The funny thing about Cotton-grass is, it’s not cotton and its not a grass

Wildlife Safari Scotland
Our ranger Jackie tells some interesting facts on her guided wildlife tours running in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her thoughts on Cotton-grass that can be seen on our nature trails.

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!

Wildlife Tours
© Copyright Dennis Thorley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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’!

Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival

Guided Whisky Walking Tours in the Cairngorms and Speyside.

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.

Whisky Cairngorms
The old college of Scalan

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.

Spirit of Speyside Festival
Whisky Walking Tour Scotland

We have a selection of Whisky Walking tours here


Feather Alarm Clocks

Nature Walk in the Cairngorms
Jackie Taylor has been up early this month getting our wildlife tours running in Glenesk nestled in the rolling hills of Angus situated in the south of the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her thoughts on the wonders of the dawn chorus that can be experienced on our nature trails.

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.

Wildlife Tour Scotland
Chaffinch on a nature trail in the Cairngorms

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

Wildlife tour Scotland
Great tit on a wildlife tour

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



Nature Day Trips
While out on a wildlife nature walk have you ever stumbled across an egg shell?

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:

  • Blue or greenish eggs are usually from birds who build their nests in trees or shrubs.
  • White or pale blue eggs are more likely the eggs of hole nesting birds.
  • Brown or speckled eggs are produced by birds who lay their eggs in the open and on the ground.

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.

Nature Walk in the Cairngorms
Blackbird on a wildlife tour

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.

Happy Easter

Our Ranger will be running a special tour over Easter

Nature in the Angus Glens

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.

Cairngorms Ranger
Jackie Taylor

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.

  • No booking required, first come basis
  • Tours last 1 hour
  • Adults £10 – Children £5 (aged 5 – 15)
  • Maximum of 4 people at a time
  • Meet at the Glenesk Retreat Café and Folk Museum
  • 10am to 5pm
  • Contact: 07388 053183

Species you may see are:

What has our botanist Dr Oliver Moore seen lately

Our botanist Dr Oliver Moore has been out on nature walks in the Cairngorms and has some fascinating observations:

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.

Scots Pine
Nature on a Wildlife Tour in Scotland

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.

Wildlife Tour Scotland
Moss on A wildlife tour in the Cairngorms

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

Wildlife Tour Cairngorms
Nature in Scotland

Honey Fungus

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.

Nature in Scotland
Fungus in the Cairngorms



Spring is sooner than you might think!

Wild flows on a nature trail in Speyside

While out on a our nature walks in the Cairngorms National Park we have seen the Lapwings making an appearance in the fields and the songbirds are starting to practice their dawn chorus.  It’s not quite a full melody yet but it’s giving the slightest hint that spring is just around the corner.

Campion in the Cairngorms
Campion on a nature trail

In fact, with the changing climate, spring is now 2.5 days earlier this year than it was a decade ago.  Every year the dates of wildlife events are recorded such as the first bud to burst, the first swallow to arrive or leave, the first flower to bloom or eggs to hatch.  The study of seasonal changes in plant and animal behaviour from year to year and their relationship with the weather and climate is called Phenology.

Some species might benefit from climatic changes.  The speckled wood butterfly used to be restricted to only the mildest parts of western Scotland and the Moray Firth but as a result of increasing temperatures, this butterfly is now widespread across the country.

Increasing temperatures will not benefit all species and some rare mountain plants such as the snow pearlwort and Highland saxifrage that survive in the coldest, north facing gullies and crags of the Scottish Highlands are at risk of disappearing.

Things to see in the Cairngorms
Common Frog

The science of phenology provides a powerful ‘early warning’ of species that could be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as the climate changes.  The UK holds some of the world’s oldest phenology records dating back to 1736 and you could add to them!

A project set up in the year 2000 called ‘Nature’s Calendar’ has allowed citizen science to take hold and there are now around 2.7 million records in the database. All the information is used to help scientists understand how wildlife is affected by weather and climate change.

It’s straightforward to take part and thousands of people have submitted wildlife records from all over the country from places such as their local park, back garden or school playground. Have you seen your first frog spawn, birds nest or flowering plant? Go on line to Woodlands Trust  website and submit your records.


How our native wildlife copes with winter weather in the mountains

With most of Scotland under a blanket of snow, it made us think about how our native wildlife copes with winter weather.

Wildlife in the winter
Mountain Hare in the Cairngorm National Park

Mountain hares are a fairly regular feature of our upland tours and we don’t always take time to appreciate how well adapted they are to winter weather conditions.  In late Autumn mountain hares grow a thick white winter coat.  The hairs in this are packed far more tightly as those on a human head or even a Labrador retriever.  This dense coat helps keep them insulated against the elements.  If you were to look at it closely you would see that is has 3 distinct layers; an undercoat, a pile layer made of slightly longer hairs and finally an outer layer of long guard hairs.  It is the middle pile hairs which change colour, turning from brown to white during winter, camouflaging them from predators.  Other species which we encounter which are well camouflaged in winter are stoats, ptarmigan and snow buntings.   Hare also have wide feet which allows them sprint across the top of the snow instead of disappearing into a snow drift!

Ptarmigan in the Cairngorm National Park
Ptarmigan in the snow


Ptarmigans are another species which we are lucky enough to occasionally spot.  Like the mountain hares, they are superbly well camouflaged and spotting them in the snow can be troublesome.  One of the most amazing things about ptarmigan is that they wear insulated snow boots in winter.  Well, maybe not snow boots but they do grow extra feathers which keep their feet warm and make them wider so they don’t sink into the snow.  This is particularly necessary as they dig through the snow to find the plants they eat underneath.  If you are lucky enough to see one, you will know that they are often found near the summit of hills, with the wind whipping past.  You would think that this would be a very cold and draughty place to spend the night but Ptarmigan have a great way to get out of the weather.  They make mini snow holes which they shimmy in to overnight.  This keeps them safe from the cold.  But what if a fox snuffles past and finds their hole, I hear you ask?  Luckily for them, the snow transmits vibrations well and they can feel predators coming, letting them make a hasty escape.

On reflection, it seems that mountaineers really have learned a few tricks from wildlife; layering up clothes to trap as much warm air in as possible, wearing snow shoes and even building snow holes to get out of the wind!

Justin & Joe go on a recce to find a new walking route

On a fine day the Wild Alba team head out to look at new wildlife walks in the great outdoors for the 2018 season.

A walk up a section of the east side Ben Rinnes is looked at. Ben Rinnes is the most dominating mountain in the region and one of the highest in Moray. It is a very popular hill walk with most people ascending from the West. The views are far-reaching from the top, taking in a large part of the North East of Scotland.

Wildlife walks in Scotland
Wildlife Tour in MoraySpeyside

The wildlife seen on the walk was extensive. As they walked through the forest Woodcock, Roe Deer and Red Squirrel where spotted. The forest was a pleasant mix of Scots pine, birch (downy and silver), alder and oak (pedunculate and sessile). Once on the side of the hill wider views opened up and other wildlife could be seen. A Kestrel and Buzzard flew high up the side of the hills while Snow Bunting and Red Grouse flew low over the heather. Further up the path a white Hare sped across the path disappearing over the brow.

The path ended at a Bothy sitting by the burn of Lyneriach nestled between the hill of Knocknashalg and Cairn Guish.  There were fine views of the Spey Valley below. The bothy provided shelter and place to rest before the walk back.

Wildlife Walk in MoraySpeyside
Mountain Bothy

This will make a great waking route and we hope that you will join us soon.


What has our botanist Dr Oliver Moore seen lately

Our botanist Dr Oliver Moore has been on a journey in the wilderness and has some fascinating observations:

Snowdrops in the Perthshire hills.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are thought to be an introduced and naturalised species in the British Isles (although some argue they might just be native in parts of Southwest England). This does not detract from the sheer joy of seeing them apparently growing wild in winter. Here they were flowering on a south-facing Perthshire hillside in early February.

Snow Drops in the Great Out Doors of Scotland
Snow drops in Perthshire

Fox tracks in Fife

Fox (Vulpes vulpes) tracks crossing soft sand between dune systems along the Fife coast in late January. Notice the relatively straight and purposeful pattern and the oval shape of each footprint that helps separate these tracks from those of a domestic dog. What the photograph does not reveal is the characteristic musty odour that accompanies the tracks at certain points where the fox has marked its territory. This odour is often described as ‘coming and going’ in that one minute you can smell it, and then you can’t, before catching a whiff once more.

Finding Tracks in the Great Out Doors
Fox tracks in Fife

‘Bubble-gum’ lichen in Wester Ross

Lecanora muralis is sometimes described as the ‘bubble-gum’ lichen because of its tendency to occur in suburban situations on tarmac – where it resembles the spat-out and well-trodden artefact. This lichen is fairly tolerant of pollution which enables its persistence in towns but this photograph was taken in Wester Ross where it grew in the splash zone of loch edge rocks. The miniature ‘jam-tarts’ with flesh-coloured discs are the reproductive structures and are known as apothecia.

‘Bubble-gum’ lichen in Wester Ross
‘Bubble-gum’ lichen in Wester Ross

Pine Marten ‘Poo’ in the Cairngorms

Always exciting to find Pine Marten (Martes martes) scat. This was found in the middle of a forestry track in the Cairngorms. Pine Martens are known to mark their territory in obvious places and scats are often used for this purpose. I could not detect much smell when I got down for a close sniff which contrasts with the vile odour associated with the scat of American Mink (Neovison vison).

Wildlife tours in Scotland
Wildlife tours in Scotland