After the storm

Have a read of the various NNR blogs this week and you’ll notice a recurring theme, with Storm Arwen having wrought chaos and destruction throughout the length of eastern Scotland. I must admit that while writing the previous piece about weather-forecasting wildfowl, I couldn’t have foreseen the sheer violence of what lay ahead. Maybe the birds did, hence their southward exodus. But while the geese and swans were safely ensconced in East Anglia, indulging in some sugar-beet tops in the endless beet fields, we endured the roughest conditions since the ‘Michael Fish hurricane’ in 1987.

Storm ahoy

A wind speed of 102 mph was reported from Strichen, about eight miles inland from the coast to the north of Forvie. Along the exposed east coast, things weren’t any better. While our neighbours’ sheds, wheelie-bins and bits of their house roofs were disappearing into the North Sea, we huddled around the stove and the paraffin lamps at home, dreading what we’d find on the Grampian NNRs when the storm finally abated. Reports from around the region indicated widespread devastation. We feared the worst.

Patrick made it out to Forvie on the Sunday, and reported a handful of damaged trees at Waterside Wood – phew, this didn’t sound too bad! However, with roads inland being blocked by fallen trees, and by the snow and ice that soon followed, no staff made it to Muir of Dinnet over the weekend following the storm. As a result, our plans for the Monday were torn up, and we headed to Dinnet as a team, tooled up with chainsaws and winches, expecting a scene of apocalyptic destruction. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, with just a few birches having succumbed and needing cut off the paths. This was a far better result – and an easier day’s work – than we’d all predicted.

Birches on the track at Muir of Dinnet NNR

Tuesday, then, gave us the opportunity to inspect the damage at Forvie more closely. As Patrick had noted, there were a handful of trees down or damaged near the main track onto the Reserve. A Sycamore with a shattered trunk, hung up in the neighbouring trees. A Sitka spruce with its crown snapped out, hanging precariously at a jaunty angle. Another big Sycamore – a ‘double-stemmer’ – with one half severed and on the ground, the other half broken yet still attached, once again hung up in its neighbours’ crowns. A little further up the slope, six more Sitkas and a further two Sycamores all tipped over, root plates out of the ground, tangled up with each other. Deal with that lot then.

So, plans were hatched, equipment sourced and help summoned. The first two of our volunteers to pick up the phone were, completely co-incidentally, Messrs Wood and Woods; you really couldn’t have made it up. But along with Mark and I, it gave us a team – chainsaw operator, winchman and two bankspeople. So we bashed on and got most of the individual trees safely felled and cleared on the Wednesday, leaving just the big cluster of trees ‘up the hill’ to deal with on the Thursday.

A snapped-out Sycamore with winch attached, ready for cutting
Safely cut and winched down – just the dismantling left to do

Meanwhile, over at Waulkmill bird hide, a little Crack Willow had done what Crack Willows do best: half-snapped and landed on the roof of the hide.

That shouldn’t be on that roof
Cutting out
Sorted

Thankfully we also had Catriona on site on Thursday, sharing with me the chainsawing duties, and along with Mark we spent all the available daylight making the trees safe. Some came relatively quietly, but one big spruce in particular fought us every inch of the way. This one tree took more than two hours of hard labour, winching and cutting, before it lay safely grounded and sectioned. At one point it even overloaded the five-ton winch, causing the shear pin to blow (this is a safety device that is designed to ‘fail safe’, before any other components of the winching system become dangerously over-strained). But as I’ve said before, Mark clearly doesn’t know his own strength.

Cutting a fallen spruce off its root plate
First one down and partly cleared
Sycamore over on its root plate
All cleared up

To be honest, we got off very lightly at Forvie compared with other places nearby. Waterside Wood lies on the leeward side of the hill, after all. The plantation on the windward side of the same hill, just half a mile away on our neighbour’s land, was devastated. As I keep saying throughout these pages, the direction of the wind dictates everything here!

Nearing the end of a long day

As the daylight began to fail on Thursday, and we packed up the last of the gear and began to think of home and a hot bath, there appeared a little natural light relief. A Robin hopped around the churned-up woodland floor, where the furrows created by our winching activities had unearthed a treasure-trove of invertebrates. Then, as light and fleeting as a falling autumn leaf, a Goldcrest flicked through the prostrate twigs of the stricken, now-dismantled trees.

A cheeky Robin, on the lookout for a free meal
Goldcrest – five grams of restless energy

How these tiny waifs got by in the storm is anyone’s guess. But here was vibrant life among the debris and destruction: the gentle side of nature after the violence of the storm.

Feathered forecasters

When planning my week’s work – or indeed anything else that involves being out of doors – I usually check four different weather forecasts, and take an average. It’s very seldom that all these different forecasts agree with one another, and not infrequently they all get it wrong. In the 21st Century, we have access to so much technology, historical data and computer modelling software that weather forecasts are better than ever before – and yet there’s still an element of guesswork involved. Before the technological age, though, people often looked to nature for clues as to what the weather had in store for them.

Rain or shine… or maybe both!

Country folklore is bursting at the seams with such things. If the Hawthorns are heavy with berries, a hard winter lies ahead. When the Rooks build their nests high in early spring, it’ll be a dry summer. The emergence of leaves on the trees can also predict whether the coming summer will be a drought or a washout – “Oak before Ash and we’re in for a splash; Ash before Oak and we’re in for a soak”. And, of course, when the cows lie down in the corner of the field, it’s due to rain.

Oak before Ash?

Needless to say, some of this is probably nothing more than superstitious nonsense – or at best, more useful for indicating what has already happened, rather than what is about to happen. For example, the Hawthorns may be fruiting prolifically due to the conditions in the preceding summer, rather than the forthcoming winter. And in all honesty, the cows probably lie down because their legs are tired. But for all my scientific cynicism, there may actually be a degree of truth in some of these old truisms, because at times it seems that our wildlife knows what’s going to happen before we do.

Hawthorn berries – a sign of cold to come, or simply the result of a good summer just gone?

Take this last week for instance. Up until mid-week, it had been unseasonably mild at Forvie. With temperatures up around 16oC, we found ourselves ludicrously overdressed for all but the most sedentary jobs. We also enjoyed quite a bit of unfeasibly warm sunshine, just to add to the illusion of an Indian summer in November. Our annual ditch-clearing work, usually carried out in a Force 7 with sleet hammering in your face, was undertaken in almost Mediterranean conditions – and we naturally ended up with an iron-ochre perma-tan to match.

Mark hard at work with the ditch-rake
Ochre in the Mealy Burn
A very effective (and cheap) fake-tanning medium
Job done – that water level will have dropped then!

The previous Friday, two of our colleagues from elsewhere in NatureScot, Tina and Becky, came to Forvie for their ‘volunteer day’, whereby they were let out of their respective offices for good behaviour (really?) to help us out and see what we get up to on the Reserve. We spent the day lifting beach litter, before having a tour around South Forvie in the last of the daylight, ending with a fabulous sunset to boot. Our guests took a bit of convincing that it wasn’t like this here every day. Anyway, their efforts were very much appreciated, and weather-wise they couldn’t have picked a better day.

Becky and Tina – beach-clean ninjas
They’re always this happy, apparently
A fine summer’s day – in mid-November

But for all that, signs of change were in the air. For several days there was a noticeably heavy southward movement of Pink-footed Geese and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Whooper Swans. After a couple of days of this, Reserve Manager Catriona and I looked at each other and remarked, “What do they know that we don’t?”. At that point it was fine, warm and settled – why the urgency?

Pink-feet heading south
Whoopers on the move

Sure enough though, mid-week saw the weather break. The wind veered northerly and the temperature nose-dived. Overnight frosts gave way to squally showers of sleet, driven before icy winds under a leaden sky. Suddenly we were grateful for all those layers of clothing that we’d been furiously shedding earlier in the week. How quickly things can change here!

Whooper Swans freshly arrived from the north

It appeared almost as if the geese and swans had ‘read’ the conditions several days in advance. Whether there’s any scientific truth in this, I can’t begin to say. Perhaps the birds can sense a change in atmospheric pressure, or are able to interpret the winds and skies in a way that we don’t fully understand. Or maybe it’s just coincidence. But we’ve noticed similar movements on numerous occasions in the past, often just ahead of a snowfall, cold snap or big storm.

Pink-footed Goose – a feathered Michael Fish?

It’s an intriguing mystery – but in an age where we can instantly find the answer to just about any question by tapping on our phones, isn’t it nice to be baffled by the brilliance of nature every now and then?

What’s it all about?

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those meaning-of-life pieces, or a despairing rant about the future of humanity in the face of climate chaos and environmental destruction (promise!). This time of the year does, however, provide a fleeting chance for a ‘reflective moment’, with the workload being slightly less bonkers than in spring and summer. As such, it’s a rare opportunity to explore what Forvie actually means to those people who make up its community. Pull up a chair.

A place of many faces

Ask a scientist.

SSSI – Site of Special Scientific Interest. SAC – Special Area of Conservation. SPA – Special Protection Area. Ramsar Site. All of these designations – under UK, European and international law – mark Forvie out as a special place. The data that underpin these designations put into numbers the natural bounty of Forvie, with the aim of maintaining and conserving it into the future. On paper, this appears a rather cold and detached way to look at something natural and beautiful. But ultimately, scientific data is the lifeblood of conservation – you can’t save something if you don’t know it’s there.

Gathering data – the currency of conservation

So if you ask a scientist about Forvie, you might get a reply in numbers and acronyms. But don’t take this as a lack of passion: field scientists, whether it’s NatureScot staff or members of the public carrying out survey work in their spare time, are among the most passionate exponents and defenders of the natural world. Give up your Saturday to count birds on a freezing, rain-washed and windswept estuary? That’s true love as well as hard science.

Ask a local.

Forvie’s nearest settlements are Newburgh to the west and Collieston to the north. Residents of both these villages have Forvie on their doorsteps, an easy walk or cycle from home. With miles of footpaths, stunning beaches, desolate yet beautiful scenery, and all that wildlife on tap. Accordingly, many of our local residents take full advantage, incorporating a walk or run on the Reserve into their daily routine.

Newburgh from Forvie, under a rainbow

Some locals are relative newcomers, having moved from elsewhere – sometimes from places less well-off in terms of open space, fresh air and wildlife – and consequently these people are often doubly appreciative. Others, born and raised in the local area, have their family histories tied up with the site, either through local industries like fishing, or perhaps years spent at Aberdeen University’s field station – for these people, the Reserve is in their blood.

Little Collieston Croft – now the Reserve office and visitor centre

Ask a local about Forvie, and they might well remark on how fortunate they are to have this resource to hand – without having to get in the car for their daily dose of green space. Many also take a good deal of pride in it: we hope to think that for the most part, it’s not taken for granted. In short, Forvie is one of the things that makes this part of Aberdeenshire a great place to live.

Ask a volunteer.

We’re lucky at the Reserve to have the ongoing support of a trusty band of volunteers. Some have been with us for a number of years now – which begs the question: why do they keep coming back? Not just for the coffee and the one-liners I’m sure.

Volunteers Jim and Richard at the ternery

Sheena, one of our regulars, is a bit of a whizz with words, and sometimes expresses what the Reserve means to her in the form of poetry. Having assisted with looking after Forvie’s ternery, Sheena wrote the following verse, in wonder at the tiny and helpless-looking Arctic Tern chicks, which would, almost incredulously, mature into the greatest travellers in the natural world.

Just hatched and fledging

cocktail sticks, ball of fluff,

beak, two tiny eyes

What are you

more than a sprauchle

on the sand?

Had I my atlas with me

I could show you

where you’ll have to go

Maybe you already know?

What more is there to say? Ask a volunteer about Forvie, and they may reply in verse. That’s how much it means to Sheena.

Ask a naturalist.

By ‘naturalist’, I mean everyone from professional biologists and academics, right through to ordinary workaday folk like myself with an interest in nature. It doesn’t matter whether that interest extends to being able to identify every lichen on the Reserve, or whether you just enjoy seeing a skein of geese flying over. Either way, there’s no doubt that Forvie is an immensely special place for nature, and therefore also for people who are interested in nature.

Pink-footed Geese – a simple pleasure

Ask a naturalist about Forvie, and you may get a twinkling-eyed reply which sounds like a nature-lover’s ‘greatest hits’. The towering dunes with their fragile and fascinating flora. The hurly-burly of the huge haul-out of Grey Seals. The noise, chaos and fury of the ternery echoing across the estuary in high summer. Immense arrivals of migrant birds in autumn, with the observer not knowing where to look next. The day the Orcas powered past up the coast, or the summer when the Humpbacks were leaping and breaching offshore.

The Grey Seal haul-out, viewed from the Newburgh side of the estuary

This is not just the stuff of Attenborough documentaries, it happens here – live. That’s why Forvie has a special place in the heart of the naturalist – however casual or serious they might be.

Ask the staff.

And then there’s us, the Reserve staff – a funny old bunch, right enough. After all, why spend year after year of your working life doing things like digging ditches, picking up rubbish and fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds to try and save a bit of nature? Because it’s part of who we are. You don’t work at a place like Forvie without it getting under your skin, whether or not you’re actually aware of it.

Life’s a ditch

My years working on the Reserve have been punctuated with frustration, elation, despair, delight, some dog’s days’ work and some unforgettable experiences. I’ve seen the best and worst of humanity, or so it’s seemed at the time. I’ve learned an immense amount (yet still have an immense amount to learn), laughed and cried, and enjoyed several of my ‘top ten’ wildlife experiences right here on the local patch. Yes, it’s my workplace, my ‘office’ of a thousand hectares, but it’s also my home. Forvie has been, and continues to be, a massive influence in my life, and this will stay with me long after my working days are done.

A place not easily forgotten

Ask one of us about Forvie – and what it’s all about – and you’re unlikely to get an indifferent reply.

Learning the trade

There was a time when nature-reserve staff more or less fitted a pre-determined description. Male, luxuriant beard, wax jacket, collie dog, hand-rolled cigarette. With an option on ancient ex-military binoculars and boots to match. Curiously, you never saw a youthful warden, leading to the widespread belief that these remarkable people were born already aged 50. Where they came from, nobody could say.

But this, of course, is ancient history now. Nature reserves are no longer the preserve of grizzled men with grizzled collie dogs, and staff now come from a much more diverse mix of backgrounds. Not all of them have beards, or smoke rollies either. What most of them do have in common is a lot of volunteering and contracting experience, usually combined with some sort of academic qualification in biological sciences. Here at Forvie, we do what we can to help people onto the wobbly, rickety career ladder of the conservation sector, and this includes assisting with academic field trips such as this week’s visit from the University of Aberdeen.

Students ensconced at the ‘tin hut’
Deep in concentration – how many Eiders was that?

In order to develop their field skills, students had to design and implement a system for surveying waterbirds on the Ythan Estuary during the course of their day’s field trip. Mark and I, as Reserve staff and ‘bird experts’ (sic), were on-hand throughout the day to assist with the identification side of things (“It’s a Knot ‘cos it’s Not a Dunlin”), as well as answering general questions about the Reserve and even offering career advice for would-be conservationists (“Really, go and take your banking exams…”). In all seriousness though, it was a real privilege to meet so many switched-on, enthusiastic and capable young people, and to help out in whatever small way we could. After all, the future of conservation, of nature, and by default humanity, lies in the hands of this up-and-coming generation. No pressure, guys.

Grey Heron – one of the easier species for a beginner to identify

The previous day, we had been out and about on the estuary carrying out our own waterfowl census, as part of the regular monitoring regime. Once again, apprentice Mark was present to assist ‘old-timers’ Catriona and myself, allowing him the opportunity to further develop his own rapidly-improving identification and counting skills. All of us, however grizzled and crinkly we might be, had to start off the same way, learning by experience and repetition. As I repeatedly told the students the following day, you’re not born knowing this stuff.

Mark helping out with a bird survey

We were lucky enough to get a fine day’s weather for our fieldwork – at times too fine, as the bright sunshine made for some awkward glare off the water and wet mud, rendering many of the birds into colourless silhouettes. But this is part of the learning process, since in the absence of any plumage detail, you learn instead to recognise them by their shape, movement and feeding action – their character.

Redshanks – I promise!

By far the most numerous species on our count was the Golden Plover, with nearly four-and-a-half thousand recorded. Most of these were present around the bend of the estuary just downstream from Waulkmill bird hide, and they made for a really impressive sight and sound – especially when stirred up by one of the local Sparrowhawks or Peregrines.

Golden Plover, with a few Lapwing admixed
Back on the estuary – briefly!
Try counting that lot!
Settling back down again

These days the sunlight is distinctly ‘wintry’, with a low angle and golden hue that really accentuates the colours of birds like Lapwings. On a dull day these look black-and-white and fairly nondescript, but in the sunshine they’re transformed into burnished, green-glossed, be-crested exotics.

Lapwing in late-autumn sunshine

One of the less welcome ‘finds’ on our bird count was the leftovers from somebody’s impromptu fireworks display in the lay-by overlooking the estuary. Let’s be clear here, folks – letting off fireworks without the landowner’s permission is illegal. Never mind the disturbance of birds on an internationally-important wetland. Or the littering (there was a bin within twenty yards of the rubbish, yet it was still left on the tarmac). In my fifteen-or-so years at Forvie, one thing I’ve learnt is that I’ve much still to learn about people. How come some are extraordinarily generous, selfless, kind and respectful, yet others are so inconsiderate and uncaring? Answers on the proverbial postcard please! But if I could teach up-and-coming conservationists anything, it’s to try not to take this sort of thing personally; down that road lies madness.

Really?

Away from the estuary, the last few dregs of insect life are seeping out of the landscape, bedding down for the forthcoming winter. The wader count did, however, produce a late sighting of a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly hurrying past us near Logie Buchan bridge. With the first light frost having occurred that morning, this tardy individual would be well advised to find somewhere to hibernate, and quickly.

Small Tortoiseshell – past your bedtime!

The other late Lepidopteran news concerns the hairy caterpillars of the Ruby Tiger moth, which have recently been in evidence perambulating along the footpaths looking for somewhere to spend the winter. Smaller and fluffier than the familiar Garden Tiger caterpillars which characterise the summer months, these still provide a tempting-looking takeaway for a hungry insectivorous bird. Sure enough, we watched a Stonechat at Collieston capture a caterpillar, then spend a while puzzling over how to separate the fuzz from the tasty bits.

Ruby Tiger caterpillar
Stonechat with a fluff supper

They say the early bird catches the worm, but at this late stage of the year, all it gets is a beakful of fluff. Perhaps it won’t bother with this particular type of caterpillar in future. Just like us, the Stonechat must also learn from its experiences in order to make its way in life. But with autumn ebbing away fast, it’ll need to learn its trade quickly in order to make it through the winter ahead. Good luck!

What am I supposed to do with this?

Home and away

Occasionally, if we’ve been really well behaved, Forvie staff get allowed to go off-site, on a sort of day-release basis. We can then usually be found unleashing some form of terrible destruction upon another NNR or Site of Special Scientific Interest. Sometimes we’re ‘borrowed’ by these other sites for our biological recording and surveying expertise, but most often it’s our practical skills that are in demand. Need a sprayer or chainsaw operator, or an ATV driver, or someone to fix a fence? Ask the Reserve crew.

Reserve staff – jacks of all trades

The last days of October saw our first visit of the season to Muir of Dinnet NNR, where the chainsaws (and ourselves, as operators) were put through their paces. There were a number of dead and dying trees overhanging or adjacent to the footpaths that were liable to cause a hazard; these had been identified by our colleagues at Dinnet during the summer months (it’s easier to spot a sickly tree in summer than in autumn or winter, when they all look bare and sorry!). But of course you oughtn’t really be cutting trees in summer unless it’s absolutely critical – think of the nesting birds, for example. So now is the time to get this work done – before the winter storms bring the trees down in a less controlled manner.

Dead tree across the footpath

As a chainsaw operator, cutting dead and diseased trees is a tricky business. These trees behave in a very different manner to a healthy tree. Rot and decay can seriously compromise the strength of the timber, there’s often little or no crown weight to assist with felling momentum, and the timber itself is stiff and rigid, lacking the ‘flex’ present in living wood. Sometimes you find the tree is completely hollow inside, leaving you no timber with which to make a ‘hinge’, and on one memorable occasion, I recall cutting into a dead tree whereupon a gallon of foetid water gushed out of the cut.

Cutting a ‘rotter’ – you never know what you’re gonna get!

All these things combine to make things awkward and potentially hazardous. That’s where our rigorous training qualifications come in, and combined with plenty of previous experience and a good deal of common sense, this allows us to get the job done safely and efficiently. But you can guarantee that if you have a particularly difficult job to do, then you’ll have an audience – and that’s why we always employ colleagues and volunteers as ‘bankspeople’, fielding the members of the public while we get the cutting done.

Cutting out a dead Rowan – note banksperson in hi-viz!
A short clip of a dead tree being felled

It’s really important to note that we only cut dead and dying trees when they’re by the footpaths, and likely to cause a hazard to people. Away from the paths, we leave nature to take its course, as the risk to human visitors is low. After all, deadwood is brilliant habitat – whether standing or fallen. Dead trees support a vast range of life: fungi, lichens, wood-boring beetles, hole-nesting birds and feeding woodpeckers to name but a handful. The last thing we want to do is to tidy it all away – nature thrives on a bit of disorder. It’s all part of the cycle of life.

Dead tree next to the path…
Felled into the loch – so people don’t make fires with the dead wood!

The following week was supposed to have involved a trip to our Battleby office near Perth, where I was booked to operate our ‘Softrak’ machine in order to get the wildflower meadow cut. However, an injury sustained over the weekend prevented me from driving, and as a result the job has had to be postponed for now. The silver lining, though, was being able to attend our staff gathering at Tentsmuir NNR down in Fife, on which I would otherwise have missed out.

It was great to see some colleagues we’d not seen for a long time, as well as a chance to meet some new faces, all in a safe outdoor setting. And what a setting – Tentsmuir is a splendid site of dynamic dunes, flower-rich coastal heath and the woodlands and wetlands of Morton Lochs, with its magnificent education pavilion (full of interpretative information) as its centrepiece. It shares quite a bit in common with Forvie, and it was great to be able to chat with our coastal colleagues. And even the weather was kind to us.

Lunchtime photo call at the ‘pavvy’
In the dunes at Tentsmuir – looks quite familiar!
Their trees are bigger than ours though!

We were back home on the ranch by the week’s end, and it was time for a high-water bird count on the estuary. Although we do most of our bird-counting at low tide, when the waders are busy feeding on the mudflats, we count the diving ducks (such as Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers) at high water. This is because they tend to roost at high tide, and are more likely to sit still and be counted than at low tide, when they’re constantly feeding and diving. It’s hard to count a flock of ducks when half of them are submerged.

Again we were fortunate to have a break in the weather to get the job done, and the ducks, newly moulted into fresh plumage, were looking superb.

Red-breasted Mergansers

The Eider drakes were looking resplendent, and they knew it. Although it’s early in the season – most ducks display and pair up during winter and early spring – there was a lot of showing-off going on. Perhaps the mild conditions were getting their juices flowing. Either way, it made for a wonderful sight and sound, and it’s well worth a visit to the lower estuary just now to take it in.

A puckle of Eiders displaying at high tide
Male Eiders head-tossing

Among the Eiders was an interloper – see if you can pick him out in the photo below.

This smart-looking fella is a drake Long-tailed Duck. For once a bird with a sensible name, for he did indeed sport a magnificent long tail, the two elongated central feathers whipping around in the breeze. These are scarce but regular visitors to Forvie from the Baltic region, and most winters see one or two of them lingering among the commoner ducks. Females and immatures aren’t as flamboyantly plumaged as the drakes, and they lack the long central tail-feathers. Full adult drakes like this one are usually in the minority, so seeing this one close-up among the Eiders was especially enjoyable.

The Long-tailed Duck provided a fine end to what had been quite an eventful week. The last wee while has proven that away-days on other sites are always enjoyable – and yet there’s never a shortage of interest right here on the home patch either.

The rise and fall of Forvie’s Rabbits

Generally speaking, wild terrestrial mammals aren’t easy to see. Most of them are decked out in various shades of brown, helping them to blend into their environment. Many inhabit dense, impenetrable habitat like woodlands, marshes or tall grassland. Added to that, the vast majority are nocturnal, going about their business while we’re tucked up in bed, and melting away into the landscape come daylight. As a result, many people only ever come into contact with wild mammals in the sorry form of roadkill, or occasionally perhaps the distant figure of a deer bounding away across the fields. But one wild mammal is familiar to most folk, in both rural and urban locations. We’re talking Oryctolagus cuniculus: the European Wild Rabbit.

Who’s that hiding out in the grass?

There’s more of a back-story to this unassuming creature than you perhaps might think. For starters, its name is perhaps a bit misleading. Although native to southern Europe, the Rabbit was introduced to Britain by the Romans, approximately 2,000 years ago – so it’s technically not a ‘wild’ animal here, rather a ‘naturalised’ one. Rabbits are so much a part of the furniture in this country that it’s difficult to think of them as a non-native species.

Rabbits’ breeding prowess is legendary

At Forvie, the light, sandy soils and grassy dune slacks make for perfect Rabbit habitat, and sure enough, they filled their little furry boots. From the early to middle years of the 20th Century, Rabbits were super-abundant here. Older residents of Collieston recall trappers setting snares along what’s now the Reserve boundary, and catching up to 200 Rabbits in a single night. Of course, Rabbits were an important source of protein for working folk during the post-war years, and for many it was the staple white meat, before the era of £2.99 factory-farmed chickens.

In the mid-20th Century, myxomatosis arrived, decimating Rabbit populations throughout Europe. Deliberately introduced into France as a crude (and outright cruel) form of ‘biological control’, myxomatosis subsequently crossed the Channel, either with or without human assistance – perhaps via fleas carried by carrion-eating birds, or perhaps via a deliberate introduction. Either way, arrive it did, and it wiped out 99% of Britain’s Rabbits.

The sorry sight of a myxomatose Rabbit

The 1% of surviving Rabbits developed a degree of immunity to myxomatosis, though the disease still flares up in the population from time to time. Nowadays though, mortality is usually in the range of 5-30%, rather than the 99% of the early days. Consequently the Rabbit population did bounce back somewhat, though never to its original levels. However, it was still high enough at Forvie in the late 20th Century to cause damage to crops in neighbouring farmland, and as late as 2007, when I began working on the Reserve, we still employed the services of a rabbit-catcher to reduce the damage done. But before long another massive change loomed on the horizon.

Cold is the least of the Rabbit’s worries

That change was Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, the ‘new kid on the block’ in pathogen terms. This is a ‘sneaky’ disease – unlike myxomatosis, which manifests itself in lots of unwell-looking Rabbits staggering around the place, RVHD mostly causes them to die underground, and the only indication above ground is that suddenly there are no Rabbits. The typical mortality rate with RVHD is 70-100% – serious stuff indeed.

We think this disease arrived here in about 2008, and sure enough, the Rabbit population fell right off almost overnight. Nowadays you can walk through the Reserve all day without seeing a Rabbit, though their diggings and droppings can still be found in places on the moor and dunes, along the estuary footpath, and down at the ternery. From super-abundance to genuine scarcity: what a fall from grace.

A sorry end – but a bonus for a Carrion Crow

One of the interesting outcomes from periodic disease outbreaks in Forvie’s Rabbits has been the appearance of different colour forms. After a population crash, the small number of survivors mean the first couple of generations thereafter become inbred, resulting in recessive genes being expressed – such as those for unusual fur colours. Consequently we frequently see black, ginger- and sandy-coloured Rabbits, as well as ones with patches of white fur, on the Reserve. The sandy-coloured ones, or ‘blondies’ as we call them, are actually well-suited to the environment here, camouflaged as they are among the pale pastel shades of the dunes. It’s one genetic ‘mistake’ that may actually turn out to be an advantage!

A bonny black Rabbit
A ‘blondie’

I suppose the reason for embarking on this article in the first place was to highlight the importance of the Rabbit in shaping Forvie. It’s a true ‘keystone species’, with a disproportionately large influence on its environment. For starters, there’s the digging – Rabbits do a lot of eroding and earth-moving. But that’s nothing compared to the grazing, browsing and nibbling that they do. For many years the Reserve was tightly grazed, the grass cropped tight like a cricket pitch, and the growth of shrubs and trees kept closely in check by all those nibbling mouths. Now there are so few Rabbits, the character of the Reserve is changing again. Lawns have turned into dense, shaggy grasslands, Willow scrub is thriving, and formerly open dunes have begun to revegetate and stabilise. Few things alter an environment more dramatically than grazing pressure – or the lack of it.

Long grass and Willow clumps – the post-Rabbit era

And it’s not just the bottom of the food web that Rabbits influence. Many predators are partial to a Rabbit supper – not just hungry Collieston folk. Foxes, Stoats and Common Buzzards are three species that have historically done very well for themselves out of the introduction of the Rabbit. But when there are no Rabbits, these predators must either starve, or turn their attentions to different prey.

All three species mentioned above are generalists, and can quite happily switch to other food. But this might include things like birds’ eggs or young – thereby exerting pressure on some of the other inhabitants of Forvie. It’s a complex situation, and a great example of how everything in the natural world is hitched to everything else. It’s also a vivid illustration of the complexities of introducing species outwith their natural range!

No Rabbits? OK, I’ll take an Eider supper instead, thanks

I give you the European Wild Rabbit then. A simple unassuming mammal with an unusually complicated story, and another thread contributing to the rich tapestry of the Reserve.

West winds and Scandi chic

Honest to goodness, I’m not totally and unreasonably obsessed with the direction of the wind. Promise. Even if I do spend a fair bit of time frowning over the weather charts, muttering darkly about highs and lows and occluded fronts. But the fact is, Forvie is a wind-driven place. Its very landscape is created by the wind – drifting, accruing, carving and eroding, giving with one hand and taking with the other. This gives rise to the dynamic, shapeshifting landscape that we hold so dear, the defining character of the Reserve itself.

A dynamic sandscape
Wind-carved dunes
Sand sculptures

In the UK, sited as we are at the end of the Gulf Stream from across the Atlantic, the prevailing wind in the UK is from the westerly quarter. At Forvie, this means an offshore wind, i.e. blowing from land to sea. In the dynamic southern half of the Reserve, which is composed largely of open, mobile dunes, the prevailing wind picks up a lot of sand, and shifts it seawards. The result is that sand accumulates on the leeward side of the dunes – the seaward-facing side – forming new embryo dunes and extending the Reserve, inch by inch, into the North Sea.

Wild winds whipping up the sands

Often, these westerly periods of sand accumulation are tempered by periodic easterly winds, often associated with some quite violent storms in autumn and winter. These easterlies, plus the wave action at sea that they set up, serve to erode away the deposited sand, thus ‘re-setting’ the process again. But in recent years such easterlies have been fewer and further between. Consequently, the coastline along Forvie beach now looks very different to how it did a decade ago – and in the right light, if you know where to look, it’s possible to see this quite plainly.

The new dunes along the beach are colonised, stabilised and built up by Marram grass – that tough, spiky, salt-hardy favourite son of Forvie. But the new Marram is much lusher and greener than the older stuff – and the difference in colour can show us where the dunes are forming. The two photos below, looking north and south respectively, clearly show the dividing line between the old and new dunes – the former and current coastlines, if you like. It’s clear evidence that Forvie has crept eastwards in recent years, meaning we’re a little bit closer to Norway than we were before.

New dunes (front/right) contrasting with older ones (rear/left)
The re-aligned coast of Forvie

Being a few feet nearer to Norway in fact leads us neatly into the second part of today’s instalment. As we’ve mentioned previously on several occasions, the wind and weather has a major bearing on bird migration, and this is the chief reason for my devotion to the weather charts, surprisingly enough.

This autumn’s airflow has been relentlessly south-westerly, meaning that any birds waiting to cross the North Sea from Scandinavia to Scotland will have been held up. You don’t set out on an epic sea-crossing into a headwind – not a good idea if you’re keen on actually making it to the other side. Consequently, there’s been a backlog of birds waiting in Norway for the opportunity to jump – and finally last weekend they got their chance.

Redwing – one of many hundreds to make landfall at Forvie

On Sunday into Monday, the wind backed easterly for a short period – no more than 24 hours – but that was enough to release a great traffic-jam of migrants. Far the most numerous of these were Redwings – the Scandinavian counterpart of ‘our’ Song Thrush, fleeing the northlands for our comparatively mild winter. These are remarkably dapper birds, if painfully shy and hard to observe closely. To me, a Redwing resembles a Song Thrush wearing an outfit that’s been tailored by Hawkes of Savile Row.

A typically snappily-dressed Continental

Along with the hordes of Redwings came smaller numbers of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and the odd Fieldfare, but the other really prominent species was the Brambling. While the Redwing is the northern proxy for ‘our’ Song Thrush, so the Brambling replaces ‘our’ Chaffinch at the higher latitudes of the world. A handful of pairs probably breed in Scotland each year, but it’s chiefly a winter visitor and passage migrant, with numbers varying hugely from one year to the next, depending on the availability of beech-mast on the Continent – the Brambling’s favourite food. The unpredictability of ‘Brambling winters’ means that when they do occur, they’re appreciated all the more. These are truly handsome birds; their colours are peachy to say the least.

Male Brambling – pure Scandi chic

This series of photos was taken at our garden feeding-station just on the northern boundary of Forvie. Bramblings are quite apt to mix with other species, and for all their bonny colours, they can be surprisingly inconspicuous among the resident sparrows. Wherever you are, if you have a garden feeding station, keep your eyes peeled for a Brambling this next wee while, as birds trickle their way south and west from their coastal arrival sites. A little piece of Scandinavian magic delivered right to your door, and free of charge too – well, that is except for a handful of bird seed.

Spot the Brambling?
Two handsome fellas hiding out with the House and Tree Sparrows

Individual Bramblings are highly variable in appearance, and although all share the same autumn-leaves colour-scheme, the markings around the head and back are especially variable. Older males tend to show lots of black on the head, while younger ones feature more grey and tan tones, with females still more subtly-plumaged and less brightly-coloured. It doesn’t take too much observation to distinguish individuals from one another, and by these means we know we’ve hosted at least nine different Bramblings at our little feeding-station this week, even though we’ve never seen more than three at a time!

Male Bramblings – note differences in appearance
Female Brambling – a bit less showy than the male

West winds, east winds. Shifting sands, drifting birds. All tied up with the highs and the lows and the occluded fronts. It’s said that Brits aye talk about the weather – but here at Forvie we live and breathe it.

Who doesn’t love a treasure hunt?

NNR staff have had a novel task over the last two weeks as we have been asked to forage for trinkets that will show off our reserves to the delegates attending COP26 later this month. So while I’ve been out working and wondering across Forvie I’ve been keeping an eye out for anything particularly pretty.

Although it’s definitely both wild and eye-catching, this fox moth caterpillar is probably not what they’re wanting crawling around on a conference table.

So because kidnapping a seal or eider for a fortnight was frankly out of the question I’ve decided to send down a box full of pretty rocks as well as some heather, mussel shells, and marram grass because I feel as if these items can actually help tell the story of Forvie (in addition to being aesthetically pleasing).

Heather is about as Scottish as oatcakes or whisky and it’s obvious to see why I would use this plant to represent Scotland’s nature at an international conference such as COP, even the word heather makes you picture Scotland’s hills and glens, so you would be forgiven for not knowing that a costal NNR like Forvie is actually home to large areas of dune heath.

Forvie was once managed as a shooting estate where grouse and partridge were hunted and where the heather was burned to provide fresh growth for the game birds to feed on. This practice ended in 1979 after an out of control fire and ever since the heather has been allowed to develop naturally leading to the formation of large areas of dune heath which are widespread across the north of the reserve.

The Forvie dunes are exceptionally mobile and are constantly being rearranged and added to by strong winds and seas, this barren and highly disturbed landscape would be mostly uninhabited if it weren’t for the next item on my list, our marram grass.

Marram grasses are a sand and dune specialist and can survive long periods of drought and even being buried by sand for as long as a year. As marram grass grows it gradually binds the sand in place with its roots which allows for the accumulation of water and nutrients, this in turn allows for the growth of other grasses, mosses, lichens, liverworts and fungi which will attract more wildlife such as invertebrates and birds eventually creating a richer and more diverse ecosystem on the fixed dunes.

Vast stretches of the mobile dunes along with some marram covered fixed dunes in the background. ©Lorne Gill
This sea rocket is another example of a plant which can tolerate the bare sand, you can see its slowly making its own mini dune behind itself.

The last item I wanted to talk about was the mussel shells. The Ythan has had a long and varied history with its mussels, the earliest records of human consumption of mussels (Mytilus edulis) date back 8000 years to the large mounds of discarded mussel shells left by earlier humans. Since then mussels have been fished for at Forvie as food and as bait for the Salmon fishing industry.

The Ythan was also once home to a population of freshwater mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) which famously were the source of the “The Kellie Pearl” the largest freshwater pearl ever discovered in Scotland that now can be found on the Scottish crown jewels. These freshwater mussels are unfortunately now extinct throughout the length of the Ythan due to a mix of overfishing, climate change and pollution, this unfortunate loss shows what unsustainable management can do to a species.

Nowadays most of the Ythans mussels are caught by our Eider ducks who will swallow the mussel whole and then crush the shell using their strong gizzard in order to get at what’s inside.

An Eider Drake floating along the Ythan.

One last hunt (I’d hesitate to use the word treasure here) we’ve been up to recently is searching for Pirri pirri in the dunes south of the Ythan. Our plan here is to map all the populations of Pirri pirri so they can be removed before they are able to set seed next year and spread any further.

Originally from New Zealand, Pirri pirri is an invasive small creeping plant which when left unchecked can dominate costal ecosystems.

Well that’s everything from my little “show and tell”, to close out I’ll leave you with some pictures I took of the Ythan while I was out on a litter pick.

Unfortunately I can’t fit a view like this into a box and send it away, or even truly do it justice with a photograph, you’ve got to be out there yourself to see it.

Scale-winged beauties

When you think of butterflies, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? Probably wings and colours, a fluttering, flying jewel that brightens any day. And rightly so: butterflies are a joy to behold. They, along with moths, belong to an order of insects called the ‘Lepidoptera’. In Greek, this means ‘scale-winged’. This, admittedly, doesn’t sound quite so pretty, but those scales are what give butterflies – and moths – their vibrant colours. You’ve probably noticed the scales as a sort of dust if you’ve ever evicted a moth or butterfly from the house using a glass and a piece of card. The individual scales are so tiny you need a lens or microscope to see them; you can just make them out in this picture of a Dark Green Fritillary’s underwing.

Dark Green Fritillary – a mosaic of minute scales

It’s strange to thing the glorious, almost glowing colours on this Red Admiral are all caused by tiny scales!

Red Admiral – fire and velvet

Even this late in the autumn, and especially if you have a Buddleia bush in your garden, you are also likely to spot a stunning Peacock butterfly among the Red Admirals, taking advantage of the last of the flowers.

Peacock – the eyes have it

Or maybe a Painted Lady, late-arrived, having migrated through the generations from North Africa.

Painted Lady – long-haul traveller

Moths often have negative connotations – they’re just clumsy dull brown things, barging into our homes in the evenings and clattering around the light fittings – and don’t they eat your clothes? Needless to say, this is more than a little unfair. There are many species that are easily as brightly-coloured and beautiful as butterflies. And no, 99.9% of moths don’t eat clothes; most are nectar feeders and are really important in pollinating our wild flowers and food crops. Not all fly at night either. Walk the estuary-side path on a sunny summer’s day and you’re quite likely to see the striking red-and-black Six-spot Burnet moth.

Six-spot Burnet feeding on Wild Thyme

Or perhaps the similar-looking, ragwort-munching Cinnabar moth. Early in the year, their orange-and-black caterpillars chew their way through poisonous ragwort plants, and the caterpillars (and later the adult moths) save up these toxins in their bodies. This results in a deeply unpleasant meal for anything that tries to eat them. Cinnabars are a relatively new arrival at Forvie, with the first record occurring as recently as 2009, and they are expanding their range northwards as the climate warms. Butterflies and moths are important barometers of change, and their distribution soon reflects shifts in our climate.

Cinnabar moth on the estuary-side footpath

Often, these bright colours are there as a warning. Don’t eat me, I’ll taste disgusting! Another impressive-looking moth that shows warning colouration is the Garden Tiger. While you may never have seen the moth, you’re almost guaranteed to have seen its hairy caterpillars on the paths around here. They are one of the commonest hairy caterpillars around and, instead of toxins, rely on the hairs to put predators off. Imagine swallowing that? No thanks!

Garden Tiger caterpillar, curled up in a defensive ball
Garden Tiger moth

One moth I can never quite believe the colour of is the Elephant Hawk-moth. It, and its close cousin the Small Elephant Hawk-moth, have bright, cerise-pink bodies and look like a child’s drawing of a moth. If you didn’t see them for real, and just looked at the picture in the field guide, you’d assume the artist had run out of everything except pink!

Small Elephant Hawk-moth

And the Burnished Brass does what it says on the tin. You wouldn’t think a moth could look like polished metal, but the Burnished Brass manages it. They’re one of those things that are really hard to do any justice to in a photograph: you just can’t catch the shimmer and shine of the real thing. But it’s those scales we mentioned earlier – the light reflecting off them is what gives it the burnished appearance.

Burnished Brass

Of course, many moths are cryptically-patterned. Anything large-bodied like a moth will be a sought-after foodstuff for birds and mice, so blending into your background makes good survival sense. These are often the hardest moths to tell apart, and I know I’ve had conversations that run “well, I’ve looked in the book, and I’ve narrowed it down to three or four… pages… worth of moths it could be…”. That’s when you resort to taking a photo and sending it to a friendly moth expert.

Spruce Carpet – one of umpteen similar-looking species!

But if you ever do fancy trying to ID what might be stuck in the house, or coming to your outside light, these links are really helpful: Moths by Month – East Scotland Branch – Butterfly Conservation (eastscotland-butterflies.org.uk)  and What’s Flying Tonight (ceh.ac.uk). They narrow down the moths to areas – in our case North-east Scotland – and months, so you at least don’t have to search though pages of stuff you only find in southern England in June.

Angle Shades – a common species in NE Scotland

And, if you do identify stuff, a plea: Please put your records to NESBREC via http://www.nesbrec.org.uk/recording-services/. We are incredibly lucky to have a biological records centre here in the north-east, and all wildlife records are of value. It’s really important that we record these things; you can’t protect something if you don’t know it’s there.

In fact, you and I, as ‘citizen scientists’, are on the front line when it comes to gathering data for conservation. We all have a critical role to play as footsoldiers in the battle to save nature – one of the defining issues of our time. Let’s help make sure there are still butterflies and moths around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren in the years to come.

Housekeeping season

Autumn, as we all know, is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and all that stuff. But at Forvie it’s also the time for catching up on the domestic chores. By this I mean the unglamorous, repetitive and often downright dull tasks that are necessary to maintain the Reserve’s infrastructure. Over the summer, of course, we find ourselves pre-occupied with breeding birds, survey work and large numbers of visitors, but now with the summer behind us it’s time to turn our attentions to the more workaday tasks. The sort of stuff that nobody ever notices – unless it doesn’t get done.

Season of mists…

In one sense, we were lucky with the weather this summer. The drought that we experienced from spring through to early autumn did cause us some problems – most notably nullifying the efficacy of the ternery electric fence – but it did also suppress the growth of vegetation. This meant that we could defer strimming the footpaths until last week, whereas in a ‘normal’ year we might have had to cram this work into the already full month of July. Besides having more time to do the work at this time of the year, the working conditions are much more pleasant. If you’ve got a mile of coastal path to strim, it’s infinitely more comfortable to do so on a fresh autumn’s day, rather than the 27oC and 95% humidity of high summer.

Coast path, newly strimmed

After a day’s strimming in the heat of summer, I might be greeted at home by my wife armed with a big bottle of disinfectant and a pressure washer, and a facial expression that says “You’re not coming in here in that state”. No such issues this week though – the job was completed in relative comfort. And Hackley Bay looked fabulous in the autumn sun. Sometimes these mundane jobs have their rewards after all.

Hackley Bay

We’ve also been gradually getting the wildflower meadow around the Reserve office cut and raked up, before getting rid of the cuttings by burning or (preferably) composting them off-site. This process removes nutrients from the soil, which would otherwise be returned to the ground via the natural breakdown of the dead leaves and grasses over the winter. By removing this nutrient burden, and keeping the soil relatively infertile, we promote the growth of wild flowers, rather than the rank tall grasses that would otherwise dominate the scene.

The wildflower meadow in summer
Now cut and ready for raking up

This annual ritual replicates the traditional hay-making process, which at one time gave rise to a network of flower-rich meadows throughout the country, buzzing with insect life. Nowadays of course, such low-intensity land management is rare, with silage the preferred means of providing winter sustenance to livestock, instead of the more traditional hay. Consequently, many wild flower species have become scarcer – along with the insects that depend upon them, and hence all the other wildlife that depends on the insects.

You can almost hear the buzzing

So we’re trying to create a resource for nature on our little patch of land at the Reserve office – and it’s something you too can do if you have a few square metres of garden going spare. Strip turf, scarify, sow wildflower seed, then sit back and do nothing till everything’s grown, flowered and set seed in autumn. Then cut, remove the cuttings, and wait for the show to begin again the following spring. Easy really.

Oxeye Daisies – a typical meadow flower ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Among the wild flowers and tall grasses of the meadow, we sometimes find the telltale signs of Roe Deer. The deer love to lie up in the meadow during the day, concealed by the tall vegetation, and they make themselves very comfortable there. It’s not unusual to find a perfect Roe-Deer-shaped depression, or ‘form’, in the grass. But you’d be very lucky to see the deer in-situ – they’ll usually spot you first, and bound away into the distance.

A comfy bed for a Roe Deer
Away over the fields once they’ve spotted you!

With the meadow-cutting complete, and the paths all strimmed and ship-shape, it’ll soon be time to move onto the slightly heavier work – footpath repairs, ditch clearance and the like. A chance to burn off some of the calories accrued during the autumn holidays. And a chance to top up the ‘sun tan’ courtesy of the ochre in the ditchwater. Despite some high-profile exponents of the ‘perma-tan’, I’m not convinced it’s a good look. Being around the wetter areas of the Reserve will also give us an opportunity to catch up with some late dragonflies – both Common Darter and Common Hawker are on the wing at the time of writing.

Common Darter – small and red
Common Hawker – much bigger, and blue-black

Lastly this week, recent rainfall has prompted the appearance of a variety of fungi along the footpath edges. Two of the more showy examples are illustrated below – we think these are False Chanterelle and Brown Roll-rim respectively (and trust me, neither of them are ones you’d want to eat). But if there are any mycologists out there who disagree with the ID, please get in touch. As a naturalist you never stop learning, and fungi are a vivid reminder to me, personally, of how little I yet know about the natural world.

False Chanterelles (I think)
Brown Roll-rims (ditto!)
Not edible – but to be fair, they don’t look very appetising anyway

There’s just so much out there to discover – if I could only find time between the domestic chores…