Monday, 9 December 2013

Why to have a Life Plan

When it was first recommended to me to build a life plan I was very sceptical. Who wants to have their life mapped out? What about sponteneity and excitement about not knowing what's round the corner? But I am now in full agreement about the necessity about having a plan.

Well, it is as it says on the tin. A plan which can be used to give your life direction. Think deeply. What is the future that you most want to see for yourself? Write that down. Any route that appeals more than others? Keep a memento of that. And then work backwards. How can you get there. What do you need to do? What skills would that role require, and do you have it already? If not, how do you go about getting it?

Write all this down, and then add in details about when you want to have this skill by, and when you want to have achieved this. It's not a static thing: it's constantly changing and evolving with the changes your life goes through.

Well, I can only use my own example in this instance. I find it helps me to move forward. When I face setbacks, and my My template life plan - Dates from when I made it and underneath the age I will be at that timerecent unemployment was one of those, I can look at my plan and tick a few things and think, by gum, it's not as bad as it first appeared. In fact, let's turn it into a blessing and just move this step forward a little bit and use this a little differently. In other words, it grounds my ambition and gives me something tangible as a waypoint. I like it, and I think it is a very underused tool.

If you are anything like me there will regularly be times when you panic slightly and think "ohmygod, I'm 26andstillnotdoingthisorthat..." but actually knowing where you are and where you want to get to does help with this. I'm a chronic over-thinking but feel much more content on my path since I have built my plan. It's a little thing, and takes no more than an afternoon at most, and yet it brings me courage and drive, and those are both brilliant things to have. It stops me sweating the small stuff, cause I have the big stuff ordered in my head so what else is there to worry about?

Don't dismiss the idea of having a life plan. Build one and see what happens. It might just help you get to where you want to go.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Life and Death

Growing up on a farm I always considered myself pretty au fait with death, having seen countless animals die, and even more (or how would the farm be viable...?) be sent off to death in an abattoir every year. Growing up, there would be many pet lambs that we would grow hugely attached to, only to be told one morning that they'd died in the night. We named everything and poured all of our innocent love and care into these animals and were gutted when they died, as they sometimes did. Of course, we remember the deaths more than the successes, as the successes always ended up with the lambs being released into the flock where they would become more wild as time passed, and would quickly forget their annoying human benefactors.

However, now, there is a death occurring that is human and is someone that has been close to our family since we were wee. And although I thought that I was accustomed to death, and that I am happy with the thought of becoming worm food, I suddenly find that I am, for myself - but I am absolutely and completely not for someone else.

It's something that it's easy to be philosophical about when it's not occurring. Everyone dies. It's a cycle and no one is exempt, but just as we are all individuals, what a vacuum that individual can leave when they're no longer there. There's no nurture or nature argument here. Some people are just wonderful people. True, and brave and strong. Faithful, welcoming and caring. All the things that we all want to be, but sometimes it's too hard to be. Sometimes you come across a very rare person that's all these things, and when that person's times passes it can be very hard to come to terms with. But what a gift they leave us that are left behind. There will be anecdotes and memories for a long, long time, and so the memories will live on. We are left the richer for having known this person, and can take their lessons forward. If nothing else, I will be reminded of how far kindness and care can take you in life, and will never forget having known them.

The other part of the title is life, and that's what we are all meant to do; live. They come hand in hand. Prior to death, we have our life, and it's a major, major mistake not to seize all the chances that the day gives us. Say yes, people, and live your life not in regret. Stop looking back and look to the future. Today hurts, but there have also been moments of joy in this day. The hurt fades - how else, if pain did not fade, would we be able to get up in the morning again? - but the joy remains. Share and share alike. The future is ours for the taking. Actually, I have a quote for you:

"The song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all. To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and try to understand. Then you may hear it - a vast pulsing harmony - its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries." - Aldo Leopold

Listen to the earth, your soul and the people that have your ear. If you listen carefully you'll be able to hear some corresponding messages. Those of peace, reconciliation, and joy. Maybe that's a message to take for life, and for death.

Friday, 6 December 2013


"he spared no time that day for talk with other gulls, but flew past sunset....he discovered the loop, the slow roll, the point roll, the inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel...." - John Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

That paragraph is just beautiful; I love it. What a gull. What a day. You could soar with him; when you read these things that is what your soul is doing - it's soaring with the story.

We don't, as a nation, allow time for soul-soaring and mental-wanderings. We're concerned with school league tables and fashions and cars. We nurture competition and greed and consumerism, forgetting that the biggest lack in our lives comes from within. We're lonely pack animals and have lost sight of what's important to us as humans.

Children are born with the ability to let their soul soar, with their stories and their vivid imaginations, but then they reach the age when they're told to stop dreaming, to concentrate and to stop playing. We need to remember that freedom comes in many shapes, and freedom of the soul is one of those. What is freedom of the body if your soul is ensnared and cannot escape its bonds?

Fly with the gull; allow the feeling of soaring - of looping, slow rolling, undertaking a perfect point roll, an inverted spin, doing gull bunt and the pinwheel - to seep into your mind, your muscles and your joints and lift your tired arms as wings. You can do this on the bus when commuting to work, and you can do it without moving a muscle. Allow your soul to soar, and it will - it's just waiting for your permission before taking you on the trip of your lifetime.

Gee whizz, if that one small part of that book has the ability to set my soul on fire, imagine what the entire thing will do. Must get my hands on it asap....

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Field work and Work work

Field work revives me, makes me me again. One morning in the field and I feel wonderful. It was a birdy day, and I saw wonderful birds! Greylag geese, possibly some pink-footed, as well as whooper swans (first time) with ravens circling and croaking their wonderfully evocative croak, and red kites hovering with tails that act like knives and balances all in one.


I could see the sea, and I could feel the wind – oh my, the wind was strong! – and I could hear the hedgerow sparrows chattering away. It was wonderful. Pity those that never step foot out the city; feel heart sore for them that do not realise their chains. Woe is me, and all of us, for if we never enter the countryside, who cares about protecting it? If you’ve never heard a raven croak, why bother about it? If you’ve never seen them circling and thought about death and what ravens meant to people all through history, why bother if they’re there or not? If you’ve never seen a crowd of swans and geese all mingling together (what do they talk about, groups like that?) why bother about what they mean? Why care about how far they have flown to feed on our lands? If you’ve never seen a red kite hovering, surprisingly small, but by jings, beautiful, why would you care that it was us that made them extinct in this country, and it was also us that brought them back and that they are a success story entitled “what we can do, given half a chance”. Today I also saw our commonest bird of prey, the buzzard right aside me. It was flying, hovering, on the updraft caused by the steep banking, and the road ran along the top of the banking. The buzzard was above, then beside and then below me, and it was wonderful! We find it easy to dismiss our commonest of birds and animals, but really just because they are common does not mean that they are any less valued in our heart. They can be viewed with great love and pleasure, for they are living and different and evolved, and that in its self can be called a miracle.

So why care if you haven’t seen these things and more? Why care? You care because it will help your sore heart, and it will ease your pains and the pains of the earth. We cannot hear her sing anymore, because we have stopped listening. If we listen, we might just hear those bells toll. Hear the ravens croak above the city din, see the red kite manoeuvring through the buses and the lorries and the cars and cry hope above hope to be seen by all.  Allow your imagination to wander. We get peregrines in cities now, although I’ve never seen one in the city, maybe I too am the archetypal city dweller – head doon, get there asap, quickly, quickly, quicker, or maybe just unlucky – wrong city at the wrong time. But even the common city dwellers should be allowed to bring joy to us. Foxes, roe deer, badger, even. Or how about a sunset or sunrise? Did you see the colour of the sky this morning? I know it’s a bad omen to have red sky in the morning, but jings, it was beautiful. Okay, that’s not a living, breathing inhabitant of the city, but no matter. It makes things magical, even the ugliest of tower blocks becomes something special and evocative with the presence of red sky (at night, at morning: who cares? – More people to see it at night…), or a majestic orange sunset: little things that can be taken to keep the heart glad and healthy. We are not the be all and end all of the world, we are but a small part of it, and it keeps us sane to remember that and to try not to get lost in our own power.

I have a red sky shining outside for me right now, stunning. I wonder what a red sky in the morning and the evening portrays. You’re going to have the best and the worst of it? Maybe I should take that as a lesson for life, for I have no doubt that that’s what’s in store for me. And right now? Well, today has been one of the bests for a long time, and I have several bests to come. But, there have also been a few negatives. Life is mixing it up just now! Thank goodness for today, thank goodness for the geese and the swans and the red kites and the ravens and buzzards. And a real thank goodness to my lovely almost ex-colleagues in Inverness and Edinburgh, and also to those wonderful real ex-colleagues that have now left the company. It has been absolutely incredible working with you all, and I have learnt so much from every one of you. I will miss you all.

However, onwards and upwards, says my head to my heart. And onwards and upwards I shalt go (via the Czech Republic and Spain, but of course!).

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Freedom in the City

To my friend,
Something that book (The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder) told me: we can go to the wild places and go back to the cities keeping them safe in our hearts. We can treasure them for what they are, but we should also treasure the beauty in the cities as well. There are glimmers of hope and joy everywhere we go, and it's about seeking them with just joy.

Where my friend got married there were robins flying all about us when we were saying goodbye outside the next day. Little darts of wings and happiness and they were beautiful. Or what about all the fallen leaves that litter the pavements at the moment? All they (and I) want is for someone to kick through them - one of life's greatest pleasures. It would make my week to see a suited and booted business man kicking through the leaves. The rowan trees are laden with berries, and the birches are creating snow whether they're in a far distant glen or whether they're in Edinburgh city.
What I'm trying to say is look around you. Appreciate where you are, at that moment. The world is hip and beautiful and constantly changing and we need to open our eyes and see and appreciate the change. Walk without an umbrella. Okay, it’s a cliché, but it’s one for a reason – cause it’s so damn good! Feel the rain pouring down your face and (this is the important bit) GRIN. Smile till it hurts and the world will smile with you. You’ll feel companionship with others around you – okay, it may be because they’re laughing at you, but who cares? I certainly don’t and you shouldn’t either. They’re nothing to you, just people, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll inspire them to skip through the puddles as well. Maybe.

Put your hand up if you like pigeons. Probably not, right? Why not? Apart for showing brilliant city evolution and adaptation they are easy to admire. Hear the coo-mroo of the amorous male (hot damn...why aren't human females serenaded before courtship?) as he struts with puffed up feathers. See them as they scurry about your feet, enthusiastically picking up bits of food that *we've* dropped. They're not the messy ones; we are. And, as a bonus – they’re everywhere. They’re not hard to find, and they’re easy to admire. It’s been drilled into us that they’re a pest, and it’s true that in some aspects they are. But no more so than we are, in fact, far less than we are; for they do not destroy and cause destruction of natural things. They may destroy (very slowly…) our man-made buildings etc., but a building can be rebuilt. Can a habitat?

I'm not saying forget the wild places (never!) but if you're feeling desolate and counting down the days till your next escape to the countryside just look around you. All is not lost. A wee glimmer of beauty in the city may just keep your going until you manage to saturate your soul in the wild again.

You know who you are. Go forth and smile and watch the leaves falling and tumbling and twisting. And hey, smile at the next passer-by and say to them 'gorgeous day, innit?' - say it whether it's pouring, or snowing, or shining with glorious light, for we are alive and the least we can do is share that. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Little Bits of Natural Love

Also named:
Little things of nature that make me happy:
  • birch leaves falling, twisting in the air
  • Thuidium tamariscinum
  • hard fern Blechnum spicant
  • my walking boots keeping my feet dry
  • falling and bouncing on vegetation
  • Equisetum species
  • an identification book that opens up the world
  • imagining animal presence
  • the song of the aspen
  • rain (kissing in)
  • mist (seeking solitude)
  • snow (dancing, spinning, laughing, crying)
  • spots of sunshine on changing vegetation
  • water, falling
  • the dart of the brown trout
  • chickweed-wintergreen Trientalis europaea
  • frogs - especially the yellow ones. Yellow mellow frogs
the tiredness of a day out in the hills that seeps into your body and through your soul
sleep? cries your limbs and your heart and your mind
sleep, sighs your eyes and your love and your care

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Places of rest

I compiled a list of animal homes and their names on the bus the other day:

                                                                                     Fox's earth
     Badger sett
                                                              Otter holt
           Rabbit warren
                                                                                       Water vole burrow
   Wild cat den
                                                          Squirrel drey
                                                                     Hare's form
     Beaver's lodge
                                                                                          Bird's nest
                  Eagle's eyrie

And then you think of the smells associated with each one:

                                                                                    Musty, foxy, deep, earthy and safe
      Dry, slightly dusty, ponderances
                                                              Damp, sweet, individualism and art
           Complications, earth and dedication
                                                                                       Wet, hidden and reliance on water and fear
   Pride, grooming and secrecy
                                                       Air, height, agility and skill
                                                                     Grass, compressed, and the heat of a warm body
      Water, with a touch of warm wood. Growth
                                                                                          Twigs, feathers and unparalleled beauty
             Meat, strength, it smells of the king of the skies

Can you tell that I haven't actually encountered many of these?

What would human habitation smell like to most of these?

                                                                                      Waste and therefore opportunity
      Soon it'll mean fear
                                                                                         Fear, and possibly hope
                                                         Curiosity, mingled with fear

Aren't we predictable. How wonderful that the animals know us so well. Is this arrogance - we have the interest of destruction and therefore we're the most powerful and deserve to be feared... No, it's truth for we have forever sought dominance over others, and will continue to do so until the end of time. Fear is an insult. We need to understand that we're not the best, not the ultimate species, but are rather just present in the same world as a myriad of other beautiful, clever, fabulous beasts and we should not diminish them and try to control them for our own whims.

Perhaps the sadness that preceeds us is due to finding that this dominance leaves us wanting. We abhor destruction in our deepest souls, but for some reason with us it has become equal to power. We must transform the thought and return to our original values. To create is power. To destroy is a habit of low self-confidence and has been drilled into us over many years. Let's return to the thoughts of our ancestors and destroy only where absolutely necessary, to create with little encouragement and to respect the other beings on this earth as we pretend to respect other human beings. If every one of us makes a small effort we can change the world. Take the encouragement from people that have given up and find the drive to push towards a better place. They've given their dreams to ensure that you follow yours. Some one said that to me recently, and that's true. We have to make sure to hold onto our dreams of a better world and not let one person's destruction sway us off our true path.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Little thoughts of the past and the future

It was the 500th anniversary of the battle of Flodden yesterday. Half a millenium ago, on the 9th of September 1513, up to 8000 Scots and an unknown number of English were killed in a matter of hours. It was a bloodbath, I'm sure no one would doubt that, and it's one that is strangely forgotten in our history.

The only thing I knew about Flodden was the song that Chris from Sunset Song sings at her wedding - Floo'ers o' the Forest - which is beautifully heartwrenching, but never in all the years of Scottish history did we study the actual battle.

And now, 500 years on it was commemorated with little more than a lone piper playing on the hill. And just the thought of that brings tears to my eye (I'm a little teary tonight - just been told a very sad story). It's the thought that 500 years ago men were dying in a bloody battle, but who would ever have thought that we today would remember them.

It makes me think of us today and not just the little individual versions of us, but the whole of us - the entire world, and each of our nations, and it makes you realise that it is a very realistic probability that our actions will be remembered and mulled over as those from the past are today. It makes an interesting thought, that we are not only doing our best day to day for ourselves, but we're also facing the future generations who will hold us responsible for all that goes on today.

I've heard them lilting at our ewe-milking,
Lassies a-lilting before dawn o' day,
Now they are moaning on ilka green loaning,
The floo'ers o' the forest are a' wede away.
At bughts, in the mornin, nae blythe lads are scorning,
Lassies are lonely, and dowie, and wae,
Nae gaffin', nae gabbin, but sighing and sabbing, 
Ilk ane lifts her leglin and hies her away
At e'en, in the gloaming, nae swankies are roaming, 
'Bout stacks wi' the lassies at bogle to play;
But ilk ane sits eerie, lamenting her dearie
The floo'ers o the forest are a' wede away
We'll hear nae mair lilting at the ewe-millking;
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning
The floo'ers o' the forest are a' wede away.   

These days there is such uncertainty. The world's gone amok, but we must always remember that nothing is hopeless and that life will prevail in one form or another. Who knows whether there will be such settlements and such a way of the world in 500 years time, but we have to act as if we will still exist and that these ghosts of the future are watching our every move. And maybe with those guardians to look out for we will try harder to save the world that we have left. 

Friday, 30 August 2013


I was struck the other day by how interesting it is how, as individuals, we humans all rely and use our senses in different ways. Sight is probably, for those of us that have the power of it, the least variable as it is our foremost sense, but hearing, smell, taste and touch are all of hugely diffreent for each of us.

It's foremost because we see in technicolour. And oh, what technicolour it is! This time of year is definitely a best time to have full colour sight as the magnificence of autumn starts to shine through. We're very lucky to have sight, and to be able to use it so well. I wear glasses at the computer, and my long range vision is certainly not the best, but I was reading recently Isolation Shepherd by Iain Thomson (highly recommended) and was interested to note that his eyesight dramatically improved when he was out in the hills every day, trying to spot far off sheep. Shows that some senses can be enhanced with proper use, and I have no doubt that this computer work is what hurts my eyes - bring on the hills!

Hearing I personally struggle a bit with, although hearing aids make life 1000x better. Even with them in though, I still miss a lot. Recently I was walking with someone who's hearing is very important - an ornithologist. And we were walking in an area that I thought I was very familiar with, when he stopped, lifted a finger as though that would help him to concentrate and says "ah, a pair of crossbills just flew over. Heading, perhaps, for those trees over there". I didn't even know what there were crossbills in the area, and even though I strained to hear I couldn't hear even a cheep.

This means that for me other senses are more important than hearing. I would say my second most important sense is smell.
There's something so wonderful about taking a good long sniff at everything. When was the last time you smelt that book, or that tree, or (haha) that poo? Do it- for it is only when we know the scent that we can know the object. Sometimes, when teaching folks about how to identify otter spraints they pull some mighty funny faces when you tell them to sniff it. My sister was possibly the most memorable (what a wonderfully expressive face she has!), but once she'd sniffed and recognised the smell as "not too bad" every time we came across another spraint she would sniff it "just to make sure"! Sometimes I can smell a spraint before I see it, and that's a wonderful smell. That's what life must be like for an otter - travelling upstream their nostrils are filled with that heady, rich, sweet scent of another otter, and with that also comes the thousands of signals which are too subtle for our noses and our brains. We're nothing but bystanders, and wonderfully honoured ones at that.

At this time of year walking through the flowering heather on the hills my nostrils are filled with the heavenly scent of real heather blossom. And that smell, corresponds exactly to the memory of the most fantastic honey I have ever tasted in my life. Which leads me on rather nicely to:

Real heather honey. I must have tasted it before in my life, but oh man, that stuff that's on offer to try at The Royal Highland Show was the most pure, wonderful honey I have ever, ever tasted in my life. And that possibly that makes it the purest, most wonderful thing I have ever tasted, for what is purer than honey?
So taste and smell are inextricably linked, and although I do not recommend this to anyone I do taste a lot of the plants I survey in the field. But only if they smell pleasant. For how, again , do we learn if we do not know something inside out?
And what pleasure there is in walking and to be nibbling as you go. A blaeberry here, a ripe rosehip there, sorrel (we called the common sorrel sourocks when we were wee, and ooo, I still love the taste!), and wood sorrel too. Although, be warned. I was sure that you could eat colt's foot leaves, but I have eaten many many many and I don't believe they were made to be eaten. There! Lesson learnt. (Please also note that this is actually a very stupid thing to do and please don't follow suit...).

The last sense is touch. To be touched. There are two aspects here - touching something, and touching humans. First things first. When surveying I do touch everything, within reason though; wet poo, no thank you, dry stuff, yes of course!, but I think this is essential. Identify through touch, touching a trunk of a tree when in leaf will help you identify the leafless tree in winter. The smoothness of the beech, the light roughness of the oak and the grooves of the ash. And I love identifying the rushes, smooth rush is smooth with a slightly spreading flower, compact rush is ridged with a very compact flower, and hard rush is ridged with a very spreading flower. I would speak more about jointed, sharp-flowered et al. but I've just discovered (thanks to Ben Averis's magnificent book) that I've not actually been getting these right. Whoops, back to the drawing board!
And then there's human touch. It's interesting how we all, as individuals have different boundaries. My social education teacher used to call that the personal smartie tube. We all have a smartie tube around us, which signifies the comfortable boundary we feel among other people. Some people have large ones and hate to be touched, whereas others have teeny tiny ones, and love to be in close physical contact with everyone, whether they're best buddies or not. Where do I come? Somewhere in between the two extremes, though probably with a small than larger smartie tube!

After this I think I shall make even more of a concentrated effort to undertake surveys with all of my five senses. And possibly my sixth sense too - that prickling on the back of your neck that tells you something amazing is here - though my boss would probably appreciate it if I kept those extra-sensory experiences out of my official reports! But, I shall look, listen, taste (within reason) and touch to my hearts content. I shall use these senses, although nothing to other animals' they're the best I have, and maybe, with use, they'll develop into super senses.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

As the air turns to autumn... my thoughts turn back to the trees. And as an extension of Trees for Life. Man, how much do I love this charity? Any way, they has a competition - Identify the eyes and you win a book! And so I think every single person that looks at this blogule should enter, and if you win but you dinnae want the book then just send it to me, aye-aye, aye?

But, seriously, Trees for Life and trees for life. They're entering their autumn season at the end of this month and I can't go, so instead I am completing my application to become a focaliser. But I think you should go! The details of the weeks are here: Tree Weeks and I can honestly say that the two I have been on were utterly, utterly wonderful. I returned from them completely restored and so if there is any strain or stress in your life right now, why not think about giving a week of tree planting a go? Let's be honest now...can you think of anything better than that? I tell you, there's nothing like it. Man, I wish I was going. Here's a photo or two from my weeks:

 That last one is of me (right) and a girl that was also on the week, and we did get on great and keep in touch. That's another thing about the weeks  - they put you in touch of so many interesting people that are bonkers for trees just like you (hopefully) and me!

The application is written, and I'll be sending it on Saturday. And then keep your fingers crossed for me, because I would love, love, LOVE to become more involved with the charity. I just think they're the bees knees, etc etc!

I think that concludes my post. Except to say.

E.E.Cummings and his wherelings whenlings ( and oo, how about little you-i?? (
Aren't they just perfect?! Why does anyone let go? Hmm....but let us promise. You and me: we never shall. Forever holding that dream tight. Ah, let us raise a glass now! To dreams and being true to them :)

Monday, 19 August 2013

That drying rain

At points last week the rain poured and I (we) got absolutely soaked to the skin. But you know, sometimes that is okay. It's not so okay when you have to keep going on and on in soaking wet clothes and you start to get chilled inside, but sometimes the wildness of the weather is what reminds us that we're alive. The office becomes a distant memory and suddenly all you know is the wild world you're out in, and the wild animals that you're striving to protect. You can be soaked and still feel delight, for it's (a supernatural delight) just wonderful to be carrying out work that you love, in beautiful places and to be allowed to experience things like rain and the cold.

And it's times like those that make me realise how blooming lucky I am to be doing this work, and so I shall be making the most of it while it lasts. End of November, people, end of November. It's lovely to have work and for it to take me to such amazing places, and so, yes, I do like the rain - bring it on, says I. I love the rain, the clouds, the wind (wheee, the wind!), and sunshine. The drying wind; that beautiful brisk breeze that you often get after a downpour that dries your layers and although it's not warm it enables you to warm yourself up as you move briskly with it, or into it. These times we embrace, the weather and I, and oo, what an embrace!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Animal Happenings

What's your most favourite animal happening? I have several (many?), but there have been a couple recently which have been just astonishing.

One sunshiny day...
I was walking with a friend through a wee woodland up north and we (being who we are) were interested in the birds there. She's very very good with birds and every sign associated with them and she was listening to all the calls and was telling  me all about what was in the wood. It was great, though there wasn't a terrible amount of things, just the usual tits and chaffinches, when suddenly this huge bird flies past us. She doesn't see it properly, and I don't think she fully believes me when I say "that was an owl.." but then, there it is again, flying back this way. We're completely WOW and start trying to identify it, it's brown, seems large (though compared to the chaffinches, wouldn't everything?) but it doesn't seem to be tawnyish. We walk back through the woodland and see it again, and then suddenly there's another, and another. But the third one was different and I never saw it properly until it wheeled round and turned back and all of a sudden we were looking into the face of the most incredible bird I have ever seen in my life. Pale, large, with a lovely wide wingspan and man, he looked mean. It was when he sat down on a branch that we could fully see him. And he had ears! He was a long-eared owl, and wow, was he beautiful. Utterly stunning. If you look him up, just know that he is actually 100x more beautiful than a picture could ever demonstrate. He sat there for a few minutes and his eyes, beautiful, golden orange eyes, a lovely round face and he looked mean - just utterly wild and free and really really unhappy about our intrusion. It was his family that we'd disturbed and after they flew off again we left them be, but that will definitely be remembered as a most incredible birdy experience. Beautiful.

Another day, not so long ago...
I found the most magnificent water vole colony I have ever seen! It was on a proper upland site, with tiny little peaty burns and there was no interesting features whatsoever. Until, suddenly, the rush bitten off at a 45 degree angle caught my eye. And everyone was right - the colour, the bright white of the soft rush pith, stands out so much that it would probably be hard to miss. That seen I knelt down to discover feeding stations and then latrines! Lots of latrines, and several looked very fresh - had I disturbed a feeding individual? After that I searched for a burrow and found the tunnel first and then the burrow. It was all absolutely lovely - a little upland water vole colony that left me with a lovely feeling. You know the one? Where you just think "this animal was here - I don't need to see it, and I don't want to cause any more disturbance, but it was here and that is just perfect".

Both these experiences just keep me alive. What is life without wildness and nature. Apart from requiring our cooperation in maintaining these habitats these animals do not need us at all for their continued existence. They are untamed and pure and proper. And that is what I love about the highlands and other parts of Scotland - we still have such wild places that these animals can exist in without any trouble being caused to them by us. Hopefully we'll be able to keep it that way.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Ecologists Life

Well! I don't even know how long I've been working for, but you can see from the lack of posts just how full on my work has been! Barely a spare moment, and now I am often away during the week, which means that weekends become precious moments, to be spent as far away from a computer screen as possible!

Well... What does life involve for an ecologist? For me: a constant learning experience, though that's not specifically something only experienced by an ecologist. That's more likely first job syndrome. But still, sometimes I feel like I'm getting there, and at other times I don't.

Learning experiences and lessons learnt:

  • Dawn and dusk surveys are definitely harder that you imagine they'll be - be prepared.
  • Don't forget/lose/misplace or break equipment (not sure whether I've done this or not...but I definitely don't want to!)
  • Ask ask ask. Often I've not had work to do - asking my superiors is the only way to get that.
  • And definitely, definitely, do not miss your flight off a small Scottish island (again).
But overall, although I'm kinda knackered, it's brilliant. I'm working, I have real, proper, serious work to do that I care about, and the people are fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. They've all been so helpful and patient with me, and that's made the whole process 100x easier. And apart from that - I just really like them as people. They are all about the animals, and every ecologist that I've worked with I have also had just a brilliant time with - that's good going, surely?!

Ecology is a good business; I'm learning. There's the preparation for the survey which includes several aspects:
  1. Writing of the risk assessment. You then have to print it off, sign it (and get the relevant colleagues to sign it too) and then scan it back in to save in the project folder. You keep the signed copy with you at all times on the survey.
  2. Collection of all equipment including:
    • Maps
    • GPS (with relevant maps loaded on)
    • Camera with GPS capability
    • Weatherwriter with maps inside
    • Suitable clothing for yourself whatever the weather
    • Safety equipment
  3. Preparation to ensure that you know exactly what you're doing, when, and with whom.
Then it's the actual survey which is always good, no matter how bad it may be! Pouring with rain, difficult terrain...being in the field is always a pleasure. I've travelled quite a bit as well, I thought last year was super for seeing Scotland (and it was, don't get me wrong) but I've seen loads more already with this work! It's all good, and because there are offices down south as well I might get to see a bit more of Scotland before this is all over as well!

After the survey it's the write-up of results. All GPS references must be sent through to GIS as well as uploaded onto the database. Maps must be checked as they're written and then accepted if correct. And the report must be written, which I actually really enjoy as well. It always follows an established format and it's very professional and clean looking. I really enjoy following a project through to that final stage.

Overall it's blooming (hah!) fantastic. It's two months I have been with this company now and I have already learnt a lot. And I'm still learning. I have little doubt that I would like to keep going, and keep learning, but we'll have to see what happens when the contract comes to an end (end of November...seems a long way off at the moment...). Whatever happens it has been one of the most intense and crazy learning experiences of my life. Which has got to be a good thing, right?!

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Walking the Pentlands

"Trees remember wolves. The oldest pines, the three- and four-hundred year-olds, know the brush of wolf fur, the soft, deeo slap of their footfall on the forest tfloor. They hand down the sense of wolves to the wolfless generations of young trees, and these grow older remembering the sense of wolves so that they are ready for the wolves' return, which they know to be inevitable... The old trees still remember the touch of wolf skin on tree skin, still long for it." - Jim Crumley

Walking in the hills today and howling into the wind. Becoming feral, wild and relishing the feeling of being free.

Howling.... That was good! The weather was wild on the hills, and it was definitely a day for being a wolf. I dreamed that the noise was carried over into Edinburgh and the people were clutching their hearts for fear that the wildness had returned. The primal fear returned and it sent the people into a frenzy. The frenzy possibly being like that scene in 'Poison' by Patrick Suskind. Or possibly a frenzy which eventually resulted in the wolf returning, because the sound brought back the peoples' previous passions and emotions and suddenly, suddenly those people were ALIVE! And they were howling too, howling with pity about our world and the pain and the stress we humans are causing. Perhaps the futility of living-to-work hit them, along with ancient memories of hunting and being hunted, and all of a sudden - upon hearing that wild wolf call - the entire population of Scotland's capital city come to a vicious understanding that change is coming and turning the direction of their feet to take them to the change; became the change and made the change come.

Maybe. Or maybe the wind just whipped the sound out of our throats, and it was lost forever. Lost apart from in our hearts and our souls. I shall keep thinking that if a wolf did ever stroll into Edinburgh the people would feel as Aldo Leopold did and know that the wolf was part of our world, and part of our country and by its absence we are less than we should be.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” - Aldo Leopold 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Love letter to the world

I've been thinking about love, life and wilderness and how it's all connected. Our love of the wilderness fuels our life, and can help bring life to the wilderness too. Maybe that's too human-centric, maybe a better thing to say would be that our love helps maintain wilderness -  without love the world would be razed without a second thought.

Our love helps to create - new life, new memories and new songs - our lives are made the richer for our loves. And when we say goodbye to a former love we're always keeping hope in our heart that there will be another. And there will, for we are beings that are made to share love, create love, experience love and give love.

There are so many loves in my life, and certain people that keep my path strong and true. These loves are my strength, my anchor when the struggle is becoming hard, They act as barometers for your true self - compasses guiding you back to your soul. And for me there is one person in particular that I love as no other. They are one of the best people I know and so secure they are in themselves that even just thinking of them helps dispel any doubt I have about myself. They help me realise my dreams and find my courage and even though I have little contact with them, they keep me going and keep me fighting all the while keeping true to myself.

And wilderness is another love of my life. Nothing restores a weary body than a moment alone in the wilds. Even when not truly alone, to momentarily turn your back on humanity and to realise the insignificance of you, right there and then, is humbling and awe-inspiring. We humans have the curse of constantly thinking of ourselves before anything else, but to lose yourself in your insignificance can give you a lift like no other. Sometimes it's not about ego, and it's about letting your atoms drift into the sighing of the trees and the grey of the stones and the thousand details of the lichens.

Love, life and wilderness. We would be nothing without the trio. And of the trio the one I have talked about least is life. The miracle of. And for that I will leave you in the capable hangs of Mr Bill Bryson (The Short History of Nearly Everything, paperback edition, page 20, third line down, sixth word in to fifteenth line, fourth word). Life. It's worth it - make this fight. Join the trio. Bring them together, join with me and let's walk, beautifully lonely, out to a starry night and let's watch shooting stars and with every one that falls let us choose our favourite thankfulness and send that up to chase the falling star. We'll be alone, but never will we have felt so utterly and wholly part of this wondrous universe. Love, life, and wilderness. Also written as love life and wilderness We are wild beings full of love and singing with life, let us make our atoms proud....

Just in case you don't have access to Bill Bryson, here is the quote I refer to:

"Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result - eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly - in you."

Friday, 14 June 2013

Teaching and all that Jazz

A couple of weeks ago I carried out my first foray into teaching by carrying out an otter survey skills training session in conjunction with the Lothian and Borders Mammal Group. And it was such good fun that I'm doing another one tomorrow! It really was great though; a brilliant bunch of people, of all different backgrounds, but all the same amount of enthusiasm.

Although it wasn't the most successful day in terms of otter signs found (two pretty old spraint and a holt which was on the wrong side of the river and so inaccessible to most people), it was a fantastic way of getting out and about and meeting some new people - as well as reconnecting with some familiar ones! Two faces were familiar to me - one I had been at the same conference as, and the other had been studying at Napier at the same time as me! 

One of the good things I discovered from the day was that, put a bunch of people with a common interest (in this case ecology and conservation) together and no matter who they are, or what their character is, they will get on and I think everyone learns something from everyone else. 

This is the day that I learned that the Whitethroat "is very definite in what it's saying", and that no matter how much water one person gets in their wellies, they can still keep a smile on their face. So although, for me, it was a first in that it was the first time I had led a group, it was also a fantastic reminder for me about the number of keen and interested people that are out there, who are all dying to assist in the fight against biodiversity loss, and thank goodness that there are such a brilliant bunch of folk out there willing to add muscle to this fight. 

I normally leave the tree weeks with Trees for Life feeling like this, and so it's a lovely confirmation to see that it's right here on my doorstep as well. And now it's a collective effort to harness it into more positive action. Watch this space!!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Bookety Book

Just a short wee post tonight because a) I only wrote once in the whole of May, and that's just not good enough and b) I have to catch a bus at ten to five tomorrow morning and so I am soo not in the mood for wordiness of a high order.


Book! Just now I am reading:

WILD by Jay Griffiths

I've not even finished it yet, but I have to write about it!

And oo, it is good. It's about dun dun dunnn, wild places, and the author really manages to get to the root of what it means to us. Or rather, what it means to some of us. But she has it so right. Bits about how wildness grounds you, and about how we need it. Our very souls feel the lack of wildness if they're too restricted.

Sometimes I wonder about how to write this blog. I love writing it, and I like sharing things with people, but sometime I get worried about putting people off, saying something that makes them distance themselves - and 'souls' is one of those words. So maybe I should clear some things up?

I am not religious, but I understand people that are (to a certain extent). Despite this, I have a soul. I can't speak for everyone, but there is something in me that is kept happy not by being fed, or by being kept safe, and that part is my soul. It's the part of me that is truly wild, and it is the part that makes me want to push myself - to climb that wall, to balance across here, to swim in that freezing pool. And it is that part that needs wilderness. It's that part that starts to get stressed out if I'm too enclosed for too long; too hemmed in. So although I speak of a soul, it is not because I believe that it's going to live beyond my death (one day I shalt be a tree! - this is a story for another day, I think...), it's because it's the bit that keeps giving me life.  Comprende?

(Perhaps this isn't the best written blog post ever. Since starting work my thoughts are working harder than ever but I'm not always finding it so easy to articulate what I'm thinking. Hopefully as my brain gets used to the work I'm doing I'll find it easier again.)

So....Wild, eh? At first it's hard to read - too little wild and too much language history (surely there's a better way of wording that?!) but if you persevere it's worth it. The chapter on Wild Ice is brilliant. Bravo, Ms Griffiths! It makes one want to adventure, to shrug off the veil of responsibility and go run through the woods. One day, perhaps, but for now it's just wonderful to read something that corresponds well with my own thoughts and feelings. Please read it, and report back. Yes? Also...souls, eh? :)

Friday, 31 May 2013

New Job!

  • Check that out ^ pretty exciting, really!

It's what I've been aiming for for a long, long time, and the reward of achieving it is great. Bear with me while I give a brief summary of my time leading up to this:

  • Graduated from Zoology at Glasgow - 2009. Left feeling very disheartened about employable skills. No jobs...but then found a masters that fitted the bill...
  • September 2010 - started my MSc at Edinburgh Napier. Had worked the previous nine months at a small farm shop near where I lived. Stayed there one day a week while studying, and loved the course at Napier, minus a few hiccups. Positives: Left with a clearer vision of what I wanted to work in, and actually felt capable of it as well! My dissertation research at Dundreggan for Trees for Life was an absolute highlight.
  • September 2011 - Started to work three days a week at the farm shop, at times getting a bit low due to wanting to work so much and not being given any opportunities.
  • In November 2011 I started going out into the field with a local ecologists. Learnt how to survey for otters among other things.
  • In June 2012 I received funding to carry out research into changing otter diets by the charity PTES <-- visit that hyperlink, amazing charity so they are! which is now shown here:
  • Then when I handed this in I was stuck again so I decided two things - I would use this time to volunteervolunteervolunteerlearnlearnlearn, and I would also actually go on a Trees for Life work week, as I had wanted to do for a loooong time! See a previous post for how that went (hint: AMAZING). And the other volunteering/education included:
    • bryophyte courses with The Wildlife Information Centre (TWIC)
    • BTO breeding bird survey - including a fantastic training day at Kirkton Manor
    • doing a bit of volunteering with a local bat expert David Dodds (check out his bat blog - it's brill)
    • Undertaking toad rescue with Lothian Amphibian and Reptile Group (LARG)
    • And carrying out otter surveys for the fantastic team at the Falls of Clyde SWT reserve - visit now...the new visitor centre is properly brilliant. Find them here:
      • All of which was completely brilliant and along the way I have met some utterly fantastic and truly inspirational people. I've made friends, laughed till I've cried, held newts (palmate) and bats (noctules), seen wonderful animals, admired, exclaimed, wondered at, and just had a brilliant time! And now....I have a job! 
It's a strange feeling, I can tell you that. I can also tell you that it's strange in a good way. This has been written at the finish of my first week, and I'm really looking forward to next Monday now. They seem a really good bunch to work with, and I really can't wait to get stuck in to the work and the surveying for I am working as (wait for it)......AN ECOLOGIST!!! 

To say that I have waited a long time for this is a slight understatement, and really it's not been about waiting, it's been about fighting for the result. Maybe now I'm all fought out, but I doubt it - tomorrow I'm running my first event with my local mammal group (Lothian and Borders Mammal Group) - otter survey skills, and I can't wait to get out there and meet a new bunch of friendly and enthusiastic people.

And then we can all go off to sniff and piles of poo!

(For those of you who don't get that - I'm also running another training event on the 15th of June...come along!)

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Amazingness of Life

Spring time again! And it comes in a hurry and a rush in a commotion of colour, sound and magnificance. There's one thing that sums it up for me this year - lambing.

I'm lambing on my dad's farm at the moment, I have sole responsibility during the day and during this time I am experiencing the raw wonder of nature - birth of a mammal, and it is so utterly wonderful, that I seriously wish everyone could see this just once. Before the birth we become aware that a ewe is getting ready as she starts to show a tendency to nest. She finds  a quieter area away from the main body of the flock, and starts to circle. The lamb comes out with both forefeet first, pointing the way, then the head, and the rest of the body follows in a swift and slick mess. The second the lamb is out, and it does take seconds, the ewe twists round and starts licking it clean. She bleats to it, but it's not an everyday bleat - it comes from her belly and is warming to the very soul. I can only think that it has the same effect on the lamb. It's a connecting call, an "I'm your mother, know me" call, and it's also a call of deep rooted satisfaction, for she has succeeded once again.

The lamb quickly shakes its head and reacts to the mother's tongue and sound. As it dries off it gets more and more active, and once it is almost standing, the second lamb will come (if she's having twins). A quick birth, the second tends to be smaller and so is less likely to cause problems, and then she has two to dry off, but the first is standing and it's not long before it's seeking a teat, and the warm collostrum that comes out first.

It is a miracle, and one of the best kind, one which any one of us can observe with our own eyes. We can see this birth, and we can see how adapted these mammals are to it. How quickly the lambs stand to get out of the way of their ancient enemies - the wolf and other predators. The first milk, the collostrum, is a thicker concoction of goodness for the newborns' first drink and if it misses that it does suffer. Diseases, especially of the stomach, are not uncommon in lambs, and more common in those individuals that, for whatever reason, have missed out on that first nutritious drink.

Undertaking a lambing gives access to another world which we are alien to. We find it hard to commune with animals, and to leave our 'human-ness' behind, but in this way I find that I can get closer. At that time, acting as midwife, I can see this other world, and it's heaven. I cannot see wild sheep birthing, but these domesticated copies, are so well adapted to their job that I cannot see it as anything other than the best of the natural world.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Trees for Life - Corrimony

Dear all,

I think you will all have heard (seen) me mention my favourite charity, Trees for Life, before now. If I haven't spoken about them, then I should have as I have been involved with them for a long time. I first became a member in about 2010, I think, and then I carried out the research for my MSc thesis on the effects of boar and deer on the regenerating Caledonian Forest. After seeing Alan Watson-Featherstone speak on his 'Millionth Tree' lecture tour I was also inspired to take part in their 'Treelay' - a huge walk around the extent of their land and raised funds in the doing so that went directly to TfL.

One thing that I had never done and which is a huge part of what TfL are about is I had never taken part in a work week. Until now.

I booked my work week in about January or February of this year, and although I knew it was going to be good, I didn't know how good until I got there. And in that it exceeded all expectations. It was a week of heaven, no exaggeration. I don't think any single thing has helped me more during this job hunt than the tree week has, so much so that I've booked on to another one which is based in Glen Affric at the beginning of May. Can. Not. Wait.

But first, good people, let me tell you about the week I've just attended:


We met at Inverness train station at 12pm on the first saturday. There was a group of rucksacked and interesting looking people assembled in the middle of the forecourt, and I approached them, although they weren't actually my group - most of whom were yet to arrive. This group were also TfL volunteers but heading to a different planting area and they quickly got onto their minibus and disappeared.

Slowly our group grew. Due to the terrible weather that had hit some parts of Scotland a few of the people were delayed and so we waited in Inverness for a wee while until most people were there. Out of the two that were still missing, we picked one up in Drumnadrochit and the other arrived by car at the caravan park we were staying in.

At first it was weird, being with a group of strangers, but it didn't take long before we were chatting as though we had known each other for years. The strange thing is that I come away from it not knowing really anything about my companion's personal lives, ie. marriage, children etc., but know exactly what everyone thinks of the lynx reintroduction! We were a great group though. Such a mix, and out of eight of us only three hadn't been on a week before, but all left saying that they'd be back again. We stayed in two chalets in Glen Affric Holiday Park, and these were very comfy. We used one for cooking in (cooking is communal and you take turns - all meals are vegetarian and all were absolutely fantastic!) and one for eating in which worked very well indeed. Half of us slept in one chalet, and the other half in the other one.

The work we carried out was on a RSPB reserve which is managed for Black Grouse and we met with the manager, Simon, to discuss the management of the reserve and the challenges that lay ahead. He also introduced us to one of the reserves old Granny pines, which was absolutely beautiful. About 200 years old and a habitat all in itself. There are not many of these pines left, and that is what we are hoping to do - plant granny pines of the future. The reserve is a relatively new purchase of RSPB, and was previously owned by the Forestry Commission. Because of this all the Scots Pine plantations are planted in straight lines, and have little structural interest for birds and bats and beasties. Simon is leading a regeneration project which includes ring-barking some living trees to slowly kill them, break up the canopy and create some dead wood environments (beloved of many, many different things). Nothing happens too quickly in the world of forestry, and it may be that it will be thirty years or so before the reserve looks more like it should. It will be hundreds of years before it is perfection. But that is the nature of conservation - we work not for ourselves, but for our children and their children's children as well.

Due to the removal of old non- native plantations the ground we were planting on was rough, wet in some places, and generally slightly uninspiring. The trees we were planting were alder, downy birch and hazel. They were tiny, about 20cm high, and seemed so lost in the landscape. It was important, I found, to keep visualising how the habitat would look when the trees are grown, and although they were planted quite close together they will rearrange themselves to make themselves more comfortable as they grow. May I quote William S. Wilson here? I am afraid that I  know not who he is, but his words are printed on my Trees for Life calendar on the wall next to me, and they are particularly appropriate here:

"The infinitesimal seedlings became a forest of trees that grew courteously, correcting the distances between themselves as they shaped themselves to the promptings of available light and moisture..."
 And that is what my seedlings shall do. Some shall perish, but that is the nature of forests, and some shall succeed. I planted 327 overall (I was the only one that counted, but it's nice to have a record!), which included 76 alder, 84 hazel and 167 birch. As a group we planted 2775 saplings, a lovely number that will hopefully grow into a forest one day.

Overall the week was filled with laughter and fun. The tree planting during the day was brilliant, and I think we all took satisfaction from a job well done. Lunches and tea breaks were taken sitting outside in the beautiful, though very cold, weather - sometimes in the snow! - and much food was eaten to keep us going. The evenings consisted of whisky (non-obligatory!) and good food, and serious as well as silly discussions. When we were deposited back in Inverness on the Saturday no one was keen to leave, we all stood about, prolonging the week as much as we could before we had to head in our separate directions. And that evening we were back in touch again via email, and we've all taken fantastic memories of the week home with us. New friends and new memories. Is any holiday made of better things than that?

If I can recommend one thing to any of you, I would recommend booking on to a Tree Week RIGHT NOW!! Here's the website again: Click here, and if you get onto the week from the 4th to the 11th of May I shall see you then!! It's one of those things that once you've attended it you wish you'd made it to one years ago so that you could have already got several under your belt. But, I'm still young, and there's the rest of my life to keep planting trees and keep developing the Caledonian Forest and that is a comforting thought indeed.

Batty for Bats

Not so long ago I met through LinkedIn a bat ecologist in my local area. And last week he asked if I wanted to go on a bat box check with him in Kielder Forest in Northumberland.

Bat box checks are carried out (by a registered bat worker) every spring and autumn, and unfortunately for us, due to the unseasonably cold temperatures our spring has so far been made up of, there were few bats in residence. Autumn checks tend to have more results as the Pipistrelles (Common and Soprano) use them as breeding boxes, but many bats will still be hibernating until the world warms up a bit more.

It was absolutely fabulous, however, because we did find some bats. And the bats that we did find, I have been reliably informed, are one of the best species to find on your first survey - Noctules (Nyctalus noctula).

And there she is, in all her glory! It was the first time I had ever held a bat, and under the watchful gaze of the bat ecologist, I was able to. So small, but somehow so solid as well. Very different from the Hummingbirds of South America, which is what I was comparing them to in my head, and so warm. She was a bit unhappy with having been woken up, and when given the chance, sleepily climbed back up into her roost. It was a wonderful experience though, and I hope she's managing to find some food in this chill weather.

Noctules are our largest bat, and they are instantly recognisable. They have really luscious golden fur, and a bigger, bulky look than some of our other species. Taking high flying insects such as hawkmoths and beetles their teeth are vicious! April is at the end of their hibernation, and so the bats that we found had probably only recently moved into the boxes from their winter roosts. Due to the cold weather we were lucky to see the few that we did, although every box that I climbed up the ladder to check I was sure was going to contain a bat. No such luck for me, but maybe next time!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Benefits of Attending Events

I'm writing this on the back of my bryophtye course post because I found I wanted to expand upon why courses are so important to me, indeed, why they should be part of all of our lives.

It's not just educational courses though, it's all events that brings a group of people together that have shared interests. Conferences, meetings, volunteer activities, working holidays, all of these are important examples of these happenings which can help build relationships and share knowledge and experiences.

I have attended a few courses and conferences, and am heading north to attend my first working holiday later this week. And I have reason to believe that I am getting better at attending them, I am discovering how they should be done, as well as why.


Well, simply because there is no single better way to increase your network than to attend an event which other strangers are also attending. If you go to a mammal-based conference, all the people attending, by and large, will be mammal enthusiasts. If freshwater habitats are your thing, then attend the local, regional or national freshwater event. Trust me when I say that there will be one!

And networking is very important for the future of our businesses. Within ecology, if we were all secretive about what we learnt and what we were working on, nothing would ever be discovered, and so no advancements for assisting conservation would occur. Independently, our information is important; collectively it is invaluable.

Beyond that it is also really nice to know the people in your field. It is really, really nice to be able to put a face to a name, or a person to the research/company. It's also really good to be able to read something interesting and to be able to share it with the a person that has the most relevant interest in the subject. We ecologist are not the largest group of people ever, and it is really good to be able to know what is going on within it, on a personal and a professional level.

And how...

By being friendly, approachable and open you are paving the way to making it a successful meeting for you. However, if you are more proactive and do the approaching yourself, you will achieve a lot more. I used to stand in the corner and hope that someone would approach me; I had a dread of attending these events by myself as then I would have no one to fall back on, but now I realise that the best way of achieving something is to be the person that makes that first move - and that includes meeting people.

I have met several very interesting people in recent months due to changing my methodology and becoming the proactive one. People that I have no doubt that I would not have met otherwise. And it is always surprising what you discover - projects which have not managed to become mainstream, people full of helpful advice, and also people who are incredibly grateful of your advice. It is easy to think you're the only person that's found it hard to get a job, or that doesn't know the best way to turn next, but talking to people in the same field shows you that actually, you're not alone - and that you never were.

This is why I think these events are essential. For the people we meet, and for the help, advice and the sense of camaraderie that they bring with them. They are also just really fun! It is great to immerse yourself in your subject and every single time something new will be discovered. They are the best ways I know of to make a bad week absolutely brilliant!

The wonderful world of Bryophytes

Ah, Bryphytes. Those tiny plants which most people never look twice at. Little do they know that armed only with a hand lens, a whole new world will open up before your very eyes. This is a world where the insects are gigantosaurs, and where a toothed leaf can signify a new species. It's a world that few people appreciate, but once delved into, there's no looking back.

In case it's not immediately apparent I have just been on a course. And what a course! A whole day of immersion into all things mossy, with a focus on woodland mosses. I always did like bryophytes, but after a one day course with Liz Kungu and her protege, Julie Smith, I am enthralled by them!

I would like to tell you all about one in particular. Dicranum tauricum. This moss is small, emerald green and grows on both dead and living trees. It's beauty comes from it's identifying feature. It almost always has broken tips to its leaves, and so looks like some small animal has been grazing upon it. The leaf tips aren't missing due to that, however, but due to this being it's form of reproduction.

Instead of practising sexual reproduction, which appears in the form of capsules in mosses, D. tauricum spreads by dropping its leaf tips, each of whom can then, if deposited in the appropriate place, grow into a new plant. And how is it spread? Well, it will often be by birds such as Treecreepers. And you can just imagine this, can't you? The feet, the probing beak, the stiff tail all acting as agents of transport for the moss to spread. This connectivity is what I appreciate so much about the natural world. We none of us are islands, and we're all at mercy of whims of the world.

Isn't it amazing what one small course can make you feel?

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Spring is Coming

It really is! And there is nothing that lifts the soul than a spring day.

I do love all the seasons. I really really do. The heady days of summer, and the days of winter when it seems like the whole world has gone to sleep. Either that or you've accidentally stepped into the magical underworld, where the wee people still live. Winter is truly beautiful, it has a remoteness that the other seasons do not have - the world is transformed under some snow and the familiar features take on a new, exciting quality.

Autumn is another absolute favourite. A birch wood in autumn is just utterly stunning. The leaves are so small and light, and the beautiful soft autumn light enhances the bark so that it takes on a silvery turn. The leaves drift down in small air currents and look like snow, or confetti. It's the stillness of the season that I always remember as well. I say that knowing that the weather can be windy and stormy in autumn, but just sometimes there are days when even the earth seems to be holding her breath, and there's no sound, not even a bird chirping or a dog barking. Times like those you feel like you're the last person left on earth, and it's a good feeling.

So Autumn is definitely one of my favourite of favourite of seasons, it's the transformation of the world that I love most, and because of that Spring is definitely up there too, it's without a doubt a strong contender. It perhaps doesn't have the magic of autumn and winter, but it is more comparable to waking up. While the two earlier seasons are like entering fairie-world, spring is like returning to the world you know and love.

Suddenly the quiet, peacefulness of winter becomes an utter assault of the senses in sound, and bustling activity, and scent and suddenly LIFE returning to everywhere around us. It's truly astounding after we have been lulled by the silence, to wake up to bird song, and sunshine with warmth in it, and colour, colour all around us. It's no wonder that ancient greeks explained spring in the way they did - check out the Myth of Persephone - and all through history and through all different cultures spring has been explained in similar ways, it's all about a return of life to the world.

It's not happening yet, but it won't be long. The birds are singing like mad, and the world is awakening. This is the time that even us humans find ourselves kicking our heels when we leave the house, and jumping with sheer joy. And why not? For the world is wakening up and it's a truly wonderful sight.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Last week I visited a friends smallholding to show her how to identify otter spraint as well as to see the place she stays in.

The smallholding itself consists of a small farm down the bottom of a long track. Difficult to navigate during wintery weather the place is a haven once it's reached. Right at the bottom of the glen the burn that runs past the farm is swift-flowing and vibrant. Full of stickleback, brown trout, eels and other animals associated with water, such as frogs and dippers, it is a really love burn.

We found lots of evidence of otters, especially at the meeting point of two burns, on the old beech tree that stands guard there was many different otter spraints of all sizes and ages. It shows that the burn is heavily used, and indeed my friend and her husband regularly sees otter footprints on the shifting sandbanks of the burn.

These habitats are so valuable for our wildlife. There is some disturbance but the land is not overworked, and there are no pollutants in the burn and it's a very natural area. Even for humans the place is a retreat, and so what would it be for the animals that use it?

It is my dream that one day I will be part of something like this smallholding. Coming from a sheep farming background I dream of having my own small flock. I like Shetland sheep particularly, especially as I hand spin wool and you could make the most luxurious garments with shetland wool. The small, neat sheep are very hardy, and wild, which is also something I like. I am drawn to ancient breeds such as the North Ronaldsay, the Hebridean and the Soay as well. Hardy and quite self-sufficient, with good quality spinning wool are all characteristics that appeal to me in a sheep! Maybe one day I'll have my own flock of which I can be proud....

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Spraint Analysis

What happened yesterday?

I taught a group of people how to identify fish bones from otter spraint.

What is the need for this knowledge?

It allows us to find out more about otter diets, but also about prey abundance. This relates to habitat carrying capacity for otters as poorer diets (birds, mammals, amphibians) can support fewer otters than higher energy diets (eels, salmonids).

Did they learn much?

Hopefully! They certainly could ID the commoner species by the end without the use of keys, and they enjoyed the microscope work. It is rather amazing, after all, these bones hold a strange beauty.

What are the future aims here?

Well, the people that I taught (environmental consultancy, The Wildlife Partnership) are aiming to use this on a casual basis to identify otter diets in different locations. More research is needed on this subject, however, and so it would be good if there was a long-term, funded project to carry on from my project for PTES (link to follow soon) that would give a lot of data about changing otter diets.

So it's handy to be able to identify prey remains from spraint?

Yes it is. I was carrying out a volunteer otter survey the other day at the Falls of Clyde during which I was able to identify what the otter had eaten in half of the spraints that were found. The others I removed and will ID the remains at home. This will let the rangers at the reserve understand what the otters are consuming, and so what might be lacking or particularly good about the reserve for otters.

I would like to add that I could teach anyone that would like to be taught how to do this. Please contact for more details.

Monday, 28 January 2013

New Year, New....

So here we are in the new year, and not just that but we're almost into the second month of the new year! And now comes the time when I'm feeling a bit wordy again, and when I start to have more to say.

But actually when it comes to it, do I? I could tell you a lot about how hard it is to get a job, and how easy it is to feel completely hopeless, but there's nothing new there -  any job seeker will tell you that. One thing I realised recently while undertaking a survey for BTO was that I LOVE doing surveys and much as I enjoy writing, I really really miss being out in the wilds, finding spraints, or footprints, or surveying plants and birds. I really miss that! And so I through myself into the job hunt harder and faster in the hope that one day someone will look at me and think " Yes! She is EXACTLY what we want....get her in now!!"

I can hope!