2006, it was with a view to fund the planting of Scottish trees in Scotland. Years of government grants have expanded the number of exotic trees at the expense of native trees. Unfortunately most softwoods, planted at the densities desired by commercial forestry, provide nothing of value to any other animals or plants. A Sitka plantation is a sterile desert as far as Scottish wildlife is concerned.

But what to plant and where? The first question that we faced was what trees to plant and by that I mean not just what species, but where did the seeds come from?

It is important to use local stock for planting native species. Genetic adaptation to environmental factors has developed over time making it important to plant trees grown from locally sourced seeds.  Even more important is to avoid imported trees, which are often available at a discount, but which can bring into the region pests and diseases that have no resistance in the local tree stock. An example of this is Ash Dieback – also known as  Chalara dieback of ash. This is a disease of ash trees caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. (The fungus was previously called Chalara fraxinea, hence the name of the disease.

Since we planted our first trees in 2007, we have relied upon the professionalism of a local tree nursery, Taynuilt Trees. They are a small family-run nursery in Taynuilt, Argyll just a few miles from our Duror nature reserve.  Taynuilt Trees specialise in tree species native to North Argyll.  All their stock is traditionally grown in the open ground from seed they collect ourselves in the surrounding woods using a traditional rotational growing system. We will doubtless continue to make use of Taynuilt Trees, but this year we plan to create our own tree nursery to supplement Taynuilt stock – using seeds collected in our own woods at Duror and where we can get permission, surrounding native woods. We plan to collect seeds from at least 20-30 well dispersed parent trees.

More news later.

 

 

Beavers

 Beaver hats were made from the barbed-fibrous under fur of the beaver pelt. This fur was chemically treated, mashed, pounded, rolled, and turned into felt. Mercury was used in this process. Breathing mercury fumes led to the expression “Mad as a Hatter”. By the late 1600’s, the French were importing felt beaver hats from England.
Beaver hats were made from the under fur of the beaver pelt. This fur was removed from the skin, mashed, pounded, rolled, and turned into felt. By the late 1600’s, the French were importing felt beaver hats from England.

Beavers are a native British species which were hunted to extinction for their meat, pelts and scent glands. The beaver pelt was valued for the quality of the fur. The fur pelts were used in three ways. The full pelt (fur and skin), leather or suede (the skin with all fur removed), and felts (removing the fur from the pelt, and processing it with heat and pressure to  form a piece of pliable material).  Due to the strength and  malleability of beaver felt, it has long been used to make hats.  The beaver was extinct in England and Wales by the 12th Century, but populations in Scotland held on until the 16th Century.

Not unreasonably, we wish to see them back living in their former range. Beaver are a ‘key-stone’ species that are fundamental to an ecosystem.  Beavers are one of the few animals that actually modify the environment (humans are another) to suit their own purposes.  In the process, they create standing water and marsh that benefits many other species.  They also create coppice and clearings in woodland thus providing a habitat for many other animals and plants.

Wetland areas and coppice must currently be maintained artificially, at a cost to the public. Beaver damming activity has also been observed to filter pollutants out of the water.  Wetlands are not only one of the more valuable and fragile ecosystems, but they can also act to reduce flooding, a very topical subject in Britain today. After heavy rainfall, wetland areas and flood plains act as a sponge, releasing excess water slowly, preventing sudden rises in river levels. They are part of our natural heritage, and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to restore them to their natural range as soon as we can.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Over the last decade, two populations of beavers have been introduced into Scotland. The official one is the Knapdale beaver trial in Argyll where 16 were released between 2009 and 2011 under license by the Scottish Government. The project is run in partnership between the Scottish Wildlife Trust, The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and hosts Forestry Commission Scotland. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) coordinate the independent scientific monitoring being carried out. The trial is now complete and the project has gone quiet. Nothing has been published on their website since 2015.  The unofficial reintroduction is on the River Tay and is not part of any official reintroduction. this population of beavers, due to unauthorised releases or escapes from local collections, appears to be thriving and has grown to around 150 to 200 individuals.

Alan Watson Featherstone, director of Trees for Life’s (which is supported by Highland Titles), has said: “The beaver deserves to be welcomed back to Scotland with open arms. These remarkable ecosystem engineers can transform the health of our rivers and forest ecosystems, and could benefit communities through an estimated £2m tourism revenue annually. Reintroducing beavers to Scotland would be the right thing to do and a historic leap forwards for rewilding – the restoration of our damaged ecosystems.”  I agree with him.

Now that wild beavers are once more residents of Scotland, it is vital that they are given the status of resident, native Scottish mammals, to protect them from landowners who are currently free to kill them.

The then Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Aileen McLeod told BBC Scotland: “The minister will be taking time to consider the issue carefully and listen to the views of stakeholders before making a decision on the future of beavers in Scotland”. That is politician-speak for “We don’t really care and have no plans to do anything about it”.  Aileen McLeod has been replaced  now by Roseanna Cunningham, who previously held the post in 2010/11 and is remembered for having authorised the trapping of a young beaver on the River Ericht. This beaver subsequently died in Edinburgh zoo, apparently from the stress of capture. It is well known that beavers do not react well to trapping or to being separated from their family units.  The return of Roseanna Cunningham to the politician with the power of life and death over our beavers is not reassuring.

The SNH report to Scottish Ministers can be viewed here:

Other information:

Scottish Wild Beaver Group                          Website: http://scottishwildbeavers.org/

Save the Free Beavers of the Tay                 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/freebeavers

Eurasian lynx creeps closer to UK release

ScreenHunter_127 Jun. 22 08.28The re-introduction of the lynx to Britain creeps slowly closer.  This nice piece in the Geogrphical quotes Dr Paul O’Donoghue, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Lynx conservation Trust and good friend, announces that there are two sites  shortlisted for a pilot release of ten individuals in Aberdeenshire and Northumberland. The actual site to be used may be revealed as soon as July. ‘That’s when it gets really exciting,’ he says . ‘We will get to talk with the people who would actually be living alongside these amazing animals.’

More memorable is the quote from the Scottish Crofting Federation chair, Fiona Mandeville, who says ‘the most threatened species in the Highlands is the hill sheep and any threat to their viability must be resisted.’  I have rarely heard a statement less true.  The removal of the feather-bedded hill sheep from our uplands is long overdue.

Oostvaardersplassen

One of the nicest things about being me is meeting people that I would never have met in my previous life in academia. On the whole, I prefer to chat with people who love wildlife rather than people who want to create new medicines. They are simply more interesting IMHO.

I have just spent a few days with a couple of filmmakers who came to Scotland to see how we are doing conservation here, Highland Titles fashion. In return they introduced me to a quite extraordinary project underway in Holland – Oostvaardersplassen.

The Oostvaardersplassen is almost 15,000 acres of publicly owned land just north of Amsterdam, Holland. The land was reclaimed from the sea 50 years ago for industrial development. However the development never took place and the site was left to become a natural wetland area.

Frans Vera

This was promptly colonised by greylag geese, whose grazing behavior kept the developing grassland open  for other bird species. By 1983 the Oostvaardersplassen had been designated as a nature reserve. The site management team, including the ecologist Frans Vera, introduced herds of horses, cattle and red deer to diversify the ‘naturalistic grazing’ performed by the geese. These animals gradually ‘dedomesticated’, developing behaviours and creating ecologies that are claimed to be analogous with Europe at the end of the Pleistocene.

Vera  suggests that during the early post-glacial, large herbivores such as wild horses, deer, bison an cattle (aurochs) had played a vital role in maintaining a mosaic of open grassland, regenerating scrub and forested groves; the so-called ‘wood-pasture’. These large herbivores determined and controlled primeval forest structure and composition, which is in contrast to the high-forest hypothesis, which assumes that forest structure influenced herbivore abundance.

The Aurochs is extinct, but there still exist breeds with a lot of the characteristics of the former Aurochs.
The Aurochs is extinct, but there still exist breeds with a lot of the characteristics of the former Aurochs.

Vera and his colleagues used Oostvaardersplassen  to test this hypothesis. The land had no history as it was all literally made from the sea bed with dikes, pumps and diggers. As the site is contained by a fence, access can be controlled. The tarpan and aurochs are extinct, but Konik ponies and Heck cattle are able to act as functional equivalents, occupying a similar ecological niche. The only native large herbivores now missing from Oostvaardersplassen are the elk, the wild boar and the bison (wisent). They have managed to create a “Serengeti-like” landscape: a type of habitat unknown to Europe since humans abandoned their hunter gatherer lifestyle and started farming.

The Konik's grazing can be used to help restore health and balance to marshy woodland ecosystems, providing improved habitat for a range of bird species
The Konik’s grazing can be used to help restore health and balance to marshy woodland ecosystems, providing improved habitat for a range of bird species

The cattle, deer and horses breed freely in the Oostvaardersplassen and, as in Scotland, in the absence of natural predators the rangers have to cull the animals that are unlikely to survive. About half the population dies in this way giving the vegetation some chance to recover. As with the position in Scotland, these is great reluctance to reintroduce the missing predators, but I am optimistic that they will return one day.