The common nettle is, in my opinion, a misunderstood plant. I think almost everyone in the UK who has spent any time in the countryside has a story about how they fell in a patch of stinging nettles. Because of this they get a bad reputation and most people are a little frightened of them. In my case I have many childhood memories of being stung, then rummaging round looking for dock, or ‘doctor leaves’ as they are known in my family, to try and ease the discomfort.
Nettles are part of the Urticaceae family and are found almost all over the world and tend to be a good indicator of moist, nitrogen rich soil. This is why they are often found near livestock fields, dung heaps, riverbanks and hedgerows. As most gardeners know once they get going its incredible how fast they can take over an area.
There are six subspecies of nettle, not all of which sting; the five that do are all covered in small hollow hairs that are full of a chemical called histamine. When you come into contact with these hollow hairs they act like thousands of hypodermic needles that inject the chemical into the skin thus causing a painful sensation. For nettles this is a highly effective method of protecting themselves from hungry herbivores. How ever, nettles are an important food source for both the peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, as well as a large number of moths and other insects which in turn pollinate and continue the spread of nettles.
Nettles produce a lot of seed but it often doesn’t travel far from the plant, which is why they are often seen growing in clumps. They can also spread by rhizomes. Having both options means if the plant is damaged or burnt it will quickly re-establish and over take other plants.
Nettles have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years and although they have great ability to cause discomfort they are also said to alleviate symptoms of allergies, hay fever, muscle cramps, joint pain and urinary issues. This is due to their high numbers of nutrients and minerals. It is also excellent for your compost heap (without the seed heads) for the same reason.
Nettles can be made into tea and there are many entire cooking books dedicated to cooking with nettles. They can be used any of the ways you might cook spinach, as well as being a great ingredient in soups, smoothies, pesto, risotto and many, many more. I have recently been enjoying them in soup and pesto, and hold out hope that they are going to reduce my hay fever symptoms!
It’s spring meandering into summer, the uplands are rich in wildlife and vibrant colours, the nights are short, the days are long and the natural world is alive and screaming (Swifts spring straight to mind). Now coming into nesting and fledging time, the birds are feeding up and finding food for their young.
A glimpse out of the window and suddenly an aerial glider comes into view and spiralling in the wind, the sight of an Osprey is enough to get a whole office excited, communal awe of the wonders of nature.
Sometimes going on a recce reaps the rewards. Whilst trying to find a good spot to cross a burn, I witnessed something that lifted a somewhat dreich day in the field. I saw red, no I’m not talking about an angry farmer chasing me off his land. In fact something far more adrenaline pulsating, a sight I’d never seen before, a PINE MARTEN, an unmistakable big bushy red-brown tail scuttled out from the riverbank and into the undergrowth. As quick as I’d locked eyes on the Marten it had gone. Still that special moment lead me to feel a sense of elation, a feeling only endured during times of success!
Several weeks later Oliver came running into the kitchen with excitement exclaiming the words PINE MARTEN on the front wall, I ran outside but once again this elusive mammal had gone. Still that same sense of emotion raced through me, rare or common, the natural world is all around. Get out there, live it and enjoy it…
Whilst up in the hills on a warm, sunny afternoon in June, there is little to disturb the peace and quiet–little more perhaps than the passing buzz of a worker bumblebee as it flies in search of flowers to collect food. The Blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is in flower at that time of year and is a food plant of the Blaeberry bumblebee: an attractive, colourful bee, native to the uplands of the United Kingdom, with many found here, in the Scottish Highlands.
This bumblebee favours colder weather and is at home in the uplands and moorlands. As such, it is particularly at risk of decline, due in large part to global warming. As the temperature generally warms, its habitat shrinks: pushing the bumblebee higher into the uplands.
Look out for them as you walk or even in your garden: queens, workers and males all have the same markings. If you spot a bumblebee with two lemon-yellow bands on its thorax and a large band of red-orange on its abdomen, this is most likely to be a Blaeberry bumblebee.
Bumblebees are important pollinators; however, they are not alone in being so invaluable. A variety of other insects, such as: solitary bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies, are also busily pollinating flowers as they feed and move amongst them to feed. These wild pollinators are in fact twice as effective as domesticated honey bees. Many flowering plants rely on their activities to pollinate their flowers, and so, to produce seeds. We heavily rely on these insects too; they complete an essential step towards helping us to produce crops, such as: apples, oil seed rape, coffee and tomatoes. They may be only tiny, but en masse, their work is on an epic scale and would cost the human race trillions of pounds to replicate (if this were even feasible).
I have many memories of growing up in the countryside of Speyside and the Cairngorms. The bubbling whistle of the first curlew returning from winter shores, the fragrance of bog myrtle, the vibrant purple of heather blooming, the taste of blaeberrys straight from the hill and the phrase ”the funny thing about cotton-grass is, it’s not cotton and it’s not grass”. This was accompanied by eye rolling from those of us who had heard it a thousand times before and some chuckling from the perpetrator. Unfortunately for those of us who heard it too often, he was actually right.
Grasses, sedges and rushes are Graminoids. These are herbaceous plants which have long blade leaves and often occupy areas of open ground such as grasslands and moorland. To a relative beginner, these can at times look quite alike but the short saying ‘sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses are hollow right up from the ground’ can help with sorting out whether it is a rush, a sedge or a grass you are looking at. As ever there are exceptions to this rule!
Cotton-grass, or bog-cotton as it is sometimes known, is actually a sedge. Following the ‘sedges have edges’ rule, a cross section through the stem shows that it is triangular in shape. This is also very obvious if you roll the stem between your fingers.
Although there are more than 25 species, we mostly see Common Cotton-grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) and Hare’s-tail Cotton-grass (Eriophorum vaginatum). Common Cotton-grass is often found near bog pools and areas of Sphagnum moss whereas Hare’s-tail Cotton-grass is normally found in areas of wet peaty moorland. In particular on the acidic soils of blanket bog and raised bogs. It is often found growing alongside Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris).
In early summer the flowers of Cotton-grass are fertilised. The characteristic cottony white seed heads can be seen when they are in fruit June. This can be an amazing sight with a sea of fluffy white flower heads spread out before you. In addition to the very slightly different niches which Common and Hare’s-tail cotton-grass occupy, the leaves and seed heads are also slightly different. Unsurprisingly hare’s-tail cotton grass produces one fluffy white seed head which looks like a hare’s tail. It also has many thin leaf blades which grow to around 50 cm. In comparison, common cotton-grass has thicker leaf blades and can produce multiple seed heads from the same stalk. They are like flags waving in the wind.
Historically Cotton-grass seed heads would have been used to stuff pillows instead of goose down and were used for wound dressings in the first world war. Native Americans also use the seed and stems of Common cotton-grass in traditional recipes. I’m not sure this is something we will be trying.
So when you are next out on the moor and see Cotton-grass, just remember ‘the funny thing about Cotton-grass is, it’s not cotton and its not a grass’!
At the start of the month of May we had a fantastic five days of tours during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. We designed five Whisky Walking tours in Speyside that not only showcased Scotch Whisky but also let people enjoy the living landscapes of the Cairngorms.
We tried several different ideas which all worked very well with our guests. We had walks along the banks of the River Spey and hikes into the hills of Glenlivet.
A highlight was a visit to the Scalan (Gaelic for a turf-roofed shelter). This hidden building holds many secrets and tells an important story of ‘penal days’ when the native Scottish Catholic community kept the ancient faith alive in Northern Scotland.
A whisky sampling was had in the grounds of the Scalan College with water taken from the Bishops Well.
We told the story of Illicit stills and how distilling was widely considered to be a ‘right of man’ an opinion shared by most landowners. We looked at the crucial links between distilling and economic survival. How during a long winter, the cattle would survive on draff (nutritious husks and spent grains left after fermentation) We will also have a wee dram to toast the great people of the area who have been making whisky, both legal and illicit.
During the walks we spotted the following: Roe Deer, Red Deer, Buzzard, Mountain Hare, Curlew, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Red Squirrel, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Common Gull, Brown Hare, Rabbit, Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Wheatear, Sedge Warbler, Red Kite, Osprey, Kestrel, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Goldcrest, Robin, Mistle Thrush, Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Pheasant and Red-legged partridge.
We have a selection of Whisky Walking tours here
Has anyone else getting woken up at silly o’clock in the morning? Well, if you are, you may need to get a set of ear plugs, as the dawn chorus will continue through to July.
The lengthened daylight has flicked a switch and the sounds of the morning are now dominated by a cacophony of bird song. The dawn chorus has two main purposes; attract a mate and defend a territory. Singing is hard work and so it is the strongest and best songs that indicate the fittest birds and those most likely to hold good territory and pass on successful genes.
Why do birds sing at dawn? Dawn air can be still and there is usually less noise meaning song can carry up to 20 times as far. The light is a little dimmer, and this reduces the likelihood of a songbird being predated whilst they are singing and advertising their location.
It is truly fascinating to listen to the orchestra of bird song and at the same time it’s difficult to identify all the species that are singing. Birds such as the skylark, robin and blackbird tend to start the chorus whilst other species such as wrens and warblers join later in the morning. Chaffinch and great tit have a large repertoire of songs to convince rivals that
there are several birds in the area and all the best territories are taken. To help filter out the song birds it can be worthwhile going on an organised dawn chorus event where an expert will help to tease out the bird species.
International Dawn Chorus Day(IDCD) is on the first Sunday in May and you can join an organised event or enjoy the bird song from your own garden or local park. Songbirds in the UK have declined by 55% since the 1970’s and so IDCD is an opportunity to celebrate nature’s symphony and support nature conservation.
Not an early riser? You can listen to the dusk chorus, its not as loud as at dawn but some species such as tree sparrows and blue tits prefer it.
We will be doing Dawn Chorus tours in May and June so please join us. Contact us here for more information
Every Easter the supermarket shelves are stocked with rows of eggs of all shapes, sizes and colours with attractive packaging. Outside of the supermarket there is a more subtle display of eggs being stocked in nests hidden from view or so well camouflaged they go unnoticed.
The shape, size and colour of eggs relate to the species of bird and its nesting characteristics. As a general guide:
But why do birds produce eggs with different patterns and colours? Ground nesting species such as the Oystercatcher rely on the camouflage provided by the specked pattern and pale colouration to protect the egg from predators. A study by Glasgow University found that quails seemed to learn their egg patterns and match their nesting location to give the best possible camouflage. This may be one reason why first nest attempts aren’t always successful, as the birds have not seen their eggs before and are not able to choose the best place to lay them.
The white or pale blue eggs allow hole nesting species such as the Puffin to find their eggs in the darkness and avoid breaking them.
Many common bird species like the Dunnock, Blackbird and Song Thrush lay blue or blue-green eggs which can be vibrant in colour. They don’t offer camouflage and as these birds nest above ground, they can easily see their eggs in daylight. The blue colouration has been found to help the egg absorb the right amount of light to warm it but not allow the egg to get too hot. An article in Science Daily showed that brighter blue Robin eggs seemed to indicate a healthier female bird and encourage the male to take more interest in helping to raise the young.
The Easter eggs at the supermarket don’t have these amazing adaptations but you can get novelty, personalised and luxury eggs.
Here are some top tips from the Wooldands Tust that will help you identify some of the more common shells you’re likely to find on a wildlife nature tour. Click here.
Why not have an Easter wildlife nature hunt with our Ranger in Glenesk. Jackie will be out and about in the Cairngorms on Sunday and Monday. For more information click here.
Due to the increasing popularity of Glenesk Wildlife tours, Jackie Taylor will be helping the team there put on a special tour over the Easter weekend. Glenesk is situated in the rolling Angus Glens in the southern part of the Cairngorms National Park.
She will be running a taster tour on Easter Sunday and Monday. This will be a 4×4 journey to explore the beautiful landscape and wonderful wildlife that can be found in Glenesk.
Species you may see are:
Granny Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) above a plantation in the Cairngorms National Park. There is a standing dead tree in the right of the photograph which may support a specialised lichen flora. These standing dead pine trees are known as ‘pine bones’ among lichenologists.
Bird’s-foot Wing-moss (Pterogonium gracile) is seen here emerging from the snow on a loch edge rock in the Highlands. Spring seems a long way off yet even though we are almost into April now and I am suffering from green withdrawal.
Pin-head lichens are often found on the sheltered side of old trees in dry crevices of the bark. This stand of Calicium viride was found on a veteran Silver Birch (Betula pendula), in an upland wood, following close scrutiny of the substrate with a hand-lens. Encountering them is a real delight and worth getting the odd funny-look from passers-by as you get into a position to examine them carefully.
There are more than 1700 species of lichen occuring throughout the British Isles, and many grow in Scotland where the air is purer. Several different species may be found on a single rock or tree, resulting in lichenologists spending hours in one spot! For more information click here
The reproductive structures of Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea) emerging from the stump of a tree (that it was probably responsible for killing) appear in autumn. This organism is also known as Boot-lace Fungus because of its rhizomorphs that resemble tough black cords enabling it to spread from tree to tree through all manner of unlikely substances such as tarmac. There is even an argument that Honey Fungus could be one of the largest organisms on the planet because one individual could be responsible for parasitising trees over a large area. I think the mushrooms in the background are Glistening Ink Caps (Coprinus micaceus) in their characteristic habitat of old stumps.